a better stimulus plan?

I meant to post on this last week when Friedman’s op-ed in the NYT hit, Start Up the Risk-Takers. Friedman, not surprisingly, beats up on the US autos among others, and says that instead of giving them more money, we should instead turn to venture capital. He proposes giving the top VC’s (top 20%) a slug of money to invest in new technologies and then collect a share of the profits (80%) in exchange for this seed capital.

Fred Wilson, one of the most well respected VC’s in the business, responded on his blog: No thanks. Basically, he asserts that the problem isn’t a lack of money but that too much dumb money came in. Now we’re getting the crap washed out of the system, and the strongest investors still have money that they are putting to work.

While this little dialogue was interesting, I was troubled that this was even being talked about. It’s like the obvious was invisible to everyone discussing the topic. While money is important (and may or may not be the issue depending on who you believe), the bigger problem is complexity and bureaucracy.

The government should be making it far easier for people to start companies. Bottom line.

What if the Obama administration proposed a dramatic set of new rules intended to jumpstart new business creations?:

1) Minimize the complexity for forming a company. Today there seem to be about 8 different types of business types that you form (LLC, Inc, partnership, etc) and in any one of the states all with rather bizarre differences. How about a single, simple filing type which gets a company off the ground and “formalized.” It gives you the flexibility to finalize the specific type of business you want to be after your business gets traction. Why worry about tax treatments, etc upfront? Let people start the thing, and sort out the details later. Put the form online so that anyone can fill out the one page web form and in a matter of hours, their business is formally created. We need to cut the red tape.

2) Eliminate the complexity within a business at the start. Everything from hiring more employees to expanding office space is supported through the SBA or another body. Let’s make it as easy as using TurboTax to figure out how to add new employees, etc. I can picture an online form that asks simple questions and gives you the advice you need, makes changes to your corporate structure as a result, and recommends who to use if you need to use a vendor.

3) Health Care. One of the major (non-monetary) costs of our current health care system is that it is tied to employers and stifles innovation. Health care plans & costs for small companies is often prohibitively expensive. I’ve long argued that the reason we needed to see massive health care reform is not on moral grounds, but because it was such an impediment to the creation of small-businesses and entreprenuership.

The new economy that is going to have to be built to sustainably drive the world forward from here will, in my opinion, have to be driven by entrepreneurs and small companies. Technology has set us up for a world where david can regularly take on and beat goliath. This is awesome. As a country, we need every last drop of creativity and entrepreneurial drive we can wring out of our citizens. To tap into that we need to make it turnkey easy for anyone to start a new business. From there, the government can help create a transparent marketplace for these companies. The private sector will take it from there, and investors such as Fred Wilson, Reid Hoffman, Paul Graham, Andreessen and the slew of other great minds in the space will provide money and the advice needed to build great companies.

It’s disappointed that everyone’s answer to everything has become MORE MONEY. The black hole that is our financial system will continue to destroy more than its share of money for some time to come, so let’s think broader (and more intelligently). Let’s create more efficient and effective government that does it’s part, gets the hell out of the way, and allows individuals to unleash what’s best with themselves.

detroit, empathy, and stories.

Detroit. Mitch Albom is a terrific writer. Think Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven. Albom has a great way to make characters real, settings come to life, and emotions feel at home within you. He’s a storyteller in the truest sense. Today, I read his latest in Sports Illustrated called “The Courage of Detroit.” It’s damn fine writing.

I don’t think I need to point out why Detroit is in the news. I mean, it’s literally everywhere. And, Albom, who has lived in Detroit for decades has heard just about enough. There are really some choice bits in here:

“…what all Detroit sees — is a nation that appears ready to flick us away like lint. We see senators voting our death sentence. We see bankers clucking their tongues at our business model (as if we invented the credit default swap!). We see Californians knock our cars for ruining the environment (as if their endless driving has nothing to do with it)…”

“We hear Congress tongue-lash our auto executives for not matching the cheaper wages of foreign car companies. We hear South Carolina senator Jim DeMint tell NPR that “the barnacles of unionism” must be destroyed at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Barnacles? Barnacles are parasites without a conscience. Sounds more like politicians to us.”

“This is why our recent beatdown in Congress was so painfully felt. To watch our Big Three execs humiliated as if they never did a right thing in their lives, to watch U.S. senators from Southern states — where billions in tax breaks were handed out to foreign car companies — tear apart the U.S. auto industry as undeserving of aid, well, that was the last straw.”

“Enough. We’re not gum on the bottom of America’s shoe. We’re not grime to be wiped off with a towel. Detroit and Michigan are part of the backbone of this country, the manufacturing spine, the heart of the middle class — heck, we invented the middle class, we invented the idea that a factory worker can put in 40 hours a week and actually buy a house and send a kid to college. What? You have a problem with that? You think only lawyers and hedge-fund kings deserve to live decently?

“To watch these lawmakers hand out, with barely a whisper, hundreds of billions to the financial firms that helped cause this current disaster, then make the Big Three beg like dogs and slap them with nothing? Honestly. There are times out here we feel like orphans.”

“Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won’t have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole? Detroit may be suffering the worst from this semi-Depression, but we sure didn’t invent it. And we can’t stop it from spreading. We can only do what we do. Survive.”

If you managed to read through the quotes, hopefully you’ll be inspired to read the whole article. It paints an amazing picture of a city, it’s people, and what the passing of time can do.

Empathy. I forgot who said to me, once, years ago, that if I was going to count on the world to have empathy I better prepare for some pain. It might have been my friend Rayford, or it might have just been in a passing conversation. Anyway, empathy is why I associate with Detroit. Why I follow the headlines, and why, even in sports this year, I pulled for the Lions nearly every Sunday. Detroit more than any city could be arguably the most representative of what made America great. An American entrepreneur invented the automobile in Detroit. That same man then transformed the manufacturing world both in terms of process and pay, almost in one swoop, fashioning a middle class and ushering in a new era. It was symbolic of the prosperity of America. Today it doesn’t just hurt. It bleeds, aches, and hemorrhages. And by some logic that escapes me, as a nation we feel like it doesn’t reflect us. That Detroit never represented us and that it’s nothing like us. It’s in this that I think the joke is on us. Detroit was America and, I think we’ll see in coming decades, it is America. I feel for Detroit to my core.

Stories. Everyone loves stories. I’m not sure if it’s the years of watching movies, reading books, or studying marketing that’s made me realize that stories matter. They’re everything. It’s how we make decisions. Decide who to love. Who to hate. What job to take. Who we are. What we think. Who to vote for.

Given the historical inauguration about to take place, let’s talk about politics. The story of John Kerry as an aloof, patrician, out-of-touch elitist was an easy story for people to believe. His features made him look like he should be in a painting, the apparent botox didn’t help either. His overall demeanor played perfectly into a story that actually didn’t match that well with his life story. But no matter, the facts in front of us fit a frame, and so we had our story. One would think that given his background as the son of a former President, a legacy at Yale, etc, etc President George W. Bush would have made a far more natural target for the elitist story. But it came down to demeanor again, and President W had this down home, aw shucks manner. Yale, Harvard, President’s son, company CEO by birth — none of that matters when the facts in front of us, the ones that we can digest with very little work and effort, don’t fit the frame. And so no one cared to look any further. We had our story. And our decision.

And so we’re back to Detroit. The problem with Detroit is the story. Since it seems that most of America gave up on American cars years ago, it’s an easy story to understand and tell. Detroit makes crappy cars and so Detroit deserves this. “Make cars people want!” “Make cars that don’t break down!” These are the facts in front of us, and it’s a story that’s easy to understand. That’s what screwed Detroit. Our financial companies and investment bankers betrayed hundreds of millions of American. We’re still unsure how the deep the damage they wrought on the global economy and America (taxpayer, government, and future?) is. Yet, despite taking practically 100X (or more) more money from us, there’s no convenient story here for us. How the hell does one easily and quickly grasp, with zero effort, a story involving characters called tranches, credit default swaps, collateralize securities, non-government entities, and so on. Clearly you can’t. And no one did. We don’t really even try. But Detroit. That’s a story we know. And we’re all poorer for thinking we understand it.

the next obama?

We’ll likely here more and more from Bobby Jindal. He’s the Indian-American governor of Louisiana with a very impressive background. Rhodes Scholar, President of the U of L system before 30 and governor at 36. He’s a Republican. He’s a great marketer: “Bubbas for Bobby” was his campaign to get white southern males, a constituency which was likely his hardest to gain, to campaign for him.

Newsweek gives him some high-profile treatment. Worth the read.

the laundry list in my head.

Here’s a laundry list of what’s been bouncing around in my head the past few days.

1) Obama likely ran the best campaign in history. From approaching the campaign with a data-based decision making process, thinking through weakness and strengths and letting this guide a communications/tactical strategy, a consistent (reassuring) image and message to voters, and an efficient deployment of technology– just from a business case approach this was remarkable. The New Yorker has a good article on it all. When insiders either write, or contribute heavily to a definitive account of the operations and logistics of the campaign, I’ll be first in line to buy and study the book.

2) There is more fear in the air than I can ever recall. September 11th was a very different kind of fear and nakedness to the harsher elements of the world. Talking to friends, and more importantly strangers, and reading the accounts of what’s going on in broad swaths of America– there is real, palpable fear for the future. The stock markets are a reflection of sentiment (and probably themselves guide sentiment to some degree, completing the cycle) and it’s ugly. An organization, nation, etc needs renewal. The thing is we needed this back in 2001 at the latest. But we put it off by inflating home values and pushing the levels of credit. Continue reading

election wrap-up.

Being overseas for the election was a strange, but interesting experience. Everywhere I turned in India (and in Dubai), people wanted to talk to me about “Obama.” Literally, for some of the people that I met, “Obama” was one of their few words of English. That, and I guess you could add “change” to that as well.

As the pundits and prognosticators were predicting, the final tally was not close. Here are some random, general thoughts:

1) John McCain gave an amazing concession speech. Obviously it was very well written and delivered. But more than that he did something which was invaluable: he broached the topic of race and celebrated the significance of the event. I haven’t seen this talked about anywhere, but to me this is huge. With McCain acknowledging the racial-importance of the event, he in a way, freed up Obama to be “post-racial”. Obama barely acknowledged this aspect of his election, and instead focused (rightly in my opinion) on the huge challenges ahead of us and on what has been accomplished to date. This was enabled by McCain’s magnanimous, graceful, and powerful speech. Huge hat tip there.

2) What a 4 years. I still remember the feeling I had 4 years ago when I was watching the Convention and some guy I had never heard of was giving a speech. Within minutes I was captivated. While I’ve always been a sucker for a good speech (Kennedy brothers, Lincoln, King, Reagan, Clinton, McCain were all speeches that I had read over and over again), this was something new. When he talked of being a skinny kid with a funny name, and about things only being possible in America, I felt for the first time a tinge of identification. Hey, that could be me talking up there. I was literally jumping up and down during that speech. I called my friend Gedioen five minutes in because I felt like this was something else– something historic and he had to be watching it too. What a 4 years. I would have never thought.

3) Good night, Bradley Effect.
Ford Jr in 06, and now Obama, in high-profile ways are putting this ugly phenomenon to bed. Good night and good riddance.

4) Technology disrupted. In ’04 there was big talk on the Dean campaign that he was the Internet candidate. Sure he raised a lot of money, had a great website, and did some organizing, but I failed to understand the hype. Obama had a rock-star team who got the Internet and used it in new and powerful ways. From the dissemination of key information, organizing volunteers, raising money, you name it, they did it. This is a book waiting to be written that I can’t wait to read. Chris Hughes leaving FB for the campaign is a genius and he should be ridiculously proud of his (teams) contribution. Change.gov is another brilliant one, and I think they’ll get an unprecedented level of qualified candidates out of it.

5) I don’t envy the task ahead of Obama. The country is in disarray and Obama faces one of the biggest challenges (if not *the*) since the Roosevelts. Things are ridiculously bad and getting worse. I don’t need to overstate it because everyone probably sees it already.

Some great election reading:
Every Presidential election Newsweek embeds reporters in both campaigns for a year with the promise that they won’t publish till post election. This is their story (uber-long and amazing.)

New Yorker on the campaign of John McCain.

New Yorker on significance of Obama.

my issues with the election.

Candidates have become a necessary evil. Issues are what matter. I’ve blogged about this, and I’ve prattled on endlessly on this since the 2004 lesson. (It was in that brutal, painful election that I saw how pointless the candidate-focused type of campaigning was. I’ve since reformed, and now spend all my time discussing the issues, never a particular candidate.) I’ll cast my vote tonight (mail), and, appropriately, wanted to blog about some of the issues that matter to me.

1) Tax policy: We need massive tax reform. Simply put, as a country, we need to return the tradition of fiscal prudence that is strong in American history. Why? Because we’re running a ridiculously drunken budget. Ideally we need to cut spending and cut taxes to put it to work in the private sector. Most of America can’t afford a dime more in taxes. However, given the structural problems in both our budget and economy, we’re faced with the more realistic choice of needing to find, a way, any way, to put the budget back on the tracks. I’m shocked that this is even up for discussion. Most of us wouldn’t run up a credit card bill, and then leave it as the inheritance to our kids. Most of us were raised by parents that would find that unconscionable, and a government that would do it has my extreme enmity.

2) Education: We need to rethink our education framework from the ground up. Focus on the math & sciences which have, throughout history, been the driver of a nation’s long term economic standing. We need to rebuild education in our poor areas– starting with pre-K in order to save large swaths in this country. Factories have left America in droves over the past two decades, and if education doesn’t step up to save our industrial centers– fat lady, please sing. Again, education is the #1 issue for America’s future. Everything else is built on it. We’ve had a crisis in education for over 2 decades (formerly declared during Regan’s presidency). This can go on for say 10 pages (it does in the book). Bottom line: if we don’t fix it now, we’re screwed. Full stop.

3) Alternative energy: We need something. America has to make something the world needs. Because guess what, what we’ve made for the last few years for the world, they ain’t buying anymore: all that toxic financial crap. No more. So if we don’t quickly build an industry, or a series of them, that can produce something that the world needs, the future isn’t going to be pretty. Everyone says that clean tech/alt energy is it. I hope so. But guess what? Nearly every other developed (and many developing) nation is also sprinting to own this niche. We need to make this a priority, and double down.

4) Infrastructure. We’re headed for a massive recession. Duh. The government needs to rebuild our infrastructure for a few reasons. One, because it’s immediate spending which will stimulate the economy and put American’s to work. Two, without a healthy national infrastructure, you can’t have a viable economy. How do you transport goods between states when your highways & bridges aren’t functioning or get to work when there isn’t public transportation? If you can’t do this, “natural” economic growth slows and dies. Three, in a severe recession the gov’t can’t institute a massive contraction in federal spending because on top of already declining employment, etc this would put us in a death-spiral. Facing this hideous, dastardly choice, we have to make sure that what we’re spending our money on is at least an investment in the future. Investments in our infrastructure, educational system, industrial strategy, etc.

OK, that’s about it. I’m going to go back to writing about this stuff in the book now. Good night, good luck, and please vote.

buckley endorses obama.

Wow. Conservative William F. Buckley Jr‘s son, Christopher, endorsed Barack Obama. And then, shortly after, resigned from The National Review, the journal his father founded, over the outcry. Good stuff. Quoted are some of my choicest bits.

McCain rose to power on his personality and biography. He was authentic. He spoke truth to power. He told the media they were “jerks” (a sure sign of authenticity, to say nothing of good taste; we are jerks). He was real. He was unconventional. He embraced former anti-war leaders. He brought resolution to the awful missing-POW business. He brought about normalization with Vietnam—his former torturers! Yes, he erred in accepting plane rides and vacations from Charles Keating, but then, having been cleared on technicalities, groveled in apology before the nation. He told me across a lunch table, “The Keating business was much worse than my five and a half years in Hanoi, because I at least walked away from that with my honor.” Your heart went out to the guy. I thought at the time, God, this guy should be president someday.

But that was—sigh—then. John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, “We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.” This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget “by the end of my first term.” Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?

All this is genuinely saddening, and for the country is perhaps even tragic, for America ought, really, to be governed by men like John McCain—who have spent their entire lives in its service, even willing to give the last full measure of their devotion to it. If he goes out losing ugly, it will be beyond tragic, graffiti on a marble bust.

So, I wish him all the best. We are all in this together. Necessity is the mother of bipartisanship. And so, for the first time in my life, I’ll be pulling the Democratic lever in November. As the saying goes, God save the United States of America.

My point, simply, is that William F. Buckley held to rigorous standards, and if those were met by members of the other side rather than by his own camp, he said as much. My father was also unpredictable, which tends to keep things fresh and lively and on-their-feet. He came out for legalization of drugs once he decided that the war on drugs was largely counterproductive. Hardly a conservative position. Finally, and hardly least, he was fun. God, he was fun. He liked to mix it up.

While I regret this development, I am not in mourning, for I no longer have any clear idea what, exactly, the modern conservative movement stands for. Eight years of “conservative” government has brought us a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance. As a sideshow, it brought us a truly obscene attempt at federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo case.

Links:
The Daily Beast: Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama
http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2008-10-10/the-conservative-case-for-obama/

The Daily Beast: Buckley Bows Out of National Review
http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2008-10-14/sorry-dad-i-was-fired

The Edge of the American West: Apostates

Apostates

america’s new favorite sport.

dear politics,

I’ll say that its only in the last ~20 years that we’ve devolved into this. Politics is now the average American’s favorite sport. The only thing funnier to me than partisan hacks, are the partisans who think they can change another partisan’s mind.

While it probably started in earnest years before– in the 21st century, America’s political system converted 100% into a professional sport. We support “our” candidate with the same glee and ardor that we “cheer” for our favorite sports teams. Do you think you could ever convince a Yankees fan to cheer for the Mets? Do you think you could get me (a tortured Mets fan) to ever become a Yankees fan? I’m thinking snow in hell and all that. What makes this tragic of course, and all the more of an accurate analogy, is that our continued support is based in nothing more than tradition, loyalty, and irrationality. Think about it– in baseball, do you really *hate* the opposing team’s pitcher? What if he switched team jerseys next season? Seinfeld had it right that at some point we stopped cheering for team, and we started cheering for uniforms. Well, I guess you could say we stopped supporting issues and principles and we started supporting little letters in parentheses after names ie. Barack Obama (D). When did the parentheses become more important than what came before it? When did the label become more important than what it stood for?

The parallel goes further. The impact of money to MLB, NFL, NBA, etc is huge in the past few decades. Look at how money has almost completely conquered sports, and you’ll see that in politics we’ve created a system in which money has totally taken over. Hundred million dollar players and hundred million dollar candidates.

The idiocy of this drives me to the point of explosion. Realistically, what are the chances of someone listing out their views on a host of issues and having them link up perfectly with any one candidate or party? Yet most people have a fervent adoration and support for “their guy” and almost unconditionally defend all of their positions. And this is killing America.

Our nation had the largest bank failure in its history today. And, given recent events, no one even flinched. That’s how bad things are. This is a crisis. Make no mistake, what got us into this is the politics of big money and partisanship. And that’s clearly not changed, and shows no sign of changing. So, to each of you, partisan hacks, who I meet more and more of every day– i just want to tell you one thing:

I hate you all.

love, surya