The Brands That Still Matter

February 13, 2014

Dannon Oikos’s nostalgic Superbowl spot was a great advertisement for both the French multinational and its new yogurt product.

But will knowing Oikos is a Dannon product make consumers want to purchase it? Or will they turn instead to nutritional count, pro-biotic content, or price to make their decision? How strong is this brand?

How strong, these days, is any brand?

What I need right now is some good advice

Well, it depends. An excellent piece in the New Yorker this week explores “the end of brand loyalty” and whether this spells the decline of an age in which brands were useful shorthands for purchasing everything from baked beans to luxury sedans. In an era in which the customer review is king, all companies must compete product by product, it says, even established giants. The field is open for upstarts and smaller rivals who can win over a market on the strength of a single, well-reviewed product.

It’s easier than ever for young companies to establish a foothold with a signature product: think Crocs, which have expanded from those foam clogs to flip flops and winter gear, creating a whole new hideous/comfortable footwear market. What propelled Crocs to fame was the strength of customer testimonials saying that it really was worth the price and the look to get that level of comfort.

The same trends that allowed Crocs to happen also signal the decline of major brands. When we have so much information at the click of a button, the promise of a consistent level of quality – which is really all a brand is – becomes less important than the fact – actual product reviews. Why trust a company to make things you know you’ll love when you can trust other users to tell you their opinions instead? It’s true: the level of trust in a product’s brand as a shorthand for making a good purchasing decision is at its nadir.

However, the decline of product brands has led to the rise in service brands, particularly those giving advice. Booking a holiday? The competition for who gives the best advice on hotels, restaurants and attractions seems to have been decisively won by TripAdvisor. Purchasing a book? Bypass the publishing house and read the reviews on Amazon, and then let the site recommend a choice for you. Looking for a good movie? Hardly anybody makes decisions about movies based on the studios that produce them, but Netflix can tell you what to watch based on what you’ve seen before.

These are all Internet-based examples, because the advice industry has moved online for the most part, but brick-and-mortar service brands have also maintained their strength amid the fall of brand loyalty for products. Banks are an example of organizations that are judged based on the selection of products they have curated for their customers, but more importantly how they advise their clients, particularly in the higher end, higher-margin businesses of wealth management and institutional and corporate banking. Consulting firms continue to prosper through economic slowdowns because they can advise on both growing revenue (in good economic climates) and streamlining expenses (in bad). And it all began with things like Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, and other ranking agencies who built their reputations upon being the ones who choose the products that matter, and whose advice you can trust.

The service brand becomes personal

Those who host the platforms that enable others to recommend products – the information aggregators and analysts – are poised to be the big winners of the near economic future. And this extends to individuals as well, which explains the push in the last ten years to develop “personal brands.” I’ve written before about how this makes many feel a bit icky, and yet if we think of skills as “products,” and analytical ability as “service,” it makes sense to have a personal brand that emphasizes how you think and relate to others as opposed to what you know. (This is why most personal brands focus on a combination of attitude and experience, e.g. Oprah’s signature empathy which resulted from her life experiences.)

Skills can be learned and degrees earned by many individuals, just like many companies can manufacture clothing. They are interchangeable. But proof of being able to think well, in the form of awards, complementary experiences, and attitudes, expressed through a self-aware brand, is unique.

This is likely why LinkedIn has moved to a model that goes beyond listing skills and abilities to providing references (“recommendations” and “endorsements”) to indicate past performance, and “followers” to show how popular one’s ideas are. These serve the exact same function as the ranking and number of reviews a destination has on TripAdvisor.

No doubt this has contributed to the large number of individuals wanting to strike out on their own. At a recent networking meeting I attended, 100% of attendees were looking to become independent personal nutritionists, career or life coaches, or consultants. They weren’t wanting to sell things, they wanted to sell themselves and their advice.

A strong brand – a personal one – is essential for this kind of career change, and part of creating a strong brand is ensuring consistency. Working for an organization whose values don’t align with yours – even if you are doing the same thing you’d want to do independently – is a brand mis-match.

All of this highlights another key similarity to traditional product brands: service brands, once established, have a grip on market share. Most companies would prefer to have an accountant at an established firm do their taxes over a sole proprietor. TripAdvisor has few competitors in the travel advice industry, which is why travel agencies are faring so poorly. The barriers to entry are high and name recognition and brand still counts for a lot.

My advice to newcomers: time to call up Uncle Jesse to make an ad for you and get some brand recognition.


Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):

Image

It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…

Russia.

Have fun at Sochi.


Sparkling Water or Water Lilies? The Comfort vs. Beauty Problem

January 29, 2014

First things first: posthistorical is back! I am very excited to be blogging again. The world seems much the same: Obama, Harper, and Merkel have won more elections; politicians everywhere squabble over ridiculously trivial things and generally accomplish nothing; we collectively still spend way too much time on facebook. And yet much has changed: this blogger now lives in the Golden State instead of the True North Strong and Free, and with a government-enforced sabbatical now has a lot fewer excuses not to post frequently.

It’s also 4 years (ish) since I started posting on this blog, and that means the exciting quadrennial spectacle of nationalism that got many of my juices flowing last time (otherwise known as the Winter Olympics) will soon be upon us. Once more, in Russian! More to come.

But first!

A dichotomy for the ages

One of the things that started me on blogging again was a rush of ideas I encountered while re-reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for a book club meeting. I will likely tease out a number of themes and their repercussions in the modern world in future posts, but the one that resonated most strongly with me was the dichotomy that one of the book’s main characters presents between truth & beauty and comfort & happiness. To have beauty and truth, he reasons, one needs to endure political and emotional instability, heartbreak, misery and terror – basically, opportunities to show mercy, wisdom and courage in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds. Happy and comfortable people have no need to rise above their situations in such a manner.

But who would choose discomfort and misery, given the choice?

The general trend of world history has been toward comfort, both in a material way and in the sense of social stability. If the nineteenth century was the century of engineering and industry, the twentieth century was the century of comfort. It was the century of spandex, widespread air conditioning and La-Z-Boy. More people than ever before were lifted out of poverty, and industrialization led to middle-class (or relative middle-class) comfort worldwide.

The number of people who choose sneakers over high heels or jeans and t-shirts over Little Lord Fauntleroy suits seems to back up comfort’s victory over beauty. And from the range of falsehoods – from “spin” to blatant lies – evident in government, advertising and many other areas, truth doesn’t seem to do very well either.

Have we already made the choice? And if so, is this progress?

The truth/beauty vs. happiness/comfort dichotomy mirrors the idea of moral vs. technological progress. Some thinkers, such as John Gray, whose anti-humanist work Straw Dogs I’ve written about before, believe that technological progress is in theory limitless, but that our moral progress as humans is essentially stalled. Nuclear technology, to use an example he gave, while a huge technological boon that can supply power to millions, has simultaneously allowed us to wipe cities off the map, a more efficient killing machine than had ever been known before.

Systematic discrimination

Perhaps truth and beauty – or moral progress, if we can equate the two – have seemingly lost out to comfort and happiness – technological progress – because the large-scale systems that largely control our lives have focused mainly on them. Take governments: funding for truth and beauty (whatever that would look like) will almost always come second to funding for hospitals, police, and even infrastructure – that is, the necessary building blocks for a comfortable life. The Brave New World character I mentioned earlier also points out that rule of the people leads to an emphasis on comfort and happiness over truth and beauty – certainly, this is the credo of America, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not, incidentally the pursuit of truth. Comfort, or at least freedom from harm and repression, was the first priority of the revolutionaries.

I went back to examine some other modern revolutionaries. Re-reading The Communist Manifesto, I discovered that the aims of Communism also begin with comfort before proceeding to truth, even if the ideals contained within the movement are based on so-called universal truths. Guaranteeing subsistence was the first step, through a radical change in property rights, the tax system, etc. followed by universal education (i.e., the pursuit of truth and beauty).

The other large system that governs our lives, free market capitalism, is also geared toward profits that can more easily be made from comfort than beauty.  This is why Proctor & Gamble, who sell deodorant and diapers, made $US 81 billion in 2013, and the New York Times, winner of more Pulitzer prizes than any other newspaper, struggles each quarter to make a profit. Perhaps this also explains the existence of the phrase “starving artist.”

First things first

There may be a way to see a positive outcome in this. Perhaps it is not so much a dichotomy between truth/beauty and comfort/happiness, as a ladder, or hierarchy, if you will. Perhaps, like ol’ Maslow said, we focus first on satiating the need for food, clean water and safety before striving for self-actualization.

Now, we all know how much I love Maslow (and so does everyone else, apparently, because this is by far my most read post). But this theory would disagree with Huxley’s characters, who imagine that it is either a comfortable, drugged out existence devoid of anything so confusing and challenging as truth, OR starving artists capitalizing on their misery and discomfort by creating beauty, that is, skipping straight to the top of the hierarchy.

I posit this theory: those who can truly move to the self-actualization stage can only do so because they feel their more basic needs have already been met. This is true even though they live in the same world as those more susceptible to advertising campaigns which introduce needs we never knew we had (for the new iPhone, elective rhinoplasty, or gluten-free dog food, for example). Maybe it’s just that those seeking truth and beauty seem deprived and miserable to those who couldn’t imagine taking their places.

Our need for comfort will stay the same as our definition of comfort changes; perhaps those who can be comfortable enough already, without soma and shiny new things, can have their truth/beauty cake and eat it too – happily.


Academia Shrugged? or, Why You Should Just Quit Your Ph.D. Now

July 27, 2011

Grad school and academia as a potential career have taken a real beating in the media lately. It seems the world has finally woken up and smelled the (three-day old, re-used) coffee beans that are all grad students can afford. The bottom line is that humanities students should run, not walk, away from a life of debt and uncertainty, and a “dream job” that will never quite pan out.

In an article for Slate.com, William Pannapacker, himself a professor at a liberal arts college, proposes a few steps to fix graduate school in the humanities. Some of what he advises – such as providing networking opportunities and internships, and recognizing that it may be better to keep one’s passion for obscure fields of study as a hobby – is similar to what I proposed in my own post on a Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments.

But I was really intrigued by his addition of a final, “nuclear option”: quit. In his words:

Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don’t have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.

Wow. A group of highly intelligent, capable individuals upon whom “the system” depends but who are scorned by it decide one day to “go on strike” in the hopes of seeing said system implode and leave behind a twitching lump of ingrates suddenly begging them to return and save them.

This sounds familiar. Where did I read about that recently? Oh, yes – in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s infamous treatise on objectivism. In it, the heroes grapple with their own superior morality in a world of incompetent ingrates and eventually come to realize they are complicit in the very system that condemns them for their unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed. (Of course, unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed are positive attributes in Rand’s heroes.) So, one by one, they go on strike by withdrawing to a hidden, magical place where labour is justly rewarded, and nobody ever gives anybody anything they haven’t worked for, while they watch the world crumbling around them without their input.

(There, I’ve saved you from slogging through 1000+ pages of libertarian/objectivist bluster that would probably outrage and offend anyone who believes in silly things like equality of opportunity and altruism.)

But putting aside the absurd pairing of tweed-jacketed academics and Wall Street “fat cats,” let’s think a minute about the implications of this Randian proposition for academics. Would it work? As Pannapacker points out, there is always the possibility of having a day job with health care and indulging in one’s “irrational love for the humanities” as a hobby. As he says, “more and more people are learning [that] universities do not have a monopoly on the ‘life of the mind.’”

Maybe. But I think universities should at least have a competitive edge on it, or else they stand to become exactly what vocationalists want them to be: training for jobs that exist today and have clear mandates and required preparation. This would certainly be the case if all the most brilliant liberal arts minds suddenly decided to be brilliant elsewhere in the world.

Because if not universities, then where? Will we have to start paying people to hear about their ideas? Will we have the same level of interaction if everyone is decentralized and off thinking interesting thoughts in different industries? How will we prepare people to think innovatively, and prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow that don’t have clear mandates or preparatory courses?

The whole point of a university is that it is a hub, a place a little apart from the rest of the world (yes, perhaps even an ivory tower) where people can reflect on the “big questions” that may not be directly related to the pressing fads of the moment. What happens when this education becomes more decentralized? Can we trust that individuals will independently seek out all of the different perspectives they’re likely to get in an undergraduate humanities course?

I reflect on what Stanley Fish wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago: basically, that academics, and by extension universities, should just abandon trying to be relevant and focus instead on academic inquiry for the sake of it alone. I think that would be unwise. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a great thing, and we need independent places (i.e. not ones funded by corporations) that will ensure that people continue to seek it. But relevance is important too, and while it should not be the only goal, it needs to be a goal.

In short, the current academic system needs to be refined from within, not by walking away and shrugging off all its problems. (Besides, academic types don’t have a magical land in Colorado where we can retreat and live out our ideals of hard work and free love and no taxes.) Professors and administrators could start with being honest about the reality of life as a grad student, i.e. mostly unemployed without the health coverage Pannapacker so enjoys having. And they should stop denigrating non-academic career choices by framing them as a continuation on the path of intelligent, creative thinking, not a deviation from it.

And then we – all of us – can start changing the way we view “amateur” non-academics outside the system, and invite them in. Let’s not exclude people with insider jargon and inaccessible writing. Let’s make a place inside the ivory tower for people who think about the “big questions” of life outside of it, so we can examine the practical implications of our ideas. Let’s show the vocationalists that “academic” is not a dirty word but one that can bring significant insight and positive change to the world outside universities, as well as in its libraries.

Let’s ask people to help us hold up the world, instead of just dropping it.


25 Reasons Today Is a Great Time to Be Alive

June 22, 2011

Amid all the morose and maudlin whinging about how we are losing our sense of self, our ability to self-moderate, or more generally our minds, merit, and money, today I offer up a list of things to get excited about in 2011.

Here are 25 reasons life (and mine specifically) is better today than it would have been…

250 Years Ago

25. I can reasonably expect to live longer than 33 years.

24. In my life, I’ve visited over 10 countries on 3 continents. And among my friends, I’m not well travelled. In 1761, people rarely left their hometown, let alone the country.

23. Last night I heard superb music by 10 different composers, played by a world-class orchestra, for under $30. (And I waved a Union Flag while doing it! “And did those feet, in ancient time…”) In 1761, only a fraction of the population could hear such music – and not cheaply.

22. Indoor plumbing! Sewers! Need I say more?

21. I can buy a great book for under $5; in 1761 it would have cost the equivalent of about $1000.

100 Years Ago

Hunger Strikes Among Suffragettes

20.  As a woman, I can choose who runs my country/province/ city (at least in theory). And I didn’t have to be jailed and force-fed by a tube in order to have the right to do it – all I had to do was reach majority.

 19. I didn’t die of chickenpox, infection, or the flu when I was a child, as many children did in 1911.

18.  I do laundry by putting a bunch of clothes into a machine, pouring in some liquid, and pressing a few buttons, instead of spending two days with the household staff, soaking it, wringing it out repeatedly, and stirring it around in crazy chemicals with washing bats. It’s like magic.

17. Electricity — in my home! Amazing.

16. In one of my history classes we watched 1900 House, a documentary in which a family of six lived as they would have in 1900 for three months. A memorable take-away? Modern shampoo is a hell of a lot more effective than egg yolk and citrus. “I just smell really, sort of, omlette-y.”

50 Years Ago

15. I did not have to promise to obey my husband when we got married.  In fact, I didn’t even have to get married to get all the legal benefits of a long-term committed relationship.

14. I can wear pants! and shorts! And neither is prohibited by law.

Katharine Hepburn, a pants-blazer and personal heroine

13. I can eat any kind of food I want to, and could probably find somebody from its country of origin to talk to about it. Every day just walking down the street I see a greater degree of diversity than at any other time in history, all in once place, living (relatively) harmoniously together.

12. I can choose whether or not to spawn, with near-certainty that my wishes will be protected by law and the wisdom of modern medicine.

11. A century old saying has it that “horses sweat, men perspire — ladies merely glisten.” But when I go to the gym, I can sweat all I like, and feel healthy doing it. Moreover, certain terrifying Amazonian female athletes step it up a notch by adding a soundtrack.

25 Years Ago

10. I live in the charmingly-labelled “Rainbow Village” area of Toronto, where I can watch men walk down the street holding hands, or carrying impossibly tiny dogs wearing designer hats in large purses.

9. I can find out what’s going on in any part of the world in under 10 seconds, at the click of a button.

8. I feel reasonably secure knowing that many heinous crimes are solved using DNA evidence. Bonus: I can watch any of the fascinating procedural dramas stemming from said advancements in forensic science. Bring it on, Grissom!

7. I can listen to “Tarzan Boy” over and over and over again without having to rewind, ever.

6. It’s exciting that people are taking steps to protect the environment more than at any other time in modern history. Or, at least, they’re aware of how to protect it.

10 Years Ago

5. I can press a button on a machine and be talking to my grandmother, 3500 miles away, in under 10 seconds. For free. (And I feel like God every time I do it. Think about it: your computer is calling someone else’s! This is the kind of thing they dreamed about in SciFi movies 50 years ago.)

4. I can access the Internet everywhere I go. Want to know if the restaurant I’m walking by is any good? I can read reviews. If I’m lost? I can get directions. Wondering if it’s going to rain? I can check the weather. Instantaneously.

3. Buying a home during a recession meant we got an insane deal on our mortgage.

2. I can watch things like this all day if I want to:

1. I have a place to share my latest thoughts, pictures, or links to rambling blog posts with my closest friends, and get feedback from any or all of them, immediately. Communication is more frequent than ever before. I can feel like part of  a community without even having to leave my desk. (Or put on the pants I was so excited about earlier.)

What are you excited about in 2011 that you would add to this list?


New Money and How To Buy Things Anonymously

June 16, 2011

The more I read, the more I am determined that privacy/anonymity vs. openness/sharing will be the defining dichotomy of our age. The more web sites start to track pieces of information about what we buy and sell, where we browse, and what we like, the greater the number of calls for regulation and privacy protection. The battle lines between privacy and the power of information have been drawn.

But now there is a way to keep spending private, at least. Bitcoin, a digital currency allegedly created by hacker Satoshi Nakamoto, contains complex encryptions that allow its holders to buy and sell anything, anywhere in the world over the Internet, without revealing their real names or having to pay any kind of exchange fees or taxes. (For an interesting and accessible overview of Bitcoins and their implications, see this article in ars technica.) Bitcoin has all the advantages of cash – anonymity – but without the hassle of having to physically transport it anywhere. It also has all the advantages of a “trust-based electronic currency,” such as credit cards, in that it allows instant, ubiquitous transactions, but without the need for an identity attached to them.

Bitcoin has consequently been embraced by Anonymous, an anarchic online community that first came to mass public attention when it disrupted the sites of PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and others in response to perceived censoring of WikiLeaks last year. It is disrupting them again with Bitcoin, but this time more indirectly.

Normally, when new currencies appear on the scene, they have a hard time with what is termed “adoption and valuation,” that is, getting people to use them, and determining what they are worth compared with other currencies. New currencies are usually the prerogative of federal governments, or supranational ones (as in the case of the Euro), which automatically gives them a head start because citizens need to pay taxes in the new currency and generally use it to make purchases. Even then, as this history of the Euro points out, there are remarkably complex logistical and emotional hurdles to overcome, from swapping the money found in ATMs to choosing the images and words for the notes that so many people identify with to establishing the value of the new currency against other existing ones.

It is very rare for new currencies to spring up without a national backing, and perhaps Bitcoin has only been able to gain attention and adoption of the market because it is digital, and thus doesn’t have the physical/logistical barriers to overcome. But why are people using it? Just like a new national currency, Bitcoin has appeared and boldly declared that it stands for a new order, in a sense. Its users can now engage in economic activity outside of the sphere of government control, or the control of multinational credit corporations, in total privacy.

As an article on BigThink puts it, “You don’t need a banking or trading account to buy and trade Bitcoins – all you need is a laptop. They’re like bearer bonds combined with the uber-privacy of a Swiss bank account, mixed together with a hacker secret sauce that stores them as 1’s and 0’s on your computer.” Bitcoin represents the complete disengagement of the buyer from the seller, the furthest distance yet discovered from bartering or exchanging one good for another. Purchases now require approval from no-one.

Is this radical new territory, or a return to what currency is intended to be? As a means of exchange, currency technically need not have an identity attached to it. It stands as a measure of commensurability; buyers and sellers can rely on the value of the currency as a standard without having to ascertain the value of goods being exchanged every time they buy or sell. And it was only very recently in the trajectory of human history that currency was created with no direct correlation to an existing good like gold (called fiat currency), but with instead the backing of a national government with whose laws and regulations the buying and selling parties tacitly agree to comply. New virtual currencies like Bitcoin are similar to all modern government currencies in that their value is not intrinsic but imposed by decree (and perceived rarity, and a bunch of other factors). But they lack the oversight of institutions and regulators that comes with a national means of exchange.

Whether Bitcoins will remain as seemingly ominous and valuable as they have recently become is questionable. This week, the Bitcoin plot thickened with an apparent heist in which approximately $500 000 worth of Bitcoins were stolen from one veteran user. The theft pointed to the limits of exchange without third-party oversight, whether in the form of government or a corporation to monitor fraud and persecute offenders. Is the anonymity of exchange worth the risk?

It seems as though this has come down to the same “privacy vs.  security” debate that has dominated public discourse since the rise of the Internet (and, of course, September 11). In all likelihood, some third-party institutions will step in to regulate Bitcoin trading with limited liability and criminal activity investigations, as the above-linked article details. But these would decrease the anonymity of the users of the currency, in some ways negating the whole point. Perhaps the main take-away of Bitcoin is  that anonymity, in today’s world, has its trade-offs too, and can never be an absolute good.


Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.


Tiger Moms, Drop-Outs, and Credentialism (oh my!)

May 31, 2011

Now here’s a controversial news item: Peter Thiel, famous for having founded PayPal and investing early in facebook, and now a billionaire, is paying young entrepreneurs to drop out of school. His Thiel Foundation has just named 24 “fellows” under 20 who are recipients of $100 000 and mentoring opportunities with high-powered and successful entrepreneurs in order to launch a profitable initiative. They are all drop-outs (of college or high school), a requirement for the prize.

His logic is that many would-be students of elite schools would be better off going right out into the world to generate “significant wealth,” rather than learn about the theories behind what others have said and done and invented. And while I would never blindly advocate that anyone drop out of school, given the prevailing societal opinion about education and the very real value of exposure to new ways of thinking, his initiative is perhaps a useful antidote to those who do blindly advocate more schooling as the solution to all of society’s ills. Education is a wonderful thing – I would even say that it is the key to solving many of the world’s great scourges, such as intolerance, authoritarianism, and the solid grip of misinformation. In a way, Thiel is saying that it is the ideas and the work behind them to make them successful that counts, not the name of one’s alma mater (or even the existence of one).

Credentialism – in the form of collecting degrees and designations from acclaimed institutions – has become a powerful shorthand for measuring societal status. It is iron-clad in an aura of meritocracy, because in theory only the best are able and would choose to obtain a degree or three at the world’s (and especially America’s) finest educational institutions. But, as with all shorthands, a focus on credentials alone as a stand-in for intellectual or societal worth fails is insufficient and at times unfair.

The education situation in many developed countries is drastic. Every year, millions of the world’s best students vie for a place in one of the mere hundreds of top institutions, trying to best each other in any way possible. A recent issue of the Atlantic explores the phenomenon in depth as part of an extended look at the “tiger mom” debate brought about by the now-infamous book by Amy Chua (there is a good write-up on it here, in case you live under a rock and missed it). Much of the furore over the book was caused by the implicit challenge of Chua’s winner-take-all style of parenting. In refusing to give in to her daughters’ tears, frustration, exhaustion, and in some cases disturbing behaviour (biting the piano?), Chua claims she paved the way to their happiness by allowing them to know what they were capable of.  More recently, her eldest daughter’s acceptance to Harvard has renewed the wave of anxious hang-wringing by “Western” parents who think they aren’t pushing their children hard enough to get into good schools and assure their futures.

But are the hours of heartache, rebellions and tooth marks on family instruments worth it? Is pushing a child to his or her limit, encouraging activities like building orphanages in Africa, chairing the local youth orchestra, and volunteering as an assistant surgeon on weekends in order to secure a spot at the Ivies the key to lifelong success and happiness? Is it even likely to yeild a coveted admission letter? Not really, according to what Caitlin Flanigan writes in response to Chua’s book:

Elite-college admissions offices drive professional-class parents crazy because in many respects they do not operate as meritocracies. Consider, for example, those students admitted via one of the two programs that stand as strange mirror opposites: those that give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni, and those that extend it to the children of unrepresented minorities. The latter practice suggests that generations of injustice and prejudice can be redressed by admission to a fancy college, the former that generations of inclusion and privilege demand their own special prize; the two philosophies would seem to cancel one another out, but each has its place in the larger system.

In fact, when you account for all of the “hooked” seats in the freshman class—spaces specifically set aside for kids who have some kind of recruited talent or family connection or who come from an underrepresented minority group—you accomplish, at the most selective colleges, two things: you fill a large percentage of the class (some researchers believe the figure is as high as 60 percent), and you do so with kids whose average grades and scores are significantly lower than your ideal. Now it’s time to swing a meritocracy into place; the caliber of the class is at stake. All of the unhooked students are now going to be thrown into a hypercompetitive pool, the likes of which the layperson can’t imagine. As daunting as the median grades and test scores of the typical Princeton admittee may appear, those statistics have taken into account all of the legacies and volleyball players and rich people’s children who pushed the averages down.

Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? And what’s more, there is a growing pile of literature that argues it isn’t worth it. These days, people go to university for four main reasons:

  1. To attain practical/vocational knowledge that will tangibly help them get a job.
  2. To attain theoretical or other knowledge that will expand their minds in an area of interest.
  3. To please their parents/society/employers who consider a post-secondary education to be a mandatory status symbol. The better the reputation of the school, the better the status symbol.
  4. To make connections with peers and professors.

The main benefits of a “top-tier” education, as opposed to one from a large public American or Canadian school, lie in the last two, status and connections. Sharing a room with a future Mark Zuckerberg or getting to vacation on the yachts of the rich and famous must be worth the price of admission, right?

William D. Cohan thinks not, writing in the New York Times that getting into an Ivy League school is a “Pyrrhic victory,” with the outcome of having monstrous student debts (from $50 000+ per year fees) and only slight better-than-average job prospects in a glum economy. Many other American schools have astronomical fees, and even relatively cheap Canadian educations place graduates in debt. There is also, as I referred to above, the non-monetary cost of an education at a prestigious school. Whole families are swept up in the hyper-competitive race to the top, where lazy summer vacations and boredom and play are replaced with summer volunteer trips to Kenya, SAT prep courses, and the endless repetition of mastering a musical instrument.

But the saddest part is that it may all be for naught. A sister article in the same Atlantic issue as the above quotation charts the potential life course of many products of tiger-led households:

Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. As we know, in this tundra-like new economy, even medical degrees, and especially law degrees, may translate into $250,000 of unrecoverable higher-education debt and no job prospects, despite any amount of hard work and discipline.

The reality, of course, is that there is life after graduation, and I imagine that a lot of students and parents who sacrifice their lives perfecting their viola performance and polishing their resumes will get there and wonder what the hell happened — and what to do next. The same is true for all graduates who feel lost after school, and who may have underplayed their social and entrepreneurial skills in favour of tailoring their lives to academic pursuits that will not help them once they have their degrees. And so I support Peter Thiel’s initiative because it addresses the fact that it takes more than a few letters from any school to achieve success in life.


What Canada Desperately Needs: Visionary Leadership

April 20, 2011

Many people have been calling Canadians parochial throughout this election. Apparently we’re not comfortable with our leaders having opinions about politics outside our own country (and casting votes to back them up). We are apparently less involved internationally than ever before, especially in leadership roles. As a country, Canada is “retreating in on itself, clinging to the security of its own cultural stereotypes.”

Quite frankly, I think the kind of parochialism described above is but an aspiration at this point. I would love to see nation-wide parochialism. Instead, we have something closer to the real, historical definition of the word: looking no further than one’s own church parish. The campaign has showcased several variations of such limited and narrow outlooks, and the dialogue has largely been confined to pet causes, special interests, and the concerns of small minorities.

The real tragedy of this election is not that we will have spent several hundred thousand dollars to get to about the same place, give or take a few seats. It is that we – led by our fearful leaders – have failed to take the opportunity to engage in dialogue about the path Canada is on, and more importantly, what that path should be. This election has mostly been fought over the past: disrespect for Parliament, carpetbaggery, where money was and wasn’t spent, what was and wasn’t allowed to happen, and generally the same tired policies and pot shots we’ve heard for years.

Thus far, there has been a woeful lack of debate about the real issues that will shape the future, such as youth unemployment and skill development, education, and the role of urban areas. Nobody has yet talked about a solution to the looming crisis in pensions. The critical and contentious issue of technology scored nary a mention at the debates. Overall, there is a chronic lack of an overriding, national vision.

This is why I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how Gilles Duceppe would be the best person to elect. “He’s just sooo charismatic, and such a great speaker.” Indeed. (Especially en français in comparison to the other party leaders whose first language is English, n’est-ce pas?) Let’s not forget that he is running on a platform that, 150 years ago, would likely have been considered treasonous, and continues to act as a catalytic force for ill in Canadian politics.

It is very easy for Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Party colleagues to say whatever is most appealing to Canadians because 1) they know they will never have enough power to actually act on any of their promises; 2) they know they will never have to find any money for their schemes; and 3) since they are at heart a regional party, they need not come up with any coherent vision. They can borrow from the left and the right with no regard for the practicality of their position. As Tasha Kheriddin wrote recently in the National Post:

For federalists, the Bloc continues to represent an immovable force, not only an obstacle to a majority government, but a siphon for political talent and resources which would otherwise be deployed in the other parties, most notably the Tories and the NDP.

Instead of allowing federal politics to develop on a left-right continuum, as in the Rest of Canada, the Bloc continues to perpetuate the federalist-separatist dichotomy, and run an effective extortion scheme to boot.

Basically, the Bloc constitutes a wedge between voters in Quebec and national policies enacted by widely-supported national parties.

I don’t mean to vilify the Bloc above all others, as there are several parties at fault here. I have heard the Green Party criticized for similar reasons, namely being a single-issue party. I can certainly see the merits of that argument, given that the Green party’s platform is neither particularly left- nor right-wing, but mixes and matches policies to suit its “Green” foundation. (It also siphons votes and resources away from other parties, ones that could perhaps be more usefully employed formulating policies within mainstream parties that have a hope of being elected in numbers.)

I personally disagree and think the Green Party is coherent in its vision of offering policies undergirded by a focus on sustainability, in the same way the Tories offer policies broadly based on the principles of personal accountability and small government, and Liberals’ policies are broadly based on the idea of equality of opportunity and greater state involvement. What differentiates the national parties from the Bloc is that their policies (for the most part) allow Canada to work together without demanding rights and special privileges for some and not all.

To be clear, I don’t believe that parties should stick strictly to where their political forebears have trod. But political parties are important because they organize political thought and allow voters to make decisions based on what they imagine will be consistent ideologies. No election campaign can cover every possible scenario, so we want those we elect to act along predictable lines when something unexpected occurs. Those who elected George W. Bush in 2000 should not have been surprised that he reacted to the September 11 attacks as a conservative Republican would; this was the blueprint he ran on. With some exceptions, right-wing American politicians have often shown less regard for multilateral institutions like the UN than their left-wing counterparts. It is part of their ideology.

The American comparison is useful because it also shows us what a visionary candidate for a nation’s leader looks like. Vision is a mandatory quality for American presidents. They need to be able to energize vast numbers of voters into believing in their vision of the future. George W. Bush had a vision, that of “compassionate conservatism.” Obama certainly had a vision – of hope, change, empowerment of communities and international bodies, and support for social programs. Some might argue that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price for enacting his vision of an America in partnership with other nations around the globe in such a short time after taking office.

The last Canadian PM to win a Nobel Peace Prize was Lester Pearson. During his minority government, he implemented what are now seen as the signature Canadian social programs and icons, including universal healthcare, the CPP, and our current national flag.

Do any of our current potential national leaders have that kind of vision? Please, someone, convince me – my vote is up for grabs.


ANARCHY! (or, Why the State Does Too Much And Yet Not Enough)

April 15, 2011

Nations are ever-present structures in our lives. Their appearance as political entities and actors around the nineteenth century marked an inflection point in how we think about groups of individuals and how power is aggregated. I have outlined before why nations are perennially important, and the enduring popularity of my post on A Hierarchy of National Needs among search engine indices attests to the currency nationalism has in the public sphere.

But I’ve been reading some fascinating criticisms of nationalism (in the form of national structures and governments) lately, which attack nations as ineffective from an ideological standpoint. The attacks come both from below – the position in which I would classify libertarian thinking, in that it desires less state control over aspects of individuals’ lives – and above – those who believe more multi-national or supra-national organizations are necessary to create global solutions to global problems.

(At this point I’ll remark that the root of both of the preceding words is “nation.” If people are going to start thinking differently about the base controlling structures in our lives, they must stop referring to them as, essentially, collections of nations, or at the level above nations.)

Criticisms from Below

A feature on the Pileus political science blog recently discussed Habermas and one of his critics, Hayek, on the issue of public discourse in the nation state. For those unfamiliar with recent political philosophy, Habermas stands as a giant in the area, perhaps most famous for his ideas about the creation of a culture of public interaction within societies in the early eighteenth century, which he termed the “public sphere.” He asserted that humans have the ability to make society more equal and just through rational communication (I can’t help but imagine that he would love erudite and insightful blogs with intelligent commentators for this very reason).

Hayek’s criticism, expanded on Pileus by Mark Pennington (who has just written a book on the subject), is that discussion in a free and protected public sphere is not enough. The actions of individuals can in many cases be better proof than simply the airing of ideas or theories, particularly if such actions are brought about by acting in opposition to the prevailing belief system of the times. As Pennington writes:

The spread of knowledge in markets, the arts and science does not typically proceed via collective deliberation, but advances best when individuals and groups have a ‘private sphere’ that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, incrementally, through a process of emulation the prevailing wisdom may change over time. It is not sufficient for people to be able to talk about their ideas. Rather, they must have scope to act on those ideas – and this requires ‘property rights’, not ‘speech rights’.

In a way, this argument can be summed up as advocating free market principles across the board, the ability of people to “vote with their feet” and come to agreement with popular action as well as discussion. Pennington also notes that the independently wealthy have an important role to play as “trail-blazers for new values and ideas.” I think of such individuals as venture capitalists for ideas.

In essence, I see this argument as, broadly, a repeat of one of the key arguments against socialism/communism, which is that it restricts choices and enforces conformity. Pileus clearly has free market, libertarian leanings, and seeks to decrease the role of the state in favour of individual accountability (much like David Cameron does). It’s fascinating to read a defence of this viewpoint from the perspective of the public sphere/political economy.

Shakespeare at the Supranational Level

And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, I see criticisms that the state is not powerful enough. In a discussion from Big Think’s series this month on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance, Kenji Yoshino notes the relationship between the plot of Titus Andronicus and modern statecraft:

Titus is about what happens when the revenge cycles spin out of control. Revenge tragedies represent something that happens when the state is very weak and so the Elizabethans had a very weak state where there wasn’t a standing army.  There wasn’t an effective police force and so when something happened that was horrible like someone kills a member of your family, you had to choose whether to rely on a very weak state that was basically going to do nothing or to take justice into your own hands. It strikes me that we’re at the international level where the Elizabethans were at the national level because we’re stepping onto an international theater in the way that you described and there isn’t a centralized authority that’s going to step in and quash the revenge cycle. So if terrorists fly planes into our buildings what are we going to do, go hat in hand to the UN?  No, we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to engage in vigilante justice, right, but we all know how those stories end.

What a fantastic concept – nations as vigilante justice-inflicting thugs. It speaks eloquently of the toothless nature of the supranational power structures in our world today. One excellent comment on a post I wrote about nations emphasizes the often unworkable nature of supranational bodies: in essence, they are made up of groups of nations that have wildly varying amounts of power, wealth, and desire to change the existing global power structures. The vested interests have no reason to want to give up their advantage – and why would they? The comparison to an early modern land with no police state is apt. Why would a powerful, wealthy family used to settling its own scores want to give up that privilege and pay into a communal system of policing that would essentially render them equal under a higher law to those who would seek to do them ill?

Moreover, surpanational institutions are much more difficult to hold accountable for their actions, because who will hold them to account? Democracy functions well (usually) at the national level because there is always the threat of voters punishing the incumbents for abuse of power or poor decision-making. Such is not the case at the supranational level, where even democratic bodes (such as the EU parliament) are subject to the whims of national leaders and their fears for re-election, which always take precedence.

Considering that empathy is a theme I’ve been working with lately, I can paint this as a picture of its limits, too: while there are certainly many characteristics and loyalties and ideas that are shared among all humans, mostof us can only extend our feelings of “sameness” and empathy so far. Those outside of our national community (or, also quite commonly, race/ethnicity, which often amounts to the same thing as a national community) are easier to ignore because they are not like us. They don’t share our histories, or national institutions, or language, so they are harder to comprehend.

In the longer term, I believe nations will fizzle out, gradually ceasing to hold the importance they do now. With pressure – both practical and ideological – from above and below, power cannot continue to function effectively at the national level forever. The anarchy in the title, however, refers more to the absence of a coherent and consistent “publicly recognized government or enforced political authority,” as Wikipedia puts it, at one level. Perhaps we have a future of shifting loyalties (local, national, supranational) and power brokers vying for our attention as voters and citizens. Sounds like a party.