Thursday, April 27, 2017

Policing and Walking a Beat

Policing in the old days involved a cop walking a beat.  Why walking?  So he could get to know his community and operate as part of a village raising children to be law-abiding adults.  On his own, the cop was useless and vulnerable; as part of the community, he was one of its respected pillars.

As cities became larger and cars more popular, police adapted and got behind the wheel, too, obviously losing the personal touch.  Without the comfort of knowing who is familiar and unfamiliar, cities with exploding populations--especially L.A.--not only experienced "white flight" but also more aggressive policing methods. (See the documentary, O.J.: Made in America (2016), for details.)  One may argue the 2nd Amendment necessitates harsher methods, but if that was the case, why wasn't the "cop on the beat" decades ago as harsh as the cops in body armor today? 

Crime has always been with us, and policing methods have adapted to changing demographics. If you don't know your own neighborhood, you may decide to treat everyone initially as a potential threat or a potential ally.  Police in America today have decided to go with the former to ensure their own safety.  Such an approach is sure to fail, because treating others with prejudiced suspicion always breeds contempt. Once contempt is created, dialogue becomes more difficult, and eventually things fall apart.  

When schools teach Jim Crow and segregation, they always mention fire hoses and police dogs, but not demographics and policing methods.  What are police--who must generally follow orders--supposed to do when mayors or city councils order them to disperse a crowd, even a peaceful one?  If the mayor is getting his or her ear chewed off by small and large business owners losing sales because streets are blocked off or consumers are hesitant to come inside and shop, what is the mayor supposed to do? These days, American protests don't accomplish much because they're too staged and shut down no real activity.  The pop stars giving speeches never go to jail, so there's no sense of danger.  It's like a sporting event--everyone blows off some steam, then goes home.  

Meanwhile, the real action is done horse-trading political favors behind the scenes, with each government agency trying to get as much money as possible while placating voters. The politician today stands for nothing save the following question: "How much can I give this agency for their collective votes, and how much can I raise taxes or borrow to pay for it before my voters get so frustrated, they vote me out?" 

Students who study Jim Crow and other policing methods in the South should also study the liberal, open, and lovely college town of UC Davis. In 2011, a police officer used pepper spray on undeniably peaceful student protestors.  In the aftermath of worldwide outrage, UC Davis--a public university--used taxpayer dollars to pay consultants at least $175,000 to help its image online.  

As for the cop using the pepper spray?  He applied for worker's compensation and won more than $38,055 for suffering he experienced after the incident. Did anything really change after 2011 in California with respect to police power and its use against residents and voters?  Not at all.  Did police officers become more open to accepting the consequences of following clearly unjust orders? Nope.  If anything, police--and other government entities, such as teachers--became more powerful and cloistered as their unions continued to lobby for greater legal protections.

The modern American political system is rigged in favor of large, coordinated groups against the individual--regardless of merit or principle.  That's how democratic institutions typically work, except it's much harder to root out corruption when it's economic and when debt and paper stock market gains do better cover-up jobs than any "special investigations unit." 

In Brian De Palma's 1987 thriller, The Untouchables, Sean Connery plays a beat cop, Jim Malone, and asks Kevin Costner’s character, Eliot Ness, what he’s prepared to do to nab a notorious mobster. The insinuation is that it's going to take more than aboveboard policing methods to take down Al Capone, who will do anything to ensure he's the most feared and powerful man in Chicago.  What do Americans do now, when the most feared and powerful entities are not the criminals, but the police and other government employees, who are backed by judges they helped elect or appoint? What happened to government employees as pillars of their communities rather than the least accountable persons in them? 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Fugees: Inaction Killing America's Leadership Potential

This map represents the West's cowardice and lack of humanitarian leadership. Bombing Syria, destabilizing the Middle East, and doing nothing to assist refugees other than paying the U.N. is morally wrong.

I'm sure many Americans made the same cultura
l assimilation arguments against accepting Jews during WWII--during a time when people weren't 100% sure what was happening. Today, we have satellites. We have no excuse. We know what is happening and do nothing. (Well, except telling Turkey that America is willing to accept their educated refugees only, especially PhDs.)

History will not forget. The Syrians and Iranians have accepted many refugees in their history. America, when given a chance to try to rebuild communities, failed. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

A reader responded: "Perhaps a more kind way of saying the same thing is that the U.S. doesn't know what culture it has anymore. No one is really giving a voice or identity to this generation, and we haven't adopted the good ideals of the founding fathers of making the U.S. a haven for the poor and downtrodden. I find it so interesting that people want to "make America great again" by doing the exact opposite of what made it great in the first place: granting poor people property and a chance at a normal life, regardless of their background."

Bonus: Amazon's Jeff Bezos was raised by a Cuban refugee.  Andre Agassi's father was an Armenian refugee raised in Iran.  He represented Iran as a boxer in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Questions about Eastern Europe

If anyone has information--even if only anecdotal--about the following questions, please message me or leave a comment.  I refer to the Czech Republic specifically, but I'm also interested in other non-eurozone in the EU, especially Hungary.  

1.  What is the government of the Czech Republic’s and Hungary's approach to interacting with foreign and domestic businesses? What policies have worked?  What has not worked?  

2.  What is the legal framework of the Czech Republic compared to the United States?  

3. How has the Czech Republic carved out a niche while also complying with uniform EU laws? 

4.  Have any measures been taken to address economic inequality?  

5.  What specific laws, if any, have helped balance business, employee, and consumer rights?

6.  What would be the feasibility and impact of adopting the euro, and what would be the appropriate timeline in doing so?  Would it be better to wait until other Eastern European nations have adopted it, or should Czech Republic take the lead?  

7.  How has the Czech Republic dealt with inflation and currency stabilization?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Fight Club Edition: Choose Jetblue and Virgin America over United Airlines

Fly Jetblue and Virgin America, and avoid United.

Jetblue and Virgin appear to have more consumer-friendly policies:

I don't understand why United didn't keep increasing the value of the replacement voucher above 800 USD until someone accepted. Whatever the amount, it would certainly be cheaper than the cost to its reputation. Also, why are the security forces complying without questioning their role or doing a quick investigation and making their own (nonviolent) recommendations?

Americans are so jaded, they're saying they'll still fly United and they're looking forward to the discounts due to the PR fallout.  I keep trying to warn people: a nation drowning in debt is not truly free, because "free" choices necessitate placing the financial self-interest principle above all else, even morality.

Update on April 28, 2017: United announced changes to its passenger removal process and passenger compensation guidelines.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Just Sayin'

People intuitively understand segregation is immoral and counterproductive.

Then they drive to their private schools, past the security gate with a guard who can reject anyone for any reason, onto a campus charging 40K+ annually for tuition, and say hello to a professor with legal protections under an MOU unavailable to 85% of the general public.

My former law school, Santa Clara University, is asking for donations. I don't see anywhere that SCU plans to forgive the student loans of graduates who are unemployed; who make under a certain income after five years; or who don't have affluent parents who can help pay off the loans.  Must be an oversight.

I wonder what all the pro-regulation professors would think about a law mandating colleges, as 3rd party beneficiaries, to absorb some percentage of a grad's student loan after 5 years if the student makes less than x dollars (with x dollars tied to tuition cost). This paradigm might cause different tuition rates for different majors, but funding discrimination against liberal arts departments is occurring anyway with students bearing all the risks.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Skyscanner App: Groucho Marx Edition

Skyscanner is an app and website that helps you find cheap airfare. Here's one link to search for flights: Flight Deals (originally posted April 5, 2017 and updated April 2018).

I just joined their rewards and blogging program as an experiment. The advice they give travel bloggers is in-depth and technical, and I'll probably do the least amount of compliance necessary to stay in the program and lurk. So far, it looks like I just have to post two links in each blog post, and I plan on making them as unobtrusive as possible.  [Update: Kelsey from Skyscanner tells me, "you actually don't have to do anything. It’s completely up to you how much or how little you want to talk about Skyscanner."  I may end up liking these people.] 

Groucho Marx once wrote, "I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." I like being an individual; though there's no "i" in team, there is one in "integrity." Life is all about finding your own voice and making the journey from unfunny happy dippy weatherman to subversive truth-teller. 

Besides, I refuse to do the fake smiles and posed photos (damn the duckface) that have become the norm.  I'm rarely in my own travel pictures. I will admit to using filters (blame Instagram for compromising my originality, but its "rise" filter is perfect for too-dark photos). 

Mind you, I have nothing against people who try to become internet superstars--I just want to contribute something more useful than another picture on the beach. When I travel, I try to talk to as many people as I can and observe the local economy. People may delude themselves about what they enjoy and like, but how people treat others and spend their money and time never lies. 

I'll never forget seeing a beautiful, model-like Cambodian woman walking down a main street. I asked her for directions because Google Maps wasn't getting a sufficient signal, and she repeated my question to a much older, darker-skinned, blue-collar tuk-tuk driver in Khmer. He flashed her a look of scorn as if to say, "You may speak better English than me and wear nicer clothes, but I can still refuse to talk to someone I consider overly flashy and a sell-out." I never got my answer. 

I look for as many "real" moments as I can handle. In the aggregate, they give me clues, "Finding Dory-style," that help me on my journey.   

I'm going to the Dominican Republic, Panama, Costa Rica, and the land of Fidel (now Raul) Castro. On my last trip, I visited 18 countries in 5 months and didn't blog until the very end, where I promptly spat out all my thoughts in one article: We'll see what happens this time. 

Skyscanner Homepage Link

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Rafat's Law: Inflation Elasticity

I've realized laws designed to control externalities and systemic shocks--such as banning secondhand smoke, anti-pollution regulations, or requiring certain levels of retrofitting in earthquake-prone areas--are necessary, while most other laws merely impose social values from elites onto the rest of society, transferring power to lawyers and politicians rather than individuals.

Laws favoring transparency in government are also necessary, though we've learned in America that transparency tends to come from whistleblowers rather than voluntary compliance (See Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, etc.).

Economic "laws" are the most important, but are usually backwards-looking and therefore inadequate for future reference, especially in a globalized economy with many moving parts.  Yet, as long as the data economists rely upon is relevant, recent, and relatively constant within a specific time period, economic "laws" may help establish the groundwork for further discussion.

I've tried for years to articulate an economic "law" I understand intuitively but cannot explain well.  It deals with the social response to an increasing gap between expected wages, debt loads, and essential services/products such as housing, healthcare, food, and transportation. Economic "experts" don't seem to separate essential vs. non-essential items when evaluating the inflation trajectory of wages and costs.

For example, getting an education costing 5K may not seem like a great deal if minimum wage is $3.50/hr, but it's still within reach. (Tara VanDerveer can still afford to go to college even she's not from an affluent family and eventually land a prestigious coaching job.)  If that same education, with new and fancier departments at the same college, costs 10K when the minimum wage is $7/hr, it's not as good a deal even though we've doubled both the cost and the wages.  In other words, the doubling of wages and costs should produce the same or similar results, but we're seeing that it does not. (Rafat's Law of Inflation Inelasticity: manipulating general wages by fiat to provide more equal opportunity does not solve the price inflation problem because the cost of essential items in modern society is often so much higher than wages that any rise in wages typically causes additional price inflation. Such price inflation relative to wage inflation increases at unsustainable rates due to the high starting price point, low starting wage point, and the compound inflation problem.)

Worst of all, some higher costs, such as education, divert disposable and other income from tangible goods--especially tangible goods that may be transferred at lower values to other buyers if the initial purchase doesn't work out as expected. (You can transfer a paper book to someone else or sell it at a lower price to a used bookstore, but a Kindle selection is worth something only to you.)

Sorry, Warren Buffett--we live in interesting times. 
As the economy moves from tangible goods to services (e.g., data retention, secure networks, Wi-Fi reliability, etc.)--which cannot necessarily be transferred to new owners without modification--it encourages monopolies.  Competitors tend to use the same dominant platforms in the intangible economy and enter as "add ons" rather than something new or within a new ecosystem. No economic theory has explored this new paradigm.

Additionally, inflation in one area that is uneven has effects on more elastic wages and costs, especially as more and more economic activities depend on each other's growth.  Inelastic inflation means some prices such as tuition always increase, even if wage and job growth is uneven or elastic. Yet, one major reason for inflation elasticity is that higher costs in some areas, like tuition, tend to reduce well-paying jobs in that profession relative to unsubsidized tuition costs while solidifying power in the existing legacy group--at least in a democratic political system. Such a phenomenon typically leads to a greater reliance on debt or non-organic sources to spur job growth, adding an unpredictable new factor to an already complex inflation situation.

In short, prices and costs in some areas, such as U.S. tuition and tenured professor wages, are inelastic in the sense they do not experience deflation (though reduced enrollment may occur) because of political and legal support; in contrast, prices and costs in other areas are generally elastic even if an upward trend exists in the long term.

If elasticity in Sector X increases dramatically while inelasticity applies to Sector Y, backlash and social cohesion will occur.  If debt is used to mitigate the gap's effect between the elastic and inelastic sector, further distortions will occur, which are unpredictable to the extent the debt's gains don't flow equally or equitably (see election of Trump).

I don't know the solution to the above problem, but I don't want to have to explain it before we can start a discussion.  I call it "inflation elasticity" for now, but perhaps someone else can explain it better.

Bonus: Another common problem should have a shorthand name. When organizations are small, it is easy to hire likeminded people who interpret regulations and rules similarly. Predictability is almost assured, which leads to better compliance and mutual respect.

As organizations and the output they examine increase in number and complexity, enforcement is handled differently based on different fact scenarios, leading to different results based on arbitrary factors (e.g., which judge or case officer is randomly assigned, etc.).  Dissatisfaction is sure to increase.  As outcomes diverge, the system itself leads to distrust--the exact opposite outcome it was designed to create.

At that point, a leader has to decide how to manage his or her "troops."  If s/he orders them to comply with a singular or non-discretionary interpretation, s/he will fail because no method exists that covers all possible fact scenarios and permutations; at the same time, doing nothing will lead to sustained divergent outcomes, causing more distrust.  If the costs related to such a system continue to increase, regardless of reform or increased consistency, dissatisfaction and distrust will become contempt.

For this reason, almost everyone who grows older begins to appreciate the value of "small" while lamenting "small's" inability to expose its inhabitants to full knowledge and diversity of experience. Yet, I have seen nothing that teaches me how to solve the problem of trust and "big" without resorting to mindless enforcement that doesn't consider relevant differences.

Update on June 2017: my first "law" is explained here: 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Credit and Credibility in America

America Has the Most Complex System of Government Worldwide

I'm keenly interested in how other countries promote stability and confidence in government services. For example, compare London, England (about 8 million residents) to the Bay Area in California (about 7 million residents). The Bay Area has several different FBI offices, Sheriff's offices, and city police departments. Except for the FBI, all the offices have different elected or appointed leaders. Meanwhile, London is served by one Metropolitan Police Department, which employs about 50,000 people. It's true London is subject to jurisdiction by the National Crime Agency, but overlapping jurisdiction is rarer, and we're still discussing two law enforcement agencies rather than ten-plus in the Bay Area (S.F., Cupertino, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Oakland, Alameda County, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Marin County, etc.).  Having one police agency reduces administrative overhead as well as the need for different procedures, but it also seems to provide greater trust through greater simplicity.

America, in contrast, has at least three different levels of governance and taxation: federal, state, and local (city and county).  In a typical day, an American parent might pay gas taxes to the state and the city; educational fees to a local school board--which may have independent taxing authority--and a state; and then sales taxes at different rates to yet two other cities. Such fragmentation makes it difficult to determine whom to hold accountable if anything goes wrong; worse, it's harder to improve services even if nothing is wrong because of the need to understand different and overlapping procedures and jurisdiction. (And we haven't even mentioned property taxes or special assessments.)

As one might expect, such complexity increases the potential for corruption exponentially, especially when the goal is to increase annual funding under a system forcing governmental entities to compete against each other for the many of the same dollars. In one instance, a county and city in the same territory sued each other over a dispute about which entity was entitled to millions of dollars of tax revenue already received.

In other countries, the federal/national government might act as a tax collector and then distribute funding to states or territories, thereby creating greater fiscal accountability through separation. When the entity using the money isn't the same entity collecting it, chances of corruption are reduced. Think of it this way: if you apply for a passport at one office but have to pay the fee in another office and bring back a receipt allowing you to pick up your passport, the chances for bribery are almost nil.

On paper, the idea behind America's governmental diversity is to increase checks and balances and to provide opportunities for each city and state to create their own cultures, which might appeal to different persons and therefore increase inclusivity. Don't like too much government?  Go to New Hampshire. Want lots of government? Go to Northern California. Is your local police force not handling your complaints properly or arresting one racial group more than others for no reason? The federal government can step in on your behalf and sue to fix the problem.

In practice, however, attempts at governmental diversity and accountability have failed, causing almost total mistrust of government. Rather than provide true checks and balances, America's political system of local, state, and federal power has led to more "gaming" on each level, creating complexities difficult to unwind. The original system was created by people familiar with only 13 colonies/states with a population of about 2 million residents in 1775 and about 4 to 5 million in 1800 (not including natives). We can't even remark, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," because Kansas didn't exist at the time.

Debt Restricts True Freedom of Choice

Despite such a convoluted system, if people were able to move easily, they could take advantage of different cultures and activities nationwide. On paper, if one city or state was corrupt or close-minded, a family could move and start over in another less corrupt place. In practice, it just doesn't work that way. A college graduate lacking parental support would have about 20,000 USD in student loans. If this person was particularly ambitious, s/he might advance to graduate school, which would necessitate more student loans (though many science/engineering degrees provide grants and stipends). In either case, most of the college grad's networking opportunities would be local or at least in the same state, limiting employment mobility. Thus, despite having the technical ability to move 2,800 miles away, freedom of choice is limited by systemic forces, especially college and networking connections, which tend to be local.

In addition to the general need for alumni connections to garner employment, the need to go in debt to receive not only a college degree but a home and perhaps a new car restricts freedom of movement. If one buys a new car--a requirement in most American cities, which lack efficient public transportation--the value of the car immediately depreciates, making it inadvisable to sell quickly.  (An auto lease is possible but a terrible deal because of the lack of ownership and mileage restrictions.) Basically, more debt restricts flexibility, especially when much of the debt creates local rather than cross-border advantages.

What about buying a home, the most "local" purchase one can make? Under the federal tax code, it would be foolish to buy a home and sell it in less than five years due to numerous costs associated with the sale and the tax benefits of waiting at least 2 years--and that's before a possible penalty for early mortgage payments.

Furthermore, most college grads don't buy homes after graduation. They tend not to have practical skills, because most professors lack recent relevant work experience, meaning even after years of paying tuition, graduates still rely on business investment and training to be productive and profitable. In the meantime, since saving for a down payment can take years, renting is the most feasible option.

In short, a successful American reaching the age of 24 might have 22,000 USD in student loans, a car loan of 12,000 USD, and no ownership of anything other than a piece of paper--while being dependent on local connections to maximize employment and debt-repayment options.

People in Debt are Beholden to their Elders and Therefore the Establishment

A person with 34,000 USD in debt isn't likely to rock any boat. In fact, because of the convoluted system we discussed earlier, such a person is better off brown-nosing as many people as possible to increase his or her chances of receiving employment, even exaggerating his or her expertise to compete with other applicants. As you might predict, in such a dynamic, integrity is often the first value to dissipate, as everyone is focused on paying off debt rather than working together to advance long-term goals. A good reputation is a fine virtue, but not one you can eat.

Establishment-Oriented Societies Do Not Favor Dissent

In San Jose, California--one of the largest cities in America--both recent mayoral candidates graduated from the same private Catholic high school. This was not an accident. Why would anyone pay 7,000 to 12,000 USD for their children to attend a private school when MIT puts its content online?

What if the American Establishment is so ensconced in power, you have to buy your way in?  Maybe it doesn't matter how intelligent or honest your daughter is--if she wants to be mayor one day, what really counts is whether her parents put her in the right private high school. As of April 2017, Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors is majority Catholic. Dave Cortese attended Bellarmine (Catholic) high school. Cindy Chavez graduated from Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward. Mike Wasserman attended Bellarmine (Catholic) high school from 1972 to 1976. Who's the top local cop? Eddie Garcia, who attended St. Francis High School. As of 2017, Bellarmine high school charges over $20,000 annually in tuition.

It's true all alumni tend to look out for each other, but if you need to start in high school to build those connections, your children will get the jobs left over after the elites assign the ones they want to themselves--regardless of integrity. In such a system, loyalty to your own fiefdom matters more than loyalty to country or the public trust. Some entities, including the military, may convince themselves that looking out for each other is the same as being patriotic, but even General Colin Powell was made to look foolish by intelligence agencies with false information when he testified in favor of invading Iraq. In an age soaked with debt and paid-for connections formed as early as high school, integrity doesn't matter as much as maintaining institutional image.

When Donald Trump said during the presidential debates that mitigating taxes was "smart," he was right--the tax code allows him to take a deduction, so why shouldn't he? What obligation does he have to anyone else, especially when he can donate the money he saved to the entities of his choice--just like Warren Buffett, who will evade the estate tax by donating almost all of his billions to a fellow billionaire?

What happens to dissent in such a system, when the elites look out for themselves, their friends, and their particular institution's image more than any long-term view about what is best for the public?

How can the younger generation--which used to raise hell about unjust wars such as Vietnam--muster any sustained dissent when they are in debt as early as 19 years old or dependent on parental funding?

If government spending drives so many well-paying jobs--now with better benefits than the private sector in many states--and maintaining institutional image is more important than integrity, why would any rational college student or graduate speak out against any entity connected with the government, such as police, teachers, or firefighters? (One side is backed by billions of dollars each year, and the other owes thousands of dollars to the same aforementioned people.)

What happens to a society when the only people capable of bucking the Establishment are themselves part of it?

What happens to a society when the incentive for being honest is non-existent while the incentive for supporting the status quo is the greater likelihood to pay off debt one was forced to take to achieve the possibility of a middle class lifestyle?

I'm interested in knowing whether the problems I've mentioned above are the same everywhere, or especially so in the U.S.  Stay tuned... 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017) 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Colusa, CA

If you ever go to Davis, CA--one of my favorite American cities--about an hour away is a farming town called Colusa.  There's a bar, Rocco's, that serves excellent food, and the scenery is calming from January until the heat in June.