Introduction

Introduction to My Blog

With this blog, I aim to ask and answer provocative or otherwise interesting questions. I hope you find it valuable. Enjoy!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ode to the Wretched

"Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely; Taking time the only way he knows; Leg hurting bad as he bends to pick a dog-end; He goes down to the bog and warms his feet." This is the first half of the chorus of a 1971 progressive rock song called "Aqualung" by Jethro Tull. This song has been something of an obsession of mine over the past year for one reason primarily: the topic.

"Aqualung" is the title track to Jethro Tull's 1971 album about a filthy, pitiful old homeless man. I find it worthwhile to reflect on this song because the subject matter is unusual in popular music culture. I could name plenty of songs about love, fame, beautiful women, and wild parties; I can hardly think of any songs about something so decidedly unappealing as a disgusting homeless man. Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson and his then-wife, Jenny Franks, co-wrote the lyrics to the song. They drew inspiration from pictures Franks took of homeless people along the Thames embankment in London.

Allow me to clarify some of the slang terms in the excerpt from the song, because they paint quite a picture. A 'dog-end' is a discarded cigarette with some tobacco left in it. Aqualung, the homeless man, is so desperate and poor that he reduces himself to picking up and smoking discarded cigarettes. In the following line, the 'bog' is the restroom, and when he 'warms his feet,' this refers to inadvertently urinating on himself.

Yes, this is a repulsive picture. That is the point, though. In these lyrics, Anderson and Franks ask listeners to confront that which we collectively attempt to ignore, and render invisible. This is what fascinates me, more than anything about this song: The focus of a hit song on a type of person typically relegated to 'other' status. 

I grew up in a comfortably affluent city in Southern California called Irvine. During my entire life in Irvine, I encountered only a small handful of homeless people. However, when I came to Los Angeles to attend USC (University of Southern California), I found myself in a city with an out-of-control homeless problem, just minutes from my dorm room.

As a relatively well-informed political science student, I knew before coming to LA that homelessness was a widespread issue in many major American cities. Still, though, coming face to face with the human toll of homelessness was shocking. Nothing short of in-person contact with the problem is sufficient to understand it. However, I think that a greater focus in cinema, politics, music, and media on problems such as homelessness would more effectively force us to confront these issues in meaningful ways.

We mostly attempt to hide homelessness from our discourses. Why? Because it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge the disparities in living conditions that our societies tolerate. Because we are ashamed of it. Because it would be traumatizing for each of us to constantly be confronted by the human face of the problem: the human face that, under different circumstances, could just as easily have been yours or mine.

I don't want these points to come across as preachy or extremely political. While arguably insufficient, the governments of my home country, the United States, and my country of current residence, the United Kingdom, both commit substantial resources to reducing homelessness and dealing with its root causes. My focus here is less on the political and more on the cultural and social. The homeless are hardly mentioned or included at all in the daily lives of most people. This makes it easier to harbor less concern for them and tacitly accept their deprivation. 

Thanks to an opportunity from a writing professor of mine at USC, I have been volunteering during the better part of the past year for an organization that pairs volunteers with homeless people in California. The aim of the program is for homeless people struggling during COVID-19 to have a friend to check in on them, chat with them casually, and ensure that they are receiving the care they need. Whether through avenues like this or other less formal ones, I long for a culture in which more are interested in engaging personally with homeless people.

None of what I have said is to speak ill of songs about romance, luxury, and pleasure. Many of my favorite songs are about such themes. I also don't mean to argue that if we all hold hands and serenade the homeless that their problems would be solved (though that would be quite a sight). The point I hope to have made here is that there is profound value in songs that stray from more common topics.

When I first heard "Aqualung," I didn't quite understand and internalize the lyrics; I simply heard the instrumentals and vocal notes. It's a catchy and intense song, but it is also beautiful in parts. When I listen to it now, I still don't quite know what to think. Should I feel pity? Perhaps sadness? I certainly don't think it would do justice to mindlessly hum the tune. Perhaps the value of this song, and others like it, is its insistence that we acknowledge what the real world is like.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where everyone swims in piles of cash or looks gorgeous enough to silence a room with their mere entrance. We inhabit a world containing a chaotic mix of deprived & depraved, fortunate & esteemed, and barren & blissful. If we are to appreciate this incoherent madness, it would help for our culture to magnify a broader spectrum of human experience.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Public School Cooking Classes (This isn't a joke)

Like virtually everyone else, the lockdowns in effect around the world have helped me appreciate what in my life is and isn't important. We all think more about household essentials like tissues, soap, and toilet paper. We think about our food supplies, and how we can push our eating habits in a more self-sustainable direction. I read an interesting article in the Economist a few weeks ago about how a resurgence of gardening has occurred in the United States, and many more people are growing their own vegetables again.

I have thought hard about how I can best spend my time in quarantine, and one of the no-brainers to me has been cooking. Cooking is one of the most useful skills I can think of, and it's a skill that I don't think we emphasize as much as we ought to in childhood education. Perhaps this is more of a result of my pampered upper-middle-class upbringing, but I was never required to cook. I either heated up pre-made frozen food or my mom would cook.

I regret the fact that I wasn't taught to cook in the house, and I know that many (perhaps most) people learned some degree of cooking in the household as a child. I want to make an argument for required cooking classes in public education because I think that the skill is so incredibly useful, and has benefits one might not realize at first.

A viral meme I recall says that food can be only two of the following: affordable, tasty, or healthy. I used to tacitly accept this as true, and I made essentially no effort to eat well. I played sports and my metabolism was such that my poor diet didn't noticeably affect me. It was only over the past couple of years, as I've begun to teach myself how to cook, that I have realized that the adage I referred to is untrue.

It's only right in a superficial sense: the principle seems to be true with respect to eating out or buying pre-packaged meals. The principle is false with respect to cooking, though. With relatively no cooking experience, it's still easy to make a meal that satisfies all three aforementioned criteria for far less than even fast food prices.

This is a lesson I didn't learn until I was 18. Let me rephrase that. This is a lesson I didn't learn until long after I wrote an essay with the title "Examining and Applying the Theory of Recollection", which was about Plato's dialogue entitled "Meno" and a philosophical theory of knowledge acquisition. What did I just say? Even I barely know. All I know is that I should have learned some fundamentals of cooking before I delved into Platonic philosophical theory.

Cooking makes it much easier to eat healthier without feeling like you're depriving yourself. It also serves as a great social skill. Friends love you if you can cook something nice for them. Good cooking is also something a date will appreciate. Cooking is a nice departure from whatever else is bothering you. There's hardly anything more satisfying than putting lots of effort into cooking something and then tasting the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor.

I think that high school would be a good time for students to learn to cook because they are old enough to be marginally more responsible around hot equipment. This would also be invaluable preparation for students preparing for college, where they will likely otherwise only eat microwaved pizza and other such garbage. I actually think that students would rather enjoy taking some time out of a school day to do some hands-on work, especially if they can eat it.

I have no illusions. This idea presents challenges, including whatever level of absurd legal liability schools would have if students injured themselves cooking. Schools in poor inner cities would struggle to find local grocery marts with decent ingredients. Many students would be irresponsible and/or disrespectful, as they invariably are in other classes. 

Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives to me. Earlier today, I cooked pizzas with hummus and vegetables for myself and my mother. It went incredibly well and when discussing cooking after, I told my mom that cooking is more useful than virtually anything I learned in my years of schooling. This was obviously somewhat facetious, but I do think that it is sufficiently useful a skill that it should be part of our public education system. It would open new doors for children, encourage healthier, better eating habits, and give them a fun way to be both more self-reliant and more social.




Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Blind Crusade, Part 3: Really... Statues?

As the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd has continued to unfold for over a month now, it is clear to me that the national conversation surrounding race has been horribly distracted. We are now debating whether certain chunks of bronze in public settings are worthy of their place. I am, of course, referring to the tension over public statues depicting controversial figures of history.

Regardless of whom these statues depict, we all need to understand something: removing statues is an empty act that sidesteps the salient challenges posed by racism. Statues are little more than distractions from the issues that seriously need to be confronted by policymakers: endemic poverty, ghettoization, lack of investment in black communities, and a system of criminal injustice that has led to an obscene level of incarceration for black men in particular.

I try not to tear my hair out as well-meaning protesters charge at statues with ropes in hand. Placing emphasis on the removal of statues is exactly the kind of empty cultural signaling that perfectly aligns with the interests of Starbucks liberals (whom I defined in a previous blog) like Jamie Dimon and Jeff Bezos. These people would rather treat racism as a strictly cultural issue, as opposed to confronting the material and economic dimensions of racism, which would involve redistribution and community investment on a grand scale.

At the same time, don't let my critique of those fixated solely on tearing the statues down cause you to think I have any sympathy for those fighting to keep them up. I think that many of the statues coming down depict odious figures of history who should never have been honored in the first place. 

It is a national disgrace that public funding anywhere still goes to preserving monuments to men who fought to protect the institution of slavery. Symbolism, while not ultimately central to a society's wellbeing, carries significant meaning for many. If the statues truly meant nothing, nobody would have bothered erecting them in the first place. Those best known for their allegiance to the slave-supporting Confederacy are certainly fair game for removal of their statues.

Some of the statues coming down are less clear-cut cases, though. I think it's ridiculous that some are targeting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson statues. These two figures were central to the founding of the country. While they were slaveholders, this was not their claim to fame. We need to accept that history is ugly, and be more careful when we consider taking down symbols of history.

Furthermore, history is ugly because the present is ugly. Would an Obama Statue be immune to this process? How much do most Americans know about the details of the drone assassination program Obama expanded, under which neither trials nor individual investigative inquiries were undertaken prior to the assassinations?  Some earned their spot on the kill list "on the basis of a single 'uncorroborated' Facebook or Twitter post".

Even our favorite public figures have skeletons in their closets. Perhaps one day all presidents who ate meat will no longer be considered kosher statue material. After all, how could our society possibly condone the act of purchasing factory-farmed meat, which is devastating to our environment and condemns millions of farm animals to lives of misery? You need to draw a reasonable and fair line in the sand, or the statue removal logic will carry you to absurdity.

The issue of race, here, is being framed by elite media institutions, pundits, and political figures who do not want meaningful reform to take place. If the shift from discussing real reforms to squabbling over symbolism continues, it will serve as a broader indictment of media and journalistic institutions driving the conversation and national policymakers who seem happy to constantly trade in rhetoric but not in ambitious policy.

The national dialogue sparked by the killing of George Floyd has been so central to political life as of late and has the potential to cause substantive nationwide reform. We cannot afford to squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity to have people pouring into the streets across the country demanding change. At this critical juncture, we must work to ensure that our public policy is accountable to our values.






Tuesday, June 23, 2020

My View of Religion

In 2019, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half of Americans considered religion 'very important' in their lives. Those without any religious affiliation reached 21 percent of Americans, representing about as much of the country as Catholics do. I doubt any of these figures come as a surprise to you. I am part of the rising 21 percent, but have conflicting views on these trends.

By any reasonable definition, I am an atheist. Half of my ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish but I do not consider this integral to my identity. Many remark on my stereotypically Jewish curly hair, and I love Middle Eastern/Israeli food, but those facts hardly make me Jewish in any meaningful way. Some non-religious Jews I know still accept the label 'culturally Jewish.' Regardless, I am irreligious and don't consider myself Jewish.

I have many problems with religion. I distrust any system of belief that discourages critical examination of certain ideas and practices. This structure too often breeds social stagnation. Each additional religion also adds another 'us' and 'them' distinction in a world overflowing with such exclusive identities. Furthermore, many of the most popular religions in the world hold as sacred texts that encourage such tribalism. Religious claims also tend to be unfalsifiable, and rely on arguments from authority.

Deep trust in unaccountable religious institutions creates potential for manipulation and predation. Six months ago, this headline appeared in the New York Times: "Pope Francis Abolishes Secrecy Policy in Sexual Abuse Cases (article link)." Prior to this policy change, any sexual abuse by ministers had been officially considered a high secret within the church, forbidden to be divulged to secular authorities.

Prepare to be further disappointed.  The new policy merely made it "acceptable -- but not required -- to turn information about abuse claims over to the police, prosecutors, and judges." Try to imagine an explicit cover-up of child abuse on this scale in any other kind of institution, like a school or daycare center. Then imagine this school or daycare center receiving no seriously punitive legal penalty. This would be inconceivable.

So why is it that the Catholic Church can operate in this way with relative criminal and legal impunity? I believe the key to answering this question is understanding the perspectives of the most devout Catholics.

Imagine being a captain of a ship before modern technology. When in the open sea, you rely on your trusty compass to know where you are headed. During storms and times of uncertainty, your compass guides you and reassures you. Imagine that, three months into a critical voyage, you discover that your compass was broken and had led you far off course. Imagine the one thing that you thought you could always trust in turbulent times was actually quite fallible. Then, add decades of emotional attachment and trust to the situation. This is the predicament of devoted Catholics learning of child abuse in the church.

An institution like the Catholic Church cannot be understood strictly as the human enterprise that it is. It is also the accumulated trust, memories, and broader psychological imprint it has left on millions of people. To be a devoted Catholic and learn of child abuse in the church is to have the rug abruptly tugged out from under you. It is utterly destabilizing. This level of uncritical trust and devotion to a human enterprise, in my view, affords certain ideas, people, and organizations an unjustifiable immunity to criticism.

Critical thinking needs to be a tool we always feel comfortable employing, including and especially regarding the people and institutions with which we identify. Without this principle, we lose an important mechanism for correcting mistakes and learning from perspectives in conflict with our own.

But despite the problems I have with religion and religious institutions, different problems arise in their absence. For one, religious organizations afford adherents a strong sense of community. Disaffiliation with religion can result in an absence of such community ties. I find physical communal gathering more important than ever in an age of technology that diminishes traditional in-person social interactions (obviously I don't recommend congregating in the midst of COVID-19, but rather later when gathering becomes safe again).

Religion also offers a framework to discuss ideas regarding community solidarity, Platonic love, human obligations, and consciousness. I worry that religiously unaffiliated people have no forum in which to discuss these concepts.

Additionally, I think that non-religious people can gain great ethical wisdom and life perspective by employing religious methods. The best example of this for me is listening to music. I find certain songs incredibly meaningful and powerful, and listening to them can bring me into a radically different mental state that adds wisdom and perspective. One such song for me is The Long and Winding Road by The Beatles. Any song that fuses an ambiance with meaningful lyrics can do this.

The same kind of intense attention and experience can pair with other forms of art as well, like movies, books, and paintings. When a devout Christian reads the Bible, the experience isn't quite comparable to opening any ordinary book. A devout Christian reads the Bible with the presumption that each word and detail can contain profound wisdom. I believe that the same principle can do many non-believers a great deal of good in a secular context.

Many of my problems with religion are not unique to religion, but rather common to any institutional or codified authority. And although I may not always like how religion manifests in the world, I think that there is great utility and wisdom in its methods: purposeful communal gathering, shared powerful experiences, and reverential observation of great art.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Blind Crusade, Pt 2: George Floyd and Starbucks liberalism

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has shocked not only Americans, but also millions around the world. I have little to say on the topic that you would find interesting or surprising. What I saw horrified me. I protested and stand with all peaceful protesters, and am in support of the reforms on the platform of Campaign Zero, which I encourage anyone interested in the topic to check out here. I want to offer some thoughts on racism more broadly, and some of the deeper problems that I think must be acknowledged and addressed.

The crusade against racism in the United States appears to involve two main factions. Those factions can be identified by how they answer the following question: Is institutional racism in the United States currently a problem? Those who say yes, we imagine, are part of the solution while those who say no are ignoring the problem.

This, in my view, is far too optimistic. If we accept this basic categorization between those who say "yes" and "no" as ultimately informative, then we are ignoring an important finer distinction. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, agrees aloud that institutional racism is a problem. Here is a picture of him kneeling in front of a bank vault in solidarity with the protests. Now, I don't intend for this post to be the length of a book, so let me try to briefly summarize how much of an "ally" Jamie Dimon has been to oppressed communities of color.

He led JPMorgan Chase through a fraudulent scheme of epic proportions involving the sale of ticking time bombs called mortgage-backed securities that exploded in 2008, for which the bank was forced to pay a record $13 billion settlement to the federal government in 2013. The financial crisis of 2008 is incredibly complicated and perhaps I will try to offer my more complete thoughts in another blog post. This is a noteworthy occurrence during Dimon's tenure.

The predatory loans that comprised many of the securities targeted poor communities, especially those of color, and black wealth in the United States was disproportionately tied up in home equity. Due to these facts, the massive housing crash of 2008 decimated black wealth disproportionately. Dimon fared quite well through and beyond the crash, and received an $18.5 million bonus for his work in 2013, a year in which JPMorgan Chase payed a record settlement for misconduct, as I earlier referenced. The fact that it takes so long to tell even the basic story is part of the reason why Dimon can get away with such preposterous racial posturing.

In 2016, median black family wealth was half of what it was just prior to the recession of 2008, while median white family wealth increased by 15 percent over the same period. There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around regarding this statistic, but neglecting to cast blame on one of the biggest architects of the financial crisis is ludicrous.

Dimon is a microcosm of a much broader phenomenon that is incredibly frustrating to me. Let's put a name to this phenomenon I'm about to describe: "Starbucks liberalism." Nowadays, most major corporations are led by people who are happy to adopt the vernacular of racial oppression and justice. They embrace most social and cultural issues of the left: anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, regulation of firearms, token environmentalism, and supporting liberal immigration policies as a demonstration of tolerance. These are issues that someone like Jamie Dimon or Jeff Bezos happily supports.

It's good PR for major corporations to embrace forward-thinking cultural attitudes. Now, I am not saying that these stances are entirely insincere. I think that most big business owners and executives truly do agree with these stances. However, I ask you to observe what issues are not included in the Starbucks liberalism canon.

Starbucks liberals tends not to prioritize ensuring that the minimum wage is a living wage for those in different localities. Starbucks liberals seem unconcerned by the offshoring of manufacturing to countries where workers are not protected by decent labor standards. Perhaps worst of all, Starbucks liberals seem content with the United States being the only developed country where medical bankruptcies are common. These are but a few of the most important issues regarding which Starbucks liberals have little to say.

To put it simply, there is a significant subset of liberals who focus exclusively on cultural issues, to the point of neglecting important economic ones. Anyone can engage in symbolic cultural pandering, but this does nothing to address the deeper economic issues, and may actually do the disservice of obscuring them.

How do we remember Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States? As a peaceful leading advocate for racial justice? Yes. As a magnificent, passionate orator? Surely. Strangely, there is a vital dimension to the great man that we seldom discuss, even while we celebrate his memory. We all know that he was assassinated in 1968, but there is an important detail of the assassination that we tend to forget.

King was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, protesting in solidarity with sanitation workers. This protest was aimed at securing decent wages, safety standards, and recognition of a sanitation workers' union. King was a democratic socialist, for those previously unaware. He preached how critical economic rights and conditions were for blacks and non-blacks alike in order to live decent lives with dignity.

I wouldn't blame you if you didn't know this. I certainly was not taught about King's democratic socialist leanings. Nevertheless, King taught us that the fight for the affirmation of black humanity does not cease with basic legal equality being granted. In 1961, King said "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."

Here's a statistic true as of 2016: the median wealth of a white family in the United States is $171,000, while the median wealth of a black family is merely $17,150. In other words, if you were hoping to hear a story about how far we've come and how we have finally achieved racial justice, you are reading the wrong blog. If you don't like the story I'm telling, I'm sure you can find some self-congratulatory nonsense on Amazon or JPMorgan Chase's websites about their deep commitments to reflecting community diversity in their hiring.

What I am doing here is calling the bluff of people like Bezos and Dimon, and trying to convince you to see the distinction I see between a real progressive take on institutional racism and the Jamie Dimon/Jeff Bezos take on institutional racism. While the former includes an acknowledgement of and pledge to address all dimensions of the problem, the latter cynically adopts the vernacular of racial justice in a grand attempt to convince consumers that they care. If they care, they might bother walking the walk.

Racism in the United States has many symptoms, and police brutality is most definitely one of those symptoms. It must be addressed. However, addressing a symptom of racism alone does not address the core of the issue. Until we all acknowledge aloud and address the vital economic dimension of racism in a meaningful way, we will hopelessly fight surface-level culture wars while the same shameful material disparities persist.








Monday, June 1, 2020

The New WWE: Why I Hate Twitter

I am riveted by good conversations, and every aspect of them. I enjoy hearing new ideas, perspectives, and explanations for them. Unfortunately, certain aspects of social media incentivize more inflamed and simplistic arguments, which is where political conversations are increasingly taking place. In this piece I will focus on Twitter, so as not to be overly general.

Let's go over what I see as a problem for Twitter with its incentives. Twitter, like any public company, aims to make profits for shareholders. 86.5 percent of Twitter's revenue comes from advertisers, so this is the key to generating profits. More advertising money comes as a result of Twitter keeping users on the platform longer.

Now ask yourself the following: does an algorithm that maximizes time spent on Twitter square with the hope of maintaining deep and healthy conversations? If you answered yes, then I envy your optimism. Unfortunately, though, you would be wrong if you said yes.

Even Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, has acknowledged the problems with echo chambers forming and toxic content arising on the platform. He said this back in 2018, but I think it is quite clear that echo chambers are as bad now as they ever have been on Twitter. I actually quite like Jack Dorsey and think he did not foresee how his platform would be abused. However, he and his company find themselves in a situation where their financial incentives have deleterious consequences for public conversations.

It only seems right that I talk about Donald Trump a bit, since much of Twitter's activity centers on him, especially political Twitter. I have my own opinions about Trump and politics, but I hope not to allow them to pollute the following analysis. You be the judge.

Donald Trump has proved himself a master at harnessing core elements of Twitter to amass a following and utilize it effectively. His tweets are often short and punchy, with all capital letters in words he wants to emphasize. He responds quickly via Twitter to major crises and controversies, leading many to check his feed in the immediate aftermath of major events.

He is unapologetic and almost never concedes arguments. He also constantly tweets, giving his perspective to his followers and effectively directing their attention to other figures and organizations he likes and dislikes. Trump has an incredibly centralized and loyal Twitter following.

Regardless of which side you or I take on the politics of Trump, I hope it is clear to everyone that the Twitter vortex around Trump hardly inspires healthy conversations. Both sides inflame each other constantly. Trump is not the kind of person to back down from an argument, but even if he were, Twitter incentivizes standing firm and just screaming louder at the other.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note an unfortunate phenomenon in polarization spirals: Unlike the Newtonian principle that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, polarization spirals entail actions met by disproportionate reactions (pg 134). I agree with Lukianoff and Haidt here, and think this a plausible explanation for why many political conversations on Twitter seem to deteriorate, rather than improve, as they progress.

There are two more important elements of Twitter's toxicity that I would like to mention: both its public and virtual communication. We tend to be more reasonable communicating as individuals in private. There is no public shame in admitting you didn't know something in a one-on-one conversation. The conversation is also necessarily more theatrical when a public audience is watching it. It becomes as much a display as it is a direct interaction.

The virtual aspect is not mentioned nearly as much, but is also a factor. Just as we converse differently with an audience watching, we engage one another differently with words on a screen than physically being with and looking at someone.

Social media arguments induce something like road rage, where we are separated physically but get increasingly and irrationally angry at others' behaviors.

Now admittedly, I am offering a limited perspective. Twitter serves a great and less toxic function for many communities.  People use Twitter to engage with communities of worship, sports, entertainment, and all kinds of hobbies and interests.

However, I happen to be deeply interested in and concerned with political and international issues, and I see serious harm done to public conversations surrounding these spheres, particularly on social media. An unfortunate truth that we must grapple with is that the democratization of political speech via technology, something most of us initially thought was a good thing, has led to an increase in misinformation, divisiveness, and impenetrable political identities.

Political shouting matches are nothing novel. In the United States, they date back to the founding of the country. What has changed is that only strictly political actors used to fight these fights. Now, millions have enlisted in the social media sphere to engage in these debates, and they are having unproductive, bad conversations. What's more, social cohesion is diminishing as a result.

It's about time I explained the title. Twitter and the WWE (World Wresting Entertainment) have several important features in common. They both attempt to depict what happens in the real world, but sensationalize and inflame it. The WWE is relatively harmless, and makes for hilarious television at times. This format is incredibly dangerous, though when it is applied to important public conversations.

The WWE format of Twitter has little regard for depth, complexity, and civil disagreements. In fact, I would argue it favors their opposites: shallow, simple, and divisive arguments. Twitter thrives on all of the theatrics of public debate but almost none of the substance. This is just a blog post that merely scratches the surface of problems in social media. Imagine trying to communicate this in 280 characters or less.



Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Antitrust Enforcement in the Big Tech Age

The following is a policy brief I put together for a writing class at USC. I liked this piece enough that I want to share it. It is meant to be a letter to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) but I modified it slightly to be more conducive to this blog format. Enjoy!

Executive Summary
            The FTC Bureau of Competition, via enforcement of past antitrust legislation, vows to act as an opposing force to “unfair methods of competition” and “corporate acquisitions that may substantially lessen competition” (A Brief Overview…). Unfortunately, a cursory glance at the technology industry landscape reveals a troubling anticompetitive reality. Google, Facebook, and their properties account for over 70 percent of all internet traffic (Cuthbertson). This market dominance is indicative of a massive concentration of revenue in few platforms.  Relevant dynamics governing this anticompetitive atmosphere like the network effect, anticompetitive acquisitions, and the use of proprietary marketplaces must be checked by the FTC. 
The United States needs a 21st-century outlook regarding what constitutes anticompetitive, unfair, and monopolistic practices. Thankfully, there exists a remedy to these issues: enforce antitrust legislation. This remedy has precedent thanks to the U.S. V. Microsoft case in 2001, which ruled that Microsoft imposed excessive barriers to entry with its anticompetitive practices and market dominance. The FTC needs to break up Facebook and Google, as their size is the root cause of their anticompetitive business practices. Their size affords them vast power, which translates into leverage used to stifle competition. They must be broken up into independent components. Below is a link to a graph showing how singularly dominant Google has been in recent years, consistently close to controlling 90 percent market share among search engines.

The Problem
In 1880, Standard Oil controlled roughly 90 percent of oil production in the United States (Rockefeller and…). In 2001, Microsoft controlled roughly 90 percent of personal computer production in the United States (U.S. V. Microsoft). Today, Google controls roughly 90 percent of the global search engine market (Figure 1). Both Standard Oil and Microsoft were subjected to successful antitrust lawsuits by the federal government of the United States in the years following these figures. These phenomena are quite different in how they came about, but equally troubling. By creating a trust, Standard Oil’s executives were able to reach majority ownership in dozens of other companies which constituted essential components of Standard Oil’s supply chain (Rockefeller and…). This practice stifled competition and helped lead to the aforementioned 90 percent figure. Microsoft engaged in its own anticompetitive practices, which I will detail in a case study later. 
Facebook accounts for roughly 60 percent of social media use when its property, Instagram, is included (Figure 2). Mark Zuckerberg argues that Facebook has plenty of competitors, like Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter. In a sense, he is right. The antitrust case against Facebook and Google is difficult if one depends on past antitrust precedent. Neither company is creating a trust to annex their supply chain. While Facebook and Twitter do ostensibly compete in the social media sphere while Google and Bing do so in the search engine sphere, this is not a true and full depiction of the situation. Facebook provides an entirely different service from Twitter. There is no serious alternative to Facebook for those who want a major social media platform with the same possibilities and components. The following analogy clarifies the positioning of Facebook, and Google to a lesser extent. The automobile industry certainly does not have any monopolies in the United States. However, if only one company sold sports cars at a mass level, while another company was the only one selling muscle cars, with another company was the only one selling motorcycles, that would not be a healthy marketplace. No single company would have a complete monopoly over the ‘automobile’ industry. However, the consolidation of certain sectors of the industry would constitute a bundle of effective monopolies not seriously competing with one another. This analogy, to a significant degree, faithfully represents the social media sphere.
Dynamics at Play
Three principal dynamics govern the maintenance of Google and Facebook’s respective market dominances: the network effect, anticompetitive acquisitions, and the use of proprietary marketplaces. The network effect refers to the notion that as the use of a service increases, so too does its value and dominance of the market (Khong et al). Facebook benefits from this more than almost any company because Facebook pioneered the social media sphere, and now benefits from its network of roughly 2.5 billion active users monthly (Facebook Reports…). To a lesser degree, this applies to Google’s features such as restaurant reviews integrated in Google Maps. Both Facebook and Google are guilty of engaging in anticompetitive acquisitions. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram vastly increase its dominance of the private communications and social media markets, where Facebook was already incredibly powerful. Facebook’s anticompetitive acquisitions have led to the fact that Facebook now owns four of the eight top communication apps, two of which it did not develop (Blumenthal). Google’s acquisitions of Waze and DoubleClick powerfully consolidated Google’s position among mapping applications and online advertising. The use of proprietary marketplaces to limit competition takes the form of Google tuning its algorithms to favor its own content and properties (Berlatsky). Below is a link to data showing just how dominant Facebook is in the social media sphere, especially when its properties, Instagram and WhatsApp, are considered as well.

Precedent: United States v. Microsoft 
            In 2001, the federal government of the United States sued Microsoft Corporation for anticompetitive business practices (Martinez). Microsoft made its expensively-developed applications an essential and exclusive component of its computers (Martinez). The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that this created an unreasonable barrier to entry for those attempting to create rival operating systems (U.S. V. Microsoft). This case is now considered a landmark case because prior to it, the technology sphere had been subject to minimal federal regulations. The Microsoft case was dominated by arguments about “viable alternatives,” “market share,” and “barriers to entry” for competitors. These arguments apply similarly to Facebook and Google. They both represent significant majorities in their respective markets, position their own content above rival content, and benefit from networks unimaginable to current start-ups. This case demonstrates that there is recent precedent for the notion that sufficiently anticompetitive industries are fair game for federal regulators.
 Solution
Due to the aforementioned arguments, the FTC should break up Facebook and Google into independent companies constituting no more than 25 percent market dominance. Breaking up these companies is the best solution because the root cause of the harmful network effects, anticompetitive acquisitions, and unfair use of proprietary marketplaces is the sheer size of these companies. The leverage over consumers, rivals, and government regulators implicit in controlling over 50 percent of any market is dangerous to a free market. 
The success of these two massive corporations must not be considered before fair market competition is ensured. The FTC must establish an antitrust tradition of the 21st century based on the Microsoft case. This will make clear the parameters for market competition, so that emerging industries of the future are not subject to the same levels of market dominance by few competitors. The FTC would benefit from ensuring that the core duties with which it is tasked are met, and the United States would benefit from a business atmosphere friendlier to innovators and newcomers. The social media and search engine sphere were pioneered by people Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. Ironically, it is doubtful that these men could have changed the world the way they did if the big tech sphere had been as anticompetitive as it is now.



Works Cited

“A Brief Overview of the Federal Trade Commission's Investigative, Law Enforcement, and 
Rulemaking Authority.” Federal Trade Commission, 16 Oct. 2019, www.ftc.gov/about-
ftc/what-we-do/enforcement-authority.

Berlatsky, Noah. “Google Search Algorithms Are Not Impartial. They Can Be Biased, Just like 
Their Designers.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 21 Feb. 2018, 
biased-just-ncna849886.

Blumenthal, Paul. “Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't See Facebook As A Monopoly, Since Its 
Competition Is All Human Activity.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 11 Apr. 2018, 
www.huffpost.com/entry/mark-zuckerberg-facebook monopoly_n_5ace81b5e4b0701783ab0ef7.

Clement, J. “Worldwide Desktop Market Share of Leading Search Engines from January 2010 to 
October 2019.” Statista, StatCounter, 5 Feb. 2020, www-statista-
com.libproxy1.usc.edu/statistics/216573/worldwide-market-share-of-search-engines/.

Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Google and Facebook's Dominance Could Lead to the ‘Death of the 
Internet," Warns Programmer.” Newsweek, 2 Nov. 2017, www.newsweek.com/facebook-
google-internet-traffic-net-neutrality-monopoly-699286.

“Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2019 Results.” PR Newswire, Facebook, 29 
full-year-2019-results-300995616.html.

Khong, K., et al. “BSEM Estimation of Network Effect and Customer Orientation Empowerment 
on Trust in Social Media and Network Environment.” Expert Systems with Applications, vol. 40, no. 12, Sept. 2013, pp. 4858–70, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1701044801/.

Martinez, Antonio. “United States V. Microsoft Corp.” Wired, vol. 26, no. 2, Condé Nast 
Publications, Inc., Feb. 2018, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1989954483/.

Perrin, Andrew, and Monica Anderson. “Share of U.S. Adults Using Social Media, Including Facebook, Is Mostly Unchanged since 2018.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 10 Apr. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/.

“Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Monopoly.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-
usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-16-2-b-rockefeller-and-the-standard-oil-
monopoly.html.

“U.S. V. Microsoft: Court's Findings Of Fact.” The United States Department of Justice, 26 July 
2018, www.justice.gov/atr/us-v-microsoft-courts-findings-fact#iiib.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside our Differences, Part 3: Joint Conclusions

According to figures from the Pew Research Center, roughly 7 in 10 Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters seeking relationships would not consider a Trump voter. Just under half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters would not consider dating a Clinton voter. We are deeply disheartened to encounter these figures, and want to understand why it is that this kind of prejudice is so pervasive.

Political affiliations have become so entrenched for many that they take on some of the worst aspects of tribalism: suspicion of the 'other', an unwavering in-group attitude, and refusal to re-examine one's own views.

In my prior post entitled "The Blind Crusade, Part 1," I described Deeyah Khan, who embodied the pinnacle of the principles we are attempting to convey here. She, a woman of South Asian descent, engaged with and attempted to understand white supremacist leaders in the United States on a personal level. In the end, her kindness and warmth led several members of the hateful groups to renounce their affiliations.

We are not suggesting that all should become like Deeyah Khan. She placed herself at great personal risk. However, her instinct towards trying to engage and understand, rather than judge and exclude is an admirable attitude that we hope more people embrace.

Obviously, you must navigate this principle within reason. If you adhere to a strict vegan diet for moral purposes, it may be difficult to embrace a butcher or factory farm owner. Our point is to lean on the side of giving people a chance to make a unique contribution to your life, because they will.

We both love visiting our beloved California beaches. The ideal cuisine for us is tangy southern barbecue. And no music jams quite like Chicago blues. Thankfully, we live in a world where we can go to the beach, bring some takeout barbecue, and play Chicago blues in the car ride. Most of us need not be told that traveling and probing different foods and music broadens our worldview.

This sort of attitude is equally valid when applied to the people you encounter, all of whom have viewpoints and expertise that differ from yours. With an open mind, you can make some unlikely friends, like an Irishman who can help improve your drinking prowess, a Frenchwoman who can correct your pronunciation of L'Etranger, a Costa Rican woman who introduces you to under appreciated Spanish language music, a Dutch couple who teaches you of the glories of Amsterdam FC, or an outraged Czech banker who was unenthusiastic about currency exchanges (yes, these are all real encounters of ours).

We hope that, through the lens of our unlikely friendship, we can shed some light on the benefits of giving the 'other,' whoever they might be, a chance. While they will rarely make such a revolutionary impact as Al has made in my life, they will undoubtedly open your eyes in unexpected ways and introduce you to ideas, music, interests, and hobbies you otherwise would not have encountered.

Friday, May 22, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside Our Differences, Part 2: Al's Take

The first time I met the man I now consider to be my brother, I never imagined that I would know him in any way other than the teacher’s pet at the front of the class. At first glance, I had dismissed Maverick Freedlander as the kind of guy who would live and die sitting in the front row of every class, doing his best to answer every question the teacher asked. 

To me, that kind of lifestyle deserved no more than scorn and mild bewilderment. Who would want to work so hard for nothing more than the ephemeral approval of a teacher? His attitude towards school was anathema to me, and I did not possess the foresight to look more deeply. And if not for a lucky break, Mav would have remained nothing more than a passing curiosity, the kind of animal you would stare at through the glass of an aquarium.


It took a particularly auspicious assignment in our shared class to change my mind. In the class we were taking together, the teacher had directed us to prepare individual presentations on issues faced by individual countries in the Middle East. Since I was too apathetic to take the initiative in selecting a topic, the teacher graciously chose for me. I may not be personally invested in the social issues facing Lebanon, but my knowledge of the history of the region helped make up for my lack of time invested in the project (I spent less than 5 minutes before class preparing the powerpoint presentation, intending to ad-lib the rest. Those who know me can assure you that this is standard procedure). 

The ensuing masterpiece caught the attention of Mav, and we struck up a conversation after the class (and after the teacher had upbraided me for my lack of effort). From that conversation we both walked away with different perspectives. 


I was wrong about him. From that day forward, our friendship developed and our interests slowly began to overlap. I introduced him to rock music and he reinvigorated my interest in it. I taught him what I knew of history and he showed me how much I still had to learn. We became better men thanks to our contact with each other. Nowhere was this more evident than in how our political views have changed since we met each other. Though I may have failed in getting him to embrace anarcho-monarchism (the objectively best political ideology), we’ve both grown in maturity thanks to each other’s input.


I’ve been wrong about many things over the course of my life. Of all my incorrect assumptions, I am most glad that I was proven wrong about Maverick. He remains a steadfast and wise friend of mine, and I am eternally grateful that I had the chance to be proven wrong by him.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside Our Differences, Part 1: Mav's Take

When all you listen to is rap, rock and roll just doesn’t taste right. We develop preferences, patterns, and tastes for certain kinds of music, art, and people. This is natural and it is not problematic in the slightest. However, if one adheres so strictly to their preferences, they may never realize that there is more to probe than just their own cup of tea.


During my freshman year of college, I met an unlikely friend. Al and I were both political science students, but that seemed to be where the similarities abruptly ended. He was laid back and felt that an obsession with schoolwork shouldn’t interfere with an enjoyable undergraduate life. I was singularly obsessed with securing a high GPA in order to transfer to an accredited university. He seemed in sync with obscure meme culture, while I read the full news section of the New York Times on a daily basis, bringing that information to class discussions.


We became acquaintances through our school’s Model United Nations (MUN) program, but during my first semester in the club together we were merely school friends among a whole team of friends. In my second semester, he and I, by chance, both took a Middle East politics class. I sat in the front, answering so many questions that I gained a reputation in the class as the one who would bail everyone else out if they didn’t read the day’s material. Meanwhile, Al sat as far back as he could, discreetly playing computer games or outright sleeping at times.


I had built a great many assumptions about Al based on what I saw. To be clear, I always liked him as a person, but I did hold some negative assumptions. His less-than-enthusiastic attitude towards school led me to assume that he was not particularly gifted intellectually. The lack of political opinions he voiced made me believe that he was both disengaged and uninformed politically. All in all, I thought he was an uninteresting person without much to say about the topics I cared most about.


In these assumptions, I was dead wrong. I was more wrong than I have ever been about anything, and I learned this on a spring day of 2017. I had just learned that Al was interested in history, and he told me he could teach me some of the basics about World War 1, one of the historical periods that most fascinated him. 


I invited him to come to my house, and he sat down with me and opened a blank, entirely unlabeled map of the world. He proceeded for two hours to point out locations and offer the most precise details about what had occurred 100 years prior. Within two years, I would be studying World War 1 directly under David Stevenson, one of the most respected historians of the conflict in the world.


In addition to a blossoming love and appreciation of history, Al gave me something else that is now at the center of my life. He introduced me to Led Zeppelin, which was the first of a thousand dominos, leading me to a deep love for The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and of course, Led Zeppelin. I have become such an insufferable fanboy that I now have over a dozen band t-shirts in my closet.


None of this is to say that Al and I are anywhere near perfectly synchronized. While our intuitions are similar on some topics, we have quite different philosophies of life. I would argue that even now, we differ in as many ways as we converge. He won’t shut up about his vague anarcho-monarchist political views, but he also won’t explain them (I deeply doubt his sincerity on the topic). He and I are quite temperamentally different, and it shows. However, our differences almost never bother one another.