Run for the hills

Austin, TX

Aversion to taxes has always been an evident American cultural trait, but now even the nation’s liberal, t-shirt clad tech entrepreneurs are fighting back.

Though Silicon Valley retains its mantle as the technology industry’s global headquarters, thousands of startups – and even a few household name tech giants – have fled the ‘Peoples’ Republic of California’ in search of more favourable business environments.

Many of these commercial migrants are bee-lining straight here to the ‘Lone Star State’, making their new nests in its hip and booming capital.

Austin’s climate is comparable to the balmy warmth of the Bay Area and is home to three universities and a rich pool of millennial talent drawn to the city’s world-famous live music and nightlife scene.

Perhaps more importantly, most businesses are subject to a franchise tax rate of just 1.0 per cent of margin and their employees pay an income tax rate of literally zero (the state’s 1876 constitution prohibited government from imposing tax on the personal income of its citizens).

Like most capital cities – think Canberra or DC – where large sections of the population are tertiary-educated and with jobs in public service or academia, Austin also exudes a decidedly left-of-centre and counter-cultural vibe, with no shortage of chai latte vendors, nose piercings and ‘Bernie 2016’ insignia.

So while the business-friendly tax code is state-wide, the capital’s more liberal ambience – particularly when compared to staunchly conservative rural Texas, the flashy, neon wealth of Dallas or tree-lined suburbia of Houston – is attractive to these cycling and recycling entrepreneurs.

Startup incubators and ‘digital disruptors’ have moved into downtown high-rises once occupied by lobbyists and lawyers, replacing fax machines with ping pong tables and sleeping pods.

Meanwhile, atop the leafy lakeside hills northwest of the city, where the McMansions of Austin’s elite have traditionally stood, glass boxes have appeared to house the zealous worker bees of Indeed, Dell and IBM.

It is in these hills that I have made my temporary home, unpacking my suitcase for the first time in many months and becoming reacquainted with the meat-and-two-veg rhythm of domestic routine.

My days are spent as a consultant to startups and growth-phase firms in the financial technology sector, helping them get press coverage, secure funding and disrupt the slow-moving Wall Street bulwark.

My nights are spent hobnobbing with the unshaven, kale-enthusiast startup community, or their bourbon-guzzling venture capitalist backers (when not glued to cable news in my Ikea-laden mountain lair).

Those who have read any of my professional writing will know I have been an advocate for the ‘fintech’ boom for some time, believing whole-heartedly that innovation in the way we invest, trade and save places more power in the hands of consumers and away from financial institutions, forcing them to compete rather than control.

Crowdfunding technology for example is having an enormously positive impact on the emerging middle classes in Africa and Asia, providing them access to stable investments they were previously priced out of. It is also being utilized by thousands of film-makers, artists and musicians, who – if they think a little commercially – can now bypass the studio exec gatekeepers and go straight to market.

The point of this is not to disseminate the doctored spin for which I am now remunerated.

It is instead to paint a picture of a new and interesting business culture that some have compared to the early days of the dotcom bubble, with considerable capacity to change lives.

While fintech is a global phenomenon, with hubs in London, Tel Aviv and even Sydney (evidenced by the launch of the Baird Govt-backed Stone and Chalk project), America, as usual, leads the way.

It is no accident that America became an economic superpower.

Entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in its national fabric, business failure worn as a badge of honour and the concept of employing others held in high esteem. It also, for most of its history but with some notable exceptions, implemented policies conducive to business growth.

Some argue (not without merit) that America’s commitment to capitalism goes too far, allowing large cracks for those who do not make it to fall through.

But the flipside is that there is more incentive here to succeed than anywhere else. There is a direct link between American innovation we have seen – from Henry Ford to Windows to the new wave of fintech startups – and the lack of a cradle-to-the-grave welfare system.

Low tax environments are not about greed and selfishness. They are about empowering people to keep more of the output of their own labour and removing obstacles to investing in their own ideas and taking a punt.

That’s why these particular hills are alive with the sound of innovation.

Published on 19 February 2016

Bernie’s (brief) boom

Austin, TX

The United States is unique in the Western world in that it has only ever mildly flirted with socialism.

Aside from Eugene Debs’ five ill-fated tilts at the White House in the late 1800s, textbook socialism has rarely raised its head above the parapet of mainstream American politics.

Though some hard-line conservatives would use the term to describe Barack Obama – or even the Wall Street-friendly Clintons – true devotees of Marx and Engels around the globe would no doubt vehemently (and accurately) disagree. Instead, the country’s Left has more often been preoccupied with progressive cultural causes than with any real plans to overthrow the capitalist system.

And yet, a self-described (democratic) socialist has now not only broken into the spotlight, but – if you were to listen to the fever pitch squeals of cable news and social media over the past week – is actually a serious contender to take on the best-funded and most well-oiled political machine in history in the form of Hillary and her somehow-still-popular and philandering ‘husband’.

Bernie Sanders not only openly describes himself as a socialist but actually looks like one.

In the ‘Obama Age’ of election campaigns, when smooth-as-silk telegenic performance can outweigh policy or professional experience, Bernie is the most unlikely of success stories: a grumpy and crumpled former Kibbutznik at the head of a million-strong army of fed-up millennials.

From obscurity as a fairly inconsequential senator from a fairly inconsequential state, Sanders has swiftly become a cultural icon, parodied (brilliantly) by doppelganger Larry David on SNL and worshipped on college campuses and, increasingly, at the Democratic primary polls.

He tied with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and defeated her in no uncertain terms in New Hampshire.

And it’s not difficult to see the appeal. With student debt at all-time highs and dissatisfaction with federal politicians even higher, Bernie – who enjoys an ‘outsider’ persona despite his decades in Congress – offers a radical message that many hope will result in a turning tide.

When compared with his opponent, the shine from Bernie’s hairless scalp is illuminated even further.

Hillary Clinton is the ultimate politician, railing against Republicans while lunching with billionaire donors; preaching feminism publicly while privately working to silence and shame the many women who have accused her husband of sexual indiscretion and assault.

By contrast, Bernie is undeniably genuine, with a campaign supported by small individual donations and legions of enthusiastic volunteers, super PACs or superstars.

On the economics, of course, Bernie’s vision is fundamentally flawed.

Wherever socialism has been tried – and versions of it have been attempted almost everywhere – it has resulted more often in oppression and depression than any uplifting of the people.

But before this becomes a rant about the virtues of free markets and limited government, let’s turn back to the realities of the 2016 race.

Regardless of whether you think a Bernie presidency would bankrupt the nation and perpetuate poverty, or whether you think he is the second (or first) coming of the Messiah, either way it is almost certainly destined to be consigned to peoples’ dreams (or nightmares).

True, Bernie did well in New Hampshire, but as a representative of neighbouring Vermont this is perhaps unsurprising. He also exceeded expectations in Iowa, but both of these states are largely white and rural and are a poor reflection of the broader demographics of the Democratic-voting public on which the nomination hinges.

More importantly, the rules of the Democratic Party stack the chips heavily in favour of its Royal Family.

Alarmingly, despite a draw in the first caucus and a resounding victory in the first primary, Bernie’s crucial delegate count for the nomination is just 40. Hillary’s is almost 400.

This tenfold discrepancy – despite the clear preference of the voters thus far – is due to the influence of so-called ‘Super Delegates’, supposedly un-tethered individuals whose votes count for more than others within the so-called ‘Democratic’ party.

Despite the inherent injustice, Bernie Sanders has already had remarkable success. He has engaged young people in the political process and fought back against his party’s corrupt Establishment.

He is an honest, decent and likeable fellow. But he will not be President of the United States.

Then again, that’s what they said about Barack Hussein Obama.

Those ‘feeling the Bern’ should be preparing the egg for my face just in case.

bernie_hair_graphics___bernie_2016_by_keepwaiting-d964y5r

Published on 12 February 2016.

Wings and a prayer

Houston, TX

The Super Bowl is more than just a grand final. It is a cultural phenomenon of truly epic proportions, with an almost religious fervour that builds like a crescendo over the empty-feeling weeks since the last whistle was blown in the regular NFL season.

Some Americans will not be impressed by my potentially-blasphemous adoption of a Biblical analogy. But in the interests of adhering to the First Amendment (surely that applies to temporary worker visa holders?) I will proceed nonetheless.

The Super Bowl – the 50th of which will be held tonight at the 49ers’ newly constructed coliseum in Santa Clara, CA – reflects a Holy Trinity of American pop culture, celebrated more so on this ‘Game Day’ than any other.

The first corner of the triad is sport itself. Spectators to tonight’s showdown between the always-a-bridesmaid Denver Broncos and the 2016-dominant Carolina Panthers, will no doubt bear witness to truly world-class athleticism, perseverance and precision – as is promised by any elite-level game of gridiron.

But of course, what happens on-field is only a small slice of sport in America. Melbourne likes to fashion an image for itself as ‘sporting capital of the world’, but pretty much any American city would have a reasonable claim to the mantle. The typically enthusiastic, merchandise-clad crowd seen at any regular season game is likely to be amplified even further tonight.

The American sports media being as obsessed with ‘narrative’ as its political press is, this year the story is all about the dogged stoicism of Peyton Manning pitted against the youthful showmanship of Cam Newton in a crafted Clash of Titans that adds incentive (in case any was needed) to be perched on edge of seat.

The second corner is advertising. Critics of American football often point to the stop-and-start meter of the game and excessive commercial breaks. On Super Bowl at least, these opportunities for cinematic salesmanship are almost as important as the game itself.

This week, the highest rating (non-sports) show on television was NBC’s 50 Greatest Super Bowl Commercials of All Time, a broadcasting masterpiece that is almost unthinkable in any other country. Granted, with budgets that exceed the entire Australian film industry’s gross revenue and cameos from A-list stars, it is not as entirely ridiculous as it may appear to foreigners who believe instinctively that ads are a necessary evil and a chance to utilise the mute button.

But the role of commercials in this great sporting pageant taps into something deeper: the lack of awkwardness about money and the great respect many Americans have for quality salesmanship and service. Tonight I will not be pressing mute and will have my credit card at the ready, should instant inspiration for a Pepsi or McDonald’s burger be forthcoming.

Hunger is unlikely to be a strong inclination as the game gets underway, however, as the third corner of the Holy Trinity is of course, food.

While American culture holds a healthy appetite in high esteem at all times of the year, Super Bowl is seemingly an occasion for special over-indulgence.

The US is one of those unique countries, like Italy and France, where consumption of stomach-enlarging foodstuffs is more than just a personal preference. It is a deliberate culinary philosophy and way of life.

Sure, the now-unstoppable rise of dogmatic nutritionists has taken root here as it has back home, sweeping across the country from the Pacific West like a leisure wear-clad, kale-munching plague.

But Super Bowl is an opportunity for these health zealots to be silenced, and for the over-eating majority to over-indulge in peace, knowing they are engaging in an important cultural experience.

For weeks ahead of tonight’s main event, shops, social media posts and (of course) TV ads have engaged in a Super Bowl-themed bid to outdo each other on creative calorific concoctions, with recipes including ‘honey siracha bacon-wrapped onion rings’, ‘cookie dough pizza bites’ and an endless array of suggestions for the football-synonymous chicken wing.

Throwing caution to the wind when it comes to ingestion speaks to a classically American libertarian streak, the idea that every person controls their own destiny and the mumbo-jumbo of nutritional science is merely an opinion (and an annoying one at that).

And so – not that I needed any encouragement – tonight I will indulge, my cheeks sweet and spicy with buffalo sauce, my fingers salty with potato chip residue and cold with the clench of canned beer, content with the knowledge that it is Sunday night on Super Bowl and not a Monday morning.

All in the name of religious observance, naturally.

super bowl

Published on ‘Game Day’, 7 February 2016

Knickerbocker nominees

New York City

The Mets might have lost the World Series, but New York City is looking well-placed to reclaim the White House.

For all the talk about this election being about ‘we the people’ rising up against the east coast Establishment, the irony is that for the first time in recent memory, at this crucial stage of the race – just 24 hours out from from the Iowa caucuses – both the Democratic and Republican frontrunners are New Yorkers.

Though she was born and raised in Chicago, and spent much of her adult life in her husband’s native Arkansas, Hillary Clinton has been, for all intents and purposes, a resident of the country’s largest city since leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

She was a Senator for the State of New York for two terms, and when not overseas collecting cheques from dictators or being interrogated about her allegedly negligent handling of confidential information as Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary is said to split her time between homes in DC, Manhattan and Chappaqua in upstate NY.

Donald Trump meanwhile has unquestionable New York credentials. Born in Queens to a prominent property developer, he took his father’s inheritance and became active in the city’s resurgence from the crime-ridden depression of the ‘70s and ‘80s to an international financial hub and tourist Disneyland. Today, his towering global headquarters is as synonymous with the NY skyline as the Chrysler or Empire State buildings.

Democratic underdog Bernie Sanders – who, as I write, is neck and neck with Clinton in the Iowa Democratic primary polls – is also a native New Yorker. Though he has represented the State of Vermont in Congress since 1991, he maintains a thick Brooklyn Jewish accent, and at times, a blustering Big Apple temper.

There have even been reports that former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, another Manhattan billionaire, could enter the race as a centrist independent should the two main parties pick candidates too far to the Left and Right.

New Yorkers can often feel a world away from the pork-chop-on-a-stick, barnyard rally circus of the early presidential primaries. As a safely Democratic stronghold, and with its own array of public policy issues to contend with, the city’s interest in politics is often more local than national. But evidently this time around, they have a little more reason to pay attention.

Indeed, New York itself has been a thorny issue in the increasingly heated back-and-forth between Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, as they battle it out for the support (and perhaps soul) of the nation’s right wing.

In an effort to convince Republican primary voters that Trump’s newfound conservatism is only skin deep, Cruz has pointed to a TV interview with Meet the Press in 1999, in which the billionaire celebrity expressed his strong support for a range of issues deemed unforgivable by the GOP base – from government-funded abortion to gay marriage – describing these as “New York values”.

“Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan,” Cruz spat in a recent televised debate aimed to expose Trump as a closet left-winger.

While I hesitate to give Trump any positive press – not to overstate the influence of this humble blog – he came out on top in this exchange.

His response, evoking the community spirit and patriotism displayed by New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11 earned a rousing applause from the crowd, and even from the politically savvy Cruz himself, no doubt sensing defeat.

Cruz has correctly identified the strong hostility from many ‘Middle Americans’ towards the patrician east coast ‘elites’, those Ivy League-educated globally-minded villains they see as the architects of a rigged political and financial system.

But he failed to acknowledge that this hostility does not extend to New York City itself, especially not since 9/11. Despite its politics, many Americans of all stripes take pride in what is arguably the world’s most dynamic and impressive metropolis.

New York City is at once inherently American and a capital city of Planet Earth, the seat of the United Nations.

This is a place where hot dog grease drips onto $30,000 mink coats; where hedge fund managers play parkland chess with sandwich merchants; where kids in the Queensbridge projects turn old vinyl players into billion-dollar entertainment industries; and where, in 2001, two buildings collapsed and more than 3,000 innocents were murdered, only to be replaced by a more unified city, a moving monument and a bold and shimmering Freedom Tower to serve as a permanent Middle Finger.

To anyone that has visited – as I did last week and countless other times over the past six months – the city retains a magical quality and elicits an emotional response that goes well beyond partisan politics.

The city also has an infamous sense of humour, on display as I passed through La Guardia the morning after the ‘New York Values’ exchange.

“God bless our troops,” said flashing neon lights through the airport, in what was no doubt a subtle rebuttal to Cruz’s smug insinuation.

Yes, it is more than a little ironic that a billionaire TV star like Donald Trump and multi-millionaire political machinist like Hillary Clinton can claim to be champions of the downtrodden white-collar workers of America.

It must be especially frustrating for Cruz, who has spent years carving out a reputation as a Washington outsider and defender of Christianity and the Constitution only to be ‘trumped’ by a fraudulent, foul-mouthed, secretly-liberal Manhattanite.

But, despite global caricatures to the contrary, American voters are far from stupid. They know Trump is not a lifelong conservative, just as they know Hillary hasn’t bought her own groceries since the 1980s.

And yet, if the polls ahead of Iowa are anything to go by, they just might be readying to elect one of these two New Yorkers as Commander-in Chief.

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(La Guardia Airport displaying a traditionally conservative political message the morning after the Cruz v Trump ‘New York values’ exchange.)

Published on 31 January 2016.