How it started

I had a hard time sleeping that night, wracked by anxiety. My partner and I had just moved into a new apartment by Spadina Chinatown for her new job. I had just moved back to Toronto from New York City after the end of an unpaid internship at the UN. I didn’t plan on moving back to Toronto because of a job offer I received there (signed the papers and everything) but was blocked by the higher ups just weeks before starting the paid job. Blocked, even after toughing out six months of unpaid internship, living in a tough part of Queens, but proving myself capable enough to be offered a job at the United friggin Nations. That job was supposed to be my ticket to help pay off student debts, re-gain the 20 pounds I lost for not eating during those 6 months, and actually have something resembling a career. Budget problems, it always seems.

I was broke. I had no money, no savings, and no real job. A week before that sleepless night, I started working as bike courier, delivering food through Toronto winter storms for tips, to try and pay the bills. Because I just started doing those deliveries and I spent all that I had on the deposit, I was still short for making ends meet by the end of February with expected OSAP payments.

There really needs to be a better way to come up with ideas, without the anxiety of crushing debt and precarious debt keeping you up at night, thinking about everything that’s gone wrong. But it was that sleepless night that it struck me: write an article for GQ Magazine about Jagmeet Singh.

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I'm going to write a book

It’s been on my mind for the past year to write about things that have happened since the beginning of 2017. It’s kind of a wild story. 2017 was a crazy year, but the 2018 chapters of the book are going to be pretty crap.

Who knows if I’ll finish it? I can’t even write on this thing regularly like I wanted to, but I hope that changes when I get busy-bored. Not busy OR bored, but busy AND bored.

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KC Green for all occasions

Public Opinion and Trade

NAFTA's in the news again, or whatever it's going to be renamed to. Brought me back to my old grad school paper on trust in institutions and how they can influence public opinion on economic policies like trade. The hypothesis goes something like: if citizens can't trust political institutions to deliver equalizing outcomes, they would be less likely to support trade liberalization.

Recent attitudes to NAFTA seem to point in this direction, where American faith in free trade (from the very country that brought you the modern global trade regime) has declined in the face of declining trust in political and market institutions.

Trust, Trade, and Institutions: Social Capital and Trade Liberalization Attitudes in Japan

A research paper I wrote and presented for a International Political Economy Case Study class supervised by Professor Nobuhiro Hiwatari in 2015.

Download the paper here.

Trust and Institutions

Societies depend on trust to function. Any collective action needs trust so that transactions and exchanges are made efficiently and to encourage action by reassuring that others won’t cheat or free ride. That’s not at all a radical notion, but there are indicators in different countries around the world saying that, over time since the mid 20th century, trust is declining. Academic (World Values Survey), state (Eurobarometer), and private sector (Edelman Trust Barometer) research on trust in society are all pointing to the same trends: that sentiments that (1) "Most people can be trusted" is declining and feelings that (0) "Need to be very careful" is increasing.

Though most people already felt that you "Need to be very careful" in response to "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?" since the 1980s, there has been a general downward trend over the past three decades. It would be super neat/alarming to see Wave 7 results, set for release in 2019. If only the WVS folks kept their country participants consistent ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It is getting harder to imagine the community. Declining trust trends are also worrying because of the wild democratic outcomes they tend to produce or are related to. No matter what kind of political, economic, or social system you have, none of them work without trust.

So, how do you get society to start trusting again? What “creates” trust? What the hell is trust in the first place? That’s what I thought about in Fall 2011. The Arab Springs just happened, I had just got back from the summer abroad course in Berlin where we were warned against protesting a Eurozone Crisis I didn’t fully understand, and Occupy was happening in New York while people were just starting to pitch tents at St. James Park in Toronto. What got people to take to the streets like that? Why had I never seen a protest ever happen living in suburban Mississauga, while in Toronto just last year, we had the G20? At the root of it all, the questions morphed into: how did anyone get anything done together?

In my 4th year seminars, I started asking about “political culture.” I only really started this in 4th year because I only had University figured out in the last half of 3rd year. If only I had more time and knew like more than 3 people at UofT before 4th year. If only I brought these questions up in my first year comparative politics course, maybe I would have had better grades on my undergrad transcript?

TAs and professors started me off with Almond and Verba’s The Civic Culture and then on Putnam’s Making Democracy Work. They talked about families, churches and “social capital” (boiled down to trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity) as things that helped solve collective action dilemmas, but I didn’t find them completely helpful in explaining wider phenomena like transnational action in response to Globalization, why many Canadian newcomer communities sent remittances, or why people in countries with varied political cultures (i.e., Germany and Italy) still had the same opinions on things.  How could families that are never together still send money to each other? Filial piety in some cultures is not enough to explain that. Taking Stephen Clarkson’s 4th year seminar on regionalization, what made North Americans protest NAFTA in all three countries and why is approval/complacency/opposition for the treaty in flux?

In the Putnam edited volume, Democracies in Flux, Bo Rothstein talked about how economic and political arrangements facilitated social capital and that changes and pressures on these arrangements may have a hand in influencing trust in Sweden.  With a better quality of life, less inequality, and generally universal approaches to social programs, it can be easy to see how these indicators would also be related to higher indicators of trust. A bit after Democracies in Flux was published, Rothstein argued that there is a strong connection between trust and the mechanisms that lead to a better quality of life. Later picking up Elinor Ostrom's work, institutions seemed to be what steered trust, cooperation, and collective action.

Variations in the level of “trust in strangers” over time between countries can be explained, at least in part, by the equalizing political and economic performance of institutions that facilitate trust by creating networks and establishing norms/rules of reciprocity. The strength of institutions in their equalizing performance affects trust between individuals for collective action, transactions, solidarity, etc.

Okay, but what is an institution? It’s typically imagined as a hard, foreboding looking building that houses some sort of government service. It’s also imagined as a custom or legal looking document, hard-copied and leather-bound that people reference. Sometimes, an institution is imagined as a favourite place to eat food. The first sentence of Wikipedia calls Institutions “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour.” I would agree with such a broad and vague definition. Institutions can be just about anything that facilitate collective action or purpose. They can be recognized books of reference, a social service, a physical building, a family, a legal document, a neighbourhood diner, an annual conference, or even a ritual practice.

From personal experience, I’ve even come to regard social media and group chats as institutions. Though informal and “softer” than say an office where you get your driver’s license renewed, they do (quite effectively) function as mechanisms that facilitates the exchange of information, the growth and maintenance of a network, as well as collective action. Watching Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Libya episode on Netflix, I think we all forgot how effective Twitter was in mobilizing entire revolutions. Today, we feel sour against Twitter and Facebook for (mis)informing voters that have led to undesired outcomes. We could basically call these institutions groups, but groups can also imply people without strong connections to one another, other than outward identifiers such as age or race. Millennials are a group, not an institution. An institution, however, can organize a group of Millennials for purpose.

Trust in “traditional institutions” like political parties, unions, big corporations, welfare services, taxes, the police is falling. People, whether they participate in an institution or view it from the outside, tend to trust an institution depending on the perceived capacity of impartiality, fairness, and redistribution (Rothstein & Stolle, 2008). That perception doesn’t always have to line up with reality (this bit you can find in my Master’s thesis with trust in big companies in Japan in light of labour market dualization). High trust institutions are typically universalizing, but this doesn’t have to match perception. Means tested institutions can be perceived positively if they are perceived to be impartial, fair, and redistributive according to the norms and networks people understand of that institution. Reciprocal norms like meritocracy, for instance, can dull negative perceptions of institutions lacking equalizing performance.

In my grad school studies, I wanted to make a stronger case for the link between trust and institutions and what that meant for policy and decision making. The relationship between trust and institutions is one way and likely self-reinforcing. Eek & Rothstein (2005) make the case that while trust in institutions can influence social (horizontal) trust in strangers, trust in strangers does not have any effect on institutional (vertical) trust. Therefore, high social trust is related to institutions in which people place high levels of confidence, while high levels of social trust can also exist alongside low confidence in other institutions. One institution can maintain a varying degree of public confidence than another, but general trust does not appear to affect trust in institutions.

I would tend to disagree with the latter parts of that thesis. Social trust as an outcome could influence the perception and efficacy of an institution. Say an institution like healthcare begins to perform less effectively than it used to. Cuts and maybe a newly tiered in-group damages perceptions that the institution is running impartially, fairly, and in a redistributive fashion. There are perceived free riders in the program. The declining trust in this institution, therefore, influences individual declining trust in strangers.

But if social trust declines, is there any motivation for collective action to fix the institution? Declining social trust is seen to be related to declining voter turnouts, so in this scenario how likely is it that people who perceive healthcare as becoming unfair would vote for a politician that promises to fix it? Would people at this point seek other institutions they can trust? We know that low trusting individuals typically don't participate in political activities and are associated with low productivity and human capital. Is it typically high social trusting individuals, that may not be immediately affected by healthcare cuts due to higher socioeconomic status and human capital, who fight for healthcare institution restoration? It could be that institutions are responsive to lower levels of social trust, but institutions can also be subject to other pressures like resources, increases/decreases in participants, and changes in culture. What comes first: (mis)trust or the (lack of the) institution?

If I had more time and money, I would want to explore these questions and dilemmas further. In my grad school work, I also argued that arrangements of institutions in states and markets could help explain the variance in trust in countries, but there was no way I was going to fit the whole theoretical framework in an already long thesis paper. Going to save the rest for future posts.

Lovely in a Painful Way

This is a bit of a throwback. With my infinite time these past two months and no means of doing anything else that costs money, I started fiddling around with the guitar again. Thought to revisit this song we (Josh with the actual real music parts, the words by me) wrote years ago. I keep playing it with different chords, though, in a different key. Can't quite figure out what Josh and Cam were playing originally.

With my infinite time these past two months I even practiced the song and made a recording using my old podcast mic, but I really hate the sound of my own voice and decided not to post it. The poor bandcamp recording (engineered by yours truly with a cracked copy of Cubase, a single M-Audio interface, Shure microphone I still think I owe Cam or Josh $80 for, in the dank basement on Lowther) will have to do.

The original emo lyrics from the bandcamp:

trying to make things work after losing someone you love makes for a song that's lovely in a painful way

we sit at the side of parties in backyards on trains home and when she died your family stood around her could things get better could we just stay together if i could hold you still would you wait for me i dunno how long this is gonna take it'll take time take a walk with me through the park we wont get home until after dark but i just wanna go somewhere and talk to you 3 years go by what did they do whats changed did i or was it you lets just sit ourselves right down here for a few more moments

I forgot how it got to be "lovely in a painful way" (I think J coined it and I immediately thought "holy shit, you're right;" I'm not sure), but I remember pretty vividly where it came from. It was either late 2009 or early 2010 (or was it late 2010/early 2011?) and it was the three of us in her room, drunk and stupid like the bad old days. We (I and he) had only recently re-connected since drifting apart in high school. It was thanks to her that we became close again. In that bedroom,  he re-told the story I had only seen from a distance in grade 12.

I remember first hearing about what happened from my locker. Even though we had drifted, a bunch of us still went to the funeral together. What I didn't see was the toll and remorse. I think we were both in tears when I said I wanted to write that into a song.

Josh has a knack for songwriting and performing. This one came together way more organically and quickly than other Belleau Woods songs. Josh tweaked the lyrics around a bit/a lot to make it work for him. This was the first (only?) time I got to use the Casio I bought off Kajiji for the little melodies in the interludes. I wanted to be Johnny Foreigner so bad but amateur historian will have to do. In practice, Josh would whistle or "doo doo" them. I recorded this with my Fender Jazz Bass (I think Cam still has it?), though Stevie played it live. This was probably my peak bass skills at the time. The sloppy drums you also hear in this recording were also played by me, since at the time I had filled in and only tried my best to copy Matt A who is several trillion times more talented than I on the kit. I was likely playing drums for about 8 months at that point. It was recorded on my electronic drum kit (I think Matt V still has it?).

I think Shane's ex did the art attached to this track? J can definitely be credited for the rest of the art. I totally just remembered I put together BW zines for our shows. What an indie schmindie tool I was. Recording and putting these songs would be one of the last things BW ever did. I went to Berlin for the first time a few weeks after posting these on bandcamp.

The reason this is still so stuck in my head is that, funny enough, I think it actually did take like 3 years. I totally called it lmao.

Stuck for the summer

Took me a while to follow through with investing in the SquareSpace and domain subscription, considering the dire financial straits I've found myself stuck with this summer. But then again, with all the time I've paid for with the money I don't have, I probably needed to commit to this thing for my own damn self.

That said, I always get the feeling that summer is way over romanticized in everything. Amongst friends, whenever you watch a movie, in popular song, when it's winter. In my entire adult life, I think there's only one summer I've ever fully embraced.

Every June to August, I find myself at some weird point with myself and career/family/life. It's not necessarily a low point (like summer 2010, 2016). It could be a mix of highs and lows (2008, 2012, 2013). Sometimes I find it to be just too freakishly busy for me, when it's vacation and chill time for others (2009, 2014, 2015, 2017). Save for 2011, in my decade of adulthood, I've never had a summer with all those romantic trappings of the season. Summer 2018 is headed for a low point with a chance of mixed results.

When I was a kid, I don't think I enjoyed summers much either. The thing I remember most about summers was boredom. Getting pinched in the ear into praying the rosary and novenas everyday. Pollen and ragweed allergies that kept me on the couch with a moist towel on my face. Missing friends because I wasn't really allowed to hang out and they would be away on vacations anyways. Positive summer associations from my childhood include "camping" with the various regional associations my parents were a part of, Pokemon, New Jersey, and sometimes North Carolina. When I was a teenager, there was one really crazy mid-year period that was definitely memorable for being an extremely teenage summer. For the most part, I wished I was back in school.

It could also be that I have a summer birthday and I'm not a "birthday person."

Dang, the first real post was a real emo one.

It's back

Like the McRib. I got pretty restless and thought to start writing again in a blog-type format where I don't need to worry if I get paid, don't need to worry that pitches aren't accepted by editors, and write on things that aren't tied to whatever paid, professional work I am doing at the moment. I also thought, "Hey why not just post on Twitter more and get Twitter popular by posting? It's like writing and more people will read you?" But I don't want to just post about being mad or sad on Twitter, which seems to be the only contribution I can seem to make on there. It's not like I'll forgo writing about being mad or sad in this new space, but Twitter just doesn't feel like the space to flesh out or record thoughts.

Blogs probably still matter because there are more options and spaces for fully illustrating whatever it is that you're talking about. But people really don't read these things anymore. I don't need social media likes and shares for validation, but they would be nice to have.

I'm still unsure what this space will be for. Maybe it's for posterity? Maybe it could be an outlet for being emo like an early-2000s teenage LiveJournal where I write about all the sad songs I listen to and anime I feel is "too deep"?

Like the previous blog-website-thing, this space could also be like a portfolio of work and kind of like a LinkedIn to invite creeping on my profile freely without the consequence of being notified that you've just looked me up. As the thesis graveyard, I could lay to rest in peace all those weird academic-type questions in politics, history, and economics that would have been quaint research projects, in lieu of further grad school. It could also, again, be the repository for all the hot takes and writing that doesn't make the cut for actual real paid work.

I should be writing more of the shit that gets me paid.

I've loved KC Green's work way before the burning dog meme

I've loved KC Green's work way before the burning dog meme