Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Superset Essentials – Value and Control

If we had only one blog post to describe the foundations of the Superset, what would it say?  If we were hit by a truck, you could derive most Superset principles from two basic, but extremely important insights.

Insight #1: It’s not about the money, it’s about the value.

Insight #2: You own a lot more and a lot less than you think.

Insight #1 Explained

In our post modern society we often think that something is only valuable if we can put a price on it.  To calculate our net worth we add up the monetary value of our assets.  Simple.  The Superset points out that there are many things of value that are not considered as assets.

For example, as biological creatures we have many needs in common: air, food, water, shelter, and rest.  But beyond that we, and our ancestors, also need the ability to secure all of those things.  Food doesn’t just land in our laps.  Sources of clean water can still be difficult to come by for impoverished countries in Africa.  How did our hunter-gatherer forebearers meet these needs?  They labored, they traveled, they coordinated their activities by speaking to each other.  Each day they needed to be at liberty to choose their vocation.  Depending on the season they could be gathering nuts, preparing leather clothing, fishing, or searching for salt.  They needed to control their own tools and weapons – their possessions.  They needed to learn new ideas and decide what they should do with them.

So what things are of universal value to humans?  The following:

Air, food, water, shelter, possessions, labor, speech, thoughts, conscience, and the liberty to travel and choose our vocations.

Appreciating value was not an academic exercise, it was necessary to survival.  As the offspring of these survivors we are genetically programmed to protect the value we have and strive for more.  Not convinced?  Let’s take a quick example:

All else being equal, which would you rather have, $10 or $100?

Why do we all answer that question the same way?  Are people greedy?  No.  Plants are not greedy when they spread out their leafs to capture more sunlight.  They are doing what they are programmed to do.  What are people programmed to do?

1) Protect the value they have (prefer not to go from $100 down to $10)

2) Increase the value they control (prefer the increased value of $100 over $10)

This says nothing about the desires or intentions of the person wanting the value.  The more value you control, the more good you can do, so it’s implication is very limited in saying simply that humans appreciate value.

Insight #2 Explained

We often think that the things we own are the ones with our names on them: bank accounts, the title to a car or house, or a virtual stock certificate.

We’ll first explain that we own a lot less than we think.  For example, I think I own my home, but what does that mean?

Ownership: Having the exclusive and strongly protected right to control, transfer, use and capture any gain or loss of value of that which is owned.

Do I control my home if is threatened by fire?  No.  The fire department can forcefully evacuate me and take control of my property.  What if I fail to pay the mortgage or taxes?  Then the bank or government can take control of the home and sell it to recuperate the money they are due.  So we often don’t own things as completely as we might assume.

What do we own more of?  A great many things.  We often don’t think of ourselves as owning clean air, but if we breath it, it’s ours.  Do you own your own conscience?  Can you decide for yourself what is right and wrong and join a non-profit, club, or church as a consequence of your belief?  Can you read and write whatever you want?  Those things are of tremendous value, and not everyone is so lucky to have them.  If you are extremely fortunate, you control the whole enchilada.  You decide what you want to study, how you contract your labor, what city you live in, where you want to visit on vacation, etc. etc.  You capture the fruits of your labor and have full and unthreatened control over your possessions and money.  Such a protected existence is really a marvel given how many people also have an interest in controlling our value.  It’s something only the tiniest fraction of humans has ever enjoyed.

Discrimination – Still Crazy After All These Years

Will Congress exempt itself from Obamacare?  Shouldn’t we be outraged at the thought of them giving themselves preferential treatment?  Sure we should, and we would all probably be more outraged if discrimination weren’t woven into the very fabric of our society.

We (the authors of this blog) have this old fashioned belief that if the government has a right to discriminate against your peers, it has a right to discriminate against you.  So if your fellow citizen has lost a right or a fundamental protection, so have you.  If one company or industry is discriminated against, then it might be your company or industry next.  In the U.S., discrimination has been happening for so long that we often fail to recognize it as such.  We think that with the civil rights movement we righted a great wrong, and that is true, but the plague of discrimination is still as rampant as ever.

You, dear reader, look like a decent person.  Let me ask you a few questions about fairness:

  1. Do you think it’s okay to give favors to the medical profession and deny that same preferential treatment to the legal profession?  Is it fair to give a company a tax break for a certain activity, but deny individuals the same treatment for the same exact activity? 
  2. Is it okay for the highly productive to have a strong right to their labor, but to take that right away from the lowly productive?
  3. Should a health insurance company be protected as equally as a car insurance company?
  4. Do you think it’s okay for the government to target an industry, and tax them at a higher rate than anyone else just because they can?

I would hope that we would agree on all of these items i.e. that all parties should all be treated equally.  This isn’t just idealistic blather, it’s also very pragmatic.  Each one of us controls a great deal of value: our own labor, our assets, our prerogative to travel, live, study and work according to our own preferences.  We all naturally want to protect that value, and our control is more strongly protected when it is equally protected.  We should all be opposed to discrimination for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.   Here’s the list of offenses that mirrors the questions listed above:

  1. Under current law, if your employer pays your personal medical bills they can write that expense off (i.e. deduct it as a cost and not have to pay taxes on the money spent).  But if an employer pays for your personal legal expenses then the costs are not tax deductible.  Are doctors more holy than lawyers and all other professionals?  Likewise, if you spend money on your own health care, the money you spent is not tax deductible for you like it is for your employer.  Are employers more holy than individuals?
  2. The Federal Government and most State Governments currently discriminate against people with low productivity, and yes, you should be outraged about this shameful treatment of the poor and underprivileged.  How so?  Let’s say you have very high productivity.  You can program apps very quickly and you contract yourself out at $200 per hour.  If you like a job, can you choose to take less, like $150?  Certainly.  If you are desperate for work, can you lower your price to $100?  Of course.  But now imagine that you have very few skills.  Let’s say your productivity is worth $10 an hours, but you’re having a hard time finding a job.  You need work desperately, can you lower your price to $5 an hour?  No.  Because of the minimum wage, you don’t have a right to sign a labor contract at $5 an hour.  Sorry, you are not equally protected.  For those people that think the minimum wage helps the poor, you need to explain how taking something of value (i.e. the right to choose how much you will charge for your labor) away from the poor helps them?  If you want to help the poor, you should transfer value to them not away from them.  See the earned income tax credit as an example of a much better way.
  3. Under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), health insurance companies do not have the same right to decide what to do with their money as auto insurance companies.  If you’re an auto insurance company (think about a Gecko here), and you want to spend millions on advertising, that is your good right.  But if you’re a health insurance company, you are mandated by law to spend a 80% to 85% of your revenue on reimbursements.  You can kiss your ad campaign goodbye, and come to grips with the fact that you cannot pay the same in sales commissions as other insurance companies.  How fair is that?
  4. One mode of paying for the ACA, was to levy a special tax on the Medical Device Industry.  I worked with a medical device entrepreneur by the name Ray Hartman, who started a company called Theralight.  He was one of the most brilliant and energetic entrepreneurs I’ve ever met and he dedicated his fortune and last remaining years on Earth trying to eradicate staph infections in hospitals.  I once joked about how nice it was of him to pick up the tab for health care reform.  He became uncharacteristically dark and said, “It makes me want to go outside and just scream!”  Sorry Ray, you were unprotected.  That sucked.  He passed away a year later.

I have a dream, Ray.  That someday the phrase “liberty and justice for all” will be more than empty words describing a bygone Republic.  

Solving the Problem of Religion

The interplay between business interests and government in the U.S. is causing concern across the political spectrum.  Regardless of which party is in office, major industry players wielding multi-billion dollar lobbies are finding a seat at the negotiating table.  Tea Party patriots and Occupy Wall protesters seem to be manifestations of different sides of the same coin.  They worry that things have gotten out of control, that Wall Street should not have been bailed out, and that somehow financial interests are too well represented in government.

“But what can we do about it?”

As it turns out, a lot.  We can learn a little bit more about this great country we live in, which has solved this problem before — and brilliantly.


In 18th Century America one of the many perplexities that the American Founders had to cope with was the interplay between religion and government.

In Europe, the relationship between Church and State began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity and granted property to the Catholic Bishop of Rome.  Christianity later became the dominant/official religion of the Roman Empire.  Subsequently the Church as political power perpetrated many atrocities such as the Crusades and Inquisitions.  Isn’t this right?

Not completely.

For some reason in the U.S. we (myself included!) often equate “religion” with “Christianity”.  The reality is that religion has at almost all times and all places been related to political power, and for good reason.  Being able to control people’s moral convictions — their views on right and wrong, and who they obey — has tremendous value.  For example, before Constantine the Roman Empire was surprisingly tolerant of the different religions practiced by its conquered nations, but not completely so.  The Romans believed in many gods and viewed their Emperor as one of them.  There was no inherent conflict between the gods of subservient peoples and the Roman gods per se because the Roman gods were more like immortal men and women, not absolute and exclusive beings.  As tolerant as they were, the Romans did insist that one religious dogma be observed throughout the empire.  Would you like to guess what that was?  That the Emperor was a deity to be worshiped by all Roman subjects.

This is partly what led to the early persecution of Christians.  Christians didn’t recognize the Emperor as a god and were charged and persecuted as “atheists”.  Their real crime was not threatening Roman religion, but rather undermining Roman authority.

And it has always been thus.  Even today, leaders will portray themselves as moral authorities and mythic figures to gain more power over their people.  In the People’s Republic of China, the State continues to use religion to achieve its political goals (in 2013!!!).  Instead of allowing a privately operated Roman Catholic congregation loyal to the Pope, they cleverly set up a Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that reports to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and predictably rejects the authority of the Vatican.  Nothing like receiving Mass and nationalistic indoctrination at the same time!  It’s a twofer!

So the American Founders looked closely at a question that had confounded humankind for millennia: “What is the proper role of religion with respect to the state?”

Several of them, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, were not opposed to state sponsorship of religion.  They viewed the Protestant teachings of their times as salutary and beneficial, and thought that religion needed encouragement (e.g. tax paying support).  In the largest of the 13 Colonies, Virginia, the official religion was the Church of England (Anglican Church).  Virginians were forced by law to pay tithes, and membership in the Church was a prerequisite to holding public office.  The preaching of other religions was illegal and occasionally Baptist and other ministers would be locked up.  It’s not difficult to understand why Anglican ministers in various government positions encouraged this state of affairs — it made them better off.

But the insights that clear thinking men like Jefferson and Madison had were that religion became problematic when it was combined with coercion (i.e. the ability to force adherence).  And this wasn’t just a one way street.  It was just as problematic when the government was able to coerce religion.  So, in a nutshell, they wondered:

How do we protect people from religious coercion, and religion from political coercion?

Their solution was extremely novel, perhaps not in its rationale, but in its implementation.  The first stroke was in 1786 when the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed with support from Madison and based on an original draft written by Jefferson.  The second and most famous stroke was the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Most people have described these solutions as “Separation of Church and State”, “establishing a Secular Government”, or as “Religious Freedom”, but none of these is thoroughly descriptive.  For example, do churches operate in the U.S. similar to Indian Reservations, with their own laws, judges, police etc.?  Are they truly separate from the State?  No.  If a clergyman breaks the law, he is still punished.  Copyright laws apply to religious texts just as they do to secular texts.  They are not separate, then.  And for this same reason we do not have infinite religious freedom.  Except for rare exceptions like Native Americans smoking peyote, our religious convictions do not give us license to do things (like committing fraud or murder) that would otherwise be considered criminal, regardless of how sincere our belief in those things might be.

The term “Secular Government” is correct if secular means “not overtly or specifically religious”, but most often we would think of the term as meaning, “non-religious”.  Does it give the right impression to say that a government that strongly protects religious liberty, has no connection with the practice of religion?  We need a better description.

The text from the 1st Amendment is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

In other words, Congress has no right to favor or discriminate against any religion with respect to another.  It can pass laws affecting the freedom of all citizens (like prohibitions against stealing), but not targeted laws that curtail the practice of a religious activity — like meeting in a group — that is otherwise legal for everyone else.  In effect, in America:

All religions must be treated equally by Congress.

All citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their religious convictions.

And this beautifully solved the problem of religious coercion.  The State cannot coerce religion because it does not have the power to favor or injure a specific church or creed.  By protecting religion from coercion in this way, we also protect ourselves from religious power.  Since the government cannot offer favors to religion, religion is not tempted to use the government as a means for increasing its influence.  For example, what interest would the Catholic Church have in lobbying Congress if Congress does not have the power to provide a benefit specifically to the Catholic Church?  Mormons (Latter-day Saints) cannot use the government to promote the cause of Mormonism because the government has little power to do such a thing.  It cannot outlaw the preaching of competing faiths, or conscript citizens to serve Mormon missions.

It matters.

It’s only when we have a clear understanding that religious liberty in America boils down to religious equality that we can then apply this same solution to business.  The fundamental problems with business are the same:

How do we protect people from commercial coercion, and commerce from political coercion?

And now you know the answer, the one that all Americans embrace every day with respect to religion and that has worked wonderfully for over 200 years:

All industries must be treated equally by Congress.

All businesses and citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their commercial pursuits.

More on this to come.