Sunday, July 14, 2019

Concert Review: Seal at Mountain Winery

Some people seem as if they were born suave, exiting the womb with aplomb and blessing the world with their presence. Seal is one of these people. His voice has declined with age, and he's no longer able to do his exquisite "Prayer for the Dying" as well as he used to, but he more than made up for it by prefacing the song with a story about three near-death experiences, then wading through the crowd during his performance. 
The rules of mere mortals do not apply to Seal. He interacted with the crowd constantly, creating a spectacle that was part-messiah (look at the awed audience), part-DJ, and part-motivational speaker. While performing at Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA, he mentioned he does not drink alcohol. He told various individuals as well as the crowd he loved them, prompting one to respond, "We love you, too!" He communicated his love verbally and by Ryu-style hadukens from his chest, actions that would be deemed insincere if done by other musicians, but this is Seal, comprenez vous? By the end of the performance, everyone was on their feet, trying to match the energy of the 56 year-old Los Angeles immigrant with a posh British accent. ("Seal" was born Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel in Paddington, London.) 
His best new song was "Morning After," and of course he sang the old favorites, "Crazy" and "Kiss from a Rose." I've been a fan ever since I heard "Crazy," and I'm still a fan. May we all be so lucky to be half as cool as Seal when we're in our fifties. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A New Geopolitical Structure: Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

In this video, I explain the 22nd and 23rd centuries will not belong to the three post-WWII superpowers; instead, the future belongs to countries unstained by slavery, expansion at any cost, and petrocurrencies. Previously, Russia and USA divided the world in pursuit of oil while China used its large consumer population and formerly low-cost producer status to steadily gain economic ground. Today, increasingly disfavored oil and petrochemical production--no longer viable long-term due to environmental concerns and advances in renewable energy--are breaking apart the old military-industrial order. Meanwhile, China hasn't served as a low-cost producer in a decade, bringing it in direct competition with USA and weakening the standard debt-investment recycling model. 

The stage is now set for developing countries to leverage their demographic advantages and set the terms of trade amongst themselves using geographical proximity to reduce transaction and transportation costs. They can also control currency manipulation by focusing on trade with neighbors and in currencies within their own geographic trade zones, thereby reducing dependence on foreign navies, foreign shipping insurance, and disinterested currency speculators. In pursuing a new path forward, so-called "developing" countries can create alternatives to an increasingly immoral Western economic order based on military spending, debt slavery, segregation, and selective inflation. The keys are 1) creating a stable banking system based on a partnership and employee ownership model; 2) minimizing petrocurrency country influence by focusing on trade with nearby countries; and 3) promoting media and creative outlets based on accurate, human-led language translations within each geographic region. What worked for Mr. Rogers can work for countries, too: "Won't you be my (economic) neighbor?" 

(Video HERE.) 

Bonus I: I realize satellite technology is becoming more vital to planned economies, but one wonders if developed countries, in racing towards space, will neglect their citizens left behind on Earth. 

Bonus II: a 20 minute follow-up to the first video can be found HERE. Ultimately, de-globalization will not mean less international trade, but less dependency on complex international tribunals. Such international tribunals often favor post-WWII superpowers' interests based on the potential to coerce less developed countries through currency arbitrage and tariffs/sanctions/export controls
From Bloomberg's Matt Levine (June/July 2019 newsletter)
In the future, one can imagine scenarios where countries with "weaker" currencies band together through more focused regional trade agreements while importing technology from non-regional countries. As long as most trade is between countries with "weaker" currencies, the ability of more developed countries to set economic rules or to withhold vital resources is diminished. Once developing countries have achieved enough trade amongst themselves, they can then focus on building foreign currency reserves as a further buffer against non-regional interference. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Indigo Girls

I find it odd that Bob Dylan and Don McLean are so much better known than the Indigo Girls. First, Amy Ray's (the brunette of the duo) "Didn't Know a Damn Thing" has equivalent, if not better, lyrics than many of Dylan's songs. (Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.) 
Second, their story is amazing. Two young girls met each other in elementary school, knew they were different, bonded over music, and sang together for decades. Though one was older and on a different academic schedule, they always found ways to reunite. 

I hope you'll get a chance to hear these two women, especially if they sing "Closer to Fine." 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Advertising in 1957: a Tragicomedy in 3 Parts

Two ads from the same 1957 American magazine featuring Audrey Hepburn and Jayne Mansfield. What's a woman to do?
Have thin legs? Get fuller!
Have "heavy" legs? Slenderize!

Bonus: at least the magazine is comprehensive in its remedies. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Wrestling: Canada Cup 2019 and Other Thoughts

Scenes from the Canada Cup (held in Calgary this year) on June 29 and June 30, 2019:  

1. Ms. Alexandria Town won the award for "Most Awesome Hair." Wait, no, she won a medal for wrestling. But she should have won another one for the hair. I'm just sayin'.
Ms. Town, medalist. For wrestling, not the awesome hair.
2. When I saw Canada's Darthe Capellan shoot, I knew he was special. His shot was so fast, I began to process it only after his opponent was already turned, 2 points lost. Watch this man in Astana, where he'll be looking to make his mark.
Even if "Darthe Capellan" wasn't the name of a Harry Potter villain,
I'm still assigning him Team Slytherin.
3. Gotta love the well-worn uniform of one of Canada’s best tacticians and smartest wrestlers.

Ms. "Name Indecipherable" won Most Outstanding Female Wrestler of the tournament. Five possible reasons for her singlet choice are below: 

a. "Coach, I've got CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] on the line, and they want to know your response to allegations of embezzlement from the Badgers' equipment fund. How long has the cover-up been going on? The people have a right to know, sir." 

b. "Yes, as part of winning the Outstanding Wrestler award, you are automatically entered into a federal witness protection program." 

c. "The Tomb of the Unknown Wrestler." 

d. "Look, it was between feeding them and a new singlet, and I swear to God I have receipts for the cocaine... I mean, the applesauce." 

e. "Coaching a possible future Olympian? Priceless. Ordering a new singlet online before Canada's most visible wrestling tournament? Impossible." 

Congratulations, Jessica Brouillette of Brock Badgers Wrestling Club. One day, maybe you'll get a new red singlet. Until then, I hope Canada Wrestling Lutte buys this historical artifact and frames it. 

4. Your eyes do not deceive you. A blond white man is wrestling under Jamaican colors. This is the most international sport in the world. Several ex-Soviets wrestle for Arab countries as well.

5. Ladies and gentlemen, Brasil's Aline Silva, former judoka, now wrestler

6. Olympic medalists Carol Huynh and Tonya Verbeek paved the way for Canada's current superstars, Erica Wiebe and Justina Di Stasio. 

7. Speaking of Erica Wiebe... 

As far as ambassadors go, they’re in short supply everywhere. That’s why Canada’s Erica Wiebe is so special, so important, and so valuable. Not only is she an Olympic gold medalist, she also happens to be vivacious, intelligent, and not prone to arrogance or showboating. In other words, she’s the perfect ambassador. 

Her perfection in this area is particularly suitable for wrestling, which isn’t built for popularity, especially not women’s wrestling, which only recently became a mainstream option. If we ever live in a world where women’s and men’s wrestling are considered equal athletic and character-building avenues, and wrestling itself as commercially viable as other sports, it will be in large part due to Erica’s energy, smile, and willingness to promote the sport. I’ve never liked the idea of kings and queens—something about inherited status rubs me the wrong way—but if Calgary wants to crown Erica as part of the Commonwealth, you won’t get any objections from me. I’ll even curtsy.

8. I didn't get selfies with Justina Di Stasio, world wrestling champion and Canada's second-best active wrestler. Why? First, without speculating about anyone, I have a Chasing Amy (1997) problem when it comes to women--watch the movie if you really want to know--and I'd rather not embarrass myself. Second, if I really, really like someone, I usually run the other way faster than Usain Bolt
Erica Wiebe vs. Justina Di Stasio is equivalent to Sampras vs. Agassi, but with a twist. It's still the upstart minority (Di Stasio is part First Nations) vs. the golden child, but in this case, Wiebe wins on charisma, and Di Stasio wins on equinamity. I cheered for Wiebe because I think she's a wonderful ambassador in general, but I think it's unfortunate Di Stasio gets less attention. After all, she's also a world champion, also intelligent, and also articulate. 

Like Ali-Frazier, Di Stasio has the unfortunate coincidence of being in the same weight class as the stronger (and older) Wiebe, and many people forget were it not for Muhammad Ali, we'd be singing along to Joe Frazier. So here's to the underdogs, to the golden children, and everyone in between--especially because it appears Di Stasio may have deserved 2 points for a back exposure in the finals (her coach challenged and lost), while Wiebe only 1 for a reversal. 

9. USA's Olympic medalist Clarissa Chun also attended this year's Canada Cup. Though she flew in from Denver, CO, she made sure to bring a piece of Hawaii with her. 
Hang loose!
10. USA's Victoria Anthony really is that small, that fast, and that cute in person. 

11. Let's not forget the coaches. I had the honor of meeting University of Calgary Dino Wrestling Club's Mitch Ostberg and 3-time Canadian-Cuban Olympian Haislan Garcia, now an Arizona State assistant coach. Arizona State is where Bobby Douglas--perhaps America's greatest wrestler-coach--won an NCAA team national title. 

12. It wasn't all good news. Jasmit Phulka and Ty Lydic stood out in terms of poor sportsmanship. In Canada Cup's least classy match, Jasmit Phulka received multiple warnings regarding face-slapping, then after (barely) winning, raised his arms in a weightlifter pose. Like Canada's Phulka, USA's Ty Lydic seemed to think face-slapping was a normal part of international wrestling. 

It all reminds me of Iowa's Brands brothers. From Sports Illustrated (June 3, 1996, by Franz Lidz): "'It's in their nature to be violent." Brutal, savage, ruthless is how they described themselves on T-shirts at Iowa." From same article: 

On Super Bowl Sunday in his senior year at Sheldon (Iowa) Community High, Tom says, he and three buddies were involved in what was termed sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old. "Some people thought it was rape, but it wasn't," insists Tom, who until now has never spoken publicly about the incident. "The girl was willing." 

Sigh. Except where natural resources and banking are concerned, I'm a libertarian. I favor legalizing and taxing most drugs and most currently-illegal sex to direct taxes and social programs towards the most vulnerable (drug addicts, orphans, prostitutes, the impoverished) and to reduce the government's ability to use laws as pretext to target politically-different individuals. Without making any declaration about Tom or Terry Brands, my political views only work if alcohol and/or drugs aren't used to muddle the concept of consent, and if people want to be known as honorable. That's why you'll hear me yelling in protest the second a wrestler starts engaging in WWE-style tactics. Sadly, it seems American wrestlers are more likely than any other country to try illegal tactics, perhaps reflecting the country's foreign policy since the Vietnam War

13. Some people ask why I go to so many wrestling events. First, wrestling helped me tremendously. Though I participated in judo and tae kwon do as a kid, it wasn't until I wrestled for the first time in high school that I learned persistence and other values. 

As a high school freshman, I lost every single match my first year. In my last match that year, I was leading on points, only to lose in the final period after running out of gas. Extremely upset, I went to the bathroom and kicked a hole in the plaster wall. The next year, I won Most Valuable Frosh/Soph Wrestler, and by senior year, I had a much better record. Even if I wasn't good enough to wrestle after high school, I still felt part of an honorable, hardworking club

Second, I had not one, but two excellent coaches: Mitch Vierra and Terry Vierra. They knew I wasn't a great wrestler and never would be, but they still took the time to teach me a few moves, including my go-to, "The Iranian" (aka the Superman). More importantly, they were good guys, exposing my introversion to more outgoing personalities. Since I didn't like any of my non-math and non-science teachers, I cannot emphasize how important it was to meet people I admired. (For the record, I liked Ms. Gundacker, too, but a middle-aged English teacher ain't exactly someone a teenage boy wants to emulate--though I did end up earning English and Philosophy degrees from UC Davis with high honors.) 

Mind you, I hated middle and high school. I never studied but managed to get good grades. In fact, before an AP American History exam, I claimed I had to go to the bathroom but took my book right outside to study. My teacher called me in after 10 minutes, but I'd secured just enough study time to pass. Deep down, I guess I knew all my classes except for math and science were useless and often wrong. Making matters worse, outside chess club, I had no friends. Without wrestling, I genuinely believe four years of my life would have been completely wasted in high school.

Third, wrestling isn't just the most international sport--it's also the most diverse. On my team, I was the only four-year participant to get a law/doctorate degree. (To give you an idea of how other places tend to attract similar people, two of the three women I dated in college became lawyers.) Meanwhile, I was surrounded by teammates from Honduras, one deeply evangelical Christian from South Korea, a Mormon (who later became a teacher and wrestling coach), a future Marine and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, and even someone from a rich local Italian-American family. We hated going against much-better (and more Latino) Independence High School, which had several superstars, including Eric Guerrero. (Independence is located in my old neighborhood, Berryessa, where my family's weekend highlights were buying knock-off underwear and socks at the local flea market and eating churros.) I write a lot about politics and economics on my blog, and if I've been able to provide an objective viewpoint, part of it must be due to the people I grew up around on my wrestling team. 

Fourth and finally, I've been severely hearing-impaired since birth. Other than tennis, I cannot think of another sport more suitable for the deaf or hearing-impaired. It's true you have to hear the coaches sometimes, but unlike school, everything is usually shown in ways emphasizing the visual over the auditory. So why do I write when others prefer to take videos and do fluff interviews? Because maybe, just maybe, there's someone out there like me--out of shape, no friends, hates school, or can't hear 50% of what's going on in class, who might be willing to take a chance on a sport that's been around for thousands of years. What have you got to lose? Besides every match your first year like me? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat 


Lake Louise near Banff
Bonus, from Chuck Thompson's hilarious Smile When You're Lying (2007): 

And, yes, poor unappreciated teachers. I did say sweet deal. American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many 'extra hours' they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do--welcome to the f*cking world... 

You think you got it tough? You don't got it tough. American teachers would crumble if they ever had to work the real hours of a cabbie, doctor, bartender, fisherman, truck driver, small-business owner, hotel clerk, mechanic, architect, janitor, musician, surveyor, accountant, or the million other jobs that don't observe weekends, much less every city, county, state, and federal holiday on the docket, almost three months' vacation a year, and pension programs funded out of the public trough. How is it we go through school painfully aware that half our teachers are lazy or incompetent or pathological control freaks, then turn around and let them convince us what a bunch of saints they are as soon as we become taxpayers?

Monday, June 24, 2019

Modern History: Ports, Finance, Power, and Free Trade

I've written about modern history before, but I see no harm in trying again. Summarizing any time period is bound to exclude important events and people, and assigning exact percentages of influence is impossible. (For example, Elon Musk is better known than Martin Eberhard, but the latter founded Tesla Inc., and Eberhard surely benefitted from GM's EV1 research in the 1990s.) With these two caveats in mind, let's continue. 
"Europeans... are the conflicted inheritors of a long military tradition." -- Justin Va├»sse
In 1919, WWI's devastation forced Germany (aka the Weimar Republic) to accept the Treaty of Versailles' onerous terms, which did not contemplate re-establishing Germany as an equal member among world nations. In 1920, the League of Nations, the precursor to the modern United Nations, was convened, but its difficulty enforcing terms contrary to Britain and France's wishes meant true diplomacy was limited from the start. Indeed, in 1922, after Germany claimed it couldn't make its scheduled reparations payment, France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr in 1923 and occupied Germany until 1925 to ensure deliveries of coal, iron, steel, and timber. 

Inflation, high unemployment, and Germany's lack of a stable currency made it hard to administer the German economy in mutually beneficial ways. In 1924, the Dawes Plan, for which Charles G. Dawes and Austen Chamberlain received the Nobel Peace Prize, injected American capital into Germany, shifting much of the burden of German reparations onto American bondholders, creating a more probable repayment scenario and convincing the French and Belgium occupiers to leave the following year. 

The United States's credibility in international relations derived in part from its large post-WWI gold reserves, some of which were housed at Fort Knox (built in 1918). Although the U.S. dollar had ceased to be backed by gold reserves in 1919, Britain in 1925 returned to a gold bullion standard, likely causing potential investments to leave European neighbors and the United States and enter Britain--around the same time American bondholders had taken risks in stabilizing Europe. Britain's action assisted it in repaying its own debt to the United States as well as signaling an answer to declining wages and inflation across Europe, but had the unintentional effect of France devaluing its own currency to undermine Britain's desired status as superior trade exporter. In choosing the gold standard, Winston Churchill wanted Britain to be both a financial and trading center during a time when America was reeling from the Teapot Dome scandal and President Calvin Coolidge was preoccupied with Latin American affairs: 

I believe that the establishment of this great area of common arrangement [aka the gold standard] will facilitate the revival of international trade and of inter-Imperial trade. Such a revival and such a foundation is important to all countries and to no country is it more important than to this island, whose population is larger than its agriculture or its industry can sustain which is the centre of a wide Empire, and which, in spite of all its burdens, has still retained, if not the primacy, at any rate the central position, in the financial systems of the world. (Churchill, 1925, to Britain's House of Commons)

Although the initial effects of a strong pound/sterling attracted investment, Britain was unable to stimulate demand, leading to sustained unemployment. Meanwhile, in America, taxes were slashed, consumer credit extended, and wartime manufacturing capacity transitioned into peacetime production. Such success led to increased borrowing generally and speculation in America's stock market. 

By 1929, greater complexity in currency obligations, international trade, and wage stability prompted the creation of the Young Plan (promoted by America's J.P. Morgan, Jr. and finalized on August 31, 1929) to supplant the Dawes Plan in 1930, but it was too late. In Germany, the National Socialists (aka Nazis) sought a "Liberty Law" (aka Law against the Enslavement of the German People) to disavow all reparations, which was overwhelmingly voted down on October 16, 1929. Even so, on October 24, 1929, America's stock market crashed, perhaps anticipating global instability and large losses in its German-linked bonds. The German government's rejection of the "Liberty Law" increased Adolf Hitler's and the National Socialists' visibility when they took the proposal directly to the German people on December 22, 1929. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria, setting in motion WWII from 1939 to 1945. 

Britain would abandon the gold standard in September 1931, about two years after America's October 1929 stock market crash. By 1933, almost two-thirds of world trade had vanished. That same year, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned private ownership of gold bullion, gold certificates, and gold coins, intending to remove impediments to the devaluation of the U.S. dollar in 1934. 

(Bonus: Germany did not pay off the interest owed on its reparations debt until 2010. As of June 2019, Germany has the strongest economy in Europe, and one of its banks has loaned billions of dollars to the current president of the United States, a man sometimes compared to a former German Chancellor. With "Brexit," Britain continues to vacillate between becoming a full member of a new Europe, where it will compete with non-English-speaking France, Norway, and Germany for influence, or maintaining preferential American relations.) 

In July 1944, forty-four Allied countries attended the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, where they, anticipating Germany's defeat, looked ahead to a new international paradigm led by the United States. In 1945, Congress ratified the Bretton Woods agreement, establishing a new gold exchange standard promoting currency convertibility, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. The USSR (aka the Soviet Union), one of the primary reasons for Germany's defeat in WWII, did not ratify the Bretton Woods agreement and did not join the IMF or the World Bank. With respect to the gold standard, America, anticipating greater spending and involvement in the Vietnam War, once again forbade private ownership of gold in 1961, then de-linked the dollar with gold in 1971, four years before its defeat in Vietnam. 

(Bonus: from Allison J. Truitt's Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City (2013): "The United States' massive military expenditures in Southeast Asia led to the collapse of its ability to maintain the dollar's fixed value relative to gold. When the US government put an end to the dollar's convertibility in 1971, it ushered in a new era of more flexible and more volatile exchange rates.")

After 1945, naval power plus nuclear and satellite-related technology plus natural resources (e.g., oil) determined which countries would set the rules of the world. America could set many of these rules because its two neighboring oceans had afforded it the protection to enter WWII late, minimizing its human and materiel losses. Having the advantage of only needing to rebuild a single state (Hawaii) rather than numerous cities, America was willing to assist other players through a mutually beneficial system in which it distributed power--and favor--through ports, loans, and trade agreements. 

Countering America's power were the Soviet Union--equally determined to spread its economic system--as well as a China comfortable in being isolationist in the short term. The task of rebuilding infrastructure required not just the possession and transport of raw materials but implicit assurances of reliability. Hence, shipbuilding, ship repairing, refueling stations, and port efficiency became prized skills, and strategically-located countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (aka Chinese Taipei) became valuable allies. 

To diminish the West's military strategy of choosing a small country along a strategic shipping (e.g., Singapore, Eritrea, Falkland Islands) or geographical (e.g., Poland) point, then shepherding that country into an alliance at the expense of its relations with its neighbors, the East attempted to use the same strategy with Cuba and other countries, primarily Vietnam and Mongolia. The East's mimicking of the West in this regard failed, in large part because its comparatively underdeveloped banking, legal, and insurance sectors could not generate similar investment returns, leading to slower income growth (though less inequality) and personal dissatisfaction in Eastern countries. By the 1980s, the resource-rich Soviet Union was borrowing money from Western banks because its ruble was not freely convertible to other currencies, foreshadowing its 1991 dissolution. 

While both the Soviet Union and China pursued a strategy of self-sufficiency, America demurred, using its naval power and satellite countries (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Israel, South Africa, United Kingdom) to increase its share of worldwide foreign trade. By 1962, America's Trade Expansion Act allowed President Kennedy to reduce tariffs by up to 80%, increasing foreign trade and therefore the influence and strength of the U.S. dollar. 

The Soviet Union's failure to create multinational banks--resulting from the assumption its vast natural resources and military strength were enough to maintain empire--meant its economy and ability to project power depended wholly on oil prices. The Soviet Union's lack of economic diversification also exacerbated competition, most pitched during WWII, between the East and West for control of oil supplies. 
Such competition had the effect of requiring large military expenditures to deter others from seeking similar control, rendering empire and power contingent on military and industrial cooperation. As oil, naval efficiency, and multinational banks became more important to an increasingly globalized and interdependent economy, military spending began driving economic growth. To protect investments and jobs, large financial outlays were channeled through an increasingly smaller elite, often associated with banks, insurers, and military on national levels; educators, natural resource producers, and unions on state levels; and real estate development and police on local levels. All aforementioned players would have access to financial terms and conditions unavailable to most people outside their spheres, allowing debt to inflate their influence at the expense of perhaps more innovative competitors. Most troubling, the projection of external power backed by foreign currency into a developing nation disfavored minorities and dissidents within such nations, sometimes with violently tragic consequences. 

As the West's international influence grew through debt and trade agreements, so did domestic vested interests, making substantive change increasingly difficult. For example, though the 2007-2009 financial crisis was caused by excessive debt and lax financial regulation, by 2019, overall debt had increased beyond its 2007 threshold. Such debt was deemed necessary to project influence or gain access to lucrative markets, though wise politicians found a balance between foreign trade and domestic infrastructure spending. As competition increased between major powers--designated by access to the most advanced nuclear, AI, cyber-warfare, surveillance, and satellite technology--risks continued to multiply in the interlinked worldwide economy. A rising EU, China, and Russia meant post-WWII alliances such as U.S.-led NATO no longer yielded the same positive economic or humanitarian results. [From UNHCR (2019): "the number of people who are forcibly displaced globally is indeed at an all-time high since the end of World War Two."] 

With technological advances outpacing cultural understanding (e.g., seamless and accurate language translations), negotiation and cooperation within the same geographical spheres became unwieldy and ROI uncertain, causing politicians to use tariffs and other measures to favor their own technological platforms, currency, and media content. In addition, the desire for consistent debt repayments made monopolies more acceptable and free trade's premise of fair competition less benign. 

Part of the problem was that overlapping and trans-continental trade agreements were based, at their root, on economist David Ricardo's ideas of tangible trade between just two nations: Portuguese wine for English cloth. In short, the global trading system assumed a paradigm of clear laws, finite trading partners, mutually beneficial cooperation, and tangible products. In reality, countries favoring fair play had to contend with greater unpredictability in consumer demand, tax revenues, informal economic actors, and domestic resource needs, making them more dependent on debt. As such, "free trade," especially within the context of intellectual property rights, favored developed over developing nations, and corporations over individuals, with developing nations often pledging fealty to one particular developed country over another to gain access to capital. 

Despite perennially low (and sometimes even negative) interest rates, the economic stability promised through open markets and respect for domestic producers had not come to fruition, reducing esteem for moderate Western politicians and existing practices. Smaller or less developed countries began to better utilize trade associations such as ASEAN or to develop new ones like the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), realizing their local consumer populations were sufficient to improve living conditions without excessive interference by developed countries. The more developing countries began to wean themselves from post-WWII economic rules, the more the future of capital and labor became unpredictable, causing a rise in extremism. As governments, mostly in the West, realized they had sanctioned a technologically-driven economy without any firsthand technological expertise, they enacted flaccid countermeasures which further damaged their credibility. In 2019, tech corporations, often run by executives not subject to removal due to supermajority voting shares, began exploring plans to issue their own currencies

[W]e believe that the right to coin money and issue money is a function of government... We believe it is a part of sovereignty and can no more with safety be delegated to private individuals than can the power to make penal statutes or levy laws for taxation... I [say] that the issue of money is a function of the government and the banks should go out of the governing business. 

-- William Jennings Bryan, American, anti-imperialist politician, in 1896 

By summer of 2019, the first stanza of W.B Yeats' 1919 poem, "The Second Coming," written after WWI, seemed tailor-made for the present: 

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity."

So it goes

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019) 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Santorini Dave Travel Blog Advice

Santorini Dave, a popular travel blog, is against the idea of using travel blogs as storytelling vehicles--at least if you want to make any money: 

I’m sorry, but you will not make money from travel tales and adventure stories. Or, if you do, you’re far more talented than me and you’re not reading my lame-*ss post about focusing on your brand. So stop reading and go do it. Start your blog about all your crazy stories traveling the world. (Also: good luck. There’s a place for storytelling in the world but you won’t find a blog post on it. You might as well read self-help books on how to be original. There are a dozen people in the world that will make money from travel storytelling. If you think you could be one of those twelve then go for it.)

Anyone who's read Yuval Noah Harari will initially gasp--until s/he remembers he has a tenured university post, a privilege available to less than 1% of the world's population. Lacking such security, most people will need to sell something to be able to tell a story. Consequently, social media, which relies on quantitative metrics, has turned the internet into a giant marketplace not of ideas, but visual titillation. 

To be clear, I don't mind titillation or mindless distractions, but the Native Americans, Muslims, and to a lesser extent, Jews, have been proven right in their approach against a culture based on figurative images. You may quibble that the ban on figurative images revolved specifically around religion or living things being elevated to the status of idols (God being a jealous mistress), but such categories were close to all-encompassing in olden culture. 

We tend to forget once the Bible was transcribed and translated, it became the primary book marketed by people in power. Consequently, just like any other product, chapters were modified depending on local audiences (whither Lilith?) and promises/rhetoric/advertising didn't always match reality. Regardless of the specific make and model of the book, because advertising/missionary financing was strong, and competition almost non-existent, a single book often became the way a person learned English. First mover advantage has never been disputed, but the point here is that it resulted in moving from pictures as the basis for storytelling to written words--an improvement. 
From Codex Gigas, seen in Stockholm, Sweden.
Fast forward to 2019. On the subway, most people are using mobile phones to play online games (visual, no words) or to shop (visual). Except for Wikipedia and reddit, the most popular apps and websites rely entirely on either the spoken word or visual images

No one doubts images are more compelling to the human brain than written words. ee cummings may have said it best: "the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids' flutter." Women have always realized this fact about human nature, so cosmetic products are always in demand, and even in periods when women's clothing lacked pockets, small jade purses or ornaments like ivory combs would be deployed to attract the wandering eye. 

Of course no one is arguing we want societies mostly of Socrates or Shakespeares--intellectuals often rely on more daring friends and lovers for inspiration, and obviously technology and buildings do not appear spontaneously--but a society that does not advertise its own individual stories properly will find itself depending on non-native and perhaps outdated stories for cohesion. The lesson? If you let marketers dictate your culture, perhaps you will soon find the underlying reason our ancestors disfavored graven images, especially ones made of valuable commodities. For some of us, it is just as easy to drown in a shallow pool than a deep one. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Privatization vs. the Public Good

Marc Lamont Hill succinctly describes the liberal Democratic platform in a single page in Nobody (2016) (paperback, pp. 177): 

The problem with this approach is that it ignores government's tendency to borrow, particularly from private banks. If tax revenues and other fees do not match the cost of services, especially when new services are needed, private banks provide the loans/bonds. In short, the "liberal" anti-privatization model renders government at state and local levels dependent on private banks. (It should not be surprising, then, that many have called America's Democratic Party the party of Wall Street, and its Republican Party the party of Big Oil.) 

I suppose one could argue "deficits don't matter" and render Congress's power of the purse into a literal money tree, showering all cities and states with interest-free loans. And yet, if governance could be so simple, why not make it even simpler and have Congress give all individuals money directly? Indeed, many have suggested the latter as the basis of UBI (Universal Basic Income), but the experiment has always been directed towards the unemployed or the neglected, perhaps assuming human beings prefer meaningful work over none at all. 

We have now arrived at the true difficulty at the intersection of commerce and government: creating meaningful jobs while avoiding excessive and uneven inflation. 
From local Los Altos, California newspaper (June 2019)
Every single state executive office is run by Democrats, from Governor to Insurance Commissioner.
Even ignoring, as Mr. Hill does, commerce's complex trade/security agreements with other nations and the trillions of dollars of debt these agreements assume, nowhere in his analysis of commerce does he make room for the ambitious, the persecuted, or the minority not agreeing with his definition of the "common good." And while it is true ambition often paves its way through artifice, there we can find government's true calling: protecting the common people from the ambitious while creating an economic system bringing people together so as to prevent persecution as well as self-segregation. 

The problems of modern commerce are vast and complex, centering chiefly around unimaginative local governments favoring the tried-and-true, leading to uneven development, de facto segregation, then the very inequality Mr. Hill abhors. Private entities are not silver bullets against corruption, but history teaches us any entity suffering from a lack of competition--such as public jails or police departments--will eventually become corrupt or deficient. With respect to privatized jails, we have learned it is possible for the private to become as corrupt as the public without sufficient oversight of necessary adjoining agencies--in this case, ICE and police departments. Finally, if corralling commercial activity were so straightforward as prioritizing the public good over the profit motive, one wonders why the mafia or the black market exist at all. 

The first step to strengthening social cohesion is trust in government, which requires not only transparency, but an understanding that modern commerce is so complex, only cooperation at both the neighborhood and national levels will create viable solutions. States like Singapore are small enough to make the gap between neighborhoods and their national Parliament a short walk, while countries like Norway have such small populations, a gap between their capitals and outlying regions can never become too great. America, like Russia and China, possesses none of these advantages and must work harder to prevent a police state from taking over completely in the name of the public good. As an American resident, I am confident most Americans favor the public good, but less so when it comes to the hard work and humility in getting there. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat 

Bonus I: when academics without a direct understanding of law and economics talk about the "profit motive," almost every criticism as applied to corporations could be applied to the mafia, which operates across borders using the singular method of violence--a tactic corporations cannot use. (Unlike your local loan shark, Wells Fargo or JP Morgan cannot send someone to break your legs if you default or declare bankruptcy.) 


GQ article by Alex Hannaford (June 2019)
Instead, multinational corporations must contend with three or four layers of overlapping jurisdictions, a level of red tape making it easier for governments, whether liberal or conservative, to demand ever-escalating payments, legal fees, or bribes to do business and to bring consumers more choices. When such choices are made without any regard to long-term planning, chaos results, causing critics to blame the profit motive rather than the target government's poor vision. Thus, the better arguments against corporate power revolve around short-termism (i.e., short term profit motives) and lobbyists' efforts to insulate corporations from accountability or transparency (i.e., giving corporations the same qualified immunity as some government agents). 

Bonus II: while we're on the topic of overlapping jurisdictions, let's review why the dynamic exists. First, redundancy. If a local police department is overwhelmed (think riots), it needs to be able to request additional personnel. A local entity prepared for all worst case scenarios will bankrupt local government or deprive cities and counties of much-needed social and other services, eventually guaranteeing a repressive police state. (Mr. Hill himself explains this exact issue in discussing Ferguson, Missouri.) 

Second, local entities represent local citizens, who may have different needs and wants than national representatives. By forcing national and multinational participants to adhere to local regulations, cities and counties can shape their own destinies--up to a point. (Justice Louis Brandeis' shorthand term for this interplay is "laboratories of democracy.") 

Third, if a local entity is corrupt (think Mississippi Burning (1988)), a local resident has no recourse but to appeal to an outside authority having jurisdiction. 

In short, overlapping jurisdictions were not designed to promote complexity for the sake of complexity, serving an unnecessary expansion of law school and academic influence, nor to allow looser federal purse strings to wedge themselves between police departments and local residents.

Bonus III: democracy is hard to successfully implement over long periods of time, and even harder the larger the geographical area. A blue collar worker in Kansas, absent some respected intermediary, may have nothing in common (except language) with a software engineer in California. The idea of a common language is to establish respected intermediaries, such as journalists (think Charles Kuralt, Studs Terkel), to bridge the gap and help form a national identity, but of course language can manufacture social dissolution just as well as social cohesion. 


It may be the case that a 5 to 7 days workweek is inimical to a well-functioning democracy by not allowing enough voters sufficient time for study and contemplation. And yet, one can be certain a majority of contemporary American adults, most of whom had ineffective public school teachers, would spend their additional free time on less-than-edifying activities. Is it any wonder, then, that America has become the land of the distracted, home of the vested interests? Why would a minority or immigrant with options choose such a place? And how have less developed areas, which preserve local agency through national neglect or capitol corruption, attained the very character wished upon us by our most educated and most sincere?