Sunday, December 31, 2017

21st Century – When Big Cities Really Took Over

“There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.” Benjamin Franklin
Absent some sort of ethnic challenge – like Flemish vs Walloons in Belgium or Catalan separatists in Spain – Europe has long-since focused less on the importance of provinces or states and much more on the dominance of cities. Their political systems were, for the most part, reconfigured in the 19th and 20th century. Created in the 18th century, the American political system, on the other hand, was heavily predicated on federalism, where political (especially voting) power is ceded to the states. There is no serious recognition in our Constitution of urban power. What’s more, our founding fathers were very careful to make that Constitution exceptionally difficult to amend.
The above quote from Benjamin Franklin is most representative of the feelings and motivations of our founding fathers as they architected a system of governance with deep suspicion of the centers of commerce and trade: cities. Agriculture ruled. The very voting construct of states, including House districts, according the same number of Senators to both sparsely-populated agrarian and densely populated urban states as well as the Electoral College, is heavily tilted toward rural power and slanted powerfully against urban concentrations.
Mechanization, the revulsion against slavery and the improvement in transportation and communications slowly drove wealth from farm to factory, later from factory to globally-connected technology centers. With under 2% of the American workforce laboring on farms today, that elevation of agriculture, which gave rise to the United States and its political system, seems anachronistic. The result? Today, the well-over 80% of the population of United States lives in an urban area. Our founding fathers would blanch. Given the disproportionate power our Constitution cedes to land mass over population, the struggle of urban modernity against an agrarian form of government is at the heart of the populism that is tearing our nation apart.
Understanding how modern cities, especially the biggest and most powerful urban centers, have evolved is key to understanding a second level of disconnect: big cities are linked more to global trade than to local supply-chain networks. In short, big cities with big companies are no longer dependent regional vendors. This is particularly true of service-sector, software-driven companies that don’t need manufactured components. It gets even more complex where what manufacturing does take place here is increasingly automated, a reality that is also rapidly making its presence felt increasingly in mining, mineral and oil extraction as well as on farms.
The dominance of Republican (rural-value) power in state legislatures, Congress and even the presidency (allowing an election where the victor lost the popular vote) is heavily dependent on maintaining rural political dominance despite that overwhelming urban reality. Which dramatically explains why the GOP is focused on undermining the accuracy of the upcoming 2020 Census. See my December 16th blog, GOP Public Enemy No 2 – The Census. But the rising wealth and power of big cities in the United States look more like an accelerating steamroller that cannot be stopped.
Emily Badger, writing for the December 22nd New York Times, explains this new urban reality: “A changing economy has been good to the region, and to a number of other predominantly coastal metros like New York, Boston and Seattle. But economists and geographers are now questioning what the nature of their success means for the rest of the country. What happens to America’s manufacturing heartland when Silicon Valley turns to China? Where do former mill and mining towns fit in when big cities shift to digital work? How does upstate New York benefit when New York City increases business with Tokyo?
“The answers have social and political implications at a time when broad swaths of the country feel alienated from and resentful of ‘elite’ cities that appear from a distance to have gone unscathed by the forces hollowing out smaller communities. To the extent that many Americans believe they’re disconnected from the prosperity in these major metros — even as they use the apps and services created there — perhaps they’re right.
“‘These types of urban economies need other major urban economies more than they need the standardized production economies of other cities in their country,’ said Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia who has long studied the global cities that occupy interdependent nodes in the world economy. New York, in other words, needs London. But what about Bethlehem, Pa.?
“Such a picture, Ms. Sassen said, ‘breaks a past pattern where a range of smaller, more provincial cities actually fed the rise of the major cities.’ Now major cities are feeding one another, and doing so across the globe.
“Ram Mudambi, a professor in the Fox School of Business at Temple University, offers an even more unnerving hypothesis, in two parts: The more globally connected a city, the more prosperous it is. And as such cities gain global ties, they may be shedding local ones to the ‘hinterland’ communities that have lost their roles in the modern economy or lost their jobs to other countries.”
If you unwrap the essence of Trump populism, you find a deep anti-big city bias. Making “America Great Again” is nothing more than unraveling modernity, crushing the power of the biggest cities, most of which are blue on blue. It’s almost as if rural America declared war on big-city America. The GOP tax reform legislation was particularly and intentionally punitive to states with the biggest cities (New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc.), those with the highest personal income taxes (significantly less deductible by reason of that tax bill).
But no society has ever been able to stop progress and survive. With artificial intelligence amplifying the value of automation, even on the farm, the GOP’s effort to take America backwards to an agrarian era is clearly doomed to failure. The tool that they have to fight that rear-guard effort is the rural-slanted Constitution and the instruments of power they are battling so hard to maintain: restricting blue voters with gerrymandering, voter ID and other forms of voter restrictions. Sooner or later, even if those efforts are supported by the Supreme Court, the rural bias will fade into history.
Make no mistake, those populists “left behind” by modernity and ignored by so many big city powers have a point. As America embraced innovation and globalization, as corporate America took advantage, we seem to have completely forgotten about “them.” They are angry. And before big city dwellers turn an angry or indifferent shoulder towards those displaced populists, they should realize that, sooner or later, escalating levels of artificial intelligence-driven technology will slam them as well. Populism may just be that canary in the coal mine (literally) for all Americans.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder if Americans can put aside their differences to deal with a common issue that threatens to envelop us all… before we completely unravel as one of the most polarized nations in the world.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Russia, Russia on the Wall, How Do We Make You Really Small?

As Donald Trump’s December 18th prepared “security” speech challenged Russia at almost every level, from trying to disrupt American efforts worldwide with less than veiled threats about their efforts to disrupt and destabilize the United States and the 2016 presidential elections, Trump veered widely from that text. Instead, he emphasized his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the potential of a new partnership with Russia. He reminded everyone how the CIA foiled a terrorist plot aimed at Russia. But make no mistake, with the exception of Donald Trump, every other government agency is on red alert over Russia. They may have to tiptoe through the Trump-loves/believes-Putin minefield, but Russia is clear a military, diplomatic and economic threat to everything American. Russia (including Putin himself), on the other hand, instantly ripped into the underlying American security message as “confrontational,” “distorting reality” and reigniting the Cold War.

Even as Trump blew soft kisses to Putin, the Treasury Department expanded its Russian targets for additional economic sanctions. That Putin has so visibly and openly played his “I’ll do what I can to destabilize the United States” hand has made easy understanding what has happened, and what is likely to continue to happen, from Russia’s exceptionally successful deployment of disinformation, spurring racial disharmony and powerful undermining of Hillary Clinton to Putin’s rather open flaunting of US policy goals in the Middle East by bolstering a genocidal dictator in Syria. Putin’s emotions were clearly aroused. All decisions trees led back to him rather too clearly.

Technology seemed to deliver a perfect tool for implementing what had been Soviet (and now Russian) basic strategy for decades: undermining the social and political fabric of her enemies. The tool? Social media and the ability to robotize content delivery, automatically tailoring the message to react to individuals’ fears and preferences, a dream come true for Russian intelligence agencies.

So while Donald Trump and his immediate family tell the world that Russia did not interfere and that the Trump family has no untoward ties with Russian interests, Russia plows forward to inflict as much damage as they can on us. John Sipher, former senior member of the CIA intelligence service, gives us his take in December 20th, The Cipher Brief: As most Americans are aware by now, the Kremlin undertook a series of actions to interfere in our presidential election in 2016. The sum of these aggressive measures – some overt and some covert – were designed to sow confusion, aggravate political polarization, stir racial tensions, discredit the American democratic system, weaken the U.S. relationship with its allies and hurt Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. These type of activities – called ‘active measures’ in the Russian foreign policy playbook – are nothing new… The Russians, and Soviets before them, have been spreading disinformation and attacking American interests with these asymmetric tools since the 1940s.

A Soviet disinformation campaign in the 1980s attempted to spread the theory that the AIDS virus was created by the Pentagon as part of an out-of-control secret biological warfare program, according to The New York Times… Prior to the use of social media platforms to spread disinformation, the Russians used a then-favorite mechanism to spread the false story – placing an article in an English-language newspaper in India. Then, using spies and collaborators, the KGB helped the article get picked up by increasingly credible media outlets, with the goal of eventually having it picked up by the western press. Once in circulation, the information would complicate efforts to tell truth from fiction, and sow distrust with western leaders. As explained by Dr. Thomas Boghardt in the Times story, ‘The Soviets intuitively understood how the human psyche works.’ He said they identify internal strife, point to inconsistencies and ambiguities in the news, fill them with (fake) meaning, mix in some accurate information, and ‘repeat, repeat, repeat.’…

As troubling and painful as [Russia’s global efforts to impair regimes that opposed it and the accompanying] covert campaigns were, none have had the strategic impact that we witnessed in 2016. Why?

Social media: Although the Russians were up to their old tricks in 2016, the internet and social media provided new means to weaponize information. The Russians no longer need to rely on a small army of spies to spread propaganda and lies from Indian tabloids. Facebook and other venues do the work for them. An algorithm directs fake news to those who might be interested, and our “sharing” does the rest. We learned in 2016 that an emotional meme can have as much impact as a well-researched article in the mainstream media.

We’ve seen the enemy and he is us: The success of the Russian attack was proportional to the ferocity of the partisan divide in the U.S. As former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden commented in a recent ‘Atlantic’ article, ‘covert influence campaigns don’t create divisions on the ground, they amplify them.’

In 2016, the dysfunctional U.S. political environment was dry tinder for the Russians. A single match led to a wildfire. Most successful active measures campaigns are not born of elaborate schemes cooked up from whole cloth. Instead, they are often a series of opportunistic and tactical operations that come together due to a unique set of circumstances. In the case of the 2016 attacks, it wasn’t particularly difficult to turn Americans against each other.

Indeed, in 2016, it appears there was a disconnect between the effort, thought and pre-planning expended to carry out the attack, and its resulting impact. The hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was no more than a phishing expedition by a known Russian proxy. As an intelligence operation, it required minimal effort, displayed no professional elegance and was poorly hidden. If the Russians knew ahead of time how important the material would be to the success of their plan, it would have been child’s play to have stolen it without getting caught…

Collusion? According to Russian doctrine, a successful active measures campaign relies on enlisting spies and ‘agents-of-influence’ to help focus the attack. The Russians certainly called on all available resources to insure success, and like any good intelligence service, continued to seek new spies. Were the Russians aided by collaborators inside or around the Trump campaign, or inside our social media companies? We don’t know. If not, it would be a rare covert campaign that did not leverage human sources.

We do know, however, that countering similar attacks in the future will be made more difficult by the failure to hold Russia to account, and by Trump administration attacks on the media and national security institutions. Weakening our defenses does not seem a wise course of action.

The potential of an unholy alliance between the Trump administration and Russia are a scandal the GOP can ill afford. Despite denials from Trump himself that he is not going to fire the special counsel investigating Trump administration ties to Russian manipulators, Washington ripples with rumors that Robert Mueller and his task force are not long for this world. Many Republicans are also suggesting that they will not sanction a Congressional re-appointment of Mueller to continue his work should he be fired. They are smelling the approaching mid-terms and want to “coast” to victory on their tax reform bill and their effective crippling of the Affordable Care Act.

“Meanwhile, Russia itself is feeling the pain of its policy decisions in Syria. The dilemma lies in weighing the costs of staying in Syria or leaving. If Moscow were to disengage and the Assad regime falls, many would see Russia as a near-peer competitor unable to close a major deal. If Russian forces stay in Syria, as is more likely, those troops may face building resentment among Syrians that Russia helped destroy the country but cannot provide large-scale aid to rebuild it.

“Moscow has a narrow window to achieve enduring success in Syria, but for this, it needs the international community.

“Putin’s withdrawal pledge, like a similar vow he made last year, is likely aimed at easing worries at home of further casualties in Syrian fighting and conveying a sense of ‘mission accomplished’ to the Russian people prior to the presidential election next March. But can Russia pull off an actual foreign policy ‘win’ in Syria?” Colin P. Clarke and William Courtney writing for the December 20th, The Cipher Brief. Timing is everything, but Russia has not been particularly effective under Putin of acting at the right time. Whatever else is said and done, it’s time for our Congress to join with our military and intelligence agencies and recognize Russia for the severe threat against America it continues to be.

I’m Peter Dekom, and if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…

Friday, December 29, 2017

“Obamacare is imploding” – In a Good Way

“Exchange open enrollment for 2018 coverage ended w/ approx 8.8M people enrolling in coverage. Great job to the @CMSGov team for the work you did to make this the smoothest experience for consumers to date. We take pride in providing great customer service.”
A tweet from Seema Verma, the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Just as Donald Trump takes credit for a provision (eliminating the healthcare individual mandate which funds much of the program) openly “buried” in the tax reform act that he says effectively “repeals Obamacare,” the government announced that “8.8 million people had signed up for health insurance through the federal marketplace, only slightly lower than last year’s numbers when the open enrollment period was twice as long and heavily advertised.

“The numbers essentially defied President Trump’s assertion that ‘Obamacare is imploding’ and could re-energize the efforts by both parties for and against President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement…In the last open enrollment period, which was twice as long, 9.2 million people selected health plans through the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

“Consumer advocates said they were pleasantly surprised to see how many people had signed up in the latest enrollment period. And the numbers could go higher. In some states that run their own exchanges, consumers have more time to sign up. The deadline is Jan. 14 in Minnesota, Jan. 15 in Washington State and Jan. 31 in California and New York…

The report Thursday shows sign-ups by people in 39 states that use It does not include activity in 11 states that operate their own insurance exchanges.” New York Times, December 21st. It seems as if the middle class, for whom Trump says the GOP passed that bill, doesn’t really want it. It seems that once they got used to it, America seemed to like being able to get healthcare coverage for rates that they can afford (perhaps with a little help from the feds). The tax act doesn’t repeal Obamacare; it just makes premiums a whole lot more expensive. Probably more than even a generous interpretation of any reduction in federal income tax.

Even Republicans know Obamacare has not been repealed. Take these two December 21st tweets from South Carolina Republican, Lindsay Graham: (1)  To those who believe – including Senate Republican leadership – that in 2018 there will not be another effort to Repeal and Replace Obamacare -- well you are sadly mistaken.” And (2) “By eliminating the individual mandate in the tax bill we have pulled one of the pillars of Obamacare out. But by no means has Obamacare been repealed or replaced.”

It’s not like those in the middle class are just getting a free ride – not like corporate America – since they are “borrowing” (by increasing the deficit) both the tax savings they are getting along with the tax savings they are passing on to the big companies. And if you are in a high income tax state, you are pretty much screwed and probably will pay more in overall taxes anyway.
The Republicans will be stuck… er… blessed?...  with the only piece of seminal legislation since Trump was elected, so they have to spin, spin, spin till the public takes their T-Bird away. Substance? Other than a momentary tax cut for some in the middle class, mostly it’s “all bad.” Lipstick ain’t a-gonna help this pig win a beauty contest. Spin, spin, spin… Republicans hoping that those middle classers getting a tax break will be enough to foil Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms. Oh, might not be necessary unless the Dems actually decide to stand, unified, for something that resonates.
But, let’s face it, most voters really do not want this legislation, one of the least liked major bills in our nation’s history. “In a USA Today poll, 32 percent support the bill, 48 percent oppose it… In a CNN poll, 33 percent support the bill, 55 percent oppose it… In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll yesterday, 24 percent say it is a good idea, 41 percent say it’s a bad one… And many surveys echo one by the New York Times and Survey Monkey, that only a third of Americans expect their taxes to go down.”, December 20th. The rest just don’t know.
 “While the tax legislation is broadly unpopular as it reaches President Trump’s desk, the bill offers Republicans the sort of signature accomplishment they have been lacking to galvanize their demoralized donors and many of their voters…

“If they are proved correct, they will be repudiating not only historical experience, but most experts. From Congress’s own prognosticators to Wall Street’s virtuosos, scarcely any independent analyses project anything like the rosy forecasts offered by the president’s top economic advisers.” NY Times, December 20th. Like all those “jobs, jobs, jobs” that will be lost when companies use that tax windfall to merge and acquire, triggering layoffs to justify those mergers and acquisitions? Donors? You mean the corporations who lobbied to get the law past even though just about any neutral analysis tells you how bad the tax bill really is.

We’re digging ourselves into a deep hole that will take decades to reverse, creating cruel policies for average Americans, environmental issues that may be passing the tipping point right now, and losing credibility by the kiloton internationally. We need to talk with each other, ask what we want this country to be, scream if necessary and vote, vote, vote. Let the politicians know how you feel.

I’m Peter Dekom, and if you aren’t really clear with your elected representatives, they have to believe you either support what has just happened or just don’t care.