The Pandemic, Jobs and Human Dignity

Magical thinking gets us through what seems unendurable — grief, pandemics, subjugation, airplane flights. But now is not the time for it. We need to be sharp and practical to build the future we want for our ourselves and our country.

When the shelter-in-place-order hit, lacking medical skills, I pitched in to help with the collateral damage — an avalanche of unemployment applications. The experience has given me a catbird’s seat on the future of the job market here in Texas, home of the Texas Miracle, and it is not a rosy picture.

In Texas, jobless claims top 2.3 million

I’ve been without work more than once, and I can assure you it is no fun. Take away the job, the income, the camaraderie (even when it drives you nuts) and what’s left? Those of us lucky enough to have an education, skillset and professional network will probably be okay. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

I’ve sorted applications from oil workers in south and west Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico; substitute teachers, restaurant and fast food workers, millwrights, puppeteers, musicians, pipeline consultants and business process engineers, cosmetologists, travel agents, dentists and their hygienists, retailers, financial planners and anesthesiologists. Their names have the ring of Africa, China, Vietnam, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, Latin America, rural Texas, the Ukraine and Poland.

“I work for pennies, not hours”

Early on, I opened an application with a handwritten note. Written in block letters by a deck hand on a shrimp boat, it said,”I work for pennies, not hours.” There was no self-pity, just the facts from a man with four kids and a third-grade education. A laborer from Donna, Texas, was out of work because he unloads onions from Mexico. Take away the trucks, and there is no job. The pandemic anticipates his future. As autonomous driving and robotic technology develops there will be no need for him.

Consider a 30-year old former Lyft driver with a wife and a four-year old son. When we met in April, he was taking three classes towards a career in cyber security without really understanding what working in the field would entail. He worked 10-hour days, six days a week while taking three classes, found he couldn’t pay his rent, became discouraged and dropped out of school.

Accessible, hands-on approaches with a global outlook

Disasters crack open change, and the pandemic may very well re-shape education to address reality. Instead of competing to get into a high-cost university to realize her dream to become a veterinarian, my friend Cherie’s daughter enrolled at Blinn College where after a couple of years, she’ll be able to transfer seamlessly into Texas A&M University and enroll in one of the best veterinarian training programs in the country.

Austin Community College will soon have four incubators where students get hands-on experience in their future careers. Bioscience, gives students access to a wet lab, which until recently was hard to find in Central Texas. The Fashion incubator features a huge 3D printer for designers and makers, and Entrepreneurship jump starts budding small businesses, something we’ll need in coming months.

A fourth, advanced manufacturing, will train students to use the sophisticated design equipment and processes that produce semiconductors for the factory and consumer of the future, chips that will take advantage of 5G and the Internet of Things. Graduates will be qualified to fill well-paying, high-demand openings at local employers Samsung, Advanced Micro and AMD.

Widening the lens to see the world

Even more remarkable may be an award-winning project at Del Valle High School, a chronically underserved community in the shadow of the Austin Bergstrom Airport.

Using Zoom and a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Austin, the Global Scholars Diploma program connects students with policy experts around the world to explore racism, immigration, climate change, global infections — issues that will shape their future. At left, these young women welcomed me when I visited to watch a regularly-scheduled moot court session with University of Texas law students.

Del Valle and Mike Cunningham are not taking a traditional approach to education. Working on a shoestring budget and leveraging local resources, the program teaches its students to think. It encourages debate, tests opinions, builds confidence and the patience to listen to other views. It nurtures participation, an understanding that the world is bigger than our own backyard, and a sense of a human responsibility that transcends the day-to-day.

Nurturing human dignity

Among Yuval Harari’s many provocative writings is a statement that humans have evolved too quickly to develop the dignity shown by the large predators of the past, who both ruled and served.

Needless to say, we’re not doing a very good job on the dignity front. We murder one another in the name of law enforcement. We brutalize the wildlife that shares the planet with us in the name of “sport.” We deport sick young immigrants who have contracted Covid-19 while in federal detention, transmitting the virus to their home countries.

Dignity is a big concept on which everything we call civilization turns. Our sense of human dignity determines our self respect, which in turn determines how we treat one another, the planet we rely on, and the beings we share it with. It’s difficult if not impossible to maintain our dignity if we lack the training or education to get a job that supports our children, if we’re too sick or obese to endure a full day’s work, or if other people look down on us because we can’t communicate effectively.

Education will not address all of our problems. But it is part of the baseline. Our world is trending in a direction that reflects more of the East and less of the West that defined the last century. If we are going to change direction, this is a moment of full of possibility. Just recognizing the opportunity and working towards a better future would be a fine thing. Because if we don’t do it, who will?

If We Know So Much, Why Don’t We Do Something?

An old book of Texas history, pulled from storage during the Covid-19 shutdown, reminds us of the optimism that marked the start of the 20th century, in stark contrast to our fears for the 21st.

A young activist writer living in Austin, Texas, is inspired by a charismatic politician. He writes a successful novel, secures a good job close to the halls of power and passionately supports liberal causes. A global crisis breaks out. He volunteers to help, is exposed to an untreatable virus, and dies at the age of 33.

The writer is Sinclair Moreland; the year, 1918. The virus was the so-called Spanish Flu. I pulled his book, The Noblest Roman, a tale of idealism in the face of corporate greed and political corruption, from a box I stored a decade ago in preparation for — now?

Sinclair Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman as a testimony to “civic morality.”

When Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman, the world must have seemed full of possibilities. The Spindletop gusher of 1901 remade the oil industry in the image of Texas. Progressives took the reins of power and used a tax on oil production to create the state’s educational and transportation systems. They battled big business, reformed the prisons and passed laws to protect food safety and regulate lobbying. They created the Texas State Historical Society where Moreland became the archivist.

The corporate villain of the time was Ohio-based Standard Oil, the first company to master both vertical and horizontal integration and own its supply chain. Feared and disliked by competitors for its questionable business practices, Standard Oil built a loyal consumer base by keeping its practices low. The company’s CEO, John D. Rockefeller was the world’s richest man. Sound familiar?

The year after Moreland published The Noblest Roman, The Supreme Court split Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, one of which became Exxon-Mobil. The stage was set for what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the next train coming down the tracks,” climate change.

So goes the arc of history. Last week, six new Guggenheim Fellows were announced. Among them is Jeff Goodell, who like Moreland, lives here in Austin. But while Moreland paints an ideal of political leadership, Goodell’s award-winning The Water Will Come mourns its absence in the face of rapidly-rising sea levels, and the inevitable associated destruction and mass migration.

“Sea-level rise is like aging. You can’t stop it. You can only do better or worse, ” Goodell quotes an expert in The Water Will Come.

And while Moreland’s subject was bounded by Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, Goodell’s is global, differentiated only by economic disparity and whether there is too much or not enough water.

“Nature is going to win. Nobody wins with water. Think about the Grand Canyon.”

Jeff Goodell

In 1917, the year before his death in the flu pandemic, Moreland wrote a second book, The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, dedicated to the women of Texas for whom “social caste has no place” and who maintain a “vital interest in … clean streets, better factory conditions, child and animal protection, higher moral standards, public health, social justice and decent government.” With that in mind, I pass on the brilliant Arundhati Roy’s thoughts for our preset time:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy, writing in The Financial Times

A Question of Community

There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.

Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.

Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.

In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.

https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/eric-weiner-genius-book-interview/
Ancient Athens was a place of genius where life was lived in the public eye. Photo/Wharton School of Business / The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.

The density conundrum

https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/hope-and-healing/sweerts_plague_detail.htm
Plague in Ancient City by Michael Sweerts. Photo / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.

In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.

The Czech composer Rafael Schächter conducting a chorus of Jewish prisoners at Terezin in their performance of Verdi’s “Requim.” Schächter was sent to the gas chambers soon afterwards.

The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.

The need for foundations centered around people

We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.

Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:

“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States

If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.

Observations Made During a Search for Provisions, Day 7 of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19?

Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:

A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19? (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.

The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.

A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.

Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.

Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.

Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.

Communicating During a Crisis

Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic

In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.

(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.

Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.

(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)

A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.

We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.

Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.

A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Analysis and test, experimentation. Sars. 3d render (Getty Images 1200706447)

(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.

Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.

No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.

(4) Use clearly-defined terms.

Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).

(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.

At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.

Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.

(6) Remind people what’s most important.

Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.

Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.

The First Americans’ “Send Them Back,” Retold

“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.

Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”

Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.

In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.

“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”

Jeffrey Gibson

“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.

A screenshot from Gibson’s video “I Was Here,” which follows Marcy, a trans Native American woman living on a reservation in Mississippi. Gibson follows her as she gets ready to go to work as a waitress in a casino. This still is a ties together a story of courage in the face of racism and prejudice.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.

Ben Okri

This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.

Brexit in the Bardo

The March 29 deadline for a Brexit go now/go later/no go (unlikely) is around the corner. Despite some defections, especially in fintech, many U.S. companies are opting to stay. The tragedy has spotlighted two leadership flaws: the hubris in calling for a referendum and the inflexibility in dealing with it.

As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.

Two countries with a lot in common. Map courtesy of the mls.co

Borders, walls and disagreements

It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).

 It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.

Almost three years ago, on the heels of a political gambit by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The questions are when and how. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Do we stay or do we go?

Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.

Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.

Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.

Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.

Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.

Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.

Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.

“I am England”

Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.

She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.

UK International Trade and Investment
British Consulate-General
After negotiation Brexit, Theresa May will not run again for prime minister. Photo courtesy of euractiv.com

Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.

Y2K.2 ?

Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”

After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.

POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?

UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?

UPDATE March 21, 2019: The meltdown.


What will it take to make us safe?

The Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum called for closer cooperation between government and the technology community. Is a public-private partnership in our future?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

For more information, here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

The Outing of Climate Change: How About a Policy?

On the heels of bad news from Poland, three brilliant scientists call for a shared vision that embraces both energy and climate.

This week saw the follow-on meeting to the Paris Climate Accord. The news is not good; or, as the Washington Post put it, “We are in trouble.” But at least the facts are clear. The Global Carbon Project reported that carbon emission levels are not only growing (this year, 1.6 percent), they’re expected to jump another 2.7 percent, to 37.1 billion tons in 2019.

Washington Post_emissions
Carbon emissions, the chief culprit in climate change, have hit a record high, and are climbing. It’s fair to say as this chart climbs, the quality of our (increasingly close) future goes down.

Building a shared vision

Which brings me to a conversation among three brilliant scientists. Held during the Texas Tribune’s always-fascinating TribFest and sponsored by BP, an early champion of carbon reduction. The panel included:

  • Jason Bordoff, formerly the senior director for energy and  climate change at the NSA (yes, climate change impacts national security in a big way), now at Columbia
  • Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech.
  • Michael Webber, the Webber Energy Group, soon to be scientific and technical director at the French energy powerhouse ENGIE, on leave from the University of Texas at Austin

Embracing both energy and climate

The consensus: Effective climate change policy has to grounded in a shared vision in terms of food, jobs and opportunity. It must embrace both climate and energy. As Hayhoe pointed out, it starts with a simple question: What do you care about?

“The only reason we care about climate is because it affects things we already care about. It’s not an environmental issue; it’s a human issue. This is why I care about a changing climate, because it exacerbates our greatest humanitarian challenges: poverty, hunger, inequality, and more.”  @KHayhoe

Epic droughts punctuated by Biblical Floods

Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country and number one in terms of climate vulnerability. Thanks to the EPA’s rolling back restrictive guidelines, drilling is booming along the Gulf Coast, one of the nation’s most environmentally vulnerable regions. Houston, at the epicenter of drilling activity is still recovering from the most expensive ($125 billion and counting) hurricanes in history.

The world’s 505 remaining whooping cranes winter on the environmentally-sensitive and oil-rich Texas Gulf Coast

The most frightening trait of climate change is its pace: 50 percent faster than the rate of at which its been historically measured. Are we too late?

Leadership matters

Final note: I attended the session thanks to an invitation from Paula Barnett-Bulcao, BP’s senior director of government relations and public affairs. I’ve admired BP for years for their vision and willingness to wear a white hat in an industry known for climate degradation. Barnett, who’s been with BP for 16 years, told me that when she was starting out in the industry, BP was the company she knew she wanted to work for.  High praise.

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

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Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

global-trade_paul-windle
Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.