Bringing context and perspective to the chaos

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The following text contains a reference to the N-word. The word has been censored by the author in an effort to remain culturally sensitive and respectful. Despite it’s placement and use within a direct quote from a noted civil rights activist, the author feels it is not their place to publish potentially inflammatory or inappropriate material on their platform. Respectful feedback, commentary or discussion is welcomed.

In June of 2015, President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with comedian Marc Maron on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. In the interview, President Obama said the following in response to question from Maron about the state of race relations in America:

Obama: I always tell young people in particular: ‘Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America — unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.

What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.

Maron: Racism.

Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n*gger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.

The interview was notable for the President’s used of the N-word, and extremely candid discussion surrounding race and the legacies of the structural discrimination once embedded into the institutions that still stand today. A popular headline for articles following the interview, typically providing a discussion of the current state of systemic disenfranchisement relating to race in America, was “We are not cured of racism”. The quote is notable for it’s poignancy and succinctness. However, the quote is also notable for it’s framing: that racism and intolerance is a societal disease, a virus impeding our capacity to operate at full health, and one we can be cured from. That raises a question of it’s own: if intolerance is a disease, what does a cure look like or mean?

As with the spread of any infection, the first step is in understanding the movement and flow of the contagion within an individual. Racism can be defined as the belief in the superiority of one race over another, resulting in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity. It is worth pausing to note that the construct of race is a societal one; race is separate from ethnicity, and is viewed by scholars as a symbolic identity used to construct meaning. This means race is not an inherently physical or biological quality, but rather a technique used to categorize individuals into groups. It also means that race is entirely developed by humans, and therefore only holds the importance as a qualifier of status that it is given. Any individual or group can be subjected to social division through arbitrary categorization, and it is only through this racialization of characteristics that our conceptions and awareness of these characteristics are given merit by society. For a greater discussion of this concept, readers are welcome to refer to past posts about race in America, or to read any of the literature on race, racism and intolerance by any number of brilliant African-American scholars and leaders.

The 2012 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders was the first to include a chapter on identifying and assessing pathological bias, describing it as “a public health pathogen” while explaining how in some cases, potential exists for it to be considered a personality disorder or form of psychopathy. Doctors, however, are hesitant to describe racism as a disease, as it risks medicalizing a social issue and providing scientific justification for acts of terror and violence. But even if it is not viewed as a simple disease, the conditions in which it flourishes can be examined. A 2010 study, although contested, found that children with a genetic condition quelling their fear of strangers fail to stereotype based on race. This literature, and supporting studies, provided evidence of the connection between the social fear and biases of the individual and intolerant behaviors or attitudes. Psychologists have likened racism to an act of irrationality, citing it’s key drivers as fear, a societal need to belong, and the failure to disassociate negative emotions from decision-making.

Academics have long examined the role of passing down racism through generations as a familial act, one where our beliefs about the value of others is learned from our parents and teachers. Examples abound throughout history: young children would gather twigs for funeral pyres where black victims were burned alive. Young males participated in lynchings, often goaded into maiming or taunting the victim by older relatives. But even implicit teachings about status can be passed down inadvertently today. A study of children centered upon watching television correlated a self-esteem boost to white boys, who are typically seen in media in positions of power or authority. The inverse relationship was found for young black children when shown mainstream programming, where the content selected typically showed black boy as criminalized characters. This serves to not only legitimize implicit lessons of status amongst blacks, but also amongst whites who may now be subconsciously impacted by the race relationships of characters shown in the media.

As with any curable pathogen, treatments exist to address both root causes and symptoms. British psychologists in 2012 found a secondary use for Propranolol, a blood pressure medication, was that it cured implicit bias and could incur in people “a sincere belief in equality”. The study explains how this discovery is likely due to the fact that implicit racism is founded in fear, and the drug’s actions on nerve circuits that govern the heart rate and brain function serve to reduce automatic fear responses. When addressing the causes, the scientific community has long agreed that bias amounts to a learned societal behaviour, and can therefore be unlearned. The evidence that racism is situational and not permanent can be seen in education programs for youth and adults alike. Although no direct rehabilitation programs exist for racism, given that it is not recognized as a medical disorder, education programs have been found effective. Studies have correlated changes in biases and beliefs towards the LGBT community to exposure and discourse, where ideas are allowed to flow through non-confrontational discussion and empathy drives an opinion change. Allowing people to calmly and coherently explain their line of thought and create dialogue where misconceptions are challenged has been linked to instilling tolerance. Judicial rulings have been recently passed in the United States that require the perpetrators of hate crimes to read literature and interact with members of the minority communities they sought to persecute. Both strategies aim to create open engagement that allows individuals to empathize with voices and stories in an effort to develop an understanding of alternative perspectives. One limitation is that empathy is easier generated with face-to-face interaction, and the debate surrounding race is increasingly taking place on digital platforms.

Leadership is also needed; racism is a social behavior, and as long as it is recognized as a norm, it will continue to fester. Parents, institutions, community groups and prominent voices need to be clear in their messaging that intolerance is simply unfounded, and that any perpetuations of racial stereotypes serve only to illustrate an individual’s personal fear and insecurities. Without the ability to recognize the role of fear in discourse and attempt to move past it, hate will remain as a wall for those who will speak from fear to hide behind and avoid being exposed. Another key consideration is exactly what is being sought with education – correcting deeply-held beliefs with a single conversation is a bold proposition. But providing someone the tools to be more introspective may allow for tolerance of others to develop, even if that tolerance merely takes the form of being less verbally and physically violent towards minority groups. For some, that progress may not be enough to justify the necessary commitment in resources.

Society has largely moved into an understanding that racism is morally and ethically wrong, and often seeks to reject and punish those who espouse such ideas. But such rejection can be dangerous; when we renounce an individual espousing an idea, neither disappears. A desire to punish an individual for holding a hateful idea is natural, but risks further perpetuating the cycle of fear in which that individual is stuck and can validate pre-existing beliefs. Better solutions might be to focus on addressing the causes of their fears, to provide evidence that they are unfounded, and to focus on freeing the individual from their limiting biases. Exceptions must be made if people are being hurt, and often that distinction is subjective. But it remains to be seen – if racism is truly a disease, we should look to battle the infection rather than banish the infected.



The best part of waking up

Examining the essence of human intelligence often conjures interesting biological, psychological and philosophical questions. It doesn’t typically lead to larger conversations around prerequisites – conditions that must be fulfilled before one’s mind is capable of unlocking what is perceived to be a deeper level of intelligence and focus. Yet ask a question that looks for the answer of what is required to achieve this, and the response from billions across the globe will be swift: coffee.

Coffee and tea are consumed by billions globally, with a 2013 study of 79 countries illustrating the degree of preference for one beverage over the other shown below in Figure 1. The West notoriously prefers coffee over tea, apart from a few exceptions, with North America, South America and Europe illustrating a strong preference for brewed beans. And yet for coffee’s key role as a commodity within the global economy, it’s importance as a driver and example is rarely discussed. Coffee offers a simple-to-understand case study that speaks to the complexity of the global economy, the value of trade and the complicated trade-offs we all make every day.

SELRES_a5083ed5-b379-4f2d-be42-75af99215eccSELRES_debe992b-9676-4b4b-be05-4b97739243b1Figure 1: Preference for tea vs coffee consumption by countrySELRES_debe992b-9676-4b4b-be05-4b97739243b1SELRES_a5083ed5-b379-4f2d-be42-75af99215ecc

Tea & Coffee consumption infoAn examination of coffee as a commodity must begin with it’s macro-economic impacts: the global coffee market in 2014 was valued at approximately $42.5B USD. Global coffee consumption is about a third of global tap water consumption. 25 million small producers globally are entirely reliant on coffee for their income, with 33% of the world’s coffee beans grown in Brazil in 2009. Around 12B pounds of coffee are consumed around the globe annually. A frequently misrepresented fact about coffee is that it is the second most legally traded commodity – this is false. The reality is that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development characterized coffee as the second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries from 1970 to 2000. This title is both less glamorous and less recent, as no definition has been provided since 2000 given the shifting nature of the term “developing countries”.

Coffee’s role in trade is not simply to fuel producers and consumers, but also financial markets. Speculators and traders buy and sell futures contracts of green coffee beans in commodity markets and within exchange traded funds in major trading exchanges across the globe. Grades of arabica and robusta coffees are traded in London and New York, and the product has long been susceptible to significant commodity futures price variations due to bad weather, supply limiting techniques and stockpile fluctuations. Like any commodity, certain nations have higher domestic production capacity and thus greater market power. When executed, the price of coffee rises – while Saudi Arabia withholds production capacity to avoid price depression by flooding the market, Brazil and Vietnam do the same, albeit with a different form of black gold.

But coffee’s economic role is not only as a traded good. Once imported, domestic production focuses on value-added production – much like the value of oil is derived not only from it’s role in bolstering GDP, but also in enabling higher productivity and growth in areas that use end products. Approximately 60% of end-point retailers selling coffee are supermarkets and retail chains, commanding a substantial volume of market share. Starbucks famously charges an approximate 80% mark-up on it’s higher-end brews, with a 2012 study showing the average coffee sold for $7/cup at Starbucks costing only $1.30/cup of beans to source. This illustrates the role of value-added domestic production. Starbucks retail fronts, branding, locations, convenience and drink development all add value in the eyes of consumers, allowing substantial contributions to domestic GDP above the original market price. In this, the benefits of trade become obvious – goods sourced from elsewhere can be processed internally by specialists and sold to willing consumers, creating an industry that employs and serves higher numbers of people for lower overall costs.

Coffee, and more specifically caffeine, has an entirely other dynamic that offers interesting economic questions: to what extent is productivity impacted by caffeine intake? Individual studies and research show caffeine increases memory and speeds up reaction times over the short-term, and can improve cognitive performance in adverse conditions (ie. sleep deprivation). With 46% of the US workforce noting reduced productivity without caffeine, the implication is that caffeine may have a notable impact on overall economic productivity and GDP growth (no study encompassing the macro-economic benefits of increased productivity from caffeine has, to the author’s knowledge, been conducted at this time). An additional benefit is that coffee creates opportunities for regular breaks in the working day, which has been correlated to increased overall productivity. It is no panacea – it’s effects over the long-term can often be attributed to illusory boosts generated from consuming to relieve withdrawal symptoms. But in it’s impact, coffee strays beyond the individual towards the macro – by increasing productivity of individuals and enabling systems to work more efficiently, one good can fuel one service, which supports another in turn. This shows how a complex economy is inter-related, and how impacts on a single good can have ripple effects across sectors.

The health benefits, fair trade debates and the environmental impacts of the industry are all equally important characteristics, each of which speaks to the externalities and inequality inherent to global trade. The environmental impacts and long-term health effects, when negative, impose costs upon societies that must later be addressed at a higher adaptation cost than the initial cost of prevention. Simply informing people that they should drink less coffee, or improving cultivation methods, is typically less expensive than medical infrastructure and large-scale CO2 abatement initiatives. Additionally, cultivators and growers of coffee receive only $5B USD of the $70B USD in industry revenues annually. This points to the systemic inequality inherent to traded goods. Not all parties benefit from sales equally, an unfortunate characteristic of capitalism for which multiple solutions have been proposed and attempted.

Whether discussing the inner-workings or design of the global economy, the nature of human productivity, the key to unlocking intelligence or the difficulties in incorporating external costs into an existing system, the message is clear: it’s best to start with a cup of coffee.

A blessing and a curse

When discussing the value of change, both within ourselves and our surroundings, a conflation is typically made as to whether the change occurring is positive or negative. In truth, change is neither; it simply occurs. Change can be developmental, transitional or transformational. If developmental, change may be planned or emergent to correct existing situational aspects. If transitional, it is episodic and seeks to create a desired state from a current one. And if transformational, change is radical and fundamental, often altering our perception of the original state as a developmental placeholder before the next iteration of an inevitable evolution.

Gentrification can fit into any of these categories. In North American urban centres, gentrification is a process of renovation of deteriorated neighbourhoods through the influx of wealthy residents. This influx often comes with capital investment on housing and economic development, and can improve the overall attractiveness of a neighbourhood for outside observers. This subsequently drives up  property values, often resulting in established residents being forced to relocate to other areas due to an inability to afford to live in the existing neighbourhood. Gentrification has long been a contentious issue, but greater awareness of the role of capital influxes in reshaping a neighbourhoods cultural/ethnic composition have seen anti-gentrification crusaders pushed into mainstream urban planning debates in the last 30 years.

To crusaders against gentrification, it is a vicious cycle: greater urbanization has lead developers to seek low cost areas to build affordable housing. As individuals with higher incomes are attracted to areas of new development, costs of living increase and existing residents are displaced. Displaced residents move to lower-income areas, often further away from employment, and remain there until developers target this area as well and the entire cycle begins anew. However, gentrification has its champions as well. Residents who stay reap the benefits of safer neighbourhoods, better amenities and greater value on owned property. Gentrification has been shown to reduce suburban sprawl and economic segregation, and offers opportunities to build greater density into ever-expanding cities. Historically non-white neighbourhoods have often been the largest beneficiaries of this investment, making it a passion play for urban planners with liberal leanings.

When examining which argument has merit, it is useful to begin with empirical analysis. Urban economists have long failed to detect a rise in displacement within gentrifying neighbourhoods. A study of New York City’s gentrifying neighbourhoods in the 1990s found poor residents were actually less likely to move than those in non-gentrifying neighbourhoods, results that were recently verified through an examination of financially vulnerable residents in Philadelphia. This may seem surprising, unless a underlying belief is examined: for every resident that moves into a neighbourhood, it does not mean an individual residing in a lower income bracket must move out.

The trend of staying put can be explained through three interrelated phenomenon: first, low-income individuals in the United States are obliged to move frequently regardless of which neighbourhood they live in, as eviction research conducted at Princeton has tragically shown. Second, traditionally poor neighbourhoods have lengthy histories of under-investment, and as such have a great deal of slack in property markets. This means wealthy residents can move in without pushing out incumbents. Third, rising rents often trigger a political response, typically in the form of the imposition of rent-control or stabilisation schemes by city governments. If a broader argument is made that gentrification raises rents in a specific neighbourhood, that conflation is tenuous at best – regulators who impose strict or archaic building codes that limit supply often create housing shortages, allowing price increases to spike across entire regions. Tackling this broader issue would reduce the cost of living in North American cities overall. Housing development has largely not kept pace with job creation, leading to widespread housing shortages that often force developers to explore cheaper areas and allow landlords to opportunistically increase prices. A direct correlation between wealthy resident influxes and an outpouring of poorer residents cannot be made without addressing these macro-level variables.

But those who oppose gentrified neighbourhoods may cite other concerns, culture being a significant one. Changing the historical culture of a historically non-white neighbourhood is oft-cited as white supremacy and cultural appropriation, with Brooklyn and New Orleans serving as frequent examples. In this, there is validity due to an underlying tension being championed by developers – to claim a neighbourhood is improved following the entrance of higher-income individuals is to indirectly assert that the newcomer’s values system is somehow superior to that of original inhabitants. Within this assertion, a strong argument of subconscious cultural assimilation can be made. And all reasons listed above assume one large caveat: that all poor residents in gentrifying neighbourhoods can afford to stay. If they cannot and no appropriate intervention is made to allow them to, they will not reap the benefits a changing neighbourhood would bring.

Cities are trying to find an effective balance. New York City’s revitalization strategy involves the construction of 80,000 affordable rental units to increase supply in neighbourhoods such as the Bronx, East New York and Flushing. The city hopes that low income neighbourhoods can receive what is essentially a housing supply boost for free, allowing new residents to create a larger tax pool which can bolster funding to improve schools and public services. The belief is that as property values increase, so do tax revenues and the quality of services. NYC is undertaking what is largely believed to be the most effective way to revitalize a neighbourhood: championing bottom-up change and creating opportunities for existing residents. But as with any change, the true impacts will not be known for some time. The question largely remains whether the change created will be developmental and occur in stages, transitional in how it unfolds, or transformational in that it manages to leave everyone else behind.




Shift with a capital $

America’s economy is the pride of it’s people, the envy of it’s enemies and fuels it’s citizens domestic dreams. Little can be contested in the statement that the American economy has developed a previously unknown wealth, and the same goes for the assertion that this novel wealth has been inequitably allocated amongst a select few. Recent years have seen a sharp increase in this trend. Voices the world over have attributed this shift, partially or fully, to the role of several factors: systemic social conditions impacting class ascension, the rise of outsourcing and automation fuelling a global spread of employment previously reserved for American talents, and the inherent greed of corporations. All are valid points. But what is often overlooked is a theory that can be offer insight by examining a question with a wider perspective: what exactly is an economy, and how does the make-up of a specific economy impact who benefits from what?

At it’s core, an economy is a system of exchange and valuation active within a set region or jurisdiction. This definition bears importance when considering how the make up of an economy (the base components that are valued and exchanged within an economic system) impacts how the value created through it is generated and distributed. An economy made up of a two types of goods, as anyone who has taken Economics 101 can attest, will directly enrich those parties selling goods for a higher price than they are purchased. An example is if the entire economy of a deserted island with two inhabitants were made up of coconuts and fish, with 1 fish being worth 4 coconuts (it being much trickier to trap a fish in a net than a coconut). If one party collects only 3 coconuts, the other has 10 fish, and there is no knife vendor in our economy, the ability of the coconut holding party to participate within the formal economic system is limited. This is because they cannot participate with their current earnings, and have no opportunity to do so unless they find more coconuts. As it would be for any additional third party who landed on the island and possessed neither good necessary to exchange for the other, forcing them to subsist off of seaweed and sand. This economy, through a lack of effective design and high levels of concentration, has created an environment where wealth is concentrated, and others lack the means to fully participate and receive set market value for their work.

This example, although notably exaggerated, serves to illustrate a broader point: the degree of concentration within an economy impacts the distribution of it’s returns to market participants, as does the valuation of goods. This can be directly seen in an economic system only slightly more complex than the island: the American financial sector. As New Deal regulations imposed on the financial sector were slowly dismantled following the 1970s, the sector within the United States grew from contributing 10% to overall GDP in 1970 to 20% by 2010. This shift denotes a notable concentration. Within this 40 year time period, the manufacturing industry’s share of GDP contributions fell from 30% to 10%. This trend was noted repeatedly by onlookers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but was not formally identified until 2005 as financialization, a term used to denote the accumulation of profit through primarily financial channels instead of trade or commodity production. Supporters of this argument (who often misrefer to the trend as “post-industrialism”) point to indicators: the role of portfolio income as a percentage contribution to corporate incomes has drastically increased since 1950 and the growing percentage of profits generated in financial sectors of the economy versus non-financial sectors has equally increased.

It is important to note that structural shifts within a economy towards greater service-dependence for growth are normal and natural elements of development. Rostow’s 5 Stages of economic growth model highlights that all economies move from traditional subsistence-basis to the eras of mass consumption and sophistication. This issue here lies not in the transition towards a higher service base, but rather the concentration that accompanied this shift within the US economy. The increased wealth brought by financialization has been concentrated in the hands of those who work within the sector. Given that the field requires a skilled and highly educated labour force, it can be safely assumed that the majority of wealth generated by this sector’s growth has not been equitably distributed amongst the traditional American labour force.

This is not merely a problem for farmers in the American heartland – the world should worry. Unlike the commodities sector, financial sectors do not generate value through product creation or provision – rather, value is derived from the current value of already existing goods. This leads to wealth for some and higher prices for all. When executed at scale, issues can befall the populous from financial sector mismanagement, with the Great Recession serving as a recent example. And with the American dollar serving as the global reserve currency, interest rate raises within the Fed have much more of an impact upon global financial flows when the financial sector is relied upon as a growth engine. This will only exacerbate the risks to developing nations with high volumes of dollar denominated debts accrued, who may face periods of devastating turbulence in an increasingly volatile world.

Inequality within an economy is a tragic, but as of yet unresolved consequence of free market economics. Distribution of rents remains a key concern, and ideological divides exist within this debate that often temper our assessments of initial questions. But when considering economic design, from trading coconuts to commodities derivatives, it bears remembering that drivers within the system cannot fully be blamed for the design flaws within the system itself.

The Hum of Change

Across the boardrooms of the world, disruption has gone from being a catchy buzzword to a strategic reality that requires active management. The lifespan of a corporation listed on the S&P 500 has shrunk from 87 to 14 years and continues to decline, and multi/supranationals are placing ever greater emphasis on constant evolution to maintain relevance. One such example can be seen with Walmart, who made the news recently for filing a patent series with the US government that outlined schematics and blueprints for autonomous drone technology that replicated insect plant pollination. The drone technology, which would use cameras and sensors to allow carrying pollen from plant to plant, was one of six patents filed that outlined a strategic foray into agriculture cultivation for the Bentonville behemoth. The issue of the patent itself is by no means a guarantee of it’s deployment or implementation, but it does allow for strategic interpretations of actions and a greater idea as to what drives Walmart in a changing world.

The first implication is that Walmart’s foray into agriculture indicates a desire for greater diversification within it’s own supply-chain, as well as a strengthening of vertical integration mechanisms to penetrate the food supply. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods added a new dimension to the battle for commercial retail supremacy, one in which retail grocery store chains can be used as testing grounds for the deployment of new technologies, including a cashier-less grocery store currently being tested by Amazon in Seattle. Walmart is no stranger to this competition, having purchased in 2016 to establish a firm foothold in the online retailing space. Both organizations have filed patents and are actively developing or testing drone technologies for home delivery. While Walmart is currently almost three times larger than Amazon, the increasing reach of the online giant into clothing and food has lead to the exploration of new revenue models for Walmart, including increasing the retailers reach into more of it’s own supply chain. Groceries currently make up 56% of Walmart’s sales, and these technologies signify a major attempt to increase margins in the grocery retail channels in the coming years.

The second major implication for this patenting is it’s significance for the commercialization of swarm intelligence technologies beyond research labs and into the mainstream. Although no public statements have been made regarding the specific technologies underpinning this patent, two general technologies (computer vision and swarm intelligence) can be logically deduced from examining the technology’s usage. Computer vision, a field of computer science that allows computers to gain high-level understanding from visual images or videos, is a logical fit for the programming of individual drones when making determinations about requirements to pollinate individual plants. This technology will also likely be deployed within Walmart’s other agricultural patents, including technologies to better track crop damage and monitor pests. But enabling a group of drones to act in a formation requires the use of swarm intelligence technologies, which cites that random interactions between decentralized, self-organized systems should follow an ‘intelligent’ global behavior. This is commonly seen in ant colonies and pollinating insects. Advances in this technology, potentially innovated by Walmart themselves should internal investments into this technology follow their development strategy, would allow for the deployment of drones that could make pollination decisions more efficiently and reduce redundancies in robotic decision-making. This is not to say that Walmart will be alone in championing or fueling development in the field – The US Military, along with every other, are investing in advancements in this technology to better deploy and manage autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. The warfare of tomorrow may soon inform our food cultivation technologies of the day after.

Finally, a lasting and slightly more tragic implication of the development of these technologies is the acknowledgement that pollinating insect populations continue to fall, especially within the honeybee populations so vital to our food supply. Pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food that North Americans consume, and contribute between $2931-$3251 of added value per hectare to global agriculture cultivation. But a purely economic argument does not illustrate the actual ecological significance of bees. Much in the same manner we have not typically included the externality of carbon in our economic assessments, valuations of bee populations do not include their contributions to natural ecosystems that provide incalculable natural services to humans. As this blog has previously discussed, the loss of bee populations would greatly impact the variety and nutrition density of our current food system given our current heavy reliance on flowering plants to grow fruits, vegetables and staple crops. Drone pollinators may help offset some of this – but likely not for free, and likely not towards the entire broader ecosystem. Humans do not live in glass domes away from the world, we exist within it and among its systems. Our world is set to change, in ways we have never seen, and we do require technological advances to feed the estimated 9-10 billion of us we will see by 2060. Still, it would be foolish to assume we had invented comprehensive solutions to problems we fully attest to understand very little about.

Much of this is speculative. Walmart has simply filed these patents without public comment as to their development intentions, and they are not just some soulless corporation; they have been long championed sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. This is less a case of corporate greed and more of evolution to a changing world. Theses advances illustrate a view of the future from Bentonville that, like it or not, is actively being shaped by those who design it. The factors threatening bee populations include the widespread use of pesticides and a changing climate, neither of which Walmart can control directly. There is also little indication Amazon would do any differently, should the opportunity arise. And advances in technology enabling greater productivity and quality of life have long come from the advent of military technologies, often with surprising applications, including microwaves, GPS and the tampon. The issue here is not that the world is changing – change is the only thing humans have ever known. The issue is that we must remember that as we plan for a future we cannot predict, there is much we still do not know or understand about the natural and social systems we disrupt. A discussion surrounding what type of world we wish to live in is one we should seek to be involved in , not leave entirely to firms. Otherwise the factors firms view as externalities and society views as essential may see their definitions shift more towards the former in the coming years.

From the Ground Up

Much of the world breathed a sigh of heavy relief on the morning of May 8th, 2017, when news rang out that Emmanuel Macron had defeated Marine Le Pen in France’s Presidential elections. The victory was to some a clear signal that the current mainstream populist platforms of anti-immigration and protectionism were a fad, a trend that could not be supported if a real alternative was presented. Others saw Macron as a type of populist himself – the “anti-populist populist”, whose effectiveness lay in mobilizing middle-class workers into the same frenzy that Marine Le Pen used to mobilize blue-collar groups. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle – while 24% of voters did support the candidate because of his politics and personality, 43% did so simply in opposition to his far-right rival. His policies in the election run-up were described as neo-liberal, centrist, liberal, progressive or even centre-left; much of the difficulty in categorization can stem from the fact that Macron himself claims no allegiance to any portion of the traditional political spectrum, claiming to be a “radical centrist” akin to a pro-business technocrat.

While the photo opportunities for such a title seem endless, Macron’s status in the world is actually supported by stronger substance: the President represents the views of the ‘elite’ class, who believe the left-right divide requires transcending to deal with real problems, care not for ideology, believe people should be supported, and business/ immigration opportunities fostered. He is the closest executive embodiment to ‘Davos Man’; Macron, simply put, is a populist for the elite class. There is no shame in this – Barack Obama was a self-professed populist who ran on a platform of “representing the interests of ordinary people”. The reason modern political populism is resented amongst the elite class is due to its ingrained nativism, anti-elitism and protectionism, three strong themes that do not adhere with the rules-based order on which the world has flourished in the past and which has allowed these elites to flourish as they have.

The key theme of the definition of populism that appears to apply to all politicians is that populists “seek to mobilize their supports against a common cause”, which can either be the self-serving elites or the fear-mongering nativists – a common enemy remains one so long as all sides cynically agree to disagree. But mobilizing a following is the responsibility of any politician seeking to be elected to office, and relying on class-based interest politics has always been a primary tactic. It is no longer enough for one to simply be the “least offensive” candidate – a failure to present new ideas or reforms in an engaging manner will see voters flee to the candidate that does, as has been seen recently in the wave of populist candidates across the globe. These candidates have received more media coverage in national elections than local, but the trend exists here as well – though with an important distinction.

By the year 2030, it is estimated that approximately 60% of the world will live in cities. This may sounds drastic, but the figure was 54% in 2014, indicating that migration will be incremental. The technological advantages and career opportunities in urban areas will become more substantial, and the cities that shine the brightest will be those who adopt the newest technologies most effectively for citizens. In the age of automation, it is widely acknowledged that the definition of effective must expand – cities must now look beyond productivity towards quality of life and equity for citizens. This trend of planning for the future is evidenced in almost every major city in the world currently developing or branding themselves as a “smart city”, most prominently seen in a 2016 AT Kearney Analysis of Global Cities that named the 15 ‘Global Elite’ metropolis’ ranking above all others as hubs of culture, economic activity and politics.

Top 15 Elite Cities Globally

The report theorizes that cities and metro regions play an increasingly important role in geopolitics and macroeconomics, with city strategies increasingly informing the investment decisions of business leaders and national governments. And to be defined as ‘smart’, certain city traits stand out: cities must have large academic institutions and populations of international students allowing for better information exchange. Cities must have global service firms, and the presence of large tech companies. Cities must have a favorable ‘ease of doing business’ rating, and a stable health care and environmental protection system to preserve individual quality of life.

Much of this is driven by these cities choices in local governance: a global economic hub with strong business interests is, by definition, a hub of elites. But governance strays from liberal to conservative, with strong themes of pro-business embedded throughout. In fact, it is in local governance that we see the most tangible priorities of voters consistently emerge: voters want good education for their children, access to healthcare and enough good jobs to go around. Practically every mayoral candidate runs on these three themes, and falls within partisan lines by standing with larger parties on social issues, or by picking a particular policy stance firmly within one section of the ideological spectrum and sticking with it (examples include “We need to cut back government spending” and “our neighborhoods are unsafe because of (insert group name here)”).

Despite party allegiance, mayors firmly understand that voters on the ground care less about what specific ideology they align themselves with and more about how government actually works for them in their lives. Liberal mayors understand the frustration of inequity on the working class, and conservative mayors understand that immigrants are part of the fabric of cities and towns just as much as anyone else. Because of this, cities are breeding grounds for innovative policies and do the work that actually affects voters in their day-to-day lives. Mayors can be populists as well, of course – but the trick doesn’t tend to last as long, since the impacts of policy endeavors are more concretely felt when vague scapegoating loses the ability to be vague.

We are in the age of the populist – Presidents Macron and Obama were wise to run on reformist platforms, but it must come with the acknowledgement that in their systems, any foe running against them presenting an alternative must be operating firmly in the camp of nativism to present a true opposition. The popularity of centrism has dove as voters seek change – change in whatever form that may bring. Perhaps it is time the world began to look to municipal elections to create the change in their communities they seek instead of peering up in idolatry at our Jupiterian Presidents of the modern age.

Written in Code

The now infamous Google memo, written by former employee James Danmore, became a swift lightning rod for condemnation upon it’s claim that Google’s practice of non-discriminatory practice of  hiring of women as software engineers created an ‘anti-male’ bias. His reasoning was that academically researched gender differences between men and women added up to women being less capable coders than men, concluding that practices that sought to increase the number of women in development teams amounted to a bias against choosing talent above all else, thereby creating a practice that unfairly discriminates against the hiring of men in the hopes of hitting a workplace quota.

Putting the topic of the memo aside, although it is asinine to extrapolate a few statistics over group averages in different communities across the globe to make assumptions about the abilities of a single individual, Danmore’s interpretation of data showed evidence of motivated reasoning (only finding information that supports what you already believe). He cites studies and findings from David Schmitt amongst others, a personality psychologist whose research has focused on sex differences. Schmitt’s research, along with regular publishing of blogs in Psychology Today, has helped inform the debate surrounding sex, gender and differences between men and women. It is important to note that Schmitt himself described Danmore’s use of biological sex to essentialize an entire group’s personality as “like surgically operating with an axe”, citing that women are not more emotional than men so much as they often display higher tendencies within ranges towards different emotions (women tend to be more empathetic, men tend to be more aggressive). How emotions are measured, where and when they are expressed, what type of emotions are expressed – all of these play a role in determining how much attribution a person’s gender can be assigned for the way they act. Even interpretation is subject to context: socio-structural conditions or barriers, prevalence of stereotyping, cultural gender norms, and workplace culture all play a role in the interpretation of how someone behaves and what it means.

Schmitt’s research begins with three warnings surrounding interpretation: 1, there is a difference between sex (biological differences inherent to our species), sexual identity (identification as a man vs. a woman) and gender (relevant local cultural norms aligning with perceived feminine or masculine tendencies). 2, Any conclusion reached pertains only to group averages, methodically measured over time, and does not refer to individuals. The phrase ‘women are shorter than men’ does not mean all women are shorter than all men. 3, biological, psychological and cultural influences play a factor as well, though not always how it might be expected. Culturally, men tend to prefer physically attractive traits in marriage partners over women. This trend equalizes out if higher rates of pathogens, disease and illness are prevalent, as women tend to emphasize physical attractiveness more than men by a low margin in these environments. A potential reason for this is that attractiveness is an indicator of good health.

One key finding of Schmitt’s is that in societies where roles are more balanced between men and women and sociopolitical gender equity prevails (ie. Nordic countries), sex differences are more significant. As a percentage of enrollment, there are more female science majors in Burma, Oman and Morocco than in Scandinavia. Schmitt theorizes that when all are treated the same, genetic predispositions become more observable and prominent, citing two researchers who conclude that fewer gender restrictions allows both sexes to pursue more freely the values they inherently care about. To re-iterate: this conclusion does not reflect individual preferences, capacities or capabilities. Danmore’s memo falsely concluded that this trend was indicative that because a statistically large sample in Scandinavia didn’t work in coding, it meant women didn’t want to work in coding as a whole. Danmore cites an unlabelled graph to illustrate his point, claiming that small differences in group averages create big differences in outliers. Danmore’s mistake here was in presuming that average natural interest can be correlated to individual preferences or capabilities. Once again, that is false.

Measures of personality and interest, while important, cannot be reliably correlated to measures of ability or performance. To say that is to conclude that genetic variables lead to inevitable choice outcomes, something that has been proven untrue time and time again. Humans are susceptible to evolutionary tendencies, like any other creature, but the complexity and variability of our local societies means straight lines cannot be drawn between you being born and your choice of a career should you be free to choose. Context is important. Schmitt interprets sexual differences and sexuality not as a binary state of ‘man or woman’, but as a series of dials for individual traits, with each contributing a small part to generating a small part of the differences in individuals across the globe.

The reason it is crucial to acknowledge that differences exist is because not all differences are as inane as height. Women have higher risk of depression, men have higher risk of autism and psychopathy. In order to understand and redress these issues, they must first be identified as existing. It would additionally help dispel some of the more unhealthy lines of reasoning about the role of women in the workplace that has had detrimental effects. Women are more likely than men to have GitHub contributions accepted – but only if their identities were concealed. Women are less likely to receive pay rises. Women are often given less useful feedback in project or program evaluations. By understanding the nature of the biological differences between sexes, we can move on towards addressing the cultural and gender-based issues that impede women from advancing on the workplace. And, if at the end of our exhaustive efforts, it turns out individual women choose to do whatever they had planned on doing in the first place, that’s fine. What matters is that any individual who chooses to pursue a life of excellence, ambition and achievement should not be met with anything other than opportunities to direct their passion into making the world a better place.

Celebrating Independence

Any previously colonized nation can attest to the sweet sense of satisfaction that comes with celebrating the day of Independence from former colonizers. The value placed on sovereign independence is a practically incalculable one shared the world over, with few states placing greater emphasis on the importance of freedom than the United States of America. Constructs of the American Dream, Manifest Destiny and free-market liberalism all speak to adherence to ideological ideals ingrained within the State’s constitution. America’s construction of a world order has equally followed these values – the collapse of the Soviet Union saw trends of economic liberalization, free trade and ‘American’ values of equity and individual rights spread across borders. America’s conquest has lead to a world order in which these constructs are the norm, with illiberal states pushing back viewed as laggards instead of representatives of an equally valid system. But the focus of the autocrat has shifted East as gazes turn to China to examine how the fastest growing economy on Earth has managed to upend these previous norms.

The greatest victory of the United States in establishing a global uni-polar system was not leading by the example of their proven might, but in showing what might be possible through following their example. Chinese leaders would later come to realize that thriving within a high-tech future, an inherent democratization of information and accessibility to markets, required the empowering of individual freedoms to develop a system wherein citizens had the wherewithal to experiment, fail and innovate. But fears of dissent and creeping US influence sought the pursuit of an alternative path; one where change drivers and equalizers are restricted or banned instead of allowed opportunities to prove their value in the market. In doing so, China has succeeded: the socialist market economy of China is the second largest economy by nominal GDP and largest by PPP. Growth rates skyrocketed and sustained themselves on the backs of Asian tiger manufacturing and export-driven growth. Recent years have seen an explosion in the Chinese middle class and advancement towards a strong services-oriented economic focus, transitioning that state from being the world’s factory to one of it’s main actors.

All this has lead to the development of a Socialist Sino Success model, known as the Beijing Consensus, that some see as an alternative to modern liberal free-market democracies; some in this case referring to political scientists, the CCP and the leaders of illiberal states currently searching for just such a thing. But closer examination shows that this idea is misguided. China’s incredible growth can be attributed to three reasons: the growth of its internal domestic market, strict market controls and guidance, and a heavy reliance upon state-owned enterprises.

China’s internal domestic market, which has seen hundreds of millions lifted from poverty in the last three decades, has seen in the explosive expansion of the Chinese middle class and enormously high rates of urbanization. But growth has remained uneven, with wealth heavily fragmented based upon industrial geography. As such, China has failed to appropriately take advantage of the benefits of specialization, since integration of inter-regional supply chains domestically remains relatively small compared to potential. China’s growing domestic market have become consumers as of late, helping fuel the economic growth of the past few decades, but may become burdens instead of assets as consumers seek better regulatory protections with their now-louder voices and wallets. The CCP may not worry about losing voters, but can afford little political strife from an upset middle class. Other countries who do not have China’s vast population, workforce and scale would do well to heed that even when existing, it can create problems.

China’s strict market controls and reliance upon state-owned enterprises overlap heavily. State-guided industrial policy has focused investment and development in key sectors wherein all investment decisions were planned centrally, originally through direct allocation of production targets and later through strategic guidance via incentive and taxation schemes. The Chinese state dictated which industries would develop what and when they would do it, all while simultaneously using a network of state-owned enterprises (SEOs) entirely funded through capital taken from debt issuance and taxpayers to accomplish parallel aims. Despite market forces growing proportionally faster than SEOs, SEOs were still allocated over 50% of all bank credit and are indebted to levels that threaten the stability of the entire economy. Additionally, SEOs tend to be sector-based strategic investments, making them risky if financial turmoil adversely impacts a key sector they operate in. China’s shadow banking system and capital controls on the Chinese stock market centrally imposed in early 2016 indicate an awareness of these risks and understanding of the importance of constant management of this fragile framework.

A final note is that adoption of the Chinese model has had little to do with economic growth: a 2013 internal CCP memo stated that “Western constitutional democracy” and “universal values” were trojan horses meant to weaken and destabilize China. China’s interpretation of Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union were that democratization posed a danger to stability, ignoring the subtler lesson that the changes demanded were only demanded because of the political context that bred discontent or instability. The growth in authoritarianism showed a focus upon slowing the natural cycles of political change in favor of maintaining power, a phenomenon personified by current CCP Chairman and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping, who is attempting to abolish term limits on his presidency. Equally ignored are the consequences of China’s rapid growth – environmental degradation, rife corruption, insufficient tax collection infrastructure and social supports have all become major drags on Chinese populations. The compounding impacts have lead to a loss of CCP authority in rural regions and a growth in popular resistance, a dangerous combination when paired with a growing and demanding middle class seeking greater accountability and an improved quality of life.

To run from the discomfort of change demonstrates an adherence to a different sort of values – China too shares America’s vision of a chosen people, one who sees a world order upheld by their values and economic models. But global adoption of an inflexible model will only see its collapse under a state less capable of financially supporting every domestic sector and enterprise. Washington and Beijing have followed the same line of domestic hubris towards a different consensus – but analysis indicates the value of independence far outweighs the sense of false reassurance offered by the Sino model. Whatever values are held by stakeholders, they would do well to understand that.

An Unhealthy System

“Canada does it right” is a common enough phrase when discussing health care reform in the United States that it may rank high enough to justify its inclusion in congressional talking points bingo (other entries include “We have to pay attention to China” and “this is the red line we just can’t allow”, both of which can apply to literally anything at any time). Canada’s universal access to healthcare, enshrined nationally and administered provincially, is built upon principles of accessibility, universality of service, comprehensiveness of coverage and portability; whether an individual lives in Toronto or Whitehorse, they should have access to the same all-encompassing services and same level of care. The design of the National Medical Insurance Act and Canada Health Act were lauded as revolutionary steps towards national equity, as they well were. The issue with the Canadian system has never been its initial design, but rather it’s failure to adapt over time, and the limited resources that affect realization of its ideal within this fundamental social service.

Canadians have a different view of their medical care system than the rest of the world. A recent survey completed for the Conference Board of Canada indicated that 90% of Canadian believe health care and health care reform should be a main priority for federal decision-makers, surpassing the environment and economy as reform priorities. An annual report card published by the Conference Board of Canada sees Canada’s system rank 10th out of 17 developed economies, receiving a ‘B’, with leader Japan surpassing even the Nordic nations for overall quality. The primary reason for this is a failure to adapt a 1960s era chronic-disease care system in an age of community-based solutions and preventative medicine, as well as external drivers of increasing  costs placed upon provincial governments and a rapidly aging population.

Issues can be found at every stage of the health care chain, compounding as they proceed: the first sign of trouble emerges at the institutional design level. Designed for an era of younger and smaller populations, Canada’s healthcare system is overly reliant upon hospitals and physicians to back an original conception that health care systems were designed to protect citizens from bankruptcy issues of payment for chronic illnesses. This goal remains noble, but the incentives, financial supports and performance metrics have failed to shift alongside the social landscape. The once ‘comprehensive’ service only truly encompasses physicians and hospital care, leaving out dental, pharmaceutical purchases and long-term support care. It also prioritizes patients based on urgency – this is not unusual, and is in fact essential to any health care system. But Canada’s centralized medical care system means an individual cannot pay to bypass the line in order to see a necessary specialist, creating wait times that span years if problems such as joint replacements are deemed non-urgent (as they commonly are).

The impacts of stagnant institutional design ripple throughout; Canada’s primary care system is a pittance, with low accessibility for rural populations and only 2.2 physicians to attend to every 1000 citizens. Spending is directed towards institutions with effective treatment metrics, not those who play a role in preventing the requirement of treatment in the first place. Little focus is given to the integration of primary and emergency care systems, with patient information digitization initiatives often seen as ancillary and not fundamental towards improving inefficiencies. Accountability for patient outcomes is silo-ed and singular; 80% of healthcare costs are borne by 20% of the population, a figure easily recognizable when routine screenings and check-ups are bypassed and create a much larger strain on financial resources in hospitals further down the health care chain.

External financial issues are present to compound pressure – successive federal governments have slowly reduced cash contributions to provinces to meet national standards, and costs of hospital insurance continue to rise. Total spending on health care amounted to 11.1% of overall GDP in 2016, which constitutes a cost of approximately $6000 per citizen. The burden only looks to increase as retirees, the number of whom encompasses that of children in Canada, increase the average cost per patient at uneven rates. Atlantic provinces and Quebec are aging more rapidly than average, and without effective financial support or reform, the risks stand pronounced for these segments of the population.

Modern medical care has focused on expanding the breadth of health care mandates to not only curing disease, but encouraging the adoption of healthy lifestyles, which has the dual benefit of healthier populations and reducing the future burden on the health care system. Reform measures often follow this trend: Nurse practitioners (NPs) can provide primary care, and capacity issues could be addressed through the development of networks that allow for NPs to provide primary care service delivery to rural and under-served areas. Greater investment in digitization technologies would reduce waiting times by centralizing patient data and creating greater efficiencies between offices. Changes to compensation and performance metric measurements could focus more on patient health instead of patient treatment, empowering capacity-development in levels where it currently lacks.

Canadians understand that their health care system has its benefits, its limits and its flaws. Reform is required to redress policy gaps and return the framework towards its initial principles of effective universal coverage across the country. Contrary to popular belief, health care is not free in Canada – funding is directed through taxation on citizens and as such, they have a right to dictate terms of service and a personal responsibility to reduce the burden upon it, within the scope of what they can control. Reform shouldn’t be a term reserved for politicking bingo – it’s time to make sure that phrase becomes an automatic check on the scorecard.


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