5 Key Lessons Learned from First-time Management

2017 has been my most professionally challenging year ever. This was due in no small part to the fact I became an official manager at its start, with two direct reports. Although I was de facto managing people’s workflows for at least a year before then, and I have managed far larger teams of individuals, it was an intriguing and rewarding experience by and large to experience management in a true corporate setting. So, without further ado, here are the five key takeaways I’ve gleaned thus far from the day-to-day responsibilities of managing, in no particular order.

Leverage your personality.

Unfortunately, my workplace persona quirks include occasionally emitting a quietly sung word in a song’s phrase or silently head-bobbing at my desk to music or mediocre-to-atrocious puns. (Yep, it can be just as annoying as it sounds, so I constantly work on curbing these indulgences.) Most of the time, it works within my team’s camaraderie, but especially if you can also tend to come off as either overly bombastic or, at worst, pompous, you have to harp on egalitarian themes to compensate. Even better, you can’t be sensitive in any way to people poking fun at said mannerisms, because that way they can blow off steam if need be. And it is best of all to check your team’s mood frequently and react accordingly, because to everything there is a season. Yet as you may be able to guess, such gregariousness and humor can help create a welcoming environment.

Sticking with just a handful of persona-delineating traits gives people boundaries and consistency, which are crucial to maintaining a team’s stability. My colleagues know that if it is a particularly busy time for me, I tend to remain silent, and can respond accordingly. Moreover, I can puncture tension or stress with a silly observation if need be. My team is odd in that one of my reports is nearly as experienced as I, while my department as a whole is very congenial and closely knit, so being able to signal around the limits of your ego is critical. Frankly, I still most often fail with regard to simply indulging in silly or mildly amusing hijinks too much, even if my team and other colleagues find them enjoyable. It’s useful in that I clearly show that I don’t take myself very seriously at all, but I usually take it too far still, and thus must still work on toning it down.

There are other examples of deployment, but relying too much on your personality can also lead to a major pitfall, such as:

Favoring radical candor over cruel kindnesses.

I am a big proponent of radical candor. But it is devilishly hard to maintain. Nobody likes to disappoint people or chide and correct behaviors. Yet if one refrains, it is embracing a false kindness that is actually crueler than being candid, as inevitably either a flaw grows to such a serious level that it can result in a very poor outcome or performance remains mediocre and the employee typically grows frustrated.

As a relatively young manager, the key hurdle is being able to assume a level of gravitas and empathy to communicate difficult truths thoroughly and clearly. Empathy, luckily enough, comes fairly readily as I worked through both of the roles my direct team handles, so I know the frustrations and difficulties faced. (If you don’t have that benefit, you frankly have to ask for it to be communicated to you much more frequently and clearly, soliciting clarity and honesty.) Gravitas is much more difficult for most, because there are the traps of bluster or presumption or, most damning of all, the demand for respect and consequent self-justification. That simply doesn’t work, especially for me, given my youth and level of experience. So that leaves only one option: radical candor concerning your own flaws and level of experience. As a first-time manager, I most frequently fall back on an approach resembling that of a team lead rather than a more senior manager, e.g. “I have done it this way in the past, but is it the best way? I don’t know, to be honest, so let’s explore this together.” The crucial concept underlining such an approach is that since you are the one in charge, responsibility ultimately lies with you, and thus you are the decider.

That approach only works well if buttressed by two more key concepts.

Respect is best earned via demonstration and offering of loyalty.

You can’t demand respect – that is probably one of the surest ways to lose it. In a team of relatively young people with not a ton of experience, I simply can’t afford to regard myself as meriting the respect of my peers based on slight seniority or the fact I was chosen as manager or significant outperformance. Even if all of those are true, only outperformance is likeliest to work, and sadly, I am not skilled nor talented enough that I outperform on every single project. Accordingly, what works best is extending respect to your team members for their relative merits and continually reiterating and demonstrating that respect as warranted. This is further reinforced by shows of loyalty, e.g. lobbying for promotions or raises and praise in public settings, as people may admire significant intelligence or hard work, but ultimately people care and respect those whom demonstrate they care for and respect them. Those first two are important as well, but proffering respect is even more important for first-time managers in particular.

Sincerity also cannot be emphasized enough, which ties back into personality. My personality type lends itself to exaggeration and overly effusive praise, and thus I must be wary and rein it in as appropriate. Conversely, if you are more taciturn, your encomia may carry more weight, but you have to remember to voice it likely more frequently than you would normally do so.

Exhibiting trust by offering ownership.

There are no ideal situations in business. At some point, you simply have to trust someone with an important project, try to hand them all the tools to succeed, and then pay consistent attention and offer constant support to mitigate any potential issues. Giving people a clear sense of ownership is crucial – and people usually can sense when you are still working behind the scenes. Everyone appreciates support, but they have to know and appreciate they are being entrusted with an important task, and it is primarily on them whether it succeeds or fails. At no point must one state the clear truth, which is that you will stand up for them and take the blame if the endeavor fails as it would be your fault ultimately, but all credit is theirs. Instead, the fact you have their back must be implicit.

There is one final key lesson I learned:

Consensus must allow for respectful dissent, which can be healthy.

This is a key piece of radical candor, yet also ties into personality. I am a terrible liar and also disagree with certain choices made by clients or even my superiors. Obviously I don’t need to proclaim when the latter two occur, but I must be upfront with my team members should they also express concern as I cannot dissemble and, more importantly, they deserve to hear my reasoning. Of course, one must also ground your explanation of your differing opinions in the context that the decision has been made and you could well be wrong too. The important thing to remember is that dissent is not bad – actually, it is often good. If your team feels secure to dissent (in a respectful manner) but signal that they will still abide by your decision, that is a good sign, as there is more than sufficient trust and camaraderie present. If you also adequately explain why you disagree with the choice made by the client or your own boss, then you are exhibiting respect once again by showing that you appreciate their level of sophistication and maturity considerably. Plus, it teaches a valuable lesson, namely, few to no business decisions are foolproof.

 

Path to a New World Order: Musings on Tribalism vs. Nation-states vs. Hyper-connection

Looking back upon the birth of the Internet, the more hyperbolic of encomia that proclaimed it a powerful tool to end division and promote harmony remain about as woefully erroneous in hindsight as Kurzweil’s continued predictions of the Singularity’s date. The Internet only aids and abets harmony as much as a given user wants to aid and abet harmony. You can’t really get away from the perpetuity of human nature, no matter how much historical cycles actually vary, it seems.

But this view does omit the actions of many whom, even intermittently, do employ the Internet to contribute, share, empathize, or otherwise perform positive actions that help increase community. Ostracized or lonely individuals can find communities anywhere, no matter how niche the topic. This is still tribalism, but it is the more positive kind of tribalism, as opposed to the darkest recesses of 4chan or the peculiar, puerile idiocy of racist outcroppings of the alt-right. More wide-ranging and relatively neutral in effect tribalism, such as those organized around common historical, linguistic and social bonds, as well as perhaps ideological, are much more powerful in general, given their wider common denominators. The best current examples that come to mind are secession movements in Europe.

One thing I often ponder is how strong such positive outpourings of tribalism may end up truly being. Viewed as purely an informational flow mechanism, the Internet can enable any number of niche communities. Of those many, some few that perhaps could not have been able to achieve any critical mass that could lead to sparking change now have been able to. This is often called the tyranny of the minority, as most notoriously exemplified by the extent to which splinter factions of white nationalism in the US are now enjoying media coverage beyond their wildest dreams.

So where does this trend go from here? There is a sweet spot between communities that mainly exist by the enabling information flows of the Internet and extant communities that are now empowered more than ever before in terms of effectively delivering their message. For example, Catalan nationalists and Scots currently enjoy greater abilities to effectively organize and promulgate their messages than ever before, as opposed to, say, Occupy Wall Street, as both the former had much stronger actual ties. (It’s worth noting that Occupy Wall Street did enjoy a rich historical heritage in America of fairly left-leaning anarchic factions popping up every once in a while.)

Few communities can clear that hurdle of effective real-life ties (aka skin in the game, however much Nassim Nicholas Taleb irks me he did popularize that highly effective phrase) merged with the power of modern communication infrastructure. Yet will more end up doing so if the first few are successful? Should Catalonia successfully secede, will Scotland be next, emboldened by not only that example but the parent-state’s own Brexit?

It is tempting to think so, mainly because the neoliberal global political order that endured since the end of World War II has rarely looked so strained. Key nation-states were the primary component of said order, with the indispensable nation of the US, which challenges so many political theories, seemingly the most troubled. But at the same time that separatist parties or, essentially, those that can be classified as status quo challengers, are empowered by the Internet, the multinational corporations that not only provide consumers with the very means of access but also grow increasingly monopolistic in major sectors grow in power too. And whether they admit it or not, businesses such as Facebook or Amazon or Shell or BP have a vested interest in catering to diverse groups but still unifying them under one massive umbrella: their customer base. Hence to court customers, corporations will enable formation of communities because, after all, connection is what humans crave so avidly, as long as they can achieve buy-in to that most basic yet essential community – that of the corporation’s customer.

This is neither wrong nor right – it is simply the natural evolution of the corporation’s strategies as it currently exists. But since they have such powerful incentives to keep the peace, as it were, or at least maintain the ability to keep growing and tapping into newer markets, hyperconnection is a definite end goal. Facebook and Google are the most obvious exemplars that come to mind, seeing as their businesses are so uniquely dependent on eyeballs. But every multinational isn’t that far behind.

Meanwhile, we have the supposedly beleaguered nation-state, that now has to contend with not only empowered internal tribalist factions but multinationals’ suite of incentives. But the nation-state can’t be counted out just yet – apart from empires, it is the most successful form of its kind thus far, after all. And the oldest nation-states that most successfully integrated its various tribes do seem to be robust. France has had its splinter separatist movements for a while, but few look able to attain critical mass thanks to how successfully monarchs and then draconian republican governments stamped out or absorbed local dialects and identities. The United Kingdom was less successful, and faces the consequences. China is an exemplar of absorption of tribal factions, often at immense human cost, although they are hardly alone when it comes to that, when looking at the US. (That unique nation was essentially founded in part on the ideal of tribal factions burying the hatchet just long enough to compromise endlessly in favor of common interests.) Germany is more in line with France in terms of how well it stitched together duchies, kingdoms, etc. Thus far, in fact, only a few nations that, due to their particular histories, never assimilated all their citizens to a sufficient degree look to be in danger of secession actually occurring.

But will that really matter? How small does a nation-state have to be to not count as a nation-state? Presuming that a nation-state is a group of people or peoples with sufficient weight of history, customs, languages and such in common to assemble under one banner, does size truly matter once it grows to a scale dwarfing that of tribes?

Hence we now arrive at an interesting crux where the current global order appears balanced between growing hyperconnection fostered by pure economic/financial interests (multinationals and partially certain nation-states with globe-spanning economies), tribalism enabled by said connections that can undermine certain nation-states, and the former status quo largely based upon a handful of nation-states (the G20, to be generously inclusive) mostly reliant on both trade and information flows continuing yet also suffering their consequences.

Where this ends up is truly anyone’s guess. But separation in and of itself is not truly a bad thing. Sometimes the consequences simply aren’t worth it – if the issue of slavery hadn’t even existed in the US, I contend that secession still wouldn’t have been worth it as it would have increased longer-term probability of warfare, which should be avoided at all costs. (Hence why I am still against secession, for what it’s worth.) The same COULD be true of, say, Catalonia and Spain, or Scotland and England. There are lesser odds in both instances of conflict arising in the future, but that is more due to the degree of mutual benefits from refraining.

Actually, that is the real question: What degree of mutual benefits and, for that matter, shared potential costs can help assess whether tribalist instincts could triumph or not? For example, I don’t really believe secession will happen in the US despite unfortunately perceptive Steve Bannon’s prognostications about California, mainly because the mutual benefits are too obviously great. The same could be said of Scotland, although Catalonia is a tossup. So wherever it is possible to ascertain that disparity, it should be easier to assess where tribalism will triumph. And, in a fairly cynical move on my part, I am also willing to bet multinational corporations will do their best to subtly undermine said processes when absolutely necessary and when they can to ensure the bottom line remains intact – since the status quo was so beneficial to many such enterprises, they do have a pretty sizable incentive to preserve much of the current balance of power.

Granted, that is all contingent on humans’ ability to not shoot themselves in the foot when acting in concert. I have been very wrong about that before, and frankly, on a personal level, continually go against my own best interests. But thanks to modern information flows, even as swiftly as lies and other fanning of tribalist flames occur, so can the benefits of communicating with other, similar members of an online tribe with potentially varying motives accrue. Time will tell which bonds necessarily are the most crucial.

In Favor of Information Overload

As technology advances, the pace of innovation quickens at an almost exponentially faster pace. At times I ponder whether the excesses of the information age now imply that in the most developed, richest nations, we are experiencing its profligate last stages, before augmented and virtual reality jump the information age to an entirely higher stratosphere. After all, with the mass amounts of spurious information now being created by the gigabyte as I type this, as well as the perhaps even more massive totals of accurate information being generated and yet never to be analyzed, are we drowning in our own excess?

The primary challenge for anyone looking to remain relatively well informed is how to deal with the torrent of information bombarding your typical day, with or without your consent. You already take in more than you may think – for example, right now I am writing this while listening (please don’t judge me) to Demi Lovato, after listening to a medley of Rostam’s latest album Half-Light, just after checking Twitter, with several tabs open to articles, one of which I am about to cite. Can the typical human brain handle this much information?

Yes and no. It is obvious that we have limited focus and attention spans, and consequently have to make deliberate choices in what we really want to pay attention to (for example, I fear that I am not really paying THAT much attention to Ms. Lovato’s lyrics). The most common complaint that usually follows this obvious problem of training your ability to focus – which, by the way, is probably one of the greatest competitive differentiators for employees nowadays, in my experience – is that it is increasingly hard given exposure to so much information flow. We should limit our intake, so that line of reasoning goes, very selectively. Prune your Twitter feed, cull your magazine subscriptions, etc.

I disagree. I think that we underrate the human brain’s ability to handily reject information that isn’t relevant to the needs of the moment. Case in point: I’m about a third of the way through my customary Saturday morning reading time, and I can relate how I have read two interviews in Quanta magazine, one with Ken Ono, a gifted mathematician, about his book regarding an Indian math prodigy from the 19th century, and another with physicist Neil Johnson about modeling extremist behaviors online. I read an Aeon article about the transformative nature of the changing-self paradigm, and another about creepypasta. I read an Art of Manliness article about four key money-saving principles. And last but not least, I read an intriguing article from Quanta (again) that I recognized would prove of use in writing this contemplation of information intake.

That article explores how the “information bottleneck”, wherein less-relevant details are pruned from memories by the human brain unconsciously to preserve more important details for working memory purposes, could prove of use as a concept to trainers of deep neural networks. That process of mental pruning of relevant details is constant – I am already losing details of those articles I listed above, apart from the one I just cited, as my parsing of that one was repeated. Such repetition increases the brain’s retention because reviewing increases the firing of neurons down the same pathway, signaling to the brain that this is worth storing in working memory.

Now, if this process is already underway, to what degree do we truly lose if we deliberately expose our informational capacity to as much as possible, or even more than anything possible? Isn’t that the wiser course, as then the primary challenge is to hone our sense of what is best to retain in working memory? Rather than throttle the stream of information at the source, why not gently nudge its flows into more disparate channels of varying priority? In brief, train your prioritization, not your volume of intake.

The cultivation of one’s stores of information is critical, of course, but maintaining the diversity of the mental ecosystem, so to speak, is as important as the biome’s variety to the body’s overall health. Managing the only truly limited resource, one’s precious time, then, is the accompanying, paramount challenge.

Path to a New World Order: Deglobalization via Demographics

Everyone likes to think they are a contrarian in some way, in an ironic twist reminiscent of the fact most rate themselves as above-average drivers. I am as guilty as anyone of this phenomenon, which is why I am be predisposed to agree with the authors of an intriguing new paper, available here. In brief, the authors’ argument is that aging demographics will lead to savings being lower than investment, which will contribute to rising real interest rates, inflation and wage growth, all the while inequality falls. You should read the paper for a full runthrough of their reasoning, but I couldn’t help but take their conclusions a few steps further.

Ever since Fukuyama declared “The End of History” many have been trying to poke holes in the theory that the current world order is truly that superior. Some say that rising inequality in developed nations (noted in the aforementioned paper) as well as Brexit, populist political movements and, most tellingly, Trump’s surprising victory, are all symptoms of backlash to the consequences of globalization.

You can’t turn back the clock, however much you may wish to. Current populist movements all succumb to the allure of nostalgia when they wish to have their cake and eat it too by enjoying all the benefits of globalization – relatively inexpensive cellphones, access to a massive diversity of inexpensive goods, etc. – without having to face the consequences of exporting many jobs.

But what if the clock moves even further forward, as a consequence of globalization? Globalization inadvertently helped exacerbate inequality, which in turn was further worsened by certain policy decisions, both monetary and fiscal. That doesn’t mean globalization is inherently bad – after all, doesn’t a white working-class man still enjoy a higher standard of living than a factory worker in Bangladesh, now? But as developed nations grew even richer and, eventually, the best-positioned nations to take advantage of globalization and ride the boom of being producer to unimaginably wealthy consumers, demographics began to change. Median ages crept older, as birth rates declined and immigration proved insufficient to stem the tide. Intriguingly, and as a result of one of the most ineptly cruel policy decisions of all time, even China faces a demographic shortfall due to its one child policy.

So as demographics shift, let’s presume that the conclusions put forth in the paper cited above are correct. Should labor become scarcer, its value will only rise. Consequently, technological advances that have been steadily if slowly progressing in the background that only further erode reliance on labor will become even more in demand. Increased automation of manufacturing processes will become even more widespread, rendered far more intelligent by the application of advanced artificial intelligence programs.

More importantly, they could well become localized. Why rely on overseas factories if it becomes cost-effective enough to make things domestically and reduce transportation costs? I am well aware that’s a significant supposition, and likely requires additional factors such as reduction in taxes, significant technological advances and perhaps even subsidies. But in many industries, I think many underestimate the extent to which they only rely on overseas labor simply because it is cheaper, currently. Once the intersection of human labor costs and labor-replacing machinery costs is reached, local production may well seem more reasonable. If the US was still the third-most prolific producer of cotton in 2016, for example, and a company such as Atlanta-based Sewbots can automate most clothing production, perhaps made in the USA won’t be as much of a signal of loftier prices.

Once centralized factors of production for many types of goods that once were located overseas are again located domestically, how much different will the status of globalization look? I’m not supposing trade will necessarily shrink by a massive amount – after all, natural resources are distributed inequally – as the flow of human capital and information via the Internet will continue, hopefully. But the world will lose one primary avenue of globalization, although as I said earlier, the clock can’t be turned back and cultural exportation and assimilation and, inevitably, ensuing backlash will continue.

Path to a New World Order: How to Value Work?

The hullabaloo over one Google engineer James Damore’s leaked internal memo and consequent firing would have been far more amusing if such scenes hadn’t played out dozens of times before. As in the prior instances, what primarily set people off was Damore’s suggestion that there are certain tasks men tend to be better suited for and, more importantly, desire to do more than women. Damore’s piece had quite a lot going on within it, some of which I disagreed with, but the core issue underlying his screed is worth touching upon: the true value of work.

The consumerist, pseudo-market-worshipping nature of our current world order completely misses the point when it comes to work. Markets tend to be inefficient, which cannot be forgotten, even if they are still the least worst system humans have been able to devise. But it is very easy to forget that when we assess the value of work.

Such valuation necessarily depends upon the nature of the occupation. And therein lies the rub and relation to Damore’s piece, as many grew infuriated when they read his piece and rushed to their keyboards to denounce what they perceived to be his subtle contention: Men are simply better at many of the engineering tasks – in Damore’s line of work as he saw it – than women, and it would always remain that way as long as biological differences and accompanying tendencies remained intact.

The key issue here is that the nature of the occupation is what many failed to remark upon. Namely, I suspect many only grew so infuriated because his job is what is perceived currently to be very high status and demanding, with a consequent scarcity of supply, lucre resulting. If a janitor had written such a take, I highly doubt many would be up in arms (although it seems people are looking for more ways to gripe than ever before nowadays). And thus, to those same folks, the importance of ensuring equal representation of women in such roles and clarifying that women are fully capable of what Damore does was paramount.

Such intrinsic equality of capabilities between men and women is obvious. The proportion of such abilities amid populations that results in sector skew is not the scope of this piece; rather, what I find absurd is that inherent even in so many critiques of Damore’s piece was an implicit suggestion that unless women WERE doing the type of work Damore was doing, their work was of less value.

The true value created by any given occupation is difficult to measure. Is the cumulative psychological wellbeing created by an efficient therapist equivalent to, say, the peace of mind generated by a small business owner employing a dozen people? To return to my point about labor markets, they simply can’t go beyond the most basic of schema: supply and demand curves. Consequently, they perform rather horribly on any sort of long-term horizon – hence the curious occupation of motherhood, which may be the most important job in the world, hallowed by many and yet completely beyond the purview of labor markets – and also are very affected by biases.

With such imperfect measures, it is simply not safe to keep on ascribing more cachet and “value” to the hundreds or thousands of lines of code that an Amazon software engineer creates than the thousands of square meters of floor a janitor scrubs, predicated solely on the differing economic values assigned to that labor by the market. What must be done is to only compare the efficacy of their work in their respective occupations – how well they actually do their job.

Why? Because that is the crux of the problem, is it not? James Damore opines that women simply don’t wish to do his type of work in the same numbers to ever ensure equal representation among the sexes – and understandably there is a frenzied response to the contrary, but both arguments take it for granted that whatever else many women are doing that isn’t such a tech job simply isn’t as worthwhile. And that is not true at all. It may not create as much value – a graphic designer may not be paid as well – but what truly matters is how well someone does their job, however “lowly” it may be rated by the market or by popular opinion.

That sense of mutual respect may never have been as rampant in society as typical human nostalgia would like to think, but in times of heightened income inequality and increasingly pervasive mass media – without any ameliorating religious influences – it is only scarcer than ever before. And without it, furor over representation in sectors and occupations and C-suites will only continue, with likely increasingly negative consequences. Hopefully some positive effects may occur – namely, one major point Damore hinted at but did not make was that the traits in which women tend to best men could very well be highly needed but not perceived to be needed as of yet in certain areas. For example, would more women UI/UX designers contribute to the advent of responsible design, as we seek to wean consumers and companies off of the currently addictive nature of notification-based apps? Surely the uglier side of male-dominated cultures such as that of Uber would be mitigated.

Whatever those outcomes may be, it is clear that in an era of increasing income inequality, with no end in sight, emphasis of the intrinsic value of quality of work, whatever kind of work it may be, is important. Recognizing that whatever work someone chooses to do, as long as they do it well, is valuable in and of itself, will remove the implicit judgments underlying much debate about equal representation. Consequently, we will be able to better determine the actual necessity and value of improving diversity with regard to gender, race, viewpoint and more in every facet of life.

Path to a New World Order: Immigration As the Solution to Demographic Crises

It’s not so much that the old post-WWII order is crumbling irretrievably that it almost immediately started declining in certain niches – effective representation of newly formed nations – and thriving in others – establishing frameworks for global trade – from the moment it was birthed. Signposts such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement to the gradual evolution of healthcare within developed nations into an entrenched, innovation-resistant monolith challenged by politicians at their peril to the inexorable rise of China on the strength of its hybrid of Communism, state-sponsored capitalism and demographics have marked the way over the past several decades. Every human institution experiences such cycles, with evidence of their status masked in part by sheer size. Accordingly, even as the inefficacy of institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund in many areas grows even more glaringly apparent, they will still be able to make significant advances in others.

Meanwhile, the roles of global powers will continue to be recast, slowly but surely. Soft power will swirl nebulously among the formerly prominent Western European countries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, even as their hard power primarily exists in concerted form. They should not be counted out just yet – the European bloc can never quite be counted out unless the timescale is stretched out into that of centuries – but the global world order will no longer be influenced by the American-European coterie.

This is nothing new, as many pundits have predicted a shift in power to center somewhere in the Pacific near to China, as the United States remains the only true superpower yet China and India boast multiple advantages ranging from demographics to trappings of democracy disguising currently more-cohesive political systems. But the path to this new world order is more complex than many suppose, and moreover, it is far too soon to count out the United States’ resiliency even amid the very public airing of all its current issues. In this inaugural post, I outline one prominent issue that is fairly well discussed but usually from all the wrong angles: demographics.

Demographics As Destiny

For better or worse, our world is run by its apex species, homo sapiens. Whichever vaguely drawn boundaries of nation-states contain clumps of people primed to produce talented individuals generally tend to perform better in the long run. Historically, the greater the population, the greater the pool of laborers and consequently prosperity (if frequently accompanied by famine). Although the role and economics have shifted, the basic principle can often remain the same: More people under one political system can lead to more economic growth powered by consumption and potential productivity as well as the greater probabilities of individuals of merit rising to the top. This is mainly predicated on the particular attributes of a given system, to be fair, as well as technological levels.

In addition, however, the diversity of a given population pool in terms of age, race and culture, among other attributes, can end up resulting in a net positive. In these times, racial and cultural disparities prompt the most skepticism from both sides of the political spectrum, with some claiming it is impossible to reconcile some tribal identities and others prioritizing the supposed equality of all tribal identities above all else, or rather, to the detriment of all else. Both sides are wrong – as annoyingly is often the case, the golden mean lies in the middle. Too much cultural disparity can produce havoc, while racial disparity only usually matters as much as people ascribe meaning to said race, but both are trumped by and large by a commonly accepted rule of law, however perverted the law can be by prejudice. Multiple historical cases such as the Roman empire’s golden age, the late medieval period in Andalusia and more testify that cultural and racial disparities can be trumped by common economic interests. It is a delicate balance, to be sure, but it can be achieved nonetheless.

When it comes to age and overall diversity in terms of background, it isn’t the demographic-predicated social welfare programs common to most wealthy Western nations that only matters. It simply is a measure of an ecosystem’s health, and whether we like to think it or not, humans’ reality as biological animals entails that what we create and live in is an ecosystem, however advanced. The health of an ecosystem is frequently an uneasy balance between the aged and the young, the native and invasive species, the predators and prey. All health is derived from conflict between players of relatively equal terms should all go well, in the end.

Consequently, maintenance of diversity within an overall homogeneous structure – think the vast variety of Caucasian tribes within the Anglo-Saxon strictures that was the original 13 colonies founding the US – is what best forms a thriving ecosystem, at least as far as ecology and biology can tell us thus far. All factors must be balanced to at least some degree, though perfect harmony won’t ever be achievable. Race remains a topic few wish to discuss in perfect amity, because in the most discourse-laden nation, the US, it is probably the most divisive topic given American history. After all, the unique tragedy of America, its true original sin, was the attempt to classify an entire race as sub-human in order to defend the institution of slavery. From that stems the entirety of America’s unique racial order, and its attending, massive misery. But nobody wants to talk about that, because it is a problem that can’t really be solved, only acknowledged and imprinted in memory as an example to avoid, with a consequent timeline to rectify matters long enough it can make anyone quail.

Hence the most attention has been paid to the discrepancy between rich nations growing older in aggregate as opposed to developing economies, although that shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone who studied human nature and knows that procreative instincts are often most pronounced in those who value life the most intensely given their proximity to want.

The coming demographic crisis in several advanced Western nations – which will be even more severely pronounced in China – is therefore often analyzed and proclaimed as a coming doom. Amusingly, few seem to propose the obvious solutions. Stipends for parents such as occur in Russia aren’t enough to persuade people to procreate, primarily because procreation is nearly entirely tied up in cultural beliefs. Sadly, cultural beliefs are very, very hard to change, and even if you do succeed in exerting change, they are very slow in shifting. In fact, the more you attempt to persuade people their culture is erroneous in even some degree, the more you will incite them to push back against you, whether or not they are actually in the wrong. As this mental bias is common to all humans, one can hardly judge any other for doing so.

Immigration As Solution

So if one can’t change culture, what can one do? The obvious solution is to implement an immigration policy that is both restrictive and welcoming. This isn’t a contradiction in terms – it is simple common sense. Import those whose native culture promotes diversity within your extant ecosystem, in order to induce enough of a change, while at the same time doing one’s best to promote change based on either demographic or meritocratic or racial or social inequality to contribute to diversity. Prioritize whatever criteria you wish – but the catch is that the criteria can’t exclude any type of diversity, only prioritize some over others.

You could try to embrace a truly meritocratic approach and prioritize immigration only by those who score highly enough on aptitude tests, but then you would have to determine what aptitudes truly matter. People with very high IQs often fail to produce any meaningful value to society, after all. But one can’t blindly promote pure diversity and seek to admit only those of cultures and races differing from the majority of the host nation. In addition, relying on the fact those who apply may be more determined to succeed isn’t enough, given the potential appeal of a perhaps safer socioeconomic system and/or welfare safety net. Frankly, it comes down to a mix of multiple elements, with merit being the primary. How best to measure merit? Assign weighting to academic credentials and job history, with an allowance regarding socioeconomic status and age. Prioritize entire families, not merely out of common human decency but because frankly families are the stable, basic building block of human society. Tribalism can be a useful instinct to tap when it comes to immigration – after all, the age-old tradition of some immigrants coming to, say, America and saving up to bring relatives over is a highly useful trait to promote. From there, it is difficult to assess allegiance to a particular governing rule of law or cultural mores, but the degree of allegiance doesn’t really matter once conduct is sufficiently established over a fair duration.

Especially as declining fertility rates and advancing median ages will be far more of a problem in coming decades than many anticipate – few have calculated beyond the simple math of the additional burden welfare programs will have to bear – immigration policies that can shrewdly induce a greater influx of immigrants prepared to embrace the mores and advantages of the host nation will be a hallmark of those states best prepared to thrive. It isn’t enough on its own – there has to be enough of an extant system for newcomers to strike out on their own as opposed to subsist on welfare, which will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Bluntly speaking, humans aren’t as special a species as we like to think when it comes to the evolutionary churn of competition. We all benefit from exposure to different individuals, and resulting competition. But it is not a zero-sum game, which is the most common fallacy about immigration. Welcoming those who wish to do well and are more willing to sacrifice what it takes to do so than those who have enjoyed the largesse of a wealthy nation their entire lives is not popular politically, but can be presented as canny by those savvy enough to nail the narrative.

Should the US Immigration System Be More Meritocratic?

(Full disclosure: I am writing this to avoid doing my decision tree programming assignments on Coursera because doing something else that has been on your to-do list for some time instead of what is due is one of the best ways to procrastinate. Plus I’m pretty bad at programming, so, you know, play in the area where you have an edge.)

Every few years, the US immigration system seems to become a locus of attention, a hot topic/hot-button issue, for at least a few months, before it fades back out of media cycles when something more pressing takes over. That may not happen with Trump as president, but I’m willing to bet it is likelier than not, unless, God forbid, another terrorist attack happens in the US. Much of the time, the discussion around immigration is based on poorly drawn party lines or already-extant policies, many of which don’t really seem to address the complex realities of immigration as it has evolved in the post-9/11 era. Republicans mostly toe the line and trumpet dire warnings about insecure borders and ISIS jihadists hiding amid inflows of refugees; also toeing the line, Democrats proclaim diversity and (occasionally) moral duties to assimilate the “poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Many on both sides make good points, but given how polarized politics are nowadays, and how far apart the two primary positions seem to be, it seemed timely to delve into whether a moderate stance can be staked out. (I already have pretty established ideas around the US immigration process, but before I sketch out my argument, let’s provide some background.) Moreover, it seemed a good time to actually learn more about current US immigration policies as, frankly, I doubt many know much about it.

US Immigration 101

Using the American Immigration Council as a source, here’s my summary based on some time spent reading through multiple documents today:

1: In general, US immigration is based on a few principles: family reunification, admission of skilled immigrants, protecting refugees and promoting diversity.

2: Essentially, adult children and brothers and sisters of US citizens, plus spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) all fall under that first principle (occasionally the second) and thus make up the majority of migrants (based on 2014 data).

Those preferences should be noted carefully, by the way.

3: Things get considerably hairier when you consider people who are here based on their employment. There are over 20 types of visas for temporary nonimmigrant workers, for starters. Some of the more popular ones: H-1B and H-1B1, with more detailed here. In 2012, close to 612,000 temporary foreign worker visas were issued, according to Brookings. Meanwhile, when you consider permanent immigration, there are five preferential categories:

4: There are also per-country ceilings, with the key provision here being that no group of permanent immigrants (family or employment-based) from a single country can exceed 7% of the total amount of people immigrating to the US in a single fiscal year.

5: In regards to refugees, the strictures are quite interesting. From AIC: “Refugees are admitted to the United States based upon an inability to return to their home countries because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to their race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. Refugees apply for admission from outside of the United States, generally from a “transition country” that is outside their home country. The admission of refugees turns on numerous factors, such as the degree of risk they face, membership in a group that is of special concern to the United States (designated yearly by the President of the United States and Congress), and whether or not they have family members in the United States. Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. The total limit is broken down into limits for each region of the world as well. After September 11, 2001, the number of refugees admitted into the United States fell drastically, but annual admissions have steadily increased as more sophisticated means of conducting security checks have been put into place. For FY 2016, the President set the worldwide refugee ceiling at 85,000…”

Asylum has no limits, but you have to be a person already in the US seeking protection under the same criteria as refugees. There’s no limit on the number of individuals who may be granted asylum, however. Plus, refugees and aslyees are eligible to become LPRs one year after admission to the US.

6: The last notable feature of US immigration policy to mention is the Diversity Visa lottery, wherein each year 55,000 visas are allocated randomly to nationals from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous five years. To be eligible you must have a high-school education or equivalent, or have, within the past five years, a minimum of two years working in a profession requiring at least two years of training or experience. Spouses and minor unmarried children may also enter as dependents (in fact, dependents present a whole other set of issues that some friends of mine are currently working through, and which are admittedly too complex to go into here).

7: There are other programs and categories that fall under humanitarian relief or what-have-you but by and large, we can cut to the chase and get to how you become a US citizen: In order to qualify for US citizenship, an individual must have had LPR (green card) status for at least five years (three if you got it through a US-citizen spouse), be at least 18 years of age, demonstrate continuous residency, demonstrate a good moral character, pass English, US history and civics exams, and pay an application fee. (There are, of course, some exceptions.)

Whew, made it this far.

Is It a Good System?

It’s interesting to examine the above criteria and see how the current policies evolved in response to American history, but the most pressing question to ask right now, of course, is whether the above is actually a good system. While noting ruefully that there is no such thing as a perfect system where humans are involved in the design, there must be kudos given to some aspects of the current system.

  • When it comes to adults, the US citizenship requirements are sound.
  • The Diversity Visa lottery system’s randomness and focus upon countries with otherwise low rates of immigration to the US is appealing in terms of augmenting diversity as well as potentially providing avenues of escape to those in nations that may have difficulties otherwise in obtaining green cards.
  • Likewise, the shuffling between any one country can ostensibly make sense, unless, of course, one nation is experiencing significant trauma – but more on that later.
  • In essence, it covers most of the basics of what an immigration system ought to have…and by that I mean it addresses most of the basic issues, not that it addresses them well.

However, it is clear that the system has significant flaws, among which are:

  • There aren’t that many ways for an illegal immigrant to become a citizen in a realistic fashion given the volume of illegal immigrants within the US.
  • All the caps – those of the H-1B visa types in particular – are set at what is likely far too low a level, given the record number of applications received in recent years. Hence the recent reintroduction of the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, a bill sponsored by Chuck Grassley and Jim Durbin, that would basically attempt to set up a preferential system for foreign students educated in the US, on top of numerous proposals to increase the caps.
  • It can disproportionately favor those who have obtained degrees over individuals of otherwise significant abilities.
  • The extant visa programs definitely allow room for potential abuse, such as outsourcing labor to cheaper foreign workers rather than prioritizing American citizens in job hunts first.

Key Considerations

To take a quick step back before I outline some specifics that I think would improve the US immigration system, let’s detail key considerations when it comes to immigration in general. Given human nature, secure borders to a nation-state are necessary to preserve the rule of law and the appeal of citizenship, not to mention delineate relative advantages. Immigration is equally necessary to the vibrancy and vitality of any developed country with sufficient wealth that the natural birth rate is below the replacement rate, resulting in aging demographics (simply because as people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children on average). Furthermore, there is often a moral component to immigration, hence clauses and categories addressing the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Beyond even that, when it comes to the US – a truly unique state in the course of human events – there is a distinctly American ideal of a playing field at least partially based in merit. Even if it is over-romanticized and not wholly realistic much of the time, the uniquely American vision of a nation wherein any person willing to adhere to democratic republican values, work hard and contribute as a citizen should be given a fair chance to do so. Just because it is an ideal that may seem illusory much of the time doesn’t mean it should be abandoned – that’s the exact point of an ideal.

One very important and potentially controversial note: Does birthright citizenship really make sense when it comes to favoring certain people for certain jobs over others? Although I am not quite settled in this conclusion, I don’t think it does unless it directly impedes your ability to perform well. If a worker from Mexico is hired by Amazon as a software developer because he or she does a job well, as good as or better than American citizens, and moreover is willing to accept a fair but lower wage, then what really matters is whether that person complies with all the requirements of a US citizen while they are here, such as paying taxes, obeying laws, etc. and most importantly their DEMONSTRATED INTENT to become a citizen. Just because you were born somewhere by a matter of sheer luck doesn’t mean that you should get preference over other workers IF they also wish to stay here permanently and are simply undergoing the process to do so. I unpack this viewpoint further below, as I think it is key to a more meritocratic approach to immigration.

A More Meritocratic Approach

But that isn’t to say that a more meritocratic approach to building our society isn’t to be broached. And especially when it comes to America’s unique place in the world, there’s a lot in favor of making our immigration system far more meritocratic. Why? Let’s run through a few reasons. One, to uphold that core American ideal of establishing a playing field for those willing to compete; two, America is a nation of immigrants, pure and simple, that has by and large achieved its current status in defiance of the usual issues that afflict rich, developed nations because of a constant, healthy influx of fresh talent in many spheres; and three, the current system is not a market designed to attract individuals of ability or accommodate those of potential ability.

So how would we go about making the US immigration system more meritocratic?

1: Abolish caps on H-1B and similar temporary worker visas. Instead, a preferential system with flexible limits would be introduced that would prioritize applicants on several key criteria: intended duration of residency, type of occupation, employer sponsorship, willingness to take general and occupation-specific aptitude tests and consequent scores, educational attainment (especially in the US), number of dependents, experience and proof of moral character.

This system could be broken down into maximum points per category, somewhat similarly to Canada’s, and instead of having a cap for total eligible participants instead there would be a very high bar of necessary points to essentially accomplish the same purpose. (A cap could be introduced as well, but it’d have to be much higher than current levels). For example, a married woman with three children who has a college degree who intends to stay in the US for a decade should be prioritized over a younger single male with a college degree who intends to stay only for a few years before returning home. (After all, the entire purpose is to see who will generate the most value to the US while they are present, right? In that case, those who are going to pay more in school fees and taxes, as well as live longer in the US and thereby are likelier to culturally assimilate more, should be preferred.) Furthermore, by making the criteria that much more rigorous and giving preference to those who are not only willing to compete in all categories but also perform highly, the actual volume of applicants that would make it far enough to generate a fair amount of work will definitely shrink.

Is such a system more meritocratic? Yes. Is it fair? I think it’s fairer than the current system, and in fact is more aligned with the demands of real life. Each category could be weighted differently, and the preferred types of occupations (given what is most necessary to augment the US labor pool at that time) could also shift.

2: For illegal immigrants in the US seeking pathways to citizenship, a similar system could be used, with actual duration of stay utilized instead of intended duration of residency. Again, in the case of illegal immigrants the weights of the system would shift, with experience perhaps prioritized over type of occupation.

3: The current preference system for families of US citizens isn’t too shabby, but again, optional expediting of green card processes based on proven ability should be utilized, as written out in more detail below.

4: Last but definitely not least, the pathway from H-1B visa to green card should be prioritized on not just employer sponsorships but an optional, even more rigorous battery of aptitude or occupation-specific tests as well as demonstrated residency in the US (physical presence prioritized, similarly to naturalization), plus, of course, any and all employers of visa holders. For example, H-1B visa holders with engineering degrees that pass the FE or PE engineering exams in the US should be prioritized over those when it comes to obtaining a green card. Most importantly, the Department of Labor certificates that there are insufficient US workers available for such a position should no longer be required, but ONLY if the applicants are applying for permanent green-card status, with those looking for citizenship prioritized.

Concluding Thoughts

This last one is probably one of my more controversial opinions, and to be frank, I am not even completely decided on it thus far. However, it’s never quite made sense to me, in light of American ideals, that workers born in America should be preferred over those seeking to become permanent residents, if in all other areas the latter is superior. If the immigrant wants to become a citizen and is equally skilled, and then is only differentiated by his or her willingness to accept a lower wage, well…in a market economy, it’s simply unfair to begin mandating minimum wages for every single occupation at even skilled levels. It’s up to the individual to protect his or her own best interests, and if they are willing to live on less in order to get a job that will allow them to get citizenship, then they should be allowed to do so. The key items here are first the INTENT and then DEMONSTRATION of permanent residency. That’s how to level the playing field – if at any point the applicants fail to qualify based on the already standing residency requirements, then their visa status is invalidated.

I imagine there will likely be plenty of responses detailing how incomplete and flawed my proposals above are. They may well be – but at the same time, their emphasis on individual intentions and more opportunities for demonstrating ability, plus prioritization of those who seek to live longer in the US and raise families therein, begin to address the root of the issues with US immigration. Whether or not my mechanisms would work, giving willing applicants more ways to demonstrate how committed and talented they are, and consequently how much more value they would create in the US, should be the ultimate goal.

Stray Notes

Existing aptitude tests that could easily suit my purposes already exist, e.g. CFA, GMAT, GRE, general IQ tests, etc. The applicant will bear that extra expense in exchange for moving up in priority and actually qualifying. Also, one could suppose that the aptitude tests would be already be factored in by employers’ willingness to sponsor a given person. Potentially, but even so, I think that federal criteria for citizenship should take the fact an individual is motivated enough to undergo additional tests to prove ability into account…not administer or develop new tests itself.

Looking forward to the good fight in 2017

In the meme-ification of much online discourse, it was inevitable that 2016 would be encapsulated by juxtaposed images, such as the below:

And in the interests of transparency, it’s good for people to proclaim loudly how they felt about the year overall. It’s good that people are still protesting President-elect Trump, or, like exemplar Garry Kasparov, continue calling out Putin for the tyrant he is. On the flipside, it is also good that those such as Bill Mitchell continue to lionize Trump, or, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, point out how Assad might actually be a better option for Syria. (Not that I agree with either.)

The health of any ecosystem is almost a measure of just how well-balanced its conflicts are. No one apex predator should reign supreme; no one species should exist without its natural enemy. Consequently, the level of discourse online should tilt back and forth between the left and the right ends of the political spectrum, with, hopefully, not too wide of a gap in between. It will never resolve, and it shouldn’t. Much like the world at large, conflict will never entirely cease, in any of its manifold forms.

That’s a bit depressing of a statement to start 2017 off, one might say. But is it? Struggle is the essential paradox at the heart of the human condition. Why should it be feared or ignored? Rather, it should be embraced, dare I say it, joyfully. Learning something new is painful until you can develop it into a habit…and even then, new habits remain painful to inculcate. Becoming fit is painful – you literally tear your muscles to rebuild them – but few would argue it isn’t worth it. Embracing “the good fight”, as St. Paul would have us do, is our duty as humans, in the end.

What’s immeasurably difficult for me, as I embark on this new year, is grappling with the fact I’ll have to embrace that good fight every day for the rest of my life, without perhaps ever achieving closure on some of my biggest ambitions. But until I pass away, who’s to say I shan’t? Plus, it doesn’t help that I’m young and still overly cocksure (some would say pretentious, given my love of esoteric words, but I refuse to apologize for a diverse vocabulary). For that matter, who’s to say you won’t achieve your ambitions? One of the principles I hold dearest even though I am well aware it may not be true is that everyone wants to be the best version of themselves (even if someone is deliberately being bad by their own standards, I’d contend they wish to be the worst, i.e. the best at being their version of bad).

View post on imgur.com

So, looking forward to that good fight in 2017, I would like to think we can embark on the new year by idealizing that best version of ourselves. In this coming year, there’s no reason we can’t make some strides forward to becoming that person. To misquote one of my favorite Twitter personalities: “In order to get what you want, you have to become someone who deserves to get what he/she wants. Nobody talks about this.”

It won’t be easy. People don’t really change that much, if ever – Mad Men in particular was absolutely genius at demonstrating that very clearly – and if they do change, it’s at a glacial pace. But it’s better to strive than not to strive at all. As was shown very starkly in 2016, people who feel they haven’t had a shot in years at making a living will embrace any kind of striving, whether it is voting in a con man (Trump) or trumpeting pseudo-socialist political initiatives (Sanders). It was clearly an act of desperation – whenever people reject the status quo it usually is symptomatic of desperation given how our brains are hardwired to avoid loss.

Whether you are one of those desperate individuals or not, part of the good fight will be embracing what they have to say and seeing how we can address their very real concerns. You won’t like it. It will be painful for me to listen to many of my nearest and dearest either slowly being to normalize Trump or drift further leftward, without acknowledging the hollowness of both the ever-encroaching federal bureaucracy or the kleptocratic grifting the Trump administration will primarily engage in (although, because few things are entirely bad, they may well pull off some good things). But we must shut up and listen, and continue to strive to voice what we believe to be true, because that is, in essence, the good fight. It’s part of being a full-fledged adult who is privileged to live in a republic. That republic, the good old U.S. of A., has always been in danger of some sort, and now, in the early 21st century, it’s simply in a mix of confusion resulting from threats both old – the dying gasps of a certain kind of Russian aggression, high levels of inequality, cultural polarization – and new – the bloody incoherent, inchoate mess that is the demise of traditional kingdoms and autocracies in the Middle East, the structural shift away from economic growth being powered by the making of certain classes of things.

My friends and family have heard me say this sardonically, but to be frank, I am actually serious when I say that it is a wonderful time to be alive. (For us professionals in North America, it definitely is the best time to be alive in human history, so we better damn well be grateful.) Not because it will be easy, but because in any time of upheaval, when you are finally old enough to make more of an impact with your dollars, vote and voice, it should be exciting to effect change.

One last note: Let’s not forget all the lovely, brilliant, exciting things happening around you despite the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of mainstream media. In 2016 my best friend and his long-time girlfriend got engaged. Many of my colleagues experienced significant professional success. My older brother and his wife had my second nephew, Rune aka Rambo. Somehow, I got a lot done at work…a scary amount, actually, as dozens of thousands of people read analysis I put together. I’m not great at celebrating what’s already happened, as it already seems in the past, but that’s a very pernicious route to insecurity. So don’t fall into that trap, I will tell you, as I stand in it myself.

In short, there’s a lot of little greatness occurring all around – it may not seem big, but history is composed of little happenstances. Life is marked by little acts of kindness. So let’s look forward to 2017.

 

Why I’m Writing In a Candidate for President in November

Nationalism never quite made sense to me. Strong devotion to a country per se doesn’t really exist, to my mind – what people term patriotism or nationalistic fervor is actually devotion to a particular culture and/or set of people, or, at its most abstract, an array of ideals associated with a particular place and/or people. So when I say that I’ve always been proud to be an American, it’s not that I think the US is the greatest country in the world, as I don’t really think one can rank countries so crudely. Instead, what I’ve always loved about the US are the best of the its ideals: the freedom to self-govern, the separation of church and state, the dedication to equal opportunities for every person, the recognition of inalienable personal rights, etc.

The depth of my love for or pride in America isn’t particularly impressive. But as this election cycle has revealed, it definitely ran deeper than I suspected. The 2016 US presidential election has been uniquely infuriating to me. It’s easy to summarize my frustration with “Both candidates are unacceptable” as many of my fellow Americans already have or still do, but it’s worthwhile to explain in greater detail precisely why that is so.

Let’s take the easy case first: Hillary Clinton. It’s not so much that her level of competence is actually not as high as many suppose – as exemplified by an absence of any significant achievements in foreign policy during her tenure as Secretary of State, poor regard for security measures, and more – but that she will pursue policies that will, at best, maintain the status quo. Particularly on matters regarding abortion, that is unacceptable to me. Furthermore, the status quo has treated those like me – college-educated, working in an industry that wasn’t hit that hard by the recession, significant safety nets – pretty well, so I can understand a decent margin of support. But by and large, the status quo is only deepening inequality and exacerbating current handling of issues ranging from long-term sluggish growth to a critical lack of investment in infrastructure to climate change. Frankly, neither major political party in the US is addressing or will address the necessary array of issues in tandem, rather choosing to cherry-pick certain topical matters that will result in plenty of pork to dish around, or, at best, simply bringing more and more functions under the aegis of the federal government, whether they are best suited for that purview or not.

As president, Clinton could, perhaps, address some matters, perhaps by introducing a carbon tax. But it’s unlikely that she will accompany such a carbon tax with the necessary actions to make it less restrictive to economic growth, such as lowering the corporate tax rate. (Shocking, I know, but there’s a reason why so many US companies park their money abroad.) That’s just one example, and again, perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think so. At her worst, Clinton could be semi-competent and semi-corrupt in terms of just governing more in terms of dispensing favors than anything else. I should point out that I am not naive – that is precisely how many presidents have served their terms, to varying degrees. So again, she wouldn’t be that much of a change from prior presidents. In all likelihood (as she will probably be the next president), she will end up being an intriguing blend of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush, failing to grapple with the realities of intractable conflicts in the Middle East, climate change, an aging population saddling the US healthcare system with nigh-insurmountable burdens, bloated federal government programs, and more.

All in all, that’s unacceptable to me, which is why I can’t vote for her. But now I get to her opponent, and if you polled my friends and family and asked them what has infuriated me the most over the past year and a half, the answer would be clear: the political presence of Donald Trump.

The man himself wouldn’t be more than a fly on the windscreen of my life had he not, through some bizarre confluence of a ratings-hungry media, negligent Republican officials, shrewd showmanship, an angry portion of the American electorate that has been underserved or ignored for years and, frankly, some of the darker impulses that run through the human psyche, ended up where he is now. But somehow, in a manifestation of precisely the same phenomenon that Madison and Hamilton warned of in The Federalist Papers, wherein democratic processes are hijacked by an angry minority that choose to disbelieve whatever sources may indicate in order to prioritize what they view as their best interests, we now have GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.

And, less than a month out from the general election, he is now embroiled in yet another scandal, this involving vulgar comments more akin to those made by a rich, power-hungry, narcissist with sexually predatory appetites than anything else. Those comments were just the latest in a long litany of vulgarities, obscenities, inept, pandering, idiotic trash he has been spewing for months and months now.

Long before any of those comments, I was already angered by how seriously many seemed to be taking the clownish Trump, given his clear incompetence as a businessman, ineptitude as a leader capable of inspiring respect, and inability to negotiate any deal without buffoonish braggadocio (yep, had to say it). Since, the still-considerable media coverage and the tone of its narrative (only now shifting to overtly negative), but, primarily, the array of spineless politicians who endorsed him are what have enraged me. His sexism, racism and ignorance are all easy targets – in fact, he may not actually be any more racist than any other lucky, well-off, elderly man from his era who is accustomed to living in a bubble, but rather is playing to the nativist elements he knows he has been quite successful in attracting.

What is saddening since is that, given his nomination by a cowardly GOP, many people I know have been struggling to reconcile their championship of certain conservative values with the outright hypocrisy and contradictions he embodies or proposes. Some are worried about the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will loosen restrictions on abortion; some are convinced Clinton will enact further growth-dampening policies; and some are frankly pinching their nose and gazing solely at Mike Pence, hoping that his selection signifies how Trump simply won’t do anything as president but rather hand over all governing to associates. (Of course, he’d appoint other cronies or toadies, much like, well, Clinton probably will.)

Seeing good people try to contort lifelong beliefs to this shocking new reality has been rather disheartening. Many may read this and find it hard to believe that you could even accept Trump at all, but let me point out that JFK and LBJ were likely just as sexist as Trump, only shrewder about it and probably less overtly captivated by the prospect of power in both the bedroom and the boardroom. (That, by the way, speaks volumes about Trump’s overall psychology.) Furthermore, it’s not that anyone is enthusiastic about Trump, but rather struggling against the loss of hope at all. Should they be that despondent? Does Clinton really represent something that bad? To them, perhaps. After all, most of the people I have spoken to who support Trump do so either in vain hope of perhaps maintaining some ground on their religious values being promulgated more publicly, or because they belong to the many segments of the American people that have been neglected by politicians for years and years.

(Quick aside: the opioid epidemic is very, tragically real. Economic depression and government neglect of rural areas are equally tangible, pressing issues for many that those of us in urban, coastal environments working in high-tech industries simply cannot really relate to. It’s not that anyone is that enthusiastically FOR Trump, it’s that he’s provided an outlet for anger or at the least a way to blame others, through tapping into the nastiest of human elements – fear of the alien, the outsider, whether they be minorities or immigrants. Read this excellent tweetstorm by Chris Arnade for clarity.)

Regardless, supporting Trump is ultimately indefensible to my mind. Clinton is marginally more palatable, I suppose; she is more in the normal historical range of candidates (toward the lower end) when all is said and done, whereas Trump is an outlier of inadequacy. And, to cap off this half-rant, half-musing, I will state that I don’t believe writing in a candidate is handing the election to either candidate. Some compromises can be made – but this election poses one that is impossible to reconcile with my principles and, frankly, the best of American ideals. Clinton represents the ongoing mutation of the US into some unhealthy hybrid of an ever-encroaching federal government and stultifying, navel-gazing cultural impulses that will result in greater inequality and an increasingly stagnant society. Trump, however, represents the absolute worst of both political parties, where inherited, unearned wealth generates a bubble wherein boorishness goes unpunished, ruthless behavior is rewarded, tax loopholes are created to curry favor, narcissism runs amok, and hypocrisy is a way of life.

I can’t accept either realities. Neither represent the best of the US, and could only hope to capture some semblance of what makes the US great.

 

P.S. Trump’s behavior has been so erratic this whole election cycle that I still stand by a prediction I made to my colleagues months ago – he will drop out before the general election as he never wished to govern in the first place and instead was either trying to augment his few, fading business alternatives or was frankly paid off to run. Alternatively, I’ve misread his psychology and he actually thinks he can win or, at some point, wished to win, and now doesn’t really wish to do either, but is trapped into his self-constructed image of never being a loser.

The Importance of Culture Is Underrated

Everyone likes to belong. Whatever it is that you want to belong to, identifying as part of a group is one of the key human traits. Some primarily identify as a member of their family – probably the strongest and most common expression of this tribal instinct in humans – others as a member of certain cultural groups, still others as members of various societies or clubs. Identifying as a member of a culture, however, is currently the most interesting type of this phenomenon, particularly in light of recent reading. Mostly because the presidential election of 2016 has given me much food for thought as regards divisions along cultural lines as opposed to demographic or socioeconomic, I’ve recently delved into two works that treat upon cultural/sociological issues: American Nations and Black Rednecks, White Liberals (finished the former, working through the latter).

These books are written from two very different places, judging by their authors’ tone or unconscious/conscious biases, but oddly enough arrive at some similar conclusions. For example, American Nations is one of the few, recent books I’ve read by an explicitly liberal or even democratic socialist author who admits to the importance of cultures, while Black Rednecks, White Liberals also heavily underscores the role group cultures have played in American history. But where American Nations explores the fascinating impact of the group of Scottish/Irish Borderlanders arriving in Appalachia and parts of other regions and how their fierce independence and revulsion or mistrust of authority have swung either to one side – in fighting with the North during the Civil War – or to the other – their role as key production sites of booze in Prohibition – Black Rednecks, White Liberals takes it a step further, identifying the redneck culture as originating among that group and being passed on to certain segments of black populations in the area, and then being transplanted to Northern ghettos and contributing to the birth of black ‘gangsta’ culture.

(Sidenote: I also have somewhat of a personal stake in this as I’ve been rather intrigued by my own family’s colliding/contrasting origins, given my maternal ancestors are all Swedish, while my paternal ancestry is almost exclusively Scots/Irish/Welsh i.e. Celtic mutt and the mishmash of Appalachia and Scandinavian traits make for a fascinating cocktail to deal with.)

Now, as is common with most such books, I fear that both authors get a bit carried away with what one could call the Gladwell syndrome, where contrarian ideas are stretched too thin to accommodate outlier trends and facts, but the notions presented are useful, and, furthermore, address a key problem I’ve struggled with in many environs: a relativistic attitude toward cultures.

I’m a fan of political civility, one kind of P.C., but not the other, political correctness. I don’t think correctness is very common, particularly when the subjects are human beings. The latter kind of P.C. culture nowadays is producing quite a few problems, as many have noted in diatribes against the wimpiness of current college students or in the sadly frequent backlashes against movements like Black Lives Matter. But perhaps the rather more controversial issue is that nowadays many are encouraged to think of cultures as being relatively equal, or, rather, all different cultures are to be respected.

This is usually generated by a P.C. approach to avoiding clashes about ethnicities or confrontations about behavior but it’s deeply counterproductive. Cultures are nebulous yet very real things, herein defined as a set of traditions and associated values that guide behaviors adopted by a certain group, often related along ethnic or religious lines. And being able to make value judgments about cultures is difficult, since they are often associated with value judgments of ethnicities or religions.

But let’s start off with the base assumption that each individual human being is intrinsically equal in worth, regardless of what extrinsic value – whether economic, social, moral, etc. – they are perceived to or actually possess. Then one can hopefully proceed to recognizing that different groups of individuals that associate along similar cultural lines will tend to adopt behaviors resulting from the shared cultural values that, while in no way changing that intrinsic worth. And then you can arrive at what everyone recognizes even if they don’t acknowledge: certain cultures tend to possess concentrations of more productive and desirable traits than others. Relevant historical examples include the tendency of Jewish cultures – technically sub-cultures – in producing stable families that achieve high levels of education, occasionally material wealth and often many impressive achievements in various fields such as mathematics or science.

It’s not rendering judgments on a whole culture – it’s simply observing some tend to be more productive on average than others in promoting desirable traits. Although broader and shifting from ethnicity to ethnicity, immigrant culture in the U.S. tends to be the same, with determined individuals starting off with little often climbing socioeconomic ladders relatively quickly. In Black Rednecks, White Liberals, the author Thomas Sowell identifies Jewish, Koreans, Chinese, Mexicans, Polish, etc. all as examples of the former, although he ventures to state that the Irish, for example, tended to succeed more in athletic or entertainment endeavors while the Jewish excelled in academic fields more often.

I doubt I would go that far, without more closely scrutinizing the underlying data. But I will say that making value judgments of relative cultural values should be more encouraged nowadays, rather than repressed. In dismissing cultural comparisons, it’s too easy to fall back into “walled gardens” of thought and lazily condemn, say, Trump supporters as ignorant rednecks when in fact many savvy and well-educated people support him for a variety of reasons. When you consign criticism of cultures to the realm of controversy, you are refusing to grapple with the messiness of cultures, which contributes to misunderstanding the good and bad sides of every culture that people consciously or unconsciously identify with, and which has consequently shaped their actions. Analysis of culture is an excellent heuristic for grappling with problems of people and policy, and doing so in all honesty rather than avoiding the chance of uncomfortable confrontation will only help in the future.