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One of the defenses that I hear President Trump’s defenders claim is that because the stock market is at all time highs, the overall economy must have confidence in him and therefore “he must be doing a good job. So what is everyone criticizing him for? Those criticisms ring hollow!”

Most people don’t understand why the stock market goes up. In fact, it goes up due to a multitude of factors like yield curves not being flat, the bond market having a lower yield than the S&P 500’s earnings yield, inflation being under control, consumer confidence being high, and so forth. Trump’s defenders would say that because he’s protecting jobs, people feel good about their overall financial picture and are spending money, and this is reflected in the stock market.

Except that’s not particularly relevant to the people who actually voted for Trump.

According to Gallup, in 2015 only 52% of Americans own stocks, which is down by about 10% since 2008. But it’s not that it’s only a bit more than half, the ownership of stocks is skewed towards people with more money:

Ownership_of_stocks

Furthermore, since starting from the 1980’s where the trend accelerated, wealth inequality has also increased. While everyone’s income has gone up since then, it has gone up the fastest at the highest levels of income as seen by the red line below:

EPI-income-inequality-chart

President Trump’s campaign initially ran on populism – that hidden forces in society were keeping the working class down, was outsourcing their jobs (due to bad trade deals with Mexico and China), and that’s why they were falling behind (and only Trump could fix it).

From the charts above (and other research you can do yourself online), it is the wealthiest that benefit from gains in stocks. But most of Trump’s support came from the working class who don’t derive much of their income from capital gains, nor do they even have high levels of income. Thus, to claim that that stock market is so great for Americans misses the point that it is leaving out Trump’s core constituency – they are not benefiting from this market appreciation.

Indeed, it’s the wealthy – the very ones that Trump decries (yet is also a member of that very class) who are reaping the good fortunes of the “Trump bump”.

During the election, the Democrats would say that the economy has recovered, and America was doing pretty well. The counter narrative (correctly) pointed out that these gains were not shared equally amongst all Americans but instead were concentrated in pockets of the country. Most of the job gains went to perhaps two or three dozen counties surrounding large cities, and most of the income gains went to the top 1% of the country. And they are continuing to go there.

Trump’s base is not benefiting by the one thing his defenders say is the biggest example of why he’s doing a great job.

On the other hand, the fat cats are doing just fine.

Mr-Burns-with-money.PNG

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Remember that episode on the Simpsons when Homer went to clown college?

It all started when the first day of the month, Homer declared it was new billboard day! He sees ads that he found desirable (such as for food), but then saw one for Clown College. He says in disgust “Clown College? You can’t eat that.” He then drives off, determined to ignore the billboard.

Yet he can’t get it out of his head. In everyday situations, Homer images himself at Clown College, taking the classes to become a clown:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college

Even when eating dinner with his family, he images them not as table mates, but as clowns:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college_eating_dinner

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Finally, he gets up from the table and declares – seeming out of no where to the rest of his family – “You people have held me back long enough! I’m going to Clown College!” He then gets up and leaves the table.

I bring this up because over the past few months, I’ve been getting more interested in politics. I’m not sure what the catalyst is for this upsurge in interest [1], but here we are. I try to stay away from editorials, and instead I’ve done a few things:

a) I started subscribing to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) daily newsletter, and I browse through the articles. The CFR is mostly non-partisan and provides a roundup of news from around the world. I even play to join the CFR if I can get a few members to recommend me (Note: I currently know nobody on the CFR).

b) I subscribed to Foreign Affairs, a newsletter and website that discusses foreign policy as it affects the United States. They are articles written by industry people with a lot of expertise. It cost $40 to sign up, and I read it most days

c) I listen to the podcast The President’s Inbox. This is put on by Foreign Affairs, and every 2-4 weeks they have a new episode of issues facing the President of the United States. One episode was on North Korea, another on jobs training, another on the impact of the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and so forth. The President’s Inbox is also non-partisan.

d) I clicked on an ad from Norwich (online) University about getting a master’s degree in diplomacy, or perhaps in international relations. I had no interest in this until a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been poking through it. I thought to myself “Hmm, it could be interesting to be a diplomat.” This is especially true when I saw that you could specialize in cyber diplomacy. I’m like “Well, I like geo-politics, and I’m skilled with cyber-space, and now they’ve merged these two together and created a course about it?” There’s a big need worldwide for cyber diplomacy because cyber security is such a difficult topic, and there aren’t that many people in general with the necessary skills. There’s even fewer who would want to do government work.

The drawback of this is that while the course can be completed in 18 months, and is done on your own time and is online, for me to go into diplomacy would be a pay-cut, probably 25-40% (I don’t know why the software industry pays me so well, but they do). And that’s for a mid-career level diplomat, not someone who starts from the bottom which I would probably have to do. Another drawback is that the tuition for those 18 months is $30,000. That’s a lot to shell out. While I could afford it, it would be a big investment for a repayment that is less than what I get now. And getting the wife to sign off on it is another big challenge.


So, it’s (d) that keeps sticking in my head. I’m like “A masters in diplomacy? How is that going to help me? This advertisement has no effect on me whatsoever!”

I just hope I don’t make an outburst like Homer Simpson during a meeting at work one day.


[1] Just kidding. It’s the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

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Am I seriously doing another blog post? Yup, I guess so.

Myself and some friends were talking about President Trump the other night, I just can’t help myself. I articulated why I have problems with him.

There are many dozens, or even hundreds of reasons to oppose President Trump. But there are two meta-issues that I think undermine the United States in particular, and western society in general.

1. The refusal to divest himself from his business interests

Before the election, then-candidate Trump took a lot of heat from his business interests, and he said he would divest himself from them. But he never did; he said he would let his sons run the day-to-day business, but that he would remain invested. Unlike other members of cabinet who put their interests into a blind trust (e.g., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), Trump did not.

This is problematic.

The office of the presidency in the United States is not supposed to be used to serve your own personal interests. The president has a lot of power, and therefore can use his office to enrich himself – at the expense of the nation.

For example, he owns a suite of hotels all across the United States, and internationally. He could push for hosting conferences, and foreign governments who travel to the US, to stay in his hotel. He can imply unfavorable treatment if they don’t. And if others want to play ball, they’ll do it. In this way, President Trump would have leveraged his position of power for personal gain, regardless of whether or not his interests align with the United States’ interests. The office of the president is supposed to align first with the US, regardless of whether they are in the interest of the office holder. In fact, even if they are opposed, the president is supposed to put the interests of the country first, not his own. Can you imagine a foreign government offering to spend a large chunk of money on Trump’s hotels in return for favorable treatment by the US government?

This is double confounded by the fact that President Trump refused to release his tax returns, and only leaked the ones that were favorable to him (the 1995 return which shows him declaring a $1 billion loss, and the 2005 return where he paid about $35 million in income tax [mostly due to the Alternative Minimum Tax which his first budget proposal wanted to do away with]).

But because he refused to release his tax returns, we don’t know all of his financial holdings.

And this sets the stage for future presidents to refuse to divest themselves of their financial interests and truly abuse the office of the presidency for personal gain. The precedent the president has set has lowered the bar for future behavior that will be more shady and nefarious. The abuse of office in this manner is how dictators in banana republics operate.

I think this is why President Trump never released his tax returns; it will show that there is something shady going on, and mostly like there is Russia involvement in some way. Perhaps it’s due to financing and special deals (as his sons have said in interviews), but my hypothesis is that the reason Trump is acting all weird when it comes to Russia (e.g., giving them favorable treatment in return for nothing geopolitically), and not disclosing his tax returns, is because he is planning to personally profit during his time in office and that he has to pay Russia back.

2. His administration’s undermining of the geopolitical order set up after World War II

The United States was viewed as isolationist – or at least non-interventionalist – during the first part of the 20th century.

And in Europe, the force driving the continent was a mixture of nationalism (“my country is better than your country”) – and the concept of the balance-of-power.

The balance-of-power was (formally) set up after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon changed the continent by mobilizing all of France and steamrolling over Europe before finally being defeated for good in 1815. To counter that, at the Congress of Vienna, the major powers (Russia, France, England, Austria, Prussia) established a system where entire countries would ally with each other to balance out the other, so any country that tried to invade another would be forced to deal with the other country’s allies. That is, if England and Prussia were allied with each other, then France couldn’t just invade one – they’d have to fight both. This system worked reasonably well because each country knew that a war would require massive resources and victory would incur heavy losses, making the cost/benefit ratio look unattractive.

But in the late 19th century, countries started devolving into nationalism. First Germany reunited with a series of wars, culminating with the Franco-Prussian War where they became the leading power of the Europe. The balance-of-power still held until World War I when Germany, buoyed by nationalism, instigated the war to end all wars. Which it was, until nationalism reared its head again, and World War II claimed 50 million lives.

After World War II, the world powers decided that the concept of the balance-of-power wasn’t good enough, so they instituted a system of integrated alliances. By creating trade unions based upon political and economic interconnectedness, it would create less hostility between countries. Countries are far less likely to go to war if they are both part of a political union that encourages trade; why would Country A invade Country B and incur the price of war, when they could just trade for the goods they want?

This is the foundation of the United Nations, but more importantly the European Union. Greater integration has increased the unity of Europe where the two worst wars of the past 100 years started, and also increased its stability. Nationalism doesn’t make sense, and that’s why it’s important to keep the EU together. The United States helps guarantee global stability by supporting the EU.

Yet President Trump and Co. are actively undermining the European Union:

a) He has clearly preferred to align with Russia whose geopolitical goals are to be a regional power, and their geopolitical goals are to weaken Europe so they can’t be a counterbalance to Russian influence

b) He has (well, had) undermined the Europe Union by endorsing hardline nationalists like UK-independence leader (at the time) Nigel Farage and saying he should be the UK’s ambassador to United States, and endorsing French nationalist Marine Le Pen. Both of those individuals are actively working to break up the EU.

If the EU does break up, then what happens next? It means we revert back to divisions based upon national borders, which leads to nationalism in place of greater political and economic integration. And that’s what led to the last great war in Europe. Peace is not achieved lightly, and undoing one of the things that led to it (another being more democracy) is a negative.

I think that’s bad for global stability; it’s bad for Europe, and therefore bad for the United States.


And those are the two meta-reasons why I oppose President Trump’s agenda.

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As I said in my previous post, I was on jury duty for a couple of days this month. They said the trial would take three days, but it actually only took two. There weren’t a lot of witnesses; the prosecution had 4 while the defense only had 1, the defendant.

I won’t get into the case here because it wasn’t a pleasant case. It wasn’t something trivial like a DUI or break-and-enter, but instead a sexual assault case.

Instead, I’m going to skip ahead to the jury deliberations.

We ended up coming to a verdict of guilty, and you might think I’d feel a sense of civic pride for “putting the bad guy away”. Indeed, a lot of people were joking to me “GUILTY! GUILTY!” during the trial, and afterwards when I told them what the case was about, they all reeled back in discomfort. But I didn’t feel good at all, I had a mixture of depression, sadness, relief, and guilt.

 

First, when I entered the jury room, I was reasonably convinced of the defendant’s guilt. I thought that the victim had a story that was believable; and the defendant did not, and made up his counter story, and lied under oath.

But there were other jurors who were less convinced and gave more weight to the defendant and the principle of innocent until proven guilty. I didn’t like how I was less willing to believe in the defendant’s innocence, and gave much less plausibility to the defendant’s story than others.

Our system of justice is built on the foundation of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I didn’t want to be a guy who brought biases into court (“If he’s here he must be guilty”) because if the situations were reversed and I really was innocent, I’d want the jury to understand that same principle and grant me the same standard of justice.

I was worried that I wouldn’t grant this defendant that same standard that I’d want others to grant me.

After all, some jurors were hesitant at first. Why weren’t they right and me wrong? I didn’t like that I could be wrong but was unable to see it.

 

Second, some jurors who were not hesitant admitted they were convinced by a piece of video evidence that I also found convincing.

But I didn’t need the video evidence (or maybe I did… but if I didn’t, it goes back to my first point of not being willing to grant the presumption of innocence).

But I thought to myself “We are convicting on the basis of this video. What about all of the other sexual assault cases that don’t have video evidence? All of the ‘he said, she said’ cases?”

If you’ve ever wondered how sexual assault cases have such a low conviction rate, it’s because the prosecutor can’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You need more than just “he said, she said”. Otherwise, you have to presume that the defendant is innocent.

And I found that depressing.

It’s only luck that video evidence was in this trial, and that the defendant did something extraordinarily incriminating in the video that undercut his entire argument.

But I was overwhelmed by the role that luck played in this trial.

Third, delivering the verdict was stressful.

Extremely stressful.

As a jury, we discussed all of the evidence, and we went around the table asking for everyone’s input. We then held a vote, but didn’t come to a consensus.

We went back and discussed some more. We took another vote (secret ballot) and read out to ourselves all the votes, and they all came up Guilty.

When that last vote came up Guilty, a massive knot formed in the pit of my stomach. You know the feeling, it’s when you feel terrible because something bad happened.

Because by rendering a verdict of guilty, we forever changed the defendant’s life. He will go to prison where he will be targeted by other inmates, and he will have to register as a sex offender.

We notified the bailiff and went back into the court room where we delivered the verdict to the judge. She read the verdict aloud, and once again the knot in my stomach returned. Actually, it felt like I was punched in the chest and it physically hurt.

It wasn’t fun. I was responsible for making an impact in someone’s life and it would have negative consequences.

The defendant requested that we all say for the record that the verdict was our own decision, and we each said yes.

And then it was done.

* * * * * * *

Afterwards we talked to the attorneys about the facts of the case, and got more background that we didn’t get during the trial.

Indeed, the trial only had the facts of the case. There was virtually no background or criminal history of the defendant. After I found out about it, it probably would have changed the opinions of the jurors to come to a guilty verdict faster.

I came home, and took the rest of the day off. The mental stress was finished.

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This whole Donald-Trump-Russia connection is getting weird.

Way back during the campaign, I wasn’t sure about what to make of President Donald Trump and his admiration of Russia and Vladimir Putin. At the time, I assumed that then-candidate Donald Trump was being manipulated, and obviously so – Putin would praise Trump and Trump would think it was genuine, and because he has such a need for praise, he would return it. But the praise from Putin was not real, it was false because Putin knew Trump would respond to it. Trump never figured it out. I also thought that Trump admired Putin’s way of running the country (Putin was a former mid-level FSB agent who is now rumored to be one of the richest, if not the richest, men in the world).

I never thought that Trump was indebted to Russia, I thought it was all psychological manipulation.

I heard a podcast the other day that Trump’s infatuation with Russia and Putin is an admiration for Putin that runs deep. As I said, Putin now controls a lot of wealth but keeps it all off the books. The underlying message was that Putin mixed business and government with strong arm tactics to appropriate wealth (and poison his enemies), and Trump wants to emulate this – to use government as a springboard to personal wealth and power. I kind of thought that was why he was running for President back in 2015 and 2016, and this fueled into my suspicions.

And then I read an article on Vanity Fair today: How Ex-Spy Christopher Steele compiled his explosive Trump dossier. I won’t go over the details of this, but everything is becoming uber suspicious:

– Steele had several Russian sources, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure; a former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin; and a handful of other sources

– A bunch of different top aides to Russian politicians who were pretty good candidates for these sources have turned up dead

– The dossier said that Trump’s team and Russia co-ordinated on a strategy to undermine NATO alliances in the region which is exactly what happened during the campaign

– A Russian cyber security expert was arrested for treason

– So many of President Trump’s top nominations to positions of power, or close associates, look shady. From former NSA director Michael Flynn, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions who forgot to disclose he met with Russian diplomats, to Trump’s personal associates Carter Page and Roger Stone (who said he had a back channel to Wikileaks and then walked back the claim). Every time they talk about Russia, it gets so weird.

– Then-candidate Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has deep ties to pro-Russian activity in the Ukraine during the past 5 years

– Even Roger Stone, who predicted that John Podesta would be exposed soon enough, just a little while before the Podesta email leaks, had an interview on NPR. I listened to it and he denied everything. But he said some weird things, like “I never used #wikileaks” when I said the leaks from Podesta were coming.”

Huh? Why would you offer up that? It’s like he was trying to say things that he didn’t say in order to distract away from things he wanted to hide.

He sounded, to me, like he was hiding something.

* * * * * * * * *

And now I’ve become suspicious. At first I thought it was just Putin manipulating President Trump. But now I think there was some collusion.

There’s simply too many weird things going on.

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Last year, I wrote a few blog posts about my reaction after the election of Donald Trump and how at first I was in shock, but then I started to get over it.

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Since he was inaugurated last week, I’ve either been holding out hope that it wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded like (repealing the Affordable Care Act), pleased that it was all bluster (saying torture works, but then deferring to his Defense Secretary [no doubt intended to appease the base at first, but then the rational people]), or accepted that we as a society are probably screwed due to climate change (leading to depression). Fortunately, I’ve been busy at work to distract my attention.

But today I am angry.

Steaming mad

You may have heard that President Trump recently issued an executive order banning people from entering the country if they are from one of several Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya). There are a few other bans, including an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. While saying it is not a Muslim ban and that it’s intended to avoid allowing radical terrorists into the country, many people think it’s just a euphemism to exclude Muslims because many countries that do export terrorists (unintentionally, usually) were left off the list.

My left-leaning Facebook feed exploded in outrage.

Baring teeth smile

I’ve stayed off of social media, but inside I am mad. Really mad.

Trump had said before the election that he was going to do this, so it should come as no surprise. But it still surprised me that it’s this blatant.

What bugs me about this is the lack of empathy for people trying to escape war-ravaged regions, and people on the other side – who are not in that situation – saying “Sorry, you were born in the wrong place. Go away, you’re not welcome here.”

Sarcastic smile

I find this cold-hearted and arrogant and I can’t imagine denying others entry who are fleeing from terrible circumstances (I know that there needs to be vetting; it’s something that’s already done).

For you see, back in the 1940’s, Jewish emigrants from Europe were trying to escape the destruction that was going on in their country, and no other country accepted them – including the United States. They had to turn back, and many of them ended up dying in the concentration camps.

When I was younger, I wondered “How could this be? How could nobody accept them?”

Sad smile

The answer is that the United States and the allies were at war with Germany. They were worried that the refugees had German spies among them that would infiltrate American society and undermine the US war effort. To avoid taking that chance, the US rejected them all.

That’s the same reason that’s being given today, the refugees from Syria pose a threat to US society and would undermine it from the inside.

But even more than that, I’ve written how my own grandmother was effectively a refugee after World War II, coming to North America 4 years after the war ended. But not before spending 3 years in a Soviet work camp.

What would have happened if immigration officials would have said “Sorry, but you’re German. We can’t trust you, we just fought a war with you people. Besides which, your husband fought for the Germans and was our enemy. You are too much of a risk.”

Or, what if they have said “You spent 3 years in a Soviet work camp? We’re in a cold war with the Soviets, you could be a spy. Sorry, you can’t come in. Go back to Europe.”

What then?

Thumbs down

Today, I am in the reverse position. I get a say on whether to accept refugees from places that need to be escaped from (well, not really; the party I voted for didn’t win [even though more of us voted the same way I did]). I am only in the position I am in by sheer luck. I did nothing to be born in Canada and get a privileged position of also being a US citizen. I was born in the right place at the right time.

By contrast, these other people were born in the wrong place. It’s not their fault; how can I hold that against them when the exact same thing wasn’t held against my own ancestors over 75 years ago? Had that happened, I wouldn’t be alive today. I owe my very existence to a national policy that is at odds where US policy is headed.

That’s not fair, and it makes me angry that the refugee-deniers are exploiting their privilege.

What makes my head spin is not that the US government is doing this against the wishes of the people. I know that Trump sits on a base of support, and his comments are intended to unite them behind him. I estimate that at least 25-30% of the US population is in strong support of this. Another chunk who supported Trump may not totally agree but are willing to go along with it since it doesn’t affect them.

And that is what gives me deep pause…

Don't tell anyone smile

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I was talking to a co-worker the other day about how the US political system – well, the political commentary – is all about the personality of the person running it. For example, a few weeks ago Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton named Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate (for Vice President). I was impressed with the choice; I’d read some of his answers on Quora and liked what he had to say. It turns out that in addition to being a US Senator, he was previously the Governor of the state of Virgina and previous to that, held several jobs in public service.

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Yet the response to Tim Kaine amongst the media is “He’s boring. He’s too boring.” I then look at all the media circus around Donald Trump, and he generates coverage by trying to stay in the headlines even though he is clearly totally incompetent when it comes to running for public office, especially the President of the United States.

In the US, it’s all about the glitter and sizzle.

Yet contrast this with the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway… these all have strong social safety nets, their citizens are well cared for, they have low crime rates, low rates of poverty, and regularly rank among the happiest in the world.

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But can you name the leader of even one of those countries?

I can’t. Because they have a system of government that prioritizes getting things done, and not on the larger-than-life personality.

To me, competence and results is so much more important than the flash and glitter. And Scandinavia gets results because that’s what is important to them. They don’t have the same culture which places being in the spotlight (narcissism) and personal fame as one of life’s goals.

Which brings me to Canada.

In October 2015, Canada elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Liberal party, and they replaced the ruling Conservatives who had been in power since 2006. Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s longest serving Prime Ministers who was in power during the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s.

While I don’t have a problem with Justin Trudeau, I do have a problem with the public image that he, and the media (and so many of my Facebook friends) have created around Trudeau – a cult of personality. There are stories of him giving mini-lectures on quantum physics; stories of him running into hikers while he himself is out on vacation; pictures of him doing yoga poses; and so forth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things… except that it creates a cult of personality around a single individual and leads us (Canada) down the path of American-style personality-politics which revels in the glitter, instead of northern European-style system-oriented, results-oriented politics.

I like Justin Trudeau, I probably would have voted for him; but I do not like the overly friendly media personality that pushes how “cool” he is. The media (and my Facebook friends) are contrasting him to the previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper – “look at how hip and with it the new guy is, and look at how stodgy and uptight the old guy ways.” That’s wrong, by constantly preaching to us how great a guy the Prime Minister is, it weakens the role of the press that is supposed to hold politicians accountable. Yes, I know you like his policies, but your job is not to reinforce his image. The government’s job is to create a system that works for all Canadians. By crafting a public image that he’s a cool guy undermines your responsibility, and it sets us up for problems down the road for the next guy.

Look at Fox News – they are unbashedly Republican, and they are derelict in their duty of whole heartedly supporting Donald Trump and his plethora of bad ideas. That’s what you get when the media is more concerned with protecting the brand than being responsible to the public.

If this guy has a cult of personality, what happens when the next guy learns from this guy and creates his own cult? The fierce partisanship of US politics should be a warning to Canada, and the press must not play a role in that.

It’s too late for us Americans. But Canada, there’s still time for us to save ourselves!

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