Happy to have a new Apple Store two blocks from my home, but is it good for the city?

Credit Ehsan Zaffar

Credit Ehsan Zaffar

The newest Apple Store is opening up in a historic Washington D.C. library. It looks great and it’s only a few minutes walk from my home, so as an Apple customer for decades I’m super excited. But as someone who thinks about resilient communities and civil rights, I’m also concerned and dissapointed.

The opening of this store in a historic space is another example of rampant gentrification, without any thought being given to the original, and generally less well-off inhabitants of the community in which this store opens. Apple will profit tremendously from this store, which is across the street from the DC Convention Center. Yet far as I can tell, nothing was done to engage and assist the community members that used to thrive here, and some of whom still live only one block away. None of them can afford the Apple iPhones that will now be sold in one of their former public library buildings.

Apple could have done a lot to be a good neighbor. For instance, Apple could have held one section of this store aside as a public reading and meeting space for young people. This would have fit the theme of opening a store in a former public library, provided a community space for local struggling youth, developed good PR for Apple, and also led to greater foot traffic in the stores.

Companies much smaller than Apple have engaged in these kinds of community-building efforts. The best example in DC are Capital One “cafe banks” which also serve as community meeting halls where local organizations and non-profits can organize events for free.

Apple dwarfs Capital One in size and reach with over $250 billion in cash reserves and a valuation of almost a trillion dollars. The interest earned on Apple’s cash reserves equals the annual GDP of many US states. At this scale, corporations have a responsibility to provide at least a little bit for the communities that are displaced by their efforts and fill their coffers. Otherwise, there will eventually be no one left to buy their products.

Traffic Tickets Increase Inequality

Traffic fines are rising and though they may be a minor nuisance for some people, for most Americans traffic tickets are a large, unexpected and difficult to pay life-changing event. A recent report from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights SF highlights some of these problems. More importantly, this report and other recent research points to the need for a more equitable fine assessment system as well as a fairer, more realistic way to allow drivers to pay these fines.

Why are traffic fines such a problem?

Photo by  Alexander Popov  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

Because traffic fines can be VERY expensive

For instance, traffic fines in the state of California can involve late penalties as high as $300 per ticket, on top of up to an often $1000 pre-existing fine. That’s equivalent to the cost of buying a top of the line iPhone.

And if you can’t pay these fines … your license gets suspended

So what if a driver finds it difficult to pay down these expensive fines … guess what? The state usually suspends your license. This is particularly idiotic because for many people a license is their primary means of earning an income. Suspending licenses for failure to pay places additional fiscal burden on these individuals since 78% percent of jobs in most states require a drivers license (such as driving for Uber). A penalty for failure to pay shouldn’t eliminate the drivers’ mechanism for generating income ... otherwise how do you expect them to pay?

Low-income individuals get hit harder with traffic fines. They tend to have a higher than average incidence of unreliable access to legal resources, limited English proficiency, learning disabilities and other limitations not of their own making. Even if they could scrounge up the funds and pay assessed fines and tickets, sometimes they don’t even know that they should be paying them. In the LCCR study referenced above, none of the California counties surveyed provided citizens any information about alternative options to pay, non- English language programs or places where people could obtain access to legal care.

There are better and more profitable options than license suspensions

If cities change their policies, for instance by eliminating license suspensions for failure to pay, economists estimate that states like California could generate $70-140 million in additional tax revenue from people who would be able to work with a drivers license. Additional related fiscal benefits to the state could include more sales tax revenue and reduced need for public benefits programs. Moreover, people who are able to work can pay down outstanding traffic fines.

Progressive policies also accept a reality of life: some people just can’t pay these expensive fines, especially lacking the means to make a living. A 2016 survey found that 63% of Americans don't have enough money in savings to cover a $500 emergency. If credit card companies and even that age-old example of bureaucracy, the IRS, can provide for partial payment plans, why can’t state DMV’s? A payment plan allows drivers to pay at least some small amount per month and lets the DMV collect something (rather than nothing at all). Payment plans help avoid the problems associated with license suspensions noted above.

What can you do?

Advocate with your state legislature to lower the dollar amount of fines. People shouldn’t be paying hundreds of dollars for traffic infractions that don’t threaten safety and well-being. Advocate with your city to pressure the DMV to allow for partial payment plans if that option doesn’t exist in your state. The same goes for adding webpages to the DMV website that make paying a fine easy for those with limited English proficiency.

A lot of work remains to be done on this issue - but none of these problems are insurmountable and many of the fixes are quick, easy, and result in immediate positive impact for affected communities.

Plus who doesn’t like paying less in traffic tickets amirite?

Rank Your Tasks Based on Fear

I tell my students to try to do those things first that make them the most afraid.

Of all the emotions that drive us, fear is the most primal. Yet fear must be confronted if we are to survive individually or as a species. Without confronting our fears how could human beings have learned to hunt, conquer the land, the seas and eventually even the cold depths of space. As students and professionals you likely fear those things that have yet to be rather than those currently facing you. To become productive and grow as a person, the only strategy you need when confronting the daunting amount of things on your todo list is to rank them based on fear. Then do those tasks first that scare you the most.

Things that scare us

  • Things that are delayed tend to scare you the most, gnawing at your confidence and repose. Do these first.

  • Things that are due soon tend to make you anxious (anxiety is just another flavor of fear). Do these tasks soon.

  • Those tasks that require some amount of confrontation (such as asking your boss for a raise, or your professor for an extension) engage our evolutionary fear of social censure. This is a good sign. This kind of fear usually tells us that these tasks are worth doing. They are tasks others don’t do out of fear. Doing them makes you unique and uncommon. Prioritize these tasks and your horizons will grow, as will your wealth and freedom.

  • Tasks that create a sense of sadness and emptiness often make us afraid because of how we believe they will make us feel when we later do them. I refer to this as fear of future fear. Fear OF fear is ironic because your feelings are just about the only thing in the universe you have some sense of control over. You can choose to feel what you want. Choose to feel grateful for the time your mother spent with you and move forward with organizing her funeral, despite how sad that makes you feel. Honor the emotions of your husband and seek divorce now rather than waiting another year. It will hurt you both a lot more later.

Doing scary things first leads to some amazing benefits:

  1. Confronting your fears dissolves them … in all areas of life. Studying for that dreaded final makes saying no later to someone we don’t like that much easier. Courage is accumulative. Like a muscle, the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets.

  2. Completing tasks that make us afraid makes other tasks feel much easier. After all, if you’ve already dealt with those things that scared you the most, what’s the worst that could happen?

  3. Tackling your fear allows you to accept evermore difficult and more meaningful tasks. In our comfortable societies, those things that make us afraid often tend to be the things worth doing (they wouldn’t make us afraid otherwise). As you continue to challenge your fears, you invite risk and the concomitant reward that comes with it into your life.

Some additional tips

Start small. Take measured steps when confronting fears, especially deeply held ones that may deal with your insecurities. Often, the smallest most ludicrous step is the easiest to do. Want to begin working out but fear of failure holding you back? Tell yourself you’ll only do one push-up per day for the next week. Ridiculous right? Anyone could do that! So that means you can too. By the end of the week you’ll have done seven more push-ups than you would have had you never started. The week after, move the number of push-ups to two per day. By the end of the year you could be doing hundreds of pushups a week. All you have to do is keep going, increasing incrementally week by week.

Congratulate yourself. Confronting fears isn’t easy. Go easy on yourself if you fail. Starting the process is perhaps even more important than succeeding completely.

I wish you a fearless, productive week of finals and a spectacular summer!

My Interview with Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano currently serves as the President of the University of California System. Prior to her current post, she was the third Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 until 2013 under President Barack Obama. She came to DHS after serving as the 21st Governor of Arizona and prior to that the Attorney General of Arizona, the first woman to hold all four positions mentioned here.


This is an excerpt of my interview, the entirety of which can be read in my forthcoming book on homeland security.

A perennial issue that arises concerns the way DHS deals with Congress. Particularly, with Congressional oversight and how fragmented it is. Why do you think that is the case? What can be done to ease the burden on the Executive Branch and departmental leadership?

JN: There is a role for Congressional oversight for any executive agency. The problem with DHS is that there is both too much and too little. Too many committees and subcommittees exercise jurisdiction over the Department. The members of those subcommittees, and in particular their staff, do not really have a good strategic overview of the Department and all of its myriad activities. The problem is that these staffers think their issue is the top, and only issue, for the Department. However, DHS has many missions, all of which require multi-tasking at any particular moment in time. During my time as DHS Secretary, I testified more than 55 times before Congress. Preparation for testimony alone takes a great deal of time. It requires preparation of a written statement, which requires staff time, the Secretary has to approve it, and the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) has final approval. Sometimes the deadlines were very unrealistic, reflecting the viewpoint that subcommittees should get priority over everything else. 

Now the exceptions are the two authorizing committees in the House and Senate, as well as the appropriations subcommittees see the whole Department. Those hearings were very wide ranging and could cover any topic and they provided useful oversight for the Congress and the public. Everything else was surplus. They took more resources than was beneficial.

Oversight is setup the way it is partially because it goes to issues of “turf” in the Congress that is zealously protected by the committees and subcommittees. Those battles were not solved in the haste to build DHS. Congress, particularly the House, has not had the leadership or will to address this issue even though every Secretary (of DHS) and others who know about the Department have all said that the oversight is too much and needs to be reformed.

The silo problem, especially pre-9/11, is partially the reason why DHS was formed. There were information sharing problems within the intelligence and national security community. Do you think DHS has alleviated some of those concerns? If so, what else can DHS do to diminish this problem?

JN: In terms of DHS’s creation, information sharing, particularly with respect to terrorism and counterterrorism, has improved. Mainly due to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and to some degree with the CIA. We have made some great strides in information sharing, although somewhat less so with the FBI. Part of that is because the country and the Executive Branch is working out who has primary jurisdiction over what, and the need to establish common depositories for information.

Janet Napolitano (Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

Janet Napolitano (Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

What do you see as DHS’s role in the larger Executive branch and the government overall. The Department has had a bit of a tortured path, and sometimes DHS is not seen by other agencies as an important or relevant agency. Do you think that is changing? What do you see the role of DHS going forward?

JN: DHS plays a critical role in very different areas. Obviously, it dominates the immigration and border security portfolios. The DOJ (Department of Justice) has some role, but immigration has never been a prioritized interest. Disaster management and response, has also been handed to DHS. Having both FEMA and the Coast Guard under one roof helps in that regard, although Congress may not have done that intentionally. Cybersecurity is a growing problem and the Department needs to develop its capacity. Cybersecurity is too fragmented in the Executive Branch. The NSA, FBI, and DHS all have large roles in cybersecurity, but exactly who has the lead and how information is shared is still an evolving topic. On the counterterrorism side, there exist a myriad of different players, so Congress was not able to locate all of that in one place.

Do you think it makes DHS’ work more challenging, particularly for counterterrorism, to intercept and investigate lone wolf actors and terrorists, such as the Boston Marathon bombers?

JN: In hindsight, I do not think the Boston Marathon bombing could have been prevented under any reasonable law enforcement or intelligence sharing protocol absent Russia giving us more information about the brothers, particularly them traveling in Russia. Lone wolfs, by their very nature, are almost impossible to detect and prevent. The challenge is the ability for immediate response and communities to be resilient in the face of a lone wolf episode. For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara had a lone wolf type incident with a mentally ill individual going on a shooting rampage. Could that have been prevented? Possibly if he was institutionalized, but absent that, you do not have law enforcement resources to watch everyone who may be capable of a lone wolf attack even if you know someone who might fit the personality to do such a thing.

You brought up the concept of resiliency. Resiliency is often a hard concept to explain. How would you explain it to someone not familiar with it?

JN: Basically, it is the ability to take a punch and get right back up again.

What does that look like in terms of DHS’s work?

JN: It depends. It is seen more frequently in the disaster response area. It is the ability to restore infrastructure and get people basic necessities first (power, food, water, healthcare), and then get the community operating again as quickly as possible. The most difficult type of situation is when you have a huge event like Hurricane Sandy where multiple communities are affected and thousands of people needing help simultaneously.

Turning to a more controversial topic – immigration. The United States has been dealing with the issue of unaccompanied minors for the last several months. In a recent interview you mentioned that DHS was criticized quite a bit about the number of deportations and removals over the past several years, but you stated that those criticizing DHS did not look at the whole picture under the Obama Administration. What would you want them to consider? What is the whole picture?*

JN: The average annual deportation number is 400,000. This number needs to be broken down into who is in that number. One of the changes under the Obama Administration was to move more ICE agents to border communities, and to initiate a process where Border Patrol would pick up border crossers and hand them to ICE for placement into removal proceedings. Therefore, the 400,000 includes those apprehended at the border and put into proceedings. That was not happening before my tenure as DHS Secretary. I believe people criticizing that number have a paradigm in mind that those people being deported have been here for decades with established families and jobs.

Long-term undocumented people are an infinitesimal part of those who are deported. The deportees includes those apprehended at the border, those with criminal records, or those who are apprehended in the context of committing another crime and law enforcement then turns them over to be removed from the country. You do not hear arguments concerning those categories. The next largest category are repeat immigration violators. Under the Obama administration we stopped business raids and made more concerted efforts to sanction employers who continually hired a lot of undocumented. We really tried to shift the administration more toward border violators, criminal offenders and repeat offenders.

Are Other Countries Taking American Jobs?

Although some U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs have gone overseas, politicians continue to ignore the outsized effect of automation on job loss, blaming foreign countries and immigrants instead. 

Photo by  Alex Knight  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

The U.S. manufacturing sector actually produces twice as many products as it did half a century ago but does so with one-third fewer workers, mostly because automation has made American factories more efficient. Most experts agree that U.S. jobs aren’t being stolen by other countries, but rather by our own robot overlords.  An Oxford University study recently suggested that almost 50% of some jobs will be eliminated or reduced within the next several years due mostly to automation.And as artificial intelligence and robotic hardware continues to advance at a phenomenal pace, there are concerns that the rate of job loss will accelerate.

Thinking in terms of automation is also important because job loss due to automation inordinately affects the most vulnerable among us: low-income communities, ethnic minorities and immigrants who perform unskilled labor.

So Should We Blame Automation Instead?

Not really. Things are a little but more complicated than that.For one thing, automation is nothing new. The Industrial Revolution transformed the way we worked. It allowed for the population to grow from about a billion people to over seven billion in just under a century … and yet all of these billions of new humans still had plenty of work. Why? Because automation created new industries: instead of taking a horse-drawn carriage to your friend’s home, a machine could now drive you there in a fraction of the time. Even though this new automobile industry led to the elimination of some jobs, it led to the creation of many more unprecedented professions such as mechanics, insurance agents and race car drivers. 

So even though automation may disrupt some jobs … it’s also likely to create many more new jobs. For instance, robots are making travel to Mars a realistic possibility - an endeavor already resulting in the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs and the creation of multiple new industries.

What this means is that automation doesn’t always eliminate jobs, sometimes it changes them or creates new jobs.  Why didn’t the creation of ATM’s result in the mass layoff of bank tellers nationwide? ATM’s had been around for 30 years, yet bank teller jobs continued to increase throughout the past thirty years because bank employees could now focus on additional revenue-generating activities such as selling financial products like mortgages and business loans. The bank could also hire software engineers to create apps and other software to help the bank generate additional revenue.

Credit CBInsights

Credit CBInsights

Which leads me to my third point: oftentimes the jobs automation may one day create are unfathomable at the time automation begins causing initial disruptions in the labor market. For instance, the bank tellers from the 1980’s in the example above couldn’t possibly have imagined a future where bank employees would be coding iOS apps 30 years hence. Likewise, we are similarly hampered when trying to think of the new industries that will come about as a result of automation in the future.

The grievance politicians are attempting to harness isn’t about automation so much as the disruptive transition of old-tech to new-tech jobs and the pain this disruption causes, particularly for older workers or workers in industries vulnerable to this disruption. A 58-year-old service worker or truck driver maybe able to transition to a new-tech job such as coding iOS apps, but it’s unlikely and very difficult. For politicians, the pain caused by this transition is a complicated and unpleasant idea to sell (after all, it’s taken me this long to explain the problem) and its why they focus on the much easier to understand idea of “foreigners are your stealing jobs”. 

So What Can You/We Do?

Job loss to automation is a real concern, but neither automation nor foreigners are an existential threat to our economy. The disruption automation will cause can be overcome. No matter who you are,

  • Vote for candidates who speak intelligently about automation and provide real solutions rather than diatribes about foreigners. 

  • If you are a young person like one of my students, spend your valuable resource (e.g. time) to volunteer, work for, or start an organization that helps retrain middle or lower-income workers. As a young person, you should also consider what kind of job you will have. Over the coming decades your job is likely to change due to automation. Consider how it will change and what you can do to be nimble and transition into a new career.

  • As a community member, you can encourage the government to create or fund effectiveretraining programs that help those most impacted by automation transition from old-tech jobs to new-tech jobs.

  • If you are someone of means why not donate to nonprofits that do this work?

  • If you are a policymaker, elected official or community leader, consider creating programs that provide financial assistance or insurance to workers transitioning from higher to lower wage jobs.

And if you are or will be affected by automation, find the number of growing skill-based retraining programs in your area and enroll over the weekend. It will be worth your time.