A Burmese House of Mirrors

Burma is such a complex mess of a nation that it calls for the talents of a reporter like Hannah Beech to hold those responsible to account. The best Western journalist in Southeast Asia, Beech dropped a Christmas special in the New York Times that unmasked a seemingly sympathetic business figure’s dealings with the murderous military junta that aims to reassert control of what they prefer to call Myanmar.

Her walk-through with a partly cooperative Jonathan Kyaw Thaung was particularly painful to me because I had met him, at least once, in years past at gatherings of Asian tycoons hosted by my then-employer, Forbes. (I’m foggy on whether all subsequent exchanges were remote.) He came across, as he evidently tried to do with Beech, as an earnest and gracious scion looking to restore what had been lost since the generals first grabbed his nation in 1962 and took it inward from the world and toward overall impoverishment. Like several of his Westernized cohorts among the young wealthy of Asia, Jonathan, now 39, sported trappings of globalized business, including  a turn at Babson College, noted for an entrepreneurial bent. The inference to be drawn was that he was not just another of the crony capitalists who enrich themselves in various dark corners of the region.

His soft-peddled entreaties included an invitation to visit the Pegu Club, the social landmark his family had restored to its former glory in colonial Rangoon. I never made it, or got very far with my curiosity about the publicly charitable Kyaw Thaungs. It takes much local knowledge to sort out the layers and players of Burmese times, past and present.

The military regime, known as the Tatmadaw, began relaxing its grip in 2012 but moved to seize back all reins in early 2021 after a national election threatened its domination of a civilian government under the National League for Democracy. (This was Nobel-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s group, which still posits itself as the legitimate government, and its legacy is a puzzle in itself.) The Tatmadaw also wars with various ethnic militias for territory in a series of conflicts that have spanned decades. These bloody affairs were overshadowed in recent years by the relatively unified Buddhist campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims who were brutally forced out of their ground and into neighboring Bangladesh from 2017.

International sanctions have applied to Burma over much of the last 60 years, and the Tatmadaw’s latest iteration has invited contempt from most outsiders save, of course, for the Chinese Communist Party, which sees gain not only from business ties with the meddlesome military but also relief from insurgencies on the shared border.

In this tangled mix, enterprising capitalists who sought to profit from the last decade’s reopening of Burma to the world have had to find accommodation. Since the latest coup that has been particularly tricky, and this forms the backdrop for Hannah Beech’s lengthy account.

To summarize it, the Kyaw Thaungs, through an opaque ownership structure, have maintained multiple commercial ties with junta-dominated entities and otherwise abetted a war machine with an increasingly brazen disregard for human rights. Jonathan Kyaw Thaung at various interview points sought to distance himself and his family from the links but generally just fibbed, based on Beech’s reporting.

In the current—and violent–tussle for vestiges of institutional wealth and authority in Burma, including a financial spiral aggravated by the Covid crisis, even the best-laid plans of the Kyaw Thaungs seem to have gone awry. In the coda to the New York Times story, Jonathan and family have fled the wreckage of what he still depicts as a patriotic project.

What larger message is to be drawn from this journalistic effort? Over my 20 years of editing and occasionally writing about the magnates of Asia, I realized that the nexus to official power was usually a factor in their plans and success. This didn’t necessarily taint them so much as it gave their rise a different meaning—the same was true for their family or tribal ties. Where the regimes in question are venal—and this has been true in Burma and some other cases—these gray areas get blacker. Sentimental attachments to a homeland can be a cover for graft or worse. The reporter (or investor) must never let suspicions rest.

The Landfill Squeeze Reaches Long Island

If Americans stand accused of precipitating a supply-chain seizure by demanding too many goods in the past year, their purchasing habits also are perpetuating problems at the other end—the landfills. Many if not most population centers of the U.S. have more trash than they know what to do with.

It’s not just the capacity of the dumps, it’s the location. A clamor for environmental justice is objecting to sites that often border on low-income residential areas, which can mean disproportionately brown or black people. This comes on top of the general complaints about smell, noise and groundwater impacts.

Even when municipalities close their landfills—as nearly all of them have done in places like Long Island, N.Y.—they still face many of the same complaints when they try, through “transfer stations,” to shuttle the garbage off to somewhere else.

The issue is coming to a head on Long Island, N.Y., where the last remaining landfill, in the Town of Brookhaven, will be closing after 50 years in operation. Today, on the remaining active part of the 270-acre site, only incinerated municipal waste (ash) and construction and demolition debris are being accepted. When that ends over the next couple of years, the discards of 8 million people are going to have to find a way out.

Geography poses special challenges at Brookhaven, but the nature of the problem is universal. Although sizable, this dump never got even half as big as America’s largest, the now-closed Puente Hills mound east of Los Angeles. (One silver lining of such heaps is gas-to-energy potential, such as is tried at Puente Hills.) The transport option is the obvious fallback—of course raising the question not only of how but to where? Flyover country isn’t usually delighted to receive the stuff, even if land prices there make relative economic sense. Most impoverished foreigners no longer will take it, either.

As to Brookhaven’s “how,” more trucks on a narrow island all but guarantees new highway congestion. Barges have been tried fitfully (the infamous 1987 garbage ship emanated from the neighboring Town of Islip, an early omen of today’s mess). The industry’s preferred option today is rail, with a good five proposals floated for the Long Island landfill hub.  (Depots also could handle incoming freight.) To share commuter tracks, trains likely would run at night (leading to noise objections en route) and require big transfer stations at the origin.

At Brookhaven, that could mean 121 acres. Winters Bros., a major local hauler, has been the most forceful advocate of a transfer plan, with its PR push being met by a counter campaign from local and social pressure groups. The NAACP joined that fight. Another idea would include enhanced ash-recovery at the site, which elicited citizen criticisms. The issue has politicians running for the cover of a new study, which appeals to the cautious editorialists for Newsday, the area’s biggest newspaper.

Long Island for decades has been hyper-sensitive to perceived threats of contamination. (It famously forced a completed nuclear plant at Shoreham to be closed in the 1980s prior to opening, at a huge cost.) With the environmental justice angle added, it’s going to be near politically impossible to hammer out a garbage compromise. No wonder there’s talk of a regional waste authority, insulated from direct electoral control, to effectuate solutions, perhaps entailing big payouts to poorer communities.

A potential alternative to disposal options is recycling or composting (see a 2016 report on Maine’s aggressive recycling mandates)  but economic limitations on most forms of reuse have become ever clearer.  Except for aluminum and some plastics (as well as, especially, the precious metals in discarded electronics), what we toss out isn’t worth anywhere near the cost of salvaging.

Of course, we could always stop consuming so much or building out structures—but that historically has required a depression to realize.  Maybe some kind of accommodation on the trains will be Long Island’s less painful option.

A COP Vs. Calories: How (Less) Sweet It Would Be

In the spirit of Thanksgiving gourmandizing and the recent COP26 climate conference, might I suggest a global summit to de-calorize our environment? For as surely as the planet is warming, prompting calls to de-carbonize, we’re getting fatter and only scientific guesswork can tell us which will doom more of us.

The body mass problem that crescendos in morbid obesity has multiple causes. Lack of regular exercise is a big one. But chronic overeating of the wrong kind of diet is the easiest to identify, and to simplify that further, let’s focus on carbohydrates, especially sugar.  What if, along with the carbon from fossil fuels, the world was on a tear to minimize consumption of what the package labels call added sugars?

This would occupy the nutrition authorities for all their waking days because sugars are, like other taste-bud triggers salt and fats, melded into so many prepared and processed foods. Often, the sweetener is not hiding—dessert treats and many beverages are swimming in it. (Artificial substitutes, which probably do less damage, just don’t cut it with many who crave the taste.) The more diabolical sugar presence is in items that are marketed with the pretense of healthfulness—natural, organic, gluten-free (looking at you, Costco!) Just try to find a cereal, including granola, that doesn’t load you up out of the box.

Not enough of us are ready for morning oatmeal without something to liven it up, and fresh fruit takes some forethought. I wish bakeries at least would offer more reduced-sugar choices. The global summiteers could trumpet cultures that have found other ways to flavor dark breads, and I don’t mean molasses. Why undo the good of whole grains?

The health train-wreck of mass obesity—usually a slow-moving killer–was made acute by the Covid-19 pandemic, where this was the number one co-morbidity across all age groups. Yet the official warnings seemed understated, as if the truth is indelicate to say too loud or too often. This is a point that the comedian Bill Maher, who is generally sound on diet, is unafraid to make. An even more reliable scold is my former Wall Street Journal colleague Matt Rees, whose website and email blasts are full of food factoids. Of course, there are many credentialed specialists making this case, including Prof. Marion Nestle. Last summer, she blogged on the good news that the total U.S. sugar intake actually has been declining for 20 years, attributable to less use of high-fructose corn syrup. But refined varieties have filled some of that gap, and the overall consumption is still way too high.

Big Sugar, like Big Oil, is a mighty counterforce facing any international campaign. Yet the stakes for most of the globe’s people are rising. Just as energy use jumps with affluence, so does body weight. The last I checked, only Vietnam among the significant developing countries had managed to keep average counts down in recent years as GDP rose. (I hope this is not because of a large poor and thin population.) So the issue is waiting for its appealing young tribunes, like those for “climate action,” and for media echoes similarly to reverberate. Shared sacrifice, anyone?

The Hamptons Has a New Favorite Hedge

There’s been a lot more green in the Hamptons stretch of Long Island in recent years, and it’s not just the incoming wealth tide. Hybrid arborvitae trees of the Thuja standishii x plicata cultivar, or Green Giants, have become the default landscaping choice for lot perimeters as the area’s trophy homes get bigger and closer togther.

A senior manager at Marders, a high-end nursery and garden shop in Bridgehampton, dates the upsurge to 15 years back and says Green Giants now account for 90% of his screening-tree plantings. Prices for the bigger ones, say already 10 feet or so, have doubled in five years.

The reasons are mostly human, with a deer clause.  The traditional Hamptons screen has been the privet hedge, and you still find some towering gems in the villages of Southampton and East Hampton. But these are tricky to grow and maintain; they thin out in the winter months especially. For today’s work-from-home East Enders, a 12-month block on the subculture next door has become more vital. Green Giants are sturdy, fast-growing and pest-resistant.

These trees also are unlikely feeding ground for the white-tailed deer that now overpopulate Long Island even more than the Richie Riches do.  A Northeastern native species of arborvitae, the Thuja occidentalis or Emerald, used to be favored but now is more of an indoor choice (for big indoors!) where the Odocoileus virginianus can’t show up hungry.

(Indigenous landscaping matters legally in much of the Hamptons, where town regulations forbid overclearing of formerly wooded parcels. Green Giants do not qualify as revegetation—they are considered simply ornamental. The same is true for another popular fast-grower, the Leyland cypress, but they have proven not so hardy against the elements in any case.)

An incipient monoculture of decorative barriers may be cliché, but is it more ominous than that? I queried specialists at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. They weren’t yet alarmed over prospects for a pest wipeout (the leaf miner is a low-grade concern) or invasive spread, as Green Giants don’t seed easily or do well in compacted soil.

That said, we tempt fate when we skew the landscape. Says Mina Vescera of the Cornell unit, “It’s unfortunate deer pressure greatly reduces selection for privacy screening in our area. More folks are starting to install fencing that exclude deer, but this effect is not beneficial for habitat.”  Not so great for the neighbors and their shrubs, either.

The greatest risk may be to the growers who overplant for today and not tomorrow.  Matthew H. Gettinger, president of the Long Island Natives division of Country Garden Nursery, writes, “I can tell you as with all farming initiatives, and as a farmer, there will be a glut of Green Giants at some point since most nurseries have increased proportions of these trees to the point where supply will soon exceed demand and prices will fall.”

For now, just like the McMansions that they frequently surround, the Green Giants have come to reflect a popular monoculture, of abundance and sameness. As of 2021, is as important to keep up with the Super-Joneses as it is not to see them.

‘Bad News’ for the Wage Workers–Or No News?

The woke bent of many American newsrooms gives a topical edge to Batya Ungar-Sargon’s new book of reflections on class and race in America. “Bad News” (Encounter Books) is a useful check on the identity politics of the era from an avowed Jewish labor populist who is an opinions editor at the current iteration of Newsweek. (Note that she is being published here by a conservative house.)

Ungar-Sargon depicts the prestige media as uncaring about the U.S. working class even as it rides nearly every left-wing fancy about white supremacy’s benighted reign. She illuminates the hypocritical business interest of institutions such as the New York Times in targeting a progressive (and affluent) audience, but is less convincing about the journalists themselves, whose content these days is in fact full of support for struggling laborers, especially women.

Ungar-Sargon in arguing that Ivy Leaguers in the newsrooms have alienated a blue-collar market draws on a 2019 volume, “No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class,” by Christopher R. Martin, an Iowa communications professor. Martin in turn quotes pioneering media pundit Ben Bagdikian, who says that when the timecard set no longer saw its concerns reflected in reporting, it stopped buying papers. Although it’s true that the “labor beat” took a back seat in the latter half of the 20th century, the dynamic here deserves more scrutiny. The traditional  press of the wage workers—the tabloids, the afternoon papers, the readership that Ungar-Sargon longingly associates with publishers Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer—began dying even before Rosie Riveter was a  World War II heroine. In 1950, 70% of the country’s dailies were “evening” editions, and now those are rare—the “tabs,” even more so. An interesting study for another volume—one not so much keyed to hot-button “anti-racism” as this book is—would ask, where has this demographic gone? Is it still reading, or have literacy and political standards actually fallen? What has taken the place of “the paper” in their hours of cogitation?

Ungar-Sargon suggests at a few points that Fox News Channel has been the working class’s fallback. I don’t think this best describes FNC’s core audience—it is decidedly male, yes, but hardly a lunch-pale set. The widening gamut of sports programming is a better answer, though watching this doesn’t do much for informed citizenship in our democratic republic (it may not even be aiding sportsmanship). Then there are the booming video games for advancing adolescents. But the biggest draw for Joe Sixpack is probably the same as it is for the Twitter mobs—the smartphone, and the social-media newsfeed that pumps info-bits into our civic bloodstream. Depending on which purveyors are popping up, this ironically may mean that the sermonizing snobs of the press who Ungar-Sargon so unsparingly disparages are in fact still being piped into the Other America. My bet is that, just as in Day’s and Pulitzer’s time of the penny papers, the most popular day-to-day news diet is that which costs the least.

Shortage Economy: Will We Go Marching?

Washington pundits generally see the supply-chain hiccups and partially related price inflation as political risks for the Biden White House. Probably that’s so but there’s also opportunity for a left-ward administration.

Check out the essay by reliable old Robert Kuttner in the latest New York Review of Books. After fondly recalling the marching orders given to the U.S. economy during World War II, he points to a report done by the president’s national-security team earlier this year on how to redirect U.S. market practices to better serve politically-determined aims. Supply disruptions, whether from pandemics, foreign machinations or environmental factors, are a key focus. Thus, the current discomfort could be transformed into a Democrat trifecta for planning, trade and investment powers. Some elements of the report already made their way into the Build Back Better legislation being dressed up for passage in Congress.

Kuttner’s article prefigures his next book, due in April, Going Big: FDR’s Legacy and Biden’s New Deal. For scholarly partisans of a certain bent–Kuttner has been a progressive warhorse since the Reagan days–the martial orders on the Home Front of the last World War (or even the first one) carry nostalgic appeal. The nation was drawn together in sacrifice and energetic production to meet national imperatives. It is easy at this point to forget the predations, many unnecessary or even silly, that this imposed on citizens (Britain saw much the same or worse) and the often-scandalous misappropriations that accompanied such commands.

Of course, a relatively open economy will also result in miscues, and certainly inequities and waste, so a time of tumult and worry like the present will offer an opportunity to statists as well as others who distrust international trade. To many, American Greatness seems to call for concerted measures to put the nation on sounder footing. The pleas of classical liberals for instead fostering agility in response can be dismissed by the Kuttners as corporate shilling, the “waning influence of free-market ideology.”

So, to use another wartime standby, this good crisis will not go to waste if only Biden’s party will muscle through the means to reorder what ails our land.  So are progressive Democrats really on the run? We do appear to be at a political pivot point. I’m not counting Bob Kuttner and friends out.

In the Wings, Another $Trillion Biden Push: Student Loans

It might seem like every major domestic spending program of the U.S. government is caught up in the multi-trillion-dollar budget “reconciliation” negotiations, but no. A significant exception is the huge college-student loan program and the massive ($1.7 trillion?) debt outstanding. It’s a separate agenda item.

The Biden administration, under constant progressive pressure, is trying to find ways to relieve or forestall repayments, which are due to resume in February after nearly a two-year pause. This is a ticking bomb for many households and indeed for the federal fisc. The Politico website reported this week on the latest ins and outs at the Education Department as it readies collections but also looks to spare as many hardships as possible and also reconnect with the 7 million borrowers who’ve already defaulted.

So far, the president, besides acting to exempt who he can in “public service,” has said he wants to trim $10,000 off everybody’s tab.  The congressional left wants at least $50,000. There are programs for adjusting payments to lower income levels, and the White House might go for a “self-reporting” period to qualify for that break. (Remember “liar loans” in the subprime housing crisis?) In any case, the more stringent collection steps taken under previous Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been tossed out the window. The longer-run political question is whether much of this debt (the biggest amounts typically taken out for advanced degrees, often by offspring of affluence) is ever going to be recovered.

Meantime, expenses at post-secondary institutions continue to climb (the political right argues that the loan programs foster these increases). And after some pandemic disruptions, enrollment chugs along. At some public campuses like the University of California, which have lower but still substantial charges, the jumps are notable. But across the broader academic landscape, the dropout rates continue to be worrisome, and of course these add to the outstanding-loan problem, as they prefigure an earnings shortfall that threatens default even among those who do feel an obligation to repay.

So, once we have the huge Build Back Better legislation off the burner, we will soon be finding out what other powers this president has to “transform” the social contract between Americans and Washington. It’s clearly more than a classroom exercise.

The Rise of the Entrepreneurial Creative

The pandemic disrupted the labor force, but in the process also seems to have accelerated a certain type of entrepreneurialism: the startup “creative.” This includes performers of various sorts on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, and writers and visual artists using the likes of Substack and Medium.

Many of these individuals would have previously worked for media organizations or been shut out of what used to be a narrow funnel for live or video performance. Most of those trying this direct-to-consumer reach have little or no commercial success, but many reach audiences in the millions and gross hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. (A similar phenomenon may be seen in the crafts sector, based on the boom at a site like Etsy.)

For those with the most ability to convert “hits” into payment streams, this presents a welcome financial challenge: managing growth in their enterprises (which can quickly take on support staff) while ramping up income. The banking system was not well prepared to finance these newfangled businesses and has lagged in establishing proper values for the inventory of content they produce.

On the creator side, the odds of making much of a living are still daunting, with a 1% vs. 99% ratio is commonly applied. But according to Simon Owens, a Substacker himself who produces there one of the best newsletters tracking the field, this breakdown is too pessimistic.  Among those who doggedly put out content rather than simply dabble occasionally, the chances of at least eking out entry-level media industry pay are decidedly better.  And, in one of his recent posts, he argues that substantive journalism (in this case, a self-styled watchdog on the political right) can sell—it’s not just argumentative punditry.

In some sense, the cacophony of the modern internet has made this opportunity possible, although a sorting-out process, probably involving groupings of output—much like the old newspapers and magazines—will be needed to keep customers paying up for informational material.  The danger there is that the preferred platforms will be under pressure to stifle outlying voices, undoing one of the arguable attributes of a disaggregated town square. As it is, YouTube faces accusations of such “censorship,” while Substack maintains that a “no cancel” openness was one of its basic reasons for existing.

The downfall of much traditional media has been a sore point for many of us from that old guard. And no one has convincingly shown how the new individualized model can effectively report on important elements of public life, such as state and local public affairs or business, large and small.  But the dying model had its significant limits (including the frequent sway of sponsors and the often miserable pay for incoming or tiny-publication talent). Having an alternative blossom on the web is testimony to the “market” that exists for well-chosen words and sounds, and the trick is to satisfy it.

Filling the News Hole: Advantage, Left

I’ve always enjoyed reading the lefty press—the honest-to-goodness lefty press, not the mainstream one that masquerades as impartial—because it tends to put a premium on information and sometimes reporting. If that side is indeed more informational than its right-wing counterparts, maybe that’s because the documentary instincts are stronger among the camp that sees its struggle as dialectical. It seeks to establish a record of systemic failure or injustice. The right’s media tend to frame coverage more in terms of cataloguing what it sees as outrageous (usually official) behaviors.

So, on a national scale, I’d look to publications such as In These Times or even The Nation for more grist than I’d expect from, say, National Review. (Here’s a recent item at nationalreview.com that takes issue with the idea it doesn’t do much reporting, though I think it rather supports my description. Suffice to say there’s a mixture of detail and polemics in all the “thought” journals—the balance is what’s in question. At the libertarian end of the right, Reason mag offers a good amount of fiber in its columns.)

On a local level, in New York City, a free print monthly called The Indypendent is worth reading even if labor socialism is not your drink. It has proven to have early radar on the hard-progressive capture of several Democrat and therefore general-election races, going back at least to the AOC for Congress phenomenon. It covered what used to be Quixotic candidacies, and now records victories often as not over the clubhouse machines, particularly in city council districts.

But the “Indy” also spends much literal and digital ink on the agenda of these politicians, attempting to support the case for redistribution of wealth and transparency in the execution of governmental authority and programs. (Spoiler: it finds they frequently serve the interests of the rich and powerful!) A case in point is an extensive package in the current “9/11” issue: “20 Years Later: How the new World Trade Center became a monument to greed and power that most New Yorkers want nothing to do with.”

There’s always been plenty about the plight of BIPOC groups and the pitiful support of arts and environmental collectives. But in any form of community organizing, jaundice must give way to a certain earnestness for change. In the Indy’s case, that’s usually twinned with sophistication about the way things work in the public sector and the prospects for pressuring  private entities. Anybody in town who expects heat from the left should be reading.

As the business of traditional journalism dries up, especially at the town level, this arguable edge of the left in filling the void will grow more important. (Another advantage may be a greater willingness to work for peanuts in support of the cause.) The press is going to supported by benefactors, more than advertisers, and we can already see that shaping up around the U.S. The funding of these local-news collaboratives suggests the right is barely in the game.

Didn’t somebody say knowledge is power?

5 at Feed: Ozy, Vietnam, Vegan Virtue, School Counts, Pakistan

10/1/21

This busy week features a fivesome of punditry nuggets at Newsfeed – Tim W. Ferguson (timwferguson.com) In reverse order, there’s the scandal that is overwhelming the once-adored (if unread) Ozy Media, the conflict that pits Vietnam’s quest for global commerce against its authoritarian state, the pretentious veganism of a star Manhattan chef, the latest parental pullouts from a balky public-school system (in Los Angeles) and the practiced diplomatic deceptions of Pakistan. Surely there’s an argument waiting to be had between us.