While watching the speech, I tweeted that "Obama sounds remarkably similar to the CEOs I used to listen to on earnings calls: the ones with mediocre EPS and a failing business model." This wasn't a crack at Obama, or Democrats; it was a reaction to the content. And after watching the responses, the impression lingers--indeed, maybe it's strengthened.
The nation is facing some really difficult problems, particularly on the fiscal front. There's no longer any way to put it off; pretty soon, the government is going to have to start making some very hard choices about taxes and spending. No matter what it chooses, that probably means lower economic growth, angry voters, and some real loss on the part of whoever's ox is gored.
Listening to earnings calls means listening to quite a few CEOs in analogous situations. Often, the situations they are in are largely not of their making, or indeed anyone's fault at all. But they are expected to fix it. And too often, they can't, at least not yet. Think of Rick Wagoner, and the other managers at GM who knew they were on the road to disaster, but couldn't exit without the consent of stakeholders who weren't quite ready to believe it was necessary.
Faced with that situation, what does the CEO say? He puts the best face on things. I once listened to the head of a biotech company which was burning cash every quarter, had no good research prospects in the pipeline, and had already capitalized (i.e. sold) the income streams from their existing intellectual property. Despite the fact that this was obviously patently insane, he spent quite a lot of time detailing his plans for the future of the company. What was he supposed to say? "Sell my stock now, guys!"
Everyone on the call knew that the future of the company lay in bankruptcy court or a fire-sale liquidation, but bizarrely, they sort of went along with it. Of course, for obvious reasons, there weren't really a lot of dedicated analysts dialing in.
The government's situation is not quite that bad. But it's pretty bad. The underlying economy is, I think, ultimately fine, but the structural problems with the government's finances are driving it rapidly towards an unpleasant denouement. Like a CEO with a stuck company, however, he can't just say that. Stating the obvious would make things worse, as customers and creditors decide that the end really is nigh, and it's time to get out while they still can.
So what do those CEOs do? They spend a lot of time talking about their company's proud history, even if that history only stretches back a few years. They lavish extravagant praise on their awesome, dedicated workforce. And they deftly avoid talking about the big problems, for which they have no solutions, by talking about strategic areas for potential growth ("green jobs"), and going over a laundry list of new initiatives that do nothing to solve any of the core problems. When they are forced to talk about the core problems--and if the company is big enough to attract analyst coverage, they will rudely draw his attention to the problematic areas on the financial statements during the Q&A--he responds in vague generalities that restate the problem as if doing so constituted a solution:
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
The absolute favorite tactic, however, is the management reorganization. You may be in a saturated market where your second-rate franchisees are slowly destroying your brand, making it impossible to attract higher-quality franchisees . . . but that's nothing that can't be fixed by creating a new Chief Strategy Officer under the CEO, and giving that officer oversight of marketing, research, and HR. Perhaps a much larger competitor whose cost structure allows them to undercut your prices by 32% has entered your niche, but can they really withstand the fearsome might of your ISO 9000 certification and your new cross-functional product teams? The government regulators who just outlawed your three top-selling products and made two-thirds of your capital plant obsolete may be powerful--but not as powerful as your revolutionary sales force compensation scheme!
You can't blame the dodges, but they are a warning sign. Not that the CEO is a bad CEO, but that the CEO is in a bad situation he can't fix.
It's not that Obama doesn't know how to fix the problems; I think that like most people in Washington, he understands the broad parameters within which the fixes will be carried out. But he can't make Congress do it before there's an actual crisis. And saying all of this is all too likely to trigger the crisis--a crisis he'd much rather would happen during someone else's presidency. So he tells us what we want to hear: that we need to find a way to fix Social Security without, y'know, changing it in any way. And will you look at those green jobs! I think we're going to have a bumper crop!
The reason he does this, of course, is that like the analysts on all of those calls, we let him. Indeed, we actively, even eagerly, participate in the denial. After all, if we knew how to fix the company, we'd be CEOs, not sitting on the couch kvetching about their nonsense.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
In Sunday’s referendum, voters firmly rejected Europe’s plan to bail out the country’s economy. What’s next?
Updated on July 5, 2015 4:57 pm
On Sunday, Greek citizens took to the polls in a controversial referendum asking them whether they support a plan calling for continued economic austerity in exchange for debt relief. Their answer—with more than 70 percent of the votes counted—was a resounding “no.”The outcome means that next steps for the nation, which has fallen into arrears with the IMF and imposed capital controls to prevent a run on the banks, is largely uncertain. According to reports from Reuters, the country may next attempt to secure financing by asking for more emergency funding from the European Central Bank.
The referendum—which had asked Greeks to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders trying to come up with a deal to allow the country to avoid default. The call for the referendum effectively ended those discussions.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Female athletes have historically received very little attention from activists and advocates for gender equality. Why?
When I told my friends and family I’d be going to Brazil for the World Cup last year, they looked at me like I’d just won the lottery. In a sense, I had; I’d entered a lottery just to be able to purchase tickets. In Recife, I attended games at a brand-new stadium with a bright-green grass pitch, along with 40,000 other soccer fans from around the world. For months leading up to the event I saw news coverage on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines hyping Team USA, even though they had a virtually nonexistent chance of victory. By the time I left for Brazil, friends who I never knew to be soccer fans were telling me who their favorite players were, jealous that I would see “our boys” play against the tournament favorites, Germany.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.