Category Archives: American society

Part I. Three questions before voting: Why are we a union? (And when is California grape season?)

I only eat grapes produced in California.  This is the time of the year where the only grapes I find in the local grocery stores are either from Chile, Mexico, or Peru.  The taste of grapes from those countries never appealed to me.  Maybe the pickers are in a rush to get the grapes to the American market sacrificing sweetness for the chance that the consumer has a taste for grapes from Central and South America.  Maybe it’s the soil; its nutrients, irrigation, or the environment they grow in.  I don’t know.  I just prefer the texture and taste of California grapes.

I have been to California three times; twice to San Francisco and once to San Diego.  Nice towns; picturesque.  The people never really stood out as warm and hospitable, but after near forty years in the South, I probably expect too much in terms of hospitality.  Last time that I was in Brooklyn, for example, I had to adjust my “friendly meter” because New Yorkers have no time for spare eye contact and smiling with a brother.  Not to say New Yorkers are rude.  On the contrary, New Yorkers are some of the nicest people I have met.  Their way of expressing themselves in public is simply different from people in the South.

For Americans of a more cosmopolitan ilk, being able to visit different regions of the United States and experience the culture and food may excite them.  From a political perspective, however, does it mean that these states, have to bear the costs and burdens of being united under one federal government?  Why should Americans want to maintain this union?

The reason I pose this question is primarily due to the upcoming presidential elections and the expectations voters impose on the candidates.  My general observation of the electorate finds a voter who expects one of these men, either Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or incumbent president Donald Trump to help make their lives better.  They expect that the current or future president should utter words and implement policy that emanates from the halls of the White House and trickles into the voter’s bedroom, office, grocery store, schools, and bank accounts.  They expect to be saved.  They expect to be uplifted.  They expect to be made whole.  They expect to prosper and have a good life.

Candidates play on these expectations by pushing the right emotional buttons, by sharing the properly tuned narrative that hopefully gets the voter to exercise their franchise in a candidate’s favor.  One example of this is the mantra emerging from the Corona virus crisis, “We are all in this together.”  Federal, state, and local elected officials have been trying to assure Americans that under their leadership the virus will be contained and that if Americans take the proper precautions, this too shall pass….

Assure the voter.  Ensure the vote.

The average voter takes little if any time to re-read her national history much less critically analyze the Constitution of the United States.  This failure to take another look at the nation’s make-up creates a thought void that a politician can play on.

To fill the void, the voter should challenge any and all narratives they have been subjected to since first watching “School House Rock.”  One such narrative is the purpose of the “perfect union.

The purpose of the union, of an interstate compact, was to ensure that goods, services, and labor could move freely between and through the States.  The primary purpose was never about creating one happy culture but one happy commercial flow and customs and tax zone.  For an example, Article I Section II notes the apportionment of direct taxes among the States.  And in the discussion of Congress’ power and duties, found in Article I Section VIII, four of the first five clauses discuss taxes, duties, imports and excises.  They also discuss Congress’ power to borrow money, regulate money, and mint coin.

Feeling good about mother, apple pie, (California grapes) and the flag are not mentioned.

And while the rationale stated in the preamble expressed the expectation of a perfect union, the establishment of justice, providing a common defense, providing for the general welfare, and securing liberty, this thought, this view or philosophy of the world was held by the aristocracy who had a vested interest in protecting the flow of capital and increasing its returns by having a national government structure in place that protected its flow.

Democracy was an ingenious way of preventing collateral damage.  In order to validate the hierarchy, a narrative had to be created that a “perfect union” was necessary for the benefits of liberty to flow and an aristocracy of learned and/or propertied white men should lead it.

I ask why a union with, say, Delaware, be viewed as necessary to my well being or welfare?  Does Delaware supply me clothing, food, education, or manufactured goods?Does Delaware provide me financial capital to seed my enterprises or personal consumption, and even if it did, does allowing its two U.S. senators and a couple congressmen to vote on affairs that directly impact my state provide a worthy exchange for my liberty?

If a voter cannot demonstrate how being in a union made up of different cultural views, terrains, economies, justify the potential negative impact their votes can have on her state or more importantly, her personal freedoms, then excitement about a national vote is severely misplaced.

If she accepts the status quo, that the perfect union provides her personal benefit, then her second question should be, what is the best political-economic mechanism to guide the union’s path?

That question I leave for Part II.  Until then, I will wait patiently for the California grape season…

Re-wiring government to be innovative.

The oxymoron of government being innovative … 

Government is reactive.  Government takes action only when it is petitioned.  A congressman rarely initiates the legislation process on her whims.  She rather responds to legislation drafted by a constituent.  A judge resolves a conflict only upon a petition brought by a complainant. The executive implements an economic stimulus package or promulgates some rule only upon receiving a request to do so.

Throughout history government has been the spawn not the spawner.  When kinsmen bonded to increase the security around the hunt or to protect permanent dwelling, the resulting security compact and the rules that flowed were put into a binder called government.  Government is not independent of us, but the result of our fears; of our inability to co-exist without considering doing harm to ourselves.

Government or Flying Spaghetti Monster …

I am finding it increasingly amusing how citizen-taxpayers view government as some exogenous variable floating in outer space that embodies human characteristics of love, justice, equity, and what not.  The truth is, government is not a living being but a dumb bot programmed to react to fear, and, if operating effectively, leveraging fear in order to provide to its current ruling factions the leverage they need to maintain political power.  If there is one thing the leading faction must bear in mind is that to maintain power, it must maintain the facade that without government, action taken primarily on the part of the individual is fruitless for the citizen.  Government’s ruling faction must make government look innovative and necessary.

From dumb bot to informed policymaker ….

Given finite resources, government, in order to maintain or increase its faux omniscience must invest as much discretionary and non-discretionary resource into information gathering.  The United States is first and foremost about commerce and trade.  Commerce and trade is driven by private actors, contrary to what the current crop of candidates wish to tell you.  If government is to play any positive role in returns on and to capital, as well as in the increase of commerce and trade, the members of its ruling factions must be ardent students of the “economy” which requires constantly collecting and evaluating information about how the economy is truly constructed and working.

The vision thing …

Along with appreciating vision, members of political factions need to have vision.  Today’s candidates are very good spokesmen for the private sector actors that petition government, but as the United States heads further into the 21st century, members of the ruling factions must be as much engineer as they are marketer.  Members of the ruling factions may have to flip the current script in terms of how they organize government.  Rather than the marketer/salesman being the front man, the front man should be the one with the engineering vision, backed up by surrogate/salesman/marketers who consistently sell the vision.

Communication is a two-way street ….

The tricky part is ensuring that the public is communicating on the same frequency.  The electorate has to be re-wired to think “policy” versus “popularity.”  The public’s view of their government executives, from the President right down to a town mayor, has to be such that they recognize a senior technician who is first and foremost a competent implementer of vision while posing enough swag to get the vote.

Conclusion …

Re-wiring the public’s view will take buy in from the political factions to educate the electorate on critically thinking about the importance of policy, but that come to Jesus moment won’t come to political factions overnight.  That re-wiring of the electorate will have to come from the mass citizenry.  Only then will ruling political factions react.

Andrew Yang’s candidacy has a realistic view of America’s digital future

The eye-catcher ….

This afternoon during a town hall meeting in Bedford, New Hampshire, Andrew Yang, contender for the Democratic nomination for president, made the argument that his fellow candidates for president were not aware that the United States is in a fourth industrial revolution.  Just what is this fourth industrial revolution that Mr. Yang is referring to?

You’re in the Matrix, baby…

In his book, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Klaus Schwab describes the environment spawning the revolution of technology and how it impacts work, government, and the economy:

“We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this new revolution.  Consider the unlimited possibilities of having billions of people connected by mobile devices, giving rise to unprecedented processing power, storage capabilities and knowledge access.  Or think about the staggering confluence of emerging technology breakthroughs, covering wide-ranging fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing, to name a few.  Many of these innovations are in their infancy, but they are already reaching an inflection point in their development as they build on and amplify each other in a fusion of technologies across the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

We are witnessing profound shifts across all industries, marked by the emergence of new business models, the disruption of incumbents and the reshaping of production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems.  On the societal front, a paradigm shift is underway in how we work and communicate, as well as how we express, inform, and entertain ourselves.  Equally, governments and institutions are being reshaped, as are systems of education, healthcare and transportation, among many others. New ways of using technology to change behavior and our systems of production and consumption also offer the potential for supporting the regeneration and preservation of natural environments, rather than creating hidden costs in the form of externalities.”

We have all heard the buzz terms “automation” and “AI” bandied about.  We take for granted that advanced communications bring us closer to our global neighbors, where we once occupied local space, i.e. being at home or driving thirty minutes to work, some of us now work on a daily basis with a colleague located in Mumbai, Bonn, or London.

Automation, as Mr. Yang reminded us today in Bedford, threatens to replace workers in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and automobile plants.  But we professionals are threatened, too.  Just yesterday my employer emailed workers sharing the news of a partnership with a tech firm that uses technology that reduces the number of documents attorneys have to review.  The upside is that attorneys may have more time to apply critical thinking skills to activities that they do best: problem solve.  The down side is that we may need fewer attorneys to do certain types of work.

Change is never a factor that should be absent from our expectations

And what of agile response as part of governance?

Not only does government face policy challenges when addressing a changing labor market, government will face challenges from digital platforms capable of providing services government currently has a monopoly on.  Again, citing Mr. Schwab:

“In summary, in a world where essential public functions, social communication and personal information migrate to digital platforms, governments—in collaboration with business and civil society—need to create the rules, checks and balances to maintain justice, competitiveness, fairness, inclusive intellectual property, safety and reliability.

Two conceptual approaches exist.  In the first, everything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed.  In the second, everything that is not explicitly allowed is forbidden.  Government must blend these approaches.”

One recent example of the challenges government could face from competing platforms is the proposal by Facebook to introduce a stablecoin. A stablecoin is a cryptocurrency that uses an asset or a reserve currency as a back up.  In other words, the asset or reserve currency can be used to as a measure of the stablecoin’s value.  Policy makers such as U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, have expressed reservations that Facebook and other digital platforms that issue a cryptocurrency could pose a threat to the U.S. government’s ability to regulate currency and promote its economy.

None of the current Democratic candidates nor the incumbent president have expressed how modern financial technology and the currencies that fintech can produce may impact the U.S. economy.  In a changing economy, could a lack of experience in this area contribute to poor policy making regarding governance in the digital 21st century?

Yang so far has the knowledge to govern in a digital 21st century America …

Changes in how Americans will work over the next twenty years and the currency that they will use for exchanging commercial value will require someone who does not make policy based on an analog view of the world.  Observers of technology and government usually lament how policy never keeps up with rapid changes in technology.  Can the United States go four more years with its government’s chief executive completely unaware of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will impact livelihoods?

The Senate Commerce Committee has another information market issue on its hand.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on the re-authorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELAR). The Act, along with its predecessor forms, have been in existence since 1988 and is intended to guarantee that consumers with satellite access to television programming has access to programming provided by over-the-air broadcast stations.

Consumers, due to terrain or distance, may have problems receiving signals from over-the-air broadcast stations.  Some consumers may choose satellite television as their medium for obtaining programming provided by these stations.  Depending on the agreements entered into to carry or re-transmit signals from a broadcast station, there is a chance that the consumer may not receive programming from broadcast stations within her local area.

This possibility of not receiving local broadcast station signals lies at the heart of the localism problem, where consumers may be denied information on what’s happening in their local communities and instead, in return for receiving content from a broadcast network outside of their locality, they would only have access to “local” content from another community, content that would be useless to them.

Critics of the Act want to see STELAR expire on 31 December and not be re-authorized.  Critics claim that not only are local consumers of satellite services being denied local broadcast content as a result of the agreements their satellite services enter into with outside area “local” broadcasters, but they are also bearing the burden of lost advertisement revenues where their local content is being replaced by the content of outside area broadcasters.  In addition, local broadcasters incur another dent in revenues where satellite companies are opting to lower re-transmission fees to outside broadcasters versus local broadcasters.

But if a consumer can’t receive signals from their local broadcaster due to terrain or distance, why should they be denied access to content from outside area broadcasters via satellite?  The argument that these consumers are being denied access to information about community events sounds laudable on the surface, but there are alternatives available that can supplement the lack of local television news that covers community events.

For example, more and more local stations are streaming news content online.  They are also supplementing their video content with texts and graphics.  They are noticeably expressing their journalistic chops by providing digital print and video.

Local programmers could also take advantage of this supposed demand by offering this local content online via their websites on a paid basis, assessing a fee commensurate with that of the local newspaper.  People do that today when they purchase Netflix, HBO Go, etc., so why not with local television content?

As for emergency alerts and other emergency information, there are mobile apps available that can keep consumers informed about urgent events.

Congress, when contemplating extension of STELAR, should keep in mind that at the core the issue is about competitive provision of content in another information market. Local television broadcasters must find innovative ways of getting their content in front of their local consumers.  Just being a part of the community is not enough for local broadcasters.

Congress should also bear in mind that satellite companies should be expected to meet local needs for network programming by providing broadcast packaging at the lowest cost possible.  This may mean creating packages that do not include programming from the local broadcaster because local broadcaster re-transmission fees are cost prohibitive.

If anything, extending STELAR puts the onus on local broadcasters to become more innovative on how they meet local community information needs.