Monday, April 30, 2018

Robert Scheer, Muckraker, on Ramparts' Warren Hinckle

I was privileged to meet Robert Scheer from USC Annenberg's School of Communications and Journalism in Berkeley, California on April 29, 2018. 
Scheer, along with William Hinckle, was one of America's original muckrakers. Some of his work influenced MLK's opposition to the Vietnam War, which eventually led to Daniel Ellsberg's whistleblowing. At Berkeley's Book Fest, Scheer discussed working with Warren Hinckle, lesser known than Hunter S. Thompson but arguably a much better writer.
On motivation: "What drove Warren [Hinckle] was journalism." "His success was a rebuke of mainstream journalism... [he was] forging a connection with the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. We were the start of whistleblower journalism."

On mainstream media: Even the New York Times condemned Martin Luther King. Every single mainstream newspaper has [initially] supported every one of America's wars. In fact, "Martin Luther King's condemnation of the Vietnam War was [itself] condemned by the New York Times."

On whether Warren would have been more famous among New York's hoi polloi: "If we'd been on the East Coast, we'd have been unpublished!" [i.e., too much competition and too many existing outlets and power players]

On David Horowitz's criticism of Ramparts: "Fred Mitchell saved Ramparts... [you can criticize how we spent money but] we didn't pay most or our bills because we declared Chapter 11 [bankruptcy]... [In all seriousness] we lost money [not because of mismanagement] but because of the positions we took. We reported on the Six Day War [and then had pro-Israel Martin Peretz and Dick Russell, two of the magazine's shareholders, withdraw their money, 1 million USD, from Ramparts]. We reported on Malcolm X [when no one else was doing so]." 

Bonus: Steve Wasserman on Warren Hinckle: "Every story he told was true, even the unbelievable ones." "Warren was on the side of the little people... He couldn't bear hypocrisy." 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Technology Credit Union (Tech CU) Annual Meeting (2018)

All of us suspect financial institution executives are SOBs, but most of them have the decency to act dignified in public. Not San Jose, California-based Tech CU. The annual meeting on April 25, 2018 was a doozy, with Mical Atz Brenzel, the Chairman of the Board, getting angry while flubbing questions and President and CEO Todd M. Harris making comments that unknowingly contradicted his colleague. 
The spread for members, which will be noteworthy later.
might have crossed a line by saying a "monkey" could have run a bank in the last four years because of record-low interest rates, but financial institutions, as stewards of our assets, are supposed to be conservative creatures able to withstand criticism, especially from their members. If you're part of an institution that refuses to stress-test its culture, you're going to have problems eventually. If you're part of a financial company so tone-deaf it decided to convert its member-based structure into a corporate banking entity without adequately vetting the move with its own members, humility ought to be your motto thereafter. Well, not if you're Tech CU. 

Regarding the failed conversion: "'Our members have voted and overwhelmingly indicated their preference to remain a credit union' ... there are no plans for executive departures as a result of the vote..." [Emphasis added.] In a nutshell, the same failed managers at the helm of a debacle so bad it will be part of an MBA textbook someday are still guiding the ship. They also seem convinced cultural cracks in their hull concealed by consecutive years of ultra-low interest rates are evidence of their own deft maneuvering. 

At least one of their own slides at the annual meeting indicates otherwise. One showed a loan-to-deposit ratio of 60% in 2013 that jumped to 87.79% in 2017. In other words, Tech CU, right after botching its conversion, might have taken a too-conservative approach with its loans, only to right its sails through low interest rates to a more balanced portfolio. 

In another example of hubris gone wild, Todd Harris said he was pleased with Tech CU's solar loan program, which has "12% national market share." I'm not an expert on solar power, but I know many solar companies and consumers rely on direct or indirect subsidies, and those subsidies can change overnight. In other words, the loan portfolio CEO Harris highlighted as part of his successful management might be its most risky. 

Update: seen in Singapore business newspaper, December 17, 2018
I was the only person at the meeting who asked questions or made comments. I mentioned being locked out of my ATM account while traveling internationally and being asked to call an American-based number, which anyone with travel experience knows is problematic. I suggested a simple solution involving secure email or secure messaging on the app. (How this team will screw up such a simple suggestion is an event I eagerly await.) 

I also asked why publicly available quarterly reports aren't available on the credit union's own website. Here's where it got really interesting, and by interesting, I mean shameless. Todd Harris told me Tech CU wasn't a public company and follows laws applicable to credit unions, which don't require making reports more accessible to members by putting them on its own website. 

No results found on gov website. It's a lil' clunky.
Let's back up a minute. No one is disputing these quarterly financial reports are available on some strange government agency's website. 
Found it!
No one is disputing these documents are harder to find if not disclosed directly on Tech CU's own website. No one is disputing greater transparency helps build trust, or that trust is important when competing for customers giving you money for safekeeping. Everyone agrees complying with a minimum standard in ways that reduce transparency isn't helpful to gaining clients or confidence. And yet, here we are, with Tech CU's management fighting to do as little as possible when it comes to transparency and simple convenience for their members. 

It gets even worse, especially if you, like me, believe banking culture is one factor in evaluating a country's ascent or descent. Most companies have rules relating to shareholder meetings that limit cranks, but they're written tastefully or at least in ways circumventing an accusation involving East German artillery. Here, Tech CU, blind to its cultural deficiencies, managed to outdo itself once again. Its rules for the meeting are so subjective and overbroad, they provide total control over any kind of direct questioning deemed unpleasant. From number 6 in "Rules of Procedure and Conduct of the Annual Meeting":

The Chancellor, er, Chair or the CEO will stop discussions that are: 

* irrelevant to the business of the Credit Union or the conduct of the operations;
* derogatory references that are not in good taste; 
* unduly prolonged (longer than two minutes); 
* substantially repetitious of statements made by other members; or 
* related to personal grievances. 

Remember: we are discussing a client-facing institution. If a member had an issue with an employee at a specific branch and wanted to alert the board in person at the annual meeting--the one and only time a year any member may do so publicly--the board doesn't have to listen. It could deem the comment a "personal grievance." Or perhaps it's derogatory or not in good taste. Who knows? Anything goes, comrade. 

After my final "monkey" and "low interest rates" comment, plus the fact the Bay Area had seen large inflows of private and public investment in the past four years, making it virtually impossible for Bay Area banks to fail, Mical Atz Brenzel launched into some angry gibberish. Still trying to temper her arrogance, I slipped in a question about whether any banks in the Bay Area had gone bankrupt in the last four years, to which she initially stood, jaw agape. After avoiding my question, she tried arguing banks don't really fail any more, they're absorbed into larger banks, which of course had nothing to do with my actual question. (I don't know of any Bay Area banks or credit unions requiring government intervention in the last four years to prevent bankruptcy, but if you do, please enlighten me.) 

Not satisfied with looking like a loon, Brenzel then argued lower interest rates made it more difficult for Tech CU to do well. I asked, "Are you denying lower interest rates encourage banks [and CUs] to make more loans [and therefore higher profits]?" It took her a few seconds to accept this Economics 101 fact, after which she advanced a spiel about Tech CU having to compete with numerous financial institutions in the Bay Area and still doing well. I let her have the last word, saying, "We'll agree to disagree." 

As I got up to exit the meeting room, a belligerent Todd Harris, a bowling ball of a man, approached and told me I was "frustrated." He continued trying to score points by telling me I mistakenly used the term "bank" instead of "credit union" in my comments. Pleased I'd gotten a Tech CU executive to mention a term relating to its largest management debacle without a sense of irony, I explained I wasn't frustrated, but we'd get to see how good he and the team really is over the next four years as interest rates rise. In addition, I told him his colleague can't argue that Tech CU's management did well because it successfully competed with numerous banking institutions, including public ones, while he favors a transparency standard far below all the public banks against which he's allegedly competing. As I left, I noticed employees bringing juices and mineral water into the meeting room, giving themselves a much better selection than offered to their own members. 

Tech CU's management didn't listen to their members in 2012, and they're still not listening. Worse, they're getting upset at a member trying to remind them to do exactly what a bank or credit union ought to do in an era of rising interest rates: be humble.

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

Bonus: Gloomy Sunday (1999) is Netflix CEO's Reed Hasting's favorite movie. Consider the conversation below in light of Tech CU's Rules of Procedures and Conduct of the Annual Meeting: 

Schnefke: "But we must be careful not to stray too far outside the law." 

Hans: "Of course. But the beauty and vibrancy of the law lies in its flexible boundaries." 

[Two Nazis in Hungary around 1939 discussing their future.] 

SJW Group aka San Jose Water Company (2018 Shareholder Meeting)

SJW Group (SJW) held its annual shareholder meeting on April 25, 2018. About twenty people, mostly employees, showed up. Coffee, bottled orange juice, fruit cups and pastries were available but without paper plates.  
The big news is twofold: 1) a "merger of equals" with Connecticut Water Service, Inc. (CTWS), against which Eversource Energy (ES) counter-offered; and 2) Eric W. Thornburg's official succession to the CEO/President role on November 5, 2017, coinciding with W. Richard Roth's retirement. 

Before we get to the nitty gritty, let's provide some background. Private water companies are strange beasts, dependent on municipalities and their voters for rate increases or higher taxes for growth and infrastructure investment. The more you pay for water, the more money private water companies make, but their business model must contend with conservation efforts (you use less water, they often make less money); Mother Nature (droughts, mercury contamination, cleanup); and the replacement, maintenance, and acquisition of aging water systems. A private corporation doesn't need to manage a municipality's water supply, but as public sector unions refused to reduce long-tail fiscal obligations after the dot com crash, privatization became easier to sell to voters. Whether we can ensure corporations taking over from government agencies don't become just as corrupt is a separate question, one we'll examine below. 

We know greater attenuation between elected officials and the provision of an essential and limited resource lubricates the process for rate increases and other financial shenanigans (e.g.surcharges, including the following gem: "To amortize the under-collection in the Mandatory Conservation Revenue Adjustment Memorandum Account, a surcharge(s) per 100 cubic feet is to be added to the quantity rate shown for a period of time beginning with the effective date of advice letter(s).") When grandma needs a lawyer to understand her water bill, something's not right, and I say this as someone who generally favors small government. 

Before privatization, if elected officials wanted to raise water usage charges without measurable improvements, they would face the public's ire head on. Today, most private water companies hold shareholder meetings where only one or two non-employees attend, and PUC meetings aren't much different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this apathy extends beyond something as essential as water. Overall public engagement has declined so precipitously, just 61.4% of eligible Americans voted in the national 2016 election and only 28.5% of eligible Americans voted in the related primaries, which resulted in the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I'm no sociology or history expert, but when 28.5% of any group can effect massive change, it's not a question of "if" but "when" corruption occurs. What does this have to do with SJW or your water?

In 2016, SJW switched its state of incorporation from California to Delaware. I asked whether this change had caused any downsides. General counsel answered she knew of no downsides. Interestingly, from her perspective, making "it more difficult for... stockholders to elect directors and take other corporate actions," including frustrating or preventing "any attempts by stockholders... to replace or remove its current management" (SJW 2017 10-K, pp. 17) doesn't qualify as a downside. Modern corruption is baked into the system, aided by a conduit of overwhelming complexity, all the way from grandma's water bill to states vying for money. Muhammad Ali once said, "Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see," and anyone wishing to be James Stewart going to Washington D.C. or even the local city council must first possess knowledge of intricacies so minute, they're impossible to feel or understand until after you've been punched. Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges, indeed. 

Additionally, while good executives don't need charisma, they do need common sense, and former SJW executive W. Richard Roth has the demeanor of someone unwittingly inviting another French Revolution through a lack of self-awareness. Consider his response to my question at a prior meeting about board diversity: I recall asking why only 2/9 directors were female and, at the time, 9/9 looked Caucasian. 
Gov unions may be corrupt, but do their executives get one mil in stock in one year? 10-K, pp. 62.
Roth said the company hires the best people, and when I followed up with, "You're saying in a county where about 40% of residents were born out of the country and at least 40% are female, the best people you can find are 100% white and almost 90% male? "Yes" was his answer, but at least he had the decency to look down after his brain caught up to his mouth. 

Today, SJW's board is still 2/9ths female, but if memory serves me well, it appears they've replaced the other white female with an Asian one. (Strangely, the incumbent female, Katherine Armstrong, an Aryan-looking specimen, approached me post-meeting and remarked she had ancestors from the Azores.) When I asked new CEO Thornburg about his plans to increase diversity, he delivered a spiel that would make a marketing expert proud. When I followed up about specific plans or processes to increase diversity without sacrificing quality, he finally admitted his "plan" was waiting for the merger to go through and essentially absorbing the other company's greater diversity. 

If that sounds like progress to you, you're missing the point. With attenuation comes reduced accountability, and the Roths and Thornburgs of the world do not have to give a damn about you. As long as they avoid massive mistakes such as embezzlement or mercury contamination that reaches the public water supply, they can retire fat and happy or merge their way out of mistakes. 
Even New Jersey's corrupt gov executives don't try for 2.8 mil in cash severance payments. And why is Thornburg, the current CEO, getting severance in the first place?
Remember: the complaint against "big government" was that they showed up and got paid regardless of results and also had the temerity to saddle cities with unpredictable long-term fiscal obligations. 
2017 shareholder materials, pp. 66.
Look at Thornburg's employment agreement carefully: 1) "70 percent of Mr. Thornburg's target equity awards are in the form of performance based RSUs which are based on a three-year performance period"; and 2) "Mr. Thornburg's target annual incentive cash compensation is 50 percent of his base salary starting with the 2018 fiscal year." 

These performance criteria, sometimes called KPIs, have included "$121,000,000" in "Capital Additions." (2017 shareholder materials, pp. 38) Does a city need a new treatment or water recycling plant? If your bonus depends on it ordering one, do the chances of objective advice increase or decrease? Also, because SJW is a private corporation, we, the voters and water consumers, have little say in the employment agreement's terms or KPIs/SLAs. Consequently, we've moved from a world where voters, including myself, demanded results to a world where we're getting results that may be against our own long-term interests. 

After exiting, I was taking my 30 USD L.L. Bean backpack out of my 2009 Hyundai Accent's trunk when I saw an African driver waiting outside in a black suit and shiny black SUV, presumably to chauffeur around SJW's executives. Meanwhile, San Jose's mayor, Sam Liccardo, can be seen biking around the city wearing a helmet, cutely nerdy in the way you'd expect from a Harvard Law graduate. In the end, I can't put my finger on it, but something smells, and it's not the stench of wastewater. 

Bonus 1: I was extremely impressed with Andrew R. Gere and Craig S. Giordano, who took the time to explain technical details to me

Bonus 2: Andy Gere kindly sent me the following email, which helps understand SJW's perspective. I've met a lot of suits in my life, and Mr. Gere is both an officer and a gentleman. 

Thanks again for coming to the shareholders meeting today. Your article touched on several topics and I appreciate the opportunity to respond. 

Regarding privatization, your article seems to suggest that San Jose Water (SJW) came about through some privatization effort. It might surprise you to know that SJW has, and continues to be, an investor owned utility since its inception in 1866. Before the notion of public water systems existed as we know it to be today, SJW incorporated to provide the residents of Santa Clara Valley with safe, high quality and reliable water service. That mission remains today more than 150 years later. We have seen and grown with the Valley from its origins as the Valley of Hearts Delight to modern day Silicon Valley. In fact, two of our employees have over 50 years of service, and we have also had generations of families who have proudly been a part of the SJW family. It is this commitment, dedication, and doing right by the community where we live, work, and serve that has and will continue to be the foundation of SJW. 

On the issue of rate increases and their approvals, cities and municipalities do not set the rates for SJW. SJW is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and they are the ratemaking body for investor-owned water utilities. All CPUC-regulated utilities go through a stringent and comprehensive process called a General Rate Case to establish water rates. A GRC application typically takes a minimum of 14 months to process and where dozens of CPUC staff, including those from the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, thoroughly review the application to ensure that our proposed expenses and capital improvements are just, reasonable, and necessary to deliver safe, high quality, and reliable water service. This process includes a public participation hearing, and I would be hard pressed to find another proceeding where such scrutiny occurs. 

Lastly, the water business is a long term business. Our infrastructure investments have useful lives of anywhere from 50-100 years and that is the perspective we must have. Just as previous generations have invested in the water system so that we can enjoy safe, high quality, and reliable water service today, it is now our turn to invest for future generations. This is not just SJW’s challenge but that of all water utilities in the US (check USEPA and ASCE water report cards). Doing anything less is just kicking the can down the road and saddling future generations with greater costs and less reliable service. That is simply not the SJW way. I hope this information is helpful to you, and I’d be happy to clarify or expand on any of these topics.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Santa Clara University's Law School Dean: Lisa Kloppenberg

The art of evading questions isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to dissemble that their substance and character are a disaster. I apologize to Elizabeth Bishop for the aforementioned lines, but not to Dean Lisa Kloppenberg of Santa Clara Law School, who has mastered the art of the non-answer answer.

All across America, institutions have failed. I'd write that they "are failing," but the election of Donald Trump and nomination of Hillary Clinton reveals we are in a post-past tense, past participle situation. Local leaders aren't much better, but thus far, the public has been lulled to sleep by milquetoasts using federal loans and tax breaks (e.g., nonprofit status) to rule with ivory fists. 

We are now at a point where an alumnus who has given his alma mater one hundred or so thousand dollars cannot park on a mostly empty campus without receiving the kind of treatment for which soldiers on the East German side would have been honored. For more, scroll all the way down for the first email and work your way up. Castigat ridendo mores

Bonus 1: the references to Germany are deliberate and extend beyond Dean Kloppenberg's last name. Santa Clara University is a Jesuit/Catholic institution. From William Hinckle's If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1973): 

Bonus 2: to give you an idea of the low expectations for the position of SCU Law dean, Kloppenberg is actually better than Mack Player (yes, that's his name), the dean when I attended SCU Law. Dean Player, allegedly an expert on employment law, required his class to use an older hornbook under which he, being the author, presumably received royalties, even though a newer--and better--one was available. It's unclear whether Player, a Southerner, is actually inbred, but his visage and frail shape left me little doubt that some unholy alliance had to be involved for his existence not to have activated famines, earthquakes, and sundry tribulations. 


Given a choice between an evasive, asinine answer and receiving excrement in the mail, I'd choose the latter every time--it's more honest. Your non-response response--the hallmark of ineffective leaders everywhere--misses almost every complaint I raised: 

1. By charging seminar/event attendees for parking while charging others nothing, SCU is seeking profit opportunity through arbitrary discrimination. Any institution that acts arbitrarily loses the moral high ground, an interesting point to note for a campus proud of its ethics center. (On another note, if you see me at a seminar on campus, I wandered in by mistake after using the cafe.) 

2. By charging alumni for parking at all rather than providing it free to those who can show an alumni card during non-peak parking hours, SCU is weakening ties between itself and its alumni--and therefore its own brand. (I'm not a dean, but I can deduce that brand destruction shouldn't be part of the job description.) 

3.  The campus security employee should have called his supervisor immediately when requested to do so rather than escalate the situation by demanding the alumni's [sic] name and license plate number. (Fascism comes in many forms, but it often creeps up slowly around manicured lawns until it drives away all dissenting voices.) 

I'm sure you have bigger and better ideas to contemplate, but I'm also certain a leader who cannot resolve simple issues or who avoids them entirely will not garner the respect necessary to take on meatier issues. Good luck. 

Matthew Rafat, Esq. 
Class of 2002

On Tuesday, April 24, 2018, 11:11:46 AM PDT, Lisa Kloppenberg <> wrote: 

Dear Matthew, 

I've looked into the reasons for the charge. SCU charges a fee to attend all for parking to attend events on campus and that after 5 p.m. the fee is $5.00. I'm sorry that this distresses you, although (as I mentioned), there is ample free parking available after 5 p.m. on the streets near campus. No money goes to the Law School from the parking fee and it's not something we can change. 

I'm glad you attended, and hope you enjoyed the Privacy Law event. I was glad to hear that our student organizers warned people ahead of the time about the fee on the event page. Registered attendees also received email reminders 2 days prior to the event including the parking fee (although if you registered last minute you may not have seen this). 

I realize that this won't resolve your underlying concern about why SCU charges, but I hope that on balance it's worthwhile for you to return to campus and attend select events. I understand that we did not charge or require any IAPP membership for SCU persons who registered, which is in itself a nice value that we provide for alumni. 

Best wishes, Lisa 

On Wed, Apr 18, 2018 at 8:55 PM, Matthew Rafat <> wrote:
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today about parking. I am not a dean or law professor, but it doesn't seem logical to bilk only law seminar attendees for parking after 5pm while giving others with similarly reasonable reasons a free pass for being on campus. 

Additionally, it doesn't make sense to charge alumni for parking on campus at all unless there is overcapacity due to an extremely popular event. In my case, I had to argue with the security guard and request he speak to his supervisor multiple times before I got any kind of response, after which he and his supervisor decided the "right" course of action was to take down my license plate and get my name. Here is the video: Santa Clara University: Charging Parking Only to Seminar Attendees 

An institution's reputation is contingent on its alumni and how it treats its alumni. Your school is becoming a haven for people who follow orders and rely on connections and money rather than a place where wisdom and courage flourish. Please forward this email to Philip Beltran, Director of Campus Security. He and the rest of campus security staff lack public email addresses. 

Matthew Rafat, Esq. 
Class of 2002 

Lisa A. Kloppenberg
Dean & Professor of Law
Santa Clara University
School of Law
(408) 554-4362


Update in 2019: in what may be a sign of Santa Clara University's assured decline, Kloppenberg has been selected as Dean of the university, with a law professor taking over her former position. 

Random Thoughts Edition (Daniel Ellsberg, George P. Schultz) (April 2018)

1. Humanity's most damning flaw in the modern information overload era is its over-reliance on sight and visual images. Such over-reliance on a single sense leads to an inability to understand the varied reasons a result has occurred. 

For example, most Americans waste time mocking the current--or any--President when it should be clear his or her views are the culmination of numerous variables and their interplay over the last fifteen years. After all, no four-year data set could justify both 2016 presidential candidates turning so quickly against international trade (e.g., TPP) or immigration while Canada moves in the opposite direction, nor any other "shift" (i.e., globalization and technology have been with humanity as long as it has existed). And yet, almost every single commentator or writer discussing North America's political landscape speaks in short-term tongues. One cannot arrive at an effective solution if one cannot ask the right questions. 

2. A simplistic example of hubris is as follows: a person will argue that Australia is safe because it has strict immigration laws, while another person will argue Australia has been unable to generate Canada's economic gains because of its failure to increase skilled immigration. After a rigorous debate, both sides may agree to increase skilled immigration but with stricter regulations and better-trained staff to sort through each applicant's submission. Both educated participants will walk away satisfied not only that they have resolved the issue, but that others ought to follow their example. 

Neither one will realize the reason Australia can discuss a certain immigration policy is because of its geographic location--in the middle of nowhere, walled off from unwanted intruders by an all-encompassing ocean. Neither one of them will realize that without discussing refugees (as part of a shared international responsibility), illegal immigration (which occurs despite anyone's best efforts), assimilation, and funding (for the immigrants and increased staff to vet application), they have not yet begun to create comprehensive solutions. Finally, neither will realize the roles of interest rates, trade agreements, international investment, and other complex economic issues that affect funding any new immigration staff. In a world more interlinked than ever, "first-world" educational and employment systems sincerely believe in models where experts study only one or two subjects for years (often from educators lacking recent experience even in their subject areas) and where the private sector retains a fragmented approach. 

Humility is the opposite of hubris, and humility comes from knowing every situation is Rashomon-like. Furthermore, even if every angle is understood, one still cannot know all the variables that led to a present-day situation being x instead of y. The tragedy of humanity is that its imagination is its greatest asset but to stay comfortable, the brain's limited nature seeks a specific rationale, which then renders imagining a just-as-likely alternate scenario almost impossible. 

3.  America looks to be firmly on a path to its new role as the USSR, but with new and improved propaganda. Modern history teaches us that an economy driven by military spending will eventually fail. I'm not going to write about the different ways America is emulating the USSR's failed model--the deliberate use of sports rather than art, philosophy, or literature to bring the nation together; a disdain for religion, which often provides non-elites the opportunity to discuss timeless issues; a prosperous mafia or underground economy, which then justifies a larger security state than necessary; executive contempt for checks and balances, including from journalists; and excessive rates of risk-taking and alcoholism--but I urge you to think about why nations that succeed in defeating their enemies often become like them

4. I'll end on a happy note: I met one of my heroes, Daniel Ellsberg, last weekend in San Francisco, California. 
Ellsberg is still going strong at 87 years old, his mind sharper than ever. Before explaining that "miracles are possible by ordinary people taking chances," Ellsberg covered wide ground. He spoke of modern-day nuclear weapons able to wreak unimaginable havoc disrupting the world through environmental and food shortage effects, not just immediate murder; the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo during WWII, a deliberate attack causing the murders of 100,000 civilians, more than Hiroshima; Gorbachev being the most recent Russian leader who would work with the United States (and Reagan) on nuclear de-proliferation; Reagan's proposed plan to shift funding for nukes to missile-defense shields to protect both countries from rogue actors, technology he would then share with Russia (Gorbachev was skeptical about the promise of sharing); his inspiration coming from 5,000 Americans willing to be jailed for their opposition to the Vietnam War; and the CIA's attempt to "terminate [him] with extreme prejudice," to "neutralize," or to "incapacitate [him] totally," a fate he escaped because the CIA assets may have believed they were being set up to take the fall for Nixon. 
How would this American hero want to be remembered? As "part of a movement that ended the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons." Will we honor him and his sacrifices by helping conclude what he started?
Bonus 1: "I firmly believe in sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but I always wear a condom, never take illegal drugs, and can't sing or dance." -- Anonymous 

Bonus 2: at the seminar, I had lunch with Philip Zimbardo and several others, including a now-discharged military enlistee. To give you an idea of the level of conformity in America post-9/11, I'll share the following story: 

Prior to the Iraq invasion, a 2002 meeting was held with George P. Schultz in attendance. (Mr. Schultz is often viewed as the GOP's strongest living intellectual.) After the military enlistee (now an art dealer) raised his hand questioning the invasion, Mr. Schultz accosted him, pointed a finger in his face, and said, "You've been watching too many Gary Cooper movies--we're not going to wait for them to hit us first." The art dealer said he was shocked at the aggressive reaction to his question and now realizes why almost no one questions the prevailing orthodoxy--they don't want to be kicked out of their "tribe." 
"He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides." -- George P. Schultz 
Anyone who doesn't understand power only lasts if it stress-tests itself is unworthy of admiration. 
April 24, 2018
To prevent history from repeating itself, our youth must answer the following question: "How do we create a country that can stress-test its ideas even when its leadership is under severe pressure to take immediate action?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Review: Dan Gable's A Wrestling Life 2

If you're a wrestling fan, you will enjoy this second installment in Dan Gable's autobiographical series. If you're not a wrestling fan or not involved in the sport (as a parent, student, coach, etc.), you should probably skip this book--it's heavy on details that would appeal only to people interested in American Olympic and collegiate wrestling. 

Before I share the most pertinent non-wrestling details below, I will confess I really like Coach Gable. In contrast to the Brands brothers ("If somebody loses a tooth or breaks a finger, it's not intentional [wink wink], but it happens. It's a tough sport."), Gable stands apart for his decency. This book burnishes his already glowing stature in several ways: 

1.  Coach Gable is a teetotaler. This fact garners special relevance when one discovers that Iowa's Tom and Terry Brands--both mentored by Coach Gable--were raised by an alcoholic father and, perhaps emulating Gable, do not touch liquor. 

2.  Gable is a fan of Mountain Dew. (Why Pepsi hasn't already recruited him, I don't know.) 

3.  He lifted award-winning writer John Irving's spirits at a time when Mr. Irving needed a morale boost, demonstrating Mr. Gable's capacity to inspire people of all stripes. 

4.  He plays by the rules: "I was the type of guy to take it to the limit, but not break the rules." Contrast Gable with the Brands brothers, currently the University of Iowa's wrestling coaches: "It's in their nature to be violent. Brutal, savage, ruthless is how they described themselves on T-shirts at Iowa..." (Sports Illustrated, June 3, 1996, Franz Lidz) 

Note: I attended the World Cup in Inglewood, California, where the U.S. lost to Iran. The Brands appear to have instructed Jordan Burroughs, a wrestler adored by Iranian fans in America and abroad, to stare down the audience during the finals. The audience was shocked by Burroughs' uncharacteristically unprofessional behavior. (At least one of the Brands has flipped the bird at a foreign audience during an international competition.) I'm not calling the Brands unwashed hillbillies, but if I did, I think they'd take it as a compliment. 

5.  In the most shocking bombshell in the book, Gable discusses how he was recruited by the Republican Party to run for office in Iowa, only to have Karl Rove put him off. Rove told Gable, "[Y]ou are done thinking... You do what we tell you now." Gable demurred. 

Coach Gable, a Republican, had somehow been registered as a Democrat and switched when it came time to contemplate a run. He states his political contacts "were all one-sided and have been so since Bush." 

Still, when it came time to take a stand, Coach Gable did so against his own party. He may someday regret openly disclosing working with President Trump's team, but his honesty on matters of importance is undisputed. Stories like these are part of the reason I'm a fan of Coach Gable--he has principles that transcend race, expediency, and politics. Most importantly, what you see is what you get. 
In Iowa City, Iowa. (April 2018)
6.  Above all, Coach Gable cares about his wrestlers. During the University of Iowa's title runs, he appears to have been thinking each second about maximizing every one of his wrestlers' potential. Whenever the University of Iowa's wrestling team failed, Gable expressly blames himself. This habit, this reflexive inclination towards perfection, is another reason so many people are fans of Coach Gable. 

7.  If you've made it this far, take a deep breath. We know Coach Gable always looked for ways to motivate his wrestlers, right? Now listen to this: "Watching Uetake [one of the most successful wrestlers in Japanese history] is where I learned the coaching technique of cracking your athlete across the face to get their [sic] attention or to get them ready." 

Before you become indignant, remember that with any other public figure, such words would be interpreted as malicious or not spoken publicly at all. With Gable, nothing is discounted as a tool to motivate his wrestlers, and like any good coach, he sought to interpret his wrestlers' individual temperaments to maximize performance. Coach Gable, like Coach Bobby Knight, is part of the same breed of old-school Americana: too damn honest to be politically correct, and unapologetic believers in their systems' ability to transform personal and athletic lives.
In the end, it's not just Coach Gable's success that attracts so many fans--he lost to Larry Owings, to Bobby Douglas, and in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1971--his popularity comes from his authenticity, a trait few public figures possess today. America could use more people like him, people who embody America's best traits: getting the job done, and being uncompromising on the issue of work ethic. 

Bonus, from Craig Sesker's Bobby Douglas (2011): "Bobby [Douglas] was way better than Gable." -- Coach Dave Bennett

"Some of the best moves I learned in wrestling, Bobby Douglas taught me." -- Dan Gable

Friday, April 13, 2018

Iowa: Once Fertile, Now Barren

In 2009, after California allowed marriage discrimination on the basis of sex while Iowa's Supreme Court struck down a similar attempt, I wrote, "People keep asking how this could happen in California when supposedly more conservative Iowa allows greater protection for same-sex couples... Gay marriage is a 'threat' if you think your own marriage is falling apart and need an external boost to prop it up. On the other hand, if your marriage is fine, and your friends' marriages are doing well, you probably don't feel the need to butt your nose in anyone else's business. Iowans--who basically gave President Obama the Democratic presidential nomination and therefore his eventual election--are probably on the right side of history again." 

In 2010, I continued to praise Iowa: "The more I learn about Tom Harkin (D-IA), the more I respect him. (What is it about Iowa that seems to produce reasonably progressive people instead of the scorch-the-earth-to-change-the-world California types?)" 

How quickly things change. From Gene Wilder's University of Iowa graduation in 1955 to less comedic 2018, it seems an everyday occurrence when Representative Steve King embarrasses himself, protected by a lack of diversity allowing statements resembling the Teutonic. Across the street from the Amana Heritage museum celebrating pacifist German refugees' resistance to local demagoguery, a store sells signs warning intruders they will be shot, survivors shot again, and the police not called. (I am not making this up.) 
America's Christians used to be non-hypocrites who actually read the Bible.
It gets better: when I attended Iowa City's World Cup wrestling tournament--Russia didn't show up because Senator Chuck Grassley couldn't secure visas or we're in a new Cold War--an overweight, drunk white man responded to my criticism of horrendous refereeing by ending his sound and fury with the motto of American white supremacists everywhere: "boy!" (Unsurprisingly, Carver-Hawkeye Arena's main intermission room was filled with beer can totem poles.) 
Iowa, despite its honorable Quaker population, allowed the KKK, including in Dubuque.
The caption states, "Anonymous Gift." 
Iowans will tell you that Iowa is a great place to live, but not to visit. I take the exact opposite view. (I don't try to be a contrarian, but it happens so often, either I'm crazy or the rest of the country has lost its damn mind.) I loved the Hoover Presidential LibraryPresident Herbert "Bert" Hoover and his spitfire wife, Lou, might be the most underrated couple in American history. The Hoovers saved 10 million people worldwide from hunger and built America's reputation for charity: "National character cannot be built by law. It is the sum of the moral fiber of its individuals."
The more things change...
The Amana Heritage Museum, mentioned previously, is small but one of the best organized museums in America. (A gap exists regarding the post-communal Raytheon buyout, but I quibble.) 
Why socialism doesn't work, in a nutshell.
If you have kids or enjoy mechanical engineering, Waterloo's John Deere Museum is a fun family outing, as is Cedar Rapid's National Czech & Slovak Museum. 
I like big tractors and I cannot lie.
Iowa's best tourism spots are its relatively large Amish and Mennonite communities, testaments to the tolerance Iowans used to possess before they lost their damn minds and the Quaker reserve they were known for. I have always liked Oklahomans, but the Mennonites (not so much the Amish) are competitive when it comes to the title of "Friendliest Americans." Children on their way to school all waved to me, and when I entered a classroom unannounced, a young teacher made his way past sturdy, giggling students to shake my hand. 
Self-sufficient at a young age.
I preferred Kalona to the Amana colonies, which are far more touristy, but I recommend visiting both if you're near Iowa City. (I loved the general store's wild chokecherry jam but the gooseberry flavor didn't take.) 

If Iowa is a nice place to visit, why isn't it also a nice place to live? For one thing, Iowa's landscape is white and colorless, much like its people. It has always relied on outsiders to strengthen its appeal. Almost all writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop--including its most successful graduate, Jane Smiley--were born outside the state. Even Iowa's most celebrated homegrown writer, Bill Bryson, spent most of his life in Great Britain. Recently, Iowa's most famous sports underdog, Ali Farokhmanesh, announced he'd be leaving to Colorado with his family. 

The winters don't help: "Winters were cold enough to kill you," wrote a Writers' Workshop graduate born and raised outside of Iowa. A lack of color may provide the perfect setting to paint your own picture, but it can also blind and repel if a blizzard of hate emerges. Indeed, in the past forty-plus years, other than the wonderful Dan Gable, Iowa has been unable to grow and keep its talent. Up-and-coming Spencer Lee is Coloradoan by birth, and with Oklahoma City thriving nearby and presenting a kinder and more interesting landscape, it's doubtful things will change. 

Iowa's downward trajectory has impacted even its most sacred institutions: corn and wrestling. In collegiate wrestling,
Penn State and Ohio State are the clear leaders, and when Dan Gable dies, it's unclear why anyone would want to join Iowa State when they can learn from Penn State's undefeated Cael Sanderson; be close to Ohio State's charismatic Tom Ryan; or be part of Oklahoma State's rich history of pioneering diverse champions (Kenny Monday, Yojiro Uetake, Bobby Douglas, Eric Guerrero). 
From the well-traveled John Cleese (2014). 
As for corn, it runs on a billion dollars a year from Washington, D.C., a form of white welfare. 
May 24, 2019
Today, John Deere's headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, not Iowa. (Someone snarkier than I might remark Iowa isn't sending America its best people--just drunk farmers on foreign aid.) 
From Dave Barry Hits below the Beltway (2001)
Speaking of billions, Iowa's neighboring Nebraskan and Oklahoman philanthropic billionaires seem to possess limitless energy, and it shows. Everyone knows about Warren Buffett, but the reason an NBA team is called the Thunder and not the Supersonics is because of Clay Bennett, one of America's most humble men--and we haven't even mentioned George Kaiser. Iowans will point to Harry Stine, but if he's done anything noteworthy in Iowa, I haven't seen it. 

In short, if you're in Iowa, you have a 50/50 chance of meeting a coldneck or a decent person. Since most of Iowa's outperformers are from out of state, I'll take my chances elsewhere. Until Steve King is banished from political office, you should, too. 

© Matthew Rafat (2018) 

Update on June 3, 2020: after losing in the primaries to Randy Feenstra, Steve King will not represent the Republican Party in Iowa. From May 2020 interview with Mr. Feenstra: 

"[W]hat is the No. 1 issue facing the nation?"

"As a Christian and a father, the most important issue will always be protecting innocent life. In the Iowa Senate, we ended taxpayer funding for abortion and defunded Planned Parenthood."

Bonus 1: Economists who want to understand Iowa's backward trajectory in such a short time must remember two rules of modern economics: 1) as capital flows into x place, it attracts not only other capital but successful, ambitious people; and 2) the dislocation of a successful person from Place A to Place B results in a 200% variance even before considering first-generation offspring. For example, if an Iranian Muslim or Jew with sought-after technical skills leaves Iran and comes to America, America receives a +1 while Iran receives a -1. This dislocation results in a gap of 200%--not the 100% your intuition might tell you--a gap made even more cavernous if the immigrant's birthplace expended tax dollars or revenue educating him or her.

Now note Iowa's relative lack of domestic and foreign immigration as well as its proximity to more attractive magnets like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. 

Bonus 2: In Iowa City, I stayed in a hotel under the Marriott brand. (I usually stay at a Hilton, but I couldn't find any rooms nearby the wrestling tournament.) At the hotel, I was surprised to see several members of Ohio State's baseball team visiting for a game against the University of Iowa. Seeing Ohio's taxpayers pay for posh accommodations made me realize why Midwesterners and Southerners lionize college sports: in a land of domestically and internationally weak private sector activity, sports dictate opportunities for teenagers and young adults where none might otherwise exist, certainly in travel. The same argument, but applied to adults, could explain why voters in these areas are so comfortable increasing military spending. 

Bonus 3Almost no one understands pacifism today, and that's why the Amana Heritage Museum is a must-visit. Without understanding history, a country forgets its character and rehashes old conflicts that should have remained settled and buried. If time is a valuable commodity, humanity cannot expect to spend it rehashing the same issues and evolve in an intelligent way. 

Democratic systems, a relatively new concept, matter because in the absence of corruption, they provide perhaps the only objective view into a city or country's tolerance levels. Residents and would-be residents can rely on voting results to decide whether to move or stay, creating a competition between places that would not otherwise exist in any objective format. (See Bonus 1 above.) The history of humanity is, at the end of the day, the history of refugees searching for physical and ideological safety. Those who moved at the right time and to the right place often strengthened their adopted homes while those who stayed behind suffered the worst fate of all: being forgotten at the world's ofrenda

With respect to the Amana colonies, its original residents first moved from inhospitable Germany to New York and finally to Iowa. Along the way, their beliefs changed, manifesting a delicate dance between local authorities and ironclad belief. 
This dance, this jarabe, is the sum of all human civilization. If the Amana believers would have been able to negotiate with New York authorities, they would have stayed, and New York's history might be completely different. It is impossible to know whether the German immigrants' pacifist beliefs would have influenced New York in ways that might have led to an alternate universe where 9/11 did not happen, but we shall never know because of the way New York authorities responded to the different-minded people in their midst. 

One could even argue integrity in its most elemental form is knowing the difference between blind allegiance to the whims of the polity and the appropriate time to diverge. The Amana settlers are still in Iowa, their pictures at America's ofrenda, despite vicious demagoguery because a small band of local sheriffs knew the difference just mentioned, and their courage created a testament to Iowa's tolerance. In their numerous twists and turns while dancing with native Iowans, Amana's refugees gave birth to several noteworthy soldiers and inventions, including the microwave and America's first upright freezer. One of America's remaining Whirlpool plants is in Iowa and not elsewhere because the police and Amana settlers danced the jarabe skillfully a long time ago. 
People want to believe one person can make a difference, but it's probably true in ways we don't imagine and cannot predict. We do know, however, that the Eliot Nessian willingness and courage of a few different-minded individuals who stand together against the tide of unthinking mobs and the intolerance of people who talk, look, and act like them, has changed history. 

The pattern is so obvious, it's a cliché. In Muhammad Ali's case, federal authorities wanted to jail him but he was saved by local stalwarts, more specifically a small band of Kentucky police and Louisville lawyers. Today, if anyone calls a Kentuckian barren or backwards, s/he has a two-word argument that will win every time: Muhammad Ali. What will Iowa's two-word argument be? And what are you prepared to do? 

Bonus 4: I didn't mention Iowa's Grinnell College, but Carleton College in Minnesota is the liberal arts college you'd want to attend. If you can't get into Carleton, then Case Western Reserve University, Washington University, and Oberlin College are similar, if not better than Grinnell. Once again, Iowa lacks a competitive advantage against nearby states, even considering what might be its best feature. 

Bonus 5: from The Iowa Review, Winter 2017/2018, Cammy Brothers' interview with James Alan McPherson in 1987: 
Hmmm, no "Anonymous Gifts" from Aryan Nation members? 
Bonus 6: You'll notice the Mennonites and some Amish women wear headscarves, a "veiling" act similar to Muslim women. Paul Theroux, in Deep South (2015), explains why: