Downtown Los Angeles
America's flagship cities have become laboratory experiments for social justice. Heavily controlled by political leaders who subscribe to progressive agendas, they have indulged in costly and risky policies. Permissiveness in the name of political correctness has turned once globally envied cities into dangerous ones on many fronts including law and order and public health. Venture away from the carefully curated enclaves for the tourists and the elites and one quickly sees the quality of life degrade. The cascading failure of infrastructure makes these cities ever more expensive to run with ever smaller beneficial returns on the taxes and subsidies they can garner. They are spiraling into becoming a Third World America within our borders. We need to turn this around.
We Let This Happen
The 200 largest cities in the United States, http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/#cities, actually only hold about 25% of the US population. The rest of us live elsewhere in the smaller under 100,000 population cities and towns across the America. To be sure, not all of our countries 200 largest cities are basket cases and not all of the places where the other 75% of us live are golden palaces. But these big cities have advantages to the US political narrative that they exploit. Most importantly, these are the towns where the mainstream media’s radio and television FCC licensed transmitters are located. Their local issues get airtime. Their politicians and activists get bully pulpits. They have cultural power. They can shape agendas. Agenda shaping is everything in the age of the Internet.
It makes one ask why the Left was able to take over the flagship cities? Being frank, the fault is in the mirror. Reasonable America abandoned the cities. Even more frank, middle ground America, that vast majority of moderate minded Americans, abandoned the cities. Turns out, we were wrong to do so.
In the vacuum we made, we let people apportion the county in to gerrymandered territories where politicians, in league with their opposites, created fiefdoms within which social experiments could be tried unfettered. The political establishment removed risk of real debate by citizens from the business of running the country. The elites only had to listen to other elites and their theories of how the betters should manage the lives of ordinary people. How easy it was to turn a plural nation of equals back into a tapestry of nobles and serfs.
Social Justice is a Black Swan
America is very good about manufacturing systemic risk be it financial or political. Elitist theories tend to be myopic agendas that come with inevitable debacles. The artifacts of imperfection are many. From the threat of bubonic plague breaking out in our downtowns that smell of unwashed humans soaked deeply into the pores of concrete walls to having to check your right-side blind spot like a hawk lest some nut doing twenty over the limit come weaving by driving it like they stole it.
We regular Americans are tolerant, so we adapt by avoidance and accommodation. We’ve gone from leaving keys under the mats to WiFi cameras at our properly lines. We think twice about parking on the street with anything in the car; or at least, check the gutter for spark plugs and the sidewalks for large planters spaced closely together.
As someone who started life in a part of the world where you concreted broken glass in the tops of the property walls, among other things, I know when my 1st world has shifted to 3rd gear. This is not a quality of life upgrade scenario, it’s a cascading failure condition.
Unfortunately, I am pessimistic that reasonable thinking alone can turn things around. Too many community leaders have bought into the politically theory traps that enable the degradation of life for good people in our cities. To buck those theories is suicidal for the establishment, even as they see things fall apart. There is too much reputational risk invested. They're going to sit on this time bomb until the fuse burns down. We ordinary people will pay the price for their inaction, and ours.
Know Your BATNA
There's a concept in difficult diplomacy when encountering irreconcilable conditions called the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Basically, when things have to fail the mission becomes salvaging what you can so that you have something to build a tomorrow from again. In the case of our largest basket case cities we have probably passed that tipping point. The time for tough love and saying no until reality sets in again has arrived. This is not the Internet. This is the real world. You cannot “imagineer” impossible outcomes no matter how narcissistically smart you think you are. Bad theories deserve to lose.
As for me, I’m interested in making sure that the core principles of the country that I love survive. It’s not about me so much as it is about making sure that the frailties of our moment do not collapse the vision of the American Experiment. Here’s my list of framing the future narrative I believe all of us should consider.
Think big picture. Begin to view cities with misguided cities like rogue states.
Hubris has consequence. Leaving the broader community of the America Experiment is a form of hubris. Creating sanctuaries that subvert the national interest, instituting law enforcement policies that raise the risk to everyone except the criminals, promoting prejudicial contracting policies based on political tribalism. These are rogue actions. The popular narrative of sticking it to the man, namely President Donald Trump, mostly to frustrate his administration because of emotional hatred is irrational. There’s more rational agenda in the shenanigans of the Iranians and North Koreans than there is in municipal officials finking on ICE.
Practice peace through strength. Patient siege craft is a form of statecraft. It’s OK to let cities with nonsensical agendas fail. It’ll start a constructive chain reaction.
Here’s the thing about popular fad thinking. It’s only popular until it’s not. It will only take one of two of these major cities that pursue progressive social policies to implode and the rest will change course. Honestly, the situation as I see it is that several of these cities are probably already trying to figure out how to break out of their traps. They mostly don’t want to be the one without a chair when the music stops.
There’s a lot of bluster by these cities thinking they are more like the sovereign cities of Ancient Greece than part of the larger United States. But the reality is that even the largest city in the US, New York City, is only 2.6% of the population. The City of Los Angeles is only 1.2% of the people. The other 198 of the largest US cities are fractions of a percent of the US per city. Their bark is bigger than their bite. It’s ok for the United States to patiently wait them out.
The bottom line is that medicine is bitter. The biggest cities will have to fail before they can be saved. Their leaders need the excuse of “I had no choice” cover in order to shed their ties to social justice agendas.
Practice constructive hill and valley power policy. Constructively manage the codependency between failing cities and their surrounding areas.
The United States still needs viable regional economies but that doesn’t mean we cannot better organize the power hierarchies in our Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA’s). Certain cities engage in outsized influence practices upon their neighbors in counties and sometimes even across entire states. There’s no reason the federal government, state or county systems to honor tradition once a municipality goes rogue. Rather, just as in international diplomacy, it is critical for harmony that rogues see it in their best interest to rejoin the broader community. Willingly or kicking and screaming, it’s still a good thing.
Like international interests, there is a carrot and stick element to this process. Harmonious cities should be rewarded. The selective allocation of federal grants to shape regional outcomes based is part of conducting good statecraft. The national narrative should incorporate this consideration into the how and why things happen with respect to our cities.
The US will endure. Focus on winning the long games. Target local change where it’ll work.
There’s little sense in throwing good money after bad. Nor is there a payoff to gambling at a rigged roulette wheel. There are plenty of cities where a little organizing on the margin can shift the tipping point back to the founding principles of America. You know, we hold these truths to be self-evident.
There’s an opportunity for grassroots coalitions to be born among the political orphans of this country, left and right, working together to tell the establishment and extremists the American version of “Not today ISIS.” Social media may have been used to manipulate all of us to hate each other. But it’s just a medium, a tool that can serve many purposes. It can be used to find common ground, if we are brave enough.
There are many grassroots groups that have started up around the country to take making America great again to the local level. Every city council, country boards of supervisors, congressional district can be changed if people pang together. Even “behind enemy lines” states like California have active movement of patriotic Americans willing to work. But they still need to find their organizing principle that brings together their American interest beyond the constraints of left vs. right or ethnicity. These are borders in our minds created by establishments and elites. They are artificial. They need not constrain the ordinary Americans in our middle from calling bullshit and saying we like each other. We can work towards common goals while enjoying the joviality of our differences in the kind of social cohesion America was made for. It’s time to end zero tolerance and set a new goal line, total tolerance. Don’t be PC, be Out Loud!
Tactically, it boils down to “voting blocks matter”. These are the boots on the ground. That’s how you win the day in America. All the punditry, lobbying and gerrymandering in this country is still hostage to who can organize and motivate people to just say no. Here’s the thing, while the left has been more vocal than the right in our biggest cities, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Every citizen matters in America and creating majorities that can tell the fringe to go pound sand can be organized. Middle ground America may be today’s political orphans but there’s still more of us than there are them. We just forgot this for a little while under a barrage of mainstream and social media noise. We are numb bot not hopeless. It’s time to remember who outnumbers whom.
Fight Back. Change the Game to Our Game. Expose and Oppose Trickery. Make It Your Personal Mission to Make Things Right
People like Saikat Chakrabarti may have gotten away with magic trick wins like getting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex elected to New York’s 14th Congressional District but the guy just quit as her chief of staff and is apparently being investigated for improperly routing campaign funds to private companies he owned by the FEC. Every resident of CD-14 should be considering who to vote for in 2020 to undo that bamboozle. In America, everyone eventually gets found out and pays the price. This is a principle every ordinary American should fight for, no matter where the truth leads.
My advice is go find people like Ruth Papazian who live in and honestly care about NY CD-14. People who are brave enough to say no to the carpet bagger politicians and say they care about all the political orphans in the middle. There’s a Ruth in every voting district in this country. Your mission is find them and vote them in so they can serve the interests of the country we love. We may be the people of the “cheap seats” but we matter.
An even more sinister form of trickery is the movement to divide and conquer the American social fabric. I am presently particularly appalled by the movement to openly practice prejudice against my white fellow citizens.
It’s disgustingly the same type of suppression that was practiced against newly freed blacks at Colfax at the end of the Civil War, that was the beginning of gun control as we know it in America by the way, and against Southern European and Irish immigrants from 1860 to 1925.
Our white friends and neighbors are being called unworthy simply because they embody the ethos of the post-World War II Great Society American Dream that was sold by radio and television to the Baby Boomers.
Here’s the truth. They’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve led good tolerant lives accepting of others as equals. What’s happening to them is cultural genocide. It’s wrong. Political correctness makes it difficult to impossible for them to defend themselves from this cruel and calculated asymmetric attack. But there is a way to defeat it. The rest of us need to come to their aid.
I’m personally calling upon every non-white and foreign-born American who has benefitted from the American Experiment to step up, be counted and defend our fellow white citizens from prejudice. Fight asymmetric attack with asymmetric counterattack. Because it’s the right thing to do.
Americans are good at doing the right thing when we put our minds to it. Let’s show the jacuzzi revolutionaries what America is really made of.
In the 1980s, president Ronald Reagan took the United States down the path of the strategic defense initiative known as Star Wars. It fundamentally changed the nature of strategic nuclear warfare to the point that it was an economical for the Soviet Union to continue to pursue the strategy of mutual assured destruction. It changed the world and ended the Cold War. Decades later, the descendant of one of the Soviet anti-aircraft defense missile systems from the era of the Red Menace is set to do the same to the world's air forces.
Black Swans Rising
The S.400 is the evolution of area air defense systems only dreamt about in the days of the Cold War by the Voyska PVO Strany Air Defence Armies of the Soviet Union. This is a very capable missile system. It is a missile system that renders almost the entire inventory of older generation combat aircraft in the hands of any air force obsolete.
Fighter aircraft, command and control planes, drones and even stand off missiles are at risk from the talons of an S.400 generation class SAM. The Israelis found this out in the hard way Syria on February 10, 2018 losing a very advanced version F-16L to a storm of anti-aircraft defenses, “Dangerous Skies” Dennis Santiago, AmericaOutLoud.com, https://americaoutloud.com/dangerous-skies/.
You should realize that one-half to two-thirds of the cost of a modern combat aircraft is in avionics, the electronic systems that manage the offensive and defensive ability of the platform to operate in a hostile airspace. Most of the combat aircraft on this planet do not have sophisticated electronic warfare avionics. Even among the nations that do, the S.400 missile is still a threat for so-called fourth generation and lesser combat aircraft. As S.400 systems proliferate, and the technology to make them independently along with it, entire fleets of Air Forces will have to either be modernized or scrapped. Few nations will be able to afford the next generation of aircraft is necessary to operate in the type of hostile airspace. It will increasingly alter the danger of the skies above surface of the earth.
Power projection, Maritime patrols, Surveillance, Air Defense Interdiction Zones, Close Air Support. All these missions will undergo radical transformations wherever the footprint of shows up. I have to spare general readers the specifics because I don’t want to have to put classification stamps at the top and bottom of this article; but, for those of you with the clearances, I’m pretty sure your mind is now racing about what the engagement analytics means; not just for our Air Force, but for every air force that we’ve relied upon to multiply our influence.
Like Star Wars, the S.400 takes the world’s global stability planners through what’s called a non-linear junction in the rules of engagement. Everything changes from the probability of loss mathematics to the diplomatic leverage potential of US and allied force structure inventories.
This is not a small deal. This is an asymmetric threat; as asymmetric as SDI was. This is not a problem directed against the United States. This is a systemic threat to the structure of world order that the United States depends on. It has the consequence effect of undermining and eliminating the how we think power balances between nations and factions within nations. This is what academics call a Beta Risk event, a global stability Black Swan.
And it’s going to work because here’s the thing about asymmetric threats, once the ball gets moving, entropy rules. It’s you against inevitability. It’s almost impossible to stop.
Motives, Methods, Opportunities
Some will this as profiteering by the Russians selling second generation systems to generate cash and influence among second tier countries as Vladimir Putin’s nationalist pride fights to keep his country relevant in international affairs.
But there’s more to it than that. One nation alone, regardless of intent, can case that much damage. Even Russia. But changes in the topology international power can.
It's called hill and valley power. That's the name for the regional struggles for power among so-called second tier of nations. Traditionally the proxy vassals of greater superpowers, our world is now seeing the emergence of nation-state agency, the independent action of individual parties, as the era of hegemony fades and a 21st century of fragmented or fractal alliances begins.
It’s a formula for a very unstable world. As old regime militaries become obsolete, we will see arms races. Desperate efforts to preserve the status quo of force-based order. But it won’t work. More likely, alliances and advantages will change. So many old grudges will be put to new tests between countries. Minuet wars to settle disputes will erupt.
The United States is at a crossroads in how we deal with a complex network of nations as we prepare to bolster our alliances and economic partnerships to prepare for an anticipated era of competition for global economic domination. It is a complex puzzle to be sure as we ponder our national interests with a world experiencing cataclysmic realignment.
The Tier Two Club
A power balance earthquake is rocking Eurasia. Countries like Turkey, Iran and Russia, nations with gross domestic product's in the middle range of the spectrum, are banding together. It’s an economic-interests banding of nations that don’t’ fit the European Union cooperative model. But it’s not a Warsaw Pact collection of vassals either. These are peer states brought together by not fitting in to the New World Order; they are not one of those thousand points of light.
Still, like the European Union, what they are effectively doing is banding together to shelter in place for the coming battle of the titans between the world's two largest economies, the United States and China.
To put it mildly, US relations are strained with these Eurasian Tier Two’s.
Our relationships with the Russians have been beset with a series of disastrous resets going back to the end of the Cold War. We never instituted a 1990’s Marshall Plan to help them even after Boris Yeltsin wept openly in our grocery stores about the price his people had paid to uphold their end of the Cold War global stability bargain. We could have established a powerful northern alliance with the Russians; but we didn’t. We let their world go into free fall. Today’s Russia is a basket case of oligarchy and bankrupt districts where the government looks the other way at crimes committed that bring in precious hard cash any way they can. They are still scrounging. Life is hard today.
Vladimir Putin, a very proud man, is holding a hand of cards in a poker game that requires a lot of bluff and bravado. He's pretty good at it. But he also knows he's managing a House of Cards as fragile as the one Czars had to contend with in their time.
We’ve not make things easier. We repeatedly go back to our Red Menace prejudice about them over and over; often, purely for the convenience of using them as a foil in our domestic debates. The two countries’ relations remain dysfunction as ever. That’s a lot of incentive for Mother Russia to find another way.
We have a hostile relationship with Iran that exists in what conflict strategists called a grey zone conflict, a stage of strained relations just short of outright warfare. In this case because they’re quite honesty bat shit crazy. Between a grudge their religious leadership hasn’t be able to let go of since 732 A.D. and their fatal attraction to repeat the overextension of influence mistakes of their Persian Empire history, the Iranians have a knack for making themselves unwelcome in genteel circles. Heck, they even have a knack for putting their Tier Two Club allies into some peculiar pickles on a regular basis. Khamenei, Rouhani and Salami act more like Larry, Moe and Curly on the international scene.
It’s kind of sad because Persian culture and people are quite interesting.
And then there’s Turkey, the other former empire. Our relationship with the Ottomans is, well, chaotic. The good news, if there is such a thing here, is that’s par for the course. Everyone else’s relationship with them is chaotic too. They are barely in still in NATO. And warily members of the Tier Two Club.
The Turks do weird things. They openly call the most stalwart US allies in the region against ISIS, the Kurds, terrorists and would subdue them like the Ottomans did the Armenians. It’s a brutally pragmatic culture that looks out for itself first and only. This is the exact kind of persona that makes the “woke” parts of America freak from deep inside their safe spaces. Of course, given the socio-political fragmentation of the United States, the Turks probably see us as just as a chaotic a counterparty.
In a more practical sense, Turkey has its own share of problems. The Turkish economy is in a period of “retrenchment of previous gains”, to quote the type of thing that Alan Greenspan would have described it. A period of ebullient borrowing by the Turkish government to fund economic expansion has put them on the edge of a Venezuela-like national debt predicament. Political turmoil stemming from it has put the Turkish Central Bank at odds with the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like most leaders in his predicament, Erdogan turns to nationalism to weather the storm.
Under normal circumstances, these three countries have little in common. But these are uncommon times. We are seeing the fragmentation of the world. It will be marked with greater disagreement between parties then in the past. That's a formula for a dangerous time. The kind of time where someone might make a mistake and accidentally start a World War. This represents a real worry for anyone interested in global stability that can perpetuate the conditions for constructive economic competition.
Note that it also comes at a time when the United Nations has become unable to perform its function of mitigating disharmony among the community of nations. The democratization of the UN whereby the General Assembly has become dominated by Tier Three nations has made it impossible for the Tier One and Two countries to have a working forum within that body. Their differences must be solved elsewhere; so far, in fractured bilateral dealings.
Bottom line is the UN’s path to inclusiveness failed to prevent the fractal alignments are beginning to emerge on this planet. The why, the how, the who doesn't matter anymore. The fact of the matter is that it's already happened. The world has gone through a one-way door and there is no way to step back to the other side of the looking glass.
Turkey is, in my opinion, potentially the most destabilizing pivot point to military global stability on the planet at this moment in time. The asymmetric cascading failure will either begin in Turkey or end in Turkey. It’s important that US policy makers not treat this lightly.
I do not like or dislike the Turks. I think they are as much caught in the eye of this storm as anyone else. But it’s not lost on me that Turkey is the grand bazaar of this planet. The oldest market where goods and secrets change hands.
Two critical pieces of technology make Turkey important to every power planner on this planet. They are the S.400 surface-to-air missile system and F-35 fighter. Possession of access to these two technologies lowers the threshold of technology transfer knowledge whereby the cratering of the power of global air forces will extend to threating the viability of fifth generation stealth technology combat aircraft. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how fast.
That bombshell will be in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I cannot see any scenario where he will not attempt to exploit it.
The China Card
None of this is happening in a battle of the Titans vacuum. The other over $16 trillion GDP economy on this planet, China, is making great effort to be friends with everyone. They send delegations to cooperate with anybody who will let them in the door. There's even a Chinese military unit drilling with NATO to cooperate in case of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster that engulfs the planet requiring everyone to help.
This positioning strategy makes sense for China. Every stability analyst with his or her weight in salt needs to respect that Xi Jinping is not a fool in this regard. No pun intended, China can read tea leaves very well. They can see the coming changes in the power structure of the planet appearing on the horizon. They want to be the other superpower that appears on the scene for the remainder of the 21st century.
Personally, I am not entirely sure the China sees the global implications of the S.400 any better than the United States does. Their actions so far do not seem to see that they are as vulnerable to the asymmetric dismantling of the Post-Cold War global economy assumption as much as the United States is. My instinct says that the United States and China are about to discover that they have more in common for their dreams of the next world order than we have differences.
It reminds me of the first admonition that was given to me when I started working on the problems of arms control during the Cold War. I was told to remember that the Russians were our partners in ensuring the success of global stability. I was told a tumultuous and dysfunctional relationship to be sure; but, ours was nevertheless a deep bond of allies to organize the world and prevent fragmentation and chaos in the aftermath of World War 2.
Some things change, some things stay the same.
What we can’t do.
Read my lips. No one on this planet can afford to allow a systemic cascading failure of military power balances on this planet to happen. we do not have the international cohesion among the community of nations to prevent the accidental initiation of a World War. We need to understand our limitations. That goes For the United States. That goes for the Chinese. That goes for the Russians. That goes for everyone. We let this happen, trade imbalances will be the least of our problems.
What we should be doing.
First, we should be asking the Russians some very tough questions about whether their intentions are indeed the crater to capabilities of every Air Force on this planet, including their own. If that is not the case, the Russians need to begin to take an active role in managing the systemic danger that they are causing.
Second, we should be discussing with the Chinese the fact that we both want a world where we can continue to interact with each other primarily based on healthy economic competition, even if that intramural sport is somewhat rough at times. We need to come to an understanding with the Chinese that it is both our interest to make sure that our economies can do so successfully anywhere on this planet. We should engage the Chinese in a serious discussion about how we, the two largest economies on this planet, are going to contain the spread of this destabilizing threat to the global stability equation.
Third, we need to stop pussyfooting around and get serious about a US national strategy to break up the Tier Two Club before something bad happens. Considering we are playing for time against a global cascading failure, I would not leave anything off the table for consideration at the National Security Council.
Fourth, we also need a national strategy about what we are going to do as a supplier of weapon systems on this planet to mitigate the threat of destabilization facing the other nations on this earth who cannot afford to respond to what is coming. We cannot stop this alone. The who we help, how we help, what we supply to help, and the conditions under which we will help, need to be thought through systematically or we will screw this up big time.
Fifth, we need to manage the awareness and expectations of the American people so that they understand how serious this problem is and how important it is that we deal with it calmly and in unison. We blink, we lose. Just is.
It’s been a long time since we’ve put ourselves in a position to accidentally burn up the planet.
Within the internet, we live in our own personalized echo
chambers. The dark side effect, we have become psychotically intolerant of
anything outside our safe spaces. Borrowing from McLuhan, the medium has become
our lifestyle. We now live on a planet that never looks up, never looks in each
other’s eyes. We’ll never see the meteor coming.
It’s one of the most effective ways to sell things. The
fashion, apparel, perfume, automobile, travel, sports, outdoor and other
consumer industries depend on it. It’s about segmenting and beguiling human
beings to transform them from disinterested parties into devoted purchasers. It’s
brainwashing for financial gain. Since the days of Madison Avenue and Marshall
McLuhan, America has become probably the most finely tuned consumer selling
machine ever known to mankind. We have conditioned consumers to snobbishly
crave products and hate alternatives not on measures of objective utility; but
on how well they soothe our egos.
Many of us now have more virtual friends than real life ones.
Author Julie Albright’s recent book, “Left to their Own Devices” chronicles how
human value systems are changing because we have put our lives on the net; how
we have become utterly alone with a tiny portal in our hands to experience the
life. Humanity has become lonelier even as it has become more wired. Lifestyle
marketing has achieved its apex goal, a world where humans almost entirely
connect via machines designed to package and sell personal dreams.
We are entertained by the popularity of fads. A plethora of
fads. Transient fads the go viral and just as quickly disappear. Fads segmented
and tailored for each one of us. It’s made us hyper-tribal. Intolerant to
degrees we would, until very recently, never be in person. We have become afraid
to speak out of turn lest we be judged and rejected for being “incorrect”. Or
vocal about our views so that we block off those who don’t soothe our fragile
feelings. Either way, it’s a dysfunctional, traumatic experience to navigate. We
allow ourselves to be codependent on people we’ve never met, or barely know,
for affirmation. We declare everyone else to be blood enemies.
I’ve always viewed social justice to be one of those fads. Invented
by academics to deconstruct theories of societal organization and analyze them,
it morphed into a pop culture tool to bludgeon people. The feeling of
entitlement and elitism being able to write one’s own rulebook with impunity in
any way you’d like to imagine. It is the drug permeating the internet.
It is a cancer-causing drug that is killing our souls. Plurality,
that tolerance respect for disparate values, ceases to have practical meaning
in such prickly times. It is replaced with an ocean of hate groups, each one
thinking they are the most virtuous. And underneath the noise makers, an
orphaned society struggling to find its voice to call bullshit.
Artifacts of a Changing World.
This system that serves the demigod of the for-profit echo
chamber may be omnipresent, but it’s still a house of cards. It’s built on a ground
rule and assumption that you can exploit lifestyle marketing forever without
consequence. Such grand assumptions have never been true. Every innovation has
a half-life. Every belief set reaches a threshold of impracticality.
I believe we are beginning to see some of the tenets of the
social justice fad weakening. I’m a bit of a student of societal artifacts. I’ve
been studying for a while corporate sustainability reporting, an element of a
public company’s financial filings. Investors know them as 10-K’s, 10-Q’s, 8-K’s
and other documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
SEC filings are an echo chamber of sorts that gives you
insight into what businesses America considers to be their “safe spaces”. Don’t
be fooled into thinking every company is unique. That’s not how the so-called
soft and squishy part of business works. It’s more like lemming.
The reality is that the sustainability portion of a company’s
filings is more like the practice of carbon copying what lawyers and risk
consultants tell you will work to put into that section, what the safest thing
to say is. At any time, corporate America is likely to pretty much be saying
the same thing.
It’s faddish just like any other fad. For some time, copying
and pasting approved platitudes about social justice and environmental
sensitivity have been considered the “safe” words.
That’s beginning to not be the case. In the Internet
triggered era, such platitudes have themselves become the seeds of corporate
reputational risk. As social attitudes change, and in America they change and
rebalance very quickly, they lead markets to question if corporate management
and governance are acting in the best interest of the company. Let’s look at
some case studies,
Nike is part of the apparel industry. It is one of the most
aggressive users of lifestyle marketing to carve out market share in a highly
competitive environment. Nike relies on edgy attitude to not only spot fads and
trends; but to make them. They walk the fine line of whom to extoll and who to
disrespect in the name of aiming for maximum sales volume.
Politics aside, there’s serious mathematics in the economic
calculus of a company like Nike. Inventory is just one element in a larger
evaluation. For instance, to sell or junk a shoe design. If a few people in the
core demographic of trendy social justice lifestyle buyers indicate they might
get a little uncomfortable, is it better to take a write down loss on the shoes
and parlay it into lots of free viral advertising that will make Nike’s core
lifestyle purchaser’s affinity grow? For the Nike’s of the world, that’s a
decision they ponder all the time.
But increasingly, it’s not a decision that doesn’t also come
with business sustainability risks. Attitude can radically alter what market
segments you have access to. There was a reason the Betsy Ross Flag show design
made it all the way into stores. Someone at Nike did the research that said
there was purchase intention there; that the market is turning.
In my opinion, Nike management chickened out. There was no
danger their core market was going to abandon them. They went for the “safest
word” in their version of corporate sustainability. They elected to not offend the
market share they knew instead to exploring how to expand their business to
address objectively found emerging areas of demand.
That’s leaving money on the
table for competitors. That’s hardly ever a good thing for a company. Other
lifestyle apparel companies will gain strength wherever they are not. I suggest
that Nike’s board of directors should be asking some serious questions about the
Quoting tongue in cheek from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the
Universe, have they crossed their “shoe event horizon”?
Cable News Network is another company that invested heavily
in lifestyle marketing. At one time the world’s premier global news company,
CNN made a big bet that Blue America, the world of a Democratic Party
controlled national agenda was the media territory that was its path to
greatness. It relinquished fair and balanced reporting, gave the right of aisle
market to Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News, and put their attention into battling
other left of center media outlets for dominance.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump threw a wrench into that
plan. Suddenly, CNN had to make a choice whether to return to the center or
hold out for two years until the mid-term election. They chose the latter and
proceeded to double down on their lifestyle marketing bet.
The network put its lifestyle persona bet on things like
Mueller investigation and it’s ended disastrously. The network’s ratings went
into free fall. They lost 24% share in as of April 2019 and estimated additional
16% of their primetime ratings in the month of May 2019 alone. They now have an
estimated 1/3 the audience of rival FOX. It’s a shadow of Ted Turner’s former empire.
It hasn’t helped CNN retain audience share that the once
invincible Blue Dream of the Democratic Party has descended into it’s own chaotic
nightmare that sees leadership like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader
Charles Schumer being challenge by Saikat Chakrabarti’s Justice Democrat harem
who seem to be as good at confounding the Establishment Democrat leaders on
Twitter as President Donald Trump can. Sparring with AOC? Really Nan? That’s
And then there’s Barack Obama’s prediction of the Democratic
Presidential Primary Race turning into “circular firing squad” playing out like
a zombie apocalypse to the horror of orphaned centrist Democrats and the
delight of Trump’s MAGA voter base.
This is about as perfect a storm as it gets.
This is wounded bird case of corporate failure that just
cannot be ignored. And they’ve run into a merger with AT&T, a company that
runs strictly by the numbers and is looking to economize following the
acquisition of CNN’s parent Time-Warner. The word is that WarnerMedia boss John
Stankey wants CNN to go down the path of developing a digital arm to rival
FOX’s Digital with specializes in aggregating light news to fill the internet and
yield many millions of page hits per day. Can you imagine a world where TMZ has
more meat than the major outlet on the same story? You don’t have to. It’s been
happening at FOX and soon it’ll be happening at CNN too.
That’s kind of a journalist’s version of a perfect storm.
Seeking redemption, I’ve also noted that the opinion section
of CNN online has even begun carrying contributions that are not overtly hostile
to the Trump administration, albeit with the “this op ed does not represent the
opinion of the company” disclaimers prominently on display. Well, post debacle,
one starts somewhere.
That is an artifact that says hell may be freezing over.
CNN are not the only ones centering up. It’s back to business
by the numbers for the industry. My question is whatever possessed them into
thinking dividing the country into political factions was a sustainable
business model? Supernormal return for a while yes. But all overtime pay
eventually ends. CNN got addicted to it. These choices are ending predictably.
There’s probably no business model where managing social
justice expectations is more problematic than a distributed retail franchise
like Starbucks. With just shy of 300,000 employees deployed at over 28,000
stores, touching humans looking up from their phones just long enough to recite
mystical incantations that turn into cups of coffee is about as lifestyle
retail as it gets.
Keeping the balance of peace within the interior of their
store spaces has evolved into some macabre rules. Anyone can be in a Starbucks but
no one can fall asleep in one. That’s a new rule to deal with homeless people
coming in and hanging out in a place designed for people doing business and
homework to come in and hang out while drinking coffee. You used to be able to
take a nap between reading book chapters or composing article paragraphs. No
more of that.
Social justice has the weirdest side effects.
Just as weird is Starbucks being a safe space that isn’t
safe if a bunch of cops come in for coffee. One squeaky wheel patron causes an
employee who, trying to please that person, insults other persons by preventing
them from reciting their magical incantations and getting no coffee with their
misspelled names on them. Then it goes viral on the internet because that’s
what we do in America now whenever safe spaces collide like particles of matter
Then, Starbucks corporate must send legions of trainers out
to those 28,000+ locations to teach everyone a new rule that meets the
universal social justice for all algorithm and, of course, to apologize to
anyone that may have been slighted; in press releases so they don’t get
And Starbucks does send legions because unlike Nike or CNN, their
business economics are about just doing whatever it takes to not pick any
fights with anyone. Besides, there’s hardly enough space in one for a good
fight and the merchandise display racks have breakables.
Is this just a weird version of America or what?
The microcosm of the damage social justice has created in a store
the size of a two-car garage in 28,000 places everyday kind of boggles the mind
when you think about it. It’s disruption without innovation. It kind of irks me
and makes me want to order my coffee using the app on my phone so I never have
to look up. Plus, my name will be spelled correctly on my cup because it’s a
Is this really what post-Industrial America is supposed to
be like? Bizzare rules that bear little resemblance to common sense? And we’re
supposed to accept this like happy sheep? Remember what I said about everything
having a half-life earlier? We are stretching too many rubber bands.
amiss about believing this is good for ordinary Americans or for America.
Social media companies are finding out just how risky
lifestyle personalization business strategies can be. Facebook’s Mark
Zuckerberg has been dragged in front of Congress to answer for the sins of an
industry by a hostile government that 20 years ago didn’t want anything to do
with regulating companies like these. Now, Facebook is feared because so many
people have established their digital “second lives” on them. We’ve revealed our
souls to a machine designed to exploit lifestyle personalization to echo
chambers of one person per bubble. A universe where we are connected to each
other only through the Matrix of Facebook’s omniscient engine that decides what
And we want that engine to do exactly what each of us
selfishly wants. Connect us perfectly. Amplify our thoughts. Market our
message. Show us only what we want to see. Make us happy. Make our experience
perfect. Make anything we don’t like go away. Punish those we disagree with
harshly because they don’t matter, only we, only I, matter. Make sure noise
from robots and rogues is kept at bay. But not my noise. Push that into every
one’s face please. Oh, and do this for free.
When you step back and breathe, it’s clear that the world
doesn’t really work that way. What does amaze me is how hard Facebook works to
make it come close to that as possible. Implementing technology to reduce noise
in our personal echo chambers.
There are 2.38 billion active users of Facebook per month. Only
190 million of them are in the United States. The cultural echo chamber
separation algorithms that Facebook uses so Americans do not see the other 2.19
billion people on the system is a lot of work just there.
And now, pushed along by the demands of social justice of
every left and right persuasion, there’s the work of separating Americans from
each other in our increasingly self-segregated culture. Armies of human
filterers are becoming algorithmic artificial intelligence and robots tasked to
make everyone happy in their disconnected loneliness.
And there’s more. I noted that there were two kinds of major
earthquakes in California on 4th of July week. One was natural. A magnitude
6.4 and 7.1 earthquake centered around Ridgecrest, California just outside of
what’s called the Long Valley Caldera, the site of an ancient volcano. Maybe
it’s not just meteors we need to worry about.
The other, virtual world earthquake, happened on July 3,
2019. On that day, the image servers of all the properties owned by Facebook,
Inc. which included Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went dark for several
hours while Mark Zuckerberg’s technology team made base object changes to the
entire network. When it came back up, memes from robots, which had begun to
proliferate with divisive political messages, were sparse.
Quoting from another movie metaphor, “A déjà vu means
they’ve made a change to the Matrix.”
The question for Facebook is will this be enough to placate the
hubris of Americans. That’s an unknown. Will that please everyone? No. That’s
impossible. But Facebook can bend reality.
That’s not the important question.
The important question is does demanding Facebook do a
better and better job of keeping us happily alone amount to the right thing for
the United States national interest? Is this really where we want corporate
governance of our infrastructure and our commerce to go? These companies will
do what we tell them to either by themselves or by regulations. What should we
tell them to do?
Ponder again the warning, we are losing plurality and the
need to be tolerant of other Americans as technology makes it ever easier to
never have to look up.
Without that cohesion, are we still Americans?