Friday, 16 November 2018

Michelle Obama reveals dread of Trump and how news cycle 'turns her stomach'

In her new memoir, Becoming, the former first lady sometimes wonders ‘where the bottom might be’ as her husband’s legacy is aggressively unravelled

Michelle Obama has told of her dismay that so many American women chose “misogynist” Donald Trump as their president instead of the first female nominee of a major party, Hillary Clinton.

In her new memoir, Becoming, which is published on Tuesday, the former first lady admits that some news stories now “turn her stomach” and, as her husband Barack Obama’s legacy is aggressively unravelled, sometimes wonders “where the bottom might be”.

The couple spent election night 2016 at the cinema in the White House. “As the movie wrapped up and the lights came on, Barack’s cellphone buzzed,” Obama writes. “I saw him glance at it and then look again, his brow furrowing just slightly. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘Results in Florida are looking kind of strange.’

First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in North Carolina on 27 October 2016. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
“There was no alarm in his voice, just a tiny seed of awareness, a hot ember glowing suddenly in the grass. The phone buzzed again. My heart started to tick faster … I watched my husband’s face closely, not sure I was ready to hear what he was going to say. Whatever it was, it didn’t look good. I felt something leaden take hold in my stomach just then, my anxiety hardening into dread.”

Obama could not bring herself to stay up through the early hours watching the climax on TV. She went to bed, hoping to “block it all out”. As she slept, the stunning news was confirmed: Trump would succeed her husband as president. She admits: “I wanted to not know that fact for as long as I possibly could.”

The couple’s daughters, Malia, who was in Bolivia, and Sasha, who went off to school in Washington, were both “deeply rattled” by the result, she recalls. “I told both our girls that I loved them and that things would be okay. I kept trying to tell myself the same thing.”

The former first lady, now 54, refrains from second-guessing whether Russian meddling, FBI director James Comey’s intervention or flaws in Clinton’s campaigns brought about Clinton’s loss. She admits: “I am not a political person, so I’m not going to attempt to offer an analysis of the results. I won’t try to speculate about who was responsible or what was unfair.

 I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate
“I just wish more people had turned out to vote. And I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president. But the result was now ours to live with.”

That afternoon she went to her office in the East Wing where her entire staff had gathered. It was made up largely of women and minorities, including several who came from immigrant families. “Many were in tears, feeling that their every vulnerability was now exposed,” she writes.

But she and Barack Obama were “determined to make the transition with grace and dignity, to finish our eight years with both our ideals and our composure intact”. On 20 January, they welcomed Trump and his wife, Melania, to the White House, then proceeded to the 45th president’s inaugural stage in front of the US Capitol.

“The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableau I’d encountered so many times in my life – especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments … is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.

 Former first lady Michelle Obama begins her book tour with a stop at the Whitney M Young Magnet high school in Chicago, Illinois, on Monday. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczyński/Reuters
“Someone from Barack’s administration might have said that the optics there were bad – that what the public saw didn’t reflect the president’s reality or ideals. But in this case, maybe it did. Realizing it, I made my own optic adjustment: I stopped even trying to smile.”

Nearly two years later, Trump’s cabinet remains dominated by middle-aged white men.

Some are urging Obama to consider her own run for the White House. A recent poll from Axios by SurveyMonkey found that if she made a bid for the presidency in 2020, Obama would have a 13-point advantage over Trump, while media entrepreneur and TV host Oprah Winfrey would have a 12-point advantage.

But in the epilogue of her memoir, which offers insights into her upbringing, education and attempts to balance a career with family, she once again moves to squash such talk. “Because people often ask, I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.

“I continue to be put off by the nastiness – the tribal segregation of red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.

 I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics
“That isn’t to say I don’t care deeply about the future of our country. Since Barack left office, I’ve read news stories that turn my stomach. I’ve lain awake at night, fuming over what’s come to pass.

“It’s been hard to watch as carefully built, compassionate policies have been rolled back, as we’ve alienated some of our closest allies and left vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized. I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be.”

She also takes a swipe at Trump’s campaign launch in June 2015 in which he branded Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”, setting the tone for his divisive campaign and presidency. “I figured he was just grandstanding, sucking up the media’s attention because he could. Nothing in how he conducted himself suggested that he was serious about wanting to govern.”

Obama launches the promotional tour for her book on Tuesday in Chicago where tens of thousands of people have bought tickets to attend an event moderated by Winfrey. Becoming is part of a joint book deal with Barack Obama – whose memoir is expected next year – thought to be worth tens of millions of dollars, a “significant portion” of which will go to charity.

(Source: The Guardian)

‘I wanted everything’ – An exclusive extract from Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming

In an excerpt from her book, the former first lady recalls her internal struggle with her identity in the first days of her marriage

It sounds a little like a bad joke, doesn’t it? What happens when a solitude-loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman who does not love solitude one bit?

The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: you find ways to adapt. If you’re in it for ever, there’s really no choice.

‘If you were a girl with a brain and a dawning sense that you wanted to grow into something more than a wife, Mary Tyler Moore was your goddess’ ... Michelle Obama as a young woman. Photograph: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives
Which is to say that at the start of 1993, Barack flew to Bali and spent about five weeks living alone with his thoughts while working on a draft of his book Dreams from My Father, filling yellow legal pads with his fastidious handwriting, distilling his ideas during languid daily walks amid the coconut palms and lapping tide. I, meanwhile, stayed home on Euclid Avenue, living upstairs from my mother, Marian, as another leaden Chicago winter descended, shellacking the trees and sidewalks with ice. I kept myself busy, seeing friends and hitting workout classes in the evenings. In my regular interactions at work or around town, I’d find myself casually uttering this strange new term – “my husband”. My husband and I are hoping to buy a home. My husband is a writer finishing a book. It was foreign and delightful and conjured memories of a man who simply wasn’t there. I missed Barack terribly, but I rationalized our situation as I could, understanding that even if we were newlyweds, this interlude was probably for the best.
‘I had so much – an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition –
nd I was wise enough to credit my mother with instilling it in me.’
Photograph: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives
He had taken the chaos of his unfinished book and shipped himself out to do battle with it. Possibly this was out of kindness to me, a bid to keep the chaos out of my view. I’d married an outside-the-box thinker, I had to remind myself. He was handling his business in what struck him as the most sensible and efficient manner, even if outwardly it appeared to be a beach vacation – a honeymoon with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.

You and I, you and I, you and I. We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and for ever form of us. Even if we were the same two people we’d always been, the same couple we’d been for years, we now had new labels, a second set of identities to wrangle. He was my husband. I was his wife. We’d stood up at church and said it out loud, to each other and to the world. It did feel as if we owed each other new things.

‘I’d married an outside-the-box thinker, I had to remind myself ... We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and for ever form of us’ ... Barack and Michelle Obama on their wedding day. Photograph: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives
For many women, including myself, “wife” can feel like a loaded word. It carries a history. If you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as I did, wives seemed to be a genus of white women who lived inside television sitcoms – cheery, coiffed, corseted. They stayed at home, fussed over the children, and had dinner ready on the stove. They sometimes got into the sherry or flirted with the vacuum-cleaner salesman, but the excitement seemed to end there.

The irony, of course, was that I used to watch those shows in our living room on Euclid Avenue while my own stay-at-home mom fixed dinner without complaint and my own clean-cut dad recovered from a day at work. My parents’ arrangement was as traditional as anything we saw on TV. Barack sometimes jokes, in fact, that my upbringing was like a black version of Leave It to Beaver, with the South Shore Robinsons as steady and freshfaced as the Cleaver family of Mayfield, USA, though of course we were a poorer version of the Cleavers, with my dad’s blue city worker’s uniform subbing for Mr Cleaver’s suit. Barack makes this comparison with a touch of envy, because his own childhood was so different, but also as a way to push back on the entrenched stereotype that African Americans primarily live in broken homes, that our families are somehow incapable of living out the same stable, middle-class dream as our white neighbors.

‘I was old enough now to realize that all the hours my mother gave to me and Craig were hours she didn’t spend on herself’ ... Michelle Obama as a baby. Photograph: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives
Personally, as a kid, I preferred The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I absorbed with fascination. Mary had a job, a snappy wardrobe, and really great hair. She was independent and funny, and unlike those of the other ladies on TV, her problems were interesting. She had conversations that weren’t about children or homemaking. She didn’t let Lou Grant boss her around, and she wasn’t fixated on finding a husband. She was youthful and at the same time grown-up. In the pre- pre- pre-internet landscape, when the world came packaged almost exclusively through three channels of network TV, this stuff mattered. If you were a girl with a brain and a dawning sense that you wanted to grow into something more than a wife, Mary Tyler Moore was your goddess.

And here I was now, 29 years old, sitting in the very same apartment where I’d watched all that TV and consumed all those meals dished up by the patient and selfless Marian Robinson. I had so much – an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition – and I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.

The Obamas returning to their residence at the White House in 2009.
Photograph: Samantha Appleton/The White House
She’d taught me how to read before I started kindergarten, helping me sound out words as I sat curled like a kitten in her lap, studying a library copy of Dick and Jane. She’d cooked for us with care, putting broccoli and brussels sprouts on our plates and requiring that we eat them. She’d hand sewn my prom dress, for God’s sake. The point was, she’d given diligently and she’d given everything. She’d let our family define her. I was old enough now to realize that all the hours she gave to me and my brother, Craig, were hours she didn’t spend on herself.

My considerable blessings in life were now causing a kind of psychic whiplash. I’d been raised to be confident and see no limits, to believe I could go after and get absolutely anything I wanted. And I wanted everything. I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.

(Source: The Guardian)

How Texas oil fracking boom tore a 'highway of death' through this small town

Every day, about 10,000 cars, trucks, and oil tankers race along U.S. Route 285 through Loving, home to just 134 people. The two-lane road has become so dangerous that Sheriff Chris Busse won’t drive it unless he’s in his police cruiser. He calls it the “highway of death.”

The county’s 400 percent increase in traffic accidents since 2015 is just one of the complaints town officials and longtime residents sitting atop the Permian Basin — a petroleum-rich area of southeast New Mexico and West Texas — have about the oil industry’s effects on their rural towns.

"How can the least populated county [in the contiguous U.S.] still have 7,000 to 15,000 cars going up and down our roadways?” Asked Busse. “The state needs to do something."

Before the historic oil boom brought on by fracking technology, these were largely wide-open desert spaces criss-crossed by dry arroyos, dotted with mesquite bushes, and scattered with ranches, farms, and small towns. Now, the once-barren landscapes are peppered with nodding pumpjacks, fracking sites, wastewater disposal sites, and tank batteries — which sometimes get struck by lightning, causing explosions and fires.

And the influx of workers, which has doubled some towns’ populations, has exploded housing markets and driven up the cost of living beyond what’s affordable to many of those not working in the oil industry.

And then there’s the stench: Fracking, a process that releases oil and gas deposits from shale rock, also releases a chemical that smells like rotten eggs.

But the past few years of fracking in the Permian has helped push the U.S. to its highest oil production since it began keeping records in the 1920s, according to the Brookings Institute, which said the boom is likely to stay in play for at least the next decade.

And the job market has brought new people and opportunities to the communities, including six-figure salaries and customers for small businesses that might not survive without the increased population.

Still, in some counties, leadership and locals says they’ve seen relatively few benefits from the boom, while watching their infrastructure strain under the weight of thousands of newcomers.

Loving County is home to only 134 people at last count. Five years ago, Busse said, residents might have seen just a few cars pass each hour on the highway. Now, they find themselves on the main drag for the thousands of people commuting to work in the oil fields, as well as transporting the goods and infrastructure.

The county, without its own EMS, police, or fire services, is ill-equipped to handle the traffic boom. They get help from the nearby city of Pecos and the state public safety department, but since the department covers such a wide and heavily trafficked area, it can often take an hour for them to get to an accident site, Sheriff Busse said.

There have been seven fatalities from crashes this year alone, according to Busse. He cited inattention, fatigue, speeding, and illicit drugs as the main causes of accidents, which he says occur daily.

Towns and cities across the basin are also facing challenges. So, while most leadership has been welcoming to the workers and the revenue they bring, there’s a sense that Southern hospitality is nearing its limit.

In Jal, a small town in Lea County, the oil workers have nearly doubled the population, bursting from the town’s limited housing stock into parked trailers, RVs and hotels.

“We’re a little community of 2,000 people,” said Mayor Stephen Aldridge. “It’s going to change the face of the community. And in small communities, change can be difficult.”

Eddy County Fire Services Director Joshua Mack said he’s seen two explosions at tank batteries, with four fatalities, since he took the job in March 2017. Dozens of tanks will often be grouped together on the side of the road, Mack said.

“When lightning strikes, it’ll be a fire,” Mack said, adding that he’s seen up to 15 tank battery fires in a single night. The county is 4,900 square miles, with four paid staff for fire and

In Eddy County’s largest city, Carlsbad, where population spiked from 55,000 in 2010 to almost 80,000 now, every campground within 30 miles is full of oil workers living in trailers, RVs and even tents. Hotel rates average around $400 a night.

Calling Carlsbad the “epicenter” of the boom, Mayor Dale Janaway said by email that “with this much rapid growth have come many challenges, especially with traffic, housing, and infrastructure.”

Valen Martinez, a real estate agent in Carlsbad, said her agency rarely has many listings because houses sell so quickly. “Anything that’s on the market is usually gone within a day or two,” Martinez said. Marketing and open houses have become a thing of the past.

Housing costs have been driven up by saturation and the high oil field wages — and so has the cost of living, including food and services by local businesses, residents said. A truck driver working in the oil fields can make around $100,000 per year, whereas the median household income for Carlsbad is about $58,000.

“I worked in the area for 10 years and could no longer sustain my family because I didn’t make oil field wages,” said Diana Thomas, who lived in Carlsbad until 2017. Thomas, who worked as a quality assurance coordinator for Landsun Homes, a retirement community, before moving to Moore, Idaho, said her family also stopped visiting because hotels in the area were unaffordable.

The lack of housing has also caused a teacher shortage in Carlsbad, according to the Associated Press — there’s simply nowhere to live, and the prices are prohibitive for most, residents told VICE News. A two-bedroom apartment can average $1,500 a month — comparable to rent in major cities but out-of-reach for many in a city where the average household makes about $58,000 per year.

A truck on U.S. Route 285. (Photo by Renee Lewis)
Another thing that has dampened Carlsbad’s appeal is the hydrogen sulfide in the air — a colorless, flammable and highly toxic gas that is released as part of oil and gas production and refining.

At best, it smells of rotten eggs, and it’s particularly potent in the early mornings. At worst — at high levels — it causes unconsciousness and death by respiratory paralysis.

The effects of the gas at low levels hasn’t been well studied — although a 2004 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study on the impacts of the oil and gas industry in Southeastern New Mexico found that it’s been reported to cause flu-like symptoms and eye and respiratory irritation at low levels. The U.S. Department of Labor also warns that prolonged exposure to low levels of the hydrogen sulfide can cause nausea, tearing of the eyes, headaches, and airway problems.

“I’ve never used an inhaler before in my life. I’m 38, and suddenly the last few years I’ve had to use one,” said Carlsbad resident Miro Doporto, who blames the oil and gas industry for his sudden breathing problems.

Meanwhile, state tax revenue is soaring, and about 70 percent of that is thanks to the oil boom centered in Eddy — where Carlsbad is located — and Lea counties. But town leadership said they don’t feel the state is allocating enough resources for infrastructure issues resulting from the population boom.

Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said his department is forced to pick and choose their battles due to understaffing and the unsafe roads that need repair. He’s created a new traffic department in response to the increase in accidents. Cage said he has “the best of the best” working for him and that has allowed them to make do with limited resources — for now.

But the state should allocate more resources to Eddy and Lea County — the state’s “golden goose” — so they can continue bringing in the oil revenue, Cage said.

“Why not invest to ensure that the revenue continues unimpeded?” he added.

New Mexico State Senator Cathrynn Brown, a Carlsbad native, said she “cannot overemphasize how much of a public safety issue” roads in the oil-producing areas have become.

Brown said that while at the outset of the 2019 legislative session the state is predicted to have a $2 billion revenue surplus, mostly thanks to Eddy and Lea counties, there is no easy mechanism to direct extra funds to southeast New Mexico.

“The astronomically large surplus comes at the expense of Southeast regional infrastructure, particularly roads and highways,” Brown added. She said she plans to sponsor legislation to invest a large part of the surplus back into the Permian Basin’s towns and cities.

New Mexico State Senator Carroll Leavell, who is from Jal, said he’ll also be working to make sure the state budget allocates more resources to southeast New Mexico.

In response to the increased accidents, the state has made a 22-mile stretch of Highway 285 a safety corridor, doubling traffic violation fines and setting aside $25 million for repairs.

In this Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, photo, an oil rig and pump jack are at work as seen from the roadside of FM 1788 in Midland, Texas. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)
And the New Mexico Department of Transportation already has long-term plans in place for fixing the state’s roads more generally. But the way their resources are allocated depends on lawmakers, said Kimberly Gallegos, the department spokesperson.

Brown said one of her top priorities is legislation to achieve a “special needs” funding for roads, highways and bridges.

During rush hour, the stretch on 285 from Carlsbad to Pecos is backed up for miles with semis and trucks. Impatient drivers sometimes try to pass long lines of vehicles in the oncoming traffic lane.

Halfway to Texas there’s a cluster of gas stations that serve oil field workers hot food, good coffee, and snacks. Welder Michael Cortez was grabbing lunch there.

He said drivers passing in no-passing zones and ending up stuck in the lane for oncoming traffic, unable to merge, is so common on 285 that he’s already planned to drive off onto the road’s shoulder if he ends up in this type of chicken situation.

Nine people were killed on Highway 285 in Eddy County last year, according to the sheriff’s department. Forty-six people were killed in accidents this year in the Permian Basin area of Texas on Highway 285 and other roads trafficked by workers.

The Texas Department of Transportation has $100 million in projects currently under contract on Highway 285 from the New Mexico state line to Pecos, Texas, said Veronica Beyer, director of media relations. Over the next 10 years, the state will invest $3.4 billion for the entire Permian Basin region to pay for safety improvements, such as wide roads and stronger pavement.

But in the meantime, in the town of Pecos, some elderly residents have given up driving altogether because the roads are so dangerous, Mayor Venetta Seals said.

Pecos — the county seat of Reeves County, with a 2017 population of about 9,000 — used to feel like a neighborly and intimate town, but Seals said she doesn’t even know exactly how many people are living there these days.

And while she appreciates the opportunities brought by the oil boom, the extra burden of thousands of transient workers living in the city is taking a toll.

“We kind of feel like the redheaded stepchild,” Seals said.

(Source: Vice News)

Rocky question: Would you buy a synthetic diamond?

Picture this, you're about to splash out on a diamond that has costs thousands. It's expensive because it comes from a mine where it has lain undiscovered for centuries.

An alternative is to choose a slightly cheaper and virtually identical one created inside a laboratory in just a few short weeks.

So which one would you go for? It's a question that's beginning to dominate the jewellery industry - and its consumers.

Long-time traditional diamond miners and jewellers are now pitted against companies that recreate diamonds that are chemically indistinct from their mined counterparts.

Can you tell if they are synthetic or not?
The firms producing these man-made rocks say they're offering a conflict-free alternative - or a diamond free of any association with 'blood diamonds' - a term used to describe gems mined mainly in Africa which are sold to finance insurgencies and conflicts.

Creating a diamond
One new firm creating man-made diamonds is Singapore's IIa Technologies. Its factory opened this year and includes a 200,000 sq ft facility. Within the industry, its laboratory is referred to as a "greenhouse" and IIa's is the world's largest.

The technology it is using has existed for decades to produce man-made diamonds for commercial cutters and drills. However, more recently the retail jewellery industry has warmed to the technology.

IIa Technologies is named after Type IIa diamonds, of which only 2% exist in nature
After eight years and more than $40m (£25.8m) in research to perfect the carbon vapour deposit technology it predominantly uses, IIa says it has found the way to recreate these rare rocks for the jewellery industry.

And the firm's chief executive Vishal Mehta is on a mission. He wants to see lab-grown diamonds become as coveted as the rocks that have spent millions of years in the ground. Some 70% of the firm's lab-grown diamonds are aimed at the jewellery industry.

"High-quality diamond growing is a very complicated and difficult art," says Mr Mehta.

There are two methods of creating diamonds.

A diamond wafer at IIa Technologies
There is the high pressure, high temperature technology that has been used for decades to create coloured as well as industrial diamonds; then there is the carbon vapour deposit method favoured by IIa.

IIa makes 90% of its diamonds using this technique. Currently this produces one- to three-carat diamonds that are sold for about 30% less than naturally-mined ones.

"These diamonds are unique," says Mr Mehta. "What's important is that you don't need to dig up the earth, you don't need to displace anyone, you don't need to do anything that could harm what we need to preserve for our future generations."

Mined or synthetic?
With such technology, experts say only a trained gemmologist using specialist equipment can now tell the stones apart.

So miners and jewellers are investing in and creating machines able to make the distinction.

Diamond sales are at record highs 
De Beers, the firm behind famous marketing slogan "a diamond is forever", is one such.

It is making sure the technology and the equipment is available to allow industry and consumers to identify a synthetic diamond from a real one.

"That's important because consumers need to be confident, when they are spending what is a large amount of money on a precious diamond, that it is indeed the precious natural diamond that they think it is," says De Beer's executive vice-president for marketing, Stephen Lussier.

And with diamond sales at record highs, surpassing the $80bn mark for the first time in 2014, traditional diamond firms are keen to hang onto those highs - and avoid cases of industry fraud.

'Never say never'
"Values have always gone up over time," says Charlie Rosario, senior vice president at New York-based diamond manufacturers and distributers Lazare Kaplan International.

"You have a luxury high quality sector of this industry, [but] I don't believe that sector of the industry is threatened by synthetic diamonds."

Polishing lab-grown diamonds
He does acknowledge however that at the lower end of the price spectrum "mass volume pieces of jewellery that have many inferior qualities and smaller diamonds" may be facing a challenge.

"There is going to be a place for synthetic diamonds but not at the top end," he says. "You're not going to see at auction houses that people are going to go crazy over a synthetic diamond."

Lazare Kaplan itself patented a cutting formula in 1919, which Mr Rosario says brings out the brilliance of diamonds and is the reason why its stones sell for above average prices.

So would he rule out ever using Lazare's patented cutting technique on man-made diamonds?

"You never say never," he says, "because you can always learn something, and if the environment and the situations change, you have to be open to opportunity.

"You can't beat science, science is going to continue to evolve."

Diamonds forever?
But beauty ultimately is in the eyes of the beholder, and in the interests of research I took up Mr Mehta's offer to borrow his lab-grown diamond rings to show jewellery buyers at one of Southeast Asia's largest jewellery shows.

Singapore's annual JewelFest brings together well-known jewellers from the region to show off and sell their wares. Among the highlights this year were two diamond and jewel encrusted Victoria's Secret bras worth $2m each from the Dubai and Geneva-based luxury jeweller Mouawad.

Two $2m diamond and jewel encrusted bras were highlights at this year's JewelFest in Singapore
I showed the lab-grown diamond jewellery I'd been loaned to some members of the public at the show. Some were sceptical, while others were unaware that lab-made diamonds could be so similar to mined ones.

Some said: "If it's cheaper, yes, I'd buy them, why not?" While others said: "Only real diamonds are a girl's best friends."

Mr Mehta acknowledges that it may take a while to educate consumers, especially Asian ones, about the virtues of conflict free and sustainable diamonds, but in North America and other Western markets, they have already had some luck in with younger, more socially conscious buyers.

It is a message he and other diamond manufacturers are hoping consumers will warm to, if they are going to be able to ensure a sustainable supply of diamonds in the future.

"Diamond mines have already started depleting, so the source of diamonds for the future has already started shrinking," he says.

"Grown diamonds will offer a new growing source as opposed to depleting source of raw material for the entire industry, it will offer the ability for every retailer out there to sell a diamond ring."

So creating them instead could well be the answer to ensuring a "diamond is forever".

(Source: BBC)

Thursday, 15 November 2018

How baby boomers broke America


ONE
Lately, most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?

As I tried to find the answer over the past two years, I discovered a recurring irony. About five decades ago, the core values that make America great began to bring America down. The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scales of democracy. America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to block government from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected. Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercutting democracy. Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.

These distinctly American ideas became the often unintended instruments for splitting the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected. The protected overmatched, overran and paralyzed the government. The unprotected were left even further behind. And in many cases, the work was done by a generation of smart, hungry strivers who benefited from one of the most American values of all: meritocracy.

This is not to say that all is rotten in the United States. There are more opportunities available today for women, nonwhites and other minorities than ever. There are miracles happening daily in the nation’s laboratories, on the campuses of its world-class colleges and universities, in the offices of companies creating software for robots and medical diagnostics, in concert halls and on Broadway stages, and at joyous ceremonies swearing in proud new citizens.

Yet key measures of the nation’s public engagement, satisfaction and confidence – voter turnout, knowledge of public-policy issues, faith that the next generation will fare better than the current one, and respect for basic institutions, especially the government – are far below what they were 50 years ago, and in many cases have reached near historic lows.

It is difficult to argue that the cynicism is misplaced. From matters small – there are an average of 657 water-main breaks a day, for example – to large, it is clear that the country has gone into a tailspin over the last half-century, when John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier was about seizing the future, not trying to survive the present.

For too many, the present is hard enough. Income inequality has soared: inflation-adjusted middle-class wages have been nearly frozen for the last four decades, while earnings of the top 1% have nearly tripled. The recovery from the crash of 2008 – which saw banks and bankers bailed out while millions lost their homes, savings and jobs – was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest. Their incomes in the three years following the crash went up by nearly a third, while the bottom 99% saw an uptick of less than half of 1%. Only a democracy and an economy that has discarded its basic mission of holding the community together, or failed at it, would produce those results.

Meanwhile, the celebrated American economic-mobility engine is sputtering. For adults in their 30s, the chance of earning more than their parents dropped to 50% from 90% just two generations earlier. The American middle class, once an aspirational model for the world, is no longer the world’s richest.

Most Americans with average incomes have been left to fend for themselves, often at jobs where automation, outsourcing, the decline of union protection and the boss’s obsession with squeezing out every penny of short-term profit have eroded any sense of security. In 2017, household debt had grown higher than the peak reached in 2008 before the crash, with student and automobile loans staking growing claims on family paychecks.

Although the U.S. remains the world’s richest country, it has the third-highest poverty rate among the 35 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), behind only Turkey and Israel. Nearly 1 in 5 American children lives in a household that the government classifies as “food insecure,” meaning they are without “access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

Beyond that, too few basic services seem to work as they should. America’s airports are an embarrassment, and a modern air-traffic control system is more than 25 years behind its original schedule. The power grid, roads and rails are crumbling, pushing the U.S. far down international rankings for infrastructure quality. Despite spending more on health care and K-12 education per capita than most other developed countries, health care outcomes and student achievement also rank in the middle or worse globally. Among the 35 OECD countries, American children rank 30th in math proficiency and 19th in science.

American politicians talk about “American exceptionalism” so habitually that it should have its own key on their speechwriters’ laptops. Is this the exceptionalism they have in mind?

Perhaps they should look at their own performance, which is best described as pathetic. Congress has not passed a comprehensive budget on time without omnibus bills since 1994. There are more than 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress. Most are deployed to block anything that would tax, regulate or otherwise threaten a deep-pocketed client.

Indeed, money has come to dominate everything so completely that the people we send to D.C. to represent us have been reduced to begging on the phone for campaign cash up to five hours a day and spending their evenings taking checks at fundraisers organized by those swarming lobbyists. A gerrymandering process has rigged easy wins for most of them, as long as they fend off primary challengers–which ensures that they will gravitate toward the special-interest positions of their donors and their party’s base, while racking up mounting deficits to pay for goods and services that cost more than budgeted, rarely work as promised and are seldom delivered on time.


TWO
The story of how all this came to be is like a movie in which everything seems clear only if it is played back from the start in slow motion. Beginning about 50 years ago, each scene unfolded slowly, usually without any sign of its ultimate impact. The story of America’s tailspin is not about villains, though there are some. It is not about a conspiracy to bring the country down, nor did it spring from one single source.

But there is a theme that threads through and ties together all the strands: many of the most talented, driven Americans used what makes America great–the First Amendment, due process, financial and legal ingenuity, free markets and free trade, meritocracy, even democracy itself–to chase the American Dream. And they won it, for themselves. Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.

By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community. Most of the time, our elected and appointed representatives were no match for these overachievers. As a result of their savvy, their drive and their resources (and a certain degree of privilege, as these strivers may have come from humble circumstances but are mostly white men), America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated and perpetually sought after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the community-binding equality promised by democracy. In a battle that began a half-century ago, the achievers won.

The result is a new, divided America. On one side are the protected few – the winners – who don’t need government for much and even have a stake in sabotaging the government’s responsibility to all of its citizens. For them, the new, broken America works fine, at least in the short term. An understaffed IRS is a plus for people most likely to be the target of audits. Underfunded customer service at the Social Security Administration is irrelevant to those not living week to week, waiting for their checks. Except for the most civic-minded among them, corporate executives are not likely to worry that their government doesn’t produce a comprehensive budget. They don’t worry about the straitjacket their government faces in recruiting and rewarding talent or in training or dismissing the untalented because of a broken civil-service system. Civil service is another great American reform that in the last 50 years has become a great American moat, protecting incompetent or corrupt workers, like those who supervised the Veterans Affairs hospitals where patient waiting lists were found to have been falsified.

On the other side are the unprotected many. They may be independent and hardworking, but they look to their government to preserve their way of life and maybe even improve it. The unprotected need the government to provide good public schools so that their children have a chance to advance. They need a level competitive playing field for their small businesses, a fair shake in consumer disputes and a realistic shot at justice in the courts. They need the government to provide a safety net to ensure that their families have access to good health care, that no one goes hungry when shifts in the economy or temporary setbacks take away their jobs and that they get help to rebuild after a hurricane or other disaster. They need the government to ensure a safe workplace and a living minimum wage. They need mass-transit systems that work and call centers at Social Security offices that don’t produce busy signals. They need the government to keep the political system fair and protect it from domination by those who can give politicians the most money. They need the government to provide fair labor laws and to promote an economy and a tax code that tempers the extremes of income inequality and makes economic opportunity more than an empty cliché.

The protected need few of these common goods. They don’t have to worry about underperforming public schools, dilapidated mass-transit systems or jammed Social Security hotlines. They have accountants and lawyers who can negotiate their employment contracts or deal with consumer disputes, assuming they want to bother. They see labor or consumer-protection laws, and fair tax codes, as threats to their winnings–which they have spent the last 50 years consolidating by eroding these common goods and the government that would provide them.

That, rather than a split between Democrats and Republicans, is the real polarization that has broken America since the 1960s. It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings.


THREE
I was one of those elite winners. In 1964, I was a bookworm growing up in Far Rockaway, a working-class section of Queens. One day, I read in a biography of John F. Kennedy that he had gone to something called a prep school. None of my teachers at Junior High School 198 had a clue what that meant, but I soon figured out that prep school was like college. You got to go to classes and live on a campus, only you got to go four years earlier, which seemed like a fine idea. It seemed even better when I discovered that some prep schools offered financial aid. I ended up at Deerfield Academy, in Western Massachusetts, where the headmaster, Frank Boyden, told my worried parents, who ran a perpetually struggling liquor store, that his financial-aid policy was that they should send him a check every year for whatever they could afford.

Three years later, in 1967, I found myself sitting in the headmaster’s office one day in the fall of my senior year with a man named R. Inslee Clark Jr., the dean of admissions at Yale. Clark looked over my record and asked me a bunch of questions, most of which were about where I had grown up and how I had ended up at Deerfield. Then he paused, looked me in the eye and asked if I really wanted to go to Yale – if it was my first choice. When I said yes, Clark’s reply was instant: “Then I can promise you that you are in. I will tell Mr. Boyden that you don’t have to apply anywhere else. Just kind of keep it to yourself.”

What I didn’t know then was that I was part of a revolution being led by Clark, whose nickname was Inky. I was about to become one of what would come to be known as Inky’s boys and, later, girls. We were part of a meritocracy infusion that flourished at Yale and other elite education institutions, law firms and investment banks in the mid-1960s and ’70s. It produced great progress in equalizing opportunity. But it had the unintended consequence of entrenching a new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers who were much smarter and more driven than the old-boy network of heirs born on third base–and much more able to enrich and protect the clients who could afford them.

After college, I went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1975, at a time when demand for lawyers in the flourishing knowledge-worker economy was exploding. By the mid-1980s, in terms of dollars generated, the legal industry was bigger than steel or textiles, and about the same size as the auto industry. The new lawyers were increasingly concentrated in fast-growing firms that served large corporations and were prepared to pay skyrocketing salaries to attract the best talent. Soon, the gap between pay in the private and public sectors was too large to attract enough talented young lawyers to government or public-interest law–a change described by Stanford law professor Robert Gordon in 1988 as “one of the most antisocial acts of the bar in recent history.”

I played a role in this “antisocial” movement. In 1979, I started a magazine called the American Lawyer, which focused on the business of law firms and the intriguing questions lurking behind their elegant reception areas. Which ones were best managed? Which offered the most opportunity to women or minorities? Which were more likely to promote associates to partnership? Which had the fairest or most generous bonus systems? And, yes, which provided the highest profits for partners?

That last question resulted in the American Lawyer launching a special issue every summer, beginning in 1985, in which we deployed reporters to pierce the secrecy of these private partnerships so that the magazine could rank the revenues and average profits taken home by partners at the largest firms. When the first survey was published, I received a call from a former classmate who practiced at a large Los Angeles firm. He was outraged because he–and his wife–had found out that another classmate who worked at a seemingly fungible L.A. firm made about 25% more than he did. Until then, they had been perfectly happy with his six-figure income.

The fallout from this report and those from similar trade publications was significant and double-edged. The new flow-of-market information about these businesses made those who ran them more accountable to their partners, their employees and their clients, but it also transformed the practice of law by the country’s most talented lawyers in ways that had significant drawbacks. The emphasis was now fully on serving those clients who could pay the most.


FOUR
The Meritocracy’s ascent was about more than personal profit. As my generation of achievers graduated from elite universities and moved into the professional world, their personal successes often had serious societal consequences. They upended corporate America and Wall Street with inventions in law and finance that created an economy built on deals that moved assets around instead of building new ones. They created exotic, and risky, financial instruments, including derivatives and credit default swaps, that produced sugar highs of immediate profits but separated those taking the risk from those who would bear the consequences. They organized hedge funds that turned owning stock into a minute-by-minute bet rather than a long-term investment. They invented proxy fights, leveraged buyouts and stock buybacks that gave lawyers and bankers a bonanza of new fees and maximized short-term profits for increasingly unsentimental shareholders, but deadened incentives for the long-term growth of the rest of the economy.

Regulatory agencies were overwhelmed by battalions of lawyers who brilliantly weaponized the bedrock American value of due process so that, for example, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule protecting workers from a deadly chemical could be challenged and delayed for more than a decade and end up being hundreds of pages long. Lawyers then contested the meaning of every clause while racking up fees of hundreds of dollars per hour from clients who were saving millions of dollars on every clause they could water down.

They deployed litigators to fend off private-sector unions in the South and to defend their firings of union supporters and other blatant violations of law, for which they happily paid fines equivalent to 1% to 2% of what they saved by underpaying their workers.

Deploying the First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” thousands of achievers began in the 1970s to turn Washington into a colony of lobbyists. Through the power of the campaign cash increasingly wielded by their clients, much of which they helped raise and distribute, the hordes of lobbyists were able to get riders or exemptions worth billions inserted into legislation governing trade, the tax code, job safety or industry subsidies. Although labor laws were routinely being violated by employers in highly publicized fights, and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they were able to block legislation introduced by President Jimmy Carter that would have toughened penalties for violations and helped level what had become a lopsided playing field when it came to organizing unions in the private sector. As private-sector unions continued to dwindle, the achievers made sure that no similar legislation even came up for a vote in the four decades that followed.

A landmark 1976 Supreme Court case brought by lawyers for consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader gave corporations that owned drugstores a First Amendment right to inform consumers by advertising their prices. In the years that followed, lawyers for the protected morphed that consumer-rights victory into a corporate free-speech movement. The result has been court decisions allowing unlimited corporate money to overwhelm democratic elections and other rulings allowing corporations to challenge regulations related to basic consumer-protection issues, like product labeling.

As government was disabled from delivering on vital issues, the protected were able to protect themselves still more. For them, it was all about building their own moats. Their money, their power, their lobbyists, their lawyers, their drive overwhelmed the institutions that were supposed to hold them accountable–government agencies, Congress, the courts.

There may be no more flagrant example of the achievers’ triumph than how they were able to avoid accountability when the banks they ran crashed the economy. The CEOs had been able to get the courts to treat their corporations like people when it came to protecting the corporation’s right to free speech. Yet after the crash, CEOs got prosecutors and judges to treat them like corporations when it came to personal responsibility. The corporate structures they had built were so massive and so complex that, the prosecutors decided, no senior executive could be proved to have known what was going on.

Meanwhile, the lobbyists for the big banks swarmed the often invisible process under which the thousands of pages of regulations were drafted to implement the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act, which was passed in 2010 to address the risks and regulatory gaps that precipitated the crash. As a result, about 30% of the 390 required regulations had not been promulgated as of mid-2016, according to the law firm Davis Polk. Under the Trump Administration and continued Republican control of Congress, efforts intensified to roll back the rules that were already in effect even as the big banks–which had argued that Dodd-Frank would kill their businesses–were enjoying record profits and market share.

It may be understandable for those on the losing side of this triumph of the achievers to condemn the winners as gluttons. That explanation, however, is too simple. Many of the protected class are people who have lived the kind of lives that all Americans celebrate. They worked hard. They innovated. They tried things that others wouldn’t attempt. They believed, often correctly, that they were writing new chapters in the long story of American progress.

When they created ways to package mortgages into securities that could be resold to investors, for example, it was initially celebrated as a way to get more money into the mortgage pool, thereby making more mortgages available to the middle class. But by 2007 it had become far too much of a good thing. As the financial engineers continued to push the envelope with ever-riskier versions of the original invention, they crashed the economy.

Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push aside any effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shielded them from pushback, at least initially. They won not with the brazen corruption of the robber barons of old, but by drawing on the core values that have always defined American greatness.

They didn’t do it cynically, at least not at first. They simply got really, really good at taking advantage of what the American system gave them and doing the kinds of things that America treasures in the name of the values that America treasures.

And they have invested their winnings not only to preserve their bounty, but also to root themselves and their offspring in a new meritocracy-aristocracy that is more entrenched than the old-boy network. Forty-eight years after Inky Clark gave me my ticket on the meritocracy express in 1967, a professor at Yale Law School jarred the school’s graduation celebration. Daniel Markovits, who specializes in the intersection of law and behavioral economics, told the class of 2015 that their success getting accepted into, and getting a degree from, the country’s most selective law school actually marked their entry into a newly entrenched aristocracy that had been snuffing out the American Dream for almost everyone else. Elites, he explained, can spend what they need to in order to send their children to the best schools, provide tutors for standardized testing and otherwise ensure that their kids can outcompete their peers to secure the same spots at the top that their parents achieved.

“American meritocracy has thus become precisely what it was invented to combat,” Markovits concluded, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.”

The frustrated, disillusioned Americans who voted for President Trump committed the ultimate act of rejecting the meritocrats – epitomized by the hardworking, always prepared, Yale Law – educated Hillary Clinton – in favor of an inexperienced, never-prepared, shoot-from-the-hip heir to a real estate fortune whose businesses had declared bankruptcy six times. He would “drain the swamp” in Washington, he promised. He would take the coal industry back to the greatness it had enjoyed 80 years before. He would rebuild the cities, block immigrants with a great wall, provide health care for all and make the country’s infrastructure the envy of the world, while cutting everyone’s taxes. Forty-six percent of those who voted figured that things were so bad, they might as well let him try.

FIVE
It seems like a grim story. Except that the story isn’t over. During the past two years, as I have discovered the people and forces behind the 50-year U.S. tailspin, I have also discovered that in every arena the meritocrats commandeered there are now equally talented, equally driven achievers who have grown so disgusted by what they see that they are pushing back.

From Baruch College in Manhattan to the University of California, Irvine, more colleges are working to break down the barriers of the newly entrenched meritocracy. Elite Eastern institutions such as Amherst, Vassar and Princeton are using aggressive outreach campaigns to attract applicants who might otherwise be unaware of the schools’ generous financial-aid packages.

Entrepreneurs like Jukay Hsu, a Harvard-educated Iraq War veteran who runs a nonprofit called C4Q out of a converted zipper factory in Queens, are making eye-opening progress with training programs aimed at lifting those displaced by automation or trade back into middle-class software-engineering jobs. “Some of the smartest, hardest-working people I’ve ever met were soldiers who didn’t graduate from college,” says Hsu. (Disclosure: I am an uncompensated board member of C4Q.)

Even Washington is poised to benefit from the new wave of achievers. Issue One, a nonprofit ensconced in an office on lobbyists’ row on K Street, is fighting for campaign-finance reforms and pushing legislation that would limit the influence of lobbyists by reining in their checkbooks. The group is supported by a growing band of disillusioned politicians from both parties. Better Markets, a well-funded lobbying organization that squares off against the usual lobbyists and is filled with people whose meritocracy credentials match those of their adversaries, is going after continuing abuses and lack of accountability on Wall Street. Two other organizations, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Partnership for Public Service, are preparing blueprints for civil-service reform, tax reform, better budgeting and contracting, and infrastructure investment–all of which can attract bipartisan support if and when our elected officials finally get pushed to act.

Although their work is often frustrating, the worsening status quo seems to energize those who are pushing back. “My kid complained the other day that he still couldn’t play the violin, even though he’d been practicing for two days,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “Well, yeah, that’s true, but you have to keep at it. Persistence is an underrated virtue.”

Stier and the others believe that the country will overrun the lobbyists and cross over the moats when enough Americans see that we need leaders who are prepared and intelligent, who can channel our frustration rather than exploit it, and who can unite the middle class and the poor rather than divide them. They are certain that when the country’s breakdown touches enough people directly and causes enough damage, the officeholders who depend on those people for their jobs will be forced to act.

The new achievers are doing what they do not because they are gluttons for frustration, but because they believe that America can be put back on the right course. They are laying the groundwork for the feeling of disgust to be channeled into a restoration.

(Source: Time)