Saturday, January 01, 2005

Myths Bounce

A new year has begun, but for most people things will keep going on as they have. Call it habit, momentum, impetus, but things tend to follow established patterns, whether you are talking about people, businesses - or even nations.

Earlier this week, I wrote posts on Employment and Self-Employment. This was partly simple soliloquoy on the basics every high-school graduate should know, yet most people learn the hard way much later, but it was also laying out some facts unique to the United States. Simply put, the United States is more business-friendly than any other nation on the planet, and this is why the USA will remain not only the most influential and potent country in existence for the next generation. Yes, there are nations which cozy up more to corporations, and yes, there are nations which sponsor massive industries in order to gain control, and yes, there are nations which have selected companies which lead the world in their field, but taken as a whole in the facets most critical to GDP growth and stability of currency, the USA has no rivals. Forget Superpower; the United States is effectively the Ultra-Power.

Take China for example. Over the past year, I have heard and read how China is a rising economic power, a revolution waiting to dominate the Asian continent, then the Pacific, and will match the US in economic power within twenty years. I heard an echo then, and I bet you did, too. Because the same things that are being said now about Jiang, were said in the early sixties about Khruschev and the Soviet Union. As we all know, the USSR's boasts proved hollow, and the Empire simply rotted from within, until Reagan forced Gorbachev to spare his people a bloody revolution of starving malcontents. Many of the PRC's fans today, make a point of saying how different things are now, but if you look at the signals, the truth shows up readily and without mercy for the Communist regime.

Look at their oil industry, for instance. China boasted about revamping their oil drilling and refining capacity way back in 1991; they made a big case about not caring anymore about OPEC, because the oil discovery in the South China Sea was going to change everything. Only, they couldn't get the oil the way they planned, the countries of Vietnam and the Phillipines fought and won in court for the best oil fields, and three major refinery acidents in as many years crippled the promised development of China's delivery system. Basically, China wanted it to work, but simply did not have either the technical level nor the business savvy to set up the requisite agreements to get their partners to do what they needed. That's one reason why China set up weapons deals with Saddam between 1997 and 2003; Iraq had lots of oil it wanted to sell under the table, and China wanted a lot of high-grade petroleum. Short term win, long term bust.

Then, consider automobiles. China sent students to Business Schools to learn how to modernize and market succesful consumer products, and one of the winners that always showed up in rising countries, was automobile exports. Japan of course, with Honda and Toyota led the way, but the relative success of Daiwoo and Hyundai showed the market was still hungry for cheap cars. China figured it couldn't miss. It guessed wrong. No fewer than twenty plants were built in China between 1994 and 2002 to make autos for export; the sales have been dismal by any standard, even inviting comparisons to the wretched Yugos from a generation ago. China has tried to claim that over 50,000 cars have been sold each year, but cannot name who is supposed to be buying them.

It's true that China has done well with cheap clothing and some simple electronics, but that is where the SOEs, or State-Owned-Enterprises, come in. Basically, China is trying a tactic that Japan used in the 1960s and 1970s; flooding a market with very-inexpensive products to drive out competitors, hoping to make up the losses later when the market was cornered. The problem is that Japan understood the balance of capital and investment, while China has simply flooded every market it could find, with no organization or follow-up. And China is already losing out to new rivals, from India, Thailand, and Brazil, who are targeting the markets with the best potential for growth. In short, China is losing money for no effective purpose than because they don't know what else to do.

What's worse, China has managed to make the worst of innovation. Mass production machinery has improved, but instead of training employees at SOEs for other skills they could use to help the country move forward, China simply lays them off. And in a Communist country, being "laid-off" means a constant 16%-25% Unemployment Rate. In a country of over a billion workers, that has led to whole towns of families with no work for years on end, and this has caused revolts and uprisings dozens of times. If these virtual armies of unemployed and starving people ever get organized, that's an instant army of 250 to 300 million angry, hungry people.

The same thing happens in many other nations. India, Brazil, and China represent the nations which are winning in the short-term, but cannot gain strategic gains because their tactics do not result in long-term stability or open expanded markets. Other nations with state-controlled economies, like Japan, France, or Russia, are more stable but unable to bring about the flexibility to evolve from the past to take full advantage of the new technology. Consider Japan, for example, and the legendary case of the VCRs. When Japan succeeded in driving out US makers of VCRs, many people believed that Japan had permanently dominated the market. Instead, American companies let go of the lost battle for the video players, and locked in control of the video cassettes. In any given year, the US makes more than ten times the revenue of videotape and DVD sales, that Japan does from player sales. Adaptability.

The US continues to lead the world in patents for business-applicable machines, for new medical procedures and new developed pharmaceuticals, for new alloys and composite materials, and for new businesses opened. That's not just last year, that's every year since 1945.

As long as America smiles on business, the world will see America out front. Way out front.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Sexual Civics

One of the more contentious issues in 2004, was the question of Gay Marriage, and in reviewing the year, I found myself wrestling, once again, with the moral issues surrounding the debate.

I'm pretty set in my ways, personally, but I try not to be an hypocrite. Since I am male, heterosexual, white, American, a Christian and consider the Bible to be correct and true, I start from a pretty defined perspective, and in the course of my life I have always tried to balance my own experience with valid alternatives, emphasis on both 'valid' and 'alternatives'.

On the one hand, Homosexuality is conduct, and so cannot really be considered in the same light as race, gender, or ethnicity. Also, the Bible is pretty clearly set againt the Homosexuals portrayed in its pages. On the other hand, I am struck by the consistency of Homosexual representation, demographically, throughout the world. Even where the culture considers Homosexuality to be a crime deserving death, still there are those who practice it, compelling evidence that it is more than a casual decision. Also, when I read through the Bible more closely, I am struck by two very important facts. First, Jesus Christ had nothing to say about Homosexuals, strange behavior if they were all that repulsive to God. Also, in the various verses where Homosexuals are mentioned in the Bible, what I see are connections to idolatry or lust, so that the condemnation refers mostly to the spirit; when Paul refers to "unnatural" desires, he can just as easily be addressing heterosexual lust as homosexual lust. And the Ten Commandmants are pretty interesting on that point. If I drift off into the Scriptural connotations, I will not finish the though today, so for here I want to consider the matter from a point of logic. It seems to me that there are three levels on which I may consider the morality of what I call Sexual Civics.

First, the easy part. The United States of America is essentially a nation founded on freedom, and for most of us, it's not a hard definition - you can do whatever you want, right up to the point where you affect someone else's freedom. So, you can't choose violence or theft or defamation, but the 4th Amendment gives a reasonable expectation of privacy. No one can come into your home without your consent, unless you have violated the law, and by the law, I mean that line between your rights and someone else's. If you are beating your wife, you have no right to privacy, but if two people want to have and neither is married to someone else, that's their business and no one else's. Like it or not, it's not my right to compel my neighbor to follow my idea of morality.

The second level comes down to your faith. Yep, here comes God. Now, like the first part, it's just common sense that even if I believe someone else's faith is sheer lunacy, I have no right to step in and tell him what he must believe in. Further, I happen to believe that even if you can compel someone to go to your church and pray as you do, all that will do is drive some further away in their hearts. Love and adoration for the holy cannot be forced. But, if you choose to join a church or congregation, whatever the faith is, you cannot be part of their group and demand they agree to your terms. You're either in or out, and if you're in, you have to agree that you will believe as the group does, or else you cannot be part of that group. There is usually room in faith groups for some differences, but on the vital and basic issues, you can't split hairs.

Now, the tricky part. I don't happen to like anything about Homosexuality, from what I know about it. The practice seems unnatural biologically, and there is a strong risk of disease in some of the practices, but then, I didn't much hold with the guys I knew in school who thought sleeping around with a dozen women was cool, either. The thing is, though, I also know enough to know that people are built differently, and just as one person really craves sex while another has no real appetite, there are wide variances in what attracts people, biologically as well as physiologically or psychologically. I still know a couple people who think sex with someone not your own skin color is somehow wrong. So, the issue comes down to a basic morality, after which a working system may be developed.

Sex is not evil. It's pretty obvious that it can be a very good thing. The restrictions to it, I think, come from the fact that Adultery and Divorce and STD's are horribly destructive, and should be avoided like the plagues they are. Also, I rather like the section of Proverbs, where Solomon warns his son to stay away from prostitutes, because that cheapens people, making a person no more than a loaf of bread, something to be used. Lust is wrong, because it calls attention down to the lowest level, and avoids any of the commitments and responsibilities that come with many sexual relationships. Therefore, marriage is much, much better than sex alone can ever be, because it comes with a clear price, but also later shows the rewards amd maturity that can only be had with commitment and a disciplined heart.

It follows then, that if a person is Homosexual, they should be allowed, even encouraged, to marry (or at least commit to civil unions). That is, provided that marriage or civil union would carry the same weight and responsibility as a heterosexual marriage does, and that society might return to the day when cheating on your spouse was shameful and rare, not the sidelight of a network sit-com.

I am a little tired, so doubtless I am missing something along the way in this road of reason, but that's what the 'Comments' section is for.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


In my last post, I discussed the issue of Employment, which in the common parlance means accepting hire to a company for set responsibilities and wages. This provides the security of knowing where your next meal will come from, but it limits the opportunity for someone to advance their economic independence. Fortunately, that window may be opening up again.

Now, to anyone under the age of 30 reading this post, be very, very careful about anyone promising you that you can get wealthy fast. Wealth has always been difficult to build, and for valid reasons. First off, it's a basic rule of Life, that it's much easier to spend money than to make money. Next, money always attracts attention, from the Tax man to friends you never knew you had; holding wealth is just as hard as making it. Third, if you do not know how you make your money, even a hot streak will end meaning nothing, because you have to know how to get hot again. Fortunately, there is a pretty good way to become financially successful, and it comes down to four rules:

1. Do your homework. Plan, review, analyze, repeat.
2. NEVER lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.
3. Never forget your people, or take them for granted.
4. Stay humble.

I. First off, when you decide to get serious about making money, you're going to have to decide what you want to do, what you're willing to commit to make it happen, and where your heart is. Every financially succesful person who has made their fortune, has done it through a lot of hard work and persistence. You don't do that unless you are committed to what you're doing, and you can't make that commitment unless your heart is in what you do. You also have to be serious enough to realize, no one gets paid to play around; even professional atheletes and musicians and artists put a lot of work into their effort. So, you need to think about who you are, what you're about, because that's your foundation. You follow it up with putting together a Business Plan. Why? First off, unless you're already wealthy, you need a bank loan or something like it to make the business start, and for that you need a Business Plan. But also, you want a chance, and while some people may realize that 80% of all new businesses fail within a year, over 95% of businesses which survive that first year had a Business Plan, and over 98% which last more than three years had a Business Plan. No Business Plan, no chance.

A Business Plan is pretty simple in concept, but you really need to sweat the details. You need to come up with a realistic idea of how many customers you'll have, how much you'll make from those customers, how much you'll need to spend to run that business, and so on. And you need to be able to defend those numbers, with evidence. It's kind of like a really tough Term Paper, but an intensely personal one, too.

One benefit to drawing up the BP, is that once you start to get into it, you'll already be moving ahead. Getting that first loan is like passing a gallstone, but banks like loans and sooner or later, a serious BP will get a loan, at which time you will discover two feelings: the sheer panic of owing a huge debt, and the realization that you are going to do it. Because of the BP, you will already know where you will put the business, what it will cost and how long to get the supplies and equipment and hire/train your own employees. You will need to be inspected by various city and county departments, which has the additional effect of driving many new business owners to the conservative side of politics. But eventually, you'll be on your way.

Sooner or later, you will wonder if you might pull a trick or two to get ahead. DON'T! There are only a few reasons why customers will give a new business a chance; convenience (which will only be true for a few people), lower prices (which your competition will match, or quality. For some reason, businesses sooner or later often fall into lowering the quality, cheating a little on their promises, or some other little bit of shadiness. That makes the honest ones stand out. If you want to be around ten years later with a good reputation, NEVER let your standards or ethics slip.

No matter what you will be doing for your business, you'll depend on people, especially three groups: Your customers, your employees, and your suppliers. Always be courteous, always reward extra effort, and always treat them the way you'd want to be treated, if you were in their place. Because you either were once, or you will be, and in any case, networking includes making sure everyone who knows you, knows you at your best.

IV. Nobody like arrogance, but it's more than that. When everyone knows you don't have a big head, your success makes your business like a family, and your network of contacts like a community. You'll sleep better, and you'll never have second thoughts about your decisions.

OK, simple rules, but awfully hard to put into practice. What was that window, though, that I was talking about? INFORMATION. Once upon a time, if you had a job, you were pretty much stuck in your routine, no time or chance to find out what else you could do. Now, part-time work is a real possibility, and more than a few people have been able to start their own business by researching the web and building their Business Plan in their spare time. Right up to the point of commitment, you can recon your options and decide your course.

It's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Money Matters

I find myself rather unhappy with Donald Trump today.

Not personally. I don't know him personally, and as a person, he seems to have enough decent qualities, that I might like him. But he's pushing a lot of people further down the road of class warfare and financial ignorance. He's doing that by filing Bankruptcy - again.

I actually have no idea how many times 'The Donald' has filed for the big eggshell. I could find out if I wanted, but it really doesn't matter. The problem is, even though Trump is filing for Bankruptcy, he still owns - shoot, he's cultivating it - an air of solvency and financial power. That's a trick, but a dirty one. It's mixing the idea that Trump is a business leader we should emulate, with the fact that he has no intention of paying legitimate debts he's incurred. He is basically telling America that cheating is not only acceptable, it's the smart thing to do. He's the star of "The Apprentice", a show about business acumen and ethics and metods, and he's living a life of a well-heeled scam artist. It says something, something rather offensive, about NBC, that Trump is still connected to the show in any, except as an object lesson on Fraud.

But Trump's little courtroom tactics are part of the fabric of American Business, wheer people are sold the illusion in place of the real virtues, where the quick trick is prized above earning and keeping trust. It's why Dan Rather believed he could slip forged documents past the nation on prime-time Television, it's why John Kerry thought he could get elected without a single serious explanation of his Senate record, it's why Americans could be told that freeing millions of people was evil, and why Americans are told that our very economic success is wrong and must stop. Many Americans, believe it or not, do not understand Money or any of the basic forces of Economics. And that lesson comes hard.

First, Employment. Thousands of Bush haters took to protests in 2004, blaming President Bush for the "poor" job market. Leave aside for a moment the limitations on what, precisely, any President can do to create jobs, and also leave aside the fact that Unemployment numbers in 2004 were almost exactly the same numbers that the press praised Bill Clinto for in 1996, and leave aside the fact that average wages continued to rise all year long; the sheer notion that anyone "owed" someone a job, illustrates an appalling lack of common sense and work ethic. Demographics show that prior to 1850, most Americans owned their own businesses, farms for the most part. The good news to owning your own business, is that you take your own profits - a hired man was considered to be on the low end of things, because he could only earn what his boss agreed to pay him. The bad news to owning your own business, was that you took on all the risks of having your own business. If you hit a really bad stretch, you could lose everything ("Lose the Farm" was well-understood when folks had real family farms on the line).

After 1850, and especially after the Civil War, things changed, with many Americans working in factories and for employers. Once the paycheck became the normal way of things, people started planning by that regular pay, relatively small but relatively steady. But even back in the "good old days", people understood that a job might not last forever. College was important, because it allowed a person to take a job with better pay, better security (less "projects" and more likely to be hired as part of a permanent team), and better chances for advancement. Unfortunately, there came a flood of college degrees, some quite accomplished, others frankly useless, and in any case the work environment has shifted again, to the point that people are finally coming back around to the basic question they should have addressed at the start; what is a good employer-employee match?

I have seen a great many job-search sites spring up, and precious few people get anything they would call a "good" job from them. Employers are even less enthused, since these sites flood them with applications from unqualified people, and even with sorting software, it remains just as hard to find that one truly-qualified employee, as it ever was. The problem, to be blunt, is the nature of jobs and workers. People want great positions, but if a job pays well, is fulfilling, and has a great future, the people in those positions are not going to want to elave those jobs. As a result, most jobs available pay less, are less secure, less rewarding, and/or are more difficult and demanding. Not that employers have a great time. These days, even after you screen for drugs and criminal histories, you could easily get someone who looks good on paper and interviews well, but who is lazy, or rude, or uncooperative, or any other combination of production-killing attributes. Most managers have antacids close at hand for very good reasons.

For some reason, people have forgotten to remind kids of one very important reason to do their homework: They'll need to use those homework study and research skills all the rest of their life, from finding the right job, to how they invest, to how they plan their major life events. Living your lifeunplanned can be exciting, true - but so can driving your car with your eyes closed, but the end results are likely to be messy in either case.

The simple fact is, people should be careful to think ahead, about what skills their "dream job" will need, and what they will need to do, to get that chance. And if they plan to work for someone else, they will have to decide when and if they want to set out on their own, or else accept the trade-off of a comfort zone for the chance to excel.

Next: Self-Employment?

Monday, December 27, 2004

Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" - A Review

I read too fast. This was an immediate problem from the start; the children’s library told me I was a troublemaker, because I was the only kid who wasn’t happy with only 5 books a week. By the time I hit Junior High, I had read every book my parents owned, more than a thousand books. And, being gabby, I had opinions to share on everything I read. So, by definition I was a blogger 30 years before I owned my first computer. And I learned to appreciate a book good enough that I could go back and read it again, and pick up new stuff. Milton is that good, so is Zelazny, and so is Hewitt. As in Hugh Hewitt, whose new book “Blog” may be fairly described as a must-have.

OK, so it’s no shock that bloggers will like “Blog”. But this book not only reads well, it’s a primer on planning your future online. Hewitt covers a brief history of blogging, noting that in five years, blogs have grown from the first few to over four million now. Along the way, we’ve seen the development of blogs which read like diaries or magazines, to blogs about specifics in the latest news, technical details, and insightful commentary to rival (or simply thump) anything the networks can offer.

When you get your copy of “Blog” (you will be very happy, I promise), among the things you’ll find is a list of some of the best blogs currently out there. Basically, if you come across a site you haven’t checked out, give it a few minutes. There are lists all through the book, from the Preface through the appendices. And Hewitt puts the whole thing in perspective right from the start. In the Introduction for example, Hewitt notes “The blogosphere is about trust ... None of us have time to understand everything, so we have to trust surrogates.” This is important, because that used to be the case with the TV networks and newspaper syndicates; when they betrayed that trust, the blogs were able to fill the void, because there is immediate feedback and consequence. If a blog tries to snow you, you will figure it out and move on to one of the many others. You’ll only stay with a blog when it eans your respect. Informational Darwinism at work.

Hewitt is very good at maintaining balance, noting accomplishments by Wonkette and Andrew Sullivan on one hand, but also Little Green Footballs and Captain’s Quarters on the other. The interplay between the Old Media and the New, often turning into an effective rout by the blogs, is covered, from the Jason Blair scandal, through the Swift Boat Vets, and of course Rathergate. The history Hewitt is writing will be taught at colleges by next year. Hewitt writes about the Information Reformation, comparing it to Luther’s Reformation of the Church, and provides some key insights in the historical trends present, in the 16th Century and now.

Of course, Hewitt made mistakes, calling the TV networks and newspapers by the already passe’ “MainStream Media (MSM)”, while many blogs are already taking up the clearer Old Media/New Media delineation. And when he covered Rathergate, Hewitt failed to give proper credit to Lorie from Texas for the name. Hewitt also leans just a bit too much in favor of the blogs already out there, forgetting the lightning-strike rise that so many blogs make in their creation. But overall, “Blog” is a first-class work, especially where Hewitt identifies key opportunities and trends for industries and entrepreneurs to grab, before someone else does. It’s more than a little like someone telling you in 1975 to keep an eye on that Gates kid.

Maybe the best Chapter in the book is Chapter 13, which gives pointers on how to start your own blog, with vital do’s and don’t’s for the just-starting blogger.

Buy the book.

Read it.

Read it again, with paper and pen for notes.

Pay special attention to the Appendices.

And if you’re like me, you’ll be glad to find out it’s just as good the third time through.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Earthquake in Sumatra

It's the kind of thing you just don't believe the first time you hear it. It has to be an exaggeration, a mistake, someone over-reacting.

But it's true.

An earthquake, 8.9 on the Richter scale (literally one-hundred-thirty times the force of the last "big" San Francisco quake

Over seven thousand dead.

Over a million people homeless.

Tsunamis in Indonesia, Maylasia, Thailand.

Please pray for the victims and the survivors, and do what you are willing to do.

What really is scary, are two additional factors:

First, that part of the world is ready and perpared for rain and floods. They have no reason to expect earthquakes or twelve-foot walls of water.

Second, an earthquake this big is going to be followed by killer aftershocks. The rescue teams are mostly going to be held back until the aftershocks, likely to be in the 6.5 range, are done. In other words, that means hundreds more dead, maybe thousands.

May God have mercy.

UPDATE, December 27:

The death toll is up past 22,000 now. Please contact the Indonesian Consulate inyour town to help.

UPDATE, December 29:

The death toll is projected at anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 fatalities, with at least twice that number injured, and millions homeless. Vital and immediate needs include drinkable water, medicine, emergency shelters, clothing, and evacuation. If you have not already done so, please contact any of the following organizations about helping:

The International Red Cross
Rescue Task Force
Indonesia Disaster Fund

Thank you.