Globalization and education: how much have things changed?

I was inspired – or honestly speaking, ‘triggered’ – to write this blog post in response to an op-ed post by Justin Fox in Bloomberg View about, as the title says, ‘who will get spillovers when US universities begin to lose out’. The author provided a brief overview of how Swiss universities can – at least temporarily – ‘pick up the cherries’ when Donald Trump administration’s future policies will pose challenges to the ongoing dominance of US universities. However, as constrained in terms of wording and space as the op-ed post is, the author only provided a brief comparison of both American and Swiss universities, citing presidents of the latter’s two universities (ETH Zurich and University of Zurich), who were both US-educated and had experiences working in the States.

What particularly motivated me to write this blog post was the university ranking index used by Fox in his op-ed article. Using the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which heavily emphasizes on measuring university-based research output and quality, I observed in details about changes in the ranking of universities across the world. As Fox had previously argued, as of 2016, US universities remain ‘the envy of the world’, with 15 out of the world’s best 20 and 50 out of the world’s best 100 universities based in the country. However, in spite of the ongoing dominance, this figure has showed a gradual decline from previously 17 and 54 back in 2007, or nearly a decade prior. Most of the universities that remain within the best hundred are private, bestowed with huge amounts of endowment, either from big corporations or rich alumni networks. Majority of the country’s public universities, on the other hand, continue to ‘stagnate’ due to cutbacks in expenditure and lack of research funding support.

On the other hand, universities across the Asia-Pacific region have shown a strong increase in rankings within the last decade, the largest driver by which is from China. With the exception of Japan, many countries here – in general – have seen a tremendous improvement with regard to the university rankings, mostly due to huge investments in the universities, but to some extent, also due to the declining position of several universities in the Western region, namely in North America and Europe. Here, I did a bit of research to compare and contrast the representation of regions in terms of their top educational institutions between 2007 and 2016, using the ARWU index.

The increasing mobility of capital, talents, and ideas has been particularly beneficial to Asia-Pacific region, as many top universities here seek to globalize their education outlook by hiring either US-educated or European-educated faculty members into their universities, as well as increasing collaboration with other counterparts across the region and the globe. Americas and Europe, on the other hand, have seen the numbers significantly decline, especially the former.

Let us look at the ‘top 20’ composition in the table below.

Within the last 10 years, US universities continue to dominate the top 20 ARWU list, although there was a slight decline due to increasing competition from institutions from other countries (as we can see from above, UK and Switzerland). However, the race to completely ‘drive out’ the existing education superpower remains a very long road to go – or, should I say, an implausible notion up to now; schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT continue to receive massive amounts of endowments, attract top-notch talents across the globe, and their global influence in many aspects (Nobel laureates, startup unicorns, research funding, huge alumni network support) remains unmatched with those in the rest of the world, and expect this to continue for decades to come.

The pattern remains pretty much unchanged when we expand the list into the ‘top 100’, as shown in another table below this sentence.

Within one decade, universities in Asia-Pacific (namely Australia, China, and Singapore) and in Western Europe (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Switzerland) began to take a small-yet-significant portion of the “top 100” ARWU list. Japan was an ‘exception’ when compared to most Asian countries, as its pattern largely echoed that of the United States; there was a significant decline in the number of top-notch universities, and when we looked further into the next two tables below – especially in the top 500, Japan’s decline is even more dramatic.

Caveat: you suspect Japan’s decline is because the ranking index is crafted from China (an arch-rival)? Not necessarily.

Expanding the list further to the top 200, I found out that the gap between countries experiencing increase and those facing decline is becoming increasingly larger.

With regard to the increase, China has experienced the biggest increase in the number of top-200 institutions, with a six-fold increase within a decade (2 in 2007 to 12 in 2016). Saudi Arabia, surprisingly, also has 2 universities within the top-200 list (from previously 0 in 2007); this may be largely thanks to the kingdom’s extremely large amount of endowments, and the existence of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST, not to be confused with South Korea’s KAIST). South Korea has also seen its number tripling, from 1 in 2007 to 3 in 2016.

Unfortunately, the biggest “loser” in this list is once again the United States. Having 88 universities in the top-200 list in 2007, the number has since declined significantly to 71 last year. The impact of 2008-2009 financial crisis is particularly severe for public universities, and it remains reflected in the number of the institutions per se.

Lastly, let us take a final look at the ‘top-500’ list, as seen in the table attached below.

The biggest increase, once again, predominantly took place in Asia-Pacific countries, with countries that are particularly outstanding include China (a net increase of 29), Australia (a net increase of 6), Saudi Arabia (from 0 to 4), Malaysia (from 0 to 3), South Korea (8 to 11), and Iran (o to 2).

By contrast, the biggest ‘losers’ here were the United States and Japan; US has seen a net decrease of 29 universities (from 166 in 2007 to 137 in 2016), but an even more dramatic decline was in Japan, with a net loss of over half of its universities of 2007 level (from 33 that year to 16 last year, a net decrease of 17 schools, a total decline rate above 50% of its original level).

Here are several country-specific findings with regard to the ARWU ranking index:

  • China: increase in the number of Chinese universities in the top 500 list can be attributed to active efforts by Chinese government to attract overseas Chinese talents to shift research and/or other academic works back to China. However, there are a few caveats with regard to this finding worth cautioning. First, many of the overseas talents that ‘return’ to China retain their jobs overseas; this leads to the second point, by which a large proportion of them only work in the country as ‘visiting professors’, ‘visiting researchers’, or scholars employed on a work-contract basis. Do also note that many of the Chinese students aspire to go abroad to study, the most popular destination by which remains the United States. Refer to a working paper by David Zweig and Huiyao Wang (2012) about efforts by Chinese government to recruit overseas Chinese talents, as well as findings by Institute of International Education (IIE) about the composition of international students in the US.
  • United States: Cutbacks in public funding for public universities has largely declined within the last decade, regardless of whoever is in the presidency (be it Bush Jr., Obama, or even Trump). On the other hand, endowments to private universities, particularly top-notch ones, continue to increase (except on 2016 fiscal year, by which most universities show a significant decline). Still, several public universities continue to show strong performance within the same time period, such as UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles (UCLA), UC San Diego (UCSD), University of Colorado – Boulder, UT Austin, Ohio State University (OSU), Pennsylvania State University (PSU), University of Minnesota, etc.
  • Japan: the country, ironically, is in a rather “sorry state” in terms of its relative performance compared to other countries in Asia. Although Japanese universities continue to churn out innovations and remains dominant in terms of number of Nobel laureates, this shows no impact on the improvement of the universities within ARWU list. One reason, according to Times Higher Education and Japanese education consulting firm Benesse, is the high degree of insularity among Japanese universities: resistance to opening-up under globalization and the limited interaction between Japanese scholars and academic communities across the globe may help explain why the stagnation continues.
  • South Korea: the country continues to ‘shine’ in terms of its research output and technological innovation, and is increasingly active in pioneering international collaboration between Korean and other universities across the globe, with a particular emphasis on Asia and the United States. However, as economic growth slows down, many university graduates have simultaneously struggled to find jobs in the country, particularly as the economy remains dominated by large-scale business holdings (chaebol), and entrepreneurial culture has yet to fully challenge the former’s influence.
  • Saudi Arabia: on one hand, it is a good thing to have some universities within the top-500 list (4 institutions), but their contribution to structural reforms within the country remains notoriously inadequate. Unemployment rate among the youth remains staggeringly high (around 30%), opportunities for social and economic mobility remain largely closed for minority groups (especially female), and the country continues to primarily rely on foreign expertise for academic and research activities (one example? Simply look at faculty list for King Abdullah University of Science & Technology).
  • Malaysia: the country showed up on the ‘top-500’ list, but it continues to struggle in reversing the brain drain, by which Malaysia has been among the worst affected countries. Low wages for prospective graduates, as well as ‘positive-discrimination’ approaches by the government that continues to favor majority ethnic Malays in university admissions, are two factors that continue to push Malaysian talents to pursue education overseas. This is made all the worse with the ongoing currency depreciation it has faced in the last 2 years. Many of my Malaysian friends also share such experiences with me regarding their motivations in studying abroad.
  • Indonesia: none of the universities in my home country appeared in the list up to now. Although this is only in ARWU index, the fact that no institutions show up is such a disappointment.

Conclusion: while the United States continues to remain dominant with regard to their education system, and is expected to remain preeminent for decades to come, its primacy is gradually being challenged with the rise of universities outside North America, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. With globalization, the increasing mobility of talents, capital, and ideas across the globe will enable such educational spillover to continue taking place worldwide, especially with US-educated graduates either working in the States or taking up their career opportunities back in their home countries. It is also the same wave of globalization that will continue to motivate the best and the brightest across the world to come to US – and now an increasing number of alternatives in Western Europe and Asia – to pursue higher education. The monopoly remains largely concentrated in the Western world, but other regions (most importantly, Asia) are challenging up their domination.

Bonus: Times Higher Education releases what it calls 53 ‘international powerhouse’ universities, or those with very high research output and citation scores that can match the existing ‘superpowers’ like Ivy League schools or Oxbridge. It is not necessarily ‘global’, however, as 45 of these ‘powerhouses’ are still concentrated in the Western region (31 in North America, 14 in Europe), with the other 8 located in Asia-Pacific region. You can view the full list of these universities in the picture below.

Summary of the 53 universities based on countries they are located:

 

Looking from the other corner: a friend’s journey to North Carolina

This guest post is written by one of my close friends, Jane Li. Having completed her undergraduate degree in Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (where we studied together), she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Washington University in St. Louis. Long before coming to the United States, Jane has developed a close relationship with a host family she has known within the last 10 years. Last Christmas, we had some conversation as we have not met each other in the last few months. She was celebrating Christmas with her host family in North Carolina – their home state – all the while enjoying a vacation away from St. Louis, Missouri.

We initially had some ‘small talk’ – talking about our daily activities, while I was back in my hometown, and while she was in NC. She sent me some pictures about baking cookies, preparing pancakes, and tons of other dishes. All the small talk continued until she told me that her host family overwhelmingly supported – and voted – for Donald Trump. I was both not surprised and surprised. Not surprised, because North Carolina turned red in the last presidential election. Surprised, because there seemed to be no problems with her happily enjoying the feast with her host family.

“We actually debated a lot during the vacation,” Jane told me. They had some debates, and it’s hard to stay calm, but overall, the debates did not escalate into something worse.

I told my parents about our conversation.

“Regardless of how crazy Trump is, there are certain things that the rest of the world – especially us – may not necessarily understand why there is such affinity among some American voters towards the candidate,” my parents replied, “but perhaps that country needs a shock therapy.”

And I then asked Jane whether she was willing to write down her experiences staying in North Carolina with her host family. She was okay to do that, and here comes the blog post.

Before proceeding to read this post, here is one reminder that I need to emphasize: if you are in an emergency need of a safe space, this article may not be suitable for you. I do not care whether you are a conservative or a liberal or a centrist or whatever, but I seriously encourage that you read this post with an open mind. Again, if you need a safe space, you had better not proceed. Some of the ideas or thoughts here may appear strange or bizarre, but again, refer to the first rule. I only hope that this post enables us to better understand what motivated people to vote for populists like Trump, especially in the times of extreme political polarization among both the conservative and the liberal camps. Moreover, not every view or fact is here to be agreed with; each of us is endowed with an ability of logical reasoning, so use that wisely.

If you are not willing to proceed, you can stop here.

If you are willing to, you can continue scrolling it below.

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I spent most of my two weeks in North Carolina in Asheboro, a small town about an hour of drive from Raleigh-Durham with a host family. We have known each other for almost ten years now, since the couple once taught in my junior high school back in China. They are a very religious, conservative, and giving family. I have the most contact with the wife (and now mother of three) in the family. She adheres to a literal reading of the Bible, but has always been open to questions and willing to listen to different viewpoints. And they are Trump voters (although they did not really believe that Trump would be thoroughly anti-LGBT or anti-abortion), supporting him out of the hope of ‘the lesser of the vice’. These views shows possibility of how Trump voters could have thought, and they are not representative of all, nor are they unchanging over time.

This was my third time visiting the family and fresh after the Election (they voted for Trump), and I thought it would be a good opportunity to understand their viewpoints on many social issues – whether they hold different facts and/or give different weights to the same facts agreed upon. And here’s what I learned from conversation with the couple. They seemed to be in agreement on most of the issues, and the wife helped me correct views that I had misstated of theirs.

Below is the perspective of the couple, and I have used “they” except for where they clearly expressed differing views. I have also included what I had seen while in NC in [brackets].

On Donald Trump and the Campaign

First, like most people, they were initially suspicious of Trump, thinking he’s only running the campaign to boost his reputation; for now, they still question certain stances that Trump takes, whether he will do what he had previously promised, especially since Trump before 2010 supported Democrats. He does not seem that committed to LGBT issues, either.

One major reason for the couple to vote for Trump (and probably for many others that have done so) was that he talks off the top of his head. He does not seem as deceptive as stereotypical politicians are – speaking of which they have negative, direct experience of encountering them when lobbying for certain industries at the state capital, when the legislator they talked to openly solicited return – ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’. Politicians from both sides – Democrats and Republicans alike – are viewed as cunning, putting self-interests before public interests. They are tired of them being inconsistent in front of the public vs behind closed doors. Trump’s outspokenness became his strength.

Politics is so corrupted that it has become an exchange of money and vote – and this is not just for politicians seeking to enrich themselves, but even for the masses, who can expect to get something from the campaigners in return for voting for them. They have read about people being paid to protest against Trump, George Soros being one of the hands behind it.

Trump ran effectively as a political outsider and also an independent because of his businesses and therefore having to make fewer concessions to big donors. His business experience also means he will be good at negotiation and make policies that encourage businesses to create more revenue (we didn’t talk about his four bankruptcies). They seem to believe that he will also bring back jobs from abroad (we didn’t talk about automation, either).

They also think that the media is overwhelmingly biased against Trump. They take Trump’s speeches and rearrange them out of context to mislead the audience; the blurb from movie 13th Amendment quoting Trump was a good example (see the clip here). The video has Trump saying “knock the crap out of ’em” when it’s showing a black lady being pushed around in a crowd. This was edited to show the black lady when he was saying that. In reality, at least from the incidence they saw on the news when he said “knock’ em out”, he was talking about protesters that were trying to throw things at him. More specifically he said, “if you see someone about to throw something at me, knock the crap out of them.”

On Race

My host family also believe that racial relations became worse during Obama’s tenure, and it has to do with his policies. They wish they could live in a “color-blind” society and thought it’s possible, but the media is so misleading and public so stirred up and emotional. The Black Lives Matter movement and charges against police brutality, facts are provided to the public from those that push this agenda that are misleading – live footage of brutality is being used to stir emotionalism, rather than address the true issue. Criminal homicides and abortions are the largest causes of death of African-Americans, not police brutality.  Police officers are in a position of authority in our society. Due to their commitment to uphold the law and their willingness to place their lives on the line for the security of the people they serve, they deserve respect. They carry lethal force, thus compliance is necessary for the safety of all parties. It is also the person’s responsibility to follow what the police say and not resist it, and parents should educate their children how to deal with police in a respectful manner. This is not to say that police don’t make mistakes, and indeed, there is a possibility that they misuse their power. On that, more funding that supports professional training for the police is needed so that they make fewer mistakes. And new devices such as body cameras which the police are required to wear now will reduce police abuse of power.

Besides, the media – especially music – is covering too much of blacks and minorities in a way that: 1) further antagonizes racial relationship and encourages more conflict of the mass in dealing with police; 2) only criticizes and does not provide any constructive solution. Hollywood and entertainment industry in general portray blacks as in poorer conditions and together they create the impression of blacks in less advantageous positions and elicit more anger.

On Racial Disparity in Education Opportunities

There may be disparity, but there isn’t that much difference between the education provided by prestigious schools and less prestigious ones; there is opportunity for anyone who wants to thrive, and that doesn’t mean someone has to become rich and famous by the world’s standard. Anyone can go to community college if they want. College provides opportunity, but it is not the panacea to every problem. It also often means student debt that takes years to pay back, and for some even a lifetime is not enough. Those not attending not only save tuition but also have longer working years so they could expect to retire earlier while being self-sufficient (we didn’t talk about automation). They might also start their businesses early and make a living out of it. There are many ways to improve living conditions. Moreover, there are always setbacks in life; the diligent will prosper anyway. Ben Carson being a case in point.

[In the house, doing chores was a duty of the children as members of the family; but they get paid for studying]

Obama dealt the racial card too. He built his support by black power first, and I have followed the website of his church which states Obama’s stances and it’s interesting to see how it changes throughout his campaign and after he got elected.

For Building A Wall (And Making Mexico Pay For It):

President Bill Clinton said something similar in the 1990s, and there was even fund for it; it’s feasible (Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, which approved the construction of a 22.5-km barbed wire along San Diego border with Mexico; Bush continued with Secure Fence Act of 2006; Obama, meanwhile, was a ‘deporter-in-chief’; he once supported Secure Fence Act, anyway). Clinton received standing ovation when he said it, and Trump didn’t because the public dislike him. A lot of drugs are also smuggled over the border and they have to deal with the consequences. It seems to them that Mexico will probably end up paying for the wall. By the way, they believe that NAFTA is a disaster.

On Refugee Policy

In this issue, the host family believed that they made a mess in Europe; many became vagrants and thugs. They rape women more than the regular crowd do. They also believe that refugees take away jobs from the local people.

[unfortunately, to a certain degree, this may be true, especially when looking at the Google Maps here]

There are more Muslims among the refugees and that could be dangerous. Ben Carson has been quoted saying, “…it’s like medical malpractice, if I were ISIS and did not infiltrate the refugee group.” An open door to this country is just that – it creates a quick entry. Some leaders have warned that the vetting process isn’t able to be diligent with knowing who they are welcoming. It takes a long time to screen newcomers. They also need better infrastructure to provide newcomers with language studies, job opportunities, etc. Without knowing how to navigate the existing systems while providing them free food, lodging and health benefits – there is little motivation to be a productive member of our society.

On Religion

The family also believes that Islam has in its scripture verses that are unequivocally violent. It is hard for them to believe that sincere followers of Koran won’t commit violence and oppress women as the book teaches. This is different from Bible, which they believe only teaches love. Many rules from the Old Testament have been replaced by the principle of love, which is the greatest teaching of all, and God has written law on the heart of people so what does not make sense in the verses should be taken critically. (once again, I caution readers not to easily react to these opinions)

Radical Muslims who follow the scripture literally are most likely to commit violence against others and therefore survive (since they kill others first). They also have high birth rate, which means in many years from now, their population (the more violent, fundamentalist believers) are going to take over control.

They think that America is no longer like America in Founding Father’s time, where Christianity was more powerful and purer. Those governing the country were devout Christians; no longer is that the case. Now America is becoming unfamiliar: a pro-LGBT America, with people speaking languages they don’t understand and different cultures and other beliefs flooding in. They wish this country to be more ‘genuine’ to themselves, comparing it to Japan having preserved its distinct culture so well. That is Japan’s unique identity. In this regard, they believe their identity is now being challenged.

For example, I heard that there are an increasing number of Hispanic neighbors near the family’s grandma’s house, and in one school the French course was replaced by Chinese course. This might be exciting to some of my friends in Asheboro since they love China, but perhaps simultaneously also giving them a sense of uneasy change of the more familiar and merging of less familiar cultures. And on homosexuality, the wife believes that it’s a sin, but she disagrees to the notion that homosexuals should be excluded from equal protection and access to public services. To her, everyone is born a sinner. She is also fine with her oldest daughter disliking dresses and her son disliking the traditionally boyish toys, though her husband less so.

On US abstaining from voting against Israel in UN late last year: On the Sunday service on Christmas at the church, the pastor mentioned the UN vote in passing and criticized the U.S. for turning its back on Israel. The pastor referred to The Revelation in New Testament, which says that “God blesses whoever blesses Israel and curses whoever curses it”. If the U.S. declines in power after Trump takes over, some people would think that it’s due to the U.S. no longer supporting Israel. As to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the issue itself is not familiar to them, but the pastor seemed knowledgeable about it and on Sunday service he had criticized abstention on the U.S. side. They believe that the U.S. should protect Israel no matter what for its own benefit. Although it may be hard to reconcile this belief with the principle of love which they also take, and with the countless lives of Palestinians having lost their homes – and even their lives – to Israel’s encroachment, the pastor believed it is ‘within God’s plan’. Respecting God’s sovereignty means trusting it.

There are many signs in front of the houses in the county that says, “Thank you Jesus”; another friend who lives in NC also told me that people here sometimes identify themselves by their church affiliations. This is the Deep South, the Bible Belt, where church attendance is higher than national average. I got a T-shirt with a proud “Simply Southern” label on it as a Christmas gift. During my stay in NC, I also visited a friend in Asheville who goes to HKUST (but is an Asheville native). As we ordered food in a diner, he overheard a couple sitting on a table next to us, talking about their supernatural experiences.

On Abortion

The host family also views that making abortion easier will lift the consequences of illicit sex and encourage more promiscuous behavior and unexpected pregnancies, especially for teenagers. It does not necessarily follow that abortion should be totally banned. Practices like providing ultrasounds, and hearing heartbeats may humanize the pregnancy experience, thus giving women more information about the choice they are about to make.

Obamacare & Welfare In General 

For them, it is great that Obamacare has provided healthcare for many, but they are worried that the long-term pattern is not sustainable. Contributors to the health care ‘pool’ are not able to use health care because of its exorbitant costs. “You can’t force people to pay for something they can’t even use. It’s also too expensive, and the money goes to insurance firms.” They also believe generally that the government lacks the incentive to be efficient, and usually it gives the poor a hand out by giving away goods (and develop dependency), and church and other local community groups are more likely to give a hand up by actually working with their people, knowing their problems and developing more comprehensive coping strategies. They are better connected to the local people and are able to target people needing help more effectively. People should not just feel entitled to welfare and should be held responsible for their behavior and try to get out of welfare.

They also think that welfare benefits are sometimes too generous and are ‘disincentives’ for people from working. For example, SNAP program provided too much worth of food stamps when they qualified for and received assistance. There are also unemployment benefits that discourage people from seeking jobs and working. “You can have a TV, brand-new vehicle, and housing, and are still considered poor and receive benefits.”

[The real causes are damn complicating: read the Bloomberg special report here]

Many people seek to fraud the system by faking work injuries to get benefits.

[The husband, a physical therapist, is at the forefront of fighting this but he is, by doing so, also running the risk of being charged because of refusing to give false diagnosis. Benefits for veterans are too much. During my stay we also met a veteran who had a light injury and should be able to work but didn’t, given the generous benefit packages]

Housing

Because of a provision in the public housing policy, owners cannot kick someone out even if that person fails to pay rent. As a consequence, vagrants stay.

[One of their friends had a tenant that refused to pay the rent, and eventually was forced to leave by the friend removing the door to make the room too cold for staying. Under the law it would be illegal to remove him otherwise. The house we used for Christmas party, before it was refurbished, had had needles in it and some vagrants were seen in the house.]

Global Warming 

The conclusion that global warming is largely caused by human activity is not definite yet, although in public discourse that is gaining ground. There is a conspiracy theory that they subscribe to, that a hundred years ago there had already been discovered ways to generate energy efficiently and in a non-polluting way. But they are kept secret because of business or political interests. The husband claims to have read evidence of this being real.

[The links to articles/videos one of my friends shared with me are mostly from less-known, and oftentimes vague, sources, mostly via Facebook, but when I talked to my friend’s husband, I learned that he reads NY Times, Washington Post, as well as other more liberal and mainstream media; he tries to be eclectic.]

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Thus far, these are the points that Jane covered in her guest post. There are certainly many other topics that they have discussed, but are not included here.

Regardless of how many ‘intellectual mistakes’ that have been made, it remains a very unique perspective to understand better about the microcosmic worldviews of a very small sample of Trump voters. The voters that we had been exposed to in the mass media were oftentimes depicted as racists, know-nothing ignoramus, bigots, misogynists, or other negative labels. But looking deeper into their thoughts, that generalization was more blurred than it appears on the surface. What became alarming for me, nonetheless, is the growing political and identity divides within what is, for now, the existing global superpower. For certain, anything that President Trump does may affect the global order today. And it matters to examine the voters’ worldviews in the first place to understand ‘things that the rest of the world may not necessarily comprehend’ (quoting my parents).

Here, I express my sincere gratitude for my close friend, Jane Li, for sharing her experiences living in North Carolina, as well as many of the ideas shared in the post. I wish her all the best in the US, especially for her studies in Washington University in St. Louis. I also sincerely thank her host family for allowing her to write down her experiences, and in particular, allowing us to explore more about their worldviews.

 

The emperor has no clothes, but remains an emperor

emperor

Did you still remember Hans Christian Andersen? Or, to go a bit deeper, have you ever read his short story titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? If you have neither read his stories nor known this person’s name (I assume most of you have), I suggest that we spend some time (re)reading his works. The Emperor’s New Clothes, in particular, is a title I think is worth reading. Allow me to summarize his story in case you haven’t read it, although some guys in Wikipedia have already done the plot summary.

Once upon a time, there lived a king who made wearing the best outfits and costumes his primary quotidian activity. Caring not so much about the kingdom and the people, but rather his appearance, or a very thick sense of fashion. One day, two weavers came in, claiming that they could build the best costumes for the emperor. So fantastic, so amazing, so awesome the designs were, that these outfits could only be seen by people who are intelligent, smart, and ‘at least not stupid’. The ruler took the weavers’ words so seriously that he entrusted them the new outfits. Anyone who could not view the emperor’s new clothes would be labelled ‘gravely foolish’.

The emperor finally wore these new clothes, but his ministers – and other subordinates – were so fearful of facing the reality: the clothes were so seriously microscopic that the emperor, apparently, wore nothing at all. But the ministers were also afraid of losing their jobs, or even their statuses, so they had no choice, but to lavish the emperor with praises. There the emperor embarked on his own parade, where every citizen marched to watch the procession, himself almost completely naked. People already knew the fact that the emperor was wearing ‘nothing’, but out of fear of being labelled ‘gravely foolish’, or hopelessly stupid, they would rather keep themselves in silence. A young child screamed out, but the procession went on. The emperor ‘probably’ knew about this, but, anyway, after all, the ruler prevails.

Obviously, there was almost no such historical example of leaders posing themselves literally naked; the moral lesson of the story is there, but its resemblance echoes for the duration of human civilization. We have seen great, wise leaders, but we have also seen bad, horrible leaders throughout our lifetime. What I honestly worry about is when a society, despite having understood some negative traits associated with the latter, would still cling their hopes on these people. Or when there are swindlers in the weavers’ clothing who deliberately exploit and manipulate the situation in such a condition that we ‘seemingly have no choice’ but to praise the naked emperor, given our personal fear at face value. Oftentimes we wish we could be like those young folks, but most of the time, a lot of us did not. Many factors hinder us, and adults understand that the truth is more complicating than what children usually perceive (this story is intended for children, by the way, but adults should learn, too). Still, ironically, we are simply afraid of telling the truth, when the truth itself, obviously, is already out there – and even visible for most of us.

It doesn’t matter whether we live in democracies, hybrid regimes, or dictatorships, but it is simply the reality of human society that oftentimes we are led by persons who have achieved tremendous feats for the greater good, or by others who have implemented disastrous policies. In a democracy, we can elect a person who gave us universal health care, mandatory minimum wages, multiple peace deals, LGBT rights, etc; on the other, we also have the similar ability to elect a demagogue, an outright racist, a bigot, or even a sexual predator to power. In a dictatorship, there were ‘benevolent tyrants’ who have led decades of economic miracle before democratization occurred; simultaneously, there were also tyrants that left a country in shambles, civil wars, or constant civil disorders. There have also been leaders that constantly give certain communities ‘pork’, in exchange of constant support to the leaders regardless of whatever wrongdoing the leaders have committed, be it a massive corruption scandal, serious human rights violations, or probably, something like sexual abuses, ties to mobsters, or racialized threats towards other communities that may be deemed soft spots or convenient targets. Look at history – not just the last two days – and we can see numerous of such illustrations.

History has seen such ups and downs in human society, but the good thing is that when mindsets change, people can change, too. We can choose to be like any other adults watching the naked emperor’s procession – all the while lavishing our pretentious praises at the ruler, or we can respond like the young boy in the story, and if need be, amplify his voices.

After all, I would remain an optimist. Probably a cautious one.

Why poverty occurs

poor-people

When I was small, I was frequently told by my parents to persevere, work hard, and not to be indolent. From the car windows, we often saw young folks in a range of ages – I guess between 5 and 20 – playing guitars on the street side or begging for money. Their bodies were covered in dirt, oftentimes with torn-down clothes, and messy hair. Sometimes, there would be old ladies or men, slowly knocking on the car windows when traffic happened, asking for some pity. Some displayed physical deformities, such as cataract-affected eyes, amputated limbs, or tumors with the size of a human face. “You often have this strong feeling that you want to help them, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than to be sorry,” that is the near-typical expression my parents told me. “When you help a person, their friends will follow suit. And we are also not legally allowed to hand in cash for beggars or street urchins. But where the heck is the government?”

Afterwards, they quipped this familiar line. “That’s why you need to work really hard so that you have a better future.”

And that is also where we build this familiar, generalized adage of correlating people being poor with people being lazy, or ‘not being hardworking enough’. The reality, however, is far more complicating and incomprehensible than the pattern appears on the surface.

I was forever grateful for my family – especially my parents – that my family was able to support my overseas education, and that I was able to study in HKUST, one of the world’s youngest and fastest-rising research universities. And truth be told, if you happen to study in Hong Kong, it is also one of the ‘best’ places in the world not only to learn business, finance, or investment banking, but also to study about poverty. Not studying about poverty as a university major or degree of specialization, but rather to allow us to compare and contrast the unprecedented wealth and income gaps in one of the world’s most globalized cities.

I participated in several community service activities organized by a university-led outreach program throughout Hong Kong, and there, I began to experience – and learn more – about the more ‘sophisticated’ picture of the reality of poverty. If what you perceive of Hong Kong is mostly about its glitzy skyscrapers, you have only seen ‘one-half’ of the reality; you need to come across its numerous dilapidated multi-storey buildings, mostly spread around Kowloon, in order to get the other half of the reality. Inside the buildings, the alleys separating the flats are extremely shallow that you can hardly switch over your body. For a space the size of my own bedroom (back in my hometown), I think there may be like 5-6 ultra-small flats within that ‘alley’.

To make matters worse, there are other ‘quirks’ that epitomize poverty in this city. Many people, mostly elders, live in cages, due to ‘exorbitant housing rents’. There are also people who live in very compressed conclaves between two storeys of a building, to the extent that they can no longer stand, but need to crawl in within these spaces. And I can tell you that they are not lazy, either; these people, aged in 60s, 70s, or even 80s, still continue to eke out a living – an uneasy living – by picking up cardboards across the streets, and selling them to any hawkers for a tiny amount of money. Sometimes, they work for like more than 10 hours a day in restaurants and cafes, serving dishes and/or cleaning tables. Others stand for hours in certain stations to hand out pamphlets or advertising newsletters to any passersby. I once observed an old lady – perhaps already in a mentally ill state – getting in an altercation with a shopping mall security guard because of her pamphlet-distributing activity that is considered ‘annoying’. She murmured to herself in an angry tone while handing out these papers, to the ignorance of the passersby.

It’s not only about the old people. There are also young folks who are already working for hours a day, all the while doing menial tasks. Cleaning up tables in campus restaurants, removing food trays, or mopping the floors. And these people are definitely not lazy, just to keep this thought in mind.

Gradually, there came this awareness that people are poor not necessarily because they are lazy. That’s why it matters to look at the wider circumstances that facilitate such condition. If our parents are themselves poor, there is also a certain degree of likelihood that we will be in the same condition, and inherit it to our children and beyond. That is where the dichotomy comes in: we must work hard to lift ourselves from this evil cycle. But again, the outcomes can be mixed: some of them manage to have their offspring lifting the families out of poverty through education and skills, but others remain in the cycle, or even become economically worse off.

Consider two families of janitors. Just because their occupation is to clean out toilets does not mean we can easily dismiss their potential, especially their dignity. Suppose one family works really hard to provide adequate support for their children’s education; it is possible for them to support these children to finish high school, it is also possible their children can get scholarships to study in some of the best institutions to complete a bachelor’s degree, and it is even possible that they can complete a PhD degree. At the same time, the other family also works similarly really hard, but their children dropped out of high school, and given their inadequate educational backgrounds, end up working in a similar occupation as their parents do.

There are many possible answers on why the outcomes diverge for these two families. It can be mindset. Their parents may frequently tell the children how important education is, and why hard work and achievement matters, but they can also tell the children to ‘forget education, your stomach matters more’. It can be the neighborhoods they are in as well. There may be schools or educational institutions near their vicinity that offer subsidized education and renewable merit-based scholarships, with fully motivated teachers and educators doing their best to educate these guys. But there can also be a neighborhood ridden with crimes, infested with drug abuse, suffering from dilapidated, under-funded schools, obesity, or deadly gang fights. It can also be generational. The similar neighborhood their children live in is no different from the setting where their parents used to live. It can also be due to government policies. There are governments that favor free education and free healthcare because their tenet is social justice, so their families would be pretty much already ‘covered’ under its social security framework. There are also authorities that fully believe in laissez-faire principles, ‘to each one’s own’; your social status is defined by your own making. There are also regimes whose only task is to win the next election by handing out cash and other favored packages to their constituencies. You don’t call it social security; it’s clientelism. It can also be due to countries’ level of socio-economic development. The chronicle of this janitor families changed because the country shifted from a Third World country to a high-income economy. And don’t forget other ‘empirically unexplainable factors’. You can call it luck, bad luck, or if you don’t believe in any of these, simply refer to them as random events, absurdities, what have you.

Let us term them ‘unexpected circumstances’. It could be possible that one of the family members suffers from a terminal illness, and it takes a huge amount of money for its medical treatment. Or that the company the parents are employed in needs to lay off some people, including the parents themselves. Or it can be that an accident befalls to one of the family members, forcing them to forfeit their savings for education to pay for the medical costs. Or that either one of the breadwinners or the other family members is either seriously incapacitated or killed in a gang fight, a robbery, or an attempted murder. Or that a systemic economic or financial crisis takes place and the family lost their savings value. Or that another party wins election and promises to roll back every social security measure to ‘ensure a healthy fiscal setting’. Or that the social security benefits are taken away by other already-middle-class families. Or because of automation. Or that the children struggle to find jobs despite their high school or educational backgrounds. And it could also be possible that the family either never encounters or never becomes seriously affected by any of such calamities.

The reality becomes even more difficult to accept when one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Using years of research output and armed with arsenals of statistical figures, Piketty showed that since early 1970s, most of the world – particularly the Western world – has witnessed a U-shaped growth in inequality (instead of the inverted-U theorem as argued by Simon Kuznets), due largely to globalization, outsourcing of jobs to less developed countries, and more recently, disruptive technologies and artificial intelligence. He argued that in the last 40 years, the growth of capital income has surpassed that of labor income; the larger the capital-labor income gap is, the more unequal a society will be in the future.

How do we define capital income? It can be gains made through productivity improvement when companies invest in sophisticated machines that produce more and better. It can also be gains invested from our parents’ inherited wealth. It can also be home prices. It can also be universities’ endowments. What about labor income? It’s the salaries that we receive from the occupations we are doing. And whether you feel your aggregate labor income is growing or stagnating may depend on the location where you live. As shown by economist Branko Milanovic, the biggest ‘winners’ of globalization in the last three decades are middle class in emerging markets (led by China) and the elites in Western world, while the biggest ‘losers’ are the poorest people living in poor and developing countries, as well as the middle class in the Western world.

It becomes even more confusing when we look into two totally different things: poverty continues to decline, yet inequality continues to increase worldwide. The number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 1.8 billion in early 2000 to now around 800 million as of 2015, but the wealth concentration among the top 1% of the world’s population has surpassed 51% of the global wealth in the same period. Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, in his book The Great Escape (released in the same year as Piketty’s book), argued that the reasoning may be that while many people escape poverty through expanded access to education, healthcare, and other public services, they are still struggling to enter into the middle class. That said, the poverty-reduction effort is a success, but that success is built on a fragile foundation. This may mean that should anything occur, and should these people be ‘unprepared’ of its repercussions, they may either fall back into poverty, or remain trapped in the low-income-but-not-poor-cycle for a very long time.

That said, the reality of poverty is more difficult to understand than normally assumed. I will not take much of the explanation here into direct conclusion, as more research needs to be worked out to better understand its peculiar nature. Still, I think policymakers need to embark on policy innovation, as the world today is dramatically different from the world in the past. Lastly, the ages-old recipe of ‘job creation’ (as politicians like to promise) or ‘poverty eradication’ (as these UN aficionados and/or bravados like to voice out) has sounded so hollow with the complicating realities of today, that we all need to silence ourselves and reconfigure the definition of this concept, one that we think is as simple as street urchins or beggars asking for money on the street side.

A farewell to 2016, and welcoming an uncertain future

welcoming-2017

 

A close friend of mine posted on our Whatsapp chat group that our ‘366 days’ are finally closing today. He specifically referred to ‘366 days’, because of all days in this year, there is one special day in which his birthday befalls: February 29. With officially his age being ‘5 years old’ (he’s actually 20, de facto), he will need to wait until 2020 to celebrate his 6th birthday, or by the time when he’s already 24 years old.

To some extent, I quite pitied him given his unusual birth date. But it’s okay; one great thing I will remember is the friendship that we have long forged, together with the rest of the chat group members, for quite some time. As I am currently on my final year of study at HKUST, this may probably be the first – and the last – time I can directly celebrate his birthday. Again, it’s okay; his once-in-four-years birthday will forever be remembered.

My friend’s ‘birthday story’ is not the primary theme for this post; you can call it an ‘opening anecdote’.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Compared to previous years, this is also the time when I made the least number of posts. In 2015, I published 21 blog posts, already a massively huge drop compared to 2014 (when I posted, I guess, over 300 blog posts). This year, it is only 15 (including this one). The number of viewers has also dropped in the last two years, which I think is quite expected given the reduced time I have spent curating this WordPress blog. But it’s okay; I don’t care if the total number of this 5.5-year-old blog is comparatively lower than those on a typical Youtube video, because I am not seeking publicity. The aim of this blog is very simple: to share my thoughts, and nothing else. My commitment is that as long as I am still alive, I will continue updating this blog, all the while sharing my thoughts about issues which I think – and believe – are worth seriously addressing.

If I could sum up how 2016 has been for me, I can say that it, in some way, sucks. My sentiment may be a bit different compared to how others denigrated the year of 2016; I didn’t really blame ‘2016’ itself in causing problems (because problems can always occur regardless what year it is), but rather how some ‘misfortunes’ happen somewhat more frequently compared to previous years. And it’s particularly personal. To begin with, I did not manage to get any single Dean’s List awards this year, which are actually important in determining my scholarship amount. There have also been excessive bureaucratic logjams with regard to salary processing of my research internship. A huge rise in expenditures as I am applying for PhD and Master’s programs (to tell you the fact, a normal PhD application fee, in case for a US school, can cost between US$75 and US$125). My application for a research trip to Zambia was also rejected for ‘quite unclear reasons’. Anxiety related to finding jobs, especially when I remember the tremendous amount of ‘investment’ already incurred by my family in paying for my tuition, in addition to my own scholarships. There is also a similar anxiety about my younger brother, as he is currently waiting for the news from any universities he has been applying for (including the school I am currently enrolled in).

Returning back to my friend’s ‘birthday’ story, the anxiety is cyclical, this time perhaps with a larger scope in mind. Perhaps I can call it a ‘once-in-a-few-years’ cycle of anxiety. Back in 2009-2010 period, the primary ‘worry’ was about getting selected for a high school scholarship in Singapore. Then in 2012-2013 period, the major anxiety was about me in choosing universities. Now, in 2016, and later in 2017, the major worries will be about which schools my younger brother will be in, whether I will be accepted for PhD or Master’s programs, or whether I end up taking a job. As I am hoping to pursue further studies in the United States, there have been serious discussions with my parents. My mom is more supportive of me than my dad does in this regard; my dad has been truly ‘scared’ by a Donald Trump presidency, half-jokingly and half-not-jokingly.

Perhaps this is the reason I can say why this last winter vacation for me as an undergraduate student feels so different compared to previous vacations. Most of my friends and I didn’t worry too much about looking for jobs, finishing final-year projects, or waiting for confirmation about postgraduate application. All we cared about was simply about having a nice time during vacation. And this is particularly strongly felt for me, personally. I only return to my hometown once in a year as I make every summer in the last three years occupied with research-related jobs or courses. And this time, the vacation feels different; it’s hard for me to describe it, and you will understand that kind of moment of uncertainty when you start to ponder into the future, especially with only one remaining semester left.

That’s why I feel particularly anxious; from 2017 onward, both my younger brother and I will most likely have spent most of our time studying, or working, overseas. All the while he’s applying for scholarships, my parents will still need to continue supporting his education. And with them expected to continue working, there may be even less time for us to frequently interact with each other. It is inevitable, oftentimes, that it takes some sacrifices to achieve something. Obviously, life in 2017 will be vastly different from in this year.

That said, all I can do in the last day of 2016 is to bid farewell to this year, and learn from these experiences. It’s true that some setbacks have occurred, but again, let bygones be bygones. We may choose to be defensive and ‘victimize’ ourselves in the face of these misfortunes and become overly reactionary; indeed, some emotional expression may be quite necessary. But, we can also choose to ‘let go’, learn from our mistakes, and continue to persevere. Again, as I always repeatedly tried to reassure myself, it is not always the ‘years’ themselves that choose the calamities. There may be such cyclical-like patterns, but we may opt not to let them defeat our spirits. Come 2017, the time for another life transition, and as much different – and difficult – it is as the life transition in 2013 was (previously from high school to overseas university education, now from university to either a postgraduate study or employment), that persevering spirit matters a lot. I have still yet to bring ‘the best’ in me and to my family, and that has always been the mantra I stick in to my mind whenever that moment begins to tick into my mindset.

And here is my message for my juniors who are still yet to graduate: if you are in for your winter vacation, enjoy it to the fullest. When it comes to this pre-transition moment, you will begin to deeply appreciate how meaningful every time you spend with your beloved ones is. The current era is vastly different from previous ones, as there are now an almost endless array of high-tech wonders that make our lives easier, but still, none of them can replace the values of direct, face-to-face interaction, especially with close friends and family members. If you agree with me that 2016 sucks, let’s bid it – say the least – an honorable farewell (you don’t have to follow in John Oliver’s way of saying goodbye to 2016). Welcoming 2017, we will expect riddles, mysteries, tragedies, and other unexpected shocks. But, let’s also anticipate any unexpected virtues or moments of ‘luck’, because after all, these are the dual characteristics of our human nature.

Goodbye, 2016. I will promise to keep you updated with future blog posts next year. Happy new year in advance!

Saving democracy from democracy itself

democracy-under-test

First and foremost, I hope that everyone reading this post enjoy a merry Christmas (or, if you are not a Christian, at least a good holiday). I am sure that 2016 has been a tough, strange, sad, and maddening year, given the occurrences of many ‘weird’ events throughout this year. As we are welcoming 2017, which is only a few days ahead of now, it may be worthwhile to spend a little bit time to reflect stuff that has occurred in the last 12 months.

There is one inconvenient condition, at the least, that we must all acknowledge on the first hand: democracy is not working well. I do not know to which extent you deeply support the notion of democracy or its ideals, and I do not even know if you support its very essence at all, but the first precondition that we must be aware is that there is something wrong with how we implement democracy across the world.

We even need to start asking ourselves: how do we actually define a democracy? If we think democracy is no more than voting, protesting, and changing governments, then something is wrong with our conceptual framework about this idea. Even China, all that we know as a one-party authoritarian state, regularly holds direct elections (although constrained on the village level) and experienced almost 100,000 protests in 2015, although the nature of these protests was mostly about grievances against local governments. Is it a sign of democratization? Assuming ceteris paribus, I do not see its democratizing prospects in the long run, given that majority of the middle class in China still support the Communist Party regime.

That’s the case for China. Then we have the populist-wave phenomenon in the Western world. People in this hemisphere have experienced the refugee crisis, suffered from terrorist attacks, seen worsening inequalities, and undergone stagnant income gains with sluggish economic growth rates. We’ve seen the impacts of ‘Brexit’ (even though the real Brexit has not really taken place), and the biggest amplifier of all, the fact that we will see Donald Trump (and all the brouhaha that we have known) becoming the 45th President of the United States.

Perhaps the world is preoccupied with the Brexit and Donald Trump phenomenon, but do not get entrapped in such common knowledge bias: the quality of democracy is in decline worldwide. Stanford-based political scientist Larry Diamond, in his January 2015 research paper, has highlighted that since 2005 onward, the growth of democracies has stagnated, and even slightly declined. Looking at the current context, we’ve seen quite a number of these illustrations. The increasing centralization of power in Turkey under Erdogan. Putin’s continued dominance in Russian politics, despite economic crisis and stagnation. The victory and ongoing rule of hard-line populist parties in Poland and Hungary. Excluding 25 other cases that Diamond listed in his paper.

Remember one thing in the first place, though: they gain power not through illegitimate means, but through elections, many of which are actually competitive.

I am not saying that democracy is going to collapse anytime soon; indeed, both Larry Diamond and Dan Slater (another renown political scientist based in University of Chicago) concurred that democracy will stay in the long run. Rather, what they (and also I) worry is that certain political forces may hijack the very purpose of democracy for their own advantages. That, I argue, may lead to the subsequent decline in the quality of the democracy itself. After all, differentiate the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’; the former relates to what ideas are best accepted by the majority in a polity, while the latter relates to the checks and balances of the former. The current tendency, nevertheless, is that democracy has been so seriously misused that we all begin to see the unexpected – and oftentimes unwanted – consequences: clientelism, political corruption, populism, demagoguery, tyranny of the majority, polarization, and ‘manipulation of the game’; or, to put it in layman’s term, the fact that any alternating government will not be able to change the existing flaws in the political system.

This is not to say that other alternatives are necessarily better than democracy; Przeworski et al., in a signature 2000 paper, has argued that economic development bears little (or even no) correlation with a country’s political status as either a dictatorship or a democracy. That said, it does not matter whether a country is still ruled by an authoritarian regime or has already democratized; as long as the government can deliver outcomes as promised to the people, there should be a degree of stability. What I am saying here, in this regard, is for us to experience ‘a rude awakening’ of the current flaws in the implementation of democracy.

Here are some personal suggestions that I can think of in how we can save the benefits promised by democracy from its debilitating disadvantages, especially as we are welcoming 2017:

First and foremost, acknowledge that democracy does not make us ‘live in paradise’.

Our ‘obligation’ to preserve democracy has been largely ceremonial and superficial: we go to voting booths to vote for candidates, and end of story. I don’t care whether you have ever voted or not, but I get the feeling when people express their dissatisfaction and voice that ‘whoever becomes elected, nothing has ever changed’. Presidents or prime ministers come and go, but some problems are becoming worse. In the 2016 US election alone, over 100 million eligible voters did not cast their support to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (let alone Gary Johnson or Jill Stein). I may understand the prevailing sentiment among these people about these candidates, and acknowledging that, on the first place, is a first step to deconstruct our thought processes about the notion of democracy.

Second, when you are presented with contradictory arguments, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they are, ‘do not hide in safe spaces’.

Many of us may find the statement ‘politically correct’ allergic. And sometimes, I personally feel that, too. Nonetheless, most of our time, we have been raised in a way that we can only voice out issues that conform to the ‘politically correct’ notion. Any slight deviation from the general consensus will be immediately ‘shut down’ by tirades of ‘political correctness’, and sometimes with credible threats of coercion. What’s the consequence? We refuse to listen to ‘inconvenient truths’, preferring ourselves to stay within our own comfort zones that we have been so deeply imbued with. I don’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or simply ‘an ordinary guy’, but if we, even at the very first place, have begun to censor our mindsets with filters of certain notions or perceptions associated with ‘the other party’, we end up labeling the other side into a monolith. Liberals shutting down the conservatives, conservatives shutting down the liberals, etc. Bubbles proliferate, and when they explode, the outcomes can be fatal. Civil conflicts, riots, uncompromising polarization, winner-takes-all attitude, or even mass casualties, all these outcomes are possible. Why don’t we all minimize our ego and start listening? Not that their ideas may be entirely correct, but at least, we may find a certain degree of ‘virtues’ in their arguments. Unfortunately, this second step may be the most difficult thing to do (given our prevailing dogma, stereotyping, and other biases within our mindsets).

Third, educate ourselves about civic rights. And as long as you have enough resources, do something.

I am sure that most of us have, at least, been engaged in a certain community-themed action, no matter how small it is. Be it visiting elderly people, providing free food for poor or homeless people or refugees, or volunteering for an NGO or a religious or social movement, such actions can already be considered as ‘breeding grounds’ for us to learn more about issues related to our society. We do good things not only to wish ourselves ending up in heaven, or to win more business contracts for our enterprises because of good publicity (ironically, that’s what CSR is all about), but also to understand in further depth about the roots of these problems. Why there are such communities that they may need our assistance. Understanding their issues, listening to their perspectives, and fully discerning their hardships may be another step to make us more aware about the concept of civil society.

Most importantly, if you are parents (I am still a 21-year-old guy, by the way), and your children are still young, educate them about the importance of civil society. Get them involved about these issues. You may disagree with me to a certain extent, but I do believe that the earlier we are exposed to these problems, the more we become aware of what we can contribute to solve these problems.

Fourth, compromise, no matter how unpopular it is.

Compromise often sounds dirty, or something like a C-word. But, again, be aware of the existing reality: society is a set of constantly competing interests, ideas, power, and forces. There are a lot of diverse groups from ethnic, racial, social, economic, religious, and various other defining features. It is correct that we strive to advocate our ideas, and sometimes we may have to compete with others, but when these become winner-takes-all struggles, it poses a danger to our long-term democratic values. After all, one feature of democracy is that it is raucous, noisy, and oftentimes chaotic. However, in the end, still, we must come to the realization that some of our interests do not always overlap with the others, but we can not overlook them, either. They are still part of our society. In the end, there are some painful compromises we must make. I do not ask for us to completely give up our rights, but to trade some issues of ‘minor’ importance, which may be of major importance for the other. This does not sound popular at all, but that is why I ask all of us to make such sacrifices, occasionally.

Fifth, and lastly, remain critical of our surrounding environment.

This may be difficult to apply in certain hybrid or authoritarian regimes, but after all, dissenters still exist everywhere. When we vote somebody to a public office, we entrust him or her with a significant degree of trust that the leader will do something. That we will hold our support toward them accountable. That is why, no matter what policies the leaders do, do not stop being critical. Write our thoughts, ideas, and feedback about certain policies in a civic and restrained manner (especially if you live in a country that does not seem too much like a democracy). If you are afraid to do so with the central or federal government, at least start from the localities we live in. Do not hesitate to criticize when there are things worth raising for.

I do not guarantee whether all these five suggestions are applicable, but if you believe that democracy is the least bad form of political system (as I personally also do), I still believe that these ideas are worth for consideration. Particularly in the age of social media – and the massive flurry of deliberate misinformation or ‘fake news’ – never before has it become so imperative for us to maintain our critical-thinking skills. I choose to believe that this matters, not only for this generation, but for future generations to come.

Additional readings:

 

Is Democracy In Decline? Published by Georgetown University.

Papers citing Larry Diamond’s paper, as listed in Google Scholar link here.

Reality check: a Donald Trump presidency

random-trump-drawing

I even doubt if the Donald Trump character that I drew here had, if any, any bits or pieces that look like Donald Trump at all.

The reality is, prepared or not, like it or not, there are strong odds that Donald Trump – everything you associate with The Apprentice, ugly oranges, strange hair, tweets that look like one generated by a bot, and all his dangerous wordings and thinking – can become the leader of the most influential global power, or the so-called ‘Free World’, within less than 3 days. It’s never been this close, it’s never been this unbelievable, and it’s never been this ridiculous. Even his pussy-gate, which had led many people to believe that he is finished even before the electoral race commences after the Access Hollywood leaks about his lewd conversation with Billy Bush, does not dampen the support from his electoral base in a long run.

Nate Silver (statistician, data journalist, founder of FiveThirtyEight) upped the odds of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton from previously the 13% to 18% range to now over 35%. The ‘firewall states’ – so sacrosanct for Clinton’s electoral-college attainment that they appear almost impenetrable – now began to look vulnerable. All of a sudden, the prospect of a guy that appeared more like a 3-year-old toddler dressed in a 70-year-old costume leading the world’s largest economy, most outspent armed forces, and biggest nuclear arsenal is looking more like a possible reality. You thought this looked like an AI-scripted plot gone badly awry, but welcome to the reality. And soon, pretty likely, we will have a presidential version of The Apprentice, this time just much scarier. So much so that Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has considered a Trump presidency as one of ‘major global risks’.

Prediction is a horrible job, because indeed, nobody really knows what will actually happen in the future. Nate Silver may try out his best using statistical analysis and polling aggregation, but even this is prone to measurement errors, this time simply because there are so many third-party and ‘undecided’ voters who can produce massive swings, either in favor of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. For now, it is obvious that Clinton has more paths to secure at least 270 electoral colleges (out of 538), but so much stuff can happen within the next 3 days that any scenarios, regardless how insane and crazy they are (just like Trump’s candidacy itself), can actually occur.

In this blog post, I will do that horrible job, and I caution that much of the assertion may remain false, all using the current degree of knowledge that I know about Trump’s words, statements, and ideas. Watching all the three presidential debates may make you question whether you are watching a celebrity gossip battle or a high school bully taunting the ‘good one’ on class monitor selection, but I will try to use some of the ideas that he uttered, compare them with the reality, as well as how he relates with the Republican Party in general. Truth be told, he has had a very uneasy, love-hate relationship with GOP, and this may significantly impact his presidency (if he wins).

Here we begin:

Immigration

The ‘I’ word now looks more like a derogatory term thanks to his bombastic rhetoric about, well, immigration. Looking at the way he perceives of Mexicans and Muslims, there is a strong likelihood that a Trump administration’s immigration policy will be extremely tough, especially on people originating from either Latin America or Muslim-majority countries. Deportation of illegal immigrants will be commonplace, considering that the United States has more than 12 million unregistered ‘aliens’. There is also a strong likelihood that he will stop receiving Syrian refugees (while the top three countries of origin of refugees in the US are from Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia), but the likelihood that he will stop all refugee flows coming to the country is very small. Nonetheless, immigration flows to the US, by and large, will remain largely unaffected, given that the country remains competitive in terms of attracting talents from all across the globe. However, one caveat is that a Trump administration will strictly tighten visa and immigration requirements for people coming to either visit, study, or reside in the country for quite some time, which can have a dampening economic effect.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Economy

A Trump administration is likely to go huge on investment in infrastructure as a ‘massive stimulus package’, which it promises to be between US$500 billion and US$1 trillion. Construction-related industries will likely to see a boom, should his plan be realized. The problem, nevertheless, is that he will go into conflict with his fellow Republicans in the Congress (if he considers himself so) because of the latter’s belief in ‘small government’. This, I predict, will be a significant point of contention between President Trump and Congressional Republicans.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: high

But, his proposed tax cuts will be largely favored by many businesses, although the consequence would be to deepen current account deficit that US has been faced with for a very long time. The previous Obama administration has managed to reduce the deficit from a record of US$1.4 trillion in 2009 to US$0.4 trillion in 2016 fiscal year, but even such accord can be at stake when his tax cuts are enacted. With mounting debts (over US$20 trillion) and multiple postponements on debt ceiling, plus his infrastructure stimulus plan, a Trump administration will have two options: go for the rational option (that is to borrow more from either China, Japan, or Middle Eastern oil-rich countries), or go nuts (manage the economy like Trump did to many of his defaulted businesses). Even if he opts the latter path, the question is now whether he can affect – let alone coerce – the Federal Reserve to implement his policy ideas of doing ‘massive haircuts’ for US dollar. If that happens, United States is officially a banana republic, and the entire global economy will go bananas too.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Here comes the free trade. Trump has repeatedly stated that he vows to withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to end US membership in World Trade Organization (WTO – which US ironically was the founder itself), and to impose 45% import tariffs on Chinese products, as well as to tear the entire NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico. This comes, all in all, when so many of Trump’s signature products are actually manufactured from overseas. Still, even we are supposedly not surprised to hear statements like these. This is the era of globalization, and any single product you purchase can have different parts assembled in different countries. But with the politics going extremely toxic on globalization and trade, we all hear cries of protectionism being voiced out.

I predict what happens next is otherwise. A Trump administration is likely to massively expand United States free trade agenda, because either Trump thinks on almost anything as a businessperson, that when there is something that can be traded, then there’s a chance you can strike a deal, or because there would be intensely huge pressure from the US Chamber of Commerce and other business associations that can lobby and influence the Congress, so much so that Trump is forced to make a compromise. Whether it will be bilateral free trade agreements, it remains to be seen. Regarding TPP, and to a lesser extent, TTIP, it is quite likely that President Trump will force all the participating countries to return to negotiation tables to extract further concessions regarding the issue of currency manipulation (when almost every country does it), although many leaders in TPP countries have repeatedly stated that there will be ‘no more rooms for further negotiation’ (by the way, the trade deal was signed in New Zealand in February this year). There is a quite limited chance TPP will be passed, given the bars set by the administration will be extremely difficult to accomplish, and negotiations can even end up in collapse.

Warning: the odds of a global recession also increase significantly given the massive deficits and/or significant debt accumulation resulting from his policies, and the biggest victims would be the middle and working classes.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Great Wall 2.0

His idea of ‘building borders’ will be highly unlikely to materialize; the fact is, much of the US-Mexican border currently has been sealed with wired fences and literal border walls, with frequent patrols by border guards, and to some extent, even drone surveillance. Trump administration will face increasing pressure from Native American reservation groups, environmentalists, as well as Hispanic communities. It is also quite likely that any of these social movements can start a long-term occupation of any portions of the border in order to resist his government, and the response is potentially brutal (as you can see with the militarization of police and their responses on Dakota Access pipeline protests).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50: 50

Supreme Court

I am almost certain that with the Republicans expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives (and quite possibly the Senate as well), both President Trump and the Congress will appoint right-wing justices into the Supreme Court. Many issues, such as same-sex marriage, Citizens United, and especially abortion, will see their progress being put at stake. There is even the possibility of shrinking the Supreme Court (as of now, there are 9 justices, but with the death of Antonin Scalia early this year, the existing number is 8, so many issues remain tied).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Climate Change

There are two possible scenarios, both good and bad, occurring in Donald Trump administration. If his tax cut plans are applied to all sectors (assume ceteris paribus), there is a possible boom in renewable energy industries, probably because he simply does not care too much about it. On the other hand, there is also a quite big likelihood that he will reduce spending on environment-related agencies, or possibly defund them, or even disband them. Agencies like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely to see their responsibilities and authority largely reduced. Fracking practices, especially in natural gas, will remain in place, and quite likely expand should the tax cuts be applied to oil and gas-related industries altogether.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Science & Technology

Trump administration will likely make a compromise on H1B visa, or what Michio Kaku called as ‘genius visa’, which allows talented individuals all around the world to live for a certain period of time working in the United States. It is quite possible that a lot of the efforts will be put in developing the country’s space industry, mostly by working with the existing private space exploration companies, such as SpaceX. Development in science and technology will remain largely unaffected, except that much of the focus will still go on defense-related areas.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Foreign Policy

Here comes the longest part. To make long short, I’ll just outline them, one issue per each paragraph, below.

Russia: President Trump will likely align closely with Vladimir Putin (BFFs?)

NATO: The structure of the defense organization will remain in place, but with Trump cozying up to Putin, NATO will increasingly look like a ‘paper tiger’. Almost no attention will be paid on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Syria: President Trump may possibly end support on moderate rebel forces operating in the war-torn country, and shift their focus to indirectly support Bashar al-Assad, instead, with the major aim of ‘wiping out ISIS’

Iraq: He may not really ‘take the oil’, but Iraq may align itself more closely with either China (thanks to One Belt One Road initiative, in which Iraq is listed as part of it) or Russia (for weapons)

Afghanistan: There remains uncertainty whether Trump administration will retain American forces in the country, but if they do, the country will increasingly bandwagon to China to help stabilizing the country

Nuclear weapons: Although Trump once repeatedly asked ‘why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’, as long as he cozies up to Putin, the strange ‘equilibrium’ should remain in place

Saudi Arabia: With United States-Saudi Arabia relations already severely strained under Obama administration (Iran nuclear deal, 9/11 bill, threats of selling off US$750 billion in American assets), and President Trump increasingly reluctant to protect the country, it is highly likely the country will build its own nuclear bombs, especially to anticipate the expiry of the Iran nuclear deal

Iran: If Trump abrogates the nuclear deal, tensions will significantly increase in Middle East, and Russia may possibly oppose US move (but Saudi Arabia will be quite happy to hear about it)

China: The country may receive a huge boost with a Trump presidency, given that his campaign rhetoric regarding China, so far, is mostly about economy. He did not raise questions about Taiwan, human rights, Tibet, or Xinjiang, and pretty likely he will never raise any of them. Indeed, with the administration significantly reducing their leadership roles in international order, China, as the world’s second largest economy, will fill out the vacuum. Many neighboring countries will have to reluctantly bandwagon with China, given their current dilemma of having China as the largest trading partners, but in critical necessity of US to provide them security assurances

US alliance in Asia: Obviously, the decades-old US alliance system in Asia will be at stake. Countries that may worry the most are Japan and South Korea, which have relied on American nuclear umbrella to ensure their survival in the last six decades. With Trump administration reducing their commitment, these two countries will be faced with a huge dilemma. Japan’s effort to pass constitutional referendum to recreate an armed force were hampered by massive protests, while South Korea’s more eagerness to build nuclear weapons may anger not only North Korea, but also China, its largest trading partner. With ongoing anemic economic growth, it is quite likely that the two countries will bandwagon further with China, given their high dependence on exports to support growth

Populists in Europe: Trump’s victory, correlated or not, will likely provide a major boost for the populists in many European countries. We’ll see how things roll out in the upcoming 2017 elections in France and Germany; the closest one is to see the second run-off of presidential election in Austria scheduled to be held by the end of this year

Mexico: US relationship with Mexico under Trump administration will be largely uneasy, and any friction can bring Mexico into economic recession (United States accounts for more than half of Mexico’s annual trade volumes)

Southeast Asia: Trump’s commitment to Southeast Asia will drastically decline, unlike Obama’s overtures

South China Sea: Let alone South China Sea (the biggest winner will be China). Expect countries like Malaysia and the Philippines to bandwagon further with China, which they now do. Vietnam, having a more negative sentiment towards China rather than US in spite of the devastating war, will be forced to rely further on ASEAN, whose solidarity has been in question

India: President Trump will likely align very closely with PM Narendra Modi (perhaps Trump will learn some Hindi too, with terrible accent)

Dictators: The fact that he described Vladimir Putin as ‘great leader’ and had met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may indicate that he will be very pragmatic in befriending any leaders, regardless of the fact whether they are democrats or dictators. By the way, US foreign policy has had a long history of supporting authoritarian leaders, so this will be hardly a surprise

*****

While this may be a brief glimpse of what a President Trump can potentially do, I caution that there are also ‘plot twists’: some of his plans may not work out, and there is a pretty high chance he won’t even be the president for a full four-year term up to 2020. Think of these scenarios:

  • Trump commits a scandal when he is a president
  • Trump’s ongoing lawsuits and trial proceedings result in his impeachment (especially if Republicans begin to abandon him when the wrongdoings are so severe)
  • Trump is in feud with his vice president, Mike Pence, and there have been rumors about their own discord even during the election season
  • Trump falls ill due to ‘too much stress’, and announces resignation
  • Trump falls ill and needs to be hospitalized ‘for quite some time’
  • Trump conflicts with the GOP, and the latter thinks of strategies to begin impeaching him

Still, remember, nobody – let alone I myself – bears assurances whether these predictions will work out or not. He may try to temper himself, or that he may go on with all the big pushes. I am talking about what Trump may do, simply from a rational assessment basis. Things may go wrong, and things may go right.

I only hope your vote on November 8 can make the difference. Good luck, the world.