Archive for the ‘Socrates Society’ Category

Getting From Here to There– It’s Time to Engage in Common Sense Approaches to Public Policy

I usually try to keep my blog posts short. Today I have failed in this endeavor but urge you to please read through to the end of this important post. The current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine features an excerpt from Leslie Gelb's new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.  This essay is exceptionally good, and, in my view, Gelb's thesis should be applied to all forms of statecraft and to promote the resolution of both newly emerging and long stagnating public policy debates.

Gelb accurately diagnoses the "weakening fundamentals of the United States.  First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate.  The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit."

Several paragraphs in this powerful essay deserve highlighting:

"The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline.  Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole.  It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear. … The United States is now the biggest debtor nation in history, and no nation with a massive debt has ever remained a great power.  Its heavy industry has largely disappeared, having moved to foreign competitors, which has cut deeply into its ability to be independent in times of peril.  Its public-school students trail their peers in other industrialized countries in math and science. They cannot compete in the global economy.  Generations of adult Americans, shockingly, read at a grade-school level and know almost no history, not to mention no geography.  They are simply not being educated to become the guardians of a democracy.

These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points.  Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash.  Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern.  This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership.  The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease."

This is the most succinct and gut-wrenching summary of our national predicament that I have read.  Gelb puts his finger directly on the jugular vein of America's innovation ecosystem and diagnoses the multiple layers of dysfunction that have launched our country into such a deep crisis.  I share his fear of a new global reality developing along the following lines:

Images-1"The real danger in this universe of primitivism and plenty is not new wars or explosions among major states, or a world war, or even a nuclear war.  It is the specter of nations drowning in a flood of terrorism, tribal and religious hatred, lawlessness, poverty, disease, environmental calamities, and governmental incompetence.  Many nations are going under because they are simply unable to cope, and they will drag others down with them."


Gelb closes this essay with an impassioned plea for action, and most important, he retains a strong sense of hope and pride in our country:

"Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within.  One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following.  It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble. But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home.  There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world.  And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom.  But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country."

ImagesI've been sending out flares to other realistic moderate pragmatists on this and other topics that demand a "common sense" approach for years.  Through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society, the Working Group on Director Accountability and Board Effectiveness, and, most recently, the Security Innovation Network, I have joined and helped forge communities of interest bound together by empowered individuals who are thoughtful and constructive agents of change.  As Gelb points out, we have a lot of wood to cut, but I remain energized and, most importantly, hopeful that we can make a difference because we have to.  Given where America stands today, fomenting pragmatic and realistic change is not an option, it is a requirement.



Aspen Institute Video: Judy Estrin Examines Some of the Root Causes of America’s Innovation Crisis

Examining the Root Causes of America’s Innovation Crisis

[4 minute run time]
Ms. Judy Estrin, author of “Closing the Innovation Gap”, former CTO of Cisco Systems, and a successful serial entrepreneur, took some time out of our seminar on Innovation on February 15, 2009 during the Aspen Institute Socrates Society Winter program in Aspen, Colorado to discuss some of the root causes of America’s Innovation crisis. This interview was conducted specifically in advance of the third annual IT Security Entrepreneurs’ Forum (ITSEF III) Innovation panel held at Stanford University on March 18, 2009 and was first released at the conference.
Since 2007, ITSEF has focused on advancing innovation in security technologies through public-private partnerships by developing a community of interest between Washington and Silicon Valley. ITSEF is the only conference of its kind designed to “bridge the gap” between the Federal Government, system integrators, venture capitalists, and academic research communities. Pascal Levensohn, Founder and Managing Partner of Levensohn Venture Partners, moderates the panel, with panelists Dr. Curtis Carlson, President and CEO of SRI International, Dr. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, Chairman Sparta Group, LLC and Ms. Lesa Mitchell, VP Advancing Innovation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
ITSEF is a part of the Security Innovation Network (SINet). For more information on SINet, click here.

American Innovation Is In Crisis: Why and How To Fix It


I’ve been to Washington, D.C. twice in the last two weeks to
speak with legislators and government agency representatives about the need for
a renewed public policy commitment dedicated to supporting long-term innovation in
America. This morning I gave a keynote speech at the Cybersecurity Applications
and Technologies Conference for Homeland Security (CATCH)
, delivering the
message that U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship, the crucial growth engines of
the U.S. economy, are at risk of stalling out. This alarming trend, if not
reversed, will create serious repercussions in America.

Without new approaches to collaboration among government institutions,
corporations, universities, and venture capitalists, U.S.
entrepreneurs will increasingly face overwhelming obstacles to success. The
freedom to fail has always been one of the greatest strengths of the American
economy. But this is now in jeopardy because a climate of risk aversion now
dominates the country’s financial institutions.

Corporate R&D budgets, new university endowment commitments to
venture capital, and new commitments by private investors to funding of
entrepreneurs are all declining in real time. The negative ripple effect from
this collectively reduced pool of risk capital is not yet evident in our
economic statistics, but it will have a profound and
negative impact on the ecosystem that has traditionally nurtured entrepreneurs
in the small business ventures that drive new job creation in America.

Part of the solution must include a
renewed and proactive effort to continue to attract, educate and retain the
world’s best scientists to pursue innovation in the United States. It is also
crucial that more venture capital be invested in efforts to pursue
breakthrough, as opposed to incremental, innovation.

Images Three major negative trends have put America’s innovation
ecosystem at risk.  One has been
that American spending on research and development has emphasized incremental
innovation over basic research for more than two decades. Another problem is
that total U.S. R&D funding as a percentage of GDP has been declining while
other nations have increased their spending and successfully developed
coordinated technology innovation programs while also actively supporting the
commercial development of emerging companies. The recent systemic failure of
global financial institutions has exacerbated the dislocation of America’s
innovation ecosystem by severely curtailing an already diminished pool of risk
capital to fund future innovation. 

is not too late to overcome these obstacles, partly because American technology
entrepreneurs remain undeterred in their pursuit of success. 

For the full text of my prepared remarks, CLICK HERE.

On March 18th I will be moderating a panel on the
innovation crisis at the third annual IT Security Entrepreneurs Forum at
Stanford with Lesa Mitchell of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Desh
Deshpande, founder and Chairman of Sycamore Networks
, and Curt Carlson, CEO of SRI
.  For more information
on how to attend this important conference, CLICK HERE

Aspen Ideas Festival: Peter Hirshberg Interviews Jim Steyer About How Children Must Learn Responsible Digital Citizenship on the Web



Technorati’s Chairman,Peter Hirshberg, is on the move at the Aspen Ideas Festival– his video blog provides an excellent forum for impromptu commentary from influential thought leaders in various fields who are attending the conference (link below). Globally, children are developing differently as a result of the pervasive influence of the Internet in their social relations. Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, explains why it is imperative to define ‘rules of the road’ for every kid on the Internet and the role that his organization plays as a thought leader in this area. According to Steyer, “this is a huge issue of ethics and responsibility . … kids get this, parents are clueless but know they should.” Despite many challenges when it comes to media content regulation, Steyer is optimistic about the future. This important discussion that ties directly into the that we discussed at our Socrates Society seminar last week on issues of the Media and our Conflicting Values. to watch the video: click on the following link:

Re-Defining the Public Interest in the Media Torrent of the Internet


Media and Our Conflicting Values: Day 3

On our last day of this Socrates Seminar, we jumped squarely into the discussion of the Internet that we all wanted to have since Day 1.

First, we acknowledged the disruptive transformation of the media away from its historical one-to-many controlled distribution model, which was largely restricted to professionally produced print, radio, and linear video broadcasting content. We discussed how the Internet’s broadband infrastructure has supported the development of a global multi-media content stream now defined by many content creators, both professionals and amateurs. Today we are inundated by countless streams of data broadcast in a free flow of information that is truly a torrent of bits.

Research has shown convincingly that the attention span of Americans has shortened substantially over the past several decades and that the rate of change in this direction continues to accelerate.
Are we doomed to being Information Snackers, a nation of dilettantes distinguished only in being a mile wide and an inch deep in our thinking? Does this trend raise troubling questions and pose risks to the integrity of our democratic society?

I think so. Why?

First, because we are drowning in choice. While America’s obsession with Freedom is empowering, too much choice is debilitating. We have too many choices in the Internet Age of mass customization in digital media. While people like to speak of their love of choices, in fact, people hate choices. Notice the incredible power of global brands today after the initial view that the dawn of the Internet rendered traditional brands worthless.

What are some of the nasty implications for democracies overwhelmed by media choices? In my view, the hyper abundance of choice makes individuals increasingly susceptible to manipulation by groups that have an agenda—especially an agenda associated with power and manipulation of masses of people (does anyone doubt that Al Qaeda has developed a sophisticated web presence, for example?)

The web has massively reduced the costs of coordination among large groups and truly revolutionized social collaboration on a large scale—for a positive example, consider the fundraising powerhouse of the Obama campaign and the massive empowerment and inclusion in the democratic political process of otherwise alienated and disenfranchised groups of American society.

There are many good things associated with these paradigmatic changes in the American political process enabled by the Internet borne media revolution.

But we should also consider the corner cases, the potential for abuse, for manipulation, for the propagation of lies through the digital media. We need to remember the potential for Tyranny of the Majority in a digital media search construct that determines what rises to the top by its popularity.

As Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC said in his historic address to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, “some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. … broadcasting, to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.” Promoting citizenship! A novel concept, and one that I have written about extensively in this blog in the context of the Democracy in America Revisited Series and Professor Michael Sandel.

In my view, being right and doing the right thing should have nothing to do with what is popular and everything to do with the responsible exercise of leadership (something that is in very short supply in America today). Having technology drive people to the most popular result only accelerates the mediocrity that Alexis de Toqueville foresaw for American democracy.

We should not let our passion to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech trump the obligation that we have as a democratic society to keep our citizens informed of objective facts so that they can responsibly exercise their civic responsibilities. To be clear, I do not see this statement as being unsupportive of the First Amendment in any way.

Unfortunately, our discussion on Day 3 did not address a redefinition of the Public Interest.

Domain expertise, an objective mastery of the facts and the nuances associated with a specific body of knowledge, requires more than a passing acquaintance with that domain (would you go to a doctor for surgery who is not truly an expert in his/her field?). In my view, the knowledge crisis facing our next generation will be rooted in the misconception that surface knowledge is sufficient to impart expertise.
We are certainly still in our infancy in this new realm of digital media, but it is abundantly clear that technology has left our regulatory institutions in the dust. While I am a strong believer in the positive power of the market, I fear for those members of our society who will be left behind, for the voices that will not be heard.

The Government is a steward of the Public Interest, and that Public Interest will, of necessity, be redefined when we face a crisis. There needs to be a cool hand, a slow, deliberative process, that gets us to the right answer. Unfortunately, the history of regulation in America shows us that it is most often reactive and likely to generate severe, negative unintended consequences (Sarbanes Oxley, for example).

While I greatly enjoyed our Socratic discussion, I left the seminar continuing to ask myself, what will force this question, and how great a cost will our society bear along the way?

Of Free Markets, Regulation, and Tipping Points


A very interesting Day 2! Some highlights:

First Amendment issues and the specific domain of government regulation over free speech are narrowly confined to content creators over the licensed spectrum. For example, had the famous Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast exposure incident occurred on cable TV as opposed to broadcast TV, there would have been no regulatory issue over indecent exposure and hence no grounds for the FCC to get involved.

In short, you can be the willing consumer (or the inadvertent and unwilling spectator) of the most indecent behavior embedded in content on cable TV anytime and cannot object to it on grounds of Public Standards of decency because you have paid for the basic cable TV transport infrastructure. If the content is broadcast over the government licensed spectrum, then it’s a totally different story, as you have entered the domain of the Public Trust.

Today, 95% of US homes are passed by cable and increasingly ubiquitous access to the Internet brings streaming media of just about anything you can think of all the time. Most people get their content from new forms of media that are unsupervised and unaccountable to anyone other than The Market. Many people may feel this is not a problem at all– on the contrary, they may see it as a blessing.

Licensed spectrum broadcast content is now dwarfed by other media transports. In short, the domain of the Public Trust, and thus standards of socially and morally acceptable program, are hurtling toward irrelevancy in our new digital world.

My problem with this is that a few clicks away for ANYONE, especially children, you will find abominable violence, graphic examples of human enslavement for sexual exploitation, and hard core porn. The evidentiary record is increasingly showing that exposure to these types of negative human behaviors has a bad influence on children and absolutely impacts their social development.

The consequences of these trends are not well understood, but, in my view, these tectonic shifts in the landscape of content distribution will reach a tipping point that will trigger new regulation. Can the market self-regulate? Perhaps, but at what cost in the process? While America was built on freedom of speech, the proliferation of freedoms in the Digital Age may substantially fray the fabric of our society before we reach a new equilibrium.

Whether or not we think this is a good thing, we are already in the soup.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Stewardship of Media Content in the Internet Age


Today we began our Summer 2008 Aspen Institute Socrates Society seminars. My session, moderated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, addresses Media and Our Conflicting Values. And plenty of conflicting values emerged in our lively four hour discussion.

My takeaways after Day 1:

* The function of the FCC as public trustee, or steward, of the content broadcast by licensed content creators in America has been made largely irrelevant by the Internet. Historical approaches to media regulation in America are not useful in addressing the challenges of today and of the future, in my opinion.

* We live in a many-to-many world of content generation and broadcasting. The super-empowered individual on the Web wields disproportionate power over groups ranging from a small affinity circle to an entire society.

*Large media organizations also continue to wield huge power in disseminating information and in ‘spinning’ or biasing content. While the Founding Fathers saw Government control of media/propaganda as the primary threat to free speech, we now live in a brave new world where any fanatic can wrap him or herself in the mantle of truth and spread lies unchecked.

* Defining regulatory boundaries is infinitely more complex when you have a multiplicity of transport mechanisms for different forms of protected free speech from a First Amendment perspective: for example, traditional linear over the air broadcast television, cable television, user-generated content on the web, and newly emerging forms of time-shifting content distribution (what I want when I want it on any device).

* Regulation of speech in any way raises fundamental societal challenges to open, democratic societies.

* The social contract of any democracy faces a basic tension between freedom and maintaining social order.

* Technology combined with human innovation in the media are exacerbating this tension in ways considered impossible just fifteen years ago.

So after Day 1 I have a lot of questions:

When it comes to regulating media and the web, how are we to decide the mechanisms for regulation?
Are we to expect the market to self-regulate? How do we distinguish between content that the market should self-regulate (various forms of entertainment) from content that debases and violates basic human rights (sexual slavery and child pornography on the Web)? How do we stop groups that re-write history (such as Holocaust deniers) from simply opening up shop on the Web and perpetuating lies? How do we prevent false stories about political candidates from being seen and accepted as fact by millions of people prior to elections?

Maybe I’ll have some answers, and certainly more questions, after Day 2. This is why we love the Socratic method. For another perspective on the Socrates Seminars, check out Sam Perry’s post on Conferenza.

U.S. Health Care Reform Made Simple– Eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, and Employer-Based Health Insurance



Zeke Emanuel is known for having Big Ideas. His short, easy to read new book, “Healthcare, Guaranteed“, is a must-read.

I first met Zeke several years ago at the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society, and Zeke has been one of the most popular Socrates seminar leaders on the topic of bioethics. An oncologist and currently the chair of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, Zeke is a penetrating, deep thinker who knows how to cut to the core element of difficult issues. I have previously posted about Zeke when he remarked at our last Socrates gathering that our society is robbing posterity to live today. His new book is no less profound in its approach to simplifying the American health care system by gutting its core ‘sacred cows’:

According to Newsweek’s review of “Healthcare, Guaranteed”, written by Mary Carmichael:

In place of all these institutions, Emanuel says, the government should offer every American a voucher for health insurance—one that covers the same benefits that members of Congress get. Insurance companies would have to accept the vouchers, and each person could choose from a variety of private networks of docs, hospitals and health plans. A National Health Board would oversee it all. And that’s pretty much it. Now the big question: how do we pay for it? Emanuel’s plan lowers some taxes by gutting costly programs, but it also adds a new fixed tax on some goods and services to pay for the vouchers. “Americans will come out revenue-neutral on average,” he says. “The poor will pay less.” And the rich will probably pay a lot more. Sweeping changes are one thing, but sweeping changes and a new tax? Even if the plan could save health care, it’ll be a hard sell.

Clearly not a layup, but also a very interesting and possibly a compelling solution to the broken healthcare financial reimbursement system in our country. So read this book– and let me know what you think by commenting on this blog post.

Democracy in America Revisited—Toward a New Definition of the Public Good [Eighth and Last of a Series]


As we reached the end of our eight-hour, one-day Socrates Society Salon in San Francisco, Professor Michael Sandel pulled together many of the threads that we had discussed on the future of American Democracy. To paraphrase his concluding comments:

Liberalism in America has experienced a failure to give a convincing account of the public good or the common good. When inequality becomes as pronounced as it is today, the wealthy buy their way out of public places and exist in their own world—which is a very bad thing. Public services and public places increasingly come to be seen as a place for the poor– witness the multi-year secular trends in American public schools, in public transportation (think NetJets), and in health care (think Concierge Medicine for those who can afford it).

You need to have people of widely ranging socio-economic backgrounds bumping into each other in civic proximity to have some meaningful deliberation about the public good.

There is a civic reason to worry about forms of inequality that lead to separate lives between the Haves and the Have Nots. This leads to the Meaning Deficit in America today. One reason why there is so much fraying of the social fabric in America in the early 21st century is because we don’t know what it means to be an American anymore—we don’t know what we belong to that matters to all of us as Americans…

We need to constitute a shared public realm so that people can at least argue about what is the public good.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Democracy in America Revisited– Defining America’s Current Political Identity [Seventh of a Series]


You can’t stretch a shared political identity so far that it becomes overly abstract and therefore impossible for people to articulate in a way that everyone can easily understand it.

Think of this statement in the context of the Presidential debates in the current election. Why is the media obsessively focused on candidate mis-statements regarding their exposure to ‘sniper fire’ or commenting on how social alienation can lead to ‘clinging to guns and religion’. Why does it take 43 minutes into a debate for George Stephanopolous to ask the Democratic Party candidates the first substantive question on the economy, which he acknowledges as the most important issue in the election? Should candidate gaffes be defining elements of campaign momentum and qualifications for Presidential leadership? Not in my view.

American citizens span the spectrum from evangelical Christians to ardent atheists; from observant Muslims to secular and orthodox Jews. Ethnically, American citizens include Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, European Americans, Russian Americans, and many other ethnicities. The definition of family in America now includes traditional marriages, same sex marriages, and no marriages. It is uneasy for societies to live with a complex narrative of citizenship forged from the richness of diversity that has made the melting pot of America historically great.

The rise of Evangelical Christian religious fundamentalism in America and Muslim fundamentalism in the rapidly modernizing societies of the Third World each share a reactive thread in opposition to the forced acknowledgement of diversity highlighted to all of us by the Internet. These movements, which are organized attempts to re-assert a single identity and to fight social complexity, trigger equally negative reactions form those that are left out of the picture. A complex world where differences are heightened because everyone is aware of everyone else requires nations to grapple with a complex narrative of citizenship. America’s great historical achievement as a pluralistic society stems from its immigrant melting pot roots and from the strong democratic institutions that have evolved over 232 years to embrace this complexity. Let’s not forget this in the 21st century.