Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Heroes or Hegemons?

President Obama has brought an important question to the forefront of the national consciousness: when should we go to war to stop a massacre? And what does it mean if the US enters into military conflicts with nations that don't directly threaten us?

Of course, we've done this before, in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq, to name a few. But in all those cases an attempt was made to justify our intervention on the grounds of national interest. (Whether you choose to accept those arguments is of course a different thing.) But Libya, as the President's speech last night made clear, is another story: while Obama noted the importance of the Middle East as a whole to our national security, the thrust of his argument for bombing Libya was, "Gaddafi was going to kill a lot of people, and we had the means to stop it."

I am naturally predisposed to this argument: I was in favor of invading Iraq because I felt our country's actions in the previous two decades had left the people of that nation in deplorable conditions, not because there might be WMDs hidden somewhere. But, again as the President himself pointed out, the ensuing eight years have made the costs of this type of intervention abundantly clear, and they are high. Which is why Obama is now trying to thread the needle: do enough to get rid of a murdering bastard without committing our nation to dealing with what is likely to be an unstable situation for the long term.

Peggy Noonan, in a column written before Obama's speech, does a nice job of going over the many fumbles the President made to get to this point, and all the ongoing risks we face. I am particularly concerned that we might do just enough to create a bloody, ongoing stalemate that causes much more suffering than even a Gaddafi victory would have.

But a bigger, more critical issue is brought up by Mickey Kaus: is this third war in the Muslim world an indication that we are becoming some sort of 'humanitarian empire'? He writes:
In a true empire–in this case, the empire of UN approved human rights enforcement–war never really ends. Always someone to protect somewhere. Imagine living in imperial Britain in the mid-19th century. There would almost always be a war or police action–actual shooting and killing–going on.** For a true empire to work– even, or perhaps especially, a humanitarian empire–war has to be routinized. You’ve got two wars going already? No need to change the president’s schedule to start a third.
From where I sit, an unselfish attempt to save innocent lives in distant lands seems noble, even heroic. But, as Kaus points out, the British probably gave themselves kudos for shedding English blood to bring civilization to the world, but they were no less an empire for that. To much of the rest of the world (as I have heard from more than one cab driver in my travels) this sort of thing just looks like the toughest kid on the block flexing his muscles.

I'd like to think that if there were good solutions to the problems of evil and human suffering, we would have already implemented them. Which means we're choosing from a bunch of poor choices. Yet I think, with so much of the world skeptical of our motives and our methods, America's efforts to wage war for humanitarian ends will never work out as neatly and as happily as we hope.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"I Like Paper": What's Holding Back Healthcare

So I was in the hospital, accompanying my wife for an emergency appointment that ended with the all-clear being sounded. As we were sitting in the triage room at Beth Israel, my wife's doctor, a woman that I would place at between 35 and 40, was inputting some information into the in-room computer system. She stopped, momentarily stymied by some piece of data the program was prompting her to collect. Turning to us, she said, "I hate this thing. I like paper. Don't you like paper?"

We all had a good laugh at that, but a day later that phrase is still running through my head: "I like paper." That sums up a huge problem with our healthcare system in three simple words. Having spent about thirty minutes watching this particular physician work, and seeing her whip out her Blackberry at one point, I can vouch that she was intelligent and reasonably comfortable with technology. Yet she would prefer paper, and by her own account, avoids the computer system as often as possible.

Now, maybe that bit of data the computer wanted to collect was meaningless in the situation. Maybe, in that instance, collecting the information in a paper chart would have been both quicker and more customized to the issue at hand. But one of the great things about computers is that they enable a level of standardization otherwise impossible. Perhaps my wife's next doctor will need that particular data point as part of making a care decision, or at least want to know it was collected to rule out some possibility he's considering. By computerizing medical records, we make it much more likely the right information is going to be collected and made accessible when needed.

As Walter Russell Mead notes yet again in a recent blog post, one of the areas where we have the most to gain economically is healthcare, where there are still great efficiencies to be found. But that can't happen as long as otherwise talented and intelligent professionals resist tools that, once a part of their daily lives, will enable those improvements. Progress on digitizing medical data continues, but it will be resisted until leaders in the field figure out better ways to have physicians embrace these technologies instead of fighting them.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Future of...Me

I have it damned good. I try to remind myself of that as often as possible, because I find it remarkably easy to slip into pessimism, or even outright cynicism. And since so many good, exciting, transformative things are happening right to me right now, I thought I could risk your indulgence in writing a more personal post than is normal. (I will strive to ensure it is less than completely irrelevant to people who aren't me.)

First, my wife and I are expecting our first child this summer. This has triggered an instant change in every parent we know from trumpeting the glory of child-rearing to cackling about the lack of sleep we'll be getting for the foreseeable future (estimates range from 6 months to 18 years of sleeplessness, depending on the parent, or perhaps on the child). I am hesitant to say anything back to people who have already run the gauntlet, but can I say in general that our society's attitude towards parenthood is completely screwed up, and is based on the notion that every moment of life should be the best it possibly can be? I don't look at my child as a moment-to-moment affirmation of my life choices and how great I am, but as an investment. I'm not particularly thrilled at the notion of a baby (it's exciting, but I know it'll have plenty of pain), but I'm increasingly ecstatic as I think about that child being 3, or 10, or 18, or 25. The point is that you're investing yourself in the future of humanity and, in particular, in expanding your family to include another member who will be loved, and love back. Sure, a baby loves in its basic way (and that way is damned hard to resist), but that love matures and grows and becomes more worthwhile with time, and THAT'S why I wanted to get married and have children, dammit! (Ok, rant over.)

The next (potential) big change is buying a house. Is it any surprise that the first change triggered the second? As many flaws as there are in the system of home purchasing as there are, I have to say that it's extraordinary that our society fosters the purchasing of property by new families, even as the country (or many parts of it) get more crowded. We still have this cultural commitment to family and individuality that I think is, for the most part, a very healthy and even critical thing. We still allow and encourage people to chart their own course, and making a decision to buy a bit of land and a house to call home is a big part of that, both practically and symbolically. I wonder if, between a rising population and increased governmental and social pressure to live a green lifestyle, if this institution can be preserved in the future.

With all this change, the most stable aspect of my life is work. But is that stability only an inch deep? I don't mean that I won't be working at Cline Davis & Mann in a year, but that the whole industry might be on the cusp of transforming in ways that will make my actual work very different than it is today. Right now healthcare marketing is all centered around personal one-on-one relationships between the physician and the sales rep. No one entirely likes this state of affairs, but it has persisted because reps do provide a needed service (quickly disseminating information about new drugs) and because the physician is a relatively small market not efficiently reached by mass mediums like television. (There are exceptions, but I'll leave that aside.) But both of the above assumptions no longer entirely true. Reps increasingly don't have time or access enough to share meaningful information, and there are other ways to effectively target small markets. Everyone in the pharma advertising industry, just like the consumer advertising industry, acknowledges that digital relationships are somehow going to supplant or and the very least supplement traditional communications. But no one knows how. My contention is that the 'creative' aspect of advertising will primarily provide inducement for an audience member to enter into, or deepen, a digital relationship. The business end of advertising will be making use of this relationship in a way that doesn't turn the audience off. It's going to be a delicate dance, and we're so far from figuring it out the way that rep brochures and journal ads are figured out that everyone who thinks about it gets intimidated.

So my future doesn't look to hold a lot of stability. But it does hold adventure, and excitement, and possibility. And I have a great wife and family as the base to build on. And so, onward!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Brand Clarity, Profit, and Facebook

Amazon was founded to sell us books, and eventually expanded into selling us other things we didn't want to search through a store to get. It makes a ton of money. Google was founded to make search easier and better, and eventually expanded into providing other tools that make content gathering easier and better. It makes a ton of money. The two most successful Internet firms may now do lots of things, but the vast majority of their profits come from finding new places to apply the same basic template that has made them successful. (And, as an aside, when Google tries to do things like set up a social network, it hasn't been nearly so successful.)

Facebook was founded to connect college students to each other. (When I was in college, the "Face Book" was a picture book of the people in your class that everyone looked through to figure out who they wanted to, well...let's say meet.) It eventually expanded to let anyone use the service and connect to other people. And they have made some pretty good money doing this. Although they do it by selling ads that have a remarkably poor click-through rate, which has started making people wonder if that type of promotion is really worthwhile or just chasing buzz.

But Facebook has a problem: it is the most hyped company in the world right now, and is valued at many, many times its earnings. It has to figure out a way to turn 'social' into 'revenue' without turning off its users. If the ads don't really work, how do they do this? Well, they could try to give marketers more information about their users. That information is very valuable. But if they do that, a lot of people (who don't want Procter and Gamble sending them a toothpaste coupon if their status says they have coffee breath) will leave the site.

Another option is to sell other services through the site. To this end, they have developed a virtual currency called a Facebook Credit (which reminds me a bit of a SchruteBuck), which can be used to buy upgrades on games like Mafia Wars and Farmville, and now can also be used to rent movies through the site.

Then there is the option of snatching bits of other companies' business models and aggregating them in Facebook. After all, Facebook has a huge built in user base. Their first target, Groupon, which gives daily discounts off of local services like restaurants if you buy in advance. Facebook plans to expand its existing Deals program to get in on the action.

Here's the thing: none of these initiatives (with the possible exception of buying a new Tommy Gun on Mafia Wars) has anything to do with staying connected to friends. And in some cases, it may actually get in the way of that core mission. If your Facebook page starts filling up with Deals based on what you and your friends are doing and discussing, are you going to be happy, annoyed, or creeped out?

But the bigger issue is that the Facebook brand isn't about shopping, or renting movies. It's about sharing a bit of your life with people you know, and staying in touch with them in return. Groupon was designed to sell me stuff, and so I don't mind when it does. With Facebook, I'll mind. Modern Internet users have gotten very good at compartmentalizing the brands that they use for different online tasks, and it may just be Facebook's fate that it is the place to waste time and joke with friends, not the place to spend money.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Me Thinking About Others Thinking About Krugman

I know, in this day and age, writing a post about two posts about a column written a week ago is probably a little silly and self-indulgent. But I had a very similar reaction to the two writers who I am about to quote: I read Paul Krugman's piece on higher education, "Degrees and Dollars", and found myself nodding (a rare sensation for me when reading Krugman) right up until the last paragraph. After noting that society and families invest massive sums in higher education with an increasingly small likelihood of a strong return, he concludes:
So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

WHAT? So society continues to count on old models and fading industries as the path to wealth instead of innovating, and the solution is to dig in our heels, unionize, and demand money and healthcare whether we can afford it or not? Take it away, Walter Russell Mead:
This is blindness so brilliant it would dazzle a bat. If, as Krugman posits, demand for US workers will be falling in both manufacturing and the professions, how exactly will labor unions get higher wages for their members? Factories will be closing in Krugman’s world and law firms will be turning more and more work over to computers or shipping it overseas. Perhaps stronger unions could make it harder for companies to do this for a while, but ultimately facts speak. Stronger unions making tougher wage demands will not exactly persuade American (and foreign) investors to create new jobs in this country — or to slow down their efforts to reduce their US workforce by outsourcing and automation.

The scary part of our present is that what the future economy will look like is increasingly unclear. I am reasonably confident that ad agencies like the one I work at will be around 5-10 more years, but I'm not convinced that the model is sustainable with a fragmented audience that is increasingly savvy at dodging 'promotion'. I don't like the prospect that my career might go through the ringer a decade from now, but it could well happen, and all I can do is be prepared to adapt, and try to cultivate skills (like critical thinking and writing, I hope) that are transferable to new lines of work. And what might we all be doing? I will refer to Reihan Salam for a possible answer:
The most successful and productive digital organizations will never employ large numbers of people, but they will throw off large amounts of money that will be spent on personal services, etc. That’s why we shouldn’t squelch innovation in this space through overregulation and overtaxation, and it’s why we should work on improving the quality of public services and other amenities that will help us attract and retain the footloose workers who create the most wealth.

So maybe we have a future where a smaller number of people are in the 'making stuff' (whether content or physical things) business, and more of us are in the 'making life better' business of providing services. It wouldn't be the first time we made that kind of a shift: more productive agriculture moved many off the land and into cities doing more service-oriented work, and so did mass production that allows a few people to make a lot of identical objects (ask the Luddites.)

We can't stop tomorrow from coming, and if tomorrow casts off a lot of the jobs that lead to middle-class respectability in the 20th century, we are going to have to adapt. That process may be painful, but bankrupting society by denying that reality for as long as possible will just make it worse. Krugman is right that we need to build the society we want, but hopefully we can want something better than borrowing more and more money to prop up a social and economic order whose time has past.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is Tokyo the City of the Future, or of the Past?

Tokyo, famously, feels like a city out of the future, as lampooned by this Onion article. But despite the rapid urbanization of the developing world, is the model of giant, tightly packed city still a glimpse of the future?

Certainly, there are factors that would seem to point towards an ever-greater concentration of humanity in cities. Around the world, people are having fewer children, making it more possible to invest in smaller urban spaces. Rising fuel costs and global warming concerns make areas close to business cores more attractive and efficient, as mass transit needs dense concentrations of people to pay off. And, as David Brooks points out in this column, cities serve as creative incubators, as people seem to think better when they are physically connected.

As a New Yorker (although one who will soon decamp to the nearby New Jersey suburbs), I see all the benefits of city life. But I still think cities like Tokyo are not likely to represent the future of humanity, at least not as presently conceived, for one reason: transportation technology is likely to improve again, and grant humans much more flexibility to craft the lifestyle they want.

Imagine you could get from, say, the Hamptons to New York City in 30 minutes. Or from the Sierra Nevadas to LA in 45. Wouldn't those places become attractive mini-clusters for the talented and the wealthy, instead of where those folks have summer homes or ski cabins? There would be a number of people around you who you could network and create with live, while still accessing the full value of the city when needed. Large cities would still have their place, but they would, to some degree, be transactional: the places where everyone comes together before they go apart again. Young people would probably still swarm there, to meet romantic partners and drink too much.

Cities were small when transportation was problematic. They grew, and sprouted suburbs, when the rail and then the automobile allowed greater movement in and out of the core. But if a transportation technology enabled convenient, not too expensive movement between our current big cities and the nicest outlying areas, the attractions of space, scenery and exclusivity might overwhelm the advantages of city living.

If that technology doesn't emerge, though, then the foreseeable future will be dominated by ever-denser, larger and higher cities, and Tokyo will remain the city of tomorrow.