Stick to Your Knitting

Man knitting
Man in suit sticking to his knitting. Photo by fokusgood / Shutterstock

6 June 2019 – Once upon a time in an MBA school far, far away, I took a Marketing 101 class. The instructor, whose name I can no longer be sure of, had a number of sayings that proved insightful, bordering on the oracular. (That means they were generally really good advice.) One that he elevated to the level of a mantra was: “Stick to the knitting.”

Really successful companies of all sizes hew to this advice. There have been periods of history where fast-growing companies run by CEOs with spectacularly big egos have equally spectacularly honored this mantra in the breach. With more hubris than brains, they’ve managed to over-invest themselves out of business.

Today’s tech industry – especially the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) – is particularly prone to this mistake. Here I hope to concentrate on what the mantra means, and what goes wrong when you ignore it.

Okay, “stick to your knitting” is based on the obvious assumption that every company has some core expertise. Amazon, for example, has expertise in building and operating an online catalog store. Facebook has expertise in running an online forum. Netflix operates a bang-up streaming service. Ford builds trucks. Lockheed Martin makes state-of-the-art military airplanes.

General Electric, which has core expertise in manufacturing industrial equipment, got into real trouble when it got the bright idea of starting a finance company to extend loans to its customers for purchases of its equipment.

Conglomeration

There is a business model, called the conglomerate that is based on explicitly ignoring the “knitting” mantra. It was especially popular in the 1960s. Corporate managers imagined that conglomerates could bring into play synergies that would make conglomerates more effective than single-business companies.

For a while there, this model seemed to be working. However, when business conditions began to change (specifically interest rates began to rise from an abnormally low level to more normal rates) their supposed advantages began melting like a birthday cake left outside in a rainstorm. These huge conglomerates began hemorrhaging money until vultures swooped in to pick them apart. Conglomerates are now a thing of the past.

There are companies, such as Berkshire Hathaway, whose core expertise is in evaluating and investing in other companies. Some of them are very successful, but that’s because they stick to their core expertise.

Berkshire Hathaway was originally a textile company that investor Warren Buffett took over when the textile industry was busy going overseas. As time went on, textiles became less important and, by 1985 this core part of the company was shut down. It had become a holding company for Buffett’s investments in other companies. It turns out that Buffett’s core competence is in handicapping companies for investment potential. That’s his knitting!

The difference between a holding company and a conglomerate is (and this is specifically my interpretation) a matter of integration. In a conglomerate, the different businesses are more-or-less integrated into the parent corporation. In a holding company, they are not.

Berkshire Hathaway is known for it’s insurance business, but if you want to buy, say, auto insurance from Berkshire Hathaway, you have to go to it’s Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) subsidiary. GEICO is a separate company that happens to be wholly owned by Berkshire Hathaway. That is, it has its own corporate headquarters and all the staff, fixtures and other resources needed to operate as an independent insurance company. It just happens to be owned, lock, stock and intellectual property by another corporate entity: Berkshire Hathaway.

GEICO’s core expertise is insurance. Berkshire Hathaway’s core expertise is finding good companies to invest in. Some are partially owned (e.g., 5.4% of Apple) some are wholly owned (e.g., Acme Brick).

Despite Berkshire Hathaway’s holding positions in both Apple and Acme Brick, if you ask Warren Buffet if Berkshire Hathaway is a computer company or a brick company, he’d undoubtedly say “no.” Berkshire Hathaway is a diversified holding company.

It’s business is owning other businesses.

To paraphrase James Coburn’s line from Stanley Donen’s 1963 film Charade: “[Mrs. Buffett] didn’t raise no stupid children!”

Why Giant Corporations?

All this giant corporation stuff stems from a dynamic I also learned about in MBA school: a company grows or it dies. I ran across this dynamic during a financial modeling class where we used computers to predict results of corporate decisions in lifelike conditions. Basically, what happens is that unless the company strives to its utmost to maintain growth, it starts to shrink and then all is lost. Feedback effects take over and it withers and dies.

Observations since then have convinced me this is some kind of natural law. It shows up in all kinds of natural systems. I used to think I understood why, but I’m not so sure anymore. It may have something to do with chaos, and we live in a chaotic universe. I resolve to study this in more detail – later.

But, anyway … .

Companies that embrace this mantra (You grow or you die.) grow until they reach some kind of external limit, then they stop growing and – in some fashion or other – die.

Sometimes (and paradigm examples abound) external limits don’t kick in before some company becomes very big, indeed. Standard Oil Company may be the poster child for this effect. Basically, the company grew to monopoly status and, in 1911 the U.S. Federal Government stepped in and, using the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, forced its breakup into 33 smaller oil companies, many of which still exist today as some of the world’s major oil companies (e.g., Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron). At the time of its breakup, Standard Oil had a market capitalization of just under $11B and was the third most valuable company in the U.S. Compare that to the U.S. GDP of roughly $34B at the time.

The problem with companies that big is that they generate tons of free cash. What to do with it?

There are three possibilities:

  1. You can reinvest it in your company;

  2. You can return it to your shareholders; or

  3. You can give it away.

Reinvesting free cash in your company is usually the first choice. I say it is the first choice because it is used at the earliest period of the company’s history – the period when growth is necessarily the only goal.

If done properly reinvestment can make your company grow bigger faster. You can reinvest by out-marketing your competition (by, say, making better advertisements) and gobbling up market share. You can also reinvest to make your company’s operations more effective or efficient. To grow, you also need to invest in adding production facilities.

At a later stage, your company is already growing fast and you’ve got state-of-the-art facilities, and you dominate your market. It’s time to do what your investors gave you their money for in the first place: return profits to them in the form of dividends. I kinda like that. It’s what the game’s all about, anyway.

Finally, most leaders of large companies recognize that having a lot of free cash laying around is an opportunity to do some good without (obviously) expecting a payback. I qualify this with the word “obviously” because on some level altruism does provide a return in some form.

Generally, companies engage in altruism (currently more often called “philanthropy”) to enhance their perception by the public. That’s useful when lawsuits rear their ugly heads or somebody in the organization screws up badly enough to invite public censure. Companies can enhance their reputations by supporting industry activities that do not directly enhance their profits.

So-called “growth companies,” however, get stuck in that early growth phase, and never transition to paying dividends. In the early days of the personal-computer revolution, tech companies prided themselves on being “growth stocks.” That is, investors gained vast wealth on paper as the companies’ stock prices went up, but couldn’t realized those gains (capital gains) unless they sold the stock. Or, as my father once did, by using the stock for collateral to borrow money.

In the end, wise investors eventually want their money back in the form of cash from dividends. For example, in the early 2000s, Microsoft and other technology companies were forced by their shareholders to start paying dividends for the first time.

What can go wrong

So, after all’s said and done, why’s my marketing professor’s mantra wise corporate governance?

To make money, especially the scads of money that corporations need to become really successful, you’ve gotta do something right. In fact, you gotta do something better than the other guys. When you know how to do something better than the other guys, that’s called expertise!

Companies, like people, have limitations. To imagine you don’t have limitations is hubris. To put hubris in perspective, recall that the ancients famously made it Lucifer’s cardinal sin. In fact, it was his only sin!

Folks who tell you that you can do anything are flat out conning your socks off.

If you’re lucky you can do one thing better than others. If you’re really lucky, you can do a few things better than others. If you try to do stuff outside your expertise, however, you’re gonna fail. A person can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again – but don’t try to do the same thing again ‘cause you’ve already proved it’s outside your expertise. People can start over, but companies usually can’t.

One of my favorite sayings is:

Everything looks easy to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The rank amateur at some activity typically doesn’t know the complexities and pitfalls that an expert in the field has learned about through training and experience. That’s what we know as expertise. When anyone – or any company – wanders outside their field of expertise, they quickly fall foul of those complexities and pitfalls.

I don’t know how many times I’ve overheard some jamoke at an art opening say, “Oh, I could do that!”

Yeah? Then do it!

The artist has actually done it.

The same goes for some computer engineer who imagines that knowing how to program computers makes him (or her) smart, and because (s)he is so smart, (s)he could run, say, a magazine publishing house. How hard can it be?

Mark Zuckerberg is in the process of finding out.

Fed Reports on U.S. Economic Well-Being

Federal Reserve Building
The Federal Reserve released the results of its annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking for calendar year 2018 last week. Image by Thomas Barrat / Shutterstock

29 May 2019 – Last week (specifically 23 May 2019) the Federal Reserve Board released the results of its annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking for CY2018. I’ve done two things for readers of this blog. First, I downloaded a PDF copy of the report to make available free of charge on my website at cgmasi.com alongside last year’s report for comparison. Second, I’m publishing an edited extract of the report’s executive summary below.

The report describes the results of the sixth annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED). In October and November 2018, the latest SHED polled a self-selected sample of over 11,000 individuals via an online survey.

Along with the survey-results report, the Board published the complete anonymized data in CSV, SAS, STATA formats; as well as a supplement containing the complete SHED questionnaire and responses to all questions in the order asked. The survey continues to use subjective measures and self-assessments to supplement and enhance objective measures.

Overall Results

Survey respondents reported that most measures of economic well-being and financial resilience in 2018 are similar to or slightly better than in 2017. Many families have experienced substantial gains since the survey began in 2013, in line with the nation’s ongoing economic expansion during that period.

Even so, another year of economic expansion and the low national unemployment rates did little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography. Many adults are financially vulnerable and would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.

In addition to asking adults whether they are working, the survey asks if they want to work more and what impediments they see to them working.

Overall Economic Well-Being

A large majority of individuals report that, financially, they are doing okay or living comfortably, and overall economic well-being has improved substantially since the survey began in 2013

  • When asked about their finances, 75% of adults say they are either doing okay or living comfortably. This result in 2018 is similar to 2017 and is 12%age points higher than 2013.

  • Adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are significantly more likely to be doing at least okay financially (87%) than those with a high school degree or less (64%).

  • Nearly 8 in 10 whites are at least doing okay financially in 2018 versus two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics. The gaps in economic well-being by race and ethnicity have persisted even as overall wellbeing has improved since 2013.

  • Fifty-six percent of adults say they are better off than their parents were at the same age and one fifth say they are worse off.

  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents rate their local economic conditions as “good” or “excellent,” with the rest rating conditions as “poor” or “only fair.” More than half of adults living in rural areas describe their local economy as good or excellent, compared to two-thirds of those living in urban areas.

Income

Changes in family income from month to month remain a source of financial strain for some individuals.

  • Three in 10 adults have family income that varies from month to month. One in 10 adults have struggled to pay their bills because of monthly changes in income. Those with less access to credit are much more likely to report financial hardship due to income volatility.

  • One in 10 adults, and over one-quarter of young adults under age 30, receive some form of financial support from someone living outside their home. This financial support is mainly between parents and adult children and is often to help with general expenses.

Employment

Most adults are working as much as they want to, an indicator of full employment; however, some remain unemployed or underemployed. Economic well-being is lower for those wanting to work more, those with unpredictable work schedules, and those who rely on gig activities as a main source of income.

  • One in 10 adults are not working and want to work, though many are not actively looking for work. Four percent of adults in the SHED are not working, want to work, and applied for a job in the prior 12 months. This is similar to the official unemployment rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2018.

  • Two in 10 adults are working but say they want to work more. Blacks, Hispanics, and those with less education are less likely to be satisfied with how much they are working.

  • Half of all employees received a raise or promotion in the prior year.

  • Unpredictable work schedules are associated with financial stress for some. One-quarter of employees have a varying work schedule, including 17% whose schedule varies based on their employer’s needs. One-third of workers who do not control their schedule are not doing okay financially, versus one-fifth of workers who set their schedule or have stable hours.

  • Three in 10 adults engaged in at least one gig activity in the prior month, with a median time spent on gig work of five hours. Perhaps surprisingly, little of this activity relies on technology: 3% of all adults say that they use a website or an app to arrange gig work.

  • Signs of financial fragility – such as difficulty handling an emergency expense – are slightly more common for those engaged in gig work, but markedly higher for those who do so as a main source of income.

Dealing with Unexpected Expenses

While self-reported ability to handle unexpected expenses has improved substantially since the survey began in 2013, a sizeable share of adults nonetheless say that they would have some difficulty with a modest unexpected expense.

  • If faced with an unexpected expense of $400, 61% of adults say they would cover it with cash, savings, or a credit card paid off at the next statement – a modest improvement from the prior year. Similar to the prior year, 27% would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12% would not be able to cover the expense at all.

  • Seventeen percent of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full. Another 12% of adults would be unable to pay their current month’s bills if they also had an unexpected $400 expense that they had to pay.

  • One-fifth of adults had major, unexpected medical bills to pay in the prior year. One-fourth of adults skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.

Banking and Credit

Most adults have a bank account and are able to obtain credit from mainstream sources. However, sub- stantial gaps in banking and credit services exist among minorities and those with low incomes.

  • Six percent of adults do not have a bank account. Fourteen percent of blacks and 11% of Hispanics are unbanked versus 4% of whites. Thirty-five percent of blacks and 23% of Hispanics have an account but also use alternative financial services, such as money orders and check cashing services, compared to 11% of whites.

  • More than one-fourth of blacks are not confident that a new credit card application would be approved if they applied—over twice the rate among whites.

  • Those who never carry a credit card balance are much more likely to say that they would pay an unexpected $400 expense with cash or its equivalent (88%) than those who carry a balance most or all of the time (40%) or who do not have a credit card (27%).

  • Thirteen percent of adults with a bank account had at least one problem accessing funds in their account in the prior year. Problems with a bank website or mobile app (7%) and delays in when funds were available to use (6%) are the most common problems. Those with volatile income and low savings are more likely to experience such problems.

Housing and Neighborhoods

Satisfaction with one’s housing and neighborhood is generally high, although notably less so in low-income communities. While 8 in 10 adults living in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods are satisfied with the overall quality of their community, 6 in 10 living in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods are satisfied.

  • People’s satisfaction with their housing does not vary much between more expensive and less expensive cities or between urban and rural areas.

  • Over half of renters needed a repair at some point in the prior year, and 15% of renters had moderate or substantial difficulty getting their landlord to complete the repair. Black and Hispanic renters are more likely than whites to have difficulties getting repairs done.

  • Three percent of non-homeowners were evicted, or moved because of the threat of eviction, in the prior two years. Evictions are slightly more common in urban areas than in rural areas.

Higher Education

Economic well-being rises with education, and most of those holding a post-secondary degree think that attending college paid off.

  • Two-thirds of graduates with a bachelor’s degree or more feel that their educational investment paid off financially, but 3 in 10 of those who started but did not complete a degree share this view.

  • Among young adults who attended college, more than twice as many Hispanics went to a for-profit institution as did whites. For young black attendees, this rate was five times the rate of whites.

  • Given what they know now, half of those who attended a private for-profit institution say that they would attend a different school if they had a chance to go back and make their college choices again. By comparison, about one-quarter of those who attended public or private not-for-profit institutions would want to attend a different school.

Student Loans and Other Education Debt

Over half of young adults who attended college took on some debt to pay for their education. Most borrowers are current on their payments or have successfully paid off their loans.

  • Among those making payments on their student loans, the typical monthly payment is between $200 and $299 per month.

  • Over one-fifth of borrowers who attended private for-profit institutions are behind on student loan payments, versus 8% who attended public institutions and 5% who attended private not-for-profit institutions.

Retirement

Many adults are struggling to save for retirement. Even among those who have some savings, people commonly lack financial knowledge and are uncomfortable making investment decisions.

  • Thirty-six percent of non-retired adults think that their retirement saving is on track, but one-quarter have no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Among non-retired adults over the age of sixty, 45% believe that their retirement saving is on track.

  • Six in 10 non-retirees who hold self-directed retirement savings accounts, such as a 401(k) or IRA, have little or no comfort in managing their investments.

  • On average, people answer fewer than three out of five financial literacy questions correctly, with lower scores among those who are less comfortable managing their retirement savings.

The forgoing is an edited extract from the Report’s Executive Summary. A PDF version of the entire report is available on my website at cgmasi.com [ http://cgmasi.com ] along with a PDF version of the 2017 report, which was published in May of 2018 and based on a similar survey conducted in late 2017. Reports dating back to the first survey done in late 2013 are available from the Federal Reserve Board’s website linked to above.

Why Target Average Inflation?

Federal Reserve Seal
The FOMC attempts to control economic expansion by managing interest rates. Shutterstock.com

8 May 2019 – There’s been a bit of noise in financial-media circles this week (as of this writing, but it’ll be last week when you get to read it) about Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s talking up shifting the Fed’s focus to targeting something called “average inflation” and using words like “transient” and “symmetric” to describe this thinking. James Macintosh provided a nice layman-centric description of the pros and cons of this concept in his “Streetwise” column in Friday’s (5/3) The Wall Street Journal. (Sorry, folks, but this article is only available to WSJ subscribers, so the link above leads to a teaser that asks you to either sign in as a current subscriber or to become a new subscriber. And, you thought information was supposed to be distributed for free? Think again!)

I’m not going to rehash what Macintosh wrote, but attempt to show why this change makes sense. In fact, it’s not really a change at all, but an acknowledgement of what’s really been going on all the time.

We start with pointing out that what the Federal Reserve System is mandated to do is to control the U.S. economy. The operant word here is “control.” That means that to understand what the Fed does (and what it should do) requires a basic understanding of control theory.

Basic Control Theory

We’ll start with a thermostat.

A lot of people (I hesitate to say “most” because I’ve encountered so many counter examples – otherwise intelligent people who somehow don’t seem to get the point) understand how a thermostat works.

A thermostat is the poster child for basic automated control systems. It’s the “stone knives and bearskins” version of automated controls, and is the easiest for the layman to understand, so that’s where we’ll start. It’s also a good analog for what has passed for economic controls since the Fed was created in 1913.

Okay, the first thing to understand is the concept of a “set point.” That’s a “desired value” of some measurement that represents the thing you want to control. In the case of the thermostat, the measurement is room temperature (as read out from a thermometer) and the thing you’re trying to control is how comfortable the room air feels to you. In the case of the Fed, the thing you want to control is overall economic performance and the measurement folks decided was most useful is the inflation rate.

Currently, the set point for inflation is 2% per annum.

In the case of the thermostat in our condo, my wife and I have settled on 75º F. That’s a choice we’ve made based on the climate where we live (Southwestern Florida), our ages, and what we, through experience, have found to be most comfortable for us right now. When we lived in New England, we chose a different set point. Similarly, when we lived in Northern Arizona it was different as well.

The bottom line is: the set point is a matter of choice based on a whole raft of factors that we think are important to us and it varies from time to time.

The same goes for the Fed’s inflation set point. It’s a choice Fed governors make based on a whole raft of considerations that they think are important to the country right now. One of the reasons they meet every month is to review that target ‘cause they know that things change. What seems like a good idea in July, might not look so good in August.

Now, it’s important to recognize that the set point is a target. Like any target, you’re trying to hit it, but you don’t really expect to hit it exactly. You really expect that the value you get for your performance measurement will differ from your set point by some amount – by some error or what metrologists prefer to call “deviation.” We prefer deviation to the word error because it has less pejorative connotations. It’s a fact of life, not a bad thing.

When we add in the concept of time, we also introduce the concept of feedback. That is what control theorists call it when you take the results of your measurement and feed it back to your decision of what to do next.

What you do next to control whatever you’re trying to control depends, first, on the sign (positive or negative) of the deviation, and, in more sophisticated controls, it’s value or magnitude. In the case of the thermostat, if the deviation is positive (meaning the room is hotter than you want) you want to do something to cool it down. In the case of the economy, if inflation is too high you want to do something to reduce economic activity so you don’t get an economic bubble that’ll soon burst.

What confuses some presidents is the idea that rising economic activity isn’t always good. Presidents like boom times ‘cause they make people feel good – like a sugar high. Populist presidents typically fail to recognize (or care about the fact) that booms are invariably bubbles that burst disastrously. Just ask the people of Venezuela who watched their economy’s inflation rate suddenly shoot up to about a million(!) percent per annum.

Booms turn to busts in a heartbeat!

This is where we want to abandon the analogy with a thermostat and get a little more sophisticated.

A thermostat is a blunt instrument. What the thermostat automatically does next is like using a club. At best, a thermostat has two clubs to choose from: it can either fire up the furnace (to raise the room temperature in the event of a negative deviation) or kick in the air conditioner (in the event that the deviation is positive – too hot). That’s known as a binary digital control. It’s gives you a digital choice: up or down.

We leave the thermostat analogy because the Fed’s main tool for controlling the economy (the Fed-funds interest rate) is a lot more sophisticated. It’s what mathematicians call analog. That is, instead of providing a binary choice (to use the club or not), it lets you choose how much pressure you want to apply up or down.

Quantitative easing similarly provides analog control, so what I’m going to say below also applies to it.

Okay, the Fed’s control lever (Fed funds interest rate) is more like a brake pedal than a club. In a car, the harder you press the brake pedal, the more pressure you apply to make the car slow down. A little pressure makes the car slow down a little. A lot of pressure makes the car slow down a lot.

So, you can see why authoritarians like low interest rates. Autthoritarians generally have high-D personalities. As Personality Insights says: “They tend to know 2 speeds in life – zero and full throttle… mostly full throttle.”

They generally don’t have much use for brakes!

By the way, the thing governments have that corresponds to a gas pedal is deficit spending, but the correspondence isn’t exact and the Fed can’t control it, anyway. Since this article is about the Fed, we aren’t going to talk about it now.

When inflation’s moving too fast (above the set point) by a little, the Fed governors – being the feedback controller – decide to raise the Fed funds rate, which is analogous to pushing the brake pedal, by a little. If that doesn’t work, they push it a little harder. If inflation seems to be out of control, as it did in the 1970s, they push it as hard as they can, boosting interest rates way up and pulling way back on the economy.

Populist dictators, who generally don’t know what they’re doing, try to prevent their central banks (you can’t have an economy without having a central bank, even if you don’t know you have it) from raising interest rates soon enough or high enough to get inflation under control, which is why populist dictatorships generally end up with hyperinflation leading to economic collapse.

Populist Dictators Need Not Apply

This is why we don’t want the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank under political control. Politicians are not elected for their economic savvy, so we want Fed governors, who are supposed to have economic savvy, to make smart decisions based on their understanding of economic causes and effects, rather than dumb decisions based on political expediency.

Economists are mathematically sophisticated people. They may (or may not) be steeped in the theory of automated control systems, but they’re quite capable of understanding these basics and how they apply to controlling an economy.

Economics, of course, has been around as long as civilization. Hesiod (ca. 750 BCE) is sometimes considered “the first economist.” Contemporary economics traces back to the eighteenth century with Adam Smith. Control theory, on the other hand, has only been elucidated since the early 1950s. So, you don’t really need control theory to understand economics. It just makes it easier to see how the controls work.

To a veteran test and measurement maven like myself, the idea of thinking in terms of average inflation, instead of the observed inflation at some point in time – like right now – makes perfect sense. We know that every time you make a measurement of anything, you’re almost guaranteed to get a different value than you got the last time you measured it. That’s why we (scientists and engineers) always measure whatever we care about multiple times and pay attention to the average of the measurements instead of each measurement individually.

So, Fed governors starting to pay attention to average inflation strikes us as a duh! What else would you look at?

Similarly, using words like “transient” and “symmetric” make perfect sense because “transient” expresses the idea that things change faster than you can measure them and “symmetric” expresses the idea that measurement variations can be positive or negative – symmetric each side of the average.

These ideas all come from the mathematics of statistics. You’ve heard of “statistical significance” associated with polling data, or two polling results being within “statistical error.” The variations I’m talking about are the same thing. Variations between two values (like the average inflation and the target inflation) are statistically significant if they’re sufficiently outside the statistical error.

I’m not going to go into how you calculate a value for statistical error because it takes hours of yammering to teach it in statistics classes, and I just don’t have the space here. You wouldn’t want to read it right now, anyway. Suffice it to say that it’s a well-defined concept relating to how much variation you can expect in a given data set.

While the control theory I’ve been talking about applies especially to automated control systems, it applies equally to Federal Reserve System control of economic performance – if you put the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) in place of the control computer that makes decisions for the automated control system.

So,” you ask, “why not put the Fed-funds rate under computer control?”.

The reason it would be unreasonable to fully automate the Fed’s actions is that we can’t duplicate the thinking process of the Fed governors in a computer program. The state of the art of economic models is just not good enough, yet. We still need the gut feelings of seasoned economists to make enough sense out of what goes on in the economy to figure out what to do next.

That, by the way, is why we don’t leave the decisions up to some hyperintelligent pandimensional being (named Trump). We need a panel of economists with diverse backgrounds and experiences – the FOMC – to have some hope of getting it right!

Luddites’ Lament

Luddites attack
An owner of a factory defending his workshop against Luddites intent on destroying his mechanized looms between 1811-1816. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

27 March 2019 – A reader of last week’s column, in which I reported recent opinions voiced by a few automation experts at February’s Conference on the Future of Work held at at Stanford University, informed me of a chapter from Henry Hazlitt’s 1988 book Economics in One Lesson that Australian computer scientist Steven Shaw uploaded to his blog.

I’m not going to get into the tangled web of potential copyright infringement that Shaw’s posting of Hazlitt’s entire text opens up, I’ve just linked to the most convenient-to-read posting of that particular chapter. If you follow the link and want to buy the book, I’ve given you the appropriate link as well.

The chapter is of immense value apropos the question of whether automation generally reduces the need for human labor, or creates more opportunities for humans to gain useful employment. Specifically, it looks at the results of a number of historic events where Luddites excoriated technology developers for taking away jobs from humans only to have subsequent developments prove them spectacularly wrong.

Hazlitt’s classic book is, not surprisingly for a classic, well documented, authoritative, and extremely readable. I’m not going to pretend to provide an alternative here, but to summarize some of the chapter’s examples in the hope that you’ll be intrigued enough to seek out the original.

Luddism

Before getting on to the examples, let’s start by looking at the history of Luddism. It’s not a new story, really. It probably dates back to just after cave guys first thought of specialization of labor.

That is, sometime in the prehistoric past, some blokes were found to be especially good at doing some things, and the rest of the tribe came up with the idea of letting, say, the best potters make pots for the whole tribe, and everyone else rewarding them for a job well done by, say, giving them choice caribou parts for dinner.

Eventually, they had the best flint knappers make the arrowheads, the best fletchers put the arrowheads on the arrows, the best bowmakers make the bows, and so on. Division of labor into different jobs turned out to be so spectacularly successful that very few of us rugged individualists, who pretend to do everything for ourselves, are few and far between (and are largely kidding ourselves, anyway).

Since then, anyone who comes up with a great way to do anything more efficiently runs the risk of having the folks who spent years learning to do it the old way land on him (or her) like a ton of bricks.

It’s generally a lot easier to throw rocks to drive the innovator away than to adapt to the innovation.

Luddites in the early nineteenth century were organized bands of workers who violently resisted mechanization of factories during the late Industrial Revolution. Named for an imaginary character, Ned Ludd, who was supposedly an apprentice who smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The term “Luddite” has come to mean anyone fanatically opposed to deploying advanced technology.

Of course, like religious fundamentalists, they have to pick a point in time to separate “good” technology from the “bad.” Unlike religious fanatics, who generally pick publication of a certain text to be the dividing line, Luddites divide between the technology of their immediate past (with which they are familiar) and anything new or unfamiliar. Thus, it’s a continually moving target.

In either case, the dividing line is fundamentally arbitrary, so the emotion of their response is irrational. Irrationality typically carries a warranty of being entirely contrary to facts.

What Happens Next

Hazlitt points out, “The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions.” He points out that on the second page of the first chapter of Adam Smith’s seminal book Wealth of Nations, Smith tells us that a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in sewing-pin-making “could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty,” but with the use of the machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day. So, zero-sum game theory would indicate an immediate 99.98 percent unemployment rate in the pin-making industry of 1776.

Did that happen? No, because economics is not a zero-sum game. Sewing pins went from dear to cheap. Since they were now cheap, folks prized them less and discarded them more (when was the last time you bothered to straighten a bent pin?), and more folks could afford to buy them in the first place. That led to an increase in sewing-pin sales as well as sales of things like sewing-patterns and bulk fine fabric sold to amateur sewers, and more employment, not less.

Similar results obtained in the stocking industry when new stocking frames (the original having been invented William Lee in 1589, but denied a patent by Elizabeth I who feared its effects on employment in hand-knitting industries) were protested by Luddites as fast as they could be introduced. Before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century.

Another example Hazlitt presents from the Industrial Revolution happened in the cotton-spinning industry. He says: “Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers—in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to be put down by force. Yet in 1787—twenty-seven years after the invention appeared—a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 percent.”

As these examples indicate, improvements in manufacturing efficiency generally lead to reductions in manufacturing cost, which, when passed along to customers, reduces prices with concommitent increases in unit sales. This is the price elasticity of demand curve from Microeconomics 101. It is the reason economics is decidedly not a zero-sum game.

If we accept economics as not a zero-sum game, predicting what happens when automation makes it possible to produce more stuff with fewer workers becomes a chancy proposition. For example, many economists today blame flat productivity (the amount of stuff produced divided by the number of workers needed to produce it) for lack of wage gains in the face of low unemployment. If that is true, then anything that would help raise productivity (such as automation) should be welcome.

Long experience has taught us that economics is a positive-sum game. In the face of technological advancement, it behooves us to expect positive outcomes while taking measures to ensure that the concomitant economic gains get distributed fairly (whatever that means) throughout society. That is the take-home lesson from the social dislocations that accompanied the technological advancements of the Early Industrial Revolution.

Don’t Panic!

Panic button
Do not push the red button! Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock

20 March 2019 – The image at right visualizes something described in Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, the main characters of that six-part “trilogy” found a big red button on the dashboard of a spaceship they were trying to steal that was marked “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON!” Naturally, they pressed the button, and a new label popped up that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN!”

Eventually, they got the autopilot engaged only to find it was a stunt ship programmed to crash headlong into the nearest Sun as part of the light show for an interstellar rock band. The moral of this story is “Never push buttons marked ‘DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON.’”

Per the author: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Despite these references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this posting has nothing to do with that book, the series, or the guide it describes, except that I’ve borrowed the words from the Guide’s cover as a title. I did that because those words perfectly express the take-home lesson of Bill Snyder’s 11 March 2019 article in The Robot Report entitled “Fears of job-stealing robots are misplaced, say experts.”

Expert Opinions

Snyder’s article reports opinions expressed at the the Conference on the Future of Work at Stanford University last month. It’s a topic I’ve shot my word processor off about on numerous occasions in this space, so I thought it would be appropriate to report others’ views as well. First, I’ll present material from Snyder’s article, then I’ll wrap up with my take on the subject.

“Robots aren’t coming for your job,” Snyder says, “but it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete.”

“Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that education is a big determinant of how developing trends affect workers: “It’s a great time to be young and educated, but there’s no clear land of opportunity for adults who haven’t been to college.”

“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply-and-demand equation,” said Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.”

His research indicates that shrinkage of the labor supply due to demographic trends is 53% greater than shrinkage of demand for labor due to automation. That means, while relatively fewer jobs are available, there are a lot fewer workers available to do them. The result is the prospect of a continued labor shortage.

At the same time, Snyder reports that “[The] most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines.”

In other words, fears that robots will displace humans for existing jobs miss the point. Robots, instead, are taking over jobs for which there aren’t enough humans to do them.

Another effect is the fact that what people think of as “jobs” are actually made up of many “tasks,” and it’s tasks that get automated, not entire jobs. Some tasks are amenable to automation while others aren’t.

“Consider the job of a gardener,” Snyder suggests as an example. “Gardeners have to mow and water a lawn, prune rose bushes, rake leaves, eradicate pests, and perform a variety of other chores.”

Some of these tasks, like mowing and watering, can easily be automated. Pruning rose bushes, not so much!

Snyder points to news reports of a hotel in Nagasaki, Japan being forced to “fire” robot receptionists and room attendants that proved to be incompetent.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element where a supporting character tries to converse with a robot bartender about another character. He says: “She’s so vulnerable – so human. Do you you know what I mean?” The robot shakes its head, “No.”

Sometimes people, even misanthropes, would prefer to interact with another human than with a drink-dispensing machine.

“Jobs,” Varian points out, “unlike repetitive tasks, tend not to disappear. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs. Since then, the only one to be completely eliminated is that of elevator operator.”

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” founder Elon Musk mea culpa-ed last year “Humans are underrated.”

Another trend Snyder points out is that automation-ready jobs, such as assembly-line factory workers, have already largely disappeared from America. “The 10 most common occupations in the U.S.,” he says, “include such jobs as retail salespersons, nurses, waiters, and other service-focused work. Notably, traditional occupations, such as factory and other blue-collar work, no longer even make the list.

Again, robots are mainly taking over tasks that humans are not available to do.

The final trend that Snyder presents, is the stark fact that birthrates in developed nations are declining – in some cases precipitously. “The aging of the baby boom generation creates demand for service jobs,” Varian points out, “but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.”

Those “service jobs” are just the ones that require a human touch, so they’re much harder to automate successfully.

My Inexpert Opinion

I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, to figure out what role robots will actually have vis-a-vis humans in the future. I think there will be a few macroscopic trends. And, the macroscopic trends should be the easiest to spot ‘cause they’re, well, macroscopic. That means bigger. So, there easier to see. See?

As early as 2010, I worked out one important difference between robots and humans that I expounded in my novel Vengeance is Mine! Specifically, humans have a wider view of the Universe and have more of an emotional stake in it.

“For example,” I had one of my main characters pontificate at a cocktail party, “that tall blonde over there is an archaeologist. She uses ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to map underwater shipwreck sites. So, she cares about what she sees and finds. We program the ROVs with sophisticated navigational software that allows her to concentrate on what she’s looking at, rather than the details of piloting the vehicle, but she’s in constant communication with it because she cares what it does. It doesn’t.”

More recently, I got a clearer image of this relationship and it’s so obvious that we tend to overlook it. I certainly missed it for decades.

It hit me like a brick when I saw a video of an autonomous robot marine-trash collector. This device is a small autonomous surface vessel with a big “mouth” that glides around seeking out and gobbling up discarded water bottles, plastic bags, bits of styrofoam, and other unwanted jetsam clogging up waterways.

The first question that popped into my mind was “who’s going to own the thing?” I mean, somebody has to want it, then buy it, then put it to work. I’m sure it could be made to automatically regurgitate the junk it collects into trash bags that it drops off at some collection point, but some human or humans have to make sure the trash bags get collected and disposed of. Somebody has to ensure that the robot has a charging system to keep its batteries recharged. Somebody has to fix it when parts wear out, and somebody has to take responsibility if it becomes a navigation hazard. Should that happen, the Coast Guard is going to want to scoop it up and hand its bedraggled carcass to some human owner along with a citation.

So, on a very important level, the biggest thing robots need from humans is ownership. Humans own robots, not the other way around. Without a human owner, an orphan robot is a pile of junk left by the side of the road!

Reimagining Our Tomorrows

Cover Image
Utopia with a twist.

19 December 2018 – I generally don’t buy into utopias.

Utopias are intended as descriptions of a paradise. They’re supposed to be a paradise for everybody, and they’re supposed to be filled with happy people committed to living in their city (utopias are invariably built around descriptions of cities), which they imagine to be the best of all possible cities located in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately, however, utopia stories are written by individual authors, and they’d only be a paradise for that particular author. If the author is persuasive enough, the story will win over a following of disciples, who will praise it to high Heaven. Once in a great while (actually surprisingly often) those disciples become so enamored of the description that they’ll drop everything and actually attempt to build a city to match the description.

When that happens, it invariably ends in tears.

That’s because, while utopian stories invariably describe city plans that would be paradise to their authors, great swaths of the population would find living in them to be horrific.

Even Thomas More, the sixteenth century philosopher, politician and generally overall smart guy who’s credited with giving us the word “utopia” in the first place, was wise enough to acknowledge that the utopia he described in his most famous work, Utopia, wouldn’t be such a fun place for the slaves he had serving his upper-middle class citizens, who were the bulwark of his utopian society.

Even Plato’s Republic, which gave us the conundrum summarized in Juvenal’s Satires as “Who guards the guards?,” was never meant as a workable society. Plato’s work, in general, was meant to teach us how to think, not what to think.

What to think is a highly malleable commodity that varies from person to person, society to society, and, most importantly, from time to time. Plato’s Republic reflected what might have passed as good ideas for city planning in 380 BC Athens, but they wouldn’t have passed muster in More’s sixteenth-century England. Still less would they be appropriate in twenty-first-century democracies.

So, I approached Joe Tankersley’s Reimagining Our Tomorrows with some trepidation. I wouldn’t have put in the effort to read the thing if it wasn’t for the subtitle: “Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t SUCK.”

That subtitle indicated that Tankersley just might have a sense of humor, and enough gumption to put that sense of humor into his contribution to Futurism.

Futurism tends to be the work of self-important intellectuals out to make a buck by feeding their audience on fantasies that sound profound, but bear no relation to any actual or even possible future. Its greatest value is in stimulating profits for publishers of magazines and books about Futurism. Otherwise, they’re not worth the trees killed to make the paper they’re printed on.

Trees, after all and as a group, make a huge contribution to all facets of human life. Like, for instance, breathing. Breathing is of incalculable value to humans. Trees make an immense contribution to breathing by absorbing carbon dioxide and pumping out vast quantities of oxygen, which humans like to breathe.

We like trees!

Futurists, not so much.

Tankersley’s little (168 pages, not counting author bio, front matter and introduction) opus is not like typical Futurist literature, however. Well, it would be like that if it weren’t more like the Republic in that it’s avowed purpose is to stimulate its readers to think about the future themselves. In the introduction that I purposely left out of the page count he says:

I want to help you reimagine our tomorrows; to show you that we are living in a time when the possibility of creating a better future has never been greater.”

Tankersley structured the body of his book in ten chapters, each telling a separate story about an imagined future centered around a possible solution to an issue relevant today. Following each chapter is an “apology” by a fictional future character named Archibald T. Patterson III.

Archie is what a hundred years ago would have been called a “Captain of Industry.” Today, we’d refer to him as an uber-rich and successful entrepreneur. Think Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

Actually, I think he’s more like Warren Buffet in that he’s reasonably introspective and honest with himself. Archie sees where society has come from, how it got to the future it got to, and what he and his cohorts did wrong. While he’s super-rich and privileged, the futures the stories describe were made by other people who weren’t uber-rich and successful. His efforts largely came to naught.

The point Tankersley seems to be making is that progress comes from the efforts of ordinary individuals who, in true British fashion, “muddle through.” They see a challenge and apply their talents and resources to making a solution. The solution is invariably nothing anyone would foresee, and is nothing like what anyone else would come up with to meet the same challenge. Each is a unique response to a unique challenge by unique individuals.

It might seem naive, this idea that human development comes from ordinary individuals coming up with ordinary solutions to ordinary problems all banded together into something called “progress,” but it’s not.

For example, Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook as a response to the challenge of applying then-new computer-network technology to the age-old quest by late adolescents to form their own little communities by communicating among themselves. It’s only fortuitous that he happened on the right combination of time (the dawn of a radical new technology), place (in the midst of a huge cadre of the right people well versed in using that radical new technology) and marketing to get the word out to those right people wanting to use that radical new technology for that purpose. Take away any of those elements and there’d be no Facebook!

What if Zuckerberg hadn’t invented Facebook? In that event, somebody else (Reid Hoffman) would have come up with a similar solution (Linkedin) to the same challenge facing a similar group (technology professionals).

Oh, my! They did!

History abounds with similar examples. There’s hardly any advancement in human culture that doesn’t fit this model.

The good news is that Tankersley’s vision for how we can re-imagine our tomorrows is right on the money.

The bad news is … there isn’t any bad news!

Robots Revisited

Engineer with SCARA robots
Engineer using monitoring system software to check and control SCARA welding robots in a digital manufacturing operation. PopTika/Shutterstock

12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”

I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.

On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.

The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.Figure 1

The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.

Figure 2The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:

The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.

This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.

The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.

That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.

Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.

If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!

I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.

Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.

My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.

An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.

Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.

Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.

So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.

How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?

Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.

Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.

We need to look for a different explanation.

It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.

I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.

Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.

The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.

It’s a weak argument, but it exists.

The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.

For developing economies, not so much.

Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).

What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?

Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!

Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.

Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.

Reaping the Whirlwind

Tornado
Powerful Tornado destroying property, with lightning in the background. Solarseven/Shutterstock.com

24 October 2018 – “They sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” is a saying from The Holy Bible‘s Old Testament Book of Hosea. I’m certainly not a Bible scholar, but, having been paying attention for seven decades, I can attest to saying’s validity.

The equivalent Buddhist concept is karma, which is the motive force driving the Wheel of Birth and Death. It is also wrapped up with samsara, which is epitomized by the saying: “What goes around comes around.”

Actions have consequences.

If you smoke a pack of Camels a day, you’re gonna get sick!

By now, you should have gotten the idea that “reaping the whirlwind” is a common theme among the world’s religions and philosophies. You’ve got to be pretty stone headed to have missed it.

Apparently the current President of the United States (POTUS), Donald J. Trump, has been stone headed enough to miss it.

POTUS is well known for trying to duck consequences of his actions. For example, during his 2016 Presidential Election campaign, he went out of his way to capitalize on Wikileaks‘ publication of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton‘s private email server. That indiscretion and his attempt to cover it up by firing then-FBI-Director James Comey grew into a Special Counsel Investigation, which now threatens to unmask all the nefarious activities he’s engaged in throughout his entire life.

Of course, Hillary’s unsanctioned use of that private email server while serving as Secretary of State is what opened her up to the email hacking in the first place! That error came back to bite her in the backside by giving the Russians something to hack. They then forwarded that junk to Wikileaks, who eventually made it public, arguably costing her the 2016 Presidential election.

Or, maybe it was her standing up for her philandering husband, or maybe lingering suspicions surrounding the pair’s involvement in the Whitewater scandal. Whatever the reason(s), Hillary, too, reaped the whirlwind.

In his turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin sowed the wind by tasking operatives to do the hacking of Hillary’s email server. Now he’s reaping the whirlwind in the form of a laundry list sanctions by western governments and Special Counsel Investigation indictments against the operatives he sent to do the hacking.

Again, POTUS showed his stone-headedness about the Bible verse by cuddling up to nearly every autocrat in the world: Vlad Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, … . The list goes on. Sensing waves of love emanating from Washington, those idiots have become ever more extravagant in their misbehavior.

The latest example of an authoritarian regime rubbing POTUS’ nose in filth is the apparent murder and dismemberment of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi when he briefly entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey on personal business.

The most popular theory of the crime lays blame at the feet of Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s de facto ruler. Unwilling to point his finger at another would-be autocrat, POTUS is promoting a Saudi cover-up attempt suggesting the murder was done by some unnamed “rogue agents.”

Actually, that theory deserves some consideration. The idea that MBS was emboldened (spelled S-T-U-P-I-D) enough to have ordered Kashoggi’s assassination in such a ham-fisted way strains credulity. We should consider the possibility that ultra-conservative Wahabist factions within the Saudi government, who see MBS’ reforms as a threat to their historical patronage from the oil-rich Saudi monarchy, might have created the incident to embarrass MBS.

No matter what the true story is, the blow back is a whirlwind!

MBS has gone out of his way to promote himself as a business-friendly reformer. This reputation has persisted despite repeated instances of continued repression in the country he controls.

The whirlwind, however, is threatening MBS’ and the Saudi monarchy’s standing in the international community. Especially, international bankers, led by JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, and a host of Silicon Valley tech companies are running for the exits from Saudi Arabia’s three-day Financial Investment Initiative conference that was scheduled to start Tuesday (23 October 2018).

That is a major embarrassment and will likely derail MBS’ efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy away from dependence on oil revenue.

It appears that these high-powered executives are rethinking the wisdom of dealing with the authoritarian Saudi regime. They’ve decided not to sow the wind by dealing with the Saudis because they don’t want to reap the whirlwind likely to result!

Update

Since this manuscript was drafted it’s become clear that we’ll never get the full story about the Kashoggi incident. Both regimes involved (Turkey and Saudi Arabia) are authoritarians with no incentive to be honest about this story. While Saudi Arabia seems to make a pretense of press freedom, this incident shows their true colors (i.e, color them repressive). Turkey hasn’t given even a passing nod to press freedom for years. It’s like two rival foxes telling the dog about a hen house break in.

On the “dog” side, we’re stuck with a POTUS who attacks press freedom on a daily basis. So, who’s going to ferret out the truth? Maybe the Brits or the French, but not the U.S. Executive Branch!

Doing Business with Bad Guys

Threatened with a gun
Authoritarians make dangerous business partners. rubikphoto/Shutterstock

3 October 2018 – Parents generally try to drum into their childrens’ heads a simple maxim: “People judge you by the company you keep.

Children (and we’re all children, no matter how mature and sophisticated we pretend to be) just as generally find it hard to follow that maxim. We all screw it up once in a while by succumbing to the temptation of some perceived advantage to be had by dealing with some unsavory character.

Large corporations and national governments are at least as likely to succumb to the prospect of making a fast buck or signing some treaty with peers who don’t entertain the same values we have (or at least pretend to have). Governments, especially, have a tough time in dealing with what I’ll call “Bad Guys.”

Let’s face it, better than half the nations of the world are run by people we wouldn’t want in our living rooms!

I’m specifically thinking about totalitarian regimes like the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

‘Way back in the last century, Mao Tse-tung (or Mao Zedong, depending on how you choose to mis-spell the anglicization of his name) clearly placed China on the “Anti-American” team, espousing a virulent form of Marxism and descending into the totalitarian authoritarianism Marxist regimes are so prone to. This situation continued from the PRC’s founding in 1949 through 1972, when notoriously authoritarian-friendly U.S. President Richard Nixon toured China in an effort to start a trade relationship between the two countries.

Greedy U.S. corporations quickly started falling all over themselves in an effort to gain access to China’s enormous potential market. Mesmerized by the statistics of more than a billion people spread out over China’s enormous land mass, they ignored the fact that those people were struggling in a subsistence-agriculture economy that had collapsed under decades of mis-managment by Mao’s authoritarian regime.

What they hoped those generally dirt-poor peasants were going to buy from them I never could figure out.

Unfortunately, years later I found myself embedded in the management of one of those starry-eyed multinational corporations that was hoping to take advantage of the developing Chinese electronics industry. Fresh off our success launching Test & Measurement Europe, they wanted to launch a new publication called Test & Measurement China. Recalling the then-recent calamity ending the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, I pulled a Nancy Reagan and just said “No.”

I pointed out that the PRC was still run by a totalitarian, authoritarian regime, and that you just couldn’t trust those guys. You never knew when they were going to decide to sacrifice you on the altar of internal politics.

Today, American corporations are seeing the mistakes they made in pursuit of Chinese business, which like Robert Southey’s chickens, are coming home to roost. In 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the “Made in China 2025” plan to make China the World’s technology leader. It quickly became apparent that Mao’s current successor, Xi Jinping intends to achieve his goals by building on technology pilfered from western companies who’d naively partnered with Chinese firms.

Now, their only protector is another authoritarian-friendly president, Donald Trump. Remember it was Trump who, following his ill-advised summit with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, got caught on video enviously saying: “He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

So, now these corporations have to look to an American would-be dictator for protection from an entrenched Chinese dictator. No wonder they find themselves screwed, blued, and tattooed!

Governments are not immune to the PRC’s siren song, either. Pundits are pointing out that the PRC’s vaunted “One Belt, One Road” initiative is likely an example of “debt-trap diplomacy.”

Debt-trap diplomacy is a strategy similar to organized crime’s loan-shark operations. An unscrupulous cash-rich organization, the loan shark, offers funds to a cash-strapped individual, such as an ambitious entrepreneur, in a deal that seems too good to be true. It’s NOT true because the deal comes in the form of a loan at terms that nearly guarantee that the debtor will default. The shark then offers to write off the debt in exchange for the debtor’s participation in some unsavory scheme, such as money laundering.

In the debt-trap diplomacy version, the PRC stands in the place of the loan shark while some emerging-economy nation, such as, say, Malaysia, accepts the unsupportable debt. In the PRC/ Malaysia case, the unsavory scheme is helping support China’s imperial ambitions in the western Pacific.

Earlier this month, Malaysia wisely backed out of the deal.

It’s not just the post-Maoist PRC that makes a dangerous place for western corporations to do business, authoritarians all over the world treat people like Heart’s Barracuda. They suck you in with mesmerizing bright and shiny promises, then leave you twisting in the wind.

Yes, I’ve piled up a whole mess of mixed metaphors here, but I’m trying to drive home a point!

Another example of the traps business people can get into by trying to deal with authoritarians is afforded by Danske Bank’s Estonia branch and their dealings with Vladimir Putin‘s Russian kleptocracy. Danske Bank is a Danish financial institution with a pan-European footprint and global ambitions. Recent release of a Danske Bank internal report produced by the Danish law firm Bruun & Hjejle says that the Estonia branch engaged in “dodgy dealings” with numerous corrupt Russian officials. Basically, the bank set up a scheme to launder money stolen from Russian tax receipts by organized criminals.

The scandal broke in Russia in June of 2007 when dozens of police officers raided the Moscow offices of Hermitage Global, an activist fund focused on global emerging markets. A coverup by Kremlin authorities resulted in the death (while in a Russian prison) of Sergei Leonidovich Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant who specialized in anti-corruption activities.

Magnitsky’s case became an international cause célèbre. The U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the Magnitsky Act at the end of 2012, barring, among others, those Russian officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s death from entering the United States or using its banking system.

Apparently, the purpose of the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 9, 2016 was, on the Russian side, an effort to secure repeal of the Magnitsky Act should then-candidate Trump win the election. The Russians dangled release of stolen emails incriminating Trump-rival Hillary Clinton as bait. This activity started the whole Mueller Investigation, which has so far resulted in dozens of indictments for federal crimes, and at least eight guilty pleas or convictions.

The latest business strung up in this mega-scandal was the whole corrupt banking system of Cyprus, whose laundering of Russian oligarchs’ money amounted to over $20B.

The moral of this story is: Don’t do business with bad guys, no matter how good they make the deal look.

Who’s NOT a Creative?

 

Compensting sales
Close-up Of A Business Woman Giving Cheque To Her Colleague At Workplace In Office. Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

25 July 2018 – Last week I made a big deal about the things that motivate creative people, such as magazine editors, and how the most effective rewards were non-monetary. I also said that monetary rewards, such as commissions based on sales results, were exactly the right rewards to use for salespeople. That would imply that salespeople were somehow different from others, and maybe even not creative.

That is not the impression I want to leave you with. I’m devoting this blog posting to setting that record straight.

My remarks last week were based on Maslow‘s and Herzberg‘s work on motivation of employees. I suggested that these theories were valid in other spheres of human endeavor. Let’s be clear about this: yes, Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theories are valid and useful in general, whenever you want to think about motivating normal, healthy human beings. It’s incidental that those researchers were focused on employer/employee relations as an impetus to their work. If they’d been focused on anything else, their conclusions would probably have been pretty much the same.

That said, there are a whole class of people for whom monetary compensation is the holy grail of motivators. They are generally very high functioning individuals who are in no way pathological. On the surface, however, their preferred rewards appear to be monetary.

Traditionally, observers who don’t share this reward system have indicted these individuals as “greedy.”

I, however, dispute that conclusion. Let me explain why.

When pointing out the rewards that can be called “motivators for editors,” I wrote:

“We did that by pointing out that they belonged to the staff of a highly esteemed publication. We talked about how their writings helped their readers excel at their jobs. We entered their articles in professional competitions with awards for things like ‘Best Technical Article.’ Above all, we talked up the fact that ours was ‘the premier publication in the market.'”

Notice that these rewards, though non-monetary. were more or less measurable. They could be (and indeed for the individuals they motivated) seen as scorecards. The individuals involved had a very clear idea of value attached to such rewards. A Nobel Prize in Physics is of greater value than, say, a similar award given by, say, Harvard University.

For example, in 1987 I was awarded the “Cahners Editorial Medal of Excellence, Best How-To Article.” That wasn’t half bad. The competition was articles written for a few dozen magazines that were part of the Cahners Publishing Company, which at the time was a big deal in the business-to-business magazine field.

What I considered to be of higher value, however, was the “First Place Award For Editorial Excellence for a Technical Article in a Magazine with Over 80,000 Circulation” I got in 1997 from the American Society of Business Press Editors, where I was competing with a much wider pool of journalists.

Economists have a way of attempting to quantify such non-monetary awards called utility. They arrive at values by presenting various options and asking the question: “Which would you rather have?”

Of course, measures of utility generally vary widely depending on who’s doing the choosing.

For example, an article in the 19 July The Wall Street Journal described a phenomenon the author seemed to think was surprising: Saudi-Arabian women drivers (new drivers all) showed a preference for muscle cars over more pedestrian models. The author, Margherita Stancati, related an incident where a Porche salesperson in Riyadh offered a recently minted woman driver an “easy to drive crossover designed to primarily attract women.” The customer demurred. She wanted something “with an engine that roars.”

So, the utility of anything is not an absolute in any sense. It all depends on answering the question: “Utility to whom?”

Everyone is motivated by rewards in the upper half of the Needs Pyramid. If you’re a salesperson, growth in your annual (or other period) sales revenue is in the green Self Esteem block. It’s well and truly in the “motivator” category, and has nothing to do with the Safety and Security “hygiene factor” where others might put it. Successful salespeople have those hygiene factors well-and-truly covered. They’re looking for a reward that tells them they’ve hit a home run. That is likely having a bigger annual bonus than the next guy.

The most obvious money-driven motivators accrue to the folks in the CEO ranks. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett would have a hard time measuring their success (i.e., hitting the Pavlovian lever to get Self Actualization rewards) without looking at their monetary compensation!