The US is a Platform

Two weeks ago, Steve Yegge publicly posted a rant lambasting Google for approaching tech architecture from a product standpoint instead of a platform perspective. In other words, Yegge wants Google to produce a platform on which the public can build applications & products for the masses. Instead, Google releases finalized products that often miss the mark. The genesis for the rant stems from Google's lack of success with Google+ compared to it's chief rival Facebook, which has built one of the most widely adopted platforms in the world.

I had this in mind when reading a debate on American exceptionalism between Stephen Walt & Thomas Friedman.


Image via Foreign Policy.


It is Friedman's response to the rhetorical "Can America respond to [country's four major challenges] in appropriate fashion?" that reads strikingly similar to Yegge's praise for those companies that have embraced the Platform. Summarized, Friedman's response says that we can, and will, if we embrace our role as a platform. This is all you truly need to read to understand how this is the case:

"That is how America remains as 'exceptional' in this century as it was in the last two -- not by launching another moon shot but by becoming the world's favorite launching pad for millions of moon shots."

The only way to read this is: we need to embrace the fact that our unique infrastructure (from our universities to the legal system to our market economy) is the best in the world at launching the next big thing. I can't argue with this. Our greatest asset isn't a tangible asset at all. It's our ability to work within a unique, dynamic, and ridiculously powerful framework. It's our culture and mindset. Our platform.

16 comments:

  1. Ok, I'm going to start off in one direction and hopefully bring it back around...

    When my kid falls down, I want her to get back up on her own. My kid is going to scrape knees and bleed and hit her head and get sick. I want her to feel pain. Now why would I want her to feel pain? That makes me sound like a horrible parent.

    When antibacterial soap became widely available, parents worried less about germs and their kids getting colds. The end result? Their kids how lower immunities and were more commonly subjected to much more dangerous staph infections. I let my daughter droll on her hands, grab the dog, put her hands back in her mouth, then let the dog lick her face clean. Why? Well, first my daughter absolutely loves when the dog interacts with her. I'm pretty sure she likes the dog more than me or her mom, you know, the people who change her diapers and feed her. And second, I am pro-immunity. Saying I'm pro-germs feels a little too close to being pro-cancer. But I want my kid eat dirt and get sick early so that she is stronger for it later in life. It's the same reason why I'm going to let her get back up on her own when she falls down at the playground. She is going to be stronger for it.

    The last decade or so has seen way too many over-protective parents who use extra padding and protective gear to prevent their kids from getting hurt.

    I feel that America and the federal government is at an inflection point. It seems that the government wants to make it so that people don't feel pain. This initially makes logical sense. That eliminating poverty will make the country a better place.

    I disagree. I don't think any government action will ever be able to eliminate poverty because there will always be people not working hard enough and dependent on some kind of payout and this will always be the poverty that exists. Additionally, I do not want to abolish the government as I think its social programs are, and should continue to be, a safety net.

    But for America to thrive as it has for over two hundred years, Americans need to fall down and get back up by themselves. But we need a mass collective of people to learn how to get back up by themselves. This is the cultural mindset we need. I agree that it is the platform that allows people to work hard and pick themselves up that made America exceptional and we need to allow Americans to fall down and pick themselves up for years to come.

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  2. I agree 100%. It makes me wonder what % of the current situation is predicated on the fact that our leader's generation has never had severe, country-wide stumbles in life. They are the inheritors of a country built by "The Greatest Generation", who had many stumbles and hardships along the way. They knew sacrifices had to be made. But alas, another conversation for another post.

    Back to what should have been my main topic: do you believe that the US is a platform? If so, do you believe that this platform is unique and the best in the world? Can we maintain our exceptionalism via this platform?

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  3. I've really been trying to get behind this platform idea. I think it's close or accurate, but not exactly the phrase I would choose, but I may just be arguing semantics.

    I feel like it's more a microeconomics vs. macroeconomics kind of thing. The US provides a culture that allows each individual to take control of their own destiny. To make as much money as they want and live the lifestyle they choose. And when the majority of people work hard and try to improve their own life, the entire US economy does amazingly well. But when the majority of people are blaming the government or Wall St. or corporations, this implies they have given these groups too much power of their own personal destiny. And then the economy as a whole gets in trouble.

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  4. One random piece where I would blame the government: A college degree is not, and never has been, the key to a successful career. Hard work, education, and continually improving your skills has always been the way to grow a career.
    At some point, everyone in the US thought that a Bachelors degree led to being a great worker. But it was the case that hard work and education lead to a bachelors degree and a good career, but these can be mutually exclusive. A great worker doesn't need a bachelors and a bachelors doesn't guarantee a good worker. Too many people did just enough to earn the BA or BS (here is where I blame the government) without realizing they need tp continue to work hard for their career.

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  5. Leaders: work hard in high school to get into college. Work hard enough in college to graduate. Work hard after college to ...?

    It's actually a lot more complex than that. It's hard to inspire high schoolers to work harder without a specific goal (bachelors) when we really need to teach high schoolers that they need to work hard for the betterment of their own lives. That's hard work for teachers & leaders.

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  6. I think saying it's a macroeconomic issue is similar to saying it's a platform, but you'd have to add a few other notes about our legal & education system. I think saying it's an economic aspect is short-changing our overall position & benefits.

    Your subsequent notes on working hard echo my generational comment. You get the feeling that many today don't recognize a few things:

    1) Life's hard.
    2) Little is ever handed to you.
    3) We all have a personal brand that we need to continually improve.
    4) Those with better brands will more often than not see better things come their way.

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  7. Coming way late to this party, but I hope I have some bits to add. First, I would say that the word that best describes the US is "laboratory". Is that a platform with a different word used? The US is, and will always remain, the top nation in the world at allowing people to try something new, something different. Steve Jobs, to take a recent example, could only have happened in the US. In most other countries, his being fired from Apple would have been the end of it - because the environment wouldn't have allowed him to try it again with Next, which in turn allowed him to get back in with Apple and do all he did the last 20-odd years.

    So, I agree with both of you that the US' platform or laboratory is the best in the world. I do take issue with the "nothing is ever handed to you"/"pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality regarding the relationship between a government and its people, though. Whether you are a free market disciple or a regulatory hound, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian or an Ayn Rand fanatic, I don't think there is a conceivable argument against the fact that the last 30 years or so of American history have seen a cataclysmic gulf develop between the wealthy & well-off and the middle class and poor. I mean, not even the Gilded Age saw the kind of discrepancy between what a CEO makes compared to the average worker in his company.

    So...I do believe it is the role of a government that is chosen to represent the majority of the people to level the playing field a little bit. Don't mistake that for me squashing ambition - you shouldn't expect to be handed anything for not working at bettering yourself, but if the game is rigged against you, I think you are within your rights to demand a correction. I'll recycle an old analogy: it is hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when those bootstraps have been commandeered by someone to strenghten his own bootstraps, and you are left with nothing.

    Finally, I agree that there will always be poverty. That life will always be hard. But, I think it is government's solemn responsibility to try and lessen the amount and severity of poverty, to make life a little bit less hard. Ambition will still allow those achievers to succeed, but don't we all agree that it would be nice if life were a little bit less hard for everyone?

    I have an entire other thing on the college degree bit, but that is for another time, I think.

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  8. Something that I just realized...when comparing CEO salary vs. the average worker, has anyone seen a study that includes comparison to number of employees or company size? If a Gilded Age factory had 100 employees and the owner/CEO was making 50 times the salary of the employee, then that owner/CEO was earning one-third the pay of the entire company. Now, if a CEO is making 500 times the salary of an average employee (say $25M vs. $50k), but this company employs 1000 people, then the CEO is earning 0.5% of the company payroll.

    I'm not arguing against the fact that there is a growing gap between the wealthy and non-wealthy. I'm just a little curious about that one stat about CEO pay growing more than the average worker. Has anyone seen a more detailed study about this?

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  9. There are a lot of charts here http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html , including ones dating to 1991 (when companies were probably about the same size) that shows CEO pay increase versus average worker pay increase.

    Seriously, there is a LOT of information at that link. Do proceed but be ready to drop down the rabbit hole.

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  10. Still doesn't answer my question about how CEO pay relates to number of workers or company revenues. I say my example of a CEO/owner making 1/3 of the entire company's payroll vs. now making 0.5% of the entire payroll still holds some water.

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  11. Except you have no data to support your point either?

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  12. I completely acknowledge that.

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  13. Doesn't the fact that CEO pay relative to worker pay has gone from 50X to 500X (using your numbers) bother you no matter what, irrespective of the company size and the CEO's share of the overall payroll?

    It'd be one thing if average worker pay had been increasing at something close to the same rate as CEO pay - but that has been far from the case. The CEO's share of the overall payroll is almost irrelevant to me.

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  14. I think you need to at least acknowledge the possibility of that distinction. It makes sense to me that a CEO can improve the company's stock price or revenue by a few percentage points. If he gets a share of that improvement, that makes sense to me. So I think it's fine that a CEO gets paid something on the scale of 0.1%-1% of the company's profits.

    I don't think people 100 years ago could have imagined a multi-global corporation a million times larger than the companies that were around in 1900. I think you had more CEOs/owners then taking a larger percentage of the total income generated by companies. Now you have fewer CEOs (relative to the population) and their collective pay has been consolidated.

    Also, if I had to guess, most small business owners are taking something like 50% of the payroll as income for themselves. Why do big companies have to follow different rules?

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  15. Wait a minute, a small business owner and a multinational CEO are not at all the same thing, even if they both "own" a business. For many CEOs, company profits are but a fraction of their overall income. For a small business owner, their entire overall income is the company's profits. So, no, I don't think a rule that applies to a small business owner should apply to a CEO - who usually is benefitting from stock options, capital gains, and, not for nothing, golden parachutes (even in the case of a company's collapse) when they are no longer the CEO.

    Small business owners don't get stock options, they don't benefit from capital gains, and they certainly don't receive multi-million dollar payout packages should their small business go under.

    But to get back to the original point: I think a CEO's pay relative to the company's profits is a red herring and has to be discussed entirely separately from the disparity between CEO pay and average worker pay. You say a CEO can raise a company's stock price by a few percentage points - but how is it fair to attribute that solely to the CEO? Without the workers, the CEO has neither a company nor a stock price; would you argue that a CEO deserves 400 times the credit as the average worker for the company's performance?

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  16. Randomly coming back to this (and conveniently ignoring the previous back-and-forth b/n Aaron and MP), I found this op-ed from Friedman further defining the concept of America as a platform.

    Outside of campaign finance reform, I think the next biggest hurdle for our politicians is understanding how to work w/in the globalized world Friedman is so apologetically in favor of.

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