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What’s It About?

As the rain started to drip, we ducked into the little bar warmed by worn woodwork.  It was my first chance in a long time to meet some of the people who write blogs for a living or fun, my work and family schedule being what it is.  The mood was set perfectly by the scenery as we had to turn the coldness of unfamiliarity into the warmth of a common sense of purpose.  It was good to meet everyone at the blogger gathering last Friday, but it raised a question I hate to answer – what is my blog about?

I thought this was a good time to summarize what I’ve been writing about lately as we all wade into the upcoming elections and some of the fine points get a bit soggy in our pockets.

I’ve been writing primarily about three things over the last 18 months that may not seem closely related:

1. Connections Theory, or the process of breaking down a complicated system not into its individual elements but the connections between them,
2. Over Specialization, or how the search for industrial efficiency through the division of labor has blinded our world to a bigger sense of purpose, and
3. Various bleatings and updates on how the Depression is going.

These topics, together, are all my attempt to define the situation that we as a nation (and a developed world) find ourselves in and to develop a new perspective that will help us to work through it.  In short, I’m not going to complain without providing some kind of answer – no matter how difficult that answer is or how limited my own li’l opinion is.  I’m trying to find ways we can get past where we are and talk.

I’ve listed what I write about in what I consider the order of importance.  How I talk about them usually runs the opposite direction.

Chatting with random strangers over the last two years has shown an amazing progression in attitudes.  There was a time when my warnings about the frailty of our systems was invariably greeted with a raised eyebrow or other polite way to say, “You are crazy”.  More recently, my insistence that this is a kind of Depression has usually led to a great conversation – usually in agreement or discussion of a fine point.  My latest definition of a Depression, incidentally, is when the Fed Funds Rate calculated target goes negative (which it has been for a while now).

While it’s easy enough to complain, I honestly believe that the right to kvetch carries with it the responsibility to provide a reasonable solution.  That’s where a historical analysis of Depressions leads me to some interesting conclusions.

Something like the modern “Depression” has been traced far back into ancient times.  The oldest mention of some kind of economic theory being put into practice is probably the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.  The periodic famines of Egypt were tamed when Joseph (played by Donny Osmond) used historical analysis (in the form of a wild dream sequence) to predict there’d be more of the same and advise the building of granaries to store the crops in good times.

Since that time we’ve invented more sophisticated agricultural systems, developed trade, democratized land and the economy, had an industrial revolution, and finally developed global communications.  Yet we still seem to have economic downturns every two generations or so through all of it.  I happen to believe that it comes down to how well we understand the early lives of our grandparents and the time they went through – or, more accurately, what we willingly forget.

That is what I think a Depression really is – a narrow focus on our own lives that neglects the big picture, both in time and the world around us.

This leads me naturally to Connections Theory, which is a way of analyzing the world not as a series of people, institutions, infrastructure, or even popular theories.  The overall health of our connections seems to tells us a lot about our ability to stand shocks to our system that come unexpectedly.  More to the point, this way of looking at the world explains how new communications technologies always change how economies operate and what we can expect them to continue to do for us in the future.

It’s hard to put these into a quick elevator speech that I can relate over a handshake on a cold rainy night.  It takes time for us to build the shorthand of language that allows complicated ideas to be communicated easily.  I’m working on it, and I would really appreciate your thoughts now that I’ve had the space to lay out some detail.  Oh, and it’s really great to meet you!

10 thoughts on “What’s It About?

  1. Wish I had known I had a chance to meet you. I like it when you summarize once in a while and tie everything together. This blog does seem to wander from one topic to the other but I see that they are connected. Thanks!

  2. Its news to me I know you write about economics, connections theory, but I can’t recall much on specialization.

  3. Dan: I haven’t talked about over-specialization in a while, but it’s always in the back of my mind. I recently started thinking about the much lauded productivity gains of the 1990s and 2000s and how that clearly leads us to unemployment today – in other words, we had a boom based on more output per worker which means we need fewer workers. Some of that is related to improved efficiency from greater specialization – made possible in part by all the improvements in communications.

    So I want to revisit the whole division of labor thang, especially relating to productivity gains. I’m pretty sure that our current economic situation can be explained by some of the big changes we saw from the arrival of the internet.

    Yes, that means that all the happy talk about a golden age based on the internet was just a lot of people kidding themselves. So I tend to go against the flow. 🙂

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  9. Hey Erik, Squatch running a muck in your garden. Nice place, Great articles, well written, interesting, and I have to come back to stomp around more. Thanks for the follow, and I wish I had found your place sooner. see ya later…

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