Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Informational Wars in the 21st Century: the Collapse of Creativity

I should be packing for my upcoming Singaporean trip but instead, I re-watched the finale of Star Trek: Next Generation, and the material still captivates. As any Netflix subscriber will tell you, one good show often leads to another, and the 1987 premiere didn't seem dated, either. It got me thinking: why do I enjoy older movies and older dialogue, whether Hitchcock or Hepburn (Audrey, not Katherine)? Why do I often find the old superior to the new? And how is it possible the American intellect has declined so precipitously over the past 30 years? 

Growing up, I loved libraries and bookstores. Any random selection would do, and within minutes, I'd settle into an incredible story. Later, I discovered college bookstores, and within them were even more incredible stories that challenged my brain and entertained my soul. I knew I would never find myself being bored

In 2001, a few years after graduating college, I visited Singapore and experienced an anomaly in the world-literature continuum. A few books displayed never-before-seen admonitions: "For Sale Only in Singapore/Malaysia." Standard operating procedure assumed all governments control their reputations through "information boosting," i.e., ensuring their version of events is placed at the top of the shelf, but I didn't know about trade agreements or intelligence tactics and couldn't have told you the difference between MI5 or MI6. Although SEO wasn't yet a priority for private and state actors, its concept was present in that tiny bookstore, revealing the possibility of artifice. 

It was also in Singapore, a former British colony, where I first learned the power of international designations. An NUS professor revealed Singapore had been designated as a "developed," not "developing," country, excluding it from numerous international grants, even though most of its land mass could be called rural in 2001. After two years in one of the West Coast's most expensive and most diverse law schools, tiny Singapore is where I received my first international perspective. Singapore couldn't help itself; as a port-focused city-state, it had to embrace globalization before the term became fashionable in Western academic circles. 

I returned to the United States for my final year of law school wiser but not warier. 9/11 would happen shortly afterwards, and my next seven years would be spent eliminating over 75,000 USD of student loans during a severe recession. Only later would the issues of globalization and informational warfare return to my mental purview. They arose not willingly, but when I finally noticed no bookstore challenged me, no magazine captivated me, and the new could not compare with the old. I was starting to become bored. 

Today, I googled an unfavorable but famous event in a foreign country that should have been easily found. Instead, my search results contained fake news links designed to capture exactly the search terms I'd used, but in ways that concealed the actual event--and therefore the truth. The links included most of the event's general details, but the female protagonist had been replaced by a fake male one, and none of the names were real. During various hacking episodes, I'd suspected we'd progressed from geographical content restrictions to online bleaching, but de facto censorship of legal activities in America was new to me. Only Yahoo--allegedly one of the worst search engines in America, saved from obsolescence by its investments in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan--had the "right" result in the middle of the first page, a single link surrounded by deliberately engineered fake news. Incredibly, SEO manipulation had, in this instance, made my limited analog brain more powerful than one of America's most valuable technology companies. 

"Everything you see is propaganda," I once told a middle school class, and my opinion hasn't changed. Information wars and actions in furtherance of those wars are more obvious when a book's cover discloses geographical limits or when the most prevalent story about another country involves chewing gum, but unbiased information has always been an endangered species. I am young enough to remember Silicon Valley's battle cry, "Information wants to be free," but they never promised accuracy or context. 

In Star Wars, the engineer's revelation of a design flaw in the Death Star gives the rebels hope. Similarly, once we become aware of the informational flaws we receive daily from public and private news sources, perhaps we, too, can recognize "hidden" manipulation not just in search engine algorithms, but in social and mainstream media and even in the very people elevated into positions of power. If we achieve this higher level of understanding, humanity's hope wouldn't be founded on false optimism but upon the realization our species has evolved in the past and can continue to evolve beyond its self-defeating patterns of scapegoating, wishful thinking, and hyperbole. 

Gene Roddenberry, a military veteran and the creator of Star Trek, built his entire life around the inevitability of human progress. He declared, "The strength of a civilization is not measured by its ability to fight wars but by its ability to prevent them." Sadly, by this metric, the United States has failed its citizens, children, and veterans continuously since Vietnam. Having fought one unjust war after another--losing almost every one of them while economic competitors China and Japan focused on domestic infrastructure--America's current Establishment has little choice but to glorify militarism. Such propaganda requires economic support and job preferences to maintain momentum and, most of all, to bury past mistakes. Once activated, the machinery of militarism rarely sets its own boundaries; an enemy always exists just over the horizon, and more measures may always be taken to promote the appearance of safety. 

Few people in America see the connection between the TSA's expansion, its privatized body scanning machines, and the military's concern with employing returning veterans; even fewer realize the trillions of borrowed taxpayer dollars involved reduce not only America's economic potential but its future flexibility; and perhaps fewer still can conjure an alternative result for those same taxpayer dollars (hint: think Tokyo). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prescience is worth remembering: "If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam' ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (From 1967 in, of all places, New York City.) 

Let us now return to the original question: why does the old look, feel, and read better than the new in America when the opposite should be true? Consider that in normal societies, the younger generation is apt to forgo established customs as the older generation's knowledge degrades, diminishing claims to authority. Consider too that in abnormal societies, the old maintain their grips on the future by suffocating change through laws and punishment. And finally, note that diseased societies send their young to die for meaningless purposes, removing opposition as well as potential change agents. I say to you today, if the old appears shinier than the new, it is a sure sign of authoritarianism, evidence the youth are being suppressed or their imaginations stifled. Dr. King answered correctly in 1967, but I will go further: a military/police culture of following orders is incompatible with art, philosophy, nuance--and therefore creativity. 

When little boys and girls are deluged with images linking violence and war to heroism regardless of whether such wars are just, America's adults have replaced responsibility with desensitization and irrationality. 

When the table of brotherhood can only be set if every man reserves his right to a shotgun or a rifle, the spirit of the law has perished. 

When the sweltering heat in which our troops are stationed generates no lasting regional peace but instead parched national pocketbooks, America's vision has been a desert mirage all along. 

When our soldiers claim the ethos of courage while administering death by drones, we are living in a Greek tragedy of our own making. 

When our police officers consider themselves above the law, order becomes subservient to its half-witted cousin, obedience. 

If our judges refuse to read the papers presented to them and instead rely upon secondhand memorandums, the book of justice will remain unused. 

Now is the time to reform our sacred institutions by removing the sacrilegious from their temples and pulpits in Congress, courthouses, police departments, corporate boardrooms, and war rooms. There will be neither cohesion nor stability until each citizen is assured corruption has been driven out and the exorcists given their due. 

To that end, it may surprise you to learn the Muslims had wisdom we lack. They separated civilians, merchants, and the military by placing them in physically distinct areas. The medina was the place of business and barter, and the forts and minarets stationed fighters at a distance. The mosques provided sanitation five times daily in the required act of wudu
before prayer, mixing practicality with spirituality. Such arrangements required respect for logistics and infrastructure, not just weaponry. The distance between the two spheres of influence created built-in advantages beyond the freer development of calligraphy, science, algebra, and art; for instance, complaints arising in the medina (aka city) would need time and effort to reach the forts (aka military outposts), increasing the likelihood of legitimacy and thus an appropriate remedy. 
It may not be easy for an American historian to admit, but the aforementioned separation might have been the only truly "separate but equal" arrangement in modern history. 
Ultimately, if we do not understand some of humanity's problems have already been solved, we will neglect the task of modifying pre-existing solutions to current times and invite a cycle of arrogance. If we compound our error by ignoring history and amplifying propaganda, we will pollute the intellectual waters our children require to swim. Above all, if we are to have a dream worth mentioning, it must be one that facilitates a peaceful transition from old to young as well as a transfer of timeless knowledge. If each successive generation must start the Great Global Novel from scratch, our progress will be needlessly haphazard with no guarantee of reaching the final page. 

Today, the American Dream appears to have been a lie to all but the most talented, the most lucky, and the most likely to inherit. As I seek a better life in Singapore, I hope one day, America rediscovers the generosity of spirit that made it a beacon for honest men and women of a certain character. In the meantime, I'll be in Singapore, taking my chances and charting the unknown possibilities of my existence. May we all live long and prosper. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018) 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Flashback to 2001

As newspapers go, so do countries? From July 2001. 

Yes, I misspelled "embarrass." Sigh. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Replace "Communists" with Russia to See America's Current Allegations in Historical Context

Justice Robert H. Jackson, concurring, Dennis vs. U.S., 341 U.S. 494 (1951)

"The Communist recognizes that an established government in control of modern technology cannot be overthrown by force until it is about ready to fall of its own weight. Concerted uprising, therefore, is to await that contingency, and revolution is seen not as a sudden episode, but as the consummation of a long process. The United States, fortunately, has experienced Communism only in its preparatory stages, and, for its pattern of final action, must look abroad. Russia, of course, was the pilot Communist revolution which, to the Marxist, confirms the Party's assumptions and points its destiny... 

No decision by this Court can forestall revolution whenever the existing government fails to command the respect and loyalty of the people and sufficient distress and discontent is allowed to grow up among the masses. Many failures by fallen governments attest that no government can long prevent revolution by outlawry. Corruption, ineptitude, inflation, oppressive taxation, militarization, injustice, and loss of leadership capable of intellectual initiative in domestic or foreign affairs are allies on which the Communists count to bring opportunity knocking to their door. Sometimes I think they may be mistaken. But the Communists are not building just for today -- the rest of us might profit by their example." 


"National unity, as an end which officials may foster by persuasion and example, is not in question. The problem is whether, under our Constitution, compulsion as here employed is a permissible means for its achievement. Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, but, at other times and places, the ends have been racial or territorial security, support of a dynasty or regime, and particular plans for saving souls. As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity." -- West Virginia State Board v. Barnette (1943)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

From Alice Schroeder's The Snowball (2008), on Warren Buffett

Warren "Buffett was the one who enjoyed pleasing people... Whereas [Charlie] Munger wanted only respect, and didn't care who thought he was a son of a bitch." -- from Schroeder's The Snowball (2008) (hardcover, pp. 24)

"Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill." 

"Spend less than you make" could, in fact, have been the Buffett family motto, if accompanied by its corollary, "Don't go into debt." (39) 

"School for the most part bored him... Warren's teachers found him stubborn, rude, and lazy. Some of the teachers gave him double black Xs, for extra bad." (82)

"Throughout his entire educational history he had shown little interest in formal schooling--as opposed to learning--and considered himself largely self-taught." (125)

"Warren particularly disliked buying houses, considering money spent on them as lying fallow, not earning its keep." (351) 

"Derivatives are like sex... It's not who we're sleeping with, it's who they're sleeping with that's the problem." (659)

"The purpose of life is to be loved by as many people as possible among those you want to have love you." (826) 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Santa Clara County Voting Suggestions (2018)

This year's ballot is extremely complicated because so many different candidates are running. I used a new "test" to choose candidates this year: whomever had the most humble written statement got my vote. 

As for measures/propositions, I usually vote "No," but this year's options contained a few interesting ones, including a local measure on affordable housing. 

Governor: J. Bribiesca ["I was a homeless child." This candidate is a Mexican immigrant and retired medical doctor (perfusionist). Fascinating statement. By the way, another candidate's statement simply reads, "Why not!"] 

Lt. Governor: Jeff Bleich [One of the best-written statements. Ends with, "I'd be grateful to have your vote."] 

Secretary of State: C.T. Weber [No chance to win, but most interesting and most humble statement.]

Controller: Konstantinos Roditis [Pledges to audit the California High-Speed Rail System's finances, which seem to run over budget constantly, despite numerous sales tax increases.] 

Treasurer: Jack M. Guerrero [Both an underdog and overqualified. Stanford and Harvard graduate. Lecturer in statistics. Son of Mexican immigrants--"farmworkers and later, factory workers who settled in Los Angeles." Of all the candidates, I'm rooting most for him.] 

Attorney General: Xavier Becerra 

Insurance Commissioner: Asif Mahmood 

Member, State Board of Equalization, District 2: Cathleen Galgiani

U.S. Senator: President Obama endorsed Dianne Feinstein. (If you're not a Democrat, Derrick Michael Reid had my favorite profile.) [The strangest candidate statements--including several scary ones--were in this section.]

U.S. Representative: Anna G. Eshoo

State Assembly Member: Evan Low

Recall Aaron Persky? Yes. [He ran his campaign on judicial independence, but no lawyer has refuted my argument: rubber-stamping the probation officer's recommendation is the opposite of independent activity.]  I chose Angela F. Storey to succeed him.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Marshall Tuck 

County Member, Board of Supervisors, District 4: I don't think anyone available is particularly honorable, but I detest smear campaigns, and Pierluigi Oliverio is the victim of one this year.

Sheriff: Laurie Smith

Mayor of San Jose: Sam Liccardo [Disclosure: I was a low-level, unpaid volunteer for Liccardo on his first mayoral campaign.] 


Measure 68: No

Measure 69: No

Measure 70: Yes 

Measure 71: Yes 

Measure 72: Yes 

Regional Measure 3: Do you want to pay higher tolls for potentially better public transportation? Then vote yes; otherwise, vote no. 

San Jose Measure B: No 

San Jose Measure C: Yes (affordable housing) 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Why Do the Private and Non-Profit Sectors Exist Anyway? (Comparing Singaporean and American Governance)

Americans and Europeans lack widespread knowledge of civics. I don't mean abstract concepts of government but their practical application. For instance, why shouldn't the government handle all affairs? Is it checks and balances? Healthy competition? 

First-World Governmental Systems Aren't Fundamentally Different from Each Other

Consider that governments already have internal and external checks and balances. Internally, independent oversight exists through a judiciary and/or HR processes removing bad actors. Externally, privatization has become more common but one need only study America's private prisons to see secondary options don't necessarily increase accountability or efficiency. 
American-style corporate privatization hasn't provided superior oversight because boards of directors do not generally question executive decisions, and most shareholders are dispersed or inactive. Neville Isdell, Coca-Cola's former CEO, once described his distaste at a board member's meticulous research into different pay scales, implying the board member's diligence was unhelpful. Mr. Isdell worked his way up from lowly general manager to CEO, becoming one of the world's most level-headed and successful executives. If Mr. Isdell--and some might add Mr. Jack Welch and Mr. Jeff Immelt to the list--was unable to stomach dissenting or different voices on his board of directors, one can see vehicles designed to do x don't necessarily mean x will actually occur. 

Warren Buffett once wrote, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out," and Americans appear to have accepted a default system that conceals rule-breakers or excessive risk-takers until after a crime has taken place--despite numerous regulations intending to discover miscreants in real-time. The clues point to one conclusion: systemic checks in the abstract don't matter as much as its participants' willingness to stress-test their ideas in an environment that promotes questions--and change

To take an example at the other end of the checks-and-balances spectrum, Singapore is essentially a one-party state run by the People's Action Party (PAP) and controls Temasek Holdings, a massive state-owned investment company. Despite this consolidation of power, no reasonable person thinks Singapore requires more political diversity to improve public responsiveness because the PAP has signaled it will not tolerate corruption. It helps that Singapore's lack of corruption is self-reinforcing--its presumed integrity functions as a powerful competitive advantage in a region with much larger, faster-growing economies. Even so, if almost-absolute power corrupts, why has Singapore succeeded? 

Someone wishing to play Devil's advocate might raise the case of Roy Ngerng, a Singaporean blogger sued for defamation. According to Singapore's Straits Times, "Mr Ngerng's post suggested that PM Lee had misappropriated Singaporeans' Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings [by likening] the Prime Minister to City Harvest Church leaders, who were at the time facing prosecution for alleged misuse of $50 million in church funds." Following a court-issued judgment of 150,000 Singaporean dollars, Mr. Ngerng apparently moved to Taiwan and "described the termination of his employment [in Singapore] as 'politically motivated.'" 

I've briefly perused Mr. Ngerng's blog, and I found his writing terrible. His posts make sweeping generalizations: "I will go quickly through the maths but you don’t have to get too engrossed with the technicalities. Just try to see the whole picture." Unfortunately, Mr. Ngerng's entire line of reasoning often misses the whole picture. He complains that citizens or CPF contributors seeking to withdraw "forced savings"--my term, not his--from the country's common fund to purchase a home must repay the assumed rate of accrued interest on the withdrawal. (For finance geeks, the closest American analogy would be having to pay taxes and/or a penalty on early traditional IRA withdrawals. Think of the American system as a privatized version of Singapore's CPF but without a guaranteed ROI.) 

Ngerng then seems to weaken his own argument by revealing the subsidized(?) mortgage interest rate available to withdrawees: only 2.6%(!). To escape the implications of this wonderfully low interest rate, he adds to it the 2.5% assumed minimum interest on CPF funds, calculating the "real" mortgage rate [as] 5.1%--allegedly "a very high interest rate." I'm not an expert on Singapore, but if you're not able to follow, just know the blog fails to consider complex regulations in light of a centrally-planned economy where the government provides subsidized flats. If I wanted to be critical, I would have argued the Singaporean government should be doing more to build and offer affordable flats for non-married permanent residents and non-married citizens, but that's a separate issue I didn't see anywhere in his analysis. 

Should the government have sued Mr. Ngerng for his poor writing? I think not--he seems more in need of an explanation of his own country's economic system than a lawsuit. If I were involved, I'd ask whether 150,000 Singaporean dollars is worth the risk that Singapore won't produce excellent writers (Kevin Kwan moved to the United States when he was 11) because they'll be too concerned with potential litigation. For a country priding itself on practicality, other approaches would have been more balanced in terms of boosting creativity while punishing lies. 

As for Singapore's allegedly harsh legal system, I'll share a story that should, once again, indicate differences between the American and Singaporean legal systems aren't as vast as you might think: I was personally fined 11,000 USD by a federal judge without being given the opportunity to appear in his courtroom. As a one-person law firm, 11,000 USD is a substantial fine that chilled my speech--in this case, innovative legal arguments and zealous advocacy on behalf of my clients relating to securities laws--and eventually played a part in my exiting the full-time practice of law after investing over 100,000 USD in earning my degree. (It didn't help that a local judge, Socrates Manoukian, initially sanctioned me 1,000 USD for making what he deemed overly zealous and disrespectful arguments in a separate matter.) 

In any case, we now ought to agree types of systems matter when trying to maximize anti-corruption measures, creativity, public responsiveness and accountability, but their implementation is equally if not more important. Stated another way, it is better to live under an honest, wise king and queen than a Parliament, judiciary, and President comprised of fools and drunkards. 

Just for good measure, I'll create my own Singaporean "free speech" test by criticizing the Singaporean government and then alerting official government entities, including the police department, to this post: I'm visiting Singapore in 11 days, and I believe Singapore is making a mistake not accommodating Jehovah's Witnesses on the basis of the group's pacifist beliefs, which forbids them from participating in Singapore's mandatory military service. Refusing to make reasonable exemptions for religious minorities reflects poorly on large entities, whether countries or companies, and also demeans one's ability to claim diversity and tolerance. Singapore's strength is not just its reputation for integrity, but its diversity, and jailing anyone part of a longstanding, established religion for his or her sincere religious beliefs makes it harder to attract the best residents from around the world.

Posted May 20, 2018. I will also demand a durian milkshake when I arrive.
 And that's how it's done, lah? 

Private Sectors Exist to Catch Blind Spots & Incorporate Missing Links into Overall System, Minimizing Fragmentation

Rather than checks and balances, I would argue a private sector exists 1) to improve civic responsibility by delegating authority; and 2) to increase the chances of attracting and developing talent that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

We've all heard it takes a village to raise a child, but the modern-day equivalent is an unfamiliar, foreboding city with numerous institutions disconnected from one other, vying to attract capital and talent. Over time, such an environment prioritizes maintenance of one's own organization and funding rather than the uplifting of one's country. Furthermore, as organizations become larger, they tend to rely on following orders for the sake of following orders, minimizing worker and citizen discretion in the process. 

Modern society has seemingly sacrificed individuality for the sake of the greater good, whether through ill-implemented quality control processes or indiscriminate technological surveillance. Individuals have rebelled by exempting themselves from rules designed to provide order, and along the way, enough factions have developed to render the intent behind most formal rules useless. In almost every case, segregation--a way of avoiding useless rules and building community through "benign exclusion"--has created greater attenuation and thus less accountability. Whether the reduced accountability results from deliberate misinformation by hostile actors because of the greater levels of disconnectedness or more honest reasons, the result is the same: a lack of trust, which leads to less compassion, less tolerance, and less kindness. A society that delegates authority without maintaining informational integrity will find that civic responsibility--and therefore community cohesion--is negatively impacted. 

The private and nonprofit sectors were designed to combat exactly these problems of segregation and misallocation of resources. What the government could not reach, leaders like the Rockefeller family, private schools (LeBron James, Clarence Thomas, etc.)
But see Becoming Kareem (2017)
or nonprofits (in journalism and public resources, see Pew Centers, Annenberg, etc.) would. Indeed, why allow tax exemptions at all unless the beneficiaries seek out vagrants and unidentified talent and harness their energy to positive or at least non-negative uses? 

Although the private sector lacks a direct tax exemption, its ability to write off expenses or operate at a loss gives it more latitude to pursue different projects as well as hire persons unsuited to a 9 to 6 schedule. The private sector isn't attractive merely because it allows people freedom to experiment in ways less likely by career civil servants; it's also valuable because it can generally fail with less severe consequences (e.g., Sungevity bankruptcy, VW's emissions scandal, but see exploding Pintos, Deepwater Horizon oil spill) than governmental entities (Enron's request to use particular accounting standard, the Philando Castile shooting, Gulf of Tonkin, etc.). 

In the end, competition for talent--wherever it is--will arise between the private and public sectors, but neither sector can succeed without showing clear, tangible gains to the public. Such gains are not maximized unless every group's energy and input are included in meaningful rather than token ways. Generally, long-term costs of exclusion, even if unintentional, far exceed the costs of inclusion on the front end. 

I'm reminded of one of my heroes, Julian Bond, giving a speech in which he skillfully linked the future of entitlement programs to the development of diverse youth today. Since we are focusing on details, I must say I worry about the world's failure to develop leaders like Mr. Julian Bond and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who were so adept at advancing the argument that we are all in this together, and if we are not, we may not drown, but we will surely sink. (I heard Mr. Bond speak only once and was mesmerized. I have yet to hear another person who matches his delivery and wisdom, despite the passage of a decade.)

To sum up, the nonprofit sector exists to capture blind spots and bring them into the fold, reducing fragmentation, and the private sector exists to encourage innovation and promote less rigidity. If the public sector seeks to elevate itself above the private sector through more favorable legal treatment, it will lose its integrity by failing to see the reason for its own existence: as a store of unassailable institutional knowledge and as a bulwark against short-term shifts in public opinion.

Without Integrity, Everything Falls Apart by Encouraging Unnecessary Complexity & Division

As the modern economy has become more intangible (bits and bytes) than tangible (a new NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas), governments are hard-pressed to maintain credibility, especially as private and nonprofit sectors compete more aggressively for talent. The way to reverse this trend is not to argue, as President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren foolishly did when they said "You didn't build that [on your own]," but to acknowledge any successful economic system is complex and requires all gears to work together to move forward. It helps to have a 10 year budget with contingencies for revenue shortfalls, but many ways exist to blunt the argument that government doesn't care about a particular segment of society or is wasting taxpayer funds. 

Above all, governments must remember they exist not to be "umpires," as the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court once said, but to create a store of long-term institutional knowledge that excludes the influence of marketing. To act as an objective store of institutional knowledge requires integrity, the sine qua non of any successful enterprise, but particularly in government, which must often act as a mediator or brake against excesses. In addition, without integrity, a government will soon find itself outflanked by the private sector even in areas like space exploration, where R&D may not see investment returns for decades. A government that can tax by force begins with a competitive disadvantage against the private sector; a government that taxes without the presumption of integrity will automatically injury-default to competitors. 

To be sure, a government with integrity has more leeway with the public, reducing the need for fragmentation. Consider the following novel idea: citizen morale can be improved by designating specific ombudspersons under each department accessible by phone and email and required to respond within one week to any citizen question or complaint. Ombudspersons would need to collaborate with each other and inform agency or department leaders of policy decisions, all of which would be publicly accessible. Citizens opposed to any ad hoc policies may then petition each other and local government to reverse decisions not in the public interest, but such reversal should not be based on public opinion. Customers are not always right, and neither are citizens. Ombudspersons would be valued based on abilities to provide and communicate objective, independent, and consistent guidelines and would serve 10 year staggered terms. This is one example of an idea that can only be done in a country where integrity is presumed in governmental ranks. The alternative seems to be a mishmash of rules and regulations no one understands, with the need to hire an expensive (and potentially dishonest) attorney. If legal alternatives become too expensive or onerous, loopholes will be sought, and segregation assured. 

What Will the Future Look Like?

I started this article comparing two countries with two different systems: one allegedly more authoritarian, and one allegedly more free. We should now see labels weren't very helpful in determining which system truly accomplished its goals. 

The deal between governments and citizens used to be straightforward: 1) don't question the King because his power comes from God; 2) in exchange for your loyalty, we'll give you the essentials, including shelter, protection, and food. Over time, more people clamored for greater transparency and participation, and as information and products once restricted to governments became publicly available, governments diverged. Some continued the older model of exchanging economic security or non-interference for obedience (or at least a lack of open criticism) while others encouraged transparency and open discussion. The push and pull between the private and public sectors has always occurred, whether the Dutch or British East India Companies and the House of Habsburg, or Amazon versus state taxing authorities. If it feels different today, it must be our own ignorance of history rather than novel developments. 

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how different governance models respond to severe recessions. A government that premises social stability on economic growth and less citizen participation seems to require perpetual GDP and jobs growth or immigration/population restrictions that reduce its talent pools. Today, the more participatory government model is embattled, not because of any inherent flaw but because of a lack of integrity: revelations have proven transparency was often an illusion and so-called democratic models were equally if not more authoritarian than more restrictive models. 

Even without the implicit promise of economic assistance, the participatory model still retains its attraction, indicating some atavistic force. Just imagine two households: in one, the children are always obedient to the parents, work hard, and receive guaranteed jobs in the parents' factory after finishing school. In the other, children are openly critical of their parents and voice their concerns loudly and often. Upon graduating college, they have no employment guarantee. Which scenario would you choose? 

The latter scenario is no longer clearly favorable because of modern-day dependence on debt and the failure to promote honest journalism, whether in the style of Studs Terkel or Edward R. Murrow. If you imagine the same comparison, but without student loans or four trillion dollars of corporate loans maturing in the next five years, the second scenario feels more attractive. Perhaps deep down, we need to know we can howl at the moon, even if our voices won't change its gravitational pull. Or perhaps we know a society that discourages questions will eventually become complacent and decline; segregate itself into a new caste system; or become subservient to a more open society. 

Whatever the style or reasoning, if governments claim to be open and free, they must actually be open and free. Some governments today claim to be anti-royalty while their ranks reek of nepotism or legacy political appointees; to favor merit while allowing loopholes and preferences for ever-increasing factions; and to uphold equality while creating separate processes for rank-and-file employees as well as executives. In the end, 'tis simple: "To thine own self be true"--or be prepared to fail under any system. 

Update on June 1, 2018: I had no issues whatsoever entering Singapore. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Before the Fall, What Goes First Again?

Published in 1929, before the October '29 stock market crash, which led to America's Great Depression from '29 to '39. 
"Our national wealth increased by more than 35% in the last decade... We have no unemployment worth mentioning." (From In Behalf of Advertising.) 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: James and Deborah Fallows' Our Towns (2018)

James Fallows' style is as close to the great James Michener as you can get. Unfortunately, he and his wife seem to have caught the "positivity vibe" at the expense of journalistic integrity. It's not that the couple lie--the Fallows are too sincere, too professional--but their blind spots function as a kind of concealment. 
May 15, 2018 in Palo Alto, CA

For example, Deborah Fallows discusses a Darfur refugee's "apparel" problem: "A big disappointment... was not being allowed to wear her hijab along with her ROTC uniform to school... she would have to choose." Mrs. Fallows then writes, sugary-sweetly, "It was beyond me, from my adult perspective, that this girl's preoccupying problem at sixteen years old was her apparel conflict." [Emphasis mine.] No mention of religious freedom exists anywhere on the page, nor a discussion about why the American government was forcing a Muslim refugee to choose between her religious beliefs and service to her country.

A more serious book would have directed the reader to the fact that military outfits despise exceptions to rules--uniformity is key to controlling actions and ensuring order. Instead, Deb Fallows uses the refugee's story as incontrovertible evidence America is working well. When she discussed the "apparel" issue during a recent interview, her husband, a devoted man whose love renders him incapable of correcting his wife's blind spots, saw the problem and immediately tried to save her by mentioning the local ROTC's request for a rule modification, which was eventually granted. 

Throughout the book, I sensed Mr. Fallows gently trying to mitigate Mrs. Fallows' unbridled optimism in a uniquely WASPy way. Discussing Sioux Falls, South Dakota's current economy, Mr. Fallows describes the city's choice of institutions a long time ago: "Would it prefer to be the home of the state university? Or the state penitentiary? ... the penitentiary offered steadier work for locals, so that is what they took." Readers knowledgable about America's worldwide #1 incarceration rate--a massive, unresolved issue that sheds light on untrammeled police discretion in making arrests--can understand the background in context. My concern is many readers might be unfamiliar with Mr. Fallows' genial, non-confrontational style--he was President Carter's speechwriter, after all--and miss the understated intellectualism behind his words. 
The Fallows are best when they stick to hard facts, such as their time operating a small aircraft; their research into ingenious ideas to melt snow (divert hot water from the cooling system of the local electric plant through plastic pipes under city streets and sidewalks); or historical color ("The Democratic-dominated city council tried to thwart every appointment, proposal, and piece of legislation [Bernie] Sanders put forward [after he won as an independent candidate by 10 votes]"). As it stands, if you read the Fallows' hefty book, just be aware of its selection bias. If you visit a city that knows you're coming and that has actively advertised itself to you, you'll get some version of a sanitized tour. (In one place, as soon as the Fallows land, they are greeted by "Captain Bob Peacock, one of many outsized personalities in the town.") 

For her part, Ms. Fallows says in an interview, "If you want to know what's wrong or what's needed [in a city], ask the librarian." Yet, one imagines visiting any country's libraries would result in optimism, even in North Korea. Perhaps that's the point the Fallows are trying to make: in any country, despite its overall decline, you will find pockets of hope and optimism, and your job is to find those places. 
I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, as an American immigrant hoping to live outside the United States one day: "Every city that is trendy or successful in some way attracts people from someplace else," which reveals America's economic engine as based on internal and external immigration. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Rafat's Law of Individual Freedom in an Era of Globalization

Only one law (or a variation thereof) seems likely to increase individual freedom by forcing countries to compete for citizens: 

1. Any permanent resident or citizen of Country X with at least 15 billion USD in goods and/or services sold annually in at least 1 of the past 7 yrs to Country Y shall be allowed to move to Country Y and automatically gain the same legal residency status as in Country X, including but not limited to permanent residency or citizenship, unless 

a) s/he has a conviction for a violent crime involving physical injury in the past 30 yrs; or

b) Country X's population is fewer than 20 million and/or has a population density [defined as persons per sq km except for refugees] greater than 550 at time of application; AND 

Furthermore, such legal residency exchange shall only be allowed two times in any individual's lifetime; AND 

All applications under this statute shall be processed within 7 days of receipt by Country X; AND 

Furthermore, any denial must be in writing with rationale and documents supporting denial included, along with right to appeal within 60 days and appear before independent tribunal. 

2. To prevent currency manipulations circumventing this statute's intent, residents of Country X moving to Country Y shall be entitled to receive any exchange rate over the last 11 years posted at the close of business by any government-insured banking entity with at least 50 billion USD in deposits or assets. Amounts may not be adjusted for inflation.

Update: re: FOREX rates, I envision some restrictions to prevent gaming, such as "...except that if residents moving from Country X to Country Y do not reside at least 200 days a year in Country Y for at least three consecutive years, Country Y may exercise a one-time right to demand FOREX transaction difference between actual exchanged rates and current rates on date of return, but such right shall not be used to deny a resident the right to return to Country X; instead, the difference shall be registered in an international court's ledgers using blockchain verification and any amount in excess of 25 million USD shall be transferred from Country X's escrow account into Country Y's account." 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Courage over Nuance, Optics over Substance

I can't help but look for signs indicating whether America can reverse its suicidal tendencies post-9/11. Along the way, I've noticed actual signs indicating irreversible division in parts of the country. Here's a meaningless sticker I saw over the weekend: 
It states, "I stand for our anthem." I don't disagree with the idea behind the bumper sticker--I, too, stand for our national anthem--but people in affluent, politically-stable countries don't put political ideas on bumper stickers. They're able to perform basic daily functions--driving, shopping, dating, etc.--without ideological wedges. I've visited 49 countries, and excepting President Duterte's election, I've yet to see a well-off Asian adult use political stickers. 

The owner of the van lives in an affluent area near the beach and appears to own a business. His small house needed paint and repairs, and I didn't understand why anyone would want to buy handyman services from someone whose house didn't appear on the up and up. Then I realized the political sticker might be his way of being counter-culture and attracting like-minded customers. It cannot be easy being a minority in a college town so in-your-face liberal, even I, a tolerant sort of fellow, shudder at its leftism. Rainbow flags and pins are so common, you're surprised when you don't see them. How such signaling helps resolve deep-seated issues, including one of the highest rates of criminality in the country, is beyond me. (Hint: if it's easy to do, it probably doesn't do anything, something most of us learn after 30.) 

Older business owners in the same city recently displayed large signs supporting local police as a response to perceived bias: "WE SUPPORT OUR POLICE." One wonders, "Is there anyone who doesn't support honest police officers?" Is the city of Santa Cruz, California arguing its police department has no corruption or its police union has a consistent history of removing poorly behaving officers more quickly and more efficiently than other cities? If so, that's one helluva bumper sticker, except, of course, such arguments won't fit on a bumper sticker. The lesson? Extremism attracts counter-reactions which go nowhere substantive because extremism by definition involves ideas tailor-made for bumper stickers: short, simple, and stupid. (On that note, the best political bumper stickers identify a specific problem, encouraging discussion--"It's the economy, stupid"--instead of choosing a side.) 

Not coincidentally, I've noticed another common motif in modern America: lack of nuance. 
Sunday, May 13, 2018, Yahoo.com front page
After 9/11, the United States waterboarded members of a terrorist group it believed were linked to 9/11. It's unclear how many times waterboarding occurred, but it occurred between 5 and 15 times in sessions lasting up to 20 minutes each, and it's possible 83 to 183 applications of water were applied to simulate drowning over a three-week period. I'm not interested in the exact details because as we'll see, it doesn't matter as much as the lines governments cross in their cost-benefit analysis relating to potentially immoral actions.

The torture failed, based on the CIA's own documents, to produce actionable information. From The New Yorker: "No information provided by Mohammed led directly to the capture of a terrorist or the disruption of a terrorist plot." As typical in such scenarios, false information was provided because the detainee "simply told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear." Ultimately, in exchange for information that wasn't immediately actionable, the United States decided it was willing to risk its international standing and reputation--permanently. 

Once a line has been crossed, everything tends to becomes harder in the absence of principles, increasing risks of greater and harsher counter-measures. Abu Ghraib, the site of American war crimes, didn't arise spontaneously. It took steady line crossing and an absence of principled leadership to get there. Sadly, we tend to forget principles preventing immoral actions in exchange for speculative benefits don't just protect "the other" side--they also protect you by preserving your reputation and increasing chances you'll receive viable information in the future. 

After any incident damaging to a country's reputation, whether Abu Ghraib or widespread kneeling during the national anthem, a tactic to preserve citizen loyalty is to flood media with out-of-context activities or outliers, making it harder to ascertain full details. Disinformation has always been an intelligence agency tactic, but in an age where private and public actors can manipulate Google and Yahoo searches as well as your social media feeds, it's become pathological. For our purposes, we must understand the more false information, the less likely it is that groups will ever determine agreed-upon details and reach more difficult questions, including ones involving morality and transparency. The result? As long as people are divided against each other, existing power players and politicians can control the dialogue and character of a nation. 

By now, we know we don't need to click on the link showing a Special Forces solider waterboarding himself to know he didn't do it anywhere near the number of times applied to a terrorist suspect, making his experiment worthless. A single pin prick might not constitute torture, but a hundred pin pricks without a definite end date is a different matter. The lesson: a country without firm principles will flounder and eventually fade away because any approach becomes justifiable. I will end with words on sincerity, misleading thoughts, and exaggerated statements from In Behalf of Advertising (1929): 

It's only been 89 years, but it seems like such a long time ago. Does anyone know the Latin phrase for "Without bumper stickers"? 

© Matthew Rafat (2018)

Bonus: "I am not educated, but I am sincere, and my sincerity is my credentials." -- Malcolm X