Groundhog Day Meets Déjà Vu All Over Again

This period we are experiencing reminds me of 1964 – 68, when American cities were churnin’ and burnin’, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

We have learned NOTHING!

Or, we have forgotten what little we may have learned.  We are a society of studied tunnel vision and willful amnesia.

The black community has every right to be enraged, but rage alone will not solve its dilemma; only intensify it, playing into the very forces of racism and bigotry that have defined its existence for too long.

The white community can no longer stand by in various hues of dispassion, disdain, fear, anger, and mindless racist hatred, and say ‘it’s not my problem.’  It’s our problem. If we did not create it, we have allowed it to persist with efforts that were inadequate in time, resource, or understanding to solve it.  We tried throwing money at it.  That didn’t work.  And when that didn’t work, we said ‘enough’, when we should have been saying ‘why’.  But if we ask ‘why’, that requires a conversation.  And a conversation may lead to answers that neither blacks nor whites want to hear.  So instead, we talk at each other, if we talk at all.  And the anger and distrust ferments, until it erupts.

At some time in the mid-seventies, as the US was going through its nervous breakdown, exhausted by Watergate, Vietnam and a deteriorating economy, I had an epiphany regarding the death of Martin Luther King.  It occurred to me that the timing of his death had particular significance in the context of the political evolution of the country.

At the time of King’s death, he was no longer just leading a movement for civil rights for people of color.  He had transcended that limited vision.  He had crossed the Red Sea and arrived at ‘The Promised Land’, so to speak.  More aptly, he arrived as an invading moral force, speaking no longer only to black people about their own plight, but to all people, black and white, about their shared plight.  Poverty knows no color line.  And coffins imported from Vietnam were being delivered with increasing frequency to black and white neighborhoods.

King spoke of economic issues, and of the moral issues of Vietnam in terms that were color blind.   And white people were beginning to listen as intently as black.  And not just white liberals.  And that was very clearly dangerous to the power structure.  And that’s when he died.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  I have no facts.  But events are consistent with the revolving plots and rhythms of history. You might say, there was ‘probable cause’.

There is an important theme in this observation.  King became most influential when he saw the plight of black people in broader terms, and spoke to the broader audience who shared that plight in terms they could understand, and identify with…and embrace.   Obama understood the same, which is how he became president.  And undoubtedly mindful of King’s fate, which may be how he managed to survive his two terms.

And so to the Black Lives Matter contingent, I would offer this observation:  It should dawn on you by now, but apparently has not, that until all lives matter, black lives don’t matter, and will not.  ALL LIVES MATTER! Until all lives matter, No lives matter. Black, gay, women, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, immigrants, Muslims, Chinese…,white people.  No   lives   matter.  It’s that simple, and that frightening.

***

How about AIDS.  As we live the COVID-19 experience, it reminds me of a combination of the Vietnam Syndrome and the beginning of the AIDS Syndrome.  I’m referring in both cases to their social dynamic rather than the military or medical.  Our society remained significantly indifferent to both as they were devolving.  And when escalating news accounts began to impose on our consciousness, we evolved from indifference to denial.  But as the number of coffins mounted and began to arrive closer to home, if not in the home, we could no longer deny what we should have paid attention to much sooner.

Our approach to COVID-19 seems too similar.  The shock of March and April is wearing off much too quickly.  We were denied the luxury of indifference this time by the speed of the onslaught, but we are quickly embracing denial:  ‘It’s just the old folks.  It’s just the infirm; an ‘inevitable’ culling of the herd, a natural biological process.’  ‘My village isn’t New York City’. ‘We’re not Italy’.  Facile rationalizations to shed caution and discipline, and go back to what we want.  A return to the programmed American mind:  ‘I know my rights.’ ‘You can have it all.’  ‘Sometimes, you’ve gotta break the rules.’

We’re well versed in our rights.  Not so much in our responsibilities: for ourselves, to each other, as a society.  Responsibility is the flip-side of Rights on the coin of freedom. If we choose to indulge our frustrations and exercise our rights without regard to the responsibilities for managing this evolving dynamic that will transcend our normal micro attention span, we will revisit the horrors of the AIDS endemic magnified.  It will batter our defenses of denial, one by one.   Or, I could be wrong.  To quote one of Ronald Reagan’s cherished heroes: ‘Are ya feelin’ lucky?  Well, are ya, Punk?’

***

I’m the son of a cop.  As you might imagine, I’m observing recent events with great discomfort.  Cops are a tribe; one of many ‘professional’ tribes like lawyers, doctors, academics, except they have guns.  Always have been a tribe.  Always will be. Their profession exists on the edge of society, separating the ‘civilized’ society from the jungle with the ‘rule of law’.  Except it’s never that simple.

My father had an interesting take on his profession, delivered to me from time to time in one-line asides to various conversations that gave me insight into ‘life on the street’.  Once he observed: ‘You go to court for law, not for justice’.  This followed a trial to which he was called to testify on an arrest.  The arrest was a pro-forma affair that was necessary by law although the circumstances were, shall we say, contentious.  From my father’s perspective, the defendant’s case was essentially compromised (thrown, in the vernacular of the tribe) by his own attorney, with the result that law was rendered, but not justice.

On another occasion he talked about an incident in which he was called to  a house in a poor neighborhood on a case of risk to a minor.  The child was very young.  The mother was clearly a risk. The mother was arrested; the child placed in foster care.  My father observed that, although he was doing what was both required by law and in the best interests of the child, he knew the child would grow up hating cops for taking away what the child regarded as his ‘security’, bad as it was.  No winners here.

I once asked him if his gun was sufficient protection for the risks he faced in certain situations.  He said that it was not the gun that protected him but the badge. He quipped ‘The badge says that I belong to the biggest gang in town, and if you mess with me, you mess with the gang’.   But he added in a more solemn tone that resonates today: ‘the badge only protects me as long as the society respects it.  When that stops, the gun won’t be enough.’  Today’s smoldering ruins of Minneapolis’ 3rd precinct station attest to the truth of that statement.

So with those words in mind, and with the benefit of knowing from countless stories that what we see in the news is rarely the whole context, I am nonetheless greatly disturbed…no, horrified…by what I am witnessing evolving on our streets, and the demeanor that has become all too common among all too many police forces.

But it’s not just the cops.  When I asked him one day to describe his job, he quipped “Our job is to fix whatever society can’t handle by other means.” On another occasion he responded to a similar question by saying “My job is 10% law enforcement and 90% social work.”  Put those two together and you have the driver of today’s problem.  When society becomes dysfunctional at its most basic level, the cops get called…to deal with the vagrancy, the disorderly conduct, the outbursts from mental illness, the family strife, the thefts of shear desperation in a society where the bridges to safe alternatives are steadily collapsing.  Call the cops.  And eventually, it affects and infects the police force as well.  The good cops leave, the standards for their replacements decline. The supervision tolerates behaviors that may have been unacceptable before if there were higher standards.  Cops are no different than any other organization under economic and leadership (political) stress.  Except they have guns.

So we are at a moment when the thin blue line is yet again a boundary between chaos and order.  The unanswered question of the moment is: are they the defending edge of order or the leading edge of the chaos to come?  Initial reports are not encouraging.  But the important point to understand is that the police are not the problem; merely the tip of the iceberg.

Onward!

To what, I don’t know.  But going back is not an option. Standing still can be fatal. Moving forward is the only credible option.

20200601

Copyright © 2020, All rights reserved.

Capitalism and ‘Herd Immunity’ – A Different Warp

In the age of COVID-19, business executives, who  are generally conservatives, embrace a strategy of opening the economy, regardless of the uncertainties that COVID-19 poses, and ‘let it all hang out’, with the magical thinking that ‘herd immunity, a yet unproven concept in this case, will ‘resolve’ the situation to a new ‘stability’. This is more typical of a radical mindset than conservatism, but, whatever.

An article in Bloomberg triggered a series of random thoughts.  Let’s start with the notion of herd immunity as it relates to capitalism itself.  Recent articles have noted what has bothered me for some time: the seeming detachment of the stock market in general from Main Street economic realities.  Do stock market valuations not understand or care what is happening on Main Street. Do they fail to understand Main Street’s ultimate impact on Wall Street’s  ability to ever realize its discounted expectations of future Main Street growth?  In theory, it is  Main Street that will  vindicate or vanquish Wall Street’s sanguine expectations.  Or is it?

Or does Wall Street have a more perverse, counter-intuitive take on Main Street misery – a vulture capitalist strategy that translates  Main Street pain into capitalist predatory gain.  This can work on a micro basis; but on a macro basis each player is betting on eating someone else’s lunch. There’s only so much lunch to go around, and so many vultures. But, hey, that’s competition!  Part of Capitalist virtue.

The point is that capitalism in aggregate appears to be operating with a mentality of herd immunity in the markets. That makes its perspective on COVID-19 pandemic hardly surprising.  In fact, it’s disturbingly consistent, because in neither case is The Herd correct.

Speaking of the Bloomberg article in the context of bailouts and the crisis of confidence in capitalism, the pandemic may have slammed us into a new reality, but the destination was already programmed in.  We’ve merely reached it at warp speed.

Let’s go back to stock prices.  Since 2008 the Fed has become The Market’s primary drug dealer, given The Market’s spastic reactions to Fed musings on interest rates.  ‘Accommodation’ is a synonym for ‘enabling’, as with a drug addict.  When  market prices are more responsive to Fed interest rates than Main Street realities, one has to wonder who’s paying attention to what.  But interest rate accommodation has seemed to be the ‘drug of choice’ for Wall Street, as Main Street continues to deteriorate. And the Fed is the Pusher.

Nor is the Fed the only drug dealer. As the economy was coming back on schedule from the Great Repression of 2008, the Demander in Chief delivered an unneeded tax cut  injection with payment deferred to the future and deflected to Main Street.  That was before COVID.  Then Wall Street proceeded to incur more debt, inflate more valuations, buy back more stock, and consolidate further in the comfort of herd immunity to failure based on ‘president’.

It is worth noting that this could not have been done by the Demander-in-Chief without the aiding and abetting of a Republican controlled Congress that poses a greater risk to national prosperity than the Demander himself…and that is a pretty high bar to clear, but they did it.  It is not surprising, because Congress has become a subsidiary of the Wall Street interests whose habits it is sustaining in various ways.  And it too has enjoyed a certain sense of herd immunity.

Dorthy, contrary to the surrealism of the moment, we are still in Kansas, not Oz.  You just have to remove the VR headset and see what was there before COVID.

Homelessness, un(der)employment, lack of adequate health care, labor displacement by automation, distorted income distribution in a ‘competitive’ economy where corporations exert asymmetric advantage and power and unions have atrophied through incompetence and myopia, and the middle class is in a free-fall to the bottom.

Let’s take them one by one.

Homelessness.  We see the headlines from LA and Frisco, and New York.  We know that homelessness isn’t just a consequence of the unemployed, but of the under-employed and fully employed as well in an economy that has ground down middle class stability through business consolidation, outsourcing, down-sizing, the ‘gig’ economy over 30 years.

Un(der)employment.  The growth of the ‘gig’ economy with the shedding of stable employment options has coincided with the growth of the tech darlings like Uber, Lyft, WeWork and Amazon and many others who succeed with business models and practices that can most politely be described as predatory, with the result of enriching the enterprise’s shareholders at the expense of the greater society that must bear the multitude of consequences.

Lack of Adequate Health Care.  If ever there was a need, it is now, but the problem has been long evolving, and it is one in which we all share some blame.  Everyone wants a free lunch.  But it is the broader public which has the greatest interest and the least influence in the tug-of-war of competing interests. And here we are. Meanwhile, the financial intermediaries demand protection of their market from government competition after 40 years of failure to advance anyone’s well-being but their own.

Labor Displacement by Automation.  Nobody wants to touch this one.  Least of all, the people with the greatest control over the paradigm.  Business would like to believe that it is someone else’s problem.  But, to paraphrase Walter Reuther’s retort to Henry Ford when the latter bragged about the productivity of his automation, robots don’t buy cars, or entertainment centers, or vacations, or food, or clothes, or…..Where’s the tipping point beyond which you crash the upward curve of the stock markets into dystopic reality?

Oh, yes.  Wall Street is aware.  The Business Roundtable trots out Jamie Dimon to emulate a Concerned Executive.  But there’s little evidence of a concerted effort by business to address the multitude of ills that beset the economy long before COVID-19 arrived in town.  And now, Wall Street, like Main Street and Pleasant Street and every other street, is in a fight for survival that it did not expect, but should have anticipated, because everything on which it has built its success has laid the foundation for its decline.

Nine years ago, three years into the Great Repression, I posted a blog on the future of capitalism from the view of my humble foxhole. It posited that capitalism cannot continue to survive in its current form. Still, it survived its own excesses, having apparently learned nothing, and scaled new heights, while society has plumbed new depths.

Yes, we need a ‘culling of the herd’.  Not of the old and infirm, but of the greedy and arrogant.

***

Word for the day: dystopic

“An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”

Remove the word ‘imaginary’.  We have arrived.

Thought of the day:

Capitalism without conscience is no better than communisim without a soul.,

And a shout-out to Professor Scott Galloway,

whose style is exceeded only by his substance.

Onward

20200515

Copyright ©  2020, All rights reserved.

 

COVID-19: The Way Forward

I am not an epidemiologist.  But at some point, we all have to absorb the firestorm of information that is thrust upon us and sort out our options and way forward.  Not an easy task, but not elective.

So let’s sort out what what we know, what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know, and figure out what our options are.

Known Knowns [KK]:

  1.  The virus is the independent variable at this time. Until we know enough about it to predict it and control it, it sets the agenda, irrespective of our policy preferences.
  2.  The virus is fast moving, more so that most of similar repute, making quick identification and containment critical, and difficult.
  3.  The virus operates in stealth mode. It does not display symptoms quickly. Thus, it can spread quickly before revealing itself, making containment more difficult and expanding the potential for infection.
  4.  The most reliable means of containment is a reliable vaccine, and it is the least certain of quick response.
  5.  The most reliable known and available means of containment at present is social distancing.
  6.  The capacity of the health care system to handle the contagion is a critical constraint on policy options and a determinant on the outcomes.
  7. The level of testing nationwide is currently insufficient in extent and reliability of process to provide sufficient information for data-driven decisions on forward strategy.

The consequence of this is  that governors and health experts are operating on ‘informed guesses’ in absence of sufficient data; an unfortunate necessity with inherent risk.

Known Unknowns [KU]:

1. The scientists are working hard ‘under the hood’ to understand how the virus is built and how its internal mechanics work. They have made tremendous progress in short time.  But this is only half the challenge. The other half is knowing how the virus acts ‘in the wild’ under various environmental contexts, both communal and in terms of individual health profile contexts.

2. We do not know the full range of effects of the virus and which are caused by the virus, and which may be collateral to the virus.  This may affect assessment of risk exposure, and of treatment and prevention strategies.

3.We do not yet have a national protocol for testing and uniformity of procedures among states that give us a reliable base of information on the true progression of the disease and its rate of infection, symptomology and mortality.

4. We do not know when  testing in the states will reach a level that enables effective monitoring of the disease’s status, either in the current round or in the ones to come.

5. Because of deficiencies KU2, 3 and 4, we do not have an adequate database on which to make projections of infection rate, and to sufficiently understand the characteristics of the disease we are fighting (algorithm/model deficiency).

Understanding the structure and character of the disease (KU #1 and 2) is part of the challenge.  Another critical part is seeing how it propagates in the wild, and how it operates in patients of varying health and genetic profiles. Building case history and trends of infection and treatment are equally critical.

5.  We do not yet know if herd immunity can be built with exposure, and how long that immunity will last (temporary, permanent or not at all), and therefore cannot assume that this mechanism will gradually reduce population risk as we wait for deployment of the vaccine to critical mass. If herd immunity does not work with this novel virus, we’re back to relying on a vaccine.

6. We do not know if the virus responds to seasonal fluctuations.

7. We do not know how long it will take to perfect a vaccine, how long it will take to manufacture the vaccine to level of need, and how long it will take to deploy the vaccine to a sufficient level of community protection.

Most statements to date have cited 12 to 18 months as the time to develop the vaccine, but are mute on the time to manufacture and deploy it.  Deployment is the ultimate measure of the planning horizon for dealing with this round of contagion. It is likely the basis on which measures of social distancing and collateral impacts on the economy must be based.  It is conceivable that a time horizon of 3 years from today to reach a status of sufficient immunization is reasonable, assuming that we can develop an effective vaccine in 12 to 18 months.

Unknown Unknowns [UU]:

1.  Will this be like HIV-AIDS, constantly morphing and keeping one step ahead of the scientists?

 2. What’s up next? And how soon?  Over the past 20 years we have seen a progression of serious diseases that are totally disrespectful of borders.

Scientists have warned, for those who listen, that a pandemic was inevitable in the near future. The future is here. They also warn that it won’t be a one-and-done.  Do we choose to listen?

The Options:

So, what do we do with this information in assessing risk and planning our personal and business strategies?

Our options consist of two extremes and infinite variation on those themes between.  Let’s look at Best Case, Worst Case, Most Prudent Case.

Option 1: Optimistic Case.

This is actually a misnomer. Perhaps most simplistic case would be more appropriate.  Endorsed by people who would generally describe themselves as conservative, it calls for removing the lock-down that has existed for the past 2 months, reopen the economy and trust that herd immunity will emerge from the progression of infection to achieve an acceptable state of stability until a vaccine and treatments can assert true proactive control of the disease. It accepts a ‘tolerable loss of life’ without projecting what that might be, or what might be the net result on the economy it so cherishes.

It is ironic that conservative supporters embrace a strategy that  insists the economy must be saved above all else.   It is in fact  a radical strategy.  Reckless might be more appropriate. It has two major weaknesses.  It assumes that herd immunity works with this virus, which at present is unknown since it fails to conform with other contagions in so many ways.  The strategy also gives no account for how much damage might be done to the economy whether or not herd immunity works and contagion spreads beyond expectations, doing severe harm to the health care system and other service groups that may become significantly impacted before the damage is understood and Plan B is implemented.  Oh, and there is no Plan B.  It is a faith-based, data-free, science-agnostic response.

Option 2: Pessimistic Case

Those of a liberal persuasion, who value life above economy and generally assume that the economy will be there to deliver whatever is demanded of it, will advocate for continuing the lock-down in some significant measure until a vaccine and reliable treatments are developed.   This would be considered the ‘safe’ option, but it has two main flaws.  First, there is no guarantee that cures or preventive vaccines will arrive in the near term, much as we may hope.  Second, even this most exceptional of countries doesn’t have the economic resources to shut down the economy indefinitely and sustain its population at some minimal level of subsistence until the unknown date of arrival of a vaccine. In failing to accept the probability of future hardships, it is as irresponsible in its commitment to human life at all cost as is Option 1 in its commitment to the economy without regard to the cost of human life.

Option 3: Prudent Option.

First, we must recognize that we are only 3  months into this crisis, and there is still too much that we don’t know and need to know in order to manage it.  In a jerry-rigged manner to date, the most populous states with the most at risk have chosen to protect human life over the economy and supported lock-down with safety net.  The federal government has been essentially shamed into supporting a limited safety net for the first phase of this contagion.  But a second phase is expected, and could be worse.  Can we afford a second lock-down if needed?

Here’s the rub, imho.  We still have the same conundrum of the other 2 cases of not knowing when successful treatments and vaccines will be available in scale.  The professionals hope to develop a vaccine in 12 to 18 months.  But no one is saying how long it may take to manufacture and distribute to scale.  Let’s assume another 12 to 18 months, if we’re lucky.  So we’re out 3 years.  And that’s just to get us to a point where we are able to resume activities in a manner approaching 2019.

At this point, our safest option is to protect people through the strategy of social distancing and sustain the economy by all appropriate means through this next cycle of contagion which will bring us to the point of the hoped-for delivery of a vaccine by the beginning of 2022.  This would involve a more target series of lock-downs guided by better data, and would hopefully minimize the economic damage.  It would also require an equivalent federal response and debt level approaching the response to the Great Depression and World War II.  It would be a tremendous sacrifice, but it would hopefully keep our human capital in tact.  And that is the foundation of our country.  It is doable, if we choose.  It is not the choice we want, but it is a choice that we can sustain.

If by 2022 the vaccine has not arrived, then we will hopefully have learned enough about the virus to better calculate our risks and our defensive strategies, and to modify our business plans and methods to new realities.  We must assume that even modified or rolling lock-downs will not be sustainable beyond 2021, and we will have to adapt to that harsh reality if presented.  But we will have bought time, and hopefully wisdom.

Where We Are

As of May 2020 we in the United States have embarked on a hybrid response; an experiment with human lab rats.  In the face of a federal leadership, unyieldingly committed to concerted incompetence, we now have Options 1 and 3 operating in parallel.  It will take two months to determine which strategy is the more prudent.

If it took us 10 years to recover from the Great Repression of 2008, it is safe to assume that it will take us at least as long to recover economically from this pandemic. That will take us to 2030. That will take us to the threshold of the more severe consequences of climate change, which is not waiting on COVID-19’s resolution; it’s just ramping up more gradually in the background of our current disaster and laying the foundation for the next; and will present its own challenging trade-offs in which human life is in the balance.

* * *

Word for the day:   dystopic

“Relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice; dystopian.”

Remove the word ‘imagined’.  We have arrived.

Onward

20200510

The Economy or People?

The debate continues to rage.

Do we save the economy or do we save people from COVID-19?

Do we save the economy or do we save people from COVID-19?

Do we save the economy or do we save people from COVID-19?

As if it was a binary choice.

The titans of the economy and their political echo chamber most forcefully pose the rhetorical question with the refrain:

The cure must not be worse than the illness.

The cure must not be worse than the illness!

The cure must not be worse than the illness!

The answer is brutally simple.  The People ARE the Economy, Stupid!*

* (with appropriate acknowledgement of original core content to James Carville)

The economy is the net sum of the actions and aspirations of people.  Obviously, it does not treat all people the same, but all people are a part of the great accounting equation. People produce the goods and services which other people buy.  Debilitate people in their capacity to participate in the economy, and you debilitate the economy.  Simple as that. You don’t need an algorithm or big data to noodle that out.

The Economy, in this instance, does not get to choose who lives and who dies, or how many live or die, or how debilitated the survivors will be physically or financially.  For now, the virus has all the cards and is dealing them as it chooses. So the cry of the economic elite to return the economy to operation is an act of profound ignorance of the situation, indifference to consequences, callous calculation of the cost to others, and likely all of the above.  But in the long run, it is unlikely to be a benefit to the few if this situation gets out of hand.

In fact, the ability of the great mass of people to participate in the economy has been steadily debilitated for 40 years before COVID-19.  It has been documented in the growing disparity and concentration of wealth, and the steady erosion of government and civic capacity to the benefit of the wealthy.  And then, along comes COVID-19 to administer ‘a stress test’.

The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt might serve as an interesting analog to the conundrum of ‘Economy vs. people’.  Consider the good ship The Economy.  It provides protective service for a hefty fee.  Fifteen percent of the crew are now identified with the virus.  1 dead, 6 hospitalized, one in ICU at this time.  Should the ship sail with risk of further spread of the virus in its crew, or stay in port until the situation stabilizes?

Consider that the ship is unlikely to have any senior citizens, whom the lieutenant governor of Texas regards as expendable, and relatively few with compromising chronic medical conditions that would make them unfit for service. They are among the most able of our population, physically.  They are also a diverse group of specialties; and, while many are cross-trained for redundancy, none of them are truly expendable without impairing the capability of The Economy.  Three specialties in particular come to mind:  nuclear reactor specialists, cooks and pilots.  Nuclear reactor specialists are relatively few and not easily replaced.  Cooks work in tight quarters, are relatively few with unique talents and serve a ship of 4400 human energy plants that can’t fight well on an empty stomach.  Pilots cost a couple of million dollars to train and years to train to capability. No unit of that inventory can be replaced quickly or cheaply.  So conserving these and other critical resources becomes critical to the success of The Economy.  The Brass can order the ship to sea, but the virus will not necessarily salute and debark. You can’t defeat your enemy until you understand who or what your enemy is.  We do not yet sufficiently understand how our enemy operates to be able to defeat it.

This example is likely to offend the sensibilities of the economic elite, well insulated in their illusion of wealth, but harboring deep, subliminal fears that the basis of their wealth is threatened by the unwillingness of people to put themselves at risk to support it.  The notion  that people are obliged to support The Economy is symptomatic of addiction to wealth that obscures the mind of the wealthy to the true foundation of what they take for granted.

Time for another exercise.  Mr. or Ms. Executive, remember the days of your youth when you stood on a beach as the tide came in, barefoot, before the tasseled loafers.  Remember how each receding wave would extract a few grains of sand beneath your feet, until you lost your balance.  Today, you stand on the veranda of your Hamptons estate gazing out at the ocean, contemplating the economic tsunami you fear is coming.  You know how destructive a tsunami can be.  You’ve experienced a number of storm surges, but never a tsunami.  You know the tsunami will knock you down unless you move farther inland and to higher ground.

The truth is that before COVID-19, you’ve been losing ground for years, largely because of the short-term, short-sighted mentality of yourself and your cohort. The grains of sand that you stood on were people.  Ever so gradually, the tides of change have been dragging them out to sea.  The sea wall that protects your estate from erosion, call it the government at all levels, sits on those same grains of sand, and is collapsing for lack of maintenance against steady erosion.  But all along, you’ve been pocketing ‘the savings’ at their expense.  And now, the tsunami is coming for you.

The capitalist economy of the United States has become progressively dysfunctional  over 40 years, and we are now about to witness the cumulative impact of its obsession with the pursuit of profit above all else.  It has manipulated the political processes to steadily dismantle capacity for resilience. It has eroded institutional safety nets and shock absorbers to leave the greater public exposed.   It cowers in its luxury towers, wringing its hands over where to deploy its accumulating cash reserves among the market turmoil that its short-sightedness and manic self-interest have created.  We have a system that can’t produce decent affordable housing; affordable health care; efficient and sustainable transportation; that wantonly places the safety of our food supply and environment at risk; and yet has the audacity to declare itself the giver of all things!

The economic elite, with relatively few exceptions, know only one god. Their prophet is profit.  They worship at the alter of the holy trinity: The Dow Jones, The S&P and The NASDAQ; three pillars of notional wealth that have departed reality.  An economy built too much on paper and pixels, but agnostic of fundamental human needs which should be its intrinsic justification.

There will be a ‘culling of the herd’ as a result of this disaster.  Many businesses will fail, and many should.  All of the zombie corporations that should have laid down and died a long time ago, except for the possibilities that they could still be milked just a little longer, may finally come to rest.  Grocery stores’ bare shelves are great indices of what ordinary people regard as important when they see life through an existential lens.  Will this lead to a re-calibration of value and priorities in the future.  One might hope.  And others might fear a just but unfavorable verdict.

Corporations will fail. Their bones will be picked by the vultures and repurposed.  But people must survive, because their physical and economic capacity and stability will be the basis on which the economy  will resume. The economic elite can not pick and choose who is expendible and who must be saved.  The virus holds those cards, as it has shown.  But the executive elite can put us at unnecessary risks if its self-serving priorities are allowed to prevail.

COVID-19 has provided the United States with a critical test which it has substantially failed at this point. The adequacy of remediation is the only remaining question. If this was war, we would spare no expense or effort or imagination to prevail. This is war, only this time, the objective must be to preserve life, not to take it.

But there is a greater question which COVID-19 prompts, but cannot answer.  Are we a nation of people, served by corporations?  Or are we a nation of corporations, served by people?

That question must be answered soon by the people, while they retain the means to do so.

Onward.

20200418

Copyright 2020 All rights reserved.

 

 

 

The Humbling of One Ugly American

A meditation on ‘shit-holes’, given relevance by our Commander-In-Chief.

In the early eighties, I made my first trip overseas, to Europe specifically, on business for a multi-national company.  I traveled there with a colleague whom I had just met a week earlier. She was a US citizen of Mexican origin, educated in Canada and with a BA in French and an MBA in finance.  The first thing notable about her was an elegant dialect that seemed an amalgam of her Spanish, French and English education, blended seamlessly into one.

 

We arrived in Portugal and traveled to Oporto on our first day.  After settling into the hotel, we met to take a walk and get acquainted with our surroundings.  We walked the cobbled streets of Oporto among the shops and vendor carts and I slowly began to absorb a new reality;  a sense of ‘old Europe’ quite different from my experience.  At one point, she asked me what I thought of the place.  I said, “I can’t decide whether it’s quaint or a dump.”  As we continued to stroll through the streets, we passed produce carts.  At one point I observed how unappetizing the produce looked.  Without missing a beat, and in her understated, elegant way with a tone of mild but powerfully delivered condescension, she replied, “That’s because the good stuff is shipped to the US as a cash crop”.  She not only explained the circumstance of my observation, but revealed my ignorance in fact and attitude.  We laugh about that episode to this day as I often reflect back on that experience in our conversations about current events.

 

I wish I could say that was my only instance of American hubris.  But it was most definitely the beginning of my education in the myth of American Exceptionalism.  In the days that followed, we traveled to the Douro region, the port wine growing region in Portugal where our company maintained a house.  In this particular village, our residence was one of three, all owned by port wine-producing companies, which had power and indoor plumbing.  As we descended on winding roads into the valley, one could observe thousands of little plots of land with houses and working gardens, surrounded by vaster commercial vineyards.  If my sense of Oporto was like going back 80 years in time, the Douro was like traveling back yet further.  What I perceived at first was poverty.  But upon further reflection, I have come to understand that what I saw was a vastly simpler and humbler way of life defined by its own circumstances which were quite different from the ones I had always assumed were universal up to that point.   I would not trade my circumstances for theirs, but I gradually came to understand that I could not look down on their circumstances without questioning the justification for my own.

 

My colleague departed early from our assignment to attend to other matters, and for the next few days, I was left on my own to explore the streets of Oporto in my spare time.  I was struck by the number of bookstores that I saw among the shops, and displayed prominently in the windows of many were ‘do-it-yourself’ books.  It suggested to me a people and a culture that had not yet entered the ‘service’ economy, where individuals were still their own primary resource for meeting their needs. It suggested a less sophisticated economy on the one hand, but a more resilient one on the other.

I wandered into a neighborhood store and saw a shelf of aseptic milk, unrefrigerated.  I had never before seen that in the US.  It was a product of necessity in Portugal, where electricity was expensive and home refrigeration at that time was probably much more limited.  But it made perfect sense for them, and I wondered ‘why don’t we do this too?’

I could recite other instances in my brief experience in international business where I made comments or assumptions that were utterly ignorant of a greater world and its varied circumstances, but I gradually came to understand that, while we may live on varying planes of material well-being, there is an underlying plane of human values that is universal, and on which we can relate, and must.  When we speak of ‘shit-holes’ as our Commander-in-Chief has so chosen, we demonstrate our own ignorance of the world’s realities, many of which include our own wanton conduct in contributing to their circumstances in pursuit of our narrowly conceived and often unjust goals.

 

I remember my political science professor observing that the US won World War II not by brilliance of strategy, but by overwhelming the enemy with sheer material and human resources.  My father, a private in a combat engineering platoon of Patton’s Third Army put it a different way.  “We made fewer mistakes than they did.”  Yet, in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, our material might and superior training did not and are not winning the day, and likely will not.  We are fighting in the terrain of human values; a battle-scape that our mythology asserts we should win.  But we’re not.  That should give us pause for thought, but it hasn’t.  We still see ourselves as WWII conquerors and saviors of the world order.  And we confer upon ourselves the right of preserving that order in our image and to our liking.  It is not working, and will not.  We have reached the limits of our advantage.  We have squandered much of our advantage.  And, though many at the top of our particular national pyramid cannot see it or refuse to acknowledge it, we are sliding into 2nd world status in many areas, and 3rd world in some.  Without a mid-course correction of some dramatic scope in our national psyche and values, it is now conceivable that we will reach escape velocity from the orbit of material prosperity and national unity.  The Portugal I remember may come ever closer to the America of our future experience.  But Portugal has evolved and prospered.  I am no longer so certain that we will.

 

I am reminded of another moment in my undergraduate experience.  I worked with a colored lady in the university library reserve room.  She had a high school education, but had obviously earned a doctorate in life’s lessons.  She wore a smile that radiated the warmth of the sun, but betrayed traces of weariness of a life that had its challenges as well as its gratification.  One afternoon as we both sat at the reserve desk observing the antics of some of my peers, she remarked with a weary but warm smile: ‘Honey chil’, there’s ignorant and there’s stupid.  Ignorant is curable. Stupid is forever.”

We might contemplate that truth as we reflect on our president, and ourselves.

Onward.

20180114

Copyright 2018  Integratedman  All rights reserved.

Memo to Scientists: Don’t March. Educate!

Women marched on Washington to demonstrate their deeply held feelings for our just minted President.  And it was eugh!  The pussy caps endure, but what else survives of that exhilarating  moment to improve any of the conditions that brought them there?

Now scientists are on the march, first in Boston; then with a climactic event planned for Earth Day.  Some unsolicited advice: save your sneakers; you’ve got much more important things to do with your time.  Don’t march.  Educate!

Marching is a great visual, but it’s not likely these days to move legislation in your direction. The President doesn’t give a damn.  I doubt that he watches Neil de Grasse Tyson or Science Guy Bill Nye on cable.  Senator Snowball from Oklahoma doesn’t give a damn. Chief of Staff Priebus will tell you to go home, shut up and listen. Lamar Smith isn’t likely to show up at the Mall for a listening exercise.  And conducting teach-ins among the devoted is just sooo sixties!

So here’s your marching orders, if I may be so bold.

Educate yourselves.

Learn how to communicate with the average person.  You may be whizzes at what you do, but too many of you are too often incompetent about how you communicate what you do to the average person in terms that are relevant and meaningful to him or her.  Why should you care?  Joe and Jane six-pack don’t pass appropriations and climate legislation and environmental regulations.  But they elect the clods that do, and that’s where the battle needs to begin. If you can’t communicate with them and make science important in their lives, you’re toast.  You’re just another part of the elite they’ve come to despise, and with some good reason.

We didn’t become a nation of science dolts over night. It has taken sixty years for the lessons of Sputnik to wear off.  That’s what whip-lashed us into caring about science then.  It will take something equally existential to bring us back.. Climate Change should be doing it, but you’ve been too complacent as a group for too long, and what is existential to you does not seem too important to a lot of other people.

Prepare for  the Long March.

That’s what you’re on.  Not just some giddy road trip to DC with some selfies and cool t-shirts.

The Long March is to Town Halls and State Capitols where decisions are still made close enough to constituents that the perpetrators may have to look them in the eye.  The Repugnantlans made that Long March over the past twenty years,  and we now have what we have in D.C. by way of local voting precincts and state legislatures. The Democrass couldn’t organize enough people with enough energy and focus around a theme to constitute a march.  The result has impacted science and much more.  The cure will have to tread the same path. And the cure will have to fix much more than science; it’s just part of the syndrome.

 Educate Others

Get out of your labs. Embed yourselves in your community’s affairs.  If not your specific subject matter ( string theory and quantum physics is tough to apply at the Planning and Zoning Commission), bring your discipline of critical thinking, of cause and effect, of data informed (but not data driven) decision-making.  Equally importantly, observe and learn from the actions of non-scientists in the competition of ideas in the broader community. That’s the theater in which the politics of science will play out, as with everything else.  That’s where it must begin to find respect and acceptance, and gradually transform processes and results.  But it will take time…as does much of your research.

Clean Up Your Act.

The ethical constructs of the broadly and loosely organized ‘scientific community’ have come under scrutiny and strain of late,  as well as assault.  You need a code of ethics and a governing body as never before to protect you and your science from the onslaught of interests and self-interest that have perverted science as it has most other human endeavors in our complex and contentious society.

The forces of fear and desecration are about in the land, capable of inflicting fatal harm on reputations and causes with or without justification. That shouldn’t be news to you any longer.  Don’t give them justification.

Clean up the peer review process.  Avoid hyperbole in putting forth your hypotheses and projections.  I know you’re only as good as your last grant or publication, as is true of salesmen in any other field, but let your product sell itself.  Don’t oversell it in order to break through the din.

Inform the Political Process, But Don’t Become Political.

You can be scientists or you can be political activists.  But you can’t be both without compromising your position as scientists.

I was deeply disappointed when Dr. James Hansen concluded his career in science with an act of civil disobedience in defense of his science. I could empathize with his frustration, but I viewed his act as an affirmation that his science was insufficient.  Rather than advance his science and his proper message, he diminished it, in my view. Please do not follow his example. You risk far more in the March on Washington and its potential for unintended consequences in our current environment than you stand to gain.

Stand Your Ground.

Defend what you know. Acknowledge what you don’t know. And fight at every  opportunity the falsehoods perpetrated by others with the weapons your science provides. I have witnessed climate scientists in public forums sit passively while self-styled nabobs of science denial rose to proclaim this or that piece of nonsense courtesy of the Heartland Institute or some other propaganda mill, when they should have risen to professionally counter false assertions.  As we have seen too often of late, lies perpetrated and left unchallenged become accepted as truths among the ill-informed.  Successful lies encourage their liars to more audacious levels.

Maintain Your Sense of Humanity and Humility.

Knowledge without purpose is no better than wealth or power without purpose. Scientific knowledge that does not advance the human condition cannot justify its call on the commitment and resources of others that it depends on to advance.

Your knowledge confers on you significant power, but it is ephemeral.  Do not forget the difficulty of attaining your achievements.  Do not become the difficulty impeding the next step of progress.

With all this said, I have no doubt that the Short March on Earth Day will proceed as intended.  But if it is not followed by the Long March, a Death March will surely await us.

Onward

20170310

 

Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Oxymoronic?  Perhaps, but true.  The more ‘information’ that we have produced in the past forty years of networked information systems and the internet, the less we seem to know or trust. We are in an era of information entropy in which more is less.

I remember six years ago when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that she did not have cable t.v.  I wondered how she could possibly keep informed of current events.  Two years later, I dropped it myself, never regretting my ‘loss’.  Subsequently, I have become progressively more selective in my reading, particularly on the web, finding  that much of what I have consumed provides less insight.

The information age has provided a wealth of data, but not a corresponding wealth of insight. Why is that? Let’s review.

  1.  Reality is changing at warp speed. Yesterday’s facts and truisms are being rapidly  rendered obsolete. This ain’t your granddaddy’s nothin’!
  2.  We are producing mountains of data, but proportionately less ‘information’ (remember: data and information are not the same) .
  3.  The information that we do produce from the data  is often without meaningful context or perspective, and therefore of limited utility, relevance or reliability in a world where context can change as quickly as facts, and perspectives proliferate.
  4.  The institutions and information intermediaries (the press, government, academia, science, professions , unprofessional organizations such as Facebook and Google) that we depend upon for reliable and trustworthy information have almost all been diminished by scandals as they have become ‘monetized’, or otherwise compromised directly or indirectly by economic forces which have bent their values to serve other objectives.
  5. Concerted efforts to distort or undermine or repudiate otherwise valid information have been refined and deployed with devastating effectiveness.
  6. We have become conditioned, if not programmed, to suspend, if not avoid, critical thinking in preference to simple or comforting dogmas, also known as ‘thought on auto-pilot’.  We have willingly become prisoners of our own illusions, or those which too many are willing to sell us, in a world where there are now too many factoids to make sense of very much for very long.

One of the interesting consequences of all this is that in many subtle ways we take more time to do things that once seemed so simple, or to make decisions that are now more difficult in an increasingly complex world. I remember standing in the soap isle of the local supermarket gazing at the various offerings of dishwasher detergent.  There before me was New and Improved, Extra New, Super Improved, and You Won’t Believe Your Eyes, all in similar but different containers by the same manufacturer, all at nearly the same price. Along came a lady who engaged in the same exercise as I.  After a few minutes, we looked at each other and asked ‘What’s the difference?’.  I could just grab one off the shelf and be done, but I’ve been programed to optimize; best value for the price. Ultimately, I just grabbed one off the shelf.  Now multiply this simple example across the plethora of shopping transactions. Recognize that this phenomenon applies to information as much as dishwasher soap. The default for decision gridlock is snap judgment which often leads to the unintended consequence of buyer’s remorse, and the oft resultant lament: ‘What was/were I/they thinking?’

At a higher level of consequence, business and governmental decisions become similarly captive of a world that is devolving from long assumed perceptions of homogeneity to ever more complex and finite sub-groups, sub-cultures, sub-markets, sub divisions; each with their peculiarities and potential risks to the unwary, and few of which we really understand.  Middle east peace? Climate Change? Healthcare policies? Renewable energy strategies? Transportation strategy? Tax reform? Nuclear energy?

So here we are at the pinnacle of the data-pile at which our economic elite, blessed with all the raw data and algorithms they possess, are risk averse to investing their parked trillions for fear of risks they cannot effectively define, and therefore cannot effectively hedge.

And our ‘intelligence services’ with their army of server farms cannot pro-act with reliability; only react once the threat has manifested itself.  You don’t need big data to set up a sting for the witless.  But all their data isn’t helping them to preempt the wily.

And government, which is more reactive than proactive by nature, works on old and fragmented systems evolved from  the vastness of its enterprise and the granularity of its operations as defined by ever more complex regulations; systems which are too big, too complex to upgrade, but too critical to let die.  This also applies to large corporations, which are bureaucratically not too far removed from government.

I do not consider myself an information Luddite.  By virtue of the very nature of my profession, I love good data; I crave good data; I pine for good data; but I also distrust all data until its reliability can be proven.  More is not necessarily better.

Our data and its infrastructure is steadily holding us captive while we perpetuate the delusion that it is setting us free.  Unwilling to accept this possibility, we double down on our bet on artificial intelligence (AI) as the means to master the data-pile and set us free. No doubt, AI will bring many advantages.

But it also holds the risk that in seeking to outsource our thinking and judgements to so-called sentient machines, we are inviting a concentration of power (think Amazon, Facebook and Google) and a potential for manipulation that enslaves rather than liberates us.  Given our own individual and collective imperfections as citizens, professionals and societies, is it reasonably plausible that we can create AI that transcends our manifest imperfections and biases, but is vastly more capable of the harm we can already do without AI’s assistance? Stated more simply, can imperfect humans create perfect machines, or merely machines more capable of leveraging our imperfections to greater consequence?

We need not look far to preview the risks. Darkness is descending as the Trump administration seizes the reins of power and systematically draws the shades on the windows of government.  Today it seeks to withhold information; to render us less informed. Today, as it has for the past two years, it perpetrates blatant lies, increasingly devoid of any subtlety, to propagate its world view.  Imagine what it might do once it has implanted its partisans where all the levers of information creation or influence are located.  Consider a modification of the adage: ‘To err is human; to really screw up takes a computer’.

The possibilities are exponential.

Happy Presidents’ Day.  Better ones are coming. Hopefully.

Onward

20170220