Author Archive

The U.S. Mess in South Korea and Asia

August 10, 2017

The US, incompetently led by the Republicans with Trump as their leader, is doing incredible damage to our business interests world wide, but especially in Asia. Of the many bad outcomes of this incompetence, nuclear exchange is only the most extreme. If South Korea is attacked even by conventional means it will do irreparable harm to our interests that will end up costing millions of American jobs. Even the current unease in South Korea is causing people and governments all over the world to second guess their relationship with us. Until now the US enjoyed a position unique in the world because we have been a reliable and dependable voice for de-escalation of military confrontations, a champion for free shipping lanes, a voice for expanded trade and many more things that benefit US jobs to a huge extent. It’s been a tremendous benefit to us that business people (in government or out) all over the world view the US agenda as advantageous to them. Because of this, we are at essentially every negotiating table, sometimes publicly, more often behind the scenes.

But historical benefits are of interest mostly to historians and the movers and shakers wake up every day and ask “But what have you done for us lately?”. If South Korea is attacked or destabilized, it will be a glaring red flag that the US can’t protect their allies, much less innocent bystanders. In fact, in the age of Trump, the US can’t even be depended on to act rationally. South Korea is one of the most developed, richest countries in the world, and the conventional wisdom will be that their citizens died because the US elected an idiot. They will hate us and the rest of the world will distrust us. China will rise, Singapore will become even more the voice of reason and we will be shut out of thousands of negotiations. And remember, when we have a seat, even if it is “none of our business”, our interests are protected.

For seven-five years the US has kept our seat at the table because every year we can say, “look at the countries that have aligned with us most closely – see how they have prospered.” But for thirty years the Chinese have been saying “But the American Pax comes with endless lecturing and interference. Democracy is dangerous for you. Look at China, prosperous beyond all imaginings based on our system. And we don’t care what you do inside your own country, we only care how you interact with us. America is over. Look to us as the next guarantor of Asian prosperity.” And in the past 10-15 years Russia has been whispering “America has overreached. They are seeking to redraw borders and reform alliances that have kept the world’s peace for decades. When will they look at your borders and start interfering there?” This dual track will gain credibility.

The American century will most certainly end 25 years short of the mark.  And American citizens will lose millions of jobs and thousands of dollars in the average persons pocket each year, and the truly wealthy will lose exponentially more.

Up to now, the stupidest move of the Republican leadership has been to push the TPP trade agreement aside. We spent years convincing 28 countries to act together for mutually benefit against other countries, not the least of which was China. And in one day we basically said “now that you are all working together, F* you.  Now that you have all the mechanisms of united action worked out, we’re leaving.  It’s you against us now, chumps.”

That stupidity, however, pales in comparison to what the Republicans are doing with South Korea.

Which Manufacturers Will Thrive In the Era of Self Driving Cars?

June 26, 2017

It’s a hard life being a tiny bird…

May 30, 2017

A tiny robin takes a snooze while waiting for Mom or Dad to come back and feed her.  One of three in this nest on a deck chair under an overhanging eave…

IMG_4119

For the Record: Trump’s statements on Russia

May 29, 2017

As of today (May 29th, 2017), Trump has not directly spoken about the Kushner/Flynn contacts with Russia.  But given the number of times he clearly denied contacts with Russia back in the beginning of the year, there are only two possibilities:

  • He didn’t know that his most trusted advisor (Kushner) was attempting to open a back channel to Russia. Further, that advisor never informed he of it, even after Trump started denying Russia contacts publicly. In other words, Trump’s administration is completely out of control.
  • He knew, but directly lied to the public

Choosing Racism: The Southern Strategy

May 2, 2017

In 1963, there was a unique opportunity for the Republicans, one that turned out to be poisonous. Despite the strongest of warnings from within, the leadership chose to seize that opportunity, irrevocably damaging their party at its core. What happened?

Before we describe those warnings, a little background is important. Hard to believe as it seems today, the GOP of sixty years ago was a mixture of progressives and conservatives, and had as many champions of civil rights as the Democrats. It was, after all, the party of Lincoln. Ironically, that fact alone was enough to guarantee that in the 100 years following the Civil War, the Southern white electorate in huge numbers voted in opposition to the Republicans, and did everything in their power to keep African Americans from voting at all, lest a Republican creep into power.

This is not to say the Republicans of say, 1950, were all civil rights champions. Any party is composed of all those who choose to join, and the world view of the GOP leaders probably contained as many bigots as progressives.  The Democratic Party was similarly split, and especially in the South the leadership was as bigoted and anti-civil rights as any party in our history. You had to go north and west to find sizable numbers of Democrats who resemble the modern party, fighting against the Jim Crow laws.  So, as hard as it is to believe now, there were liberal Republicans, ultra-conservative racist Democrats, and plenty of moderates in both parties.

This held until through the 1950’s. But by 1960 or so there was a noticeable shift in the Democratic Party towards civil rights. The party was starting to lean, ever so slightly. Perhaps it was the Second World War war and the integration of the troops, led by a Democratic president, and an incredible source of pride for the nation. Or perhaps it was the New Deal that preceded it and which so championed the dignity of the common man.  Whatever the reason, certain Republicans watched as the national Democrats started to speak out for Blacks, Catholics, Jews and in that message these GOP leaders saw an ugly opportunity.  They devised a strategy that focused on those Southern States, a strategy of making it clear to the white voters that the Republicans would stand with them, sometimes publicly, and sometimes with a wink and a nod. And although there were individual Republicans of great power and prestige that stood against that strategy, the leadership as a whole embraced that racist message.  They spread the word: Republicans, unlike the Democrats, could be depended on to keep the minorities down.   That was the strategy of the party leaders and in those days the leadership represented power.  The leadership would see it done.

Hindsight is famously 20-20 and when we talk about the past it is easy to seem wise and describe outcomes as obvious or inevitable. But in this case there was at least one party leader present at that crucial moment whose foresight was 20-20.  He warned of the poisoned cup in the moment before it was drunk and did everything he could to stop it.  That would be Jacob Javits, now known primarily for the Manhattan conference center named after him, but at the time a powerful presence in the Republican Party. And in October, 1963 he published an editorial in the The New York Times that is stunning in its prescience. In “To Preserve the Two-Party System” he predicted exactly what came about: that if the Republicans chose the Southern Strategy they would be ending the era when both parties had the wide variety of world views necessary for the smooth exchange of power. Instead, the Republicans would become the party of endless conservatism, and push away anyone who valued all citizens regardless of race, creed or color.  Let’s take a look at that editorial.

Right up front, he spells it out: “[The] question, as I see it,  turns on the choice between two lines of action the Republicans can adopt as we position ourselves for the 1964 campaign. One line would follow our tradition dating from 1940 of accommodating the whole spectrum of Republican thought from both progressive and conservative wings of the Republican party.  The second line would polarize the party as down-the-line conservative – or ultra conservative – and would also make foreign policy a partisan issue.”

Then, as now, there were those who rebelled against the very idea that true conservatism could only be reflected by the values of the Southern Strategy: Javits said, “I have in mind those Republicans who, in their legitimate desire to make the party the chosen agent of “conservatism” have come to think that the radical right … is the essence of what “conservatism” means… What these Republicans fail to see clearly is the extent to which the radical right is the deadly enemy of the very conservatism they themselves desire.”  He went on: “An authentic conservative would wish to bring to the nation a sense of calm confidence in itself, and to ease its social tensions.  He would insist on the decencies in human relationships, and would spring to the defense of the Constitution and each part of the hallowed Bill of Rights. He would make himself the guardian of orderly growth, and check those who would abruptly overturn all policies in being.  He would resist the howling extremist, set the example of respect for all lawful authority… Above all, he would lead in explaining why the complexities of existence stand in the way of utopian solutions to all problems, and why in so many hard cases, the best we can hope for is to learn how to live with fair compromises and reasonable timing.”

Many of the Republican leaders no doubt saw the Southern Strategy as mere tactics, something to be tried on for a while and then discarded when it became inconvenient.  But Javits saw it for what it really was – a fork in a road that once taken could not be revisited. The “pragmatic” leadership saw it as a convenient way for their candidate to win the nomination in that 1964 race, and probably believed it could be swept aside once the nomination was secured. But Javits knew this was no mere tactic. The Senator realized his party was opening its arms to the bigots and extremists and saying “You have a home here”.  And once let in, they would not be so easily ejected.  Once narrow victories were won with the help of these voters, and in the process creating a new opposition of ex-supporters disgusted at the tactics, there would be no stomach for changing direction. Javits said: “… the radical right will become so structured into the Presidential nomination campaign as to defeat a move to disengage it later on … A candidacy based on the “Southern strategy”, espousing the kind of views I have mentioned, would do more than hazard the party’s defeat in the 1964 contest; it could alienate millions of Americans in 1964 – who could stay alienated for years…”

The leadership acknowledged that they would lose as well as gain voters, but they thought the scales would tip to the positive side.  But if that were to happen, it would also be necessary to hold onto some groups within the Republican Party who might have otherwise been alienated. Therefore they pursued wholeheartedly instilling the idea that the GOPwas the only party for true conservatives. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1963 the Republican’s were generally pro-business but encompassed a wide swath of opinion on social matters.  The decision to use the Southern Strategy was pushed through by the Goldwater supporters, who saw the disaffected Southern voter as easily gulled into supporting their radical conservative agenda. Even though their candidate lost, it started eating away at the supports holding up the Republican big tent. It took a long time. In the 70’s and even in the 80’s there were still “Rockefeller” Republicans who showed up at Planned Parenthood fundraisers and supported civil rights, but by the 90’s these were largely gone. Javits had known that having only one school of thought in the Republican Party was bad for the GOP, but he also knew that it was worse for the country: “Finally there persists in the pre-nomination debate a recurring notion it would be a good thing if the candidacy of a conservative at least produced a fundamental realignment of political parties into a clear cut “liberal” and a clear-cut Conservative party. The experience of Europe with strictly ideological parties says that nothing, in fact, could be worse for the United States. As each party dropped all dissenters, each now free of internal restraints, might fly to an extreme position, carrying millions of Americans with it..with our policies and the nation in this polarized condition, the whole of our democracy could be imperiled … Upon gaining control of the apparatus of government, and pile driving their extremist views through it, such parties could wrench the whole social order out of its socket – when the purpose of conservatism is to keep the social order on an even keel. “

I suspect Javits saw this playing out in years rather than decades, but it is clear that he was right on almost all points.  In essence, the Republicans’ first sip from that poison cup inevitably transformed it into the type of party it is today, a party that is wholly entwined with bigots and extremists, and has adopted a bizarre form of conservatism that, in truth, is as far from a rational conservatism as possible.

The New Puritans

April 28, 2017

I suspect that at no point in my life have I had more difference with people whom I nominally share goals than with the people who today are trying to shut down the speech of those they disagree with. I support all kinds of people that the anti-speechers also support: LGBTQ, immigrants, and many others. But their methods, stifling speech and drumming out the unworthy, are 180 degrees opposed to my values. Barring Ann Coulter from Berkely or shouting her down if she arrives, actually rioting to keep someone from talking? This just makes me realize I have little in common with these people.

The wheel of history keeps turning and I suspect this new generation is the one that will become the Puritans of this century. They “know” what is acceptable and will use the full powers they have to punish those they disagree with.   And as they grow older their generational power will increase and they will be able to marshal harsher punishments, and black list more and more people they disagree with.

I imagine that if they think about it at all, they see themselves as the brave counterculture of the 60’s, marching for what is right.  But in my view they are much more representative of the previous generation, the 50’s, with the House un-American Activities Committee and the Movie Morality Codes and the Senate investigations into the sinful Comic Books. I guess the only solace is the knowledge that, since the wheel of history will continue to turn, it is likely that their own children will be their counterculture. They will be the ones who successfully call them out.

Nukes

April 25, 2017

On April 7, 2017 Radiolab put up a podcast on the US Nuclear Arsenal. They pretty clearly demonstrated that the President, one Donald J. Trump, can authorize a launch alone and immediately.  There are no other checks and balances in place. William Perry, former Secretary of Defense, confirms this at length.

A few hours after listening to this I saw a headline that said all 100 Senators will be briefed about North Korea in the White House and I have to admit to a sick feeling in my stomach. Even the mainstream press, which should demonstrate more understanding, makes this out to be a Trump vs. Baby Kim issue.  But what Trump is talking about is starting a war in other countries territory, a war that would instantly put at risk the citizens of China, Japan and Russia, not to mention South Korea. Depending on the wind, nuclear or chemical fallout will drift towards one or more of those countries. According to recent polls conducted in the area, the US, via Trump, is viewed by the residents of those countries to be acting totally on their own, incompetently and belligerently.  We will be seen as instigating or providing the attack, and we will be held to blame. And what country in the world will speak in our defense?

Luke Cage: Old Time TV

October 3, 2016

Luke Cage

So I just finished episode three of the new Luke Cage Netflix series and am once again grateful that I don’t look at previews or spoilers.  It’s not what I expected at all. Instead of nonstop action. It’s a slow, slow burn, with lots about the characters and the complicated motivations. In a way it is old school TV, In that it takes its time and relies on characters and visuals, and doesn’t need to fill up every minute with insistent soundtrack or threatening visuals or action scene after actions scene. It actually trusts the audience to understand which things are important.

Money: What the heck is it?

January 26, 2015

You know, Today I get why gold as a standard is dumb.  I may not know much about money, but I know that somehow it must reflect the true value in the economy, at least on average over the long term.  But the amount of gold available doesn’t have anything to do with global net value. It has to do with the value of itself, and that it turn means it’s price is primarily concerned with the efficiency that it can be dug out of the ground, the discovery of a more environmentally sound way to extract if from the ore, the economic well being of cultures, such as India’sthat value gold for things like weddings and the subsequent ability to own more in good times, whether another alloy might provide better contact resistance in a data plug, or the seeming all-in desire of Fox news personalities to promote gold as an investment. Fundamentally it is a shiny hunk of metal and doesn’t have any correlation with how hard a factory worker in Viet Nam is working, or whether a grandmother in Shenzhen decided to retire early to make sure her six year old granddaughter gets on  and off the school bus on time, or whether the engineers and sales reps in a startup are able to reach 10 times the customers with their labor saving product because they’ve just been bought out by a company with a global marketing department.

But this is a negative knowledge. I’m clear on what money isn’t.  Which is miles ahead of where I was ten years ago.  And if I am honest I wouldn’t have even gotten this far without a Podcast called “Planet Money”.  This is a 1-2 times a week production, highly professional but fun, that asks the questions many us may fear might be too basic, or naive sounding, but that actually get to the fundamentals of the issue at hand.  I think I would have been at the level of “Gold Standard – some people are for it, some against it, and I don’t know what to think”, if it wasn’t for that Podcast.  I heartily recommend it for everyone who wants to understand how an economy works and isn’t afraid if the answer is that “even professionals disagree” but here’s something important.

“Three Minute Words” -China’s Passive-Agressive Internet

January 26, 2015

Can a country entry reap the benefits of the connected age while successfully tieing down the Internet? That’s what China is attempting, and as an expat living the last three years in Shanghai, my family and I are a daily part of that experiment.

Just in case anyone here is still living way back in the twentieth century, let me destroy any illusion that a modern economy can function without the internet. As an employee of a Fortune 500 multinational I need to use connectivity in every single facet of my daily life, from submitting or approving expense reports to accessing suppliers product offerings ( if a company was formed in the last ten years it probably doesn’t even have a printed catalog). Chinese corporations are no different in their need to communicate electronically with their suppliers and customers. So how can China have made such huge economic strides while simultaneously trying to lock down the entire internet?

Their solution makes life… interesting. It turns out that very little web activity is actually banned here. Day to day control is much more passive aggressive but very pervasive. For example, one night at a brewpub I met three expats who turned out to be the China marketing department for an online game that most readers here would recognize. Very popular in China, but the government is concerned about youth playing video games rather than studying. They told me that in order to prevent their access to the market being cut off they worked out a deal. So today, if you are connected to a Chinese server, after 2 hours of play in a single day your connection will start to slow down, at 4 hours it slows again so as to be just this side of unusable and at 6 it cuts off cold. At no point is there a warning or message indicating anything has happened so most people will just think it is their internet provider, or their computer. They don’t get angry at the government.

Another example of the censor’s passive aggressiveness: one day at the lunch table I heard one of my colleagues say “… and that’s a three minute word”. It turns out he was an experimenter who likes to characterize the censor’s handiwork. When you typed that word into your browser, it would cut off your internet connection completely for 3 minutes. Again, no warning, no message and you might think it was just one of many failures of the connected world. Other words cause a temporary slowdown rather than a drop, or if the word is sufficiently “bad” it may cause a longer drop out and maybe an alert to an actual human censor rather than the automated programs that do the bulk of the monitoring.

You may have heard that Gmail has finally been completely blocked in China and that is true, but is only the end of a long story. When Google refused to give the Chinese government access to subscriber records, the first step in retaliation was to slow down access. Loading your gmail involved a lot of sitting and looking at the spinning wheel. Next, every other time you tried to visit the Gmail page you got a message that said “server not responding”. Then it was two out of three times, three out of four times until finally it wouldn’t connect at all. And all done is such a way that most users would just say “hmm, this gmail isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”. Sophisticated users would know that the government was behind it and perhaps they would want to stick to gmail. So for the past couple of years you could access your gmail account by registering it with Apple Mail or Yahoo Mail or something similar. Only fairly sophisticated users would think to do this though. That’s what the recent news was actually about. This latest change simply means Gmail is now thoroughly rather than inadequately blocked.

One way around this is to use a VPN, a Virtual Private Network. This software gets added to your computer or device and sits in between you and the internet. No matter what address you type into your browser it gets encrypted and sent to the VPN server, which is usually located in the US or other friendly country. That server makes the actual request for whatever web page you asked for, gets the results, encrypts it, and sends it back. To the Chinese monitors it is just a stream of nonsense sent back and forth to a single web address. Or at least that’s the theory. But I’ve tried using some very good and fairly expensive VPN’s and find these are frequently completely blocked and I ended up spending half my online time in secret communication with the VPN hosts trying workarounds and new IP addresses to little avail. So right now my whole family is using a cheap but ubiquitous VPN. Up until recently it worked fairly well. But I have to wonder: why does the Chinese government let this cheap one go through but block the heavy duty ones? I don’t have any evidence, but I know that an effective way to monitor people (rather than simply block them) would be to steer them to a VPN that was under my control. And if they want to do more than just monitor, say around the anniversary of a certain event, I would make it tougher and tougher to connect. Sure enough, whenever that significant anniversary comes around it becomes harder and harder to connect and stay connected to the VPN.

Given my family’s pathetic Mandarin and our interests, virtually everything we do requires accessing western sites. Among the ones that have been blocked without using a VPN are the NY Times and more recently the Washington Post. But Andrew Sullivan is now blocked, and IMDB and TV.com. Outside the Beltway has been blocked for the last six months or so. So our lives consist of lots of dropped connections and waiting for VPN’’s to connect. Calls of “which hotspot are you using” echo throughout the house. And anyone who has teenagers can easily imagine how panicked these cries can become. So on our most frustrated days my family agrees that although we well miss many things when we finally leave, the joy of putting the Great Firewall behind us will help a little bit.