Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Unaddressed consequences.

Progress is a great thing, but always comes with consequences.   We tend to focus on the great while too often giving short shrift to those consequences, especially when they’re negative.  We celebrate winners not losers, often dismissing them out of hand.  We get frustrated when every giant step forward seems to be followed with one or even multiple steps backward.  We’re astounded by how long resistance holds on and how hard fought it can be.  Notice I didn’t describe the consequences as “unintended”.  That’s important, because progress implies change, overturning what those who embrace it now consider retrograde, past its use-by date.  So the consequences are often intentional.  Not surprisingly, action breeds reaction, often vigorous and unbending.  Unaddressed consequences are the story — and perhaps the explanation — of our time.

Long after Brown, there remain powerful forces fighting integration manifest, for example, in some all too obvious efforts to undermine public education.  Just last week, the Supreme Court had to turn back another blatant assault on abortion rights which, almost forty-three years since Roe, are still under constant and systematic attack across the land.  The same kind of resistance is underway in the wake of the more recent Obergefell marriage equality decision.  North Carolina’s HB-2, the so-called “bathroom bill”, is just a thinly veiled blowback to newly won LGBT rights.  Each of these can be attributed to the intentional consequences of progress.   It’s easy to see this resistance as bigotry or narrow-mindedness, but each step that many of us consider a move forward disrupts the ways, ideas and often deep seated and heartfelt beliefs of people firmly rooted in “the way things were.”  That society at large accepts, or in some cases that the Constitution mandates, moving on doesn’t mean that individual’s or institution’s belief systems have, or can, change on a dime.  They were poorly prepared for the consequences of progress, but so too were we.  This lack has caused much bitterness and friction.

Some of the reactions to consequences seem misdirected, and sometimes purposefully so to mask some hidden agenda.   But sometimes that misdirection stems from confusion or an unwillingness to accept and more importantly to address, the consequences of progress.  In the social area where previous “norms” are upended and beliefs challenged — like abortion, integration and marriage equality — an often toxic mix prejudices and differing religious doctrines come into play.  These are often emotional reactions involving dogmas that are difficult to objectively prove or disprove, where logical arguments and the finer points of law have little currency.  We can, though often we don’t, understand the reaction at play, but are unable to resolve what is seen in absolutes; as a matter of black and white, not greys.

That isn’t the case where core beliefs are not threatened.  Here, consequences can be more easily and successfully addressed.  But here, too, they are often neglected.  I’m thinking specifically about progress like the Industrial Revolution and in our own time the Technology Revolution that has so changed and clearly improved the way be function and work.  What might be considered one bridge between these two revolutions happened just a little over one hundred years ago.  As recounted in 2013 by the Daily News, Henry Ford revolutionized car manufacture with his assembly line.  He reduced the time it took to assemble a Model T from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes.  Daily production in his Michigan plant moved from 100 to 1000 cars per day.  “In 1914”, the News wrote, “Ford's 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars -- more than his nearly 300 competitors managed to build with 66,350 employees.”  Consider what impact of that next-step-revolution-influenced reduction of manpower meant in 1913.  Technology has gone so much further, something I mentioned in my most recent post.  As the News article noted three years ago “…just 500 people work directly on the assembly line at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant, which now builds 605 Focus and C-Max sedans in each of two 10-hour shifts. Some 48,000 people worked at the Crystal Palace at its peak.”  Progress and consequences.

The unrest we’re experiencing today both here and abroad has been building for some time.  As most assuredly happened before in other disruptive periods, scapegoating and misdirection abounds but the underlying problem seems clear.  We’ve made huge technological progress but have failed miserably at addressing and mitigating its consequences.   Once highly sought after and valued as skilled workers find themselves out in the cold unprepared to meet the challenges of progress.  The skills they have are no longer needed.  The new skills required for twenty-first century employment are not in hand.  Public and private policy embrace and benefit from progress, but have fallen dangerously short in addressing the consequences.  That requires investments and a reorientation of priorities that we simply have not made.  That doesn’t have to be the case.

In his famous reach-out 2009 speech in Cairo President Obama declared: “I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world”.  That program was expanded to all communities and has resulted in an annual event sponsored by the State Department and held this year on the campus of Stanford University.   On its final day, the president delivered a short talk and then, along with Mark Zuckerberg interviewed three young entrepreneurs.  Among them was Mariana Costa Checa, Founder-CEO of the Peruvian technology education social enterprise Laboratoria.  Her company is focused squarely on the consequences of the technology revolution.  Her story says it all:

“…I started [Laboratoria] in Peru two years ago. We are now in Peru and Chile and Mexico. And what we tried to do is to go out and find talent where nobody else is looking for it, ...to identify young women who haven’t been able to access quality education or job opportunities…and train them to become the most awesome developers…and connect them with employment opportunities in the tech sector.

[In joining, most of our students] are completely unaware of their potential…thinking that it’s going to be really hard to break this vicious cycle of low-skill employment, underpaid employment, or just domestic work.  But they soon start learning to code, and it’s just such a powerful skill set. A few weeks into the program, they start building their first websites, their first apps, their games, and showing them to the world.  And it’s so empowering. And six months after joining, they’re ready to go out and join the workforce.  So we have students who get three job offers from the coolest companies in town. …They triple their income…start supporting their families. And…they start realizing that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it, no? And we have students that have gone from working at a corner shop in a slum to working at the IDB in Washington as developers, a few blocks from the White House. So really, they are an example that anything is possible, no?”

Yes, anything is possible if we start aggressively addressing the neglected consequences of progress that we have come to take for granted.  The stories told by Mariana Costa Checa and her counterparts reflect the aspirations I hear from startup entrepreneurs with whom I work In North Carolina. Their businesses focus largely on unmet needs, solutions that can touch and change many lives.  But the program initiated in Peru, one of reorienting and training to meet the needs of today not yesterday speaks to both what can be done.  Sadly, it also points to our deficiencies.  Some people decry globalization and immigration, but the reason her South American students are now working in Washington is that we haven’t trained enough people here to fill the coding savvy jobs that already exist and will continue to grow.  If young kids from impoverished families can learn so too can middle age former factory workers or vastly underemployed fast food workers.  The cliché, “where there is a will, there is a way” rings true.  Those young Peruvian girls are an “example that anything is possible, no?”

We hear a lot of anger and finger pointing in this campaign season, perhaps more than in recent memory.  Much of that anger, though not defined as such, comes from the unaddressed consequences of a modern world that is on the move and can’t be turned back.  It would be nice to hear more concrete talk of what we can do to get those left behind or falling behind back on a success track.  And what we can do is no mystery, but it requires urgent action and a meaningful investment in human capital.   No president can restore manufacturing in America, nor can any of us stop the clock, much less turn it back.  But doing something to mitigate the unaddressed consequences of the technological age, enabling opportunity, is a goal that can be achieved.  Whether our elected officials at all levels have the willingness to do so isn’t so evident.  But, “anything is possible”, no?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The morning after, our morning before.

It has been many weeks since my last post.  For sure, much has been happening, but my discipline is to write only when I can add to the conversation, offer some thought that wasn’t redundant.  In this unusual and unnerving political season, we have been subjected to an avalanche — overload may be more accurate — of comment and analysis.  It seems all that could be said has been, and many times over.  

Heading into July and the political conventions, I’ve have been thinking about our national mindset and more important our discontent.  The dramatic Brexit vote may be reflective of how some of us see things here in the Colonies, but of course with our own spin.  In the wake of World War I, some very unnatural boundaries were drawn up in the Middle East creating artificial countries with disparate and often deeply hostile populations.   We are still suffering the consequences of those mis-drawn lines (think Iraq et al).  The Allies did not want to make the same mistake in the aftermath of World War II.  There was no effort to draw new borders, but rather a notion of uniting Europe prevailed, aimed at avoiding future conflicts on the continent.  It was a tall order because, despite the obvious advantages and indeed necessity, there was something unnatural about putting together countries with vastly different histories, languages and cultures.  I always wondered how well that might work.  Not surprisingly, the European Union was born of compromise.  The result was a single currency and interconnected economy, but no unified government or unified language.  The EU is not a United States of Europe.

Emblematic of the somewhat artificial “coming together” was the wary participation of Britain.  Nothing expressed their ambivalence more vividly than London’s decision not to adopt the Euro.  From the start, the UK was hedging its bets, containing its participation.  England especially was never all in on the EU.  So, while the vote taken last week seemed and probably was contrary to the Britain’s economic and social interests, the leave outcome reflected that long-term ambivalence.  By the way, the Pound Sterling decision — maintaining its central bank — is in large measure what made Brexit possible.  Euro using members would have a far more difficult, not to mention very costly, disengagement.  

To be sure, resistance to immigrants — nothing new for the Brits — played some, even a significant, role in the vote.  But blaming it all on xenophobia would be to miss the larger and more significant story.  Globalization, of which the EU is a localized manifestation, may be widely beneficial writ large.  But short term, it has left the kitchen table sparse or totally bare in all too many households.  When put to a vote, people tend to ask not whether something is good for the nation (and world) but “for me”.   And the answer given in Britain by a majority of voters was, “not so much”.

It’s no wonder that the ever-opportunistic Donald Trump immediately embraced Brexit and expressing his wish that it will spread across Europe — “taking their countries and borders back”.  He wants to paint his own candidacy as part of an authentic global movement.  He’s banking on the idea that England’s fears mirror Europe’s and, by extension, America’s.  His views may come off as only xenophobic but he knows the general unease upon which he aggressively plays is far larger than that.  Anti-immigrant and even racist strains — a fear of the other — most certainly obtain among some of Trump’s followers, but sour economic realities faced at too many kitchen tables may be far more relevant.  It is at those tables where many of his and Bernie Sanders supporters converge.  It would be folly on our part to ignore this reality. 

The Donald may be many things, but being stupid is not one of them.  He has proved himself a cunning con man, knowing exactly what buttons to push.  He understood that, despite all its success of the past decades including controlling most state governments and both houses of Congress, the GOP suffers a serious talent void.  It’s presumed broad presidential bench turned out to be a “mile wide and an inch deep”.  He saw weakness not strength in the many and was able to vanquish them using the age-old strategy of divide and conquer.  He may be the most egotistical candidate ever, but he effectively played on the vanity of his opponents, presidential wannabes who, other than their own ambition, had no business in the race.  He also understood that time was ripe for a Republican demagogue and it’s not surprising that the last other man standing was Ted Cruz. 

Trump understands that many rightly frustrated, mostly White Americans, are hungry for a return to yesterday’s “better times”.  His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies not merely that we are in trouble, but that restoring the past will fix it.  That claiming the ability to turn back the clock is the cruelest of false promises matters little to this serial liar. Trump is the champion Washington Post 4 Pinocchio recipient.  He is running a cruel disingenuous campaign beginning with the notion that this billionaire who has built a fortune creating an image of luxury and hob knobbing with the most elite is an “outsider”.  He attributes our under employment problems to globalism and immigrants while Trump branded products largely carry made-in-other-countries labels and his businesses employ low wage foreign-born labor.  And, of course, he conveniently overlooks the role of technology in permanently obviating any restoration of the past.  Indeed, most current and former workers know that even in factories that still function here (and there are many of them) advanced technology, specifically automation, has been the real job killer.  Detroit is back, but it requires far fewer workers to produce a car.  Technology, and our serious lag in preparing and enabling young people for it, has had a far greater impact than either immigrants or trade.

Before going further, a word about trade and globalization.  It seems to me that politicians on all sides, and that was certainly true in the run up to the Brexit vote, are less than candid about this subject.  The world in which we live is interconnected.   Just look in your closet or up at that light fixture on the ceiling above your head.  Your car may have been assembled in Detroit or Tennessee, but many of its parts were made elsewhere.  That has been true for a very long time, longer than the majority of American citizens have been alive.  We don’t have trade treaties just because we want them.  We need them to function and to remain competitive.  Globalization can’t be undone nor, if we are honest, do we want it to be undone.  The citizens of the UK are just beginning to discover how difficult, if not impossible, disengaging will be.  In all likelihood, the parting will be more in name than in reality.  Interdependency rules in the 21st Century and that’s the ultimate fact that counts.

Part of Brexit’s morning after question is obviously whether the forces that made it a winner are, as Trump happily asserts, present here and could bring him to office.  Without question, kitchen table lag frustration, a feeling of powerlessness and a sense, real or imagined, of government’s inability to function or deliver on its promises are at play in 2016.  Any one who has followed our primary season and doesn’t understand that hasn’t been listening.  That Washington has been in gridlock during most of Obama’s presidency only fuels that frustration.  It not only impacts those who have yet to catch up to the recovery but most of us.   Does that spell a Trump presidency?  I don’t think so, but we shouldn’t rule out that potential/danger.

I hope and trust that Hillary Clinton is taking this reality to both head and heart.  While most students of politics dismiss Vice Presidential choices, her selection this year will count and can made a difference.  Democrats’ frustration and dissatisfaction gave substance to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.  She doesn’t only need those votes but those voters enthusiastic support.  Elizabeth Warren probably speaks to that better than anyone else and she has become the most effective debunker of Trump than anyone else around.  For a long time my bet was on Julian Castro who is both young and would have obvious appeal to Latinos.  But he doesn’t necessarily bring on Bernie’s followers.  Obviously, selecting a senator is tricky given the importance to retaking the body, but winning the presidency remains the top priority.

Many of Sanders’ supporters are young.  They really have more at stake in this election than anyone else.  The makeup of the Supreme Court alone will determine much about the rest of their long lives ahead.  What kind of country we will be?  The Reagan, Bush and Bush presidencies have given us years of conservative decisions, not the least Citizens United.  W appointed the youthful Roberts and Alito.  Anyone thinking it doesn’t really matter who sits in the White House or how much damage they can do must not be paying attention.  Presidents count big time.  Young people were wild about Bernie and young people in the UK were wild about Retain.   The problem is that while older folks who actually have the least at stake (the fewest years to be impacted) are committed voters, young voters are lazy and unreliable in that regard.  64% of young people supported Remain, but only a fraction of them went to the polls.  Senior citizens, whose lives will be only minimally touched by its consequences, determined the Brexit outcome.  For me, that, not dissatisfaction with the economy or government, is the larger message of what happened in the UK last week.  Our turnout in elections is a general embarrassment, but the low turnout of young voters is nothing less the irresponsible even criminal.

Donald Trump won’t be president if we turn out to vote, most especially if our kids and grandkids don’t stay on the sidelines…again.   We dare not — they dare not — let that happen.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Clarity, ugh!

Okay, I’m not getting paid to follow campaigns or prognosticate, but to use that as an excuse would be really lame.  I blew it, big time!  Donald Trump whom I refused to take seriously will be the GOP nominee.  The election is still almost six months away.  Buckle up; things are likely to get even more poisonous and ugly.

Paul Krugman suggested in a recent column that the emergence of Trumpism reflects the fact that the GOP simply hasn’t delivered for its base.  I don’t know if that’s really how they feel.  It doesn’t much matter because what began in 2010 as the anti-establishment Tea Party rebellion has now reached a new, albeit counter intuitive, height: the crowning of a billionaire demagogic whom they have convinced themselves is just like them: a “true outsider”.  Trump has been deft at understanding their frustration, at hitting all the right notes for his angry and frustrated prime audience.  As I’ve written before the real issue for them — many in the Republican base — is feeling a loss of power, of disenfranchisement.  Someone has usurped their rightful place and pushed them figuratively if not literally out of the homestead.  The future is being written and they aren’t, or more to the point feel they aren’t, part of it.   They aren’t responsible for the shift but feel individually and very personally victimized by it.   Whether that’s the case, doesn’t really matter.  They are mad as hell and are looking both for someone to blame — “the other” — and equally are desperate for someone to lead them back to their promised land.  “Making American Great Again” translates simply into “bring back their good old days.”

Blaming the “other” started long before Trump escalated down from on high in his flagship Fifth Avenue namesake building.   He played the “other card” to the hilt from his initial xenophobic portrayal of Mexicans through his suggesting on the eve of the Indiana vote that Cuban American Ted Cruz’s father was a JFK conspirator.  Over and over we’ve heard supporters tell interviewers that Trump had the honesty to say out loud what “we’re all thinking”.  If that’s the case, then a lot of Americans are having some terrible and distorted thoughts.  It’s not a sign of leadership that Trump is giving them voice.  Most assuredly, it’s not “honest”.   Far from it! While I may have underestimated him from the start, I have not changed my view that his rhetoric is purely manipulative and opportunistic.  There is nothing to suggest in either his record or utterances that he possesses an ounce of conviction other than seeking personal power and feeding his overblown ego.

In contrast to the GOP, Krugman suggests the Democrats have largely kept their promises.  While I agree with him, especially with regard to the President who has by and large delivered on his campaign promises (including the ACA), how do you explain the rise and appeal of Bernie Sanders?  Clearly the crowds who listen to him rail against the “millionaires and billionaires” seem to be expressing the same anti-establishment frustrations.  Perhaps, but I think it is totally wrong to conflate Trump and Sanders supporters.  Bernie’s followers are not so much opposed to the political establishment — they are more than likely to vote for Clinton in the fall — as they are frustrated by economic inequality.  They are the logical next step of the short-lived “Occupy” effort spotlighting the 1% but more generally growing inequality.  Their anger is decidedly not directed against others who, regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender, are suffering challenges equal to or greater than their own.  Rather it is against a system that seems, and largely is, rigged in favor of the wealth class.  It is unsurprising that so many of Sanders most dedicated supporters are young.  This is after all a generation, probably the first since the Great Depression in the 1930s, who legitimately wonder if they can surpass or even match the income and lifestyle of their own parents.  Many have pursued higher education and taken on massive debt with no guaranteed prospect for a return on their intellectual or financial investment.  Instead they see a work world that no longer cares about their success, much less well being.  The loyalty upon which their parents could count is gone; the prospect of doing better than living paycheck to paycheck is dimmed for the foreseeable future. 

Superficially the two constituencies — Trump and Sanders — may seem aligned, but nothing could be further than the truth.   Something fundamental separates them and that difference is profound.  Unlike the Trump followers, those attracted to Bernie don’t see themselves as losing out to “people not like me”.  Indeed, the very idea that any one is an “other” is alien to them.   Xenophobia and prejudice of any kind is just “so yesterday”, so meaningless.  They may be wary of trade, may attribute loss of jobs to manufacturing moving to Mexico or China, but they know that even if reopened today factories would employ only a fraction of their former pre-automation work forces.  Intellectually they know that we are in a period of economic transition.  What frustrates them is not that Pedro, Sally or Muhammad has taken “their” job, but like for them, good wage jobs remain in short supply.

Sanders may reflect establishment wariness in the land, but Hillary Clinton’s record as a progressive (albeit more hawkish on foreign affairs) makes her acceptable.  Indeed, the Sanders success is seen as a positive nudge to the left that I remain confident she will take to heart and adopt as her own.  Indeed the best thing that’s happened to the Democrats and to her is Bernie’s full-throated campaign.  He has focused attention on the issues that a vast number of Americans, including Republicans, face in this period of extended and painful transition from the economy that was to the one that is still in formation.  What bothers many Democratic voters is not so much the so-called establishment per se, but that they have been unable to catch up to the economic change.

It is a transition that has concentrated wealth on the fewer than ever before and kept so many treading water or losing ground.  This process may simplistically be blamed on NAFTA and trade in general — and there are reasons to fault specifics in such agreements — but it has much more to do with technology and automation.  Moreover, low worker pay in a number of mostly Southern states that boast automobile plants (for among others Toyota and Nissan), has been impacted by Republican enacted “right to work” laws aimed at keeping unions out and worker rights at bay.  Today, you may be fortunate enough to work in an automobile factory, but it’s not the job or the security your father knew.  Workers who considered themselves highly skilled find themselves replaced by machine, out of sync and at sea.  Conversely, politicians whose jobs and incomes have not been even slightly impacted by this fundamental change, and who reside in a bubble of partisanship, posturing and safe districts, are mostly out of touch with this pain.  Is it any wonder that constituents in both parties have had it and are in an angry rebellious mood?

In his first and very thoughtful article for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes about the dangers we face in an election whose backdrop is wide scale discontent.  It has produced the unexpected strength of Sanders and the very alarming ascendency of Donald Trump.  Sullivan warns us not to underestimate the potential of this figure at a moment when our democracy is fragile.  While this general discontent is widespread, it is particularly strong among those, many of them blue collar workers, who feel themselves increasingly disenfranchised from what has largely become the American Pipe Dream.  Trump is capitalizing on this discontent, an unnerving mix of economic distress and loss of political power in the works.  He promises to protect them from both in part by keeping “the other” from taking their jobs and place at the table.   As the son of Hitler refugees, and an “anchor baby” to boot, I can’t help but be particularly unnerved by a sense of déjà vu.  In the 1930s, the man with the funny mustache was dismissed and looked on as a buffoon before manipulating his adopted country into a living hell.  This is said only to suggest is that the man who others and I dismissed as a blowhard theatrical act has emerged as a frightening potential that we dare not underestimate. 

And central to that danger of underestimation is the notion that the coming election will surely end in a Democratic landslide.  That won’t happen unless we vote.  In his Saturday Howard University’s commencement speech, President Obama pointedly told graduates:

Your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that…there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent.  Four out of five did not vote.  In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out.  You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?  What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country?  People try to make this political thing really complicated.  You know what, just vote.  It's math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.  It's not that complicated.  And you don’t have excuses.   So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired. It's your duty.

His message (excerpted with above) was to young people, but it was equally directed at all of us.  If we’re our usually lazy selves this November first we may wake up to a President Trump.  That will be on all of us, and we can’t let that nightmare day happen.  Could you have any greater clarity than that?