America’s Foreign Policy Calculus

The United Nations is far from perfect, that I agree. But, it is our channel for international peace and diplomacy, and I am dismayed to see a U.S. President yet again bypass, ignore, and generally disregard this institution. Yes, I’m an idealist – I sincerely believe that War does not have to remain a permanent condition of mankind, that we can eradicate it, and ultimately replace it and all its surrounding institutions with processes of justice, diplomacy, and liberalism. There are steps we can make in this direction, but unfortunately, America’s foreign policy is far from traveling down this path.

Here’s some sweeping assertions about our current situation:

  • There is an America foreign policy regime
  • It is, if you will, a “spontaneous order”, a long-operating result of varied interests and processes.  Eisenhower named it “the military-industrial complex” – “complex” is a good word here; it is not simply a cabal, a small, smoke-filled room of profiteers, king-makers, world conquerors, whatever. It’s not a sinister plot, or conspiracy, but the systemic outcome of lots of players.
  • These players include the military itself, military contractors, intelligence communities, foreign policy think tanks, etc.
  • These players do not all have the same interests, but their interaction still produces a consistent outcome.
  • This complex has had a continuity, and consistency, that outlasts Presidencies.
  • This continuity stretches back to at least the early 1960s, but probably has its roots in WW2, with the permanent establishment of a Department of Defense (previously called Department of War), the CIA, and a few other key institutions.
  • This continuity is fed by an increasing percentage of taxpayer money that is directed its way.
  • An old Constitutional restriction – no appropriation of funds longer than 2 years for the raising of Armies – the that would have perhaps provided some brakes to this self-perpetuation, is largely ignored these days.
  • The general outcome of this regime is to #1, perpetuate itself (a lesson from Public Choice ECON 101, of course).
  • The regime is driven by “realpolitik”, not idealism.  Liberty, democracy, the human condition, are all secondary issues to its preservation of itself and “American Interests”.
  • The regime has a focus, and thus produces analysis and attention to, areas where its interests can be preserved or enhanced, and ignores other areas, no matter how stridently offensive to liberty, democracy, or humanity.  For example, the long-running Congo war has been completely ignored in the U.S. for decades.
  • A secondary factor in this focus is gamesmanship against other world powers that may threaten its dominant position in the world today.  Namely, Russia and China, though to a lesser extent, even Britain and France.
  • Its foreign policy “calculus” first analyzes this question: “if we take an action in this direction, will it enhance our interests?”.  This calculus extends even to regime change – either directly pondering assassination of foreign leaders, or supporting rebel causes that may lead to the toppling of a foreign leader.
  • Being realpolitik, this calculus will of course seek to preserve foreign leaders, no matter how undemocratic or brutal they are, if that means its interests are preserved or enhanced.
  • World events are still unpredictable, so the regime must react to events it doesn’t always control, and refactor its calculus
  • Thus, we’ll see the U.S. supporting certain players, such as Osama bin Ladin, Qaddafi, or Saddam, during certain periods, only to withdraw support later.
  • The regime doesn’t always win.

Notes on Parking Ordinance Changes in Houston

The City of Houston Planning Committee is considering changes to our parking ordinances. Some notable changes include increasing the parking ratio for restaurants (from 8 to 10 spaces per 1000 square feet) and bars (from 10 to 14 spaces per 1000). These rules come on top of an already increasingly “suburbanized” parking and building rules. In general, not good. I’ll try to make it to the hearings on these changes, and below are some of my talking notes

I speak for myself, but some credentials:
– Inside-the-Loop resident for many years
– office in Rice Village
– board of directors of a non-profit shop in Rice Village
– married to a Montrose-area cafe owner

In summary, what I want to present here is “one size does not fit all”. Houston is a very diverse city, don’t define a cookie-cutter ordinance to meet a very varied problem – instead, more local dialogue and collaboration required.
Continue reading Notes on Parking Ordinance Changes in Houston

Texas Employment Statistics

As Rick Perry has joined the Republican Party presidential fray, there will be questions about his prowess at bringing jobs to Texas.  Of course, a governor can only directly “create” jobs by increasing payroll of government employment, but he does have a limited role in creating a more or less positive environment for businesses in the state, an that may have an impact on private employment as well.

The 2008-2011 recession has hit private employment in Texas just has it has in ogther ; however, it is worth noting that federal, state, and local employment figures have continued to rise through this same period.  Rise in state employment figures roughly matches the growth in the state government budget, and of course, the state budget deficit.  Some of these deficits have masked by federal ARRA “stimulus” funds, but that will be the subject of another post.

These stats drawn from the Texas Workforce Commission:

May 2008 – 8,857,500
May 2011 – 8,704,800

2011, though, has seen some job growth – not to pre-recession figures, but growing nonetheless.  These stats may change, though, as often past month figures are re-adjusted:

Jan 2011 – 8,483,200
Feb           – 8,514,400
Mar          – 8,612,000
Apr           – 8,674,200

State Government employment has gone up through the recession, which matches (approximately) the growth in our state budget through this same period:

May 2008 – 364,200
May 2011 – 378,700

May 2011 reflects an interesting decrease, perhaps due to the current budget battles at the state level.  We’ll see if that drop remains:

Jan           – 374,500
Feb           – 385,000
Mar          – 385,300
Apr          – 385,300

Local government employment has also been growing through this period – this is partially state budget-driven, so is worth reflecting:

May 2008 – 1,244,600
May 2011 – 1,303,000


The 3 P’s of Social Media Marketing


Over the past year or so, I have been helping a small cafe in Houston, a tea house, enter into the world of social media marketing, mostly employing Twitter, and recently making use of Facebook. In fact, we were perhaps the first retail establishment in Houston to enter the brave new world of Twitter, and now boast over 1500 followers, making it the 2nd largest restaurant following in Houston. This cafe’s experience with social media has been quite successful, with results far better than advertising in traditional newspapers or magazines, and will continue to be a major participant in social networking space.

Follower count was never the strategy when we entered the Twitter world. I did have a strategy in mind when I first participated, and it was been refined through customer feedback and a few lessons-learned. I think our experiences can be useful to other retail stores, so just wanted to take some time here to share my insights. They can be organized as the 3 Ps of Social Media Marketing:

Passion Personality Place

Continue reading The 3 P’s of Social Media Marketing

Health Care – costs vs. price

It’s oft repeated that health care costs continue to rise at a crazy pace.  While most costs of most products and services have been decreasing, in terms of “real”, inflation-adjusted dollars, health care, like education, have been increasing at record paces.  And, unlike the housing/real estate “bubble”, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.  What’s going on?

Most commentators talk about health care cost increases.  However, the evidence I see suggests something different.  Yes, we’re seeing health care price increases.  But cost increases? There’s a difference.

Continue reading Health Care – costs vs. price

Pseudoscience vs. Science

Boiled down:

  • Science = testable hypotheses
  • Pseudoscience = exploiting anomalies in Science

I had the misfortune of running into a 9-11 Truther last week, on a bridge in Houston. I was gracious enough to accept 4 DVDs from him, and was open minded enough to even start viewing one of these videos (along with my son, who’s getting old enough now to actual be curious about politics). 30 minutes in, though, I just had to shout out “Arghh!” and throw my hands up. These guys don’t engage in science, or even scientific dialogue. If you chance to argue with them, to point out alternative, feasible, Occam’s Razor-limited hypotheses, along with the supporting evidence – or even dare to point out the anomalies in their own data and theories – then you’ll be immediately branded as a apologist, a shill for the State, or worse.

I mean, heck, I’m like any other guy: I like good conspiracy theories. It’s great entertainment! And yeah, perhaps “we” have planted evidence or created events as excuses for going into wars before (USS Maine, anyone?). But Controlled Demolition, Missiles, Remote-Controlled Planes, Holographic Plane Images, even UFOs? This isn’t science, falls flat on so many fronts. I’ve got better things to do than read up or view all this. And, better things to blog about. So, I’m off …

A Social Media Drinking Game

Here’s my random thought of the day:

After reading this article: The web, the politician and the prostitute, I was inspired to imagine the following game:

  1. Get with a few of your friends at your favorite bar. One with wireless access;
  2. Start drinking;
  3. When everyone’s getting good and happy, pull out your special deck of cards. You’ll be the first player, the Prosecutor;
  4. The Prosecutor points out one person in the group. He/she is the Accused (got to come up with cuter names, though);
  5. The Prosecutor draws a random card from the deck. These cards have a single crime written on them, stuff like Murder, Rape, Child Molester, Embezzlement, Prostitution, etc. The more heinous, the better;
  6. He shouts, “YOU NOW STAND ACCUSED OF _______ !”;
  7. Everyone else in the group is a Journalist. It is now their job to mine the accused’s social networks for all the juicy bits they can find: incriminating photos, random quotes etc. The more they support the crime the better;  the most outlandish out-of-context statements that prove the accused’s proclivities gets the most points. Digging into obscure connections and long-past history ( is allowed) gets even more points;
  8. Be prepared for a lot of teasing.

This game is good for sobering up before you head home for the weekend.  It’s sobering to see how much privacy we’re willing to give up these days.  🙂

Bridges and Phones – Social Media Economics

In microeconomics, economists like to talk about substitution goods and complementary goods. A classic complementary good to peanut butter is jelly: both are usually consumed together in that delectable sandwich known as PB & J. Economists care about this, because when consumption goes up in peanut butter, you’ll likely see an increase in jelly too, if the goods are tightly complementary. Price changes in one will likely lead to price changes in the other.

A substitute good, well that’s kind of obvious, it’s a good that can easily substitute for another. Soy drink is a substitute for milk – at least, if you’re in my household. Natural gas is a substitute for electricity, when heating your house. If the substitute is easy to switch, a price increase in one will lead to increased demand in another – a nice, easy economics predictive tool. Continue reading Bridges and Phones – Social Media Economics

Cultural Awareness

OK, I guess I won’t really fault the local tech community for sponsoring not one, but TWO events, both falling on the first day of Chinese New Years. Did anyone check their calendars?! Yeah, yeah, I know … you can’t pick any date without landing on some sort of holiday, be it National Pickle Day or International I-Miss-My-Mommy Month. But, this one day is perhaps a bit more important than others – it’s at least a day where you can expect a lot of family commitments if you happen to be Asian.

So, I’ll be missing the Up Experience, though I’ll likely make it for a short while to the Houston Startup Happy Hour – the latter is always a great chance to catch up with my business friends, in our often very busy schedules. After that though, it’s off to a grand ballroom for a big New Years feast with other friends and family. I think we have booked 3 large tables so far. Should be fun, and filling too!

Objective Journalism is a Myth

Forget what you were taught in school about journalistic ethics. There is no objectivity in the news. Journalists, editors and news corporations come to every story with their biases intact, and select and produce stories that reflect their leanings.

OK … actually, the situation is more subtle and complex than that. I’m not talking about the left-leaning media, or the “vast right-wing conspiracy”. Sometimes the biases are more mundane than that: news stations, to keep their ratings up, must produce entertainment in their news, to keep the viewers watching. And, we all know how this works: shock and gore, gossip and controversy are all grist in the entertainment mill, so stories with shock value will more likely get air time. And, a journalist who can throw in a controversial twist will get more attention from the editors, etc., increasing chances an article will be run.

This “entertainment influence” on journalism seems to be more a factor of TV news than print.

Maybe journalists like to hide behind the cloak of objectivity, but we as savvy consumers of news information need to weigh in on all the influences – economic as well as ideological — Continue reading Objective Journalism is a Myth