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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 in 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 a 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% of Tesla, 5% of 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.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Dangerous Demise of Expertise

(Image: DreamMakersStore on Etsy)

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
– Benjamin Franklin 

Way back in 2000 when Google was two years old and four years before Mr. Zuckerberg created The Facebook, during a time when unconnected and pre-smartphone humans roamed the earth, the New York Times wrote an article titled, Suddenly, Everybody's an ExpertIt presciently proclaimed that “an expert, it seems, is now an ordinary person sitting at home, beaming advice over the Internet to anyone who wants help.” The article, after speaking with some real experts, went on to warn that “we are seeing a lot of questions being asked very inappropriately to the wrong kinds of people, and the wrong information is transmitted”. 

In the years that followed, the traditional and sound basis of what we once all agreed was the prerequisite for being an expert - depth of knowledge based on years of study and observation in a specific field - has completely fallen by the wayside.

It feels like an entire generation embraced the type of non-expertise the internet affords, while completely ignoring the dangers of claiming expertise without deep knowledge or specialisation in subject matters. Every second professional on LinkedIn is a self-proclaimed expert in some subject matter; the word has lost its meaning.

I have great admiration for Barack Obama, but I would never rely on him for legal advice. Nor would I let Elon Musk, arguably a genius, perform an appendectomy. Being an expert has nothing to do with intelligence, achievement or celebrity – expertise comes from knowledge that is acquired over a lifetime of study, research, observation, participation and specialisation in a subject.

We have now reached a point where we believe that success in one field translates to other fields. In part, this fallacy is based on the much-touted image of the successful entrepreneur, an image that Silicon Valley has been mythologizing for years. The myth goes like this. A tech mogul who is smart enough to accumulate massive wealth by creating a single life-changing product like a touchscreen smartphone, a search engine, a web-based retail store, an electronic payment platform or an operating system is also equipped to solve all of humankind's most pressing problems.

Granted, tycoons and inventors tend to have massive egos, but this takes arrogance to new and dangerously ignorant heights. Even the robber barons of the past, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (still considered the wealthiest American of all time), were not arrogant enough to believe that their wealth and power made them better positioned to solve the serious social issues of their time. They assuaged the guilt of accumulating fortunes through unscrupulous means both by donating generously to public institutions and by founding universities, libraries and hospitals that could benefit society. They merely wrote the cheques and never got personally involved in directing these philanthropic ventures, which they rightly left to the domain experts in each field.

Today, it is a different story with people like Bill Gates shaping policy for US public schools and Jeff Bezos announcing that his foundation will launch and operate Montessori- based pre-schools. No matter how well-intentioned and intelligent these men are, the fact remains that they know nothing about improving pedagogy compared to experts who have dedicated their lives to education, both inside and outside of the classroom.

According to the AP, since 2001, the Gates foundation has contributed more than $6 billion toward reshaping American schools” and has had an outsize influence in shaping everything from classroom curriculum to teacher evaluation and student performance. The results of this well-intentioned intervention speak for themselves. During the last decade and a half, US school rankings have continued to decline among its peers; PISA results from 2015 placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math, 24th in science. Among OECD countries we ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

At the other end of the spectrum we are muddying the waters by mistaking celebrity for expertise. Jenny McCarthy, an actress and mother of an autistic child, expounds on the dangers of vaccines and spreading scientifically debunked links between vaccination and autism. Cynthia Nixon believes she would make a competent Governor of the third largest state in the country without any people management, P&L or public policy experience. We seem to have reached a nadir of accepting wealth and celebrity as sole qualifications for expertise versus experience based on deep knowledge.

Every second actor now appends the word ‘activist’ to their credentials, yet not one of them has spent a day in prison or risked his or her life on the frontlines. I love Emma Stone and believe she is a powerhouse on screen, but why was she invited to speak at the UN? Are we suggesting that a Hollywood actress making millions of dollars is a better spokesperson for women’s rights than women like Hajiya Laila Dogonyaro and Loujain al-Hathloul who risked life and limb standing up to oppressive regimes? Or are we saying that we are so fickle that “window dressing afforded by celebrity proponents is somehow crucial for advocacy on human rights and feminist issues”? This is a dangerous trend and one that portends to mask the ugliness of serious issues while stealing the spotlight from true experts and rightful heroes.

There is no question that people in positions of authority have let us down and the world is facing a crisis of leadership. The Bush administration started a war under false premises with the US media sitting by idly. The Obama administration blatantly and repeatedly lied to the public about the extent of domestic spying by the NSA. The global financial crisis was a direct result of lax regulatory oversight across the globe. Even the Catholic Church and NGO’s have not been immune with the Red Cross’s financial impropriety in Haiti exposed and news of UN peacekeepers raping young girls in Africa over decades. From corporations to governments, there are ample examples why people all over the world have lost faith in experts and authority and are desperately searching for alternatives.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust in institutions, found for the first time in its 17 year history a decline in trust across all institutions - business, media, government, and NGOs. In a majority of countries surveyed, the general population no longer trusts institutions to do what is right”. The Edelman report summed up the findings by saying that, with the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them.” 

I agree with the Edelman report that in every democracy the systems and institutions meant to protect the people have failed. In every country people have consistently been let down by elected officials, corporate CEO’s and public stewards. Yet the answer is not to completely abandon these institutions, disregard experts, turn to unaccountable celebrities and trust billionaires with often-conflicting motives for the answers. Instead we need to focus efforts on rebuilding trust in these public and private institutions, create greater transparency and demand accountability from elected and unelected officials who hold positions of authority. And we need to use the law to prosecute those who have abused power, from abusive cardinals to errant CEO’s.

If we do not start to reverse this trend by respecting knowledge-based expertise once again, one day we will end up with a billionaire reality TV star in the White House; one who believes he is an expert on everything.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Right and Wrong of Serena Williams

"To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart." 
-Eleanor Roosevelt

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a massive double standard in this world when it comes to the same behaviour demonstrated by men and women. In every sphere of life, from the bedroom and boardroom to the tennis court, outbursts of juvenile, rude, selfish and churlish behaviour are forgiven or excused when men act out, but when a woman does the same it is called hysteria, emotional immaturity and deemed unacceptable.

Many people are making arguments to excuse Serena’s angry outburst on the basis of this double standard. Some are excusing it based on the fact that because of her race, she has had to work many times harder than a white woman to break through in what has been historically a white person’s sport. I have long respected and admired both Williams sisters for their achievements. No question they have succeeded against all the odds. Few people would have the grit and tenacity, even if they had the talent, to stay the course and reach the pinnacle of this sport. For me Serena is the greatest tennis player, male or female, that has ever lived but it still does not give her a right to behave badly.

Something worth mentioning here is that Carlos Ramos, the referee, is considered one of best and fairest in the business; Serena admitted as much during her post match press conference. Mr. Ramos has a reputation for being a stickler for the rules, and has issued conduct violations to both Roger Federer and Novac Djokovic. Venus Williams got a warning for receiving coaching from her box. Andy Murray felt his wrath at the 2016 Olympics for saying “stupid umpiring” and Nick Kyrgios got one for shouting at a towel boy. So while there is no question that issuing the third violation to Ms. Williams without a final warning in a Grand Slam final was overly harsh, looking at Mr. Ramos’s history we can conclude that he has been consistent in his umpiring.

However, I still think Serena raised a larger point about an existing double standard that we need to discuss and address, but in doing so I am not willing to excuse Ms. Williams’s behaviour and still find it completely unacceptable.

The question we need to ask is what are people fighting for, when condoning Serena’s behaviour?

Are they saying that, because men often behave like complete assholes, acting out like juvenile, spoiled, thoughtless, nasty brats who need to belittle others to feel better about their own insecurity; women should have these same rights? The right to make Naomi Osaka feel like shit, through no fault of her own, to make her look like she was at a funeral after winning her first Grand Slam. To steal from her the joy of a great victory over an even greater champion on the grandest stage in the sport? To have her booed for her greatest achievement, booed to the point that she felt the need to apologise for a stunning victory built on showing maturity, tenacity, humility and class beyond her years?

Is this what we are fighting for by condoning her behaviour? There is something better we can demand and strive for out of the events that took place.

We can demand that men no longer get a free pass for their bad behaviour and public outbursts. We can suggest that Kanye West get banned from the MTV music Awards for rudely snatching the mic from Taylor Swift, rather than suggesting him as a host for the next show. We can boycott Alec Baldwin’s movies and TV shows when he leaves messages for his 11 year old daughter calling her a rude, thoughtless pig.” We can ensure that Ray Rice gets a lifetime ban from the NFL, not a pathetic two game suspension for physically abusing his wife.

I have written about why I believe women make more fair and effective leaders than men and it was in the moments when Serena asked the crowd to finally stop booing, and the post-match press conference where she said she ‘could learn from Naomi’ that she won back some hearts and demonstrated the leadership and maturity we expect from an elder statesmen of the sport.

Sports stars, musicians and actors are among the most powerful role models for young, impressionable minds. I believe they should be setting the example by holding themselves to a higher standard because of the pedestal they will always find themselves upon. So I would rather Ms. Williams apologise for her behaviour, to Ms. Osaka, Mr. Carlos and her millions of adoring young fans, and then declare that she is going on a crusade to penalize men equally and end all bad behaviour in her sport.

In the words of one of my favourite people, I hope Ms. Williams and other female luminaries of tennis decide that, “When they go low, we go high”.