Power, Responsibilities, Choices and Agendas

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol Building on the 6th of Jan 2021, multiple companies either severed their business relationships with Trump’s organizations or banned him on their platforms altogether. Different views arose. Some agreed that Trump was too radioactive and too harmful. His supports protested the backlash levied on their hero. Others pondered whether some companies like Twitter and Facebook should have the power to ban even the President of the United States.

It has been a week since that happened and I thought a lot about two things. The first is the famous line that Spider Man’s uncle told him: with great power come great responsibilities. The other is this clip:

If you’re not a Marvel fan, this is the scene where the superheroes debated whether they should be put under guidance and supervision by a panel, instead of making their own choices. Some led by Tony Stark thought they should be, while others led by Captain America disagreed, saying that the panel would be run by people with agendas and agendas change. Cap reasoned that surrendering their right to choose and submitting to people’s agendas, especially with their superhero power was too big a risk.

There are multiple issues here. First, think about what Captain America said about agendas and what happens in real life. The legislative and judicial systems are supposed to be there to rein in the Executive Branch, especially the President. What has happened in the last 4 years is nothing but that. The Republican officials in Congress did Trump’s bidding and closed their eyes on the crimes and misdemeanor that he has committed. Why? Because they follow their own agendas and want to stay in power. Angering Trump will provoke him to turn on them and tell his supporters to remove the dissenters from office. What is supposed to supervision and a check against balance becomes gas to the fuel.

Some argued that powerful platforms should be supervised by a committee or panel of experts or regulated by the government. Either option is run by people with agendas and like Cap said, agendas change. What if the government doesn’t like criticisms made on a government-controlled Facebook and decides to ask the company to censor them? What if the politicians and the powerful work behind the scenes to install friendly faces on the supervising panel/committee? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter have superpower heroes. Used the right way, they can further the society’s interests. Used the wrong way, they can be very harmful weapons.

But should these companies have that much unchecked power at their disposal? Let’s talk about the accusation that they censor content on their platforms. The extreme case first. Trump is the President of the United States. As long as he has something to say, media outlets all over the world will likely broadcast it, even when it is an outrageous claim. He can have a press conference, a rally or he can call in right-wing media which also has significant reach to broadcast his messages. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t amount to a complete censor. He was banned because he repeatedly violated the terms of services written and imposed by private entities; which gives them the right to act like they did. Had he not pushed the envelope too far like when he incited violence on the 6th of Jan 2021, he wouldn’t have been banned. Two months after the election, he repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the election, yet the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t ban him. That should be the evidence that if anyone is to blame for Trump not being on Twitter or Facebook, it will be him and him alone.

The same goes for other users. These social media platforms want and need you to engage with their platforms so that they can bring in valuable ads dollars. If you don’t commit grave offenses that warrant a ban, there is economic benefit to these platforms to ban and purge you without a legitimate reason. What’s the point of building a platform and acquiring users without wanting to keep them? Plus, the Internet allows anyone to broadcast his or her opinion in multiple ways. Banned on Twitter? Try Facebook. Banned on Facebook? Try Snapchat. Banned on Snapchat? Try writing an op-ed to a newspaper and getting it published. That doesn’t work either? Try having a blog and advertising it. Want to get the message out in person? Try having a small rally or a speech at a market.

Social media platforms connect people, including the good guys and the deplorable. They are also essentially megaphones that send wide and far well-intentioned messages or on the opposite, purely harmful agendas. A knife is a great cooking tool, but in the hands of a criminal, it’s a weapon that can take one’s life. How social media are used hinges much on the users. Since it’s practically impossible to prevent the extreme or the propagandists, the platforms have to take up the responsibility to ensure their platforms do more good than harm.

As private entities, these companies have agendas. The people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and their confidants have agendas. If they were just “normal” folks, their ethics would affect only themselves and those around them. However, because they are vested with immense power, the importance of their own ethics is amplified so that they can wield the power responsibly. Their ethical compass will dictate what their agendas are and whether the greater goods look like. As to what can be the fail-safe/safeguard against these powerful individuals, I would argue that it would be competition. Powerful as politicians in the US are, they listen to their donors which, in turn, listen to their customers to some extent because of the risk that customers will flock to their competitors. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack last week, big companies and political donors decided to stay away from Trump and some halted their political donors to those that voted against the certification of the election. That should have a sway on the elected officials’ mind, whether they publicly take action or not. Moreover, Whatsapp delayed the rollout of their new privacy terms which would make it easier for them to share data with Facebook because users protested and flocked to rival apps such as Signal. Without competition and action by users, such a reversal wouldn’t happen. Powerful as Facebook is, they are not immune to the threat from competition.

I don’t claim to know how to encourage healthy competition in the market. I refer it to the people whose full-time job is to make laws. What I am trying to say is that between encouraging competition and creating an oversight that can be tainted by personal agendas, I would prefer the former. I don’t know about you, but my experience in Vietnam the US so far hasn’t given me much confidence in the latter.

Weekly readings – 3rd October 2020

What I wrote

Macroeconomic consequences of the election and my review of Long Way Up as well as the book Rage by Bob Woodward


The CEO of Snowflake penned an article on culture designed to win. I am not 100% a fan of this seemingly cut-throat ideology, but it seems to work out well for him

Google is enforcing its own payment on Play Store

Axios seems to be doing quite well with 1.4 million newsletter subscribers, up from 700,000 a year ago. I always like their reporting, especially Jonathan Swan.

How mask sellers sold their goods on Etsy

This business lesson series from Protocol is pretty cool. Check it out

ARK’s bull thesis on Square and Cash App

Meat sales increased during the pandemic, with 50% of the surveyed consumers reporting buying and cooking more meat

Source: Piplsay


What Apple did behind its Scribble feature

The Verge’s interesting story on Amazon One, Amazon’s latest consumer-centric technology

What I found interesting

Once a beacon of hope garnering admiration from around the world, the US has lost a lot of respect from people around the world in the past 4 years, highlighted by its failure to deal with the pandemic

Cement is responsible for 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions

An unprecedented look into Trump’s tax returns by The New York Times. You can say a lot of things about NYT, but this piece alone should earn them a lot of subscriptions. Excellent work by the journalists involved.

Germany has its own Fauci, but the country actually listens to him

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.

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.

Weekly readings – 14th March 2020

How I Survived Being A $220k/year Intern

Your Fancy Honey Might Not Actually Be Honey

Public health interventions and epidemic intensity during the 1918 influenza pandemic

How a small candy company became Warren Buffett’s ‘dream’ investment

Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE. A very helpful and cool interactive map to keep track of the global cases around the world

The man behind Trump’s Facebook operations (and success?)

Building the City: Snapshots of Saigon in the Late 1960s

Seattle’s Patient Zero Spread Coronavirus Despite Ebola-Style Lockdown

Amazon is selling the technology behind its cashier-less stores to other retailers. Some of their tactics and actions may warrant criticisms, but their drive for innovation really makes their success well-deserved

A Berlin Biotech Company Got a Head Start on Coronavirus Tests