Steve Jobs, America and the Future

The death of Steve Jobs this week has certainly generated a lot of coverage and analysis. While the obituaries and retrospectives are typical surrounding the death of any notable public figure, it was perhaps surprising to see how much analysis was published on the man and his ideals. Some analysts thought Jobs' approach to Apple should be ported to America's politicians, who lack "vision" and imagination to solve our largest problems. Others posited that Jobs offered a new approach to management for the 21st century. These analyses are all fair, but they have all (as far as I can tell) failed to analyze one important question.

Why are there so few Steve Jobs in America?

Sure, there are disrupters and innovators, particularly in the technology space. I am not going to dispute that there are others today who can take the mantle of America's leading entrepreneurial visionary. But, I think many of us realize in Jobs' passing that we have lost one of the few people out there who saw things differently. Why is this the case?

First, I would like to point to the dangers of measurement. One of the quotes from Jobs that has been bandied about by the press a lot is this: "It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." It is truly a mesmerizing quote, and it reminds me of a similar quote from Henry Ford, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

Both of these businessmen understood that not every change in technology can be measured by market research, sales figures and the like. When you are on the technological frontier, there are few roadsigns to tell you where to go - instead, business leaders often have to trust their instincts when making strategic decisions about their future products.

Unfortunately, that philosophy is precisely the opposite of the type of leadership in America today. Politicians follow the polls with a reverence that would make L. Ron Hubbard salivate. Bureaucrats use cost-benefit analysis as if there are no other means of making policy decisions. Business decisions must be built off of data and market research. Today, our leaders feel safety in the numbers, in the data. It is dangerous to tread too far away from the majority - what in another era would mean leading from the front.

America was once a country of charismatic and transformative leaders - people with vision who charted a course and brought the country (sometimes kicking and screaming) with them. Today, we mostly have a technocratic leadership, one that is based off of optimization and refinement rather than disruptive innovation, with the Valley a notable exception.

How did we get this way? In one word: education. Specifically, the kind of education we receive in universities in the United States. The social sciences, particularly economics and political science, have moved in an extremely quantitative direction, to the detriment of the sort of value-laden questions that society has to actually deal with on a daily basis. Justice plays no role in the neoclassical economic model, nor does it play much of a part in rational choice theory.

The real damage occurs, though, in business schools. Our business leaders are taught not to think for themselves, but to use all kinds of mathematical tools to optimize their businesses. This philosophy is at the heart of bottom-line accounting and the short-term profit model. What can't be measured is not important, and one thing that can't be measured is the potential success of radical disruption. Business schools may sharpen the analytical rigor of their students, but often at the cost of dulling their inventiveness. This wouldn't be a problem if there were fewer MBAs running major companies, but their pervasiveness has create a culture that is quite hostile to the kind of change that Jobs championed.

Beyond the dangers of measurement, Jobs understood the value of parsimony. Simplicity is a powerful tool to understand society if done appropriately. This is something that is often not taught well in engineering schools and universities, if it is taught at all. While the devil is in the details, I find that the fundamental issue with most analyses, whether market or political, is they fail to look at high level strategy. A simple story may do more to inform us about a particular issue than an entire doctoral dissertation.

This value of parsimony doesn't just apply to analysis, but to organizational structures as well. Along with the move to technocratic leadership, we have moved toward a consensus, committee-like approach to running organizations. Leaders today are almost afraid of standing alone in the front of a crowd, but instead feel security in the cacophony of voices that emanate from that crowd. If I could take one take-away from all of learning at Stanford, it would be this: the best and most innovative things are always inspired, almost always by a single individual. That is not to mean that many people don't work on one innovation - there are legions of engineers behind the iPod and legions of policy analysts behind the Great Society or Social Security. What I mean is that someone was leading who had taste - an opinion constructed from their values on what is good and bad. Committees have bad taste - full stop.

Finally, Jobs understood one other facet of business and politics that seems to have been missed by many: people can be changed. Customers can be told what they want. So can voters. Oftentimes, both groups are completely unclear and indecisive about their goals and choices until someone walks up to them and tells them what they are reaching for.

In here is the biggest criticism of modern politicians, and particularly Barack Obama. His campaign was inspiring because it was so fundamentally simple: "change." That resonated with voters who were sick of 8 years of the Bush administration. Where is that narrative now? Obama appears to be all over the map when it comes to his policies, and that is because he is. You can always tell the poll-driven politicians by tracking the correlation between their policy positions and the data coming from Gallup. Obama lacks a strong vision, and even if he could articulate it, he lacks the stamina to convince Americans of that vision.

This is perhaps the most important message when working on economic policy. For all the work that PhDs do in economics, they still can't get away from a single problem inherent in all of their analysis: the economy is fundamentally psychological. Our expectations of future performance are the primary criteria to our decision-making, and in the aggregate, the primary criteria for global economic performance. Greece may or may not collapse, but it is a heck of a lot more likely if we think it is going to fail. Economic models can never fully encapsulate this human psychology into their construction, and thus their utility will forever be compromised.

Steve Jobs death is a loss for society. Even more so because of his relatively young age. But that doesn't mean that his legacy cannot live on or become larger than the man himself. His death reminds us of our mortality, sure. But it can also remind us that we all have the ability to be visionary if we allow ourselves to do so. It requires us to ignore the little mathematical rituals and to realize that we have the power to change others - and the world too. In other words, it requires us to think different.

Rest in Peace Steve.