Thursday, June 14, 2018

America in 2018: Debtor Democracy

America's debt-fueled economic model is incompatible with merit and possibly tolerance once we account for physical and educational segregation. A debtor democracy cannot succeed without new immigrants and/or new residents willing to contribute to ensure existing and new debt rolls over. As with America's entitlement programs, its political structure is geared not towards resolution of problems but using debt to pass responsibility to future generations. 

Outsiders fail to appreciate how much American inequality and de facto segregation are premised on assumptions of meritocracy. When almost 50% of your population is without significant assets in a debtor democracy, the foundation cracks, causing the younger generation to question capitalism and other values. In short, at the same time the status quo needs to be preserved in order to repay debt, the younger generation has every incentive to break its shackles. We have arrived at this troublesome scenario in large part because of the ways debt and the tax code, especially the mortgage interest tax deduction, have promoted segregation. 

Rather than attempting to fix segregation in ways that identify deserving residents, America's government has outsourced the task of social cohesion to private schools and private banking institutions--with one notable exception. A teenager poorly educated has little choice but to rely on parental connections--increasingly tenuous as segregation increases--or join America's military, the sole entity the government has decided is worthy of its direct involvement in identifying talent. 

Consider a society where the government borrows virtually unlimited money to promote a program heavily biased in favor of men while using the men in increasing meaningless ways as wartime readiness favors technology, economic agreements, and diplomacy over brawn and manpower. Such a society will inevitably create tensions between its banking sector--and, by default, the private sector--and its government by issuing bonds and inviting foreign investment in ways that favor the status quo over residents' well-being. In a dictatorship, such an approach may be viable; in a democratic republic, it is suicide. Welcome to America in 2018. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Scandinavian Military Conscription: Cyberattacks & the Failure of Diplomacy

Sweden recently enacted mandatory military service, following Norway's lead. Both countries claim they must be ready in the face of renewed Russian threats, but Crimea's one-off aside, it's hard to believe higher troop counts will prevent continued cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. The truth is the United Nations' failure to create a deterrence framework for cyberattacks has opened the door for useless and counterproductive military expansion and recruitment. 

Notwithstanding diplomatic shortcomings, cyberattacks present substantial and difficult problems under the military's existing approach of deterrence. For example, when should a country launch physical attacks against another country's cyberattacks? When the cyberattacks impact more than 2% of GDP? When they result in actual theft or loss above a certain threshold? What evidentiary standards ensure impersonation hasn't occurred? What is the penalty for online false flag operations? As of 2018, no one knows. 

Consequently, until a framework for proportional response to cyberattacks can be formulated, Scandinavia's sudden interest in military readiness revolves around trade and access to international markets. Note that almost all international trade still occurs through shippingnecessitating protection through naval cooperation and port securityIn the modern world, whether your country's products get safely from Point A to Point B depends on your leverage in trade agreement negotiations, which can be tied to NATO membership or alliances. Such membership is not a casual affair but one involving long-term financial and other commitments. NATO members are required, on paper, to spend at least 2% of their budgets on military spending to ensure proper readiness; however, much of these taxpayer monies will not be used to improve domestic disaster readiness or the lives of military recruits but on military hardware and products from the U.S. and its partners. 
Jim Rogers' Street Smarts (2013)
In the meantime, non-NATO countries, especially Russia and China, are building alternative trade routes on land (aka new Silk Road) or through bridges, presenting a threat to ever-increasing military expenditures that assume constant or increased shipping volumes

Now that we have a proper overview, I'm concerned about the discourse in Scandinavian countries following legislation on military conscription. One Swede wrote

Sweden needs to impose tax reliefs and increase salaries for its military members as two instruments to meet policy goals. Even if this could result in higher costs, the Swedish government must come to conclusion that the current spending levels are insufficient to meet its own goals, making its latest mandatory conscription policy merely symbolic.

Interestingly, his approach mirrors the United States' desire for Sweden to increase its military spending from around 1% of its budget to 2%. I researched him online, and he is an intern for the Republican Party in America, the pro-military political party. I added the following comments to his post, and I'll share them here as well: 

The United States has mismanaged its economy and harmed social cohesion by failing to properly audit its military spending. The benefits you mention--as well as job preferences for veterans in the private sector--are tied to trillions of dollars of debt post-9/11, most of it on adventurism and some of it on the jobs and benefits you mention. 

One reason these benefits exist is because military volunteerism is often the primary way for citizens and non-citizens to avoid working low-level, dead-end jobs in small American cities. Such spending is not popular in larger, more affluent American cities with diversified economies because people with options don't generally want to join an entity that has arguably lost every war since Vietnam. Where such spending is popular in larger cities, it is often tied to high-paying private sector jobs, i.e., defense contractors.   

In short, the U.S. military has the military benefits you mention as a de facto jobs program, especially for young men in rural areas with underdeveloped private sectors. A country able to create enough meaningful jobs in the private sector may find its military overlooked by most of its citizens. In such a situation, it may need to resort to conscription to maintain troops ready to assist in case of domestic disasters (earthquakes, floods, etc.). In the absence of a clear and present danger or need to spread economic gains more equitably across territories, your advice to increase military spending seems beneficial to countries with military spending as primary economic catalysts rather than countries focused on social welfare and social cohesion. 

Feel free to contact me with any questions. I haven't visited Sweden yet, but Uppsala is on my list :-) 

I often quote Eisenhower in my writing, and I'll quote him again: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft. The cost of one modern, heavy bomber is this: a modern, brick school in more than 30 cities."

American discourse once recognized citizens could not have both thriving domestic infrastructure and excessive military spending, i.e., "guns vs. butter." In other words, do you want a new aircraft carrier or a new university? When presented with the question directly, almost every citizen will choose the latter. Absent active war or a credible threat, fear or a lack of common sense are needed to choose the former. Accordingly, the so-called Russian threat is being used by NATO and its allies to convince Europe and other countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia) to maintain the military-industrial complex and its trillions of dollars of debt--debt that is unsustainable without additional buyers of weaponry or presumed naval dominance in trade.
Jim Rogers' Street Smarts (2013)
I never imagined a world where diplomacy would be actively thwarted or ignored in order to promote ever-increasing military spending, regardless of necessity or results. Even tiny Singapore has caught the bug: "[D]efense constitutes the largest item in the annual national budget." 
Chua Beng Huat's Liberalism Disavowed (2017)
You're never too young to be indoctrinated, I guess.
Remind me... does Singapore have any enemies besides SARS?
It's as if everyone in the world has forgotten the reason the United Nations was created: to prevent war through superior diplomacy and, by implication, unnecessary military spending. But of course people haven't forgotten the reasons for diplomacy at all--they've replaced international diplomacy with trade agreements and import-export or development banking institutions, reducing the United Nations' efficacy through fragmentation and rendering it a body for social progress and humanitarian aid rather than conflict avoidance. Such changes have serious implications for smaller and less developed countries wishing to maintain their independence and for larger, more developed countries like Turkey, which has realized NATO membership does not automatically confer greater labor and trade cooperation. (Notice how few Turkish products are on European supermarkets' shelves?) 

A world where no international body commands the moral weight necessary to ensure peace without de facto military bribes to larger countries means a world where "might makes right," and larger, more economically-powerful countries can take advantage of smaller countries. Such regression is tragic. Witness Woodrow Wilson's speech on the League of Nations, later the United Nations:  

There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind. It is the power of the united moral forces of the world, and in the Covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized. For what purpose? Reflect, my fellow citizens, that the membership of this great League is going to include all the great fighting nations of the world, as well as the weak ones... They enter into a solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one anther for aggression; that they never will impair the territorial integrity of a neighbor; that they never will interfere with the political independence of a neighbor; that they will abide by the principle that great populations are entitled to determine their own destiny and that they will not interfere with that destiny; and that no matter what differences arise amongst them they will never resort to war without first having done one or other of two things--either submitted the matter of controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the result without question, or submitted it to the consideration of the council of the League of Nations. 

Has everything America championed become dust in the wind? Do we not realize freedom from war and freedom from a police state require sober statesmen and worldwide cooperation to corral private and public weapons markets? Every soldier who joined the military or was conscripted did so because he or she trusted the government not to waste their time, effort, or sacrifices. To that end, neither military leaders nor international bodies have adapted to the threat of unconventional warfare, which vitiates most military expenditures. No matter what Hollywood tells you, nations that cannot resolve agricultural tariffs or shootings of unarmed journalists but seek to increase military cooperation require sleight of hand to maintain such strange juxtapositions. May all of us--not just Scandinavians--remember why diplomacy exists before we weaken domestic economies and social cohesion in honor of the military-industrial machine and its debt-fueled, precarious expectations. 

Bonus: "The United Nations has no power to prevent war, but it can try to avoid another war. The U.N. will be effective only if no one neglects his duty in his private environment. If he does [neglect his duty], he is responsible for the death of our children in a future war." -- Albert Einstein, at Lincoln University in 1946 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book Review: Mingfu's The China Dream

Liu Mingfu discusses the scourge of hegemony, preferring superpowers that balance each other's excesses and tendencies to overreach. However, he is too sanguine on military spending, seeing it as necessary for deterrence. To justify continued military spending worldwide, he even argues the military has a more educated population than the civilian population on a per capita basis, but cherry-picks above a certain rank and references a Joseph Nye quote out of context to make his argument. 
Mingfu admires Russia's military history, especially in WWII, and claims Marxism's economic ideals helped influence America by making it more moderate. He likely means unions and socialist leaders like Eugene Debs. 
The book would have improved with an American editor clarifying some gaps. Nevertheless, it is a must-read for anyone interested in China's views on the rest of the world. 

Bonus: "A country that makes enemies everywhere in the world, no matter how large or powerful, is a country that will never be safe." 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Review: Jim Rogers' Street Smarts aka Thoughts from a Southern Gentleman

Jim Rogers has had one heck of a life. From a small town in Alabama to the Ivy League to all around the world on a motorcycle, his insights are never preachy. He covers a wide range of topics, including one particularly negative anecdote about his former co-worker, George Soros. (FYI: even back in the day, consent decrees were worthless.) 
Big on commodities, Rogers promotes farming as the job of the future. He reasons food prices have been too low, and--just as in gold/silver mining or oil exploration--low commodity prices usually cause fewer producers and/or lower production, often leading to a crash. As prices and producers decline, new (and presumably more efficient) investors, seeking profits, will enter, rebalancing the supply/demand equation. At some point, prices will rebound, and the higher prices will create a snowball effect for both buyers (no longer concerned with deflation) and producers, especially if banking institutions issue loans. The alternative, a government-controlled economy, is inferior because it generally will not allow entities to failAn avowed capitalist, Rogers explains, "The cure for high prices is high prices. It always works...." "The Soviets did not have anything because nobody produced anything, and nobody produced anything because prices were set so low." 

To his credit, Rogers realizes the flaws in his own paradigm and lambasts the Federal Reserve's easy money policies. Excessive Federal Reserve economic intervention is harmful, he argues, excoriating both Greenspan and Bernanke. In Rogers' experience, capitalism provides a self-reinforcing mechanism for regeneration aka creative destruction. It's true Rogers is known as a "bear," which means he makes money when companies fail, but the characterization of bias is unfair--every hedge fund manager sells short. 
Readers interested in politics will enjoy Rogers' comments on domestic and international affairs, including details about his new home, Singapore, and his reasons for relocation. 
On the black market.
Two passages stand out: 1) "As recently as 1987 the United States was a creditor nation."; 2) "America is borrowing money to pay for military hardware that sits and rusts in the sun. The man who manufactures the hardware makes money, but after that, there is no beneficiary. The investment does not represent an ongoing source of production, the way a canal or a railroad does." 
There are too many jerks in the financial world, but Rogers seems to be one of the good guys, someone who's never forsaken or forgotten his humble Southern roots. 

Bonus: Rogers shares a lot of information on Singapore. See below for excerpts.
The "genius of Singapore": public housing programmes for all.
HDB flats in Singapore (2018)

Monday, June 4, 2018

Book Review: Stig Abell's How Britain Really Works (2018)

Newspaper journalists are notoriously bad at long-form, worse with entire books. Part of the problem is a journalist's firsthand experience, though unique, doesn't necessarily capture the entire picture. For example, a journalist assigned to education might interview hundreds of insiders without ever meeting a single person knowledgable about pensions' involvement in unpredictable budgeting and lower entry salaries. Our modern world makes it impossible to have a life and publish a book containing ample firsthand experience matched by well-researched, comprehensive footnotes. 

In any case, Abell is excellent when discussing his specialities--healthcare, particularly the NHS, and British politics--but attempts too big a spoonful by also covering the military, economics, education, law, and media. His casual style is best-suited to casual readers interested in Britain generally and perfect for an advanced politics high school course. 

Despite my criticisms, much is enjoyable about the book. As you might expect, Abell is well-read--his recommended reading list at the end is wonderful--and he shares facts few others could. Did you know Zaire is not an African word? Or that the NHS is the "fifth largest employer in the world"? 
Had Abell written a shorter book about just politics, it would have been an easy five stars. Witness this remark on PM May's performance: "no humility, no soul-searching, no human touch, no real change. The audacity of nope." (My own characterization of May is slightly more appreciative, i.e., a person with the remarkable ability to piss you off while making you fall asleep at the same time.) Though in favor of more public welfare spending, Abell doesn't avoid unpleasant truths like moral hazard: "If you know you are going to be treated no matter what happens, you may take warnings about salt, or sugar, or booze or cigarettes less seriously; you may not bother to turn up to an appointment on time, or at all... 40% of the NHS's workload is related to 'modifiable health risk factors.'" 

In the end, Abell endears himself to the reader as an insider-outsider, one of the few successful Britons who attended diverse schools and made it without the aid of rich parents. He refused to speak at his former high school's commencement speech on account of his dislike of the experience and shares his pain at using the term "toilet" rather than the more proper "lavatory," a faux pas. A good, not great book, but few of us can claim greatness in literature; in some cases, one's own life will have to suffice. (June 2018) 

Bonus: on Singapore's educational system, ranked as one of the world's best, along with Japan, China, South Korea, Finland, Estonia, Vietnam, and Canada: 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Informational Wars in the 21st Century: the Collapse of Creativity

I should be packing for my upcoming Singaporean trip but instead, I re-watched the finale of Star Trek: Next Generation, and the material still captivates. As any Netflix subscriber will tell you, one good show often leads to another, and the 1987 premiere didn't seem dated, either. It got me thinking: why do I enjoy older movies and older dialogue, whether Hitchcock or Hepburn (Audrey, not Katherine)? Why do I often find the old superior to the new? And how is it possible the American intellect has declined so precipitously over the past 30 years? 

Growing up, I loved libraries and bookstores. Any random selection would do, and within minutes, I'd settle into an incredible story. Later, I discovered college bookstores, and within them were even more incredible stories that challenged my brain and entertained my soul. I knew I would never find myself being bored

In 2001, a few years after graduating college, I visited Singapore and experienced an anomaly in the world-literature continuum. A few books displayed never-before-seen admonitions: "For Sale Only in Singapore/Malaysia." Standard operating procedure assumed all governments control their reputations through "information boosting," i.e., ensuring their version of events is placed at the top of the shelf, but I didn't know about trade agreements or intelligence tactics and couldn't have told you the difference between MI5 or MI6. Although SEO wasn't yet a priority for private and state actors, its concept was present in that tiny bookstore, revealing the possibility of artifice. 
It was also in Singapore, a former British colony, where I first learned the power of international designations. An NUS professor revealed Singapore had been designated as a "developed," not "developing," country, excluding it from numerous international grants, even though most of its land mass could be called rural in 2001. After two years in one of the West Coast's most expensive and most diverse law schools, tiny Singapore is where I received my first international perspective. Singapore couldn't help itself; as a port-focused city-state, it had to embrace globalization before the term became fashionable in Western academic circles. 

I returned to the United States for my final year of law school wiser but not warier. 9/11 would happen shortly afterwards, and my next seven years would be spent eliminating over 75,000 USD of student loans during a severe recession. Only later would the issues of globalization and informational warfare return to my mental purview. They arose not willingly, but when I finally noticed no bookstore challenged me, no magazine captivated me, and the new could not compare with the old. I was starting to become bored. 

Today, I googled an unfavorable but famous event in a foreign country that should have been easily found. Instead, my search results contained fake news links designed to capture exactly the search terms I'd used, but in ways that concealed the actual event--and therefore the truth. The links included most of the event's general details, but the female protagonist had been replaced by a fake male one, and none of the names were real. During various hacking episodes, I'd suspected we'd progressed from geographical content restrictions to online bleaching, but de facto censorship of legal activities in America was new to me. Only Yahoo--allegedly one of the worst search engines in America, saved from obsolescence by its investments in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan--had the "right" result in the middle of the first page, a single link surrounded by deliberately engineered fake news. Incredibly, SEO manipulation had, in this instance, made my limited analog brain more powerful than one of America's most valuable technology companies. 

"Everything you see is propaganda," I once told a middle school class, and my opinion hasn't changed. Information wars and actions in furtherance of those wars are more obvious when a book's cover discloses geographical limits or when the most prevalent story about another country involves chewing gum, but unbiased information has always been an endangered species. I am young enough to remember Silicon Valley's battle cry, "Information wants to be free," but they never promised accuracy or context. 

In Star Wars, the engineer's revelation of a design flaw in the Death Star gives the rebels hope. Similarly, once we become aware of the informational flaws we receive daily from public and private news sources, perhaps we, too, can recognize "hidden" manipulation not just in search engine algorithms, but in social and mainstream media and even in the very people elevated into positions of power. If we achieve this higher level of understanding, humanity's hope wouldn't be founded on false optimism but upon the realization our species has evolved in the past and can continue to evolve beyond its self-defeating patterns of scapegoating, wishful thinking, and hyperbole. 

Gene Roddenberry, a military veteran and the creator of Star Trek, built his entire life around the inevitability of human progress. He declared, "The strength of a civilization is not measured by its ability to fight wars but by its ability to prevent them." Sadly, by this metric, the United States has failed its citizens, children, and veterans continuously since Vietnam. Having fought one unjust war after another--losing almost every one of them while economic competitors China and Japan focused on domestic infrastructure--America's current Establishment has little choice but to glorify militarism. Such propaganda requires economic support and job preferences to maintain momentum and, most of all, to bury past mistakes. Once activated, the machinery of militarism rarely sets its own boundaries; an enemy always exists just over the horizon, and more measures may always be taken to promote the appearance of safety. 

Few people in America see the connection between the TSA's expansion, its privatized body scanning machines, and the military's concern with employing returning veterans; even fewer realize the trillions of borrowed taxpayer dollars involved reduce not only America's economic potential but its future flexibility; and perhaps fewer still can conjure an alternative result for those same taxpayer dollars (hint: think Tokyo). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prescience is worth remembering: "If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam' ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (From 1967 in, of all places, New York City.) 

Let us now return to the original question: why does the old look, feel, and read better than the new in America when the opposite should be true? Consider that in normal societies, the younger generation is apt to forgo established customs as the older generation's knowledge degrades, diminishing claims to authority. Consider too that in abnormal societies, the old maintain their grips on the future by suffocating change through laws and punishment. And finally, note that diseased societies send their young to die for meaningless purposes, removing opposition as well as potential change agents. I say to you today, if the old appears shinier than the new, it is a sure sign of authoritarianism, evidence the youth are being suppressed or their imaginations stifled. Dr. King answered correctly in 1967, but I will go further: a military/police culture of following orders is incompatible with art, philosophy, nuance--and therefore creativity. 

When little boys and girls are deluged with images linking violence and war to heroism regardless of whether such wars are just, America's adults have replaced responsibility with desensitization and irrationality. 

When the table of brotherhood can only be set if every man reserves his right to a shotgun or a rifle, the spirit of the law has perished. 

When the sweltering heat in which our troops are stationed generates no lasting regional peace but instead parched national pocketbooks, America's vision has been a desert mirage all along. 

When our soldiers claim the ethos of courage while administering death by drones, we are living in a Greek tragedy of our own making. 

When our police officers consider themselves above the law, order becomes subservient to its half-witted cousin, obedience. 

If our judges refuse to read the papers presented to them and instead rely upon secondhand memorandums, the book of justice will remain unused. 

Now is the time to reform our sacred institutions by removing the sacrilegious from their temples and pulpits in Congress, courthouses, police departments, corporate boardrooms, and war rooms. There will be neither cohesion nor stability until each citizen is assured corruption has been driven out and the exorcists given their due. 

To that end, it may surprise you to learn the Muslims had wisdom we lack. They separated civilians, merchants, and the military by placing them in physically distinct areas. The medina was the place of business and barter, and the forts and minarets stationed fighters at a distance. The mosques provided sanitation five times daily in the required act of wudu before prayer, mixing practicality with spirituality. Such arrangements required respect for logistics and infrastructure, not just weaponry. The distance between the two spheres of influence created built-in advantages beyond the freer development of calligraphy, science, algebra, and art; for instance, complaints arising in the medina would need time and effort to reach the forts, increasing the likelihood of legitimacy and thus a remedy. 
Oman
It may not be easy for an American historian to admit, but the aforementioned separation might have been the only truly "separate but equal" arrangement in modern history. 
Ultimately, if we do not understand some of humanity's problems have already been solved, we will neglect the task of modifying pre-existing solutions to current times and invite a cycle of arrogance. If we compound our error by ignoring history and amplifying propaganda, we will pollute the waters our children require to learn honest skills. Above all, if we are to have a dream worth mentioning, it must be one that facilitates both a peaceful transition from old to young as well as a transfer of timeless knowledge. If each successive generation must start the Great Global Novel from scratch, our evolutionary process will be needlessly haphazard with no guarantee of reaching the final page. 

Today, the American Dream appears to have been a lie to all but the most talented, the most lucky, and the most likely to inherit. As I seek a better life in Singapore, I hope one day, America rediscovers the generosity of spirit that made it a beacon for honest men and women of a certain character. In the meantime, I'll be in Singapore, taking my chances and charting the unknown possibilities of my existence. May we all live long and prosper. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Flashback to 2001

As newspapers go, so do countries? From July 2001. 

Yes, I misspelled "embarrass." Sigh.