Monday, July 23, 2012

If You Don't Like Gay Marriage...

Yesterday I went to a fundraiser to support the new Maryland law extending marriage to same-sex couples. As I wrote out my check, I suddenly stopped and thought how archaic the whole thing felt. How, in the year 2012, could this struggle for equal rights still be going on? It felt ridiculous.  

Over two hundred years ago, the founding fathers of the new United States declared independence.  In doing so, they said that they found certain truths to be "self-evident."  Namely, that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." 

The last two hundred years have been a steady struggle to realize the ideal set out by our founding fathers.  In one sense, the progress we have made is heartening; whatever our country's faults, it has shone a light for equal rights for the whole world to see, and in doing so it has been an inspiration for many.  But in another sense, it is disheartening to see how long it has taken for slaves, women, blacks, and now same-sex couples to attain the rights that they deserved all along. 

There will be bumps in the road and political and legal setbacks for the marriage equality movement in the months and years ahead.  But soon, same-sex rights will be secured, and we will all look back in amazement that it took so long.  Those who voted against these rights will feel embarrassed in front of their grandchildren, in the same way those who voted for Jim Crow laws aren't able to look their grandkids in the eye.

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Economists vs. Entrepreneurs, 5th of July Edition

I was trained mostly in economics, but lately I have been more of an entrepreneur. The mindsets could not be more different, and they color the way I respond to arguments such as the one I blogged about recently.

One of the key concepts you learn in Econ 101 is tradeoffs.  Basically, if you get more of one thing, you generally have to take less of another thing to compensate.  Diagram I below shows a curve called a Production Possibility Frontier.   The idea is that if you are anywhere on the curve, you face a tradeoff.  For example, if you are at B, you can have more production, but in return you must do less maintenance.  (Note that "production" and "maintenance"are just example variables.  We could substitute "work output" and "free time with family" if we wanted.)

Optimistic economists assume that we are at point D, not point A or B. If you are at D, then you can have both more work output and free time if you work more efficiently.  Much of the work I did as an economist at the World Bank was helping advise countries on how to get from point D to somewhere on the possibility frontier.  But we didn't know how to get to point C, which lies beyond the frontier.  We noticed that the curve does shift outward over time, as in Diagram II below, but we didn't really understand why, and could not come up with policy prescriptions to make it happen.

Dagram I
Entrepreneurs, by contrast, take things into their own hands and try to invent a new machine, technology, process, or idea that will shift the entire curve outward.  The net result of this is to alleviate the tradeoffs seen in Diagram I (though, of course it is true that a new set of tradeoffs are introduced).  The evolution of smart phones is an oft-used example of this, where more and more features and capacity were invented, reducing tradeoffs significantly.  We can now talk on the phone while surfing the web and using several apps at the same time.  This is a vivid example, but there are many more.

Diagram II
Just because entrepreneurs believe they can shift the curve doesn't make it happen; most entrepreneurs fail repeatedly (I have).  New business ideas fail most of the time - 58 times for every success, by one measure.  But entrepreneurs don't give up.  They just keep trying again and again. And when they succeed, they push the possibility frontier outwards, bit by bit.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 28: "Mood"

Mood and me, 1998.
One hundred and three years ago yesterday, my mom's mother, Neima Linnea Lepisto Johnson, was born.  Her parents were Finnish immigrants to the Fall River, MA area in the early 1900s. The Finnish word for Grandmother is "Mummu," which we shortened over time to "Mood."

Yesterday, Mood died in her sleep at her nursing home in Manchester, NH, where she had been a resident for many years.

One of my first memories of Mood was when she and my grandfather ("Opa" - the son of Swedish immigrants) arrived at our house in Leitchfield, KY by car in summer of 1967 or '68.  We ran out into the yard to greet them, and she opened the trunk and pulled out a croquet set.  We were overjoyed, and we played with that set for many years.  There are probably pieces of it still in my mom's basement somewhere.

Her visits were always a delight.  On one trip, she taught me how to play the piano (I remember, in particular, "See the witch / Fly through space / On the moon she has a base...").  On another, she taught me how to knit (though she later discouraged me from continuing, telling me that it was for girls!).

There has been a lot of talk lately about the importance of persistence in life.  I didn't appreciate how much Mood embodied that lesson until I ran across her report card from 1923-24.  She was struggling in the first reporting period (Sept-Oct), maybe because her father had died.  But look what happened by the end of the year (click to enlarge).  By any measure, Mood was a straight-A grandmother.

Monday, July 02, 2012

What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Having it All

Watch a political talk show on TV, and chances are you will see people talking - often yelling - past each other.  They don't actually listen to what the others are saying, because their main objective is to score points, win the argument, or advance an agenda.  Rarely do you hear the words "Oh, I see what you are saying - that's a fair point.  In fact, because of what you just said, I want to modify my stance to better reflect reality."

I was reminded of this when I read all the hullabaloo surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent piece in the Atlantic about the impediments to women "having it all."  This followed on the heels of Sheryl Sandberg's speech last year exhorting women to step up to the plate and make the effort and sacrifices necessary to rise the the most senior positions in business and government.

Slaughter's piece resonated with a lot of women, because she talked candidly about the challenges that even she (as a privileged woman) faced in playing at the A level in the foreign policy arena in Washington.  She pointed out how much more severe the tradeoffs are for the vast majority of less well-off women who aim for professional achievement as well as having a family.  She ended with thoughts on how some changes in work practices and norms could help alleviate some of the tradeoffs.

Other readers were furious; they read the article differently.  Lori Gottlieb, for example, perceived Slaughter as arguing (some even said "whining") that women should be able to have it all without making tradeoffs.  Friends of mine whose opinion I respect a lot, such as Bill Easterly, had the same reaction, and many pointed out that men have to make tradeoffs as well. Susan Chira, a senior executive at the New York Times, weighed in too.

Clive Crook (who falls into the Gottlieb camp) was the only one I heard make a sensible suggestion to advance the conversation.  He found himself at the Aspen Ideas Festival with both Slaughter and Gottlieb, and he wondered why Slaughter couldn't be interviewed by Gottlieb instead of by Katie Couric, who was scheduled to do it.  Aspen is the type of place where interviews are often actual conversations, so a real opportunity was missed.

Contrast this with what happened after Isaac Asimov wrote an article criticizing Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, for scientific inaccuracies in the script.  Roddenberry responded, sharply at first, acknowledging some of the points but also telling Asimov how hard it was to get Star Trek on TV in the first place, and arguing that some compromises were necessary to make it onto the airwaves at all.  Instead of devolving into a pissing match, the relationship with Asimov and Roddenberry evolved into a friendship and even collaboration on, for example, the interplay between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as the series matured.

Real conversations don't always lead to kumbaya.  Far from it.  Instead, they sharpen and illuminate differences, and they shed light on the topic from new angles.  Best of all, good conversations can generate new alternatives that neither side had previously thought of.  Clive Crook is a superb host of such generative conversations on a range of topics.  What if The Atlantic convened Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Lori Gottlieb in a conversation led (and prodded along) by Clive?  Now that would be an event worth waiting in line to watch.

*Disclosure:  I know Slaughter, Easterly, and Crook; I have met Sandberg a couple of times. I have never met Lori Gottlieb, but I have read articles excerpted from her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.