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Tag: China

What Can We Learn from Covid-19

(Source: Duke Health)

I’ve been reflecting a bit on what government officials & policymakers should learn from the Covid-19 crisis. While history, with the benefit of hindsight and data, will be the ultimate judge, a few things jump out to me as obvious:

  1. A few decades lucky streak of no major pandemic should not make anyone complacent on the importance of public health. Many Americans, at the onset of the crisis, simply assumed that pandemics were like the bubonic plague or ebola: concerns for a faraway time and place. But the unpleasant reality is infections have been with us since before civilization and will continue long after the current crisis ends. All our modern conveniences and sophistication don’t mean a damn to a microbe. As a result, making sure public health leadership and infrastructure is in place and has the emergency powers and resources it needs when crisis hits is absolutely vital.
  2. I think there are very good reasons to want a single payer healthcare system, and plenty of reasons to be wary of one. But, despite the efforts of pundits, I think Covid-19 is largely irrelevant to this debate. The practical reality is many countries with single payer systems (like those in Europe) appear to have been completely incapable of managing this while some without it (ie China) have. This is not to say China did everything perfectly (obviously they didn’t and I pray they’ve learned this time to permanently shut down wildlife wet markets) nor that single payer systems are to blame for whats happening in places like Italy (it’s not). But even holding aside how the term “single payer” papers over important nuances about how different “single payer” systems mix different levels of private coverage in, the truth of the matter is that countries that have been able to control and contain the disease share more around bold actions by public health officials than they do around how exactly healthcare is provisioned. The “Medicare for all” debate needs to be had and resolved — I’m not cheapening that — but I just don’t think Covid-19 is particularly relevant for either side of it.
  3. Sick leave is critical for public health. People who are sick need to feel like they can stay home and not jeopardize their financial well being. Otherwise economic activity (which we can’t all avoid: everyone eventually needs food even when locked down on quarantine) becomes increasingly the domain of those who are sick but forced to be working from economic desperation.
  4. Confused and contradictory messaging from government officials is NOT helpful. When different officials give wildly different responses (see Devin Nunes encouraging people to go out for dinner earlier Sunday vs. the Director of NIAID advocating for a national lockdown), is it any wonder that the public can’t tell how seriously to take this? On the one hand, we have toilet paper shortages at stores and on the other hand people in this club in Nashville last night are partying as if nothing was happening).
  5. I’ve had a number of conversations with smart people I respect who have commented on the difference in reaction to the crisis in “the West” (US, UK, Europe) vs “the East” (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore). Its hard to have this sort of conversation without racial undertones creeping in, but its also hard to ignore the chorus of commentators who believe that East Asian countries were able to more quickly implement systems and policies many in the West initially thought were harsh and excessive because they have the type of governance systems & culture to support it — individual rights and preferences be damned. I’m sure a big part of this is that these governments had “practice” with SARS at the turn of the century, but I think we’ll need to think long and hard about some of the tradeoffs a highly federated governance system oriented around the rights of the individual have.
  6. The internet may not have been this before but its certainly now a utility that is necessary for education and the modern workforce. We should act accordingly as it pertains to increasing access and maintaining it as an open platform for all.

Stay safe everyone — here’s to being able to pontificate more with you all (online or in-person when the crisis is over)! 🍸

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What I've Changed My Mind on Over the 2010s

I’ve been reading a lot of year-end/decade-end reflections (as one does this time of year) — and while a part of me wanted to #humblebrag about how I got a 🏠/💍/👶 this decade 😇 — I thought it would be more interesting & profound to instead call out 10 worldviews & beliefs I had going into the 2010s that I no longer hold.

  1. Sales is an unimportant skill relative to hard work / being smart
    As a stereotypical “good Asian kid” 🤓, I was taught to focus on nailing the task. I still think that focus is important early in one’s life & career, but this decade has made me realize that everyone, whether they know it or not, has to sell — you sell to employers to hire you, academics/nonprofits sell to attract donors and grant funding, even institutional investors have to sell to their investors/limited partners. Its a skill at least as important (if not more so).
  2. Marriage is about finding your soul-mate and living happily ever after
    Having been married for slightly over half the decade, I’ve now come to believe that marriage is less about finding the perfect soul-mate (the “Hollywood version”) as it is about finding a life partner who you can actively choose to celebrate (despite and including their flaws, mistakes, and baggage). Its not that passionate love is unimportant, but its hard to rely on that alone to make a lifelong partnership work. I now believe that really boring-sounding things like how you make #adulting decisions and compatibility of communication style matter a lot more than things usually celebrated in fiction like the wedding planning, first dates, how nice your vacations together are, whether you can finish each other’s sentences, etc.
  3. Industrial policy doesn’t work
    I tend to be a big skeptic of big government policy — both because of unintended consequences and the risks of politicians picking winners. But, a decade of studying (and working with companies who operate in) East Asian economies and watching how subsidies and economies of scale have made Asia the heart of much of advanced manufacturing have forced me to reconsider. Its not that the negatives don’t happen (there are many examples of China screwing things up with heavy-handed policy) but its hard to seriously think about how the world works without recognizing the role that industrial policy played. For more on how land management and industrial policies impacted economic development in different Asian countries, check out Joe Studwell’s book How Asia Works
  4. Obesity & weight loss are simple — its just calories in & calories out
    From a pure physics perspective, weight gain is a “simple” thermodynamic equation of “calories in minus calories out”. But in working with companies focused on dealing with prediabetes/obesity, I’ve come to appreciate that this “logic” not only ignores the economic and social factors that make obesity a public health problem, it also overlooks that different kinds of foods drive different physiological responses. As an example that just begins to scratch the surface, one very well-controlled study (sadly, a rarity in the field) published in July showed that, even after controlling for exercise and calories, carbs, fat, fiber, and other nutrients present in a meal, diets consisting of processed foods resulted in greater weight-gain than a diet consisting of unprocessed foods
  5. Revering luminaries & leaders is a good thing
    Its very natural to be so compelled by an idea / movement that you find yourself idolizing the people spearheading it. The media feeds into this with popular memoirs & biographies and numerous articles about how you can think/be/act more like [Steve Jobs/Jeff Bezos/Warren Buffett/Barack Obama/etc]. But, over the past decade, I’ve come to feel that this sort of reverence leads to a pernicious laziness of thought. I can admire Steve Jobs for his brilliance in product design but do I want to copy his approach to management or his use of alternative medicine to treat his cancer or condoning how he treated his illegitimate daughter. I think its far better to appreciate an idea and the work of the key people behind it than to equate the piece of work with the person and get sucked in to that cult of personality.
  6. Startups are great place for everyone
    Call it being sucked into the Silicon valley ethos but for a long time I believed that startups were a great place for everyone to build a career: high speed path to learning & responsibility, ability to network with other folks, favorable venture funding, one of the only paths to getting stock in rapidly growing companies, low job seeking risk (since there’s an expectation that startups often fail or pivot). Several years spent working in VC and startups later, and, while I still agree with my list above, I’ve come to believe that startups are really not a great place for most people. The risk-reward is generally not great for all but the earliest of employees and the most successful of companies, and the “startups are great for learning” Kool-aid is oftentimes used to justify poor management and work practices. I still think its a great place for some (i.e. people who can tolerate more risk [b/c of personal wealth or a spouse with a stable high-paying job], who are knowingly optimizing for learning & responsibility, or who are true believers in a startup’s mission), but I frankly think most people don’t fit the bill.
  7. Microaggressions are just people being overly sensitive
    I’ve been blessed at having only rarely faced overt racism (telling me to go back to China 🙄 / or that I don’t belong in this country). It’s a product of both where I’ve spent most of my life (in urban areas on the coasts) and my career/socioeconomic status (its not great to be racist to a VC you’re trying to raise money from 🤑). But, having spent some dedicated time outside of those coastal areas this past decade and speaking with minorities who’ve lived there, I’ve become exposed to and more aware of “microaggressions”, forms of non-overt prejudice that are generally perpetrated without ill intent: questions like ‘so where are you really from?’ or comments like ‘you speak English really well!’. I once believed people complaining about these were simply being overly sensitive, but I’ve since become an active convert to the idea that, while these are certainly nowhere near as awful as overt hate crimes / racism, they are their own form of systematic prejudice which can, over time, grate and eat away at your sense of self-worth.
  8. The Western model (liberal democracy, free markets, global institutions) will reign unchallenged as a model for prosperity
    I once believed that the Western model of (relatively) liberal democracy, (relatively) free markets, and US/Europe-led global institutions was the only model of prosperity that would reign falling the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I probably wouldn’t have gone as far as Fukuyama did in proclaiming “the end of history”, I believed that the world was going to see authoritarian regimes increasingly globalize and embrace Western institutions. What I did not expect was the simultaneous rise of different models of success by countries like China and Saudi Arabia (who, frighteningly, now serve as models for still other countries to embrace), as well as a lasting backlash within the Western countries themselves (i.e. the rise of Trump, Brexit, “anti-globalism”, etc). This has fractured traditional political divides (hence the soul-searching that both major parties are undergoing in the US and the UK) and the election of illiberal populists in places like Mexico, Brazil, and Europe.
  9. Strategy trumps execution
    As a cerebral guy who spent the first years of his career in the last part of the 2000s as a strategy consultant, it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of my focus was on formulating smart business strategy. But having spent much of this decade focused on startups as well as having seen large companies like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix brilliantly out-execute companies with better ‘strategic positioning’ (Nokia, Blackberry, Walmart, big media), I’ve come around to a different understanding of how the two balance each other.
  10. We need to invent radically new solutions to solve the climate crisis
    Its going to be hard to do this one justice in this limited space — especially since I net out here very differently from Bill Gates — but going into this decade, I never would have expected that the cost of new solar or wind energy facilities could be cheaper than the cost of operating an existing coal plant. I never thought that lithium batteries or LEDs would get as cheap or as good as they are today (with signs that this progress will continue) or that the hottest IPO of the year would be an alternative food technology company (Beyond Meat) which will play a key role in helping us mitigate food/animal-related emissions. Despite the challenges of being a cleantech investor for much of the decade, its been a surprising bright spot to see how much pure smart capital and market forces have pushed many of the technologies we need. I still think we will need new policies and a huge amount of political willpower — I’d also like to see more progress made on long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and industrial — but whereas I once believed that we’d need radically new energy technologies to thwart the worst of climate change, I am now much more of an optimist here than I was when the decade started.

Here’s to more worldview shifts in the coming decade!

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Trip to Taiwan

In late March, I had a chance to take a one week trip with my parents to Taiwan. I’ve posted some of the pictures I took on Google+ (I’ll get around to properly captioning them at some point), but the trip was very meaningful for me as it was my first trip back to “the motherland” in over twenty years.

830DD97C-8BDE-4594-BBB8-48741A40EEC9Being able to see relatives I hadn’t seen in many years (some, like my grandparents, who probably don’t have much time left in this world), hear their stories about me as a baby, see sights that I have only the faintest memory of (now from a completely different vantage point), be able to actually visit the graves of my relatives/ancestors and participate in traditional ancestor worship rituals, and visit places that I had only seen in photos was very moving. And, while it was a tiring trip (I think I got way less sleep during this “vacation” than I would have in a normal week), its one that I enjoyed greatly (see picture left :-)).

Word of advice to those who want to visit Taiwan: March is a great time – warm and humid, but not excessively so :-).

As for why you should visit Taiwan sometime? Here’s a quick bullet list:

    • Huge swaths of the island are virtually untouched by people – this is one of the few places where you can have a pure tropical environment
    • Delicious (and cheap) fruit and gorgeous butterflies (consequence of the tropical thing)
    • Excellent (and cheap) food  — especially in the night street markets
    • Very easy to get around – they borrowed Japan’s penchant for labeling everything and also Japan’s pretty effective and ubiquitous public transit
    • The National Palace Museum houses some of the finest Chinese art you’ll ever see
    • There are some very gorgeous locations to see: Taroko National Park, Alishan Mountain, temples galore, etc

So go: support the tourism industry of the place I came from :-).

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Just a bad situation

The recent Economist piece on the situation in North Korea is simultaneously a good read and also incredibly depressing. From my read, the following chart is pretty much the “million dollar slide” which explains why the situation in North Korea is so grim:

image

The figure highlights the bind that the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia find themselves in:

  • Massive human suffering demands some sort of action. To quote the Economist: “[Missionaries allowed in the country] say they can see with their own eyes that the level of hunger has become considerably worse in the past few years—in a country where famine led to the deaths of some 1m people, or nearly 5% of the population, in the 1990s. For instance, one man who works there says the number of orphans has surged recently as hunger has claimed their parents’ lives.”
  • North Korea may be on the verge of collapse/civil war. If the collapsing economy weren’t enough, North Korea watchers suspect that the dictator Kim Jong Il’s recent health problems and an uncertain succession means there could be significant internal turmoil once Kim dies. Worse, that turmoil could spill outwards as demagogues finally decide to attack the pretend “South Korean threat” the North Korean government has used for years to justify their power.
  • It is almost inconceivable how much it will cost/how long it will take to “rehabilitate” North Korea. The economic gap is so enormous that its been estimated the cost of “absorbing” North Korea into South Korea would run near $1 trillion for over 40 years. Not to mention, neither China nor South Korea seem willing (let alone able) to take on the waves of North Korean refugees that a collapse in the North Korean regime would bring about.
  • There are no real plans on what to do if/when North Korea fails. How would you handle refugees? How would you handle which military forces are to preserve law and security? How would you handle which parts of the North Korean state to preserve, which to abolish, and which to reform? How would you handle the nuclear materials and huge amounts of arms that are there? If you thought the post-war planning in Iraq was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet – and this problem touches not just South Korea and the US, but China, Japan, and Russia as well.

You can’t possibly want the current regime to continue, but the alternative seems just as bad. One hopes the international community figures out a way to safely navigate the two extremes.

(Graph credit – Economist)

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Russia dreams of Silicon Valley sheep

image The Economist has an interesting article on the Kremlin’s latest push to modernize Russia’s economy and kick-start a wave of innovation which would supposedly lead to a “Russia with nuclear-powered spaceships and supercomputers.”

Far-fetched as this premise sounded, the article raised many thought-provoking questions on whether or not (and how) Russia could hope to build an innovation hub similar to the US’s Silicon Valley. One tidbit I found very interesting was that this isn’t the first time the Kremlin has tried something like this. Apparently, the Soviet Union, had attempted something similar in the past with very interesting political ramifications:

In the 1930s leading Soviet engineers arrested by Stalin laboured in special prison laboratories within the gulag. After the war, when Stalin required an atomic bomb, a special secret town was established where nuclear physicists lived in relative comfort, but still surrounded by barbed wire. Subsequently hundreds of secret construction bureaus, research institutes and scientific towns were set up across the Soviet Union to serve the military-industrial complex. They also spawned a technical intelligentsia. In the 1980s it was this class of educated people—permitted more freedom and better food than the rest of the country, but still poorly paid and not allowed to go abroad—that became the support base of perestroika [former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to liberalize/open up the Soviet Union which ultimately resulted in its collapse].

Russia’s rulers, however, seem keen on breaking this link between political openness/democracy and innovation:

Yet the experience of Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika—which started with talk of technological renewal but ended in the collapse of the Soviet system—has persuaded the Kremlin to define modernisation strictly within technological boundaries. Hence Mr Medvedev’s warning not to rush political reforms. His supporters argue that only authoritarian government is capable of bringing the country into the 21st century. “Consolidated state power is the only instrument of modernisation in Russia. And, let me assure you, it is the only one possible,” said Vladislav Surkov [the Kremlin’s “chief ideologist” who put forth the current plan]

Is Surkov right about the lack of importance of democracy and political freedom? It’s hard to say for sure, but the success of the Asian tigers (esp. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China) in this arena suggests that, at first glance, Surkov is right. Innovation and rapid economic growth do not require democracy so much as:

  1. effective and (relatively) un-corrupt governments
  2. free market systems which allow for consumer/business choice and property rights protection
  3. government investment in “innovation hubs” (e.g., Silicon Valley) where companies/universities/individuals readily share insights and collaborate

Of course, the flip side of the argument, is that its pretty rare for (1) and (2) to exist without democracy and at least basic political systems in place around due process and the respect for individual rights.

imageA successful attempt on (3) is difficult, regardless of the type of government authority (think of the countless failed attempts by cities, states, and countries to replicate Silicon Valley), but is especially difficult for “command regimes” in attempting to encourage innovation. It’s much simpler for an authoritarian government to find ways to double steel production (a la the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans) than it is for an authoritarian regime to encourage the trial & error, open exchange of ideas, and “disorganized” development which is necessary to drive innovative technology disruptions (which by definition can’t be “commanded”).

I’ve even heard it theorized that one reason the Soviet military elite allowed the perestroika which helped lead to its eventual collapse was their recognition that authoritarian regimes were not effective at encouraging the sort of innovation needed to build the computer technology which was giving (and still gives) the US its military advantage over the rest of the world.

But the harshest (and snarkiest) indictment of Russia’s short-sighted strategy here comes at the end of the Economist piece:

Mr Surkov is quite right when he argues that democracy would not stimulate technical innovation. The reason for this, however, is that under democracy a country with a declining population, a frighteningly high rate of birth defects, crumbling infrastructure and deteriorating schools might find a better use for taxpayers’ money than pouring it into Mr. Surkov’s Silicon Valley dreams.

Russia’s economy will likely grow quickly, regardless of the success of the Kremlin’s latest plans, by virtue of its resourceful population and economic convergence, but I suspect its future in terms of quality of life and innovation depends on whether it ever gets around to its much-needed political reforms.

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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Taiwan and Japan

It is no surprise that many Asian countries are wary of Japan. After all Japan, until 1945, exerted strong military control over much of Eastern Asia. In light of this, what is very surprising is how Taiwan does not share in this negative opinion despite being a colony of Japan for 50 years.

Instead, as this video (complete with cute animations summarizing the Nationalist-Communist rivalry) shows, Taiwan almost seems to embrace the Japanese influence which helped shape its cultural and economic heritage. The video starts with an elderly Taiwanese woman speaking fluently in Japanese about her admiration of Japan to a group of Japanese students and later cuts to clips of various Taiwanese using Japanese sayings and sentences:

Why does Taiwan’s view of Japan clash so much with the views of other Asian countries? The video describes some of it, but in a nutshell, the historical context:

  • Japan built Taiwan’s economic infrastructure (roads, hospitals, buildings, etc.)
  • Japan imposed mandatory education on all Taiwanese citizens — boosting literacy and education in Taiwan and making it such that, even today, there are some Taiwanese who are better able to speak Japanese than they are able to speak Mandarin (my late Grandmother on my father’s side is one example — who actually tried to teach herself English using Japanese syllables as a guide)
  • The Japanese, through a policy called “Three Bad Practices”, helped to reduce Opium addiction, foot binding, and the wearing of the queue (a symbol of Manchu dominance over the “Han Chinese”)
  • Although limited, Japan opened Taiwan up to foreign art forms such as Western painting and cinema
  • Japan did not practice as heavy-handed a rule over the Taiwanese as they did to other Asian countries and were, instead, hoping to integrate Taiwan and its people into the Japanese empire (my Grandmother on my mother’s side once noted that Japanese soldiers in Taiwan were viewed by many to be effective and reliable deterrents to crime)

The results?

  1. Japan’s investments in Taiwan allowed it to become one of the fastest growing economies in the post-War period (a product of the high literacy rate, high quality education, excellent economic infrastructure, in-place banking system, etc.).
  2. Japanese influence has produced a Taiwanese culture that is very distinct from that of Mainland China’s in its inclusion of many Japanese and Western influences.
  3. The result is that Taiwanese lack the enmity and suspicion towards Japan which is much more characteristic of the Korean and Mainland Chinese people.

The video ends with the narrator noting that it is a shame that, despite the affinity that Taiwan seems to show for Japan, the two countries currently do not have official diplomatic relations. I think it’s a shame too.

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