America, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. 

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper.

And as Abraham Lincoln said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

This now leads us to deeper questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW? Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

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America, Des Moines, Food and Lifestyle, My sense of Humour, new york city, Serious Writing, society, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants
Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

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Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!

America, Civil Engineering, immigration, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts

Liquidity in Job Markets

For the past month or so, I have been  looking at job postings in my field of specialization – Geotechnical Engineering – across the US and Canada. During my searches, I noticed some general trends that the companies exhibit when it relates to the expectations and/or qualifications of the candidates they want. Most are what is to be anticipated for the corresponding position. But of all the different expectations listed, one particular aspect has many interesting collateral impacts for the overall job market. And that is the requirement of Experience.

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In general, I noticed the following breakup in the job postings (I do not have hard numbers, but a constant exposure to the postings will pretty much confirm this):

  • Senior Geotechnical Engineer (40% of available positions): 10-15+ years of experience.
  • Intermediate Geotechnical Engineer (30-35% of available positions): 5-10 years of experience.
  • Junior/Entry Level Geotechnical Engineer (25-30% of available positions): 0-3 years of experience.

At first glance, the above description appears to be rather innocuous. A direct correlation between seniority of position and expected level of experience from the candidate is fairly obvious and definitely warranted. But this does not provide the complete picture. What needs to be looked at is that about 70% of jobs in the market are only for candidates who have experience in the range of 5-15 years or more. So what does this imply?

First, we have to understand where the labor supply – all experience levels – comes from and where they are currently and where they will be in the future. In the field of Geotechnical Engineering, I can think of a few hundred people graduating with a Master’s degree every year in the US, and a Master’s degree is pretty much a requirement for a career in Geotechnical Engineering. So that means there is a constant supply of maybe 200-400 eligible candidates every year for the Junior/Entry Level positions. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that all these graduates get an entry level job. (From my own experiences in trying to hire entry level candidates for my company, I can say that the demand exceeds supply. So this assumption is valid). And let us also assume that most, if not all, of the demand for the entry level/junior Geotech positions is fulfilled. So far, so good.

But this is where the fun starts. Because you see, unlike the constant supply of eligible graduates for Junior/Entry level positions, there is absolutely no such supply for the Intermediate and Senior level positions. The people graduating from colleges are unemployed and actively looking for entry level jobs. Companies are also actively looking to fill their junior/entry level positions. So there is a constant match between demand and supply for the entry level jobs.

But there is no such connection available between eligible candidates and the Intermediate/Senior positions. The ‘eligible’ candidates for these positions are typically already employed and lack any incentives to change jobs. The lack of incentive only increases with a person’s experience. That is, the longer a person spends time in a city or a company, they are unlikely to move away from either or both. People develop professional connections, drop roots in a community, buy houses, start a family and get settled in one place as they progress in their career.

If anything, the factors listed above only contribute to a ‘cost’ for the person if they were to consider changing companies and/or cities. And any company looking to hire for an Intermediate/Senior position will have to ‘compensate’ for that cost in some visible form – higher salary, higher position, faster career growth, better living/working conditions, etc. And it is not sufficient for the company seeking to hire the candidate to be just ‘better’ than the candidate’s current employer. They will have to be ‘significantly better’ since they will have to provide additional compensation for the ‘cost’ the candidate has to pay to change jobs.

All this points to a job market where the entry level positions are continuously filled and the intermediate/senior level positions are hard to fill. Most of the intermediate/senior level jobs typically stay open for a long time (several months). Anyone can login to any job platform and see this for themselves. In spite of this, one cursory look at the tone and content of the job posting requirements for intermediate and senior level positions reveals such a sense of idealism on part of the company seeking the candidates. There are typically such a large number of specific requirements listed for a candidate in these positions, one has to wonder exactly how successful are these companies in hiring people for this level?

And that is not even a rhetorical question from my side. I am genuinely interested to know what the success rate is for companies seeking to hire intermediate and senior level positions in a specific high skilled profession. What percentage of these positions actually get filled? How long are they typically open for? Do the recruiters ever relax their requirements? Do they promote someone from within the organization and/or give them additional responsibilities? Are the recruiters even aware of the nature of the job market? What do they do when they absolutely need someone?

Or in other words, exactly how liquid is the job market at the intermediate and senior positions for high skilled professions? 

These questions take me to yet more interesting aspects/impacts on the overall job market. In an illiquid job market, what does job creation even mean? Exactly how valuable is experience for a given role? How would/should one define skills shortage? And how should this be addressed? What should be the role of immigrants in such a situation?

These are questions I seek to address in future posts. Stay tuned.