Book review: Owning Our Future (by Marjorie Kelly)

Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution

Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution by Marjorie Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Marjorie Kelly since I read The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. This book, Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, takes you on her mental journey from her thinking in Divine Right (reforming capitalism before it destroys itself) to highlighting emerging changes that could be capitalized on to stop capitalism from destroying the planet as well as society. (And no, she’s not advocating socialism, communism, or nationalization of the banks. Her ideas are all aimed at building successful, for-profit businesses.)

The bottom line is that extractive finance is dangerously unstable and unsustainable, to capitalism, to the market-based economy, and to the entire planet. Rather than solely maximizing financial profits, at which Wall Street has become destructively too efficient, businesses can become for-profit businesses that do more than simply boost short-term shareholder equity.

This is the book to read after Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when you’re wondering, okay, what the hell do we do now? I highly recommend it.

(cross-posting my Goodreads review here. For you sci-fi fans and writers, I’ll add that she reports on real-life examples that provide great raw material for making up futuristic corporations.)

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America to academics: Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here

Whenever the US government passes major legislation with overwhelming majorities in rapid fashion, and the President signs it enthusiastically, it means one of two things has happened. Either we’ve been attacked by Japan and it’s 1941. Or the country has collectively decided, policy-wise, that we think we heard once that chocolate cake is actually super nutritious, so what the hell, have an extra slice.

With that in mind, the federal government threw No Child Left Behind to the curb recently, to thunderous applause. (For those who don’t know, in my book anything greeted with ‘thunderous applause’ is usually bad.) Pretty much the states can return to business as usual – doing whatever they want. Keep in mind that NCLB passed originally because the states had raced to the bottom, with cheeseball academic standards, meaningless high school diplomas, and tons of college students taking remedial reading and math. Giving the states more of a say in education is the equivalent of deputizing bank robbers. Remember, the vast majority of adults don’t have bachelor degrees.

We as a country have decided that an academically-rigorous education system is just not a good fit for us. NCLB tried to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, minorities and whites, special needs and regular students. And it raised standards and made sure schools aimed their students to meet those standards. This was a bipartisan, nationwide effort trumpeted by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy. So what does it say that it has been repealed, demolished, and stomped on by a huge majority of the polarized, self-hating Congress?

Lots of educators, state officials, and parents really didn’t like the focus on the achievement gap. Some of that was a simple dislike for resources going to those groups that were falling behind. Some of it was opposition to possibly misguided details of NCLB (expecting schools to show continual progress on test scores every year – forever). And some of it was old-fashioned racism, which the country seems to be on a bender about demonstrating at the moment. NCLB meant that “those” kids were going to start getting money, attention, time, that white kids were getting before NCLB: a zero-sum loss for the white tribe.

The Common Core math standards could also be blamed for this turnabout. Not because they were bad, but because they were about teaching actual mathematical thinking and training. They confronted the apparently uniquely-American, bowel-emptying panic about math. Math panic is what gives math-heavier jobs huge pay premiums: Graduates from engineering and sciences command higher starting salaries than the arts. We throw extra money at math magicians, partly because most of us can’t do math (or finance), while we complain that our kids’ math homework is beyond us.

The math standards made this all especially acute because testing tossed all the shortcomings out into the open. People decry not keeping score in kids’ sportsball contests, but they lose their minds if anyone tests their kids, their schools, or their teachers. Why? It could be that:

A) they care more about soccer games than academics

B) they can’t handle the truth

I’m going to invoke the 80/20 rule here and say it’s 80% B and 20% A. People think their schools are great and everyone else’s stink. (I’m linking here to a must-read, jaw-dropping PDK/Gallup Poll about public attitudes toward education. TL;DR: academics aren’t important.) But everything that went with the NCLB era, including the standardized tests, took a hot, steaming dump on that Lake Wobegon fantasy. Not only was everything tested, but it was compared to other school districts AND against decent standards from education experts. And guess what? Everything wasn’t awesome.

What the reformers and the academics need to remember (and I keep reminding myself) is that education is only partly about academics. It’s also about values, culture, and entertaining kids. You try to turn a blue collar community into college-bound nerds, and people get upset: you’re attacking their culture. If you make sports yield just a little to academics: you’re attacking some rich community’s values. If school isn’t “fun” and students aren’t “engaged:” you’re not adequately entertaining the kids (or, more importantly, the teachers). People just don’t think learning or knowledge is very important other than the minimum needed to land a job out of high school. So when academics rears up and demands their time, attention, and becomes the least bit inconvenient, people get angry. NCLB and Common Core are not the first time this has happened in the course of American education.

With that in mind, maybe this is just another pendulum swing in a back-and-forth between the enlightening and lazy sides of the education world. Unions versus academics, reformers versus status quo, public school haters versus teachers, however you want to mis-portray it. It’s good not to overly dramatize pendulum swings.

Still, it feels like a sucker punch to the gut when we take a step back like this. We’re dooming yet another generation of kids to the same crappy education and job outcomes that previous generations had. It’s even more bittersweet because we were on the cusp of delivering so much more and maybe closing the gap between us and the rest of the world.

Except your school. It is a special shining snowflake of educational excellence, with top-notch teachers and brilliant kids.

Policy wonk Jedi mind tricks

Two months ago President Obama signed an executive order to encourage the use of evidence-based research in government policy. He also established a permanent Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to inject behavioral insights into a number of government programs. Or as they put it, “to design human-centered federal programs.”

This is a big step for the social sciences and for public policy. For forever and a day, government programs, private sector products, and everything in between were designed based on a mix of theory, market research, hope, and a couple of honey-dipped anecdotes tossed in by avuncular policy makers. What the behavioral sciences add is designing government policies around how people actually behave. Specifically, how their cognitive biases, emotional make-up, etc. make them act different than a green-blooded Vulcan or your Aunt Tilly.

Behavioral research, driven largely by psychology, has shown that decision-making can be influenced not just by the information itself, but how the information is presented and how it is treated by cognitive biases that we all have. Okay, that was a big, long sentence. I’ll keep it shorter. Check out the book Nudge if you want the full brain download. Bottom-line: there’s low-cost approaches to spur large behavioral changes by using the equivalent of policy wonk Jedi mind tricks. As for what the President is doing, check out the inspiration for it in this book by the head of the Behavioral Insights Team in the UK. The BIT has been work for UK Prime Minister David Cameron for a while.

Are you creeped out by all of this? You, in the back, slouching in your chair, you look like you have a case of the willies. The government messing with your mind sounds like tinfoil hat territory, I know. But it’s just a tool, similar to marketing or political advertising, that smacks your human impulses and triggers in just such a way (kind of like cat videos). And if it’s deployed to help you make better decisions then that’s all to the good. Because any information provision already does this, and the more unintentional, the more disastrous for you and everyone else.

This all interests me not just because of my day job, but because of the sci-fi implications <rubs hands in glee>. We’re just scratching on the cave wall when it comes to developing effective tools to mitigate or enhance cognitive biases. We’ll get better at using these tools and eventually what we’ll be able to do may approximate magic.

Imagine:

  • An AI that knows your cognitive biases and keeps you from making mistakes (as well as possibly helping you to learn)
  • A ruthless person who knows an advanced level of mind tricks and can exploit them.
  • Guardrails for governments to avoid decisions that are either rash, misinformed, driven by misperceptions, or the result of cognitive biases

Vox has 26 signs that everything is awesomer than you thought

For all of you smiling under a warm spring sun today, enjoying the blooming of blossoms and the greening of grass, here’s an extra happiness injection: it’s getting better. What is it? Life. This story from Vox is something that I have sat on until happier times thawed from winter.

Vox, one of the best explainer journalism sites out there,* put together 26 charts showing how things are getting better. And these things are not just minor stuff, we’re talking the big important stuff like life expectancy, poverty, hunger, child labor, violence, disease, war, democracy, and so on.

We often don’t like to believe that things have improved. I know, a number of you are stricken by “but what about” thoughts. What about income inequality? What about the environment? What about the rise of <insert religious, political, sports antagonist here>?

Why can’t we accept good news? One reason may be exposure to the negative-slanted news, which has equated being informed with being pessimistic. Or maybe our own lives have declined, and it’s easier to believe that misery has company.

Age plays a role in our pessimism too. I think it has something to do with projecting our feelings about aging on to the world around us. How can ‘things’ be better if you are feeling or performing worse, right? Or maybe it is a reaction to a sense that the world we grew up with and are comfortable with is passing away, and the new-fangled things replacing it are unfamiliar and unwanted. It’s rare that you see a young person complain that the world is getting worse. It’s just as rare that you’ll come across a pack of seniors talking about how much better the world is.

Western culture also plays a role. Western civilization has been obsessed with its own collapse for a solid millenia or so. Disaster and a new dark ages is right around the corner. The naysayers causes keep changing (the Reformation, smallpox, Turks, the enlightenment, abolition of slavery, industrialization, democracy, women’s suffrage, racial integration, religious tolerance, gay marriage, etc.) but they keep on getting it wrong.

So the next time you see a bunch of seniors moaning about rising crime rates, and all these wars, and poverty, go running by and yell ‘everything is awesome!’ Because it’s not only hopeful, it’s true as well.

 

*I should pen an Ode to Vox. Ezra Klein’s site is full of interesting pieces that explain and provide context around stuff that gets dropped into the news like a three-legged dog who can do calculus. Most news sites regurgitate headlines. Some will tack on a snooty op-ed piece that declares what it all means, loaded with droll analogies and dog-whistles to intellectuals with wine preferences and subscriptions to The Atlantic. Others will just feed in the latest developments as new ammunition to fire the same old shitshells in a continuing political or cultural war online. Vox just digs deeper. Vox is my 27th sign that things are getting increasingly awesomer.

Got to give to live well?

I’m intrigued by research of what drives success, happiness, productivity and overall well-being. Conventional wisdom usually turns out to be wrong in these areas (money can’t buy happiness may be often said but is little believed). Knowing what really drives positive outcomes often becomes an exercise in intuitive contrarianism. Any counter-intuitive man-bites-dog eureka claim in this area about happiness or success has to be met by heaving a heavy brick of skepticism at it to see if it shatters.

Along these lines, check out this article from Brain Pickings on Givers, Takers and the Science of Success. It is based on work by Adam Grant into how different types of people (givers, takers, and matchers) succeed in life.

  • Givers: those who help others without hope of personal reward
  • Takers: those who act from a zero-sum worldview
  • Matchers: those who give or take depending on whether the costs and benefits match up or not.

This is a new take for me. The conventional wisdom says the dog-eat-dog types would succeed because they are ruthless and they take without hesitation. Grant goes to pretty far lengths to show how givers come out both on top and on the bottom. And why some givers win out, while others sink, he attributes to whether they are other-directed (martyrs) or self-directed (not sacrificing their own interests). In case you couldn’t figure it out, martyrs finish last, but those who seek mutual gain beat everyone else. And they’re loved for it.

Grant has a bias: he’s a round-the-clock giver. It seems almost to the detriment of the rest of his life, including probably his family since he works at least one weekend day and every single night. He may be wired that way, (some profiles of him suggest that he is compelled to never say no) but it also may not be recommended or healthy.

However, Grant may really be on to something. Too often we’re told over and over that the ruthless bastards always come out on top. But we all know awesome people who rise to the top by being nice and helpful friends. People adore them and long to work with them.

It would be interesting if he or someone else controlled for hours worked. It could be that the nice guys and the jerks who come out on top are just those who racked up more work hours. Giving or taking may not matter much in the end, other than scoring or losing ‘nice’ points.

Note that even though I’m saying it is probably more about hours worked, I’m not happy about saying it. I’ve come to think that putting too many hours in, burning the candle at both ends, may produce a short-term boost in proficiency but causes long-term damage. Whatever the taker sacrifices usually comes back to bite them, whether it is sleep, marriage, family, friends, perspective, judgement, health, etc. Down the road, workaholics get bogged down with the wreckage and baggage.

Given the same hours worked, does giving pay off better than taking or matching? I think Grant and I would agree that giving would. It opens more doors and the emotional payoffs in scoring those ‘nice’ points have to beat the disadvantages of being a taker. But it would be nice to see a study of that question.

My newsletter may improve your memory

UPDATE: I’m reposting this because I had problems with connecting to the various social media outlets.

The Scoop, my newsletter, is now open to subscribers. The link should be right over on the right-hand side. It will include the news about all things having to with my writing projects. This is stuff for true fans:

  • discounts and special offers
  • inside info on what I’m writing and where things are at
  • recommendations for related or similar fiction and nonfiction
  • behind the scenes
  • cutting edge productivity and life hacks that feed into my fiction at some point but may be of use to people. Hint:

There’s three hitches I must warn you about:

  1. You will peer into my brain; you have been warned
  2. I may screw up this newsletter, or the subscriber list, since I haven’t done this before
  3. If I don’t get at least 10 subscribers, no newsletter. Because it won’t be worth my time to do it.

So good you can’t ignore it

I am a big fan of Cal Newport’s side job of researching better ways to study. I say side job because he is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his blog, Study Hacks, he has published several books about performing efficiently in high school, college, and career.

I recently finished his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which deals with the last thing: career. He has long-espoused not following your passion, but learning a set of skills so well that they… you can figure out the rest. The book follows him looking for his first post-PhD job (he’s not terribly old) in a depressed economy that is full of under- or un-employed PhD wannabe academics, which is interesting for other reasons.

The book lays out a number of strategies:

  • Skills trump passion, and for career-planning, it should proceed passion (because it can generate passion).
  • Adopt a craftsmen mindset instead of a passion mindset (what you can offer the world vs. what the world can offer you)
  • Rely on deliberate practice (improving skills in an efficient manner)
  • Avoid the ‘control trap’ where you get so good your employer tries to control you
  • Leverage your skills to gain autonomy (so good they can’t afford to lose you)

This is interesting to me from two vantage points: personally and sociologically. Personally, I have seen this approach work over and over, often accidentally. People become stars in a workplace because of specific skills they have. People with a lot of passion, not a lot of skills, who are looking to check the box and follow the hot projects, drift away, often without reward. Students who use deliberate practice are the ones who seem like they ‘never have to study.’ They aren’t geniuses for memorizing their chemistry textbook, they have figured out how to go about studying it efficiently.

And happiness? Yes, career satisfaction, happiness, etc. all seem to flow from a stronger place when you have skill mastery, and people recognize you for such, than from being in the throes of inexperienced vocational passion. For the throngs of people who don’t have a passion to follow, focusing on acquiring skills could be a better approach psychologically.

Sociologically, I wondered what if we taught kids this from an early age? We toss a lot of substance at them in school, which is good, but very little in the way of skills for how to excel at school. No classes in how to study, how to learn a skill, how to become efficient and productive.

What if most people followed this skills-approach, instead of stumbling upon it, or never discovering it? How much more happy, employed, and productive would the workforce be? Probably immensely more than they are now.

Finally, Cal posted recently wondering if knowledge workers should work like novelists. I feel eminently qualified to answer this one (not). Actually, if he did a poll, I am willing to bet $20 that the majority of novelists would say that they have the worst productivity of any group of workers. They wait for the muse, they fart around on the internet, they do ‘research’, they complain about their writing, etc. In short, most novelists could learn a lot by studying Cal’s habits rather than the other way around. However, those that have taken a craftsmen approach are the amazingly prolific and terrifically good ones that other writers wonder how the hell they can do it.