Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Biblical View of Government

Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.  Ronald Reagan 

Presently in my office there is a 15” stack of articles relating to the COVID-19 crisis.  What I have noted with great interest in the last two months is the significant number of Nobel Laurate or otherwise highly qualified economists who say that our economic future depends on the governmental public health response to the Coronavirus itself:

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell on May 17th

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS / 60 MINUTES: There's only one question that anyone wants an answer to, and that is: when does the economy recover?

JEROME POWELL, CHAIRMAN OF THE FEDERAL RESERVE: It's a good question. And very difficult to answer because it really does depend, to a large degree, on what happens with the coronavirus. The sooner we get the virus under control, the sooner businesses can reopen. And more important than that, the sooner people will become confident that they can resume certain kinds of activity. Going out, going to restaurants, traveling, flying on planes, those sorts of things. So that's really going to tell us when the economy can recover.

Joseph Stiglitz, Economics Nobel Prize, 2001, April 2020

Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz explains that it is not too late to make different policy choices. To preserve lives and livelihoods and build economic resiliency, he argues, policymakers should focus on four: 

Reducing contagion and containing the pandemic with further support for our health care and social insurance systems, including paid leave;

Funding state and local governments;

Keeping workers in jobs with a paycheck guarantee program that sends money straight to firms to support their workers; and 

Providing broader-based liquidity and debt relief for individuals and households.

Even with all-out efforts by central banks and fiscal authorities to soften the blow, asset markets in advanced economies have cratered, and capital has been pouring out of emerging markets at a breathtaking pace. A deep economic slump and financial crisis are unavoidable. The key questions now are how bad the recession will be and how long it will last.

Until we know how quickly and thoroughly the public-health challenge will be met, it is virtually impossible for economists to predict the endgame of this crisis. At least as great as the scientific uncertainty about the coronavirus is the socioeconomic uncertainty about how people and policymakers will behave in the coming weeks and months.

Loan guarantees and direct cash transfers will stave off bankruptcy and default on debt, but these measures cannot restore the output that is lost when social distancing keeps people from producing goods and services.

Paul Krugman, Economics Nobel Prize, 2008, on May 11, 2020

If this is true, we currently have an unemployment rate around 20 percent, which would be worse than all but the worst two years of the Great Depression. The question now is how quickly we can recover.

If we could get the coronavirus under control, recovery could indeed be very rapid. True, recovery from the 2008 financial crisis took a long time, but this had a lot to do with problems that had accumulated during the housing bubble, notably an unprecedented level of household debt. There don’t seem to be comparable problems now.

But getting the virus under control doesn’t mean “flattening the curve,” which, by the way, we did — we managed to slow the spread of Covid-19 enough that our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. It means crushing the curve: getting the number of infected Americans way down, then maintaining a high level of testing to quickly spot new cases, combined with contact tracing so that we can quarantine those who may have been exposed.

Paul Shiller, Economics Nobel Prize 2013, on 4/11/2020

Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Shiller warns a pandemic of fear could tip the economy into an undeserved depression.

Shiller, an expert in how our emotions drive financial decisions, finds the sheer volume of chatter surrounding depression risks due to the coronavirus could severely hurt the economy.

“This isn’t the same story as the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted ten years. They didn’t have an unemployment rate under 12% until the decade was over,” the Yale University professor told CNBC’s “Trading Nation” on Thursday. “It’s a popular narrative. But this is a pandemic. It shouldn’t last ten years. It should be over in one or two years.”

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke on May 10, 2020

“Many people are suffering now, and the economy won’t recover in only a quarter or two,” Mr. Bernanke said. “But if we’re able to get reasonable control of the virus, the economy will substantially recover, and this downturn should be much shorter than the Great Depression.”

Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Lawrence Summers on May 5, 2020

When it comes to crafting foreign policy, designing anti-poverty programs or implementing measures to combat climate change, economists have an understandable tendency to feel as though the economic aspects of the debate receive short shrift. The opposite is true when it comes to the pandemic. If anything, the United States is in danger of overemphasizing the impact of the crisis on the economy — and massively underinvesting in the health measures that are ultimately most important.

Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard Economist, on April 7, 2020

With each passing day, the 2008 global financial crisis increasingly looks like a mere dry run for today’s economic catastrophe. The short-term collapse in global output now underway already seems likely to rival or exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years.

Paul Romer, Nobel Laureate, 2018 on 3/23/2020

To protect our way of life, we need to shift within a couple of months to a targeted approach that limits the spread of the virus but still lets most people go back to work and resume their daily activities.

This approach uses two complementary strategies. The first relies on tests to target social distancing more precisely. The second relies on protective equipment that prevents the transmission of the virus. Adopting these strategies will require a massive increase in our capacity for coronavirus testing and a surge in the production of personal protective equipment.

The best economists in the world are saying:  For the economy to recover, the government needs to manage the public health crisis of COVID-19. 

Public health crisis – that means the government is involved.  More than involved, the government must lead.  Government needs to work, and work well.  If we don’t solve the public health crisis, we go into economic depression.  The less well the government works, the more all of us suffer.

Which brings us back to Ronald Reagan.  In COVID-19, is the government really the problem?  Do we want it to be the problem?  Will blaming the government get us out of this mess?

More fundamentally, is the statement “Government will not solve our problems … government is the problem” a Biblical idea? 

A plain reading of scripture says, emphatically, NO.  Ronald Reagan was wrong.

Try to tell Joshua that government is the problem (and let the people starve.)  Tell Daniel the Prophet that government is the problem.  He governed so well that he earned himself a trip to the Lion’s Den.  (See Daniel 6:3).  It was wasn’t his Jewishness that tripped him up, it was his competency. 

Try to tell Moses that government is the problem.  He was the government.  And to not wear himself out he appointed government officials (Ex. 18:25) and he wrote all it all down (Leviticus / Deuteronomy).  The idea that government is the problem would be incomprehensible to him.

For some strange reason, Paul, under the authority of Holy Spirit, felt it was necessary to appeal to the evil Emperor Nero (Acts 25) and witness to provincial government officials along the way (Acts 26).  If Paul thought government was the problem, why did he teach in Romans 13 that we are to obey the governing authorities, and pay their taxes, which gobbled up as much as 60% of all production?

If anyone would have reason to believe that government was the problem, that would certainly be Paul, Peter, and Jesus.  Yet Peter wrote that civil authorities should be obeyed (1 Peter 2), and Jesus said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17).   It would be easy to argue that government was indeed the problem when Jesus, Paul, and Peter were alive, but they didn’t try to tear it down or minimize it.

In fact, if you were looking in the Bible for any places that talk about a minimal government, what would be Judges 17:6:  In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The bottom line is that we need government to work, and that is a very biblical idea.  As we analyze our own thinking about how governing officials are dealing with COVID-19, we need to start with the very Biblical idea that government can and should be something good.

Now more than ever.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Wisdom for Our Present Moment

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some -- some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Thank you very much.
Robert Kennedy, April 4th, 1968

Related article

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Lead Metric for COVID-19

A significant difficulty with managing complex problems is trying to focus on the right things.  Leaders, the old adage goes, focus on right things, and managers / admin types focus on doing things rightly.  With marketing enrollment for Christian schools, I can boil down the whole process to five lead metrics.  And your average Admissions Director would only be in charge of two of these five.  

Most people I know would be thrilled if you could boil their entire job description down to two points.  In the case of beating COVID-19, let's boil it down to one. 

In contrast to a lag metric – which tells you if you are successful -  (e.g. the number of students the first day of school) a lead metric (# of students represented by new families who visited with the Principal) – tells you if you are likely to be successful.  A lag metric measures success at the end, whereas a lead metric is something you measure as you go.  A lead metric predicts success and is something you can work to improve as you go. 

Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal actually came up with a lead metric for our progress in defeating COVID-19, but apparently they do not know about the Four Disciplines of Execution (Covey et. al.), or the power of focusing on the right lead metric.  I write with the hope that someone picks it up. 

The metric they propose is the percent of positive COVID-19 test results for a period of time (probably a day, or maybe every three days.) 

Imagine a grain elevator with 330 million kernels of corn.  In a routine inspection, an employee notices a unique fungus growing on some of the corn.   What’s clear is that the fungus-infected corn is infecting nearby corn, and the only way to stop it is to move the infected corn away from the non-infected corn.  So the now the race is on to save as much of the corn as possible, and everyone gets out their shovels to take out the infected corn.

Immediately the workers start shoveling, and they send their corn through the size sorter, which traps the swollen, fungus-laden kernels, and allows the others to pass.  The size sorter also does a fairly accurate count of which kernels do and do not have the fungus.   Shoveling out the most obviously infected corn, the grain elevator employees are perturbed to learn that 20% of their corn is infected and must be discarded.

It becomes clear that the fungus is rapidly spreading, soon they bring in the pay loaders.  Since the fungus was in the top of the grain silo, they had assumed that the deeper they went, the less likely they would find fungus-infected corn.  To their horror, even though the pay loaders were sending 100 times the amount of corn through the size sorter than  they could do with their shovels, still 20% of their corn was infected.  So clearly the fungus infection was much, much worse than they thought.

Ultimately, at considerable cost, they rented a special high volume auger and sorter, and after two days, they managed to remove all their swollen fungus corn from the good corn.  All 330 million kernels went through "the beast" as they called it, at considerable expense.  To be extra cautious, they moved all the good corn to another silo altogether.

Only with the high speed auger did they notice that the percent of fungus-laden corn going through the sorter actually decreased.  In fact, towards the bottom of the silo, only 2% of the corn was swollen with the fungus. 

With all their corn in a new, well cleaned silo, everyone breathed a sign of relief.  But a few days later, to their chagrin, the fungus was back!  Apparently the fungus could spread microscopically from corn that had the fungus but had not swollen, or at least not very much.  Or small kernels with the fungus also got through the size sorter.  So they couldn't completely eliminate all of the bad corn from the good corn, no matter how many times they ran it through.  

With no time to lose, the elevator now bought that high speed auger and size sorter, and ran all the remaining good corn through "the beast" one more time. This time, to their relief, they found that only 10% of their corn had gone bad.  Even buying the equipment, the process of running all the corn through the process was expensive, just for the massive amount of electricity the process required.  

After this 2nd go-around, the manager of the grain elevator lit a cigar and had one of his legendary “big-thinks.”  As pondered the situation, it occurred to him that one number could tell him whether he was testing his corn too often or two little.  And that number was the percent of the corn that was swollen with fungus every time it went through the sorter. 

Some portion of all his corn had to go through "the beast" every day.  Now, with the right lead metric, he could try different strategies.  Instead of blowing his budget running all the corn through the high speed auger, he ran 1/14th  of it everyday, because the fungus seemed to fully develop from microscopic to ruined in 14 days.  Then he tried cleaning his grain in sections of the elevator, based on the initial percentages of bad corn in that area. 

He realized that to beat the fungus, his goal was to do auger / sorter testing strategy that reduced the percent of corn with the fungus, every time he did in fact test.  The lower the percent, the lower his ongoing costs, and the more grain he saved.

(Note: every good lead metric results in a clear good question, which is this case is:  How can I test the corn most cost effectively to reduce the number of infected kernels every time I test?) 

The corn testing process was unavoidable, because our cigar-loving elevator manager soon learned that the USDA would not be able to come up with any sort of  cure for at least 18 months.  Testing was required, but how much?

Over time, it became widely accepted by grain elevator managers that the amount of testing they needed depended on the percent of infected corn they found.  That was the best they could do financially to minimize their ongoing costs of managing the fungus through the sorting process, as well as saving as much of their corn as possible.  

Rather wasting money on over-testing, or losing too much corn by under-testing, the elevator managers focused on the percent of positive, infected corn they were getting.  If the percentage was increasing, they had to test more to save their corn.  If  the infected percentage was less, they didn’t have to run their corn through the high speed sorter as much. 

Now back to the real COVID-19 world.  As Meyer and Madrigal document, the US and South Korea diagnosed their first case the same day, and both have tested about 1% of their population.  They tested early, we tested later.  In the case of South Korea, which has relaxed the economy-killing social distancing that the US has, about 2% of the tests were positive.  

In the United States, even as we increased our daily testing over a hundred-fold, the positive rates has remained steady at 20%. 

In other words, the more we tested, the more we found.  Our grain silo had to have been pretty contaminated by the time we started testing.  Asymptotic and pre-symptomatic carriers gave the virus to many, many others. South Korea was much more successful in identifying their contagious people early on, and many less people got it.  Their grain silo was much less contaminated. 

The amount of testing we will need to do in America should be determined by the percent of people who test positive.  The higher that percent (New York City = 41%) the more mass testing is needed.  The lower the percent, the less mass testing is needed.  This sort of lead metric would be helpful in determine how much to test over a region, or for a specific time period.

Clearly massive testing is cheaper than bailing out a comatose economy.  But how much testing?  The rate of positive tests for COVID-19 is the correct lead metric to know how much testing we need, on an ongoing basis, to beat this scourge on our nation.  This is a much more elegant and economically friendly way to quarantine the sick, and protect the vulnerable, then massive lock-downs.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Long vs Short Copy, 2019 Version

While sometimes I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, I would like to address again the TRUTH about long and short copy on websites. 

While in general I am weary of the topic, what does infuriate me is the people – even professionals - who imply that anyone who believes in long copy is a hopelessly out-of-date Luddite.  And I am saddened by new websites that have gotten this wrong, and made matters much worse.  

So here's what the research says.

First, we all agree is that short sentences, short paragraphs, and shorter words are GOOD. In fact, ideally you are writing at around the 8th grade level on the Flesh Kincaid analysis – you can check this after spelling and grammar proofing in Microsoft Word, under review / check spelling & grammar.  (Note:  This feature is off by default in Word, you have to turn it on - file / options / proofing.)
Second, a reminder from the latest iteration of my slideshow, Words that Influence, at least 75% of the population (Reactives) will want the details. They want to understand, they want to consider, they want clarification, they will analyze, and as we shall see, they want answers to their common objections.  (See Shelle Rose Charvet's research:
A significant problem is that we write marketing copy the way we would prefer it.  I can assure you that Proactives – 20-25% of the general population – are over-represented in our Christian school leadership ranks. They will pull the short copy card eight days out of every week. 
And who are we to argue with our leaders?  Even when they are wrong?
Third, do a simple google search on “long vs short copy on web sites”, and here are the top three results:
In addition, here are some other research-based conclusions. 
What does all this research tell us us about copy length?  (Not opinions mind you, but actual research.)
(1) In general, the more well-known you are, the shorter your copy can be.  For example, in San Diego, Santa Fe Christian is well-known, and you can see how short their copy is:  Following Santa Fe’s example – and some will, I can guarantee – will in fact be a significant mistake for less well known schools in the area.
(2) The less well-known you are, the longer your copy needs to be to overcome objections.  This includes copy from 1600 to 2400 words.  There is some indication in the research that fewer, longer pages are better than more shorter pages. 
Keep in mind that if you do NOT overcome their objections with longer copy, they simply will not contact you.  Why?  Because they do not know you.
(3) Higher priced items need longer copy.  That would be your school.
(4) Longer copy will do better on search engine results.  See web usability guru Jakob Nielsen on this crucial point:
(5) Keep in mind that anyone who asserts that we all need to embrace a short copy world is going against decades of research, wisdom and BETTER RESULTS in direct marketing, sales, fund development, and search engine optimization using long copy.   
Which means:  There had better be a really, really compelling reason to embrace short copy.  Adopting a short copy strategy on your website is far more risky than simply telling your story.
Call me a Luddite, but ….
As I work with clients' and my own website, there will still be long pages.  Yes, short sentences, shorter words, short paragraphs.  But not short copy.  No fluff, but I am not going to be limited by the thought that a web page must be a couple of paragraphs.

And the next time somebody gives me their version of the “short copy” lecture, I am going to send them to this blog.  It will be easier.