Sunday, November 19, 2017

More on Trickle-Down Economics

How the GOP sees the world

The GOP tax "reform" plan -- in quotations because it's mostly a tax cut -- doubles down on trickle down economics: that giving more money to rich people and corporations will drive broader benefits for everybody else.  No serious economist believes this.  Even Wall Street is skeptical of the plan; they worry about the adverse impact on consumption and the housing market, and it may even trigger another recession(!!!).

New Yorker columnist John Cassidy best summarizes the counterarguments in his article covering a Reuters panel discussion featuring several experts.  Ex-Federal Reserves board member Alan Blinder and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi showed charts showing no correlation between GDP growth and tax rates -- something that everybody outside the White House readily points out.  Another economist showed that tax cuts have historically gave more money into shareholders through dividend payouts, as opposed to making new investments or giving increased salaries to employees.

The final panelist, billionaire investor Mark Cuban, makes the point from a job creator's perspective: taxes are not the primary driver of hiring, salary or capex decisions; the most important business considerations are always supply-demand dynamics and competition.  Technology is another major factor: in the past 25 years we experienced two rounds of digital revolutions: internet boom of the '90s and smartphone boom of the 2000's, which created new industry giants such as Google, Alibaba, and Tencent.  These days a neighborhood store owner isn't losing sleep over tax rates, she is worried Amazon is eating her lunch!  Another round of technological dislocation is at our doorstep, as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and advanced manufacturing robotics become the norm -- these are guaranteed to create backlash and discomfort as many industries will be upended, putting many inappropriately-skilled workers out of comfy jobs.

Cuban also hits another common-sense point: if the intent is to give more money to the working class, why not cut payroll taxes, which everybody pays (as opposed to income taxes)?

Cassidy summarizes as follows:

"... The Republican tax plan is based on false premises; it won’t give the economy much of a boost; it will raise the deficit; it will primarily benefit corporate shareholders and C.E.O.s.  And, as Cuban said, it is a distraction from the great policy question of the day, which is how to insure at least a modicum of shared prosperity in an economy being roiled by technological change, global competition, and demographic transformation. [...] If Trump wanted to help out the working stiff, why didn’t he take Cuban’s advice and call for a cut in the payroll tax? To pay for the reduction, he could also have proposed abolishing, or substantially raising, the payroll tax’s upper-income threshold, which enables someone who earns a million dollars a year to escape the tax on about seven-eighths of his income. Such a policy package could have boosted take-home pay, financed itself, and also helped to reduce income inequality."

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lesser of Two Evils


In light of the Roy Moore scandal, the important lesson is to NOT choose the Lesser of Two Evils(TM).  NEVER abandon your principles in the face of bad choices.

From Michael B Dougherty (National Review):

"...Telling yourself that 'this is war, and in war you have to make less than ideal choices' is a great way to excuse the destruction of your charity and the lifting of restraint, with collateral damage to your integrity.  Choosing the lesser of two evils is a fantastic way to prepare yourself to do worse and worse evils.  And following it to the end is a bitter fate indeed.

The worst tragedies of recent history were driven by masses of people giving in to existential fear and hatred.  There are many alive today in Central and Eastern Europe who made themselves into Fascists or Communists in order to resist or avenge the Communists and the Fascists. But the names we remember and revere are those who carefully and bravely stood apart. It’s time to think about where the line in the sand will be. What behavior won’t you excuse? Where won’t you follow your party? Because the way things are going, these questions won’t be hypotheticals."

From David French (also at the National Review):

"... I keep hearing these words from Evangelicals: 'We’ve got no choice, the Democrats are after our liberties. They’re seeking to destroy our way of life.'  Some even say that even if the allegations against Moore are true, they’ll still hold their nose and put him in office to keep [Doug] Jones from serving in the Senate.  Sorry Evangelicals, but your lack of faith is far more dangerous to the Church than any senator, any president, or any justice of the Supreme Court. Do you really have so little trust in God that you believe it’s justifiable — no, necessary — to ally with, defend, and even embrace corrupt men if it you think it will save the Church?

Yes, I know there are many instances in which godless kings did good things for God’s people. God can turn the heart of any man. But there is a vast difference between seeking favor from an unrighteous ruler and choosing, defending, and embracing the unrighteous ruler from the start. Evangelicals, you’re putting people like Donald Trump and Roy Moore in office. You’re declaring to the world, “He’s our man.” In graver times, God’s people have demonstrated much greater faith.  We stumble when the stakes are comparatively low.  Our failures will come back to haunt us. There will be woe to those who’ve compromised with evil through lack of faith. A reckoning is coming. May God have mercy on us all."


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Last wishes

When I die:

1. I hope my kampung will throw a block party. But not like Saddam, dear God no.

Party in Minneapolis after Prince's death

2. I hope Ross Douthat can write my eulogy:

"Hugh Hefner [...] was a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.

Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself."


Friday, September 29, 2017

Earth had life very early

Disko Bay in Greenland

New research found Canadian rocks that are nearly 4 billion years old with signs of primitive life.  At the time, Earth was only ~200 million years old -- still a baby (in geologic terms), and who knows what the climate/atmosphere looked like back then. 

Which goes to show the different kinds of (crazy hellish) environment where life started, and questions where else life may have/still exists in this universe...?


Monday, September 25, 2017

Rohingya Crisis, Explained in 6 Points

Rohingya refugees coming into Bangladesh by sea

1. They are the world’s most persecuted minority group

The Rohingya is an ethnic group, majority of which are Sunni Muslims, which has inhabited the Rakhine (Arakan) district of Burma (Myanmar) over one hundred years.  Before the recent violence, an estimated 1.1m Rohingya live in the country.  They are despised by the country’s Buddhist majority and live in apartheid-like conditions.  The government refuses to recognize them as an ethnic minority, describing them as illegal immigrants and interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.

The refugee crisis has strained neighboring countries' capacity for compassion

Clashes in the Rakhine state between the inhabitants and military/security forces erupted numerous times since the 1970s.  Since 1982, when a new citizenship law was passed, the Rohingya has been stateless with no rights to vote, study, work, travel, practice their religion, and access to healthcare services.  According to the UNHCR, one out of seven stateless people in the world is Rohingya.

After renewed violence starting in 2012, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya has fled to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.  The UN Secretary General has dubbed the attacks as "textbook definition of ethnic cleansing".

2. They have been in Burma for ages

19th century mosque in Akyab

Modern-day Burma was part of the British India empire back in during the colonial rule (1824-1948).  Migration of ethnic Indians/Bengali into Burma was not limited in any way, as they are considered one contiguous territory;  British policy actually encouraged Bengali inhabitants to migrate into the then-lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers, and in the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in the area seeking manual work in the paddy fields.  The British census of 1872 reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District (modern-day Sittwe/Rakhine district); by 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647.

During the Second World War, the land of Burma (like many parts of Southeast Asia) was annexed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  Native Buddhists mostly sided with the Japanese, because they wanted British colonizers to leave.  On the other hand, the Muslim minority, who has made good living and planted roots as agricultural workers as well as other skilled laborers, mostly stayed with the British's side.  The British even armed its ethnic Indian populace, leading to mass killings in the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually Britain, of course, won the war and they remained until Burma's independence in 1948.

After the Burmese declaration of independence, the government passed the Union Citizenship Act.  The Rohingya, along with other minority groups, was initially provided a real pathway to citizenship.  However, after the 1962 military coup and the subsequent 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya were marginalized and rendered stateless overnight. 

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee.  During such incidents, refugees have often reported indiscriminate shootings, rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.  Burmese military dictatorship ended with the 2012 free elections, but many central figures of the military remained powerful.  For the victims that suffered atrocities under the military regime, the power that the military still wields means that human rights abuses are expected to continue.
Source: The Economist

3. The Burmese really, really hate the Rohingya

In case you're wondering, Burma's Buddhism is starkly different from familiar western perception of the religion.  Theravada Buddhism (widely practiced in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka) does not recognize the Dalai Lama, and their teachings can be actually quite militant -- they are staunch defenders of blood purity and against minority groups.

Buddhist nationalist propaganda dehumanizes the Rohingya by calling them "descendants of snakes and insects".  In that manner, mistreatment of these people are considered OK as they are not really humans.  These views continue to be popular amongst the educated and the elites.  With state-controlled media, barrage of fake news and internet trolls, laypeople are generally ignorant of what's really happening to their neighbors. 

There are many perceptions and historical factors that contribute to Burma's longstanding hatred of its Muslim minority:
  1. They are just different: the Rohingya (Muslim, ethnic Bengali/Indian) starkly differ in appearance, with darker skins and foreign traditions vis-à-vis the majority of Burma (Buddhists, ethnically closer to Chinese)
  2. The Rohingya do not control births.  This is difficult to show, since there is no state-sponsored healthcare service and no census for non-citizens.
  3. The Rohingya are drug smugglers and criminals.  Again this is also difficult to prove, but in many cases marginalization doesn't leave them much choice. 
  4. Finally, a widely held opinion among the elites and educated: the Rohingya are foreign-influenced, jihadi-inspired, overseas-funded, separatists eager to take over the country and overthrow its leadership.  During the years leading up to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Rohingyas fought in the Mujahid insurgency. They wanted northern Rakhine, where Muslims were concentrated, to be annexed into Pakistan/Bangladesh, and Burma saw this as disloyalty and treason.  More recently local media highlighted ethnic Rohingya who were implicated with al-Qaeda and Taliban.

Massive fires in the Rakhine district, as seen from Bangladeshi borders

4. The government is mostly silent on the humanitarian crisis

Three factors may explain de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence.  The first is domestic politics.  From Harvard Politics:

Ashin Wirathu

"..The 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist movement led by monks including Ashin Wirathu, has grown increasingly powerful and is responsible for increase in Islamophobic sentiment among the populace. In addition to encouraging the Burmese to boycott Muslim stores, the movement has also incited violence.  In 2013, monks led rioters to burn homes in the Muslim neighborhood of Meiktila, which led to the deaths of more than 40 Muslims.

In a country where nearly 90% of the populace practices Buddhism, Suu Kyi risks alienating a sizable proportion of the populace should she condemn the Buddhist nationalists.  Furthermore, many government officials are also sympathetic to the movement, including former President Thein Sein, who not only passed four “race and religion” laws that targeted ethnic minorities on issues like religious conversion and interfaith marriage.  Suu Kyi remains soft on the issue of Buddhist nationalism to avoid offending the monks, and her own government officials...."

The second factor is the military.  By constitution, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar defense forces) has a number of seats in the parliament and discretion to declare a state of emergency.  It also controls important ministries in the government and many other centers of power.  The country’s leadership is managing a delicate balance of power and cannot afford to upset the balance.  In this sense, the Buddhist nationalists and the military have joined forces in their decision to persecute the Rohingya as “deadweight” and “interlopers”.  The government is stuck trying to keep up with the alliance, although many indications also show that the three generally agree on the matter of the Rohingya.

Third, it's just about popular views. There's every indication  that the elites and the majority of the population do not care for the rights of Muslim minority.  More moderate viewpoints see citizenship as the key question: that citizenship rights shouldn't be awarded without extensive scrutiny -- dare I say, extreme vetting.

5. World powers are also silent

It's not because of lack of forewarning.  From Foreign Policy magazine:

"... in 2005, the member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, which obligates the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their governments are “unwilling or unable” to keep them safe. R2P was borne out of collective guilt over the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia and promised a new era of “timely and decisive” atrocity response. In pursuit of this goal, early warning efforts to identify the precursors of mass atrocities became a focus for both international and state actors.

[…] The plight of the Rohingya suggests that early warnings do little to prevent atrocities against vulnerable groups. The high risk of mass atrocities was clear from the escalating communitarian violence, the documented uptick in online hate speech beginning in 2012, and the tightening of official restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and activities."

Simultaneous humanitarian crises in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Syria and Yemen, have desensitized the world in the face of potential genocide.  UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia, which are battling dissidents within their own borders, doesn't want to invoke the R2P lest it would be against them in the future.  Furthermore, in the aftermath of the NATO-led 2011 Libya intervention, where R2P was explicitly invoked, decision-makers are concerned they might be making a bad situation worse

Money politics is also a concern.  China has been the largest investor into Burma.  Fmr US President Obama, refusing to let the country fall under the Chinese sphere of influence, made official visits to the capital in 2012 and 2014, praised the country's fledgling democracy, and lifted decades-long sanctions.  It is clear that complex geopolitical games are in play, and unfortunately, the Rohingya and human rights are not pieces in the puzzle.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump's America First is willfully abandoning the world stage, showing apathy and paying diminished attention to human rights issues.

The government and the military, with dominant national support, branded the Rohingya as Islamic militants.  Tapping into international counter-terrorism narratives simultaneously bolsters the legitimacy of the military operation against the Rohingya and undermines their status as innocent victims of state abuse.  Amongst the Burmese people, the rhetoric aborts empathy for the Rohingya by declaring them militants and potentially dangerous.

The neighboring governments most directly affected by the refugee crisis, Bangladesh and India, have generally just allowed the Rohingya into their borders -- but as matter of policy, they declare that the refugees cannot stay permanently, which is understandable given the heavy burden and lackluster, unsustainable conditions of the camps.

6. Finally: you can help

Monday, September 11, 2017


So Jared Kushner, the unpaid White House aide who's now tasked with handling Middle East peace, opioid addiction crisis, and American innovation(TM), used to be a Baltimore-area slum lord.  But he dumped all those in favor of a $1.8bn Fifth Avenue building that can only attract investment from shady origins.  No wonder DC elites don't care much for them....

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

More Soviet Jokes

From CIA declassified files:

A Soviet worker stands in a long liquor line.  He says to his friend, "I've had enough of this.  Save my spot, I'm gonna go shoot Gorbachev."  Two hours later he returns to claim his spot in line.  His friend asks, "Did you get him?"  "No, the line there was even longer than it is here."