Free Speech – When You Pray For Rain, You Have To Deal With The Mud Too

The debate on free speech between tech companies, specifically Facebook and Twitter, and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren is heating up and getting hotter than ever. Facebook refused to take down political ads from the right wing that the left consider fake news. Politicians led by Elizabeth Warren vehemently criticized the decision by Facebook arguing that it is helping the President win an election again.

Coming from the background that I have, I appreciate the freedom of speech in America which is enshrined in the Constitution. There is nothing better to ensure that everybody is free to voice his or her own opinion. The right in and of itself is great and good. The problem; however, lies in how people execute the right and how it is perceived by others.

When a right-winged party runs a political ads with controversial information, the party is within its right to do so. Facebook, as it claims to preserve the right to expression on its platform, chooses to honor it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

The problem is that when you exercise your right to free speech and spread out false information on others, you rob others of the right to be perceived truthfully. In that sense, is it still acceptable? Also, it then falls onto Facebook to be the guardian of truth, the entity that decides whether a piece of information is right or false. And it’s not an easy task. Whatever Facebook does will please one part of the population and piss off the rest. Whatever is truth to one party of an ideology will be considered fake news by the opposing party.

I fear that there is no definitive answers to this debate. The Internet and Facebook enable friction-less communication of information and, as a consequence, false information around the globe. That’s the byproduct of it. I don’t see how Facebook can do one without harming the other aspect of their operation. And as explained above, I don’t see how it can please anybody in its endeavor to preserve the First Amendment, but also to police the content.

When we pray for rain, we have to deal with the mud too. That’s my mentality in a lot of issues. In this case, I think we pray hard for the rain, but we are not ready to deal with the mud

The President, Economy and Stock Markets

Recently, I have come across quite a few posts on social media from my fellow Vietnamese back in my country about how the current President is responsible for the economy, evidenced by the unprecedented height of stock markets.

I am not so sure about that.

First, when a President takes office, he (since the US never has a female President) inherits his predecessor’s policies and economy. Discarding the existing policies takes time. New policies take time to go into effect. Then, it takes time to measure the effectiveness of the “new” economy. Economic policies aren’t light switches. Turn them on and the lights go on. Turn them off and the darkness comes. To determine whether the sitting President is truly responsible for the economy, one must be able to determine which policies were enacted and how the policies impacted the economy. I prepared a simple chart to illustrate the issue

To truly see how Trump stewarded the economy, one must be able to compare his performance with the trajectory based on what happened under Obama. Take all the factors, build a model and see how the predicted economy would have happened had Obama still been in office. Then, compare Trump’s performance to the model’s prediction which is the dotted line in the chart.

Take a look at the red line. The stock market still grew under Trump and still hit the all-time record. But then it is below what would have happened had Obama still been in the office. In that case, would you still say Trump did a good job? On the other hand, Trump should be credited for the stock market if his performance is the green line. Not only does the stock market hit the all-time high mark, but it also outperforms the model. No doubt about his credit here.

Here is exactly where the issue becomes tricky. It’s almost impossible to build an accurate model like that given how many unpredictable variables there are. As a consequence, I really doubt anyone can say with absolute certainty that one President is responsible for the stock market’s growth or that of the economy.

Now, one can definitely argue that as long as a President is in office, he or she should take credit for the economy and stock market’s performance. It’s fair to do so. But if that’s the case, he or she should also be responsible for everything wrong with the economy or stock market. You can’t cherry pick what to take credit for and what to avoid blame for. It doesn’t work that way.

If Trump takes credit for the stock market performance, he should also be held liable for the tariffs that are said to be suffered entirely by American businesses or consumers (CNBC) or for the huge increase in federal budget deficit (by 50%) since he took office (source: Heather Long).

It’s also worth noting that stock market performance, low unemployment rate or GDP growth or all together do not equal to increased wealth for average Americans. You can have all of them and increased income inequality, meaning that most of the increased wealth goes to the rich or the 1% or 10%, not the poorer Americans. And who should be held liable for that? The one who takes credit for the economy/stock market!

I really wish my fellow Vietnamese would be more informed

Humans as story tellers

Per one of my favorite books: Sapiens: Brief History of Humankind, human-beings have an extraordinary ability to tell stories and that’s essentially how we built civilization after civilization. Each of us, including individuals, governments or corporations, tries to tell a story every day and get everybody to buy into the story.

Startups such as WeWork tried to convince everybody that it is worth $60 billion. But the public doesn’t believe it and the story crumbled, sending the valuation downward to as low as $15 billion.

Companies such as Facebook, Google or Amazon try to convince lawmakers and consumers that they care about privacy and security. There are pieces of evidence that may back up the story, but there are also incidents which undermine the narrative.

Luxury brands such as Nike or Apple succeed in getting us to pay more for their products than the alternatives which surely deliver the same functions. It is because they are better storytellers and their stories are more convincing.

Some governments have a better reputation and track record than others due to the consistency in churning out evidence to back up their stories.

A guy has to conjure up a story about himself to convince a girl into a romantic relationship and vice versa.

Of course, the storyteller can only try so much to tell a story with all the corroborating evidence in the world and audience still won’t buy it. That’s why we have non-believers in science or in general different reactions and opinions.

I am fascinated by it.

America consumes the most sugar per capita

Among what I have to be conscious of while living in the US is not to be drawn into the excessive sugar consumption here. Food & drinks are a bit too unhealthily sweet for my taste and it’s not really uncommon to find items whose more than 50% of their weight are sugar. It’s not that different from pour sugar straight into your mouth!

According to WHO, the recommended daily amount of sugar for consumption is about 11 grams and the figure shouldn’t exceed 25 grams. Below is the list of the top 10 countries where citizens consume the most sugar

Source: World Atlas

Americans on average consume more than 10 times the absolute recommended limit! I have seen folks get sweet spice pumpkin latte instead of black coffee at Starbucks, a boba tea with 70-100% sweetness instead of none, a normal coke instead of a diet one or a big haul of pop corns instead of just drinking water at a cinema. Even though I am aware that sugary items bring instant gratification, we should stay away from them so that we can live a longer and more healthy life, given the dramatic risks that a heavy sugar diet comes with.

Around 3:22 of this clip will you see the harms sugar brings to our health, including brain damage

Price of freedom

Before I arrived in the US, I planned to learn to drive and get a car within the first 6 months or one year at the latest. Fast forward to now, I met the target two years behind the original plan.

To a person who hadn’t driven before and lives alone in the US, learning to drive is challenging and expensive. I paid $350 to take classroom lessons and 6 hours of training to drive in order to get the permit. Once I got the permit, I needed a car to practice and get a license. But I was in no financial position to afford a car and all the expenses that come with it such as training, parking, insurance, gas, registration and maintenance.

So I aborted the plan to drive and arranged myself so that I wouldn’t have to drive to either school or work. The arrangement saved me money, but incurred a great deal of inconvenience as I relied on the infamously terrible public transit in Omaha.

Finally, when I got my driving license and bought a vehicle, I felt liberated. No more waiting for the buses in the cold. No more rushing to make it to the bus stop in time. No more inconvenience when the destinations are out of the buses’ reach. No more asking for favor from friends. I gained much needed freedom, freedom that comes with expenses and constant risks. It doesn’t matter how well you can drive, there is always a risk of accidents. Since I purchased the car, my expenses have gone up significantly every month.

That’s the price of freedom. As true as sun rises in the East and sets in the West, freedom is hard and expensive to come by. We have to work and pay for it. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s too sweet. Too precious.

Do you want to live in a society like that?

I never drove before in my life. Since I have been taking lessons with an instructor and some of my friends who are experienced drivers, I really appreciate knowing the signs, the rules and nuances in driving. Otherwise, the consequence could be very expensive financially and potentially fatal.

Imagine a society where anyone above 18 could drive outside without taking any class or license. Everyone could just drive outside with a state ID to prove that they are 18 or older. Even those whose track record is blemished with DUI or multiple accidents due to reckless accidents are allowed to drive. Would you want to drive or even live in that society? Would you feel safe? Would you want your kids to live in that world? Luckily, we live in a world where everyone needs a license to operate a vehicle. The bigger and more powerful vehicle, the higher license is required. We don’t take away vehicles. We just require everyone to prove that they are capable of operating the vehicles safely.

Well, replace cars in the example above with guns and you pretty much get something very similar to the US nowadays. This weekend saw another mass shooting in Texas that killed 8 people. The shooter used a military grade weapon and didn’t pass the background check. How does it make any sense that this kind of horrifying tragedies keeps happening and worse, at an alarmingly fast rate? If we require everyone to prove they can operate a car safely and take away that privilege if they have a DUI or a terrible record, why aren’t we doing the same for guns?

Gun lovers argue that background checks or measures to ensure guns don’t fall into the wrong hands will take away their guns and freedom. As mentioned above, a driving license doesn’t take away any car. Why would it be different in the case of guns? Because cars are a necessity in our life and still require driving licenses, why would it be easier to own an unnecessary material such as guns?

New York Times has an excellent article explaining steps taken to own a gun in different countries. Here is how it looks between the US and Japan. Take a look and see if you can spot a difference.

United States 

1-Pass an instant background check that considers criminal convictions, domestic violence and immigration status. 

2-Buy a gun.

 Japan 

1-Take a firearm class and pass a written exam, which is held up to three times a year. 

2-Get a doctor’s note saying you are mentally fit and do not have a history of drug abuse. 

3-Apply for a permit to take firing training, which may take up to a month. 

4-Describe in a police interview why you need a gun. 

5-Pass a review of your criminal history, gun possession record, employment, involvement with organized crime groups, personal debt and relationships with friends, family and neighbors. 

6-Apply for a gunpowder permit. 

7-Take a one-day training class and pass a firing test. 

8-Obtain a certificate from a gun dealer describing the gun you want. 

9-If you want a gun for hunting, apply for a hunting license. 

10-Buy a gun safe and an ammunition locker that meet safety regulations. 

11-Allow the police to inspect your gun storage. 

12-Pass an additional background review. 

13-Buy a gun.

Results?

Source: NPR

It is absolutely mind-blowing that we still let this happen and that nothing has been done

Soaring student debt

The Walls Street Journal had an unbelievable and scary article on the state of student debt in this country

A record $89.2 billion of student loans was in default at the end of June, New York Federal Reserve data show. Of the $1.48 trillion outstanding, 11%, or $160 billion, was at least 90 days behind on repayments—and the true rate is likely double that, because only half the loans are currently in repayment.

Source: WSJ
Source: WSJ

It never stops amazing me how students in this country can get into so much debt by trying to acquire education and the means to make ends meet. A high school friend of mine has a 6-figure student debt with monthly INTEREST payment of $500. I personally know people from my university in Omaha who accumulated debt and struggle to find jobs. Jobs may wait to meet us, but the bills and interest usually can’t wait to break us.

There is a proposal from some politicians to wipe out student debt. It’s impractical and what problem does it solve? The debt will fast pile up again for the next generations. I don’t think anything will change unless there are solutions to the issues:

  • Ridiculously expensive tuition fees for degrees that fast decrease in value
  • Laughable expensive books that benefit no-one but publishers and professors who work with them
  • Lack of knowledge on personal finance by students

Of course, the reality is highly complicated. Yet, I believe it would be hard to think of a worse scenario than what we currently face. Real solutions should be in place, yet the graph above shows that none has been since 2004. Else, the amount would have gone down instead of going up. If other countries such as those in Nordic countries, France or Germany or many other in Europe can get it done, why can’t the US?