Seeing a Future with Optimism

xprizeFrom The Charleston Mercury, December 13, 2012

It’s easy to get caught up in pessimism. It’s in the media everyday: slowing economic growth worldwide, high unemployment here and abroad, Eurozone problems, and terrorist attacks. And, then, what about world issues such as feeding the hungry, providing clean water and wiping out malaria? Can our planet support everyone?

Peter Diamandis thinks so and also that it can provide everyone a life of opportunity. In fact, in his bestseller, Abundance: the Future is Better than You Think, co-written with Steven Kotler, Mr. Diamandis provides great analysis, solutions and hope for the future. His work is based on the confluence of four major trends: exponential technology advances, do-it-yourself (DIY) innovators, techno-philanthropy, and the needs of the poorest billion of our planet.

Technology is changing exponentially. A Maasai tribesman in Africa equipped with a cellphone has better communication than President Reagan did 25 years ago. With an internet-connected smartphone, he has access to more public information than President Clinton did 15 years ago. 

DIY innovators are everywhere. We see all the apps for cellphones. DIY biologists are now beginning to solve world problems. The winner of the 2008 IGEM competition built a vaccine against the virus that causes the most common forms of ulcers. Robots, like we saw in the movie “Robot and Frank”, may have a big impact on reducing the costs of elderly care.

Techno-philanthropy continues to grow. Bill Gates is crusading against malaria. Mark Zuckerberg is working to reinvent education. The founders of eBay are focused on bringing electricity to the developing world. And there are lots of others. 

There are 7 billion people in the world today. One billion currently lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack access to proper sanitation. Diamandis contends that a world in which everyone is provided a life of opportunity can lead to increased GDP, standards of living and happiness worldwide.  Solving universal problems helps everyone.

Don’t expect governments to provide solutions. The private sector will do most of the heavy lifting. Mr. Diamandis believes a key is the X Prize competition which he created. Right now, Qualcomm has funded an X Prize of $10 million for the first team able to develop a “tricorder.” This would be a device straight out of Star Trek; a wireless device in the palm of your hand that monitors and diagnoses your health conditions. X Prize competitions will grow in the future. The concept is based upon four principles:  high visibility, breaking bottlenecks, wide range of competitors, varied approaches leading to new industries.

 Let’s put things in perspective. Our world has come a long way in the last few centuries: we’re living longer, wealthier, safer lives. And, the future is looking up.

Les Detterbeck is one of a small number of investment professionals in the country who has attained CPA, CFP®, and CFA designations. His firm, DWM Financial Group, Inc., a fee-only Registered Investment Adviser, has offices in Charleston/Mt.Pleasant and Chicago. Les may be contacted at (843)-577-2463 or les@dwmgmt.com. 

Election 2012: Some Certainty, Lots of Uncertainty

fee-only financial planner, stress-test financial planningYes, the 18 month, $6 Billion 2012 Election is over. Many of us probably feel like four-year-old Abigael Evans who spoke for millions on youtube when she sobbed, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney.” 

Yes, Abigael, it’s over and we have some certainty.

First, we need election reform. How about replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote? This way, the contest won’t focus on ten swing states. Every one of our votes would count equally. Of course, it was nice in IL and SC to be exempt from most of the brutal campaign ads from both parties. Next, we need to reduce the money in politics. $6 billion was spent on the federal 2012 elections. Did it really make a difference? Considering that almost all of the ads were negative and frankly insulted our intelligence, did this process help in solving the nation’s problems and educating voters or merely add to the polarization between Americans?

Political campaigns have become like a nuclear arms race. Each politician tries to out-raise and outspend his opponent.  As a result, Lawrence Lessig in Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress has calculated that politicians spend ½ to 2/3 of their time raising money. This detracts from their time and focus on their job and obligation to their constituents.  It also clouds their judgment on important issues- adding to Washington gridlock, the lack of attention to and resolution of major issues, and the growth of government. In addition, the system has created a marvelous career path for current and former officeholders who can become lobbyists when they leave office and make the really big bucks. We need to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics. You might look at www.rootstrikers.org to see how one organization is doing this. Since incumbents are not likely to change the system, Mr.  Lessig proposes that a constitutional convention may be needed to make the changes necessary.

Finally, regarding election reform, we need a better way to vote. Why do voters have to wait hours seated on school bleachers while poll workers struggle with one computer to verify voters. Or worse yet, stand out in the rain due to long lines. C’mon man!  This is America, the greatest country in the world and home to Apple, Google and Microsoft, among others. Why can’t one of our current day Steve Jobs find a better way for Americans to vote safely and securely using the internet?

Yes, there is certainty to the cast in Washington: President Obama in the White House, the Republicans controlling the House and the Democrats with a small advantage in the Senate. We don’t expect a repeal of Obamacare in January.  Nor, do we expect to see a massive deregulation push coming from the White House. In short, there is unlikely to be a sea change in American economic policy.

However, there is still considerable uncertainty. The fiscal cliff is coming in 53 days. Can Congress and the President make a Grand Bargain or will they kick the can down the road with gimmicks? With our U.S. economy growing but still fragile, can we afford a 5% drop in GDP if the fiscal cliff is not avoided? In addition, of course, we have Europe’s worsening problems, China’s slowdown and world hot spots that could erupt. Lots of uncertainty.

The stock markets showed their initial reaction yesterday, with many equity indices down 2% or more. Expect more volatility. Our clients needn’t worry- they have an investment portfolio that is designed to participate in up markets and protect in down markets.

Now that there is some certainty, let’s hope business leaders start making decisions to increase production and hire more people. And, most importantly, let’s hope the politicians and all of us put aside differences and find the common ground that unites us- to move our great country forward.