Foreign Relations Disconnect: The Dangers of Bombastic Rhetoric

Posted October 1, 2016 by J Hoffman
Categories: Uncategorized

I have watched with interest how the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, interacts with the international community.  In vague swaths, his bombastic remarks about the United States of America and its future relationship are seemingly unsynchronized with that of military leaders, established policy, signed treaties and its diplomats. (1) 

Another example occurs when he states “I am serving notice now to the Americans, this will be the last military exercise,” regarding the upcoming American-Filipino Military exercise during a press conference yet does not provide such formal notice via appropriate diplomatic channels.  (State Department spokesman John Kirby said he was not aware of any official notification from the Philippines about ending joint exercises.) (2)

This is disturbing as one can draw an analogue with American presidential candidate Donald Trump.  When there is detachment between rhetoric and reality, there is a gap between words and actions.  This creates uncertainty, doubt and mistrust. While the Philippines is an important regional power, the ramifications of its conflicting remarks have international reverberation and repercussions that are less pronounced, impactful and enduring than mixed signals emanating from the American President, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State.  This is not an endorsement of one American candidate over another; rather a discussion about the stability, predictability and integrity of American communications warrants strong consideration by American voters as a factor in the calculus of selecting a president.

References

1. Enrico Dela Cruz and Manuel Mogaro, Reuters, Philippines guarantees U.S. deal intact as Duterte’s salvos test ties, September 13, 2016.  Retrieved September 13, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-army-idUSKCN11J0CO

2. Martin Petty, Reuters, Duterte declares upcoming Philippines-U.S. war games ‘the last one’, September 29, 2016.  Retrieved September 29, 2016.  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-duterte-idUSKCN11Y1ZI

 

 

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Napkin Notes: Planned Parenthood Defunding and the Roots of US Partisan Proxy Fights

Posted August 19, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: Napkin Notes

Tags: , , , , , ,

It seems that the entire (unhad) debate around Planned Parenthood boils down to what are the ethical and acceptable uses for fetal tissue, and human tissue in general, for scientific research. I am disappointed that instead of having a robust fact-based conversation–more akin to discussions that occurred under George W Bush about fetal stem cell research–we are watching politicians have a deeply partisan proxy fight superficially around it.  Now the (distracting) proxy fight is expanding–from federally funding Planned Parenthood or not–to the state level.

Instead of taking a hard, uncomfortable look at a real-issue (e.g. this, replenishing loans from the Highway or Social Security Trust Funds, etc)  what are the primary reasons to resort to rhetoric, deflecting, and grandstanding?  where are the governmental process abused? broken?  It seems headline-grabbing, out-of-context, emotional comments make great election cycle soundbites and are trumping the hard conversations our government needs to have on our behalf.

Why Understanding the Middle East is Hard for Westerners; Demystifying Critical Elements

Posted August 18, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: Government, Society

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The political tensions in the Middle East have always been difficult for me to understand. The cultural and religious nuances and customs are unfamiliar. The names, political parties and language are removed from my own native tongue making my usual memory techniques difficult to use. Sometimes it honestly just becomes a swirled mush and I am not sure where to start since most news is event or crisis driven. For me it helps to return to basics and unwind some of the geographic, ethnic, religious and government elements before applying them to tensions within the Middle East.

I think back to lessons in early geography where I struggled to understand the differences between countries and nations.

  • A country is defined through political geography
  • A nation is defined through ethnic boundaries

This makes a country rather simple to understand since most maps are denoted this way. It is easy to pick out where the United States, Britian, France, Russia, Australia, Japan, etc. are located and clearly defined. Generally, these are established and internationally agreed upon. There are exceptions: the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India is an example of territory disputed between two countries.

A nation though can be a bit fuzzier. The classic example in American classrooms is some of the Native American Indian tribes. For example the Cherokee Nation exists within the political geographic boundaries of the United States and maintains its own government. The Cherokee Nation practices self-determination, is governmentally separate from the United States and is comprised of those who are ethnically Cherokee. The seat of government is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the National’s territory geographically falls within the state Oklahoma and there is a representative office in Washington DC. (http://geodata.cherokee.org/CherokeeNation/)

Another example of a nation would be Tibet. While deemed an autonomous region by China and within its political borders this is not universally accepted within the international community. Additionally, the political boundaries asserted by China are disputed by India which also claims part of Tibet. This tension is seen when foreign heads of government receive the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, for state visits to the protests of the Chinese government. It should be noted the Tibetan people are not afforded the same freedoms and autonomy as the Cherokee Nation. This notes the important point that being identified as part of a nation does not guarantee political rights or freedoms.

There is another important combination to mention here; when both a nation and a country coincide, this is called a nation-state. While there is not full scholarly agreement, loosely the defining threshold is approximately 95% of the population is of the same ethnicity. Japan and Iceland would be examples of nation-state countries familiar to Western readers while the Jewish population within Israel (75%) does not rise to this threshold. While there are not explicit legal implications or rights for being a nation-state, it is conceptually useful in understanding a country, its people and its interaction with its neighbors.

Applying these understandings of countries and nations, conflicts seems likely to occur where political lines (countries) unnaturally split ethnic groups such that rival groups can exert unchecked political control or power and dominate another ethnic group. In my mind this helps explains the conflicts citizens of western nations commonly misunderstand, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina (fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbians) and conflicts in the Middle East. At a glance it appears that ethnic allegiance (nationalism) seems to trump political allegiance to a country when the two are in conflict.

Below are some excellent maps from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project which show the ethnic composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_lg.png

(note: the large map, which permits zooming, will not always load from the project’s host for reasons unknown)

While educating, the maps do not seem to fully explain the explosive tensions in the region. Some of the countries are relatively homogeneous, for example much of the Arabic peninsula including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen. Others are more ethnically diverse such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Visually seeing Iraq and Syria ethnic minorities split by political boundaries from larger populations in Turkey helps me understand the tensions. A single ethnic people being treated differently across the political boundaries, especially if treated harshly by the ethnic majority in a country, would very reasonably draw strong emotional reactions. This helps me but does not fully satisfy why there is such intense, consistent fighting within this part of the world.

So I look to religion, of which Islam is the dominate religious in this geography. In the Middle East governments generally intertwine religion and politics. A secular government is non-religious while a non-secular government is religious based. The later may have laws or its governing hierarchy directly pulled from religious texts. For those familiar with the rule of law common in many secular governments (e.g. the United States) a government who’s leader claims to be the Almighty’s representation on earth and having absolute authority may feel uncomfortable with this. Further it becomes more complicated when within that one country you have two or conflicting religions and the rights of the minority may or may not be protected. Islam, like Christianity, has several branches, with the main ones being Sunni Islam (~85%) and Shia Islam (~15%). While the point of this piece is not to elicit the finer differences or place judgement, sufficient to say there are meaningful theological and spiritual differences between the two.

The following excellent maps, again from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project, show the religious composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_lg.png

The dark green areas denote Shia concentrations while the lighter green areas denote Sunni concentrations.

This startles me. Iran is a non-secular (religious) government based in Shia Islam while most of its non-secular neighbors are followers of Sunni Islam. To what extent the violence we see today is directly attributable to these differences, I do not know. However when the ethnic and religious maps are overlaid, it clearly shows friction points in the middle east today: northern Iraq, Yeman, northern Syria, Afghanistan.

Where this torques my perspective is my context and experience is that the various branches of Christianity, in modern times, do not engage in brutal sectarian violence. Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Protestants—if members of each can explain the differences between—do not seem to engage in violence due to these differences. I do not see Catholics murdering Episcopalians because the later permits female priests and priests with non-heterosexual sexual preferences to openly hold those beliefs.**

It is possible that politically motivated actions are cloaked in religious trappings. Possibly it is the actions of a very small number of extremists that, due to the foreignness and propensity of humans to overly generalize things not well understood, is inaccurately extrapolated to the entire religion or area. This intent of this article is to articulate some of the conceptual drivers to start the conversation on these themes

  • Countries, Nations, and Nation-states
  • Ethnic diversity and concentrations
  • Religious diversity and concentrations
  • The impact of secular and non-secular governments

and how these interact.

 

**Note: I acknowledge this does dismiss the Catholic Church endorsed military campaigns, the Crusades, during the Middle Ages; however, this piece aims to focus on the current day tensions and conflicts within the Middle East.

Hacking the Automobile Is No Longer Science Fiction

Posted July 22, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: Economic, Government, Society

Tags: , , , ,

Authors Note:  After consideration and feedback,  I have pulled this post.  While I believe it offered compelling introspection, I also do not believe it was in the spirit of these articles.  While I broke the issue into component parts, it was more of an opinionated commentary than a starting point for conversation.

 

 

Confederate Flags: Separating Symbols from the Conflicting Underlying Values and Beliefs and How We Resolve Them.

Posted July 14, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: Government, History, Society

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How do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our

closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

There has been much heated conversation recently on the appropriateness of Confederate symbols, their role and place in society today. Notably, I was surprised by the political actions of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remove any state flag from the Capital Grounds that incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag. While politically advantageous for her, it is a federal overreach into States self-determining their own flag. This is different than the issue in South Caroline where the Confederate Army Battle Flag was flow separately from the South Carolina State Flag and was appropriately retired last Friday. (As an aside, it is not without precedence that non-US elements be incorporated into state flags; the Hawaiian state flag includes the British Union Jack showing the bond between the Native Hawaiians and the British government)

Unfortunately, by focusing on the symbol, we are overlooking a critical part of the discussion. Removing the symbol does not resolve the underlying tensions and conflict represented. Strongly held opinions and beliefs do not suddenly evaporate. There will still be Southerners that refer to the “War of Northern Aggression.” There are still racial tensions that exist through perceived and actual inequalities on both sides. That is the hard underlying issue that removing a flag does not settle. Perhaps now was a politically expedient time to achieve a long-time goal of some groups to do so—but that is not the item to explore here. Would the removal of the flag from the grounds of a state capital have suppressed online discussions groups where like-minded people discuss pro-confederacy beliefs and heritage. No. Further, suppressing the right to free speech and association would have only caused the discussions to occur in another way and violated free speech protections. It is unlikely that removing the flag would have averted the tragic shooting in South Carolina.

Placing this is sharp relief, it was not uncommon during the 1970s and 1980s for citizens to publicly burn US flags to express displeasure with government actions, policies or positions. The act of burning the flag, essentially removing a copy of it from existence, did not cause the source of conflict to go away. The tension of opposing views did not disappear: Vietnam, Middle Eastern conflicts, social issues, etc. The values the flag directly represents–and via association as a symbol of America the county’s values–did not disappear. Pushed further, the British 1814 sacking of Washington DC and burning of the United States flag reinforced American resolution and willingness to fight for the values the flag represented. The removal of the flag did not remove the deeply ingrained beliefs articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

The American Civil War showed ideological divisions between races, states and people within the United States. There are painful awkward moments in our individual and collective history. While not in any means attempting to compare them, ignoring them does not heal or resolve them. They still exist and shaped us as individuals and as a country. Further complicating an emotionally charged topic, symbols can take on ideologies that may not have been intended upon their inception as later causes borrow or otherwise revise the original belief.

Undoubtedly there will be discussions about the role family values did or did not have in the upbringing of the young man who murdered participants in a bible study. I believe that gets closer to the issue but is not the issue. It is not that any particular set of values, family or otherwise, are right or wrong. The crux is: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

We see this friction in another way today: American politicians and their mandates from increasingly homogenous constituencies politicians themselves created when favorably redrawing voting districts. Divisive monologues, not real conversation, ensue that fails to resolve the questions at hand but serves to further articulation of one’s beliefs. We see this on many topics: abortion, federal tax philosophies, foreign policy, social programs including health insurance subsidies. These are manifestations of the underlying beliefs and values of the participants.

These fights degrade into political procedural maneuvering, withholding funding for approved programs, grandstanding in public forums, and other political manipulations. Essentially it is a fight for one ideology to impose its will over another and achieve power and control. In American politics, the victory is to codify it in law and then protect it by influencing the judicial process through the selection of favorable nominees.

Again, this is not limited to just the United States. We see this same primal fight to impose one’s will and beliefs on another in other contexts internationally. In the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, with ISIS and ISIL we see the same actions clad in religious values. We see the same murders in houses of worship over differences in these beliefs manifested as shootings and bombings at mosques during religious services. There are the civil conflicts in Egypt and Syria, the Greek debt negotiations. It returns back to the same question: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

Maybe the first question is how does this resolve at the lowest common denominator in our lives with our spouses, children, friends, co-workers? Do we force our will on others? In what areas or topics? Do we open ourselves to listen to the other perspectives secure in the knowledge that the act of listening does not mean we abandon our own perspectives? Do you give a positive example for others to follow?

China’s Quandary: The Natural Forces Within a Stock Market

Posted July 9, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: Economic, Government

Tags: , , , , , , ,

China’s Communist government, in an attempt to save face and promote predictability and harmony, is taking highly unusual, intrusive measures to fight free market forces as the total value of the Shanghai stock market drops. 1  There is much media hype—with the fervor and emotion one expects from a real-time sports commentator—about how devastating the losses are. Yes more than 3 Trillion, or 30%, of the total value of all companies traded on the Chinese Stock Exchange have been lost over the last month1 is a large number. Yet we need to put this in context to determine if it is unreasonable.

The buying and selling of stocks is essentially the trading of ownership stakes in a company. What someone is willing to pay for that ownership stake may be more than it is actually worth. A loss or drop in market value occurs when collectively people are willing to pay less for a stock than before. Sometimes this causes a snowball effect when, given the new price, (1) more people are willing to sell to avoid further paper or real losses, and (2) buyers are willing to pay less given more supply (those willing to sell) and a perception the price may fall further.

To substantiate this consider a stock’s price to earnings ratio. This common financial measure shows how much an investor is willing to pay based upon how profitable a firm is. Earlier this year stocks traded on the Chinese Stock Market had an average price to earnings ratio (P/E) of 50.2 This is well above historic market norms and is indicative of stocks being overvalued. (For a developed economy this would mean a company share fundamentally worth $10, could be trading on a stock market for $30-$40 a share). The natural course of events is the market will balance the actual, fundamental value of stock with what people are willing to pay for it. This is when sharp decreases (or increases) in the value of a stock or the stock market as a whole occurs. As I heard eloquently presented an Alliance Bernstein investor roundtable in the early 2000s (and had been attributed to many): “the most powerful financial force is regression to the [historic] mean.”

The vast majority, 85%,2 of stockholders in the Chinese stock market are retail investors (individuals) and not institutional investors (investment professionals). As such, the unreasonable prices and valuations paid for the stocks are determined principally by individuals. These investor, as a whole globally, tend to made more emotional buy/sell decisions and conduct less research than professionals. Given strict Chinese regulations that limit foreign ownership, much of this overvaluation and stock market volatility is from the local individual investors. This creates an unusual position for the Chinese culture: a people that values uniformity, predictability, and face are in a position where the natural order of supply and demand takes place because of the overvaluation of the prices of stocks. This runs in direct contrast to these values and communist philosophy and creates a conundrum.

The free market system, when free of corruption and manipulation is beautiful because it self-regulates. The inherent checks and balances are that people, of their own-free will, make the buy and sell decisions. Once there is government intervention, this natural balance is impeded as winners, losers and protected companies are chosen in a manipulative way. Failure to let a market correct itself is akin to collective disillusionment or lying. One could equate the current frenzy to the collective realization that the emperor actually has no clothes and an urgency to act on that truth. The government is claiming that “short-sellers”—those who made financial trades indicating a stock is overvalued and is expected to drop in value—are manipulating the stock market3 and causing the revaluation seems misguided. (In actually these trades are more likely bringing a degree of truth.) Essentially the Communist Party is taking actions to perpetuate the irrational values being paid for stock prices. (As an aside, while the United States and European Union have taken action to assist the markets, it was not in manipulating the price paid for a stock. The efforts, in part, lower the interest rates for money kept at or borrowed from banks to incent companies and individuals to spend or invest money instead of leave it in saving accounts not earning interest. That is a subject for another article)

Yet again the forgotten financial lessons may not have been relearned: Markets do not only go up. Revenues, net income and other fundamental financial measures do not only grow at increasing rates year over year. Markets, even the Chinese stock market, do not usually grow 100% a year. And lastly, the most powerful force in a stock market is regression to the historic mean.

 

References

  1. Webb, Quentin, “Trade halts add to China’s Potemkin market problem,” Reuters, retrieved 7/9/15, http://blogs.reuters.com/breakingviews/2015/07/09/trade-halts-add-to-chinas-potemkin-market-problem/
  2. Shun, Samuel and Goh, Brenda, “China stock market freezing up as sell-off gathers pace,” Reuters, retrieved 7/8/15, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/08/us-china-stocks-idUSKCN0PI04Q20150708
  3. Taplin, Nathaniel, “China points finger at ‘manipulators’ as shares slump again,” Reuters, retrieved 7/2/15, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/03/us-china-markets-idUSKCN0PD03020150703

 

Graphic T-Shirts: Remembering the Cost of Wars as the Survivors Perish

Posted June 30, 2015 by J Hoffman
Categories: History

Tags: , , , , ,

In the current fashion cycle colorful t-shirts claim space in casual wardrobes across many demographics. Sometimes they have nature-oriented artwork while other times they hail a sporting team’s victory. Some advertise a brand name preference, a favored musical group, or an institutional alliance. The writing could be good-natured, quirky or simply intended to bring attention to the wearers themselves. Occasionally rhinestone-encrusted, cultish or confusing , the clothing is always making a statement, intended or not.

Yet traveling between gates at a U.S. airport, I observed a teenager wearing a t-shirt with a large faded American flag and the phrase “Back-to-Back World War Champs” surrounding the graphic. The patriotic boast viscerally stunned me and my emotions moved from astonishment to shock and then disbelief.   Over the next hour it transformed into dismay as it seemed disharmonious with the upcoming anniversaries marking the end of wars.

July 4th gives birth to the United States of America (Independence Day) and celebrates the freedoms won after the eight years of bitter, guerilla-style civil war within Great Britain’s claimed territory.  (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783.)  This is followed on November 7th with Armistice Day, also called Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, which marks the end of World War I and more than four years of trench warfare.

The disharmony stemmed from unstated teachings in my youth that a war’s end is not a prideful bragging contest. Celebrations on Independence Day tend to focus on American values articulated within the Declaration of Independence. I do not recall ceremonies invoking inflammatory language— “Dear Mum, We sure stuck it to you! Love, Uncle Sam” —as one might witness in drunken brawls between rivals after a game.

The Instruments of Surrender in both the European and Pacific theater—and the resulting treaties and agreements—followed suit and pointedly avoided the inflammatory, draconian concessions and punitive terms the winning Allies forced after World War I with the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919). These prizes extracted by the war’s victors were among the contributing factors to the unrest which bred World War II.

Maybe that was why the t-shirt bothered me—it cavalierly dismissed the cost of war. Perhaps further on the heels of another recent post graphically reviewing the causalities of World War II it struck a raw nerve.

Now in fairness, graphic t-shirts are not always philosophical, eloquent or fair; it could just be a t-shirt. True to form though, it made a statement and provoked a reaction as I looked deeper:

Those of the Lost Generation fought in World War I and those of Tom Brokaw’s coined Greatest Generation fought in World War II. As the last survivors of World War II perish from old-age, are we slowly losing this perspective, context?

Then we will lose those from the Korean War (the Silent Generation) and those who fought in Vietnam—also called the War of Southeast Asia. (This included both the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation.) These servicemembers have different memories of war for they serviced but lacked the popular support and focus found in previous American military conflicts. The clarity of the lessons learned is more muddied.

In a world of rapid communication, instant gratification and seemingly short-attention spans marked more by sensationalism than fact, how do we remember and lessen the chance of repeating these lessons when we lose the physical human link to the past?