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Some days, I wonder if I am in the right line of business.

I’ve believed in capitalism for my entire life and that free markets are the best way to run an economy, but lately I’ve wondered how that fits in to what I do at work. I think this because of my observations about the state of the world, and what I know from behavioral psychology.

Even though I still think free markets are great, I think it’s pretty obvious that there are inefficiencies everywhere. There are plenty of poor people still around (although their standard of living is rising), but study after study shows that while capitalism is great for creating wealth, most of it goes to a small group of people. The middle class, at least in the United States, isn’t sharing in much of these wealth gains. If free markets are so good at distributing wealth, why is so much of it concentrated in 1/10 of 1% of the population?

This makes me think that my faith in free markets is maybe not the best thing it should be; they’re great, but not as great as I think, especially for a majority of the population.

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How this fits into work is what I see as the Tragedy of the Commons. This is a 19th century concept where if there is a common resource that gets depleted, everyone loses. It’s in everyone’s best interest to behave in a sustainable way, yet simultaneously also in everyone’s best interest not to behave in a sustainable way.

For example, suppose there is a lake and there are 25 fishermen, and each is allowed to catch only 1000 fish per year. This is to ensure that the fish stocks don’t get depleted. So long as everyone plays along, it’s great. But, suppose one fisherman – let’s call him Frank – decides “Well, instead of my catch of 1000 per year, what if I catch 1100? It’s only about 1 extra fish every three days and no one will notice.”

And nobody does notice.

However, Frank gets to sell 100 extra fish and make just a bit more money. A little later, Joe notices Frank is catching 100 extra fish and nobody is complaining. So Joe says “Well, if Frank is catching 100 extra fish, why can’t I?” and so he, too, catches 100 extra fish. And he, too, reaps the benefits.

But soon, everyone notices that some people are catching extra fish, and soon everyone decides to catch the 100 extra. And everyone gets a little extra money.

However, one thing does eventually catch up with everyone – because everyone is now catch 100 extra fish – 1100 per year – the lake becomes depleted. In a few years time, nobody is catching any fish. Nobody reaps any benefits because now the lake is empty. People’s short term desires trumped their long term interests.

And this is common in behavioral psychology, it’s a very human trait.

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I see this at work. I have friends and co-workers who come from eastern bloc nations that lived under communism, and central planning ruined their nations. And now, after moving to the US, they have a pro-capitalist view because the opposite was a complete disaster.

I used to agree with them.

Except that I think that this point of view is pervasive at the company I work for, but the ignores the Tragedy of the Commons. Acting in your own interests to maximize short-term gain causes long term pain.

In email filtering, there are ways to run a business and I always have to fight to get others to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Just as in industry, businesses can pollute the lake because it’s cheaper for them to dispose of refuse into the local lake than to transport it safely elsewhere (or treat the waste so it is neutral), email filtering systems can pollute the Internet. There are Internet rules that say “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” because it “pollutes” the Internet.

Yet I find it is common for others to think that just because we work for a large company, if nobody complains then it is okay in order to maximize short term profit. But I think we shouldn’t be maximizing short term profit at the expense of depleting a resource; we should keep the Internet clean and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if it takes a little longer or is a more complicated design.

I once said “What you’re saying is that it’s okay to pollute the lake so long as the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut you down” and the response was “Yes.”

I understand that I am in business, and a business must make money, and this business pays me, and that customers pay us, but something about that now rubs me the wrong way.

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I see a change in the Millennial generation. Mark Zuckerberg, who at 30 years old is part of that generation, has said that Facebook’s business exists to serve its social mission, not the other way around. Younger people are all about Fair Trade which costs more but is more socially equitable.

I realize that big business can exploit this feel-good-ism, but even on Shark Tank, the investors are almost all about making money because capitalism is the force that does the most good in the world, and charity is something you do voluntarily.

I agree that capitalism and free markets do a lot of good, but I also think that it doesn’t do as much good as its die-hard proponents think it does. I think that humans think about things in the short term and are hard-wired to not look out for their own long-term best interests. So, the profit motive wins even at the expense of doing the right thing since doing the right thing causes short term discomfort, but not doing the right thing is rewarded with money.

I like making money. But I don’t like making money if I think the lake is being depleted. I don’t think we should be polluting the lake just because the EPA doesn’t notice, I think we shouldn’t be polluting the lake because it’s the right thing to do.

Even as I type this, I find myself getting wound up with a mix of conflicting emotions. Am I in the right business? I like doing what I do professionally, and I know my company gives a lot to charity. Without their business generating profits, they wouldn’t do it all.

But I find myself identifying more with the Millennial generation than the profit-first goals of American business.

And I feel conflicted.

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A few weeks ago, I said on our website that we were not going to do party favors at our wedding between myself and the beta wife.  Instead, we planned to give $5 to charity for every person that attended.  Since we have ~150 people coming, that’s $750.

I’m pleased to announce that I have now completed that goal and even exceeded it.  Rather than giving $750, I have given $1000. The one to Doctors Without Borders was put on my credit card so I still have to pay the bill, but that will occur in the next few days.  Furthermore, I will log on to my employer’s website and get them to match the donation.

Below are the screenshots of the payments:

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Isn’t that so much better than party favors?  I think it is.

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Charity updates

Earlier this year, I commented that I planned to give more money to charity.  Well, that goal is being achieved.  I have given money to a local church, to Engineers Without Borders, to the American Red Cross, and to the Ayn Rand Institute.  I still plan to give some money to Doctors Without Borders and a new one I discovered a month ago, Room to Read (a charity that builds schools in the developing world).

I prefer giving money to the latter four organizations not because I think that their work is more important but because the company I work for will match my donation 100% up to $12,000 per year.  I’m no where close to that but it’s nice to be able to get a two-for-one.

Because of a couple of large expenses this year that I didn’t foresee (roof replacement cost for the condo, wedding) that has impacted my giving somewhat but I still plan to get to at least several thousands in charitable giving.

That’s a pretty good goal for 2011.

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My girlfriend and I were browsing some jewelry pages the other day (gee, what on earth could we possibly be shopping for?) and she was showing me a web page from a company based out of Hippieville – I mean San Francisco – that sells ethical jewelry.  Basically, they sell “fair trade” precious jewels.  That is to say, they extract and import their precious metals from parts of the world that are politically stable such that their diamonds are not used as payment in human trafficking or political cronyism the way they are in the developing world.  Furthermore, they also come from regions where there are stricter environment standards (such as Canada).

Historically, I’ve never been a big fan of the left wing environmental movement, nor the left wing human rights movement.  In my view, they are a bunch of self-centered ignorant loud mouths who mean well and cause more damage than they prevent.  For example:

  • The environmental movement succeeded in their quest to ban DDT, a chemical that was sprayed to prevent mosquitoes.  The hippies got the chemical banned in the first world, but also went and got it banned in the developing world.  The result?  Millions of people die from malaria because of mosquito bites.  Nice work, hippies.
  • The environmental movement preaches about saving the rainforest, unaware (or maybe they are aware) that the reason people in South America are clear cutting it is for farmland in order to feed their families.  It’s really easy to eat your lobster and drink your chardonnay and then criticize others for wanting to do the same (when they don’t even have enough to begin with).  Quite frankly, unless you and your family are starving then you need to keep your mouth shut.
  • They criticize sweatshops as exploiting human capital.  However, people do not work in them because they are forced to do so, but because there are no other market opportunities in the country.  Thus, without the sweatshops, people would have even higher unemployment and poverty.  Now there’s a head scratcher.

Hopefully you can understand my reticence to associate myself with the environmental movement.  However, when it comes to purchasing jewelry, I am A-OK with purchasing from this particular web page.

As a consumer, I have a range of options of where to buy things from.  And while I don’t know exactly what goes on in the mines of west Africa, I do know that continent is plagued with corruption and human rights violations.  I don’t know for sure where my money goes if I send it there, but if I do buy from this other location, then I do know that the place if probably environmentally responsible because it gets its precious metals from Canada where there are stricter regulations.

Furthermore, Canada also has a strong record on human rights for its own citizens (that’s why we exported Celine Dion to the United States).  Thus, I feel much better about sending my money back to Canada where the extraction of the raw materials is (probably) done ethically as opposed to Africa.  Yes, Africans need the money and market opportunities are the best way to do that… but I don’t have confidence that sending my money there will actually get there and instead get distributed to the kleptocrats.

And thus, I buy from the land of the Hippies.  Even ones in San Francisco.

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I got my tax refund this past week and I deposited it two days ago.  Today, the check cleared.

As I said I was going to do, I donated $1000.00 to the American Red Cross.  I was going to do a direct debit from my bank account, but instead I put it on my credit card.

I wonder what Dave Ramsey would say about that.

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For the past several weeks, my girlfriend and I have been working out the logistics of an overseas humanitarian project.  Several year ago, I never thought that I would ever do such a thing but over time I have started to come around and warm to the idea.  Between the two of us, this concept is not really alien and coming out of left field.  Early on when the two of us first started going out, the first movie we ever saw together was a documentary about Doctors Without Borders.

Why overseas?  Well, the fact is that the two of us both like to travel and both would like to do some good in the world, so why not combine the two?  It makes perfect sense.

But when it comes to planning such a trip, there are several components that have to come together:

  • Where to go?  The target location of where to go is the main piece.  Do we want to be urban or rural?  Do we want to go to a cold/temperate weather place or go to a more tropical place?

    If we go to a temperate region, then we have to bring along more clothes (i.e., heavier clothes) to keep warm when the temperature drops.  This isn’t a problem in the summer but it would be in the winter.  If we go to a tropical region, we can scale down on the amount of clothes that we need to bring along because we can plan for warmer weather (the alternative is just to buy additional clothes when we get there).  But if we do select a tropical region, then we have to be selective about where we go.

    Why?  Because if we go to a tropical region then we have to take anti-malaria medication.  That’s fine for me but not for my girlfriend.  As we learned in Belize, she doesn’t handle anti-malaria drugs very well.  It causes serious stomach upset.

  • How long to go?  The decision about how long to go is very significantly impacted by three issues.

    First, going for a long period of time influences the location.  If we go for a year, will we have to bring winter clothes?  If it’s a short period of time, then we can go in summer or fall when they aren’t needed… unless we go to a tropical region in which case the decision to bring warmer clothes is moot and then the time of year doesn’t matter.

    Second, I would have to take time off from my job.  A short period of time (1 month) I could save up all of my vacation time and use it up there, plus maybe take some volunteer time through Microsoft (they let you volunteer up to one week per year).  Going for a longer period of time means I either have to negotiate taking a leave of absence (LOA) or leaving the company if I can’t get that LOA.  Do I want to leave the company?  What happens when I get back? 

    Third, there is one big anchor keeping me here – my condo.  My girlfriend has one, too.  My baseline costs on the condo are ~$1600/month (slightly less) which means I have to have at least $3200 in savings.  Plus, it costs money to go on the overseas trip.  We’ve done some estimates and conservatively we need at least $5000 to $6000 to do such a project to cover expenses overseas plus expenses back at home if we went for a month or two.

    I could rent out my condo but that doesn’t solve the problem.  It only reduces the amount of costs I have to cover, but it doesn’t eliminate them.

    Think long and hard before acquiring property if you’re currently renting.  It will greatly reduce your mobility options.

  • What organization to go with?  This is another complex decision.  What do I want to do overseas?  Build a house with Habitat for Humanity?  Work with people in a rural village handing out medication?  As I was researching various organizations, I realized that I have no useful skills.  Nobody has openings for an antispam expert, mentalist, stock trader or reader of body language.  Interestingly enough, my girlfriend qualifies for Doctors without Borders working in a lab-type position.

    There are some openings for engineers, but these are all about digging wells.  I have no idea how to dig wells.  I can run computer software very well, maybe implement some communication equipment but I’m pretty useless outside of anything generic.  I would hope I could provide unique value by using my abilities in a way that no one else could; this would generate real value, not just labor of which anyone other than me could fill in.  It doesn’t seem likely, though.  Blargh.

    There are some openings to teach English.  My brother does that in South Korea and I figure that if he can do it, then there must be no qualifications necessary and that I could also do it.

So there you have it, those are the components that need to be worked out if I/we were to do such a trip.  Believe it or not, we’ve tentatively decided that if we’re going to do it in the near term, then fall of 2012 makes the most sense.

We’ll see about that.

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On Twitter, I follow this guy by the handle of ItsAdamBraun.  He appears to be some charitable worker who does stuff internationally for some organizations:

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You might wonder why I follow this guy.  Well, the answer is that I think I met him in real life.  You see, five years ago in Fiji (when I nearly died), I was on a tour of Fiji with a bunch of people.  At 27 years of age, I was the oldest person on that trip of approximately 18 people (I am not making that up).  Anyhow, on the trip there was a guy there by the name of Adam Braun.  I had my picture taken with him:

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That is not me wearing some weird crown, that’s a plant behind my head.  Notice how these two folks look pretty similar, the one from my picture and the one from his Twitter page?

When I was on the Fiji trip and I was shooting footage for my first dancing video, he asked me what I was doing.  I replied that it was in homage to Where The Hell is Matt, and I was making my own.  He replied that it was a good idea and that he should have done the same thing.  He then mentioned that he had been to 42 countries (gah!) and it would have been perfect for him to do.  I lost contact with him after that trip.

I tried to look him up on Facebook some years later but never got a response back from my friend request.  I’m not sure exactly how I discovered his Twitter feed, but here’s my rationale:

  • I recognized his name as being the same guy from my trip several years earlier
  • They look the same
  • If he is an international charitable organization co-ordinator, then him being in 42 countries makes sense because he would need to go and visit all these places.

So, I started following him on Twitter.  Hopefully they are one in the same.

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