Extreme Hong Kong

My daily commute is an exercise in extremes.  In the morning, I wake up in the socialist utopia of Lamma Island.  Lamma is the least commercialized place I’ve ever lived: there is no advertising on Lamma, and the only corporate chain of any kind on the island is the tiny little branch of HSBC in Yung Shue Wan.  Lamma is also the most egalitarian place I’ve ever lived: all the houses are roughly the same size, nearly all the apartments are around 700 square feet, and people don’t advertise their wealth by the way they dress, since everyone wears shorts, a t-shirt and sandals all day everyday.
Then I get on the ferry, and arrive in Central.  I go up an escalator, and I’m in the IFC mall.  There I’m bombarded by images designed to make me feel bad about who I am, bad about the clothes I wear, and bad about where I am in life.  I make it through the mall, and head to Sheung Wan on the pedestrian walkway.  Once I come down to ground level, I’m reminded how this city isn’t designed for me, it’s designed to use me as a tool for corporate profits.  Taxis honk their horns at me for getting in the way of their next fare, people on the street don’t show the slightest kindness toward one-another, there’s hardly any room to walk with all the money-making going on.  I look up at the thousands of anonymous apartment and office windows containing the tools of the corporatocracy.  I work, I eat, I get back on the ferry.
When I get off the ferry on the Lamma side, I remember why I’m willing to put up with that ferry ride everyday.  Lamma is on a human scale.  I feel like I fit.  I’m a person, not a consumer.  Every place I’ve ever lived has been designed by corporations for cars.  For the first time in my life, I live in a place designed by people for people.  And I found that place in the Hi-Tech Village, the world’s greatest capitalist theme-park.  Go figure

Reasoning Backwards

Originally published, last week and in a slightly different form, at Libertines Pub.

Back when I still lived in the US, I was pretty put off by American culture and the American lifestyle. I readily criticized groups who I didn’t associate with myself, like suburban Republicans. I railed against their environmentally destructive lifestyle: their giant SUVs,  giant houses far away from everything they need, their conformity, and their dogmatic belief in Christianity. Sometimes I got into conversations with them where I would attempt to convince them that their lifestyle was unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Needless to say, I never made a convert, and though my tactics could have been more tactful, I really don’t think my lack of success had anything to do with my rhetorical techniques. I was criticizing their lifestyle, their way of existing in the world, and perhaps most importantly I was criticizing the economic system that they depended on for survival, well being, and happiness.

Now that I live in Hong Kong, when I hear non-Americans criticizing those fat, self-centered Americans, I feel something stir inside me. Some part of me says, “No! You’re wrong! You’re criticizing my people, and so there must be something wrong with you or what your’e saying!” What changed was context. “Them” became “us.” Increasingly, “us” feels like Americans, or people from Western cultures, or even…gasp…white people. When I was back in the US, the stereotypical American felt like a “them” and so I had no emotional reaction to criticism of that lifestyle. For the most part, I have disassociated my identity from that stereotype (I’m not that kind of American), but I still feel this visceral push to defend the American lifestyle from what my rational mind still tells me is perfectly reasonable criticism. In some cases, criticisms that I have this emotional reaction to have been criticisms I myself made before “they” became “we.”

When we make statements like “I am an American” or “I am a liberal” or “I am a Christian” we connect our identities to a set of beliefs, beliefs about morality, human nature, history, and science: beliefs about how the world works, and how it ought to work. When we connect our identities to these beliefs, we begin to perceive attacks on these beliefs as attacks on ourselves, and often have an emotional response that compels us to defend our beliefs as strongly as we would defend our lives.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares. The negative repercussions of disagreeing with the group far outweigh the negative repercussions of holding beliefs that are counter-factual, in the vast majority of circumstances.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares.

When we reason from group identity to beliefs about empirical reality, we reason backwards.  I believe it is much more rational to choose our beliefs about the way the world works independent of our national identity, political identity, ethnic identity or any other identity.  Reasoning forward is not natural for our species in many circumstances.  Nevertheless we possess the ability to do so.  The first step toward doing so more often is to recognize the way that group identity biases our rational ability, and consciously guard against it.

Health Care Revisited

, I was pretty enamored with the HK health care system.  Then I got insurance.  Now there’s a for-profit corporate middle-man between me and my doctor who has a financial interest in giving me as little health care as possible.  Feels like home.

I’ve been having pain in my left foot that’s been getting progressively worse.  After jumping through a few hoops designed to make it difficult for me to see a specialist, I finally acquire permission from my insurer to see an orthopedist.  So I go to the orthopedist, and he thinks it’s tendinitis, but wants to take an x-ray to rule out any damage to the bone before he treats it with a steroid injection.  Sounds reasonable.  But before I get to the x-ray, one of the nurses informs me that my health insurance won’t pay for x-rays.  This seems unbelievable to me, so I spend the next hour or so on the phone with the insurance company fighting to talk to someone with a brain.  (Making it really difficult for me to talk to anyone is obviously in their interests.  After all, I might just give up and not get treatment, which is the best possible outcome from their standpoint.)  I finally get someone with a partially functioning brain, who can do slightly more than repeat the same nonsense over and over.  He informs me that they might pay for my x-ray, but that I have to pay out of pocket first and then submit the receipt.   (The hope here is that I’ll find the paperwork so onerous that I’ll just give up and pay for it myself.)  Then, if the insurance company bureaucrat decides that my doctor gave me the x-ray in order to “treat or diagnose an injury or illness,” they’ll pay for it.   Well, of course it’s to treat or diagnose an injury or illness!  Do people get recreational x-rays?  Isn’t my doctor in a better position to make this medical decision than some mindless corporate stooge?  I’ll submit the receipts, and then they’ll try as hard as they can to figure out a way not to reimburse me.

I think the HK health care system is about as good a system as you can have, without cutting the insurance companies out entirely.  Unlike in the US, the x-ray was somewhat affordable even without insurance (about $40 US).  But my recent experience reinforces my belief that the profit motive needs to be removed from the system.  I’d much rather have a democratically elected government between me and my doctor than a heartless corporation.  It’s all about incentives, and the incentives in the employer based health insurance system are all wrong.

The US has “reformed” its health care system.  Even these reforms won’t make it as good, or as fair, as the system in HK (costs still way too high, and still way too many uninsured people).  The incentives haven’t changed.  The difference is that there are a few more regulations in place that won’t allow insurance companies to be quite as evil as they were before the new law was passed.  But they’re actively looking for ways around those regulations.

This is one place where the free-market fundamentalists are simply wrong. The profit motive is a powerful incentive.  But we need to look at what kind of behavior it incentivizes.  The profit-motive can encourage hard work and ingenuity.  It can also encourage environmental destruction, and other methods of socializing costs while privatizing profits.  In the case of health care, the profit motive incentivizes insurance companies to act like assholes.  If they stop acting like assholes, they make less money.  Rather than efficiency, it incentivizes deliberate inefficiency.  No amount of regulation will solve that fundamental problem.

Catholics and Commies

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Authoritarians are all alike. The inheritors of the Earth’s two most significant historical empires, the Roman and the Chinese, don’t seem to realize that the days of “it’s true because I said so” are over. There was a time the Pope and the Emperor of China could literally dictate what was true and false within the substantial segments of the globe they controlled. This is no longer true, but apparently the authoritarians haven’t gotten the message.

Lately, the New York Times seems to be reporting daily on new evidence that during his tenure as a Catholic bishop, the current Pope was informed of several priests sexually abusing children in Germany and the US, and he did nothing to help those children or prevent further abuse. All his actions seem to have been directed at image control, not sexual abuse control. Obviously, this behavior is about as immoral as human behavior gets, yet there has been no official explanation of the evidence from the Vatican, other than to attack those who present it. Apparently, the Pope still thinks he’s infallible. Now, there is a certain segment of the Catholic population who’s self-identity is so tied up in being Catholic that admitting that the Pope is actually an abusive asshole would cause an identity crisis so large that no amount of evidence can convince them of the truth. These people cannot be reasoned with, and as a result they don’t require explanations that are rational. “I said so,” uttered from an authority figure they identify with is enough. But for an increasing number of humans, particularly the increasing number of humans raised to think for themselves in an atmosphere of free and open discussion, “I said so” doesn’t cut it. No matter who says so.

Big Beijing is running into this problem as well, all over the place. From poorly constructed schools in Sichuan that killed hundreds of children to disappearing Falun Gong practitioners and their on-demand organs, to countless other examples of Big Beijing showing no respect for the value of human life, the response is always the same (see attached photo). The recent spat with Google is instructive. When Google decided to stop censoring Chinese search results, a decision that included a statement about the value of free exchange of information and open debate, Big Beijing’s response was that Google was “totally wrong.” Nothing about the value of social harmony vs. freedom of information, just a blanket statement that if you disagree with Big Baby, you’re wrong. Why? Because Big Baby said so, and Big Baby, like the Pope, is infallible. They both have the Mandate of Heaven, apparently. Just like some Catholics, some Chinese have so thoroughly attached their personal identity to their government that these “arguments” are actually “persuasive.” Perhaps in a nation of only children, educated in Chinese state schools, many people are predisposed to this type of nationalistic, authoritarian “thinking.” But if you want to convince adults, you have to make a coherent argument. Which is why Big Beijing’s propaganda system doesn’t seem to work in HK, and why many Americans areleaving the Catholic Church. It should be interesting to see how this plays out between now and 2047 (the year the gweilo evacuate HK).

Gweilometer: Island Line 4-5 and beyond

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Wan Chai: This is one of those places that my gweilometer is more honest about than I am. The mix of pubs and dirty strip clubs make parts of Wan Chai feel like the bad part of an American city. But the pubs are too nice, and grime doesn’t lead to violent crime, so it’s not like home after all. The pubs are gweilo-friendly, a little too gweilo friendly. Same goes for the Chinese Restaurants. My gweilometer is set to prefer a slightly higher level of cultural authenticity: something in-between sweet and sour pork and thousand year old egg. Wan Chai certainly has plenty to offer both ends of that spectrum, but just not quite enough in my authenticity-band. Wan Chai and Sheung Wan are more in-between Central and, say, Mong Kok on this spectrum, but Wan Chai feels like it’s trying too hard in it’s gweilo-friendliness, with scores of Irish pubs and a Chinese restaurant called The American. We North American gweilo like our gweilo-friendliness to feel a little more natural than this. Average gweilometer reading: 84.435

Causweay Bay: This was the first place I landed in HK. My company apparently thought this would be the perfect place to put a fresh off the airplane American gweilo. Note to Chinese people: when arranging accommodations for your gweilo friends and colleagues, do not put them in Causeway Bay unless you’re sure that they’re super materialistic. They’re likely to be completely overwhelmed by the confusing street layout, congestion, pollution, and hyper-consumerism, and they probably won’t understand the status-message you’re sending by choosing some of the most expensive real estate in HK for their hotel. You have to really love shopping to love Causeway Bay, and I hate shopping. I notice some French people using their European gweilometers are getting higher readings than I am. It seems that their gweilometers are calibrated to give high readings in places where fashion is a priority. It’s places like Causeway Bay that allow significant proportions of the populations of Paris and Milan to be employed in the fashion industry, tricking Chinese people into buying clothes they don’t need is big business, almost as big as tricking them into smoking cigarettes and eating fast food. My gweilometer is overheating; it wasn’t built to handle this kind of thing, and it’s nearly impossible to find a bar to cool it down. This is why I can never stay in Causeway Bay for more than a few hours…so let’s get back on the MTR. Average gweilometer reading: 54.312

Beyond Causeway Bay: The gweilo-map doesn’t have many entries East of Causeway Bay. I understand that some gweilo live in North Point, or Quarry Bay, but I think their motivation to live there comes from the fact that those places are affordable, and have an MTR station. Using some of the special features on my North American gweilometer, I’m able to detect a burrito stand of some kind in Fortress Hill, but nothing else of note. Maybe I need a more sensitive gweilometer; they do get better with age.

The High-Speed Rail Controversy: An American Perspective

Originally published at Libertines Pub.  (Note: This post is really intended for a HK audience, not a US audience like most of my posts.  So if you don’t dig this one, don’t worry.  I’m blogging for a HK blog now, and I’ll share those posts here, but that doesn’t mean this blog has changed its focus.)

Since I arrived in Hong Kong a half year ago, the biggest political story has been the proposed high speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Apparently the young people in HK are really upset about this. I don’t get it.

Recently, the SCMP documented the evolution of this movement from a community issue centered around villagers trying to keep their homes, to a mass political movement that has sparked political activism among many young people in HK. Chu Hoi-dick, one of the leaders of the movement, is quoted as saying, “When I first started, it was a community issue. My goal was to help villagers keep their homes. No one should be sacrificed because of a railway or because of any development.” Really? How is this a rational political position? No one should ever lose their home because of any development? How would any nation or municipality ever create any public infrastructure under this standard? It’s absolutely preposterous, yet somehow the SCMP doesn’t mention the absurdity of Chu’s statement. In a city as densely populated as HK, nothing could ever get built if you couldn’t ever demolish anyone’s home to build a public good.

Now I’m American, and as such I’m all for the rights of individuals. But even Americans know that sometimes people have to lose their homes because that land is needed for something that benefits society. OK, not all Americans know this. Many of the ones who don’t are currently involved in what is called the Tea Party movement. This is a bunch of conservatives who think that it’s immoral to raise taxes on individuals so that the government can provide a public good (in this case, what they object to is poor people receiving health care). Which brings me to my main point. This anti-rail campaign is essentially a conservative movement. The two basic arguments seem to be that individual property rights trump collective goods (the nobody should ever lose their house nonsense quoted above) and that it’s just too expensive (or that the costs outweigh the benefits). It’s ironic that young people in HK seem to have similar political opinions to a bunch of old, rural, uneducated and generally misinformed Americans.

Since the first argument is absurd on it’s face, let’s address the second one: it’s just too expensive. I have no doubt it’s very expensive, but taxes in HK are insanely low (it helps that the defense budget is zero). And I don’t think there’s much danger of a tax hike because of this project, so what are people so upset about? Public services and infrastructure work pretty well in this city, but that’s because people invested in them in the past, and continue to do so.

My president has proposed several high-speed rail networks linking major American cities. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional US political system won’t allow him to accomplish this goal, which would be of great benefit to the US economy. The auto and oil industries will surely succeed in limiting the scope of high-speed rail in the US. And the Tea-partiers will be right there by the corporations’ side, shooting themselves in the foot because they oppose government spending.

I’m no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail. Whatever the economists say about the cost/benefit, does Hong Kong really want to be the one major Eurasian city that isn’t part of the high speed rail network eventually connecting Shanghai to Paris?

I understand that a lot of the anger expressed in this anti-rail campaign is really frustration about the lack of real democratic influence in the political process. I feel your pain there. The US has had universal suffrage since 1776…ok, maybe 1865…no wait…1920. Ok, we realistically attained universal suffrage in 1964, except for the brief, computer-enhanced hiatus between 2000 and 2006. My point is this: the vote can be bought, influenced, suppressed or miscounted, but political speech is a fundamental human right. Use your right to protest wisely. Remember the boy who cried wolf.

My American Education

One of the joys of being an American expat is that people are constantly educating me about my home country.  Local Hongkongers and European expats love to tell me how fat and ignorant Americans are.  The Euros particularly love to tell me how my country lacks culture.  The one thing all these people have in common is that they have never visited the U.S.  Nevertheless, they insist that their experience with the U.S., which consists of watching American movies and TV, somehow gives them some special insight into American culture that my 30 years of living in the U.S. didn’t provide me with.

I know many Americans are overweight, and I know many Americans are ignorant about the world.  I’m aware of the stereotypes, and I can even see that these stereotypes are in part based on reality.  But the facts on the ground are a little more complicated than that.  Surprisingly, people in HK seem to be unaware of the fact that the U.S. is a large, diverse country.  People in HK think that HK is diverse (with it’s 5% minority population), and therefore simply cannot comprehend the scale of American diversity.

I am often confronted by people who dress like Americans, use American slang, watch American movies and listen to American music, telling me that the U.S. has no culture of it’s own.  Europeans think U.S. culture is a simply a bastardized version of their own.  The fact that foreigners like to mimic my culture does not negate the existence of that culture.  The fact that my culture is relatively young, and is a blended culture, does not mean it is somehow not a real culture.

It’s not my fault that Europeans and Asians lack the nuanced understanding of U.S. culture to appreciate the good American music, movies and television.  The American music that’s popular abroad tends to be lyrically and musically unsophisticated.  This is particularly true of hip hop.  I get why the interesting stuff isn’t exportable.  But when people use the crappy American music that’s popular overseas as an example of how ignorant Americans are, I tend to lose patience with them.

The fact that McDonald’s and MTV are popular in France reflects badly on France, not the U.S.  If we can trick you into consuming our low grade beef and cultural leftovers, and keep the good stuff for ourselves, that’s on you Frenchie, not me.

Sorry for the rant, had to get that out of my system.