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April 24, 2005

What's Good for Microsoft is Good for America?

When we saw General Motor's results for the last quarter, we couldn't help remember another America in which it was oft said, "What's Good for General Motors is good for America". A lot's changed since then but we thought it was worth considering the same metaphor in a new light; i.e.; is what's good for MSFT or GOOG or YHOO good for America? And if so, what does that mean?

But first, we'll get back to good old GM. Once upon a time there were three American car companies and then there were two as Chrysler fell first into bankruptcy and then into foreign hands. In those days GM had about a 70% share of the US market and, at least through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia, made some pretty sweet cars. Never mind that the built in clock hardly made it off the sales lot before it stopped or that in the course of three years you could expect your fuel pump, your water pump, transmission and your battery to all need replacement. Of course, if you lived in a northern state, you also had to deal with the body around the wheel wells rotting out.

Today, GM has about a 27% market share and if you want to buy a competitive sedan or convertible from them you have to do some serious research. They, like their major American competitor mainly make pick-up trucks, vans and SUV's. They have, it appears, been particularly hard hit by the recent rise in fuel costs, given the average size of the behemoths in their fleet but their problems go much deeper. Even in the large vehicle area, more and more of their potential customers are choosing autos made by their foreign headquartered foes that often beat them competitively, not on price but on design, quality, fit and finish.

Interestingly, GM hasn't made a profit on the vehicle it makes for several years so that even in years when they showed a profit, it all came from their financing operations. And, as everybody knows, GM has been selling more and more models over the past few years by inducing customers through 0 percent loans and  other incentives. You don't have to be a financial genius to understand that if you are in the finance business loans that pay no interest are bad business. So, it should come as little surprise that as they got all their customers into ever bigger gas slurpers at monthly payments that reflect zero interest and when the price of gas went up, as everybody knew it would, especially with all those guzzlers, GM was looking at customers with less and less disposable income. Money that might have gone to their finance wing, was now flowing  into the pockets of the oil companies and the producer countries.

Are we to be surprised, then, that GM just reported a quarterly loss of over 1.5 billion dollars?

We are, it appears, beginning to see the signs of the coming day of reckoning, when all of the contradictions of the last few years come to roost. What if all that deficit spending, all those tax giveaways that were supposed to spur investment just turned into the stuff of ever greater further deficits? What if Fed Reserve and government policies aimed at stimulating consumption succeeded mainly in stimulating the Chinese economy to build more capacity? What if trade deficits have put the US at the mercy of the foreign countries who hold all our debt? What if we ended up with interest rates so low and creeping inflation that would tie the hands of the Fed? What if we had invested over $300 billion dollars, the lives of 10's of thousands, and the country's prestige on a war that is coming to look more and more like a low level national cancer?

Two weeks ago, as if on prompt --which, of course, is their wont-- the sock puppets of the MSM (mainstream media) all started singing about the improvements in the situation in Iraq. This coincided with the two year anniversary of the "end of major combat". We were to believe that the three warring ethnic groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds had lain down together like proverbial lambs and tigers, that the insurgents were losing interest and thinking about other targets.  What these sock puppets failed to mention is that the cost of taking a taxi the six miles from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the local airport is $35,000. Now, we may be a little old fashioned here in Dymaxia, but 35 grand for a six mile taxi ride in the capital of a pacified country seems a little stiff. Until, of course, as we read yesterday, typically four people a day, even in armored Humvees, die trying to make the trip.

GM, its manufacturer, tried selling the Humvee in civilian form to the US public as the latest in fashionable bigness. Never mind that it gets around 5 miles to the gallon. To help them in their costly marketing campaign, Congress wrote a loophole in the tax code that allows all vehicles above 5 tons to get special tax depreciation treatment.

America's real business, we all agree, is not cars but high tech. Are our leaders fighting about how to get the population educated and trained for the demands of a high tech economy, are we worrying about laying the infrastructure for a high-speed broadband that connects us and leads to the new applications that the world will need, are we encouraging more foreign trained engineers into our graduate schools, are we making connectivity a right rather than a privilege, etc.?

Of course, the answer is no, not in this US  that is still fighting over things that should have been settled when GM really was king. We are buried in arguments over whether pharmacists should be forced to fill prescriptions for people whose habits they don't like, about what equipment is being carried below the belts of people who wish to live legally as couples, whether a person's spouse has the right to make medical decisions against the will of her parents, we are discussing whether our DNA links with other species on the planet means anything in the scientific scheme of things, whether the earth is really more than 5000 years old, whether we should shut down the government in order to potentially determine a woman's right to choose what's good for her body or whether stem cell lines that promise major health benefits should be allowed to come from fetal materials we commonly dispose of.

Maybe there is a reason we are in Iraq that doesn't have to do with oil and Saddam Hussein, maybe in this fixation for the rear view mirror we are really there looking for enlightenment from a society that has deep cultural roots in beliefs little changed in 1500 years.


Posted by dymaxion at 05:57 PM

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April 16, 2005

No Mercy for the Debtors for they shall .......


In life, they say, timing is everything. Here in Dymaxia, in deference to some of the Russian novelists we love so much, we have another take on that; we say: coincidence is everything. Take this week at that august body, we call Congress. Our representatives --as D.C. residents we have to say that figuratively, since we don't really have a Representative-- were busy crafting a bill that would make it easier for credit card companies to come after us, should our fortunes take a sudden dive.

We are, of course, not great advocates of debt. We think the credit card companies should stop sending us all those invitations to roll up whatever debt we might have so that we can comfortably go out and spend more. Instead, we think they should be sending us warnings explaining that even a single missed payment can double or even treble the interest we'll have to pay going forward. Quite frankly, every time we read that the average US family owes $38,000 in credit card debt, we wonder if any of the poor souls are ever going to dig themselves out. Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, in their book: The Two Income Trap, have demonstrated that most of those unfortunate Americans who end up in bankruptcy, get there, not because of their profligacy, but because of life events that can happen to anyone. Often, it is the death or disability of a spouse in the two-income family that throws the family into a debt spiral, or the loss of a job, or a grave health crisis, or a divorce that leaves someone holding the bag. Most frequently, that person brought under, is now a single mother who has played the game by the rules all her life.

Congress by its actions has proved once again, that in Washington, lobbying is everything, To make that plain they managed to keep a loophole in the bill that makes it possible for people with very high net worths, to shelter their assets in certain kinds of Trusts, while in the same bill, ordinary folk are forced to cough up shelter and wheels. Our Washington legislative leaders also managed to kill any provisions that would have limited the rate of interest the credit card companies can legally jack up and charge their customers. President Bush, a prime supporter of family values, has promised to sign the bill.

To get back to our opening, we say that for us coincidence is everything because we like to think that the laws of the universe, at least that universe bounded by the Beltway, have their roots in irony. Take this week, just as  Congress was clamping down on debtors, the US trade deficit figures came out for March and for the umpteenth time in a row they set a new, even more unbelievable record. This last month the US bought 60 billion dollars more goods and services from the rest of the world than it sold. And not just from China and Japan but from just about every country and trade bloc in the world.

In other words, just as Congress was expressing its displeasure at laws that allow ordinary citizens to get out from under possibly life crippling debt burdens, the US was in the process of borrowing from foreigners another 60 billion for the month, or three quarters of a trillion for the year, and that is, of course,  on top of a crushing overhang of trade debt that goes back for years.

If they weren't such willful actors in the theatre of now you see it, now you don't, these Representatives of the people might have noticed that after three years of policies aimed at lowering the value of the dollar and artificially pumping up the economy on the backs of borrowers, the trend is supposed to be turning around. In other words, the trade deficit should be shrinking; a cheap dollar should  mean that US goods and services are cheaper while foreign goods get pricier. What they should be worrying about is the amazing shift that has seen US manufacturing, and now service jobs decimated as plants, facilities and know-how head off to Asia never to return. Do they wonder what it means when no one is about to open a big furniture manufacturing facility in North Carolina while other facilities still operating there pack up lock stock and barrel and head off over the Pacific horizon?

Congress, of course, doesn't have to look abroad to see debt. They are operating this year, as they did last year and the year before that, on their own massive deficit and they will operate that way for as far as the eye can see as long as they continue to push to reward their buddies with their unreal tax policies.

This month, just as last month, the unbacked dollars we print and spend abroad have once again been soaked up by the oil producers, and the exporting nations led by China, Japan and Korea, then recycled back into the system.  Foreign institutional and private bankers continue to perform this spiral-like, hypnotic dance, hoping against hope that the center will not collapse.

In this don't ask, don't tell scenario that has served to freeze our gaze: The indefatigable US consumer, undeterred by debt, rising fuel prices, rising housing prices, stagnant wages, a weak job market, a sinking stock market, continues to run up more debt in their eternal quest for more tchotchkes. The foreign bankers, undeterred by the flow of ever greater mountains of greenbacks fresh off the printing presses, continue to fill their coffers with more and more US T Bills, pushing long-term interest rates down even as the Fed tries to push short-term rates up, while Congress and the Administration make believe everything's hunky dory and the public worries just a little more... well, about paying their bills.

Bankruptcy is an issue. The President in a speech in West Virginia pushing his plan to privatize Social Security made the point that the system could go broke since the surpluses it has built up over the years have been converted as loans to the government, in the form of Treasury Bills. The President warned that those Treasury Bills, held by the Social Security Administration, might just turn out to be worthless paper. Were any of those bankers from China, Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia who routinely buy those same T-Bills listening when he said that? We hope not.

Posted by dymaxion at 03:29 PM

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April 10, 2005

Flat v Horizontal

In his new book, The World is Flat, NYTIMES columnist Tom Friedman calls attention to the great tectonic movements being brought about by the force of a connected world of bits and bytes. Friedman has  gotten his fingers onto the outlines of perhaps the biggest story of our time at a moment when most Americans are looking inward and elsewhere. Compared to the economic impacts of the massive supply chain pipeline between China and the US (they make, we consume), and those of an equally burgeoning outsource system between India and the US (they do, we consume), the Iraq War abroad and the cultural wars at home may even yet appear as shadow plays on the screen of history.

Rather ironically, at the height of the Terry Schiavo brouhaha, a little more than a week ago , we found ourselves  being admonished, as Americans, by someone who had traveled from abroad expressly for the purpose of sounding a warning.  We should, he urged,  get a hold of our ourselves so we might continue our role as world technology leaders.

Here in Dymaxia we tend to see the world not as flat, but to use a little less tricky phrase, horizontal. For instance, in our horizontal world, we have the impression that our tech support guys for this site --available 24/7, BTW-- are in Hong-Kong; yet, we can't be quite sure. We do know, however,  that you, dear readers, land here from all over the world. Looking at a 24 hour bar chart of visits to the site, it's impossible to see where the US business day begins and ends. In actuality, it's a pretty flat bar chart, that looks an awful lot like a piano keyboard!

Without trying to elevate the term or merely pun, we are going to argue that "horizontal" is different from "flat" and question whether Tom Friedman has noted the difference and, more importantly, it's real political significance. This, because horizontal implies a system that is non-hierarchical, one that is peer to peer and one that allows us to reach from any endpoint to any other endpoint without interference. Because of this horizontalness, the Internet provides a level of connectivity that extends far beyond what was imagined just a decade or so ago when this all began to roll out. In the boom exuberance, capital flowed like wine downhill from Sonoma to Silicon Valley and the great build-out took off. Fiber cable that might have taken the governments and the great TELCO'S decades to finance, was laid out across the continents and oceans and, with a certain lag, began to be lighted up. First in were the Wal-Marts and Merrill Lynchs of the world who sought to cut their costs for a competitive edge. Then came the end-user services and suddenly millions of individuals, who by reasons of geography and politics, had been kept well behind the cutting edge, became part of the same highly elastic wavelength.

As a result, even as the War on Terrorism put the kybosh on immigration, Indian and Chinese programmers and designers no longer had to be physically in the US to find out what problems the leading edge was dealing with and thus where the entrepreneurial opportunities lie. So, as Friedman reports, suddenly there were millions of young, hungry, well educated Asians able to find work in their own countries. And it wasn't just data entry, low level tech support and outdated COBOL coding they were being asked to do by American corporations with bloated valuations, desperate to meet quarterly projections.

Most non-geeks would be hard pressed to explain what the Open Source Movement is all about even if they had heard of its existence. The importance of Open Source --and it's not only the threat this movement poses to Microsoft's hegemony-- is that any programmer can join into an open source development group to work on a project that is unpaid, self governing and with a resulting end product that is generally free to the user. More significantly, Open Source developers are often busy building the kind of cutting edge software applications that the new horizontal world requires. These social networking platforms, like wiki's,  and social web-knowledge building, or other group activities that allow for the efficient sharing of writing, photos, videos, audiocasts and beyond  in the vast sea of new content and applications that is being spawned, all rely on group, self managing activities that greatly speed up the development process. Some people wonder why trained developers would volunteer so much time and effort with no direct pay but, in fact, there can be no better means of connecting and learning from one's peers around the world --since these are often truly global efforts-- than getting involved in a cutting edge project.

This activity spawned by low barrier, horizontal connectivity and communication has brought us all to a new inflexion point, a term that was popularized by Intel founder Andy Grove, to describe critical points in time where everything changes. We saw IBM topple when software development became "off-the-shelf' and more efficient ways of developing and building it were evolved by the mainly West Coast based software companies; M$FT now faces the same possible fate. The know-how for efficient, team software development, and the high tech process, platforms and financial infrastructure that grew up in its wake to make Silicon Valley the epicenter of the last boom, is now being spread around the world, peer-to-peer via the horizontal platform.

When giant seismic changes occur below, there are always massive reactions to follow on the surface. We dare to be optimistic enough to think this momentum cannot be totally suppressed but we do strongly fear that attempts will be made to throttle and control the Internet. We have the potential to make major strides towards a horizontal world built on this layer of global connectivity. In the background, we already hear the footsteps of those very powerful forces who would like to mold and game the system by tampering with all layers of the Internet in order to make it work to their advantage, while subverting and reversing the movement to openness through technical, economic, judicial and legislative barriers.

And to get back to the urging of our guest from across the pond, who, we of course, hope will read this; Taking the lead now, at this critical juncture, means assuming the responsibility to make sure that, despite major forces to the contrary, the playing field remains horizontal and the interlopers and censors are kept at bay. It will take more than a flat, nonpolitical, effort and it will have to be global.

Posted by dymaxion at 12:19 PM

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April 02, 2005

F2C (Freedom to Connect) Post Event Thoughts

David Isenberg, the one-man force behind F2C, deserves everyone's kudos for having delivered a truly important event right here, inside the Beltway. David's, and the tremendous group of attendees and speakers, instincts are right in convening this assembly at this time and in this place. Techno-libertarians may be in denial or dismayed, but to an overwhelming degree, it's the decisions made in the chambers of Washington DC, Brussels and Beijing rather than, say, the boardrooms of Boston, Silicon Valley and Seattle that increasingly set this country's (and the world's) technology directions.

Timely, because for millions of bloggers, social bookmarkers, podcasters, wikiists and vloggers --if we left you out, we didn't mean to-- the Web has begun to live up to its promise of becoming a truly multidirectional, horizontal way to communicate and connect. It, meaning the combination of technological platforms and protocols, has succeeded in profoundly lowering both the barriers to production and distribution for Web communicators. One only has to see that on the Web the New York Times, Fox News and Yahoo have to compete for the same screen space as clever and creative sites run by a single individual or a relatively small group of collaborators. Needless to say, this "long tale" of diverse content and an economic model that can be supported by relatively compact audiences, drives the big content guys nuts. Politicians have also gotten the message: the Web's ability to quickly mobilize supporters and even demonstrators has the potential to overturn the very cozy arrangement they have forged with financial interests in what have increasingly become safe districts where the incumbent has to get caught swimming nude in the tidal basin with a stripper to worry about a potential challenger, and even then, probably a substitute from their own party.

Gut issues: On the Web, all bits and bytes look the same. These can be bits of free flowing creativity, advertisements, hate messages, bets, pornography, purchase orders, music and movies, love notes and plots to blow up buildings. On the Web, they all look alike. Because of this openness, obviously, not everything there meets our approval  Thus, there is a confluence of interests who, for better and worse motives, are tempted to want to somehow regulate, tap into and control that flow by tampering with the very guts of the Internet. In that blueprint, only permitted kinds of bits and bytes might use the channel while all others are shunted, blocked or black-lined. Vint Cert, one of the principal architects of the Internet, spoke eloquently about why we should avoid going down that path.

The delivery system: The Web is more than an integration of technology platforms built on standard protocols.  There is also a physical transport layer. And the business of providing the physical means for transporting all those bits and bytes out to the ends is enormous and consequently requires great investments in infrastructure. Where that infrastructure gets built, who gets to fund and lay it and how these choices get regulated is equally important. Terry Huval, the head of the publicly owned electric utility in Lafayette LA, spoke about his city's efforts to build their own network.

Lafayette, like Philadelphia and some other municipalities are proposing to built out their own Internet access systems and have been facing tough opposition from the telephone and cable companies.  But these cities are in the minority. Although access to the Web is vital to the social and economic wellbeing of a society it is being left mainly to the purely economic considerations of monopolistic conveyors, who in the case of Web access in the US, are the giant Telcos and Cable Operators.

Mark Cooper, one of the panelists, provided the following context by reminding the audience (the event was webcast) of how far back the principal of fair access has been embedded in the law.  Innkeepers in pre-Renaissance Europe at the very dawn of Capitalism were required, in some of the first instances of common law,  to publicly post their tariffs. In such way, for example, the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales could all be assured the same price for equal bed and board regardless of their station in life. Cooper also pointed to rules requiring canal operators in early America and later the railroads that required them to post their tariffs and make them an equal playing field for transport or trade. It was well understood, that if these regulations were not in place, the monopoly operators of roads, canals and railroads could charge favorites one price and non-preferreds another thereby tipping the competitive balance.

As the F2C website argues in its call for the Conference:

The need to communicate is primary, like the need to breathe, eat, sleep, reproduce, socialize and learn. Better connections make for better communication. Better connections drive economic growth through better access to suppliers, customers and ideas. Better connections provide for development and testing of ideas in science and the arts. Better connections improve the quality of everyday life. Better connections build stronger democracies. Strong democracies build strong networks.

Place: By happenstance or not, on Tuesday of this week the Supreme Court heard two cases --MGM v.Grokster and Brand X (Brand X (a California ISP) vs FCC) with the potential of having enormous impacts on the future of technology. In the first case, the judges were being asked to look at whether technologies that can be used for illegal purposes can be banned even if they also have legitimate uses.  In the Brand X case, the Court will decide whether the Cable Companies, like the Telcos have to open up access to their lines into the house to other potential service providers like ISP's.   Later in the year, Congress will be working on a possible update to the Telecommunications Act, which is widely viewed as flawed.  For the last decade the role of the FCC, a group of 5 Commissioners, which once had the fairly sleepy job of regulating a stagnant network system has become a critical battlefield for a multitude of issues.  The Brand X Case, for example, is the direct result of an FCC ruling that said that the Cable Companies were not required to share their lines, a decision that was later overturned by the 9th District Federal Court of Appeals.

And so, against this background, on Wednesday, the F2C Conference opened in the AFI Silver Theatre outside of Washington. Expert speakers like Susan Crawford, Jim Baller, Robert Corn-Revere, John Perry Barlow, Rahul Tongia and Dan Gillmor, to name just a few, talked about First Amendment speech and press issues; alternative network build-out approaches; the need for a neutral, private, transparent, fully accessible network; societal access implications; and potential technology solutions. What couldn't have been made more eminently clear to all who attended in person or via the webcast, was`that the consequences of choices in future directions for the Web are far too important to be left to the politicians and lobbyists to sort out on their own. If they are left to do that, without the direct input and actions of all of us most directly affected, it's highly likely that this dynamic moment in communication history will become something looked back at in nostalgia or anger for what might have been.

Posted by dymaxion at 11:24 AM

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