Lifehack: Trusting talent

Do you like to eat delicious food prepared by inspired craftsman? Let me share a technique that can transform your next meal into the experience of a lifetime. Think this sounds an absurdly grand promise? Tune in.

Next time you are at a good or great restaurant, a place where you know there are proud talented chefs, try the following social gambit: When the waiter comes, tell him to put the menu away. Inform the waiter instead of how hungry you are and how many courses you would like. Say, “Hi. I know this restaurant. I know your guys cook their asses off. I’d like a three course meal, with an appetizer, a main course and dessert. Tell the chef I trust him/her, and to simply provide me whatever s/he feels is freshest, highest quality and most interesting. I am an adventurous eater. I place myself in your hands. Oh, and I’ll take whichever cocktails, beer or wine you think is best. Whatever. You’re great at your jobs. You decide.”

I’ve done this five or six times in places where I know that people have pride in their work, and it has never been less than amazing. Every single time I have done this, the meal includes special amuse-bouches, dishes not on the menu, cuisine of higher sophistication than normally at the restaurant, and about the same price as a regular three course meal. Almost always, the chef comes out personally to ask about the experience, and to meet the people who made such an unusual and inspiring request.

This won’t work at a chain, generally, but at a place where people are free to exercise their craft. Chefs and other artisans take enormous pride in their work. When you say, “Who am I to tell you what to cook? Go to town,” you honor that pride and allow it to become fresh inspiration. This is the soul of civilization, of human endeavor.

At this point in my life, I don’t want consumption, I want relationships with people who take as much pride in their work as I do.

How social media became authoritarian

Justin Kownacki is one of those guys whose writing appears infrequently, but is always worth the wait. Today, he published a piece that is maybe in the top five most important things I have read this year. Doing some soul searching about the state of technology, he concludes that we have squandered the potential for social media to change society because we were so hungry for validation from authority figures. This is from his piece, “How Social Media Destroyed Itself.”

Those of us who were busy pioneering the digital formats we now all take for granted believed then that our newly “democratized” means of media production would change media as we know it. We presumed that audience tastes would change with the new formats, and that traditional media channels (TV, film, radio, publishing) would need to adapt to our way of life.

Why? Because we were ahead of the curve. We saw the potential of new forms, and we thought we’d be able to harness them faster than the “dinosaur” media conglomerates we derided.

We were right about our own speed, but that’s because most of us were young and childless then, so we had nothing but time to tinker with these new toys. We could afford to spend days and weeks and years perfecting our videoblogs and podcasts and other labors of love because we still felt like the underdogs who had something to prove to the dinosaurs we were outfoxing.

We claimed we wanted to plant our flag in their territory… but we were only being half honest.

Problem is, we also courted those same dinosaurs, because we wanted them to play in our sandbox. We wanted the validation of their attention and their money. We wanted them to acknowledge that we were right, and to reward us with seats at their table. We just thought we’d be the ones who’d be able to set the new rules, just because we were there first.

Boy, were we wrong.

staring-at-phonesI see this phenomenon everywhere these days. People have more capacity for freedom, self-government and justice than ever before. These technologies do, in fact, have the potential to rewire how society governs itself. This is also why dictators have been so motivated to co-opt these forms of media, and at the first sign of trouble, shut them down.

But in truth, their fears are overblown. Most people today desire authority figures to live above them, even when they are comically unable to play the part with any competence. Dull-witted, venal legislators, corrupt banking syndicates, absurd Supreme Court justices, plus lazy, shallow journalists to bleat press release quotations from their positions of unearned credibility: We live under a regime of some of the least-talented authoritarians in history.

Yet rather than challenge them in a meaningful way, by ignoring their supposed authority and organizing society based around our own communities, we outsource our civic life to powerful interests. The status quo is preserved, and we can go back to our sportsball.

It wouldn’t matter how many Internets you put in front of people who neither understand nor desire the rights and obligations of free citizens in a Republic.

On a final, happier note, that freedom remains right in front of us all. It is just a question of whether we pick it up and do something with it.

Cancellation of Transition Economics

Greetings all,

First, the news: Ticket sales and discussions with sponsors are insufficient to continue with with Transition Economics 2014. All registration is hereby closed, and I am contacting the existing ticket holders personally to offer a full refund.

Second, some analysis: In my initial research into the market demand and urgency around such an event, I misinterpreted both, particularly and ironically here in St. Louis. While I continue to believe that structural factors will push talent and capital here in the near- to mid-future, largely because of the economic contradictions found in major neoliberal cities, that does not, unfortunately, assure the viability of an intellectual event such as the one I have proposed.

Finally, a word on urgency: In Washington, DC I was the managing director of a consultancy called Competitive Futures. The firm provided trend analysis, forecasting and scenario planning services for C-level executives at Global 1000 corporations and government agencies around the globe. Our work in the 2000s had us examine the implications of climate change, surveillance technologies, talent management and more, but the one issue that loomed menacingly on the horizon was the extraordinary contradictions in the financial sector due to unprecedented mutations of the housing market. Over time, those contradictions gave way to clear evidence of widespread fraud and an impending collapse. While we worked for consumer products companies, defense contractors, heavy industry and government ministries, we took every opportunity to shift the conversation to a financial crash we saw as inevitable in the latter half of 2008. Once we discovered how many financial products had been sold around underlying assets that were grossly overvalued, it seemed all but decided that the swing in the interest of adjustable rate mortgages in late 2007 would soon give way to a breakdown in the US banking industry. Our prediction was to see one bank fail in early 2008, and a historic collapse in late 2008. [Continue reading]

The bigger story of how private equity corrupts

yves-smith-naked-capitalismThe other day I was talking with a friend of mine who does intelligence for large corporations. We were discussing my latest on Guitar Center’s subprime bond hustle and she said, “You should talk with Yves Smith from Naked Capitalism – her work on private equity suckering pension funds like CalPERS is a lot like what you are uncovering.” Six hours later, I got an unsolicited email from Ms. Smith, with whom I was not acquainted, asking if she could cross-post my “How to get beyond the parasite economy” in its entirety.

The piece is now up on her blog, one of the top economics sites in the English-speaking world, with some nice additions. I liked her intro:

Reader Lance N pointed me to an article on private equity by Eric Garland, a trend maven. I must confess that I’m skeptical of that breed (too many of them rely on devising clever buzz phrases to describe leading edge conventional wisdom), but even people who knew the transactions Garland discusses in his post were impressed with his grasp.

Garland uses the story of how the tender ministrations of Bain Capital pushed the music big box retailer Guitar Center into the bankruptcy-equivalent of a restructuring as a window into, as he puts it:

“…how a small number of citizens can subvert every product made, every job offered, and every purchase decision – and how we can regain control of our lives, starting with the musical instrument industry.”

We’ve been focusing on the investor side of private equity in our recent posts because its influence and its ability to maintain unheard-of levels of secrecy depends on the belief that long-term investors like pension funds can’t afford not to invest as much as they possibly can, after allowing for liquidity and diversification needs, in PE, because it is widely believed to deliver superior returns. But life insurers who also have long-term investment horizons, are for the most part not large investors in this strategy, because the rating agencies regard it as too risky for them to tie up all that much capital in it (as in they need more liquidity). So if the ratings agencies discourage investment in PE, and life insurers manage to do without it, pray tell why is it perceived to be necessary? The answer, of course, lies in pricing, or more precisely, the aggressive return assumptions that are widely used in defined benefit plans.*

And while we continue digging into the details that the private equity industry has worked so hard to shroud in secrecy, it’s important not to lose sight of the real economy consequences of this well-orchestrated wealth transfer scheme.

First, I’m especially pleased that Ms. Smith is skeptical of my ilk. God help me if it still said “futurist.” But in my mind, the work had better transcend the titles, and I’m glad if they think it did.

As to the wealth transfer scheme: It looks less well-orchestrated every day.

On Indio Radio talking about building wealth the right way

It’s not every day that I walk into a radio interview and walk out an unabashed fan of the hosts and the program. My colleague Dan Reus from Openly Disruptive hooked me up with The John & Kane Show on Indio Radio here in St. Louis which does two things extremely well: play cool tunes and have surprisingly deep discussions about local economics. They do what radio is supposed to do, but doesn’t, so they do it, and it’s cool. Make sense?

My part starts at minute 26, but I recommend the whole program because, no kidding, they have great music and interviews.

I have a great time talking about going pantsless at work, why Occupy Wall Street never protested at Steve Jobs’ house, how much a quadrillion dollars of derivatives really is, and why economic development will happen from the grass roots, up.

Have a listen, and I hope you become as big a fan as I have.