In the opportunistic politics of the current United States, welfare has become controversial sometimes due to political expediency versus substantiated concerns over deficit or disparity. Romney’s 47% remark (video clip, NYTimes), the stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ (Krugman, NYTimes), attacks on welfare programs, and others, are clouding sincere discussions about just how important the disadvantaged are in today’s America.

Here I propose a methodology for determining where the line falls between giving the disadvantaged opportunities to work for and leaving the taxpayer open to potential exploitation.

The Two Purposes of Welfare

1) support those unable to support themselves and their dependents. This is borne out of social compassion and motivations to maintain a base level of social environment, health, safety, and economy.

2) to help the able climb their way back into economic productivity. This is the source of our political tussling most of the time. As spoken by a ‘rather’ prominent recent conservative:

Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence. – Ronald Reagan

The Premise

This methodology depends upon one premise: that every person in a civilized society should be offered a reasonable chance, given their circumstances, to escape their disadvantage.

What’s ‘Reasonable’?

What a society considers ‘reasonable’ is critical to determining the nature of its own welfare system. Under the guideline that each welfare beneficiary should be willing to work reasonably hard, we define a Maximum Reasonable Contribution (MRC). The MRC is a defined set of rules about the maximum investment and sacrifice a person should be expected to make to be worthy of being afforded a working path out of welfare. By meeting their MRC, a person signals that they are ready for the state to provide the resources necessary for that person to educate, to train, and to find productive work so long as they maintain their MRC. While helping to clarify an approach to the problem, I do not attempt to understate the considerable complexities of settling on what’s ‘reasonable’ and of filling in the resource gaps fairly for every citizen.

Defining the MRC

Defining the Maximum Reasonable Contribution would come down to political negotiations as informed by social studies as possible. This is a synopsis of the kind of form the MRC definitions might take.

  • 50 hours a week of productive contribution for a healthy childless person (considered a first-prioritized combination of work, study, job-seeking/volunteering, rehabilitation, and travel to/from those activities).
  • 5 hour a week credit per dependent to be used by any parent or legal guardian for care/attention, up to a maximum of 20 hours per week per adult.
  • Specific considerations would be made available for illness, disability, and other disadvantages that may make a well-meaning person unable to reach the same productive contribution as others.

Connecting the MRC to Policy

Once the MRC has been defined, it would be the job of independent bodies from commissions down to local doctors to ensure that those citizens earnestly meeting their MRCs would be able to access one or more paths towards self-sufficiency. Resources would need to be provided at the local, state, and national levels to ensure that those meeting their MRCs find themselves on paths out of welfare.

What This Would Achieve

It may seem like a version of ‘welfare to work’ idea, but the greater purpose of the MRC methodology is to help a society determine what level of benefits are objectively appropriate for its disadvantaged. Based on little more than the agreement upon provision of equal opportunity, the society can then define MRC based on its own work ethic and can then commit to meeting whatever gaps remain.

 

When people say they ‘had good intentions’, the words are often used to explain poor performance. This increasing usage in a weak and unoriginal form has led the simple intention down a path of irrelevance in a world that has come to consider ‘action’ a diametric opposite.

The simple problem with all this is, intentions ARE important.

Whether or not you succeed at what you are doing, your intention to change the world vs. not, or to help people vs. not, has real consequences on the impressions, feelings, vibes, and lessons you give off to those around you and to those touched by your work.

All of us can think of a friendship, a relationship, even a business transaction that left us with that touch of warmth – a feeling that something is or was somehow more special. For all the advertising and positioning the big grocery store chains may engage in, there is nothing so connecting and empowering as a genuine smile and the feeling of engagement when being greeted at the register.

I’ve heard the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, so is the road to heaven.

A persistent twist that has always been in our nature is an over-appreciation of the obvious, and an under-appreciation of the reasoned. Our technology is moving at such a pace that this imbalance is becoming stark in our purchasing, our politics, and our decision-making. While everyday people continue to weight local optimums over global ones, our dilemma of many prisoners continues in its sometimes stuttering, awkward fashion.

In capitalist countries, professions that provide long-term benefits that are fiscally unclear, such as teaching, bear the brunt of our mistake, while transactional professions, such as investment banking, law, and medicine, see great reward. One exception to this behavior is when we tie our purchasing to scarce ideals or saviors - rare entities we see as essential to a positive future, such as talented executives, popular visionaries, and owners of some ‘truth’ (like best-selling non-fiction authors, radio hosts, and religious leaders). Apart from these, we are fairly consistent.

While our lack of intuition for the unclear lags behind us, it leaves untouched a multitude of opportunities for entrepreneurs and thinkers:

  • What aspects of our lives could be improved by appealing to the short-term impulse in order to reach long-term goals?
  • What profits can be made by arbitraging others’ unwillingness to invest in that which they cannot see?
  • How can we better reach our world’s ‘unclear’ goals – sustainability, health, prosperity, equality, freedom, access, education, information, self-fulfillment – by harnessing the short-term impulse in the way that we govern / purchase / make decisions?

We are experiencing a revolution and invigoration of the aesthetic in the world of consumer products and services. In the last few years, more products have differentiated themselves on their ability to look good… so good, in fact, that we feel compelled to use them. Apple is never far from this topic of discourse, but there are other organizations which, arguably without necessity, have incorporated design deeply into their mission. Those like Apple that have become synonymous with ‘good design’ are now reaping the tremendous benefit of this association, and in return for the consumer, the resulting wave is leading to a widespread improvement in realized (and expected) user experiences.

The great Paul Saffo, who I have had the privilege of meeting, has said that we have a tendency to overestimate our predictions of the short-term and to underestimate predictions of the long-term. Look at our current topic: design. Compare dreams of the future from the 1980s to what the ‘future’ is now. Boxy, huge, impersonal, metallic spaces such as were predicted? Or fun, intriguing, sexy, smooth, playful, and fewer glitches? Oscillations in our predictions of the future are caused by fashion and fad; the creation of short-term  improvement through the manipulation of stylistic expectations. ‘Epitome’ design is the least resilient – Web 2.0 glassy buttons and stark gradients applied to flat elements (they are mercifully becoming more subtle over time) may seem as outdated in a few years as gray javascript popups do now. However, this is not always a bad thing – the web gives companies more ability than ever before to keep iterating and to keep riding waves of epitome. It is surprising, in fact, how many people are employed in the distal cause of this endeavor.

The interesting and fundamental thing is – in the face of all of this effort and all of this change, what is the essence of technological progress? Amidst our industrial dreams and informational escapism, our real progress is always towards the humanistically natural, the consumer-centered, the ergonomic, and the organic.

The print media is awash in a frantic daze over its own impending damage and the effortless success of its eclectic, carefree, crowdsourced rivals. This week Stephanie Clifford writes in the New York Times about the shrinking path for opportunities for professional photographers. Also this week, Seth Godin explores ways in which photographers can come to terms with their declining livelihoods by becoming entrepreneurs and bringing together tribes of paying fans for their work.

With a more helpful online interface, customers will be able to navigate the choices and find the best photographer for their needs. Not only would this boost business, photographers will be more able than ever to give their customers photos they'll love. Copyright Sanjee Singla 2010.

The consensus among the photographers I know is that things are, indeed, getting tougher. Fewer paying gigs are available from the professional media, and supply curve shifts at the low-end of photographic quality is depressing prices for casual customers. In retrospect, photography would have remained a more successful profession were photographers not so charitable as to reduce collective prices at every turn. In an increasingly commoditized marketplace, photographers will only survive by differentiating.

There is a specific opportunity for photographers to use entrepreneurship to provide more diverse and accomplished work than ever before. I believe a way to do that is for elite photographers to:

  1. Create a service platform run by photographers for photographers.
  2. Analyze professionals’ work on the basis of:
    1. Quality level
    2. Shooting style
    3. Experience
    4. Service level
    5. Availability/Scheduling
    6. Pricing
  3. Charge a commission per gig arranged to keep the site running.
  4. Suggest photographers for a customer based on the customer’s preferences, price point, and availability requirements.
  5. Encourage photographers to share non-commissioned work (for credit) for the benefit their network of clientèle.
  6. Reap a higher percentage of their work’s true value by going through such a cooperative.

In today’s photography market, choices are unclear. Evidence shows customers in uncertainty end up going cheap, expensive, or avoiding the decision altogether. Elective customers provide business the industry can scarcely afford to lose.

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See more of my photography at http://picasaweb.google.com/sanjeesingla.

It is a common leadership tactic to set precedence with new employees by exercising your authority, sometimes by way of a stern dressing-down or by confusing them with unpredictable behavior. One partner at a consulting firm routinely explodes at new recruits for not entering her office with pen and paper. Another uses unpredictable behavior and a sharp distinction between in-person and e-mail tone that keeps employees guessing.

Precedents like these are old leadership, promoting obedience over creativity, hierarchy over openness, and fear over enthusiasm. These might work in certain contexts where hierarchy is especially important, such as the military, but the grounds on which these tactics are optimal are rapidly shrinking.

Here’s a new idea. The next time you have a group meeting with a new employee present, end with a five minute brainstorming-feedback session, where the goal is to collectively ideate methods to improve the process for the next time around. With my thanks to Stanford’s d.school for this technique and to keep the tone civil and retain forward energy, encourage statements to begin with:

I wish…

How to…

When my team began this project they shuffled, wondering how much they could say. I went first with a suggestion for improving the meeting plan I had previously laid out. After the first two minutes of tentative suggestions, they warmed up and started brainstorming ways of improving our meeting formats, interactions, project approach, scheduling, attendance, creativity, and productivity. They found ways for us to improve I would never have generated alone as their leader. This led to a happier and more healthy team for the entire remainder of the project, as each person knew they were working for someone who cared, who welcomed their creativity and expression, and who was on their side in making their work more enjoyable. The last consensus feedback received?

“We love that you did this.”

Introduction

A honeybee drifts lazily in a blanket of light as figures in shorts and t-shirts float into a dining hall. Off to the side, a small group of freshmen eat their lunch in a room lethargic with pleasure of summer. Among that group, a blonde girl in summery print and freckles, cries.

The topic is education. Some in the room glow with pride over their success in having reached Stanford; she cries because she says they miss the point. Her delicate body belies her passion. To the others her voice is startling, black, and revealing. She cries out against those who would use such a place primarily for the achievement of letters B.A./M.S. rather than for the training of their minds. She defines education as the betterment of oneself, as the inexorable expansion of one’s mind.

Does our reliance on resumes reflect this true education?

Our culture has created a society full of individuals who believe that crafting pedigree is the most important ingredient to success. Like the mediocre product that succeeds due to wide distribution and savvy marketing (I cite Transformers 2), we live with people who believe that what they can claim is more important than what they have done; indeed that what they have done is more important than what they can do.

For God’s Sake, Stay Competent

Competency is the ability to do. It is a result of true knowledge – but only when that knowledge is given the freedom to roam and the motive power to be applied. For those who are bound in a box by their job, the lack of motive power outside that box weakens their other competencies, until they are shaped like the box they were put in. Here are some ideas for staying competent within and outside work.

  1. Influence your company’s culture to become more offbeat: i.e. accepting of crazy ideas, open to challenges, and encouraging of creativity, iterative failure, and learning. How? The low(er) risk version: embody the attitude of condoning these events every time they occur, and do what you can to subtly encourage them. The higher risk version: show up to work with a Twister mat. Kidding.
  2. Encourage multidisciplinary teams.
  3. Keep close friends who are distinctly outside your field, and become engaged in learning about what they do.
  4. At work, find out about the passions of those who work for you (or with you). Actively support them in their hobbies and maybe even join them once in a while.
  5. Create Japanese game-show-style challenges at your company on a lax Friday afternoon.
  6. Introduce educational incentives for employees to learn about the world and enrich their greater mind.
  7. Keep musical instruments, games, and puzzles in your common areas.
  8. Become an entrepreneur – craft ideas, keep exercising every ability you have, and learn about the world with each successive effort to change it.

What methods do you use?

The debate is a universal forum of education, compromise, and reflection. Nowadays we see ‘debates’ every day in the media, as ways to help enlighten us on issues of importance and controversy – politics, religion, health care, abortion, sexual orientation, and so on.

Today’s Debates

There are problems with how the media conducts ‘debates’ that seem to be so ingrained they are often unrecognized or ignored by most viewers.

  1. Grossly insufficient time to actually have the debate. Most are under 10 minutes long. The vast majority of debates on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and other news networks are barely enough to state one’s argument in brief and attack the other’s once or twice. This is a product of our ever-contracting attention spans and the media’s rational need to maintain engagement.
  2. Disagreement over facts. Debaters often ‘rest’ on disagreement over a quotation or a number that could be easily verified.
  3. A lack of discipline in chasing down the fundamental disagreement. Seemingly complex issues like health care, abortion, equal rights, religion, and so on are often reducible to a handful of differences that each debater may respectively perceive as axiomatic. It is only once we get to that point, having stripped away layers of superfluous sophistication, that we see the debate for what it really is.

A New Model

Debates properly run should seek to eliminate the above problems, recognizing that participants should not be ‘saved’ by time or moderator, and the debate should continue to run until someone loses or they reach the wall that is their own axioms. A fact should not be a point of contention. So, we have a new model with the following characteristics.

  • Real-time fact checking on claims brought by the debaters, done on-site with confirmation supplied to the debaters in full public view.
  • A sharp moderator with the speed and clarity to call debaters on cheap tricks, bluffs, and avoidance. The US needs the kind of moderation exhibited by Jeremy Paxman and Jonathan Dimbleby. If only Katie Couric had drilled Palin more on the issues during that infamous September 24th 2008 interview.
  • Extended time periods. Perhaps a focused hour to debate a single important issue while being called out on unhelpful tactics and inaccurate statements.

The British networks do a better job of conducting meaningful debates with examples like Question Time and Newsnight. It is time the American media starts to expose the mainstream to what, for controversial issues, may be their best chance of a more rigorous truth.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain open, honest, analytical clarity towards current events in the United States. Information is spun (most usually, simply self-saturated and exploded) by a media responding to a public ever more needy of carnival escapism. Refer, if you are interested, to such stories as Balloon Boy (in which a family went so far as to mislead authorities and cause millions to worry in order that they become celebrities themselves), Tiger Woods, the series of high-profile news stories about political adulterers, and the decade-long phenomenon of reality shows (the essential point of which is to escape from one reality to experience voyeuristic pleasure and Schadenfreude towards another). American society is evolving into one where celebrity, where spectacle, where absurdity are more highly valued than attention to ‘boring’ fundamentals. The health care policy debate of 2009, as overtly a symbol of democracy as it was supposed to be, became a layering of spectacles in which the victors seemed to be those able to conjure the most vivid images and incite the most fear.

Most of the above is well catalogued and already thoroughly discussed. On a deeper level, however, it is symptomatic of a society that is becoming ever more disillusioned with current life and evocative of the fundamental tenet that men need something to aim for. I believe it a sign of restlessness that is partly symptomatic of a shallowing lifestyle gradient – that which we stand to earn in lifestyle benefits as we progress through our careers. Symbols of achievement that have motivated generations of Americans in the past, such as televisions, washing machines, cars, and white picket fences, are so accessible now that our new symbols of achievement are receding away from the reach of the middle class. Professional 20-somethings can assume to go through almost their entire careers while having access to all basic living needs, a car, household appliances (those that don’t are usually due to geographic or crowding parameters), good food, travel, a plasma/LCD/OLED TV, games consoles, cameras, desired musical instruments, and so on. Despite the inevitable anecdotal examples to the contrary, this trend and basic generalization stands.

The result is that American professionals lead a lifestyle that has little to offer in the way of progress incentives, short of the earnings attributable to true excellence or uncommon luck. The desire to upgrade to a better car is  less motivating than that to own a new car in the first place – see a previous post for comments on this cycle of ‘upgrading’ our expenses to match or exceed our earnings. The fact is that most middle class Americans have access to every fundamental they need to live comfortably. So, they are bored. So, most professionals I speak to on an everyday basis exude either boredom or jadedness. So, apart from 1) surviving, and 2) grasping for escapism from a real world that is increasingly boring us, we are losing our sense of what there is to work for.

This is an upsetting argument. Are we bored as a country, in the same way as an individual dictator who sees no further opportunity to rise? Are we addicted to the unnatural, in the same way as a smoker relies on the cigarette to feel satisfied? Should it take ever-increasing spectacles – either of great creation such as Avatar, or of great destruction such as a recent murky scandal – to retain our attention? I submit that we are bored, we are addicted. Our middle class needs a new vision to earn through their work and with their lives. Now, the question and the opportunity arises…how can we give them that vision?

Most of us able to read this are living the high life by world standards. With a couple of notable exceptions such as health care and pensions, you will probably not spend much of your life worrying about food, shelter, personal safety, freedom, self-expression, or choice in what you do or how you spend your time. (Some of those blessed with spouses may disagree on one or two of these!)

Most of us are riding the great Career Escalator of jobs, promotions, mortgages, car payments. People get on for many reasons – it gives them a place to stand, and it is an easy, relatively dependable way to get to the top and progress through their career. They expect that the destination will be higher than their starting point. There is nothing invalid about such an assumption, however, there is something wrong with the mentality that keeps many on this escalator trapped in this pattern for the rest of their productive lives. Well-educated and opportunistic people can earn considerable paychecks, live in places of prosperity and opportunity, love and be loved by their families, and still feel incomplete. Why?

Instruments of Happiness and the Role of Money

There is an exercise done at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, a simple exercise, where students make a simple list of the things that bring them joy. Here’s an excerpt of mine:

  • Transcendence listening to music
  • Taking an opportunity to recreate/re-envision myself
  • The most intimate of connections, the long conversation with one person
  • Watching a quiet landscape
  • Appreciating and creating artistry

Even those things I love that require money don’t essentially require a lot of it. Most people who do this exercise at the d. school will come to a similar conclusion. So, why is it that we spend so much money on status symbols: the powerful cars, the excessively large living spaces, the couture handbags, the expensive gadgets, when the most basic instruments of our individual fulfillment are still missing? Chances are your new handbag isn’t an instrument of your happiness – such purchases are usually to appear and feel carefree and stylish but only succeed at imparting the all-important feeling for a few weeks at a time. All of us buy these accepted symbols of career ‘progress’, even though their effects are internally temporary and the alternative is a simple list of things that would actually make us happier.

Money has grown beyond the physical need to become a social lifeblood, keeping us connected, respected, and equal in the eyes of those in our networks. The ability to write instant updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Buzz mean that our circle of friends are more attuned to our lifestyles and that which we spend on. As an example, it is harder to see a Facebook page that shows friends all buying a gadget without being influenced into buying one for yourself. This makes it harder for working professionals to reject the spending that keeps them engaged with their networks but also trapped on the escalator with less to show for it in the long run. The more of these ‘influenced’ purchases we make, the longer we end up trapped having to go to work, when a far greater luxury would be to find our transcendence / retire early / live off our investments. Like crabs, we each fail to escape the bucket due to the presence and pressure of everyone else.

We must resist the temptation to keep increasing the size of the Sisyphean burden around our necks each time our work pushes us a little higher. Focus instead on reducing those flashy purchases that make a minimal difference, and intensifying your pursuit of your own transcendence.

Start tweeting more often about the precious conversation you had the other night or what you felt listening to that song. Tweet less about the things you’re buying. You can begin to change the social experience for the hundreds of people you are connected to, helping them to change the balance of transcendence vs. materialism for themselves… and you can start to make them redefine what is socially important.

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