Thinking of our foreign service families in Afghanistan

If you’ve been away from the news lately, there is a tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. Below is a summary of the events leading up to the situation in Kabul.

It was a preferred posting for U.S. diplomats until 1979 when Amb. Adolph Dubs was kidnapped then killed by pro-Soviet police. The Peace Corps & USAID were sent home, and the U.S. mission greatly diminished to just dozens of people.

https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-day-embassy-kabul-forever-changed

(2/11)

Ten months later, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the embassy was reduced to being a “listening and reporting post.” On Jan 31, 1989, with the Soviets gone and civil war imminent, it was evacuated on newly-sworn-in SecState Baker’s order.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/01/27/us-embassy-in-kabul-to-be-evacuated-closed/b6b168c0-0931-4058-9d37-93ca39bd5e6d/?no_nav=true

(3/11)

That day, Marine Sec Guard James Blake left in the chancery a note with a U.S. flag. It read: “Take care of it. For those of us here, it means a lot; for those of you yet to enter Kabul, it could mean a lot to you. We Kabul marines endured, as I'm sure you will.''

(4/11)

For 12 years, 60 Afghan colleagues took turns watching and taking care of the embassy grounds. They tended to the gardens and ensured the chancery was left alone. They were frequently jailed and rocketed. (More in this @amywaldman @nytimes story)

https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/18/world/a-nation-challenged-kabul-unsealing-time-capsule-at-the-american-embassy.html?referringSource=articleShare

(5/11)

In Oct 2001, the Taliban tried to break into the chancery, firing into the front doors' bullet-proof glass, but they never got inside. After the Taliban fell, Marines entered the chancery again and found a place frozen in time — and the flag and note from Blake.

(6/11)

That flag was raised at the Dec. 18, 2001 embassy re-opening. I was sworn in at the same flagpole two years later. Some of my colleagues had also served in the 70s & 80s, eager to return to Afghanistan, to do all possible for a new U.S. diplomatic and development mission

(7/11)

We worked grueling hours, driven by a deep belief that our work was essential, buoyed by so many gains, even though the bullet-ridden chancery front doors reminded us of the Taliban threat. The embassy grew dramatically in capacity and size the next decade.

(8/11)

In 2003, we were roughly 100 ppl. By 2010, with the civilian surge, it swelled to roughly 1,500. Thousands of Americans have served at this embassy. Many colleagues served repeated tours the last 15 years, by choice. Thousands of Afghans have worked side by side with us.

(9/11)

I can't imagine the stress at the embassy today. I can't imagine the terror our Afghan friends, colleagues who believed in us, watched over us & our sacred embassy space must feel. That flag has meant everything to us. Please keep thinking of them, thank them, don't forget them

#EvacuateNow

A clarification. The U.S. must get our Afghan colleagues and allies out. The mission the last 20 yrs would’ve been nothing without them. #EvacuateNow = everyone: the U.S. officials, yes — but also scores of Afghans who supported the U.S. mission needing SIVs

And Afghans needing other emergency visas because of their commitment to advancing democracy & civil society through journalism, NGOs, human rights, more. Them & their families. Grateful to former colleagues trying to make this happen #AfghanLivesMatter
#SaveAfghans #HelpAfghans

Originally tweeted by Katherine Brown (@_KatherineBrown) on August 15, 2021.

Paul Erdos~ couch surfing problem solver

Paul Erdos was of my grandmother’s generation, born in the same year, 1913, yet half a world away in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His genius revealed itself early on. “By the time he was 20, he had found a proof for Chebyshev’s theorem.[14] In 1934, at the age of 21, he was awarded a doctorate in mathematics.”

Erdős published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed.[6] He firmly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians. Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erd%C5%91s

Paul Erdos committed his life almost exclusively to the mathematics community. For his own reasons he chose not to have a family of his own. Although allowed to travel at will to his country of birth, he chose not to settle there, (until his death as he buried next to his parents “in grave 17A-6-29 at Kozma Street Cemetery in Budapest.”)

… Paul Erdős, became perhaps the most notorious mathematician of the 20th century. Erdős spent nearly his entire life crashing on other mathematicians’ couches and subsisting on the small sums he received for giving talks at universities around the world. He also had a fondness for devising math problems and offering bounties to anyone who could solve them.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/cash-for-math-the-erdos-prizes-live-on-20170605/

So dedicated to his pursuit of mathematics, he used cash prizes to lure others into joining him in its unraveling. By providing a private incentive he wished to enrich the public he enjoyed so much. His prizes still survive today.

Erdős continued that tradition. Over the course of his lifetime he offered rewards for hundreds of problems that he himself dreamed up. Amounts ranged from $25 into the thousands, depending on how challenging he thought the problem was. Today Graham controls a small fund left by Erdős, who died in 1996, for the purpose of making good on those bounties.

In 1974 Erdős paid off his first major sum: $1,000 to the Hungarian mathematician Endre Szemerédi for a problem Erdős had posed some years earlier. Szemerédi tackled the problem because “he said he could certainly use the money,” said Graham. Decades later Szemerédi would win the Abel Prize, commonly regarded as the Nobel of mathematics, for work that stemmed primarily from his solution to this Erdős problem.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/cash-for-math-the-erdos-prizes-live-on-20170605/

For most people, their primary or first degree community is their immediate family; those housed under the same roof. This mathematician cared not for real estate. His community thrived on the images of abstract notions brought down to earth in formulaic representation, sketched out on paper.

The Wire– a review

If you prefer drama to comedy I can recommend the HBO series The Wire. The first of five seasons came out in 2002 when the TV in our house was featuring Barney and Dora the Explorer. A crime drama portraying the grisly conflict between law enforcement and the (mostly drug) criminals wasn’t in the cards.

The story lines hold their own with intrigue and surprise, along with character development. Every season probes a new scheme, a new crew of gangsters, while bringing along the established cast and story threads from past seasons. From Wikipedia:

Set and produced in Baltimore, MarylandThe Wire introduces a different institution of the city and its relationship to law enforcement in each season, while retaining characters and advancing storylines from previous seasons. The five subjects are, in chronological order: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, education and schools, and the print news medium. Simon chose to set the show in Baltimore because of his familiarity with the city.[4]

What holds up so well is the consistency of the norms, whether they are those which the criminals obey or the ones the mainstream players abide. Each side has heroes and crooks, has chivalry and villainy. Each side has bad luck and good fortune. Each side has weakness and substance abuse. A few try to pass from one side to the next.

The Wire is lauded for its literary themes, its uncommonly accurate exploration of society and politics, and its realistic portrayal of urban life. Although during its original run, the series received only average ratings and never won any major television awards, it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time.

The Wire – Wikipedia

You will also realize how far technology has come in the last twenty years. The primary tool used to capture the drug dealers is “by getting up on their phone,” or getting court authority to tap phones. When the first season opens these are pay phones on the corners of the gritty streets of Baltimore.

As long as you can tolerate a little violence, it’s well worth a watch.

Choose your work location

Yesterday was the day for work-from-home articles, as Bloomberg also posted this excellent article by Sarah Holder, The True Costs of Working From Home. It’s full of great information and statistics. This, for example:

Between 2013 and 2017, households with at least one adult who worked from home spent more money on housing, on average, than ones that all worked outside of the house, the study found: Remote renters spent between 6.5 % and 7.4% more of their income a month, and homeowners who worked remotely had mortgage and property taxes that were 8.4% to 9.8% greater than non-remote households.

I didn’t appreciate that, pre-pandemic, remote workers were already spending almost ten percent more on housing. That’s quite a bit. On the other hand I’m surprised the percentage of people working from home in times of Covid isn’t higher.

The study is a snapshot of the pre-coronavirus world, when only about 3% of U.S. employees did their jobs from home. By February 2020, that number had swelled by some estimates to 8%. And by May, that share had exploded, with about 35% of U.S. workers who once commuted going remote. 

Still– that is about a third of the workforce. And it appears that staying in the neighborhood is popular amongst employees.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than half of workers who can do their jobs remotely say they will want to continue doing so after the pandemic ends. A December survey from Upwork predicted that 27% of workers in the U.S. would still be largely remote by the end of 2021.

The freedom of WFH allows people to move to new communities if they so choose. Perhaps drawn by less expensive housing, or a host of other possible benefits. A U-Haul study shows that coastal people tend to move to other states near the coasts. This article offers another view.

But sticking closer to home may be the favored path for many, especially if companies ask for some face-time each month. A San Francisco Chronicle analysis of USPS moving data showed that the majority of San Franciscans who left the city during the pandemic moved not to Florida or Texas, but to another Northern California county; a Zumper report that analyzed national rent shifts found a similar story, with “cheaper, neighboring cities” appearing to be the 2020 destinations. 

I think it’s too soon to tell how household priorities will all shake out. There are options out there that people have yet to consider. If moving half way across the country is possible, why not another continent? Croatia is just one country trying to leverage the remote work concept by offering a Digital Nomad Visa.

There are many costs and benefits to living in various communities, and the reshuffling of tradeoffs will be different for each household. Businesses also may find the transition to remote work a cost savings at first, but then an expense as it is more difficult to recruit and train a corporate culture from afar. Though as a general rule, more choices for both employers and employees are a good thing.

Coming together

Politically outstate Minnesotans and Twin Cities urbanites maybe diverging, but demographically there are converging trends. Here’s #4 from MN Compass:

One theory offered to explain the tight housing market is that Covid has made it more precarious for this age group to complete a move; boomers who may have relocated to a new stage-of-life housing have stayed put. If true, then there should be a wave of availability coming up here in a few years in Roseville, Edina, Golden Valley and Mendota Heights.

Real estate in times of Covid

All things considered, it has been an incredibly strong market for residential real estate sales in 2020. The spring started strong but was shut down along with everything else in March when the virus leapt the oceans and appeared in great numbers on the US coasts. Home sales were considered an essential service, but the apprehension of allowing strangers into sellers’ homes for showings slowed down the process.

This data from Northstar MLS shows the dip in April and then the take off of activity starting in June.

Issues that seemed to be on buyers minds when they came through open houses were 1. room for home offices 2. new flexibility in distance to job location 3. downsizing out of larger homes to avoid maintenance concerns. This broad range of interests led to almost all types of properties being snatched up, often in competitive bidding. Which has led to a sharp decline in properties available for sale.

In almost all markets, except the downtown Minneapolis condo market which is up 21.3%.

I think there is little dispute that Covid has dampened the amenities which a downtown offers. The lack of night life and restaurants, the lack of need to be blocks from work or near light rail for a quick trip to the airport. By displacing the relative value that residents place on these features versus a whole host of other variables that go into a home purchase decision (including square footage, proximity to family and so on), more owners are exiting the downtown community than joining it.

Nailing down the market prices on each of these amenities one-by-one would take data that is not readily available. Data sets for the performance of public sector goods would have to be statistically spun out to reveal levels of significance. An analysis of prices of these and other amenities which overlap through a variety locations would provide an opportunity for index setting. Due to the extraordinary living conditions in 2020, there is an opportunity to obtain counter factual data for many core neighborhood utilities. It is a unique opportunity.

No Voice? Exit

From the Pioneer Press:

Two longtime state senators from Minnesota’s Iron Range broke with Democratic-Farmer-Labor ranks on Wednesday to form an independent caucus in the narrowly divided chamber.

Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, said in a statement they would venture out on their own after finding both political parties to be too polarizing. The lawmakers had frequently broken with DFL party lines to vote what they felt best represented their districts.

Is it so simple?

Nathaniel Rachman writes in Persuasion about how the simpleton manifestos originated in the 60’s and 70’s.

In their 1970 classic The Politics of Unreason, the sociologists Seymour Lipset and Earl Raab coined a word for this black-and-white thinking: “simplism.” They defined it as “the unambiguous ascription of single causes and remedies for multifactored phenomena.” 

He notes that these one line policy responses were clung to by the political extremes. Whereas now it is fashionable to reduce all policy to a slogan. In the same way that it is now fashionable to be an activist.

If I retell the last four years as a simple story, it would go something like this. America’s Heartland felt sold out and left behind so they hired Trump to shake things up to make fun of the sharply educated, networked and shined-up coastal internationalists. They demanded that the nation refocuse on the nation itself. As a counter-response the 60’s political types went into a high-gear-radical-simpleton response, unleashing their swarm of buzzing bees on all the social media electronic waves.

For months following the election an acquaintance on Facebook spewed like a fire breathing dragon, reposting every negative commentary topped off with an acidic remark. But her sphere was at odds recently when a well funded Melton-Meaux challenged incumbent Ilhan Omar in the primaries and lost. Suddenly her tone changed to high school counselor sorting out a cat fight in the hallway. This was as refreshing as a spritz of Evian water poolside at a Four Seasons Hotel (we can only dream about such things these days) and gave me hope that we’ve reached an exhaustion point on activism.

Have we finally stripped down the old ways so we can rebuild? Because there is evidence all around us that things are not so simple, that the system is complex. It relies on a vast network of interlinked groups freely interacting to produce value. For instance, the simple response to the virus is to lock everyone down, to deny them access to all the networks they rely on in the social structure of their lives. So high school kids are out carjacking cars and dying in high speed police chases, and suicides are on the rise, and who even knows what amount of domestic battery is going unreported.

As Nathan goes onto say in his piece:

Perhaps the greatest danger is that simplism feasts on its failures. Its ineffective policies will not solve America’s problems, so calls for radical action will intensify. In this mood of crisis, norms are obstacles rather than boundaries. Politics becomes two unshakeable poles, which paralyzes Congress and halts the passage of policy fixes. As long as simplism reigns, America’s problems will worsen—and so the process will repeat itself.

Understanding a more complex system, no relying on a more complex system is our path to a free society. The problem is that the old guard is not letting go. The very natural tendency to hold onto the prestige and power they’ve gained over the last fifty years, by fighting off opponents, has us stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day movie. Their implicit power makes it necessary for them to gracefully exit stage right. In the meantime we wait.