Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Plowing In Tears, Reaping In Joy"

Morning, November 29
"Usually Ta'ayush activities are well-planned, and much thought is given to various contingencies that might arise. But today's plowing is mostly a more or less private initiative of Ezra Nawi's; when the Samu'a people spoke to him of their troubles, he somehow cobbled together a disparate group of activists, arranged for two tractors, and headed south early this morning..."

Afternoon, November 29
"Such were today's gains and sorrows. By South Hebron standards, a huge area was safely plowed. Will our friends actually harvest what they have sown? I doubt it. The settlers will see to it that the crops are burnt or buried. But plowing a ready field is one of those things in life, like listening to music, like loving, that have their own innate perfection, that are not judged by results. We follow in the wake of the tractor, the settlers above and below us, still cursing; in the end they throw a few stones. The stones miss."

"So is there hope after all? I suddenly remember something Gandhi said: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

THE WORDS ARE those of my old friend David Shulman, Hebrew University India scholar, MacArthur Fellow, stubborn Zionist of the old school--you know, someone who came to Israel after the 1967 war, and stayed out of love of modern Hebrew poetry. David is a founder of Ta'ayush. He and a few others may be all that is left of it in this time of resignation. His widely admired book, Dark Hope, tells the tale. 

Anyway, when his friend Ezra Nawi says that there is an action in the South Hebron Hills, he musters himself; and when David says I should join him, I join. I wrote about one such action two years ago. Yesterday's witnessing was pretty much the same event, a kind of opera playing out, as David and I took turns listening to excerpts from "Turandot" on my iPod. Except that the sheer vulgarity of these settlers was curiously unoriginal, in the pathetic way Klan epithets were unoriginal; while the army (a reserve platoon of mainly young professionals from Kfar Saba, Netanya, etc.) behaved just about perfectly, keeping the peace, allowing the plowing to be completed with tact and humor, and making no bones about their doubts about the settlers' sanity. When people say that things cannot go on this way, eventually they can't.

David sent me his diary entry after the trip which is well worth the several minutes it will take to read it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hard Rains

This is Silwan, an East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood, directly facing the Dung Gate--the Southern access point to the Western Wall and the City of David excavations.  In any conceivable deal with the Palestinian Authority, this neighborhood would be part of the Palestinian capital, not Israel. Yet according to reliable sources, over half the land in this neighborhood, has already been purchased for Jewish settlement, or for expanding the City of David by the East Jerusalem Development Authority (read, Jewish tourism), or by Elad, a non-profit holding company committed to the Judaization of East Jerusalem. (The make-shift signs say: "For 300 settlers, they are destroying the lives of 50,000 residents," and "Some people have hearts of stone.") 

By reliable sources, I mean Hagit Ofran (pictured below), a leader of Peace Now's Settlement Watch project, who rallied a rag-tag group of perhaps a dozen people yesterday to stand vigil in Silwan, after it was discovered that the municipality had plans to begin new road paving, parking lots and "archaeological excavations" here--the city's well-worn pretext for new expropriations of local property. Hagit is (not coincidentally, I suppose) a grand-daughter of Yeshayahu Leibovitz, the crusty philosopher of science and of Halakha, who fought the occupation and the merging of religion and state until his death in 1994. She knows more about the sleight-of-hand cooperation between the municipality and the settlers organizations than just about anyone. She fears that Silwan's fate may be sealed. 

What, after all, can vigils of a couple of hours do against the determined activities of local goverment, non-profits fattened by ingenuous Western Jewish millionaires, and fanatic settlers prepared to live in the neighborhoods they are prepared to ruin? The settlers even provide their own security patrols; one of their SUVs brazenly set out as we stood there, knowing very well they simply had to wait us out.  (You can read an article Hagit co-authored about another lost cause, the Migron settlement, in today's Haaretz.)

The Silwan neighborhood's 200 heads of families elected a committee to fight the encroachment. I asked Jawad Siyam, one of the committee spokesmen, if he could see the point of expropriating property to expand the city's tourism. He said that if the municipality had talked to the house-holders about a plan, or had ever provided day-care, or new schools, or new sewage, or any other kind of municipal services, at least there might have been a conversation. 

But the city has only moved in with plans of its own.  Most recently, it made the street leading to the Dung Gate one-way uphill, so that neighborhood school buses can no longer drop off during the afternoon the children they pick up in the morning without adding a huge loop. "The children will walk.  For some, a ten-minute walk will become more like an hour.  It's not too bad now," Jawad said, "the weather is good. But what about the winter and the hard rains?"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama's Middle East Team

This unusually trenchant article by Israeli diplomatic reporter Amir Oren (in this morning's Haaretz) explores the shape of the Obama administration's likely approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, at least insofar as we can project from the appointment of Gen. James Jones as national security advisor. There is nothing new to this approach; the shape of a deal has been clear for years, which Ehud Olmert all but admitted in recent interviews. The "parameters" which first set out the deal bear the name of the future Secretary of State.

The real question is how to press the deal on two peoples, each so divided that there are really (at least) four peoples--about which more in future posts from Jerusalem. By the way, an elaborated version of last week's post on the auto industry can be read in today's Washington Post's Outlook section.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unpacking Liberalism

Flying from Jerusalem, I hankered to hear Hebrew poetry.  Back in Jerusalem, unpacking, I longed to hear liberal principles. This place is beautiful; that has always been its problem. It is the kind of place that engenders enigmatic words like birthright, which brothers kill each other over. And it makes the word brother a little dangerous, too. 

Anyway, the city just elected a new mayor who narrowly beat the ultra-orthodox candidate promising my brothers that Jerusalem is one birthright he would never share.  We hung up the clothes, and shelved the hair cream, listening to laconic Israeli reporters talking about what our enemies have been up to, and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd like to hear, of all things, Barack Obama's speech "on race" again.  I took out the laptop, and linked over to the site, and we began to listen.  After a while we just sat down on the bed; by the time we got to "Ashley," we were in tears.  

This is not a speech about race.  It is about enlightenment. As we pick apart what choosing Hillary means, or how much stimulus we need, it may be worth listening to this speech again: forty minutes, about the same as Dvořák's New World symphony and about as reliably moving. If nothing else, it will remind us how choking it was to live in Atwatermorrisroveland, the new new world, and how helpless most of our journalists were in defending us against its claims. It makes one grateful for a champion, particularly those of us headed into Bibiland.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Rubber Hits The Road

It will be left to the Obama administration to sort out whether, or in what way, the government might advance new billions to GM and Ford. As Tom Friedman writes this morning, past failings of management at these companies are well known: they failed to support healthcare reform in the early 1990s, and they are now choking on health management costs; much more important, they decided to profit from SUVs, that is, from truck bodies and cheap oil, and foul the atmosphere. The smug attitudes of GM executives in particular--so I thought during my days editing at the Harvard Business Review--gave you some idea of why the Reds shot Kulaks. 

Nevertheless, a couple of million jobs are at stake, at least until other global auto makers can take over some of this plant capacity. Should new public money believe in, as Secretary Paulson put it this morning, the sustainability of American car companies? I can see the macroeconomic arguments in favor, and I don't need Michael Moore to imagine the misery of new shut-downs. But before we spend more on this management, we should see that their worst failure is actually recent, not in some fading past. I mean their failure to remain competitive on the most basic principles of design and manufacturing, using global, peer-to-peer information platforms; principles Volkswagen Group, Toyota, and Nissan-Renault, have exploited, and GM and Ford have half-exploited, even as profits mounted from SUVs and endogenous quality improved.

THE KEY TO making all manufacturing profitable these days is lowering transaction costs for any particular product development program. Look at Sony or Samsung or Apple or Honda. You want to have the capacity to experiment often, design for many niche customers, and hold on for the grand-slam. You don't want that much riding on each try: you want (if you'll pardon another sports metaphor) to transform your manufacturing processes from football into basketball, that is, create the capacity to go the basket many times a game, not work your way to the end-zone only a few times a game. 

This means fully exploiting peer-to-peer information and components sharing. You want to enable design and production managers in each brand unit to source components from every other brand unit (something like the way "open source" software designers source and integrate chunks of code). You want to decentralize vehicle design, to enable new vehicle introductions in shortened cycles (to be competitive, these days, you have to be under 36 months), and profit from production runs of, say, 50,000 vehicles rather than 200,000 vehicles, which is the American standard. 

Skoda, which I know particularly well, thrives today because Bohemian designers have learned to exploit access to all of VW Group components. They create cars especially for niche markets; their latest, the Roomster, breaks-even on about 60,000 units, using components from the whole of VW Group. And Skoda is over 20% of VW Group profits today. (No, their competitiveness is not just cheap labor, which is more expensive than Korea's.) 

Would Ford be dying if Ford designers, world-wide, had had access to Volvo and Mazda engineering and components years ago? (The flip: would Chrysler be dead if Daimler allowed it access to Mercedes components?) When designers use information technology to integrate components from federated sources, they have the capacity to introduce new vehicles more quickly, and make money on individual vehicles from comparatively few units sold. This has been true for consumer electronics for many years. 

ONE KEY TO making shrewd public policy, in other words, is understanding how products and services are actually assembled. Innovation--the driver of growth--is usually a matter of integrating in unique ways bits and snips of components, information, code, data, etc., from federated sources, much like a car (or a blog post, for that matter). The financial instruments that imploded were, after all, chunks of information--in the case of mortgage-backed assets, misinformation--derived and syndicated from federated lending institutions, integrated and bundled in novel ways, and distributed instantaneously over electronic networks--what Bill Gates called (too sunnily, obviously) "frictionless markets." 

There are obvious dangers here, but there is no going back: what we have here is a template for assembling pretty much every high-tech product or every high-tech manufacturing process that produces a low-tech product. The same template works for delivering professional services. Peer-to-peer networks are crucial; nobody is as smart as everybody. 

Too often, talk of "stimulus" is lazy, outdated, or vague. The government cannot save GM and Ford by giving them money and waiting for (or even mandating) advanced hybrids. Products don't succeed this way; the Chevy Volt will need to be a part of a family, its components quickly wrapped into a new Saab, or some new California sports-car wrapped around an I-Phone. And each of these models will face stiff competition from current global competitors. 

Government--more precisely, governments--will have to see these things, especially if they are going to help auto makers. There is a need for a tariff regime that would allow components to come from wherever they are designed and, or, competitively produced (the EU was crucial for Skoda getting components from Seat in Spain or Audi in Germany). There is a need to make R&D programs in crucial areas (batteries, fuel cells, etc.) more transparent and less burdened by potential IP battles, so that university labs and free-lance inventors can participate--programs no single company can afford any longer. There is a need to jumpstart a grid and social network for electric cars, as Israel is doing (or at least pretending to do). 

Most important, there is a need to stimulate innovation by entrepreneurial companies in the supplier base: by making patent protection harder to come by (therefore, less of an obstacle to start-ups), creating new ways for companies to share intellectual property (like IP exchanges), or creating incubators and tax breaks for new businesses. 

So. Can US companies use government funds to create things customers will actually want? If so, are there things all manufacturing companies need in common, like roads and bridges? If not, should rescue be forthcoming, or should Toyota (which is not exactly a Japanese company anymore) be allowed to take over GM's capacity in the hope it will reinvigorate its plants and suppliers? This would not be unprecedented, after all: during the generation before the year 2000, it took about 15 years for a third of the Fortune 500 to be selected out, that is, fail or be acquired; since 2000, it took about 4 years. 

THE MOST COMPELLING challenge remains the competitiveness of ordinary businesses--especially what we call, justifiably, knowledge-based entrepreneurial businesses. Perhaps 60,000 new businesses a year started up in the US during the 1960s; during the past decade, the annual number was closer to a million. We have to understand how and why barriers to entering businesses have fallen, how and why investors find new businesses (much more quickly than before), how companies survive using information platforms to design and market new things. Financial capital is not the only capital that flows or is regulated and managed. So is intellectual capital--and this is the more important kind. 

Correspondingly, engineering innovation is not only driven from the center, but from myriad peripheries: from product development teams in companies, and the entrepreneurial start-ups they tap into. And there is a role for government in managing up a national "network effect"--improving the quality and scale of knowledge sharing on the platform. Facilitating even marginal improvements in the exchange of knowledge will have an enormous impact on how we live. It will give a whole new meaning to the term "roads and bridges."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Next Week In Jerusalem

As we pack for the trip back to our Israeli home, I confess I found this remarkable film oddly reassuring--not for the crisis it depicts, of course, but for the spirit with which it was made. A fresh wind is blowing in Israel, too, quite different from the hamsin blowing from Judea during the past generation. I'll have much more to say about these cross-currents during the run-up to the Israeli election in February, which cannot but be shaped by America's changes. (Stick with the film at least until you get to Hebron, around minute 17.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Content Of His Character

I confess a certain impatience, on this poignant day, with all the earnest talk about how America achieved something remarkable yesterday by electing our first African-American president, as if the choice has been about race all along. I do not mean to diminish an historic first, like electing a Catholic in 1960; I, too, choked-up when John Lewis spoke. But relief today is not about Americans choosing an obviously black man over a white man, which proves we can come to terms with our past. It is about our choosing an obviously brilliant, reciprocal man over a thick, cynical one--a man who articulates a coherent vision of global commonwealth over someone advancing vague, military patriotism--which proves we can come to terms with our future.

Racism, it is true, did not confound the choice, as some predicted it would. But racism has not confounded mainstream admiration for The Cosby Show or Orprah or Tiger Woods--and hasn't for some time. Most of the 46% who voted for John McCain feel deeply anxious about a world in transition, where erudition, open-mindedness and intellectual discipline matter more and more, and their own sheer willingness to labor hard matters less and less. I bet they are more skittish about Obama's supremely elegant mind, his worldliness, than his dark skin; more drawn to the repudiation of "elitism" than to the rejection of "welfare."

Hillary (of all people) tried to unleash anti-intellectual, etc., demons and failed. It was she, remember, who tried to tell us that Obama's sincere compassion for people who, with their world collapsing, cling to God and guns, was a form of betrayal. Anyway, that McCain and his "strategists" failed, too, in spite of economic collapse, a failing war, and a sensational press, is a testament to Obama's steadiness and America's common sense.

Under similar circumstances, not so long ago, some European democracies turned to fascism--something Sarah Palin embodies, but doesn't begin to understand (though she can no doubt see the Wasilla library from her home). Her crypto-fascism is about all that's left to the Republican Party just now. It is also a relief that our kids--who get it, and get Obama, by a 2 to 1 margin--will slowly take command.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Community Organizer

Perhaps this says it all. 

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Closer

I do not pretend to have done nearly as much as I intended to, but this is New Hampshire--arguably, a battleground state, where McCain is still admired--and my Boston-based daughter and I have just come back from canvassing a couple of dozen of my neighbors for the Obama campaign. I think it is safe to say that one fear many of us have had is misplaced: that the lopsided polls would engender a kind of complacency, and people who might otherwise have turned out for the Obama ticket would stay home, expecting to take a free ride on others.

Even people in their 90s greeted us with the moral equivalent of a high-five. Nobody asked for help to the polls, or needed to know where they were voting. The last time I sensed anything like this level of enthusiasm for an election was when Pierre Trudeau swept into office in Canada in 1968.

There are some obvious reasons for this. Bush. The economy, or at least the television version of it, since the worst effects have not yet been felt. The war. The pundits (who shouldn't be the only ones to have some fun). But I think there is something else. The candidate.

John Kenneth Galbraith once said that political revolutions come when someone kicks through a rotting door. It has been a year since we've started hearing that Obama lacked kick, that he was "O'bambi," too likely to be swift-boated in a non-bean-bag world, too much Kumbaya. Who would have thought that so many people in New Hampshire, for God's sake, could get such a kick out of tact and integrity.

My daughter (who is 25) came home with me moved. "You can't imagine what this means to me," she said, "after thinking my generation was utterly without political passion." I answered: "You can't imagine what this means to me, someone who wept all night when Martin Luther King was shot, and then stayed up numb when Bobby Kennedy was shot." "You win," she said.