Saturday, November 21, 2020

Something Wicked This Way Comes?

The United States recently held an election, and results are pending two weeks later. Regardless of the outcome, we must finally admit the American political scene isn’t something others want to emulate—at least not without substantial bribery. No longer confined to smoke-filled rooms with nondescript doors, today’s Pax Americana bribes take place at golf courses, academic institutions, and legislative bodies, culminating in an American national debt of 26 trillion dollars. 

Empire-building requires allies, and allies are apparently becoming more expensive. Though the inscription on the back of U.S. currency states “In God We Trust,” debt appears to be the undisputed binding agent. According to the Institute for International Finance, the coronavirus pandemic increased global debt to 272 trillion American dollars, adding symbiotic ballast to the more honest phrase, “In Debt We Trust.” Like all co-dependent relationships, momentum is key, and any well-traveled American has realized the momentum that made America great after 1991’s fall of the Soviet Union has shifted elsewhere. 

The United States was particularly vulnerable to political slogans due to its inability to recognize extensive propaganda even as groups hardened around selectively-edited truth. (The world would be more decent were recruiting and advertising budgets called by their true name: propaganda.) Future historians will note entrenched divisions but are less apt to recognize its causes—and oh, the causes. Not only are they large, containing multitudes, Walt Whitman’s earlier words ne’er rang truer: “The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them…” And for what? Lacking context, the abyss awaits once again, another empire ready to fall. 

My intent is not pessimism, but edification; namely, to show future generations the many-splendored ways a great nation can falter and never recover. Most astounding is that the sources of political divisions are well-known to many Americans—gerrymandering plus local resistance to unfunded national mandates seeking reform—but nothing can be done because once divisions encompass the weight of trillions of units of debt, everyone's interest is to go along. You'd think “going along” would coincide with “getting along,” but as it happens, the inevitable isn’t always certain. That’s our first lesson: knowledge is wonderful, but knowing the right path doesn’t mean anyone will follow you. Knowledge needs credibility to be meaningful in civil society, and credibility’s formula is complex and sometimes impervious to examination. 

We mentioned institutional bribery, but nothing fundamental has changed since at least the 18th century, which makes sense once we realize governments are not immune from the same bias and weaknesses as individuals. Samuel Johnson may have said it best: “In civilized society, personal merit will not serve you so much as money will. Sir, you may make the experiment. Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Americans would do well to remember governments can increase debt to win friends and placate enemies, but lasting loyalty is hard to find and even harder to buy. Lesson number two: unless institutions ensure they serve values of infinite duration and are able to reverse course when—not if—they go astray, nation-building and globalization are all for naught. 

If money and knowledge mean little in the long run despite their attraction, on what grounds shall we stake our claim? The future is always fragile because money--a universal siren song--increases ego and power even when its possessor lacks wisdom. In this way, the greater the outward success, the more humility, a crucial element of all progress, cries out: Help!  To mitigate prosperity's unctuous byproducts, you must remember the following law: everything is incremental unless abject failure occurs. In other words, if you have succeeded, it is because you and your neighbors learned from others’ failures and benefitted from time’s accumulative value. Note also that knowledge is neither good nor bad, neither positive nor negative. Its trajectory of success depends entirely on one’s ability to link personal knowledge to institutional knowledge useful to future generations. You have understood our third lesson when you realize it is the same as our second lesson.

Our fourth lesson is two-pronged: history and incentives. Growing up in the United States, I was inundated with the superiority of the Western capitalist system and believed it true not as an inherent economic matter, but because of its ability to absorb immigrants and thus new ideas. At the time, I had not traveled extensively, and I did not understand world history. I had no way of knowing USA’s most recent immigrants were present as a result of foreign policy mistakes and attempted coups rather than organic openness. A short summary may be useful: 

 White residents with Hispanic last names filled Miami, Florida after a failed CIA coup against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, ironically himself from noble Spanish lineage.

Seen in Sintra, Portugal

 Cupertino, California is home to residents who are Taiwanese and not Chinese because they were on the losing side of the Chinese Revolution, which rejected Western corruption. (Malcolm X called the Chinese who fled "Uncle Tom Chinese," i.e., people who betrayed their culture and country in service to American and European hegemony.)

 In southern California, Iranians live in Beverly Hills, California only because Western governments saw value in Iranian oil and natural gas.

 Meanwhile, in northern California, numerous Vietnamese restaurants exist because the Catholic Church successfully lobbied Congress to split north and south Vietnam into de facto Communist and Catholic countries. The two-state attempt was unsuccessful, forcing the United States to re-settle foreign agents, who were conveniently assisted by Catholic nonprofits receiving both taxpayer funding and tax exemptions.

Even America’s Olympic medals appear immoral when considering American Christians (and others once connected with Catholic Spain) were able to breed the strongest Africans because they were convinced of God-given racial differences within a context of global trade of tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Here is a good place to discuss incentives. Most people view incentives from the back-end—being nudged in a particular direction—rather than the front-end, i.e., marketing and mandates. In USA, one reason I am certain of near-term decline is because politics has been reduced to another marketing gimmick, a show where governments signal importance by reacting decisively to events while protecting image at the expense of authenticity. Some cauldrons should not mix together, and the aforementioned political dynamic places the witches’ recipe firmly in the hands of unaccountable third-parties, with politicians serving a pre-fabricated brew guaranteed to cause poisoning. An attorney might cite Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), as the date marketing received a license to overwhelm sense, but marketing, at its root, is merely a promise based on words and images. W.H. Auden, my favorite poet, aptly summarized the age-old conflict inherent in mammalian speech:

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying 
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme 
Assumed responsibility for time. 

Let them leave language to their lonely betters 
Who count some days and long for certain letters; 
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep: 
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Is a legislator’s time at the podium or media outlet an attempt to effectuate a promise? If so, how can this be possible unless we assume a one-party state or a paradigm lacking checks and balances? 

Is billionaire Warren Buffett an insurance salesman propped up by a banking system further propped up by an unaccountable Federal Reserve? Or has he singlehandedly changed the world by bringing together billionaires in search of the public good? 

Is the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance designed to more easily funnel government funding to Catholic-dominated voting districts, or genuine concern about society’s moral failings? 

Does a black American “welfare queen” represent personal failure or the failings of an economic system unable to correct racial segregation? If over 80% of African-American women are overweight because their ancestors were bred like animals by enterprising slave traders, should companies allow them more time in the gym, or should they more readily accept a manual labor position? On the flip side, when an African-American athlete proudly salutes the American flag, is he ignorant of his country’s history, or is he an optimist who believes in progress? 

All of the above questions have objectively correct answers, but none ascertainable in our lifetimes. Each answer begins with one of the two interpretations, and then depending on the time of analysis, ends somewhere at the other end. If we are lucky, we muddle in the middle as long as possible. By way of example, imagine the Alpha and the Omega or al'Awwal (الأول) and al'Akhir (الآخر), but in a quantum computing setting involving collective free will: the answer is ever-present and yet always changing. 

Perhaps a more concrete example would be instructive. Consider the now-unified country of Germany, once known as the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) aka the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). When we discuss Germany, which Germany are we entitled to use for analysis? The future and past are necessarily intertwined, so if we only take today’s Germany, will our analysis be complete? If our analysis is almost always incomplete, then do you now understand the “crucial element” we discussed earlier? 

Yes, the fourth lesson is indeed the same as the second and the third, but you could not see it because marketers and politicians have spent billions of dollars proselytizing the belief everyone can go wherever they like on the al'Awwal (الأول) and al'Akhir (الآخر) timeline—often at a cost exceeding selectively-blind allegiance. In reality, your life involves predetermination as well as free will, a fact evident to those who recognize history was always assigned a seat at your table, whether invited or not. Luckily for Americans, their table may wobble, but it is still vast, it still contains multitudes, and unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, there are many, many empty seats available. 

I will leave the last lesson to baseball player Peter “Yogi” Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I am uncertain of our specific place in the nation’s timeline, but at this point, whether America’s table continues to wobble until it breaks is an outcome favoring free will over predetermination. In simpler terms, it is, once again, up to the youth, especially the builders, lovers, writers, and artists. Fix the table. There is time still. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (November 2020) 

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me, 
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing, 
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing. 

– Walt Whitman 

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, 
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, 
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, 
And that a kelson of the creation is love… 

– Walt Whitman

The "rise of [American political conservatism in the 1980s] showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism." -- David Foster Wallace

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Religion: Understanding the Abrahamic Trilogy

In the Beginning is the End

In a world embracing superficiality and sleights-of-hand, anyone sincere can be forgiven for seeing ever-smaller areas of substance. Politics has been exposed as a reality show designed to distract voters from increasing debt levels at the same time they experience declining quality of life; meanwhile, mainstream Christianity, especially Catholicism, appears nothing more than a political movement with tax-exempt status and private nepotism using public funds. Where, then, can a decent person discover pathways towards an enlightened mind? 

A young Westerner growing up pre-internet might answer "newspapers," "books," "college," and, if lucky, "parents," "coaches," or "neighbors." A teenager in 2020 might cite video streaming services, documentaries, e-books, and college. Very few would include health care workers, police departments, politicians, the military, or the majority of their teachers, despite the fact that the majority of their parents' taxes go towards some combination of the aforementioned. Accordingly, we don't need an academic to explain why Western governments have become irrelevant while multi-national corporations, especially financial and technological institutions, have risen. The technology sector's algorithms, driven by the highest advertising bids, determine what we see, and the banks and venture capitalists provide the lubricant for our intellectual deadening. 

"Social media is a nuance destruction machine, and I don't think that's helpful for democracy." -- Jeff Bezos (USA, July 2020) 

As the world's current technological leader, the United States requires a reformation placing technology not above philosophy or spirituality, but beside it. Rigorous anti-trust enforcement may shift placements, but no intellectual ever credited man-made law as non-satirical inspiration, so we must examine something more fundamental than civil law to understand how we arrived at our current lopsided paradigm. As teachers, unions, lawyers, military commanders and politicians exchanged their moral duties for power and groupthink, the task of transferring institutional knowledge--for the high and the low, and for better or for worse--is returning to institutions with the most longevity in human history: religion and its discontents. Will such reversion work? An answer requires exploring Avraham's/Abraham's/Ibrahim's influence on today's Western leaders, all of whom publicly profess spiritual backing and, even if financed by teachers' unions, will claim God a greater influence than any teacher.

I hope I have not already lost the agnostic or the atheist, and also that many of you interpreted "discontents" above as "rebels." For it is not self-professed leaders who always make history, but often the ones opposed to them; indeed, were it possible to study history through the eyes of the dispossessed, disenfranchised, and disregarded, surely we'd better understand how we arrived at our current disaffected state. However, since the victors and elites have historically been the ones with financial backing, and most of our kin illiterate for much of our history, we must train ourselves to filter existing information in ways acknowledging our existence as a product of a corrupted but successful narrative. This training is precisely what I intend to impart here, rather than judgment or certain knowledge. But why religion and not science or some other more objective source? 

Wisdom in the Shadows

First, the reason technological algorithms cannot be trusted with information is because they cannot see what and who is absent. In other words, algorithms cannot and never will be able to imagine historical gaps or to extrapolate meaning by identifying missing information. For example, Frederick Douglass may be one of the smartest men to have ever lived, but it would be a mistake to consider his words the main tributary into the oceans of African-American experience. Above all, the task of learning is an exercise in humility, in realizing our information is always incomplete, and a machine, being unable to understand humility, is therefore handicapped a priori in imparting wisdom. Consequently, though we are, on our best day, sailors paddling a fjord admiring the scenery, because we are able understand the risk of drowning, our single drop of knowledge will always be superior to a machine's ability to analyze the depths of the water but not its own limits. In this way, the agnostic and the deist are better suited to the task of wisdom than anyone--or anything--certain of his or her sources of intellectual progeny. 

Before proceeding, we must address the inquisitive reader's complaint that studying Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim is a useless endeavor, particularly if agnostics, deists, and rebels are the ones we ought to study. Two responses should suffice: 

1) We are unable to access the thoughts of a man murdered during the Spanish Inquisition, so we can stop right here, let the algorithms and academics dictate the narrative, or we can try to remember human nature has remained relatively constant since at least 2500 years ago and then examine pogroms, religion, and government overreactions generally to gain insights into human nature; and 

2) No matter how enlightened or correct we deem ourselves, all knowledge is incrementally gained. The same young man enamored with Robert Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose" will eventually consider the poem effete in his older years without realizing it must have been a lyrical masterpiece for all ages in 1794. Even more inscrutable is the notion that listeners in 1794 would not have understood an ee cummings poem just like most Americans today cannot read Shakespeare, and so it follows that ee cummings himself was not possible in 1794 though a Shakespeare is possible today. 

"We bear the scars of patient decades and centuries' dreams... The book, too, reads its readers in real-time." -- The Booksellers (2020 documentary)

If you still follow, then you realize every piece counts, no matter how small, intangible, or incorrect, especially within an environment of incomplete information which is itself disseminated by technology unable to understand limits. We must also consider the possibility we have reached a point in human history where our information is so contrary to wisdom, we can only know what is true by shedding what is false--and, more importantly, to train ourselves to avoid making the same mistakes. 

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." -- attributed to Mark Twain (USA)  

Having resolved the reasons to study religion as a source of historical knowledge about ourselves, we can now discuss the Abrahamic trilogy of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

The Abrahamic Trilogy: Odd Man Out

Abram/Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim represents the story of a man equally claimed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam; however, religious scholars know Abraham looms larger in Judaism and Islam than in Christianity. More specifically, Christianity places the Messiah--and by extension the Trinity--at the center of its message of faith, whereas Judaism and Islam place humanity below a single, unmorphable higher power and never on equal terms. In essence, Christianity emphasizes a personable faith, whereas its religious cousins emphasize humility. 

"I learned I was Christian. It's the easiest thing in the world. You don't have to do anything. All you have to do is stop doing something. You have to learn to stop trying to preserve yourself." -- C.S. Lewis, as portrayed in Shadowlands (1993), comparing becoming Christian to taking a dive, or a leap of faith 

And here is where we reach, aptly enough, our next lesson. Not only is all knowledge, including science, incremental, but often a reaction to what came before. 

"Science is an incremental process of amassing information over repeated studies to slowly move towards a greater understanding. Rather than yielding sure answers, it's about reducing uncertainty." -- Eva Botkin-Kowacki (2020) 

The single largest impediment to human understanding is the inability to place one's current narrative in relation to historical ones from the ancestors' perspectives, resulting in incompleteness as well as contextual bias. Yet, upon closer examination, we have enough to form a likely narrative based on human nature once we understand the process of incremental knowledge as well as humanity's rebellious instincts. 

From the prism of a religious chain reaction, if we see ancient Jewish scholars as high-handed, arrogant, and corrupted by profit-seeking, then the existence of Jesus makes more sense, from his disregard for religious pedants to his ostracism by established community members. (The same dynamic would be repeated later with the prophet Muhammad, who railed against the elitist Quraysh tribe of which he was a member.) The pattern of hard-nosed teachers producing rebellious students is not new, and in this instance, could explain why Christianity chose storytelling over dogmatic instruction, a three-pronged God instead of a more straightforward singularity. 

[W]hen a dictatorship claims absolute authority over an idea -- in the case of Iran, Islam, in the case of Egypt, a ham-fisted brand of socialism -- frustrated citizens will run to the opposite ideological extreme. [Consequently,] The Islamic Republic was secularizing Iran; in Egypt the short-robed fundamentalists multiplied and multiplied. --  G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque (2010) 

By abstaining from a more structural belief system, Christianity as promulgated in the New Testament made itself more attractive but also more ambiguous and thus susceptible to fragmentation based on differing personal interpretations. 2,000 years later, my California community, settled by Catholic Spaniards, has a Jehovah's Witness Hall; two Korean-American churches; numerous Catholic churches, including one catering to Portuguese-Americans; a Mormon temple; and several more Christian institutions, none but the ones hosting Catholics and European history buffs aware of the reasons for such variety. 

To summarize, Christianity's multiple factions--spawned from anti-Catholic European sentiment--may reflect its ideological source code, which is itself multi-pronged; more importantly, its reliance on storytelling renders clear-cut commandments less possible, allowing authorities greater discretion and thus greater diversity of outcomes. When the engines of debt and interest are added to a culture permitting authorities in one district to rule differently than authorities in other districts, especially when no fiat or edict exists against slavery, financial Jubilees become pre-ordained. 

Facts: between roughly 300 BC and 200 AD, millions of slaves arrived in Italy, and Rome's one million inhabitants made it the largest city in Europe. In Rome, 30% to 40% of the population were slaves; in Italy as a whole, 20% to 40% were slaves. As late as 1452 AD, the Catholic Church issued a papal decree, Dum Diversas, promoting "perpetual servitude" against non-Catholics. 

So, too, is the notion of a Western Christian nation possessing the world's most destructive military while presuming to follow a hippie-like spiritual leader who never retaliated against his captors or called for war, even in self-defense. And so, too, can nations of men and women enamored with marriage hold ceremonies in churches under the literal (and often false) image of a prophet who never married. 

He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam" (1967) 

Given such variances dislocated from logic and originalism, the Catholic Church, a centralized entity espousing the doctrine of papal supremacy, rose to power by offering to resolve such splits. From the moment it tasted power, the Church realized the shortest path towards relevance was as an intermediary between absentee rulers and illiterate commoners, especially where opportunities for personal discretion and subjective interpretation of laws existed. In such capacity, and unchecked by inbred kings mollified with self-portraits and other egotistical endeavors, it acted to supplant the court's sceptre with the papal ferula; to co-opt the military as royal advisor [Note: in chess, the bishop is next to the king and queen and equal to the warrior knight.]; to call for the Crusades; to murder non-Catholic women and children (unlike Saladin in Jerusalem); and to expel or persecute those not in line with its beliefs, whether Copernicus or common Jew. 

Warren Hinckle's If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974)

Understanding the Catholic Church's methods as well as its status as intolerant political movement reveals a straight line from Pope Urban II's call for the Crusades in 1095; to Pope Nicholas V's "Dum Diversas" in 1452; to Martin Luther's "95 Theses" in 1517; to England's dissolution of Roman Catholic influence in 1536; and to America's Cardinal Francis Spellman and Joseph McCarthy, who, using the pretext of Communism, championed the Vietnam War to promote Catholic interests, including the installation of the Catholic Ngô brothers in South Vietnam, one of whom was an archbishop. 

Warren Hinckle (1974)

Having formed a cohesive picture, we can draw still further to today's presumptive American president Joseph Biden, Jr., a Catholic who supported the Iraq War and thus the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Semites and Muslims. Whether the target is Jew, Muslim, Protestant, or Buddhist, the Catholic Church's ability to use centralization to consolidate power throughout history is a feature, not a bug, of Christianity's subjective and personal ethos. Think: if everyone but you is dispersed or fragmented, who will prevail in a democratic system? And if you are the main branch from which others have split in opposition, which part will be the strongest until the bough breaks?  

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last Catholic priest." -- attributed to Denis Diderot (1713-1784) 

(NoteSplits in Islam also occurred, not due to disagreements over Islam's (or, for that matter, Judaism's) fundamental tenets, but the bane of every corporate empire: post-succession planning.)

A Linear Reaction

If logic, peace, or objective truth are not universally binding agents in today's Christian-majority United States, then what is? If you understood the Jubilee reference above, then you know the answer. 

America is the country where not one, but two trillion dollar bailouts--with another soon coming--were needed to rescue Western-led banks post-2000. (Jan Hus and Martin Luther's complaints of Catholics "selling indulgences" continues, but in a different, more global form.) This trillion dollar machinery exposes debt as the glue yoking Christian residents and their institutions together, not ideology, education, politics, or religion. To sum up, the absence of a hard rule against interest, combined with a religious corps hell-bent on subsuming government policy to its own interests, has created, ironically, a reaction in which modern America's debt-soaked younger generation views socialism as equally favorable to capitalism

"In absolute terms, the average person in the bottom half of the US income distribution today is worse off than the average person in 1980 in the US... [But] the people at the bottom half of [Communist] China's income distribution today are four times better off than they were 30 years ago." -- Danny Quah (2019), Singaporean professor of economics

Having covered Judeo-Christianity's progression and blowback from Torah teacher to anti-Establishment rebel, we can finally discuss Islam's role. At this juncture, the Trilogy's second chain reaction resembles the "flower children" and anti-colonialists of the 1960s who became corporate suits in the 2000s: 

In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation-building, because the challenges of bringing a society together, growing an economy, [and] patiently improving people's lives are very different from [rebelling against injustice and] fighting for independence. -- Singaporean PM LEE Hsien Loong (2015) 

The Ottomans/Turks (Sunni but not Arab), Omanis (Ibadis, not Sunni or Shia), and Iranians (Shia, not Sunni) would protest the label of "corporate suits," but the Arabs, as traders and merchants (hence, the famous caravans), have little argument, particularly given Khadija bint Khuwaylid's (خَدِيجَة ٱبْنَت خُوَيْلِد) status as an affluent merchant and employer of the young Muhammad (PBUH). 

Despite Islam's attempts to create a more equitable economic system, the political journey from dogma to status exploited for financial gain to equitable economic system is a recurring theme in human history, with the final step appearing more and more elusive. A bright student like Jesus Christ may realize his community's teachers or priests are full of empty bombast and more concerned with stature than wisdom, but such knowledge alone does not render him qualified to work as a teacher or priest, a situation the Catholic Church capitalized upon. Thus, from one point of view, it was left to the Arabians and Sunni branch of Islam to provide a more equitable structure to the ideas of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad under the assumption the last honest man had the advantage of the benefit of time--and incremental knowledge.

As a religion that had to influence traders while led by an orphan marrying a successful businesswoman, Islam was in a unique position to create a system (sharia, or شريعة‎) that would obviate the stories returning caravans told of Christianity's loopholes for exploitation. Today, no Islamic-majority country has citizens with trillions of dollars or dinars of consumer debt, a predictable outcome once one understands Islamic law's ban on interest (not just usury). Whereas Christianity's more subjective source code allowed interest to be charged, Islam negated the possibility of usury from the outset, realizing firsthand the coexistence of greed and business. 

September 2020

Furthermore, in contrast to America's Anglican, Quaker, and Baptist founders, Islam's prophet was never a slaveowner. 

From cover of Stephanie F. Jones-Rogers' book,
They Were Her Property (2019)

Not only did Muhammad (PBUH) never own slaves, he used his wife's money to free African slaves, including Bilal ibn Rabah; however, Muhammad (PBUH) could not immediately ban the established practice of slave-trading, which was highly profitable and as important to pre-Islamic Arab traders in 600 AD as to Christian-American Southern plantation owners in 1700 AD. That being said, from 610 AD to Islam's peak in 1511 AD, no person, whether African or otherwise, could be a slave if also Muslim, though European influence in Africa post-1511 AD made Afro-Arab Muslim slave traders (e.g, Tippu Tip aka Tippi Tib aka حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎)  non-oddities. (Note: the business of transporting goods across a vast landscape pre-navy required workers in the same way the tobacco or cotton industry requires manual laborers, with the main question being whether one treated such workers as minority partners or temporary chattel.) 

Abraham's Origin Story

In no way do I mean to denigrate Christianity. While Islam may be incompatible with Catholicism, Catholicism is not the only branch of Christianity. If Christianity is the odd man out in the Trilogy, then Judaism and Islam are the bookends attempting to corral the excesses permissible under a storytelling system. Had law and rationality been enough, we would have stopped our religious exploration at the Torah and Talmud and suffered a shortage of brilliant authors, including C.S. Lewis. Moreover, Islam's core tenets of anti-interest and anti-slavery would be less possible without Christianity's faith in mankind, even if sometimes misplaced. So too, does Islam have much to learn from a belief system able to weave a dream any which way and then attempt the task of elevating its believers into the story, with failure not preventing another dream state. Christianity's placement of a human being on the same plane as God lends itself to egoism and the "cult of personality" but also greater ambition than belief systems more wary of mankind's limits. 

We have neglected the man responsible for this entire discussion, so let us return to his story. It is true a polytheistic religion or one allowing multiplication of an ancestor could have formed the basis for an anti-slavery, anti-debt philosophy, but not as likely. As most adults know, the difference between themselves and their younger selves is the realization possibilities exist, but probabilities dictate outcomes. Thus, the probable challenger to Christianity's three-pronged approach had to have been one that re-asserted humanity's single, unbroken bloodline back to Abraham, a common ancestor. Why is such reversion so important? Put simply, a shared common ancestor makes it harder to split humanity into racial or other factions, which in turns makes it harder to justify maltreatment of one's fellow human being. 

Once we agree human history can be traced to a single common ancestor, the unifying value of Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim cannot be disputed. To the uninitiated, 
Islam is a monotheistic religion with five pillars at its core and a prophet who united Arabia's nomadic tribes, but if monotheism is indeed Islam's sine qua non, why not follow Judaism, which also has a prophet who united his people? While any ideology could have challenged Christianity, probabilities indicate it had to have been one that expressly opposed Christianity's embrace of slavery and interest-driven banking while appealing to a single common ancestor. Islam's overlaps with Judaism look more deliberate under this theory than accidental, further promoting the idea a common ancestor can help unite us in unexpected ways. 


Some of you might be wondering what will be the linear reaction to Islam. You are asking the wrong question. Civil governments should have replaced religious authorities in the same way hospitals replaced shamans. The fact that most civil governments lack credibility while religious extremism is on the rise means we have all failed, merchants, storytellers, and scholars included. My advice? Anyone searching for truly Islamic neighborhoods should look at the prevalence of guest worker dorms, payday loans, and credit card balances, not mosques. A surprising number of countries claiming to be Islamic sanction a surprising number of unIslamic practices. 

At the end of the day, if all you gain from this discussion is the idea that Jews were strict pedagogues, Christians were media-savvy, and Muslims were business-minded, you have not been paying sufficient attention. Look to Abraham to re-align your path, and stay the course. Humanity is counting on your perseverance. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus: Cultural differences relating to marriage are often highlighted in discussions comparing Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. On this topic, I am no expert, so I'll be brief. High divorce rates in Christian-majority America; relatively high poverty and inequality, especially for women, in countries once invaded by Catholic Spain;  and child molestation judgments against Catholics should give pause to anyone looking to a priest for marriage advice, but the beauty of a belief system emphasizing storytelling means we are only one positive story away from re-writing history, statistics, and, yes, your own romance. Good luck. 

Luke, on marriage: "It's a bureaucratic civil ceremony and a pretty pointless one... It's not biologically natural for people to mate for life. Animals don't mate for life. Well, ducks do, but who the hell cares what ducks do? I mean, people grow and evolve their whole lives. The chances that you'll grow and evolve at the same rate as someone else are too slim to take. The minute you say, 'I do,' you're sticking yourself in a tiny little box for the rest of your life. But hey, at least you had a party first, right?" (Gilmore Girls, Season 2, "Red Light on Wedding Night," 2001)

"Well, I’m perfectly congenial to the idea of weddings, but what I think ruins so many marriages, though, is this romantic idea of falling in love. It happens, of course, I suppose to some people who are possessed of unusually fertile imaginations. Undoubtedly it is a mystical experience which occurs. But with most people who think they are in love I think the situation can be described far more simply, and, I’m afraid, brutally. The trouble with all this love business is one or the other partner ends up feeling bad or guilty because they don’t have it the way they’ve read it. I’m afraid things went off a lot more happily when marriages were arranged by parents. I do think it is absolutely essential that both partners share a sense of humor and an outlook on life. And, with Goethe, I think marriages should be celebrated more quietly and humbly, because they are the beginning of something. Loud celebrations should be saved for successful conclusions." -- W.H. Auden (Paris Review, Spring 1974)

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Tale of Tesla Untold

In the past, relationships may have been easier because children were dependent on both parents much longer, and parents could build information valuable to them and also valuable to their children. 

When you see fathers in overalls teaching their children how to handle the inside of a combustion engine car, it not only provides useful information, but an opportunity to bond and to learn. One day, electric or non-gasoline cars will replace the knowledge of fathers, and we may not need to learn how to drive. As technology replaces the old ways while rendering adult knowledge less relevant with ever-increasing speed, what will create similar bonding and learning opportunities intra-family?  

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

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, their military commits egregious mistakes and atrocities, which must be assuaged with propaganda 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 coverups of child molestation by priests. 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 must be accepted 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.

1. Klara Pölzl/Hitler was a devout Roman Catholic and attended church regularly with Adolf.
2. After the Roman Empire fell, the New Holy Roman Empire was established in Saxony, Germany. The region today is Germany's most anti-immigrant province, and members of AfD, Germany's far-right party, first sought election in Lower Saxony.

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 hall, 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 politically homogeneous structure 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 spaces between ourselves in ways allowing us to see the next step towards a common humanity. Absent 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: not until 40 years old did I realize 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


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

Fewer 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 (1993)

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 Mafias 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

Bonus: John F. Pfaff makes reasonable counterarguments regarding Chris Rock's statements above: 

During the great wave of incarceration—generally thought to have begun around 1980, and cresting about three decades later—state prisons added something like a million inmates, with about “half that growth coming from locking up more people convicted of violence,” Pfaff calculates. Nonviolent drug offenses accounted for only around a fifth of the new incarcerations... [Emphasis mine.] 

So what makes for the madness of American incarceration? If it isn’t crazy drug laws or outrageous sentences or profit-seeking prison keepers, what is it? Pfaff has a simple explanation: it’s prosecutors. They are political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it. 

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 stay in my old room, thereby allowing me to discharge my student loans much earlier. Without their assistance, I would not have been able to travel solo at all. To avoid misunderstandings, my writing below isn't about travel--those posts can be found here. 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 corporate 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. 

3) 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.)