Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Comics: Dennis Hopeless as the Great White Hope

After one too many forced crossovers and marketing gimmicks (another death/resurrection?), I gave up on comic books about fifteen years ago. I know I sound like an irascible curmudgeon--and yes, get off my lawn, please--but I don't understand how video games have become so much better while comic books have declined. Have teenagers' tolerance for low quality products increased, or do they not realize how bad modern comic book writing is? 

We all remember Todd McFarlane's ill-advised switch to writing, and it stood out precisely because it was an unusual, one-off event. Today, comics routinely lack the subtle intellectualism I took for granted growing up. For example, Superman had a villain named Doomsday--as in a Doomsday device--in 1992, so young readers could contemplate difficult questions indirectly and sans black-and-white newspapers. Spiderman's Green Goblin could have been lifted straight from the military's secret experiments, while Tony Stark could be any major defense contractor CEO over the past 50 years (or, in an alternate universe, Elon Musk). Professor Xavier's Cerebro? The NSA's PRISM, of course. The "H" in S.H.I.E.L.D.? It stands for "Homeland." Even "lowbrow" publications like The Punisher provided insights into the mafia through the simply-named Kingpin. 

It wasn't just real-life crossovers that hooked me on comics. As an immigrant, I credit comics for teaching me colloquialisms I might never have learned otherwise. (Heck, I learned yesterday that "bakey" in "wakey wakey, eggs and bakey" means bacon--thanks, All-New X-Men: Inevitable!) 
You can imagine my surprise when I opened a Joker comic at Lee's Comics in Mountain View, California and saw the eponymous character bragging about committing a crime in front of disabled kids--expressly, right there in a speech bubble. The old Joker didn't need such crass dialogue. It was implied he'd try to provoke the Batman however he could. How such unnecessary bluntness--the kind that makes it impossible for readers to view villains as complex alter egos, like Magneto--made it past an editor, I'll never know. Nevertheless, its publication supports my thesis: the adults have left the asylum, and the inmates are in charge. 

Thankfully, I've finally discovered a writer I enjoy in the comics universe: Dennis Hopeless. He's just one man, but his presence gives me hope. I pray Marvel doesn't put him in an alternate universe, kill him, and then resurrect him in "limited run" editions with eighteen different covers. If it happens, though, I won't be surprised. Kids today don't know any other world, one where such gimmicks were isolated incidents rather than constant revenue generators, and where writing met minimum standards. Excelsior, indeed. 

P.S. Yes, I know about Ms. Marvel and Black Panther. It doesn't change my overall thesis: good comic book writing is declining, and a few new characters don't change the trend when so many "new" series are just mashups or rehashes of old characters. Look at the blurb for Rogue & Gambit. Are they trying to tick people off?

P.P.S. Long before school shootings became a regular occurrence in America, The Spectacular Spiderman #71 explored gun violence--in 1982. It was my first introduction to the 2nd Amendment and guns. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Chaos Theory: Politics in America

I sense people trying to achieve an intelligible synthesis of actress Stormy Daniels, the President of the United States, and society. Let me make it simple for you: it's none of your business.  

Western society has declined because of backlash against elitist judgment that reaches through our private doors and knows no limits. It's not democracy per se that failed, but the lawyers, judges, journalists, newscasters, media executives, and teachers whose job was minding the store while everyone else did the real work that created a sustainable community. 

Gossip is nothing new, of course. Brandeis still has the best lines on the subject: 

When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

What is Stormy Daniels but trivial gossip? Unlike Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's affair, not a scintilla of wrongdoing exists between herself and the current president. There is no unequal bargaining power, no lies, and no alleged force. We have only a publicity-seeking character arrested for domestic violence--admittedly a tame episode where we learn the "star's" husband's father was washing laundry in a house not his own--eagerly anticipating a payday even larger than the generous one already received. (Say what you want about Ms. Lewinsky, but her 24 year-old self never wanted or needed cash or publicity: "I never expected to fall in love with the President. I was surprised that I did."

I am well-aware I am defending a man whose actions and words are often indefensible, but unlike my so-called liberal colleagues, I also understand the man comes with an office, one that will remain long after a Presidential library is defiled with a copy of The Art of the Deal. In short, permanence exists even if every gear within its structure cranks towards the chaotic, and it is because of this permanence that we must act according to some principle other than prurience. 

Consequently, anyone supporting Stormy should note two uncomfortable details about the current media storm: it is Ms. Daniels who breached an agreement and violated its terms; and it is Ms. Daniels who was paid 130,000 USD and violated her word, not for a higher principle or to expose wrongdoing, but for more publicity and more money. One doesn't need a high IQ to realize what ought to been a private affair has now become yet another meandering distraction threatening to further erode whatever credibility mainstream journalism and media have left. Furthermore, I do not know who or what will bring down a president, but a person who lacks integrity is not--and should not be--the vehicle that ends this car crash Americans call a presidency. 

I have now wasted my time writing about an incident that should have remained between two consenting adults, with or without an NDA. How many interesting, good people have avoided pubic office because Americans have normalized their role as third parties to the violation of someone else's privacy? More importantly, what principle does America stand for in the year 2018? Obviously not privacy or integrity. Why, then, is anyone surprised the presidential office is held by someone the natural result of such a void? George Carlin once remarked, 

Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here... like, the public. 

In my previous post, I scolded an 84 year-old politician for bullying an American basketball player. I knew then I was wasting my breath, and I know I'm wasting my breath now. A society that cannot self-regulate its voyeurism will soon lose respect for privacy and other essential values. Its lawyers will spew more paper, but their paper-pushing will be worthless without a greater menace: a growing and expensive police state ready and able to carry out their words, diverting funding from more useful or compassionate enterprises. A best case scenario where insurance companies run the country even more than they do now isn't palatable to anyone decent. 

In fact, I remember speaking with an insurance company lawyer's daughter when I was in law school and mocking her father's chosen profession. She later told me her father wanted her to ask me, "How exactly does he plan on changing the world?" I didn't have an answer then, but I have one today: "By not being an insurance company lawyer." Similarly, you, too, can have an answer when presented with an opportunity to judge a person's bedroom behavior or any other consensual behavior between two adults: "Just say no." 

Over a long enough timeline, given a choice between being a moral busybody and an agent of chaos, I--and anyone else desiring a life worth living--will pick chaos every single time. Apparently, so will the American people. Would that they had better choices. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Chuck Grassley (IA) vs. Dianne Feinstein (CA): the Peacock & the Self-Restrained

Many Californians--plagued by party conformity across political offices and two Senators in office for decades (Boxer: 1993 to 2017; Feinstein: 1992 to the present)--seem unable to understand issues that ought to be simple. I happen to like Dianne Feinstein, will vote for her again if given the chance, 
and know tenured Senators are not unique to liberal states. For example, Iowa's Charles "Chuck" Grassley, in office since 1981, plays the part of cranky old man very convincingly. 
And get off my lawn!
Would Senator Feinstein ever publicly criticize a female college basketball for insufficient patriotism? Probably not. Feinstein's tenure as one of the longest-serving female Senators in American history has been marked by class, dignity, and the kind of intelligence one wishes Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren had. 

Notably, unlike Warren and Clinton, Senator Feinstein's job is secure, and such security allows the taking of difficult, controversial positions; in contrast, jostling for higher public office requires more secrecy and more PR, which favors image curators over truth. We are lucky Senator Feinstein has, more often than not, restrained herself and her staff from using her power to target private citizens--including but not limited to college basketball players--and decided the title of "Senator" was a comfortable enough perch for her ambition. 

Senator Grassley also enjoys a secure Senatorial seat. (America's two major political parties utilized data mining and analysis--the foundation of gerrymandering--long before hackers decided to enter politics.) Because of his political security, Grassley can use his power to go after private citizens who disagree with his views--including female college basketball players in a different state. I am not as old as Senator Grassley, but I come from a time when a powerful man inciting hatred against young female college athletes in any jurisdiction would be considered disrespectful and impolite. Perhaps Iowans--who also elected
Steve King aka "Trump before President Trump"--have different views on Midwestern hospitality. 

Regardless of one's political views, it should be plain the problem isn't tenure or even gerrymandering, but the concept of power itself. I do not know Senator Feinstein, but I imagine growing up during a time when women were not respected as equals to men professionally gave her ballast and a sense of justice not easily replicated by the kind of man who would go after a college athlete in a different state merely because some Iowans sent him emails after a basketball game. (Clinton and Warren show that environment matters, but not decisively.) At the same time, there is no doubt the same security that allows Senator Feinstein to take substantive, difficult positions without suffering Russ Feingoldian consequences is the same phenomenon that allows Senator Grassley and Representative Steve King to act recklessly. A system that does not actually constrain power will always be at risk of violating the very principles the system was designed to promote. This is true in any time period and under any system, whether it is Thomas Jefferson using the law to own slaves, FDR authorizing Japanese internment camps with the express approval of the Supreme Court, or Senator McCarthy doing one better than Senator Grassley on the issue of insufficient patriotism. 

But why have politics at the ground level become so heated, so divisive? The power of television and images, magnified by greater technological access, plays a part, but the issue is simpler. Politicians who act as political peacocks, flaunting their colors rather than their principles to get elected, eventually need brighter feathers and louder calls to accomplish the same result. Senator Feinstein, a woman of substance, need not raise her voice at the podium--her experience and record speak for themselves. Only a man frightened that opponents may offer better siren songs bellows without thinking, and we can infer from Senator Grassley's behavior that Iowans may be looking for alternatives. Indeed, Senator Grassley's share of votes has been steadily declining: he was elected by a 70% share in 2004; a 64% share in 2010; and a 60% share in 2016. 

I started this article trying to educate liberal-minded readers but ended up scolding Senator Grassley and praising Senator Feinstein, even though Feinstein also voted for the war in Iraq. (See here for journalist Glenn Greenwald's numerous counterarguments against Feinstein.) My original intent was to share a thought experiment showing why American communities have become fractured. I will end with it below, though the main lesson I had hoped to impart should now be clear: in politics, the exercise of power is key, not the system or party itself. The thought experiment below may impart other lessons, and I leave it to you to determine the content of those lessons.

City 1 has 100 people, including 5 police officers and 5 firefighters. It is 100% white and Christian. 

City 2 has 100 people, including 5 police officers, 5 firefighters, and 5 grant-receiving non-profit organization officers to handle language translation, parks and recreation, and other social issues promoting assimilation and harmony. Its residents are a perfect mix of diversity, and I leave it to the reader to render his or her own demographic utopia. 

City 1 responds to each police call with an investigation. If an investigation does not occur or is not done to the citizen's satisfaction, citizens feel comfortable going to the mayor's office to ask for intervention or greater oversight. 

City 2 investigates only major crimes. Theft under 500 USD is recorded but not investigated due to allegedly insufficient resources. Complaints to the mayor go nowhere at first, but as petty thefts increase, the mayor is forced to take action. She cancels one of the nonprofit's grants and transfers the funds to a specialized unit investigating petty crime. The nonprofit lays off 5 people and criticizes the mayor for canceling the grant as well as the police department for not utilizing existing resources efficiently. The police criticize the nonprofit and hire a media manager to defend their conduct. Slogans ("All Thefts Matter") are chanted by both sides, and the city's readers and viewers see angry complaints on television and in print. After the backlog of petty thefts is finally resolved, the mayor reinstates the nonprofit's grant and unemployment returns to 1%. The mayor decides to issue a bond and raise taxes in the future to prevent similar conflict. Unbeknownst to her, some of the city's residents have left to City 1, citing less tension there. 

Even with its new entrants, City 1 realizes many of its young residents are leaving and decides to hire a consultant to create more "culture" to convince them to stay. The consultant recommends issuing grants to nonprofits to promote arts and culture and laying off a police officer to free up funding for the consultant's recommendations. The council, in a divided vote, accepts the consultant's recommendations. 

To handle the increased workload while maintaining morale, the police department decides it will not investigate thefts under 500 USD. Residents soon complain that outsiders have corrupted the city and say they no longer feel safe. The young and new employees hired by the nonprofits realize their funding may be pulled and criticize the police department's productivity, demanding the mayor look into police officers' schedules and use of time. Soon, residents who experienced petty theft refuse to listen to anyone who supports arts and culture projects and respond to criticism of police productivity with unwavering allegiance to law and order. There is even talk of supporting a new media channel dedicated to conservative values. 

The nonprofits continue to push forward with projects that provide the town with options other than big box stores and strip malls. The mayor wonders why he didn't just issue a bond or raise taxes, but he realizes his city is more conservative and disfavors debt. He asks the police department to change its policy but the police department, encouraged by national police unions, sues him, claiming the mayor's requests violate state law. City 1's lawyers now spend less time responding to day-to-day matters and more time on litigation. Soon, the lawyers request additional headcount, leaving the mayor looking into outside law firms and promising residents such fees will be temporary.

Will the mayor keep his job in the next election? What values other than self-restraint appear necessary for sustainable growth? 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Interview with Old Katy Coffee in Texas

I met Derrick when he personally delivered coffee beans to my uncle’s house in Katy, Texas. I came to Texas to visit my uncle, a tea drinker. We were both unfamiliar with specialty coffee in Katy, TX and after a few days, we gave up trying to find my regular cup of java. By chance, I wanted to visit Old Katy and stumbled on Derrick’s business—“Old Katy Coffee”—online. Below is a brief, impromptu interview with Derrick, the husband of the husband-wife team of Old Katy Coffee
Me: Thank you for personally delivering the coffee.

Derrick: I’m glad we resolved the shipping issue. I was able to modify our website to allow free shipping because we’re so close to you. Regular customers allow us to eliminate or reduce shipping costs. 

Me: Why don’t Houston and Katy have more specialty coffee?

Derrick: If you’re in the city, in trendy areas such as the Heights and Montrose, there will be some specialty coffee places. I enjoy coffee so much, but everything here is spread out, so it’s tough for any small or new business to gain market share. Plus, there are so many Starbucks. 

The biggest thing is education. Farmer’s markets are a big thing in Houston, and they’re great because they offer fresh products, and we get a chance to interact with people. Good coffee isn’t rocket science. It needs to be high quality and fresh. Peak flavor is 3 to 14 days after roasting. The key is to get it to people quickly and make sure people taste it during that peak flavor time period. The flavor is still good for 30 days but starts to decline thereafter. Typically, the coffee on the [store] shelf has been sitting there for a while, and that’s what people are used to. New customers often tell me they can drink straight black coffee for the first time. Again, education is the key. Once they drink our coffee, mine is fresher, and customers usually develop a taste for fresher, higher quality products.

Me: I went to the address listed online and in your Facebook page, but I only saw a postal office. 

Derrick: That’s our P.O. box. We don’t have brick and mortar shops yet. We do “pop up” shops at markets, stores, neighborhood amenity centers and corporate locations. We'll even partner with yoga and other wellness studios. 

We also support the March of Dimes and participate in hospital events, where we donate 100% of our profits. Right now, I’m trying to build a brand, and our brand is about using coffee as a means to connect with the community. 

Me: How long have you had this business? 

Derrick: About 5 months. 

Me: Can I ask what you did before?

Derrick: I’m a finance and management guy by trade. It’s similar to law, very transactional, lots of numbers. It feels good to serve and interact with people. As I’ve become older, I’ve found it very rewarding to serve people. Coffee is cool because it’s so universal and so diverse, but also something common that allows you to interact across cultures and cities. I’m trying to build a community, which is the goal of most specialty/craft coffee [sellers]. 

Me: What’s been the most difficult part so far, other than building a brand? 

Derrick: Getting recurring customers. If we get enough volume and demand, we'll open a store but we need to feel comfortable putting up capital. I’m a CFO by trade. I’m still doing part-time CFO work, assisting businesses, helping them get banking relationships in place, accounting, and so on. 

Me: I see you offer coffee beans from many different countries. How do you manage the supply chain and import/export issues? 

Derrick: Houston is of course an amazing port city with easy access to many coffee-producing countries, especially in Latin and Central America. As a result, our suppliers have good selection. We offer seasonal menus based on availability and most importantly, what our customers enjoy. We also like to throw in a few non-standard regions and flavors in order to present customers with some variety. 

Me: Are you originally from Houston? What made you choose Katy? 

Derrick: We've been in Houston and Katy for about 4 years now. I’m from Southern Oklahoma. Katy is a great place for family. You can’t beat the schools and the people here. I’ve got kids. At a certain point, you go where it’s best for the kids. 

Me: What’s it like, working with your wife so closely in this new business? 

Derrick: In certain cases, you have to separate the personal from the business. It’s a challenge but it’s also exciting and rewarding. We’re a good team, and there’s more positives than negatives. She handles sales and marketing while I work on back-end items such as systems, supplier logistics and of course accounting. 

Me: Thank you for your time, and best of luck!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Unintended Consequences and the Difficulty in Understanding the United States

State Statistics

Let's take two states. State "LI" has a pro-government spending bias. It spends much more on public welfare and education than conservative State "NT." Like many Southern states, NT has a history of de jure racism ("In 1870 the state Constitution was amended to prohibit interracial marriage.") and defied Brown vs. Board of Education by increasing privatization of education. As of 2008, 17 of its school districts continued to be under a court-supervised desegregation order

LI is the opposite--it was first to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery nationally. Other than housing laws, it did not participate in expressly racist legislation. A billionaire philanthropist built several prominent institutions, including a top-ranked private university, in the state. The country's first African-American president came from LI in 2008. 

NT also had a private philanthropist build a major private university, but unlike LI, it has no nationally-recognized public universities. In 2016, while LI voted for liberal presidential candidates, NT voted overwhelmingly for conservative candidates. 

As of 2016-2017, NT's per capita personal income was 44,317 USD annually, and LI's per capita personal income was 51,817 USD annually. NT's population was about 74 to 79% white; LI was more diverse, being 62 to 77% white. LI had higher union membership than NT: "In 2017, union members accounted for 15.0 percent of wage and salary workers in [LI], compared with 14.5 percent in 2016." NT, a right to work state, had union membership of around 5.7% in 2016. In 2013, NT spent 8,208 USD annually on primary and secondary school pupils; LI spent 12,288 USD annually.

You might say it's obvious LI is doing better than NT, but you'd be wrong. In 2015, LI had 863 homicides and 1,220 firearm deaths. Its infant mortality rate in 2016 was worse than the average American state, with some counties alarmingly worse. Although NT's infant mortality rate was actually higher than LI's, it had a lower homicide death rate

LI's pension deficit was the largest of all 50 states; in contrast, NT had one of the highest funding ratios. Even on citywide level, LI's Ogacihc was the worst city in terms of underfunding, while NT's Ellivhsan was one of the best (See pp. 22 and 23). 

Homeownership? NT prevails with 67.2% ownership in 2017 vs. LI's 65.4%. 

Don't count out LI, though: 

LI had a higher average ACT score of 20.7 (or 21.4, depending on which data set you use) compared to NT's 19.8. (Counterpoint: the average nationwide score is 21, and after adjusting for random factors, one could argue there's not much difference between the two states.) 

What about interracial marriage? Some NT cities (Agoonattahc) rank the worst/least on this measure, while one large metro in LI ranks among the best/most. 

Passport issuance? In 2017, LI had 791,802 passports (0.0618 rate) while NT had 242,532 (0.0361 rate). 

Except for pollution, most health statistics, including infant mortality, favor LI. 

What's the point of reviewing these statistics? Well, they don't actually show anything useful if you want to relocate. A person looking to buy a home would probably prefer NT's largest metro area over LI's, but someone interested in price appreciation and public transportation might prefer LI. 

Also, NT might have fewer homicides than LI, but what if it's because of underreporting or a corrupt coroner misclassifying deaths? What about police shootings of civilians? Did anyone think to consider divorce rates or the quality of public schools when factoring in local housing prices? How about the number of public parks and/or development-protected areas? 

We have all heard "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics," but it's important to highlight a mathematical aspect of capitalism few people understand: 1) it is much harder to maintain rising wages and disposable income than to control inflation in essential items; and 2) higher populations, especially if including many new entrants, impact data tremendously. Thus, NT might be a much better place to live today because its wages and wage growth are more likely to allow residents to buy a home than in LI, but no solid evidence indicates higher property taxes or corporate closures will make this true 10 to 15 years from now. In addition, if NT has gained thousands of new residents in the last few years, its supply/demand data will be skewed because there is no guarantee of continued inward-migration, and at some point, taxes or expenditures must rise to meet the increased population demand. 

Finally, although the data indicates NT should be less racially-tolerant than LI, a) it depends on which city you visit; and b) NT's general hospitality may trump any of its residents' underlying opinions about groups in general. More below on b): 

"Sure, up there [New York City] black and white work side by side. But at night the black goes home to his ghetto and the white to his suburb. Here in the South we've been living together for 250 years, talking to each other every day. That gives you something solid to build on." -- Mayor Johnny L. Ford [National Geographic (October 1975), pp. 569] 

"It struck me as notably ironic that Southerners could despise blacks so bitterly and yet live comfortably alongside them, while in the North people by and large did not mind blacks, even respected them as humans and wished them every success, just so long as they didn't have to mingle with them too freely." -- Bill Bryson [The Lost Continent, paperback, pp. 63 (1989)]

The lesson? Statistics do not provide useful guidance in evaluating a state because they are not set up to capture direct, honest feedback even at a local level, which means they cannot reliably predict inward or outward migration patterns. Even if one asks the right questions, experiences vary so much across different cities in the same state, it is difficult to get a clear picture on anything meaningful. Never before have we had so much data; never before has such data been so useless. The older I get, the more I realize economics and sociology need to be merged to be a useful discipline. 

Debt, Debt, Baby

Setting aside social and cultural dynamics, modern American capitalism works by capturing platforms and using debt to continue to gain market share. This model works only if interest rates remain low and if banks are willing to roll over maturing debt or if private equity investors are willing to loan/invest more funds. 

When someone complains Uber or Amazon are not as profitable as other companies, you can safely ignore them on macroeconomic issues--they don't know how the modern economy works. (Even Nokia needed 17 years before it turned a profit on electronics--and that was before any newfangled financial "innovation.") Indeed, most successful American cities have become financially successful because they've carved out some unsustainable federally-linked advantage (security spending, educational loans, ethanol subsidies) or loophole (segregation, lax antitrust enforcement, etc.). Seen this way, "capitalist" America is not much different from "socialist" China, except China's national government has recently become stricter, functioning as a proper check and balance against local corruption--and growth at any cost. 
America or China? From Duncan Clark's Alibaba (2016)

Today, a debt-fueled strategy might be essential in an era where countries from China to Singapore practice a hybrid public-private model, practically picking winners and losers by governmental association. Alibaba infamously transferred Alipay, an online payments business worth at least 1 billion USD into a structure held 100% by a Chinese domestic company "[t]o expedite obtaining an essential regulatory license." [See Duncan Clark's Alibaba (2016), Ch 11.] The payment to international investors was 51 million USD. Alipay--not Alibaba--subsequently "was the first of 27 [Chinese] companies to be issued licenses and was awarded license number 001" by the PBOC. [Id.] 

Seen in a non-ideological light, countries and municipalities that attract capital--especially at lower interest rates--and roll over debt without asset sales will be successful. It has nothing to do with democracy, socialism, or any other "ism." The modern world--from international relations to the smallest city--runs on debt and the perception and confidence such debt will be paid. Public-private partnerships, with their more assured outcomes, are probably the future, and America needs a strategy apart from overspending on military R&D, both domestically and internationally, then trickling down innovations through private companies to the civilian sector. 

In such a convoluted world, numbers and statistics are not as helpful as they should be because every entity, not just ratings agencies, has incentives to optimize the numbers. Given the necessity of a strong banking sector in a debt-fueled economy, America's 2008-2009 banking bailouts should now make sense, except the lack of substantive reform, especially in the "shadow banking" sector, foretells another crisis. Unsurprisingly, debt-fueled economies prioritize economic growth and productivity over all else because growth makes it easier for debts to be paid both directly (newer debtholders maintain the cycle) and indirectly (inflation in assets renders past debts less valuable). It is unclear whether younger generations in developed countries are willing to accept such a paradigm. 
From Marilynne Robinson's What Are We Doing Here? (2018)

More troubling, some states have used lower interest rates and debt to pay off vested interests such as government unions rather than investing in the future. LI's pension issues are one obvious consequence of such an approach as well as an example of unintended consequences. When the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates, making it easier for tech companies to gain national and international market share, it did not intend for some states to handicap future generations by paying off vested or corrupt interests through complex political machinations. It may not have even intended the privatization that eventually came after such methods sapped cash flow from local and state budgets. Regardless of intentions, if growth must be maintained, especially through debt, then we must all "publish or perish," and quality and integrity aren't guaranteed in such single-minded productivity, either in products and people. I have spent much of my life studying numbers only to realize the "optimization bias" I mentioned earlier means any conclusions I've derived from "objective" data is inferior to an in-person daily stroll in an area. 
Jim Rogers, Street Smarts (2013)
What's Next?

If a paradigm deficient in quality or meaningfulness is an unintended economic result, how can we create a better one?  "The fundamental problem [of economics] is not our lack of information but our limited ability to process it." [Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism (2010)] I've traveled extensively for two years and I have processed why developed countries are faltering. Their systems--economic, social, and cultural--no longer prioritize justice. As stated above, they prioritize debt and debt repayment, which require deference to banking and military sectors. Security is good, but it does not make the soup taste better. Let me explain more clearly.

Society 1 is able to have as much as it wants--as long as Societies 2 and 3 buy its loans/debt. Society 1 creates systems based on x, y, and z values--and then builds numerous institutions around those purported values. The problem is that Society 1, flush with almost unlimited possibilities because of its ability to issue debt, eventually forgets to cross-check whether its values--democracy, capitalism, meritocracy--are actually reflected in its institutions. As its institutions become larger and more entrenched, they rely on perception to increase numbers, and it becomes easier to use the media--especially visual images--to convince voters to go along. (
For example, even if Society 1's military has lost every non-Grenadian war since Vietnam, most recently in Syria, producers--financed partly by government money--will greenlight another Churchill or WWII movie.) 

Of course such maneuvering has limits. As it becomes more obvious something is wrong, distractions and misinformation are used to maintain debt aka the status quo. In such a world, having multiple layers of complexity becomes useful to survival even if not a single layer benefits non-insiders. 

Over time, a few people start to realize Society 1's true values aren't whatever it claims, such as freedom--it's the opposite. The inability to do certain things--copying IP, threatening harm, silencing speech, invading a private citizen's privacy, etc.--is a free society's foundation. The trick is achieving a balance where citizens don't rely on insurance companies and their lawyers to receive a fair, predictable result while avoiding a nanny state. As of 2018, the balance in America, er Society 1, had gone so far awry, the following disclaimer would arrive from a public university after having paid 450 USD for event tickets: 

For All Ticket Purchases: The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics of the University of Iowa does not guarantee the availability of tickets, and reserves the right to modify or cancel any of the conditions displayed on this website, including ticket pricing or availability, at its discretion and without prior notice. If the University does not fill a ticket order or request, it will refund the purchase price or credit the customer's charge account, and is not responsible for any other damages or fees which might be incurred. By using this website, you agree that any ticket transactions with the University of Iowa are governed by the laws of the State of Iowa, without regard to conflict of laws principle.

Why bother having a website selling tickets if there's no guarantee you'll get the ticket you paid for? The Iowa, er, Awoi, lawyer did a good job for his/her client, but a terrible job for society and America's citizens. Historians will ask whether Americans forgot that all three branches of government, along with the fourth pillar of media, were required for a functioning government. Debt makes a leading appearance here, too, because new lawyers with 100,000 USD in student loans will need to pay off the loans before valuing justice and fairness above personal preservation. Lawyers are fond of saying the law doesn't create justice, only a chance at justice. Yet, as legal fees, one-sided agreements, and complexity (look at the indemnification clause in any online agreement) increase, one can argue such chances have disappeared for most people. 

Without all branches fulfilling their roles, some Americans saw decline as early as 2009: 

“We are watching the decline and fall of the United States as an economic power — not hypothetically, but as we speak,” said Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel.

While traveling, I have wondered what America will leave behind as its economic empire declines, and until now, I have omitted an important detail. China will indeed become the world's economic superpower, but it does not seem able to replicate the ideals America brought the world in just 55 years. A country that jails Liu Xiaobo--author of the words below--will never be admired except grudgingly, even if Xiaobo is clearly a deluded, Western-backed warmonger. 

Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.

Even Singapore, a healthy blend of American and Chinese influence, jails Jehovah's Witnesses and bans their literature. For all its practicality, Singapore's Chinese elite cannot bring themselves to make an exception to military conscription for a well-established religion--an issue America resolved in 1943: "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard." (Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson)

It is true that America jailed Martin Luther King, Jr. and spies on its own people with the same fervor as East Germany's Stasi, but MLK was released and Snowden is still alive. The perpetrators of Abu Ghraib may not all have gone to jail, nor received appropriately lengthy sentences when convicted, but because of American media (and the delightful Errol Morris), no decent person hears the names Lynndie England, Charles Graner, or Megan M. Ambuhl without feeling pity and outrage. 

You see, every country is the same in the sense all of them lurch towards entropy, with the rate of decline contingent on its people's ability to reverse poor decisions and--apologies for the colloquialism--prevent "full-retard." It's not coincidental that America's decline and China's rise occurred when decisions post-9/11 were not reversed in a timely manner. Even before Abu Ghraib; the overbroad Patriot Act; Guantanamo Bay's murky legal status; and the trillion-dollar illegal invasion of a former allied country, America's failure to ensure a match between its institutions and purported values led to a mishmash of unmanageable fiefdoms, none of which were truly free, and--more importantly--none of which could be shut down quickly if maintaining harmful trajectories (such as the cementing of the military-industrial complex). From The Atlantic (September 2016), by Steven Brill

DHS--which has had seven undersecretaries or acting undersecretaries for management--has perennially been on the GAO’s list of agencies whose overall management is considered “at risk.” From the beginning, the agencies thrown into the new superagency fought to keep their turf, often calling on congressional allies to help. “At one meeting early on, I mumbled something about why should the Coast Guard and Customs each have their own helicopters and planes,” [DHS's] Tom Ridge recalls. “Why couldn’t they combine to purchase the same stuff? Within a few days, we had calls from Capitol Hill warning us not to mess with the Coast Guard’s or Customs’ procurements.” (The two agencies still have their own air forces.)

In hindsight, the failure of America's lawyers and journalists to expeditiously reverse the mistakes of the executive and legislative branches was the beginning of the end of America's reputation. No nation can withstand hypocrisy for long; humanity's DNA rejects it like a lethal virus. But--and there was always going to be a "but"--at least America, in purporting to adhere to certain values, gave room for its idealists to reach for them. 

Interestingly, as of 2018, China also prioritizes economic success and uses debt to turbocharge its economy, but as the creditor of over one trillion USD, its export-driven economy has unique advantages as well as risks (currency devaluation, tariffs, etc.). If it does not continue to create jobs, why should anyone with an independent streak stay if they can leave? Countries like the UAE do not do well on the "daily stroll" test despite financial prosperity because they have not assimilated their best talent. Similarly, China's behavior towards nonconformists will rob them of the privilege of being emulated, which will limit its ability to keep its best people. There is a reason a young Jack Ma (Ma Yun) learned more in Australia than in China and does not trust people from Shanghai, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. 
From Clark's Alibaba (2016)

In almost every country, the best residents are from somewhere else or have developed their ideas elsewhere, and in any time period, it will always be much easier to steal talent than to create it. Consequently, nations that do not provide the appropriate balance of security and freedom lose automatically because they do not promulgate values to be emulated as long as they silence critical or nonconformist voices. The act of silencing people who think differently repels the most talented, who are often outsiders. No amount of prosperity can resolve the hypocrisy of telling others they know what is best for them while expelling people who question the status quo. 

America may be in decline, it may have the world's highest incarceration rates, but it continues to uphold values other than financial prosperity. Such values, even if allegedly secondary, allow nonconformists to prosper, who then contribute to art, literature, sports, movies, and other distractions that may eventually provide non-obvious opportunities for cohesion, innovation, or collaboration. China may be on the rise, but as long as it chills nonconformity, it will lose talent to other countries, giving competitors the upper hand. 

One Big Family: Stupidity, Insanity, & Idealism

"I never dreamt that I would get to be / The creature that I always meant to be." -- Pet Shop Boys, "Being Boring." 

I've said before Trump was elected because American voters rightfully realized if choosing between stupidity and insanity, at least insanity can provide advantages. (Had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic nominee, the election would have been a fair fight.) The difficulty in understanding the United States is that while it will make mistakes, including incredibly stupid ones, idealism and insanity are fraternal twins. It takes some level of delusion to think you can change the world, to ignore the vested interests already at the door ready to block your efforts. Weak countries tend to see one of the twins and not the other. They cannot see that by censoring one twin, they cause the other--and perhaps a level-headed cousin or two--to flee or opt out of public affairs, leaving a space that will be occupied by authoritarians who do not believe the purpose of security is to create diverse meritocracies with opportunities for all citizens. Humanity never knows in the present tense which fraternal twin it is dealing with, nor which extended family members will make positive contributions, but we do know America has benefitted the most from the world's migration in the 21st century, a migration that would not have occurred without purporting to stand for certain values. In the end, America's lasting contribution to the annals of knowledge might be far more than the fact that meritocracies are aided by "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open [public debate that] may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." It might be that without such an approach, the best migrants will not come, or if they come, will not assimilate. 

Any man more right than his neighbors should not constitute a majority in his neighborhood only if he lives by himself in the woods. 


Will Trump's insanity be better than Hillary's stupidity? As long as residents lack free mobility, which requires legal reciprocity, it doesn't matter. "Voting with one's feet" is not possible until immigration laws worldwide are modified, and even then, any reform will be based on subjective factors, an imperfect endeavor. Countries claiming to value human beings must work together to increase mobility, the ultimate check and balance on power's tendency to make mistakes. In the end, one cannot favor freedom without giving credit to its midwife, mobility, and the world's failure to properly resettle refugees makes me pessimistic for the future of freedom and justice. 

I also wanted to share what I've learned from my travels, but as usual, I've wandered far astray. I really only have three lessons: 

1. Living with a member of the opposite gender, even only for one week, changes your body's chemistry. 

2. There is no ideal place. Everywhere has tradeoffs, and the act of traveling makes it easier to determine what you really value. For example, I've known I value clean air since I traveled to India in 2010

3.  Living close to farmers means everything you eat tastes delicious--and is often cheaper because third-party transportation costs are absent. 

My travels are not over. I enjoyed Mexico City 
and Guanajuato city and will be visiting Houston tomorrow, then Iowa City in April. I look forward to touring several Iowa cities (believe it or not, Iowa has one of America's oldest surviving mosques), and I'm interested in seeing how the generally conservative state will respond to my penchant for stirring the pot. That's my way of saying if Terry Brands punches me at the Wrestling World Cup, I probably deserved it. I'm still going to yell "Alireza Dabir" if I run into him. I want to see how Middle America treats its dissidents. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

Update on April 11, 2018: I saw one of the Brands brothers in Iowa City, and only then did I realize a flaw in my plan: Tom and Terry are twins, and I can't tell them apart. 

Update on April 18, 2018: According to Leila Fadel in the May 2018 edition of National Geographic, "The first mosque was in North Dakota. Iowa is home to the oldest surviving place of worship built for Muslims in 1924, with an immigration act that barred people from Asia." 

Update on August 14, 2020: Though Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact he has consistently supported American wars. According to The Guardian's Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, Liu "has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he applauded the Vietnam and Korean wars retrospectively in a 2001 essay." Nevertheless, the authors write, "Imprisoning Liu was entirely unnecessary." 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Travel Lessons: Real Resistance is Rebellion

The more I travel outside the U.S., the more I realize how uptight Americans are. In fact, a cursory review of American history--if taught well--will emphasize almost all its accomplishments have come from immigrants and minorities. Most people realize Einstein, a German refugee and minority, along with immigrant Leo Szilard, helped America win WWII. Some even know most major American technology companies were founded by immigrants or minorities. Apple was founded by Steve Jobs, the product of a Syrian refugee and Catholic mother. No Vinod Khosla, no Sun Microsystems, and no hardware-software behemoth Oracle as we know it today. Tesla? Founded by the son of a rich South African, Elon Musk. The list is endless, and I won't bore you by citing all the companies and products Americans would lack without an open approach to immigration. What does any of this have to with being uptight? 

Almost all of America's genuine resistance post-Vietnam comes from immigrants and minorities. As a Muhammad Ali fan, I've realized America lionizes him so much because he's the most genuine American-born product of resistance. Sure, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden must be placed in the pantheon of resisters, but they were part of the Establishment, and a whistleblower carries a different, softer tune than a rebel. (Ellsberg, by the way, is a "sort-of minority"--he was raised by Jews who converted to Christian Science.) 

Other than Ali, Warren Hinckle and Hunter S. Thompson, modern America lacks native-born rebels. The Beatles? British. The Sex Pistols? British. The famous group who sang, "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control" and railed against the public education system? Irish. Just kidding. British. The best antiwar campaign? John Lennon, a Brit. David Bowie, who challenged gender stereotypes and married a Somalian Muslim? A Brit. (Meanwhile, America's most famous Somali is Islamophobe Ayaan Ali, a role model for nothing except psychological transference, even as Canada's honorable Ahmed Hussen takes the spotlight next door.) Joan Baez? Mexican father. Bob Dylan? The product of generations of Russian Empire Jews. 

Ok, so what if the Brits seem to be better at music than Americans? Do you like art, politics, and comedy? Outside George Carlin, the son of an Irish immigrant, the most astute American commentators have been black aka minorities: Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Richard Pryor. As for politics, where would we be without Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers? 

In fact, if you remove minorities and immigrants from America, you are left with law, order, and guns, aka cowboys and tough guys posing as rebels. See Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Steve McQueen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. America's non-minority heroes are military, police, and cowboys, and once they exile the corrupt sheriff, they take his place--a paean to law and authority if ever there was one. (Why are Americans so surprised a television celebrity became president in 2016 when Reagan and Schwarzenegger, both movie celebrities, had already become governors of one of the world's top ten economies in 1967 and 2003?) 

America's cultural schism starts to make sense when we realize the American military may have lost Vietnam--and every war thereafter except for Grenada in 1983--but it won the military-industrial complex. If you have a country founded by sexually repressed Protestants too uptight for Britain that then decides to spend more money than any other country on the military, why shouldn't the product be sexually-repressed, violent, confused, and bombastic? What else would form the perfect cocktail for a cognitively dissonant schizophrenia that allows Americans to spend most of their tax dollars on the military and war while going to church every week and praying to a pacifist who never led an army or owned a weapon? And why shouldn't most of its innovation--a form of rebelliousness against the established order--and wisdom come from people outside this system? There are no more Frank Capras, John Woodens, Walter Cronkites, Edward Murrows, Bill Wattersons, or General Eisenhowers from America. The soil today is too polluted for them to prosper. 

Perhaps America is going through its second midlife crisis; if so, we should all welcome the experience. Maybe this time, the kids will get it right.