Ableist Culture

Scientific American published an excellent article on Trump being an extreme example of the ableist culture in the US.

It was a grotesque sight: the president of the United States preening from the White House balcony, his mask pulled defiantly off his face, able to infect anyone around him with the novel coronavirus. He had just been released from Walter Reed hospital, after he’d tweeted that we shouldn’t “be afraid of COVID” or “let it dominate your life”—as if it hadn’t already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States alone.

If you encountered the coronavirus, had “good genes,” and were just plain strong enough, Trump seemed to be saying, you wouldn’t have to be like the one million sad, weak losers around the globe who let the virus beat them.

We laud people who “overcome” their disabilities and deride people who live with them, even as this pandemic has taught us that we need mutual aid and interdependence. This ableist culture that glorifies “beating” and “getting over” sickness has ushered in the grotesque carnival we are witnessing now in the White House.

The single word that encapsulates these problems is lame. While lame is clinically defined  as a body part with impaired mobility, “That’s so lame” is tossed about as a pejorative constantly—because what could be more disgusting and useless than legs that can’t walk?

Source: Scientific American

The disdain for getting help from others

I feel like every time I hear about expanding social safety nets or giving aid, even unemployment aid during Covid-19, in the US, the word “Socialism” comes up and so do all the nasty associations. From what I observe, grinding yourself to success is glorified as strong while receiving help is perceived as weak.

The idea that we are responsible for our own fate is not wrong. I buy into that too. Every time I run into a roadblock in life, I look at myself first and wonder what I could have done better instead of placing blame on others. But I didn’t get through college without help. Nor did I land a full time job and a working visa all by myself. I got help. From families, friends and others. Bill Gates was lucky enough to go to the one school in the US that had a computer at the time; which planted the seed for extraordinary success later in his life. He would be the first to admit that he couldn’t do all that he has done alone. Warren Buffett repeatedly admits that he is lucky to be born when he was, and as a white male. Talk to any decent and truthful people and they’ll tell you that their success derives so much from luck.

Then why are we looking down on those who just need a little help to get their life together?

There are folks born with the odds greatly stacked against them such as disabilities, livelihood destroyed in a natural disaster or living in an under-developed area. In those cases, there is no question that we should extend as much help as possible. There are others who are in a bind because of poor decisions. Nonetheless, past mistakes or decisions shouldn’t rid oneself of a chance at redemption or assistance. If a 50-year-old coal miner lost his job because the industry contracted and didn’t have much saving due to poor personal finance, is it his fault for not having a sound strategy in his life? Yeah, perhaps. But should the government give him some help in the form of unemployment assistance or job training & placement? Absolutely. Because of these two main reasons: 1/ We live in a society where folks should help one another better. And if you don’t give help directly, at least don’t ridicule others for getting help. & 2/ you could be on the receiving end yourself.

A fellow Vietnamese once told me that he hated Indians because Indians helped one another land all doctor job opportunities that should have been his. When I asked what he would have felt if the shoe had been on the other foot, he stumbled. Politicians, especially those from the right wing, often argue that social safety nets make people lazy, but these politicians have no problem giving companies tax cuts to bail them out or give them a leg up, even though we have never seen a trickle down economics work, like ever.

I think a very good antidote to the disdain that our society has towards assistance to the people in need is that each and every of us should ask ourselves: what if that was me?

Language matters

Like the article says, language matters. The words we use matter. I sometimes joke to my friends that they shouldn’t act like a girl or that they should man up. I also use the word “lame” to describe a few others. While I consider myself a feminist and someone having respect towards people, in some cases I was being sexist, in others I was just straight up ignorant. I need to get better. Reading this article is a wake-up call for me. I should have known it earlier, but I am glad I identified the issue.

Changing a culture is immensely difficult and time-consuming. How long did it take us to get where we are today in terms of our position towards slavery and gender equality? But it has to start somewhere and now is just as good a time as any.

Please vote!

The catastrophe that is the US’ handling of Covid-19

Back in July after 99 days of no community transmissions, Vietnam faced a 2nd outbreak that ultimately took 35 lives and put the whole country in a brief whirlwind. Fortunately, since then, not only have we managed to control the pandemic again, but we also registered a 2.62% growth in GDP in the third quarter. Experts predict that Vietnam and China will record positive growth in 2020.

South Korea garnered a lot of global praise for its handling of the pandemic. The Asian country will, in the future, become a case study for how to react during a deadly health crisis. Even though it didn’t register a growth, South Korea managed to limit the negative impact that Covid-19 has had on its economy.

Figure 1 – Vietnam’s Number of Covid-19 Cases. Source: Google
Figure 2- South Korea’s Number of Covid-19 Cases. Source: Google
Figure 3 – Impact of Covid-19 on GDP in South Korea, Compared to OECD and the US. Source: WSJ

Why do I cite Vietnam and South Korea here? They serve as evidence that it doesn’t need to be a complete trade-off between an economy and a public health crisis. The economy shouldn’t be the excuse for our failure to handle the pandemic, because:

  • If a developing country like Vietnam and a less rich country like South Korea can do it, why can’t the all mighty USA? Don’t we always proclaim that this is the greatest country on Earth?
  • I believe that when it comes to serving the citizens, their safety should come first without question. It’s the government’s job to ensure that citizens are cared for in crises, both from a health and economic perspective.

Let’s look at the US. The number of cases is on the rise again as we are entering the usual flu season and cold weather. There is no sign yet of a vaccine that can actually be mass produced for the public. Nor is there any sign of this pandemic being controlled. The President of the United States and multiple powerful Senators tested positive for the virus. The White House, the symbol of the US’s power, became a super-spreader. It’s unfathomable and unacceptable to me that this is the stage we are in after 6 months of fighting the pandemic. When you look at it, what progress have we achieved? If you are a manager and your job is to grade the US’ performance so far, what grade will you give, in comparison to other countries?

Figure 4 – The US’ Number of Covid-19 Cases. Source: Google

Voter suppression means that they are afraid of your votes

The Governor of Texas just issued a terrible proclamation in an effort to suppress voters. Per CNN:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Thursday limiting the amount of drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one site per county.

The move significantly affects the Democratic stronghold of Harris County, which is the state’s largest county by population — one of the most populous in the country — and covers a massive area. It must now reduce its 12 drop-off locations down to one starting on Friday, according to Elizabeth Lewis, spokeswoman for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. Travis County, which includes the reliably Democratic city of Austin, must limit its four drop-off locations to one.Other large counties — like Tarrant, Dallas and El Paso County — only had one drop-off location already in place.

Source: CNN

The US is called “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”. If the freedom to vote is taken away, what kind of freedom should we boast about here? This incident is hardly a one-off. Republicans have been consistently trying to delegitimize mail-in ballots, even though there is no substantiating evidence and GOP politicians have voted using the method for years. Ultimately, they want to dissuade health-conscious voters who are largely Democratic from voting.

Sadly, this isn’t the only method to suppress voters. Gerrymandering has been around for a long time. It’s a method to design a district’s shape that will result in favorable results for politicians. In other words, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose voters, instead of voters choosing their own public servants and lawmakers. In this case, some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are guilty of gerrymandering.

There is no shortage of coverage on folks claiming that their votes don’t matter. The sentiment is real. I personally met a few people in Omaha, Nebraska who, with a resigned and matter-of-fact-ly tone, said that their votes don’t count. That’s what lawmakers count on. They want to dissuade folks that disagree with them with gerrymandering, voter suppressing tactics and a barrage of news aimed at creating confusion. They want to only have their supporters vote so that they can stay in power. If you look at it, it’s no different from taking away your rights and freedom.

Nonetheless, vote!That’s the most powerful weapon that you have. Your votes decide who can make your neighborhoods safe. Your votes decide who handle a public health crisis and your likelihood. Your votes decide how justice is served in your community. Your votes decide how your children’s lives will be in the future.

Macroeconomic consequences of the upcoming election and review of Rage as well as Long Way Up

Macroeconomic Consequences of The Upcoming Election

We all know that elections have consequences and the upcoming one is no exception. Whoever between Trump and Biden wins in November will have major ramifications for the US and the world. Moody Analytics released a study on the macroeconomic implications of the election, theorizing out what a win for Biden or Trump would mean for the economy. In short, it can’t be more different.

Essentially, Moody looked at four different scenarios: A Democrat Sweep, A Democrat President + a Split Congress, A Republican Sweep and A Republican President + a Split Congress

Figure 1 – Election scenarios. Source: Moody

While I admit that Moody is being very pragmatic in their possibility of each scenario, the fact that there is 35% chance of a Republican Sweep gives me nightmares after all that the current Administration and Congress have done for the past few years, especially in the fight against Coronavirus. Nonetheless, what would each scenario mean for the economy?

Figure 2 – Macroeconomic forecast of each scenario. Source: Moody

The implications can’t be clearer: a Democratic Sweep, according to Moody, would be the best scenario for employment and the economy, and for lower & middle-income households.

Lower- and middle-income households benefit more from Biden’s policies than Trump’s. Biden ramps up government spending on education, healthcare and other social programs, the benefits of which largely go to those in the bottom half of the income distribution. Meanwhile, he mean- ingfully increases taxes on the well-to-do, financial institutions and businesses to help pay for it. Trump largely does the reverse. He makes permanent the temporary tax cuts he implemented in his first term. The benefits largely go to higher-income house- holds and businesses, while government spending is scaled back on healthcare and a range of social programs, the benefits of which go mainly to those with lesser in- comes and wealth.

Source: Moody

To be clear, no-one would know for certainty what would happen in the next few years. Regardless, it’s undeniable that the economy as well as the federal budget improved under Democratic Presidents in the last 20-30 years such as Clinton and Obama, while contracting and slumping under Republican Leaders like Bush and Trump. In the case of Trump, his presidency is hit by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but when you are at the helm, you have to take the responsibility. The power of the President is massive, yet when you compare the US to other developed countries, it lags far behind in the fight against Coronavirus. Plus, I believe his “America First” rhetoric, coupled with the careless use of tariffs, and a tax cut that significantly lowers tax revenue for the government are more harmful than helpful to the American people.

One can argue that policies take a long time to take effect and the results under Democratic Presidents came from Republican policies. If that were true, then whatever economic gains or glowing numbers that the government likes to boast about would have to come from Obama’s actions.

It comes down to this: if you are inclined to believe in research from organizations with credibility in the financial intelligence & analytics world, have a read of the paper to be more informed before the election. If that’s not your cup of tea, if you believe more in what the administration or Fox News hosts say, then by all means.

It’s just so shocking to me that so many folks can vote against their own interests.

Rage by Bob Woodward

I picked up the book from a recommendation on Twitter. Bob Woodward is a veteran journalist that has covered 9 presidents, reported originally on the Watergate scandal and garnered much respect & credibility in the journalism and politics world. For reasons unknown to even Bob, he managed to secure 17 on-the-record interviews with Trump. This book mainly contains what went on in those interviews. Throughout the book, Bob took audience on the journey throughout the major milestones in Trump’s presidency with his relentless reporting and correspondence with Trump himself. His interviews helped readers understand more about Trump, about how he thought and came to make major decisions such as policies during the pandemic or strategic allies with South Korea, about how erratic Trump is and about how the folks around him really thought about him.

I am not a big fan of Trump, to put it extremely lightly, but I have to give him credit for agreeing to sit down with a journalist on the record for 17 interviews while knowing that the book would not be kind on him. Personally, I don’t know if I could do it. Normally, books like this one are criticized to be extreme biased either against or in favor of the President. I’d say that this book is pretty fair because most of the content of the book actually came out from Trump’s mouth and could be easily verified. If you look for a weekend read, try this one.

“What the hell is going on?” Coats asked in a private sidebar conversation with Mattis after one session. In just one example, Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and South Korea. There was a rush. Instantly. “Get them out!” Trump had commanded.

“That’s crazy,” Mattis said to Coats. “That’s dangerous.”

Coats was troubled by the absence of a plan or a consideration of the human dimension—the impact on the troops, the allies, the world—or a sense of the weight of the office.

“The president has no moral compass,” Mattis replied. The bluntness should have shocked Coats, but he’d arrived at his own hard truths about the most powerful man in the world. “True,” Coats agreed. “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”

Excerpt From: Bob Woodward;. “Rage.”

Then Trump digressed to reveal something extraordinary—a secret new weapons system. “I have built a nuclear—a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven’t even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody—what we have is incredible.”

Later I found sources who confirmed the U.S. military had a secret new weapons system but no one wanted to provide details and were surprised Trump had disclosed it. Trump had asked for and received massive funding increases for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nuclear weapons stockpile, since taking office.

Excerpt From: Bob Woodward;. “Rage.”

By early 2020, Kushner thought Trump had assembled a better and more dedicated White House team than they’d had before.

“In the beginning,” Kushner told others, referring to the first years of the administration, “20 percent of the people we had thought Trump was saving the world, and 80 percent thought they were saving the world from Trump. Now, I think we have the inverse. I think 80 of the people working for him think that he’s saving the world, and 20 percent—maybe less now—think they’re saving the world from Trump.”

Let that analysis sink in: Twenty percent of the president’s staff think they are “saving the world” from the president.”…

“In meetings, Kushner said, Trump was “an expert at cross-examination. He’s an expert at reading people’s tells. He won’t say, let me go with a nuanced position. He’ll, in a meeting, say, well, what if we do 100? They’ll say, oh, you can’t do that. And then, he’ll say, well, what if we do zero? It’s like, holy shit. It’s whiplash. So that’s his way of reading people, is to see how certain are they of their position: Do they hold their ground? Do they buckle? So that’s just his style.

“And by the way,” Kushner added, “that’s why the most dangerous people around the president are overconfident idiots.” It was apparently a reference to Mattis, Tillerson and former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn. All had left. “If you look at the evolution over time, we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the overconfident idiots. And now he’s got a lot more thoughtful people who kind of know their place and know what to do.”

Excerpt From: Bob Woodward;. “Rage.” Apple Books.

Long Way Up Documentary on Apple TV+

This documentary chronicles the road trip by Ewan McGregor and his friend Charlie from the tip of South America to California in the span of three months. What makes this trip special is that they used electric motorcycles entirely and that the trucks that followed to support them when critical were also electric. In “Long Way Up”, audience will see how the two friends and their team prepared for the challenge, including working with a company to build two prototype electric trucks & with Harley Davidson to build completely new untested electric motorcycles, learning Spanish at the last minute and most importantly planning how to charge the bikes all the way. There have been only three episodes released so far, but I am completely hooked. With the effort by Ewan, Charlie and their team to achieve such a monumental task. With the natural beauty of South America and how little I know about it. With the immense possibility of what humans can do.

NBA players boycotted playoff games to demand social justice

NBA players decided to boycott tonight’s games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The move was initiated by the Milwaukee Bucks, but it wouldn’t have much impact if it weren’t joined by other players, organizations, media, fans and everyone that is involved. Huge props. A few players such as Lebron James and Donovan Mitchell already tweeted their frustration with the social injustice and their demand for change. Swiftly after the NBA announced the boycott, other leagues such as WNBA and MLB followed suit by postponing their games.

I have nothing, but respect for everyone who stood up and used their influence. Some people question the effectiveness of this boycott, saying it wouldn’t change anything. Well, isn’t that sad? These athletes have a huge following and influence. They are trying to put it to good use. It’s true that it may not bring about immediate change as they work on wooden floors in arenas, not in Washington DC or state buildings. Their actions; however, bring attention to the issue at hand and influence others, especially league officials and team owners, many of who have a lot more influence in the political world than these players. From a corporate perspective, if you are Nike, will you risk the wrath of these players by not standing with them? I am not saying that anti-racism isn’t a value that Nike naturally endorses, but financially speaking, it makes sense to stand with the players.

I am perplexed by some who criticized this boycott. If it’s unacceptable to kneel peacefully during an anthem, walk peacefully on the streets to voice opinions or simply boycott a basketball game to demand change that is long overdue, I don’t know what is acceptable any more. Only no right to protest is acceptable? Is that even American? If even these actions can’t be accepted, what could black people do? Just take everything on the chin and live on?

Critics of the protests argue that the police had their reason in shooting George Floyd as he was resisting or Jacob Blake as he was allegedly reaching for a knife on his car’s floor. But why is shooting people the first option that police take when it comes to black people? A 17-year old white guy killed two people in Kenosha with an AR-15 and he was taken into custody. Many white protestors came to state buildings a few months ago, armed heavily, to demand the lifting of state at home orders. Nobody was shot. I am glad that nobody was shot, but if those people had been black, I am confident things would have turned out very differently.

I am not black, so I can’t fully relate to the pain and fear of black people. But I am not white either. As a minority living in this country and much more importantly as a fellow human being, I support their protest completely. To round this off, I leave with the powerful speech by Coach Doc Rivers, who said: it’s amazing that we keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.

Schools saw Covid outbreaks. We got this onto ourselves

I remember six months ago, on a Friday when I was in the office, my colleagues and I were alarmed by the news that Covid-19 appeared in Omaha. We got the first confirmed case on that day. I went straight from my office to my car and drove to buy supplies that I still keep to this day. After that, we followed the news to get updated every hour on the number of cases in the US and Omaha, where we live. Every new case was a big deal. Fast forward to now, 6 months later, we have more than 170,000 deaths in the US and the number of cases is not in the hundreds or the thousands. It’s in the millions. I no longer care what the number of cases is on a daily basis. My friends don’t and judging from what I have seen on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, many don’t either. We are already used to living with the virus at this moment. Not because we beat it. No, the number of cases in the US is still high. The last day when we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago! And look at the upward trend from left to right. You would love it if that were your stock portfolio’s return, but this is a deadly pandemic we are talking about!

Source: Google

Things don’t seem much better in Nebraska. We are on the same level as we were in May, in terms of new cases a day. It has been three months and it’s pretty difficult to argue that we made progress.

Source: Google

Vietnam’s handling of the crisis has been objectively successful. It was perfect up till 31st July. After going 99 days without a community transmission, an outbreak appeared in the 3rd biggest city in Vietnam. Since then, we have had 300-400 more cases and 25 deaths so far. The same story applies to New Zealand. The country also had a 102-day streak of no transmission before a new outbreak appeared out of nowhere.

That goes to show how vulnerable and fragile our societies are against this virus without a vaccine. If we don’t take, I’ll say it, draconian measures before a vaccine arrives, we won’t win this battle. Vietnam put towns with infections into lockdown. No one can be in or out. Borders have been closed to international guests for 6 months and I expect it to continue to the end of the year. Authorities go on the streets to fine folks who don’t wear a mask. Even all of those measures cannot stop the virus.

Look at what we are doing here in the US. Anti-mask is still going on in the country. If a government institutes a lockdown like we do in Vietnam, I fear there would be a civil war. Worse, some states are pushing for schools to reopen. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t take long for the consequences to arrive. Omaha reported, as of Tuesday (8/18/2020) night, there were 17 students and 18 staff tested positive while more than 150 others were in quarantine (Source: Omaha.com). In Mississippi, 71 out of 82 counties reported outbreaks at school with more than 430 confirmed cases and 2,500 in quarantine (Source: Tara Haelle).

Given what happened in Vietnam & New Zealand and what is happening in the US, do you think we are going to contain this pandemic without a virus? I don’t. The consequences of our failure are real. One of my teammates has three kids, two of which are 5-year-old twins. He desperately wants to send them to school, because working remotely and taking care of three kids at home with their class schedule is taxing for him. However, at the same time, sending them to school means that he is putting their health at risk. And I don’t think his situation is unique. It’s common among Americans.

While some businesses boomed lately because of the pandemic, many others struggled. Even a corporation like Kohl’s struggled financially, let alone small businesses. The government can throw money at the problem a couple of times, but it can’t be the solution forever. Somewhere it has to stop. Additionally, many people lose jobs and have likelihood in jeopardy. The stimulus check is still stuck somewhere in the Senate.

Airlines have secured a lot of cash to improve their liquidity, but at some point, they will have to increase the number of flights, including international routes. But if they do, receiving folks from other countries can easily raise the risk of new infections.

The domino effects of our situation in the US are multifold and severe. Yet, the odds that we have even a mild control over it are pretty slim in my opinion. Remember the last time we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago and you have to go back to 22nd March 2020 to find the last time we had fewer than 10,000 new cases a day.

This is not a summer that I could ever envision. I miss the feeling of sitting in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and working on my laptop. I miss sitting on a patio and having fun with my friends. I miss going to the office to meet my colleagues. I miss going to a park without wearing a mask. We could have had a chance at all of that if we had done a better job of handling this crisis.

Historic day for America

Joe Biden finally named his running mate for the Presidential campaign: Senator Kamala Harris.

This marks the first time ever that a colored woman is named a Vice President candidate. Personally, I am happy with this choice from Biden. Like many, I wanted to see Clinton win four years ago. It wasn’t because I am a fan of Hilary Clinton. It was because 1) I didn’t think her opponent would be good for America and 2) I wanted to see the first female President in the US history. I strongly believe that women are as good as men in governing a country. Take a look at the leaders of some advanced countries. Prime Minister of New Zealand is Jacinda Ardern, who masterfully has guided her country throughout this pandemic. In Finland, the Prime Minister is a 34-year-old woman named Sanna Marin. Chancellor of the powerful and rich Germany is Angela Merkel, who has been at the helm since 2005 and is considered a leader of the European Union as well. These women, in addition to so many female leaders in the corporate world, offer irrefutable proof of what women can do.

Representation is more important than ever. By choosing Kamala Harris, Biden highlighted his commitment to racial inclusion and representation. Senator Harris is a daughter of an Indian woman and a Jamaican man. Biden rode the wave of Black voters’ support, starting from South Carolina, to the Democratic nomination. With Senator Harris, he is telling young voters (Kamala Harris is 55 years old, more than 20 years younger than her running mate), female voters and minority voters that he is listening to them.

Senator Kamala Harris is an accomplished woman. She was elected as District Attorney in San Francisco in 2003 and then Attorney General of California. She became the first Indian American Senator in the history in 2017 and has been in the position ever since. She rose to prominence through her sharp questioning of Trump’s appointees and officials. Even though she ran an unsuccessful Presidential campaign last year, it shouldn’t take anything away from her achievements. I mean if anyone questions her candidacy for the VP, just look at Mike Pence, what he did as the Governor of Indiana and what he has done as the VP of America. Plus, her short stint in politics should be an advantage because she won’t be labeled as an establishment like Hilary Clinton, who didn’t get a lot of love for her long political career and scandals.

Kamala Harris’ record isn’t exactly spotless. She will have to answer for her record as a prosecutor and the AG of California. Some of her cases highlighted her tough-on-crime stance in the past which, in light of what has transpired in the country in the last couple of months, won’t be warmly received by voters. My thinking is that people’s ideology evolves over time. If one’s thinking doesn’t evolve, one doesn’t grow. If Kamala Harris owns up to her record and does a bit explaining and perhaps some apologizing, it will be better for her and Biden.

From what I have seen lately, the Biden-Harris ticket has a real chance of winning this upcoming election. If they do win and perform in the next four years, it’s likely that Kamala Harris will run for the next election as an “incumbent” with all the advantages of being one. After all, if they win this election and serve out their term in four years, Biden will be 82 years old and likely will not seek reelection. Fingers crossed. But I do hope that in about five years, I can see the first female President of the United States. Think about what that would do for young girls across the country.

Grim outlook for America for the rest of the year, at least

I don’t have high hope for America till the end of 2020. Here’s why:

First of all, unlike in many other countries, I expect that we will still struggle with the pandemic in the next few months. If the last 6 months is any indication, it proves that we are not handling this crisis well. We reopened states not when we slowed down the spread sufficiently to the hundreds or teens, but when we were just past the worst point at the time. What happened two months after the reopening? The number of cases has been rising. We repeatedly hit record for the number of cases in a day. Deaths are rising. Yet, the folks in charge are still imploring parents and schools to send kids back to classes while a lot of people don’t wear masks, a proven method to slow down the spread. Even though there are some positive developments with regard to a vaccine, I expect that we are still months away from having the vaccine produced in mass for everybody. So, don’t be surprised that when winter comes, we are still in this mess.

Just to give you some perspective. Vietnam has had around 15 new cases in the last 4 days after 99 days without a community transmission. The country has been very careful and cautious when it comes to Covid-19. Despite the success that garnered global accolade, the borders have been closed to international flights since February. That’s how seriously we have taken this issue, and yet we still have new cases. In the US, not only do we not have a coordination between the federal government and states, but at the state level, there are some whose leadership is just outright terrible. What could possibly go wrong?

Secondly, this is an election year. It will get messy. Politics has always been messy, but if there was respect between candidates in the past (McCain and Obama, or Romney and Obama), the same can’t be expected of Trump, who is known for lies, misinformation and vulgar insults. In addition to the attacks from either candidate, there will be contesting of the results. Trump already laid the foundation for it. He and his officials voted by mail-in ballots in the past themselves, but have been campaigning hard against it, even though the current pandemic makes it dangerous for people to go vote. Unlike other candidates, he hasn’t committed to accepting the election results. Hence, I sometimes shudder when I think about what will happen between November 2020 and January 2021, if Trump loses.

Also, what has been happening in Portland is deeply troubling. The federal government sent in unnamed federal agents to the city to suppress protests that are largely peaceful, despite opposition from the governor, mayor and the state of Oregon’s senators. The violence depicted in the altercation between the agents and citizens is horrifying. It is the stuff of authoritarian regime that we lament in other countries, yet it is happening here in America. Trump already announced that he would do the same to other cities such as Albuquerque, Kansas or Chicago. All this travesty takes place without oversight. How is that not worrying?

There are other downstream effects such as the economy, job losses, healthcare, eviction, etc…But those three factors alone already make me pessimistic of America’s next 5 months now that July is almost over.

What can we do? I can’t do anything since I am just a lawful immigrant abiding by the laws and paying taxes without representation. But I do hope that Americans will stay focused on the upcoming elections, whether it’s for a Senate, Governor, Mayor or Congress seat, and vote. For the presidential election, I hope people will vote for Biden. Not because I like him. I don’t. I don’t like the fact that he invokes Obama whenever it’s convenient, but doesn’t own up to mistakes they made. I also prefer somebody younger. But Biden and Trump are the choices we have, and I do hope that Americans will vote at least for somebody who is a decent human-being. Even Lindsay Graham said in the past Biden was a decent man. Every progress that Biden may make, if he wins, will be incremental. Don’t expect drastic changes or progress overnight. The way the three branches are set up doesn’t allow for fast and dramatic changes, especially when the partisanship is so toxic now. But as long as we don’t stand still or go backwards, even when we are just inching forward a little bit at a time, I’ll take that.

A starting point – where you start getting to know your elected officials

I came across this project whose one of the founders should be familiar enough to you – Captain America himself Chris Evans. A Starting Point (ASP) is created in order to “create a bipartisan channel of communication and connectivity between Americans and their elected officials with the goal of creating a more informed electorate“. Elected officials, whether they are Governors, Senators, Congresspeople or state officials, can use this platform to communicate their thoughts, demystify some complex issues or debate with colleagues with different ideologies. On my count, there are approximately 150 contributors already on the site on various levels and from both parties. Below are a few key features of ASP

StartingPoints

In this section, you’ll find some popular questions that can help viewers understand a little bit better some complex issues. In each question, you’ll hear from several officials from both sides of the aisle articulating their thoughts and explaining their answers to the questions.

Figure 1 – Source: A Starting Point
Figure 2 – Source: A Starting Point
Figure 3 – Source: A Starting Point

CounterPoints

In this section, you’ll listen to two officials, each from a different party, debating in one-minute videos on an issue. There are back-and-forth arguments followed by closing remarks.

Figure 4 – Source: A Starting Point

DailyPoints

This section is an open forum that allows officials to connect with their constituents on a daily basis about all kinds of topics in one-minute-long videos. Some Democrats already talked about the importance of masks on this section.

Figure 5 – Source: A Starting Point

IntroPoints

On this sub-section, you’ll learn a little bit about the background of these officials, such as what inspired them to go into politics?

Figure 6 – Source: A Starting Point

My thoughts on this project

I think it’s a great idea. I used to work for an IT company in Omaha, Nebraska. Once, I talked to a couple of my American colleagues and to my surprise, they said that they didn’t actually know much about the elected officials in their districts or state. I bet it’s not uncommon. Our daily hustle and distractions don’t leave us much time into knowing about prospect or current officials; which is a shame, but understandable. The problem is that who we vote for matters a lot in our life. Not only can officials represent us on a state and national level, but they pass legislations that directly and significantly influence our life. Hence, being informed of what the officials are about and what stance they have on certain issues is hugely important in elections. And this project is clearly helping constituents across the country with that.

I think short videos are a good choice to deliver content. The limitation on length of videos forces officials to be concise in their delivery and not to digress. Policies are not sexy. People tend not to spend a lot of time on long videos on policies. Therefore, short videos can be more appealing. However, there is also a drawback. Most issues are pretty complex. Short form videos may unintentionally lead to generalization and omission of important nuances.

It is essential that voters are as informed and have a balanced view as much as possible on issues. An appearance by an official on a news channel doesn’t come with counterpoints from the other side. There are debates on the House and Senate floors, but who will watch those debates that can last for hours? Having different viewpoints on one issue in one place is beneficial to voters who want to learn more about pressing issues. Throughout its website, I think ASP wants to accomplish that. Either StartingPoints or CounterPoints, you can see Democrats and Republicans present their thoughts and ideas. As a result, viewers can take away different points of view and leave with a balanced dose of information.

Even though this is a good starting point, pun intended, there are challenges. First of all, there are A LOT of big topics that are not covered on this website. Under each existing topics, there are a lot more questions to be asked and discussed. Chris Evans and his team still have a long way to go, but everything has to start somewhere and the website has been live for only a couple of days. So, I wanna give them the benefit of the doubt and think that they’ll make the content richer.

Secondly, ASP needs to build an audience in order to get politicians speak their minds more. Nowadays, politicians have multiple channels through which they reach constituents such as news channels, op-eds, social networks or their own websites. The only way that they will generate content for ASP is that their constituents frequent the website, giving politicians a reason to spend time on content for ASP. The star power of Chris Evans will initially bring traffic, but the site cannot rely on Chris forever. It has to grow organically.

The next challenge that I can think of will be content moderation. At some point in the future, what if some politicians deliberately made false claims and post their videos on ASP, what would the site do? Taking the videos down would result in accusation of hampering free speech while leaving them intact would lead to voters being misled. In a nutshell, ASP would run into the same trouble that Twitter or Facebook is facing now and I don’t think they want that. ASP needs to build a culture that fosters communication only in good faith by officials.

Lastly, and this is why I think the website is aptly named “A Starting Point”, even though we can benefit from this project, we still need to do our homework. The information presented on ASP is just the beginning. It falls on each of us to do further investigation and keep these politicians honest. Let me give you an example. If you listen to Republican officials talk about the Tax Cut in 2017, they reason that they passed the law in order to create jobs through tax incentives given to businesses. Well, although there may be more jobs created, we have to ask: what kind of jobs are we talking about? More waiting jobs at restaurants for college graduates aren’t what we have in mind, aren’t they? Or $7-per-hour jobs don’t necessarily solve entirely our issues, do they? Plus, at the time of unprecedented economic expansion at the time in 2017, wasn’t there anything else to encourage job creation other than a giant tax cut for the rich and corporations?

In sum, ASP started to do their part in bringing elected officials from both sides of the aisle and voters together and we need to start doing ours as well. The job of understanding pressing issues should not only fall onto ASP. There is only so much they can do. As mentioned above, I think Chris and his team will do more to keep this project running well. We have big elections coming up till the end of the year. You have seen what is going on in the country. Your votes matter. They are the most powerful weapon in each voter’s arsenal. Use it well. Get informed. I appreciate what Chris and his team did. Have a great weekend and stay safe!

The US is trying to shoot itself in the foot again, with this move

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced new immigration policies that concern specifically international students or F-1 visa holders. Per the new policies, if students already in the US attend only online courses in the upcoming fall semester, they will face deportation. To avoid that horrible fate, students can transfer to another institution where in-class sessions are available and take those classes. For prospective students who are coming to the US for online-only programs, they can no longer come here. The policies sparked an outrage by anyone who has a vested interest or those who really care about this country’s competitiveness moving forward.

Let me tell you a personal story. 3 months after I came to the US, my two Belgian friends and I joined a 4-day hiking trip with some American friends to Badland National Park. It was my first hiking trip ever. We spent time before the trip getting to know each other and learning the ABCs of the adventure. During the hike, we spent the whole four days talking and doing various activities together. It brought us closer. Towards the end of the trip, on the last night, we sat around a bonfire and had to identify one person in the group that we learned the most from during the trip. Half of them chose me.

The point here is not to boast, I just don’t know any other example, but to say that international students can help Americans gain exposure to other cultures. I was really surprised that some people I met in Nebraska had never boarded a plane before, let alone going overseas. If there were no immigrants here in the US, how else could they gain real-life exposure to other cultures and widen their horizon? That’s one of the benefits international students bring. Well, unless you don’t think knowing about another country or culture is a good thing.

Another real benefit is the contribution to the economy. A study estimated that international students contributed $45 billion in 2018 to the US economy. That’s a significant sum. This policy wouldn’t normally affect that sum too much, I suppose; however, given the pandemic still raging on in the US, a lot of schools now have to offer online courses to protect both students and staff. The current situation makes this policy more dangerous and seriously more harmful to the economy that already took a hit from Covid-19.

For years, the US has benefited greatly from brain drain and the arrival of immigrants. Many immigrants founded great startups here after school, created jobs and contributed to the economy. Many immigrants came to study and stayed to contribute to the academic and scientific advances for the US. Many immigrants are still running the biggest tech companies in the US.

With these policies, the US basically says no the future influx of skilled immigrants. In the past, the country might get away with it, but globalization made the competition for international talent fiercer. Other countries with immigrant-friendly policies such as France, Canada and Germany are more than happy to pick up skilled workers that the US turns away.

While I was still in school, I met two Americans who were roommates to my Belgian friends and I am not exaggerating when I say this: they don’t know how to do basic maths as 20-year-olds. What does it have to do with the newly announced policies? 1) the presence of international students shouldn’t affect the learning of Americans. Whether we are here or not, Americans should be able to learn unimpeded or affected. 2) If some Americans don’t know how to maths while in university, how can they compete with skilled and educated immigrants for high-paying and technical jobs? If some local students refuse to get educated and work in STEM fields, how would the absence of international students help technology companies and other businesses in the US?

In summary, I don’t see a single one beneficiary of these policies. Universities will suffer financially because foreign students pay much higher tuition fees than locals and contribute greatly to the student communities. The economy will suffer financially because those $45 billion contribution will be reduced significantly. Businesses will suffer because there will be less talent. If schools force staff and students to go back to the classrooms under the government’s pressure, don’t be surprised that we will still have Covid-19 decimating our communities at the end of the year. Think about 5 months ago. Did anyone of us imagine that by July we usually break record for the number of cases in a day?

All of this is nothing more than a couple of xenophobic, cruel and terrible policies whose sole objective is to fire up a support base at the expense of the country and to hide the failure in dealing with the pandemic. Sadly, the US is shooting itself in the foot, again.

Winner-takes-all election and Trump’s new suspension of work visas

Yesterday, the Patriot Act team released an excellent segment on the US election. It discussed the core issue of the elections in America, the issue that leads to so many malfunctions in the way this country is governed. Yes, we are familiar with voter suppression, electoral college and gerrymandering, but Hasan Minhaj went to the root cause of all: the winner-takes-all system. I’ll let him explain it to you.

Hasan said something pretty significant in his piece: America is a minority-ruled country. Democrats won more popular votes than Republicans in many of the last elections, on many levels, but the party that has controlled the three branches and even the judicial system is Republican. Worse, more than 50% of eligible voters want a 3rd party candidate, yet they can’t have it.

If a country is minority-ruled, does it still have a democracy? The two parties hate each other and increasingly over the years. I don’t see the end of such extreme and toxic partisanship in the future. The implications include the erosion of America’s competitiveness. When the parties in the government are busy fighting with each other and cancelling out the other’s policies, where would progress come from?

At the end of the piece, Hasan made a proposal on how to eliminate the winner-takes-all system and help with the partisanship. The proposal was actually tested in Maine and brought promising results. However, given the politicians on both sides are more concerned with keeping their seats, I don’t see it happening soon.

Speaking of the erosion of America’s competitiveness, Trump signed an executive order today to suspend H1B and other work visas till the end of the year. America relies on foreign talent a lot. After all, it calls itself: The land of opportunity. People around the world, including myself 4 years ago, looked to America as the land to make our lives better and realize our dream. The anti-immigrant rhetoric since Trump took office has been anything, but welcoming to immigrants. Yet, the action today took it to another level. American companies, universities and research academia can’t attract foreign talent for the next 6 months. The executive order seems easy on paper, but significant in real life as it affects thousands of lives. People will go somewhere else for higher education and jobs. People who are already in the US will ponder what to do next. Personally, this action today will mean that I won’t be able to see my family in Vietnam in the next few months. If I visit Vietnam before this Executive Order ends, I won’t be able to come back.

People around the world used to hold America to a very high standard. You guys often like to say it: we are a beacon of hope. I bet many still do now. If you ask my dad, he’ll tell you how much he admires America. So, it’s sad to see the standard being lowered every day.