Oh Say, Can You Produce?


When I read this morning that Branch founder Josh Miller had left Facebook—which acquired his company last year—to become the first director of product at the White House, I thought, “How perfect!” Miller, at 24, is the godfather of discreet chatter on social networks. Branch enabled Twitter users to form groups for private confabs. He was developing a similar clandestine chat service for Facebook until it dawned on him that his talent would best be put to use in government. And why not at the historical nexus of embarrassing political leaks, the White House?

“Director of product” has become a singularly digital industry title, and one that I could never quite wrap my head around. It’s like when financial institutions started calling investment accounts and CDs “products,” whether they produced anything in the way of a return or not. In the digital sphere, product is even more intangible—an algorithm, some code, in the clouds. My parents belonged to the United Auto Workers union. When I hear product, I think Cadillac!

At the White House, according to a blog by Miller (at left), product sounds like websites, which, following the Healthcare.gov debacle could use a director over there on Pennsylvania Avenue. But Miller’s goal, it appears, is to turn the federal government into a secure social network. “Imagine if talking to the government was as easy you talking to your friends on social networks?” Yes, Josh, I can imagine that, and it scares the bronzer off of me. I don’t want to talk to the government and I don’t want the government talking to me. When the government wants to talk to you, it’s rarely a good thing. But Josh is young. He can learn.

So, I’m using this space on the occasion of Miller’s first week on the job to ask him to use his powers of discreet discussion—be it with congressmen or citizens or foreign governments—to produce something of true value to Americans. I’m talking about a balanced budget. Our national debt totals $18 trillion. Time magazine recently ran down what that kind of cash could buy:

  • One year of healthcare for all Americans ($3.3 trillion)
  • A pay-down of all consumer debt, including mortgages ($3.07 trillion)
  • Every NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL team ($68 billion)
  • Four years of college tuition for every American under 75 (at an average of $60,088)
  • 2015’s national defense budget ($631 billion)
  • Apple Computer ($742 billion)
  • A year of fast-food and casual dining meals for all ($1.2 trillion)

If Miller can bring his algorithmic might to getting that done, it could possibly produce a third term (by Congressional acclamation) for President Obama, with about $9 trillion left over for ice cream and Ferraris all around.

Of course, we all know that even a Silicon Valley dream team of  Zuckerberg, Ellison, Bezos, and Benioff couldn’t bring the national debt to its knees. But if the executive branch is to have a director of product, shouldn’t it aim a little higher than cool, discreet websites?  How about pumping out some more traditional hoped-for products of government; things like peace, prosperity, and freedom for all?

Nah, strike that. Paying down the $18 trillion would be easier.

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