The Future: Cities, Not Suburbs, Not Small Towns Either

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

Two out of three Americans live in a single-unit building that is not attached to another building. It’s a standalone home. The American Dream is real for so many people, it’s difficult to conceive of a shift in the status quo.

The key concept is “density”—the number of dwelling units per acre. A nice American home is situated on about 1/4 or 1/3 of an acre, even nicer homes are part of acre lots. With that level of density, the only economically viable means of transportation is the car. (Lots of expense, pollution, etc.) To rationalize a bus, we need to up the game to 10-20 dwellings per acre: low-slung apartment buildings. Rail transportation begins to make sense at around 30-40 dwellings per acre, but it really sings when there are 100 or more. How do find enough space for 100 dwellings on a single acre? Don’t think in terms of ground area; instead, think up.

Interesting idea, but that’s not the way America works. Instead of thinking up, we think sprawl. That’s a tough philosophy for the economy and the environment.. At 25 dwellings per acre, the entire population of the world would fit inside the state of Texas.

Density only begins the discussion. Metropolitan areas—including cities and their suburbs—account for 90 percent of the US GDP and 86% of all jobs. The economic output of Chicagoland (city and suburbs) is greater than 42 of the 50 states. But that’s misleading.

coverbigAccording to the authors of Triumph of the City (Professor Edward Glaeser) and A Country of Cities (Noted Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti), dense cities (New York City) are very, very good ideas, and n0n-dense cities (Los Angeles) and the vast majority of suburbs throughout the world are very, very, very bad ideas. Why?

I like Mr. Chakrabati’s analysis of the self-sustaining economy and ecology of Hong Kong—a city-state where all resources are used for the good of the dense city, one that is surrounded by natural surroundings to be enjoyed by all. He contrasts Hong Kong with Los Angeles, which must contribute its considerable revenues to the state of California, and the U.S. government, leaving this metropolitan area with insufficient resources to, well, be all it can be. The same is true for most cities—they generate tremendous value, but they subsidize the far-less-productive suburbs and rural areas.

artbook_2273_30465543In the view of both authors, what we need to do is perfect our invention of the cities not only for our own good, and for the multitude of productive relationships that result from people living and working near one another, but also for the sake of the planet. Currently, in large part due to cars, suburbs, and inefficient systems, earth’s consumption rate is about 1/3 greater than our capacity. Shift to the American consumption rate—based, largely, upon suburban lifestyles—is over five times greater than our capacity. If When some of the developing economies reach the U.S. consumption rate, we’re more or less doomed (authors love to write this kind of stuff). We’ve all read the stories before: more commuting means less happy marriages, greater obesity rates, and (no surprise) a much higher per-capita rate of gun ownership.

Here, it’s easy to understand the growth of cities and the rest of America in terms of red and blue states.  Many of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas are located in blue states: east of the Mississippi River and north of North Carolina, and along the Pacific Ocean. But the U.S. government and the U.S. economy is not built to support cities. That’s why we spend more than twice as much on highways than air and rail travel—both far kinder to the environment, and in the long run, far more efficient. Instead, we support suburban living. We build more roads to more places, and more cars show up to take advantage of lost costly single family homes just that much farther away from the city center. What’s more, for every one taxpayer who takes advantage of the Mortgage Interest Deduction to achieve the American Dream, three do not—simply, Americans subsidize home ownership in a very significant way.

Should we? According to Mr. Chakrabati, the answer is no. Instead, he suggests that we fund a much more robust, livable, safe, easier urban lifestyle by eventually shunting those funds, and a roughly equal amount raised by a $1 increase in the Federal Excise Tax, to generate $3.5 trillion dollars to improve “economic and social prosperity, environmental sustainability, and equalizing real access to the American dream of home (but not necessarily house) ownership.

A special shout-out to Ryan Lovett who filled many pages of A Country of Cities with clear, direct illustrations, diagrams, charts, graphs, and just a few infographics. The result is an extremely appealing combination of a visual book that’s easy / fun / provocative to browse, and the well-c0nsidered arguments presented in detailed text by the author. At first, I simply enjoyed holding and paging through this elegant book. In time, I came to appreciate the reality of Mr. Chakrabati’s vision in terms I could understand: his SHoP is a top architectural firm responsible for Barclay Center, a multi-use arena that will anchor the future of downtown Brooklyn, NY with (you knew this was coming) a very high-density series of structures with massive amounts of homes, offices and retail, plus open areas that make city life that much more livable.

In fact, Barclay Center is walking distance from an earlier version of urban planning success: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the classy old apartment buildings nearby.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

This is provocative stuff. And, happily, it’s best presented in the form of a solid $30 hardcover book from a publisher whose work impresses me more each season: ARTBOOK / D.A.P. / Metropolis Books.

Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America

DONCover

Happy new year.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

That sentence, and the ideas below, are parts of a book entitled Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. Here are some of those ideas:

Shift the rules for campaign financing so that most of the money comes from most of the people. Currently, one-third of one percent of the people provide 90% of campaign funds. This drives special interests, and encourages a system based upon lobbyists that was never a good idea. And, while we on this track, let’s reduce the ratio of lobbyists to legislators: the current ratio of 23:1 (lobbyist to legislator) is probably too high by half (or more).

Let’s take control of our Federal budget (and, in time, our state budgets, too). In Porto Allegro, Brazil, a “citizen participation” approach to budgeting resulted in a 400% percent increase in school funding, and a dramatic increase in funds for clean water and sewers. Budgeting by citizen participation is a new movement that we want to encourage.

If Americans cut bottled water consumption by 80%, then the number of bottles, laid end-to-end, would circle the equator just once a day. Right now, we can circle the equator with bottles every 5 hours.

If each of us thinks more clearly about what we spend, and where we spend it, then the people living in an average American city (say, 750,ooo population) can add over 3,000 new local jobs and shift about $300,000 more into the local economy. How? By spending just 20% more on local, not national, businesses. Go to the local hardware store, the farmer’s market; don’t go to Wal-Mart or Walgreens. In the end, you’ll be richer for it. We all will.

Recognize that the high school drop out crisis is costing the U.S. at least half a trillion dollars each year. Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school in the U.S. Encourage your legislators to take the time to fully understand the problem and to work with states and school districts to end this problem. The problem is not just the schools: it’s the support systems that do not provide sufficient support for lower-income families. An astonishing one in four American children live in poverty. We know how to change this: we need to focus on what worked during the LBJ years and the Clinton years, and do more of it. And, along the way, we need to invest about $360 million to fix crumbling school buildings. This priority pays off in so many ways: GDP, elimination of crime, family stability, reduction in prison population, so much more. We should no longer accept the idea that 25% of earth’s prison population resides in a U.S. prison–an outsized number for a nation with just 8 percent of the world’s people. Similarly, we should no longer accept the high price of education and the middling results that we achieve with those dollars. Other countries do better because their systems are more reasonable. We need to change the way we think about all of this, and we need to make it clear to legislators that this will be their last term if they do not accomplish what we need done.

Let’s get started on two substantial changes in the ways we work with our money. First, let’s start thinking in terms of a V.A.T., as most Western nations do. If the book’s calculations are correct, this should increase our available funds by about 13%. And second, let’s eliminate the 17% (average) payroll tax, reducing hiring costs for employers, as this model is proving to be more effective than our current approach. For more about this, Get America Working! (not the easiest website for clear presentation of ideas; the book is better).

In Canada, they spend $22 per person on noncommercial educational media (we call it public TV, public radio). In England, they spend $80 per person per year. In the U.S., we spend $1.37 per person per year (less than a bottle of water). If we increase funding to a more reasonable level, of, say, $75 per person per year (one bottle of water per week), we get something as good as the BBC for ourselves and our children. Noncommercial matters.

There’s much longer discussion about carbon footprints, waste, overconsumption, and the need for cars that average 100mpg. And another about rethinking just about everything related to the outsized defense budget and its underlying strategies. We haven’t got the health care concept down yet, but moving it into the public goods shopping cart seems to be a step in an appropriate direction.

We should all become familiar with, and promote, the 8 Global Millennium Development Goals that aim to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability and better access to water and sanitation
  • Create a global partnership for development

So that’s a start. It’s going to be a busy year. And, I hope, one of our best.

Learning from History

From The New York Times (photo by Tim Gruber for The New York Times), a picture of eBureau headquarters in St. Cloud, Minnesota. You provide the data, and they provide your profile to increasingly savvy marketers. But that’s only part of the story.

On Thursday night, Paul and I had dinner. We split the bill. I charged. He paid me the difference in cash. On Friday night, some neighborhood friends went out to dinner, and I used Paul’s cash to pay our share. On Saturday, I couldn’t resist a 50%-off-everything sale at a local record store, and charged about $40 for about twenty great old LPs. Last week, we went on vacation, and like good Americans, we enjoyed the convenience of our credit cards.

Along the way, apart from the two cash transactions, we generated a cluster of data, enough to build a profile of recent activities. Add the detailed list of supermarket purchases, online book purchases, and EZ-Pass comings-and-goings, and our data stream is sufficient for any reasonably competent marketer to do their online stuff. Add Google’s record of our online searches, Verizon’s record of every TV program we watch, and the picture becomes more complete.

Does Verizon need to know what I watch? Do they need to keep a record of every minute detail of my channel flipping? Is there, somewhere, a complete lifetime record of every subscriber’s viewing history. If there is, shouldn’t I know that? If there’s not, shouldn’t I know that, too? And shouldn’t there be some sort of understanding between me and Verizon about the data that they do and do not collect, and how it might be used? And shouldn’t I understand every word of that agreement?

In theory, each private transaction resides between me and an independent vendor. I choose my vendors with some care, and I am comfortable with the idea that they will use my past purchase history to present me with new marketing offers. If, for example, EZ-Pass notices that I commute on the same routes regularly, I am interested in a discount program for commuters.

My interest ends, rather abruptly, when one vendor provides data to another without my express written permission. In most cases, I would NOT grant that permission. I suspect your personal policy would be the same as mine.

Access to data about my every purchase: useful. Sharing that data with marketers willing to pay for access: priceless.

There is, however, one stupendous soft spot in my argument. I use a credit card. And, I suppose, in some version of logical argument, my transactions with VISA, MasterCard and their affiliated banks, provides some level of permission to share data about my purchases with marketers. I think this is an over-reach, and, increasingly, I believe that my transactions with these companies ought to be private, released, perhaps, only when my creditworthiness is open to question when purchasing, say, a new couch, and I expressly offer my permission, in any extremely limited way, specifically for that transaction. (Of course, this, too, introduces complexity because my creditworthiness cannot be evaluated without a gateway to lots more of my data.)

This morning’s New York Times tells the story of eBureau, one of several companies that tracks my combined purchases and provides a profile (a score, actually) to companies with an interest in selling me something, most often online. In the case of eBureau, the game is not only determining an individual’s credit score, but also the individual’s value to an individual marketer based upon past purchase patterns, zip code, income level, and more. In essence, eBureau advances the concept of a lead qualification to a massive scale. Buried in the article are concerns about privacy, secrecy (the scores are not available to the affected consumers, only to eBureau’s clients), and extension of the concept to other forms of marketing. What’s more, e-scores are likely to widen the digital divide, offering better deals to those with certain profiles, and so on.

On the side of the people: a very overworked PIRG organization battling on so many fronts.

In the NY Times article, The US Public Interest Group and the Federal Trade Commission both express specific concerns about new digital scoring and the inadequacy of current law to define appropriate practices, but the related issues are rapidly emerging with tremendous velocity, depth, and complexity.

Where does this lead? I think it ought to lead to some serious discussions about consumer protection in the digital age. We’re way behind on the development of law in this space, and, quite reasonably, marketers and opportunists are taking good advantage of the lag, and establishing precedents that will be difficult to challenge or disassemble in the future.

I Want to Watch TV on My iPad (The Plot Thickens)

Last week, a U.S. district judge provided Aereo with a go-ahead on TV that we’ll be able to watch on our mobile devices, but that oversimplifies an interesting story. Here’s the original article, plus an update that, I am certain, will be rewritten once again as the legal dust-up continues. Some of the issues are significant, and will resonate beyond this particular venture. Worth reading.

Here’s the original story published on March 6, 2012:

You’re looking at an array of television antennas. These antennas are used to capture local broadcast signals that you can watch, if you pay a monthly subscription fee, on your computer, tablet, or phone. Aereo (formerly Bamboom) is the company behind the scheme, and, as you might expect, they’ll be spending a lot of time in the legal system as they argue with broadcasters regarding the rights and wrongs of live retransmission (that is, if Aereo is to survive, the broadcast networks want to see monthly cash–just like they receive from the cable operators).

Ah, the free airwaves, the ones that broadcasters use for the public good. Ah, the intellectual property that broadcasters carry over those airwaves, the IP that cable service providers pay to carry. Ah, the unresolved legal gotcha!! Any company that attempts to make those signals available via a secondary distribution scheme must pay for the right, or so say the broadcast networks.

The price for the service? $12 per month. The debut date? March 12. The place: for now, the New York metropolitan area.

For cord cutters, this may be a terrific deal. But it’s unclear whether the courts will block Aereo’s progress, as they have with ivi.tv and others who attempted to climb the walls of the castle without paying the required tribute (or, as I’m adding in my updated version of this article… others who attempted to challenge the current system of copyright and payments for distribution rights to intellectual property).

Slingbox? That’s okay. Over-the-air mobile TV? That’s not ready yet, except in a few markets on a test basis. Watch over-the-air TV? Sure. Watch via cable or satellite? As long as you’re paying for the privilege. Watch on another device? Nope, not yet. Or, maybe the answer is yes. We’ll find out in a few weeks.

_____

Here’s the update that I wrote on March 12, 2012:

From Bloomberg: Predicting a “great fight” with traditional media companies, billionaire Barry Diller said he plans to expand his new Aereo Web-based television service to 75 to 100 cities within a year, reports Bloomberg.

Diller, speaking at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, noted that efforts by Walt Disney Co. and other media companies to cite copyright violations were “absolutely predictable,” since entrenched companies always protect their turf, the story says.

Want to know more? Here’s a bunch of links:

The tech explanation:

http://www.techspot.com/news/47467-aereo-offers-tv-over-internet-with-antennas-engineered-to-comply-with-law.html

The consumer angle:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2012/02/29/how-much-are-you-willing-to-pay-to-cut-the-cord/

The business story:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204059804577229451364593094.html?mod=wsj_share_tweet#printMode

The investment story:

http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2012/02/14/iac-l20-million-aereo-barry-diller-vc.html?s=print

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Here’s the update as of July 17, 2012

Again from Bloomberg (July 13, 2012): “A U.S. district judge this week allowed Aereo to continue operating while television networks pursue a copyright lawsuit against the company. Aereo captures broadcast signals with small antennas and streams them to devices such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad, without paying for the programming.” As a result of the ruling, Diller is now planning a nationwide rollout.

As I pondered what all of this might mean, I read an essay on TV NewsCheck’s website, written by television executive Lee Spieckerman. I contacted him, and we spoke for a while about the ruling and its implications. In short, he believes that Judge Nathan bungled the decision:

“We see loopy rulings from Federal judges all the time, and I think this fits into that category… She misread the governing law!”

Spieckerman’s argument is based in part upon law and in part upon common industry practice. His legal argument tracks back to a 1993 law which requires operators of paid television systems to secure the necessary rights from local broadcasters. The concept is called “retransmission consent” and that ruling has proven to be something of a windfall for local broadcasters as a result of the fees paid by cable operators in exchange for this consent. According to  Spieckerman, these fees are now worth about $2 billion to the commercial broadcast network, plus an additional several billion dollars to local stations. This, plus the additional revenues from political advertising resulting from the Citizens United decision, provide the advertising base necessary for local television news to survive. (Seems to me, we should all understand the economics and consequences of this new approach to journalism funding–a worthwhile topic for a future article). Back to his other argument: “there is no tradition in this country for renting antennas–nobody rents antennas!”

Digging deeper with Mr. Spieckerman, and the real argument emerges. This is all about copyright infringement, and protection of distribution rights associated with intellectual property. Judge Nathan’s ruling begins to disrupt a system by which cable operators compensate owners of cable networks and local stations. ESPN receives $4.69 per cable subscriber–do the math and that’s about $50 per year per subscriber multiplied by 100 million subscribers, and that’s $5 billion per year in subscription fees. Spieckerman believes local broadcast station fees to be 20-50 cents, but acknowledges that these deals are confidential. (Consider that Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable operators charge consumers charge those 100 million subscribers over $1,000 per year–1o0 million x $100 = $100,0o0,000,000, or $100 billion, also good raw material for another Digital Insider article.)

Of course, the local station operators are anxious to negotiate with Diller’s Aereo. And Diller is anxious to go with the Judge’s ruling because it requires no fees. For now, according to Bloomberg,

We’re going to really start marketing… Within a year and a half, certainly by ’13, we’ll be in most major markets.”

To which Mr. Spieckerman counters:

Who is going to be next? This is a pandora’s box, and when you start circumventing and tearing down the few elements there are in the industry and inviting the destruction of an important industry. If I have any intellectual property that I want to distribute, I do not want anybody able to steal my material.”

21st Century Debate

Although the series has been on the air for over five years, I discovered Intelligence ² within the past twelve months. Last night, I watched Malcolm Gladwell argue that college football was a bad idea because it involved the bashing of heads, and that, surely, there was some other game these people could play that would not, you know, involve bashing the heads of students (or anybody else, for that matter). On his team: Buzz Bissinger (he created Friday Night Lights, a popular TV series about football). Bissinger (see in the screen shot below) was strident, fierce and passionate in his well-researched beliefs: (a) colleges and universities should not be in the business of entertaining the masses, and (b) they should not be in the business of providing a farm system for professional football. On the other side, predictably, were two articulate football players who have moved on to bright careers (presumably, they, too have been beaten on the head several thousand times, but seemed to be okay with the way things turned out). Both were associated with FOX Sports: Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. In the advanced game of debate, their arguments proved to be less convincing.

Football is not high of my list of things I care about, but the debate was compelling (and, having now watched several episodes, it’s fair to say that some are very passionate and others are not as much fun to watch). The series is called Intelligence Squared. There are two teams and three rounds. First round: each team member presents his case, his ideas in detail. Second round, they mix it up by arguing with one another. Third round: closing arguments. What’s the point? At the start of each show, the audience at NYU’s Skirball Center votes on a straightforward question: “Should college football be banned?” (yes, the question is black-white and there are grey areas, discussed during debate, but not a part of the ultimate vote on the simple question). Panelists answer questions from members of the audience. End of show: now that they have been presented with convincing arguments, the audience votes again. One team wins (Gladwell-Bissinger), the audience applauds, and we’re done for the evening.

The influence of Stanford Professor James Fishkin is evident here. Deliberative Polling also involves a baseline vote, then immersion in fact-based information seasoned by strong opinion, with a re-vote after the information has been received and processed.

A look at the website suggests that this is modern media done properly. Of course, you can watch or listen to the whole debate (or an edited version, audio+video or audio only). You can listen on about 220 NPR radio stations, or watch on some public TV stations. Or, you can watch on fora.tv. For each episode, the site features a comprehensive biography on each of the four debaters, a complete transcript, and a rundown on the key points made by each debater, along with extensive links to relevant research. In short, you can watch an episode, then read a lot more from the debaters and from the thought leaders who influenced the debaters’ opinions. It’s presented in a  clean, easily accessible (non-academic) way. You can easily dive right in, learn a lot in a short time (if you wish), or spend a few hours to deeply consider what was said, why it was said, and why the voting audience did or did not change its collective mind.

The topics are provocative (and always simplified so they can be stated as a yes/no question for voting). Some examples:

BTW: If you like this sort of thing, you should spend some time at fora.tv, which features an abundance of intelligent, well-informed, well-researched lectures and discussions. Much of the material is free (advertiser and foundation supported). Fora.tv goes in directions that TED does not. And isn’t it interesting that there are now hundreds of these smart media outlets now available on the internet? In their way, they are taking the place of the 20st century dream of public television…with a broad range of ideas presented from every part of the world, abundant links to related ideas and research. Much of it is free, much of it is provocative, and very little of it is actually seen on television.

Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

(Digital) Money, Honey

We pay for just about everything with a credit card, a debit card, PayPal. Even parking meters accept card payments. Cash is dirty, difficult to store, easy to lose, and (for better or for worse) leaves no trace. The end of money has been predicted for a long time. Maybe now’s the time that money, like photographic film, drive-in theaters, and typewriters, fades away.

That’s the theory behind WIRED contributing editor David Wolman’s book, The End of Money published by Da Capo. The book is an easy read, filled with anecdotes, interesting histories, and a great many examples of alternatives to our current cash-and-coins conception of valuable exchange. Wolman points out the present system is, in fact, quite new, and that most of human history did not involve pennies, pfennigs, or pesos. He estimates that one of every twenty British coins is counterfeit. He points to cash on ice both in Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ freezer and also in a visit to the fallen Icelandic economy. (There are so many wonderful slang terms: cold hard cash among them). He explores alternative currencies. The one about Liberty Dollars–“a private voluntary free-market currency backed entirely by silver and gold.”–is a long trip through the complexities of alternative currencies and contemporary Federal conceptions of money.

There’s discussion–not enough for my taste–about smart cards and the use of mobile devices as digital wallets. Here, the focus is on the many small daily transactions that remain cash-intensive, and the potential for a simpler, less costly, more manageable system based upon digital transactions. The upside: you’re never short a quarter for the parking meter; the downside: every time you park your car, you’re making an entry into your permanent record.

Be sure to read the crazy story. It’s just one paragraph on Wikipedia.

It’s interesting to muse on the current use of simulated currencies, if only to understand our possible future behaviors: accumulating gold coins in games, such as World of Warcraft; the possible connections between gamefied badges and currency that can be exchanged for real or virtual goods and services; the use of Quids on the (now gone?) website Superfluid, where “they’re placeholders for favors” (perhaps not unlike the favor/exchange economy that drives power and accomplishment in the nation’s capital). Where might frequent flier miles fit into the money equation? Or Disney Dollars that pay for fun in Orlando (now largely replaced by Disney Gift Cards because they yield far more digital data, and because the residue is easily converted to profit.) How about the barter economy that has been so well-nourished on the internet: you build my website, I do your taxes.

How does taxation fit into any of this? None of us love taxes, but we’ve certainly become attached to, say, our interstate highway system. I suppose most transactions will be digital, and so, there is a trackable moment of exchange, and at that moment, the tax authorities can step-in (digitally) and collect. How about pay checks? Direct deposit eliminates the old-fashioned notion of “cashing the paycheck”–and, perhaps, acknowledging the weirdness of Big Brother, preparing one’s own personal tax return may seem equally old school (armed with your entire digital financial life, the government could certainly outsource your tax return, mine to, to an outfit in Malaysia or Peru).

Are coins and cash going away? Not this year, but maybe in ten years. It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibilities. And, along the way, it’s fun to browse or read The End of Money.

It’s also fun to watch the CBS Sunday Morning report that was inspired by the book. If you can find the link, let me know and I’ll post it (couldn’t find it on the CBS Sunday Morning site).

Save the Country!

In our hearts, we know what’s wrong, and we know that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the money that flows into political campaigns, the revolving door between industry and agencies that should be regulating without industry influence, the political bashing that obscures the real issues, the real reasons why our food is unsafe, our cellphones were never properly tested to assure that they do not produce cancer, why our financial system collapsed, why the jobs went away and people lost their houses while the big banks and the big car companies somehow made out okay.

Sometimes, it takes a smart professor to parse the issues, and present them in a way that makes logical sense. Here, the professor is Lawrence Lessig, well-known for his work in the synchronization of copyright issues with the realities of new technologies. Lessig has shifted focus. In his new book, Republic, Lost, Lessig explains how and why we have accomplished the decimation of our democracy, and what we ought to do about it. This is not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a book about economics, foolish decisions, and fundamental thinking about what a country ought to do, ought to be.

The fundamental problem is relatively simple. Special interest groups, including big companies, big industries, unions, and others with vast money to spend, now control the agenda, and the decisions, made by our legislators. This is accomplished by funding political campaigns that now cost so much money, candidates are unable to raise the funds in any other way. Money is distributed not as bribes, but within a “gift economy,” in which lobbyists control the flow of funds, favors, and even the words in legislation that few legislators ever manage to read before voting. The size of this gift economy is spectacular in its size and influence, resulting in a sustained distraction for even the best-intentioned legislators whose time and decision-making processes are, according to Lessig, dominated by this system.

Where Lessig is clear about what the problem is, why and how it has gobbled up our representative form of government, and how much money is involved, he is less wonderful when it comes to solutions (which is to say, Lessig is clear thinking and often quite brilliant in his assessment of the current situation, but even his big brain struggles with what the heck we should do now). Still, he does present several seemingly sensible ideas.

Of course, the first solution is the simplest: let’s eliminate large contributions, and instead, share the burden with many small contributions. (In this regard, Obama had the right idea.) The Grant and Franklin project would allow each person in the U.S. to contribute $50 (Grant) of their Federal taxes plus $100 (Franklin) more to one or more individual candidates, or to their favorite political party. No more PAC or political party funding–candidates can receive a maximum of $150 per person. Here’s the kicker: for candidates, this would be voluntary. That is, each individual candidate would decide to follow the Grant and Franklin path–and those who do not, well, the American people would know who they are. Lessig: “If a substantial number of candidates opted into this system, then no one could believe that money was buying results.”

Then, the “clever lawyer” part of Lessig kicks in with an idea that’s intriguing, if not altogether practical (why should we rely upon practical ideas?–this is nation built by dreamers!). Lessig again: “Here’s a quiz. What’s required to be elected to the House of Representatives? You’d think that one requirement is that you be a resident of the district from which you’re to be elected. All the Constitution requires is that at the time fo the election, you be ‘an inhabitant of that State in which you shall be chosen'” And with that, Lessig is off and running…

Why not, he asks, run one candidate in several districts with a flash of anarchy in his or her midst. The only reason he or she is running is to force the other candidate to “publicly commit” to the Grant and Franklin approach. And for those candidates who do manage to get elected (inevitably, some will), he or she commits to: holding the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is now the rule in our government, and once that program is enacted, he or she will resign from office.

Lessig goes further: he wants a constitutional amendment.  Here, he enters a deeply analytical, harshly critical approach to his own idea, using his legal powers to define a path that could make an amendment possible. And, he reckons, some rich and powerful people are likely to come along for the ride.

He’s better on describing the cause and current situation than he is on prescribing the proper solution, but it’s unreasonable to expect one person, however smart, well-educated and clever, to define a plan to rebuild the republic. But he has taken the first step: he has clearly detailed the current situation and analyzed it in ways that break through any specific political dogma or belief system or party affiliation. And I know that his thinking has affected my thinking, and, presumably, some tens of thousands of other people’s thinking, and that’s a start.

So here’s the question from my side: I buy the analysis, and I want to be part of the solution. My starting place follows Lessig’s suggestion: I need to spend some time visiting a few websites, and figure out how I might insert myself into the process. His suggested websites:

Call a Convention

Public Citizen

Voters First Pledge

Fund for the Republic

Rootstrikers

BTW: The publisher is Twelve Publishers. It’s an imprint of Hachette, a larger publisher, but Twelve is delivering on a small, powerful idea: publish a dozen important books each year.  And make them count. I like their approach enough to include it here:

  1. Each book will enliven the national conversation.
  2. Each book will be singular in voice, authority, or subject matter.
  3. Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
  4. Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
  5. Each book will be nationally advertised.
  6. Each book will have a national publicity campaign.
  7. Each book will have a digital strategy.
  8. Each book will be worthy of the attention of discerning book reviewers.
  9. Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
  10. Each book will be marketed and distributed by the Hachette Book Group, the company with the best hit ratio in the American publishing business.
  11. Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
  12. Each book will matter.
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