Can Everyone Be Rich?

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“The reward would be…”

“What?”

“Well, more wealth than you can imagine.”

“I don’t know — I can imagine quite a bit.” 

—Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

 

Let’s say you’ve done very well and you have a six-figure income and, say, four million bucks in the bank. And you start to feel guilty: Should I really have this much money when so many people are struggling to feed themselves?

You could give it all away. Let’s assume there are four billion poor people on the planet, so divide that into your four million dollars, and each of them receives … excuse me while I whip out my calculator … [*click-click-click*] … one tenth of a penny per person.

Well, that’s not gonna help.

Wait, I know! What if, somehow, everyone could be rich? Could everyone have four million dollars?

Let’s find out. Take America as an example. In 2015, the total assets of U.S. citizens (real estate, stocks and bonds, cars, smartphones, PlayStation consoles) minus debt (mortgages, credit card balances, and the amount you still owe your bookie) was about $85 trillion dollars. Divide that by the 2015 U.S. population and you get a bit more than $265,000 per person.

So if you divvy it all up, every adult and child in America would be worth about a quarter mil. Not bad, but certainly not four million dollars apiece. So that won’t work.

Oh, wait, I got it! Maybe “rich” can be redefined so that more people fit the definition. Maybe $265,000 is rich by anyone’s standards.

Well, first off, you can’t live on it forever. It’ll run out after several years, even if you invest it. You’d need a cool million earning 8 percent just to have an income, after taxes and inflation, of around $30,000 per year. (Give or take. Your mileage may vary.) And thirty grand doesn’t get you anything fancy these days. But at least one person could survive on it indefinitely.

So every American would need at least four times as much money as is available today to be able to retire.

Of course, if everyone suddenly retired at this point in history, all the factories and gas stations and restaurants and bars would close, and nothing would be produced. We’d starve. Dang.

Okay, let’s start over. What, exactly, is “rich”? Dictionary.com defines it as: “having wealth or great possessions; abundantly supplied with resources, means, or funds . . . ” “Great possessions” and “abundantly supplied”: these suggest much more than is owned by the typical schmo. But if everyone got the same amount — say, one million dollars — that would become the new “average”, not “rich”. Hmm.

On the other hand, four million dollars? Now, that’s getting somewhere. Thus if you’re worth millions, you’re still not off the guilt hook. But I have one more idea that might help.

It involves purchasing power. The average American — and the average European, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Chilean, etc etc — has more wealth than nearly every other human who has ever walked the Earth. Compared to those others, today’s middle-class groups are fabulously rich, abundantly wealthy with great possessions.

A citizen in today’s industrialized countries can own things never dreamt of by the kings of yore. What seem normal to us — quick cheap flights to weekend vacation spots, streaming movies on high-def stereo TVs, instant chats with people in other countries — would have been impossible a century ago. Our average income thus has enormous purchasing power compared with the past. 

That purchasing power keeps growing, year after year, as technology improves. In the future, a mere $30,000 below-average income could have several times its current purchasing power. In effect, a future $30,000 would afford what a six-figure income buys today.

Eventually each of us will have so many resources available from our lil’ ol’ average incomes that we’ll find ourselves possessed of the luxury and leisure and ease that the wealthy have always enjoyed. Like the idle rich of old, we won’t even have to work anymore — not if we don’t want to. The machines we’re building today will do that work for us tomorrow.

So if you’re still feeling guilty about having more than others, you can do two things: (1) invest your wealth in businesses that hire workers to produce the wealthy future that’s looming just over the horizon; and (2) dedicate your own work efforts to building that future, one in which everyone will have more than they know what to do with, to the point where money will no longer be an issue — a future where people will be judged more on their creativity than their bank accounts.

If, on the other hand, you’re wishing you had enough money to feel guilty about, please note that nowadays the quickest way to obtain filthy lucre is much the same: work to build a wealthy future for everyone.

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Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

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UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

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Expertise: Complex or Simple?

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Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time. — Arnold Glasow

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. — Pablo Picasso

Beginners hardly know anything, while experts know a lot. Thus skills start out simple and get complicated as you learn them. Right?

Oddly, it’s the other way around. Beginning efforts are inefficient, arbitrary, and random. And randomness can generate enormous complexity. Expertise, on the other hand, is simple and straightforward. The expert knows what to do directly and effectively.

A professional will know many more things about a given skill than an apprentice, but those things are discreet and focused. The beginner’s mind casts about in all directions for a way through a situation the expert has already solved.

The first time I tried a crossword puzzle, it took two hours and a dictionary. Within a year, I was tossing them off — in pen no less — in five minutes. (Competition puzzlers often can complete them in less than two.) My crossword skills went from inefficient and ignorant to knowledgeable and focused. Beyond the puzzle-solving techniques I’d learned, I’d also internalized a vocabulary of special words for filling in the odd corner. But those skills and words were specific: instead of struggling with a dozen approaches, I had particular ways forward; instead searching through reference books, I could call on a short list of words from memory.

Blood-flow studies demonstrate that beginners’ brains are much busier than those of professionals: learners are all over the map, while masters are homed in. “ . . . [E]xtensive practice over a long period of time leads experts to develop a focused and efficient organization of task-related neural networks, whereas novices have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information.”

Basically, the pro sees the problem as a pattern with a solution, while the newbie sees a jumble of noise. One sees a map; the other sees a maze. The expert finds pathways; the beginner wanders around.

Expertise, then, tends to be elegantly efficient and simple, with few wasted moves — it’s economical — whereas students must slog slowly through their own ignorance.

Think of the inexperienced marketer or administrator, who takes too long to explain a situation, and the seasoned pro who encapsulates the problem in a phrase. Or the office assistant who makes a series of mistakes that his boss clears up with a couple of quick decisions. Or your golf partner’s swing, with its inefficiencies, compared to the fluid power of Rory McIlroy or Jason Day.

Of course, no two problems are the same, and even the experts must slow, sometimes to a crawl, as they approach new questions. In that respect, everyone is a beginner. But the pros have tools of experience they can wield at all times to cut quickly through the randomness of novelty.

What about all that knowledge and lore, the sheer number of facts to be learned? Doesn’t that make expertise more complicated? True, your acquired skills involve a library of facts a beginner won’t have. But those facts greatly simplify the process, enabling you often to see at a glance into the essence of a problem, turning it from a puzzling predicament into a process quickly fulfilled. Your store of knowledge makes things easier, not harder, and you complete tasks more quickly, with less total energy expended.

To attain the simplicity of mastery in any field or profession:

  • Relax … and practice: Your brain will find its way through the maze of ignorance to the exit of competence, and it will do so automatically — all you have to do is practice. There’s no need to force things; your mind will grow the particular skills it needs in good time. (Still, it’s possible to “master mastery”, as with the suggestions that follow.)
  • Find mentors: Don’t re-invent the wheel if you can befriend an expert who will teach you how it’s done. Of course, you can also study books and other media that describe the skills you’re learning. All these resources will speed things up tremendously.
  • Find the general principles: Every skill has a set of fundamentals which serve as shortcuts to learning. If you can master these, you’ll become expert faster. (You’ll know you’re becoming competent when you discover how to break the rules now and then for even better results.)
  • Find simpler ways: Once you have the basics down, think of how you can do them more efficiently — how to perform the action with fewer steps, how to say it in fewer words, how to focus in on the important data. This will move you quickly toward the end goal of polished mastery.
  • Find the 80/20 Rule in your field: As you practice, you’ll discover areas where your efforts generate much higher returns. If 20 percent of your work gets you 80 percent of your return, then increase the 20-percent activity.
  • Search for expertise in others: When partnering or hiring, look for people who have an easy grasp of the topic, who respond to challenges in a relaxed and confident manner, and who ask questions and incorporate the answers quickly into their process. Effective mastery depends, not only on your own skill set, but on the competency of your co-workers. Leverage each others’ contributions to multiply the results.

The goal is to be effective — to arrive at the solution without wasting time, energy, or money. While the student puts in hours, the master gets results. A few well-placed words, a stroke of a pen, a simple phone call, a single idea that solves a dilemma, an elegant motion by a craftsperson — these are the home runs, the three-point baskets, the hat tricks in the game of expertise. Practice the simplicity of mastery, and your scores will soar.

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UPDATE: The seven fatal thinking flaws, and how to transcend them

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Victory or Profits?

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Popular business theories often rely on the notion that success is binary: that you either defeat other businesses or you are defeated. This idea enables sports coaches to consult with Fortune 500 companies, but does it really cover all the bases? 

“Do or die” has an elemental, romantic appeal to corporate CEOs, most of whom are highly competitive and love a good battle. And it’s true that the marketplace can be ruthless. But that’s not all there is, and out-and-out market victory certainly isn’t the only source of profitability. Let’s look at some of the popular shibboleths and see if we can improve on them:

  • Grow or Die: This idea comes mainly from the 1973 book Grow or Die by George Land. The author described how all living systems, including businesses, go through growth spurts when they discover and exploit new resources, then stall out when those resources run dry, at which point new approaches to resource discovery and management must be developed. It helped publicize the S-curve, which shows how growth starts slow, speeds up, then slows down again. These concepts have proven popular and useful to business strategists. But still we’re left with that catchy binary book title, which seems to imply that all companies, and life forms in general, must constantly enlarge or they will be destroyed. By that reckoning, the oldest and most successful creatures would be the size of Massachusetts, generating their own Zip Codes and a sizeable gravitational field.
    • Better: Adapt or Fade. The point is profits, not constant growth. It’s not how big you are but how much you return to your stakeholders. To that end, especially in today’s innovative marketplace, the adaptive and creative firms will do best. That S-curve will show the growth of your margin, not merely your bulk.
  • Go Big or Go Home: This is a metaphor from sports, where outcomes are always binary (except in hockey). But it’s not a solid match for what companies face in the marketplace. Competition is only one aspect of commerce, and second- and third-place firms often earn more profit than the leader. But “Go big” appeals to men, who are fueled by testosterone and thrive on competition. For many leaders, the only thing that matters is total victory, as if they were in a war where the loser submits to unconditional surrender. Markets don’t usually work that way.
    • Better: Own Your Niche. Find the spot in the market where your company has a natural monopoly because of its uniquely useful products. The focus is on serving the clients and making a profit, instead of trying for some arbitrary notion of “victory”. (But you can still feel dominant in your particular corner of the market, if you need that buzz.)
  • Take or Give: Givers, says Adam Grant in his book Give and Take, prefer to give more than they get, and their team thrives. Takers, on the other hand, believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and they must grab as much as they can and give as little as possible, which disrupts group efforts. Clearly, you want a Giver on your team. But Grant’s thesis suggests a binary takeaway, namely, that the energy of your labor is exactly counterbalanced by the energy stored in the money you make. This is a zero-sum game, and it represents an attitude that goes all the way back to 17th-century Mercantilists, who believed that trade only worked if they “got more than they gave”, as if cash and product were worth exactly the same to both sides of an exchange that was more competition than cooperation. It’s also an attitude popular among fiscal liberals, who tend to think the rich got that way by cheating. In fact, Grant suggests that the only real flaw in a Giver is the tendency to give too much, as if he or she should pull back, now and then, and be a Taker — at least, long enough to pay for some nifty stuff. It makes the Giver look like the Nicest Loser.
    • Better: Create Value (rather than hijack it). Grant’s main point is that we work best when we’re not constantly calculating what we’re getting from our labors. If, instead, we focus on producing for the team, our pay will tend to reward us naturally over time. This seems a wise and fruitful attitude. And Grant — a Wharton Business School professor — no doubt understands exchange theory quite well. He’ll likely agree that when you make value generation your goal, you’ll do much better in the long run than when you act like a leech.
  • Dominate the Market: If you control the market, you ought to be able to dictate price and guarantee huge profits. Or so they say. The binary implication is that you own your market or it owns you. In fact, giant companies with overwhelming market share often get trapped paying for their enormous infrastructure by cranking out low-margin items. Meanwhile, small competitors can adapt and innovate quickly, so their goods and services are more likely to be uniquely valuable and command higher margins.
    • Better: KIP (Keep It Profitable). Yes, a huge corporation with a low margin may take more total profit than a small company with a big margin. And, yes, a big margin on big revenue is better than a big margin on small revenue. But as a general matter, it’s more important to be profitable than large. Size, as scientists would say, is an “emergent property” of success. But it’s not required.

In short: stay adaptive, develop your own niche, focus your team on creating value, and point your firm toward profit rather than size, and you’ll sidestep most of the grinding headaches that come from trying to steamroll your competitors in a “do or die” fight to the finish. 

Let someone else take home the laurels, and you bring home the bacon.

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The Four Career Strengths

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What we have to decide — once we’re okay, once we’re not living on three dollars a day, once we have a roof, once we have health care — is we have to decide, “How much more money, and what am I going to trade for it?” Because we always trade something for it, unless we’re fortunate enough that the very thing we want to do is the thing that also gives us our maximum income. — Seth Godin

A popular career goal is to find work you love and make a killing at it. And there are a zillion ideas on how best to balance enjoyment and moneymaking. Generally, though, the more of one you get, the less of the other. Fun jobs usually don’t pay as well. It’s a binary choice: pleasure or cash. 

Joseph Campbell famously suggested, “Follow your bliss.” But Stephen Pollan replies, “To search for work that’s fulfilling emotionally is noble but quixotic, especially today.” Pollan suggests you labor for the money and then fulfill your emotional needs elsewhere with friends and hobbies.

Each has a point. On the one hand, at the end of your life you probably won’t wish you’d spent more time at the office. On the other, it’s hard to watch your kids’ faces redden with shame every time you drive them to school in your rusty beater.

Most people take the cash and put up with the boredom.

We perform our work duties repetitively — over and over, forty hours a week, month after month — for decades. Even the most stimulating hobbies grow tedious at that rate of effort. If we search for pleasure on the job, we’re sorely disappointed. (As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it work.”) No wonder we’re exhausted at day’s end and can barely keep our eyes open in front of the TV set.

Even if we labor at something we love — an art or science, a sport, an outdoor activity — we can get caught up in endless paperwork and the constant hustle for funding or clients. The calling we once loved becomes encrusted with an overgrowth of dull chores.

Maybe we’re looking for the solution in the wrong place. Perhaps there’s more to the issue than “fun versus money”.

One of the joys of life is to create value for others. And some of the sweetest words in English are “Thank you!” and “Good work!” We’ll gladly toil all day just to hear them. Besides, nearly every business produces things people want to have, so there can be at least some sense of mission, no matter where you work.

Another of the great joys is is to attain mastery in a craft or skill. The auto mechanic tunes an engine the way a woodworker turns a table leg or a stylist trims a head of hair. When we do it right, we get a type of “high” that’s hard to imitate — the well-thought-out brief; the artfully managed negotiation; the report that solves the production problem.

Most jobs have moments of social fun. I sometimes visit a fast-food restaurant where the workers enjoy each other’s company, joking and kidding, and are warm and cheerful to the customers. At most offices, you can get a similar experience during lunch breaks and around the water-cooler. 

Of course, the money we earn is fundamental. It’s a great pleasure (and often a relief) to deposit those paychecks into our accounts.

Since it’s hard to get too much positive feedback from others, and because we can never sustain ultimate perfection in the things we do, the creation of value and the pursuit of craft are two stimulating goals that can help meet our need for career satisfaction. The fun we find at work, and the paychecks we receive, begin to seem almost like extras.

It appears, then, that we have four ways, not merely two, to fill out a satisfying work experience:

  1. Create value: The goods or services we provide — whether to a client, boss, or co-worker — add benefit to people and give meaning to the tasks we perform. Any way we can improve value will add to our experience in the workplace.
  2. Master the craft: To do great work, we must test ourselves and rise to the occasion every day. A good job well done is like a badge we pin on our souls.
  3. Have fun: We can look for and share positive social moments at work. Beyond the enjoyment, they help bond us to our cohorts and improve teamwork. 
  4. Get paid: The more we emphasize 1, 2, and 3, above, the more our earnings can improve, either here or at the next job.

Notice that “fun” has dropped a couple of ranks, and “value” and “craft” now provide most of the focus.

When you stress value creation and high quality, your work morphs from “boring routine” to “meaningful calling” and your experience changes from “punching a clock” to “answering a challenge”. The job no longer feels like drudgery and, instead, takes on a sense of purpose. Both Joseph Campbell and Stephen Pollan would be proud of you.

The fun and money? They’re just icing on the cake.

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Four Things Governments Do that Your Business Shouldn’t

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The free market punishes irresponsibility. Government rewards it. – Harry Browne

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further. — Darth Vader

Business owners and government officials work in diametrically opposite ways. Companies make offers to trade with you; governments use force to compel you to give resources to them. A corporation increases its product quality, then advertises the fact and improves revenues; an official agency delivers shoddy service, blames the problem, and cajoles the legislature into raising its budget. A firm that lies to its customers gets punished severely in the marketplace; a politician who lies to the public can point to political opposition and get re-elected.

Sometimes a business owner, under pressure in the marketplace — and perhaps impressed with how pols can get away with so much — may be tempted to take the path of Lying, Cheating, and Stealing. This is expected behavior from a politician but a horrific mistake in a CEO. Companies thrive on efficiency and customer satisfaction but deteriorate with bad behavior; governments burgeon with every problem they can create. 

Here are four ways politicos and bureaucrats do bad things that you should avoid at all cost:

— Use force: We the People have seen fit to delegate police powers to the State, on the grounds that some of society’s problems must be resolved with the threat or use of violence. This affords government stupendous power, which breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement and veiled contempt for the citizenry.

Your firm, on the other hand, must never, ever use or appear to condone coercion against your customers. This may seem obvious and trite, but companies sometimes think they’re clever to lure patrons with tempting offers, cajole them into contracts, and then corner them with fine print or sudden changes to benefits. For customers, that behavior looks like force, even if technically it isn’t. And it’s a chief reason citizens demand bureaucratic intervention into the concerns of companies.

— Be incompetent: The bottom line for a business is profits, which tend to evaporate when processes become inefficient. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, increase their power and influence by screwing up and then blaming the problems they’re charged with solving. Legislators already have signaled that the issue is important enough to warrant laws backed by the threat of force. They’re rarely in a hurry to punish, much less dismantle, the very departments they’ve staked their reputations on. This means bureaucrats have wide latitude to argue that their departments haven’t been adequately funded. As with Lucy and the Football, most legislatures succumb annually to this game. 

Businesses aren’t immune, either. Large corporations subdivide into departments with separate budgets, and divisions that fail to spend all their allotments may find funding cut back the following year. This creates an incentive to waste money simply to keep the department at its current size. Only at the top of the organization chart can this process be kept in check. Corporate leaders save themselves a lot of financial grief by inspecting closely those year-end weird purchases. Why does the IT department suddenly need a bunch of folding tables and chairs? And accounting can do without those fancy window treatments; simple shades will suffice.

— Renege: Like Darth Vader, politicians can change their promises almost on a whim, and citizens have few short-term remedies. Worse, in the long term, voters tend to re-elect liars: it’s hard to find candidates who don’t bend the truth, so dishonesty gets rewarded. Meanwhile, laws and enforcement can change overnight, leaving companies in the lurch. For example, hotels and taxi companies — that depend on regulations banning unlicensed room rentals and gypsy cabs — are left holding the bag as local agencies dump them and, instead, flirt with high-tech hotties Airbnb and Uber. 

Companies that lack integrity, on the other hand, can suffer marketplace death penalties when word of mouth condemns them. Happily, if an enterprise screws up and then goes to the trouble of reimbursing its victims, those patrons often morph into evangelists who sing the praises of the company. (Not that business should therefore make big mistakes just to fix them.)

— Spy: Americans, lately having learned that their government has engaged in wholesale spying on their phones and computer accounts, are touchy about the topic. But because of the “Blame Outside Forces” principle — in this case, possible enemy sleeper cells inside the U.S. — most citizens are less upset with Federal bulk snooping than they are with corporations collecting information on them. 

Big Data can be useful, but it’s easy to mishandle the process and alienate your patrons. By now, most people are cynical about promises that “We will never give away your information”, since any company in financial trouble (read: every company, eventually) will be tempted to monetize all that data in a desperate try to save itself from ruin. Suddenly customers’ private information is being passed around like a stolen doobie, and trust goes up in smoke. One workaround is to anonymize as much of the information as possible, so when temptation strikes, you’ll be able, at least in part, to live up to that original promise of data security.

… It’s one of those eternal mysteries, that people can disdain companies that serve them while acting worshipfully toward governments that shake them down. But imitating political bad behavior on the grounds that “They can get away with it, so why can’t we?” will probably blow up in your face. A business simply can’t pull off actions the State can do with impunity. Owners dwell in the marketplace, where trust is vital; government officials live in the realm of coercion, where power trumps all other considerations. They involve completely different sets of incentives. Mix them at your peril.

In an age when an avowed socialist can win presidential primaries, companies would do well not to alienate customers who might rise up and vote to dismantle businesses altogether and hand the remains to government management.

In a word, cultivate integrity. Governments don’t have to be honest, but successful businesses thrive on it. And their customers love them for it.

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Why U3 Is Useful

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Let’s say you’re having an evening out with friends, and the topic of unemployment comes up. Everyone has an opinion on how bad it is, or what the government should do about it, or if it’ll go up or down.

You’re sitting there, thinking, “I have a job, so how does the unemployment situation affect me?” You take a quick mental inventory, just to get your brain in gear (and avoid blurting out something stupid):

1. The higher the unemployment rate, the cheaper labor gets (because people are begging for jobs).

2. The higher the rate, the less pressure for minimum-wage hikes (because see #1).

3. The higher the rate, the lower the prevailing interest rates (because the government fears things will get worse unless it makes money cheaper to borrow).

4. The lower the rate, the more likely they’ll raise interest rates (because full employment leads to higher wages — labor gets hard to find and owners must offer more to attract it — which puts more money in workers’ pockets, which heats up prices, which can cause customers to cut back on purchases, which can lead to a recession, which can lead to you getting laid off).

Then you remember reading somewhere that, when the unemployment rate gets below 5%, that’s when the Fed will step in and raise interest rates. But how do they know unemployment has dropped to that number? You pull out your smartphone and Google it: the official rate used by the Fed is called “U3”, whatever that is.

Okay, “U” must mean “unemployment”, and the “3” hints at other unemployment estimates. A further search reveals that the U.S. government produces six measures of unemployment, U1 through U6, with U1 being the narrowest estimate and U6 the widest. And ooh, lookee, here’s a nice chart that shows how the various unemployment rates rise and fall in lockstep.

At this point you’re thinking, I’m gonna own this conversation.

You butt in: “Hey, it all means nothing until U-3 gets below five percent.” Heads turn. Puzzled looks. You resist the temptation to gloat. Instead you exercise regal patience: “You know, U-3, the standard unemployment rate used by the Fed to determine interest rates.” You lean back, a faint smile on your face.

Someone shakes his head. “Nah, those rates are faked up by Washington to make things look better. The real number is much higher.”

Evenly, you reply, “Yes, of course, but they also have U-6, which is a much wider estimate of unemployment.”

Someone else pipes in: “If they fake the — what did you call it?”

“U-3.”

“If they fake U-3, why won’t they fake U-6?” Heads nod.

Someone says loudly, “I never believe anything out of D.C. They’re all liars!” Cheers, high fives, glasses clinking.

This isn’t turning out the way you planned.

So next time you find yourself in this situation, here’s what to say:

“It doesn’t matter if they’re fudged numbers! They’re still useful. And the Fed relies on U-3 to make decisions whether we like it or not. So when you see the U-3 number creeping down below five percent, get ready for a change in the economy.”

If they ask, “What change?” grandly tell them:

“At that point, the Fed will raise interest rates to cool down the overheated marketplace. And this, in turn, will make it slightly harder for businesses to raise money. Which could toss a monkey wrench into the stock market.”

If they ask, “Okay, then what?” inform them:

First, if you’re thinking of taking out a business loan, do it sooner rather than later, to keep your rate down.

Second, if you’re holding stocks, you might want to move some of that to cash. You can shift into short-term bonds because their rates will likely rise. But long-term bonds will be stuck paying low rates, so their value will drop.”

“And third, keep an eye on U-3, because usually it gets down to the low four-percent area before the good times end and we dive into another recession.”

If they insist, “But those unemployment figures are fake!” just remind them:

“U-3 and the other U’s behave very consistently over the decades. U-6 is generally twice as high as U-3, for example, which means a U-3 of five percent translates to a U-6 of ten percent. Anyway, it’s not the number itself but how it goes up and down that counts. So don’t let your political beliefs prevent you from using the unemployment figures as bellwethers.”

(Cool word, “bellwethers”.)

Finally you declare, “Washington and the banks and big corporations pay close attention to U-3. They don’t give a damn if it’s fudged downward. They’ve heard all the theories. What matters to them is where the number is headed. So take a tip from the big boys and keep an eye on U-3.”

Then collect your well-earned applause, handshakes, thank-you’s, and offers of free drinks.

…Or not.

.