Category Archives: Grayarea

On Cultural Appropriation

The Yelp page for Kooks Burritos in Portland, Oregon, appears to be dealing with a wave of opinionated folks who haven’t bothered to actually try the food. The monitoring process at Yelp tries to ferret out reviews that aren’t based on the experience of eating at their pop-up food truck. As of this moment, they have settled on a respectable 4.5 stars, but there are several posts remaining that seem to reference recent news stories.

I haven’t tried the food either. The place is closed as of this writing. The reason given in various news accounts is the backlash from a Willamette Week article profiling their establishment. The article included accounts from the proprietors about how they learned some tricks from tortilla ladies on a trip to Mexico. They picked up basic recipes along with superficial and observable techniques from their interactions. These observations apparently included peeking into windows to get new insights.

For some reason, this came across to many readers as a confession of some sort of theft. If it wasn’t the theft of intellectual property (recipes), it was the theft of cultural artifacts and repurposing them to make a buck. Needless to say, the comment section of the Willamette Week went haywire. People took to Yelp as well and Kooks became famous enough to shut down. Some of the scorn seemed to be connected to the fact that these women are white, while the people they learned things from are brown.

I’m going to go out on a limb for you, though. I don’t think this was really about race. Well, it is, but only obliquely. The WW readers were outraged, but I am not sure that they, themselves fully understood why. The upshot: “This seems wrong.” The most concise characterization of why it seemed wrong, invoked the words “cultural appropriation.” This is, apparently, what they were angry at.

Incidentally, cultural appropriation isn’t illegal. Disaffected suburban teenagers appropriate rap culture in their parent’s car as the cruise by the strip malls. Clothing designers do it, music producers, ad agencies. bloggers… it happens every day.

Restaurants in America, especially chains, are breeding grounds for it. Seriously, “Yo quiero Taco Bell?” Qdoba? Chipotle? The are supposed to represent Mexican cuisine. However, the atmosphere of these places consists of a meaningless melange of artifacts that no more reflect real, Mexican culture than Chuck-E-Cheese reflects Sicily.

So why the outrage against these two women? Did people judge these individuals to have obtained their knowledge unethically? Perhaps, but I don’t see it as the whole reason. I think part of the answer lies in a vague sense of lost authenticity. Something about their perception of Kooks changed when people read the story.

Let’s assume that anyone who is upset by cultural appropriation would never eat at a Chevy’s. Let’s say, instead, that you eat at a little hole-in-the-wall place you know called Pablo’s. You’ve been eating there for years now and you know Pablo. He barely speaks English, but he makes the best Tamales! He says his recipes were his grandmother’s, only he doesn’t use lard so much.

Now, suppose you forget they are closed, and show up there on a Sunday (Domingo Cerrado). As you drive up, you see Pablo walking a well-dressed white guy in his 50’s out to a BMW. As they walk, Pablo is speaking perfect English and you overhear him discussing franchise opportunities and saying something about “keeping it real in the dining room.”

It has been a charade. Where are you going to eat now? How do you feel about the last 20 times you went there?

Kooks Burritos didn’t pretend to be Pablo’s. In this way, they weren’t trying to be an “authentic” Mexican food truck. They did tell WW a small secret about the way they learned some of their techniques though. Suddenly, real, brown-skinned Mexican women involved who learned their skills the hard way from their abuelas. it seemed unacceptable that these white American women were doing this for a living. It was unforgivable.

By the time we eat something in a restaurant, we don’t know very much about where the recipe came from. Was it a test kitchen in Niskayuna, NY, or was it a 100 year old family heirloom that was lost when a pie cabinet was sold at a garage sale? Usually, we don’t know.  I might suggest that we don’t want to know. We want to believe our narratives and enjoy our lunch.

Look how annoyed a customer gets when she first learns that there is no “Ancient Chinese Secret.” It was something she could buy at the grocery store all along. This commercial ran for a long time when I was a kid. It’s horrifying, enjoy.

APB and the Promise of Public Safety

How many of our problems are technical, resource-related? How many are social, constitutional, all of the above? The premise of this new Fox series called APB has the potential to explore some of these questions.

Television is an interesting medium; partly because it doesn’t have to deal with things like the 4th amendment. It doesn’t have the limitations of existing technology and it has the advantage of being driven by a script where the writers know how everything fits together before things even get started.

The best shows, however, do certain things for us. They show us a vision of what might be and allows us to think about what it might mean to us if the world were so. I don’t know if this is going to be one of those shows, but I will tell you that there are a couple of interesting ideas that are worthy of discussion.

Though not directly addressed in the pilot episode, we have the real, cost-effective technology today to do some pretty amazing things. One of these concepts is to post a drone at 17,000 feet and monitor everything that takes place on surface streets of a typical city in real time. What is more, the technology allows for long-term storage of this feed so that we can trace events in either direction from the time and place of a crime. If criminals are on the street, they would be captured moving from place to place and their movements would be potentially exploitable. The obstacle to every municipal police department deploying one of these things, is the 4th amendment.

One of the things that were addressed in the pilot episode was the introduction of more effective non-lethal weapons. The standard issue appears to be a taser that is as easy to aim at close range as a semiautomatic pistol. The effectiveness of tasers in terms of range and their ability to efficiently subdue a suspect must be improved in order for them to effectively replace lethal firearms, but I personally believe that this is the wave of the future.

With the proper gear, we don’t need to execute suspects on the street even if they are armed and pose a legitimate threat. The solutions that technology like this would solve are immeasurable. It is the mission of the police to apprehend suspects. Even if those suspects are in the act of attempted murder, it would not be necessarily to kill them if they could be disabled and neutralized as effectively or even more effectively than with a bullet.

The relations between the police and the people they serve would be immensely improved especially in places where high-profile mistakes are made leaving unarmed civilians dead.

At any rate, a show like this has potential, but especially if it spends significant time addressing social issues around technology within reach over the coming decade or so. Improvements to the criminal justice system can change the future to one where public safety is preserved as police force effectiveness gets even better.

Day Two

Marchers across the nation came out in numbers. Real numbers, lots of star power, lots of peaceful people across the country took to the streets with a strong anti-trump message. The grievances were many; healthcare figured prominently, reproductive rights were front and center as well.

The lack of response from the administration was notable; the only mention of it I heard today was from Sean Spicer who forcefully, and absurdly declared that the president’s inauguration was attended by more people than any presidential inauguration in the history of the United States. He referred to the protests today only as a point of reference to indicate that by his estimate, the number of people at the inauguration far exceed the number on the capitol mall today.

Trump himself obsessed about the crowd size estimates characterizing press coverage as lies while addressing the CIA this morning. To his eyes, there were at least a million, maybe a million and a half people at his inauguration. He took almost half of his time with the agency today to complain about the press.

He talked about how lawn protectors had not been used in previous inaugurations, but it turned out that they were. Spicer also threw out some numbers for the DC Metro that were more than wrong; they were actually easy to debunk. The true numbers were as follows:

2017: 570,557
2013: 782,000
2009: 1.1 Million

So why do this? Why simply declare something so obviously contradicted by facts? This was yesterday’s news. This whole story was over at noon if they hadn’t kept it alive by flatly lying about something so inconsequential.

More tragically, they missed an opportunity to talk about the National Women’s march across the nation and the world today. This opportunity was not a small one. After the apocalyptic address Trump made yesterday, there were a few things he said that weren’t awful. First and foremost, he promised to listen to all Americans. His words were inclusive; I didn’t believe them then, and his response thus far to the voices on the mall today tended to validate that position. These are voices from people who do not agree with his party platform on many issues; they don’t agree with his appointees and they are trying to make sure that their voices are heard.

Is Trump listening?

The Big Inaugural Address

Donald Trump’s first address to the American people as President of the United States did not resonate with me. There were many reasons for this. The first and most obvious reason is that while it came out of his mouth, it did so in words that did not reflect the voice of Donald Trump.

This isn’t to say that the sentiments weren’t genuine. But the expression of those sentiments seems at odds with his idiom. Metaphors of factories “scattered like tombstones” and “wind-swept plains” and “carnage” are just so incredibly out of character that I couldn’t help but wonder who wrote them. Was it Trump himself, sitting at a desk by the Mar-a-lago cloakroom in front of that mosaic wall, next to a statue of an eagle perched on a marble and bronze plinth?

I am sure that he believes that the United States has become a dumpster fire over the past eight years; that the military is depleted; that the inner cities are aflame and people feel hopeless and helpless. Trump, no doubt, believes that the medicine he brings will turn this awful disaster of a country around. I am not so confident. As he promised that the voice of the people would be heard and that the forgotten will no longer be disregarded, the web site was being rebranded. References to climate change were being removed, references to LGBT issues and other heartfelt concerns of real Americans were being swept aside.

So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.

My personal feelings are that my voice is weaker, not stronger. It is as if the Electoral College vote somehow settled disputes between the politicians and the scientific community over climate change and pollution and whether regulations and biodiversity are important. These things are not subject to electoral math; they are questions of the study of the natural systems in which we live and breathe.

He spoke of Washington elites, but not corporate elites. Do I believe that government corruption is a good thing? Of course not, but should I believe that the best people to run the government are corporate tycoons whose meteoric rise to success has choreographed the very environment of disparity that we are seeing today? My personal concerns about conflicts of interest are being disregarded; when the President Elect mentions a $2 Billion dollar deal that he was offered at a press conference mere days before his inauguration, why does this not bode well to me? Why did he say so many times that he is not required by law to divest himself of his holdings at all? Why was the integrity of the presidency not worth it to him to divest his entire organization and retain his holdings in a blind trust? This is what was expected; this is the standard, and it wasn’t worth it to him. He appointed his biggest donors and supporters to high office – in many cases without regard to qualifications. He did this as he decried cronyism. So no, I am not confident that the era of Washington corruption has ended on this day.

There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

The idea that God will protect us is somewhat strange to me as well. As a non-believer, I would prefer we didn’t really bring him into this. Trump has promised to be the best jobs president that God has ever created, but the blind assertion that the United States is God’s chosen nation (assuming some, specific manifestation of God) and the implication that Trump is a vehicle, also chosen by God seems to me to be a step into a new realm. Faith-based assertions can eat away at the hard work that is required to make important changes. I’ve heard with my own ears from Christians who place issues of large scale pollution, climate, poverty and even controls on capitalism in the hands of the all-mighty. These beliefs are counter-productive because they minimize the important job of the people to ascertain the root causes of problems, establish remediations, and adjust our collective actions to make things better.

In closing, he promised to make the strongest nation on earth strong again. He promised to make a nation with 6 of the 8 wealthiest people in the world wealthy again, and, again, he promised to make us great again. It’s hard to reconcile that with the events of the day. By overstating our problems, appealing to nationalism and painting a picture of an apocalyptic wreckage of a nation, the administration is set to throw the babies out with the bathwater “from mountain to mountain”. It’s not truly a promise to listen to all Americans, it never was. It’s a promise to listen to different Americans who believe different and less nuanced things about jobs vs. the environment; sabre-rattling vs. strength; science vs. religion; and crassness vs. decorum. It’s an affirmation of extreme right-wing priorities around opportunity, equality, and supply-side economics.

Donald trump is not listening to me. He is uninterested in my views and ideas. I didn’t support his campaign, and with every tweet decrying how awful and unsuccessful his detractors (enemies) are, he make it clear that my opinions are no longer relevant. My facts and experience have been voted on by the electoral college, and determined, in a free-and fair election, to be lies.

The outcome of this election is an American tragedy wrapped in appeals to jingoism. We are actually less great today than we were yesterday.

Trump’s Cabinet Priorities

I find myself being told a lot of things about how to interpret the goings on with the incoming Donald Trump administration. Supporters of the President Elect seem to universally deny any alarming characteristics of appointees for the new government.

Donald Trump asserted on many occasions how great the government would be under his leadership. It would be the most efficient, the most effective, the most ethical government we have seen in our lifetimes. I really don’t think anyone believed he had an explicit blueprint for this greatest government in history, but I do think that his supporters believed that he wants his government to be the best ever. I personally believe he wants that, but unlike his supporters, I don’t believe that he has an awareness of what that looks like.

As an executive, you can’t micromanage. I would never accuse the President Elect of being a micromanager. I think he does understand that you have to hire leaders who will take your vision and make it their vision and translate it into an organization or P&L that will run efficiently and execute on the goals you supply. The President of the United States runs a bureaucracy so vast that it would be hard to imagine that any president would have a detailed vision for each department. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do important things, but it does mean that at different times various agencies need different amounts of attention.

Trump’s government agencies likely fall into a couple of categories. The primary agencies are front-and-center in Trump’s mind. In these cases, his advisors have helped him to identify appointees who conform to some of the broad messages of his campaign. Then there are the second tier (to him) agencies that he is filling, some with loyal supporters, and some with individuals preferred by his advisors. I suspect that these agencies aren’t well understood by Trump in terms of their scope or mission. Mind you, this is all inference based on my perception of the appointees at this point. I have no visibility into the process.

Primary Appointees:

Appointees in the first tier include General Mattis, who may well turn out to be an excellent Secretary of Defense. What I like best about him so far is the reports that he is rejecting transition team candidates to pentagon jobs. This report has been disputed in a recent Breitbart story, but if true, it supports the popular characterization of this man as a competent person who will support the president, but won’t bend too easily under pressure from the administration.

Rex Tillerson, State – Former ExxonMobil CEO. This is possibly the best or worst appointee he could have chosen for this post. On the plus side, Tillerson has cut ties with ExxonMobil and was praised by the head of the Office of Government Ethics for his divestment of his personal assets. I won’t agree with Tillerson on many things, but he took his nomination seriously. On the down side, while he lead a major energy company, they skirted sanctions on Iran by trading through an company owned by ExxonMobil. His ties to Russia are even more troubling. I didn’t like his confirmation hearings because of the unsurprising way he avoided questions about climate change. I actually think he is potentially vulnerable to disclosures about what Exxon’s own scientists reported to their leadership about the effects of fossil fuel consumption on the climate. Regardless of my personal thoughts, I do believe that Trump meant it when he appointed him. It wasn’t arbitrary; it wasn’t cynical; it was serious and Tillerson is a serious appointee.

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. This appointment, like Tillerson, appears to provide backing for his campaign promises. His pro-police, law-and-order-president persona is reinforced by Sessions. In keeping with this persona, Jeff Sessions appears from his confirmation hearings to be concerned about investigations into patterns of abuse in police departments across the country. Sessions seems extremely reluctant to entertain the possibility that some police departments may foster biases that result in problems in how the law is applied to minorities. He appears to believe that the accusations and the investigations are the primary problem that creates tension between the police and the community as opposed to any actual bias. Again, this is a serious appointment and it was on purpose. I just think it is very divisive.

Steven Mnunchin

Next comes the influx from Goldman Sachs. At least 5 alumni from this investment bank are stationed at the highest levels of the Trump cabinet. They are not arbitrary appointees, however, they are such an incredible cliché that it is hard to take Trump’s “drain the swamp” battle cry with any seriousness in light of these appointees. Didn’t he criticize Hillary for being too chummy with the investment banks?

Andrew Pudzer, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which is the company that franchises Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box outlets among others. As Secretary of Labor, this man will take on the responsibility of representing the workers of the United States. CKE restaurants employs about 20, 000 people not including the employees of the individual franchises. I think this one is a wild card. It seems cynical despite Puzder’s credentials. Before now, nobody would have considered him a champion of labor. He is poised to undo many of the labor protections that have made his own career more challenging in recent years. Interestingly, his stated opposition to the ACA is that because people have to pay health insurance premiums, they have less money to buy hamburgers. There may be a small amount of irony here, in that buying fewer Carl’s Jr. burgers may help keep you out of the healthcare system in the first place.

Thank’s for Your Support:

Dr. Ben Carson

The process that went into appointing the head of Housing and Urban Development is a mystery. I have no idea where it came from. By appointing Dr. Ben Carson, a campaign supporter, instead of a person with demonstrated leadership in urban development, urban planning or housing policy, he sends a different kind of message about this agency than for the previous examples. My most prominent concern about this appointment is that Carson isn’t really a natural leader. As a surgeon, his people management skills are virtually unimportant, but as the leader of a major government agency, they are. By my estimation, this appointment isn’t obviously cynical, but it isn’t serious.

Linda McMahon

Similarly, Linda McMahon has been offered a role, it would seem, primarily for her early support of Donald Trump’s campaign. She reportedly donated $7 million in two separate donations to “super PACs” supporting Trump. Sure, she is the chief executive of a successful business, but it isn’t clear what he expects her to do as the head of the Small Business Administration. She is more qualified than Dr. Ben Carson to run a large bureaucracy. Her company employs about 800 people, whereas the Small Business Administration employs about 3,200 people. I am sure she is sharp as a tack, but because of the size of these donations, this looks like a bald faced political favor.

It might be worth noting that the of the top 5 contributors to President Obama’s 2012 campaign, nobody gave nearly that much, and none of them were given a cabinet position.

All in the Family

Leveraging Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner is questionable with respect to anti-nepotism regulations on the books, but for me, it merely shows a broader lack of imagination. Kushner is in a role that may create a number of conflicts of interest as well. As with Donald Trump, he is not divesting from his businesses and is not putting assets in a blind trust. He will be involved in high-level discussions that concern foreign and domestic policies that can not help put affect the business interests of Jared Kushner. If it weren’t for Kushner being directly in the cabinet, even having his wife Ivanka, in her west wing office would be problematic.

In Trump’s first press conference, he told the world that since the election, he was offered a $2 Billion deal that he declined. I am not sure why we were supposed to feel good about that. It occurs to me that our failure to praise Donald Trump for the absolute minimum amount of decorum required of the office might create resentment. If we don’t collectively say “thank you for not selling the presidency for $2 Billion”, could this devolve into a spiral of cynicism that leads to him accepting future opportunities? I certainly hope not. Will Jared Kushner be offered similar opportunities? Will they be turned down? Our visibility into those dealings will not be as transparent as I would like, but I do hope that investigative journalism stays healthy over the next several years.

These have been just a few notable examples. There are confirmation hearing in progress for appointees that require them, and I’ll probably have more to say as time progresses. I try not to rehash old news and I’ve already called out DeVos who appears to be anti-public education, Pruitt, who appears to be anti-environment and Perry, who suggested that the agency he will be leading should be eliminated.

It is safe to say that I’ll be writing about these and other appointees over the next several months and years.

Farewell to POTUS

Miss you already big guy.

I enjoyed the President’s speech this evening. It was sweeping, hopeful and emotional, with a hint of admonishment about the risks to democracy out there. I felt that he laid substantial blame at the feet of Democrats for the polarization of the political environment. I think he was on point expressing more concern about threats from within our society and not from outside influences.

Obama had a lot of things to say about the progress of the past 8 years; I know how I felt in 2009 when he took office. The economy was the biggest issue on my mind. I was quite concerned about the free fall of the value of my home (which I had only recently purchased).  I was concerned about 800,000 jobs lost per month at a point when I worked for a large company that, if I am honest, could have laid me off without noticing my absence. My family and I felt vulnerable. 8 years later, I don’t feel this way. I feel more resilient, my home has value, and my retirement savings have been accumulating value steadily over the past 7 years. I can afford health insurance without requiring that I work for an employer that provides health benefits. I don’t feel like a rich man, but things are much better for me.

I reflect on the fact that not everyone feels like their lives are moving in the right direction. Some people lost their jobs during the great recession and have not been able to climb back to where they were. Most people haven’t seen a significant raise in a long time. Some people had to move away from their home towns to find work that could support their families. Not everyone has family or social connections that they can fall back on to help them move ahead in their lives. An increasing number of young adults can’t afford to live on their own without roommates. These are challenges that our economy still faces after these 8 years.

Obama spent some time speaking about race relations in a way that I thought characterized the broader progress of race relations over decades, but glossed over contemporary challenges. I am not sure that, as the first black American president, it was his job to be in charge of race relations though. Some problems have to do with an extremely complex development of tension between law enforcement and the African American community. Another issue we seem to be having is related more about concerns over Muslims and undocumented immigrants in general.

I’ve heard charges of race baiting levied against Obama, but to my ears, his words were and are genuine and born out of his personal experience as a black man in America. Black Lives Matter certainly is an imperfect movement with members who have caused problems and resentment at times. But, I don’t conflate their objectives with those of people who assassinate police officers. The president has never given cover to people who commit violence. He doesn’t rationalize their actions as justifiable. I also don’t conflate whole police departments with the actions of individual Police officers who have made decisions that turned out to be deadly mistakes.

How many of these problems would be ameliorated by a “law and order” President or a “police first” Attorney General that we will have in Jeff Sessions. How much of the problem has more to do with the fact that over the past 8 years we have arrived at a point where virtually every person you see, has a movie camera in their pocket or purse.

As I type this, I also recognize, that the incoming president will not be as articulate as President Obama has been. Trump is praised for his plain speech and he will tend to deliver his words as mostly raw sentiments off the cuff. He won’t spend a lot of energy trying to be so inclusive with his language. Attempts at graciousness sit uncomfortably on Donald Trump like a wrinkled suit.

I was impressed by what he said on the early morning of the 9th of November as he delivered his victory speech. Trump’s words weren’t surprising because of their beauty or emotion; they were memorable because they were essentially decent. In short, I was happy and pleased that the winner of the presidential election didn’t demean and mock his political opponents.

We will at least occasionally hear more decency from the future President, but we will certainly hear a new voice. Let’s put it this way; I don’t expect that quotes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be neatly woven into the speeches of the new President. I’ll just have to miss that sort of thing for a while.

Tonight, I was grateful that we had an articulate man talk about what has been an historic presidency. I heard a man who loves his country and his family and who speaks about the love in his heart with eloquence and distinction.

Our New Vulnerabilities

Donald J Trump

Now that we have a new President elect, maybe it is worth asking ourselves how Donald Trump’s strengths and weaknesses will serve our nation. I am not sure his strengths are conventional ones, because he hasn’t lived a life similar to most of us. To my knowledge, he hasn’t ever had to apply for a workaday job. He hasn’t built a career under a series of sadistic or negligent bosses or people who were not grooming him for success.

I wish I could easily set aside the opinions I have formed of the man over the past year and a half or so. It is hard to do. An exercise I have tried with some degree of success is to put Donald Trump on retrospective mute. If I ignore nearly every utterance or tweet he has issued and rely on accounts that others have made of his character, as well as observations of his business activities, it is easier to see the positives. This is a bridge further than I would have to cross for most people, but it is essential to avoid viewing his ascension to the White House as a national embrace of cynicism.


Trump’s ability to manipulate people and situations is an enormous factor in his success. He has been able to get deals done and at least some of that is due to him being able to figure out what motivates his business associates. He can think big and visualize very large projects while not getting mired in details. This ability to ignore details is a hurdle for many of us. If we rise to the top of our field, for most of us, it is because we learned to sweat the details. We learned the technical aspects of our work and were promoted along the way. Donald Trump has no such baggage.

Let’s not trivialize his personal financial success. In my estimation, he has been quite shrewd in protecting his own interests. He has suffered setbacks and he has found ways to survive them. Some of his biggest projects have failed spectacularly and he managed to come back from the edge of financial ruin. Facing a failure with the scope of the Trump Taj Mahal, I would imagine would cause a lot of normal humans to lose continence, if not confidence.

Donald Trump does not lack confidence. It is this very confidence that has helped him to decide that he was the right person to lead the nation.

Trump’s comfort in working people is actually an art form. Commandment of facts and depth of knowledge over a broad spectrum of topics is not required to make people want to do business with you. However, one thing that really does make people want to do business with you is something that Trump has in spades- money, or at least access to financing. As the president of the United States, he has access to untold fortunes and sets priorities, but he is not really the guy who gets to decide where to spend it when it comes to the US government.


If there is one weakness that seems to emerge with some regularity, it is a lack of self control. It is clear that he can’t seem to back down from even the smallest snub or slight. The New Year’s Eve tweet that was so famous is a small example.

Celebrities who deign to criticise him could be ignored, but they get his full and undivided attention. This is surprising. There are, meanwhile, a great many things he could be spending more time on.

The second noticeable weakness is a very shallow grasp of the facts concerning complex policy issues. The simplistic view is, no doubt, appreciated by folks who think that most big problems can be solved by common sense. Additionally, leading by principle is beguiling. By distilling the issues down to black/red tokens you can make decisions without knowing the details.

The major problem with this notion is that, as a leader of a country, there are many people, foreign and domestic, who are trying to manipulate you. From all that is apparent in the public domain, Donald Trump was surprised by the controversy presented by a phone call with the President of Taiwan. After some incredulity and a protest from China, Trump posted this:

The upshot here was that who called whom was the salient information rather than the public announcement of the call in the first place. It is also interesting that he passed this off as a phone ringing out of the blue that he was somehow compelled to pick up. In fact, it has since been widely reported that this call was a long time in the works and brokered, at least in part, by none other than Bob Dole.

This sort of fumbling was a very sad turn of events. It was an opportunity to alter the course of foreign policy, or to graciously accept a call and not publicize it. In the end, it did neither. Trump came across as being unaware of the situation. From China’s point of view, this was the equivalent of a call from the mayor of Shanghai. Trump did not seem to appreciate the nuance and so he created a precursor to an international incident without any of the benefits.

Now, this is important, because in retrospect, it isn’t even clear that Donald Trump knew that this call was more important or had more significance than any other congratulatory call. So why did it happen? Who wanted it to happen? Would he have made the call if he had known that it would potentially strain US/China relations? Maybe so, but perhaps he wouldn’t have responded with a who-called-whom tweet.

There are any number of economic, defence, environmental and social issues facing the country where he has a similarly shallow depth of knowledge. It seems that he is highly vulnerable to manipulation by cynical elements who are being hired into the highest levels of government.

He is appointing an Education Secretary in Betsy DeVos who seems less interested in public education and more interested in clearing the way for public funding for religious education through vouchers. He appears to have selected a climate change denier in Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. An oil executive as secretary of state? Why not? Rick Perry is slated to head the Department of Energy which is, as we might recall one of the three federal agencies he claims he would have eliminated were he elected president.  The list goes on. It seems hard to imagine that Trump could have, without help, dropped such bombs on these departments.

One might ask where all these names come from, and the answer seems to be “…from very close.” He has picked his own business attorney as the ambassador to Israel. Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist, His son-in-law and his daughter are taking senior jobs in the administration as well. The people who are providing Donald Trump with his world view seem to be coming off of an extremely shallow bench.

A principled leader does need something around which to form principles. It seems as likely that Donald Trump had little knowledge of the inner workings and responsibilities of these cabinet positions. He’s hired loyalists over bureaucrats. Which, seems to be sort of the opposite of draining any kind of swamp. Hiring your buddies and people who supported you has been behind some of the biggest mistakes made in DC.

It comes across as a broad lack of interest in the day-to-day running of the executive branch. Naturally, Donald Trump had, until recently, never aspired to do so. At any rate, the attention span and details required to deliver effective governance will continue be the biggest blind spot for our new President.

I keep hearing the words of George W. Bush praising his FEMA appointee Michael Brown, who had no experience running a government agency before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.

Donald Trump is setting the table in such a way that sooner or later he will probably find himself uttering a phrase that sounds a lot like “Heckuva job Brownie.”

What is an economy for?

The graph below describes what we call the normal distribution. When we measure systems that are intended to perform within certain tolerances, there is variability around the target measurement. Systems that need to perform to specifications try to establish controls that produce results as near the goal as possible and control outliers to the maximum extent.

What is more, most organic measurements you could think of will follow a similar shape. If you took all of the apples on your orchard and weighed them, the distribution of weights would look very much like this curve. Human intelligence, height, weight, the length of a given bone. This is why they call it a normal distribution. Things just naturally concentrate around the average.

If systems are bounded on one side but not the other, you can get a different type of curve. The graph below describes the thickness of zinc plating.

Other models that don’t follow normal distribution are things that involve human activity (as opposed to human characteristics). They also may be influenced by random events. These would include statistics like The number of days between the date an invoice is sent and the payment date.

In case you were wondering, According to the US Census Bureau, the distribution of incomes in the United States is concentrated at the low end of the scale. In the chart below, the last segment on the right is a single entry for all households with over $200,000 in income. In actuality, that segment is something of a throwaway because it would taper down to smaller and smaller numbers along a fairly smooth curve up to millions of dollars in income. The shape of this graph resembles the thickness of zinc plating more so than the average weight of an apple.


Obviously, half of all households earn less than the median, which is about $53,000 per year and the other half earn above that amount. One problem that jumps out from the chart above is that incomes are clustered at the $10,000 – $20,000 range.  With the poverty line hovering at around $16,000 per year for a family size of two, that creates economic pressure.

The tendency for incomes to cluster near the poverty line as opposed to being around the median income seems likely to create risks in terms of the management of resources in times of scarcity. The burden on the half above the median grows as incomes skew downward.

Do we take for granted that it is so much harder to increase your income from $15,000 per year to $20,000 per year than it is to increase it from $185,000 to $190,000? Even if we accept that as a fact, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for ways to lower barriers for breaking out of those lower incomes. Does the economy, as a mechanism, have any role in flattening the curve or creating better conditions for pushing incomes upward?

The shape of this graph has been changing for some time and its tendency for incomes to cluster around the poverty line is getting stronger and not weaker. Depending on the company you keep, this trend is the result of either too much or too little government influence. Either the government is trying to do too much and thus creating a dependency mind-set, or it is doing too little by not ensuring that low income and families without skills or education can create opportunities for themselves and their children.

People can readily produce anecdotal evidence for either case. Tax cuts are seen by some as a positive move where the government steps back and lets private industry spend its windfall, hopefully on new business opportunities and new jobs. These, unfortunately, haven’t produced many jobs in the middle class or much growth in incomes so far. Tremendous growth in personal wealth at the top of the economic ladder has not translated into prosperity for increasing numbers of people at the bottom of the economy.

Meanwhile incidents of fraud, waste, and otherwise gaming the system are not fictitious. Addiction, abuse, health problems and even natural disasters will create other, difficult to manage challenges as well. Having said that, it’s also clear that food stamps, Medicaid and other programs can create relief. This is especially true for children who have not failed anyone, and for whom we want to make room on the road to a good life, a good job and opportunities for their own children.

A decline in opportunities for good paying, non-skilled labor has had an impact. Globalization creates both opportunities and hardships. Some skilled labor is now giving ground to increased automation. This creates real economic tension. There are immediate problems for those who would have otherwise worked in factories or mills and there are longer term problems on the horizon for increasing numbers of people.

If it is a goal to move the household income clusters to the right and bring more people out of poverty. We have to examine the barriers to upward mobility and identify ways that we can take them away. There aren’t simple answers, but it isn’t unreasonable to examine specific reasons why our economic system is not creating as many successful citizens as it once did. This should be of some concern to all of us.

Bearing in mind the fact that the national and global economy is not the same as it was in 1960, or 2007 even, we should be looking for as many ways to create prosperity for the people who need the most help.

One Day Later

So I got my hopes up and didn’t prepare for what happened in this election. In retrospect, I can see much more clearly why I should have been concerned. I don’t have friends that think Donald Trump would make a good president. Fortunately, you choose your friends, but from a statistical point of view, people you like to hang out with don’t make for good sampling.

I’m looking at my family now, and I can see that things are not as rosy. My Mother, at least one of my three brothers, at least one of my two sisters and her voting-age daughter are either Trump supporters or at least anti-hillary enough to cast a vote for him. My wife’s brother, his wife, her father and stepmother are vigorous supporters of Donald Trump as well. That’s not a small number of relatives and these are only the ones who had a discernable preference before the election.

I know these people, and I’m not really surprised by their political opinions. It’s also a valid point that in my state, their preferences in the presidential race had limited consequences, as did mine. The family members who live out of state contributed more. Such is the nature of the electoral system. Meanwhile, winning or losing a political argument with a family member isn’t a simple matter and can come at some cost. This is not to be trivialized.

This race will be remembered for a lot of things. One is the involvement of James Comey at several points along the way creating openings for Trump to attack Hillary. The leaks of HRC staff emails from John Podesta from Wikileaks. These leaks chronicled a good number of criticisms of Clinton and some dirty pool, but nothing illegal per se. The unforgivable sin of having your dirty laundry in the open is what happened there. Nobody should have any doubt that the Trump campaign had absolute brutal and unfair strategies throughout the primaries. A similar leak would likely have revealed similar embarrassments, but what came out was all on one side and it created problems for HRC during debates and during her campaign.

The Russians were directly involved in degrading Clinton and they had an accomplice in Wikileaks. This wasn’t a good thing, but where the mails came from was never the story. No, the only offset to the stream of bad news from that source would have been a counter-attack. I would love to see the emails between Kellyanne Conway and the rest of the campaign, but it wasn’t to be.

I’ve decided that I’ll be fine. I don’t suspect that much will change for me in the near future. If anyone should be concerned, the people who voted Trump into office probably have the most to lose. If they voted because they have a crappy job and want to go back to work at a factory building stuff, I still can’t see any mechanism by which those empty promises of making dreams come true will be kept. We can scrap treaties, but even if some factories are built or moved here, people don’t hire folks to weld stuff together anymore; robots do that now. The factories may come back, but with only a small fraction of the jobs.

Big River Steel in Arkansas is a 1.3 billion dollar plant that will eventually employ a workforce of 545 people to pour 1.6 million tons of steel per year. That’s an investment of almost 2.4 million dollars per job. Those people will make about 70K or so a year, so those are great jobs. Alabama’s new ThyssenKrupp mill will cost around 5 Billion dollars and employ 2,700 people. That’s a much better economy of scale though at only 1.85 million dollars per job. Putting tariffs on imports could cause steel mills to start rolling again with greater vigor, the downside is a trade war that could cost jobs in other areas.

It’s not simple.

Not What I Expected

Wow, I was really wrong.

We have just elected a reality show star to the highest office in the land.

It sort of feels like my country is a stranger to me. It might be closer to the feeling of finding out that you’ve been hated all along by people you cared about.

The working class people who voted for Donald Trump will be expecting to be materially elevated by this guy. I don’t know how much time they are going to give him to drain the swamp, or what mechanism will be used to do the draining, or who, exactly, are the mosquitos?

I don’t know how much time they will give him to change their lots, but he doesn’t actually seem to be any more aware than I am about exactly what it is that will fix the issues behind their pain.