Friday, October 15, 2010

Business Idea of the Week: The Crowdsourced Bookstore

Business ideas are everywhere. They're like water. If you're a smart person who understands business and pays attention to the world, you will see opportunities constantly. Most of the time there will be dozens of people all having the same brilliant ideas. What actually counts is execution. To prove it, I'm throwing out a totally viable idea each week. 

This week:

The Crowdsourced Bookstore

Look. I love books. I like the experience of a good book, its weight, its ability to dig more deeply into a subject or story than I could ever sit still for online. But I don't like bookstores. I live in Portland, home to the world's largest bookstore, Powell's City of Books. Here I am, wandering through a giant city-block multi-story monstrosity, where I can find virtually any book ever written, and all I can think about is how overwhelmed I am by the sheer range of options I have. I know that most of the books I can choose from are going to suck, and I have no way to know which I'm likely to enjoy, much less want to tell everyone I know about. I can hardly even make up my mind which subject to browse. And the big box stores are even worse, with their slavish devotion to the new and popular, throwing out on display every book I am most likely to revile, with that rare gem of a book among them. The book in the store I'm most likely to enjoy is in the stacks, and yet I have no way to find it amid the tens of thousands of books that just don't appeal to me, because they were chosen for their appeal to the mass consumer market. Or if I go to a Wal-Mart or an airport kiosk, all I have is worthless popular crap, 2010 edition, aimed at an audience with an IQ of exactly 100. 

So what we need is a vastly smaller bookstore, where every title is selected as a standout winner, a book that's likely to blow your mind, as only a great book can. The best on every topic that matters, the smartest, the best-written. Curated stores, not warehouses. Trader Joe's, not Safeway. A place with just a couple thousand titles. Something oriented to the increasing demographic of intelligent young creatives who probably spend too much time on the internet. Now, how do you select which titles? Crowdsource it! 

See, one thing that the crowd is good at is sifting through vast amounts of information, and pulling out the most interesting stuff. Assign the categories, limit your available slots, and let the obsessive-compulsive book-loving internet people of the world figure out what exactly you should sell. It'll work.

Here's the benefits: 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What I Learned From Studying Economics

I've always been interested in the study of the social forces that shape our lives, whether we're talking business, politics, psychology, religion, technology, anthropology, marketing, all that happy shit. But since commodities started spiking a few years ago, and the economic collapse that followed shortly thereafter, I've found myself with a lot of time on my hands, mostly due to long periods of unintended unemployment. Perhaps out of an interest in figuring out what the fuck is going on in the world, I started reading a lot more about economics. Sure, I took a couple classes in college, and I was always one of those guys who actually paid attention, but it was the great recession that has turned a mild interest into a near-obsession. I've spent between 4 and 14 hours a day reading about economics news and theory for the last couple years now, and I have a few observations I'd like to make which I think can really help illuminate the subject for those of you who have had way too much in the way of employment obligations to do this sort of research.

What did I learn?  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

We Must Replace Normalcy, Not Just Rebel Against It

I'd like to address one of the problems I see with a lot of people who are deeply aware of the problems we're facing as a civilization: the tendency for well-informed citizens to be considered outsiders. We allow ourselves to be painted as misfits, misanthropes, misguided extremists, the enemies of civilization and the American way of life. Even so-called liberal heroes like John Stewart fall prey to the notion that there is something rotten on the left, that there is a large degree of naive idealism inherent to its professed agenda and rhetoric. The extension of that concept is the marginalization of the left by the moderate majority for being dangerous; not by virtue of ignoble intentions, but through incompetence to wield power in this country without upsetting the precarious tightrope of economic stability and inadvertently causing the widespread collapse of civilization. We are derided as children, sure to get over our idealism as we mature, as though our ideas were examples of overly academic intellectual masturbation, and not searing indictments of the global power structure.

And we are not helping matters. The sheer scope of injustice in the world divides our efforts, impaling our movement on the rocks of identity politics, trapping us in the pursuit of minor victories through single-issue campaigns, even as we gradually lose political influence and media access over time. There is very little cohesion or unity in the left, with even specifically socialist groups fighting among themselves over the political agenda, with left-wing organization being predominantly characterized as a futile exercise, bogged down in unnecessarily nuanced and lengthy discussions and ineffectual strategies.

In the cultural movement that reflects these political values, one with the unfortunate tag of 'counter-culture', we gather to celebrate our glorious weirdness, holding it up as a shining example of our superiority, our capacity for rejecting all that is antiquated and useless in society. Far from being an inclusive movement based on a political and social understanding of the world, one with broad appeal across cultural lines and rooted in the expression of personal freedom as a fundamental American value, we are increasingly atomized into balkanized sub-cultures, building identity from our patterns of consumption. It's the clothes we wear and the music we listen to rather than any meaningful difference of outlook. We allow ourselves to be characterized by youth, by drug use, by laziness, by a cultural identity stripped of its political consciousness, and by a politics stripped of its mass appeal to basic moral virtue, lost in the halls of intellectual elitism.

Most of all, we are bastions of cynicism and apathy, cognizant of the challenges we face, yet crippled with despair at the sheer scope of the problem.

So where the fuck do we go from here?

The Seven Evil Industries

We all know that there are serious problems affecting our economy. Obviously there are many causes for the plight of the middle class and the general economy: there's the slow assault on wages and benefits, the dwindling of the manufacturing sector, thirty years of rising home values driving up the cost of housing, and now the rapidly increasing cost of oil driving up the costs of food, heat, and transportation, even as outsourcing's downward pressure on the cost of consumer goods artificially suppresses inflation. As a nation we're vastly poorer than our parents' generation, yet for the most part, addressing the problem seems too massive to even approach. Who is really responsible?

It's obvious that big business is guilty of outsourcing jobs, keeping wages low, externalizing costs to the greater society at every opportunity, and spending millions on lobbying for their own interests. Yet there are certain industries which really push the boundaries, forces of corruption that actively impede the change that's necessary for our nation to prosper. They spend billions on subverting the government officials, influencing elections, buying airtime for candidates, dictating policy to the regulatory bodies meant to oversee them, disrupting competition, acquiring no-bid contracts, gaining monopoly rights over their industries, continually expanding the budget through waste entirely directed towards the pockets of their shareholders. They are a drain on society; anti-democratic, anti-competitive forces that not only impede progressive change, but the efficient functioning of free markets as well. They endanger our civil rights, the stability of the economy, and the legitimacy of the republic. And due to their massive power in our government, and their controlling interest in most of broadcast media, they are the principle obstacles that must be overcome if we are going to restore democracy, and preserve any measure of prosperity in the decades to come. 

Frustratingly, most of these industries are integral to maintaining our standard of living; they gain wealth and power through us simply living the lifestyle we're accustomed to. The question is how can we overcome them? Some of these industries can be circumvented by cooperating within our communities, making change and voting with our dollars. Others will require gaining power in our state and local government. And in the case of a couple of these, nothing short of gaining control of a majority in congress can hope to bring us back to sanity.

So here's the big seven: