Piercing the Bubble

Almost daily now I’m asked my opinion of whether we are in a stock market bubble. It’s a curious line of inquiry, and inevitably leads to any number of further ponderous meditations that follow:

“What do you think of that King Digital IPO; did Candy Crush get crushed for good?”

“Is Bitcoin for real, and is now the time to get in?”

“Does it look like Zynga is on the mend? Did they hit bottom and create a buying opportunity?”

“What happens to Yahoo’s price post Alibaba?”

“Box or Dropbox, which do I want to own?”

GodotI can almost imagine Didi and Gogo having this conversation in a contemporary reworking of Waiting for Godot. They’d go back and forth on each headline for a few minutes, and the resolving cadence would always be the same: “Nothing to be done.”

They’d probably be right. And wise. And existential. And of course they would be ignored, two bums with nothing but holes in their shoes, playing insufferable word games beside a dying tree.

And I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Crystal-ball predictions of dicey, professionally picked over offerings seem as wacky to me as hardworking people forking over portions of their paychecks to the state government for lottery tickets.

Speaking of which, there’s something even stranger afoot of late, a new pattern of dialogue running through the frenetic networking schmooze scene. It goes something like this:

“WhatsApp wasn’t worth $19 billion.”

“Agreed.”

“It was worth more.”

“You’re kidding. How do you figure?”

“Well, look at what Snapchat turned down at $3 billion. That app had 36 million users and would have gone for $92 per user.”

“Oh, I get it. And WhatsApp had 450 million users, so at $19 billion, that’s a mere $42 per user.”

“You’re right, what a steal. Facebook should have paid more. I bet they would have if WhatsApp had played coy.”

“What about Instagram?”

“I don’t know, what’s Instagram?”

In most discussions of relative valuation based on anything more complicated than revenue, EBITDA, growth rate, and some basic ratios like price/earnings, my head starts to hurt. Ignore all fundamentals, project abstract strategy on modeling unknown monetization value, and you lose me.

That doesn’t mean I’m right, it just means I know when it’s the right time for me to sit out a dance. It’s kind of like someone asking me which is the surer thing in Vegas: poker, blackjack, craps, or roulette. My answer: If you can’t afford to lose, don’t play; and if you can, what does it matter—pick the game that’s the most fun for you and knock yourself out. Someone will take home a mountain of cash every day, because a casino only works if there are winners. Most people will leave their bounty behind, not only to pay the winners but to pay the house for brokering the trade and serving subsidized cocktails—plus the gigantic water fountain out front of the brightly lit, air-conditioned cement tower in the middle of the desert.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in investing. Most everything I have earned working over the years has more than doubled in value over time because of investing—really boring diversified asset allocation in various index-like vehicles, bolstered consistently over time through saving and dollar-cost averaging. Yes, I have speculated on occasion, and I have even had a winner or two, but even then I looked at the core financial analysis when I bet, and those numbers always had growing dollar signs in front of them.

Now I’m hearing young entrepreneurs echoing the exit lingo. “If we can just get 500 million users of our app, how can we not get bought for $20 billion? That’s a massive discount! And we only need to raise another $65K to make it through beta with a minimum viable product. For another $20K we can stress test the server, too. That’s less than $100K investment for a decent front end and the return of a lifetime. Do you prefer the term sheet via email or text?”

This is a different kind of Gold Rush, with its own beguiling logic and normalized ethos, plus many sideline winners selling new-age picks and axes. Should the notion of Built to Last cross your lips in any public gathering, you are likely to be met with curious stares at best, and more often ostracising scorn. Free salty snacks will not be replenished in the small paper bowl you hold. This is not a discussion of how value is created by serving customer needs with wondrous products scaling in gross margin and the brand extensions that follow. This is a discussion of filling the strategic needs of an acquirer that has slipped into low organic gear and is sitting atop a stockpile of cash, the war chest itself a creation of optimism, inflated promises, and dare I say it, Irrational Exuberance. It’s a party and a playground. Fundamentals are for losers. Job experience is the enemy. Don’t be a downer.

As the JOBS Act begins to open the doors democratically to a new set of speculation-based investors—equity crowdfunding is the freshly cleared frontier—I hope they will do the hard work of learning to assess valuation before they write checks equal to 5% of their net worth or annual income. You’ll hear lots of stories about the next killer app, or the next levitating brick, and you may be lucky enough to be in the room with the next undiscovered wunderkind. But if the story that wunderkind is telling you has lots of math but no defensible revenue and profit realization, ask yourself, Where did he or she learn this math? Is it sustainable? Why hasn’t someone else with a lot more disposable income or risk capital taken this deal off the table if it is so good you can’t say no to it?

There’s always a bubble, and there’s always a bottom. The good news is that once you get past the moonshots, no one has yet figured out where the sky ends in its entirety. Boom and bust. Bust and boom. If you draw a trend line through a lifetime’s worth of data, pacing the erratic market highs and lows, the slope is still northbound.

I like that line a lot. That line protects me from worrying too much about a bubble.

Dear RadioShack

RadioShackGreetings, my fellow nerdy friends. I read with concern last week in the business press that you are closing as many as 1100 stores, following your well-received Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. You are not alone. Sears is closing stores. Staples is closing stores. Quiznos is closing stores. There seems to be plenty of commercial real estate coming on the market in all shapes and footprints. I wanted to write to you because I used to love the RadioShack brand, and I would hate to see it join the other tombstones in the Dead Brand Graveyard. You see, I was a bit of a geek as a kid, still sort of am, mowed a lot of lawns and bought my first CB Radio at RadioShack way back when, then used to love to hang out with the other geeks in the store.

So I wonder if the big-salary strategy teams sitting around the table in your headquarters this modern moment have asked themselves the following ten very personal questions:

1) When was the last time they shopped unprompted as a customer in a RadioShack?

2) What did they love about walking into the store?

3) What did they love about the shelf displays in the store?

4) What did they love about the merchandise on sale in the store?

5) What did they love about the staff in the store?

6) What was in the store that was unique, perfectly priced, or presented so well they couldn’t say no to it?

7) How much did they spend of their own money in the store?

8) Did they tell a friend about the experience and urge that friend to also visit the store?

9) When they got home, did they think, oh wow, I should have bought something else while I was there?

10) Are they actually excited about visiting that store again as soon as they can?

The reason I ask is, I never worked at a RadioShack, but I used to be able to answer every single one of these questions in the affirmative. I was a brand evangelist for RadioShack. I actually loved your brand.

At the moment I have no clue what it stands for, except every once in a while I need an obscure electronics plug or unusually shaped battery, and I drop by because you’re paying top dollar for a great location right between my bank and a sushi place I enjoy. If it pops in my head, sometimes I drop off a bucket of old batteries for you to recycle, and if you have the gizmo I need, I gladly fork over about $3 to $8. The guys at checkout always ask for my zip code for some reason, even though I know you know it, because you used to mail me a catalogue several times a year with cool stuff to come see and at least one great coupon offer, but no one there seems to know me after 40-plus years of stopping by. I’m glad you still have the little wired metal gizmos when I need them, and I wish I could spend more money while I was in the store, but there’s really nothing I need or can’t get online cheaper, and the guy behind the counter doesn’t seem to want to swap stories about weird-shaped neon mini bulbs anymore. I miss that guy, he was a geek like me.

You were once the Tandy Corporation, remember? You sold leather goods. Then you reinvented and became RadioShack, and we geeks thought it was a cool place to gather, kind of like Egghead, before they became rent-free NewEgg. You had the TRS-80 and knew how to load software on it! Are some of those geeks at your conference table? Do they love your brand the way we did–not like, but actually love? If they don’t, are they able to articulate what happened to the magic?  Because if they can’t, and they don’t want to go to RadioShack like a real customer, then why should I? I mean, sure, anyone can hire an agency to do a killer commercial, and you can love a commercial, but that’s not the same as loving a brand. It’s also not the same as a reason to go into your store.

I do believe you have to eat your own dogfood if you want someone else to give it a taste. That’s just me. Call me a simpleton without an MBA, but when I love a brand, and I have reason to recommit my loyalty to that brand time and again, price is only one part of my decision funnel. I want a brand that comes with a promise. What’s yours?

I won’t be writing this letter to Sears or Staples or Quiznos, although I do occasionally frequent those stores, but I did want to share my thoughts with you, because there was a time not long ago when you meant something to me. Like Borders. Like Tower Records. Like Blockbuster. Those old friends are no longer to be found. I wonder if the people sitting around the table in their final year loved their brands as much as their customers once did, or if they just ran spreadsheets and focus tests.

There’s a lot going on in a store; it’s a great laboratory for learning. When there’s nothing going on there at all, you can learn even more.

It all begins with a promise.

Signing off now, that’s a big 10-4.

Park the Snark

We talk a good game about bullying. Then the claws come out.

Maybe we can’t help ourselves.

Maybe we should try harder.

Last weekend a good portion of the globe enjoyed the annual late winter Sunday evening television marathon known as the Academy Awards. The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two of the remaining real-time TV tent poles broadcast from the U.S. to the rest of the world still commanding appointment viewing of some of the largest assembled audiences joined collectively. Whether they are culturally worthy of that significance is beyond the scope of this blogger, but they are what they are: massive, temporally significant, and dare I say, glamorous.

EllenOscarTweetThis year’s Academy Awards offered what many have called the best line-up of nominated commercial films in years. Among the strong critically acclaimed competition, an important film won Best Picture. We saw unusually significant advances in motion picture technology win accolades. An excellent line-up of creative contributors offered heartfelt belief in their projects. We also enjoyed a quite clever world record tweet stunt (“the retweet blasted round the world”) emerge from a reasonably relaxed show format that seemed to try hard not to focus on itself too seriously, but to put that focus on the work being honored.

I don’t know if it was one of the best Oscar shows ever, but it seemed to me a credible, enjoyable celebration of creativity, all the more poignant given the immense geopolitical events mounting on the world stage as it played. It was a good night for Pharell Williams to sing “Happy.” A lot of us felt that way.

Then came Monday morning. Or if you really wanted to get in on it, later Sunday night.

What was the most insulting joke told by the host?

Who had the bad taste to show up with the worst vanity surgery?

How awful was that mispronunciation of someone’s name?

Can you believe that awful gown? She has to be the worst dressed, no contest.

What kind of self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was that?

Did you see how drunk he was at the party?

What kind of backstage snub comment was that?

Did you see the look on his face when he lost?

Did you really think she deserved to win?

It’s astonishing. We can’t even have one night to send up fireworks and smile in the glow without the snark. Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles and dissing in social circles is as common as saying, “Let’s have lunch,” but it seemed for every word of praise I heard for a winner, I heard three times that many diatribes flicked at presumed losers. Were I able to isolate it to the Hollywood elite, I might feel better encasing it in a cone of irrelevant silence, but I saw and heard it everywhere–online, in the mainstream media, on the phone, wherever news travels.

Folks, this isn’t news. It’s babble. It’s unimportant. It’s not particularly clever. And it’s mean. Really, really mean.

Sure we are a society of tabloid media. Websites and TV shows and grocery checkout racks thrive on insults, humiliation, and Schadenfreude. Most of this is not satire, not irony, not well-crafted humor. It’s just junk. Bloated, bombastic garbage. And we absorb it until we become it, and then we spew it right back, as if somehow that makes us part of some intelligentsia, some wise-cracking inner circle that can distinguish meaningful critique from wasted breath. When we join in the rant, we are kidding ourselves. We become part of the problem.

And here’s the problem: the kids around us are listening. They hear every word we say, every word the media relays, every nasty remark that deflects from the celebration that should be going on of wonderful, creative work that helps define our shared culture, commercial or otherwise. Then they go to school and the clear message is that bullying is verboten–completely off-limits, not allowed, punishable by extreme… what? Any chance there is a slight conflict going on when what they hear in their heads are our voices institutionalizing the public act of professional cruelty? We wonder why bullying is everywhere, but we don’t hear it in our own everyday dialogue.

What the heck is wrong with us? Really, we can do better. All we need to do is talk more about stuff that matters, less about stuff that doesn’t, offer praise with enthusiasm where it’s earned, and try to be a tiny bit more polite when someone happens to make a boo-boo, or we perceive them as making a boo-boo.

Because you know what? We all make boo-boos. And I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys ridicule, especially when they just did something out of the ordinary, whether the words travel behind their back or in their face.

It hurts. So let’s stop.

Public Service Made Customer Service

Earlier this year on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked Nancy Pelosi a rather awkward question: In effect, can our government still do big things? She never really answered the question, which was also kind of awkward. I don’t think she saw it coming. He was really probing into the nature of government competence and our ability to trust elected, appointed, and civil service employees to be great at their jobs and exceed our expectations. It was not meant to be a partisan question, but somehow that’s where it went, which sort of ducked the broader concern, which sort of reinforced his critique.

Like I said, it was awkward, and it got me thinking, why should the output of government services–or public service–not be subject to the same expectations of for-profit customer service? I have been chewing on this for weeks, and I can’t come up with a decent response. I serve in a volunteer role in local government, so I guess that makes me part of the problem, but it also drives me to be part of the solution.

The obvious retort will be that absent the free market and competition, any single point option will more than likely descend into mediocrity as a result of monopoly and entrenchment. I don’t think it’s that simple, because for-profit and non-profit enterprises are both constantly under attack by creative destruction, which when ignored is an equally powerful remedy to mediocrity. Improved methods will obviate the obsolete; it is only a matter of time and catalyst.

Global EntryThis past month I experienced a pleasantly opposite case, where public service did exceed my expectations–with expedience, practicality, and cordial handling. I applied for Global Entry, the Trusted Traveler Network administered by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. I went to their website, filled out the form in less than half an hour, was promptly notified online of conditional approval, and asked to sign up for an in-person interview at LAX. I quickly discovered there was a three-month wait for an interview, but the site suggested I check back frequently online for a cancellation. I got one within 48 hours for an appointment the same month, went to the interview, was promptly welcomed upon arrival (I was early and they took me when I got there), and ten minutes later I was fingerprinted and done. I was approved online that afternoon. Perfect.

This was exemplary customer service in action. It was almost as if Border Patrol had set out to prove that customer service was still possible within our government where there is an expressed commitment to make it so. They have my applause. I don’t know if I can award them my future business or ongoing loyalty given their scope of offerings, but just like writing a positive restaurant review on Yelp, I am giving them the loudest shout-out I can in as public a forum as I can, which is how the customer service game pays back winners with referrals.

I couldn’t help but compare and contrast that with several other recent observations of public service that simply haven’t embraced that ethos:

HealthCare.Gov – I usually focus on the broader issues of healthcare, which matter more to me than a broken website, but like Jon Stewart in the Nancy Pelosi interview, let’s focus for a moment on the website fiasco. Not only didn’t it work, not only was it impossible to navigate even when it did work, those in charge of deploying it allowed themselves to get fleeced by private-sector contractors. When you run a business with customer service in mind, you are compelled to keep your costs low and be a subject-matter expert before you offer service paid for by your customers. We are the customers of HealthCare.gov. We overpaid and we got a poor experience. Not good customer service.

Jury Duty – It makes us shiver, but it should make us proud. Anyone who gets the notice in the mail immediately starts to hedge, not because they don’t want to perform public service, but because our historic experience of this form of public service is that it is wildly inefficient. How long ago was this antiquated system designed, where you sit in a room all day doing nothing, waiting to be called or released? Yes, it has improved modestly with online registration and log-in, but when I recently spent a full day in a room of 125 people doing nothing of value, and fewer than two dozen of us were used at all, I wondered how it was possible to justify the lost productivity of 100 people times 8 hours, or 800 person-hours gone up in smoke in just the room I sat. It’s so wrong that no sustainable business could ever tolerate it, nor pay for it. If you want me to provide public service, start by seeing me as your customer and commit to process engineering so that my participation is truly of value.

Governor Christie’s Off-the Ranch-Staff – There’s a reason the obscene obstruction of a New Jersey bridge continues to ride the headlines, and it’s not just politics as usual. I use the word obscene purposefully, because using any position of public authority to harm rather than help a constituency goes against everything our democracy represents. When a public servant forgets that his or her salary is paid by the people and not the political party, all bets are off. Maybe there should be a slightly tweaked Hippocratic Oath in government: “First do no malfeasance.” If you go to work with full acknowledgment that you are in public service and your job is to provide customer service to those forking over the dollars for your gig, you couldn’t pull the trigger on anything like this, look yourself in the mirror, and say. “I did what I was supposed to do today.” When you do harm for personal gain, you add no value. You make a mockery of the privilege of serving those who trusted you.

When I was kicking around some of the themes for this post on my Facebook page as I often do before writing a new article, someone posted on my news-feed that it was a silly use of my time to write about stuff like this, because it never changes. Private-sector contractors will fleece the government, no one in the court system cares if they waste our time, and politicians will always use their power to reinforce their authority. I don’t think that’s true, and my experience with Global Entry is proof that we can do better if we make it a goal.

If we refocus the orientation of public service to be around customer service, it de facto has to improve. Perhaps more importantly, if we don’t keep tabs on the kinds of small to medium items called out here, how can we possibly have faith in the really big stuff entrusted to government: national security, fiscal solvency, social justice, and the like. There has to be a service model underlying all these tasks, subject to scrutiny, objective benchmarking, and listening to the customer. No, we’re not going to vote on what constitutes a valid TSA safety post or police DUI checkpoint, but we should always expect to be treated with courtesy when authority is surrendered for the greater good. Authority should be enacted with reason, humility, and respect so that it wins our buy-in and loyalty. Our aim should be to inspire all contributors to do their finest work all the time, to demand it of themselves as an absolute, to seek constant improvement of systems, teams, and individuals.

Think about it: virtually every customer-facing business now asks you to rate every experience you have with them, and the smart ones deploy this feedback almost in real-time to win competitive advantage. Start rating your experiences with public-service agencies, whether they request it or not, and not just at election time. Demand better and we will get it, maybe not in real-time, but sooner or later creative destruction does its job and washes away the ancient with one flavor or another of much celebrated reform.

And don’t forget to say Thank You when you catch someone doing something right. Everyone likes to get a thumbs up when it’s earned!

A Very Good Year for Good Men

GMPI started writing for The Good Men Project in its second year of life, offering to share some of my thoughts on business, creative leadership, and management also published on my own blog. In its third year I joined the board of directors and became a strategic advisor to the CEO. As we embark now on its fourth year, I continue onward, helping to accelerate our growth, invigorated by what our CEO and team have accomplished in driving, “The Conversation No One Else is Having.”

What is this Good Man Project? It’s an editorial content destination you’ll find on the web and through mobile, riding the wave of digital publishing through curated editorial viewpoints on topics ranging from love and parenting to ethics and sports. Founded by entrepreneur Tom Matlack, our vision is never to tell anyone what we think a good man might be, but to share the considered points of view of thousands of vetted contributors on the uneasy questions surrounding the issues of being a man in the 21st century. Why Good Man and not Good Person? We observe that there are any number of sites dealing with the broader issues faced by both genders, but almost none taking a serious approach to some of the deeper issues faced by men. Curiously, we have found our audience to be half men and half women, with our contributors mirroring that dichotomy. Perhaps more interestingly, we find no bias as to whether a topic is covered by a man or a woman, and in the often hundreds of comments that follow our stories, we observe men and women talking with each other about subjects you seldom observe strangers discussing and debating without invective or attack. It’s a wild line we walk, and we love it.

How are we doing after three years on the playing field? Here are a few metrics that make us especially proud:

  • We have surpassed 150 million cumulative page views.
  • We have published over 22,000 articles.
  • We have ranked as high as #243 in Quantcast.
  • We average about 3 million page views per week, with more than half our stories getting over 5000 views and our best stories over 100,000 views. And of course we occasionally have runaway hits that are off the charts.
  • We have over 60,000 Facebook fans and over 100,000 Twitter followers.
  • Our work is overseen by more than 30 editors from the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Spain, and the U.K.

What do we think about this? We call it a decent start. If you had asked anyone at the launch of The Good Men Project how far into the future 100 million page views would be, I promise you no one would have said 3 years–not a chance! So when we think about what our business might look like a year from today, it is impossible for us to predict much of anything other than to say we aspire to do better.

When asked to what do I attribute our joyous success to date, that’s easy: People, Products, Profits, in that order. Yes, that happens to be my life mantra for innovation and the theme of my blog, but like I say, for me, these aren’t words, it’s a mandate. Recently I was reviewing a draft of our annual report with our CEO–more about her in a moment–and as we edited our slides, I got fixated on a virtual org chart that we didn’t have a year ago. It was a matrix of our editors and the categories they cover every week. In looking at that chart and how it tied back to our exponentially increased workflow, it was once again obvious to me that none of this would be possible without the immense talent in our community; these are the People who create our Product. That Product, our collection of stories and voices to which we add new material almost every waking hour of the day, is what our customers experience. The excellence of that Product is our lifeblood, and our unending commitment to improve it is what has graciously allowed us to create an embraced customer experience. Customers mean the world to us, their experience is what matters most, but it is our team that creates that experience, and that is where we focus our energy. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, having focused on People and Products, we are already modestly profitable, albeit at a very early scale, enough to let us recommit to our core values.

None of this would be possible without the ceaseless commitment of our CEO, Lisa Hickey. Lisa’s passion for this subject is exemplary, and her evangelism for our brand and our community is a source of pride for everyone involved with this mission. I honestly don’t think she sleeps. She is at the helm of every aspect of The Good Men Project from uptime to story selection to ad sales to social media integration. And yes, Lisa is a woman guiding The Good Man Project, and that is a big part of what makes us unique. She is welcoming, encouraging, open-minded, and forward-thinking. Most of all, she is a great partner, and I will have to twist her virtual arm to leave this paragraph in the post.

We thank everyone involved–our readers, our commentors, our writers, our editors, our sponsors, and our suppliers–for being part of this launch. We hope if you are a regular, you will sign up for our free email list (we publish a fantastic daily digest) or consider becoming a premium member for a small fee that includes a welcome gift. If you haven’t visited The Good Men Project in a while, come see how we have shaped and molded and evolved our site over the first three years, then join our community and help us take it together into the future. Like I said, we’re just getting started. We have a tremendous amount of work to do, and we can’t do it without you!

Not Amused by the Dolled Up Wolf

As I have been out discussing my debut novel, This is Rage, over the past few months in bookstore readings and radio interviews, the question often comes up as to whether it is similar to the latest high-profile motion picture from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street. My answer is no for three reasons. First, my story is purely fiction, and Wolf is based on a memoir. Second, my story is exaggerated for the literary purpose of satire, and Wolf appears to be exaggerated (or not) for spectacle. Third, my story depicts a cast of amoral characters on a collision course with poetic justice and renders a series of life lessons and impacts offered for discussion, while Wolf has no moral center and crudely celebrates the life of a scumbag. Fair warning, more eye-opening spoilers ahead.

wolf-of-wall-streetI usually quite like Martin Scorsese pictures, but I really despise this one. I don’t think he set out to make a movie that glorified the inexcusable crimes of Jordan Belfort, but that’s what’s on the screen, and now that people are crying out against the film, Scorsese and his cast are left with few options but to defend their work as creative expression. I don’t dispute their right to produce the film or make money from the enterprise, I simply wonder why it was necessary, especially for such an accomplished company of actors led by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio. You see, while some of us see through the veneer of statements proclaiming the indictment of Belfort as a cautionary tale, the literature simply isn’t there to support the defense. An extremely simple fix would have gone a long way to offset the damage caused by this movie in showing the devastation caused to the victims of the penny scam swindling. We never, ever see anyone get hurt by the incessant wave of fraud that takes money from the pockets of innocents and hands it for abuse to criminals. Not once, anywhere in the film, do we see the pain created when a garbage stock is sold to an ignorant or unsuspecting victim at 50% markup. Would it have been that hard to show that white-collar crime is not victimless? Do people still not understand that when sycophants like Belfort (and Bernie Madoff) lie to clients and empty their pockets, entire livelihoods–and futures–are wiped out?

It’s not funny. It’s not the stuff of sardonic humor. It’s too real. Horrific acts need to be condemned without ambiguity, or at the very least illustrated through juxtaposition to depict thought-provoking irony. The justice system failed to cause Belfort to endure fair punishment; he did 22 months soft time and now he is a celebrity. How about that, a bona-fide celebrity for publicly exposing that he lived a putrid life and is now selling his salesmanship skills as legitimate in pay-to-attend seminars, further brought to visibility by a Hollywood movie deemed worthy of frothy awards. The movie shows everything that goes against the grain of humility and equality, but let’s send up flares and say it’s a tour de force.

You know what else isn’t funny?

Sniffing cocaine off the rear end of a hooker, all paid for with piles of your stolen cash. Nyuck nyuck.

Driving a Lamborghini on public streets under the severe influence of quaaludes and endangering the lives of people around you. Nyuck nyuck.

Getting oral sex in a glass elevator from a co-worker while the rest of your company watches from the trading floor. Nyuck nyuck.

Laughing yet? No, apology not accepted. How about when a crowd of Wall Street insiders gathered for a screening of the film in Battery Park and cheered at its most lascivious moments, essentially endorsing the behavior of Belfort and his punk posse, making it clear that generating big money was laudable, and spending it lavishly even more laudable. Yeah, it happened. You remember these guys, they were the ones our federal government bailed out when the great recession was at its worst. Now they are the same guys who think it is time for Washington to back off on regulation, since everything is “back to normal.” Yep, welcome to the new normal.

No, I’m not indicting all of Wall Street; quite the contrary. I believe in the fundamental strength of our economy, and that trust in investment is the backbone of financial advancement. We put our money into stocks and bonds long-term to see our free market assets grow collectively over time–capitalism for the long haul, compounding legitimately for the greater good. It’s not meant to be a con man’s game. It’s not meant to be a fixed casino. So why portray it that way, and why would anyone who makes his or her living off the public trust applaud such despicable behavior? Starting to wonder if the 1% and the 99% are separated by more than just wealth?

Here’s something else that’s not funny, and the core of what caused my emotional reaction to this vile portrayal of a pathetic American life: It’s an open letter from Christina McDowell published in the LA Weekly. Ms. McDowell’s father was one of the pukes that Belfort threw under the bus to arrange for his reduced sentence, and her life in the ashes that followed was emblematic of the very discord that Belfort created. Because her father was also a criminal, she does not make excuses for the suffering brought on her by the loss of her family’s affluence, after which she sank into poverty as a result of her father’s lying and conniving. Instead she writes with immense empathy for the victims of both her father and Belfort, wondering as I do why these victims show up nowhere in the film, instead remaining faceless and invisible, as if nothing tangible was really taken and incinerated. This passage the day after Christmas left me especially disturbed:

So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

Nope, not funny. Not entertaining. No moral center. No poetic justice. So as the actors and technicians and storytellers and creative journeyman who crafted this epic adaptation make their way to the stage to accept their trophies this season and deliver all sorts of silly speeches about the role of art in society, think about what they did and what they could have done. Art and entertainment can be a stylized mirror, or a refracting lens, or a pastiche of temporal mores, or a slice life that causes us to interpret the actions of characters and ideas of creators. Or it can just sit there like a lump and take our money for nothing, no different from the scoundrels depicted. Two stacked wrongs don’t make this right. Don’t get fooled again. Hold the Oscars, hose this one down with a power-steam cleaning and let it dribble down the gutter where it best can dissolve from future memory.

Fully Unfinished Business

PrivacyThe original title of this post was Nasty, Messy, Murky, and Looming.  Maybe I should have stuck with that!  As we turn the corner on 2013, a number of problematic, complex issues stand out for me as squirmy uncomfortable and lazily unresolved.  The four I note below all make headlines regularly, but I am not seeing nearly enough being done to address the core causes.  Perhaps there is not enough worry about the impact.  There should be.  Have a look at the list and see how closely this lines up with your own deep concerns:

Inequality:  I believe completely in our capitalist economy.  For the long haul.  For the benefit of everyone, not a detached few.  Late this year, President Obama made his case for the necessity of economic mobility as the backbone of democracy.  The key to addressing further bifurcation into 1% and a 99% has to be rooted in education — brilliant, inspired teachers opening the minds of young citizens, encouraged by their families to thrive, with sound reason to believe in the American dream.  Our middle class has to be strong for our economy to be strong, which means we need to have new enterprises with promising jobs, and trained minds ready to tackle those jobs and over time build careers.  In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Richard Riordan and Eli Broad made the point that “It Isn’t a Sin to be Rich,” yet at the same time they called for compassion among the wealthy to reinvest their resources in helping others.  I think we’d be wise not to further politicize the notion of polarization — if we want to build a lasting marketplace of goods and services, we all need to share in its creation as well as its consumption.

Privacy: This is an awful, hypocritical mess.  For most of this year our federal government declared that the NSA was not out of line parsing metadata.  Late in the year a consortium of Silicon Valley titans sent a letter to the President and Congress highlighting “the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.”  Many of these are the same companies perfecting advertising products that digital marketers use to better target consumers, which of course relies on the collection of personal information.  Edward Snowden — whose tactics and methodology are indeed questionable and not without dire consequence — has been branded  a criminal, but how front and center was our dialogue around privacy before he ignited the firestorm?  Last week an individual on the other end of a customer service call with my telecom provider actually asked me verbally for my PIN “to protect my security” in verifying my account — was this something he had been allowed to see in my file or was he phishing?  As someone who has spent three decades in media, I can tell you the technology around profiling is advancing way faster than our ability to digest its implications, and I urge you to continue asking a lot of questions and not take simple solutions at face value.  These are civil rights we are dancing around here.  You bet I want a good deal on a new HDTV and I want to be safe at the airport, but I don’t want my personal information readily available to any number of individuals who may have access today and then will be pissed off when they are fired tomorrow.

Healthcare: Something tells me that we are going to be arguing about this one for the rest of our lives, and the next generation or two will still be trying to wrestle it from abstraction to effectiveness.  I believe we have taken a small step forward, but like many, I am conflicted in the immediate results I am observing.  There is a very long road from dreaming to doing, and while change begings with a powerful vision, it is equally necessary to pound through the details until efficacy is more than a triumphant slogan.  Insurance companies are quite good at finding their way around the delicacies of mandates, and any number of conversations you can have right now will serve up individuals who are winners and losers.  Until we are all winners — until we all have truly affordable, truly high quality healthcare — our work is not done.  Some of us will pay more than we did before, but no one should pay more for less service, and no one who needs care should slip through the cracks because of affordability, deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses, or co-pays.  There are miles to go before we sleep, and much reform ahead before we celebrate our accomplishment.

Government Gridlock: Despite the recent federal budget agreement, we are nowhere close to healing.  With midterm elections on the horizon, there is reason for concern.  The entire idea of “reaching across the aisle” seems to me an anachronism that has to be replaced with “do your jobs and govern responsibly.”  Should those who opposed the Affordable Care Act achieve a majority in Congress, will they continue to prove obstructionist and seek to repeal the new programs, or will they do what is wise and amend the law to be more effective and constructive?  Will each debt ceiling debate continue to threaten to destabilize our currency and trading floors with the outlandish notion that government default could somehow be warranted as a strategy?  Does anyone even want to discuss reasonable solutions around assault weapons in hands beyond the military, and is the refocused energy on mental health relief going to be funded or a talking point?  We share our democracy, we share the capital markets, we share a love of freedom, and we share a right to sensible resolution of real-time concerns through debate and consensus, not grandstanding and entrenchment.  We have the right to demand better, so let’s start asking for it on a regular basis, not just when the #^%$* hits the fan.

I do think as long as we keep highlighting the ambiguities in ideology brought to bear through tangible initiatives, we have reason to be optimistic.  Rigorous, heartfelt discussion is our path from here to there, and as long as we don’t sweep our messes under the rug with a label of “mission accomplished,” we should have continued reason to be optimistic.  What could be more revitalizing than committing to making our world a better place?  Yes, we have so much more work ahead of us.  Let’s get to it, shall we?   The new year begins, let’s do our best to be proud that we did something aligned stepping forward in 2014.