Tuesday, January 06, 2015

How do we protect ourselves and our families in an increasingly wealth-concentrated world?

I think about the question often -- I want to provide a good future for my wife and my children. I'm smart and capable. To strike it "big," I need to find a way of concentrating wealth. As always, this requires capital, so it must involve some amount of risk (hopefully legal risk). The ones providing capital (VCs, others) don't really have a vested interest in me joining their club (even though they're happy for me to take on all the risk; btw, this plays out in many, many ways across society, from school loans, to retirement savings, to health care).

But I don't want to join their club. I just want "content economic security." I want to be near my children as they grow up, and know that they will get an equally good start to their lives and careers. So how do we set up a system where anyone who wants to take on a manageable amount of risk (i.e., reasonable debt with, say, a 1-3 year breakeven point) ensure that minimal level of security?

I think the real problem is that there are very few truly moral means of obtaining that security. The world is now "small." I'm not saying we're at carrying capacity, but ask yourself: where else is there to go, and what is the next frontier? Can we continue to exploit land and labor in developing countries? Not forever, and not morally (even now).

Those with tremendous amounts of accumulated capital are the ones who hold the pursestrings on all major developments in the world today. But they aren't interested in investing if there aren't major "VC-style" or disruptive returns on their investment. So how does each of us absorb a reasonable amount of risk, get a reasonable return, and do it morally? I don't know the answer yet, but for starters it would be nice to have far, far lower barriers to entry for small-scale entrepreneurs, and it would be nice to decentralize things a bit. John Robb at Global Guerrillas thinks the answer is in blockchain companies.

This chart has been making the rounds recently ... I think it sums up my fears:

I live in that "dip." (Probably on the right side of it, since this graph reflects the global population. Chances are, if you're reading this, you do, too.) Stay tuned as the dip extends further to the left, and the spike on the right gets even more spiky.

UPDATE: I think this graph is telling us that we're heading to a "slow growth" global economy. Question: what would the curve look like in the graph above if there was still lots of room to grow?

May be coming back ...

I've been away from this blog for almost eight years. It was a bit of an obsessive experience back then, and I discovered that it's hard to seriously blog and also be "something else", like a full-time scientist, etc.

A lot has happened since then. I'm married with a 16 month-old son, and another child on the way. I've switched jobs twice (from PhD bench biologist to management consultant to tech product manager). Who knows what's next?

Back when I was writing the blog, I thought of Political Spaghetti as a forum to express my thoughts around a very specific problem in Nigeria: the use of persecution of LGBT Nigerians as a political lever in Nigerian politics, and in global Anglican politics. I learned several things from that experience:
  • The Anglican Church in the United States (i.e., post-schism Episcopalians) was finding itself in bed with congregations in Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere with really nasty views on homosexuality, and an eager desire to restrict the rights of LGBT citizens in their countries to even talk about their homosexuality, let alone themselves in public.
  • Anglicans in the US were very uncomfortable with the associations they had carved out for themselves in Africa, but were unwilling to take a stand against some of the more egregious examples of church-led persecution.
  • Many conservatives in the US and in Africa were using the excuse that speaking against such persecution would cause them to lose face with their Muslim counterparts (especially in Nigeria). Inter-religious violence (especially in NE Nigeria where Boko Haram has been most active) becomes the the primary reason to engage in a persecution arms race, with each side eager to establish their anti-gay bona fides.
  • That said, at its root, the religious conflict is ultimately about the challenge of sharing of scare resources or key commodities (e.g., oil in Niger Delta), which naturally collapsed along the most dominant social/political lines. In Nigeria, this played out (and continues to play out) as a North versus South or Christian versus Muslim conflict. For instance, a common complaint among northern Muslims is the torpor with which oil revenue makes it to the northern states, to which a Muslim might say (in the abstract), "Why do you Christians keep us down? Maybe you eat poo-poo like the gays?" Yes, it really is like that.
Throughout my time writing this blog, I left out two personal details about myself that at the time didn't seem to be relevant to the arguments that I was making. Upon reflection, I should have been more up-front about the first, but I still think the second didn't need to be said at the time.

First, I am the son of an Anglican clergyman in the United States, who in "schism" with the Episcopal Church aligned himself with the Anglican Church of Uganda, a church that has a deeply troubled history of advocating for the open persecution of its LGBT citizens. I was very disappointed with my dad for making this decision (although it was his to make). At the same time, Nigeria was playing around with the idea of making it illegal to speak, write, or assemble as an LGBT citizen, and conservative Anglicans in northern Virginia (near DC where I live) were aligning with the then Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, an ambiguously overt supporter of the bill. In a country where LGBT citizens were regularly beaten and harassed, this new bill seemed like it would only add fuel to the fire. And it INFURIATED me that no one was really taking them to task for the blinkered way they were attempting to remove themselves from the Episcopal Church. It was as if they were themselves endorsing bills like the one in Nigeria, as well as the later one that passed in Uganda last year. However, I've decided to let that go now. It's a critical issue for a great many people, but there are other voices, and mine hasn't been needed for some time. Also, I love my dad, and back in March of 2007 it finally felt like it was time to leave it alone.

Second, while many assumed that I am gay, it turns out I'm straight. Back in 2006/7, I guess it seemed really odd to people that a straight person would see LGBT rights as universally important. I didn't think it mattered that I say one way or the other when making the kinds of arguments I was making. Political Spaghetti was never intended to be a "gay blog" -- rather, I wanted a forum to talk about humanity's deeply flawed understanding of our own nature (at all levels of organization, from molecule to political ecosystem). And so I happened upon the nonsense in Nigeria. I believed and continue to believe that whenever anyone EVER says that it should be or is illegal for another human being to speak their mind (even if that person is insane, an idiot, a bigot, of another religion, or, yes, LGBT), such efforts must be vigorously and conscientiously opposed.

So I may start posting soon. I'll focus on my thoughts on the nature of conflict in specific instances. More often than not, conflicts are not about the superficial and facile reasons that everyone supposes -- the real stories are often far more fascinating.