Wednesday, August 12, 2020

In Search of a Useful Obituary for the United States of America

If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1967)

All empires eventually overextend themselves in their efforts to prevent potential competitors and threats, and all empires overextend themselves because at some point in their history, their military commits egregious mistakes and atrocities, which must be assuaged with propaganda in order to maintain forward movement. In this way, My Lai and Abu Ghraib are connected, not as distant relations, but direct descendants. 

For the United States, Vietnam was the beginning of overt moral lapses by the the Catholic-Church-backed military, and the failure to prevent Catholic political influence thereafter has led to continued moral descent, including child molestation coverups. The lesson for other countries is straightforward: if your military commits a moral mistake, you must acknowledge and resolve it as best as possible, or you will find yourself on a slippery slope towards overall decline.  

Human nature is not so complicated, and every mother knows children recognize unfairness and must be trained to accept some measure of it in order to become adults. Once adults, the question is how many degrees of unfairness continue to be accepted in order to fit into an environment where insidious elements know such degrees can increase if adjusted gradually. No matter the level at which nonconformity becomes an obligation, if an individual, entity, or government seeks to evade responsibility for the death and destruction of one's fellow human being, it is no longer a leap but a mere skip towards fudging numbers at the accountancy firm, approving mortgage loans on questionable terms, and using violence to collect debts. 

We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood... [and] no sooner does [violence] become strong, firmly established, that it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1970)

A military's initial moral lapse, if unaddressed, cracks the overall societal fabric, creating a chasm soon large enough for everyone to fall through. Before and after such an abysmal result, segregation is the preferred method to prevent the downfall of the Establishment, and it is segregation that is most visible in any declining empire--if one has time and freedom to look.

I refer you to the numerous Christian offshoots in my neighborhood. Within five miles, I count at least two Korean churches, one Mormon church, one Seventh Day Adventist church, one Orthodox church, one Jehovah's Witness church, and one denomination I do not recognize, all of which demonstrate dispersed groups not part of the Catholic political infrastructure as well as the government's failure to provide sufficient common spaces where diverse groups can meet freely and interact. When such segregation becomes a natural part of the landscape, it gives the appearance of diversity and progress when reality is the opposite: fragmentation within a structure of political homogeneity means the Establishment has failed to incorporate groups in ways actively welcoming common direction. While all religious centers we cited were Christian and thus in possession of familiar commonalities, if not managed with communal care are in danger of differences as wide as different religions, which arise from the fact that apart from tax advantages, certain conditions had to exist for them to be conceived as separate entities. 

There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development... This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era... -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1978)

Appearances can be deceiving, and the presence of a cross on a building does not mean its adherents believe the same things or vote the same way, just as the appearance of new cars does not represent wealth but consumer debt. When we live in a place where the things we see do not represent the things they appear to be, it can only mean a country has overextended itself or lost credibility, leaving a moral wasteland where economic transactions and marketing bind residents together, elevating the banking system and its efficacy as the vanguard of stability. 

Any professional group no sooner sees a convenient opportunity to BREAK OFF A PIECE, even if it be unearned, even if it be superfluous, than it breaks it off there and then and no matter if the whole of society comes tumbling down. -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1970)

On this straight-and-narrow path comes economic growth but also the dangers of inflation and unequal spending, both public and private. Over time, when economic growth slows--partly due to mismanaged economic investment--a minority is conveniently in the ghetto or segregated area to chastise and to absorb our animal passions so as to deflect attention from the majority's continued failure to right the direction of its moral compass. The writer or documentarian, if independent and curious, is the only one capable of bridging such chasms as they grow wider, but such writers can only function within open societies where others are willing to risk criticism and then do something about it together. 

When people ask, "What good is a writer," tell them this: only the writer can defeat the invisible barriers and borders that inevitably separate residents in their hometowns from each other, regardless of distance, and only the writer can minimize the space between ourselves in ways encouraging the next step into our common humanity. Without the sincere writer and the competent journalist, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and the rough edges sharpen into knives of our own neglect. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020)

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder. -- Arnold J. Toynbee 

And they were mistaken, and will always be mistaken, who prophesy that art will disintegrate, that it will outlive its forms and die. It is we who shall die – art will remain. -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1970)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

High School Rebellion

Except for the opportunity to wrestle, I despised high school. While cleaning today, I discovered the following ode against John Dewey: 
Not bad for a 17 years old kid, huh? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus: at 40 years old, I realized American history was impossible to teach without first understanding European history, especially conflicts between German Protestants and the Catholic Church, as well as Catholic Spain against anti-Catholic France. However, at the early age of 17, I intuitively realized my high school history teacher was wasting my time and wrote him a letter. 
Ironically, after four trips around the world, I now consider history one of my strongest subjects. As they say, "Man plans, and the universe laughs." 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Good Journalist Hunting, Part 2: Drugs, Sex, and American Healthcare

Background

In
Part 1, I conveyed my experience in Target Corporation's stockroom to explain Amazon and Costco's success and said I'd discuss insurance companies and opioids in a subsequent post. 

The War on Drugs Results from Government's Desire to Monopolize Revenue Streams

Less than 0.06% of Americans between 15 and 64 years died from any kind of drug overdose in 2017. Why, then, are U.S. politicians so enamored with the drug war and opioids in particular? 

If you're a Chris Rock fan, you already know the answer. 

We got a horrible drug policy... The government always says drugs are illegal because they're bad for you and they're trying to protect society... [but] the government doesn't [care] about your safety... They don't want you to use your drugs, they want you to use their drugs... So every night, you see a drug commercial... trying to get you hooked on legal [stuff]... 

The reason cocaine and weed are illegal in America [has nothing] to do with your safety. The reason cocaine and weed are illegal in America is because the best cocaine and weed aren't made in America. If they made the good [stuff] here, there'd be a "Cocaine and Weed" restaurant on every corner [like Starbucks]... The government will never legalize drugs in America... because the government makes way too much money putting [black people] in jail. [Never Scared (2004)]


What you may not realize, however, is why the government is so keen to protect its own pharma revenue stream. Simply put, it costs a lot of money to develop new drugs. According to Bill Bryson in The Body (2019), on average, a billion dollars invested will get you one-third of a new drug, not even a complete one. 
Bill Bryson, The Body (2019)
Innovation within such a front-loaded system generally means only "Big Pharma" can participate, and research focuses on chronic illnesses like cancer and mental health issues--not life-saving new antibiotics, which work too quickly to generate recurring revenue. (Andrew Lo's Adaptive Markets (2017) proposes better ways of funding pharma R&D, but his ideas haven't caught on.) America's funding paradigm incentivizes unnecessary diagnoses of mental health issues,  autism, and other long-term conditions; worse, in attaching the imprimatur of science to greed, reduces the credibility of experts as well as academics. 

Let's talk about how I found myself in a psychiatrist's office playing word association games at a rate of 300 to 400 dollars per hour. I've had weak ankles since a teenager, and after another swollen twist, I mentioned my despondence. My doctor, hearing Pavlovian bells of negligence, asked if I wanted to be referred to a psychiatrist. Having more free time due to an inability to play basketball, I agreed. 

Under the ACA, each state may create its own "competitive" marketplace, and mine is called "Covered California." Members can choose from platinum, gold, silver, or bronze plans, but the younger you are, the more prohibitive the costs of anything above bare-bones bronze. In the beginning, insurers tried excluding mental health coverage to offer better cost-benefit propositions or more than de facto catastrophic coverage.  
Unfortunately, California's state legislature nixed the mental health and substance abuse opt-out, which it could do because once again, states dictate the terms and conditions of insurance coverage on state exchanges, not the federal government. (Incredibly, inclusive mental health coverage is more common than useful dental coverage, a distortion caused by pharma R&D costs being subsidized through insurance reimbursements, plus government's intent to delegate mental health and addiction issues to Big Pharma and religious entities rather than asylums, prisons, or clinics.)
Had insurance companies capped physical rehabilitation treatments to twice per month or not covered epidurals during childbirth, governmental intervention would be welcomed, but almost all medical coverage categories are general, figuring doctors should determine treatment, not legislators. Here, national legislators devised a healthcare program covering all Americans at reasonable prices, only to see courts and state legislators whack insurer flexibility and federal enforcement, thus reducing cost-effective options and oversight. 
A dysfunctional dynamic within government increases complexity and the likelihood of divided realities, especially when few Americans understand the law; conveniently, such ignorance leads voters to blame faraway Congress instead of nearby state and local politicians. 

I believe that today, the average person is overwhelmed by the complexity of life because it got more complicated... I barely know an adult who isn’t on some kind of drug, either prescribed or otherwise, to deal with anxiety. -- Scott Adams, on "digital disease" (2018)

The general population doesn't know what's happening, and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know. One result is a kind of alienation from institutions. People feel that nothing works for them. -- Noam Chomsky

Yet, both sides, even their extremists, reflect one of three crystal-clear images: 

1) frustration with well-intentioned government programs no longer resembling their original conception as they trickle down to local levels and multiple special interests; and 

2) a sincere belief that more centralized (aka national) governance will reduce multi-layered bureaucracy as well as local resistance to implementation and change; or 

3) a sincere belief less government and a more direct relationship between buyer and recipient will improve accountability. 

All three choices are correct and also equally wrong. Whether a program works depends on the individuals administering it and incentives for questioning orthodoxy, not whether the program is corporate or governmental. It may be true some governments are inept at hiring, but so are many corporations (e.g., Enron, WeWork, Theranos, and Wirecard). If multi-national corporations have an advantage, it is mainly because they can hire non-citizens, meaning their talent pool is not only global, but able to gauge workers' skills at lower wages before bringing them onshore. (Government unions, especially teachers and police, don't help, but that's another matter.) 

Additionally, the lines demarcating private and public healthcare are often so blurry, they cannot be found. Take the Covered California website. It's possible the state created the website itself or the contractor who won the RFP (by bidding the lowest) hired only American citizens or onshore workers, but once up, de-bugging and security likely went offshore. Either way, I had to visit a private benefits office in person to show identification, because the state's website refused to accept my license or passport uploads. (Side note: economic data is easily manipulated; for instance, if the government's deficiencies create private sector "clean up" jobs, such jobs are given the same weight as meaningful jobs in the unemployment numbers.) 

Once registered and referred by my primary care physician to a psychiatrist, I drove to a private office complex, walked upstairs to a private office, waited about 10 minutes, and was shown into a lightly furnished room. The psychiatrist asked me a few questions, then began a modified version of the Rorschach test, where he displayed words on index cards and prompted for associations. If he showed you the word, "police," you could say "blue" or "Black Lives Matter" or "law" and so forth. After about 30 minutes of this ridiculous game, he decided I was bipolar and prescribed lithium and follow-up sessions. If I remember correctly, I attended two more sessions, which were similar, then stopped. The sessions, which my insurance paid, cost about 1,000 dollars. No solo practitioner in the legal field could ever get away with such lucrative billing for similar levels of work, but most independent lawyers do not have an insurance company paying their bills. The lesson? Insurance coverage raises prices with no guarantee of competent service, regardless of whether governmental or private actors are involved. Furthermore, inserting a third party between buyers and sellers increases risks of corruption, especially if the category of reimbursable services is ambiguous. 

Governments Must Be Allowed to Successfully Compete against Mafia Influence 

Besides insurance, why are legal drugs and the process for obtaining them so expensive? First, you have to understand why governments exist. Government's primary function is to create, whether directly or indirectly, better alternatives to the informal economy while allowing reasonable inflation. Without inflation, debt becomes exquisitely burdensome for borrowers; and without debt, most legitimate businesses could not have been created or could not have survived economic cycles. (Amazon and Walmart are turning economic theories on their head, but both are inherently multi-faceted and trans-national, meaning they can accept lower profit margins and pass along cost savings by targeting billions of global buyers and sellers.) When considering the billions of dollars of banking loans to major pharma corporations, every illegal drug deal harms the flywheel of pharma R&D by reducing insurance reimbursements as well as healthcare premiums, making it harder for operators to pay back debt or to set up new labs at hospitals, university research facilities, or Merck and Co. headquarters. 

Now imagine an empty lot fifty miles from your house. 

From Sabrina (1954): 

Linus Larrabee: What’s money got to do with it? If making money were all there were to business, it'd hardly be worthwhile going to the office. Money is a by-product. 

David: What’s the main objective? Power? 

Linus: Agh! That’s become a dirty word. 

David: Well then, what’s the urge? You’re going into plastics now. What will that prove? 

Linus: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. So, a new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbor is dug and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who've never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar. And barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed. What’s wrong with a kind of an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

If the mafia buys the lot instead of a mall, office, or factory developer, the city will not only receive less tax revenue, but will likely see its police force outgunned and outwitted, making neighborhoods less attractive to families and PhDs. More importantly, a mafia-influenced city--where violence exacts efficient payment and coercion--attracts different kinds of businesses and thus unreliable accounting as well as diminished transparency. Whereas most businesses seek to grow through superior service or products, the mafia grows as a way to evade taxation and to launder money.  
Matt Levine, July 2020
In the EU, where the "Las Vegas" development model is being used to incentivize legitimacy, several blocks in Eastern Europe (aka former Soviet Union) have more dim-lighted casinos, wagering rooms, and upscale bars than Starbucks and McDonald's. In the United States, after "obscenity" charges became passé, content-neutral "time, manner, and place" restrictions required strip clubs, night clubs, hookah lounges, and other drug dealer hangouts to be away from schools, suburban moms, and anyone else with an 11 o'clock bedtime. 
Despite attempts at reasonable regulation, our ever-increasing levels of police funding and mafia growth--both of which reduce fertile ground otherwise able to foster economic diversity--indicate the balance of regulation has failed. 

Lawyers, Judges, Police, Politicians, and Teachers Have Used Governmental Influence to Create Jobs but not Meaningful Economic Alternatives, Allowing Mafia and Nepotism to Prosper 

Somehow, laws designed to give politicians and police greater ability to shape communities have caused the mafia and informal economic actors to become more respected. Such a result is only possible if government has misused its powers to create an antiseptic or equivalent existence, rendering the mafia the more interesting one. This anti-hero script explains the tragedy of Western governments, which have delegated social services to religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church; divided themselves by litmus tests of abortion and death penalty rights; and promoted separate and unequal compensation and disciplinary terms favoring existing employees and fellow churchgoers, with the occasional minority highlighted to mislead taxpayers, results be damned. 

In 2008-09 California’s [government] teachers were predominantly white (70.1%) and female (72.4%), quite a different look from the student population that was 51.4% male and had major ethnic categories of 49.0% Hispanic, 27.9% white, 8.4% Asian, and 7.3% African-American.

Setting aside global tax reform, you'd think a decent education would be the antidote, and it's not as if American K-12 education lacks money--the California teachers' pension fund alone has 242 billion dollars--so the absence of an informed public must be attributed to journalistic abdication and institutional corruption. 
In fact, American education is so terrible at producing competent voters, few adults realize state constitutions exist or that only governmental activity falls under the 1st Amendment. 

The Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech. - Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck (2019) 

(I count myself as one of America's neglected--when I graduated law school, I didn't know about state constitutions, which typically extend rights beyond the federal Constitution, or even the location of the local courthouse.) 

In Western countries where governments haven't ceded education and social welfare to the Catholic Church and other "nonprofits," they, too, have failed to create the appropriate balance between regulation and opportunity. For example, according to journalist Stig Abell, Britain's NHS is the "fifth largest employer in the world." Mr. Abell's pride in his country's subsidized healthcare system excludes important details: when the NHS was created, research assumed shorter lifespans for most citizens, as well as higher birthrates to support tax transfers into a national healthcare system. If America has a military-industrial complex, then Britain has a healthcare-and-pension complex, and both require so much debt to occupy their economic spaces, efficiency and accountability by any means necessary look increasingly attractive to voters. (Meanwhile, if one enters a mafia-owned strip club or massage parlour and pays cash, one can usually get service without queuing or being assigned to a waiting list.) 

And so, however one looks at Western healthcare and secondary education, failure looms, and exceedingly complex failures are exactly why most Western politicians can focus on opioids and other outliers without fearing logical retort or upsetting the status quoWorst of all, the honest politician who tries to re-enact Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) on the local level must contend with other cities and states of lesser moral fiber capturing lobbying and other dollars on the sound principle that if they do not accept inertia's largess, someone of even lesser moral fiber will. Given such circumstances, one can be forgiven for elevating a mafia don or high-level confidential informant above a politician or lawyer who makes promises s/he cannot keep without becoming a banker's whore. 

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. -- George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945) 

The Path of Least Resistance

Now that you better understand the miasmatic cauldron of corruption and general depravity through the lessons of Western drugs, healthcare, and education, you can vote more responsibly. Will your heightened civics knowledge make a difference when the only consistently good Western politicians are Scotland's retired Gordon Brown, Australia's retired Paul Keating, and Czechia's dead Vaclav Havel? Probably not, but democratic governments were never meant to be better than the citizens within them. In fact, though democracies tend be more transparent, transparency combined with complexity spanning multiple levels of governance is no guarantee of clarity. Thus, despite much progress, we have returned to where we were centuries ago, mucking about, unclear which direction to go, side-eying our neighbors, and praying a pandemic doesn't wipe us out. If this be progress, I'll take the whore, and you can keep the teachers, priests, politicians, lawyers, and made men. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last Catholic priest." - attributed to Denis Diderot 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Good Journalist Hunting, Part 1: Thoughts on American Retail

[Note: if you're here for the unauthorized article on my experience working in Target Corporation's backroom or storage, scroll down to the first photo ("Backroom Economics") and start there.] 

San Francisco's Warren Hinckle knew honest journalism required freedom from advertisers or supervisors, whether king, corporation, or benevolent donor. Though nowhere near the quality of Hinckle or his discovery, Hunter S. Thompson, at least I can say I tried. Four years of self-funded travel--no advertisers or donors except a 10,000 USD loan from my parents--have taken me around the globe three and a half times, providing an unexpected appreciation of history. (Who knew only extensive travel could expose connections between post-WWII events and modern-day business practices?) 

I'm lucky to have two immigrant parents who stayed together despite great difficulties and who let me live with them rent-free, thereby allowing me to pay off 
my student loans much earlier. Without their assistance, I would not have been able to travel solo at all. To avoid misunderstandings, my article below isn't about travel--those posts can be found at this link. Here, we'll cover four areas, in order from most interesting to least: 

1. The future of retail, and why Amazon and Costco are outperforming. (If you're really into retail, you might want to read my March 2017 article first.) 

Note: I am *not* affiliated with Target Corporation in any way, shape, or form. All opinions herein represent my own, and I haven't disclosed any information you can't see yourself if you peek through nondescript doors in any large Target store.

2. Insurance companies and the ease of receiving prescriptions of any kind, not just opioids. (But see counterargument here: "As Suicides Rise, Insurers Find Ways..." May 16, 2019, Bloomberg) 

My conclusion: America's mainstream media focuses on opioid addictions because they're a relatively small problem and therefore easy to fix, giving regulators an opportunity to claim success without resolving fundamental issues. USA healthcare is a particularly devilish problem because numerous overlapping and fragmented entities--each with their own accounting and administrative procedures--require cooperation between national, state, and local entities, all of which have competing interests. Additionally, you would not believe how easy (and profitable) it is for a psychiatrist to diagnose someone with a mental health issue, then prescribe drugs on the spot--at least if you didn't realize the scope of USA pharmaceutical lobbying. 

3. I was arrested twice in California. Once you enter an American jail, you'll realize why so many police officers are corrupt and why the system is designed to promote an ever-increasing share of the budget towards law enforcement and courts. UC Davis graduate and public defender Joseph Tully might have said it best: "Judges don’t seem to care about the law, they don’t seem to care about truth, they don’t seem to care about justice." 

4. Social media ad dollars no longer seek to capture eyeballs but data in order to use it to justify surge pricing and other demand-driven marketing. Obviously, larger companies have clear advantages in capturing and parsing data, especially when buyers are more reluctant to spend marketing dollars online without more definite ROI. Unfortunately, targeted online marketing comes at the expense of the consumer due to no additional services being offered as well as the tendency of AI and security requirements towards "techopoly." 

Short answer: consumers don't always know what they want, but they know what they don't want, and data is terrible at figuring out what consumers do not like. 
I received this in the mail. I do not own a cat. I have never owned a cat.

Backroom Economics

Let's start with Target Corporation. I've worked several retail jobs, including in now-defunct Mervyn's and Montgomery Wards. At Target, I was classified as Flexible Fulfillment, meaning I collected products throughout a three-story building to fulfill customers' online orders (aka OPUs). I also stocked shelves (aka "pushing"), pulled products onto carts (aka u-boats), and retrieved products from the backrooms for guests. 
In olden days, the backroom relied on brute force but was simple: trucks would arrive with merchandise around 5am; we'd use a dolly to unload products down the ramp; then we'd position them for a separate team to stock the store's shelves. Working hours were unpredictable 15 years ago because stores didn't have data to indicate which time periods (other than major holidays) required more personnel, so I'd often get calls at 9pm asking if I wanted overtime the next morning. 

Today, everything is recorded, and GPS allows much better tracking of supply and demandWhen I pull an item off a shelf in the backroom, I use an electronic device to scan the shelf location, which updates the inventory. Is it a perfect system? Not yet. Sometimes, boxes have incorrect labels or the product has the correct label but the wrong product. Once a mistake enters the system, it compounds until caught and remedied on one of our tricorder-like devices--at least if you're not in a dead spot lacking connectivity. Quite frankly, it's miraculous retailers can keep track of so many different items day in and day out, though the level of defects and breakage vary. 
All will be thrown away or donated.
Packaging is the most underrated retail skill. Each package, if not perfectly made to fit into various shelves, will either break, 
If I'm grabbing 50 items, I'm looking at bar codes, not whether a product is detachable.
leak, or fail to properly display its contents. 
Square peg, rectangular box?
If a box is glued too tightly, my fingernail will break trying to open it with my bare hands. 
Work hazard: blood under the fingernail.
If a box is too large (I'm looking at you, Pirate's Booty Popcorn), it looks ridiculous and takes up valuable space in the backroom as well as the sales floor. Though my average day involves walking 0.8 miles an hour to pick up different items for guests ("customer" is not the preferred nomenclature), the walking didn't bother me--opening glued boxes did. 
9am to 5:30pm
Second bothersome factor? Taking down boxes that shouldn't be on such a high level in the first place. 
You're not seeing the first four shelves on the bottom.
I'm 6 feet tall, and there's no way an average male, much less an average female, could reach some of the boxes I picked every day. A full box of wine on an uppermost shelf weighs about 20 pounds, easy to lift if on waist level but hard if you have to prop it on one shoulder while using your other hand for balance. As for ladders, some aisles don't have them, forcing team members to go to a different room to find a free-standing one (the worst kind, because most ladders are turnable and fixed in the aisles). Working a blue collar job helped me understand why sexism still exists, though I also wondered why technology hasn't bridged the gap better. 
National Geographic, May 2019, on another "blue collar" job's gender disparity.

Of course, other kinds of sexism exist, too. These appear to be exactly the same product,
but the women's item costs 20% more. 
(Yes, a machine is available to lift workers to a higher elevation, they're not in every storage room, space is limited, and there's no guarantee someone else won't need the machine at the same time as your 30-minute deadline to fulfill a guest's orders.)
Take me higher?
The failure to use technology to level the retail working field is particularly odd because women spend a lot of money in America. I had to stock the women's health section a few times, and while I don't understand the need for an entire aisle of tampons or pads, I'm certain all of the products have high margins; otherwise, so much differentiation wouldn't exist. In addition, women were more likely to order other products when ordering ones they needed, with beauty items like lipstick being popular add-ons. In my case, having to find specific brands of lipstick colors in a sea of 300+ for online orders was one of the most frustrating parts of my day, especially because I knew most women would be able to do the task much faster. If you want to score in retail, pay attention to expectant and new mothers. They bought so many products from so many different areas of the store, I would get a workout fulfilling each online order. (Long before the COVID19 pandemic, moms knew the wisdom in disinfecting everything.) 

What other advice can I give brick-and-mortar retailers? As mentioned above, you will never lose if selling 
beauty, baby, and/or cleaning supplies. Conversely, it's almost impossible to generate consistent revenue from children's toys and/or books unless you specialize and create seamless online operations tied with unique in-store events. With toys, children muck about and topple the entire section, making your store a de facto temporary daycare. With books, margins are quite good, but unlike fashion, a 30% to 50% profit isn't enough on a base sale of 25 USD when demand is unpredictable and inconsistent while overhead, especially labor costs, is constant. 

Two other areas for improvement:

1) Clothes are almost impossible to find, even with RFID-enabled devices. If I have only 30 minutes to find 6 to 10 items, I am going to skip the clothing item if I cannot find it quickly. Only toys were more disorganized than clothing/softlines. It might be time-consuming to find a small beauty product, but at least that section is organized and predictable. 

2) Why is the employee discount typically so low? After 6 months of service, I'd favor giving full-time employees 25% off store brands and 20% off everything else. Sure, there's danger in reselling, but stores can limit the amount of total purchases per week. Most likely, HR and IT don't want the hassle of tracking yet another employee program, but that's no reason to under-appreciate employees. 

What advice can I give consumers? First, before going to a store, download the store's app. Sometimes, the app has deals not listed on the website, and Target's app is excellent for discounts. Also, while not always accurate, you can check whether a particular store has many or fewer of the items you want. (The failure of 100% accuracy in the backroom muddles the usability of floor numbers.) Second, please put your cart in the right place in the parking lot. If stores keep losing carts or seeing cart damage to vehicles, eventually they'll start charging a nominal, refundable amount to use them. Plus, it's good manners. 

By now, you may have an inkling why Amazon is so successful. By the time a "traditional" store figures out the logistics of stray shopping carts, food kiosks, slip and fall insurance, proper staffing levels in each department, the in-store Starbucks, the backroom, the sales floor, and a million other things that ensure you, the customer, are happy and safe, Amazon is already ahead because they've eliminated every non-essential piece of the retailing experience. Though I've never seen an Amazon center, if you work in any brick-and-mortar store's backroom, you will understand any retail organization set up to deliver products directly from your hands to the customer will win. For Amazon, the backroom *is* the retail experience, which makes sense because that's where the action is. All that stuff outside? Fluff and show. Costco knows it, too, which is why they offer free food samples to make your experience in a warehouse seem more interesting. 

Think about Costco's warehouse design. Is it set up like traditional retail, or is it one massive backroom? Those wide aisles within a grid system? Perfect for delivering heavy crates and pallets of products anywhere in the store. Next time visiting Costco, look up--you'll see lots of boxes waiting to be "delivered," but one shelf down, not throughout a two-story building with different-sized shelves. Why boxes? Because taking items out of original packaging takes time (remember my bloody nail?), and it's one reason backroom inventory becomes corrupted. (Is the bar code on a package for one item or the entire set? If you have ten seconds to decide, you're not always going to be right.) Though I met my fulfillment targets at Target, I'm not sure I could do the same at Costco, where much of the lifting is done by skilled drivers and mini-forklift operators. Within Costco's unique system, I can see the benefits of unions for both employees and employers. 

So now what? Once employers realized theft resulted primarily from employees, not customers, it was only a matter of time before "backroom economics" and surveillance took over American retail. In some ways, Minneapolis-based Target's dilemma is similar to all of America's: can it adapt and change to stay relevant, or will it be left behind? Personally, I hope to see the familiar red target logo for many more years. If Target Corporation and other anchor tenants fail, the alternative will be a world of Borg-like cube warehouses using RFID and machines to locate, sort, and deliver products while humans look on passively. Will malls be assimilated into our modern-day techopoly? Will AI and GPS capabilities continue to outshine less predictable customer service? It all depends on whether city councils and real estate developers discover more dynamic ways to do business. So far, America's physical and political landscape appear inhospitable to meaningful change, but that is no cause for pessimism; after all, the course of true change ne'er did run smooth. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Disclosure: at the time of publication, I own mutual funds and ETFs which most likely own shares in several companies mentioned herein, but none of my holdings, including individual stocks, are substantial enough to warrant overt bias. 


Bonus: I neglected to mention one important group: stockers and drivers hired directly by consumer brands. I don't know exact details regarding shelf space in retail stores, but certain brands protect their investment and reputation by sending their own stockers to check and re-stock shelves once a week. These workers were a delight to see, and all of them were professional and helpful. The regional representative for Peet's Coffee even took the time to explain his job to me. (Speaking of coffee, some Targets sell multiple brands of coffee, and if you buy coffee when it is first stocked, you may capture a deep discount without sacrificing quality.) 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Joe Biden: America's Golden Retriever

Listening to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is like watching an old golden retriever--you know it doesn't mean any harm, and you don't expect great things. 

Yesterday's speech was the habitual barking: Biden, who ran for president in 1988, began well and meant well, but soon reverted to his old playbook. In a talk timed to support freedom of speech and association, not to mention racial justice, Biden began praising unions and "essential workers" in the same sentence, unaware his linguistic separation exposed a harsh truth: that the rise of the "warrior cop" and failures of K-12 education nationwide can be traced to teachers' and police unions, which have created separate and unequal disciplinary and compensation terms disadvantaging dispersed voters. If that's too much information for you, let's make it simpler: the more complex a government--especially one with three different layers--the easier it is to hide institutional corruption and to create jobs benefitting only loyalists. Though I switched to a different channel soon after, it wouldn't surprise me if Biden also mentioned the value of lawyers, judges, and rule of law in an outing meant to address the fatal black boot of a white police officer on the back of a black man's neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds

As voters, we must reject the usual platitudes and demand to know why, if politicians have been sincere or awake for the past thirty years, we're seeing an exact replay of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but with George Floyd replacing Rodney King

We average a major war every 20 years in this country so we’re good at it! And it’s a good thing we are [because] we’re not very good at anything else any more! Can’t build a decent car, can’t make a TV set or a VCR worth a [damn], got no steel industry left, can’t educate our young people, can’t get health care to our old people, but we can bomb... your country, all right! Especially if your country is full of brown people. Oh, we like that don’t we? That’s our hobby! That’s our new job in the world: bombing brown people. Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Libya, you got some brown people in your country, tell them to watch... out or we’ll goddamn bomb them! -- George Carlin, Jammin' in New York (1992) 

Such historical repeats do not occur without each part of the legal ecosystem considering its own needs above the public's over a substantial period of time. In 2018, New Jersey's Senator Cory Booker identified the results of decades of political inefficacy: a lack of empathy combined with excessive ego. 

What I often find is we’re at a point in our society right now where we have just stopped listening to each other and stopped being empathetic, and instead are leading with... judgment. The problem with that is it disables us and our ability to come together to do the kind of things that need to move our society forward. That’s why I think now more than ever... in America we need a courageous empathy, where we are willing to let go of our own ego and tune into another human being, to really listen to them. I may not agree with that Black Lives Matter march. They may offend me, but we’re all wired the same way. So why are they out there yelling and screaming? Is it because they’re bad and I’m judging them, or am I taking time to really try to surrender my own position for a minute and listen to that person in the Midwest who is a serious Trump supporter and try to really understand where they’re coming from. 

Fortunately and unfortunately, Biden's problems do not stem from a lack of empathy, but a failure of pro-active thinking and, like many Catholics, a preference for colorful stories over accountability. On the same day of Biden's flaccid performance, Booker delivered a speech for the ages, one befitting a presidential candidate. Though we are told race and religion should not matter, I must mention an inconvenient truth: Booker is young, Baptist, and black; Biden is old, Catholic, and white. Verily, if Congress be the den of insiders, compromisers, and lifers, then Biden's comfort--and lack of discernible principles--can be understood just as easily as Booker's undeniable appeal. Indeed, it has always been this way, the conscience of America colored with the blood and sweat of black and brown bodies, even as the descendants of white Catholic Spaniards and white Frenchmen try to convince us San José and New Orleans represent not slavery and Dum Diversas but terracotta tiles and religious freedom. 

There are only two kinds of men: those who compromise and those who take a stand. -- Muhammad Ali 

Such deliberate schisms between black/brown and white experiences in America necessitate if not a cover-up, indecent propaganda. Consequently, American citizenship requires school-mandated brainmucking, and ones who manage to break free often find their way to other inconvenient truths, becoming sufficiently disillusioned to march forward independent of whiteness or America, choosing Islam or Southeastern France. (In the absence of substantive changes, an Ice T or Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. album purchase was the path of the white suburban teen.) 

My first rule. Never believe anything anyone in authority ever says. None of them. Government, police, clergy, the corporate criminals. None of them. And neither do I believe anything I'm told by the media... I don't believe in any of them. -- George Carlin, 3 x Carlin (2011)

And it is only after we remove the muck from our eyes that we find ourselves not in 1992 Los Angeles, but further back: at Vietnam, at Kent State, at the Watts riots, at Jackson State College, and at the Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches our teachers never taught. Such is the way of the military-industrial complex: deflect criticism, harass opponents, admit nothing, and when all else fails, murder and imprison "The Other." Seen properly, Mr. George Floyd is the victim of not only the police, but every lawyer, judge, and legislator who looked the other way when America repeated Vietnam by invading Iraq, preventing substantive reforms at the national level and allowing eventual conflation between local police and national as well as international military

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America... Shoot them for what?... How can I shoot them poor people? -- Muhammad Ali 

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East... We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people... How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I would have thought. -- Harold Pinter (2005)

How did Biden vote when the time for independent thinking arrived? By now, you know the answer. Biden joined 76 other United States Senators in authorizing Iraq's invasion. Mind you, not all 77 were golden retrievers--some were surely Rottweilers and German Shepherds. At least when Biden enters the Senate Chamber and most likely the White House, one must admit to warm feelings when he stumbles, eager to please. The old boy just can't help himself; after all, don't we all know an old dog can't learn new tricks?

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (June 3, 2020) 

Dedicated to political columnist George F. Will, who found a conscience in his later years. 

In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth... Houses live and die: there is a time for building And a time for living and for generation And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane... humility is endless. -- T.S. Eliot, "East Coker" 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Travel in Muslim Countries: To Go or Not to Go

Most Westerners are inundated with negative images of Muslims, making excursions east of Switzerland seem foolhardy. As a U.S. citizen at an American hotel in Muslim-majority Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I thought I'd offer my own perspective. 

First, tourism is a trillion dollar industry, and all significant economic sectors include aggressive competition. 
While almost everyone has learned governments use fake news and intelligence operations (aka propaganda) against each other, not many of us realize corporate espionage is just as active. For example, during a major sporting event in the United States, a Chinese company's website went down after one of its commercials aired, depriving it of both revenue and reputation. Was it a case of too much online traffic or something else? More recently, TD Ameritrade's website became inaccessible shortly after the United States assassinated an Iranian military leader on Iraqi soil. Coincidence? Or part of a proportionate response? 
And what of Huawei's acceptance woes internationally? 
From Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei's Lessons from Battle
Most Americans will never know the details behind such machinations; as a result, they tune out public affairs, leaving the corporate and governmental worlds to persons with more passion than common sense and no guarantee of extraordinary moral fiber. Over time, such disconnect leads to a casual acceptance of almost any kind of news relating to foreign affairs--even if the news has no basis in fact. 

Second, negative news is an effective economic weapon because it is cheaper to issue a press release that biases consumers against foreign products than it is to spend money on positive advertising (aka building a consistent brand). Whatever the proclaimed political platform, every government has the same goal: attracting investors and deposits in order to expand the economy and to lower unemployment. Malaysia in particular has received bad press because its leader, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, is unapologetically pro-Asian, pro-Malay, and nationalistic. 
From A Doctor in the House (MPH Publishing)
Some examples of negative news involve Malaysia's hotel policy prohibiting unmarried couples from staying together. Setting aside the fact that states like Sarawak and Sabah are known to be fiercely independent from authorities in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, people fail to read the fine print: such policies are applicable only to Muslims and no one else. Since no front desk hotel clerk has ever asked me to state my religion, one can see obvious enforcement problems. In fact, none other than Tun Mahathir has said, "Islam does not ask us to find fault in people to the extent that you breach into other people's homes. That is not Islam." Why, then, do such policies exist? 

Here's the short version: after 1945, Europe could not afford to occupy countries east of the Suez, which it had done since Portugal controlled the Straits of Malacca in 1511, signaling Islam's decline in SE Asia. Despite overreaching--even WWII's "winners" had crushing debt--European leaders believed they could successfully resist or co-opt anti-colonial movements threatening private property interests. In one particularly brazen example, the Dutch, intending to stymie independence efforts, seized the future Indonesian president. (See Operation Kraai/Crow.) Though most Westerners are taught WWII ended in 1945, in reality, battles continued worldwide over two additional decades to expel European colonists, especially the British. 
As European influence waned, newly independent countries--eager to counter vestiges of colonialism but with little experience building economies--had to discover new ways of governing diverse populations. In Malaysia and other majority-Muslim countries, politicians decided to restrict full benefits of citizenship to those presumed to be loyal to new governments, which in practice often meant Muslims (rather than Buddhist Chinese or Indians). 
By Tun Mahathir Mohamed
At the same time, Islam's reformation of slavery over a thousand years before similar movements in the West; lack of centralized structure (no Holy See); and absence of racial categories made Muslim-majority countries susceptible to hostile foreign infiltration and fraud, generating an ironic outcome: governments, some still under European military protection, used anti-colonialism to justify identifying residents with greater specificity, which mimicked British colonialists' "divide and conquer" strategies. 
Later, Tun Mahathir refers to British colonialists' racialized division of labor.
In the United States, few people are willing to accept identity cards disclosing their religion or race, but such cards are common in SE Asia in order to better administer governance, including minimum diversity levels in government-subsidized housing. Mindful of an Animal Farm outcome in which new rulers become as corrupt as old ones, Muslim-majority governments began drafting laws applicable only to Muslims in order to respect non-Muslim minority residents. One unintentional result of using separate systems and/or governmental hiring preferences--whether in Hindu India, Muslim Malaysia, or now politically-Catholic-dominated USA--is that governments ceded the more dynamic private sector to non-majorities (e.g., Punjabis and Sikhs in India; Chinese in Malaysia, etc.), making themselves less relevant. 
Today, when Christian Westerners discuss sharia law, they bypass historical context: namely, that some religious minorities seek independent legal systems to resolve marriage, divorce, child-rearing, and inheritance issues because of Western colonialism's abuses and a rational distrust of legal systems in which Christian governments made and interpreted rules against politically-powerless minorities without input from non-Christians

Now let's fast-forward to modern-day Malaysia. The country continues to struggle with corruption, even as its private sector appears healthy and citizens of all races and religions have experienced steady, sustainable improvements in quality of life. Meanwhile, politics in Malaysia--just like in several Western and Christian countries--has become an arena in which to signal moral purity rather than effective solutions. 22 years after opposition candidate Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on allegedly pretextual sodomy charges, former PM Najib Razak will go on trial for his alleged role in the 1MDB scandal

Such political jousting isn't novel. When Tun Mahathir became president of Malaysia's now-most powerful political party in 1978, Tun Harun Idris had been investigated for corruption and jailed. After Tun Mahathir rose to power, he helped pardon Tun Harun. Lest you believe Muslim-majority countries are unique in using legal maneuvers against political opponents, you may want to review impeachment proceedings (Bill Clinton, Dilma Rousseff, Donald Trump); corruption convictions (Brasil's Luis "Lulu" da Silva, Spain's José Antonio Griñán); politically-motivated detentions without trial (Singapore's Operation Coldstore); FBI investigations before and during USA President Donald Trump's term; and President Trump's military-related pardons, plus dismissed prosecutions, including one where a lieutenant general pled guilty to lying to the FBI. (The only logical reason for such a lie would have been because statements requesting a foreign country not to escalate were code for an eventual quid pro quo that didn't happen only because of the FBI's investigation.) 
From USA's Mueller Report
In 2020, many voters see democratic elections as a game in which the ruling party uses all available tools to crush political opposition so as to cement power over the common purse, a power it wields to reward friends and destroy enemies. Sadly, they're not wrong. The level of incest--figuratively as well as literally--within political families is so prevalent, one has to wonder why voters didn't catch on earlier. See, for example, Belgium's Anciaux and Spaak families; Bolivia's Siles family; Brasil's Bolsonaro family (and many others);

In Brazil, 20,000 families control 80% of the wealth. -- Clark Winter's The Either/Or Investor (2008), hardcover, pp. 123.

Canada's Trudeau family (and many, many others); Colombia's López family... I could continue, but the list is extensive worldwide, and just the "U" countries (U.S., U.K., Uruguay) could fill a novella by themselves. (FYI: Americans lived under a Bush or Clinton presidency from 1989 to 2009.) All available evidence indicates politicians are merely stand-ins for ruling families (Rockefellers, Gettys, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, Rothschilds, Morgans, etc.) which hearken back to a time when trading houses, along with their private militaries, ruled trade and therefore the world. 
We may know about the House of Bourbon, House of Bonaparte, and House of Saud, but though we're told "Hong" means "fragrant"--marketing so inapplicable to Hong Kong, one wonders if they're even trying anymore--in fact the "Hong" in Hong Kong refers to British trading houses. 

In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings... Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1% of the nation's households) owned about 1/4 of this 'human capital,' and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9%) owned all of the rest. -- Matthew Stewart (2018) 

Once one connects political power, military power, and trade (economic power), politicians are exposed as pretenders to a throne established centuries ago and protected by governmental inefficacy relating to offshore tax shelters that utilize complexity to provide anonymity. Within such a landscape, we can understand 1MDB as a misguided attempt to attract foreign direct investment, as well as its corollary: zealous enforcement against the rise of patrons, especially in the informal sector, that may inspire another 1MDB. Perhaps we can now see some arrests are publicized to rally a political base; harass supporters of political opponents; gain advantages within a trillion dollar industry; or signal moral superiority by casting opponents as insufficiently religious. Admittedly, such a paradigm brooks no winners except would-be conformists and no prizes but internal rot, but if "all's fair in love and war," why not politics also?  

Native-born citizens and Hollywood aficionados forget America is an idea, not a specific place, and much of America's appeal comes from the eternal idea of refuge (including from political instability). In other centuries "America" was called the New World, and though I do not speak enough languages fluently to tell you more names, considering Justice Sotomayor's dissent in Trump vs. Hawaii (2018), Canada may now be more "American" than its downward neighbor. And so, to those Americans and Christians avoiding Muslim-majority countries because of inconsistent executive enforcement, discrimination on the basis of religion, and visions of criminals run amok, rest assured: the United States has become like every other country, but with superior marketing. Welcome! May your children someday experience sunset gates and glows worldwide. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus I: "Tun" is a term of respect placed in front of a distinguished Malay's name. It is similar to "Mahatma." (Gandhi's first name is not Mahatma, but Mohandas.)  

Bonus II: Modern Western politics is in its current miserable state because everyone from Diego Rivera to the Workington Man has realized Western liberal values were mere covers for theft and supplanting of local institutions abroad rather than a sincere attempt to bring Enlightenment to all. -- Matthew Rafat (2019, after Britain's general election)