Education Bubble Part 2

More of this is hitting the news. This video gives more details of the education bubble. To me the big question is this, is the free market being prevented from equalizing the student loan debt situation because student loans are not bankruptable? If bankruptcy is the great “do-over” allowing citizens to recover from untenable financial situations and return to society in a productive role, then are we just crippling students by not allowing them to participate in this mechanism available to the rest of society? Maybe the OWS crowd wouldn’t be so angry if they had the ability to recover from the fateful decision of picking a major with no economic prospects. In any case, I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that if we are willing to forgive debt to countries in Africa, we ought to consider giving at least the bakruptcy option (which is not without consequences) to our own young people.

 

The Education Bubble

I’ve been talking about this for about 3 years. I’m glad somebody finally picked it up. The AP reported on a financial bubble in education last week. There have been a slough of stories percolating about this, such as Generation Jobless: Is An Ivy League Diploma Worth It?, and some spinoffs of ridiculous comments made by unemployed Occupy Wall Street lemmings, like What’s Your Kid Getting From College? 

There are also some debates about what constitutes a REAL economic bubble, as if anyone caught up in it cares about the precise definition of the hyperbolic media parlance. Personally, I’m more interested in the similarities of the big bubbles, Dot.com, real estate, and now education. In all three cases, it appears that a disconnect arose between price and value. Specifically, the price inflated way beyond the intrinsic value of the underlying asset. With the Dot.coms there was a belief that traditional valuation methods based on old-fashioned metrics like assets or earnings were passe and companies could be valued for cyberspace intangibles like website visitors or stickiness. With the real estate bubble home prices were artificially inflated due to massive pull-through demand generated by collateralized mortgage obligations, fueled by investor cash that had fled the market in the Dot.com crash looking for something “safer” that financiers didn’t understand… real estate.

So, how does education—and more particularly student loan debt—look like these previous bubbles? Well for starters, the price and the underlying value are way out of whack. Tuitions have escalated around the country in the midst of the financial crisis, its ensuing recession and remaining aftermath. How is that possible? Do people have more money to spend on education? No. Has the value of education gone up? No. In fact, the opposite is true. New graduates are now competing with candidates that have both degrees and experience, but who now find themselves part of the massive ranks of unemployed Americans vying for available positions.

Any hope that this climate might change soon dwindles in the face of politicians like Harry Reid who showed such a profound misunderstanding of economics that he was recently quoted as saying millionaire job creators are like unicorns, they don’t exist. Seriously, what an out of touch tool.

Despite any political despair, the question remains, why would tuitions rise in the face of declining economic operators? Demand is down, supply is up, and yet the price climbs. This simple analysis betrays the disconnect and the evidence of a bubble.

Disconnects like this also alert us to other symptoms of a problem. If the economics are breaking down, then too is the value this education is providing to society. But in the face of this evidence, the powers that be continue to raise the cost of traditional education and use their influence to prevent new entrants into the market. I am not about to prognosticate about how this bubble will resolve itself. One thing preventing it from popping is the un-bankruptability of student loan debt. However, depending on election results this coming year, someone may get wise to the idea that if we are going to forgive debts we would be just as well to forgive them to our citizens as to developing nations in Africa or Asia. And when we do, education will rapidly return to its fair-valued price. In other words… pop.

 

 

 

The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership

Many of us have worked for someone and thought, I could do his job. What’s so great about that person? (These thoughts are probably more prevalent when that person is our boss and is driving us crazy.) I’m not trying to answer every question about how some people work their way into leadership positions. What I am going to do is suggest some thoughts about why a person, who still only has 24 hours in a day, who still has only one FTE of output, and who puts their pant on one leg at a time just like everybody else, might be able to create disproportionate value for a company.

I recently read Linchpin: Are You Indespensable? by Seth Godin. (I also recently gave this book a negative review on my LinkedIn reading list and now I’m quoting it, go figure.) On page 51 (of the hardcover first edition), he made a comment about Richard Branson as follows:

You could do Richard Branson’s job.

Most of the time, anyway.

… You could certainly do most of what he does, perhaps better than he does it. Except for what he does for about five minutes a day. In those five minutes, he creates billions of dollars’ worth of value every few years, and neither you nor I would have a prayer of doing what he does.

Now, if you are interested in what Godin says Branson does in those five minutes, you can read the book. What interested me is this idea that a leader was able to create that kind of leverage. That there really might be a quality time component to leadership, that made the economy of a company work, despite an ostensibly disproportionate amount of control and pay residing in one individual.

I have known CEOs who felt that the key to their leadership was to outwork, outsmart, and outperform everybody in the company in every function. This seems obviously foolish, but in their desire to lead by example, they view their company like a wolf pack where their position at the top is only secure as long as they can unseat any challenger to their superiority. If a leader’s true value is not created by putting in more hours than anybody else—hours are finite after all—but, instead leveraging a few critical moments of judgement, decision-making, insight, or charisma, then the economy of leadership within a company make sense.

I titled this post, The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership, because this narrow opportunity to exercise leadership that would be leveraged across other less-critical moments, reminded me of Stephen J. Gould‘s concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology (something that opens up an extremely wide field of potential common ground with scientists who are also men of faith). This is the idea that things move along for a time with very little change, and that these times of relative equilibrium are punctuated by times of rapid change.

In support of this idea, I recently read the latest Jim Collins book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, which is a follow up to Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall. On page 120, he writes:

Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments…. We will all face moments when the quality of our performance matters much more than other moments, moments that we can sieze or squander…. [We can] respond to unequal times with unequal intensity, when it matters most.

Having spent a few years of my career as a CEO, this is hyper-relevant to me as I strive to be equal to the critical moments that I will inevitably arise in the future of my company. But I think it has a broader application than that. It seems to me that whatever the endeavor, if we want to achieve our life’s goals, we need to dedicate ourselves to being prepared to be equal to the critical moments that present themselves. We can abdicate this quality on behalf of our company, if we aren’t the CEO—but we can’t abdicate it in our lives. There isn’t anyone else who is more invested in our success as individuals. In effect, we are all the CEOs of our own lives, and it isn’t a job we can be fired from, resign from, or otherwise give up to others. As Collins says, not all time in life is equal. We have time during the equilibrium to prepare to make the critical choices when they come.

Who are your influences?

“Who’re your influences?”

This was the question Jimmy Rabbitte posed to each prospect interviewing to join the “World’s hardest working band,” The Commitments, in the 1991 film adapted from Roddy Doyle‘s classic novel. The Commitments is a great (albeit profane) cultural snapshot of the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland I first encountered as a missionary in January of 1992.

One of the reasons I love this line from the movie is that Jimmy is trying to do what everyone who has ever interviewed someone tries to do—ask questions that probe deep and in a few brief moments reveal a person’s character and future behavior, to peer into the soul of the interviewee and see what kind of person he or she is. The task of knowing for certain whether someone is going to be a good fit for the band, or the company, or the job by spending a few minutes (an hour tops) with them is of course impossible. But the question, Who’re your influences? opens the door for someone to reveal a lot about themselves.

So, I began thinking about my influences. Not just artistic influences, but life influences. Maybe it is right to talk about these people in terms of mentors. I made a list, and I have about a dozen major mentors in my life. These are men and women who had a profound effect on me. They taught me, set an example for me or opened my eyes in one way or another. Then, I realized that I have another cadre of minor mentors that also had an influence even though they may have only appeared once or twice in my life.

I’m not going to list the major mentors by name, but they include my parents, various teachers, supervisors, partners, and friends. Some of the “influence” they had was to teach me that work is a blessing; that knowing mythology, Shakespeare and the Bible were the keys to understanding English; how to recognize miracles and to feel the deep spiritual things of life; that you don’t have to compromise your principles in order to achieve success in business; about commitment and sacrifice; and about strength and gentleness.

Add to that the influence of minor mentors and a great deal of what I am and believe is owed to how I responded when presented these influences. I would guess that if you look at yourself, you will see that the same is true. The more I think about the men and women behind that influence, the more grateful I am.

One of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings, is the statement by Theoden as he lies dying on the Pellenor fields. He says, “I go now to my fathers, in whose mighty company, I will not now be ashamed.” In generations past, we built up courage in ourselves by telling stories of the honor won by our heroes, the men and women of valor from our more distant past. In modern times the tradition of venerating the good in our history, has unfortunately fallen out of favor and in its place, we seem wont to focus on the here and now. If I look to my own generation for those heroes, I have been fortunate enough to have them and they are my mentors.

Driving past the cemetery the other day, my daughter asked me what it was. I told her. She asked why we don’t go there more often. I told her that the older you get, the more people you have to see in the cemetery, so you tend to go more often. In truth, I believe we go through life and build a welcoming committee for the other side. So, when I exit this world and enter the next, I hope to stand in the company of many of my mentors. If I am able to stand in their mighty company without shame, I will be satisfied.

Freedom via Constraints

In 2008, I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Essentially, it is about making slideshow presentations more powerful, more focused, more interesting and more effective. (I think this book should be mandatory for all students and business presenters.) It is also about the value of simplicity. Simplicity is not easy, but it is powerful and I think a worthy goal in almost any endeavor. As Leonardo DaVinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Well this week I picked up the sequel, Presentation Zen Design. The follow-up volume is equal parts effective presentation strategies and a crash course in the basics of design—mostly what we would consider graphic design—at an elemental level that translates into many of life’s pursuits. It was inside this well-crafted package that I found a principle so elegant that I was compelled to spend more time with it. Reynolds often comments on how restraint is key to powerful design, a beautiful yet counter-intuitive idea. But deeper still was the following quote about working within constraints from Steve Hagen,

True freedom doesn’t lie in the maximization of choice, but, ironically, is most easily found in a life where there is little choice.

I find this notion far more counter-intuitive than merely the notion of restraint. In fact, I would expect most readers to read and reject this idea out of hand. However, I think there is a great truth here. In a country based on freedom, where we even have a statue of liberty, and in a world with few restrictions, what external constraints are left?  We aren’t coerced by a king, or a master. We are free to adopt the only true control there is, which is self-control.

Victor Frankl said, “A human being is a deciding being.” and, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This idea of space relates to what Hagen is talking about. If we look at our lives from the deciding moments, we are essentially looking forward at the unwritten story of our lives. Nothing exists there yet but space. And then we make a decision… From Presentation Zen Design:

If you take an empty slide and put even a single word on it, you have created “space.” Before you put anything on a slide, it is just a frame filled with possibilities. Once you add an element, you activate the space.

When we choose to act in our lives, from those moments of critical decision, we “activate the space.” We are constrained by the consequences of our actions, but within those constraints is where we can achieve the greatest freedom. When we try to act without consequence, we are slaves of our own thinking, because we have rejected the constraints that would have made us free. In fact the energizing creativity that is required to keep harmony with each subsequent decision we make after “activating the space” is exciting and alluring.

In Presentation Zen Design, Reynolds discusses the Japanese ink and wash art called sumi-e. In sumi-e, the ink is always black. A monotone palette from pure black to very light shades of gray is created by the manner in which each brushstroke is made. There are rules in traditional sumi-e. If you do not understand the rules, you can paint all you want, but you are not making sumi-e. You are not free to make sumi-e unless you understand the constraints, the proper method for how it is made. I remember my grandmother telling me that when she was a child and she saw her first opera, she wanted to come home and write one herself. Of course when she sat down to write it, she found that she couldn’t. It was an impossibly hard task from her current level of skill and understanding. I had a similar experience after reading Tolkein, I thought it would be great to create my own language. I spent several hours attempting this, only to discover that I did not yet understand enough about grammar and syntax to produce more than a few code words that related 1:1 to their English counterparts.

If exercises like these demanded that we learn the rules and operate within the constraints, what about the big things in life? What about happiness, relationships, religion, and meaning? Well, it stands to reason that you need to learn to embrace constraints there too. If god’s plan involved giving us our agency, the freedom to choose for ourselves and to act rather than be acted upon, yet at the same time gave us a laundry list of commandments, of constraints, then it stands to reason that if we want to become what we have the potential of becoming, we really don’t have a choice at all.

The irony, as Hagen says, is that to be truly free, we have to choose to act in complete harmony with all of the constraints. If freedom is what we desire, we really don’t have any choice in the matter.

Thin choices among leaders

The Affluenza AntidoteI read something recently that stirred me. It was in a book called The Affluenza Antidote about raising children to be good people in spite of affluence. It said that due to a breakdown of traditional values:

Fewer people are … running for public office.

That resonated with me. I thought back to the 2008 election. Sure these days you would have to be in a coma not to see that Obama is a train wreck as president. Lots of voters are fighting off buyer’s remorse, clinging to hope that his hollow promises and siren song of governmental panacea will come true like some political fairy tale—but not me, cynic, realist, maybe just not audacious enough to still hope. Who knows? Hey, there have always been folks who failed to see the writing on the wall, but I think most people are starting to get it. Things just aren’t getting better. Time will tell. However, my point is not to recite the litany of the presidents failures—others more capable will do a better job of that—I’m trying to decipher a deeper problem. See, even though Obama is a catastrophe, when we remember back to the alternative it was … the utterly lackluster McCain! Ungh. Not yet aware that we were putting a lunatic behind the wheel, in 2008 it sure seemed like we faced a real dearth of choice. No wonder Obama was elected, the alternative was just so tepid and unexciting. Contrast can be good, though. I don’t think the tea party movement and other principle-based political trends would have flourished under McCain. Without the terrifying backdrop of Obama, there just wouldn’t have been the motivation.

Then I think back over past presidents. Bush was really bad. Clinton likewise poor, although then we were only worried about him being someone with poor moral character not a complete madman. All told I think I am forced to admit that, by the time the next presidential election rolls around, no one under twenty will have been alive during the term of a decent president of the United States. Why not? Why haven’t we had better choices? This is a pretty big problem.

Even in my local district, Stephen Sandstrom faces opposition from a truly clueless challenger. Sandstrom is responsible for sponsoring a brilliant bill on immigration reform in Utah. But in so doing has exercised one of the rarest of qualities in modern politics–the courage of ones convictions. Sandstrom might lose his seat over having the integrity to do something about an issue other than his own reelection. I hope not

Iacocca where are the leaders?Lee Iacocca’s book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? bemoans this same condition. You can read the opening lines and get the gist.

Moral of the story? Mothers and Fathers, don’t just raise your children telling them that they could be president. Raise them to feel an obligation to serve and to have the character and integrity to do it with competence and courage. Maybe in the future, more great men and women will step up and offer America a real choice.

The Root of All Evil..

So recently there was quite a brouhaha about President Obama’s comment that “I think that a certain point you’ve made enough money.” Now, I don’t know if he meant everything that has since been implied by that comment, but I think it is worth some commentary.

Washington is working on what it calls financial reform. Financial service companies in every sector are waking up each day wondering if today is the day that Congress is going to send call them onto the mat and perform an involuntary colonoscopy. In an astounding coincidence, the SEC launched a fraud investigation into Goldman Sachs the week Harry Reid called for a vote. (Interestingly the Inspector General decided to launch a probe into the timing of the SEC’s actions, but very little was made of this in the media.) Also timed coincidentally as Republicans kick up a stink about a proposed provision seen as a pre-funded bailout of $50 billion, Secretary Geithner makes a report that bailouts aren’t as bad as they are made out to be.

I gotta say that the most open-minded observer has to be scratching his head a little at all these shenanigans. It is clear that what is being done is not being done in the open and that there is urgency behind it that is curbing thorough debate. There are also the uber left field inclusions, like the angel investor rules, that are so baffling one has to wonder just what the agenda creating the momentum for this bill really is.

In all of this confusion, I have a few questions.  1. Goldman Sachs is the only Wall Street investment bank left of the big five after the meltdown (Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers are all either gone entirely or sold to other institutions for chump change). These guys were the main perpetrators of the CMOs which caused the massive pull-through demand which fueled the sub-prime mortgage crisis and played a significant role in the crash. If they are wiped out as a result, who is Washington still trying to punish on Wall Street? The headliner in Naked Credit Default Swaps, AIG, already got a bailout pass from Washington, so regulating them seems a little schizophrenic.

2. The main body charged with regulating securities since the acts of 1933 and 1934 has been the SEC.  Why haven’t we seen any financial reform legislation directed at modifying the SEC to encompass the more “creative” types of securities? Indeed, why is there a focus on anything outside derivative swaps?

THIS POST IS STILL IN PROGRESS

Ghandi on Christians

Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

As a marketer, I’m thinking Christians have a branding problem. As a Christian, my pride was bruised upon hearing this.  That should have been my first clue. What did my pride have to do with anything? I think that one of the most difficult things for Christians is that the doctrine of Christ is totally unyielding.  There is right and wrong and it is like night and day, black and white, no exceptions.  Yet, Christ is also universally forgiving. So, whatever you did wrong is enough to keep you out of heaven—even if it was only something little.  But, on the other hand, if you ask for forgiveness you receive it and VOILA! you’re back in again—even if it was something big. Faced with this dynamic, human beings naturally looked for a shortcut.  They said, “This doctrine is pretty strict and that’s causing us some problems. Hey, if we’re going to be forgiven anyway, why don’t we just redraft the rules and loosen things up a bit?”

And so they did, spawning a multitude of sects and a bunch of Christians that were unlike Christ. The problem is that if you skip a step by no longer requiring the sinner to humbly ask for forgiveness, the step you are skipping is Christ. No wonder then that Christianity with Christ pulled out of it no longer looks like the genuine article.  Whatever you believe, wherever you are in your relationship with God, maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you see your sins as something you need to humbly as forgiveness for (you know you have them), or whether your pride rebels and you say to yourself that you don’t need anyone’s forgiveness.

A wise friend of mine once said, “The problem is that we love our sins. Otherwise we wouldn’t struggle so much to give them up.” Is it too much to ask that maybe sometime in the future, people who know us as Christians will look back at Ghandi’s quote and not be able to understand what in the world he was talking about?

On the Shoulders of Giants

So, when I told my father that I was going to study art in college, I didn’t get the reaction many of my peers did.  Thankfully, my father did not react by immediately orchestrating an intervention.  He probably didn’t consider my decision particularly wise, or think that it would offer advantages under the trials of life, or that it was the decision he would have made himself. But he didn’t try to stop me or talk me out of it.

My dad didn’t go to college as a young man. The next generation in my family has made up for that and racked up more than a few degrees, due in no small part to the fact that my parents are very intelligent people and instilled in us a value for education. However, they were somewhat ambivalent about the value of a college degree, or more specifically about the notion that what one chose to study would really matter in terms of a career or what someone did with their life. They taught us to answer when opportunity knocked, but also not to let whatever we might lack hold us back from anything.

Funny enough, I have followed in many of my father’s footsteps when it comes to making my living in business.  He worked as a real estate broker and entrepreneur as long as I can remember. In response to my desire to study art, he told me that Thomas Jefferson said, “I study war, that my children may study business, that their children may study the arts.” I later learned that this quote is more accurately ascribed to John Adams and reads,

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Dad got the gist and correctly pinned it on a founding father.

Despite his unspoken fears for my chosen course, he inspired me that my pursuit of the arts was possible because of the sacrifice of others. If his work in business was responsible for creating an opportunity for me, I should take the opportunity and he would be proud.

Which brings me to my point. I just finished reading Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer, which I highly recommend. I never followed Tillman‘s college or NFL football career. I heard about him—leaving his football career, joining the army, and subsequently being killed—on the news, complete with all the spin, just like most everybody else.

I think like most people, I was smart enough to know that the story was being spun, but also to know that whatever the truth was behind Pat Tillman’s decision, someone had just made a choice that involved a lot of sacrifice and that had to be based in principles. In my eyes, that alone made him worthy of my respect. When he was killed and it was later reported that his death was due to friendly fire, I thought about whether that ought to diminish my esteem for him. The way it was reported kind of made it sound like “Oh, he got killed by his own guys, so he isn’t really a hero.”

To me it makes no difference.  Pat Tillman made the ultimate sacrifice, but every soldier shows that they are willing to make that sacrifice when they enlist. They become heroes in that moment and then, so long as they keep themselves free from disgrace and dishonor, deserve to command our respect.  By “our” I mean those of us who are free to pursue our livelihoods, to practice business, to raise our families, and to enjoy the life we can create for ourselves, because someone else is willing to die to give it to us. I know that there are thousands of “thank a soldier” blogs out there who do a better job of making the case for respecting those who serve. But for me, Pat Tillman offers the opportunity to reverence a contemporary the way we reverence Nathan Hale, to keep in remembrance the name of a real person, only a few years younger than I am, who “more than self, their country loved.”

Pat Tillman’s story reminds me of another phrase from founding father, Samuel Adams,

“Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say, ‘What should be the reward of such sacrifices? Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship, and plow, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom’–go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”

Let’s pursue the virtuous goals of our lives in gratitude and reverence for the fact that our ability to pursue these endeavors according to our own choices and abilities depends on generations upon generations of individuals who were committed to the principles of liberty and freedom—committed enough to give up their own pursuit of similar goals, in favor of sacrificing their lives.

Also, check out the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Bailout Gets to Banks, Not to Customers

bankI was recently discussing a recent Business Week article about U.S. banks.  I have to say that this burns me up a little. Here the banking industry is supposedly in big trouble. Seventy seven banks have failed so far this year and many claim that the national bank of the U.S., the Federal Reserve, wouldn’t pass the stress-test audits it has just forced the nation’s banks to go through. But the sector as a whole seems to be riding high. Banks at large are generally profitable, thanks to a generous bailout on the backs of taxpayers (and I suppose the greed and financial savvy of China).

So, what’s the big deal?

The big deal to me is that the taxpayers have bailed out the banks, but banks have not returned the favor! The Business Week article makes a pretty strong claim that banks are not shying away from risky derivatives, they are just firing up their creative engines and looking at ways to stick consumers with the risk.  Now, part of the article cites banks diving into the payday loan industry. In the interest of disclosure, I am in the payday loan industry myself, but one of the reasons that payday advance financial products are both in tremendously high demand and that this type of high-interest credit is useful and necessary in the economy (as outlined in this report from the NY Fed) is, ironically enough, because the banking industry is not serving the consumer.  Credit is tightening for small businesses, home buyers, and credit card users. A slew of articles today, including this one from USA Today, illustrate how banks are taking the kicking they got from new legislation and passing it right along to consumers.

Because they were not allowed to fail, banks were clearly not allowed to learn their lesson.  This is what happens when government tinkers with the operation of free market economic principles.  You get banks, who normally would be accountable to their customers by virtue of their mandate to earn a profit for shareholders, serving a new master—the legislative hand that feeds them (and in some cases owns them). So they preserve their profits at the expense of customers rather than by serving them. With Congress as their rainmaker, this is an industry that has stopped believing in any form of accountability … except the kind they enforce on you and me as customers. And that’s the big deal to me.  I would love to see someone call these guys on the mat for taking a bailout funded by taxpayers and then turning around and sticking it to those same taxpayers in the form of fees, tighter credit, and inflexibility on loan mods for borrowers facing financial crises.