A New Leader for a New Baltimore

The 2011 Mayoral contests represent a unique opportunity to make American cities work again. Cities have already begun an inexorable return to relevance as refuges from crushing commutes, and as havens of culture and innovation. Our economy is increasingly hitched to our ability to develop and capitalize on innovative ideas, and that innovation can’t happen when folks are trapped in their cars and isolated in the matrix of suburban sprawl. Cities are the American future.

But in the early 1970′s, they were left for dead: victims of race and class warfare, they became abandoned places – a place where people work or would go to the symphony, but not places to build a life or raise children. Formerly walkable, livable cities degraded into a-la-carte destinations you could get into and out of quickly as 1950′s visions of suburbia gained dominance.

With this shift, cities’ political influence waned, and city politics evolved into a top-down enterprise. Power brokers, political clubs, and church groups conferred power on those who would play the game and wait their turn. In Baltimore, city politics became either a launching pad for state office, or a refuge of scoundrels whose city fiefdoms became ends in and of themselves. Instead of working for Baltimore, all too often our politicians have tried to enrich themselves at its expense. With minimal popular interest and the atrophy of the press, there has been increasingly less oversight. So the machine has lumbered on – unencumbered by the tempering force of investigation, new blood, or real political imagination.

In other contexts, leaders are judged on their ability to lead and deliver tangible improvements. But in our cities, it has become enough for our politicians to just not screw things up even worse than they found them. Enough. It’s time to move forward again.

In 2010 we saw some new trends: long-term incumbents who fit the old standard – of merely not being demonstrably corrupt or incompetent – were booted out. And not because of typical anti-incumbent anger, but because people saw something else: that maybe we could demand better.

In Baltimore, 27 year-old newcomer Bill Ferguson delivered a decisive blow to 27-year incumbent State Senator George Della. Gregg Bernstein defeated long-time incumbent Baltimore City States Attorney Patricia Jessamy. These races shared two things in common: no one thought they could upset the machine, and they used the Internet to organize financial and ideological support.

The simultaneous rise in the demand for urban living along with the use of the Internet for political and community organizing will usher in an era of unprecedented change in American cities. With the 2010 races, the old system was put on notice; in 2011 it will begin to be dismantled.

I support Otis Rolley in his candidacy for Mayor of Baltimore in 2011. At 36, Otis is part of the new guard. He’s qualified – he has a masters’ degree in City Planning from MIT. He has been in Baltimore since 1998. He served 10 years in the public sector and two in the private sector. As an executive, he led the Baltimore City Department of Planning and – shockingly – produced the city’s first actual master plan in 39 years.

Otis Rolley

In his time at Planning and as a Chief of Staff, Otis was struck with one question: can’t we do better than this?

Indeed we can. Leadership is about creating a culture based on shared values. We need a leader who is willing to stand up for his values and the values of people who care and work hard, and not allow entrenched career “slugs” to dilute those efforts. He proved he could do this at the Department of Planning, empowering those who had a vision for the city, pushing out those that did not.

But while Otis was able to turn around a non-performing department and produce a workable plan for the city, he ultimately realized that the only way to see its recommendations executed was as Mayor. We should give him this opportunity.

Otis can turn around our city the same way he turned around a department: by creating a new culture. Frankly, there are a lot of people in city government who should be looking for other kinds of work. We can start there.

Otis understands that we need to start allocating our resources differently. Economic development has for too long been about big projects, like the currently proposed $900 Million Baltimore Arena redevelopment. While this plan would assuredly enrich some developers and provide ample future backing for political operators looking to entrench themselves for a lifetime in Maryland politics, we should instead be thinking about new ways to capitalize on Baltimore’s biggest economic development assets: its people and its fortunate geography.

If instead we were to invest $900 Million in the infrastructure to support entrepreneurial enterprises and startups, we could potentially create tens of thousands of jobs across a wide range of income levels. A new startup-friendly Baltimore could outperform other regions in terms of standard and cost of living as well as access to a world-class workforce. A strategic focus on manufacturing, both large and small using the latest technologies, could restore what was once a thriving middle class. Arenas, convention centers, stadiums and hotel subsidies just deliver more jobs that don’t even pay a living wage. Otis knows we can do better.

In 2011, we have a choice: do we want to be a good city, or a great city? Otis has a vision that he will articulate over the coming months as part of what should be an open and healthy debate around the future of our city, and not about personal politics. As I have come to know Otis over the past 14 months, I am confident that he is the right leader for Baltimore’s future. If you give him an opportunity to serve, you will not be disappointed.

Baltimore is Otis’ first priority. He has no aspirations for higher office. He wants to work for Baltimore and for all of you. In 2011, we have the wind at our backs – cities are on the upswing, and the Internet is connecting us in unprecedented ways. It’s time to take back our cities and make them the vital, beautiful, functional, and inclusive places we all know they can be. Otis Rolley can help us do that. This is Baltimore’s moment; let’s seize it together.


You can support Otis Rolley in 2011 by visiting his campaign website (http://otisrolley.com) and by attending the January 11th performance by Bill Cosby in support of his candidacy. Follow Otis on Twitter at @otisrolley and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/otisformayor.

Also check out Otis’ talk at TEDxMidAtlantic on November 5, 2010:

Bumper Stickers and Zero-Sum Thinking

For the last year I’ve been developing an idea for a documentary film tentatively titled “Sticker Movie” about bumper stickers and how they express tribal identity and territory. Someone inquired about the status of the project and this was my response. Consider it a glimpse into the creative thought process.

“Sticker Movie is on hiatus for the moment, mostly while I seek funding and further develop the concept. However, the more I’ve meditated on the idea, the more I have come to believe that stickers indicate something very fundamental about the human psyche, specifically the amygdala and its function in society.

Humans behave differently when they feel threatened; brain function shifts from cerebral cortex to amygdala, which mediates flight/fight response. I believe stickers are associated with territorial instinct, as originated from the amygdala, and that much of the definition of “liberal” and “conservative” rests on how specifically people modulate their amygdala/cerebral functions. I believe this is partially genetic and partially environmental. People’s early experiences (bullying, racism, teasing, aggression, prison, certain sports) can definitely activate a “zero-sum” mentality which is dominated by the amygdala.

It’s been observed that siblings are more competitive but less successful than only children. Siblings fight amongst themselves for resources and attention, while only-children may have more opportunity to be creative. Zero-sum vs. positive sum thinking, IMHO.”

I’m an only-child. And I believe that if we can deactivate the amygdala in our political discourse, we can positively affect the world. What do you think about stickers, the amygdala, and zero-sum thinking?

Fiber Economics

With the release of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, Google’s announced intention to build gigabit fiber-to-the-home networks, and Verizon’s indications that they are not likely to be expanding their FIOS service to new areas, it’s a good time to review where we really stand with fiber.

The Real Reasons You Don’t Have Fiber

What are the real economics of broadband infrastructure? It’s not so simple as market opportunity, investment, and subscribers; Verizon and Comcast have different regulatory histories and see the world differently. Google, as a potential new entrant, has completely different motivations.

Let’s take a look at the regulatory background, and then get a sense of what’s really motivating Verizon, Comcast, and Google.

Regulatory Background

We have gradually come to think of Verizon and Comcast as equals: big, for-profit telecom companies — competitors for TV, Internet, and telephone service. But they got to their current positions through very different routes. Here’s a brief (and rather incomplete) history.

In 1984, the former AT&T was busted up into seven Baby Bells: Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Southwestern Bell, and US West. Terminator-like, these companies have been spending the last 26 years reconstituting themselves, merging into very large firms. Bell Atlantic changed its name to Verizon in 2000 after acquiring GTE.

Telecommunications regulation in the United States has a long history and reflects theory originally applied to railroads and other public utilities. The idea was that communications was a public good and because the network had to be large and interoperable to be effective, it was best served by a natural monopoly. So, assets like public rights-of-way were made available for the monopoly to use, in exchange for an agreement to provide Universal Service, covering the entire population.

To keep the monopoly from charging unreasonable prices, regulators mandated that their services should be marketed at cost, plus a reasonable and sustaining profit margin. This means that there is no incentive for them to keep costs down; in fact, the higher their costs, the more raw dollars they make.

Verizon today operates under this kind of regulatory background, which was outlined initially in the Communications Act of 1934, and then amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which has subsequently been eroded and modified by case law and other FCC actions.

The FCC, under Bush-appointed Chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, tended towards the opinion that the best way to foster competition and innovation would be to empower a small number of well-capitalized firms and let them compete together in the marketplace.

Comcast, for its part, came together very differently. Cable TV franchises were primarily granted by local municipalities, starting in the 1950′s. Comcast acquired dozens of these small firms, each with their own regulatory agreements with cities and counties. By 2000 or so, this aggregation started to resemble the sort of “large firm” that the FCC thought could be an effective competitor to the telephone companies.

So that’s how we got here. Verizon is heir to the top-down, cost-based monopoly regulation subsidized by the Universal Service Fund, which requires that it provide telephone service even in rural areas. Comcast is the product of the roll-up of dozens (if not hundreds) of small cable TV firms. Now let’s take a look at their interests in the current landscape.

Verizon

Verizon, in many ways, is just the current-day incarnation of a big chunk of the original AT&T. It’s still the primary telephone infrastructure provider and the bulk of its physical wiring plant is copper. It operates the same switching facilities that AT&T did back in 1984. In many important ways, nothing has changed.

What about FIOS? Isn’t Verizon innovating there? Aren’t they making this investment to “make money?” It’s complicated.

Verizon made the decision to install FIOS primarily to block competition. The Telecom Act of 1996 required that telcos make copper wireline infrastructure for competitors to run alternative services. This is where alternative telcos like Cavalier, Covad, Adelphia, and many others came into the market. You’ll notice that almost all of those companies are now defunct or severely hamstrung.

This is in part because Verizon (and its peers) set out on a strategy to make a competitive business model all but impossible. FIOS was part of that strategy.

When Verizon installs FIOS, they almost always remove the copper wires that could otherwise have been used by competitors; and this has effectively shut them out.

Verizon has spent over $20 Billion to build out FIOS in its service area. Ostensibly this might look like “investment in innovation” to observers. But in fact, this spending was mostly done to block competitors and to destroy the pro-competition provisions of the Telecom Act of ’96.

It should thus come as no surprise that Verizon has recently announced that they are unlikely to expand their FIOS network further. This isn’t because they can’t get more new subscribers in new areas (like downtown Boston, which is still not served); rather, it’s because they have calculated that the costs of future expansion exceed the downside risk of lost profits caused by competitors in the areas that remain.

They have put FIOS in all the places where it was either easy to do so or where the competition was too strong to ignore. Now that the competitors are mostly defunct or severely weakened, the threat is just not there to justify expansion.

Like feudal warlords, they invested just enough in FIOS to block out competitors, rejigger the regulations, and maintain a status quo of mediocrity. And we’re supposed to think this is innovation?

Comcast

Comcast has different problems. Because all of their regulatory agreements are negotiated with individual municipalities, it’s more difficult for them to make investments across their entire footprint. This is why Comcast often rolls out new products and services in trial communities, and then rolls them out to new areas one at a time.

Comcast does have a very large television service footprint, and their acquisition of NBC and other content providers over the years, like HTS, is an attempt to establish themselves as a vertically integrated entertainment provider. They control the entire stack, from the physical cable, to the viewer, to the content itself. This means that they are protected from threats from content providers who might try to command high rates for popular content. Disney (who controls ESPN and ABC) often finds itself in battles about rates with cable providers. Acquiring NBC/Universal means one less potential threat of rate hikes for Comcast, and higher overall profits.

But Comcast’s physical plant is dominated by aging coaxial cable infrastructure. While local head-ends are fed by fiberoptic backbones, local distribution to the home is through co-axial cable, which can degrade in performance when it rains, is subject to lightning damage, and can only go so fast. Fiber-to-the-home is vastly superior, but it would cost Comcast billions to upgrade its plant. In the absence of competitive pressure (such as that which was faced by Verizon), they have no incentive to do so. Instead they are happy to push their existing plant as hard as it can go, using standards such as DOCSIS 3, and invest in fiber-to-the-home infrastructure only as necessary or convenient.

Google

Google has recently announced that they would like to spawn innovation, and potentially build out gigabit fiberoptic infrastructure in one or more communities in the United States. I helped organize Baltimore’s municipal response to Google’s Request For Information for this project.

Google’s proposing something very different from what Verizon and Comcast offer: an open-access network, over which new entrants could provide Internet or other services. This is exactly the paradigm that Verizon has fought to destroy with FIOS.

Comcast has also fought open access repeatedly; before Verizon settled on FIOS as its primary anti-competitive strategy, Verizon tried to force cable companies to become subject to the same kind of infrastructure-sharing to which it was subject under the Telecom Act of 1996.

And Comcast fought this effort mightily; in 2002, I testified before the Maryland House of Delegates in support of a bill that would force Comcast to open its network, and Comcast’s lobbyists managed to defeat it.

Also in 2002, working alongside Verizon-supplied lobbyists, I testified before the FCC with TCP/IP co-inventor Vint Cerf (now a VP at Google) arguing that cable companies should be forced to provide “open access” to their networks because it would promote competition and entrepreneurship. At that hearing, FCC Commissioner Robert Pepper made it clear that the FCC believed that Verizon and Comcast could provide all the competition we would ever need. We see how that’s turned out.

To date, there has not been any significant open access network deployment in the United States. And with the decline of competitive telco-based services, telecom innovation has now stalled entirely. It’s time for something new.

Net Neutrality

Google has a different potential problem on its radar. In the US, Comcast and Verizon control access to a large percentage of its customers. Currently, the Internet operates under a doctrine of “Net Neutrality,” which is to say that customers and Google all just pay for access to the network, and each can communicate freely with anyone else on the network.

Various telecom executives (most notably former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, now CEO of GM) have argued that companies like Google should no longer get free access to their customers. Folks like Whitacre believe that the natural role of a company like Verizon or Comcast is to act as a toll-gate, charging both content providers (Google) as well as customers for access to each other.

As you might imagine, Google heartily opposes this idea: it could dramatically increase their costs and would destroy the “level playing field” which has dominated the Internet from the beginning. Startups could be stifled because they might need to negotiate an agreement with broadband providers to get access to customers. This is a war that Verizon and Comcast appear ready to start, and people like News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch are fanning the flames.

Google’s Fiber Plan

Google’s announcement that it intends to build ultra-fast open access fiber networks is its declaration of war against the threatened end of net-neutrality. Further, this is a productive use of Google’s vast stockpile of cash; it’s something tangible it can do to ensure its market position.

And it’s a move that’s ideologically compatible with its mission. Google genuinely believes that the expansion of a fast, net-neutral Internet has positive effects on society, and it’s also good for its bottom-line. More people online means more ad-views which means more advertising, and more dollars for Google. There’s no downside for them; it’s an expensive proposition to be sure, but it’s less expensive than paying for access to customers in a world without net-neutrality.

By promoting itself as a good citizen, wrapped in the banner of open-access, innovation, and net-neutrality, ideologically-sympathetic regulators such as the FCC’s new Obama-appointed Chairman Julius Genachowski are likely to view Google’s approach favorably. This would allow Google to establish a vertically-integrated, long-term market position which would be hard for Verizon or Comcast to disrupt.

And the kicker? The open-access network Google’s proposing really would promote innovation and entrepreneurship. The United States is ranked 15th in broadband penetration worldwide today. This is a chance to change that.

Don’t believe that Verizon or Comcast will make these investments unless forced to do so. And while Google may also feel it has no choice but to build its own network, Google at least has a vision that goes far beyond just sustaining a mediocre status-quo; they truly believe in the level playing field that has given birth to so much innovation.

It’s time for America’s bandwidth to finally match our ambitions and our talent. Let’s go Google!

How Education is Ruining Your Life

Since the industrial revolution it has been widely assumed that sustained economic production is best arranged through corporations. After all, corporations are the only entities capable of acquiring and operating the capital-intensive means of production required in an industrialized state.

Because of the reliance on the corporation, we set out to design an educational system in its mirror image. The linear journey from first to twelfth grade, then bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees systematized learning in a way that turned people into interchangeable parts and valued mobility.

Attainment of the highest grades of education confers the ability to teach within it, for anyone so dedicated to the educational treadmill is preselected to share its values.

The large scale corporation upon which our industrial educational system has been built no longer exists as it once did in the United States. However, we continue to build cogs for this machine as though nothing has changed.

Death of the Corporation

When large scale corporations first came to be, they were built around the idea that people can achieve more by investing together than they can alone. This is intuitively obvious when you consider that the endeavors they were undertaking were things like railroads and shipbuilding.

Through World War II and into the 1970′s, most large corporations had balance sheets to match: they used big iron, or made big iron. But starting particularly in the 1980′s, corporations started to be more about ideas than about capital, and the challenge turned to removing things from the balance sheet. Winning corporations maximized profit on minimal assets (and liabilities). Production (big iron) was moved to China, Mexico, and elsewhere and off of balance sheets.

The logical conclusion of a process like this is an Enron or a Goldman Sachs; one built predominantly on ideas and on trading, with almost no physical assets. The bulk of the workers we were producing with our educational system might be suited for a job at GM, while Enron needed every last PhD to keep its web of trades flowing. And it turned out that in the end neither GM or Enron was a long term proposition.

So here we sit with the same educational system we had in 1910 producing people for the economy of 2010, when the economic landscape has obviously shifted dramatically.

The Lie of Mobility

Think 1955. If your father was told, “Bill, we’re transferring you to Kansas City,” he went. And off you’d all go, uprooting children from schools, breaking apart extended family, divorcing people from a personal understanding of place. But this was all OK, and in service of a great big beautiful tomorrow! Corporations borrowed the idea of “transfer” from the military, and as much as the “transferees” might not have always enjoyed it, they endured it because they were convinced that corporations (like the military) were a kind of higher calling.

Fifth grade in Kansas City was pretty much the same as fifth grade in Boston. People adjusted. And they forgot about their previous home, or at least came to not miss it, like an animal being sent to market learns to adjust along the journey.

After graduation from high school, you’re faced with a “choice of college.” You’re asked inane questions about what you want to study (unanswerable at that age), shown some brochures, and make a fundamentally random choice about where you want to spend the next four years of your life. And you go. And you study something (probably not what you set out to study). And it’s OK. You meet people, and your life takes some path.

Regardless of the particulars of whether you get a job doing what you studied or when that actually happens (it often doesn’t), one thing is true: by this time in your life you’ve probably been uprooted once or more and had your home ties effectively severed.

Our educational system is designed to promote an ersatz fungibility of place and to denigrate people’s relationship to extended family by offering instead a false idol of corporate, industrial superiority. The fact is that place is a kind of human right, as is extended family. Any system that asks you to devalue a relationship with place or with extended family is evil.

It might be arguable that at one time, the educational system combined with its corporate industrial twin provided better overall outcomes for more people than the agrarian model that preceded it, but it does not logically follow that a new model cannot supplant the current one. This is particularly true when the corporate landscape is now more corporate than it is industrial and the emphasis has turned to creativity and ideas over machining and production.

The idea that place is fungible is one that belongs squarely in the last model and should be jettisoned going forward.

Why We Are Susceptible to Manipulation

Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self perceives the world in the here and now. Your experiencing self lives in the present and is happiest spending time around people you like. The surfer who just lives to be out in the waves is primarily existing through her experiencing self. The experiencing self, it turns out, can be happy just about anywhere and in any weather. Just find people you like and the rest follows.

The remembering self is another animal. The remembering self cares about story, and about appearances. According to Kahneman, your remembering self might trick you into taking a two week vacation instead of a one-week vacation because that’s a better story, but in fact you remember them pretty much the same way because there were not many “new” experiences in the additional time spent.

Your remembering self cares about money and mobility deeply. Why? No one wants to be remembered as the person who “didn’t do anything with their life.” Getting rich and moving around a lot adds dramatic, tangible plot-points to your story, which comforts your remembering self greatly. But your experiencing self can easily be less happy. What if you are unable to turn your money into people you enjoy spending time with? What if you move away from the people and places that bring you joy?

Is it so hard to see now why so many wealthy, jet-setting people are unhappy and commit suicide? Their remembering selves have spun great stories; their experiencing selves are miserable.

A Path Forward

Creativity researcher Sir Ken Robinson suggests that we need to reinvent our educational system upon a more agricultural model, rather than the industrial model. I’m not totally sure what that means yet, but I do agree that in the developed world we must adopt these values:

  • Creativity is valued
  • Learning is non-linear
  • Gifted children have a place to excel
  • Many learning styles are celebrated
  • Children are not medicated for ADHD and the like
  • Children have a right to fresh, whole food
  • Place is valued and cherished
  • Regions become self-sufficient

There is an emerging emphasis on regional innovation and regional self-sufficiency as an economic development strategy; this is a good start. But the long term task is to invent entirely new models for life-long education. What we’re doing now is building cogs with very particular defects for a machine that no longer exists.