I’ve spent June until October writing a brief but comprehensive book called “Designing Conversational Interfaces” introducing the creation of messaging applications and chatbots to a non-technical audience.
Indeed, this is the challenge of the historical novel: whether or not the stories are true might be the least important thing about them. History as it’s written down in books is one thing, but history as it’s lived is another.
When the Europeans left, educated Ugandans climbed out of the swamps, slaked off the mud, and took to the hills and raw Ugandans flooded the swamps. Up in the hills, educated Ugandans assumed the same contempt as Europeans had for them.
For those whose jobs came as rarely as a yam’s flower this was a chance to feel useful.
Tradition claimed that identical twins were one soul who, failing to resolve the primal conflict in the self, split—and two people were born.
Every time a set of twins arrived, they shook his hand, “A strong man may wake up late and still get to do as much as we who woke up with the birds.”
He knew the snare of being a man. Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live up to them some men snapped.
He had never discussed his role in her rise in status because words not only travel, but they acquire legs and arms along the way. And by the time they get to the person talked about, they are beyond recognition.
I tell you fellow men: never negotiate with a woman. Their sense is not our sense.
Of course, when a nation has plenty and peace reigns, foreigners start to flock in. And you know with foreigners: they bring their troubles with them.
Everyone’s face turned and stared at Suubi as if her father killing his twin was written on her body.
Britain and America were the lands of humanity, the places Miisi longed to be. The real Britain took him by surprise.
She corrected herself, “These things have no place in the modern world.”
“As long as there are Africans in the world, there will always be someone seeking these things,” the woman laughed.
This is the history of those who got away
the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies—railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology—so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation-states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful.
In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.
That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device; the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had.
Seen from the state center, this enclosure movement is, in part, an effort to integrate and monetize the people, lands, and resources of the periphery so that they become, to use the French term, rentable—auditable contributors to the gross national product and to foreign exchange.
More commonly, nonstate peoples found it convenient to raid the settlements of sedentary farming communities subject to the state, sometimes exacting systematic tribute from them in the manner of states.
The main, long-run threat of the ungoverned periphery, however, was that it represented a constant temptation, a constant alternative to life within the state.
For long periods people moved in and out of states, and “stateness” was, itself, often cyclical and reversible.
Much of the periphery of states became a zone of refuge or “shatter zone,” where the human shards of state formation and rivalry accumulated willy nilly, creating regions of bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity.
Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them.
They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.
The attempt to bring the periphery into line is read by representatives of the sponsoring state as providing civilization and progress—where progress is, in turn, read as the intrusive propagation of the linguistic, agricultural, and religious practices of the dominant ethnic group:
The principle behind region-making in each case is that, for the premodern world, water, especially if it is calm, joins people, whereas mountains, especially if they are high and rugged, divide people.
Zomia is thus knitted together as a region not by a political unity, which it utterly lacks, but by comparable patterns of diverse hill agriculture, dispersal and mobility, and rough egalitarianism, which, not incidentally, includes a relatively higher status for women than in the valleys.
Ibn Khaldun, who noted that “Arabs can gain control only over flat territory” and do not pursue tribes that hide in the mountains.
Hill polities are, almost invariably, redistributive, competitive feasting systems held together by the benefits they are able to disburse.
Accounts of lowland states that miss this dimension do not merely “leave out” the hills; they ignore a set of boundary conditions and exchanges that make the center what it is.
For most of its history, Southeast Asia has been marked by the relative absence even of valley states. Where they arose, they tended to be remarkably short-lived, comparatively weak outside a small and variable radius of the court center, and generally unable systematically to extract resources (including manpower) from a substantial population.
It becomes difficult, in this context, to reconstruct the life-world of nonelites, even if they are located at the court center.
State rulers find it well nigh impossible to install an effective sovereignty over people who are constantly in motion, who have no permanent pattern of organization, no permanent address, whose leadership is ephemeral, whose subsistence patterns are pliable and fugitive, who have few permanent allegiances, and who are liable, over time, to shift their linguistic practices and their ethnic identity.
Grain, then, as compared with root crops, is both legible to the state and relatively appropriable.
All the evidence points to the piecemeal elaboration of padi lands by kinship units and hamlets that built and extended the small diversion dams, sluices, and channels required for water control. Such irrigation works often predated the creation of state cores and, just as frequently, survived the collapse of many a state that had taken temporary advantage of its concentrated manpower and food supply.
Provisioning the state’s core population with grain ran up against the intractable limits of distance and harvest fluctuations, while the population sequestered to plant that grain found it all too easy to walk beyond the reach of state control.
In thirteenth-century Europe, according to one calculation, shipping costs by sea were a mere 5 percent of the cost by land.
Before the distance-demolishing technology of railroads and all-weather motor roads, land-bound polities in Southeast Asia and Europe found it extremely difficult, without navigable waterways, to concentrate and then project power.
Rulers fed major inland cities such as Berlin and Madrid only at great effort and great cost to their hinterlands. The exceptional efficiency of waterways in the Netherlands undoubtedly gave the Dutch great advantages at peace and war.
They would also, as we shall see, help demarcate the sharp difference between a geography more amenable to state control and appropriation (state space) and a geography intrinsically resistant to state control (nonstate space).
It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly.
Less reliant on volatile trade, more hierarchical, more insulated from food-supply crises, and capable of feeding quite massive armies, these agrarian states might lose a battle or even a war, but their staying power over the long haul tended to prevail.
“To have too many people [as subjects to a lord] is better than to have too much grass [uncultivated land].”
Vagrancy was discouraged and displaced people were fixed to a plot of land where they could be turned into reliable sources of taxation, corvée labour and military service.
The expansion and peopling of legible state space was intrinsically difficult, given the open frontier. If it was occasionally achieved, it was due as much to the closing off of alternatives as to the inherent attractions of state space.
Statecraft with both eyes fixed on the accumulation of manpower could hardly be particular about whom it incorporated. A “manpower state” in this sense is, in principle, the enemy of hard and fast cultural distinctions and exclusiveness. Put more accurately, such states had great incentives to incorporate whomever they could and to invent cultural, ethnic, and religious formulas that would allow them to do so.
When it came to skilled manpower as well as foot soldiers and cultivators, the need for their services precluded rigid cultural exclusion.
The manpower imperative was, everywhere, the enemy of discrimination and exclusion.
Slaves, it is fair to say, were the most important “cash crop” of precolonial Southeast Asia: the most sought-after commodity in the region’s commerce. Virtually every large trader was, simultaneously, a slave-raider or a buyer. Every military campaign, every punitive expedition was, at the same time, a campaign for captives who could be bought, sold, or held.
Knowing this, one might have expected statecraft to consist in sailing as close to the wind as they could: that is, in extracting resources just short of the point at which they would provoke flight or rebellion.
Peoples who appeared to have no fixed abode, who moved constantly and unpredictably, were beyond the pale of civilization.
In addition, to the degree that irrigated padi cultivation massively alters the landscape, while hill agriculture appears less visually obtrusive, hill peoples came to be associated with nature as against culture.
Thus, of all the commodities that the hill societies could deny the valleys, their trump card was manpower.
All those who had reason to flee state power—to escape taxes, conscription, disease, poverty, or prison, or to trade or raid—were, in a sense, tribalizing themselves.
What passes, in the eyes of valley officials, as deplorable backwardness may, for those so stigmatized, represent a political space of self-governance, mobility, and freedom from taxes.
The official invisibility of defection is encoded in the narrative itself; those who move to nonstate space, who adapt to its agro-ecology, become ethnicized barbarians who were, presumably, always there.
Those absorbed disappeared as distinctive societies, though they lent their cultural color to the amalgam that came to represent valley culture.
This reversal is an important reminder that the key to premodern state-building is the concentration of arable land and manpower, not altitude per se.
Competition among the agrarian states for conscripts led to constant sweeps for “vagrants”—virtually anyone without a fixed residence—to fulfill draconian recruitment quotas.
Gypsies, the most stigmatized and scourged of the itinerant poor, were criminalized and made the object of the notorious Zegeuner Jagt (Gypsy hunts).
This no-man’s land, this narrow zone of refuge, became known as the “outlaw corridor.” The outlaw corridor was simply a concentration of migrants “between the Palatine and Saxony, which was too far from the Prussian-Brandenburg recruitment area as well as from the Mediterranean (in the latter case, the transportation costs were higher then the price per slave).”
As Hefner observes, the overriding goal of the Tengger uplanders is to avoid “being ordered about”; an aspiration that is deliberately at odds with the elaborate hierarchies and status-coded behavior of the Javanese lowlands.
The varied timing of the many waves of migration, their location by altitude, and their mode of subsistence account, Keesing believes, for the luxuriant diversity of the mountain ethnoscape in contrast to valley uniformity.
The hills, from the valley perspective, were associated with heathenism, apostasy, primitive wildness and ferocity, and insubordination.
Having, over time, adapted to a hilly environment and, as we shall see, developed a social structure and subsistence routines to avoid incorporation, they are now seen by their lowland neighbors as impoverished, backward, tribal populations that lacked the talent for civilization.
Again and again, the compilers are told that the village was founded recently or several generations back by people who had come from elsewhere, usually to escape war or oppression.
All these options were generally preferred to the risks of open rebellion, an option confined largely to elites contending for the throne.
The expression “states make wars and wars make states,” coined by Charles Tilly
It mattered little whether the army in question was “one’s own” or that of a neighboring kingdom, the quartermaster’s requirements were the same, and so, largely, was the treatment of civilians and property.
The wet-rice valleys and the level plains of the typical valley state are not merely topographically flat; they can also be thought of as having been culturally, linguistically, and religiously flattened.
When Islam swept the area the Berbers became Muslims, but soon expressed their dissent from the inequalities of Arab Muslim rule by becoming Kharijite heretics.”
Religious identity in this case is a self-selected boundary-making device designed to emphasize political and social difference.
Most of the deadly epidemic diseases from which we suffer—smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, plague, measles, and cholera—are zoonotic diseases that have evolved from domesticated animals.
State-resistant space was therefore not a place on the map but a position vis-à-vis power;
A complete accounting of state-resistant places would have as many pages devoted to low, wet places—marshes, swamps, fens, bogs, moors, deltas, mangrove coasts, and complex waterways and archipelagoes—as to high mountain redoubts.
Self-marginalization, or “self-barbarianization” in valley terms, might have been, at times, quite common. Civilizational discourse, however, made such conduct unthinkable.
Dissimilation—not to be confused with dissimulation—refers to the more or less purposeful creation of cultural distance between societies.
These communities ranged in size from Palmares in Brazil, with perhaps twenty thousand inhabitants, and Dutch Guiana (Surinam), with that many or more, to smaller settlements of escapees throughout the Caribbean (Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Saint-Domingue), as well as in Florida and on the Virginia-North Carolina border in the Great Dismal Swamp.
To choose swiddening or, for that matter, foraging or nomadic pastoralism is to choose to remain outside state space.
Wet rice is, to be sure, more productive per unit of land than shifting cultivation. It is, however, typically less productive per unit of labor. Which of the two systems is the more efficient depends mainly on whether land or labor represents the scarcer factor of production.
If, on the other hand, the population chooses to grow padi rice, they represent an easy target for a state (or raiders), who know where to find them and their crops, carts, plow animals, and possessions.
One Bornean specialist goes so far as to argue that the very purpose of shifting cultivation was to sustain a population of traders scouring the forest for valuable trade goods.5
Any crop that allowed people to move to hitherto inaccessible areas and to provision themselves successfully there was, by definition, a crop stigmatized by the state.
Cassava allows its planters to occupy virtually any ecological niche, roam more or less at will, and avoid a great deal of drudgery.
Ernest Gellner describes this deliberate choice among the Berbers with the slogan “Divide that ye be not ruled.” It is a brilliant aphorism, for it shows that the Roman slogan “Divide and rule” does not work past a certain point of atomization.
Social structure, in other words, is, in large measure, both a state effect and a choice; and one possible choice is a social structure that is invisible and/or illegible to state-makers.
The British in Burma, Leach noted, everywhere preferred autocratic “tribal” regimes in compact geographical concentrations with which they could negotiate; conversely, they had a distaste for anarchic, egalitarian peoples who had no discernible spokesman.
They emphasize the equality of access to feasting and status competition, refusing to allow those who were already prominent or too wealthy to conduct further sacrifices lest they aspire to chiefdom status.
At the same time, those who migrate to lowland states and assimilate—and historically there have been a great many—enter valley society at its lowest rungs.
They might be termed equality, autonomy, and mobility, all understood relatively. As a matter of practice, of course, all three are encoded in material life in the hills—in location well away from lowland states, in dispersal, in common property, in shifting cultivation, and in the choice of crops.
The gumlao Kachin, as we have seen, have a history of enforcing egalitarian social relations by deposing or assassinating overreaching chiefs. One imagines that this history and the narratives that accompany it operate as a chilling cautionary tale for lineage chiefs with autocratic ambitions.
then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provides a freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines.
Such legends are, like ethnic identity itself, a strategic positioning vis-à-vis other groups. We have every reason to imagine that such legends, like ethnic identity, will be adjusted if the circumstances shift appreciably.
Second, those who were literate in the script of the lowland state would have almost certainly have been elites whose bicultural skills fitted them best to become allies and administrators of the lowland state and, if they so chose, to take the path of assimilation.
Lowland padi states were centers of literacy not merely because they were cult centers for world religions but also because writing is a crucial technology of administration and statecraft.
In an oral culture, there cannot be a single authoritative genealogy or history that can serve as the gold standard of orthodoxy. In the case of two or more renditions, which one is given credence depends largely on the standing of the “bard” in question and on how closely the account conforms to the interests and tastes of the audience.
Oral culture exists and is sustained only through each unique performance at a particular time and place for an interested audience. These performances are, of course, far more than the transcript of the words spoken; each includes the setting, the gestures, and the expression of the performer(s), the audience reaction, and the nature of the occasion itself.
Oral traditions, then, appear to provide, under certain circumstances, something of the word-for-word constancy of a fixed, written text, together with the potential flexibility of strategic adjustment and change. They can, as it were, have it both ways; they can claim to be precise ur-texts while in fact being substantially novel—and there is no easy way of evaluating this claim.
Elaborate genealogies are, in this respect, a vast portfolio of possible connections, most of which remain in the shadows but could, if necessary, be summoned.
By denying their history—by not carrying the shared history and genealogy that define group identity—the Lisu negate virtually any unit of cultural identity beyond the individual household.
Ernest Renan was right when he wrote over a century ago: “Forgetting, and I would even say historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and so it is that progress in historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” That is, I believe, a fine task for historians: to be a danger to national myths. —Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780
The confusion was genuine and four-barreled. First, any particular trait was likely to be a gradient and occasionally a seamless continuum from one village or group to another. Lacking sharp, discontinuous changes in ritual, dress, building styles, or even language, any line of demarcation was arbitrary. Second, if one did in fact meticulously chart small variations and then try, conscientiously, to justify a particular trait boundary, another nearly insurmountable problem arose. The boundaries for trait A, B, and C did not map onto one another; each yielded a different line of demarcation, a different classification of “ethnicities.” The third and fatal difficulty was that any such trait-mapped ethnicities were unlikely to coincide with the phenomenological understandings of the tribal people whose life-world was being mapped. The colonial ethnographers’ map said they were A, but they said they were B and had always been. How could that not matter? And if the classification exercise somehow survived these blows, a fourth difficulty, time, would surely be the coup de grâce. Those with some sense of historical change understood that in terms of traits or in terms of self-identification, the A had, not so long ago, been B and seemed, alarmingly, now on their way to becoming C. How could an ethnic group, a tribe, be so radically unstable over time and still be a people?
Zomia is and has been what might be called a “fracture zone” of state-making, much like the Caucasus and the Balkans.
Such powerful identities are, in this respect, no less fictitious and constructed than most national identities in the modern world.
The perspective adopted and elaborated here is a radical constructionist one: that ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources. In a world crowded with other actors, most of whom, like modern states, are more powerful than they, their freedom of invention is severely constricted. They craft identities, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, to paraphrase Marx.
But what is novel and noteworthy for most of this long history in the hills is that ethnic and tribal identities have been put to the service not merely of autonomy but of statelessness.
The formula for full incorporation was minimal: becoming a retainer of a Malay chief, professing Islam, and speaking Malay, the lingua franca of trade in the archipelago. A negeri was less an ethnicity than a political formula for membership in the polity.
As suggested earlier, the Burmese and Siamese were to the numerous and varied populations they incorporated as the two thousand conquering Norman families were to the indigenous peoples of Britain.
The keystone, of course, is the technique of irrigated rice cultivation that makes possible a padi core in the first place. It was not, however, a technique exclusive to the Burmese and Tai, inasmuch as it had been the basis of the Khmer, Pyu, and Mon courts earlier. The cosmology and architecture of the Indic court center is, as it were, the ideological superstructure of the divine monarchy and was adapted for that purpose. Theravada Buddhism, another import, served as a universal domain, to assemble “ethnic deities and spirits” under a new hegemon, much as the padi state’s subjects were gathered around the court. Local spirits (nat, phi) were accommodated as subsidiary deities much as Catholicism accommodated pagan deities under the rubric of the saints. Even the languages of the state-builders, Burmese and Thai, were, in their written form (from Sanskrit via Pali), linked to the legitimating cosmology of Buddhism and the Indic state.
While the historical process of ingathering was a cosmopolitan enterprise, the population thus assembled came to share a set of common cultural practices and institutions.
Before the advent of modern statecraft, with its practices of territorial administration and mutually exclusive sovereignties and ethnicities, such ambiguities were common.
A person’s ethnic identity in this sense would be the repertoire of possible performances and the contexts in which they are exhibited.
The first is that powerful outsiders, especially states, constrain the identity choices of most actors. Second, movement toward one of an array of identities does not exclude the possibility that, should circumstances change, that movement might be reversed. Finally, and surely most important, we must never confuse what an outsider might perceive as a momentous shift in identity with the lived experience of the actors involved.
Peoples whose vernacular order was egalitarian lacked the institutional handles by which they could be governed. Those institutions would have to be provided, if necessary, by force.
In Batavia, the Dutch discerned, according to their preconception, a Chinese minority. This mixed group did not consider itself Chinese; its boundaries merged seamlessly with those of other Batavians, with whom they freely intermarried. Once the Dutch discerned this ethnicity, however, they institutionalized their administrative fiction. They set about territorializing the “Chinese” quarter, selected “Chinese” officials, set up local courts for customary Chinese law as they saw it, instituted Chinese schools, and in general made sure that all those falling within this classification approached the colonial regime as Batavian “Chinese.” What began as something of a figment of the Dutch imperial imagination took on real sociological substance through the traffic patterns of institutions. And voilà!—after sixty years or so there was indeed a self-conscious Chinese community.
The point is that once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty.
The Lisu are without history not because they are incapable of history but because they choose to avoid its inconveniences.
By 1800 a kind of cultural template had been established for Lahu rebellions, which were innumerable. They were almost always led by holy men seen by the Lahu as god-kings who could cure illnesses, purify the community, and constitute a Buddhist “field of merit.”
The frequency of Lahu prophetic movements allows us to identify something of a “career trajectory,” even for an activity so decidedly unroutine as becoming a god-man. A local village priest has a mystical experience—perhaps as the result of an illness—and claims healing powers through the use of trance or possession. If his claim is accepted and he gains a substantial extravillage following for his curing powers, he may claim (or his followers may claim) that he has Gui-sha’s divine nature. He is then likely to insist on ritual and doctrinal reforms (diet, prayer, taboos) to cleanse the community and prepare for a new order. A final step, one that will invariably catapult him into the archives of his lowland neighbors and perhaps sign his death warrant, is when, as god-man, he proclaims a new order and unites his followers in defiance of the lowland state.
Nonetheless, the analogy does illustrate the way in which the cultural expectations and historical understanding of a charismatic public—often misunderstood as mere putty in his hands—can play a decisive role in influencing the script of a successful prophet. This stochastic process of successive adjustment is familiar enough; it is the stock in trade of most successful politicians and preachers.
Among others, Weber pointed to the Donatist sects of Roman North Africa, the Taborites (aka Hussites) of early-fifteenth-century Bohemia, the Diggers of the English Civil Wars, and Russian peasant sectarians as examples of the prophetic tradition of agrarian radicalism.
That is, it was not so much penury that led peasants to radical religious sects as the imminent prospect of losing their status as independent smallholders and falling into abject dependence as landless laborers or, worse, someone’s serf.
Virtually all states were monarchies, and the remedy for a bad king was a better king.
In the great Taiping Rebellion, in the hundreds of cargo-cult uprisings in the Pacific Islands, in the rebellions of New World prophets against Europeans, the key figures are often culturally amphibious translators who move relatively easily between the worlds they inhabit.
The shaman or traditional healer treats patients who are troubled or ill, typically through trance and/or possession. The shaman identifies what is out of whack and then conducts rituals to persuade the spirit troubling the patient to withdraw. In the case of the prophet, however, it is the entire community that is, as it were, out of whack. Often the crisis and threat are such that the normal cultural paths to dignity and respect—diligence as a cultivator, bravery, successful feasting, good hunting, marriage and children, and locally honorable behavior generally—are no longer adequate to an exceptional situation.
For every would-be prophet who manages to lead his followers to a zone of relative peace and stability—and subsistence—many others fail. But the coincidence of such movements with economic, political, and military crises suggests that they can be seen as desperate social experiments, a throw of the dice in a setting where the odds of a very favorable outcome are long.
Faced with slave raids, demands for tribute, invading armies, epidemics, and occasional crop failures, they appear to have developed not just the subsistence routines to keep the state at arm’s length but a shape-shifting social and religious organization admirably adapted to cope with a turbulent environment. The concentration of heterodox sects, hermit monks, pretenders, and would-be prophets in most hill societies has provided, in effect, the agency that allows many of them to substantially reinvent themselves when the situation requires it.
To stand back and take all this in, to wonder at the capacity of hill peoples to strike out, almost overnight, for new territory—socially, religiously, ethnically—is to appreciate the mind-boggling cosmopolitanism of relatively marginal and powerless people.
In light of this history it is perhaps not so surprising that they have been so adept at moving at the drop of a hat, reshuffling their social organization, and shape-shifting between various forms of millenarian dreams and revolt. These are, in a sense, high-stakes experiments in social identity by a people hoping to change their luck. As their situation has worsened, they have developed escape social structure into something of an art form.
Nevertheless, such movements have created new social groups, reshuffled and amalgamated ethnicities, assisted the founding of new villages and new states, provoked radical shifts in subsistence routines and customs, set off long-distance moves, and, not trivially, kept alive a reservoir of hope for a life of dignity, peace, and plenty in the teeth of very long odds.
Most hill cultures have, as it were, their bags already packed for travel across space, across identities, or across both. Their broad repertoires of languages and ethnic affiliations, their capacity for prophetic reinvention, their short and/or oral genealogies, and their talent for fragmentation all form elements in their formidable travel kit.
It is in their interest to keep as many of their options open as possible, and what kind of history to have is one of those options. They have just as much history as they require.
In periods of dynastic consolidation, peace, and buoyant trade, Skinner explains, the local community opens and adapts to the opportunities these conditions afford. Economic specialization, trade, and administrative and political links flourish as the community takes advantage of the opportunities in the wider world. By contrast, in periods of dynastic collapse, economic depression, and civil strife and banditry, the local community withdraws increasingly into its own shell as a self-protective measure. The withdrawal was patterned, according to Skinner: first a normative withdrawal, then an economic closure, and, finally, a defensive military closure. Specialists and traders returned home, economic specialization diminished, the local food supply was guarded, outsiders were expelled, crop-watching societies were formed, stockades built, and local militias created.
Such adjustments can take place along one or several dimensions not easily available to the core peasantry. The first of these dimensions is location; the higher and more remote their dwelling, the farther they generally are from state centers, slave raids, and taxes. A second dimension is scale and dispersal; the smaller and more dispersed their settlements the less tempting a target they represent for raiders and states. Finally, they can and do modulate their subsistence techniques, each of which embodies a position vis-à-vis states, hierarchy, and political incorporation.
What is most striking here, of course, is how closely the ideal of a civilized landscape and demography coincides with a landscape and demography most suitable for state-making and how closely a landscape unsuitable for state appropriation, as well as the people who inhabit it, is understood as uncivilized and barbaric.
Dwelling in inaccessible forests and on hilltops codes as uncivilized. Foraging, forest collecting—even for commercial gain—and swiddening also code as backward. Scattered living and small settlements are, by definition, archaic. Physical mobility and transient, negotiable identities are both primitive and dangerous. Not following the great valley religions or not being the tax- and tithe-bearing subjects of monarchs and clergy places one outside the pale of civilization.
The ruler of Palembang in 1747 observed: “It is very easy for a subject to find a lord, but it is much more difficult for a lord to find a subject.”
One of the most inspiring things I have ever seen was a large papiermâché statue of a running figure, a “Monument to the Deserters of Both World Wars” (Denkmal an den Unbekannten Deserteurs der Beiden Weltkriegen) assembled by German anarchists shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and taken, via flatbed truck, to the cities of the former German Democratic Republic. It was chased from city to city by the local authorities until it came to rest, briefly, in Bonn.
Military portering is especially dreaded. It has been common for porters to be worked to exhaustion on maneuvers and then executed so that they cannot return home, to be forced to walk ahead of Burmese troops through suspected minefields, and, occasionally, to be forced to wear uniforms and precede the troops in order to draw insurgent fire.
When you use “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.
There’s a place for giving advice, of course. This book isn’t suggesting that you never give anyone an answer ever again. But it’s an overused and often ineffective response.
Which is why people in organizations like yours around the world are working very hard and coming up with decent solutions to problems that just don’t matter, and why the real challenges often go unaddressed.
The simple act of adding “for you” to the end of as many questions as possible is an everyday technique for making conversations more development- than performance-oriented.
Stick to questions starting with “What” and avoid questions starting with “Why.”
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.
I was not a successful law student. I remember almost nothing from my classes, and I ended my studies by being sued by one of my lecturers for defamation. It’s a long story.
“Are you more important or less important than I am?” is the question the brain is asking, and if you’ve diminished my status, the situation feels less secure.
T is for tribe. The brain is asking, “Are you with me, or are you against me?”
E is for expectation. The brain is figuring out, “Do I know the future or don’t I?”
A is for autonomy.
If you believe you do have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement.
A way to soften this question, as with all questions, is to use the phrase “Out of curiosity.”
Other phrases that can have a similar softening effect on the question being asked are “Just so I know…” or “To help me understand better…” or even “To make sure that I’m clear…”
You’re giving the solution, you’re providing the answer, you’re adding something to your to-do list. You’re assuming you know what the request is, even though the request hasn’t been clearly made. In short, you’re taking responsibility.
The more direct version of “How can I help?” is “What do you want from me?”
the wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.
In fact, “strategic” has become an overused qualifier, something we add to anything that we want to sound more important, more useful, more thoughtful, more… good.
Why are you asking me?
Whom else have you asked?
When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
According to what standard does this need to be completed? By when?
If I couldn’t do all of this, but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?
What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?
What is our winning aspiration?
Where will we play?
How will we win?
What capabilities must be in place?
What management systems are required?
You want them to learn so that they become more competent, more self-sufficient and more successful.
Academic Chris Argyris coined the term for this “double-loop learning” more than forty years ago.
But “What was most useful for you?” is like a superfood—kale perhaps—compared with the mere iceberg-lettuce goodness of the other questions.
“Is my manager useful?” the question asks. And thinking back over the last year, he’s struck by the fact that every single conversation with you has proven to be useful.
Answering that question extracts what was useful, shares the wisdom and embeds the learning. If you want to enrich the conversation even further—and build a stronger relationship, too—tell people what you found to be most useful about the exchange.
Critical consciousness, they say, is anarchic. Others add that critical consciousness may lead to disorder.
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.
Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture.
No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors.
Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression.
The oppressed, as objects, as “things,” have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them.
Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.
This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis.
Accordingly, while no one liberates himself by his own efforts alone, neither is he liberated by others.
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
The dominant elites consider the remedy to be more domination and repression, carried out in the name of freedom, order, and social peace (that is, the peace of the elites).
Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.
The role of the problem-posing educator is to create; together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos.
Education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination—denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world.
Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all).
Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.
We simply cannot go to the laborers—urban or peasant9—in the banking style, to give them “knowledge” or to impose upon them the model of the “good man” contained in a program whose content we have ourselves organized.
They forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity, not to “win the people over” to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.
Educational and political action which is not critically aware of this situation runs the risk either of “banking” or of preaching in the desert.
Meanwhile, the significant dimensions, which in their turn are constituted of parts in interaction, should be perceived as dimensions of total reality.
If the oppressed do not become aware of this ambiguity during the course of the revolutionary process, they may participate in that process with a spirit more revanchist than revolutionary.3 They may aspire to revolution as a means of domination, rather than as a road to liberation.
One is the thinking of the master; the other is the thinking of the comrade.
In order to present for the consideration of the oppressed and subjugated a world of deceit designed to increase their alienation and passivity, the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given—something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt.
These courses are based on the naïve assumption that one can promote the community by training its leaders—as if it were the parts that promote the whole and not the whole which, in being promoted, promotes the parts.
If children reared in an atmosphere of lovelessness and oppression, children whose potency has been frustrated, do not manage during their youth to take the path of authentic rebellion, they will either drift into total indifference, alienated from reality by the authorities and the myths the latter have used to “shape” them; or they may engage in forms of destructive action.
What Guevara did not say, perhaps due to humility, is that it was his own humility and capacity to love that made possible his communion with the people.
Most unexpectedly I read 52 books in 2017. These last couple of months I’d been gunning for it but nothing about the first half of this year indicated that I would even hit my challenge of 26 books.
The first half of the year was marked by some decidedly slow reading as well as becoming a twin dad. The long and regular naps of young babies along with my parental leave made that a period where I caught up on watching a lot of movies (see the 50 movies in my Letterboxd diary).
Then halfway through the year, a shift happened where the kids underwent sleep regressions and we went through figurative hell. Watching video became impossible. The sleepless nights sitting up for 30-45 minutes at a stretch with a baby falling into deep sleep turned out to be a catalyst for reading.
I wanted to see how dramatic this shift was so I retrieved my year’s reading from Goodreads, filled in the page counts and made a bar chart of pages racked up per month.
That is indeed more or less where the kids started to become difficult sleepers (month 4-5) where my first peak starts and from there on it’s a steady pace until the end of the year bang.
What this has taught me more than anything is how relative reading velocity is and how with a bit of time and a slight change in attitude you can easily read 2-5x more than you normally thought possible. One of my tricks is to read about five books simultaneously and to cycle through those to keep up the energy.
For a normal month 1500 pages seems sustainable which would be about five books per month or sixty a year if I’d kept that up from the start. And 1500 pages per month is only 50 a day something that anybody with a bit of dedicated time should be able to do.
The books are listed per category below and the recommended ones are marked bold.
A meagre year but I feel that in my current engineering practice I know mostly what I want to know and I’m looking more to branch out. I’m still open to reading books about engineering, but the bar is rather high since both of the UX books below did not add much to my knowledge. Alexander’s Notes… is seminal and should be a required exercise for anybody designing anything.
- Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience
- Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher W. Alexander
- Advanced Swift
- UX for Lean Startups
This has been one area where I branched out and tore through a decent stack of standard works. I’ve enjoyed most of the things I read here a lot. Some books did not teach me that much as much as reinforce and recontextualize things that I already knew. It’s nice to be confirmed about things you found out yourself, but let’s hope my reading prevents me from making as many mistakes as well.
Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership is simple but extremely (!) effective. Reinertsen’s is a seminal tome that formalizes a lot of (what I think to be) common sense when it comes to product development and project management. Never split the Difference is a thrilling read and I’m already looking forward to applying the haggling it taught. The Coaching Habit is a laser precision book that teaches you exactly what you need to know and when/how to apply it. More books should do that.
- Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink
- Personal Kanban: Mapping Work Navigating Life
- The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development, Donald G. Reinertsen
- Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager
- Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor
- Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness
- What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful
- Financial Strategy for Public Managers
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss
- The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier
Seven out of nine (78%) of these authors are non-white/non-male and that is a worse score than I was hoping for. Toer’s book on life in the Dutch East Indies should be essential reading for all Dutch people. Nelson has shown me parenting from a non-cis/-male perspective and for that I’m grateful.
- Água Viva
- Open City
- The Name Of The Rose
- Aarde der Mensen, Pramoedya Ananta Toer
- The Goldfinch
- The God of Small Things
- The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
- Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
- The Underground Railroad
Five out of nine (56%) books here are by non-white/non-males which is somewhat better than one could hope for in speculative fiction. Blue Mars was a lovely end to a huge journey and both the trilogy and the planet did grow on me. The second Inheritance book was the best of the lot which does not mean the series is bad in any way.
- The Lathe of Heaven
- Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, #3), Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy, #1)
- The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance, #2), N.K. Jemisin
- The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, #3)
- The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)
- The Dispossessed
- Blindsight (Firefall, #1)
- Echopraxia (Firefall, #2)
Not that much outstanding here other than Scott’s book about Zomia. Reading a lot of the other books here felt like work even if they were short.
- The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering
- We Have Never Been Modern
- The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott
- Homage to Catalonia
- Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals
- Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London
- Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
- Metaphors We Live By
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Kids’ books are terrible and Karp’s book on kids was one of the few I read that wasn’t totally useless.
- Mann Und Vater Sein
- Babys brauchen Väter
- The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block 2-Book Bundle, Dr. Harvey Karp
- The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems: Sleeping, Feeding, and Behavior–Beyond the Basics from Infancy Through Toddlerhood
- Was machst du kleiner Bagger?
- Wie kleine Tiere schlafen gehen
- Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt
- Mein erstes Buch vom Körper
- Schlaf gut, Baby
A very slim year with Darwish the sole representant of this category, lovely but overly long in this selection.
- Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, Mahmoud Darwish
Trungpa’s style is highly accessible while maintaining a lot of jargon. This is one of the first times things have clicked for me.
- The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, Chögyam Trungpa
Turkish MC XiR has a new trap song out with the noteworthy title Angela Merkel. There is even somebody with a Merkel mask in the video.
The video has a quick and dirty German subtitle bundled with it which you can turn on and read.
In the spirit of international relations, I will translate to English the hook of the song (lyrics on Genius). The rest of the song is either not that interesting or I’m missing out on a lot of inside baseball. Either way, I won’t try it.
Karaköy’e sen gel
Yol aldı yengen
Karaköy’e sen gel
There is no Schengen
You come down to Karaköy
You’ll lose your senses
Your woman’s gone
You come down to Karaköy
I can’t make much more of it other than that the mythologization of Angela Merkel continues. I’m curious what the German foreign office thinks about that.
Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us a handle on the concept of an idea.
We are proposing that the concepts that occur in metaphorical definitions are those that correspond to natural kinds of experience.
Examples are PHYSICAL ORIENTATIONS, OBJECTS, SUBSTANCES, SEEING, JOURNEYS, WAR, MADNESS, FOOD, BUILDINGS, etc. These concepts for natural kinds of experience and objects are structured clearly enough and with enough of the right kind of internal structure to do the job of defining other concepts.
What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.
New metaphors, like conventional metaphors, can have the power to define reality. They do this through a coherent network of entailments that highlight some features of reality and hide others. The acceptance of the metaphor, which forces us to focus only on those aspects of our experience that it highlights, leads us to view the entailments of the metaphor as being true. Such “truths” may be true, of course, only relative to the reality defined by the metaphor.
A statement can be true only relative to some understanding of it.
It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.
The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing—what we have called metaphorical thought.
The reason is, simply, that if we can do this, we can draw inferences about the situation that will not conflict with one another. That is, we will be able to infer nonconflicting expectations and suggestions for behavior. And it is comforting—extremely comforting—to have a consistent view of the world, a clear set of expectations and no conflicts about what you should do. Objectivist models have a real appeal—and for the most human of reasons.
A general realization that science does not yield absolute truth would no doubt change the power and prestige of the scientific community as well as the funding practices of the federal government. The result would be a more reasonable assessment of what scientific knowledge is and what its limitations are.
Within the experientialist myth, understanding emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people.
Each art medium picks out certain dimensions of our experience and excludes others. Artworks provide new ways of structuring our experience in terms of these natural dimensions. Works of art provide new experiential gestalts and, therefore, new coherences.
In a world in which Humanity had become redundant in unprecedented numbers, we’d both retained the status of another age: working professional.
The Unknown was technologically advanced—and there were some who claimed that that made them hostile by definition. Technology Implies Belligerence, they said.
Humans didn’t really fight over skin tone or ideology; those were just handy cues for kin-selection purposes. Ultimately it always came down to bloodlines and limited resources.
So the therapists and psychiatrists poked at their victims and invented names for things they didn’t understand, and argued over the shrines of Freud and Klein and the old Astrologers. Doing their very best to sound like practitioners of Science.
Since you don’t actually see it, there’s no messy eyeball optics to limit resolution.
Luddites love to go on about computer malfunctions, and how many accidental wars we might have prevented because a human had the final say. But funny thing, commissar; nobody talks about how many intentional wars got started for the same reason.
“What relationship? According to you there’s no such thing. This is just—mutual rape, or something.”
“You use your Chinese room the way they used vision. You’ve reinvented empathy, almost from scratch, and in some ways—not all obviously, or I wouldn’t have to tell you this—but in some ways yours is better than the original. It’s why you’re so good at synthesis.”
When asked for your perspective, you serve it straight up and unvarnished— until the decision is made, and the orders handed down. Then you do your job without question.
I was good at what I did. I was so damned good, I did it without even meaning to.
People were starting to weigh costs against benefits, opt for a day or two outside the panopticon even in the face of the inevitable fines and detentions.
“Then it’s not your brain anymore. It’s something else. You’re something else.”
“That’s kinda the point. Transcendence is transformation.”
He shook his head, unconvinced. “Sounds more like suicide to me.”
the Anarres colony
“Have a drink,” he said. “Helps the future go down easier.”
“Dan, you gotta let go of this whole self thing. Identity changes by the second, you turn into someone else every time a new thought rewires your brain. You’re already a different person than you were ten minutes ago.”
She’d hadn’t even been in the kill zone; she’d been on the other side of the world, growing freelance code next to the girl of her dreams. Those weren’t as rare as they’d once been. In fact they’d grown pretty common ever since Humanity had learned to edit the dream as well as the girl. Soul mates could be made to order now: monogamous, devoted, fiercely passionate
I know how bad the optics are. I know how tough it is to sell an alliance with a regime whose neuropolitics are rooted in the Middle Ages. But we’re just going to have to take this dick in our mouths and swallow whatever comes out.
I’ve told you before, Daniel: roach isn’t an insult. We’re the ones still standing after the mammals build their nukes, we’re the ones with the stripped-down OS’s so damned simple they work under almost any circumstances. We’re the goddamned Kalashnikovs of thinking meat.
It frightened him, at first—the way new thoughts spilled from his mouth before he could check them for veracity, before he could even parse their meaning.
It’s a hack, in other words; your brain has learned how to get the reward without actually earning it through increased fitness. It feels good, and it fulfills us, and it makes life worth living. But it also turns us inward and distracts us.
Because natural selection takes time, and luck plays a role. The biggest boys on the block at any given time aren’t necessarily the fittest, or the most efficient, and the game isn’t over. The game is never over; there’s no finish line this side of heat death. And so, neither can there be any winners. There are only those who haven’t yet lost.
In hindsight, it is apparent that describing the Bicamerals as a religious order is a little misleading: the parts of the brain they’ve souped up simply overlap with the parts that kick in during religious neurobehavioral events, so the manifestations are similar. Whether that’s a distinction that makes a difference is left as an exercise for the reader.
In every negotiation, in every agreement, the result comes from someone else’s decision. And sadly, if we believe that we can control or manage others’ decisions with compromise and logic, we’re leaving millions on the table. But while we can’t control others’ decisions, we can influence them by inhabiting their world and seeing and hearing exactly what they want.
So don’t settle and—here’s a simple rule—never split the difference. Creative solutions are almost always preceded by some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion, and conflict. Accommodation and compromise produce none of that. You’ve got to embrace the hard stuff. That’s where the great deals are.
BE PLEASANTLY PERSISTENT ON NONSALARY TERMS
SALARY TERMS WITHOUT SUCCESS TERMS IS RUSSIAN ROULETTE
SPARK THEIR INTEREST IN YOUR SUCCESS AND GAIN AN UNOFFICIAL MENTOR
Ask: “What does it take to be successful here?”
We are emotional, irrational beasts who are emotional and irrational in predictable, pattern-filled ways. Using that knowledge is only, well, rational.
Having just two words to start with might not seem like a lot of ammunition, but trust me, you can use “what” and “how” to calibrate nearly any question.
The trick to “How” questions is that, correctly used, they are gentle and graceful ways to say “No” and guide your counterpart to develop a better solution—your solution.
When implementation happens by committee, the support of that committee is key. You always have to identify and unearth their motivations, even if you haven’t yet identified each individual on that committee.
Humanize yourself. Use your name to introduce yourself. Say it in a fun, friendly way. Let them enjoy the interaction, too. And get your own special price.
And if the other side pushes you to go first, wriggle from his grip. Instead of naming a price, allude to an incredibly high number that someone else might charge.
Sometimes a situation simply calls for you to be the aggressor and punch the other side in the face.
The person across the table is never the problem. The unsolved issue is. So focus on the issue. This is one of the most basic tactics for avoiding emotional escalations.
The systematized and easy-to-remember process has only four steps:
1.Set your target price (your goal).
2.Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target price.
3.Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent).
4.Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
5.When calculating the final amount, use precise, nonround numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight.
6.On your final number, throw in a nonmonetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.
The shock of an extreme anchor will induce a fight-or-flight reaction in all but the most experienced negotiators, limiting their cognitive abilities and pushing them into rash action.
If you can show inconsistencies between their beliefs and their actions, you have normative leverage. No one likes to look like a hypocrite.
But when someone displays a passion for what we’ve always wanted and conveys a purposeful plan of how to get there, we allow our perceptions of what’s possible to change. We’re all hungry for a map to joy, and when someone is courageous enough to draw it for us, we naturally follow.
The alternative we’ve chosen is to not understand their religion, their fanaticism, and their delusions. Instead of negotiations that don’t go well, we shrug our shoulders and say, “They’re crazy!”
Whatever the specifics of the situation, these people are not acting irrationally. They are simply complying with needs and desires that you don’t yet understand, what the world looks like to them based on their own set of rules.
If this book accomplishes only one thing, I hope it gets you over that fear of conflict and encourages you to navigate it with empathy. If you’re going to be great at anything—a great negotiator, a great manager, a great husband, a great wife—you’re going to have to do that.
One can only be an exceptional negotiator, and a great person, by both listening and speaking clearly and empathetically; by treating counterparts—and oneself—with dignity and respect; and most of all by being honest about what one wants and what one can—and cannot—do.
When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion—you fall to your highest level of preparation.
Boeing’s executives expect their managers to know this information, in real time, if the company is to remain profitable.
Managers need good information about costs to set prices, determine how much of a good or service to deliver, and to manage costs in ways that make their organization more likely to achieve its mission.
Public financial resources are finite, scarce, and becoming scarcer.
CVP is a powerful tool that can directly illuminate many important management decisions.
For most public organizations personnel costs are the largest and most visible budget inputs. That’s why effective budgeting for public organizations starts, and often ends, with careful attention to budgeting for personnel.
Public managers must know what portion of the costs for which they’re responsible are fixed, variable, and step-fixed. They must also understand how different cost items connect to service delivery outputs, and how their cost center is assigned indirect costs. And perhaps most important, they must understand how their program’s cost structure and cost behavior will change under different performance scenarios.
For instance, for organizations with mostly fixed costs one of the best approaches to manage costs and bolster profitability is to “scale up.” Since fixed costs are fixed, one way to manage them is to spread them across the largest possible volume of service. However, for organizations with mostly variable costs, scaling up will simply increase variable costs. The better approach in that circumstance is to invest in new technology, procurement processes, or other strategies that can drive down variable costs.
The best we can do is understand these trends, forecast them to the best of our ability, and help policymakers understand the trade-offs these trends put in play.
But fundamentally, budgeting is a form of politics. Resources are scarce, and budgeting is the process by which organizations allocate those scarce resources. As such, budgeting is about managing conflict.
For budget policymakers, conflict and compromise is often around that annual percentage change, or increment. This assumes, of course, that last year’s budget – or base budget – was a fair representation of the organization’s goals and priorities. If this is not true, then debating incremental change will only amplify that disconnect between resources and priorities. In fact, for most public organizations, that disconnect is persistent and pervasive.
Legislators and board members are generally willing to appropriate small amounts of money to try “innovative” approaches. With time, many of those small experiments morph into large-scale programs.