Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Are Paved Roads "Unnecessary Government Spending"? What is Government in a Democracy?

Yesterday we went out into the countryside to visit a friend who lives on a farm. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the leaves are just starting to turn colors. On the drive back home, we saw a Jeep Wrangler (a large 4 by 4) with a spare wheel cover like on the right. It says, "PAVED ROADS: Another Fine Example of Unnecessary Government Spending."

This struck me as peculiarly American. Of course, I understand that this is partly in jest; the website where this spare wheel cover is sold sells other humorous tire covers (see below) and notes that with this cover you can "and enjoy the stares when the guys behind you read it." (I'm actually not sure how you're supposed to see the faces of people behind you without crashing into the people in front of you, but that's another issue.)

The website where this is sold is called Extreme Terrain Off-Road Outfitters, and they have a smaller sticker for $5, about which they say: "Does your rig rarely see the road? Happier on the trail? Government annoy you? (You're not alone!) Get a few grins with this decal."  So they think it is funny. But at the same time, it is not. It is serious political propaganda.

The notion that the government is an oppressor is not new in the US, and it goes back to the 1776 Revolution, as exemplified by the famous Gadsden Flag with the coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me" and the anti-tax Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Anthropologists also view states as fundamentally oppressive and exploitative institutions. Most people view the rise of states as the beginning of "civilization," but in fact, they are just created when a minority (a priesthood, an oligopoly, a nobility, elites, etc.) take control, organize armies and food deliveries, and maintain their superior power, usually through some sort of force (think military, or police, or praetorian guard). Since the first state, leaders have controlled the state to their own advantage. They may claim they need to do so to organize production or for defense, but the fact is the leaders of states have benefited at the expense of the majority of people (the peons).

But it seems a bit Luddite to believe that we can live, in our current world, "independently," "free" of any government constraint. That Jeep Wrangler was, after all, driving on I-64, a 6-lane interstate paid for by the federal and state governments. We would not be able to travel 30 miles to have lunch with friends if we did not have paved roads--which are paid for by the government!

The genius of American politics in the past was the combination of a belief in small government, to avoid bureaucracy and high taxes, along with the belief that science and technical progress supported by the government could solve human and social problems. From the battles between the two approaches, or rather, compromises between the two, progress could be made. But in the past few decades, a Libertarian ethos has arisen that holds that all government programs are evil: they waste money, undermine people's freedom, and don't work to boot. The fact is, this is sometimes true, but not always. The trick is to know when to use government programs, and when they do not work. The assumption that all government programs are bad is an ideological position promoted by a few super-wealthy Americans like the Kochs and Mercers, and it has grown in influence over recent decades.

Now the US electorate is again debating healthcare: progressive Democrats are proposing "Medicare for All." How this will be funded is not clear, and this is making many centrist voters nervous, especially those who have good health insurance and who worry that it will be taken away and that they will be forced to go into a bureaucratic government-funded health system. And yet, it is incredible that there are still millions of Americans who have no health insurance.

Two days ago, I went to a "Gala" (a fundraiser) for a local charity called "Gateway to Hope." They support low-income women who have cancer by helping them maintain their insurance payments, or helping them pay their mortgage and food bills, so they can concentrate on their treatment. Fact: 36% of women with breast cancer cannot work. If they lose their job, they can lose their insurance! It is shocking that people who get cancer risk losing their job and their house, or that they have to scrimp on food while they are trying to recover from chemotherapy. So it is shocking that such a charity is actually necessary, in one of the richest countries in the world. Why does this charity have to solicit from private donors? Everyone should be contributing, through their taxes, to spread the burden evenly. One would think that everyone would receive this kind of support as a matter of course, but that is not the case.

Hong Kong has also long been governed by the principle of limited government, but Hong Kong has a good public health care system that is very inexpensive to the patient. It is true that there are long waits for some specialties (especially for psychiatric care--suicidal patients have to wait many months to see a psychiatrist), but patients with money can pay out of pocket or buy insurance to get private treatment. Emergency treatment is available to all; the registration fee is HK$100 (US$13). Hong Kong also has many NGOs providing social services, but their funding does not totally come from private sources; many receive all or nearly all their funds from the government. The government audits them and makes sure the money is well spent, but the services are provided in a less bureaucratic form by NGOs. Even many private schools in Hong Kong get significant portions of their funds from the government.

I find that when people in Taiwan, China and even Hong Kong find that there is something wrong in society, they expect the government to step in and address the problem. That is not true for many Americans; Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." The odd thing is that in a democracy, "the government" should be "we, the people." It is a sign of how much more democratization we need in America that people still see the government as an oppressor, even though they supposedly elect it every election.

So a wheel cover claiming that public roads are a waste of taxpayers' money is not funny. I wish it was, that we could agree that it was absurd. But as long as extreme individualist libertarians proclaim their notions of very limited government, it is not a joke but an example of an anti-social and selfish ideology.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Benefits of Life in a Smaller City


One of the advantages of living in St Louis is that I can attend events that would be crowded or not accessible to me in larger cities. St Louis is not small; the metropolitan area has 2.8 million residents and ranks 21st in the nation (it fell below 20th for the first time in 2017 because the population is not growing here, while it is growing in the south). So St Louis has more events than I could possible attend. And this week, I discovered a subculture that is interesting as a cosmopolitan competition and network of fans.

Two days ago, I attended the St Louis Rapid & Blitz chess tournament. Chess has its own subculture, about which I knew next to nothing. By coincidence, I had just heard about blitz chess for the first time in a great podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, and when I heard there would be a tournament in St Louis, I thought I would go to check it out. In blitz chess, players each have a total of 5 minutes to make all their moves, so they have to decide quickly. I thought that for a non-chess expert like me, this would be more interesting than watching players ponder their next move, as in regular chess. I went on day 4 of the 5-day competition, the first day of blitz (the previous days had been “rapid”, which allows 15 minutes per side).

Watching the competition live on the 1st floor
It was only $10 to attend, and to my astonishment, there were only about a dozen spectators. There are 10 players in the competition, and they play a game every half hour. The setting is the St Louis Chess Club, which is not a large building, really just a pair of townhouses, connected in the middle. On the 1st or ground floor, they had set up three rows of seats with a TV, showing the television commentary covering the tournament. The competition was on the 2nd floor, to which I was admitted only upon surrendering my phone and watch (I was told it was to prevent noise, though people with SLR cameras were clicking away during matches). Tables are lined up on one side and a belt separates them from the area for spectators. I was 5 meters from the players.  
Spectators very close to the competitors

I decided to watch the Chinese players (since I had no other logic to follow). I noticed that both Yu and Ding were among the first to sit down at their positions for their match. As in sports, the players shake hands (perfunctorily, I may add) when the second player arrives, and again at the end of the match. Players are given a one minute warning, then a voice calls out (with no microphone) that play is to begin. Play goes very quickly for the first 10 or so moves; they obviously have certain opening moves they all know, so it is only later that play slows down. Then at the end, play can be frantic, as each tries to avoid losing by running out of time. In fact, the timer adds 3 seconds to each player’s clock each time they push down on the timer indicating the end of their turn, so if they move quickly (almost impulsively), they should actually never run out of time, but of course that is when mistakes are made.

Grand Master Maurice Ashley offering post-match commentary
My ignorance of chess is great, and I have no idea why these 10 players were invited, and why the American Hikaru Nakamura, last year's winner, was not present, for example. But in addition to the issues of the organization of the tournament and tour, it was impressive, while watching on TV on the 1st floor, to hear the commentators analyze each move. At one point, world #1 Magnus Carlsen made a mistake, failing to see a move that would have led to a victory. The commentators said that those watching at home (I guess some cable companies carry this channel) should gain confidence from seeing that even someone of Magnus' caliber could make such a dumb mistake. 

Screenshot of TV, live during tournament
The technology supporting the tournament was amazing. Each table had cameras focused on the board and players. The timers, I later realized, were connected to the TV feed, so time remaining was displayed on the TV too. The commentators had various computer programs that allowed them to review the players’ moves and to draw arrows to show potential moves. For someone who knows chess well, it must be thrilling. I was just amazed at the rapid discussion of Qe4 and pawn h5, which I understood literally but knew I did not understand the full meaning.

In all of the three games I saw finish, I was not entirely sure what had happened because they ended so suddenly. One player reached out and shook hands with his opponent, but I could not be sure if he had lost or tied. The problem for me was that the players, and all chess experts, know various endings, so they already know how the game is going to end after a certain point. But I have no clue. You can see the last minute and a half of an ending here (or in the box below, and jump to the 1:57:50 point in the video) and if you turn down the sound, you may experience the confusion I felt. With the sound up, you can hear the excitement of the experts.

Screenshot showing mistake in YU Yangyi's name
Despite all the technology and internationalism of players from 8 different countries, it is a bit disappointing to see that in much of the promotional and television material, they confused the surname and given name of the Chinese players. You can see this in the banners on the 2nd floor of the Chess Club (right), and on the screens on TV (see screenshot above). The surnames of the Chinese players are Ding and Yu, not Liren and Yangyi. In fact, it is actually quite easy to identify Chinese surnames, as 99% of surnames are one syllable long. (Some given names are also one syllable, but that is another matter). Plus, his Wiki page notes "This is a Chinese name; the family name is Yu." It is a bit surprising that this was not caught and corrected. And I assume the Chinese were too polite to point out the error.

Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Hall of Fame
St. Louis has actually become the major center for chess in the United States, and the reason for this, as for many things, is money. Rex Sinquefield [pronounced sink-field] is the donor who funds the World Chess Hall of Fame, the St Louis Chess Club, and the two annual competitions in St Louis on the Grand Chess Tour, which are called the STL Rapid & Blitz and the Sinquefield Cup. The World Chess Hall of Fame last year celebrated its 10th anniversary by holding an exhibition and releasing a publication that looks like a newspaper entitled The Sinquefield Effect.

Rex Sinquefield is an interesting character. While still a student, he became a believer in the “efficient market” theory, which says that it is very difficult if not impossible for investors to do better than the market. He acted on these ideas and made a fortune in Chicago as an early creator and manager of index funds. Index funds do not pick stocks; they invest in stocks to match an index, like the S&P500, which reflects the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the US, or a fund that mimics the Consumer Staples component of the market. Research shows between 64 and even over 70% of mutual funds do not beat their sector’s index (depending on the sector). Since the cost of running an index fund is so low (no research), they always do better than most stock-picking mutual fund.

Sinquefield has said he got bored with his index fund work when he was 61 (and a billionaire), and moved back to his hometown of St Louis in 2005 to make a difference. He is politically very conservative, and gives money to politicians and organizations to try to lower taxes, believing that will help spur economic "growth". He particularly despises St Louis City’s 1% income tax, and even has promoted the total repeal of the state income tax. He has created the “Show Me Institute” (website here, or see pithy Wiki summary here) (Missouri is known as the “Show Me State”) as a think tank to promote his conservative, libertarian, and free market ideology.

Sinquefield was widely believed to be the éminence grise behind a push to combine St Louis City with St Louis County. The county has over 80 different cities and villages and towns, most with their own police and fire department and other services. The duplication of services and inefficiency of the system is obvious to all, but the status quo also protects rich towns from having to contribute to the costs of poverty alleviation, and makes their public schools well-funded, while poorer towns have underfunded and struggling schools. These inequalities are huge, and difficult to tackle, and in fact the proposed merger was not really going to address them directly, but might have started the process. He funded a group, Better Together, that submitted a proposal and held town hall meetings to try to gain support. But as it happened, the St Louis County executive, Steve Stenger, who was to have become the executive/mayor of the combined county-city, was arrested and has now been sentenced to 46 months in prison for corruption, so the push for county-city merger has died, again. The issue seems to come in 10 year intervals.

Prize money and points for STL Rapid & Blitz
Sinquefield has bragged, “If you get involved at the locallevel, you will be amazed at how much influence you can have.” I do not have millions of dollars to influence local politics, but I was able to see a major world chess tournament, and rub shoulders with Grand Masters like Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, YU Yangyi and DING Liren (or, should I write, Yangyi Yu and Liren Ding?), in a way that would not be possible in big cities like Hong Kong or New York, where there would be hundreds if not thousands of fans and spectators. The prize money is not like some sports (hm, is chess a sport? That was a topic for week one of my Sports and Culture course) but is not insignificant. St Louis is the capital of chess in the US today.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Hong Kong Protests: It’s more complicated than pro-democracy vs pro-Beijing

There are so many things I could comment on regarding the Hong Kong protests, but many observations would not be new to those who follow the situation closely, and would probably not be of interest to those who do not follow it closely. But there is one observation that non-specialists should know: the dispute is not just between pro and anti-democracy sides, but much more complicated.

The press often speaks of “pro-democracy protesters” (see here and here) but that label masks a great range of opinions, motivations, and factions among protesters. There are indeed many who support universal suffrage, that is, a more direct system of electing the Chief Executive (a position like a mayor) instead of the current system of election by a committee of 1,200 people mostly picked by Beijing. But the protesters also include a small but very determined number of activists who want more autonomy for Hong Kong. Some want autonomy as promised under the Basic Law and “one country two systems.” But some want virtual, de facto, or actual independence for Hong Kong, so great is their frustration with Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.

Many of the protesters, both pro-democracy and the more autonomy/independence minded, are “nativists,” in the sense that they resent the migration of Mainlanders to Hong Kong. They are more motivated by anger at Mainlanders, both those in Hong Kong and those who run Hong Kong, than they are motivated by a love of democracy and human rights. Since the 1980s, 150 Mainlanders are allowed to migrate to Hong Kong every day, and in addition, students from the Mainland who study and earn college or graduate degrees in Hong are allowed to stay and work in the territory. This, plus competition with Mainlanders for real estate and college places, adds an economic dimension to the discontent. This discontent is personified by the parallel traders (peddlers mostly from Shenzhen who cross the border multiple times per day to buy goods in Hong Kong to sell at higher prices in the Mainland) who have become a target of anger for many Hong Kongers. While nativists in the US, Germany and Italy are right-wing, many of the anti-Mainlander nativists in Hong Kong are pro-autonomy and often make common cause with the pro-democracy activists, because they are protesting against the current government and against Beijing. But their nativism is sometimes quite hateful; some say Trump-like things like "go back to where you came from" and they have physically attacked tourists, and many Mainlanders who live and work in Hong Kong are quite fearful.

While the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have marched on weekend protests are very peaceful, there is also a small minority that is convinced that peaceful protest does not work, and that some violence is going to be necessary (see WSJ article on this here). Their theory got some confirmation when Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she withdrew the proposed Extradition Law, as the SCMP paraphrased her, “to ensure there would be no more violence and injuries.” There was a debate as to whether the protest had been a “riot” or a “disturbance”  but in any case, the threat of violence was one of the factors that led to her decision.

The forces arrayed on the other, pro-government side are just as diverse, and are likely be roughly the same number as the protesters, or only slightly fewer, but less visible and energized. There are pro-government people who are center-right in their politics and who prefer order and see no need for protests. There is a small but very dedicated “Patriotic” faction that is deeply offended by the defacing of national symbols like the flag. They are now beginning to call for volunteers to come out to sing the national anthem at the protesters and to take photos of protesters’ faces to turn them over to the police. Many of these patriots are members of long-established communities in Hong Kong that were pro-Communist Party and anti-colonial. They had patriotic schools and read pro-PRC newspapers. Others are more recent immigrants from the Mainland. These patriots are convinced that Hong Kong people still have a colonial mentality, and cannot understand how Hong Kong people can wave the old colonial flag (Answer: it is a symbol of protest more than actual pro-colonial nostalgia).

Among the pro-government forces there are also many people who think protests will never succeed because Beijing will not allow direct democracy, so protest is pointless and even risks undermining the freedoms Hong Kong still does enjoy. They recognize that Beijing is encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy, but think it is foolish to resist. They may be right; if the PLA has to intervene, then Hong Kong really is just another Chinese city. On the other hand, democracy was never given as a gift, it was always struggled for.

Also among the pro-government forces are also people whose livelihoods are impacted by the protests, including people in the tourist trade dealing with the decline in Mainland tourism and travel generally. And of course there are the tycoons and entrepreneurs who have investments both in Hong Kong and Mainland China who do not want uncertainty. They have ways to work around the authoritarian system (having money helps), and see no need for these protests.

The disparate forces in the protester camp would fission if they had to come up with a common set of proposals or demands. Since they are just protesting against the government, they remain relatively united. I’m sure someone closer to the protests could describe the differences in even finer grain, but I believe these broad strokes are already better than seeing just two sides.

The protests are poorly led, because after the protests five years ago (what came to be called the Umbrella Movement), the government charged and convicted the three leaders (one minister and two professors) with “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause a public nuisance.” Benny Tai and Chan Kin Man were sent to jail in late April, and no doubt added to public frustration and anger with the government and with Beijing. This time, protesters have used encrypted social media to communicate, but the movement is acephalous. With no leaders, it is impossible for the government to negotiate an end to the protests. Ironically, lack of leadership and lack of negotiation keeps the protest movement united. It is a measure of public frustration that people are still willing to come out to protests despite differences in opinions and goals.

It is hard to see how this “summer of discontent” will end. The government keeps arresting protesters (420 as of yesterday), hoping the protests will burn themselves out. No one (neither the Hong Kong government, nor Beijing, nor any protesters) wants the PLA to intervene, which puts a break on the level of violence. But one has to worry that the frustration and emotions of protesters or the feeling of disrespect and humiliation by officials, may lead to loss of life and to violence that would destroy the ideas of civility and freedom that Hong Kong represents.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The AT&T Saga Continues

I have posted before about how AT&T keeps sending me bills for $0 to my old Hong Kong office address, and of my frustrating efforts to get them to stop (see here 11 years ago, and here 18 months ago). After my last post, I actually got a phone call from a supervisor in the southwest, and he seemed very competent and determined to solve the problem. You could say he reached out and touched me. But the problem persists!


 The bills never stopped coming. It has been well over a decade since I used an AT&T card. I've tried calling them, writing, sending back the bill. Nothing works.
And they are still spending US$1.15 every month to send me this phantom bill. People like to complain about government services like the DMV, but this is a private company, spending over $23 a year in just postage to send me a bill for $0.

The only thing that makes this comical is that I don't actually have to pay anything. It would be upsetting rather than annoying if they were actually billing me for something and I could not get them to stop. It is astonishing to me that a company could be so big that it cannot control something like this.

AT&T's new slogan in the early 2010's was "Rethink possible." I'm beginning to think impossible.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

How do you pronounce Huawei?

I noticed today on NPR Morning Edition that in one story, Senator Mark Warner, the host Steve Inskeep and White House correspondent Ayesha Roscoe all pronounced Huawei as "Wah-wei." I was about to email NPR to tell them that their pronunciation guide is wrong, but first googled "How to pronounce Huawei" and found this video, which is produced by Huawei itself (on Gizmodo Australia), but they pronounce it wrong! They say it should be "wah-wei", but in Chinese it should have an "h" before the "wah". It is not a common sound in English, but if you can say the Spanish name Juan ("hu-ahn"), then you can say Huawei ("huah-wei", two syllables).

Interestingly, the Gizmodo video/commercial was produced by Huawei to teach foreigners how to pronounce the company name. From my point of view, it makes the common Chinese assumption that foreigners cannot pronounce Chinese, and gives up. They butcher the name, but it's "close enough" and they assume at least foreigners will remember the name. But there is no reason why Americans, at least, should not be able to say Huawei correctly (I can't be sure about the Brits, and Italians can never pronounce an initial "H" so for them it is hopeless.)

Some on the web (e.g. this Quora reply) speculate that some Chinese are mispronouncing it because the Cantonese pronunciation of the character 华 is "wah", but the name of the company is romanized in Mandarin, so "wah" is definitely wrong. But the company is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, so it does make me wonder whether their marketing person was a Cantonese speaker who could not hear the difference between "wah" and "hua." Unlikely, but possible.

Part of the reason it is important to pronounce it correctly is so Americans do not sound stupid to the Chinese. It is often a sign of disrespect, I think, to not pronounce names correctly. And the first part of the name, Hua, happens to be a character or word that means "China" in Chinese, so it is pretty important to get that right.

I am not the kind of person who, when speaking in English, pronounces "Mexico" and "Guatemala" in Spanish. Doing that was a marker of being a true "lefty" and "in the know" in the 1980s, e.g. to say "nee-kah-rrah-guah" (with a rolled R for best effect). I don't think my insistence on pronouncing Huawei correctly is in the same category. I think of it as just pronouncing it correctly within the limits of what one's native language allows. And I'm not going to insist on getting the tones right; the vowels and consonants should be enough.

This is why I also complain about the way Americans mispronounce Beijing; the "jing" should be pronounced like "jingle bells", but may pronounce the "j" like "je" in French, which only serves to make Beijing sound French and exotic. There is no reason why Americans can't pronounce "Beijing" correctly, and pronouncing "Beijing" in French is wrong.

We're going to hear a lot of news about Huawei; we may as well pronounce it correctly, as close to the Chinese as is easily possible.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Is it OK to say President Garfield was cute?


Is it OK to talk about people's looks when it has nothing to do with their job or anything else? Or is it naïve, even overly PC, to complain about “lookism”? 

A recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money (transcript here) has two female co-hosts making comments on the attractiveness of 19th century former presidents. I can’t help but feel that if male hosts talked similarly about the looks of, say, the Suffragettes, people would rightfully be angry.

Here is the dialog: 
[Heather Cox] RICHARDSON [a professor of American history at Boston College]: James A. Garfield from Ohio. You know, a Civil War veteran.
 [Sarah] GONZALEZ: Is Garfield the one with the nice blue eyes that you keep mentioning?
 RICHARDSON: Yes, exactly.
 GONZALEZ: Oh, I can see the eyes. Yeah. I can see that.
 RICHARDSON: (Laughter) See?
 [Ailsa] CHANG: Wait, I want to see what he looks like.
 GONZALEZ: All right, let's Google him. OK, look at this. OK, but, like, if you had to choose a cute president from the late 19th century.
 CHANG: I don't think he would be the one.
 GONZALEZ: All right. Fine. James A. Garfield, to me, takes the 19th century cake, but whatever.
 This was in the program itself. Then, after the credits, where podcasts often add humorous bits of dialog that ended up on the cutting room floor (metaphorically, of course), they added: 
CHANG: I would go for Franklin Pierce.
 GONZALEZ: I don't even know who that guy is. That doesn't even stand out as a president to me.
 CHANG: Google. Google. Tall, dark and handsome.
 GONZALEZ: That is not dark.
 CHANG: (Laughter).
 GONZALEZ: Dark doesn't happen till...
 CHANG: 2008.
 GONZALEZ: ...2008.
 (LAUGHTER)
Ha ha.

I’m puzzled that the hosts and NPR editors think this kind of frivolous commentary is acceptable. Men making similar comments about women’s looks would immediately raise red flags. It might happen in private, but would surely not be put on the air. Given the history of how suffragettes were portrayed as ugly and unwanted, people are rightfully sensitive about commenting on women's looks. And it is also a fact that journalists and pundits comment on female politicians’ looks and clothes in ways they would never do for men (see here).

 On the other hand, there is a kind of egalitarianism here in that we have women talking about the appearance of powerful men, a reversal of powerful men talking about women's looks. But are we not supposed to be getting beyond this focus on appearance?

At the same time, sometimes people’s appearance is relevant to a discussion, and we cannot make it taboo, pretending that we don’t notice looks, or that it is too sensitive to talk about. No one can deny that good looks generally help in one’s career.

Still, the frivolity of these comments offends me. Who looks at pictures of presidents from the 19th century to see if they are “cute”? Seems weird.

This is the kind of double-standard that annoys people on the Right. Some people are quick to criticize men for commenting on women’s appearance, and here we have women gabbing about men’s appearance in a way that would be unacceptable if the genders were reversed. Without being too prudish or PC, the journalists should have had the good sense not to include this as part of their podcast. It was not funny, really.

Actually, it was offensive. Just as it is when men comment on women’s looks when it is irrelevant.