Friday, August 26, 2011


I was reading this today in the Book of Mormon, probably one of the best chapters in the book, if you ask me, Mosiah Chapter 2.

First, let me setup what's happening. This is a sermon done by a certain king named Benjamin who is facing death, but wants to give one last sermon before he dies:

10 I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man.

11 But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people; and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power, to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me.

14 And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.

I think sometimes we expect too much out of our leaders, thinking they'll be our saviors or will be as powerful as supermen. I think also, when we're asked to lead, we shrink because we think to lead we have to be all-knowing and all-powerful.

This is not so and this is the message in this passage. To re-emphasize verse 11:

"But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind;"

I can imagine the sicknesses, the days that he was just too tired or too scared to face the day. Or days where he was burdened by depression or stress or anxiety. He was human after all. So am I. So are you.

That doesn't give us an excuse not to lead. It doesn't give us an excuse to be to hard on those who lead us. Being a leader is not about being perfect, it's about serving those you lead "with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto [you]".

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Problems with a Meritocracy

The book Pinched has a lot to say about the limits and problems with a society that has evolved down a path of meritocracy - where those with the most talent end up being the big winners. Here are some quotes:

"In the United States, the rise of meritocracy has typically been met with celebration, and in most respects it should be. But this recession has underscored the meritocracy's less savory characteristics. In his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published posthumously in 1995, the social critic Christopher Lasch painted a dismal picture of the destination toward which meritocratic progress may lead. Precisely because modern elites believe their status is the exclusive result of their own efforts, Lasch argued, they lack their predecessors' sense of social obligation. 'Although hereditary advantages [still] play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status,' he wrote, 'the new [upper] class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts."

Here's another pretty devastating critique of Bill Gates and others like him:

"When I listen to Gates and to other meriticratic winners reflecting on good works or good policy or their legacy, I can't help but think that Christopher Lasch was perhaps too harsh, or at least too sweeping, in his characterization of the new rich. Breaking into the elite requires neither virtue nor vile character, and the elite as a whole contains both elements in ample supply. Yet I also can't shake the sense that, among the elites who are publicly minded at all, what many care most about, in the end, is perfecting the meritocracy - ensuring that every boy and girl has the same educational and entrepreneurial chances that they did so that the cream might always rise to the top. This is an admirable and, indeed, an essential goal. Yet it seems incomplete. It isn't so much that today's elites think poorly of Americans who lack the genetic endowment of IQ required to climb the modern economy's ladder; by and large, many elites just don't think about them much at all."

I have a lot of feelings about all of this because I get caught up plenty reading a bunch of stuff written by the elites for the elites, thinking if I could only work a little bit harder, drive against the "lizard brain" a little more, I can someday be given my speech on TED :-).

The essential problem with all of this and it's the central thesis of "Pinched" is what to do with the vast number of Americans who are not by definition, the elite.

Does someone without a Stanford degree not have something significant to contribute to society? Does someone without a college degree at all not have something significant to contribute? Really, we need to find a lot more ways for a lot more people from all kinds of backgrounds to have a reliable path to the middle class.

Our society is increasingly segregating along class boundaries. The rich are getting a lot more rich. The middle class is shrinking. This is not sustainable.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I'm currently reading the book "Pinched: How the Great Recession has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It". I'm hoping to give more details of this book as I go along, but one thing the author does that I found fascinating was to describe the short and long term effects of our previous significant recessions in hopes of gleaning lessons from those down terms and applying those to what we're finding today.

"Long, deep slumps are foreign to many Americans alive today, but of course they are not unknown in the nation's history. The final two decades of the nineteenth century saw steady deflation, hard times for typical workers, and great tumult. The Great Depression and the 1930s are now nearly synonymous. Most recently, from 1972 through the early 1980s, the United States endured economic stagnation, wage erosion, and a serious of painful economic shocks; in some respects, the weakness lingered until the mid-1990s. If we align shocks of those periods - the panic of 1893, the crash of 1929, the oil shock of 1973 - then we'd be sitting today in 1896 or 1932 or 1976."

and it's affects:

"The longer society stews in a deep slump, the more it is altered. Changes to community character, generational ambition, and social harmony that are nearly imperceptible early in a downturn become suddenly overwhelming later. What follows is a pocket of history of these three long downturns, with a focus on the enduring marks they left on America. Each delineates a major turn in the country's economic, political, and cultural history. And each holds lessons for us in the present day."

One thing is certain to me, that this recovery is going to take a while. I don't care what anti-Obama people think. You could elect Ron Paul as president, and the recovery will take a devastatingly long time. Well, in the absence of something cataclysmic and unseen, that is. I'm speaking based on my perceptions of our current trajectories.

The problem is that a long downturn is going to change our cultural landscape in ways that are impossible to predict.

Two high-level lessons garnered from the book so far. The Great Depression changed the political landscape heavily toward liberalism. This persisted through the 1960's no matter which party controlled the presidency.

All of this ended in the 1970's when we experienced another economic cataclysm precipitated by massive government spending combined with a significant oil shock. We were also, not coincidentally, coming off a massively wasteful war in Vietnam and the Nixon presidential scandal. All of this shook our country and left it open for Ronald Reagan to take over and begin a period of conservatism that has persisted for 3 decades.

Our current recession is much more similar to the recession of the 1930's than the 1970's. I'm not at all sure, where it will lead us, but one thing seems certain, it will probably last a while and there will be a lot of painful, long lasting bumps a long the road.