Tom chacha: Or how I learned to start worrying and fear Mr. Jindal

May 23, 2008

I have an unabiding suspicion of Mr. Jindal. The press tells me I (as an Indian American and a race-conscious American) should be behind him. He’s a voice of a post-race America, so they say. Recent developments have Mr. Jindal listed as a likely nominee for the Vice Presidency. (Find him in Mr. McCain’s VP hunting weekend party with Mr. Romney and Mr. Charlie Crist.) Counter balanced against Senator McCain, the erstwhile maverick Congressman, he will provide the GOP a race and age balanced ticket. Senator McCain is theoretically a voice of diligent public service, doling out his body and heart to the American electorate. (And perhaps most of all his soul to the current regime.) Given Senator Obama’s near assured nomination to the Democratic ticket, Mr. Jindal is fait accompli.

Mr. Jindal is an intellectually irreproachable individual. A Rhodes Scholar, an alumnus of Brown University, he appears to be of the best and brightest in this era. India Abroad agrees. After a brief flirtation with the private sector vis-a-vis McKinsey and a consulting engagment with Mittal, he has been diligent in dedication to the state of Louisiana. From a resume’s perspective, he is hard man to impugn. Even on matters of fiscal policy (I plan to discuss Louisiana’s changes to sales tax and income tax), he is at best debatable.

I am personally embarking on an intended life in public service. I am proudly of Indian and Eastern heritage. I should be excited. I am not. Instead, his mere existence conjures the earliest debates within the African American community of empowerment and engaging in the government. Instead, he conjures comparisons to Clarence Thomas and the debates of Messrs. DuBois and Washington. Instead, he reminds me of how a genetic claim to identity does not signify anything of meaning.

I am intending to voice an opposition here, and for the next several weeks, of why and how Mr. Jindal is not a valuable voice for the Indian American community. If, as I predict, Mr. Jindal secures the VP nomination, I fear that the Indian-American (and perhaps Asian-American) vote may tilt towards him in anticipation of the advances he will afford to people of those backgrounds. I expect he will be, at best, our Clarence Thomas. A voice reflecting the majority values with little benefit to the community he “represents”. A voice that will help not at all with crucial issues of economics, social justice, and morality.

I plan to deal with many aspects of his platform, but let this be an introduction. On matters of immigration he is wrong-headed and against the welfare of the Indian American community. (More to the point, this also hurts the American economy which depends on immigrants for crucial research and development. Link: http://grades.betterimmigration.com/testgrades.php3?District=LA&VIPID=1165&retired=1. Note that this link is from an anti-immigration organization.)

His opinions on freedom of religion are, at best, problematic. As a pro-religious person, I will not question his desire to convert to Catholicism. That is a personal matter of faith. However, his subsequent voting and political record reflect an unabashedly dogmatic and anti-ecumenical value system. For the hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains living in these United States, this should be a serious concern. For those that care, he supports “Intelligent Design”, a bulwark for the Christian right to oppose “secular values”. This bulwark also provides quasi-enshrinement of Christian values at the expense of others. We should note that Mr. Jindal has not spoken out on behalf of Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or Muslim values. At present, his only religious concerns are specified within the Christian (and perhaps Judeo-Christian) spheres.

I have avoided (and will discuss separately) Mr. Jindal’s failings on pragmatic issues of environmentalism, reproductive choice, homosexual rights, the war on terrorism, and the divisive rifts between India and Pakistan. Intelligent Indian-Americans of different persuasions may find themselves on opposing ends of each issue.

For the record, Mr. Jindal is entirely opposed to abortion in every case including rape and incest. (Admittedly ahimsa-based values may make Indians support this position.) He is also opposed to same-sex marriage and hate crime laws to protect homosexuals. He is demonstrably behind the Global War on Terror and all of its underlying elements. On the matter of India and Pakistan (and, to me, the crucial matter of brokering a long term peace strategy), he appears to not have any leadership credentials. Finally, he has marched lock-step on most of the current administration’s oil-harvesting strategies.

But I am fairly confident that most Indian Americans should be pro-immigration and for the expression of all religions (and the avoidance of enshrining any one.) To feel otherwise in our context would, ipso facto, be entirely hypocritical.

Call this a teaser, but I will hope to attack the value of this candidate for us now and in the future. (For the liberals reading, I’ll leave with this final note: Rush Limbaugh declares Mr. Jindal as the next Ronald Reagan. The definition of damning by faint praise or an endorsement from the devil, I will leave you to decide.)

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The Democratic Primary, Part I: Why Hilary Clinton is like Kurt Warner

May 22, 2008

If you asked me who I admired most in politics in 1992, it was easy. It was easy: Hilary Rodham Clinton. (Yes, I was a geek at 11.) Everything about her attitude to life and politics was admirable. Despite coming from privilege, she appeared to have a built-in belief that such privilege was tied to an obligation to others. Her (failed) attempt on resolving the health care crisis of America was noble in the most classic dimensions: she fought giant adversaries, they assailed her character and credentials, and she lost. Yet, in losing, it seemed to set the stage for a longer battle. It was a greater awakening in many millions of people (and particularly in young women who saw that even the role of “housewife” could be a grander position than known before.) But, something happened to the Clintons in 1994. Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of that year browbeat them badly. They wouldn’t be the same, but we didn’t know it then.

Bill Clinton’s presidency, from then forth was a compromised one. Liberal democrats made excuses: he worked within the boundaries of the nation’s zeitgeist. He was setting groundwork for crucial liberal initiatives. And things were admittedly good on a grand scale: he presided over unprecedented growth. Crime was down. Gun control was improved via the Brady Bill. Supreme Court appointees were at least relatively strong. But, this came with gutting of social safety nets, ridiculous pandering to the far right (e.g. the Defense of Marriage Act), and ham-fisted foreign policy. Study this deeply and you see that the Clinton family was waiting for the next punch.

To avoid their early vulnerabilities, they focused in a remarkable way on campaign financing. (Note: I did not say reform.) They brought in money from all sorts of places (particularly China) and their policies would begin to follow the money. For a feminist gadfly super-babe and a rags-to-riches folk hero, this was a strange departure. But again, the left rallied and apologized. They even implicated the right for the Lewinsky affair (overlooking the fact that Clinton was undoubtedly reckless in this matter.)

But Hilary fans were still hopeful. We thought she’d walk out and come back to us, the same old wonderful woman as she was in 1992.

Which brings me to Kurt Warner. In 1999, a marginal NFL prospect out of Northern Iowa jumped into the NFL landscape. He wasn’t meant to be the starter, much less a significant NFL player. Trent Green was brought to the Saint Louis Rams as a significant signing. The team was on the rise, but certainly not considered a top-flight contender. Then Trent went down with a major injury. And Kurt Warner became a folk hero. He redefined the NFL passing game in the late 90s. The Greatest Show on Turf was a bell-weather of offenses, he broke numerous passing records, and won a Superbowl ring and two MVP titles. Then in 2001, the Patriots defeated him in his second appearance. In doing so, Kurt Warner was injured, rattled, and never the same.

(Yes, I equated Newt Gingrich with the New England Patriots.)

After that game, Kurt would continue to play, but with a timid passing style. He was always aware of the rush, turned the ball over frequently, and could not rekindle the magic of his first seasons no matter how hard he tried. Football experts were puzzled. This wizard of passing who could once pinpoint-drop a pass onto a receiver’s shoulder 40 yards away couldn’t find his men. Dr. Z thought he “felt the rush.” Somehow he was rattled like never before. Saint Louis tried and tried, max-protecting him more, giving him better balance with a rush attack. Nothing worked. Eventually they cut him and he moved to New York. It was a stop gap for Eli Manning. Then Arizona. But the fans (I’m definitely one) still hoped. Could he revive somewhere? How does that magic go away? How do you go from 40+ TDs, two MVPs, and a passing touch only rivaled by Brady and Manning in this era to a journeyman?

Eventually, you get stuck with simple conclusions: He got scared. He got old. He couldn’t fight anymore.

And that takes me back, finally to Hilary Clinton. Let me re-set the stage because history often gets away from us. She came in on the same election as W. Many people knew he’d need a strong legislative opposition. Many hard Democrats anticipated she’d be a key part of the antagonistic voice. But she never showed up to play. She was uninterested in contesting the farcical election. When Russ Feingold withered as a dissenting voice, she was silent on the Patriot Act. She signed on for the Iraq War every time. As opposition mounted from her own party, she straddled the fence. The whole time, her eyes were on the prize. She wouldn’t be blindsided ever again.

The problem, of course, with a compromised Hilary is that she becomes a completely flavorless politician. Other than the diversity she brings as a woman, she offered no real variation from any other career politician. The woman who once wrote “It Takes a Village” offered no clear picture on how she would re-invigorate the left’s core values. Even on the crucial issues of choice and women’s rights, she has not been a significant champion. Yes, she gets good rankings from NARAL and NOW, but what new legislation came for women? The CHIP legislation was perhaps her only serious fight on behalf of single-mothers. And there, she failed.

In a nutshell, that is the failing of Senator Clinton: in trying to avoid being hit from the right, she lost all the magic of her powers for the left. It was a Faustian bargain and she got nothing for it.

So, why this analogy? Simply, a president is equivalent to a quarterback.  They can take many forms: game changers, risk takers, game managers, confident, poised, reliable. If I could get the Kurt Warner of 1999 on my team, I’d take that in a heartbeat. Same goes for HRC of 1992.  But, today they are damaged goods and will at best be a manager of the game. If you get them in, they may do ok. But you’ll always feel like they should have been better, that they should do more.

America in the new, flattened world

May 22, 2008

The coolest Indian in the American public eye (take that “Bobby” and Sanjay) has a great cover story in Newsweek on America in the new age.  (Link:http://www.newsweek.com/id/135380/)

It’s more succinct and useful than anything in Thomas Friedman’s dry, long, and not insightful book. Key points:

– the notion of the world as more dangerous is flawed. Life for humans is increasingly less “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. It’s obvious if you think about it, but a good reminder.

– America is entering a new age of decreasing relative power. But as the pie expands, the individual welfare does not need to decline.

– America has unique features that will allow us to potentially overcome our biggest obstacles. Chiefly: limited aristocratic heritage and a strong history of leveraging immigrants for the welfare of society.

– Our key imperatives going forward are to return to a better immigration policy, delegate leadership to other nations, and be mindful that new regional powers are better allies than much of the “Old World.”

If you feel like you know globalization in and out, my apologies. Otherwise, get to this article soon.

Two things that stuck out to me:
1) Zakaria’s model might argue that other institutions beyond business, banking, and education may have new models going forward. What will public service look like?
2) Africa is sorely in need of its Brazil. And South Africa is a poor qualifier because of geography and its history. As Africa has approximately 10% of the world’s population in its borders, the risks of implosive crises like the Second Congo War are very high. The upside of a stable set of nations in the region is even higher.

(PS: the final pot shot about the metric system was out of line. Feet, inches, pounds, and fahrenheit are simply better.

And…

May 22, 2008

We’re back! I’ve been grossly remiss in updating this blog, but not for lack of trying. Like many bloggers, I let my reach exceed my grasp. (At least it’s consistent with my themes.) I started, and did not complete 8 posts that easily could have gone live. On the suggestion of several people, I’m going to aim for a regular update schedule: 4 posts in the week with an option for more. Later this morning, I’ll have three posts on politics. Topics to come, shortly:

How Hilary Clinton is like Kurt Warner

Why Bobby Jindhal’s candidacy is not exciting for Indian people

Sex scandals in America: analysis, timeline, and advice to future philanderers

An analysis of the history of child labor in the world

Regulation of labor worldwide: where the markets fail

Would you rather have two options or five?

January 31, 2008

In election selection, where’s perfection?

While driving last night, I was listening to NPR’s Florida primary coverage last evening and an interesting comment emerged from the mass of spin:

Robert Sigel pointed out that Democrats surprisingly over-represented in voting in an “unimportant” primary (Florida has been stripped of its delegate privileges). Democrats brought nearly 1.7M to vote while Republicans brought over 1.9M. The general view was that this was a low number for the GOP and a high one for the Democrats.

The analyst had a remarkable explanation: the public prefers to make a choice between clear alternatives and the fewer the better. That is, Hilary vs. Obama will attract more votes than Giuliani vs. Huckabee vs. Romney vs. McCain vs. Paul. I nearly drove off the road.

That was an insane position, right? How could anyone prefer less choices to more? But then I thought about it more and a few observations came out:

1. Candidates cannot easily be evaluated in the abstract

This isn’t like Coke vs. Pepsi or chocolate versus vanilla. The rating of a candidate is done over a variety of issues and character traits.  And to make matters worse, we have limited information on how strong a candidate is on issues where they have not been tested. (For instance, Barack sounds like he is a born leader but he has had few opportunities to test this trait.)

Even assuming we trusted candidates and had perfect information, we have to look at our concerns across many dimensions. A typical voter has some opinion on some subset of: trade policy, immigration policy, reproductive rights, the GWoT, the Iraq War, North Korea, Iran, the death penalty, education reforms, civil liberties, homeland security, and tax and fiscal policy. And that’s just policy. We also have to factor in decision making, intelligence, leadership, compassion, credibility, and work ethic. This ultimately makes the whole solution akin to solving a giant multi-variable equation. Given that five or six variables challenges even very strong math students, it’s understandable that we have trouble with this choice.

Even if you could score a candidate on every dimension, optimizing this is very difficult to understand. Why?  That brings me to proposition 2.

2. Part of the problem in evaluating candidates is we don’t have obvious preferences built up.

What’s more important to me between abortion rights, civil liberties, and a coherent Iraq policy? Well I don’t want to choose. I want to get all of the right outcomes. But parties assemble on coalitions and we are forced to make trade offs in our political lives.  For instance, I’m pro-free trade but I’m more interested in social liberalism so I’ll choose Edwards over Romney. But we don’t like the harder choices. At some point we have to chose between which passion we care about the most. And that is very hard.

3. Our tendency is to pick certain constraints and rule people out based on that.

(note: the math in this section is fuzzy but mostly researched)

I’m single so I’ll use this example: pretend you’re looking for a mate and God tells you you can choose from every eligible partner in the world except people you already know of. They’re going to say yes. So, you probably are looking at hundreds of millions of potential mates. The optimal man or woman could be anywhere. And unlike real life, they will not turn you down. I’d argue the natural tendency would be to look for a person you know or a celebrity who is (in your head) the epitome of the traits you desire. But I’m tossing that option.

So, I still have a few hundred million women to sort through. I can’t actually get through all of them. Even if I could, I couldn’t process the data. So I’m going to do category selects.

Start with age and language. I’m 27 and I can speak English, Spanish, and French. When I select for English, French, and Spanish speakers who are my age (25-32), we’ve whittled the population to approximately 40 million women. That’s clearly still too many women. Ok, now we start doing more preferences. I’ll look at college educated women. Oh, the number drops a lot to 10 million. Ok, I lied, I probably want an American or Canadian woman. Ok, now we’re down to 3 million. That’s still a lot. Even if I speed dated, I couldn’t get through that. Next goes intelligence: knock out everyone with an IQ under 120.  (Yes, I may have done some redundant selection here.) That gets us to 150 thousand. Ok, now we’re getting tricky. Do looks or personality drop next?

You can imagine where it goes from here. And the horrifying thing is that in this example, God gave me access to everyone and I still couldn’t ensure I’d make the optimal choice. The end cuts could easily be dropping out a perfect woman. The reason is that our desires are not cut and dried. I want someone who satisfies many criteria well, but the specific functions of each are poorly known. And to make matters worse, with a partner or with a politician, I don’t want to do trade offs. I wince. Hence, the categorical cuts.

Conclusion:

Gary Danko’s versus Denny’s

I’m a foodie and I love fancy restaurants. I also like comfort food. And there’s good reason for enjoying both: the experiences are truly unique. In a gourmet Michelin rated restaurant, the chef is in command. They will often give you a full constructed menu and you have to choose between meals rather than items. The flipside is Denny’s: tons of options, the menu is basically at your mercy. You can get 17 eggs poached and four pieces of bacon  on the side of a Lumberjack Special. You can get Hollandaise sauce with scrambled eggs. A gourmet chef would kill you if you asked for such a thing.

So, imagine you walk into a fancy restaurant and they give you an enormous menu. The chef is bored tonight and you’re the only customer. And he says he’ll make you any of 100 meals. They are all entirely different. For beverages, one has champagne, one has Rioja, one has orange juice, one soymilk, one goat milk. The deserts vary. Everything does. What will you do? Can you actually read 100 items? My gut reaction will be to look for things I cannot eat and things I love and use them to constrain choice. But is there a risk that by killing a meal that has white zin, I may have missed the best combination of soup, appetizer, and entree ever? And that might have mattered more than the wine? Yet, that’s the only way we can balance these equations. We can’t solve them for ourselves.

My summation: we prefer the presentation of choice but will seek to immediately constrain it. That is, don’t take my freedom away from me. I’ll do that myself.

What does a Coen brothers movie, an iPhone, and my startup have in common?

January 31, 2008

I’m thinking about innovation today. In order to innovate, to create a new business model, or to do anything new you have to abandon some existing illusions. This is alarmingly difficult to do. It’s often hard to watch.

I saw No Country for Old Men on its opening day. I was enamored from beginning to end. Like A History of Violence and Limbo, it uses the suspense genre and subverts it to discuss more significant ideas. Yet, that subversion comes at a price. The audience is frequently alienated.

I think all the films require some inspection (and perhaps introspection) to understand, but I don’t believe that any of them are inordinately complicated. Yet all three films were simultaneously criticized (by the public) and adored (by the literati) for their endings. And I won’t even discuss the Sopranos. There are two elements at work:

First, all these works attempted to introduce new ideas in traditional form. They broke the artistic contract between the viewer and the content producer.

Second, the new elements were not obviously called out. The audience had to come to them.

The best analogy I can draw is a very good consumer product with awesome features and no clean UI. Does that make it smug? Perhaps. But there’s an insistence that the work should stand on its own terms, rather thanobeying convention. In a vacuum, we laud this approach. In reality, it is painful.

Steelers 3, Miami 0

November 27, 2007

Good God, what an apocalyptic game. I think this was the football gods’ wrath on me for loving defensive struggles too much. (Please note that there are many football gods, this is a polytheistic sports conceit). That said, did we learn anything here? Well, first Ben remains quite accurate in all conditions. His decision making was sound given the limited passing outlets made available to him. The offensive line continues to be a major problem (and one of two real Achilles heels on the season). I realize Jason Taylor is a talented football player, but the penetration was overwhelming. Perhaps poor traction plays into it (linemen are holding possession so they may be more prone to sliding than an advancing defender).

The more serious concern is the defense. Yes, we shut the Dolphins out, but that stat is not as useful as noting that Beck was able to make drives in a fairly tight game. Large openings in the secondary allowed for Beck to penetrate farther than he should have gone. A few breaks here and there and this game goes in as a loss.

If the secondary plays to potential along with the o-line, we beat New England. If not, this team is out of the playoffs and may not even win the AFC North.

Overall, we’ll call this an N/A and await the Bungles with bated breath.

“We do what we do best, not what is best to do…” – Martin Amis, roughly

November 27, 2007

For state of mind, I recently read an essay by Paul Graham on learning how to do what you love. Graham’s primary conclusions appear to be: 1) doing what you really love will become a relentless search for some and often painful, 2) understanding the difference between what you love and what seems prestigious is difficult (Stumbling Upon Happiness, perhaps?), 3) if you are pursuing it, it may very well pay off. But perhaps we have no choice.

This has been a steady preoccupation of mine for the past few years, that question of what we do and why we do it. Despite being remarkably intelligent, we humans rarely seem to consider that our actions have meaningful alternatives. We push inexorably down a narrow hallway to a life that is based on what has been accomplished, not what we wish to see accomplished. And then, when there, we make choices to preserve status or keep our futures on target. We do this with often tragic consequences. The oddest thing about it is that our best spiritual leaders, supposedly the stewards of our morals, all cautioned about this trend.

That’s pretty esoteric, so let me make it clear: you grow up, you usually fall in love early, you usually have children, you usually buy a house. Like socially acceptable crack, your life now revolves around this construct. I’m not down on marriage (though I’m less upbeat than some on the topic), but if you hold back on any one of those decisions, the game changes. Once children enter the mix, everything falls apart.

In the excellent film “Thank You for Not Smoking“, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) puts this perfectly when he hollowly justifies his role as a tobacco lobbyist with, “everyone’s got to pay the mortgage” immediately followed by his admission that that claim is a “Yuppie Nuremburg Defense.” And moreover, since people justify their behavior through their dependents and possessions, could we be a better society if we all rented?

The thing that occupies my mind is that these issues seem academic, but they have profound and perverse ramifications. Since we’ve entered Pontius Pilate-mode on Iraq, we aren’t considering why we were such suckers in the first place. I’ll submit that we allowed it to happen merely because of this mold of thinking. If you’re afraid of loss, you can justify your behavior with any action. Lacking sound economic trade-off analysis , conscience irrationally fights fear and fear’s fires can be be better stoked. And so bitterness, fear of starvation, and economic hardship become war, genocide, and any number of other brutalities.

It may be that worrying about goodness is just a terrible idea. Carol Shields might have been saying that very thing in “Unless.” But as Paul Graham cautioned, I probably am not going to get around it, so I best put my shoulder to the wheel…

The name says it all…

November 27, 2007

About the title: first of all, I love wordplay and messages with multiple meanings. So, the name “greater awakening” applies loosely to my relentless theological bent (and a mockery of the current state of religious thought in the US), my hope for unleashing some greater and stronger potential in myself, and last but not least, a key line in Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender“. And that roughly informs what this blog is about: learning to do what I love, opening my eyes spiritually, and avoiding the destiny of the Pretender. Yes, I probably pay too much attention to pop music lyrics.

(That last bit also connects this blog to my brother’s blog, “Fitful Dreams“. Our common love for Jackson Browne is one of many similarities. That we disagree with the meaning of the song so much underscores the difference. )

New beginnings…

November 17, 2007

A prologue of sorts: Even though I’ve been writing heavily over the past two years, this is my first stab at long term blogging. Why write now? My life is changing in many interesting ways and I feel obligated to put it down, for posterity if nothing else.

My life is changing. My life has changed. Some of the changes I’ve experienced were thrust upon me, some I imposed. And change is an interesting theme that I’ll probably address repeatedly. Serious change takes energy, freedom, and determination. In my mind, I’ve been quite slow to change. And yet, in four years I will be able to say I finally had reconstructed my life and my pursuits based on the passions that I hold most dear. I’m just glad that I am genuinely stepping out on that path. Stay tuned. I think the writing will get better.