Friday, October 03, 2008

Why American Needs To Return To Soft Power

We are the strongest and richest country in the world, and I have no desire to see us become a nation of cringing, self-loathing apologists.

Yet it is also true that one can show grace in the exercise of power, rather than taunting those in a weaker position.

The real model for this is George H. W. Bush, who was an exemplar of the intellectual/internationalist wing of the old Republican coalition.

Bush 1 was a master of diplomacy; he won a worldwide mandate to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and even get the rest of the world to chip in and pay for the conflict.

That's real leadership--eschewing the cheap high of defiant action in favor of real results.

I hated Chirac (that cheese-eating surrender monkey) and Schroeder as much as anyone, and I wish that Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin would be eaten by wolves. But we're the greatest country in the world, not a 3rd-grader. We should make decisions based on facts and what's good for our country, not based on whether someone hurt our feelings.

That doesn't mean kowtowing to other countries. But it does mean treating everyone with respect, even those who don't deserve it, emphasizing similarities rather than differences, and reclaiming the moral high ground.

I love America, which is why I want to see it restored to its traditional standing as the shining beacon of good in this world.

(posted originally as a response to comments on "Obama: The Liberal Reagan")

Palin Beats Expectations, But Fails To Change Campaign Dynamic

In the days leading up to last night's presidential debate, I heard many Democrats gleefully anticipating a gruesome self-destruction on the part of Sarah Palin. "The comedy event of the year," they called it, as they prepared debate watching parties, as if the election of the President of the United States were on a par with the Superbowl or the finale of American Idol.

Whenever I heard these sentiments, I simply reminded them, "Has anything in this election gone as you've expected?"

Watching the debate was suspenseful experience; watching the exchanges, it was clear that the possibility of a meltdown lurked in the background. Yet at the end of the night, both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin had avoided disaster, an outcome that has to be taken as a positive for the McCain campaign, given the doubts about Palin that her disastrous series of interviews with CBS News had raised.

Unfortunately for McCain, while Palin avoided disaster, she was unable to do the one thing he needs most: change the dynamic of the campaign.

Palin scored points by attacking Barack Obama with the same arguments she and McCain have been using for weeks. There's an obvious problem with those, not that they are untrue, though there are plenty of liberal bloggers who will gladly explain why they are. The problem is that those arguments haven't been working. Just look at the polls.

More of the same, delivered with spunk, is not going to change the campaign dynamic.

Here's the fundamental problem for McCain: the disastrous performance of the Bush Administration has soured the American people on the Republican party. Democratic registrations are up, Republican registrations are down.

McCain's only hope was that A) Democrats would refuse to vote for Barack Obama, and B) independents would prefer McCain to Obama.

At this point, it looks like (A) is off the table. Obama's triumphant performance at the Democratic convention nixed that issue. That leaves the independents.

While Sarah Palin has successfully shored up the Republican base, McCain has utterly failed to take advantage of the Palin surge. What he should have done was immediately tack hard to the center, emphasizing his differences from the Republican party line (trusting in Palinmania to keep them loyal...besides, none of the base was every going to vote Obama).

What he did instead was bounce from issue to issue, flip-flopping on a daily basis, and getting gobsmacked by an economic crisis for which he should have been better prepared.

Last night was just another lost opportunity; when presented with her last, best chance to make a statement on the national stage, rather than articulating a vision for why McCain-Palin would make America great, instead focused on previously tried-and-failed attacks on Obama.

And while I'm still of the opinion that the Palin pick represented McCain's only shot at victory, and while her performance beat expectations, her choppy, often disjointed delivery failed to showcase the natural charisma and homespun eloquence that might have carried the day.

Yet while McCain-Palin is a lost cause, last night was an important step for the future. Palin-Romney in 2012, anyone?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Obama: The Liberal Reagan

As I've noted several times, Obama is the liberal Reagan...down to the temperament. Here is something that Joe Klein just wrote about Obama's temperament:

I've also gotten the sense, in the times I've interviewed and chatted with him, that calm is Obama's natural default position. He is friendly, informal, accessible...and a mystery, hard to get to know. He doesn't give away much, doesn't — unlike Bill Clinton — have that desperate need to make you like him. His brilliant, at times excessive, oratory is an outlier — the only over-the-top, Technicolor quality he has.

Compare this to some of what was written about Reagan:

He was a riddle impervious to all who tried to catch him in an introspective moment. Even his wife Nancy was puzzled. "You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens," she told his biographer Lou Cannon.

While their most fervent admirers would no doubt be outraged by the comparison, Obama and Reagan show similarity after similarity. Both were outsiders to the political establishment. Both combined a calm demeanor with dazzling oratory (though Obama still has a ways to go to catch up to the Great Communicator). Both represented hope and change to a weary, frightened nation who felt that they were going in the wrong direction.

As a capitalist, the prospect of a liberal Reagan scares the hell out of me, but if that's what it takes to turn around our standing in the world, then I've got to put country first. If President Obama does half the good that Ronnie did, I'll be satisfied.

Related story: My Reagan Moment.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dell Support Good, Dell Product FAIL

Just spent an hour with Dell support troubleshooting my wife's laptop. Less than 3 months old, and already the motherboard is bad. FAIL.

On the other hand, Dell's live chat support was surprisingly good. Too bad the product has been getting unreliable.

I've had my old ThinkPad since 2002, and it's still working just fine. They knew how to build back in the old days, dad gum it.

Practice Hard Enough To Make Mistakes

Fascinating post and video from TrueHoop's Henry Abbott. Abbott is getting coached by the instructors at the IMG Academy, who coach many of the top basketball talents coming out of high school.

During ballhandling drills, Abbott's coach instructs him to dribble the ball hard, at an uncomfortable speed, and Abbott notes that all the times he received praise, it was when he has turning the ball over.

His coach explained that to prepare someone for the speed, strength, and defense of an NBA player, he wants his students to get used to feeling uncomfortable and being pushed beyond their normal limits. If they can get used to that feeling, they won't panic when it occurs during a game situation.

There's a ton of advice you can draw from these principles. My personal conclusion is that it's important to practice in areas beyond one's personal comfort zone, so that you're ready when life presents you with the unexpected. Rather than freezing up or panicking, you'll be experienced in getting past the discomfort and still performing at a high level.

Business Idea: Extreme Reliability

Jeff Nolan writes about our disposable culture, where it's cheaper to buy a new printer than to buy replacement ink:

I am also somewhat curious about what point in time people stopped having things repaired. Is it a deep seated fear that once one part breaks you have crossed a precipice upon which repeated failures are a certainty? Why don’t many power tools have the ability to replace the motor brushes? Is it because people won’t do it therefore why incur the design and mfg cost to build it in, or is it because manufacturers don’t expect you have something long enough to wear out brushes?

Then there is a weird pricing dynamic that manufactures take advantage of, for example, I have an Milwaukee cordless drill that I use instead of the old power cord model that I’ve had since I was a teenager, but the cordless gave up it’s fancy lithium ion battery recently and the cost to replace is half of the cost of the drill itself. Given that one battery has died, it’s certain the other is not far behind but the cost to replace two batteries is almost as much as buying a new kit, therefore what I will do is discard the drill and two batteries (recycle them) and buy a new drill that includes 2 batteries. That’s wasteful and emblematic of what has gone haywire in our consumer culture, we throw away perfectly good things just because of expediency and bundle pricing strategies.

But consumers alone are not to blame on this issue, as I have no doubt that some fresh out of school Wharton MBA grad worked up a pretty compelling pricing model that Milwaukee uses to maximize total unit shipments. In other words, two batteries really can’t be equivalent in cost/price to two batteries and a complete drill, right? Beyond the cost issue, what good is cordless technology bringing the market in this instance if the technology isn’t capable of delivering more than 2-4 years of use?

Here's my take:

When in doubt, always assume that people will do what is easier. Once manufacturing and retailing became efficient enough, we developed a disposable product culture.

For example, I do try to get my stuff repaired. When I needed to replace the drive belt on my vacuum cleaner, I had to search around online and via telephone for an hour before I could locate a supplier. Another time, it took me a number of weeks to locate someone who was willing to repair a microwave. The only guy who was up to the job was an old tinker who had a nearly-invisible storefront on El Camino.

In both those cases, while I might have saved a few bucks versus simply trashing and buying new, the time I burned up probably cost me 5-10X the cost of new appliances.

There is a solution--build a brand that is based on extreme reliability. Offer a lifetime guarantee, and if something goes wrong, either have a courier pick up the offending item and take it to a local repair shop, or have FedEx/UPS pick it up and return the repaired item, along with a "loaner" during the repair period.

Yes, you'll take a bath on anyone who takes you up on the warranty, but expect all of those people to become incredible evangelists for your company. In addition, you'll be able to save a ton on marketing, since word-of-mouth will be the primary driver of sales.

In a less connected world, this idea wouldn't work, but in today's viral society, I think it's a winner.

And if you do start this business, hook me up with some free stuff. Seriously. I don't get paid for blogging, y'know!

Quote of the Day: Wall Street bankers tend to do things like buy their houses for cash

Megan McArdle has a great post up with boatload of zingers. Here's the best one:

To those who are averse to bailing out Wall Street rather than Main Street, it's worth noting that Main Street will suffer worse than Wall Street. Because of the way that their compensation is structured, Wall Street bankers tend to do things like buy their houses for cash.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stat of the Day: Per Capita VC Investment

"The Bay Area Council Economic Institute recently found that in 2006, local companies attracted $9.5 billion in venture capital—an astounding $1,370 per resident.

In second place was Singapore, at just $180 per capita.

The figure for New York: $107."

Hat tip: Ben Casnocha's feed.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cligs: Short URLs with Click Tracking

Here's a brilliant idea: URL shortening (a la TinyURL, snurl, with built-in click tracking. I have no idea why I didn't think of it!

Quote of the Day: Sesame Street Simple

"The principles used to run a firm should be Sesame Street Simple. Human beings don't want to stay focused. So my job is to get them to focus their creativity around the focus; focus their productivity around the focus; focus their efficiency or effectiveness around the focus."

--A. G. Lafley, CEO Proctor & Gamble