Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Kazakhstan: Steady So Far with a Future as Vast as Space

Imagine Singapore, if Singapore had natural resources and was one of the largest countries in the world. Kazakhstan, where I spent two weeks watching the World Wrestling Championships, is only 27 years old. Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, and Kazakhs blend in seamlessly, and the British have considerable influence. Its capital was renamed five times in the last 60 years: Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Aqmola, Astana, and now Nur-Sultan. Along the way, the capital moved from Almaty--bordering China and Kyrgyzstan in the southeast--closer to Russia in the north. 

Within historical context, Kazakhstan's rise from Soviet vassal to independent modern state is miraculous--if only because potential pitfalls were so numerous. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many countries were left on their own. One of these countries was Kazakhstan, the world's ninth largest. Into the void came the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which invested nearly 9.1 billion USD since 1991. Today, it's clear who has the most influence: the EU, Russia, and China. 
Look at the flags displayed outside a NurSultan strip mall.
One may want to remind increasingly nationalistic Western voters these global investments were prudent because they helped increase worldwide supplies of Kazakhstan's uranium, oil, natural gas, and tin--while giving foreign powers the ability to influence political affairs in mutually beneficial ways. In Nur-Sultan, a Huawei building towers over pristine asphalt roads containing Russia's old Lada cars as well as brand-new Toyotas, a testament to steady global investments that promoted free trade while avoiding enemies. (Kazakhstan does business with both Iran and Israel.) 
Nur-Sultan is named after Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazahkstan's president from April 1990 until March 2019 and former member of the Communist Party. Many English language articles allege corruption, but do not provide relevant background. First, as a member of a single party governance system focused on GDP growth--which he delivered--the assumption was any opposition group formed during the Cold War would be funded by foreign powers. (Given the CIA's track record, this assumption was not without merit.) Second, most of the allegations concern activities designed to circumvent the United States' arbitrary political preferences, including regarding Iran. (Unlike the United States, Kazakhstan has no enemies, so one could argue its multi-vector foreign policy, which emphasizes good relations with other states while balancing Chinese and Russian influence, has been successful.)

Above all, Nazarbayev doesn't get the credit he deserves for advancing Kazakhstan from a country with the world's fourth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons to a model for de-proliferation
It's true Kazakhstan's most valuable company is KazAtomProm, a nuclear company, but its privatization has provided checks and balances without sacrificing nuclear energy and knowledge--knowledge that came with tragic consequences. The Soviets conducted over 500 military experiments with nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, mostly at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, causing radiation sickness and birth defects. It was Nazarbayev who closed the Semipalatinsk Test Site and who subsequently gave Kazakhstan so much credibility in nuclear affairs that it held international talks in Almaty as part of worldwide efforts to encourage Iran to pursue a similarly peaceful nuclear energy model. In addition to nuclear weapons, the Soviets left a legacy of space exploration, now in the form of KazCosmos, Kazakhstan's more complicated version of NASA. In short, any way you view the country's development, the number of drastic failures that could have occurred during the transition of a left-behind nuclear and space-ready country into a respected member of the United Nations were vast, leaving little margin for error. For that reason alone, it's hard to criticize Kazakhstan, though Human Rights Watch has no such qualms, reporting, "There was no meaningful improvement to Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record in 2018." 

A few casual observations are in order: Russian and Kazakh are the most common languages, and in larger cities, most people can speak at least a bit of both. A blend of Mongolian and Russian have created a striking hybrid of white-colored faces and Asiatic eyes, made even more eye-catching when locals bleach their hair blond or wear blue contacts. As for the physical landscape, it's all new. Think of it as the "Las Vegas development model": you have land in the middle of nowhere, a relatively small population, and no restraints on what or how you can build. One result is uniquely-designed buildings, but I was most impressed with the overall layout. 
Inside a shopping mall.
Outside the shopping mall.
You can see architects had a single plan for the city center, creating angles where prominent buildings could be viewed inside arches of nearby places. Throw in old-time Las Vegas neon lights, and NurSultan starts to look like a place that's co-opted the mafia and provided plenty of space for everyone to play nice--for now. 
Russian Church.
I tried to buy a St. Christopher card but they didn't have any.
Hazrat Sultan Mosque
Will Kazakhstan's steady development continue in peaceful and sustainable ways? According to The Astana Times, "'The share of non-oil revenues is growing steadily from 61.4% [in 2019] to 71.2% in 2022,'" a good sign. At the same time, "the number of civil servants and employees in national [government-owned] companies will be reduced 25% [from] 2020-2024," a predictable cause of grievances, even if necessary; in "2018, government procurement totaled 4.4 trillion tenge [almost 63 billion USD], 75% of which were carried out in a non-competitive way through purchases from one source"; and "the number of targeted social assistance [welfare] recipients [grew] from approximately 77,000 to more than 1.4 million in five years... [and] spending on social support has increased 17 times since 2017." In addition to the above issues, respecting different ethnic groups while enforcing primary use of an uncommon language, Kazakh, may prove difficult. Ultimately, like space, Kazakhstan's sheer vastness provides hope--as well as growing pains--assuming the country is able to maintain its balancing act. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: Kazakhstan's museums had a wide gap regarding two major historical events: 1) the famine of 1932-34, which apparently wiped out one-third of its population due to the Soviet Union's forced farming collectivization (an action Nikita Khrushchev criticized in his 1963 book, Khrushchev Speaks); and 2) several waves of forced deportations into Kazakhstan by the Soviet Union, especially from Ukraine. The latter is interesting because it could help establish a historical narrative of Kazakhstan as a country of involuntary refugees, providing a more tolerant basis for future immigration. 
Update: unrest and rioting in January 2022 caught many by surprise, but the result of reducing welfare benefits while increasing everyday costs, including fuel, seems predictable. The world wants to shun petroleum-based output but is unready to implement climate-friendly technology on a mass scale. Until the gap between promise and reality is bridged, many governments--not just Kazakhstan--face challenges modernizing their economies while preserving social stability. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Hope Arrives in Country 51

Like many of you, I still feel caught in a morass of confusion and disgust since the 2016 election. I saw the storm coming and left the United States from April 2016 to September 2016, returning to vote for a third party candidate. I had put my hope--too much of it, it turned out--on a third party candidate securing at least 5% of the vote, allowing greater political diversity. 

Billionaires are not new in American politics--Texas's Ross Perot provided a worthy and effective challenge to the Establishment in 1996, and New York's Michael Bloomberg has been a steady presence--but the level and clarity of discourse have changed. One could sense increasing media crassness when cheaper-to-produce reality television like MTV's Real World became popular, replacing coherent plot lines with selectively edited footage, but politics remained mostly above the fray. 

I cannot tell you exactly when politics became yet another reality television show, but the techniques are the same: selective editing, lack of context, and 24/7 coverage. With its vast arsenal of manipulative techniques, "reality" television makes a mockery of everything real, reminding me of Chris Hedges' sobering quote: 

We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy. 

It appears all modern permutations of ancestral inventions have become unmoored from their original intent, sending truth into an abyss. And still, the more I travel, the more I experience hope, because I've realized humanity has yet to break free from post-WWII systems, and the debt the existing system requires is unsustainable. Call it the Law of Sustainability: something new will appear on the horizon because something new must arrive, or we shall perish. 

After visiting 51 countries, losing at least 100,000 USD on the stock market in one year, and trying to find a new homeland, I've finally gained enough context to see the past, present, and future in a single continuum. I continue to write because I feel compelled to do so, and yet, with every letter I type, I want to stop, to divorce myself from the struggle for greater understanding and to "let be be finale of seem." In reality, "seem" never has a finale, it being impossible to gain full context because historical records are incomplete or biased and one's own research time finite, not to mention the need to live life forward. Furthermore, the very act of living forward contains danger. Cultures that lack the ability to reach backwards and touch the past soon find themselves struggling with escalating suicide rates and declining birthrates. In a sense, everything we do is so we can live life forward, and if we are successful, we move forward without forgetting the past, for if we forget the past, we lose the answer to the most important question of all: "Why?" 

Why have we failed in increasing justice when all of us want more of it? Why are we less understanding of each other despite more opportunities to interact together? Why have politicians become unwitting participants in a reality show that threatens to destroy the truth as well as our ability to reach into the past and achieve a continuum containing context? Why have we not chosen our leaders more carefully when leaders can destroy a path to understanding that may never appear again? In the end, Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry was right: the trial never ends, though perhaps some countries are convicted from time to time, freeing space for new frontiers and fresh ideas. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

There Are No Experts in Politics, Economics, or Justice

Once you realize laws are often drafted by lobbies who care mainly about their own aggrandizement, you realize the legal system--tied to the political system--inefficiently distributes justice and is designed to promote the stability of entrenched interests. 

It is at this point many former progressives become disenchanted with broad legislation, focusing instead on tax revenues. Progressive stalwart Ralph Nader did just that when he convinced USGSA to improve safety nationwide by requiring government fleets to buy cars with airbags, using the government's power of the purse to set a higher standard for all. 

If democratic ideals are to be protected in an age of increasingly frustrated voters, we must train ourselves to look past distractions and optics. Most reform can be effectuated best at local levels, but not if local budgets become co-dependent on state and federal grants.

An example of this co-dependency is California's practice of sending local revenues, including sales taxes, to the state legislature, which then returns the revenue to municipalities based on complex negotiations. Now your police department isn't funded by locals, but by the state, corrupting community ties.

Incredibly, it gets worse. To compete with the private sector and improve employee loyalty and retention, governments began approving benefits with long-tail consequences. Pensions are the obvious example, but so are privatized toll roads, which became private when governments decided to sell future revenue streams. 

We forget governments have not always been granted infinite duration status for purposes of borrowing money, which allows them to commoditize expected taxpayer revenues. In many places, including Mexico, the government had to borrow from the Catholic Church. Only after the Mexican government discovered--or reclaimed from Catholic Spain--gold and silver mines did it have a more independent funding mechanism. Yet, even today, the most expensive building in many Mexican cities is owned by the Catholic Church. 

With respect to good governance, few experts exist, and the ones who consider themselves experts are often elevated based on single country breakthroughs. If any statement ought to inspire optimism, it's the idea that anyone, anywhere, has as good a chance to invent new practices on par with society's thought leaders--as long as they rely on comprehensively attained personal knowledge. Invention and implementation are separate functions, of course, but that explains the schism we see today: the optimists focus on new ideas, while the pessimists remind them of unintended consequences. One day, perhaps these two groups will realize they need each other and collaborate constantly to maintain a sustainable balance. 
Afghanistan War Memorial, seen in NurSultan, Kazakhstan

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019) 

"A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity." -- Ralph Nader 

"Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society." -- Alexander Hamilton

"I think the first duty of society is justice." -- Wendell Phillips (1861) 

Capitalism's Flaw: a Cycle of Failure then Possible Rebirth

Sadly, capitalism has become a dirty word in some circles, especially amongst young Westerners. I don't blame them. If my best-case prospect was 30,000 USD in debt (credit, car, and student loans) by the age of 24, I'd be against the system, too. 

But capitalism isn't the problem per se--it's the way adults have engineered the economic system with lenient banks. Too many people fail to realize how much the U.S. dollar--or any empire's currency--has been propped up by military force and the slave trade. 
The United States and Mexico, 1821-1848 ((c) 1913, 1969)
by George Lockhart Rives
Most young people do not know that England occupied Havana, Cuba in 1692 in part because of its strategic port; that Guantanamo Bay and Hong Kong are consequences of superpowers legally occupying weaker countries to perpetuate subservient relationships; that a treaty, Utrecht in 1713, specifically gave the British an exclusive license to take captured slaves to the Americas for sale and labor; that in the next phase of empire handover, Spain hastened its decline by supporting the English against France (choose your allies carefully, especially in wartime, when shifting allegiances are common); that the idea of absolute monarchy only crumbled in 1812 thanks to both French and American Revolutions; or that Mexican law (as of July 13, 1824, before America's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation) prohibited the slave trade; that the March 11, 1827 Constitution of Coahuila (Mexico) and Texas expressly declared, "in the [Mexican] state no one is born a slave"; that America invaded Nicaragua in 1912, Haiti in 1915, and the Dominican Republic in 1916 (because the Dominican Republic owed Wall Street money); and so on. 
Averell "Ace" Smith in Commonwealth Club Magazine (2019)
The American conquest of Mexican territory in 1848 is significant in that it created a playbook for Wall Street involvement: 1) create a pretext to invade; 2) take territory from the weaker country; and 3) force the country to go in debt in your currency. 
Published by Colegio de Mexico
This same playbook backfired severely in Germany when dominant powers imposed financial terms and conditions paving the way for demagogues, who always arrive with scapegoats in hand. (Ironically, it was a German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who created a universal moral law in 1785 that should have assisted future German populations: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.") In those days, the world learned from its mistakes post-WWII, creating a Marshall Plan that led to defeated Germany and Japan becoming superpowers and stable trade partners. Today, no one believes Iraq--attacked and invaded twice by the United States--will ever become a superpower or more than an oil supplier. 
Domino effect on debt non-repayment usually leads to a crisis.
Whither Western capitalism? Within historical context, it's hard to believe capitalism has ever worked an honest day in its life. To recapture the hearts and minds of young people all over the world, capitalism needs honest, sincere politicians, diplomats, and journalists. Currently, all of the aforementioned are MIA. Until that changes, we might as well prepare the obituary of capitalism--and our young. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat

Bonus I: John Swinton, late 1800s: 

I made the acquaintance of Wendell Phillips and found that he, too, had come to similar conclusions. He believed that the capitalist system was steadily undermining the world and bringing his countrymen into a condition quite as wretched as that of the slaves; and he vehemently condemned it.

Bonus II: Wendell Phillips (1861): 

I think the first duty of society is justice. 

The nation which, in moments when great moral questions disturb its peace, consults first for its own safety, is atheist and coward... Slavery has made our churches of Christ to churches of commerce. 

Despotisms are cheap; free governments are a dear luxury--the machinery is complicated and expensive. 

Were safety or security the first objective of human society, this principle, "if unlimited, false... [and] unqualified, it justifies every crime, and would have prevented every glory of history... But grant it. Suppose the Union means wealth, culture, happiness, and safety, man has no right to buy either by crime." 

Look at our history. Under it, 700,000 slaves have increased to 4,000,000. We have paid $800,000,000 directly to the support of slavery. This secession will cost the Union and business $200,000,000 more. This loss which this disturbing force has brought to our trade and industry, within 60 years, it would be safe to call $500,000,000... slavery has been strong enough to rule the nation for sixty years, and now breaks it to pieces because it can rule no longer. 

Bonus III: Alexander Hamilton: "Justice is the end [goal] of government. It is the end [goal] of civil society." 

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What's in the Box?

I've been watching the German series Dark (2017), which is fantastic. [Update: Season 3 was terrible, but the first two seasons were excellent.] It helped inspire the following thoughts: 

Momentum, if aided by unaccountability, can become destiny. Making a u-turn becomes increasingly difficult as possibilities (aka potential timelines) are eliminated, which then increases the signal/information from reduced numbers of sources, driving outcomes favoring whichever ideas and cultures have the most momentum--regardless of the best long-term strategy. Paradoxically, momentum can lead to inertia. Such inertia (as well as momentum) has become worse as human beings create ways of living that prioritize the visual over the abstract. 

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but over time, if it's disconnected from abstract ideas, it will not lead us--or our children--to the truth. In short, information without context dooms humanity to historical loops. Globalization should have increased both the signal and the fidelity of information but has done the opposite, requiring us to determine how to reverse course--before it's too late. 

Bonus, Tom Griffiths, in "There are cases where you can tie this very directly to AI... Nick Bostrom has this thought experiment where you make an AI whose goal is to manufacture paperclips, and then it consumes the entire earth manufacturing paperclips... It gets better and better at consuming... until we've paper-clipped ourselves."

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Manila's Chinatown, Where Chinese and German Immigrants Intersected

I am a pessimist by nature, but good coffee—the world’s most traded commodity after oil—always cheers me up. To get a cup of coffee from farm/mountain to your mouth requires navigating diverse worlds of marketers, supply chains, bankers, and laws. Because the profit margins are great, caf├ęs can become linchpins of revitalized communities and workspaces. 

I’m in Manila’s Chinatown, in a building once inhabited by German immigrants Ernest and Alfred Berg, who arrived in Manila around 1922 looking for better opportunities post-WWI. Within the Berg building was Cosmos Bazar, founded in 1926 and owned by a Chinese immigrant, Mr. Lim. Mr. Lim eventually sold his store to a Fujian, Chinese immigrant named Mr. Sy, and the full story is equal parts tragedy and fairytale. 

As a teenager, SY Lian Teng changed his name on a ship's manifest to “Ong Tico” to immigrate to the Philippines, working for his father in a sari sari shop. Preternaturally ambitious, he found an unpaid internship at Mr. Lim’s Cosmos Bazar for two years, increasing his business skills. After seeing Mr. Sy’s diligence, Mr. Lim offered the store to him when Mr. Sy was just 20 years old. 
In 1930, at the age of 24, Mr. Sy married LEE Siok Keng. By 1945, however, WWII bombings and fires destroyed the store and killed 8 of his 9 children and his wife. After 4 years of mental recovery back in China, in 1949, he returned to Manila, re-opened his store, and married a Filipina, Emerenciana Antonio Soyangco. They had four children. In 1951, he bought the Berg Department Store from Ernest Berg. A letter to one of his grandchildren carefully reminds his heir that family is more important than money. 

Today, “The Den” coffeeshop is located in Mr. Sy’s and Mr. Berg’s building. It sells the Philippines’ best coffeebeans, from Kalsada Coffee. Cosmo Bazar is nearby and sells only Pilot pens and pencils. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus, from Fannie Tan Koa’s article: “‘I believe that 85% of Manila was destroyed by the Americans, not by the Japanese...’ ‘They [the Americans] wouldn’t stop bombing the city... to kill the Japanese [occupiers]...’ ‘But the Japanese have retreated; they are no longer here...’ ‘They answered, ‘Sorry, General MacArthur’s orders!’”