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Calling For The Peace Corps Next Act: The Equal Society Corps

One of many incredible days for me as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

One of the many incredible experiences I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

I was a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago and it was one of the most important and impactful experiences of my life. As designed and established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps provides technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.

As Wikipedia summarizes, “The work is generally related to social and economic development. Each program participant, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of two years after three months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.”

When I volunteered, there was a lot of emphasis on the fact that the three goals of a Peace Corps Volunteer were equally weighted, in other words- yes, you were there to help, but fully two-thirds of your “job” was to learn and share. Learn from the host country about their values and experience and to share American values and experience. Being was as important as doing.

Well, it’s occurred to me that it is time for a Peace Corps reboot, or better yet, a new agency altogether. The Peace Corps was conceived at a time when America was perceived (at least by us) as the pinnacle of society. A shining example of industry, ingenuity, strength, and progressive values- in short, a place to be admired. And to be sure, we remain an economic powerhouse and we can consume consumables like nobody’s business (too bad that’s not an Olympic sport), but we have begun to falter in a lot of important ways.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

I am sure everyone has seen those lists about the countries that are top for education, health-care, life-expectancy, quality of life, gender equity, infant mortalityrenewable energy, and gun-deaths. Perhaps the one list to rule them all is the Economist’s Where to be born list (we rank a disappointing 17th in 2013). On many of these lists, we are not even in the top ten but we should be and we can be. For the long-term health of the nation, I assert we must take action to improve our standing on these lists.

I think what we are lacking, is a model. The US is so vast and insulated; and because it’s so huge, we “travel” within its borders- Disneyland parks had over 30 million visitors last year. As my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya taught me, and the many thousands that have served in its 50 years of existence, it’s hard to conceive of another culture until you live in it. As that famous aphorism says, “Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Well, we need to do some walking in some different shoes.

There is a visceral understanding that comes from living in a place with no electricity, no running water, no tarmac road, minimal infrastructure, and no organized social safety net that makes you inestimably more grateful for what we have here in the United States. I also continue to feel incredibly privileged for all that I learned from my time in Kenya, lessons that I still apply in my personal and professional life.

And yet, there are those lists. The lists that suggest (perhaps even prove) there could be an even better way. Given America’s great history and tradition of competitiveness (JFK was also instrumental in the race to land a man on the moon) and our desire to be number one, I would like to humbly call for the creation of The Equal Society Corps (I was going to say Better Society Corps, but the initials invite too many jokes). The mission of the ESC would be similar to the Peace Corps, but we would go to countries that rank high on aforementioned lists.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

I think one reason that Americans struggle against estate taxes, is that we know that our system is highly unfair and being born near or at the lowest end of the economic scale burdens you with a huge list of disadvantages from birth. A burden that for millions of Americans is impossible to shed and that will effect the quality and length of your life significantly. We need to start changing the reality of this ugly truth.

Here is a list of countries we could target for partnership with the Equal Society Corps:

  • Australia
  • Denmark
  • United Kingdom
  • Switzerland
  • Norway
  • Canada
  • Sweden
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • New Zealand

Of course, this list and idea isn’t to say that America doesn’t have many incredible things going for it. Obviously, we are a powerful nation and our economic & technological production over the years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Think of many of the biggest and greatest companies in technology and most of them were founded here. Not to mention the contributions we have made in times of world conflict, particularly during WWII.

It’s also not to say that this list of countries doesn’t have it’s own host of challenges. Many of these countries are smaller with more homogenous populations, some could be states within the United States. Certainly, there is no “perfect” country and we should use our learnings from these countries to continue our quest “to form a more perfect Union”, as enshrined in the preamble to our Constitution.

Just as those who join the Peace Corps are motivated by a healthy dose of idealism, so would the Equal Society Corps be motivated by a desire to better themselves and the world around them. Peace Corps volunteers have also always had strong backs, open minds, and willing hearts- qualities that would serve volunteers well in this new, next generation mission.

I shared the idea for this story with my dad, and he said, heck, he’d like to go. As someone closer to 80 than 75, even with an excellent personal economic outlook (including a pension and retirement savings), he is thinking about what elder care options there are for him in the United States. Probably more than anything else, older parents in the United States do not want to be a burden to their children, and yet- with long life expectancy but often complex and expensive care needs- needs that would have been difficult to cope with at peak income levels, to say nothing of retirement income, their worst fears are being realized. For my generation, the outlook is far, far worse.

The good news is we have a dozen or more countries to learn from and America has a huge workforce that we can point towards this great cause. I would love to see what transformation could be wrought within our own borders by exposing our best and brightest to the ideas and systems that are already working well around the world. The Equal Society Corps could be a key strategy in reversing the direction America has been heading on “the lists.”

Please share, comment, and maybe get ready to pack your bags!

Captain Bill and the Innovation Bullet Train

After my last post discussing the incredible power and social good that technologies like Facebook and Twitter are generating today, I got to thinking about how interesting it is that Microsoft hasn’t been a participant in this most recent round of platform-level innovation. In fact, in a way that was oddly similar to Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace the power of the internet, until Bill Gate’s watershed memo, when the whole company pivoted to bear-hug the Internet “tidal wave” (should have more accurately said tsunami…), Microsoft was also reluctant to embrace or leverage Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps another instance of “Not Invented Here Syndrome” that the company seems to suffer from? Anyway, then I got to thinking about the previous technology revolution, that Microsoft dominated, desktop computing.

Bill launching Windows 95

Bill launching Windows 95

Although my children will never know the world before the age of easy, accessible computers, the Windows operating system was practically a single-product global revolution that changed the world and created vast wealth for Bill and many others, as Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat (shudder) are doing today for their young (mostly male, *sigh*) leaders.

So that line of thought brought me to another question- Bill is in a unique position, he has been the most prominent and influential figure in a technology revolution that brought amazing change to how our global citizenry communicates and works, and created tremendous wealth in the system and for himself. Then in 2000, rather than continuing to drive the engine of innovation and product development that he created- he boarded a new train: direct community investment.

Let’s unpack why this is such an interesting change. What Microsoft did through the 80’s and 90’s was ground-breaking and transformative and without a doubt, incredibly good from a social welfare perspective. The creation and expansion of affordable computing power leveled the playing field for invention, learning, development, communication, and made it possible for nearly *everyone* to participate and use computers for a myriad of purposes. There would be no Zuckerberg without Gates.

I’ll sidebar on Bill for a minute- I have never had an opportunity to meet him, but feel like

Bill's reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

Bill’s reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

I have a good measure of him based on his actions and writings over the years. (I am a devotee of his reading list!) He is a deeply thoughtful, highly intelligent, driven man who is passionate and committed to doing something meaningful with the power that his wealth has afforded him. I can only imagine the hours of reflection and thought that went into stepping away from Microsoft to lead the Foundation with Melinda.

One question that must have come up constantly as he wrestled with his departure from the company is, “Will I do more good via direct investment through the Foundation than I would do as the leader of Microsoft?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, though history tells us that he decided in favor of the Foundation, for which I applaud him and hope that he will serve as a model to other young leaders who also amass great fortunes.

I am a huge fan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the things that stands out to me is the recognition that even with the incredible financial resources at its disposal, the organization doesn’t try to directly assault any of the problems that fall within its charter (perhaps with the exception of eradicating Polio)- and indeed alleviating global poverty, improving global health and education are too vast to be simply solved through the liberal application of money. The underlying conditions and systems that cause and perpetuate these realities are too complex to be solved through money alone.

Rather, the Foundation has developed the concept of multiple focused, concentrated investments being made or seeded, with the aim of continuing to fund and grow those that take root and flourish. This model has roots in Biology and can be seen even at play in the free market system. The Foundation has great material on its mission and values- I highly recommend reading its Annual Reports.

I have little doubt that the Foundation’s impact and legacy, and thus Bill & Melinda’s, will be one of the highlights of the 21st Century, just as the computing revolution ushered us out of the 20th Century on a high note.

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

So what’s the moral of this little journey? In part, it’s a reflection on the rapidly changing world that we live in. When observed from a distant vantage point, innovation is like a bullet train and we are its lucky passengers, watching the world whiz by, a view that we can become numb to, if we don’t take the time to really *look* at the transformation happening before our very eyes. And yes, there are some very special people who participate in driving and fueling that train. Bill Gates is undoubtedly one of the best and most remarkable among them.

Above all- I’d love to get Bill’s thoughts on this question, anyone have his number?

As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing my blog! It’s fun to sit alone and ruminate on these questions, but I far prefer conversation- so please share your comments and thoughts!

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