The budget issue that’s not in the conversation

Whether you think we should trim the deficit right now or not, this paragraph from the CBO on Options for Reducing the Deficit gives a stark picture of the underlying issue. Most striking to me is that most of us probably don’t even know what it is and we’re certainly not talking about it.

Under current law, spending for all federal activities other than the major health care programs and Social Security is projected to account for its smallest share of GDP in more than 70 years. At the same time revenues would represent a larger percentage of GDP in the future—averaging 18.3 percent of GDP over the 2014–2023 period—than they generally have in the past few decades. Despite those trends, revenues would not keep pace with outlays under current law because the government’s major health care programs and Social Security would absorb a much larger share of the economy’s output in the future than they have in the past.
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Radical change ahead

I suspect it qualifies as at least moderately unusual when a European civil servant and recent head of the WTO publicly calls us to “break the monopoly of nation states in world government.” I got to hear Pascal Lamy speak briefly yesterday at’s The Next Billion forum. Lamy headed the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, charged with examining the major challenges and opportunities facing the world over the next generation and making recommendations about what actions to take.

The resulting report, Now for the Long Term is fascinating, frightening, exciting and … daunting. I’ve skimmed through it, but it’s going to take me a while to really digest it all. But just for flavor, especially for those of us in the U.S., the following two charts beautifully sum up one of the really interesting radical changes facing us: over the next 15-20 years 3 billion people will be entering the global middle class and they are not in Kansas.

GlobalMiddleClass-OxfordMartin       EconomicGravityCenter-OxfordMartin

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Creating civic value on a massive scale

Clay Shirky’s TED talk on how cognitive surplus, the 1 trillion hours of human spare time available, can change the world:

Interesting points:

  • Communal value (LOLcats) versus civic value (Ushahidi)
  • Free cultures get what they celebrate (Dean Kamen)

Looking forward to hearing him speak at the end of the Quartz The Next Billion conference that I’ll be attending Wednesday (

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Eight reasons for real optimism about the future of newspapers

Good article from the Niemann Journalism lab: The newsonomics of outrageous confidence by Ken Doctor.

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My new focus: evil

Earlier this week my nephew and I were discussing what I should take on next. He recommended that I consider devoting myself to evil – he thought I might find it fun and rewarding.

Well, it turns out he may have been right. I really am attracted to what are known as wicked problems. Here’s how NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen characterizes them:

It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

Examples of wicked problems include poverty, global warming, education … you get the idea. I suspect part of what has been interesting to me about enterprise datacenter management is that it is like a model of a wicked problem – I don’t think it’s nearly as hard as true wicked problems, but it shares some key characteristics.

I think my post on what I’m thinking about makes more sense from this point of view. I’m not sure just where the stuff there is leading me, but I think it’s reflective of the fact that the problems I’m most interested in don’t fall neatly into any single category and that I’m at least as interested in how we approach the problem and learn from the process as I am in the solution itself. The items listed there are almost like pieces of a solution to a bigger puzzle. Hopefully I don’t actually have to figure out all of the pieces myself since I think that bigger puzzle may just be enough to keep me busy.

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Why bee colonies collapse: complexity, causation and robustness

Bees, from Click to visit.

Updated 10/26/2013

Just read a research highlight on why bee colonies collapse. Briefly, colonies begin to decline when “the number of functionally impaired bees reaches a critical threshold,” even if no bees have actually been killed. This makes it very hard to find the “cause” of colony collapse. Collapse may be triggered by any of a number of things, and indeed the degradation of the colony may itself be a combined impact from a number of different factors.

A couple quick thoughts on this.

First, I suspect that similar dynamics apply to many human social issues, maybe especially those that have been called wicked problems. By insistently looking for a single cause or culprit in complex systems at best we fail to address the real problems and at worst exacerbate them.

Second, I think this underscores the importance of robustness or resilience as a factor in the design of all kinds of systems, from datacenters to political and social infrastructure and support systems. A question that we need to ask about all such systems is how stable they are to perturbations or shocks of various kinds. The issue with the bee colonies above is that after the critical threshold has been reached, they are vulnerable to things that would otherwise be sustained without difficulty.

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Ideal work pattern: time allocation

I’ve been thinking not only about what I want to do next, but also how I want to work next. As I look back at how I’ve done previous roles, there are things I’d do fundamentally differently. The one that jelled today: spend half my work time learning, and half of that in areas significantly removed from my primary focus area. I have been reading widely for the past couple months and have been struck (though not particularly surprised) by the number of things that would have contributed to my previous job from areas as diverse as mobile (not that far away) to bee colony biology (kind of far away).


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