Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2X United States Trip Report – Midwest and Silver Spring/Washington DC

In 2014 I spent close to three weeks in the United States which is the longest I've been there since returning to Asia in 2006.  My first trip was to Des Moines, Iowa and Hadley, Minnesota during a very pleasant mid-August holiday.  The second was to Silver Spring, Maryland, which is a nice inner-beltway suburb of Washington DC, during the recent Christmas holidays.

Des Moines, Iowa and Hadley, Minnesota (with a side-trip to Sioux City, South Dakota). August 2014

My impression after spending 10+ days in America’s mid-west is that its heartland is going well and is an exceedingly pleasant place.  My sister and brother-in-law moved there from suburban Washington DC last year.  They were lured by more interesting and ultimately beneficial job opportunities, better pay, lower cost of living, less traffic, and more friendly people (the last one is my opinion).  Iowa’s winters sound brutal, but weather during my short August stay was very good.

An opportunistic visit and tour of Iowa’s beautiful statehouse left me feeling that there's a bit of hope left for my native country.  The reason being that Iowa is one of the few states that draws realistic boundaries in the state legislature.

Let me explain.

In my opinion there are two big problems in the US.  The first is Gerrymandering and the second is the Congress’ exemption from insider trading rules and is worthy of a much longer post (link to more information here). 

The bigger problem is Gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is the process of allowing the incumbent party or office holder to draw or redraw the boundaries of his/her constituency in a way that gives the incumbent the best chance of winning and therefore remaining in office (reference here).  Combined with modern cartography incumbents draw up increasingly precise voting districts.  (It also leads to some bizarrely shaped voting districts that can be seen here.)

Gerrymandering is nothing new in the US with the term coming into general usage as early as 1812 (see here).    Also known by the more generic term ‘redistricting’ it is likely the key reason for the large and growing gap between ‘red’ (republican) and ‘blue’ (democratic) states.

With the catchment area redrawn to favor either Democratic or Republican majority, there’s little likelihood of a change in party.  The real fight is not on the official Election Day but during party or primary elections.

To win a local seat in an already Republican area, an up-and-coming politician needs to be even more republican than the incumbent; and to save his/her seat the incumbent needs to be perceived as being more Republican than the challenger.  Thus we get deeper hues of red and blue over time.

Worst of all is that it leads to a static government.  A 2013 Bloomberg article noted that, In every congressional race from 1964 to 2012, at least 85 percent of incumbents nationwide retained their seats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics” (see here).

There are however signs showing that Americans are more centrist than news headlines imply. The majority of Americans actually agree on many perceived controversial topics such as marijuana legalization, infrastructure improvement, and same-sex marriage (see here).  

Is Iowa the best state in the country…?

What made the trip to Iowa’s state capital so interesting is that Iowa is one of the only states that does not practice Gerrymandering.  Since 1980, Iowa’s stat
e legislature has given its redistricting plans to a non-partisan state agency (more information here).  

Library, State Capital Building, Des Moines, Iowa
Senate Chamber, State Capital Building, Des Moines, Iowa
This insight was provided by a very proud and knowledgeable tour guide at Iowa’s beautiful state capital building.  Given its responsible electoral proceedings, perhaps it’s a good thing that the Iowa caucus kicks off the Presidential election season. 

Ag goes high-tech

A key take away from my mid-west trip was the wide-spread use of technology in agriculture.  

Before he moved to a better paying insurance company, my very smart computer-programming-double-masters-brother-in-law designed and programmed GUIs that are used in agricultural equipment and services.  His previous company manufactured tractor add-ons that plant highly engineered seeds within a millimeter or so of where they are needed.  According to him, this requires a lot of things to come together – robotics, GPS, and tons of programming.  Add in seed development, pesticides, herbicides, harvesting and storage-related technology and it’s clear that technology and innovation are driving America’s agricultural sector.

One can see this in the corn fields that surrounded our vacation home in Hadley, Minnesota.  It has been at least 35 years since I last visited my corn-farming relatives in Chesterville, Ohio (link here) and one can easily see the difference between now and then.  Back then there was a decent amount of space between the corn stalks and one could clearly see the furrows and walk through the fields.  This is no longer the case, as the stalks are now packed so tightly together that no light seems to pass through them

US$500k tractor.  More Star Wars than Little House on the Prairie.
Iowa State Fair, 2014
Technology and more-intensive land use are reflected in raising land prices.   US farmland has been one of the best investments in the last 10-15 years, having increased by almost four times since the late 1990s (source here).

In fact the entire landscape has been changed due to the addition of massive windmills sprouting all over the area.  Hadley is in the southwestern part of Minnesota and one of the windiest places in the United States.  

Sioux Falls has good Cambodian food

A day trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota proved interesting and underscored that America’s melting pot experiment continues far beyond its major cities.  The reason I say this was due to a very good meal at the Phnom Penh Restaurant (link here).  The owner/manager is the son of the restaurant’s founder and took up the family business after a career in the US Marines.   I did not expect to see Asian food so far in-land, but it proved to be the best Cambodian food I've ever had. 

I don’t think this was an isolated thing. While Iowa, South Dakota and rural Minnesota are certainly paler and blonder compared to my native Washington DC, there are many non-European restaurants and my sister and brother-and-law’s colleagues are from China, South America, Europe and other places. My medical doctor sister told me of a recent patient whom they were unable to treat as her hospital does not have on-call translation services for Dinka speakers.  Live Bosnian and Spanish translation is available on most days, but Dinka needs to be scheduled and is done via telephone.  This outsourced service provides interpretation services for over 200 languages (link here).

Silver Spring/Washington DC.  Christmas Holidays 2014

If the heartland is becoming multi-cultural, it’s even more so where I grew-up.  

I've been back several times to my hometown of Washington DC and Silver Spring, since venturing off to New York and then Asia due to my still unfulfilled wanderlust, but the past holiday trip there made me realize just how much the place has changed. 

Spending most of my career in Emerging Markets where the change is rapid one forgets that progress and change also occurs in developed countries, just at a different pace and without as much fanfare. 

Foreign Exchange Quotes
Columbia Mall, Columbia, Maryland
Most noticeably Silver Spring now supposedly has more Ethiopians than many cities in Ethiopia.  This could very well be true as some seven Ethiopian restaurants are located there if the recent Google search is accurate (search for "Ethiopians in Silver Spring". Video of local politician courting their vote is here).  

This is in addition to several Vietnamese and at least one each Jamaican, Myanmar, and Nepalese restaurant.  

The wide variety of international cuisine reminds me of another point about the US that many miss when they criticize Americans for being so insular: our history of the world coming to America.   Most who came and stayed did so because it was better in the US than in their native country.  America's collective view of the world from those we meet from other countries is that life outside of the US is not so good.

On another level it’s like asking the question of why go abroad when the rest of the world comes to America?  Who needs to go to Vietnam if a good bowl of Pho is a short drive away?

Local neighborhood going upmarket

The increasingly diverse racial and food mix is just part of the significant changes in Silver Spring and the greater Washington area since I was a high school student.

What used to be a virtually empty ‘downtown’ Silver Spring is now a nice collection of chain and independent restaurants, shopping malls, and even a new H&M.  It is also the global headquarters of several companies and organizations including the Discovery Channel and the American Film Institute. 

In fact the entire DC area has changed, with many neighborhoods that for decades were red-light, drug-dealing, no-go zones now being among the most fashionable places to live in DC, if not the entire US. Rents at one brand new loft near Washington’s ballpark are not too far from Hong Kong’s.

As an old high school friend put it several years ago… Neighborhoods you never knew existed are now too expensive to afford”…

Growing frustration with unequal growth? 

While still at the margins, the US’s very unequal growth in income and assets in the last 20 or so years seems to be more prevalent. 

My conservative Georgia-based cousin who works in the construction industry noted that there is little to no trickle-down.  "The rich just horde their money", is basically how he put it.  His view was shared by others in casual conversations.

The tide could be turning however.  In a recent Washington Post article - which somehow did not make it to the front page - journalist Niraj Chokshi noted that the minimum wage in Washington DC and 20 states rose on 1 January 2015.  Five states, including the still stateless Washington DC, will index their minimum wage to the inflation rate, bringing the total to 15 (see here). 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Very informative. Your input on gerry-mandering is staggering - and was previously unknown to me. (Yes, I do follow American politics a bit). Great blog Michael - keep up the good work. Steve M