Monday, May 3, 2021

Technology Credit Union: A Sinking Ship?

After Technology Credit Union's 2018 annual meeting, I opened my article like so: "All of us suspect financial institution executives are SOBs, but most of them have the decency to act dignified in public. Not San Jose, California-based Tech CU." Three years later, nothing has changed.  

Some background: in 2012, Tech CU tried shifting from a state-chartered credit union to a bank. Members rejected the proposal: "Of those casting ballots, 77% rejected the idea of becoming a bank." Did Tech CU's management team apologize for spending funds on their cockamamie idea? Nope. Did any of Tech CU's directors or executives resign? Not a one. In 2011, Diana Dykstra of The California Credit Union League, which represents the state’s 428 credit unions, criticized Tech CU's conversion plans, saying, "In the end, those members could be left with a financial institution that no longer strives to put their interests first." Dykstra was more right than she knew.  

On May 1, 2021, Tech CU updated its membership agreement and maintained the kind of absolute power European royalty would have envied pre-French-Revolution. From Page 10-11

We reserve the right to deny all services ... if any of the following occur: ... You fail to conduct your business with Tech CU (including at Shared Branch locations) in a civil and businesslike way... You agree to pay any attorney’s fees and court costs we incur to enforce our member conduct policy.
 

Who needs a corrupt union when employees have lawyers apparently unaware of the concept of unconscionability under California Civil Code 1670.5? Remember that a credit union is a union of members with some common interest, whether location, group membership, or workplace. If a credit union can arbitrarily expel anyone, membership means nothing. One also wonders why the state in "state-chartered" lacks initiative when substantive due process is absent, but I suppose American governments stopped feigning interest in the individual when they realized debt was more lucrative than taxes. Vanguard, the model of member-based financial organizations, remains an investor's best option, but when it comes to regular banking services, American consumers are bereft. A government more dependent on debt than taxes is incapable of neutral oversight regarding consumer-facing financial institutions. 

I wasn't wrong when I called Tech CU executives SOBs, but I wasn't as thorough as I should have been. I should have also called out California's 
Division of Financial Institutions. I don't know if they're SOBs, but given their failure to disallow Tech CU's overly broad, one-sided membership terms, we'd be better off if California legislators were replaced by monkeys. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (May 2021) 

Bonus: a court filing involving Tech CU's alleged misuse of its membership terms can be found at the following link: 

https://www.scribd.com/document/506030928/Obj 

More court filings are available by searching Santa Clara County's court website for case number 21CH009964. A video of the alleged "incident" can be found on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-zIvzCMIeCc 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Governmental Isolationism amid Corporate Outreach: a Post-Political World?

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. held its annual meeting today. For all the talk of frosty relations between China and USA, the American billionaire's longest ancillary presentations were China-related: "U.S.-China forum" and "U.S.-China Investor Forum." China-based BYD and Oglivy Global China also made appearances, with Oglivy indicating "rule of law" and "capital markets" were the major reasons USA businesses continued to succeed. 

Capital being mobile and American lawyers being no pillars of honesty or efficiency, one wonders if Chinese executives have already co-opted the best elements of America's corporate playbook. After all, it was China, not USA, that most recently issued an antitrust ruling against one its largest technology companies, and China that received more capital inflows than USA during COVID19 because of its deft (and draconian) handling of the pandemic. 

What was China's reaction to receiving "hot money" after its world-leading post-pandemic recovery? It increased its funds' limits on overseas investments, essentially transferring "paper" inflation risk to the United States and the EU. (If it sounds like Communist Chinese regulators are one step ahead of capitalist Americans, it may be because China has studied Hong Kong and Singapore.) 

Twenty years after September 11, 2001, the evidence is clear and convincing: given the size and influence of the informal economy, America's single-minded focus on terrorism guaranteed American isolationism and thus China's rise. More specifically, when American regulators demanded full compliance with financial regulations designed to catch criminals, capital reaction was swift: capital, being mobile, left to more neutral, business-friendly locations. In seeking status as the world's indispensable currency, the USD failed to acknowledge a conflict: it required legal monogamy and obedience from its partners at the same time it actively played the field. Cheating was inevitable. 

Consider sanctions: they work only if the party being blocked needs something from the sanctioning body. In other words, sanctions fail in a multi-polar world where parties can obtain goods and services from multiple sources at comparable prices. Where such goods and services are available at lower prices than sanction-happy competitors, the result is foretold: China's economic rise from 2001 to 2021 and beyond. Similar to America's gun laws, long-arm statutes pursuing international enforcement have produced not compliance but more creative sellers, leaving the already law-abiding as the only persons affected. In this context, USA's extrajudicial actions, such as arresting a Huawei executive (via Canada), make sense, as does the rise of non-traditional banking such as cryptocurrency. 

"Extrajudicial" is exactly what it looks like: outside the law. When lawyers fail to create workable alternatives to international competitors, whether formal or informal, they create disrespect for their country's laws while increasing opponents' opportunities. As of today, the effect is both domestic and international: after at least sixty years of failure, many American local governments are no longer interested in following federal policies on drugs or sex unless paid handsomely in federal grants. 

A geographically-isolated democracy in which lawyers and politicians cannot prove their legal model is ideal creates a vacuum that will be filled by multinational corporations, international mafia, and one-party governments. Why one-party governments? Because a world lacking idealistic, moral and wise lawyers favors the executive branch and thus non-democratic political systems. China's most significant 21st century contribution may not be replacing the United States but establishing a "post-political" world. Do we really want the most accessible cultural values to be determined by multinational banks, behemoth investors, and centralized governments? As long as more people are likelier to listen to Buffett than Biden, we'll find out. 

© Matthew Rafat (May 2021) 

"The Chinese government will allow businesses to flourish... [after studying Singapore] they changed Communism, and now we have Communism with Chinese characteristics." -- Charlie Munger (2021) 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Levi Strauss 2021 Investor Call

Levi Strauss aka LS&Co. held an investor call on April 21, 2021. Most of the call involved LS&Co. executives pontificating on politics and social issues. We don't need NBA star Michael Jordan to remind us Republicans buy jeans, too, but LS&Co.'s real problem is political hubris.

Levi's, on Georgia's voter ID controversy: "Voting is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue... Democracy only works if every eligible voter votes... Democracy needs to work around free, fair, and equitable access to the polls. More than 350 bills [are being proposed across the country that intend to suppress voting accessibility]... this proposed legislation is racist. By the way, I've never said anything about voter ID." 

[If you're confused, I don't blame you. Why oppose a proposed law without actually mentioning the specific parts you oppose?] 

Levi's, on gun legislation: "Gun violence in America is tearing the country apart... Over 90% of Americans support background check legislation. Business leaders have a responsibility to serve their customers and their communities." 

[His full response included remarkably specific statistics. In other news, according to a poll I just paid someone to do, over 90% of thinking human beings oppose Levi's giving canned, general answers to complex issues.] 

PETA, an organization against animal abuse, asked about Levi's use of leather patches. Levi's said the majority of its patches are non-leather.

As far as political discussions go, this is top shelf, gold tier gibberish. The person answering questions wasn't an elections lawyer but still assumed familiarity with different states' legislation. Worse, his level of statistical specificity would cause a pessimist (or an astute marketing firm) to believe most of the questions were corporate-sponsored plants--except for the parts lacking sense, such as demurring on voter ID. 

Regarding voting, the Levi Strauss Foundation issued 13 million USD in "grants to organizations and individuals working to protect the civil liberties of vulnerable communities, expand voter participation and access and support the well-being of workers in our supply chain." (pp. 4) 13 million USD should get you better legal advice, but as it stands, Levi's has rendered its corporation into a de facto marketing arm of the Democratic Party, thus alienating about half of the country.

I probably don't have to tell you California, home of Levi's HQ, is a de facto one party state, where every single state political office is controlled by the Democratic Party. If there's one way to guarantee biased feedback, it's living in a politically homogeneous state that deems different-minded people racist. (Michael Jordan, who took a more measured approach, lived in North Carolina, which has wavered between Republican and Democratic state control.) 

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

The tragedy of Levi's executive team isn't alleged political bias--it's their obliviousness to the fact their comments overshadow the company's truly admirable actions. For example, Levi's is adapting well to e-commerce. It offers "Buy Online Pickup in Store" as well as "Same-Day Delivery and Appointment Scheduling." Its "ship-from-store capability" is operational in USA and has "expanded to Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany." Levi's direct-to-consumer business--basically, direct online sales vs. direct brick-and-mortar sales--"reached 39% of revenues." Levi's also reduced its CEO's salary "by 50% and other executive salaries by 25% for four months as part of [COVID19] cost reductions and cash saving measures." (pp. 33, proxy statement) There's more to praise, including the company's history catering to blue-collar workers, but why bother, unless you're a Democrat? 

Levi's claims its "brand heritage and authenticity is unmatched." I agree. Absolutely no other apparel company is more authentic when it comes to pablum and group-think. When shoveling political manure, be sure to wear Levi's jeans. For everything else, consider 7 for All Mankind (the most comfortable pair of jeans I own), Wrangler (Brett Favre's jeans), or Columbia's Silver Ridge or Royce Range pants (founded by a German refugee). 

© Matthew Rafat (April 2021)

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of LS&Co. (LEVI) shares. I also worked as a Levi's contractor in HQ's compliance/legal department. One day, Levi's invited police and the FBI to a recruiting event on its ground floor. After one of the FBI recruiters demanded my name after I mentioned Hoover's spying on MLK, I walked away, then returned to give him an extended one-finger salute. Security escorted me out the same day without an investigator bothering to contact me. Maybe Levi's is politically progressive except when it comes to protecting individuals against the FBI?

What about honesty? During the investor call, Levi's falsely claimed there were no further questions, despite the fact I asked a question. See screenshot below, showing submitted question one minute into the meeting. When I allege some or all of the questions Levi's publicized were planted by a marketing firm, I'm not entirely speculating. I left a voice mail for Levi's attorney Seth R. Jaffe after the investor call, and as of April 26, 2021, I've received no response.  


Bonus
: Voting is not as straightforward as it seems. Can someone moving from California to North Carolina vote in an election to be held in one week? Can someone who has had months to register as a voter--allowing the state to verify his or her state residence--just show up to the polls on election day, show ID, and vote? If so, how do poll workers know if the ID is fake? What prevents a non-registered voter from showing state ID and voting multiple times at different voting booths? If registration is required, how many times does a voter need to register? Once or annually? How many months in advance is reasonable to allow a voter to register? What documents does the voter need to prove state residence? Is a utility bill too much? What if the voter rents a private room and does not pay for utilities directly? Does a voter need to prove a substantial impediment before being able to vote by mail? If anyone can register as an "absentee" voter, then does the voter need to mail the ballot individually or can s/he have someone else do it? Is a signature enough to prevent fraud on a vote-by-mail ballot? If so, what prevents community organizers from gathering ballots of local people they assist and doing the voting and mailing for them? Finally, why should the voting procedures of a de facto one-party state like California be anyone's preferred model?

Bonus: civil rights hero Michael Schwerner was wearing blue Wrangler jeans when he was murdered by the KKK. (See MIBURN files, Part 5 of 9, pp. 283) 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Chauvin and Floyd: Two Men America Failed

Today, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of three counts of unintentional homicide against George Floyd. That such a tragic event occurred in a city with a black police chief and a black federal Representative indicates racism may not be the most culpable co-conspirator. Already, most Americans have forgotten the other three officers at the scene, only one of whom was white: J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao. (Thao was sued in federal court in 2017 for unreasonable force, causing a 25,000 dollars taxpayer-funded settlement.) All officers involved in Floyd's homicide were low-level patrolmen--not detectives, not sergeants, and not lieutenants. After 19 years on the job, Chauvin was doing the same police work as someone hired one week prior. Had I less education, I would say Chauvin was a sh*thead working a sh*t job in a sh*t area. 

Floyd was no role model, either. To minimize prejudice, the jury could not hear Floyd's prior convictions, including a guilty plea for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Such imposed ignorance was reasonable given the lack of nexus between Floyd's death and his prior conduct, and I highlight Floyd's criminal record to show both men have more in common than one might assume. Chauvin, too, has a record: eighteen complaints, two reprimands. Chauvin is the product of a divorced home; Floyd was raised by a single mother. Chauvin is now divorced; Floyd was never married. Both men attended community colleges, then third-tier public universities. Both were in their mid-forties the day their paths crossed. Incredibly, they once had security jobs at the same nightclub, though no reason to interact, as one worked inside and the other worked outside. ("You had the house Negro and the field Negro.") If Floyd's death was tragic, then so was Chauvin's life: "'Nineteen years on the street is a long time, period,' said former MPD Chief JaneĆ© Harteau. And 19 years in mostly the same place on the same shift is too long.'" Regardless of creed or color, we should be able to agree: no one, given a choice, would want the lives of these two men, which conveys a failure broader and more encompassing than race. 

On the contrary, who doesn't admire Joe Elsby Martin of LMPD or Ferdinand Alcindor, Sr. of NYPD? It was Officer Martin, a white man in segregated Louisville, who introduced Cassius Clay to boxing, and then presumably to the white lawyers who would represent Muhammad Ali. It was Officer Alcindor who fathered and helped raise the boy who would become UCLA graduate, NBA Hall-of-Famer, and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Who invented Spock and the Vulcan philosophy of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations"? That would be Gene Roddenberry, former LAPD officer, whose father worked for LAPD. 

Sadly, despite past luminaries, NYPD and LAPD are now recognized as two of America's most corrupt police departments. Multiple DOJ consent decrees, including one mentioned in Christopher Dorner's "manifesto," have been entered against them. As for Louisville Metro PD, it became infamous last year when officers shot and killed a sleeping (and innocent) Breonna Taylor in her bed. How did police departments morph from admiration to contempt on the same timeline that removed de jure segregation while subjecting police to greater oversight? Logically, the only explanation is that segregation, on a fundamental level, never changed, and judicial oversight failed to counter police unions' political influence. 

“You think about the imposition of Jim Crow laws,” [Kirsten] Delegard said, referring to laws and customs in the post-Civil War South that separated black people from white. “It’s not just in the South, it’s everywhere.” -- from MinnPost article by Greta Paul (2019) 

In the 1993-94 school year, less than 1% of Black students in the Minneapolis region attended highly segregated public schools--where 90% or more of the student body was not white, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Almost three decades later, in 2018, 25% of the region's Black students were attending such schools. -- NBCNews report (2020)

"Historian and author Richard Rothstein has studied segregation in education and housing in the United States for over 50 years, and in his book, The Color of Law, he shows that our segregated society is not the result of private activity or individual bigotry, but rather is a product of explicit government policies at the local, state, and federal levels..." -- Jeffrey Sachs

Indeed, an online search for "Minneapolis segregation" generates numerous links, each more disconcerting than the last. According to professor Myron Orfield's research, in 2015, low-income black residents in Minneapolis were 10 times more likely as Portland's black residents and over 5 times more likely as Seattle's black residents to live in high-poverty tracts. Read that again: we are referencing differences of 1,000% and 500+%. Oh, that black Representative I mentioned earlier? She's one of eight Minnesotan Representatives, and all seven of her colleagues are white.

America has a segregation problem resulting from the majority's desire to manage slaves after the Civil War. Racism is the effect, not the cause, of policies put in place by real estate agents, lawyers, judges, mayors, and police chiefs in response to free black movement. As long as America talks about race without fixing segregation, there will be other George Floyds and more Derek Chauvins. Both men are playing the same parts their ancestors played, a poor slave and a working slave, neither of whom was ever in control of his destiny. There is more than one tragedy here, but to see it, you must first admit every American is a part of it. 

© Matthew Rafat (April 2021)

Bonus: "Historically, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. Although the act was repealed in 1943, Chinese immigrants were restricted until 1965, when the National Origins Formula was abolished. Japanese Americans were interned in camps during World War II. Ms. Owyoung’s grandmother was not allowed to live outside Chinatown in San Francisco, and when the family moved to Oakland, it was prohibited from buying property in certain areas." -- Christian Science Monitor, by Francine Kiefer (April 20, 2021)

Friday, April 16, 2021

Review of Ault Global's 2021 Investor Call

If I didn't know any better, I'd guess Ault Global Holdings (DPW) was a money laundering operation hiding in plain sight. With a portfolio of businesses tied partly to Bitcoin mining; the military industrial complex; and assets in the United Kingdom, USA, and Israel, the set-up appears ripe for accounting shenanigans. 

On an April 15, 2021 investor call, executives sounded upbeat and aboveboard, focusing on the company's strong balance sheet and Bitcoin mining operations. At one point, a speaker compared Ault Global to Riot Blockchain (RIOT), indicating Ault's aspirations. Though Ault had issues when it first began mining Bitcoin, it has since bought a datacenter space where it owns a 17,000 square foot facility on 34.5 acres. Ault is not selling Bitcoin mined in Michigan, a different strategy than its Indiana operations. (No explanation was given for the different approaches.) In addition to the businesses already mentioned, Ault is also involved in electric vehicle chargers and New Zealand's Naked Brands Group Ltd.  (Interestingly, NAKD also touts its financial strength: "Naked currently is in a very strong financial position due to capital raised from shareholders in readiness to deploy its new strategy of developing a world class e-commerce lingerie and intimates retail platform.") 

During the Q&A session, the company provided mostly generalities. For example, it would not comment on EV charger sales or its pipeline. It did not answer a question regarding how its EV chargers differed from competitors. It had no comment on questions relating to its NAKD investment, saying it was a "passive investor." 

As a value investor, I know Amazon and Bezos changed everything by showing profits matter less than attaining a dominant technological standard. It appears the Bitcoin, Coinbase (COIN), and blockchain aficionados believe they are on the verge of attaining a new dominant technological standard. I have my doubts. Then again, as a value investor, I have been on the outside looking in for at least a decade. 

© Matthew Rafat (April 2021) 

Disclosure: I own insignificant amounts of DPW and NAKD but my positions may change at any time. 

Update, June 2021: from Ault's "definitive proxy statement," page 8: 

"Coolisys' innovative charging solution can produce a full charge for an EV with a 150-mile range battery in just 30 minutes... Coolisys EVSE series can charge virtually any type of electrical vehicles..." 

From page 63: "On December 31, 2020, we had cash and cash equivalents of $18,679,848." 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Sweden Sverige: World's Biggest Snow Job?

In terms of audacity, Sweden is the world's greatest propaganda artist. News organizations praised the country last year because it avoided full lockdown in response to coronavirus. Prior to these laudatory stories, readers were treated to loads of pro-female, pro-equality Scandinavian slop, including ones where Sweden's foreign minister pledged to put feminism at the heart of its foreign affairs. (Maybe focusing on human rights issues would interfere with its arms exports?) Leading the transformation from "Old Milwaukee" beer's Swedish Bikini Team to the New Enlightenment is teenager Greta Thunburg, whose strategy against climate change appears to involve speaking sternly to adults in a voice so annoying, the non-deaf will be forced to agree to her demands, including, if necessary, hostages. (Whether her existence is an updated form of Stockholm Syndrome, now available as counter-strike, I do not know.) 

If there is one country in the world that ought to be more careful, it is Sweden. Home to people who look suspiciously German, with a language openly borrowing from Germany, the Swedish media machine has somehow managed to erase its WWII ties to Nazi Germany.  
Does that say Valkommen or Willkommen?
As Espen Eidum's Blodsporet (aka The Blood Track) explains, Sweden's so-called "neutrality" during WWII meant it facilitated everyone's wartime efforts, including Nazi Germany's, profiting from both sides. As such, like "neutrality," the seemingly innocuous term "Scandinavian" improperly places Norway's attempted resistance, especially at the Battle of Narvik, on par with Finland's support of Nazi Germany and Sweden's lack of ethics. (Tellingly, Sweden was never directly attacked in WWII.)

Unfortunately, Sweden's moral compass continues to waver as we march into 2021, in no small part because of economic links with its former WWII "expertise." We mentioned Sweden's arms exports, but its private security businesses are no less accomplished. Securitas AB, one of the world's largest employers, is based in Stockholm. Securitas owns Protectas AG in Switzerland, another country claiming neutrality in WWII. (Protecting Nazi loot is big business, apparently.) When you combine weapons manufacturing and global private security, you start to realize if the dystopia featured in Logan (2017) ever approaches reality, all the non-X-Men characters will speak Swedish. 

Think I'm exaggerating? The founder of Ikea, Ingvar Kamprad, once belonged to the Nazi movement. Even considering the strong possibility Kamprad was an infiltrator, the fact that Germany's Nazi movement seeped into 1943's rural Sweden speaks to the Swedes' feeble resistance. Infiltration, of course, works both ways, and Nazis and white supremacists sometimes hide out in police departments, military barracks, and intelligence agencies. In 1986, anti-war Prime Minister 
Olof Palme was assassinated, and his case has never been solved. Palme had once protested the Vietnam War (aka the American War of Aggression), and one gets the sense if the military-industrial complex could be personified, that person is sitting comfortably in a plush leather chair smoking an expensive cigar somewhere neutral. 

To its credit, Sweden knows it has problems. Stieg Larsson's The Man Who Played wiith Fire (2019) warned us of Sweden's neo-Nazi movements and intimidation against journalists. Subjected to the weight of history, both past and present, is it any wonder Sweden is desperate to make a teenager the face of its country?

In any case, Sweden's propaganda didn't fool Dr. Alfred Nobel, perhaps its most distinguished citizen. Stockholm may host a Nobel Prize Museum, but the museum's eponym intentionally designated Norway to administer the Nobel Prize, including the Nobel Peace Prize. I suppose in the end, there's a limit to how much sh*t a Swedish male will eat

© Matthew Rafat (March 2021) 

Bonus: confidential email from January 11, 2008. 


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Hiking into the Wilderness

Recently, I hiked with a friend. After losing over 100 pounds, she enjoys walking an hour a day and can get along with anyone, which explains her willingness to spend time with me. I'd call her a "Southern belle," except she's Midwestern and from Minnesota. 

Speaking to any native-born American in 2021 involves some degree of post-traumatic political disorder. They are beginning to realize the same tools that elevate deserving and undeserving elites also shield just about anyone capable of generating marketing dollars. Consequently, once multi-million dollar advertising campaigns are bought, a domestic violence incident becomes insignificant to local police departments as well as private security and PR firms receiving assignments from those same marketing firms. Though a symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and government--which issues permits and provides consultants--encourages positive portrayals of government employees, once upon a time, Americans recognized the difference between protecting talent to promote leadership versus advancing people to mislead the public. (Neither General Eisenhower nor General Marshall saw combat but were justifiably recognized as military experts, and their values shaped the entire world after WWII.) 

Obviously, government's corruptibility when receiving non-transparent, private funds is nonnovel. Mobster Al Capone wasn't convicted of federal tax evasion rather than murder because local governments were more honest in the 1930s. Moreover, even if local governments manage honesty, they are often outgunned technologically. (Someday, Americans will realize expertise allowing an intelligence agency to "spoof" surveillance video of a competing country's nuclear reactor may also be used to replace domestic surveillance footage, complicating police work.) Though marketing departments have never been bastions of integrity, a sharp eye isn't required to see USA's content machine degrading as it produces flimsier copies of the same celebrities, with Kanye West replacing Puff Daddy, Kim Kardashian replacing Dolly Parton, and several more attempted clones I'm glad not to know. (We don't immediately recognize clones because their color or ethnicity has changed, diversity used to sweeten superficiality.) Meanwhile, as America's upper echelons also enable the trend of marketing dollars overwhelming substance, politics has mutated into a jobs program for content curators and other persons intent on occupying space otherwise open to competitors hostile to the status quo. 

Against this backdrop, my friend and I walked and talked for two hours at a local park, having enough of a pleasant time to schedule another hike in two days. On the day of the hike, however, my friend texted me, saying she needed to change plans. She was going to the beach by herself to "listen to some music and not talk about governments or politicians or politics." "I need to recenter my vibe," she said, and in that moment I fully realized the precariousness of the American experiment. That my friend and I were able to converse at all was a small miracle. Our time occurred only because the American marketing machine convinced my father and mother, whose second language was English, to leave Scotland for Texas. From these two ESL learners came a son who earned an English degree and whose linguistic ability you are now seeing because of the risks they took. Had my parents been inundated with media reports of school shootings, police brutality, and other American events, it is possible they would not have taken the transatlantic journey. Risk-reward ratio is a concept everyone understands, regardless of mother tongue. The marketer's or propagandist's job is to render the equation in their client's favor and leave the rest to fate.

Such a paradigm might not be inherently immoral, except fate isn't the correct term. What we deem fate--including an empire's decline--is the direct result of whether institutions uphold their principles in ways balancing the status quo with changing demographics. If native-born citizens (aka the majority) no longer have the patience or willingness to adjust their institutions as circumstances change, the result is failure fated by reason of indifference

Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals? -- Elie Weisel (1999)  

Thus far, I have approached the situation from the perspective of a political minority, but indifference is contagious and does not spare the majority. It is only that the majority takes notice of failing institutions much later than the minority unable to use government connections or political savvy. For example, last week, I needed a response from the county to complete some work. An automated reply indicated a three-week wait, an unacceptably long time for a process requiring 10 minutes per individual application. No database exists showing the number of outstanding applications--they are handled as soon they reach the appropriate department--and the public has no choice but to trust government workers are not dallying. 

In a one-party state like California, my immediate reaction was to assume a lack of accountability based on non-transparency, but I realized a more connected, more trusting, more faithful person might take a different approach. He might, while accessing the application, notice translations incorporating our city's sizable Vietnamese and Spanish speaking population and conclude resources were being diverted that would otherwise accelerate the process. A tale of two cities emerges: whereas I blame the majority for using government to boost their influence under unaccountable terms, the majority can counter by blaming the costs of greater inclusivity. Just like that, two residents reach vastly different yet reasonable conclusions using the same data, but with one distinction: as a political minority disdaining the state's political Establishment, I cannot vote in ways that impose my interpretation on the majority, and without millions of dollars allowing me to advertise my opinion, I cannot convince dispersed voters to change their minds, nor can I nudge government lawyers to investigate themselves. In contrast, my fellow resident can more easily access established channels of communication used by the majority to carry out his proposed solution(s). Put simply, he is not bound by the weight of historical vested interests and their present-day progeny. 

Of course I do not mean to suggest a native-born American can flip a switch and inspire a mob. The journey from an open society to isolationism, from curiosity to scapegoat, requires sustained effort from government and the private sector, particularly when eluding self-blame. Somehow, whatever the time period, as services degrade, a minority is always there to deflect attention from 
the majority's own mismanagement or to assist powerful interests eager to associate with a vulnerable group. Given humanity's wont to project faults onto dissimilar groups or to create institutions whitewashing weaknesses (e.g., regularly including bars and pubs in Christian media makes alcoholism more acceptable), true diversity always denotes cultural powderkegs.

A small part of an aisle selling alcohol in an American grocery store

What happens to a dream deferred? ... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode? -- Langston Hughes, "Harlem" 

Another example: to some native-born citizens, a police officer is helpful and to be trusted, but to many others, the same person represents danger. Yet, neither the minority nor the majority know which uniformed officer will come calling when needed, and since many honest officers exist, any gap in perception results from one side having faith in their institutions' willingness to impose accountability while the other is skeptical of equal treatment. 

From where does the majority's faith arise? Is it segregation, a feature of post-WWII planning that divided groups by religion and race in order to better manage them through targeted investments and tax spending? (Not all international law experts realize segregation and partition, often with United Nations support, go hand-in-hand: Israel was partitioned into three states based on religion: West Bank (Christian), Gaza Strip (Muslim), Israel (Jewish); Czechoslovakia became Czechia (non-Catholic) and Slovakia (Catholic); Pakistan (Muslim) split from India (Hindu); South Sudan (Catholic) seceded from Sudan (Muslim); etc.) If Western city planning includes segregation, which may have resulted from Western dependence on slave labor and an unwillingness to see black/Negro slaves as fully human, then gerrymandering and other legal maneuvers ("separate but equal") are features, not bugs, of American culture. As such, while American progressives are taught their country is continually striving for "a more perfect union," in reality, perfect divisions have succeeded. Yet, so long as any group is skeptical of equal government treatment, even well-meaning government employees become viewed as non-individuals--a matter not helped by government unions--which in turn leads to contempt of public institutions by violating the principle of the sanctity of the individual.

"My mom and dad may have been segregationists, but we were taught fairness and decency, and what we were seeing [in the South with Bull Connor and KKK bombings] was not fair and not decent... It was a turning point [in our critical consciousness]." -- progressive Judge William Alsup, who grew up in Mississippi and attended MS State in the 1960s (February 25, 2021)

If a diverse society requires effective checks and balances to maintain trust between residents and government, can a segregated society function without legal safeguards by using tribal affinity as a cost-effective replacement? Our political betters certainly seemed to think so. 

Where does this leave my kindhearted friend and I, her cynical compatriot? Nowhere new. Conflict portends opportunity, giving citizens, politicians, and business leaders a chance to mediate, gather information, and achieve a balance between vested and new interests. Absent open conflict, information gathering requires cloak-and-dagger operations ill-suited for local governments. Conflict, however, is a two-edged sword: at the same time it improves the signal (and hopefully the fidelity) of noise, it stress-tests political structures, often finding them wanting, especially as voter-targeting technology encourages soft deceit. (I've seen photos of my Catholic-educated mayor kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and also standing next to a Catholic-educated police chief encouraging cooperation with federal deportation authorities. To see the hypocrisy, watch Immigration Nation (2020).) 

Sadly, it has never been easier for public leaders to dissemble and in doing so, bamboozle their communities. When confronted with conflict, some attempt solutions, and some get better at public relations. The United States, like my friend, probably prefers a bit of both, but also finds it easier to avoid the matter altogether. Unfortunately, avoidance or better PR masks indifference while allowing authorities to temporarily solve issues using unoriginal ideas like debt and deportation. Somewhere along that path, diversity's long-term benefits are put in danger of being subsumed by short-term negatives, with the mob always waiting for its cue.     

I wish my friend would reflect on the following: "Why do we not remember most native-born Germans fondly from 1932-1938, if at all? And why, given Germany's past and present ethnic and religious diversity, do we not lionize anyone but anti-Germans from that time?" One clue involves German emigration; after all, if Germany's Albert Einstein left in 1932, other talented individuals must have also departed, shifting attention away from monolingual Germans. Be that as it may, given Germany's economic success after 1936, which includes movie-making, why are we, the recipient of so many German immigrants, mostly indifferent to Germany's individuals based on the accident of time? Though Americans may be in denial, we know the answer: indifference spreads quickly and spares no one in its wake. In murdering millions of minorities, Germany obliterated its citizens' place in humanity's remembrance, even though most Germans were not directly culpable. A people indifferent to brewing conflict or skilled at avoiding genuine inclusion tend to be as forgotten as the minorities they neglect or deport, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

A leading voice in the chorus of social transition belongs to the white liberal... Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality... The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) 

I forgot to mention my friend enjoys trance music, a form of electronica. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I won't belabor it. It's too easy. Almost as easy as going to the beach.   

© Matthew Rafat (March 2021)

Bonus I: My friend and I discussed cruise ship workers, who are often non-citizens because of low wages. Cruise ships are not subject to labor laws because their operations mostly take place in non-territorial or extrajudicial waters. I said 
given currency arbitrage, the hourly wage was not as important as working conditions and the likelihood of citizenship. Additionally, an empire's ability to underpay, in relative terms, foreign workers improves its willingness to accept immigrants. My proposed solution? Mandate one-year contracts with quitting for good cause or early termination immediately vesting all contractually unpaid wages; and require companies to put foreign workers on a path to citizenship after two years' tenure. Of course, companies may "game" such rules by terminating employees after two years, even good ones, and aggressively litigating the meaning of "good cause," but the law was never meant to replace integrity, and at some point, journalism must play a role in modifying unfair corporate behavior. (Note: upon hiring, one years' worth of wages could be put into an escrow account handled by an independent entity.)

Bonus II: Some people may see a conflict between my appreciation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites, and Amish and the ideas herein. There is no conflict. The aforementioned groups are apolitical as a matter of morality, not apathy, and have ample evidence supporting their intent.