Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Hillary Clinton and Democrats Lost the White House, Senate, Congress, Governorships and State Legislatures

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” 
Barack Obama

Anyone who believes Mrs. Clinton lost because she is a woman needs to wake up. There is no question that misogyny played a role, but she needed to win in spite of this because she was attempting to break a glass ceiling in what is, for now, still a man’s world. The facts clearly show that women did not unite against Mr. Trump because of his lewd and misogynistic comments, just to vote for a woman. “Instead, they voted more or less as they always have: along party lines.” (NYTimes).

Also, consider that Trump won white working class voters in “many of the areas where Mr. Obama fared best in 2008 and 2012. In the end, the linchpin of Mr. Obama’s winning coalition broke hard to the Republicans." (Source: NYTimes).

He also won almost 30% of Hispanics (more than Romney or McCain did); and overall did “…better than Romney among blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, making it more difficult to claim that racial resentment was the dominant factor explaining Trump’s support nationally.” (Source: Washington Post).

Let’s be clear that people don’t suddenly wake up one morning, turn on a racist switch and vote for hate. If that is true then we may as well pack our bags and abandon this great experiment called democracy. If we can get past the media’s hysteria and selective narrative, we will see that simply dismissing Mr. Trump’s victory as racism and misogyny (there was absolutely an element of it) is not just an over-simplification but dangerously naïve.

The next step is trying to understand, and fix, why Democrats and Mrs. Clinton lost, despite the fact that Mr. Obama had a higher approval rating than Mr. Reagan did at end of in his second term; another fact that makes it hard to blame racism. So, why did Mrs. Clinton lose?

She lost because the Democratic Party showed it had been taken over by a mafia and they were willing to use brute force to propel her candidacy, even though the base was clearly screaming for a different voice to represent them.

She lost because she came across like a Queen seeking a political coronation and someone who had become a member of the special interests and wealthy elites she promised to fight.

She lost because the majority of the world has lost faith in politicians of all stripes, and they are looking for outsiders who will use brute force to break the system, not politely try to navigate it.

She lost because she was complacent and took for granted that changing demographics would work in her favour. She simply assumed that minorities, women upset with Trump’s irresponsible and bombastic statements, and left-leaning millennials would carry the day for Democrats.

She lost because she changed her position numerous times on the minimum wage, on TPP and on trade; issues that most mattered to her voters.

She lost because she was completely tone deaf to the screams of the wider electorate, an electorate screaming for economic dignity. The kind of dignity that only a well-paying job can provide, and a sense of self-worth that comes from being able to provide for your family and promise your children a good education and a bright future.

The reason she lost is because she did not offer a vision for how she would help create decent jobs for all Americans; she forgot that it’s still “the economy, stupid”.

Her campaign was entirely rooted in trying to convince voters that Trump was an evil demagogue who is unfit to govern. But people needed to know how she would help them put food on the table, afford healthcare, find a job, get an education and lift themselves and their children from economic indignity; Mrs. Clinton failed to provide this narrative.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton and Democrats chose to stay in their bubble and ignore the growing working class cries for help. As a result the Democrats not only lost the White House, Senate and the House, but were also decimated across the board in Governor and state legislative races. Voters clearly and soundly rejected current party policies at every level of government; Democrats would be wise to take heed.

Democrats now have a clear choice to make. They can waste time and energy filing futile petitions, funding protests and calling for vote recounts. They can continue to scream and cry about Trump being racist and misogynist and refuse to accept that he is the President-elect and they can also refuse to work with him once he takes office. By doing this, they will once more bury their heads in the sand and, like the GOP has done, become a party with no vision, no rallying cause and end up with an internal civil war of their own, led by various extreme factions within the party.

Or they can come out of their bubble and spend time trying to understand why so many blue collar voters and minorities, who have historically been a guaranteed part of their base, felt so excluded and isolated that they needed to find such an extreme alternative.

They can work with President Trump to further the economic cause of all Americans while ensuring that hate never permeates the mainstream arteries of our democracy, and they can champion an alternative vision to his, one that must be more economically inclusive of all voters in 2020.


NOTE: Title changed on 12/5 from "2016 US Election: Why Democrats Lost and the Choice They Need to Make".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hindutva or Development; That is the Question

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.” 
Henry David Thoreau

Capitalism and democratic freedom go hand in hand. In order for India’s economy to succeed, people need to stop fearing backlash for religious or political beliefs, and have no fear in publicly criticising the government, the PM, elected officials and even the army.

Silence is no longer an option; it will be deemed as acquiescence at worst, cowardice at best, at a time when moral policing, anti-Muslim bigotry, religious intolerance, frivolous accusations of anti-nationalism and vigilantism continue to grow.

In order for Mr. Modi’s vision of India to succeed, he needs to go well beyond cutting a few layers of our bureaucracy and corruption, and also start championing free society where diversity of thinking is encouraged, where there is respect for rule or law (and consequences for breaking it) and where there is a very clear separation between religion and state.

These are the fundamental underpinnings of every successful free market economy. India cannot progress economically with one-hand tied behind its back. If Mr. Modi continues to allow apolitical institutions like the army to be used by his political cronies as instruments of faux nationalism, he will pay a very heavy price and so will India.

The bottom-line is that every month between 2011 and 2030, nearly 1 million Indians will turn 18 and if India is unable to create well-paying jobs, no matter what else Mr. Modi achieves, his tenure will be viewed as a failure.

In my estimation, there are couple of things Mr. Modi must do to change the tenor of the current discourse in our nation and lay the foundations for a more cohesive and inclusive India.

One. As one of the few politicians who understand the power of social media, Mr. Modi must make an appeal to all digital lynch mobs to make clear that this behaviour will not be tolerated and most certainly should not be done in his name. He needs to be unequivocal in his condemnation of social media misogyny, bullying and hooliganism, but stop short of passing new laws. 

His needs to be a plea for civility without limiting free speech. It is about appealing to people’s good sense and getting them to take the higher ground, just like Mr. Modi did when he met with Nawaz Sharif and invited Pakistan’s SIT team (against the wishes of his own advisors).

Two For a man who took office promising to attract foreign companies and investment by changing the backward, corrupt, bumbling and bureaucratic image of India, his government’s own PR has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

In a world where perception is reality, the BJP is increasingly being seen as a government of overreach. One that regularly tramples on civil liberties and constitutional rights. Granted, some of this is overreaction, media bias and orchestration by opposition parties, but truth is that beef bans have been enforced in BJP-led states, independent documentary films have been banned, funding has been blocked for NGO’s, college students have been charged with sedition and there was an attempt to blacklist an independent TV channel without judicial oversight. All of this has transpired under Mr. Modi’s watch.

The point is that the world is watching and taking note. Ultimately, nobody wants to invest in a country where rule of law is regularly trampled and sound economic policy decisions are overtaken by religious fanaticism and medieval ideology.

Three. It is easy to forget that at sixty-nine years we are still a young and nascent democracy. Witnessing the machinations of the last two Congress governments, the Aam Aadmi party’s complete ineptitude and the BJP’s Hindutva antics, it tells me that to begin our evolution into a mature democracy we need to start creating non-partisan institutions, independent think tanks, civilian ombudsman bodies and numerous other apolitical and non-partisan groups that have the ability to monitor our government’s activities and prevent overreaches. 

Such institutions are the bedrock of every mature democracy. We have seen how these independent organisations ultimately held the US government to task over recent overreaches like the illegal Iraq invasion and the torture of enemy combatants, and put a stop to intelligence agencies' infringing on citizens’ rights through opaque domestic spying programs.

India needs this type of independent oversight to hold government and elected officials accountable when they stray, as they all inevitably do. Modi can become the PM who championed the creation of these public institutions.

If he does not start to address these underlying civil and social issues, all the good he continues to do – his recent bold move to combat black money, removing foreign equity caps (from defense to railroads), launching Jan Dhan Yojana (bank accounts for the poor), smart city initiatives, fast track projects, divestment of PSU’S, women's empowerment programs – will all seem inconsequential as they are overshadowed by beef bans and the use of antiquated British laws.

I believe it comes down to a very simple question that Modi needs to ask himself: What does he want his legacy to be?

Does he want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who put India on the path to achieving its full potential - by promoting free thought, gender equality and rule of law, or the PM who allowed India to be reshaped by wildly misguided notions of Hinduism and pseudo-nationalism? 

History will certainly judge how Mr. Modi chooses to answer, but long before that we will decide at the ballot box.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Facebook, Fiefdoms, Privacy and the Potential for Abuse

(Image credit: churchm.ag)
 
“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
Gabriel García Márquez

Let’s start by asking ourselves a simple question; what value does Facebook provide to society?

I can already hear people say 'wait a minute', and start to argue that Facebook informs, entertains, connects, and allows us to stay in touch with family and friends. Facebook is a social sharing platform that connects people. However, unlike a Warby Parker or Unilever, it does not make or sell any tangible products to improve our health or well-being.

It is true that the same can be argued about eBay, Alibaba and Airbnb. They don’t manufacture goods, but merely facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. However, Alibaba is an online mall where third parties sell products and Airbnb’s service fills a real-world need for accommodation.

With Facebook there is one fundamental difference - you and I are the product.

Without user-generated content and our friends and family engaging with it, Facebook makes and offers nothing. It is entirely powered by our routines, my stories, your creativity, and our combined curation of third party news and articles we post. Facebook is powered by you and me.

And their entire revenue model is based on effectively mining, stealing (through an opaque privacy policy) and selling our personal information to advertisers; arguably they provide no meaningful benefit to society. As for connecting us, we already did all this, through letters, movies, television, travel, newspapers and phone calls, much before Facebook existed.

Technology has certainly made it easier to connect and as a result we have all become lazier about making the effort to stay in touch; but let’s be clear that there is no innovation in terms of how we share, build relationships or create emotional bonds that Facebook has invented.

Consider that the non-technological version of the online platform existed for millennia in the form of Roman marketplaces and even modern day malls where people broke bread, socialised and had the ability shop from multiple vendors, all under one roof.

Facebook says they offer a forum to express ourselves freely and in saying that they pretend to empower us. They claim to be a democratic and open platform designed “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (source: Facebook Mission), when in reality and behind the scenes, they are doing exactly the opposite.

They have been caught manipulating our newsfeed, by showing overwhelmingly negative or positive posts and using us as lab rats to be “part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media.” (Source: New York Times article).

More recently an employee claimed they routinely censor right-wing content…” (Source: PC Mag article).  Another tech consultant who worked there disclosed that “Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted…” (Source: Information Age article).

More worryingly, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was starting to spread its tentacles into the personal lives of non-Facebook users; going well beyond the four walls of their own platform by tracking people all over the web under the guise of showing more targeted ads. “Now Facebook plans to collect information about all Internet users, through “like” buttons and other pieces of code present on Web pages across the Internet.(source: Wall Street Journal).

On the heels of this announcement, we found out that WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, is going to start sharing personal user information that includes your phone number, contact list and status messages with Facebook (Source: Scroll India article). This after WhatsApp had unequivocally promised that it would protect users' privacy when they agreed to be purchased by Facebook. You can read the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum’s blog post and 2014 promise about how “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA…”

Facebook has also announced that they are going to crack down on ad blockers and click bait headlines to make room for more advertising. They intend to do this by “making its advertisements indistinguishable from the status updates, photo uploads, and other content that appears in your news feed” (Source: PC Mag article). They justified this change with the now all too familiar refrain that because Facebook is a free service, they rely on advertising to keep them going.

A free service that claims unlimited ownership of and rights use every status update, family picture and personal video. A free service that believes it has a right to mine personal data, track people around the web, and then sell all that information to third parties (in non-transparent ways). A free service that stores personal data “…for as long as it is necessary to provide products and services to you and others…” and one that defines their collection of information in the broadest terms possible; “Things you do and information you provide. Things others do and information they provide. Your networks and connections. Information about payments. Device information. Information from websites and apps that use our Services. Information from third-party partners. Facebook companies.” (Source: Facebook Privacy Policy). Free indeed!

I understand that we need to give up some privacy in a digitally connected world, particularly where we expect things for free. But there also need to be rules around what is permissible and what crosses the line. Beyond privacy, the greater issue is that so much information concentrated in the hands of one or two companies makes conditions ripe for abuse.

The point is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is trustworthy or if he truly has noble intentions. Nor am I suggesting that Facebook is an evil corporation run by hobbit in a hoodie. Facebook has already been caught abusing their power numerous times from manipulating the newsfeed to using sophisticated algorithms to pick, choose and limit news, articles, politics, entertainment and information we are able to see and share.

Like every other global corporation in history, they are not immune from the temptation to abuse power in the search for growth, expansion and profits. Their misleading and altruistically packaged attempt to create a walled off internet, with a Facebook monopoly, in the developing world is yet another example of business intentions gone totally awry. You can read my piece about it here “How Facebook Can Fix Internet.org”.

Think about the fact that, with 1.7 billion active users (a number that continues to grow), they have greater influence than any government or news organisation has ever had over our worldview. They have more personal information and greater power than the Soviet Union had on its people at the height of communism. This should concern all of us.

The point is that no single company should hold this kind of power and influence over so many people. It will not end well; human beings are corrupted by absolute power. We cannot change the nature of the beast.