What will happen to America?

10Q, Volume 4

Hello y’all,

as you may have realized (or not), this newsletter is currently on a lighter schedule. And as some of you know, this has to do with us being busy: We are currently packing because we are preparing for our move back to Germany… which is this weekend! The boxes are piling up, as is the weird feeling leaving the United States after five years (good Californian memories pictured above). At the same time we are looking forward to re-discovering Germany and connect with old and new friends. It’s been a while.

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter around once a month (yes, I changed that to accomodate my schedule).

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. What will become of the United States?

So this is a personal question, isn’t it? Obviously, we have learned to like a lot about this country and its people. And we have learned to like European things like healthcare for all or Europe being a pretty gunless zone. Probably I won’t miss running into someone with a cowboy hat and a colt in his holster at the gas station. Or riding my bike past a murder scene during daylight in New Orleans.

But I will miss the optimism, the can-do and the possibilities regarding change.

Which is the thing that you always have to take into account: This country is permanently changing, demographically as well as culturally, more than any other Western nation. Germany now won’t be much different from Germany in ten years, probably. But the U.S.? You never know, and nowadays you have a lot of kids who have an altruistic tendency.

Keeping your altruism isn’t easy here, it is all about hustle and competition, real one or fake. The biggest American lie concerns meritocracy, everyone being able to make it just by talent and hard work. It occasionally happens, but not as often as the myth makes you believe. In the end, it is all about money. Nothing drives this country more than money, sometimes it is about pure survival, sometimes about simple accumulation or greed. Especially outside money in politics is a poison. A poison that won’t go away anytime soon, thanks to the American Supreme Court and its conservative leanings.

So what can we expect? Political stagnation, no matter who occupies the White House. More activity on the level of cities and States. This will be interesting to watch. An endless political marketing war about what really makes America great. A cold civil war between the two parties, with Republicans being the ones who have long left the common ground of decency and representative democracy. Continued mergers between megacompanies. Continued segregation between the haves and the have-nots, rhetorically and socially often along ethnical identities (this has gotten worse, I can tell you). And the hope that everything might change. Because it might. A lot of people are working on it. This is an empire in decline, for sure. But not yet in free fall.

2. Are we worrying too much about global population growth?

Paul Morland has written a book about global population growth, and he is not shying away from cinematic metaphors: “Demographic development is like a film playing at different times in different cinemas; although the screening has yet to finish at a number of venues, we know how it ends.” Spoiler: It ends with fewer children, as urbanization, growth of wealth and better education for women leads to less fertility.

This resonates with the regular criticism about the United Nations projections: According to the UN, 11.2 billion people will inhabit the planet in the year 2100. But the calculation doesn’t factor in economic development. As it stands, there are a lot of unknowns - especially climate change, which could change things either way.

Slower population growth would be good news. Not on a national level, as far as retirement systems in Germany or China are concerned, but on a planetary and ecosystemic scale (read: individual access to clean water).

And for Mr. Morland, it is good news for peace, as well. He argues: Older societies (hey Germany!) tend to be less dynamic and innovative, but also more peaceful. Because they actually do not have enough young people to send to war, at least before robots solve that problem. Which could be pretty soon, actually, though I suppose Bundeswehr robots would melt in the sun.

3. What should we make of the new European industry policy?

The EU parliament ratified the Copyright Directive this week. The debate was more heated than a group of Franconians arguing about who gets the last sausage on the Schlachtplatte.

But I don’t want to dwell on the details, you can read my German take over there. What I found interesting is the Economist’s interpretation: The reform as another example for the French-German-led “Europe that protects” with interventionist policies for key industries.

If Germany and France are destined to become (more) interventionist, this is something that will be felt beyond the European border. And obviously, it would not have been possible with a U.K. that stays in the E.U. as a counterweight.

But will it lead to good outcomes? I am open to expect surprises, especially as far as multinational taxation is concerned. But the history shows that France and Germany tend to favour incumbents, not innovation. There is a French saying: “Trop de choix tue le choix” (“Too much choice kills the choice”), but there is a difference between fending off Chinese acquisition attempts and pushing the same old industries because they’ve always had a seat at the table.

4. Will we call our current financial age a scam?

Profitability - at least in the near future - used to be a thing. Not so much since the financial crisis, though: Lyft has IPOed with $24 billion valuation and Uber will soon, but they might never be profitable - except one of them catches the whole market and will be able to raise prices. Same thing for Fracking: It has been kept afloat by large credit lines when oil was cheap, because banks were afraid to go under when the fracking companies collapse. But even when oil reaches $100 a barrel, the frackers will not be able to make returns on their large investments.

Another example: As I recently found out via Justin Rogers-Cooper, American telecommunications giant AT&T is probably the most indebted company in history. Its only way to become profitable beyond being able to pay billions of interest each year: Become a monopoly, raise prices. If this all sounds zombiesque… it is. We are living in a post-financial-crisis-world. I am not sure waking up (or being the sucker who will pay the bill) will be pleasant.

5. Can Southern Louisiana be saved?

When we lived down in New Orleans, driving to Plaquemines Parish was weird. It is the closest you can come to the Mississippi Delta, but the area is mostly devoid of people now. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita (both 2005) and Isaac (2011) flooded everything and the next storm will surely come. A lot of people just left and never returned.

"Plaquemines has the distinction of being among the fastest-disappearing places on Earth. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth”, Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her feature about the attempts to save the land from the rising sea levels swallowing it.

She is also going into the details of engineering artificial landmass by pumping mud from the Mississippi and spreading it on the land next to it. But the ground is becoming marshland, and the marshland is becoming water quickly. This may be Ground Zero for climate change in North America, but the ground is disappearing.

(Aerial Photo: Kris Krüg, Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

6. Will we take a pill to forget?

Remember this term: “Therapeutical forgetting”. Or take a pill and forget about it. This is what scientists have been working on for a couple of years. What sounds great in trauma therapy & PTSD has ethical implications. Remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey: Running into your ex becomes even more complicated when you’ve erased your memories!

But on a more serious note: What a victim of a crime could use, the proprietor of a crime could use as well. Obviously. And what good is forgetting the shame of vomiting on your friends drunkenly in a cab, when there definitely exists a video nowadays? And of course, many of your memories do not belong to yourself alone, they exist in the complicated realm of eyewitnesses, situations, society. Memories… they are decentralized, just like the blockchain!

7. Will we DJ in code?

I am in an age now where I am easy prey for bouncers who have to fulfill a quota for turning people away from nightclubs. But I would be highly interested to find out whether “Algoraves” are truly a thing - or just a consequence of all DJs having moved away from the expensive & technoid Bay Area, where this trend allegedly is from.

Algoraves means not a DJ are making music, but somebody who is massaging algorithms to get different sound textures. Kind of like synthesizers, but with bells, whistles and lines of code, not coke. It seems to be a logical rebirth of DJs who have been relegated to queue up MP3s in many cases. Though I actually don’t know because, as I mentioned, I won’t be allowed anywhere near a dancefloor, let alone a DJ booth.

8. Are we overdoing dystopia?

Dystopia is having a field day: It is on TV, in our political commentary, in our nightmares about the future. And in literature it is having another Renaissance, too.

There are arguments that we are mixing things up here: An awful situation doesn’t equal dystopia. And dystopia normally refers to a utopia gone bad. Yes, we will have a lot of discussions about the semantics.

One question that sticks out to me is: Would we be even able to recognize a dystopia? “We” in this case means the privileged ones who do not have to bear most consequences of money-extracting capitalism, waste, pollution and regular hot-earth natural disasters? And will empathy be enough in the face of disaster, dystopian or not?

9. Can cryptocurrencies recover?


10. Has pot become too strong?

Yes, I am looking at you as Example A (from the camera in your brain)! I am kidding, but the problem is real, according to a new study: Regular use of cannabis with more than 10% THC increases the risk of developing psychosis five-fold. Girl Scout Cookies is not as innocent as it sounds.

It is still early, but the availability of American stoners will make it easy to do more testing. We could come to a point where we have mandatory maximum potency, just like we have with alcohol in beer and wine.

That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading and see you on the other side of the ocean!