Notes on Living in Portland

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If you’ve been following me on Twitter and paying attention to any of my sporadic posts, you probably know that my wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon in October of last year. Since then, a lot has happened in the world–from CoVID to the BLM protests to protests of modern police militarization. I won’t comment on CoVID or the ongoing craziness that is going on with the pandemic in the US in this post, but after 60 days of living 3 blocks from the federal courthouse, I do want to comment on what it’s been like living here and what exactly is going on.

In October, I came to Portland for work. Since CoVID, I haven’t been working from the office but am instead allowed to work from home, but at the time that my wife and I moved here, there was no way to know that we’d be working just as remotely here as we had been in Pittsburgh previously. Since we’ve been here in Portland, though, we’ve come to love the city more and more. And as southerner transplants originally from Nashville, we have a kind of conservative meets liberal history that makes our experience here kind of different from most that get transplanted here.

The first thing to understand about Portland is that it is a liberal city that takes protesting pretty seriously. Before CoVID, I walked to work in downtown and I would always pass Pioneer Square, one of the hubs of the city, and there was always some protest going on. Larger protests sometimes happened on Park Avenue, within the green foliage of beautiful oaks and walls of roses. In Pioneer Square, some of the protests were so simple but consistent that you couldn’t help but stop and take a picture or talk with the person or persons doing them. I remember a woman who stood within the Square with a sign that said “Babies Don’t Belong in Cages” and did so everyday on her lunch break for months.

Then there’s the naked bike ride and the fact that Portland long ago allowed nakedness within the city as a form of protest. Portland is big on social movements, especially more left-leaning ones, but it tends to respect people and their humanity. It’s also as weird and unique as shows like Portlandia show, and that’s a huge attractor and very charming to live in day-to-day.

Which brings us to the BLM protests and what has happened downtown. From the beginning, it’s been a mixture of different protest messaging. Not everyone is solely focused on BLM. Some genuinely dislike cops and policing in general. At the Safeway (a grocery store chain that is popular here in the northwest), at around 6:00 pm or later if you’re shopping there, you’ll see colorful shirts with messages that are often not politically correct. To be fair, nothing in Portland really embraces political correctness. There are taco joints that share bathrooms with strip clubs here. There is nudity from time-to-time. There’s a lot of colorful hair colors (green, purple, pink, black, bright yellow). There’s also messages of “Fuck the Police.” It’s not just a protest thing. I saw those kinds of shirts when my wife and I attended “The Ghostbusters” live orchestral performance at the Portland Symphony during their pop culture series.

Now, I’ve seen videos of people throwing water bottles and yelling obscenities at cops.  And my wife and I have personally admired the graffiti around the courthouse. I’ll note that I’m using “admire”, for myself, intentionally. When I went to Berlin, I walked around East Berlin to observe the graffiti there. Tagging is an artform of the masses. It tells a story of common people, and has been used for thousands of years. We find it in 30,000 year old caves. We humans have an innate interest in drawing pictures, writing words, and telling our stories. And I, personally, as a citizen of Portland, am not offended by it, nor do I see it as violence at all. Owners are more than free to clean it up, but in cities that embrace weirdness like Portland, OR and Austin, TX, it’s more likely to become an attraction that brings in business or elicits conversation than it is seen as a blight.

And I’ve seen videos of peaceful protestors being pushed to the ground, shot in the face, chest, and arms. I’ve seen videos of the results of a woman deafened and lacerated by a grenade filled with projectiles that burst in front of her. I’m so close in proximity to these protests, that I’ve undoubtedly heard some of these events happen, but the cacophony of what’s going on in the response drowns out most individual events. The thing that sticks with me more, as a resident of Portland living just a few blocks from the federal courthouse, is the sound of the constant percussion grenades from police and federal troops, every day for the past 60 days, until 2 to 4 am. Every day. Dozens to hundreds of explosions in the middle of a concrete jungle where a woman’s normal conversation could travel blocks away. My wife, who has to get up for work between 4 and 8 am PT, depending on her job’s scheduling, receives the brunt of this effect. She’s routinely jolted out of bed by yet another grenade while she deals with a back injury that results in acute pain any time she tenses up–which happens almost every time a loud grenade pops.

I remember distinctly the days before the federal troops arrived. I remember a night of almost no bombs and no explosions. And in the morning, I asked my wife if she had been awoken at any point, and she said no. And I remember thinking, “well, maybe it’s winding down.” Then, the President ordered the troops into the city, and all hell broke loose. The videos of kidnappings in unmarked vehicles and release with no charges. No identification of the personnel taking the person off the streets. It really brought home the changes that 9/11 had made to our justice system and the organization of the Department of Homeland Security and other related agencies–how much power they have and how they view themselves in the fight against domestic terrorism. When it comes to removing constitutional rights, throwing water bottles and spraying graffiti can now, apparently, be viewed as a form of terrorism. That’s what our complacency has resulted in.

In the past 62 days, outside of the protest hours, I’ve never once had a problem with walking around Portland. And I know this is partly because of my white privilege. I genuinely am not worried, partly because I know I’ve done nothing wrong but mostly because there’s not a lot of violent activity around me and maybe I do feel a bit invincible or unworthy of notice most of the time. There is mental illness among the homeless population here. I know people who have been attacked in parks–including a gentle 6-foot-4 tall stocky guy who was attacked by a crazy homeless person. But it’s so rare for this to happen–as rare as anything like this anywhere else.

If homeless people approach me, they ask for money or food, and my wife and I have bought food for people at food carts before. We can’t give something to everyone who asks us–on the way to Safeway alone, I tend to pass at least five homeless persons in a two block walk. What’s most surprising about living in Portland and talking with homeless people has been how often they’ve been helpful. We’ve asked them for directions and even advice on where to eat or what’s going on. And it’s kind of amazing to see how friendly and nice most homeless people are and how willing they’ve been to help. With how often they’re ignored by people bustling about their day, I’m sure it’s nice to just sometimes be noticed as a human being too.

What isn’t going on here in Portland is chaos and constant looting. There have been incidents of looting, especially in the early days of the anger and protests. And there’s evidence that some of this has been instigated by outside groups who want to make it appear that the BLM protests are violent and anarchy-focused here in Portland. But what you should really know about Portland is that businesses are open, I walk to the Safeway blocks away from the courthouse sometimes twice a week, and the shelves are full of food, toiletries, frozen goods, etc. There are buildings boarded up around the courthouse as a precaution, and this makes sense with what is going on. But there’s also laughter and masked people walking around, going about their day.

The protests start here at around 7 pm PT, and they’re generally peaceful. Lots of moms, dads, children, young, old, etc. chanting together and holding hands. As the night falls, grenades start going off. You’ll sometimes see people running down the streets. Some of them are laughing. Some of them are hooting and hollering. Some idiots will park their cars and blare loud music to all the residences, because they know the police are busy elsewhere.

And at about 3 am, as the last grenades are going off–though sometimes in daisy-chains of a six or more grenades at a time–a calm and peace takes over. 3 am is about the time I go to bed, but first, I’ll sometimes go out on my deck, sit in a chair, and listen to the city in the temperate 70 degree air, just before I lie down. A siren might go off, echoing against the glass, metal, and concrete buildings. Some distant conversation. The sound of the occasional car. But not grenades. No more police helicopters overhead. No more loudspeakers telling crowds to disperse. And then the sun rises and the next day starts anew. People walk to their jobs or the stores. People shop. People play. The day continues as normally as anywhere else in America. And then at around 7 pm or so, the cycle repeats again. Peaceful chanting. Police on loudspeakers and thunderous, violent percussion of grenades.

No one in Portland wants the federal troops here. Not the mayor. Not the governor. Not people living within 3 blocks of the courthouse. Not people like myself who have voted both Republican and Democrat in US presidential elections. What they’ve done is escalated this situation to the point of absolute ludicrousness. The crowds have gone from dozens to over 5,000 a night, and the response by the feds has been to try to amplify their response to intimidate. They’ve had to use more force than before, because 5,000 people bearing down on you is even scarier than 50.

But this isn’t an “antifa-haven”. This isn’t a city of anarchy and chaos. It is at night, when the grenades start going off and people have been kidnapped off the street. But any city or town where this was happening would have a response like this from the community. And the Portland community protested injustices, as they saw them, before there were  police in military gear exploding ordinance in tightly packed concrete jungles. Portland Police watched these and laughed with people in December, January, and February. That’s all changed. The police are tired. The feds are tired. The people are not. Many of them are unemployed, due to CoVID, and to them, this feels like a cause worth fighting for–worth taking a rubber bullet to the head for.

And so, a culture of protest is meeting a culture trained to combat domestic terrorism. And the news cycle is the result. But for those living here, blocks from the courthouse, we’re just tired of the explosions and tired of seeing videos of bloody people being carried down the street from confrontations with fellow citizens about graffiti on a courthouse.

Can we stop this please? Seriously?

 

U.S. Education and the Unlikelihood of Upward Mobility in the U.S. in the Next Era

For those of us working in academia, these are trying times. For futurists, like myself, who try to predict trends and impact of social pressures, emerging technologies, legislation, economics, etc., these are truly alarming times.

There are three converging forces that will impact capitalistic countries in remarkable ways. The first is the increasing technological requirements that jobs will require. Technology, including robotics and AI, are extending human reach, increasing efficiency, and essentially allowing a single person to do the jobs of potentially hundreds of people through automation and autonomy. This puts a downward pressure on job demand because there is less need for more workers to produce the same amount of goods and services. It puts at least an equivalent if not greater upward pressure on supply of products and it also tends to make businesses far more profitable. This results in cheaper products (great for consumers) and higher profits for companies. I know this area very well because I work in software for autonomy and distributed AI. I see what’s coming in a way most people don’t or can’t.

The first converging force noted above causes a second force to amplify a problem here. Businesses have been rewarding executives and management persons with increasingly larger shares of corporate profits. This has caused a pretty massive wealth divide in the U.S. The ratios of corporate executive earnings are absolutely phenomenal in the U.S. and have changed dramatically over the past century. CEO to an average worker pay tends to hover around 350:1 now. There are exceptions, and that’s great, but in general, companies are looking at their executives as the profit drivers. With the first force, automation, they’re not exactly wrong. If you can automate your entire work force, the only people who matter are the people who are managing the autonomy. Everyone else is essentially replaceable and can be paid low wages. A famous infographic based on recent surveys became a viral hit and is worth watching

The second force is exacerbated by the lax corporate merger environment and the willingness to accept oligopolies and even monopolies that discourage competition and increase profits. This is a very anti-capitalist situation because the entire idea of capitalism is to encourage diversity in the market place, not to centralize entire industries in everything from steel to sunglasses, from cable TV to radio, from newspapers to military contractors. John Oliver did a really good job at describing the current corporate merger and acquisitions environment in his segment here:

The third converging force is an effect of the current budgeting for education and outsourcing. Education in technology and automation, especially, can help offset the effects of the second force (profit concentration in executives and management) by creating a skilled workforce that make companies more diverse in skills and more effective and efficient at creating and maintaining new products or business services. In the U.S., this has, so far, been a sort of saving grace in hubs such as Silicon Valley, Austin Texas, etc. However, we see a major assault (sorry, but I can see no other way to really characterize this right now) on Education funding.

In preparation for the proposed tax cuts for wealthy persons, especially, in the current FY18 congressional agenda, the House and Senate are looking for places to cut spending in order to make the Republican tax cuts have a smaller bottom line effect on budget. There does not appear to be any real economic driver in the current plans, as far as I or anyone else can tell, that would reduce our actual debt. This is really more about maintaining the status quo of gaining debt about as quickly as before while also providing for a truly massive tax cut to the wealthier segments of the U.S. You can read more about the recent House bill to cut Education funding here.

I am in the current middle class but I grew up in the poor and lower middle class. I earned my PhD through a variety of helpful public programs and working multiple jobs waiting tables and applying for my own research scholarships. One of the programs that greatly aided my ability to attend university when my parents could not afford to pay my tuition was the Pell Grant system. The current Republican plan approved in the House will cut 78.3 billion dollars from Pell, directly, to remove this education option from the poor and middle class and would reacquire 3.3 billion from the Pell surplus that helps pay for the program.

The latter would remove Pell Grant availability for an estimated 900,000 students in the U.S., putting greater pressure on social mobility and removing many poor and lower middle class, especially, from entering the skilled worker workpool. It essentially contributes to a growing wealth inequality in the U.S. It also removes the possibility of a majority of the U.S. workforce participating in the skilled labor force, will impact U.S. GDP since we will have a much less educated workforce to create new small business or realize technological innovations, and will ultimately force us into the absolute requirement to outsource nearly all of our technical innovation and high skilled labor. The results of cutting Pell, especially, will be to put more students in debt, so that they are less likely to leave their first job and are beholden to student debt payments. It makes them more likely to accept pay cuts and disproportionate incomes compared to upper management.

I cannot stress enough that as a futurist, the current legislative agenda, especially as it pertains to educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, teachers, manufacturers, and skilled labor force, is remarkably appalling. I’m very worried about where our workforce is going to be in the future, and with where we are heading in regards to barriers of entry for business and growth. We are entering an era of technology, automation, and even growth into space. If we continue down this path, we will not be as competitive on the world stage in an age of technology and automation, and we are going to be especially non-competitive in anything other than investment and wealth management for expansion into new areas like space. This will be largely due to the fact that we’ll have fewer skilled labor to compete in technological areas.

What can we do?

Ultimately, all we have power to do right now is vote, protest, and make our voices heard. Contact your congressman or congresswoman and ask them to fight for a skilled technical workforce. When it comes down to the next election, try not to allow yourself to be pigeonholed into single issue voter categories such as abortion rights or gun control. Instead, look toward the future, and try to make sure the candidates we are electing are on the right track in regards to the economic mobility and happiness of our future generations. Otherwise, we’re all just spectators to history and the progress of other countries who value education and a skilled workforce.

 

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