Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs and Sarah Palin

Steve Jobs and Sarah Palin

You might have heard that Steve Jobs died this past week.

His death was mourned everywhere.  Candles, apples with a bite taken out of them, signs, flowers, digital eulogies.  Every major newspaper ran multiple articles about him.  Tributes have come in from over the globe.

How is this possible?  A billionaire, a person by all accounts fierce, judgmental, exacting, uncompromising, and irascible.  No public record of huge charitable donations, no libraries, no hospital wings, no museums, nothing ostentatious to love him for, except the products he became synonymous with.

Steve Jobs had a genius for making products we loved, a genius in creating loyalty, and a genius for making us feel good about ourselves. Jobs' genius is that of inspiration.

In other news,  Sarah Palin decided not to run for President in 2012.  She went on Greta’s show on Fox, got the Oprah soft-core, gauzy treatment, and announced she would be looking out for all of us from…somewhere.

Sarah’s poll numbers have been dropping precipitously recently, and she’s been publicaly dissed by members of the GOP establishment.  She’s going to return to marketing a product she’s had phenomenal success with:  Sarah Palin.  "SarahPac."  "Sarah's Story."  Her look, her down-home malapropisms, her studied ignorance, her “aw shucks just plain old common sense” appeal.  It sells.  Millions of Americans still hang on her every word. Palin's genius is that of celebrity.

Jobs and Palin represent two sides of the economic spectrum that Saskia Sassen described, and in the middle, sits Dell Computer.  Jobs is the quintessence of the older American economy-creative, daring, innovative, risk taking.  There’s a line stretching from Edison to Henry Ford to Jobs-their products helped democratize and open up possibilities for the average person.  Dell used its creativity purely on the production and supply side-it makes nothing new, but it does make profits. Palin, however, is the new American economy-the “extractive” one-the economy of high finance without actual production, of reality shows, of inane tweets.  Jobs conceptualized products that helped people do things. Dell takes other people’s ideas and sells them, and, in doing so, it fulfills a need, albeit prosaically.   Palin’s product produces nothing-it's glossy, it's fun, but it just needs to be passively watched. 

There’s a wonderful fifteen-minute video on YouTube of Jobs giving the commencement address at Stanford in 2005.  Watch it all the way through http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc&feature=featured  -I don’t want to spoil it, other than to say the man had great passion.

Much has been made of Jobs’ statement that it’s up to him to decide what the public wants, not the other way around.  If that’s arrogance, it’s never expressed in his products.  Walk into an Apple store and your initial reaction is that it’s airy and beautiful, but once you get over that, you aren’t a consumer anymore, you are a participant.  Go into a conventional electronics store, or a place like Staples, and the products are remote, mute,  often hidden behind locked glass.  In an Apple store, you can pick up an expensive machine, feel its weight, and play with its keyboard.  Apple trusts you with its product and it trusts its product can stand close scrutiny.  Want to know how it works?  An Apple person whisks by and with a couple keyboard strokes, clicks, and twists of the finger and thumb, she’s performed magic.  Thirty seconds later, you are performing magic. Apple doesn’t say “I will make your life better”.  It says, “I’m here, take me home, use me, and you will make your life better-and have fun doing it”.   Apple products are liberating.  

Dell, on the other hand, is not.  There are no cool Dell stores with hip salespeople who love the product. I have owned several Dells over the years, each one alienating me more and more.  While Apple sought to add value to their products through appealing design and engaging user interfaces, Dell cared only about cost, carefully calibrating the power/performance price curve.  Apple sold quality with an experience.  Dell sold cheap specs. Those two very different strategies led to a very different set of approaches to outsourcing. For Apple it meant finding the lowest cost manufacturer of Apple designs. For Dell it meant finding the lowest cost producer of products-any products-that Dell could sell.  If you want to see the trajectory of success of these two companies, you could look at market capitalization.  In the last six years, Dell’s market valuation has increased by about 40%.  Apple, on the other hand, is up over 1300%.  People buy Dell because they need cheap computing power, like they buy socks on sale.  People buy Apple because they want to.  HP could merge with Dell tomorrow, fold it into their existing business, and no one would notice the difference.  In its entire history, Dell hasn’t produced a single innovative product that anyone cared a hoot about.  To the extent it was admired, it was for its production and sales methods only, the triumph of the bean counter.  

There is something about the Dell model, self sustaining, self-replicating, that is permeating our political discourse right now.  Sarah Palin is doing exactly the same thing she was doing three years ago.  She hasn’t advanced a single new idea-she’s kept exactly the same packaging and design.  Her poll numbers may be flagging, but the product still sells and still makes money. 

Palin isn’t alone in emulating the Dell model.  Across the spectrum; Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, everyone is just selling an old product, designed years ago, maybe re-wrapped in some glossy paper and the empowering energy of anger.  Assay the crowd of current Republican Presidential candidates and you stand in awe of their bland predictability.  Each phrase is carefully poll tested to appeal to the most extreme elements of their party.  They repeat the same tired nostrums over and over again, reach for the same applause lines.  Each has his or her own commercial calling card.  Rick Perry is all fist: he will give those Liberals what for, show them a little “Texas Justice”.  He gets cheered.  Michelle Bachmann repeats far-right absurdities and conspiracy theories, with absolutely no connection to reality, and she gets cheered.  Ron Paul brings his special brand of weirdness sprinkled with odd moments of crystalline insight, and he gets wildly cheered.  Santorum looks to recreate the Puritan society, and he gets cheered.  Herman Cain spouts slogan after slogan, and he gets cheered.  And Romney; he’s the amnesia causing “blue light” from Men In Black.  Blue light for the similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare.  Blue light for his previous support for reproductive rights and generally moderate social views. Blue light for his tax increases on the wealthy when he was Governor and his support of the environment.  Blue light for anything and everything in his record that deviates from present Republican orthodoxy.  Blue light at tepid applause for Romney- no one really likes the guy, but, let’s not be picky if he beats Obama and delivers the spoils to the GOP.

The Democrats are just as bad, starting at the top.  Thomas Friedman has an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times this past weekend, in which he skewers Obama for not being Steve Jobs, for not thinking big, not going for the grand bargain.  Lead, Friedman says.  Friedman is right, but Obama is in survival mode.  He took a big gamble on Obamacare, and has been torched for it for the last couple of years.  He knows that, right now, he could walk into a meeting with Boehner, McConnell, and Cantor,  say he is getting behind the dissolution of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and throw in the complete elimination of all taxes on people making more that $500,000.00 per year) and they would walk out, complaining he wasn’t being bipartisan. And, from his left, Paul Krugman (a Nobel Prize winner), criticizes Obama for not not going after the "Plutocrats"  and not channeling his inner Samuel Gompers.  Obama needs to do “more, more, more”; more stimulus, more public works, more government payments.

The fact is that no one is sure.  At the Columbia conference a couple of weeks ago, we had some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and there was no consensus. Thomas Donlan, in a series of editorials in Barron’s going back over the last few weeks, has grown ever more insistent that only the application of classical economic theory will cure.   Joe Nocera has an article in today’s New York Times, citing a new work by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini, which, in part, advocates a massive infrastructure build-out.  This level of disagreement, which goes to highest level of academia and finance, merely serves to highlight the obvious-which is that there is no one true path. 

As in all times of uncertainty, this causes politicians to dig in even further, and to traffic in in the poisonous currency of angry anti-intellectualism.  Nuance, experimentation, risk-taking are jettisoned.  And engagement of the electorate, except at the most elemental level, is jettisoned as well. 

The reasons for this are pretty clear.  First, the primary system forces people to the extreme to satisfy the ideologues that nominate.  Second, special interest money, enhanced in the Citizen United era, demands ever-greater fealty to obscure and complex pledges and punishes any heresy.  But the third is most pernicious.  Politicians don’t trust us with anything more than a sound bite. They don’t think we are smart enough to participate in the marketplace of ideas.  And this lack of trust leads to greater and greater estrangement from the democratic process. 

We all should face facts-we are at an inflection point.  There are tectonic demographic changes going on.  We are older, and need more services.  We are very close to having a population that is less than 50% white European in ancestry, and the soon-to-be majority is vastly unrepresented among our political and economic elites  Our manufacturing base is eroding.  The gap between wealth and poverty has never been higher.  We need major structural reform of the big three entitlement programs, and the tax code.  These are massive societal issues that can’t be permanently solved by one side imposing their will, nor one set of ideas. The Occupy Wall Street protests may seem silly (as were pictures of seniors at Tea Party rallies screaming about “socialist medicine”), but they are occurring because our current discourse seems deaf to their needs.  

The irony of this is that Apple has shown us that participation and intellectual engagement leads to emotional commitment.  Capitalism itself works best when the maximum number of people participate.   Edmund Phelps sought employment subsidies to strengthen popular support for capitalism.  Sassen says “(the) valuing of people as workers and consumers was critical for the deepening of capitalism."  This is true as well for democracy.  Read a transcript of just one of the 1858 Lincoln Douglas Debates-open debates without teleprompters, cameras, makeup, a spin section, and you will find great substance discussed in great detail.  All to an audience that largely lacked much formal education.  We have the capacity to evaluate complex issues, if only the politicians would ask.

Steve Jobs knew painful failure-he knew when the market rejected him.  He talks about it eloquently in his Stanford address.  His response was to innovate: to think of the next product to build, the next mountain to climb.  He embodied the creative economy until literally the last days of his life.  Does Sarah Palin know failure, when her next step is a return to the extractive economy of well-compensated celebrity?  Do other politicians?  Or do they just follow the Dell model, finding what sells, counting votes and campaign contributions as the script of success,  seemingly indifferent to how well they perform their jobs? If we want our leaders to challenge orthodoxy, to be creative,  to seek solutions rather than just votes, we need to demand it of them. Loudly, since they seem not to have ears to hear.