Wednesday, November 7, 2018

2018 Midterm Election Results: A Non-Partisan Commentary

 
(Image: thepawprintdaa.com)
 “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Neither side was humiliated; both can claim victory to some extent, which is extremely rare for a midterm election, especially one with such a polarizing and unpopular President. However, both parties should feel a sense of humility and that means it was a good night for America.

There was no blue wave as Democrats not only failed to flip the Senate but actually lost seats, and while they made some gains in Governor races, they came up short in key swing states like Florida and Ohio. Also, the majority of House seats they picked up were in districts that Hillary Clinton won, meaning there was already a built-in anti-Trump voting block there. They failed to flip many of the districts that Obama and Trump both carried, which a blue wave would have done. Meanwhile, Republicans were also sent a clear message by the electorate that people want a check on this President and a return to balance of power in Washington. No more one party rule.

If you look at the graphic below, the visual shows a balance between red and blue, across the board. These mixed results tell me two things.
First, and most importantly the country rejected Trump’s dangerous vilification of immigrants (which was his closing argument on the campaign trail) by giving Democrats the power to stop unconscionable policies like separating and detaining children. Second, while even his supporters disagree with the President’s most extreme policies and sharp elbows, they are willing to support initiatives that make sense like re-negotiating trade agreements to better protect US wages, infrastructure spending to create jobs and efforts to bring down the ridiculous cost of life-saving prescription drugs. And Democrats would do well to remember that if the majority of the electorate supported blind resistance to this President, there would have been a blue wave flipping many more states and local races.

Democrats should also consider that midterms are historically a rebuke of the President and the majority party and much less a vote of confidence in the opposition. So the party that had been hollowed out under Obama, losing the US Senate, the House, the majority of Governorship's, and state and local legislatures, will now need to work to regain the trust of the electorate, based on their actions leading up to 2020, and not by simply being blindly partisan or obstructionist.

The other important factor to support my conclusion is that the majority of Democratic congressional candidates who won campaigned as centrists. Majority are newcomers who said they were tired of the partisan gamesmanship and were running to fix Washington by reaching across the aisle. Importantly, not one of these candidates ran on the promise to remove the President from office or ever mentioned impeachment.

What we are seeing from albeit a divided electorate is a mandate for both parties to work together and low tolerance for blind partisan resistance and political payback. They want their elected representatives to find solutions to non-partisan issues that are important to all Americans. Frankly, I believe government works better when both sides are forced to compromise and neither has a complete majority; it seems many Americans agree.

I was glad to see Nancy Pelosi strike a conciliatory tone after seeing the results described above. She talked about unifying the country by working together with the President for all Americans, while ensuring they would also be a check on his worst instincts. The President also called Ms. Pelosi to congratulate her and Mr. Schumer, expressing a desire to work with Democrats.

Now Ms. Pelosi will need to ensure that her caucus shows the same maturity and steers clear of frivolous subpoenas and investigation like Benghazi, or wasting taxpayer money trying to impeach the President (unless Mr. Mueller finds something incriminating). Instead, Democrats need to focus on delivering on the promises that their young and historically diverse group of Congress women and men made to their constituents – that of working with the President to secure the future of DREAMERS, funding infrastructure to create jobs and fixing Obamacare once and for all, issues that a majority of Americans agree on.

Of course, none of this means that the President will change his behaviour or that both parties will forgive, forget and put aside ideological differences and divisive rhetoric. However, I believe that the party that makes an effort to reach across the aisle and is genuinely seen to be fighting for all Americans will reap the rewards in 2020.

Monday, November 5, 2018

After Kavanaugh, Democrats Need to Take a Long Hard Look in the Mirror

Senator Booker at the Kavanaugh Hearing (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

"There is a battle of two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. Which wolf wins? The one you feed." 
-Cherokee proverb

A few months after the 2016 US election I was at a café in New York and there were two men sitting next to me, talking loudly. I did not recognise either man but the younger one was boasting about his press interviews and TV appearances. They were talking animatedly about the election and how Democrats needed to fight back against Trump. The thing that stayed with me about their conversation was both men having a good laugh at Michelle Obama’s expense, saying she was stupid and naïve in saying “When they go low, we go high”; the younger guy suggested that Democrats needed to go, not high, but subterranean, when Republicans went low.

After watching Mr. Kavanagh’s recent confirmation process it is clear that the left has taken a page out of the above operatives’ playbook and left the wise words of the Obamas far behind. To say that the Democrats behaved shockingly would be an understatement. Not only did they abandon all pretenses of civility and fairness, but most dishearteningly they started to emulate the same bullying and fearmongering tactics that I have always despised in Mr. Trump. This was not so much about the political gloves coming off, which would have been fine, as it was about abandoning core principles of decency, impartiality and objectivity, which are values that should be considered even more sacrosanct by Democrats in the age of Trump.

From the outset the left made it clear they would blindly block any person without considering their record. Even before the nominee’s name was announced protestors had assembled outside the Supreme Court building and a reporter from ABC news noticed that in many instances the signs were already filled out...except for the name.”

It was not just liberal pressure groups who behaved badly. Senior Democrats also lined up and vowed in effect to make this an unethical and unprincipled fight. Mr. Schumer, the Senate Minority leader, went on CBS News and announced that he was ready to oppose the President's Supreme Court nominee with "everything I've got". The problem with purely partisan and blind ideological battles is that you only end up talking to a small zealous minority within your own base and nobody else. Many other senior Democratic Senators, instead of taking the high ground, followed suit, vilifying and attacking Mr. Kavanaugh personally.

Mr. Booker and Ms. Warren, both 2020 Presidential hopefuls, held a press conference where they stated that senators “who don’t oppose President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are complicit in the evil.” I understand that politics is a messy business and not for the faint of heart, and have absolutely no issue with brawls based on policy and a nominee’s judicial record; this is fair game in a confirmation process, but what Democratic Senators did was to take a page out of the book of the same unprincipled President that they claim to be fighting against. All this transpired months before Ms. Ford came forward with her allegations.

Given this irresponsible fearmongering by senior party leaders, it is no surprise that an intern working for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was arrested after being caught illegally “posting private information of several Republican U.S. senators on Wikipedia.”  There were also numerous instances of protestors angrily cornering and haranguing Republican Senators all over the Capitol. Some of the harassment was perpetrated even when lawmakers were at dinner with their families.

Susan Collins's staff shared with The New York Times copies of letters and multiple voice mail messages addressed to the senator using vulgar language and outright threats. One caller told a 25-year-old female staff member at one of Ms. Collins’s Maine offices that “he hoped she would be raped and impregnated.”

The behaviour of Democratic Senators during the hearings also left a lot to be desired. They came across like clowns and petulant children, often behaving in the way Mr. Trump does at his political rallies. Senator Booker compared himself to Spartacus, only to look like a buffoon, when he begged to be punished for releasing documents already cleared for release. He did succeed in ensuring I will not vote for him in 2020. Another Presidential hopeful, Kamala Harris, was seen pouting like a three year old who had just been told the family trip Disneyland was cancelled. Rather than stand her ground and make a case like a mature adult and US Senator, she childishly stormed out of a committee meeting when Republicans refused to direct the FBI to conduct an additional background check.

Interestingly, a Harvard University CAPS-Harris poll conducted after Ms. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh had given their public testimonies found that 60% of voters supported the confirmation of Kavanaugh, provided the FBI supplemental investigation found no corroborating evidence. With the majority of Americans agreeing the need for a supplemental investigation, the Democrats could have come out with a win ahead of a crucial midterm election where flipping the Senate would have allowed them to provide a serious check on a reckless President. Instead, their behaviour galvanised the Republican base and likely squandered any chance of their flipping the Senate. This sad event was a huge lost opportunity to show the nation that Democrats can be the grown-ups in the room with a President who behaves like a spoiled brat.

The same CAPS-Harris poll found that a majority of voters believe the confirmation process was politicized and mishandled by both sides, with 69% calling it a “national disgrace". Had Democrats acted like mature, rational adults they would likely have softened many independents and perhaps even won over the large number of Republicans who despise Mr. Trump and are actively looking for reasons to vote Democrat. Instead, Democrats came out looking childish, hysterical and cartoonish to all but a small group who will vote for them even if they started shooting people on Fifth Avenue.

A few days after Justice Kavanaugh was sworn in, Mr. Obama’s former Attorney General, Eric Holder, said at a campaign rally "Michelle [Obama] always says “When they go low, we go high…"No. No. When they go low, we kick them." I understand that many Democrats feel Obama was weak in the face of Mitch McConnell’s bullying and that this cheated them out their nominee. It is true that Mr. McConnell played dirty politics and politically outmaneuvered the Democrats, but he never went after Mr. Garland’s reputation or tried to discredit him personally; unlike what Democrats did with Mr. Kavanaugh.

What Democrats need to remember is there are some lines they should never be willing to cross, no matter how great the cause. If they continue to cross these lines with impunity, and at every turn, then there will come a point when the wider electorate will no longer be see any difference between Mr. Trump and an opposition that claims to be better than him.
 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience

 
Mark Zuckerberg meets with Mohammad bin Salman (Reuters)


“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

Governments routinely do business with oppressive regimes based on geopolitical, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism requirements. I am not absolving governments, but merely stating the realities of operating a complex and increasingly inter-connected world where it is harder to be black and white about these choices. However the same constraints do not hold true for private corporations. There is nothing preventing them from boycotting or refusing to take money from bad actors and brutally oppressive regimes, particularly when they go against the stated values of the company.

I think we can also make a distinction between older generation of companies and the new ones in the digital age. The Exxon Mobiles and Goldman Sachs’s of the world never claimed to be ‘do-gooders’ or touted the inherent social values of their business models. They were clear about focusing on the bottom line, profits and increasing shareholder value above all else and did not care if they were profiting from Mother Theresa or Nicolas Maduro.

However, Silicon Valley startups have always claimed to have a strong moral compass and repeatedly tout the social good they do and stand for. They have corporate motto's that say things like “Don’t be Evil” and spend much on PR touting all the good they do in the world. Yet the vast majority of these same companies have found ways to rationalize and do business with Saudi Arabia. Uber justified its launch in Saudi Arabia in 2014 by saying it would help women who were not allowed to drive, even though Saudi women were against Uber launching.

While it is true that Saudi rulers have always ruled with an iron fist, most limited their brutality to within their own borders and also took pains to manage the optics for their democratic and freedom-loving allies. However, with the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, the Kingdom’s transgressions have not only grown bolder but now go well beyond their borders.

The Prince began his reign by extra-judicially imprisoning elite businessmen and ruling family members, reportedly torturing and coercing them to hand over billions in cash and properties, publicizing his actions as a ‘crackdown on corruption'. He also purged the security services and other high ranking government officials, filling key posts with loyalists. He has placed his mother under house arrest to keep her from advising her husband, the King, whose health is dwindling and his moments of lucidity said to be fleeting.

The thirty-three year old Prince has a record of acting impulsively, as he has shown with an ill-conceived blockade of Qatar, the brazen abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister, and an unrestrained war in Yemen which has resulted in a quagmire that the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet

It is true that MBS has opened a few movie theaters and has finally given Saudi women the right to drive, but at the same time he has jailed and exiled leading women activists, purged the clerical ranks and ruthlessly suppressed all dissent. Yet, Silicon Valley has been championing MBS as great reformer. It seems that the billions invested in cash-starved Unicorns have washed away all of MBS’s sins and Silicon Valley’s corporate ethics along with them.

Companies ranging from Google and Facebook to Blackrock have all been clamoring to shake MBS's hand and strike lucrative deals with the Kingdom. It is no surprise then that MBS grows more reckless, as companies continue to pat him on the back, and felt emboldened enough to brazenly murder a journalist who was a US permanent resident, and expected to face no consequences for this heinous crime.

Here is a list of some of the US companies awash in Saudi money:
· Saudis own 5% in Tesla, 5% in Uber (making them the largest shareholder), 5% of Lyft, 5.2% of Twitter (which is more than Jack Dorsey owns) and 2.3% of Snapchat.
· They invested $461 million in Magic Leap, the hottest US virtual reality company.
· They have committed $20 billion to Blackstone Group’s infrastructure fund.
· Through the Softbank Vision Fund, in which Saudi Arabia is the principle investor, they have invested:
o   $4.4 billion in WeWork
o   $2.25 billion in GM Cruise Holdings
o   They own shares in WAG, Slack, Door Dash and SoFi.
It is true that the Saudi’s have also invested in UK, French, Indian and Chinese companies but the bulk is US based companies.

I am not naïve and understand that business cannot succeed based on purely moral decision-making; profit motives will always collide with doing what is right. For the most part companies manage to find a reasonable balance between these two competing forces, but my issue is that Silicon Valley pretends to wear morals and principles on its sleeve, preaching that their growing monopolies are forces for good. How do they justify being owned and increasingly funded by entities that make no bones about having neither morals nor principles?

A large part of the problem lies not in capitalism itself, but in the broken system of capitalism Silicon Valley has engineered and vigorously championed in the last few decades. It is a system that encourages a winner-take-all mentality and even rewards companies that are not profitable.

It is quite normal today for a company to have an IPO long before it is profitable, like Twitter and Snapchat both did. In fact Snapchat, in it its IPO disclosure, stated, "We have incurred operating losses in the past, expect to incur operating losses in the future, and may never achieve or maintain profitability," and yet this did nothing to discourage institutional and individual investors who flocked to participate in its initial offering.

Instead of using sound business metrics like earnings, sales or revenue to measure companies, Silicon Valley has made it dangerous and fashionable to look purely at things like ‘stickiness,’ in terms of how often users interact with a service or app on a daily basis. As a result, companies are being incentivized to make long-term losses and thus need constant infusions of cash to grow artificially and rapidly expand their base of users.

Some of the most highly valued startups today even lack real competitive differentiation and barriers to entry like Uber and WeWork, so the only thing fueling their competitiveness is infusions of cash. The issue with this winner-take-all model of capitalism, one devoid of business fundamentals, is that it encourages companies to cut corners, act in cut-throat ways, and ignore the most basic principles of ethical behaviour - simply to stay ahead of competitors.

Ultimately, this model leads to running out of ‘good’ money and avenues for hyper-growth, and startups are forced to compromise on their stated ideals and acquiesce to any suitor with deep pockets.

The truth is that this discussion around Saudi Arabia’s behaviour should have taken place a long time ago. To some extent one can understand why governments need to deal countries whose values conflict with our own, but it is harder to make a case for why companies, especially those who claim to cherish ‘values’ as a primary reason for their own existence, are in bed with them.

While it is true that many CEO’s like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, and Larry Fink of Blackrock dropped out of the recent Saudi investment conference, the BBC reported the majority of these companies still sent junior executives to represent them. Not one of them has cut business ties with Saudi Arabia, and I suspect that no matter what the outcome of the Khashoggi murder investigation is, most of them will not sever ties, as Larry Fink stated on CNBC.

Irrespective of whether MBS is directly implicated or not, I hope that Mr. Khashoggi’s brazen and brutal pre-meditated murder will serve as a wake up for the rest of us. While I do not expect Tesla, Uber or WeWork to be returning the billions they have received anytime soon, I do hope we will begin to hold these companies more accountable for their actions and stop being swayed by their words alone.