Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day

As we celebrate another 4th of July in the United States, I cannot help but think back to the first 4th of July I was a part of, in 1990. I was in this country for exactly 5 months, 11 years of age, and understood English only to the degree the network cartoons and 2 months of public school could teach me. I had very little knowledge of American history, and honestly was mainly drawn in by the fireworks.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about Independence Day, my English improved, and this country that welcomed my family and I with open arms became my own. I was proud to become a citizen of this great country and understood that its system of government was far better than the country where I was born.

This country was born out of the desire to break through oppression from an overseas ruling party and an idea to govern better, with the majority of the country's population playing a factor in how it is run. It is this spirit of defiance, perseverance, and self-improvement that we celebrate on this day.

Our system of electing public servants may not exactly be categorized as a Democracy. In fact, with the electorate college, two party split, and the electoral college system that comes with it; we would be more correct to call it a Polyarchy. By Polyarchy we mean the elite few, who represent the many, making decisions within our government regarding how our country is ran. Nevertheless, it has held a standard for some time since its establishment on how modern Democratic style governments function.

Within the past few decades the system, which I have proudly been a part of since that first 4th of July back in 1990, has become more immobile, ineffective, and inadequate; for the American people to even consider it a representation of the United States population. In effect, the only thing this system of government performs well is create career politicians that are within the fiscal fishing nets of the American corporations for the duration of those careers.

As a result, the elected officials have no desire to serve the people, but just appear to do so enough to get elected and re-elected. We need a better way. In honor of the country I love and care about, I suggest the following basic points to reform our government to return it to its stated form: "...of the people, for the people, and by the people".

1. Abolish political parties - a politician must represent the people whom elect him or her, not the party money or corporate money that determine an ideology that does not resonate with majority of the American people. Multiple points of view will also force politicians to work with each other to reach a consensus, rather than the current stalemate in American politics.
2. Abolish corporate and private contributions to elected officials (or any proxies that exist for those officials). They are supposed to be officials elected by the people, not bought by the corporations.
3. Equality in elections - pass a law that gives each candidate with a certain amount (deemed significant for their home population) of signatures to be given equal amount of television, print, and radio exposure. Obligate network news corporations to provide objective equal airtime to candidates, without any commentaries, opinions, or editorials. Publicly provide the candidate's career records in the same fashion.
4. Civic Duty Holidays - introduce 4 new holidays a year (Civic Duty Days) that obligate the American population to familiarize themselves with local and national candidates and their record.  We, as the American people, should be seeking out the candidates that represent us best, and not allow the best looking image full of hollow promises to push their campaigns onto us. Each one of us must take a certain degree of responsibility for the politicians that represent us.
5. Abolish careers in politics - term limits in politics that force politicians to come back into the workforce after serving their term(s), which the laws they passed have impacted. Currently, the career politicians are detached from the general workforce, which in many ways leaves them isolated from reality.
6. Performance Reviews for Elected Officials - on the aforementioned Civic Duty Days, the voters that elected the officials into office will hold them accountable by conducting a public review of the politician's performance with respect to campaign promises made and any unforeseen decisions made. This will keep elected officials honest to the people. If the politician suffers two unsatisfactory performance reviews in a row, their seat will be vacated during the next election cycle and a new set of candidates will compete to fill it.

There are more nuances to each of these points, which I am more than happy to discuss. So leave me a comment to suggest what you think or any ideas you may have. We need to do better, and all of us must be responsible in doing so.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Digital Freedom

Our Digital Freedom is under attack. Net Neutrality is a very important set of consumer protections that we are all guilty of taking for granted. 

Many of us don't remember the early age of privatized Internet over two decades ago with AOL, Earthlink, and other dial-up internet service providers dictating the internet portals and tools its consumers had to use. In those early days, people were too mesmerized by the promise of Internet to pay attention that the very providers to whom they paid money for access, were in fact maximizing their profits by limiting their customers' options. But in the days of dial-up speeds, content was limited in itself. Therefore, these restrictions did not seem to limit any desirable content from the users' screens.

Fast forward to the present. Our networks are now flush with fiber-optic high speed connectivity, we have multiple competing streaming content providers, and the choices we often make when browsing the web may be undesirable to our Internet Service Provider's bottom line. 

Our previous US administration, for all its shortcomings, was wise enough to foresee the potential for predatory abuse and introduced the Net Neutrality protection. 

What is Net Neutrality? Essentially, it is a law that states that every Internet Service Provider must treat every Internet content its customers request equally, regardless of origin. A popular example of this is consider that you are a customer of Verizon FiOS and have a Netflix subscription. Now Verizon already offers Video On Demand content, as well as a slew of movies through its lineup of networks and premium channels. However, Netflix offers its own competing streaming video that may make the customer decline to order Video On Demand from Verizon or even cancel premium channel subscription from Verizon altogether. If Net Neutrality didn't exist, Verizon could reduce the speed with which you stream Netflix or make you pay a subscription fee to use Netflix at high speed.

The ramifications go beyond simply blocking competing content for customers and raking in additional profit. Suppose you want to start a small business that sells a product or service that your Internet Service Provider also sells directly or through a partner company. This means, that the ISP can simply block the Internet Traffic of your business and force you to either not use their service or make you pay a premium in order to allow your content. This naturally forces you, the business owner, to incur additional expense that your ISP, the competitor, does not have to. This is the very definition of monopolistic predatory practice. But without Net Neutrality, this type of action would be considered legal.

Luckily, we still have Net Neutrality and Verizon, Optimum, Comcast, et al; can only salivate at the money they can make by fleecing their customers further. But this protection may soon come to an end. The current FCC commissioner has outlined a plan to get rid of the Net Neutrality protection, with the vote on the FCC panel to commence on December 14th of this year. If this repeal passes, it may not be long until we all are subjected to the aforementioned abuses by our Internet Service Providers.

It is important for all of you, the voters, to call your local Republican Senators and Representatives and let your voices be heard. When you call, make sure to note the names of the three Republican FCC Commissioners: Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly, and Brendan Carr. Let your local Senators and Representatives know that if pressure is not placed on these commissioners and Net Neutrality is repealed, they will not have your vote come Mid-Term elections in 2018.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It is quite rare, in this day and age, that I get to see a movie with an original story line that is so well written and directed, that I find myself truly forgetting that I am sitting in a movie theater. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is exactly the type of cinematic experience I recommend every movie lover and story lover enjoy.

This movie will drag you out of your seat and make you to empathize with people who are completely unlikable, laugh at things that are tragic, and make you want to hope where there is hopelessness.

Frances McDormand gives a remarkable performance of a grieving mother who cannot reconcile the past without justice. Unable to find peace, she approaches the problem just like she has approached everything else in her life - through confrontation. Her son, ex-husband, the chief of police, and an admirer; all bear the brunt of her abrasive and determined crusade to get a measure of revenge.

Woody Harrelson plays the Chief of local Police. A career lawman who has done well for himself, he is terminally ill, which is apparently the town's worst kept secret. He brings to the story the thematically relevant issue of racism among some police officers, where he shelters a deputy accused of wrongdoing. Butt he is a man of law, giving Frances McDormand's character all the latitude she is legally entitled to, despite her attack that is aimed at him.

Sam Rockwell plays the deputy who is rough around the edges. He is a brute force individual, who has been accused of racism in the past. He attempts to uphold the law and protect his boss, the chief of police at every step; even when it means pushing the envelope of what is legally allowed. He is a foul mouthed, disorganized, and nasty individual that doesn't evoke anyone's sympathy in the beginning. Yet he is key to the unfolding of the story's final chapter.

The theme of the story centers on justice and a measure of revenge. Whether it is revenge for a lost daughter, a fallen co-worker, or any other wrongdoing that a person has been subjected to; the exposure to hatred and anger are key. Throughout the entire movie, the carefully woven undertones show that if you hold on to the hatred and anger, you ultimately become the instrument of injustice - the very opposite of your initial intent.

Judging by the reaction of the theater's audience, it is my understanding that a lot of people didn't get the ending. The problem is that we, the audience, have been often exposed to movies that process everything for us right down the final meaning. It is far rarer to experience a move that leads you down the path to the finale, where all parts are aligned, and leave the finale up to the viewer's interpretation.


My interpretation of the ending is that it doesn't particularly matter whether the suspect is guilty of this particular crime or another crime. It doesn't matter whether the suspect dies or not. What matters is that Sam Rockwell's character finally found his ability to be a detective, guided by a letter from his late chief. What matters is that Frances McDormand's character knows she is not alone and that she finally has hope due to the work of a dedicated police officer. Here is what we know before the screen fades to black:

1) Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell know that the man they are chasing is not the man responsible for the death and rape of Frances McDormand's daughter.

2) They have reconciled themselves that the man they are chasing is evil because he has committed a crime.

3) They have not finalized the decision to kill the suspect. They agree to see how things play out, to determine if he will pay for his crime with his life.

The moral of the story is that the aspect of anger and vengeance that both of these characters live with is a destructive force. It made them both chase down a man who is not responsible for the specific crime at the center of the story. Just because the man must be "guilty of something", forces both main characters to come to the brink of becoming the Judge, the Jury, and the Executioner.

The only plausible poetic unwinding version of this story leads me to believe that the execution will not occur. Whether it is Rockwell's character realizing that it is wrong to take a man's life for another crime, or McDormand's character understanding that killing a man for a different crime will not bring back her daughter; the leading towards this path ultimately is foreshadowed by the doubt in their dialogue as the screen fades to black.

A highly enjoyable cinematic experience. Highly recommended.

I give it 5 out of 5 gummy bears!!!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Xi Jinping follows in Putin's footsteps

The general secretary of the Communist Party, and president, of China Xi Jinping was initially chosen as a compromise by the Central Committee and Party delegates in 2012. It was a compromise between the desire to stay close to the Communist ideals and the desire to capitalize on the modern era reality that China has become a global economic power to be reckoned with.

But this son of an elite founding member of China's Communist Party, who has taken many twists and turns along his way to the top, is anything but a compromising figure. Throughout his first term as the general secretary, he has shown his willingness to dispose of the government of years past, instill a unified economic identity, continue to censor outside world, as well as cement his place in China's history books.

Soon after his father was imprisoned for being vocal and confrontational within China's Communist Party, the teenager Xi Jinping found himself target of the scorn of many of his peers and authorities that now viewed his family in a negative light. He learned his first lesson from his father - that being vocal in opposition to authority is an approach that doesn't achieve the desired result in China. So he immersed himself in his studies, went to the farm lands to perform manual labor with the country's peasant population. This was the call of Mao Zedong to all of China's population living in large cities.

This experience toughened up the young Xi and he soon found himself accepted as a member of the Communist Party, despite his father's tainted legacy. He began to establish a network of influential party members that would turn out to be his main support base in his pursuit for the top of the party hierarchy. He finally achieved that goal in 2012, when he was selected as the new general secretary of the Communist Party.

His actions after he took power in China, mimic those of the actions taken by Vladimir Putin, when he was elected to the reigns in Russia in 2000. A house cleaning of all the corrupt officials and a crackdown on unwritten, but previously accepted, bribe to conduct business policy. Just like Putin, Xi Jinping dismissed and imprisoned former long standing security and economic officials, that may have presented obstacles to his policies and vision. And just like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping did it all under the guise of performing a service to the country and upholding the moral high ground for which every man, woman, and child should strive.

Xi Jinping, in a remarkably similar fashion to Putin, was able to consolidate power by antagonizing elements within the ruling party, and within China, which would have stood in his way of making unilateral decision on their behalf. This was something Vladimir Putin coined the "verticals of power" a decade earlier.

Unlike Russia, China does not have democratically elected leaders. Xi Jinping does not need the same trick that Putin used from 2008 through 2012, when Putin served as Russia's Prime Minister, to side step consecutive term limit law. Xi Jinping's continuity in power solely depends on the Communist Party election every five years. So this year, he brought down the hammer.

Having already brushed aside many of his potential opponents early on in his reign, he has now enshrined his name and ideology into the Chinese constitution. The "Xi Jinping Thought for the Modern Era with Chinese Characteristics" is an ideology that has been unanimously adopted by the Party Congress and has now been written into the constitution. With no apparent understudy declared to take over for him in the future, this new Mao-degree status paces the way for Xi Jinping to rule for decades without any significant opposition.

While Xi Jinping certainly started by following Vladimir Putin's blueprint for the consolidation of power, he has since then surpassed it. Xi Jinping doesn't have any real opposition within the country at this point in time, while Vladimir Putin's opposition keeps growing. But that is largely due in part to Russia's remaining free press coverage and recent economic woes. Neither of theses factors are present in China.

Will Xi Jinping rule China until his death? Does the economic trouble that has forced the Russian people to re-evaluate its leadership have a chance to do the same in China? Leave me your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Monday, October 23, 2017

China Sees Opportunity

For as long as I can remember, in every economics class of the latter 20th century and early 21st, we have been taught that the United States is the industrial leading behemoth that cannot be surpassed because of its sheer fiscal might. Every currency exchange in the world still compares its local currency to the US Dollar and the United States is still the target for every worldwide consumer innovation, as it is the largest most lucrative market in the world today.

But times are changing. Let's step back and understand the passing of the torch that saw the United States rise as the worldwide economic leader. People who don't study or pay attention to history, may not realize that by the turn of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Great Britain was the world leader in most major industrial and financial measurements. However, by this time the British Empire grew beyond its means. With its empire stretching across the globe and the financial stresses inflicted by various conflicts, that standing became very tenuous. The beginning of the end was the beginning of World War I, where Britain extended itself further fiscally, and just could not keep up with the rising growing economy of the United States.

Despite going through the Great Depression, the United States kept growing in every phase of its economy. The final straw that unseeded Britain from the top spot was the havoc World War II inflicted upon its people, infrastructure, and finances. Soon their colonies, once the cornerstones of their financial income, began to break away as independent sovereign nations. Then their industries began to be nationalized. Finally, their national budget proportionally became a shadow of its former self. This made the economy grow at a snail's pace and even contract at times.

The United States had none of these problems. The younger nation was buoyed by the end of the Civil War. The United States saw its greatest leaps in industrialization and natural resource discoveries push the growth margin higher than ever during the "gilded age", leading up to the start of the 20th century. By the time of the roaring 20s, the country was now an economic contender on the world stage. But because neither of the world wars saw any extensive damage to the United States infrastructure, there was no pause and no rebuilding cost. This freed up the United States to invest in its growth further and leap past its European competitors with a seemingly insurmountable advantage into first place.

It is a spot which we, as a nation, have not relinquished since. However, our supremacy on the world stage has diminished over time. Since the late 20th century, the United States government has continuously mismanaged its budget to the tune of a financially devastating fiscal deficit. As the GDP and per capita income increased, so did the manufacturing costs. As a result, we have transformed our economy into a service, credit, and consumer economy. All the while shipping our blue collar manufacturing jobs overseas. With that transition we have also given the technical expertise and the income, which was previously kept in house, to nations we never saw as our competitors, let alone our equals.

But this is exactly where China finds itself today. Having absorbed decades of manufacturing and assembly handover from Western nations, China has acquired both the infrastructure and the technical knowledge base necessary to compete on the world stage as equals. Furthermore, Chinese government has acquired sufficient sovereign debt of every Western nation, including the United States, to be able to have political and economic leverage it previously dreamed of.

But now, having accumulated sufficient wealth, China is transitioning. It finds itself at the exact same inflection point that the United States found itself in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it was breathing down Great Britain's neck. Except now it is China ready to overtake the United States as the leading economy in the world. Chinese government is well poised for the role, with a bank roll of foreign debt and a national cash surplus that now seems more attractive to global investors than ever before.

As the conflicts of the world swirl around, the safest place for foreign cash is still the United States, as it is being recognized for its past fiscal dependability. But the winds are changing, and the Asian powerhouse that is China sees opportunity in this crisis. Up until now, they have been able to manipulate its currency and keep the value of the Yuan down to keep its manufacturing infrastructure viable on the world stage, and its Yuan-denominated sovereign debt purchases high in value. But their per capita incomes and currency value is growing beyond these controls. Soon enough, China will find itself in transition to a consumer economy. And that's exactly when the United States will be faced with a similar fate that Great Britain faced in the 20th century.

What do you think? Will China become a major consumer economy within the next decade? Will foreign investors see it as the new capital safety market? Will the US Dollar Standard crumble within the next decade? Please Leave your thoughts below in the comments section.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Catalonia Indecision

Among the many brewing flares of discontent around the world today, I bring your attention to the Northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia. This region has been fighting to be recognized as an independent sovereign state for 300 years. Catalonia is beautiful and wealthy with an abundant array of historical, artistic, and popular culture highlights. In fact, I found it to be enchanting and very friendly on my visit to the region last year.

But it is also restless in its desire to break away from the rest of Spain. Throughout Barcelona I have seen the Pro-Independence red and blue striped flags with a white star on blue triangle hanging from windows and balconies that signify the desire of the Catalan people. Some people believe that Catalonia is often taken advantage of by the Madrid government, with its cash flow often used to make up the financial shortcomings found across the rest of the nation. Others believe that Catalonia is an important compliment to the rest of Spain that should remain as one. So we see a split in Catalonia between Unionists and Pro-Independence supporters. We also see animosity by the Spanish government toward a region that already has a healthy degree of autonomy thanks to the Spanish Constitution.

As Democratically as it can appear to be, the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont held a referendum on the will of the people for Catalonia to secede from Spain. On the heels of the previous referendum held in 2014, it appeared to have a wide-ranging support among the public. After all, that three year old vote produced an 80% support for Catalonia's independence from a 41% voter turnout. The Unionists said that people who did not want to so secede did not take part in the vote. While the Pro-Independence supporters said that usual voter turnout is in the same percentage range anyway. This time, it wasn't enough for Madrid's Constitutional Court to rule the referendum illegal.

For Spain, losing Catalonia would mean a complete economic and political disaster. It would forever change the Spanish national budget, put its obligations to the European Union at risk, and could result in a default on its outstanding Sovereign debts. This is why the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who still remembers the vote three years ago, mobilized the Spanish Civil Guard and additional law enforcement bodies to intervene and prevent the public from voting.

Catalonia responded with fierce defiance. A convoy of tractors dubbed the "Tractorada" drove into the Catalan capital Barcelona to block Central Government's law enforcement from preventing the vote taking place. School teachers and elected officials set up social media communication centers to distribute information on how the voting process will evade Madrid's efforts to curtail the vote. Local police, Mossos d'Esquadra, chose to defy Madrid's orders and instead protected their own Catalan people. Despite Madrid's law enforcement violence in its suppression of the vote on October 1st, more than 43% of Catalonia voted on the referendum with 90% voting in favor of independence from Spain.

Now comes the hard part. According to the Spanish Constitution, Madrid has article 155 at its disposal in the event the autonomous region of Catalonia attempts to secede from Spain. However, its measures are limited and could backfire in cementing Catalonia's opposition to Madrid even further. The article grants Spain the ability to temporarily suspend autonomy in the region, dissolve existing local governing body, and impose new elections. However, with such a widespread support for Catalonia's independence, it is highly unlikely that the elections will yield a new governing body that won't be dead set on the region's independence.

The Central Government in Madrid hasn't been doing itself any favors either. By imprisoning two of the secessionist activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, prominent in this independence movement, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has only cemented Catalonia's resolve. Tensions are running high, and nobody wants to make the first move. In fact, Mr. Puigdemont is cognizant what the declaration of independence would mean for Catalonia with respect to Spain. So he has suspended the implementation of independence in order to seek dialogue for a smoother transition. To decode that last sentence - Mr. Puigdemont does not want to seem like the guy who began civil unrest here, so he has thrown the hot potato into Madrid's hands.

For Mariano Rajoy's part, he has remained resolute on this matter. He has thrown this dialogue right back into Mr. Puigdemont's court, issuing an ultimatum on whether or not independence has been declared. After not getting the clarification from Catalonia's governing body and Mr. Puigdemont, the Spanish Prime Minister has invoked article 155 and will impose elections in January that will first see Catalonia's governing body dissolved.

With so many Catalan people rallying for independence and so close to realizing their vision, I doubt that any election will stop them. We have seen that both diplomatic and coercive measures have failed. In my view, in the highly unlikely event that the January elections do yield a Unionist governing body, it will be widely rejected in Catalonia by the people and create an even more fierce opposition to Madrid's rule.

What are your views on this matter? Will the Catalan people realize their vision? Will Madrid subdue opposition? Will Catalonia remain a part of Spain in any capacity? Drop me a line in comments below to share your thoughts.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Heroin and Oxycodone

You cannot escape the terms Opioid Abuse, Opioid Epidemic, and Opioid Crisis, in today's news articles and political debates. The reason behind it is the steady increase in how many people have died from prescription painkillers over the past two decades.

I have an inside perspective into this state of affairs, as I have worked for a pharmacy around the time when pain management centers began to pop up and prescribe painkillers for every kind of ailment over 17 years ago. In addition, I have had two close people who have been engulfed by this epidemic. Luckily both of them are still alive and on an endless path to recovery.

The recovery is endless, because this kind of addiction never goes away. It stays with the person for the remainder of their life. And any anomaly in terms of mental or physical stress, coupled with availability of the drug, always puts an addict into a prime position to relapse.

The proliferation of the Oxycodone type medication began to amplify in the late 90s, as an effective painkiller. The Pharmaceutical companies were called to testify before Congress regarding the medication's safety. Despite having the knowledge that Oxycodone is very similar in molecular structure to Heroin and more study was necessary, the Pharmaceutical Executives lied through their teeth and said that addiction to the medication is rare and avoidable.

After all we shouldn't be that surprised. It was the Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, who over a century ago certified Heroin to be safe. It was sold in every Pharmacy for decades, until it was summarily pulled off the shelves due to its apparent addictive property.

That's right, the Pharmaceutical companies, their suppliers, and retailers put profit before the well being of the very people whom they claimed would avoid feeling the pain. The Pharmaceutical companies were very effective in their marketing technique. They went to every doctor, hospital, and pharmacy to tout the benefits of their medication and entice them to be prescribed for everything from headache, toothache, to recovery from surgery and cancer treatment.

But people became addicts, and in much greater numbers than the Congress or Pharmaceutical companies could foresee. The State Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency caught on to the early signs of this deadly trend and had competent attorneys lead successful cases to restrict these medications and contain the Opioid crisis.

The only problem was that the private Pharmaceutical companies have more money than the DEA or the State Department. So the Pharmaceutical companies began to recruit the most competent DEA attorneys and make them work against the very same cases the attorneys constructed for the government.

And this is where we find ourselves today. The Opioid Crisis has now reached Epidemic proportions, with over 15,000 Americans dead in 2015 due to prescription painkiller overdoses alone. We have over two million Americans who have been identified as having at least a degree of dependency on prescription painkillers. These are two million lives, each with a lifetime of recovery ahead of them... if they are lucky.

We need to act on this matter. We need to call our local elected officials to put pressure with our votes. We, as human beings, cannot stand idly by while the greedy Pharmaceutical companies extract profit at the expense of human life. This is a serious matter, and nobody is immune. Because the next time you go to a hospital for something minor, it may be you who receives a painkiller prescription.

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