Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section #2:: Speakers Announced, Format Formalized, Venue Confirmed!

17 May

When: Thursday May 24th, 7pm, UC Berkeley Faculty Club

We’re set for another thought provoking event next week at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club.

Register here.  Space is limited so sign up soon if you’d like to attend.

To read the topic of this event, read the opening blog post here.

For this we’re changing up the format a bit. Rather than another Oxford style debate we’re going to have a set of short talks followed by a structured discussion.  We want to celebrate some amazing ideas and then create a platform to hear from the community.

Bring a bottle of wine or other bev.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Bart & Ezra.

Here’s the format :

  • Start 7:00PM
  • 7:00 to 7:15: Socialize, fill your glass
  • 7:15 to 7:30: Ezra and Bart introduce and topic for discussion
  • 7:30 to 7:45: Speaker 1: Crystal Brown, President of Educate our State
  • 7:45 to 8:00: Speaker 2: Rich Heaps, Chair/leader of numerous efforts in Alameda School District
  • 8:00 to 8:15: Break, socialize, glass refill
  • 8:15 to 8:45: From into small groups – agree on top two priorities for improving our system of education
  • 8:45 to 9:00: Round of up each group’s top two points (each group has one presenter give a 1 minute synopsis)
  • 9:00 to 9:30: Discussion, Q and A with speakers, last glass, wrap up.

The event will be at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club, Heyns Room.  Directions to the Faculty Club are at this link.

The outcome of the group discussions and a summary of the event will be posted to the blog – be on the record!

Speaker Bios:

Crystal Brown

Crystal, one of the “Sherman Six,” is a founding member and the President of the Board of Directors of Educate Our State.  A parent of three daughters attending public schools in San Francisco, she has been the Fundraising Chair for the PTA and an active ambassador for Parents for Public Schools.  She has worked on civic engagement projects including development for the Friends of the SF Public Library and founding the Marina Community Association. Crystal is a recipient of the 2011 Women Making History award.  She has a BA from Lafayette College and more than 10 years of experience in technology and management consulting.

Rich Heaps

Rich’s career has been as a corporate CEO, CFO and General Counsel.  He holds both a MBA and JD from Stanford as well as a degree in mathematics and economics from Yale.  He’s also been an extremely active member of the Alameda public school and political landscape.  Here are some highlights of his contributions:

  • 2004-2008 a member of the citizen oversight committee for the various parcel taxes (job to certify to the School Board that the money was being spent as proposed in the tax measure)
  • Co-chair for the campaign for Measure C (2004) — school facilities bond issues
  • Co-chair Campaign for Measure  A (2005), Alameda’s second parcel tax
  • PTA Co-President at Franklin elementary school (2002-2004)
  • President of the Alameda PTA Council 2004-2006
  • Member of the Board of Directors of CLCS (holding company for ACLC and NEA) 2007-2009
  • Advisory Board to ASPIRE (current)


The new model for schools: a five point plan

18 Apr

Post by Ezra Roizen

There’s a scene in the new Star Trek where kid Spock is in an individual learning pod with poetry, calculus and whales floating by.  This scene is immediately followed by him swapping blows with a crew of sociopathic Vulcan classmates.  I think these two scenes sum up my concerns about an overly automated education. Sure these Vulcan kids would nail their standardized test, but they’re also sorely lacking in social skills and grace.

Computers can’t do everything, but they can do some things.  But I’m jumping ahead, first let’s frame the problem.

On a comparable basis of education spending / GDP the US is at the top end of developed countries, here’s a clip from the World Bank list:

  • Norway – 6.8% (education spend / GDP)
  • Saudi Arabia – 6.4%
  • France – 5.6%
  • United Kingdom – 5.5%
  • United States – 5.5%
  • Brazil – 5.1%
  • Canada – 4.9%
  • Australia – 4.5%
  • Germany – 4.5%
  • Japan – 3.5%

It’s important to note that the US is much bigger than most of these countries (we spend over $800 billion a year on education, Germany, for example spends closer to $130 billion).  We also have a much more diverse economy than most countries.  If you take the European Union as a whole (I think our closest comparable), in aggregate we’re spending about the same, if anything a bit more as a percentage of GDP (there wasn’t data for China and India).

One really important factor in US education spending is the disparity between rich and poor states, and even more acutely, the difference between rich and poor districts within those states.  Jonathan Kozol speaks very well to these issues.  Educational resources are clearly not evenly distributed.  But I don’t want to digress into definitions of “fair,” that’s a different question from the one I want to discuss now.

What I want to highlight is that we’re spending a lot, and frankly, we’re not likely going to be able to spend much more.  A few billion here-and-there doesn’t move the macro $800 billion needle.  We’re not going to get to 10% of GDP for education.

We have to make 5-6% of GDP work.

The good news is I don’t think the world’s best schools are out of reach.  I contend we can do it on less than we’re currently spending, and I believe the marginal improvements would be greatest for the least well off school districts.

Here are my five priorities for kids in school:

1.     to be literate in a core set of topics (math, language, history, geography, science);

2.     to get plenty of physical exercise;

3.     for them to have opportunities to be creative (art, dance, music);

4.     to learn social skills (sharing, community) and for them to have instilled in them basic pan-American values (freedom, liberty, justice, equal opportunity) ;

5.     have a basic preparedness for work and life.

When I drop my kids off in the morning this is the blend of activities in which I’d love for them to be immersed.  I’m not a tiger-mom, nor a French-parent.  Just a regular guy who wants a happy, healthy, engaging environment for his kids – and who believes the rest will generally take care of itself.

To this end, here is how I believe we can radically change the US (and one day, perhaps global) education system, increase student engagement, and get much more for our money.

First, we can collapse the cost of delivering education for core literacy topics.  I’m fine if my kids learn subjects like math and English substantially from a computer.   I believe, as demonstrated by Professor Sugata Mitra, that kids, in the right environment, can teach each other, and learn in groups.  I’m completely confident we can create outstanding online curricula and could put hundreds of kids together, or in groups, or on their own (with the ability to get help from teachers, assistants and their peers) to learn these subjects for a few hours per day.

Watch what Salman Khan has done with Khan Academy – the lecture is now the homework and the homework is now done in class.  He calls it the death of the “one size fits all lecture.”  His thesis (and I agree) is that the talking part of class is best done at home, at the student’s pace, and the class is the venue for collaboration and assistance around the application of the subject (the thing previously known as homework!).  This is a powerful and revolutionary innovation.

This model will be enabled by tailored instruction and seamlessly blends home and schoolwork.

I say every kid in America gets a laptop (55 million kids in school – that’s $5.5 billion at $100 per laptop if we had to buy a new one, for every kid, each year – which we wouldn’t). Yes, that’s expensive, but less than 1% of what we spend on education each year! We could radically change the curriculum, tools, texts, feedback loops (see Khan video above on feedback loops)…everything.

Second, Kids should be moving, a lot.  One third of kids in the U.S. are overweight, while well under 10% of schools require daily physical education.  I’d wager the #1 competitor for spending money on education is going to be healthcare – let’s get kids in shape and re-purpose the money for the long run! We can augment the P.E. teaching staff with parents and part-timers. Core P.E. staff flanked by whip crackers.

Third, I’d move the money we save on classroom literacy training to the arts (broadly), our kids need to be creative. For an outstanding discussion of literacy vs. creativity listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk (this has to be in the hall of fame for TED talks).  Creativity as defined by Sir Ken is “the process of having original ideas which have value,” to this end, hear his discussion of the education of Gillian Lynne the British choreographer and director (minute 15 in the talk).  Condoleezza Rice calls it “appalling” that the arts are “extracurricular.”  The 9/11 commission said the U.S.’s most important failure in anticipating the terrorist attacks was “one of imagination.”

Fourth, I’d like to reinvigorate a deep appreciation of the American system of government, the fragility of freedom, and the power of an open society. I think our country has lost the fear of totalitarianism, and I believe that fear should be a drum beat in our lives.

For some reason, a while back, I was reading the Wikipedia profile of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, but even better as King Julian in Madagascar), in the middle he’s quoted as saying the following:

“When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

That thought has stuck with me for some time.  Apathy is a social cancer, and I think our kids need a deep appreciation of the work it takes to maintain a free and open society.  Karl Popper primers for all first graders!

Fifth, and last, on my list is greater real world application of education.  Kids are excited by opportunities to make money.  They like to learn practical skills.  They love to be engaged in “the real world.”

I spent much of my childhood in the British system of education (in London and Fiji).  The British do a great job of teaching life skills.  I used to really enjoy my home economics classes in London where we learned how to bake pies and muffins.  In Fiji, at what must have been around 8th grade, we had a full accounting class!  I can remember Mr. Aziz at-the-ready to reprimand a student for getting his or her debits and credits mixed up.  It was fun, I felt like I knew how to do “real stuff.”  I think giving kids opportunities to apply what they know, in increasingly real world contexts is good for them.

What’s simultaneously depressing and invigorating about this list is that our system is funneling massive resources into item 1 – classroom-based literacy education – while draining the life out of items 2 through 5.

We’re so far off the mark it’s almost comical.  This also means there’s so much low hanging fruit that we’re going to be able to make astounding advances in a short time.  With new technology, new school designs, and a new conceptualization of the staff makeup at schools, I believe we can radically change what our kids do all day, how they think, the shape they’re in, how they treat one other, and how well prepared they are for life.

Sir Ken quotes Arthur C. Clarke in his talk: “If children have interest, then education happens.”  I believe that, and I believe we can expect more from our kids, and that our kids can be empowered to help one other.

As important, we can afford what I’m proposing above.

In fact, if you look carefully, you can see flakes of this new model falling all around you.

Bring on the snowball.


Follow on perspective posted by Bart Garrett:

Yes, but…

Our first event framed a conversation about money and altruism as a good ole’ fashion debate. While education is a hugely important and intriguing topic for our next conversation together, as I fashion a response to Ezra’s post I am stuck. I struggle to draw a line in the sand and pick up a sword to debate him. Quite frankly, I think his five priorities for education in America are spot on. Further, I also agree that we will never spend a considerably higher % of our GDP on education, and thus, we must simply devise creative solutions that would increase our ROI. What is more, we obviously follow the same twitter feeds and subscribe to the same podcasts because my exposure to articles, presentations, and interviews on education is virtually the same as Ezra’s. By way of additional reference, I would only add the website of a good friend, Sajan George, who is putting some of Ezra’s suggestions to work in very innovative ways (creating a hybrid model that converges the traditional bricks and mortar schools with the latest virtual delivery systems). His new work is called Matchbook Learning, and it was featured recently on the Fast Company blog.

And so, with all of the cloying goodwill and sappy cordiality, our next conversation might not involve the bloodlust of the first one, but might look more like a Focus Group or even a Group Therapy Session. If you really miss the blood-sport of the first session, well, you can always read (or watch) Hunger Games.

But seriously, it is fun to argue with Ezra, so I will push on his strategy a bit—at least where it runs the risk of being slightly detached from reality. As I read Ezra’s Five Suggestions, five major issues come to mind: Fairness, Feasibility, Cultural Values, Moral/Ethical Values, and Parents.


Ezra touched on fairness very briefly, but primarily only to sidestep the topic. Fairness is a big deal; our system isn’t fair.  Rich kids get it good and poor kids don’t.

I have three daughters in the Oakland Public School System. Our neighborhood elementary school is incredible. The PTA is strong and raises well over $200,000 per year, and indeed, this money and the active parents behind it make this school a great one. But, my oldest daughter is transitioning into the public middle school next year. The middle school (also in our neighborhood) has 70% of its student body in the reduced/free lunch program. It is a low performing (though improving) school. Am I nervous about sending my kid there? Yes, I’m nervous. I am both nervous and scared. Will she be challenged? Will she be safe? Will she get into Berkeley? Those are the three questions I ask, though not always in that order.

When it comes to educating our kids, some of us have too many choices: Public schools, independent/private schools, charter schools, homeschools, co-op schools, and alternative schools. But more and more of us have fewer and fewer choices. I am one of those with fewer and fewer choices.  I feel the pain of those who have no choice but to work within the system – and frankly, I wonder if Ezra’s five suggestions are enough to bridge the gap of inequality. Is there a sixth suggestion out there? Throwing money at this issue is probably not the answer, but what will we throw at it?


Ezra has given us five suggestions that could be applied to our public schools that seem like great ones. He has tried to cut through many of the ideological and political arguments (more money vs. less money, bolstering the U.S. Department of Education or blowing it up, etc., etc.), and stuck to tangible and practical solutions.  But the vested interests remain.  We have an entrenched and powerful set of stakeholders in the current system.  Does anyone really think the teachers unions are going to go for a massive restructuring of their work, make up and role?  Do we think we’re going to find political leadership to push for these kinds of sea changes?  It’s going to take decades, if ever, to see Ezra’s ideas manifest in a meaningful way. Our political leaders like to make big deals about small changes, and often sidestep the big stuff. The “big idea” political topic du jour is the Buffet Rule whereby minimum tax rates would be increased for the wealthiest among us. Many of us may agree with the spirit of this change, but the actual impact of this change is estimated to be between $40 billion and $80 billion annually. That’s peanuts – on a proportional scale – it wouldn’t even be 10% of the entire national budget for education (assuming every penny went to education!).  We fight over little things, while issues like social security, health care, defense, and education – where the real money is – sit in triage waiting for attention. I’m not saying this is a Democrat or Republican problem, I’m just saying it’s very hard to get big changes made, and much easier for politicians to focus on making little things sound big. How do we mitigate the entrenchment and pull these suggestions out of Ezra’s bucolic fantasy world and into reality?

Cultural Values

In response to Ezra’s third suggestion: How do we expand opportunities for creativity like dance, music, and art? How will these things be considered “curricular” rather than “extracurricular” activities? My chief concern is that they never will be until things like dance, music, and art are appropriately appreciated in the broader culture. I don’t want to wax philosophical, nor do I want to simply eschew technology, but think for a moment about the last time that you enjoyed dance, music, and art. My guess? It was on your iPhone or on your laptop. It was an ear-budded, individual experience with a medium that truncated and then mediated the experience to a tiny screen. When was the last time you lingered in a museum or attended the symphony? If monetizing something is our society’s way of attaching value to it, then we should get serious about buying $30 ballet tickets instead of only listening to Pandora. We don’t create art anymore; we consume it. What is it about our broader cultural narrative that needs adjusting if we are indeed going to be celebrating dance, music, and art again?

Moral/Ethical Values

I am not suggesting that moral/ethical values are detached from cultural values, but I had to organize this response somehow. I am all about reinvigorating a deep appreciation for values like freedom, liberty, justice, and equal opportunity (what Ezra calls pan-American values). Ezra talks about re-engaging a healthy fear of totalitarianism, and cites present apathy as a social cancer. Ezra rightly identifies the symptoms and conditions. My concern though, is that, unwittingly, his solution might involve embracing a totalitarianism of a different kind. It might be softer, blander and gentler, but it could become all-controlling nonetheless!

I am talking about a totalitarianism that puts creativity, ingenuity, morality/ethics, values, etc., solely into the political domain. (And please don’t sidestep this comment by painting it as a small government vs. big government observation. We all know that the government doesn’t shrink and grow with every administration. It always grows—the emphases and expenditures are merely different.) The real problem is that we have unduly coupled the town square with the political sphere and now, every conversation about anything or every solution to a problem is now cast as a political one (see James Davison Hunter’s work, “To Change the World”). Don’t believe me? What is the first thing you think about when you check a newsfeed, visit a website, or tune into a news outlet? You think to yourself: What is the political slant of this station, site, or journalist?

How does this effect the public conversation? Well, as a minister I am asked to check my religious values at the door and leave my spiritual life at home so I can engage in appropriate “values” conversations that must remain utterly objective and completely detached from any sort of religious ideology. The problem? Well, first, this is impossible to do (Who is completely objective? Who is non-ideological?), and second, this notion is simply back-handed totalitarianism. What we choose to value originates from a political lever (a vote, a lobbyist, a politician, a law, etc.) and how we express those values is then mediated through political mechanisms. This is totalitarianism! Sure, it might be democratic totalitarianism, but it still insists that the creator and purveyor of values/ethics is the state.

If values like freedom, liberty, and equal opportunity are only attached to current political ideologies and lack any sort of transcendent rootedness, then they will not be able to flourish in their own right. They will morph and change on the whim of the majority. It is no surprise that we are apathetic and that this apathy is a cancer on society (as Ezra notes)! To be truly pluralistic as a society is to recognize the necessary and important place of religion in the broader cultural conversation. I am tired of “values” training in public schools being nothing more than Trojan Horses of political import (perhaps we could call them Lobby Horses). Let us reinvigorate transcendent and ubiquitous values by enhancing an awareness and appreciation of world religions and the central role that faith in god plays in 90% of our world’s human inhabitants. What could “values” training look like that doesn’t merely see the state as final arbiter of what is good and bad?


Lastly, where are the parents in Ezra’s analysis?  What role should parents play?  I believe that parents set the tone for education, values, creativity and enthusiasm. Is Ezra letting parents off the hook? Can we rely on parents to be engaged with their children? Can we get parents more enfranchised in the process? I recognize that these questions might paint me into the corner as the traditional, family values guy (though I am actually more liberal than you might think—see, there you go again—making everything political!). But when a very public and political figure slips up and says that a stay at home mother of five has “never worked a day in her life,” it is appropriate to ask the question, “Is actively parenting our children a value in this country anymore?” Or, do we outsource parenting much like we do mowing the lawn or filing taxes?

In summary, I’m energized by this discussion and I believe Ezra has opened the conversation with a compelling vision, but once the initial sheen of his ideas wears off, I’m left with some concerns about how we might actually get to his shining city on the hill.

Now, we’d love to hear your comments on this topic!

Billions: Summary Perspective: One Problem and One Solution

15 Nov

Post by Bart Garrett

Six Colors. Nine tiles per side. The object of the game? Reconfigure the cube until each side sports only one color. It sounds so simple (and it is if you peel off the stickers!), but the Rubik’s Cube (the 1980 evil invention of a Hungarian architect) boggles the mind with over 43 quintillion possible combinations (yes, that’s a 43 followed by 18 zeros!). Give a Rubik’s Cube to every one of the world’s 7 billion people, have each person play for every second of every minute of every hour of their life, and the possible combinations still wouldn’t be exhausted! Yet, no matter how scrambled the cube is, it can always be solved in 20 turns or less (the world record is 5.66 seconds)!

There are 43 quintillion possible solutions to the 43 quintillion problems in the world today. And yet, it sometimes seems that we are less than 20 turns and 5.66 seconds from solving the puzzle. Our first question for (“What do you do with your billions?”) prompted a discussion over ranging topics: Money, income, giving/altruism, the role of government, the role of the corporation, big vs. small business, proper place and function of capitalism, fair/free trade, distribution of wealth, redistribution of wealth, happiness, education, and poverty.

I was quite pleased at the terms of engagement and the depth of the conversation. Yet, with an unwieldy topic (though necessarily so—kudos to Ezra for keeping the topic broad enough to foster the exploration of several interrelated topics) such as this one, it seemed that we could not easily agree on the problems at hand, let alone the appropriate solutions that might address those problems.

In the effort to spark some good follow-up discussion online, I am going to throw myself out there by stating the problem and offering a solution. And then, I’ll step aside and let the sparks fly—we will even allow you to end sentences with prepositions (inside joke for those that were at the event last Thursday!).

The Problem: (1) Health declines (life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, mental illness, cancer), (2) crime rises (murder, vandalism, theft), (3) education divides (education gap, dropout rate, level of), and (3) society crumbles (relational capital dissipates, trust erodes, class warfare ensues) for many reasons, but the chief reason is the growing income gap or chasm of wealth distribution in any given country or society. “The Fiddle” team highlighted this quite beautifully—thank-you Toby, Demien, and Dave. One could almost hear the chants of, “We are the 99%!” on Sproul Plaza, just outside of our venue. Well, one could hear the chants if not distracted by the Frat Party Base Kickin’ in the next room.

Kouroush Karimkhany reminded us in his presentation that what makes us different from monkeys is that we can read the Economist (well, that, and some of us have less hair and use toilet paper, but I digress). The other night, a couple of folks questioned the rapid growth and severity of the income gap. Two weeks ago, a short article appeared in The Economist Online entitled, Income Inequality in America: The 99 Percent (Oct 26, 2011), and I offer it as a rebuttal. The article mentions the purposefully vague notions of the chants, mantras, and banners, “We are the 99%,” but then elucidates the sentiment with some good, hard data (view the chart here): “A report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) points out that income inequality in America has not risen dramatically over the past 20 years—when the top 1% of earners are excluded. With them, the picture is quite different. The causes of the good fortune of those at the top are disputed, but the CBO provides some useful detail on that too. The biggest component of the increase in after-tax income for the top one percent is ‘business income’ as opposed to income from labour or investments (though admittedly these things are hard to untangle). Whatever the cause, the data are powerful because they tend to support two prejudices. First, that a system that works well for the very richest has delivered returns on labour that are disappointing for everyone else. Second, that the people at the top have made out like bandits over the past few decades, and that now everyone else must pick up the bill. Of course it is a little more complicated than that. But this downturn ought to test the normally warm feelings in America of the 99% towards the 1%.”

The Solution: The solution to the rampant disparity of wealth or growing income gap is not further government intervention (taxation or regulation), nor is it more benevolent corporations (job creation, more equitable pay-scales, avoiding lay-offs, re-structuring the economic architecture to ensure that the company isn’t just about top-line expense and bottom-line profit, empowering employees to give charitably/benevolently with their time, talent, and treasure, etc.). These things might be helpful correctives, but they address external (presenting) symptoms and not the internal, root cause of the illness. The illness, as best I can tell, involves two of the Seven Deadly Sins, namely greed and sloth. The first is a consumptive consumption that can rarely be curbed or controlled, and the second is a ravenous black hole of laziness and apathy. In this respect, I suppose I most closely align with Bambi and Dave’s presentations, both of which chiefly involved the responsibility of the individual to be sacrificial and generous.

To identify greed and sloth as the besetting illnesses is not to say that all of the “haves” are greedy, while all of the “have-nots” are slothful. But, in the aggregate, it seems to me that real evil (cue the devil and pitchfork) is always greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, greed and sloth in the aggregate have rigged the system. My concern is that if we simply mandate that (1) the rich “pay their fair share” or (2) “give them a free pass” (to use the pejorative, political nomenclature), and then attempt to either (3) curb or (4) accelerate the “proliferation of entitlements” (to use the pejorative, political nomenclature), then we do little more than rouse and then exasperate the gods of greed and sloth, further exacerbating the problem.

This is where, I suppose, I might sound too preachy, but I really do believe that we need to find a solution that is internal (on the attitudinal/motivational level), and not external (governmental or corporate correctives). We don’t need any more carrots and sticks (as a quite tangential aside, I simply love Daniel Pink’s book, Drive); we might actually need some candles and prayer (or some other means for dealing with internal motivations and attitudes).

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I am concerned that solutions might be hard to come by because the gap between the rich and poor is already so significant—for internal renewal to happen, rich people need to be around poor people and vice versa. Several sociologists that I read (Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, James Davison Hunter, and Robert Putnam) point to the religious organization as the most successful entity for creating diversity and integration. Yet, while leading the way toward integration, what is the most difficult gap to bridge? Ethnic? Cultural? Racial? Gender? Religious? No. No. No. No. And, no! Socio-economic? Yes! However, Tim Musgrove’s comments regarding the enfranchisement of the individual who can share in the means of production gave me reason for hope. Like Tim, I see this happening more through the corporation/business and less through the government because I think that our work rather than our state more directly affects the internal drive shaft of our motivation, and could best root out the weeds of greed and sloth.

It is with a heart of gratitude that I offer my thanks to all that participated and attended the first conversation. It was life giving for me, and I look forward to many future conversations.


Follow on perspective posted by Ezra Roizen

Contribution is the Currency of Self Worth

I received some grief for posing a broad, Rubik’s Cube, of a question.  But I actually think in the breadth of the question we were able to explore a number of parallel and interrelated topics.

Interestingly, we also received some grief for the “debate” format.  What drew people to the idea of was the search for the center, and that the debate format was a bit of a bait-and-switch – moving people into polarized rather than unified positions.  But that was our attempt to bring an engaging method to the overall madness.  The thinking was that providing a sharper contrast to the issues would help us identify the parts and build a better whole.  All things considered, I think it worked, and what’s interesting is Bart and I both ended up in a generally similar place.

In kicking off this discussion, I was really asking a question behind a question.  It was as much about social priorities as it was about individual behavior and choice.

This process has helped me clarify my feelings on these matters, and I’m sure my life coordinates will be different because of these several weeks of consideration and debate.

I tend to agree with Traver Hutchins’ point in the online comments that “Taxing is not the same as giving.  You won’t see a lot of that humanizing effect, or enhanced unity across socio economic classes because of more taxation of the entrepreneurial class.”  I also am drawn to the energetic simplicity of Mark Cuban’s rant “Make a boatload of money. Pay your taxes. Lots of taxes. Hire people. Train people. Pay people. Spend money on rent, equipment, services. Pay more taxes.”  So how do we harmonize these voices?

At the debate, Tim Musgrove, representing “Poppycock,” presented an excellent case.  Which I’ll summarize as the following:  If we follow the early writings of Karl Marx he essentially said personal dignity comes from one’s contribution and the ability to own part of the means of production, essentially being enfranchised in the state/system.  If we roll that forward to today, we see a rapidly rising rate of structural enfranchisement.  More people than ever own stock options, participate in pension plans or run a small businesses.  Today we have a huge (and growing) number of people who are owners of the means of production, and are enfranchised by the system.   We’re basically on the right track.

The opposing team in the debate, “I hope you like the sound of fiddle,” focused their arguments on the large and growing disparity of wealth in our society.  They did an excellent job summarizing the problem, but I found myself leaning forward for a sketch of a solution, which was not forthcoming.  I was moved by Toby Stuart’s point that money needs to keep moving through the system, and not be pent up in the savings accounts of the wealthy.  I also enjoyed Demian Entrekin’s framing of the problem in the tenets of the French revolution Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – a starting point I would have liked to have seen developed further.  My takeaway from Dave Gehring’s talk was the humanizing energy of self sacrifice, beautifully articulated in his quote from Winston Churchill “make a living by what you get, and a life by what you give away.”

But as I look back across the entire topic, and what is now entering our second month of debate, I find myself constructing my path forward from positions which are informed by the themes presented by the Fiddle team, but are built on the blocks put forward by the Poppycock team.  I agree with Kourosh Karimkhany that we have to channel the “greedy monkey” part of ourselves.  I don’t think we can fully suppress it, but I do think it can be directed.  I agree with Bambi Francisco that many, many wealthy people are disciplined contributors to society, that the individual has a role to play.

How does this all manifest in actual life and decision making?  Well, I don’t think it’s only higher taxes, or forced wealth distribution, or even simply more jobs per se that are needed.  I think it’s opportunities for contribution.  We need platforms upon which everyone, at their level of ability and energy, can continually contribute to society.  I believe the “man on the moon” challenge for the next 25 years is to create a perfectly efficient allocation of resources that gives everyone an opportunity to contribute to society.   I believe this will spread dignity and energy to all.

The fundamental “ah ha” of my study of macro economics was that until the world is perfect, and every problem is solved, there’s always something more to work on, so in essence the only reason there’s anything higher than zero unemployment is suboptimal resource allocation.  Are we effectively mapping global challenges to global resources?  Right now, I’d say we’re doing OK, but we could do a lot better.

For example, in places like parts of Africa, we have horrific alignment of challenges and resources.  My father made an interesting point along these lines, he asked me to look at what has happened in China and India in the last several decades, a mere blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things.  When I was a kid, and definitely when my parents were kids, the average person would have lumped Africa, India and China into what we would have called the “Third World” – places where essentially just getting food on the table for most of the population was the primarily challenge, let alone technological and financial market advancement.  Roll forward to today, two of the three are well on their way out of this category and China is considered by many as the primary global competitor to the U.S. – and now it turns out we owe them a lot of money!

When you align resources to problems effectively good things tend to happen.

I’m for spending heavily on the systems which create opportunities for contribution and spending equally heavily on the systems that get people ready to contribute.  In the online discussion Rich Heaps brought up education.  He’s on the right track.  Let’s spend, spend, spend – either through tax or gifts – on getting people ready to contribute.  The internet opens amazing possibilities here.  The problems of the future are going to be intellectually more demanding than the ones of the past, we need a society that is ready to meet them.

On the main blog of this debate I linked to Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk on the negative impacts of wealth inequality.  Were I to meet Wilkinson I think I’d ask him to dig deeper into the actual causes and effects here.  If I follow the Musgrovian School, it’s not the disparity of wealth but the disenfranchisement that’s the issue.  That, yes, high rates of unhappiness (defined broadly) appear to be correlated to wealth disparity, but the question is that the cause of the unhappiness.  I’d put the thesis on the table that it isn’t wealth disparity, but rather disenfranchisement and a lack of channels for meaningful contributions.  People sleep well at night when they labored on something meaningful that day.

If people increasingly own the means of production, if they have ever increasing talents and venues for putting those talents to work, I believe happiness will reign – even if some folks are just a heck of a lot richer than others.  We need to bridge the participation gap, not the wealth gap.

That said, I don’t think businesses should be required to keep employees they don’t need, but I do think they could think more widely about creating opportunities to put people to work.  If you can do so profitably, why not?  To quote a line the most recent Star Trek “it should be considered morally praiseworthy, but not morally obligatory.”  But contribution should be the objective, not just jobs, if you can’t get a job there should be a social system which rewards you for painting over graffiti, or fixing a fence, or whatever.  The world is far from perfect, let’s create a culture of contribution.

In places of complete desperation, where there just isn’t the opportunity to get to work, that’s where I think the government can help.  In the time and space where those among us are caught in a crushing economic downdraft the government should stimulate growth, build stuff, fix the streets, get people busy, and direct economies down a productive path.  If we can intervene in Afghanistan, we can intervene in Detroit.  But we should approach these projects with an equally aggressive set of objectives, and a well defined exit strategy.

But in the end, as Bambi said in her talk and as Bart says above, it comes down to the individual.  At the top of the economic ladder it’s the Wall Street banker not risking your savings on her overleveraged bet, at the bottom it’s the unemployed factory worker spending her morning fixing the fence at the school down the street, then spending the afternoon in an online job training course.    As Bart says, we need to rage against greed and sloth, at all rungs of the ladder.

We can’t tax or regulate solutions into being.  We have to create a belief in the greater good and set of social rewards for behaviors that enhance this good, and punishments for those that don’t.  I believe in peer pressure.

Disparities of wealth are going to be part of any free and competitive society, but what we can do is create a culture of support and contribution.

So to answer the question: What will I do with my billions?  Or will I even choose to accumulate them?

I don’t believe, in-and-of-themselves, billions will make me happy, and I don’t think I’ll keep them very long should I ever have them, but should the money come in faster than it can be responsibly deployed, I suppose it would accumulate.  The ultimate form however would be to create a life where the wealth never flows through me in the first place.  To have created organizations and platforms that intelligently distribute excess profits into the system in a way that continually builds and optimizes opportunities for an ever increasing number of people.   That’s the race I’d like to run.

I’ll use Bambi’s words to sum up my position “because in contributing, we serve a purpose, and purpose defines who we are.”

Thanks to everyone for participating, it was a wonderful opening discussion and I’m looking forward to many, many more.


Pictures from #1!

Lucia Comnes got things rolling with her fiddle.

Team Poppycock: Tim Musgrove, Kourosh Karimkhany, Bambi Francisco

Team Fiddle: Dave Gehring, Demian Entrekin, Toby Stuart



Demian Nov 10th Debate Question, Teams and Format

26 Oct

To bring context to the live discussion of this session’s topic we’re going with a modified Oxford debate format.

The question for the debate:  Is the optimal economic model for ourselves, and by extension the organizations with which we work, the accumulation and retention of wealth (with potential redistribution once we’ve achieved a certain amount/phase of life/development- see Bill Gates), or, do we need some new thinking about the accumulation of wealth in our lives/work, and the creation of new models for more continuous redistribution?

Now the teams:

Team 1: Poppycock!

Kourosh Karimkhany – Say Media, Talking Points Media
Tim Musgrove – Federated Media, TextDigger
Bambi Francisco – Vator, Marketwatch

The business of America is business, if Steve Jobs had been distracted with charitable activities he would never have built the products that changed billions of lives (and potentially billions more to come).   People are free to accumulate any fortune they wish, and the opportunity to do so is available to everyone.  People already pay a lot of taxes, and pretty much everyone I know gives on top of that!     A sharp competitive edge is critical for social progress, and if we lose that we’ll end up worse off.  Work hard, give when you can, stay sharp.

Team 2: I hope you like the sound of fiddle.

Toby Stuart – Haas, Harvard
Demain Entrekin – SplitStep, Innotas
Dave Gehring – Google, Famplosion

Rome is burning my friend, and the barbarians are at the gate.  If we continue on the path we’re on the rich are soon going to have everything, and the poor pretty much nothing.  People need a new set of values, and a new set of coordinates for life.  We need to create models where resources are aggressively pushed back into the system, it’s just not fair that so much is controlled by so few, not matter how talented, or lucky, they may have been.  If we don’t infuse our society with a new set of priorities, other than the maniacal focus on the accumulation of wealth, there won’t be a society in which to create wealth in the first place.


  • The question above is posed to the audience  at the start of the event, the audience votes.
  • The teams are attorneys for their point and have to argue zealously to prove their case.
  • Following a coin toss, we proceed one at a time, alternating between teams, each team member having up to 5 minutes to make their case (strict time keeping).
  • Once each of the 6 participants has made their case we will break for wine and conversation.
  • We will reconvene for Q&A from the audience (4 questions or so), each team will nominate one team member to make their closing arguments (up to 5 mins each).
  • The room will re-vote.
  • Whichever side has moved a greater proportion of the audience to their side wins!

The event is being held at the UC Berkeley Men’s Faculty Club on November 10th at 7:30pm, make sure to sign up here.

What will you do with your billions? Or will you even choose to accumulate them?

12 Oct

Post by Ezra Roizen

Bart and I have launched as a venue to discuss matters that can have an impact on the decisions we make, priorities we set, and ultimately, the lives we lead.

The format: We select a topic, post a blog (or two), set an evening for us all to discuss the topic, and then post a follow-up blog with a summary of the collected thoughts on the topic, from the community.

For our first event (on Thursday November 10th), we’ve decided to bite off more than we can probably chew. But, so be it!

The Topic:  What will you do with your billions?  Or, will you even choose to accumulate them?

Warren Buffett has put plans in motion to give 85% of his fortune to charity.  Bill Gates has famously said he only plans to leave a tiny amount of his wealth to his kids and has already begun in earnest the process of deploying his billions for social good. Why then did they accumulate all this money in the first place? What does this tell us about wealth and how we share it, if at all? What can we learn about our own lives from these extreme examples?

Harvard political philosopher John Rawls is credited with the following concept (which I lifted from Wikipedia):  Any system of social and economic inequality should satisfy two conditions: first, it should offer favored positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, it should maximize benefits to the least advantaged members of society.

The second standard is the really interesting one to me (I think we all get the first part, that opportunities should be equally available): social and economic inequalities are OK, so long as they operate “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”  What that means is if you have a system where the richest person has 1 million units of wealth and the poorest person has 5 units of wealth, that’s a better system than one where the richest person has 10 units of wealth and poorest person has 4 units.  Even though in the first system the difference between richest and poorest is 999,995, and in the second the disparity is only 6 units.  A narrower wealth gap is less important than the poorest person having the most he can have.

Our modern American, capitalist, democratic architecture is essentially Rawlsian in nature. We allow for massive disparities in wealth and tell ourselves that’s the best way to do things, and if you don’t believe us, look at all those rusty Soviet tanks.

Then guys like Buffett and Gates send a message that seemingly turns the current processes for wealth distribution on its head with their decision to give their fortunes away. Fascinating.

Clearly acts like these are almost unfathomably generous. But several questions come to mind:

Are Buffett and Gates our role models?  Did they lead socially optimal lives?  If the end result of their labors is the betterment of society at large – which it appears to be – and did they set an example we should all follow (at whatever scale we can)? Or is this generosity more of an afterthought, like having more leftovers than you have fridge space once the party is over?

If the next billionaire knows she is going to give 85% of her money away once it’s all accumulated, would she design a slightly different life? One that systematically redistributed vs. one that waited until the fourth quarter.

There’s an argument that these guys could have designed a different kind of model for their lives, one where they didn’t build such giant fortunes, but where they built organizational models that distributed that money back into the system along the way.  Or even more simply, where a greater number of people in their respective ecosystems saw a greater amount of wealth.

Then again, would that distribution be as effective in affecting world crises? Or is it better to deploy a massive amount of money toward a single purpose, such as the cure for AIDS? An argument could be made that amassing that kind of capital is the only way to really move the needle on some major challenges.

Maybe the only way libraries get built is if an Andrew Carnegie does it himself.  Maybe we *want* the economically fittest among us to amass great fortunes and then give them away. Maybe that’s the best way for some big things to get done.

Chris DeVore, a Seattle entrepreneur/investor, recently wrote a great post bemoaning the fact that Seattle’s millionaires tended to come from the middle ranks of a few large companies (Microsoft, Amazon, etc.). They were unlike the Silicon Valley-styled “frontline” entrepreneurs.  They don’t self-identify themselves as entrepreneurs, according to Chris. To that end, they tend to buy Maseratis rather than “give back” by investing in the next generation of Seattle startups.  This gets me thinking that just making a lot of people rich along the way may in fact *not* lead to broader-based good behavior. Maybe we’re all better off if a few well-intended and enlightened folks get to keep most of the wealth we collectively create. Those people would then get to invest in specific problems that plague society as a whole.

Our government is based on a representative democracy; maybe we also need a representative economy?

Yet I can’t shake this underlying feeling that there’s a better way than the Gates and Buffett model, their model seems like the 1.0 version.  Is it really best to architect our existence around amassing huge personal fortunes for eventual redistribution?  Or is there instead some yet-to-be created design based on a more holistic life, where the fruits of our labors are more actively shared, and enjoyed, along the way?

I’m also completely open to the notion that there isn’t a better way.  That this is the way it should be, that somehow holistic social/business/life models will take the edge off of healthy competitive forces, create inefficient systems, and in the end we’re better off keeping our professional games sharp and sharing our profits as a second step.

This is the topic of our first discussion, and I think it’s completely fitting with the founding notion of is the ultimate outcome of our labors and lives to amass the largest fortune we can, and maybe give some of it away as a second step? Or should we be seeking new holistic work/life models that combine an integrated and “gradual” distribution of our resources along the way?

Please leave a comment below and Bart and I are looking forward to seeing you on November 10th.


Follow on perspective posted by Bart Garrett:

Giving Money Along the Way

What to do with my billions? An answer is sure to remain in the hypothetical realm, unless my middle school girlfriend’s locker combination eventually secures a winning lotto ticket! But, Ezra asks a great question: Should you amass much wealth over time, and then give most of it away with 2 minutes left on the clock, or, do you give some away as you go, a decision that will certainly keep you from making as much and from having as much to give?

I will *argue* for the latter, though I agree with Ezra that deploying massive amounts of money might be the best way to move the needle on some global social issues. Still, creating practices and rhythms for ongoing sharing and giving can be both humanizing and soul-saving.

Sharing and giving “as you go” is…

1)    Humanizing because “out of sight is out of mind.”

2)    Soul-saving because “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

Humanizing because “out of sight is out of mind.”

I cut my teeth on the political philosophy of John Rawls. But, were he writing today and not fifty years ago, I think he would adjust his paradigm. To pay less attention to the disparity of wealth in a society and more attention to increasing the wealth of the poorest people in that society might seem noble on the surface, but might prove wrong in the end.

Robert Reich served as Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration and now teaches in the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley. He often begins his lectures with this illustration: “What if I were a genie that could increase the capacity of the American economy, that could provide more wealth and income for everyone? But, here is the catch: 90% of that increase will go to people who are already in the wealthiest top 5%. The rest is going to be distributed to everyone else. And, because of this, everyone is going to do better including the people at the very bottom. There will be less poverty! The increase in the income and wealth of people at the bottom will no be insignificant! How many of you are in favor of me snapping my fingers and granting you that wish?”

In academic settings, around ½ of the crowd raises their hands. Reich then goes on to say that this scenario is actually what has played out in the American economy over the past 25 to 30 years, and then asks, “Are we better off as a society today?” Reich is pointing out that a gross disparity of wealth is not good for society, even if it increases the “bottom line” for everyone. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson make a similar argument in “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger.” In fact, they argue that the income gap between a nation’s richest and poorest is the most powerful indicator of a functioning, happy, and healthy society.

This premise will set-off a political debate with myriad questions: What is justice? Should it be grounded in equality (utilitarianism) or freedom (libertarianism)? What do we do when those to things are at odds with one another? Further, what role should the “state” play in orchestrating equality, mitigating inequality, protecting freedom, and/or limiting freedom? Recognizing the political contours of the question, one critic of The Spirit Level posed the question: Is a primitive aboriginal tribe living in absolute poverty and equality to be preferred to a modern society with income disparities of 2 to 1 or even 100 to 1? This reviewer concluded her review by writing: “Thankfully mankind has generally moved away from stagnant societies where all wealth was controlled and redistributed by political force (kings, dictators and socialist commissars), to societies where wealth went to those who actually created it. Historically the greatest creators of wealth…are a remarkably small number of entrepreneurs and inventors. That of course has led to ‘income disparity’. I’m all for it.”

I side-step the political debate and the cost-benefit analysis of giving just before the buzzer Vs. giving along the way. Instead, I want to simply point out that societies with a great disparity of wealth are societies that are becoming less and less human by the moment. How? Why? First, they are societies where people of socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic diversity do not overlap and connect as often as they should. Second, they are societies full of people that assume money will fix all of the problems, and assumption is often made at the expense of relationships.

(1) Robert Putnam, a Sociologist at Harvard, in his ground-breaking work, Bowling Alone, demonstrates that the greater the disparity of wealth in a society, the fewer interactions there are in that society between the “rich” and “poor.” This means that the poor are “out of sight, and out of mind,” thus creating a dehumanizing reality for both rich and poor. The poor lose human dignity, cast aside as less-than-human discards (Scrooge’s “decrease the surplus population”), and the rich become less and less human in becoming more and more godlike under assertions that they “made money the old-fashioned way—they earned it!”

(2) This inability to connect across the lines of massive socio-economic disparity ultimately causes the rich (and yes, that is you and me!) to feel guilty for not knowing or caring for anyone who is poor. Thus, we assuage the guilt by throwing money at social issues rather than throwing our lives into relationships with people that are most unlike us. You know, people that don’t wear “smart guy” glasses (guilty!), and say things like, “The bouquet is fruity, but the finish is kind of earthy and gritty” (guilty again!).

Because religion is viewed today a primitive conversation between a bunch of people and their imaginary friend, allow me to put an extra olive in the martini of religious practice. Robert Putnam, in his newest work, American Grace, argues that, “Strikingly, religiosity is correlated with greater class bridging, especially downward bridging…. We also find some evidence that upward bridging is more common among religiously involved lower-class Americans, but that pattern is much less robust…. In short, religious social networks seem to serve as a counterweight against growing class segregation.” What is more, he argues that religion has fought against the disparity of wealth and not for it: “Many contemporary secular progressives have forgotten that the history of religion in America is replete with powerful examples of evangelical revival promoting social reform and equality. Indeed, it is harder to identify purely secular progressive movements in American history than to find progressive movements infused with deep religious commitment and undergirded by religious institutions. The First Great Awakening, the wave of Protestant evangelical revivalism that swept from England through the colonies from about 1730 to about 1760, was thoroughly infused with egalitarian ideology and formed part of the background to the American Revolution. Revivalist ministers in this Awakening were, observed historian Gordon Wood, ‘eager to promote the idea of equality that became so important in the Revolution’ and ‘became deeply involved in reform movements of the early Republic.’”

When poor people are not “out of sight and out of mind,” but rather share our tables and neighborhoods, then they receive dignity and the rich receive humility; both become more fully human.

Soul saving because “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

Shouting “Jesus!” in a crowded theater will scare people more than shouting “Fire!” But, pick up the hot potato for a moment, and ask people, “What is the most famous quote uttered by Jesus?” Answer: “Judge not lest you be judged.”

OR “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

Notice that Jesus did not say that “money is the root of all kinds of evil,” but that the love of money is. Whether or not you believe Jesus was nothing more than the son of a Jewish carpenter, a figment of the collective imagination, a raving lunatic, a Tinker-bell without wings, or God incarnate, this is perceptive counsel.

It is very easy to attach our status or our security to money—how much we spend or save determines who we are. Like the ring was for Gollom, our money can quickly become “my precious” as we clutch it and count it. Practicing the profane by giving money away along the way might just end up saving your soul.