Monday, February 27, 2017

Toronto, Canada: Diversity and Chill

Indigo bookstore in Eaton Centre/Mall
Dundas Square
Hockey Hall of Fame
Ryerson University Student Centre
If diversity, walkability, and integration are your top desires, then Toronto is your destination.

Want a donut? Try Tim Horton's or Von's.  Tim Horton's is Canada's version of Starbucks, but with more food options. Von's is more specialty and expensive, but where else can you get a Homer Simpson donut? Canadians are divided about Tim Horton's coffee, but everyone seems to have an opinion. Try the dark roast, regular (one cream, one sugar), and the latte. McDonald's continues to make the best black coffee, followed by Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Horton's, but I was surprised how much I liked Tim Horton's plain non-fat latte and how much I disliked all its other "specialty" espresso drinks. (My dream latte was too sweet, whereas the mocha was too watery.)

Toronto is a walkable city except in its harshest winter months, December and January.  I visited in mid-February and wanted to slap the many people who claimed it was too cold (Dear Americans: if the sun is out, it's not that cold, even if there's ice on the ground. Put on a beanie, gloves, and a Canada Goose or thick Columbia Sportswear brand coat, and you're good to go. I brought waterproof Bogs shoes and only wore them two of my eighteen days). The "touristy" subway station is Union, and from there, you can head in any direction to see the sights.

Public transportation is decent but woefully inconsistent. Some stations need physical mini-tokens, while others will accept certain cards but not others. Toronto's transportation system is nowhere near the modernity of Taiwan's, Singapore's, or Japan's, but it's serviceable. Upgrades are sorely needed; as of today, Bangkok's trains are more consistent to use. Another tip: Toronto's subways require you to know which direction you're going (North, South, East, or West), and you should determine the next station on your way to increase your chances of not getting lost. Unlike most other systems, some of the signs--when they exist--point you to the next station rather than the last one on the line.

Toronto also has buses, which are an easy way to see parts of the city you might not otherwise walk.  One of my buses took me past a small harbor, and I saw a few boats and clean water. You can get a weekly pass for buses and trains, but it's only good from a specific Monday to the next Monday, so be careful of the timing of your purchase--or get a Presto Card/Pass and load up as needed. Toronto's public transportation system is a mess, but it works once you get used to its quirks. (Update: Surprisingly, Montreal has a better subway system than Toronto.)

The most common spots on a savvy tourist's checklist are the Space Needle and surrounding downtown area; Aga Khan Museum; Greektown; St. Lawrence Market (come hungry); Hockey Hall of Fame; Chinatown (not a must-see, but still fun); Kensington Market (a must-see); and Dundas Square.  The Distillery is trendy, but I didn't like it--it's just a bunch of hipster shops with modern art thrown around old industrial architecture. (I was tempted to say, "You're trying too hard, Canada," but most Canadians are too damn polite to ever justify casting aspersions in public.)

My favorite spots were Queen St. (indie shops and interesting architecture), Kensington Market (very diverse and colorful), Dundas Square (similar to NYC's Times Square, but with a more relaxed vibe), Niagara Falls, and the extended Greektown area (food and coffee).  Bloor St. West at the Dufferin subway station also has lots of indie shops. And I especially enjoyed sending a letter, old-style, with a quill at Toronto's first post office.

Two hours driving outside of Toronto is Niagara Falls, one of the most interesting sights you'll ever see.  I spent hours walking around the area, which extends quite far and over a small bridge that no one else but runners seem to use.  Nearby the waterfall, just sucking in the chilled air is a pleasure--it cleared up my lungs immediately, and I kept craving more.  You can walk around near the USA/Canada border if you're into super-touristy stores--your kids will like it, but you probably won't.
The beautiful Niagara Falls
I'll attend my first Toronto Raptors game on March 1, and I hope to see Serge Ibaka play.  Lowry is 30; DeRozan is 27; Carroll is 30; and Ibaka is 27. The nucleus for a future championship is there. For 2017, the team will probably experiment with different combinations to see which players adapt best to the other four, though the best strategy might be to change the fifth player as soon as his defensive intensity diminishes.

Speaking of defense, it's Carroll's bread-and-butter--he comes out of the Mizzou trapping school--but he can score, too, and I'm worried Ibaka and Carroll will take a long time to figure out their offensive roles.  Good coaching will be key. The pick and roll should be used, because Ibaka can hit the short-range jumper consistently. P.J. Tucker is a recent pick-up whose defensive skills can give Carroll bench-time as needed.  (Interestingly, Toronto drafted Tucker out of the University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and later waived him.)

I'll end as a fictional white ACC (the American college conference, not the Air Canada Centre) coach: "You want to play with the four best players in the East? I need defense, son. The second anyone slacks off, the next man enters until we see which one of ya'll best resembles Dennis Rodman or Bruce Bowen. Let's get a championship for Canada, eh?"

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Update on February 27, 2017: Kyle Lowry will undergo surgery on his hand and will be out for the regular season.

Update on February 28, 2017: if you're looking for a nice nature walk or a place to take your dog, check out High Park--right outside the subway station by the same name.

Update on June 2017: other travel recaps are HERE (various) and HERE (Cuba).

Update on February 2018: the Raptors didn't seem to be able to utilize Tucker and Carroll effectively and traded them. They continue to have a very young team and are second place in the Eastern Conference. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Chris Rock is Baaaaaaack!

Someone tell F. Scott Fitzgerald to STFU because Chris Rock is having a second act better than his first, and I didn't think it was possible to top Never Scared (2004).  Last I heard, Rock was married, bored, and out of the limelight.  Turns out he's divorced after a costly custodial dispute and ready to roll--even on Tinder's dating app under his real name.

I doubled over in laughter so many times, I can't remember most of the jokes. You might argue George Carlin also had a second act and got better, but his first act wasn't very funny. To go from being one of the funniest and edgiest comedians in America to even funnier over a decade later is incredible. Richard Pryor burned out. Eddie Murphy started making really bad movies. I don't know what happened to Carlos Mencia. Russell Peters might still be around ten years from now, but he won't ever be edgy. Here are a few takeaways from Rock's new tour, "Total Blackout."

1.  Rock has always had a realism and common sense to his material no one else could manage.  Some of it obviously comes from being a unathletic African-American growing up among different races, including the ill-advised school busing programs meant to reduce segregation.  And yet, Rock, even in his 50s, manages to be edgy and real.

He laments America's apathy to mass shootings but owns a gun himself.  He chastises police shootings against African-Americans while explaining his own interest in the issue: "Yeah, I'm famous, but only from 3 feet away.  Until then..."

One of his best skits involves him imitating the mother of an affluent white child shot by police.  I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I, too, demand justice for Chad. #justiceforchad

One suggestion, if I may: to make the skit airtight, use the word, "unarmed," as in, "unarmed black kids."  Statistics show that unarmed black kids are far more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white kids, but without the qualifier, the data is more murky.

2.  I love Chris Rock's comedy so much because he hits the nail on the head on economic issues.  Growing up poor--at least for some kids--forces some understanding of economics. (Rock dropped out of school in the 10th grade and washed dishes for a while.)  His joke about buying bullets on layaway is still hilarious years later, and he once again tells an economic truth when he remarks, "Prices are the new racism."  He even makes the skit perfect by including white people towards the end.  Once again, I won't spoil the bit for you, but I hope he adds a line about college tuition.  My California-based law school--part of a Jesuit institution--now charges 55,000 USD a year in tuition.  I won't even bother looking up enrollment stats when it comes to African-American enrollment except to say I'm willing to bet Georgia and Texas--both conservative states--do a better job educating African-Americans than liberal California in 2017.

3.  Rock is actually pro-good-police if you're listening hard enough.  He did the famous skit, "How Not to Get your A** Kicked by the Police" and makes an interesting point when he says, "The average starting pay for police officers in America is too low--30,000 dollars a year... You get what you pay for."

I agree, and it's one reason I'm against government pensions with ROIs above Treasury rates or highly rated corporate bond rates.  When you set a guaranteed rate of return on pensions unrelated to any actual investment returns, you automatically back-end compensation. In other words, you shove to the future taxpayer money that could be used to pay higher entry salaries now.  Worse, you force government reliance on Wall Street and the Federal Reserve to meet specific and consistent investment benchmarks through investments that must be volatile and risky to meet the rate of return a political body can decree as "normal" only because of its power to raise taxes and borrow money. If you're an advanced reader, you can also figure out such a pension at a guaranteed ROI forces governments to become de facto insurance companies capable of predicting life expectancies of their own employees even after such employees are off the payroll. (More on this issue HERE.)

4.  Rihanna, why you gotta do my man Chris Rock like that?

5.  Rock, like fellow comedian Christopher Titus, was dragged through the American family court system and emerged understanding it's not designed to do much except drain money from litigants.  American lawyers and judges are so out of touch with most people, the day will come when people actually do kill the lawyers--or just refuse to elect politicians who are lawyers. I can see why Mao's revolution (aka Cultural Revolution) happened. When the elites are this far out of touch, consequences are sure to occur at some point, unless bread, circuses, and propaganda get really, really good.

6.  Some of Rock's comedy seemed to go over the heads of the Canadian audience. The "foreign" audience laughed the most at the in-law jokes but stayed oddly muted at his hilarious references to Keyser Soze and the Crips.  I just asked two Canadians sitting next to me if they knew what "Crips" meant. One person had no idea, and the other person--who'd visited the States--mentioned it could mean both a derogatory reference to the disabled ("crips") as well as a gang.  She's originally from South Africa.  Toronto is amazing when it comes to diversity.

I wish Rock the best life has to offer.  True American geniuses--especially the kind who can make your throat hoarse from laughing too much--are one of a kind these days. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Bonus: in case it matters to you, Rock slept with a Destiny's Child member during his marriage and made sure to say it was not Beyonce. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: Dan Gable's A Wrestling Life (2015)

I never thought of coaching this way because I had so many beginners; furthermore, even the best youth players had weaknesses they could improve upon. Looking back, if I had more time, it would make perfect sense to try to create techniques or exercises that would maximize a player's existing strengths.

I enjoyed Dan Gable's book.  It's a short, interesting read--I didn't know Gable was a high school swimming champion, or that a neighbor murdered his older sister in her family home.  At the same time, I wish he'd explained why he chosen to coach at the University of Iowa rather than his alma mater, Iowa State.  I also wish he'd given his thoughts on Cael Sanderson as well as Olympic coaching techniques and strategies.  He hints there will be more books, so perhaps Gable fans need only be patient.

Bonus: like me, Gable appreciates Asics' contributions to the sport.  Asics supported wrestling long before Nike or other apparel companies paid much attention to it.  When I was wrestling in high school, almost everyone had Asics gear--not just the shoes, but the kneepads, headgear, etc.  Today, Japan produces the best women's wrestling in the world.  Check out Risako Kawai and Kaori Icho.  As Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes would say, "Hubba hubba."

Bonus: Charity Nebbe interviewed Dan Gable in 2016 and in 2017. More HERE (2016) and HERE (2017). 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Adventures from America's Job Market: Factions, Factions Everywhere

I recently applied for a job and was asked if I was disabled or a military veteran. Such questions intend to comply with government data gathering and are required to grant access to certain gov projects. The idea is that the gov, through its massive spending power, can influence corporations for the better. For example, one reason air bags are now standard in cars is because the gov, for its own fleets, issued a RFP where it required them to be installed. And just like that, air bags are now standard for everyone without legislative fiat.

In the case of disabled applicants, the rationale is also straightforward--disabled adults can contribute but are prevented from doing so by various structural barriers, including discrimination. The gov is helping remove such barriers to give them equal access to job opportunities and to keep them off welfare rolls.

The case of giving military veterans preferences is less straightforward. The argument for discrimination doesn't apply in an age where the military and intelligence agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing--not just on TV commercials, but on more subtle placements such as pre-sporting game and halftime ceremonies.  Mainstream movies now have fewer Full Metal Jackets and Born on the Fourth of Julys while continuing to make many pre-Vietnam war movies, reflecting not only an erasure of America's prior opposition to proxy wars but a sustained effort to link the current military with an era of defensive wars. (Perhaps I'm the only one who thinks it's odd to reach that far back in history but not introduce new movies about the Kent State student shot by the Ohio National Guard or Abraham Ribicoff.)

Additionally, if a military veteran attended college before joining the military, most likely he or she is already at a level equivalent to the average civilian applicant and doesn't need any barriers removed. If the veteran joined straight out of high school, then the government and taxpayers provided the person with vocational opportunities not generally available or trained the enlistee using taxpayer dollars.  In other words, not only has the civilian taxpayer paid upfront to train the military--many of whom would otherwise lack options or who are ineligible to enroll in a competitive college--but now must compete with ex-military personnel despite not being given similar options in the civilian sector (no GI Bill, no free vocational training, etc.).

You may argue such incentives are necessary in order to have a voluntary draft, but with the advent of drones, we need fewer enlistees, not more. You may argue the enlistee is under contract once signed and sacrifices measures of freedom, but "following orders" in an age of repeatedly unnecessary wars contains no honor--and certainly not a choice that should be encouraged through debt to foreign governments.  Indeed, the only reasons such a system is possible is because America directs 49% of its discretionary spending--about $500 billion annually--to act as the world's cop, a role at which it is clearly failing post-Iraq, post-Syria, post-Libya, post-ISIS, and post-Crimea. According to the U.N., a "total 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million just 12 months earlier."

To summarize, America's military and civilian leaders have lost every war since Vietnam except for skirmishes in Panama and Grenada, and such wars have cost American taxpayers $14 trillion. It is time for voters and corporate leaders to say, "Enough. President Eisenhower was right about the military-industrial complex.  I shall do nothing to assist America in falling off the cliff it currently teeters upon."

Bonus: Military Times reported in November 2016 that veterans now comprise roughly one-third of the U.S. federal workforce—or more than 600,000 positions.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Toronto in February

My first snowperson!
(I didn't make it--it was there already.) 
Local mosque: Madinah Masjid.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Toronto, Canada

Some candies I picked up at the dollar store--I like the Smarties, which are Canada's version of M&Ms
8am in Canada -- beautiful

I just arrived in Toronto, Canada.  My airport experience was smooth and pleasant in Canada, but not so in my own hometown of San Jose, California.  Funny how that works--the people to whom we pay taxes don't seem to care as much about us as the ones who treat us as guests.

Toronto is so diverse, I cannot tell where people are from, unless I see obvious clues, like being light-skinned, African, and wearing a headscarf (i.e., of Somali descent). In my own family, my male cousins are married to women from Guyana; Trinidad and Tobago; and Pakistan by way of Bahrain.  My female cousin, the youngest one, is dating a Filipino.  I once said, "If you want to be happy, marry a Filipino/Filipina."  I should probably expand my folk wisdom to anyone raised in Malay culture who has a strong work ethic.  In any case, my uncle and aunt--both born in Iran--love Canada.

They particularly like Canada's healthcare system.  With a federal income tax of about 40% and a 13% sales tax (5% is GST/HST and 8% provincial), they can go to the hospital and never receive a bill to pay.  In California, the upper income tax rates after combining federal and state are around 35%, and the sales taxes are around 9%; however, after numerous deductions, such as mortgage interest, very few people in the upper income brackets actually pay listed tax rates.  A single person making around 100,000 USD in California would probably pay around 28% to 32% federal and state income tax--not including property or sales taxes.  If the difference in income taxes is about 10%, one has to wonder why American healthcare is so inefficient.  In Canada, employees do not have any deductions from their paycheck for non-dental healthcare expenses.

Certainly, Canada's much smaller population and oil and timber wealth play major roles in being able to provide better social welfare benefits, but the key takeaway is that Canadians don't mind paying high taxes because they receive clear and tangible benefits. Meanwhile, I just spent weeks attempting to resolve a hospital bill around 1,000 USD (reduced from around 2,000 USD because I had insurance). Most of my bill was related to blood tests, and I received a separate bill from the doctor who saw me for about 10 minutes. I also received another bill from the same doctor later--apparently, the original bill didn't include all the fees. I managed to get it all resolved, but I'm a single person in between jobs who had the time to go in person to my health provider's customer care office multiple times.  (Oh, the "Pay Now" button on Covered California's website?  It's only a one-time use to get into the system--you can't use it to pay the premium once you've signed up, which must be paid through the third party health care provider's own website. And yes, it still says "Pay Now" even after you've signed up and can't use it anymore. Your credit card is charged 1 dollar and then deducted 1 dollar, and unless you're vigilant, you may think you've paid the monthly premium only to realize you haven't.  Good thing I visited the health care provider's office again to be sure, because what else would I be doing with my time that's more fun than resolving issues with a non-intuitive website?)

Before coming to Canada, I went through my own government's transportation check.  I always opt out of the futuristic-looking body scanner experience, which elicits apathy at best and scorn at worst.  While the American TSA located an agent to pat me down, my luggage was abandoned at the end of the conveyor belt for five minutes, and I was then groped in my groin area. (They point out it's the back part of their hands they're using before the inspection, though I'm not sure why the obvious-shaped bulge isn't a go-around area.)  As an American citizen, I get to pay taxes for inefficient healthcare, totally unnecessary risk of luggage theft, AND an R-rated pat-down?  Why in God's name would anyone want to move north? 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Freedom without Tolerance Leads to Cultural Fossilization

No society can call itself truly free unless it listens to unpopular viewpoints and allows such viewpoints without fear of retaliation. In other words, for freedom to mean something other than anarchy or majority control, tolerance is a necessary component. If unpopular speech is chilled through inaction or action, tolerance is impossible.

Worst of all, people with unpopular but correct views will be unable--in practical terms--to contribute them into the mainstream for examination, denying society the benefit of intellectual diversity and progress.

Bonus I: "After all, a minority exists to convince the majority to its way of thinking and often identifies flaws in a proposal that a majority doesn't see in its rush to adopt.  This is the fruit of deliberation and the essence of deliberative assemblies." - - U.S. Representative Tom McClintock, on why debate is essential to the legislative process.

Bonus II: Spoke to a law professor today who said that "sucking up" to people is required everywhere in the world to succeed. I don't know if she understands if people in power--whether in politics, academics, or corporations--use such a value in determining relationships and hiring practices, not only will the main result be an army of "yes men and women" rather than merit-based culture, but genuine interactions will be stifled in the name of alleged societal hierarchy.

She genuinely believes that all countries require "sucking up" to succeed, even when I told her I've been to about 30 countries, and that's just not true. I wanted to say she believes her statement because she's a professor in a law school charging 55,000 USD a year, so her experience with human interaction on a level playing field is limited, but I don't think I would have convinced her. Unfortunately, people in bubbles cannot typically be convinced by logic or experience not within the realm of their own personal knowledge. Perhaps one way to help Americans broaden their horizons is simple: increase travel outside North America early and often.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The "Warrant Canary"

After September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act with only a single dissenting vote in the Senate and only 66 Representatives out of 432 voting nay.  (The House is a strange creation--there can be up to 435 voting Representatives, but some entities have a seat but no voting power, such as Puerto Rico, so technically there are 441 Representatives.)  Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin was the only Senator voting against the Patriot Act on October 24, 2001.  When the Act was up for renewal in 2006, at a time when more level heads should have prevailed, 86 out of 100 Senators voted in favor.

Because of such sweeping consent by America's politicians, America in 2017 lacks privacy and is under more surveillance than East Germany at its peak.  The surveillance is so broad and so invasive, the law itself prevents companies from even disclosing cooperation with it. If an electronic communications company--and what technology company isn't involved in electronic communications these days?--receives a National Security Letter ("NSL") demanding records, the company cannot even disclose the governmental request under 18 U.S.C. 2709(c).

That whole "checks and balances" idea allowing America to claim it had more freedom and stability than repressive regimes?  It has not existed from 2001 to 2017, because law enforcement agencies like the FBI are able to send a form letter and demand reams of consumer and citizen data without needing to get judicial approval.

 In 2017, a few companies are trying to fight back through end-to-end encryption and now a "warrant canary."  Basically, companies that haven't yet received a National Security Letter publish something in their annual report indicating they've never received one, and if the statement is missing from future annual reports, the consumer can make an educated guess about what has changed.

While this type of protest is encouraging, it is still facile and futile in actually stopping governmental and law enforcement overreach. As such, someone caring about privacy is now better off moving to another country where taxes are spent more meticulously, preventing governments from expanding law enforcement resources at will.  A country that can issue whatever money it needs on the backs of future generations may not go bankrupt due to currently low interest rates, but the kind of society it can create is not necessarily a healthy or sustainable one.  Indeed, a government relying on debt to maintain the status quo has an interest in normalizing its use amongst its own citizens as it diverts taxpayer funds into increasingly questionable endeavors.  In today's topsy-turvy world, countries with less financial flexibility are more nimble psychologically and perhaps more financially sturdy because choices must be made.  When choices must be made with finite funds, at least a few people tend to think of the long term.  Not so in America, but at least it looks like a few are rebelling--11 and 16 years too late.

Trivia Fun: as of 2017, the six non-voting members are Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Looking for a Valentine's Day Gift?

My chat with Fitbit on Feb 7, 2017, where I pretend to have a gf to get info :-) 
Forget roses--most women would rather have a Fitbit. Not the watch--just the slim band. Try the Alta, and remember: you can change colors and sizes. Don't get small if your gf isn't small :-)

The website is HERE.  As of February 7 2017, Fitbit is offering 25% off and free 2-day shipping for Valentine's Day.

Disclosure: I own stock in Fitbit, but my positions may change at any time. There's a lot of competition in the fitness band and watch space--I just ordered myself a Garmin Forerunner 35, but that's because I had a retailer coupon, and the retailer didn't carry Fitbit.  The watch I ordered--not to be confused with the "cuter" band--is more expensive, but it has GPS.  I haven't worn a watch in many years, but I couldn't resist trying one with a GPS and heart and sleep monitor.  I'm not looking forward to adjusting to what must be a tight wrist fit to get all that data, but the unexpected coupon persuaded me to take a leap.

Fitbit seems to be more popular because it has an active online community and allows more customization--I couldn't choose any colors or sizes for the Forerunner watch, and this particular product doesn't sync with an app (Connect IQ) allowing customization.  If you're looking for a similar Fitbit product, check out the Blaze.

Update: in a genius marketing trick, most women will in fact be wearing the "small" size.

5.5" - 6.7" for small
6.7" - 8.1" for large
8.1" - 9.3" for XL
These are all wrist circumferences as well. 

Update: I just found the sizing link.  The link to the information is HERE in PDF format.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on NY vs. CA

From Seth Davis's Wooden: A Coach's Life (2015, paperback) 
Back when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named Lewis Alcindor, he traveled to UCLA from his hometown of New York.  In Abdul-Jabbar's case, it looks like you can take the man out of New York and change his name, but he'll always be a New Yorker.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Non-Selective Legalization of "Sin"

Below is an interesting discussion from Facebook re: legalizing sex work.

Legalization involves two primary questions: 1) do you want the government to generate taxes from in-demand activities and use those taxes to battle unregulated activities; or 2) do you want the middle class to fund an ever-expanding war against mafias who have no competition outside of themselves, a matter easily resolved by cartels and territory carveouts?

CK: [Posts link to National Human Trafficking Day]

MM: One solution is to legalize solicitation, use police resources to protect sex workers, and tax the activity. Am I the only person who thinks it's counterintuitive to make x illegal when x has always had high demand, then raise taxes to fight x while criminal elements profit from x, requiring taxes to be raised continuously to combat illegal demand? What is more preferable? A continuously expanding police state that's almost always at a disadvantage against more profitable criminal forces, or legalized solicitation as a taxable activity and lower profits and influence for criminal groups (who now have competition)?

CK: What about the girls who didn't have a choice in the matter? It's why it's called human trafficking. [And] Making it legal is going to somehow make the pimps less greedy and take less girls because more women will voluntarily be sex workers because it's legal? I don't think so.

MM: If legalized and taxed, wouldn't such women have more choices and places to get help in the "formal" economy rather than being completely trapped in the informal/underground economy? Remember: by taxing the activity, more funds would be available for social services as well as police. Right now, taxpayers are revolting against government programs that do not directly benefit themselves because they see higher taxes but not better quality of life.

Playing cops and robbers in the modern era by raising taxes on law-abiding residents is backfiring by creating more debt and/or unchecked police expansion. The police simply cannot keep up against better funded, better equipped criminal groups, requiring them to demand higher taxes to expand capabilities; and to partner with federal agencies, losing some independence. By taxing an activity that already occurs due to high demand--and assuming political corruption is kept to a minimum--an independent revenue source would make it easier to fund social programs that help the very people you intend to help, but without the spectre of a continually expanding police state.

The police and federal LE agencies would still combat human trafficking, but they wouldn't be at such a disadvantage in doing so, and they wouldn't be in a position where their interests diverged from local taxpayers.

MM: You wrote, "Making it legal is going to somehow make the pimps less greedy..."?

In a way, yes. When the government competes wth criminals, they can put the criminals out of business. No pimps means better recourse for women who are in this industry. Whom would you rather regulate sex workers? Someone like you, subject to specific legal procedures, or an unregulated pimp who can use violence?

Remember: women who are trapped are still going to be helped, but with greater tax revenue, more middle-class taxpayer support, and less shame, because their activity will be somewhat "normalized" via gov fiat and will be under a more sustainable tax funding system.

You're also missing a key benefit--under legalization, police resources cannot be used against sex workers under any scenario. In fact, the reverse occurs--sex workers would be able to trust police, knowing that no court could possibly fine or jail them.

GL: According to countless studies, the vast majority of women who "volunteered" to be sex workers were sexually abused in the past. Healthy people don't do things like that for money. It's degrading, disgusting, and harmful to everyone who participates in it, whether they are willing to admit it or not.

MM: So what's your plan on eliminating sexual abuse? It's as if you're saying that the vast number of car accidents are caused by drunk drivers, so obviously we need to ban alcohol. It didn't work in Prohibition because the demand was still there. As long as demand for something [nonviolent] exists, we can either cede its business (and profits) to underground forces, or we can try to eliminate or weaken them through direct competition.

GL: Thank you for your question, and especially for writing respectfully about an issue on which we disagree. Here are my thoughts: "Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono."

This is the state motto of Hawaii. It can be translated as "The life (or sovereignty) of the land is perpetuated in righteousness." Only by doing what is right can our communities, our nations, and our civilizations be preserved.

Demand for something evil is not a legitimate argument for its legalization. For example, there is a demand for hit men (murder for hire), and has been since time immemorial. While enacting and enforcing laws against this evil may not eliminate it completely, this course of action is infinitely favorable to the alternative of making our government by the people implicit in murder.

I respectfully refuse to concede that the best way to eliminate evil is to compete with it on its own terms. As Dr. King so eloquently stated, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."

To your question on how to stop sexual abuse, I would highly encourage you to read the website. The movement is modeled after the anti-smoking movement, which reduced demand for tobacco from roughly 42% of the U.S. population to just 15% today, all by promoting awareness. Fight the New Drug has tons of great examples, success stories, and research-based ideas for combatting the abuse that is the foundation of sex for money.

MM: Thank you for your response. I've amended my comment above to specify that I meant demand for nonviolent products or services.

Once upon a time, Americans believed alcohol was evil. Who gets to decide what is evil? IMHO, the issue is whether the service or product is unduly coercive, which eliminates any violent products or services from the legalization discussion.

Your argument is more nuanced. You are essentially arguing that sexual services are the result of violence and are therefore a product of coercion. Such an argument fails because it is too broad and gives unchecked discretion to gov officials. For example, a paternalistic gov could ban violent video games because they are inspired by violence. Yet, something is not evil merely because it is connected to violence or evil--otherwise, all militaries would be banned.

To truly achieve a viable solution against coercive services and products, we must focus on services that directly compete with them and that seek to remedy the direct violence or evil that creates the services and products you dislike.

Legalization of drugs and sex is one path that creates direct competition and in doing so, weakens the underground entities' ability to use violence (pimps, etc.) to support their businesses. Using the new tax revenue from such legalization would also allow the greater social services you support, and in a much more consistent manner. Over time, if the social services are done properly, and if your premise is correct about the reasons some people participate in sex work or use drugs, then the evil you seek to destroy would be destroyed.

If such an endgame is achieved, however, it won't be done through ever-expanding cops-and-robbers battles between gov and mafias, where cutting the head of the current mafia or cartel boss merely results in another leader entering the void. It will be done through better economic opportunities for all persons and through more sustainable and politically viable ways of funding social services, such as increased tax revenue from legalization.

Bonus: more here on the specifics of legalizing prostitution.

Bonus: I just watched a documentary on human trafficking. The problem is that once taken away from their parents, teenagers or younger women are isolated and under threat of constant violence because the pimps don't leave their side and confiscate their phones. They are too ashamed to call their parents, and do not trust the police.

One solution would be to designate all hospitals as "safe spots" for trafficked persons. If a person shows up and says she's a trafficked person, the hospital staff must immediately assign a guard to her and alert a social worker. The social worker would open a case file, work with the police, and provide shelter until the woman could be reunited with family.  If the person has no family or doesn't want to return to her family, then she would be given access to the same social services as others and/or a woman's shelter. It is surprising that as of now, there are no universally accepted places where trafficked victims may seek safe shelter without threat of prosecution or forced interaction with police.

Bonus: watch Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008) for an eye-opening view on steroid regulation. 5/5 stars.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does Mill Valley's Mayor Jessica Jackson Understand Economics?

Today, I spoke with Jessica Jackson Sloan, mayor of Mill Valley, California. After listening to an hour of her speech at Santa Clara University--basically lifted from the Netflix documentary, 13th, with some personal anecdotes about Van Jones thrown in--I approached her afterwards to get more information.

She is against mass incarceration but supports police unions: "Police unions are not the problem."

She is pro-legalization of drugs but admitted she focused on the effects of criminalization rather than the cause: a failure to legalize some drugs, which would take power away from overzealous judges, D.A.s, and police officers.

When pushed further on the topic, she said her constituents don’t support legalization. In her one hour speech against mass incarceration, she failed to mention "legalization" once. Claiming to be anti-mass incarceration but not focusing on anything that will remove excessive government discretion in making arrests creates a cycle of well-intentioned failure. Drug criminalization, after all, has been increasing incarceration rates since the 1970s as part of a deliberate government strategy. Now it appears even if some drugs are legalized, anti-immigration government actions might replace the "lost bodies"--and reasons to continue diverting tax revenue to public safety jobs rather than lower tax rates or other services, such as parks and recreation or social welfare.

It's time for politicians to understand drugs are a business and partly a response to certain groups being excluded from the "traditional" job market due to factions and vested interests, especially within the government. As long as public safety unions take 50 to 70% of most cities' tax revenue, it's almost impossible to be against their growth and also benefit from the tax largess they control. Now that some taxpayer money is going to outside contractors and non-governmental employees in an attempt to reduce incarceration costs, some politicians suddenly feel more comfortable being anti-incarceration. Interesting coincidence, that. What's the motto in California government? That we, the government, can make all the money we want and give ourselves pensions at 7 to 8% guaranteed rates on the backs of taxpayers, but God forbid the private sector try to do our jobs more efficiently?

I found out later that Jessica "Government is not the Problem" Sloan, a former government lawyer, is married to a unionized firefighter.  

Bonus: I thought it would be useful to add a quick finance lesson. The 7 to 8% guaranteed return necessitates an unholy alliance between government unions, banks, and Wall Street. Why? Any guaranteed return requires stocks and dividends to rise perpetually to provide the gains necessary to keep pensions afloat, or both government employee contributions and taxes must rise to levels that will create discontent. (Notice how your sales taxes keep going up?)

Government unions can't openly admit to such an alliance, so they spend money on PR to trick voters into channeling their anger towards Wall Street when government unions--as well as the rest of us--rely on bankers because the modern American economy is heavily debt-dependent post 9/11.  The difference is that private sector employees--unlike government union employees--don't get to raise taxes or demand their employer issue debt on everyone else in their community to resolve any gap in the expected rate of return and the actual rate of return.

In a world where government unions can lobby to impose investment benchmarks enshrined in law and unrelated to any real investment return, the individual isn't effective in the democratic process--even when lobbyists' demands are unsustainable in the absence of the government's ability to issue more debt or increase taxes.

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017) 

Update in April 2017: "Approximately 150 million people workin the United States; 130 million work in private enterprise. We hold in high regard the 20 million people who work in government--teachers, policemen, firemen and others. But we could not pay for those jobs if the other 130 million were not actively producing the GDP of America." -- James Dimon, J.P. Morgan Chase 2016 Annual Report 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

We Are All Bricks in the Wall Now

I just got off the phone with the registrar's office at my law school, and the assistant told me I had a 5% chance of adding one line to a verification letter about what should be an undisputed fact.  It has taken 14 emails and a phone call to get to this point.  

Let me start at the beginning.  I'm applying for a graduate law program overseas.  Foreign institutions are enamored with the word, "apostille," which is basically a notarized verification, but potentially more complicated because a government agency may need to verify the notarized copy of an issued document.  Luckily, the European law school realized the U.S. doesn't really do apostilles and told me I could use a notarized copy of my diploma with the application.  So far, so good, right? 

I head out and make two color copies of my undergrad and law school diplomas--about 8 USD to get usable copies with the right copy size--and write my American law school, asking them to notarize my diplomas. I find out they can only notarize my law school diploma, and I'm fine with that, but I want to get a letter on university letterhead verifying I graduated in 2002 and the process of graduating from my law school required, at some point, a check with my undergrad institution to verify graduation there.  With both a notarized copy of my law school diploma and this letter, I'll be covered both ways.  The cost of the notary is 35 USD, plus 10 USD for each notary stamp, which comes to be 55 USD (one stamp on the verification letter and one for the law school diploma).  

I asked to include a statement on official letterhead as follows: 

"I am a notary authorized by AGENCY NAME and employed by UNIVERSITY's Registrar's Office.  I have checked the databases available to me and confirmed that STUDENT NAME graduated LAW SCHOOL in 2002. As part of attending LAW SCHOOL, STUDENT NAME was required to receive an undergraduate diploma, which he received from University of California at Davis.  I have reviewed both diplomas and have confirmed STUDENT NAME's identity and his possession of UC Davis and LAW SCHOOL diplomas."  

After being told the registrar wouldn't have anything to do with the undergrad diploma and that receiving an official letter was a separate process costing another 10 USD, I asked if its databases link or linked with my undergraduate institution to verify my undergraduate graduation. (I would hope so, because otherwise, any competent forger could apply to any grad school nationwide with the aid of free software and a printer.)  I didn't get a direct response to my question, and if there really was no communication between my law school and undergrad institution, then all this is moot, but it makes sense that at some point in the application process, my law school confirmed I graduated from UC Davis.  So I said, "All right, I'll pay for the additional letter, but let's modify it and just add the following to the existing template: 

"I am a notary authorized by the California Secretary of State and employed by LAW SCHOOL's Registrar's Office.  I have checked the databases available to me and confirmed that STUDENT NAME attended from DATE TO DATE and graduated LAW SCHOOL in 2002 with a GPA of X. As part of our process, LAW SCHOOL verified at some point that STUDENT NAME was listed as a graduate of UC Davis."  [An alternate version could say, "I saw STUDENT'S UC Davis diploma, checked the information on it, and am verifying the person bringing it to me is in fact STUDENT," but that idea was shot down.]  

Only the last line above is in dispute, and apparently I have a 5% chance of having it added to my letter.  If I don't get the additional sentence, I'll have a potentially harder time convincing other institutions to accept my applications without driving over to UC Davis and going through the same process again, which will cost me more money.  Mind you, I paid my law school about 100,000 USD.  The only reason I--and other graduates--and in this situation is because American colleges, despite increasing tuition far higher than inflation every single year, have yet to create databases where graduates and students can consent to having their attendance dates and graduation statuses publicized online. Because of this inaction, we live in a country where an entire industry of notaries is partially supported by inefficiency.  

This is the modern American economy--it is driven by inaction and failure to use technology in consumer-facing ways, necessitating administrative jobs that consume time and energy and pit common sense against established procedures. It's not technology that is ruining our lives--it's decisions made by people in agencies and governments that fail to utilize technology properly and instead support existing professions, regardless of actual utility. Sure, it would cost some money to set up a database and get consent to publicize student graduation and attendance data, but once completed, the consent process would be included along with the regular graduation form.  Thereafter, no reasonable person would need a notarized diploma, and each individual applicant would save about 50 USD forevermore. (By the way, California's State Bar website lists both undergrad and law school institutions for lawyers, indicating such a database wouldn't be that complex.) Yet, taking this common sense approach is problematic not because of the money--colleges have plenty of it via government-guaranteed loans--but because any legislator that tries to insert efficiency and common sense antagonizes an established body of notaries who have paid hundreds in fees themselves to get a special stamp and notebook, and of course organized into their own interest groups.  

The services-based economy in America is creating social rebellion as more people become fed up with inefficiency for inefficiency's sake, even when jobs wouldn't necessarily be lost with greater efficiency.  If the database I've proposed goes down, someone still needs to maintain it--a process that wouldn't need a technical degree with today's available templates and hosting services from Amazon or Intuit.  An IT department might even need to hire more people to increase security against hacking, though such services would presumably already be part of its bailiwick.  

Someone still needs to take calls if a student's or graduate's information isn't listed correctly.  Someone still needs to take the initiative and make sure the list of graduates every year is submitted in a format compatible with the database and easily uploadable.  Yet, in a world where jobs are given to people not based on character and ability to learn on the job, but by a piece of paper that seems to confirm nothing other than obedience, here we are.  Let's see if I can convince the university tomorrow to add the one line to a letter costing me 10 USD. If I can't, why shouldn't machines take over American jobs when American employees in universities that cost 47,000 USD in tuition each year can't think independently or provide decent customer service?

Bonus: my friend tells me, "The notary is likely someone who works in an adjacent office and not the registrar herself. She literally cannot sign as you've written it--California law prohibits it. The registrar is the document custodian, and all the notary does is certify that the document custodian is who he/she says they are.  A notarization is solely a confirmation of identity (in this case the registrar's)."

Bonus: "All progress depends on the unreasonable person."

Update: I received a notarized copy of my diploma.  Basically, it's a copy of your diploma with a piece of paper attached to it signed by the registrar indicating as follows: "I am the University Registrar at UNIVERSITY NAME.  I hereby verify that the attached diploma is a copy of the original." A notary reviews the diploma copy to make sure it's an accurate copy of the original.  The registrar recites a short statement and the notary stamps a piece of paper and makes a notation in her book.  That's it.

The registrar--a delightful, smart woman--said she had nothing to do with the law school application process, so she wouldn't certify or write anything other than what her databases showed.  She referred me to the law school's assistant dean of student services for the letter I requested.  Luckily, I knew the assistant dean from my time at the law school, and she is an amazing person.  I got the letter.

The registrar told me national databases do in fact exist that collect student data.  See HERE (NSLDS) and HERE (National Student Loan Clearinghouse).  However, from my research, such databases are not publicly accessible like the State Bar's website, leading to this ridiculous business of notarizing diplomas and transcripts, which transfers money and time from regular people to institutions and their employees.

Why my law school diploma had to be verified by the undergraduate registrar rather than the graduate institution itself, I don't know.  For a smaller private school, I suppose it saves overhead to consolidate graduate program information into a single central database that includes undergraduates.  I lament once again the American predilection not to be consumer-facing in terms of saving time from the perspective of the consumer, but to organize affairs in order to save costs from the perspective of the entity. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

A final note: apparently, some law schools, during their application processes, don't actually check any database to see if an applicant graduated from the listed undergraduate institution.  They just request a verified official transcript.