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Good-bye America ?

By Shlomo Maital


     A terrible leaky social safety net, social and economic inequality, poor schools, a broken divisive political system, a worse-than-awful President (worst in history) – and a pandemic. It has finally caught up to America.  All its problems seem to be converging, at one point in time.  Here is how Bloomberg News sums it up:

¨   In the three months since isolation measures were first imposed in a belated effort to slow the spread of Covid-19, the world’s largest economy has become a basket case. One quarter of small businesses and two-fifths of restaurants have closed. Some 1 in 4 American workers is out of a job.

¨ At least 40 million people have filed for unemployment. And while the virus has devastated almost every economy it’s touched, individual Americans entered the crisis in an especially vulnerable position. The planet’s wealthiest country is renowned for having one of the weakest social safety nets among developed nations. It is home to more than two-fifths of all millionaires but has the highest poverty rate and the widest wealth gap among its peers.

¨ Despite a booming stock market (increasingly disconnected from the reality of everyday people) and robust job growth (largely low-paying service jobs) in recent years, more than 38 million Americans scrape by. The causes of U.S. inequality are well known, but they have jumped to the fore now that the nation is transfixed by disease, recession and outrage. —Josh Petri

  ¨ Racial repression is built into the American economy, Peter Coy writes in Bloomberg Businessweek. Almost two centuries after the U.S. defeated the slave states, the color of money is still white.

¨  Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the Urban Institute on behalf of Bloomberg Businessweek. That budget is 10 times greater than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which led the Trump administration’s botched response to the pandemic) and 12 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency ( which has been dismantling environmental protections). Crime, however, has been trending downward since the early 1990s. As protests over police killings of unarmed black people continue, this disconnect is leading to calls to defund law enforcement agencies and instead fund mental health and social services.

¨ Trump’s performance during national upheaval and the pandemic appears to be having a disastrous effect on his reelection bid. Polls show him performing poorly in 2020 battleground states, and one of his campaign’s most recent ads, entitled “Make Space Great Again” violates NASA guidelines.

¨   Americans filed almost 2 million applications for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting a slowing of the torrent of job losses. Trump administration officials say they expect to spend up to $1 trillion in the next round of economic stimulus, though of course that’s up to Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said Democratic-leaning states crushed by the virus shouldn’t get financial help (despite being the biggest source of those federal dollars), said any new bailout wouldn’t occur until after July 20.


World’s First & Greatest Democracy: R.I.P.

 By Shlomo Maital  


   This is a very sad, wrenching eulogy for Britain. The world’s first and greatest democracy is at a dead end.  Rest in Peace.

     I often watch Parliamentary debates on BBC TV, and enjoy the thrust and parry between the Prime Minister and her critics. Democracy at its best.

     This is why I am saddened today, when crackpot Boris Johnson will be chosen Conservative Leader, and automatically Prime Minister – by 1% of the British electorate. The other 99% have no say. Why? That’s how the system was set up. It must be changed.

       Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU, come what may, by Oct. 31. This implies a ‘hard Brexit’ (exit without a signed agreed deal). Here is what Bloomberg thinks about this option:

   The U.K.’s planned exit from the European Union may have already pushed the U.K. into a technical recession, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.   In a gloomy set of new forecasts, Niesr predicted that, even assuming a smooth exit in October, the nation will grow 1% in 2019 and 1% in 2020. There’s an around a one-in-four chance that the economy is already shrinking, the think tank said.

Britain may already be in recession, because of Brexit. Not a great time for a crackpot leader.

     Crackpot? Isn’t that disrespectful, extreme, exaggerated? No.

    Today’s New York Times: “Is Johnson how Britain will end?”

       Tackling Britain’s deep divisions requires depth of character, conviction and principle, none of which its incoming prime minister has ever hinted at possessing….he prizes victory above government –his first ambition as a child was to be ‘world king’ – and his political career has been marked by ferocity of campaigning and indifference in office, both as London mayor and foreign secretary…

     And another NYT article:

     In his pursuit to become prime minister, Mr. Johnson has adapted his old habits – the theatrics, the polysyllabic putdowns, the outlandish plans –for the Brexit era…..his promise to extract Britain from the EU by the end of October has left many Britons worrying he will send the country hurtling toward a potentially calamitous no-deal Brexit.

     While Trump ruins America, now Johnson will ruin Britain. Two of the West’s great economies and democracies, heading down the tubes because of a broken democratic process – Russian interference in the US, and an archaic totalitarian system for choosing the Tory leader in the UK.

       Very sad.








Dealing with the Trump Presidency: a Survival Guide for 4 to 8 Years

By Shlomo Maital


OK, so counting four years from Jan. 20, or possibly eight – how do we survive?

Mark Blyth, a political science professor at Brown University, has some sage advice, published in the Washington Post.

   The basic problem: In democracy, we vote for what we want. And increasingly, Blyth notes, we are simply NOT getting it.

“Unsurprisingly, people are beginning to realize that they are no longer getting what they vote for. Instead, they are being asked to pay more and more for what they already receive through taxes, taken from stagnant or declining incomes, which also must service their debts. In such a world it’s great to be a creditor and lousy to be a debtor. The problem for democracy is that most people are debtors. In such a creditor-friendly world, however, democracy is reduced knowing that the menu of policy will never vary. Trump’s win in the Midwest, British voters deciding to leave the European Union, Italy’s referendum and Greece’s revolt against its creditors are all connected in this way.”

     In short: Most of us owe money. A few OWN money. The system has been rigged in their favor. And it may stay that way under Trump, the billionaire.

     So how do we respond? Blyth observes:

     “At the end of the day, when you no longer get what you vote for and when the role of voting is reduced to affirming the status quo, voters will vote for the most undemocratic of options if that is all that is “off the menu.” That’s democracy in action in a world devoid of choice. When you can’t get what you want and most people do not benefit from the economic outcomes of government, it’s also what makes democracy unstable.”

       Americans voted “off the menu” (a minority of them, true) because that was the only choice ‘off the menu’.   And it has made democracy unstable, and is doing so all over the Western democracies.

       We’ll survive this. Take a deep breath. Take a long view.  Watch how the brilliant, wise American Constitution protects its citizens from scoundrels. At some point, centrist politicians will begin to understand that voters want real change, want to unrig the system to help debtors not creditors, and want actions, not promises. It may take a few more ringing defeats, like Trump, Brexit, and Italy to wake these politicians up.

       For four years, or eight years, Americans must say clearly what they want, and vote that ticket in every election. Mid-term elections are only two years away.   How will Trump supporters vote, when they feel they are again, not getting what they want?

Why Honey Bees Are Smarter Than People

By Shlomo Maital

Thomas Seeley

  My blog has been silent for some time; I was unable to upload blogs to during a 10-day visit to China.   I’ve returned with many ideas for blogs in my suitcase, and will soon catch up and zero the deficit.

   On the long flight from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, 12 hours, I reread Thomas Seeley’s wonderful book Honeybee Democracy. Seeley is a biology professor, passionate about understanding bees, and his research has revealed startling insights into bees.

   One of those insights is that bees, which have tiny tiny brains, are smarter than humans, when it comes to making decisions – because they do so cleverly, as a ‘swarm’ or group. Bees’ brains are about 20,000 times less massive compared to human brains. It is the size of one sesame seed. The honey bee brain is actually ten times denser compared to a mammal’s brain. It can do amazing things, like calculate distance and angles and direction and return to a nest site or flower site miles away.

   Bees, sometimes 10,000 of them, gather in a ‘swarm’, a mass of bees hanging together in one spot. Scout bees travel far and wide, often several kilometers, and return to report to the ‘nation’ of bees on prospective sites. Seeley tells how these scouts report on their findings, by doing a dance. The dance tells the other bees whether the site is great (big, 40 liters, small entrance) or just adequate (15 liters, big entrance). If great – the dance is rapid, vigorous, compelling. If adequate – the dance is, well, a slow waltz. Several such scouts dance. The other bees watch.

   Then – little by little, the other bees join the dance they favor. Eventually, and it doesn’t take long, the swarm reaches a whole-swarm consensus on the prospective site and then, as if on a signal, takes off, in just 60 seconds, and flies to the new site, where the nest is built, honeycombs erected, honey stored, and the queen bee sets up her throne and baby factory.

   But why are the bees smarter than humans? Two reasons. First – dissent, then commit. That actually is a widely-used mantra at Intel Corp., where fierce debate is cultivated (like the scout bees), but then – everyone must commit to the final decision, wholeheartedly.

   But even more important – the dancing scout bees convey information to the other bees, that includes intensity. That is, here is where a new site is, here is what it looks like, and here is how enthusiastic I am about it. Other bees join in, to show THEIR enthusiasm, by the rapidity of their dance. Human democracy is a zero-one process, where you vote for a candidate. But what aobut how much you like the candidate? Is it a “1”? a “5”? or a 10? Who knows? No way to tell.  Bee democracy includes intensity, not just zero-one choice.

   The bees use intensity of emotion. Humans do not. How many times do we vote for a candidate while holding our nose, because he or she is the best of a really bad lot of losers. What if we could indicate this in the democratic process? What if we voted for a candidate, and added 1-10 how much we liked him or her? Then added up both the intensities and the votes, perhaps by weighting?

   Humans retain their views, after the election, and as the Republicans, do everything possible to sabotage the elected Democratic President and his plans. Bees always form a consensus; they have a process that usually ensures it. In rare occasions where swarms split into two, and go off to two different sites, they often don’t survive.  

   Seeley writes, “one valuable lesson we can learn from the bees is that holding an open and fair competition of ideas is a smart solution to the problem of making a decision, based on a pool of information dispersed across a group of individuals.”

   I watched the Republican Presidential debate while in China. Open competition of ideas? Ideas? Not one. Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Dispersed across a pool of individuals? Tea Party? Makes one yearn for the little dancing bees, waggling their behinds.

All That’s Wrong With Democracy:

Roger Cohen Gets It Right!

By Shlomo Maital

democracy brandeis

Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, is a fierce critic of my country Israel – sometimes deservedly, sometimes excessively. But lately he’s been a fierce critic of U.S. President Obama, and this time, it’s richly deserved.   In today’s New York Times, he tears a strip off Obama for his weak wishy-washy speech in Europe on how to stand up to Russia.   The problem is, Cohen says, that Western democracies are “failing to deliver”, while despots like Putin actually have been performing rather well.

   The proof? Soaring unemployment in Europe (3 m. unemployed in France, for instance), rising fascist right-wing parties (Marine LePen and the Front Nationale did well in France’s municipal elections last Sunday), European integration is stalled and Europe is internally divided and at odds, the EU is overly bureaucratic and undemocratic; income disparities in Europe and the U.S. are huge and growing; there is “spreading middle-class dystopia”; money has skewed fairness on both sides of the Atlantic, corrupting democracy. Scorched earth Republicans devote their politics to obstruction. “A CEO can earn $80 m. for a few weeks of work while incomes for most Americans are stagnant.” Many young people have lost the sense of possibility and hope.

   Concludes Cohen: “Unless Western societies find a way to shake their moroseness, level the playing field and rediscover [equality], they are going to have a hard time winning the contest of ideas (against the despots)”.

   “Now is not a time for bluster,” intoned Obama. And that is precisely what he provided in his speech – empty words. Saudi Arabia has given up on the U.S.   Israel may soon have to do the same. And Vladimir Putin is laughing up his sleeve.

   A full century ago, Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, said that you can’t have both democracy and great concentrated wealth. Israel just passed a law to try to mitigate that concentration. Before the U.S. and Europe can confront Russia, they need to look in the mirror and confront their own problems.

An Increasingly Messy World: What We Each Must Do About It

By Shlomo Maital    

         messy world                

  My friend Bilahari Kausikan, a veteran Singapore diplomat and now Ambassador at Large, has written an excellent study titled “East Asia, US-China Relations and A New Global Architecture”.   Some of the points he makes have major implications for each and every person.  Here are a few excerpts:

   1.  We need a new ‘global architecture’:   “… once an American President has acknowledged the need for a new global architecture, it is a view that must be taken seriously. Only the US can lead and manage the transition from one system to another.    To reach a new global architecture, three sets of more or less tandem and inter-related adjustments will be necessary: a) global, b) regional, particularly in East Asia, and c) domestic in key countries, especially in the US and China.    All are complicated and the interregnum between one type of international system and whatever may come after will be prolonged, measured in decades. Along the way there will be stresses to be managed and recurring political, financial and economic crises to be navigated.  It will be a more than usually messy and unpredictable environment for East Asia and for the world for a quite long time to come. 

2.  “… while US leadership is still irreplaceable, the imperative of US leadership is no longer self-evident, both to other major countries and to many Americans who now question the burdens and sacrifices of global leadership.  America will in all probability look increasingly inwards for some time.   This is what it has been historically been prone to do after major wars, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the longest in American history.   It would thus be prudent to anticipate a global leadership deficit of some degree.”

3.  “The US and China will eventually grope and stumble their way towards a new modus vivendi. The questions that cannot now be answered are what the contours  of the future US-China relationship will look like; what trade-offs they will make between themselves; how long it will take to reach a new equilibrium; and what excitements the region will have to endure along the way?” 

4.  “In the 21st century, ‘normal’ politics is all too often dysfunctional.  This is a global phenomenon manifest in all polities legitimated by some variant of the notion of the sovereignty of the people. The experience of countries around the world has shown that the validation of politics by this 18th century political philosophy sooner or later sets up a dynamic that makes governance more difficult.”

    So what does all this mean for ordinary people and for companies? 

    As Bilahari notes, the world is going to remain highly unstable, for years to come.  It is not a multipolar world, but a NONpolar world.  America still has the clout to impose order, but it lacks the will do to so, after futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Moreover, normal 18th. C.-style democracy has become dysfunctional, in a fragmented era of social-network protest. 

   For companies, strategy will need to be flexible, agile, rapid, alacritous.  Survivors will be those best able to react quickly and correctly to unanticipated changes.

   For individuals,  the precise opposite.  We cannot forecast labor markets, we do not know which skills, products, industries or even geographies will prevail.  So, best to look inward, identify our passions, and work to fulfill them,  irregardless of the typhoons raging around us.   This was always the best path.  It it even more so in the turbulent world that Bilahari Kausikan decribes.

    One more thing.  A USAToday Poll finds that young Americans have a strong impulse to contribute to their society – but not through politics.  Only 17% of Caucasians, and just 8% of all blacks, say they seriously considered running for elective office (at any level);   only 22% of college grads, and only 25% of those who earn $100k or more;  only 22% of men, and just 8% of women!    America’s dysfunctional politics, about to push the Obama administration off the fiscal cliff, will be dominated by second-rate scoundrels, precisely at a time when strong leadership is needed.

     How in the world do we get young Americans to clean up America’s political mess, which is polluting not just America but the whole world?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital