Today, my memories of September 11, 2001, when the world froze and I stood paralyzed as images of people jumping from the Towers repeated and repeated and repeated, are mixed up with memories of other days when time stopped — the deaths of each of my parents, my brother, selling off my dad’s cattle, days that closed one chapter of my life and initiated another, whether I knew it or not.
In the past, I watched landscaping crews saw limbs off of trees where birds were nesting in the spring and early summer. I thought I knew how those hysterical creatures felt as their homes and offspring tumbled to the ground. But 2020 has shown me I didn’t, I couldn’t, watching safely from the ground.
Today, I see images of cataclysm on a Biblical scale — the California fires and melting ice caps, human-induced tragedies, unintended consequences of — let’s call a spade a spade — our greed and ambition. I think of the lives destroyed and the unimaginable suffering of those beautiful lands and the wildlife trapped by fast-moving flames and melting ice.
None of us knows what will follow. Have we learned from our mistakes? I wish I could say, “Yes, absolutely!” But that’s yet to be seen.
So here, on this day, I’m offering a prayer that we rise above our prejudice, greed and hate to preserve what we love and somehow figure out how to move together into a future that honors our best selves.
An old book of Texas history, pulled from storage during the Covid-19 shutdown, reminds us of the optimism that marked the start of the 20th century, in stark contrast to our fears for the 21st.
A young activist writer living in Austin, Texas, is inspired by a charismatic politician. He writes a successful novel, secures a good job close to the halls of power and passionately supports liberal causes. A global crisis breaks out. He volunteers to help, is exposed to an untreatable virus, and dies at the age of 33.
The writer is Sinclair Moreland; the year, 1918. The virus was the so-called Spanish Flu. I pulled his book, The Noblest Roman, a tale of idealism in the face of corporate greed and political corruption, from a box I stored a decade ago in preparation for — now?
When Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman, the world must have seemed full of possibilities. The Spindletop gusher of 1901 remade the oil industry in the image of Texas. Progressives took the reins of power and used a tax on oil production to create the state’s educational and transportation systems. They battled big business, reformed the prisons and passed laws to protect food safety and regulate lobbying. They created the Texas State Historical Society where Moreland became the archivist.
The corporate villain of the time was Ohio-based Standard Oil, the first company to master both vertical and horizontal integration and own its supply chain. Feared and disliked by competitors for its questionable business practices, Standard Oil built a loyal consumer base by keeping its practices low. The company’s CEO, John D. Rockefeller was the world’s richest man. Sound familiar?
The year after Moreland published The Noblest Roman, The Supreme Court split Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, one of which became Exxon-Mobil. The stage was set for what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the next train coming down the tracks,” climate change.
So goes the arc of history. Last week, six new Guggenheim Fellows were announced. Among them is Jeff Goodell, who like Moreland, lives here in Austin. But while Moreland paints an ideal of political leadership, Goodell’s award-winning The Water Will Come mourns its absence in the face of rapidly-rising sea levels, and the inevitable associated destruction and mass migration.
And while Moreland’s subject was bounded by Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, Goodell’s is global, differentiated only by economic disparity and whether there is too much or not enough water.
“Nature is going to win. Nobody wins with water. Think about the Grand Canyon.”
In 1917, the year before his death in the flu pandemic, Moreland wrote a second book, The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, dedicated to the women of Texas for whom “social caste has no place” and who maintain a “vital interest in … clean streets, better factory conditions, child and animal protection, higher moral standards, public health, social justice and decent government.” With that in mind, I pass on the brilliant Arundhati Roy’s thoughts for our preset time:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.
Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.
Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.
In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.
In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.
The density conundrum
Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.
In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.
The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.
The need for foundations centered around people
We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.
Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:
“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States
If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.
Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:
A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?
Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.
The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.
A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.
Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.
Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.
Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.
Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic
In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.
(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.
Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.
(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)
A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.
We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.
Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.
A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.
(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.
Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.
No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.
Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.
(4) Use clearly-defined terms.
Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).
(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.
At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.
Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.
(6) Remind people what’s most important.
Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.
Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.
Giving up a habit, even such a small one as that morning cup of tea, can lead to a re-evaluation of our very habits of being. It’s a process that requires deciding who you want to be, paying attention, and getting help.
I had no idea I could learn so much from a cup of tea.
For decades, I’ve started my day with several cups of black tea so strong my friends consider it coffee. The tea, doused with creamy local milk, has been my kick start. I’ve also had, unpredictably and without any direct relationship to the tea, chest pains, vertigo and diminished energy. I blamed it on allergies (allergists outnumber mosquitoes in this town). But in December a test result prompted a call from my doctor who received a dose of reality: I inherited my father’s heart condition.
“Remember, getting sick is the first step in getting well.”
My friend Jessica Buckley
The fatty milk I loved to put in my tea had to go; in fact, the entire dairy section had to go. I dithered. I rationalized. I delayed. It took hours in waiting rooms full of people with their next-of-kin and a litany of tests costing as much as a Tesla, to convince me my morning tea habit was not worth the price.
One habit leads to another, and pretty soon you have yourself
Which got me thinking: If I don’t need the milk in my tea, what else do I no longer need? Why do I have a storage unit full of the past? Social obligations that are a duty, not a boost? Why have I let misunderstandings fester with siblings, friends and colleagues?
The easy fix would be to reduce the milk and clear out the storage unit, but the point is much bigger. If this collection of habits define me, which ones do I actually need to move forward? Is this the me I want to be? And do I have the guts to change?
The rule is to start small. I’m starting with — and I know it sounds silly — my fear of not getting my morning tea and milk. If I can give up my milky tea, will it give me the courage to examine those other habits crouching behind fortresses of defensiveness, vanity and just plain ole fear.
To be undone by fear is a sad thing. Why not try something different?
Pay attention and re-evaluate
We don’t pay attention, particularly to ourselves.
Again, the rule is start small. The first step is to pay attention to our bodies, so that when they falter, as the will, we can take corrective action. Consider my friend Sherida. We met for an early dinner, in the late afternoon when the blue-hairs gather. I asked her how she was able to leave work so early, and she told me she was taking iron infusions for severe iron anemia. She’d missed her annual check up for “two or three years,” which required her body to steadily adjust to lower and lower levels of iron.
“I didn’t notice anything,” she explained. But then there was that daily nap, constant nibbling and those shadows under her eyes. She didn’t have the time to pay attention until she was pulled up short by her doctor. “You’re a go-go woman,” she reported, “all go and no pause.” No quibble there. Sherida works a full-time job, takes care of a bi-polar son, is active socially and sings in her church choir.
But if we aren’t paying attention to the bodies we live in, how can we pay attention to our habitual reactions to angry colleagues or, heaven forbid, family members. Absent facts collected through observation, we can’t draw conclusions. We can’t get help, and we can’t change.
“Paying attention …makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them — and more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our own awareness …It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something.”
Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.
If you take care of someone else, as almost every woman I know does in some capacity, you are in the danger zone. Caregiving is the gold standard of absenting oneself from oneself. It is a selfless act and a necessary one. But unmonitored, it also extols a high price. Caregivers, particularly family members who care for elderly relatives, can find their own lives diminished financially, socially and physically.
The typical family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for her widowed 69-year-old mother who does not live with her. She is married and employed. Approximately 66% of family caregivers are women. More than 37% have children or grandchildren under 18 years old living with them.
I learned this the hard way. I put my life on hold for over a decade to take care of first my dad and then my mom. When my mom died and it was time to return to the job market, I was paralyzed. The habits and routines I’d built around caregiving left me unprepared to resume my own life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hadn’t been paying attention.
I’m a big fan of Reboot’s Jerry Colonna. I met Jerry when he was an editor of one of the leading technology magazines in New York. He later became a successful venture capitalist, burned out and is now an executive coach who helps the CEOS of start ups chart their path through “radical self inquiry.” His message is foundational to anyone who wants to lead a successful life: “Who have I been all my life? Who do I want to become?”
“The notion is to recognize that if things are not okay, if you’re struggling, you stop pretending and allow yourself to get help. Even more, it’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself — your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as ‘you’.”
“How do we get the things out of the way that are barriers to being productive?”
Which takes me back to my friend Sherida. Sherida was raised her grandmother in Mississippi, and she laughs as she tells the story of how her grandmother taught her to make her own decisions. When she was about 10, Sherida decided to fake an illness to get her grandmother’s attention. The only pills she could find in the house were in a bottle of Midol. She poured them onto the table and waited for her grandmother to come home. When the door opened, Sherida grabbed a handful of pills and pretended she was going to swallow them.
“Go ahead, child, take those pills. They’ll either kill you or leave you deformed.” With that, her grandmother walked away. Sherida put the pills away.
So here I am, sitting with my cup of morning tea which today is black tea with soy milk. Tomorrow? Who knows. But this I know: the future is staring me in the face, and I better be prepared.
The eagle is America’s canary in a coal mine: As global warming accelerates, the agencies in charge of managing its impacts on our health will no longer issue clear-cut guidelines to protect Americans from life-threatening pollution and habitat loss. Rather, the government has decided to take a case-by-case approach to protecting us, our land and the animals we share it with.
When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.
But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.
Monetizing the environment
Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.”
Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.
Declaring war against ourselves
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.
Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course? Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.
What is an eagle worth?
The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem? Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money? More environmentally sustainable alternatives.
As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation? How does our eagle compare with a new resort?
There will be a reckoning
Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.
Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.
The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.
“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.
Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”
Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.
In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.
But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.
“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”
“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.
Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.
“This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.
When is fear a valid reason for protectionism? At what point does openness become bad business and a national security concern? David Firestein, the executive director of the China Public Policy Center, stopped by the “World Spins” to remind us that relationships make the world go round, and punitive tariffs don’t win trade wars.
David Firestein dropped by last week’s “World Spins” session to reassure us that at about $1 trillion, give or take a few million, the U.S.-China trade relationship is too big to fail. But he had some thoughts on where we’re taking it.
Firestein‘s credentials in U.S.-China relations are wide and deep — the State Department, EastWest Institute, and now, president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations — in addition to his role in academia launching the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ China Public Policy Center.
Perceptions of growing authoritarianism
“China’s rising authoritarianism colors U.S. views in a profound way.”
The Uighur minority and the telecom giant Huawei are the poster children of American perceptions of China, prompting national security concerns that have underpinned both the administration’s trade narrative and domestic regulatory actions. On the heels of watching China use facial recognition software to persecute the Uighur and other Muslim minorities, San Francisco banned the technology. Last week those same concerns spread to Washington, bubbling up at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Blacklisted by the administration, Huawei typifies China’s state-supported hybrid economy. The telecom giant sits on a deepening Maginot Line between the Internet of the East and that of the West, drawing a line between American interests and increasingly, everyone else’s.
“In public and private statements, American intelligence officials and telecommunications executives and experts have begun to concede that the United Sates will be operating in a world where Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies most likely control 40 percent to 60 percent of the networks over which business, diplomats, spies and citizens do business.”
There’s a silver lining for Big Tech. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and China has provided Qualcomm, Facebook, Google et. al. with a new “America First” narrative to relieve regulatory threats.
The missing quid pro quo
“China is vastly more closed to us than we are to them,” Firestein said. “When someone from China gets off a plane in San Francisco, they have immediate access to their email through WhatsApp. But an American landing in Beijing can’t access their Gmail.”
For an administration determined to deliver on its “America First” campaign promises, protecting America from China is a top priority. Vice President Mike Pence’s watermark speech at the Hudson Institute frames the U.S. response to Chinese “economic aggression.”
With China, all silk roads lead to intellectual property. In the absence of any Chinese quid pro quo to American openness, in 2018 the administration has expanded its powers to protect domestic technology from foreign investment. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) began to block mergers and acquisitions considered a threat to national security. The Export Control Reform Act (ECRA) and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) are charged with protecting tech sectors that map with its “Made in China 2025” strategy — advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, semiconductors and telecommunications.
Applying worst-of-breed practices
Unintended consequences abound. The ban on Huawei network technology hits rural areas the hardest because the small network providers have to swap out cheaper Huawei equipment for more expensive offerings. And faced with its American supply chain being cut off, China will accelerate its build-your-own strategy, a trend that is already impacting U.S. tech companies’ stock prices.
Which brings us to where Firestein breaks rank. A trade strategy based almost exclusively on punitive tariffs has penalized American producers by eliminating lucrative markets, disrupted supply chains and cost consumers at check out.
“The United States is adopting “worst of breed” practices that are destructive to the economy … Our trade deficit with China is the largest good and services deficit dating back to 1776.”
Nowhere is the cost of the trade war more obvious than in the agricultural sector. Last week at a “hats on” event, President Trump announced a $16 billion farm aid package in a robbing Peter to pay Paul strategy to offset farmers’ losses with taxpayers’ dollars.
In fact, tariffs can make industries less competitive.
It breeds a kind of laziness here,” said Simon Lester, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Tariffs are taxes on outside goods, so they inherently protect some U.S. businesses from foreign competition. “You don’t have to compete with the best in the world you can just relax you don’t have to work that hard and face any competition,” he says.
Despite the national security narrative, the relationship between China and the United States is not about military might. Certainly, the U.S. technology industry is rooted in federal defense funding, and the Department of Defense continues to fund innovation. But this is a 21st century struggle not a 20th century one. China’s goals are economic.
“Military interests are a function of power. China is building its military to define its power … But let me assure you, China has no interest in becoming the world’s policeman.”
Relationships make the world go round
The conversation closed with a reminder that relationships grease the wheels that make the world go round. Firestein brought up a flash point from his first few weeks in Austin when two U.S. Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, numerous professors and the University of Texas student newspaper protested an offer from the Confucius Institute to make a donation to the CPPC. Firestein noted, however, that the United States has similar practices, and that in the end:
“Relationship matters. We have to get it in sync.”
What does the future look like?
A year ago, Firestein cautioned that competing with China was like a no-holds barred cage fight in wrestling. China knows what it wants its future to look like. State control provides a longterm planning horizon. It has a clearly written industrial strategy, state funding and a non-interference strategy with its people. The United States operates from tweet to tweet. As for a strategy?
In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete. China is not our enemy but it is our fiercest competitor.
David Firestein, in a May 2018 talk at the “World Spins”
In the not too distant future artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, telecommunications will shape not just American competitiveness but what our world will become. Even the current administration, loathe to cooperate on much of anything, went so far as to endorse a set of international AI guidelines sketched out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To echo a comment made by Senator Richard Burr at the University of Texas’ Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum:
If we don’t create a framework for this technology, who will?
Senator Richard Burr, chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nov. 2018
Titanic trade clashes, Chimerica, Huawei,’s blacklisting, theft of intellectual property — oh my! As the trade war with China intensifies, Tyler Johnson’s “The Way of the “Laowai” reminds us that international business is an art; opportunity, a matter of perspective.
In the titanic trade clash between China and the United States, Tyler Johnson’s is a calm, sane voice. But then he is a businessman, and businessmen get things done. Johnson spent the go-go years between 2005 and 2015 growing Dell’s Asia-Pacific business. He saw the blossoming of Chimerica and now, on the cusp of what is starting to look like a nasty separation, reminds us there is an art to conducting business with another culture.
What he learned is the subject of a new book, The Way of the Laowai, a testimonial to taking a global perspective. (Laowai means outsider or alien in Mandarin.)
Take note, America: The self-selected attendees at Johnson’s “World Spins” talk were almost all Chinese. As one explained, “I want to learn how you think American companies should compete in China, from your perspective.
The scale of the trade clash is enormous, and the stakes are high.
China is the world’s most populous country. Its breakneck development over recent decades has added hundreds of millions of consumers to the global marketplace while supplying a vast assemblage of low-cost goods… It is the source of roughly one-third of the world’s economic growth.
Separating business from policy is a sticky wicket, especially when two radically-different cultures have bound themselves so tightly together economically. As Li Yuan, the New York Times New New World correspondent wrote :
The two sides have plenty of reasons to distrust each other. The United States blames China for heavy job losses, theft of corporate secrets and cheating at the rules of global trade. China credits the hard work and sacrifices of its people for its success and sees the trade war as driven by American fears of a prosperous Chinese nation. (Photo/Doug Mills, The New York Times)
But in the end, business is business, and sometimes getting things done requires a “whatever it takes” approach.
In China, government initiatives drive almost everything. It’s important to understand those initiatives and analyze how they figure into your business model. The more you understand what the government wants, the more likely you’ll be aligned …
A laboratory for future innovation
Over the past 25 years, China has become what Oppenheimer Funds calls a “laboratory for future innovation” for U.S. companies. Big Tech-funded R&D centers place scientists from both countries side-by-side to crack breakthroughs in pivotal data-intensive areas including artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) funds basic research in AI. Google opened an AI lab in Beijing and has a research alliance with Tencent on cloud services. Jeff Ding, a graduate student at Oxford and the force behind the China AI newsletter, is well worth following for a deeper understanding of cooperation between the two countries in R&D and technology (AI) commercialization.
But there are concerns. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston recently severed ties with three scientists over their ties to China and policy violations with research grants from the National Institute of Health. Writing in The New York Times, Mihir Zaveri noted that a report commissioned by the N.I.H. also mentioned that 39 percent of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine won by Americans have gone to foreign-born scientists.
Data, ethics and national security
Research spawns innovation and ethical (cultural) concerns. The facial recognition technology that San Francisco banned out of fear it would be abused by the city’s police, is being used in some form by companies in China to save pigs from the devastating spread of untreatable African swine fever — and allegedly to suppress minority populations.
“Today’s battles are all about data, how you get it, who has access to it, and who you can share it … With 1.4 billion people (and limited enforcement of privacy laws), there is plenty of data in China.”
Then there’s national security. At an intelligence forum sponsored by the University of Texas earlier this year, Sue Gordon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, acknowledged the reality of concerns over “dirty networks.”
“We have to figure out a world with diverse technology we can’t control.”
Sue Gordon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence
Huawei, the subject of Gordon’s reference to “dirty networks,” is a stunning case study in whether a Chinese company, genetically bound to its government, can thrive as a global technology company. Huawei has made it a point to develop an entrepreneurial culture based on best-of-breed Western business processes.
“Only by learning from them with all our humility can we defeat them one day.”
But its blacklisting by the Trump administration is having a trickle-down impact. Just yesterday, Reuters announced Google restrictions on Huawei customers’ purchases of its proprietary offerings, a move analysts expect will hit Huawei’s European business hard.
A big world full of opportunity
At the eye of this hurricane, The Way of the Laowai is a reminder that opportunity is a matter of perspective.
There are roughly 196 countries in the world and close to 800 billion people. That’s a lot to wrap your brain around. Each of these countries is complex in its own way … In every location you want to do business in, you need a grasp of these particulars. In each place, business needs to be conducted differently… The world is big and full of opportunities if you can keep your perceptions in place.
As proof, Johnson proudly brought along his smart, confident 13-year old, Mandarin-speaking daughter Reese, a living demonstration of all there is to be gained from learning the ways of another country. Indeed, she corrected him several times.