Stop Bashing Capitalism, and Other Big Ideas

minds

We’re only two months into the New Year, and already OZY has unleashed some big ideas about the changing world around us — and from some pretty big people (hello, Bill Gates). It’s not all tech talk either. It’s the new face of terrorism, the perils of shunning capitalism and how to handle feelings of regret. Read on for some of our latest and greatest thought pieces. 

Land, Money, Story: Terrorism’s Toxic Combination

Today’s terrorism is far from what it looked like just 14 years ago in the wake of 9/11. A confluence of land, money, recruiting tools and access to the West poses new dangers. Certainly, terrorists have had such advantages before, but we’ve never before seen them combined so powerfully or in this magnitude. John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, explores the main sources of this newfound strength and how it has the potential to overwhelm the traditional counterterrorism formula. But what then is the key to taking back control and ensuring safety? Read more here

 

It’s Time to Love Capitalism Again

As more and more once-closed countries are opening their arms to welcome foreign capital, investors’ options for where to place their money have multiplied. Yet capitalism has been held back by a general mistrust (think Occupy Wall Street). Perhaps well-intentioned, but there’s a real economic danger posed by the anti-capitalism movement. For starters, it puts us on a costly collision course with one of the most important economic trends of the next two decades: the explosion of working-age populations throughout the developing world. What no one is saying is this: We need more jobs — and capitalism creates them. And according to the dean of the NYU Stern School of Business, Peter Henry, if we continue on this trend of bashing capital and open markets, our labor markets don’t stand a chance. Read more here

We think the pundits will be reflecting on a trio of major trends that defined the global Silicon Valley in 2015. First, we have the copycats. It’s a huge land grab for entrepreneurs and investors over the world’s emerging economies — much of which will involve grabbing mobile and e-commerce ideas that have already proven to work and racing to serve the world’s rising middle class using those innovations. Next, this will be the year that digital will finally emerge out of the screen to touch, and change, the physicalThink Big Data, artificial intelligence and imaging software, affecting everything from the Milky Way to our DNA. And, finally, good ol’ banking is due for a makeover. At last, the complexity of financial services is set to be unbundled into apps. Read more here

90 Seconds With Bill Gates

OZY’s good friend Bill Gates has been very busy throwing out big ideas in the first months of the new year, touching on everything from regret and inequality to mobile banking in Africa and the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. When Gates turned his attention — and his billions — toward global aid 15 years ago, it was with the same single-minded determination that brought him success at Microsoft. Now, he’s giving us insight into a lot more than just technology.  

Eugenious: Remembrance of Things Charlie Brown

charlie brown

To say that Charlie Brown and his fellow travelers — Linus, Lucy the sadist, Snoopy the dog, Peppermint Patty, Pigpen and the remaining pint-sized players in Charles M. Schulz’s picture of small-town America — are “huge” is an understatement of the most grievous kind. Because Peanuts, the comic strip that was their universe, was revolutionary in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that these wised-up, but not smarmy, cartoon kids grappled with depression, alienation, unrequited love and failure. In the most amusing ways possible, of course.

Whether his immortal characters serve as advertising shills or holiday special stars, or are merely perennially in print, Schulz’s genial but decidedly downbeat take remains as knowing and affirming as it was the moment he first put pen to paper until he died of colon cancer, 15 years ago. 

And yeah: Even he regretted not letting Charlie Brown get a piece of that football.

John Kovac Found the Holy Grail of Cosmology. And Then Didn’t.

universe

Why is this man smiling?

Over Skype, Harvard University astrophysicist John Kovac’s mood seems nothing short of chipper. He wears a constant, creased grin and chuckles softly to himself every now and then, even as he gazes into the distance to ponder a response. Flitting from one topic to the next, his voice maintains the same pleasant, breezy tone. You’d never guess he’s at the center of one of the more disappointing letdowns in physics.

Kovac led the research team that last year reported what many in the field consider the Holy Grail of cosmology — the first direct evidence of inflation theory, which says that the universe expanded extremely fast in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. If he had been right, science might have been able to determine how the whole shebang unfolded — we’re talking the origins of matter and life itself. But the so-called “smoking gun” evidence vanished in a cloud of dust — literally. Kovac had thought his proof came from ripples in space-time. A month later, satellite and other data showed that those ripples were due largely to something far less earth-shattering: interstellar dust.

We did what scientists have to do. We reported our measurements and called the interpretation as we saw it …

– John Kovac, Harvard University

It’s hardly the first time science has experienced an “oh, nevermind” moment. A much-ballyhooed 1998 paper that linked autism with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, scaring the bejeezus out of millions of parents, turned out to be a bust. Last year, Nature had to retract not one, but two papers that falsely reported a “breakthrough” in stem cell research. And not to rub it in, but let’s not forget that science told us for decades, relying on a careful analysis of telescopic images, that Pluto was a planet. Oops.

For his part, Kovac — strawberry blond, with a boyish, unlined face — has all the credentials you could ask for. As a kid, he built contraptions with names like “seismograph” and “Van de Graaff generator” and devoured The First Three Minutes, a book on the early origins of the universe. He graduated from Princeton and landed faculty positions at Caltech and Harvard. At 44, he’s already led a research team in a high-profile experiment with the world-renowned BICEP2 telescope. It’s based in Antarctica, no less.

Years of work, mostly with high-tech telescopes, went behind his apparent discovery of space-time ripples, or gravitational waves, which he thought would prove the theory of what gave the Big Bang its bang — that the universe had expanded far faster than anyone dreamed. When he made his discovery, he called a press conference that drew international attention. “We did what scientists have to do. We reported our measurements and called the interpretation as we saw it given the information we had at the time,” says Kovac.

Surprisingly, experts say mistakes like these rarely affect funding in the world of science; if they did, the thinking goes, it would discourage tireless and bold efforts to find everything from medical cures to far-flung galaxies. The National Science Foundation, which funded BICEP2 and budgeted $43.7 million for astronomy and astrophysics research in their 2014 fiscal year alone, says the recent findings won’t affect their decision to fund Kovac’s research. “Refining findings is the nature of science,” said Peter West, spokesperson for the Division of Polar Programs at NSF. Which may be a good thing: In the eight months since being debunked, Kovac says he’s now hunting for gravitational waves with some shiny new telescopes — BICEP3 and the Keck Array. He says he’s learned that he needs to take into account the interstellar dust as part of his measurements.

If he does, he’ll do no less than prove how right Albert Einstein was. In the early 20th century, Einstein helped spark the emergence of cosmology as a science when he proposed his theory of general relativity — that time and space are enmeshed in a continuum, and dense, moving objects like planets would send gravitational waves rippling through space-time. Advances in instrumentation have only accelerated cosmology over the past 20 years. Now we know that the universe has a finite size and that it’s not only expanding, but doing so at an ever-increasing rate. “You can ask questions that big and build something to answer that question,” Kovac says.

A joint analysis indicated that the signal that BICEP2 detected was due almost entirely to dust.

Critics of Kovac say the biggest lesson that emerged in the aftermath has been a simple reminder that being first isn’t also always best. Kovac’s team ideally wanted to analyze the BICEP2 data alongside the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite data to account for dust and anything else that could be mistaken for gravitational waves. But since Planck data wouldn’t be available for months, they analyzed BICEP2 data alone. “If you’re going to hype something like that, you better be sure you got it right,” says Charles Bennett, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University. 

But Kovac says he doesn’t feel that he was rushing out the findings, and the cosmology community has mostly been supportive of his work. He keeps his gaze trained skyward, believing the Holy Grail is still there. “I’m personally excited about whatever the answer is going to be,” he says.

How Was Your Day … English Teacher in Lithuania?

Man walking with hockey stick and skates outdoors

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Nick Aubin
Vilnius, Lithuania

It’s cold here. I got up about 7 a.m. and I felt the crispness. I looked outside and saw there was a little bit of snow. Then I had breakfast and hopped on my bike. I go to work by bike even though it’s sub-zero temperatures. It’s about a 6 1/2 kilometer ride. I teach English as a second language and sports, gym.

My wife, Lidija, and I moved from Canada to Lithuania in 2007. Both of our boys were born here. Lidija got a job in Luxembourg doing what she studied: being a translator. I’m a teacher, so I can’t leave Lithuania until the end of the school year. We decided that Lidija would take the kids and I would stay here. I visit every two weeks and every holiday I get to plant myself in Luxembourg with the family and be a dad again. Honestly, I thought it would get easier. But every time I go, my kids have grown, and I missed seeing that. My wife and I talk every night, but it’s not the same. It’s playing like a yo-yo with my emotions.

I’m happy, I guess, that this is my last year here. We’re ready to move on. For our kids to be in a more multicultural environment — that’s the biggest factor. At least now that my kids are in Luxembourg, they’re not the only ones with a darker complexion. The other week, my oldest boy was happy to tell me that one of his other friends, who is also biracial, looks like him. He said it with pride: “Dad, he looks like me.”

But here, I can wear a hoodie, and no one would even look at me.

There are wonderful Lithuanians — my wife, her family, her friends — who have welcomed me with open arms, and color has never been an issue. As a black male, walking the streets of Lithuania, it’s freedom. Not that I ever worried in Canada. I don’t think that way — I don’t see evil. I try to stay as positive as possible. But here, I can wear a hoodie, and no one would even look at me.

But I’ve had my share of sour experiences. I play hockey here, and after the game, we always shake hands. There’s a player in my league. After a game, as it was his turn to shake my hand, he went right around me, and went to the person behind me. And so I turned around and the first thing I did was make a joke. I said, “I guess he doesn’t like shaking hands with superstars.”

I didn’t think much of it, to be honest. My wife’s like, “Nick, you need to tell the guy who runs your team.” She suspected it was racial.

This guy’s a Lithuanian nationalist and he’s not happy with me being here, so he refuses to shake my hand. There was a meeting with him and his coach and our coach, and he decided that he would not play the games against my team. He will not play against me. He will sit those games out just so he doesn’t have to shake my hand.

I feel very confused by this hatred, to be honest. I dress nicely, I’m smiling. I work. I pay taxes. For whatever reason, he doesn’t accept me on the basis of my skin. I’ve done nothing wrong to this guy. We’re playing hockey. We’re playing a game we both enjoy.

Everybody Wants a Piece of Vietnam

vietnam

“That’s me!” exclaims Sen. John McCain. He’s standing in his office, pointing to a grainy black-and-white photo of a man floating on a debris-strewn lake, surrounded by a dozen young Vietnamese. The senator, of course, became a prisoner of North Vietnam during a war that killed millions and routed a generation, but today — no hard feelings. Vietnam’s defense minister gave him the framed photo when the official visited Washington, D.C., a few years back, McCain says.

Well, we gave peace a chance, and the times they did change, and now relations between the once-bitter enemies are close enough to exchange macabre souvenirs. The United States and Vietnam restored diplomatic ties 20 years ago, but it was only last October that the U.S. eased its ban on weapon sales to Vietnam. This month the U.S. sent five high-speed patrol boats to Vietnam’s coast guard as part of a commitment to bolster the nation’s defenses against China. And while many countries lobby hard for a visit from the American president, there is a decent chance that President Barack Obama really will make it to Hanoi before the year is out — just as Japan’s prime minister, India’s president and Russia’s foreign minister already have. 

[Vietnam’s foreign] policy of three no’s: no foreign alliances, no foreign bases and no joining with one country to gang up on a third.

Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at Austrailia’s University of New South Wales

Why is the poor, authoritarian country the object of so much attention? Location, location, location is part of the answer. With a long coastline on the South China Sea, Vietnam occupies a prime spot on the thoroughfare where “over half the world’s merchant tonnage flows,” as Puneet Talwar, a State Department official, observed in a Jan. 23 speech in Hanoi. Vietnamese labor is cheaper than China’s, but companies in Vietnam can still operate within much of the larger Chinese manufacturing supply chain. And China’s rivals and uneasy partners alike are eager for Vietnam’s help as a counterweight to Beijing.

Vietnam has welcomed the overtures, to a point. For much of its history, the country was little more than a satellite of China, and not always for the better. The risks of relying on one powerful patron still resonate, and nowadays, Vietnam’s foreign policy, as laid out in defense white papers, roughly translates as the “policy of three no’s,” says Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at Australia’s University of New South Wales: “No foreign alliances, no foreign bases and no joining with one country to gang up on a third.” Economically too, Vietnam has laid out the welcome mat to all comers. Its fast-growing population of more than 90 million and its political stability (authoritarianism helps that way) have lured trade and foreign investors.

But lately, Vietnam’s careful balance has tilted westward. This past spring, a tiff with China over the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea pushed it further into the arms of its Western friends. So did the United States’ move to ease its ban on weapon sales — somewhat of a surprise, given Vietnam’s tendency to throw journalists and political dissidents in jail. But  Vietnam has yet to actually buy any American weapons. It seems to be more interested in symbolism at this point, and wary of ticking off China any further.

China-jousting aside, Vietnam has drawn foreigners with trade and investment opportunities that have opened up during its transition — known as “Đổi Mới” — from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one, which accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Foreign investment has grown rapidly in the 21st century, at a pace that trails only Indonesia and Thailand. Trade, meanwhile, has grown at a double-digit rate over the last decade; Vietnam was second only to Singapore in value of goods traded in 2013. 

That has helped Vietnam prosper despite some profound problems with its domestic business climate, including inefficient state-owned companies and a rickety financial system. A World Bank report released in December urged Hanoi to make significant reforms to continue economic growth. Perhaps more worrisome, Vietnam is getting a smaller share of foreign investment in Southeast Asia than it used to, according to David Dapice, lead economist at the Vietnam Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He points out via email that Vietnam had almost 20 percent of all Association of Southeast Asian Nations investment in 2008, but less than 10 percent in 2013.

In other words, Vietnam’s leaders can’t go forward on autopilot and expect the good times to keep rolling. The first decade of the 21st century was a big one, yes; but it gets only harder from here. No one said becoming a regional power was easy.

Pop Goes the Comic

julio torres

The slim, peroxide-blond man awkwardly steals glances at a notebook in his hand, as if needing a reminder of why he’s there, on stage, before an audience. Julio Torres speaks calmly, with a hint of an accent, like a mysterious stranger dropped into the limelight and unsure how to move. The Brooklyn transplant from El Salvador does bits about hipster artists. “The energy of the neighborhood” inspires him, he says, deadpan. He turned it into poetry.

She’s into fashion
Wants to design jewelry
But like, not even.

He’s surprised that anyone outside of his local borough’s club circuit appreciates his act — expecting the audience to turn on him, and boo him back to Bushwick. But they haven’t turned on him. In fact, he just headlined at Carolines in New York City, about as mainstream as it gets in comedy. And Comedy Central featured him in the first season of its Comics to Watch in November. So how would he describe his appeal? “People who take themselves very seriously, or who would otherwise not have a sense of humor, tend to find me very funny,” he says. 

I do really revel in bringing otherness to the table …

Torres grew up the oldest of two kids in San Salvador, the capital city, with a civil engineer dad and a fashion-designer-turned-architect mom. He thought he’d grow up to be an architect, too. Professional funnyman isn’t really a job choice in El Salvador, he says. It seemed like a first-world option that required coming to New York. He followed his Big Apple fantasy to college at the New School, where he studied literature and wrote plays.

“Everything I wrote was always comedic,” he says. He did some not-great video bits. And he came to realize that writing scripts meant relying on other people to carry them off. Why not just rely on himself? So he hit the open mic circuit.

Now 27, he’s lived in Bushwick long enough that the outpost where non-artists once feared to tread now welcomes a serious “bro crowd” to the corner bars (his adjective). He pays the bills by working as an art archivist and designs his own clothes. Every year, on his annual trip back home, he has a tailor create the looks.

On stage his white shirt and expressionless delivery are part of his shtick. Like an Andy Kaufman, in a way — it’s comedy as performance art. Torres says he sees a link between his kind of stage act and pop stardom: a certain look and stage presence. At one recent Manhattan gig, he employed a fog machine.

“I do really revel in bringing otherness to the table and wanting to come across as this holographic creature that comes from who knows where, that has to scan the creatures around him and reveal what’s funny about the world around him.”

“I’m not very interested in being relatable.”

And yet, here he is.

Photography by Mindy Tucker

Come to Napa for the Barbecue

wine picnic

At the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ restaurant, it’s all about two things: wine and swine. It’s an unexpected twist in a place as lavish as California’s Napa Valley. Diners can chow down on piled-high platters of pulled pork, smoked brisket and ribs, while sipping from a $4,000 bottle of vintage French wine.

Owner Mark Pope is something of a bounty hunter of wine, tasting 6,000 different wines each year and rejecting nearly 95 percent of them in search of what he calls the “holy grail” of Italian, French and Californian wines. Ranging from $15 to $5,000 a bottle, his hand-picked wines are paired with pulled pork sandwiches, smoked St. Louis cut ribs and sourdough bread pudding — or their beer-can chicken, which arrives whole at your table, standing upright, skewered by a Tecate beer can and smelling divine. The restaurant has a “blue jeans style” that aims to help customers find their perfect spot on the “continuum of wine enjoyment” without being too snobby, he says.

The restaurant was awash with whiskey, wine, spirits and shards of glass.

While Pope is intent on appealing to everyone, it’s difficult to find high-quality wines at lower price points, says Peter Langenstein, the founder of Brix26, an online company that sells limited-edition California wines. “It’s hard to even find something that really stands out in the $20 range,” says Langenstein. Unless a customer is willing to spend $60 or more, he adds, the chances of finding a full-bodied pinot or sparkling sauvignon blanc are slim to none.

Still, the restaurant was getting a lot of foot traffic — about 2,000 visitors every week — until California’s worst earthquake in 25 years devastated the famed wine region and caused $1 billion in damages last August. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake’s epicenter was just a few miles from the Bounty Hunter, and the restaurant was awash with whiskey, wine, spirits and shards of glass, with total damages amounting to more than $100,000, according to Pope. Nonetheless, he and his team rallied to clean up the mess and reconstruct the bits of the building that had collapsed.

One week later, they cleared the safety inspection and were back in business. “The integrity of the building was still in good condition,” says Pope, who considers the long-standing 1888 building that houses the restaurant a structural feat. Slowly, the slew of tourists who come to Napa to taste some of the world’s finest luxury wines are also making their way back to the town’s bruised businesses. And when they come, the Bounty Hunter is ready to help them navigate the best bottles and maybe send them off with a few delicious grease stains to remember them by.

That Time I Jumped Out of a Burning Building

burning building

Anthea Gerrie writes on travel, food, wine and architecture for national and international publications.  

“Beware the Ides of March,” they say, but in 1990 I was running around the world from one adventure to another, an intrepid travel addict beware-ing of nothing at all. I was 39 years old and I was going to live forever. On the first of the month, I hopped a plane from Heathrow bound for Egypt, where I was due to sail down the Nile the next day. It was a press junket — 20 British beauty writers in search of a new perfume artfully hidden in the bulrushes by the London socialite who created it.

But the wind was up when we arrived in Cairo, and parched, I needed a pot of tea, which I shared with Sally and Janet, the only two women on the trip I knew personally. Sally, a young single mother who had told me the week before how excited she was to get this, her first foreign gig, seemed strangely distracted — I guessed she was missing her 4-year-old. Janet, ever-practical, chided me for wimping out of getting my shots: “You’ll regret it if you’re tempted by street food.”

We retired around midnight, and at 2 a.m. I was awoken by feet stampeding above my head. “Inconsiderate party people,” I muttered and lifted the phone to complain. But the line was dead. I opened my the door to see what was going on and quickly realized these party people were, in fact, frantic guests fleeing … a fire. A fire in my hotelThey were lucky early bird escapees, it transpired; thick smoke obscuring the corridor made it clear I wouldn’t be making any kind of normal exit from the blazing Sheraton hotel.

“Listen, the fire is fucking big … get out NOW!” he shrieked. He must have thought I was crazy, giggling when my life was at risk.

Funny the tricks the mind plays. Instead of panicking, mine decided I was in an improv and would have to devise action to resolve the scene in which I was starring. I crossed to the window, hailed a man running past in a suit, who shouted: “Can you make a rope out of your sheets?”  This struck me as hilarious; I had never joined the Girl Scouts so never learned those silly knots. Now I knew why they mattered. The businessman wasn’t laughing when I giggled my Girl Scouts excuse.

“Listen, the fire is fucking big, fucking close and you’ve got to get out NOW!” he shrieked. He must have thought I was crazy, giggling when my life was at risk. Call it an adrenaline rush to the brain, which kept me present but bizarrely banished fear.

I looked down and saw a second-floor parapet on which I reckoned I could land with no worse than a broken leg. “Can you catch me if I jump to the ground from there?” I asked the man in the suit. He surely should have been encouraging me to leap for my life but instead responded, far too truthfully: “I don’t know!”

We rolled on the ground, I kissed and thanked him — the world’s fastest date. 

Nothing for it — blind as a bat without them, I took 20 seconds to put in my contacts so I could see where I was jumping, grabbed my passport and my late mother’s heirloom ring, then hurled myself, robe askew, onto that parapet. Underwear was not even on my radar.

As a scaredy-cat kid, I wouldn’t even dive into a swimming pool, but faced with a hallway full of smoke and exit via the door not even an option, I had no choice. Miraculously, I jumped and landed like an acrobat, nothing broken, then threw myself at my reluctant rescuer, obliging him to break my second fall. We rolled on the ground, I kissed and thanked him — the world’s fastest date. Then I went off to look for the rest of my group.

The exhilaration lasted for hours, even as the fire raged on — running free and alive on the hotel lawn, reuniting with most of the beauty writers, being wrapped in blankets by the kind passers-by who were the only ones looking after us dispossessed hotel guests. But the euphoria paled into horror as daylight dawned. I learned Sally and Janet had perished, along with 15 other guests. Janet and Sally died from smoke inhalation, their rooms engulfed in flames. 

Cairo’s “four-star” Sheraton Heliopolis had no fire alarms or sprinklers. And management had ignored fire warnings just a week earlier to close down a barbecue inside their restaurant. Add to this, inadequate firefighting resources: the hotel was two stories higher than the firemen’s ladders could reach.  Sally’s room was two doors down from mine. How did she not get out when I did? It was suggested her window, like so many in hotels, didn’t open; the fact mine did was yet another reminder of the utter randomness of life we navigate every day.

 The hotel was two stories higher than the firemen’s ladders could reach. 

What I did next surprised me: I demanded copious quantities of Egyptian food. Though this was my first trip to the country and these were my first-ever ful medames, I devoured plates of the mashed fava beans. Most of our party sat shocked and silent, anxiously waiting for the first flight home. The rare perfume was forgotten, but I remembered I was in Egypt. I persuaded two other journalists to join me at a Cairo souk, where we saluted brides, who traditionally marry and parade through town, and smoked shisha pipes. I ate rose-scented rice pudding from a stall and celebrated the sheer joy of being alive. Until I was interrupted by a sudden thump of the heart and Janet’s voice warning me, posthumously, against the folly of eating street food with no shots to protect me from potentially fatal bacteria.

The group flew back to London the next morning, but I stayed one more night and visited the Pyramids, perhaps in an effort to make it seem real. PTSD did not kick in till a few days later, when I was safely back in the gloriously green Sussex countryside, our household exploding with my spouse’s inability to cope with my mood swings. I attended Sally’s and Janet’s funerals, but listening to fellow survivors’ experiences at crisis counseling made the fire all too real. I’d bolted from the room and never completed the course. Months of therapy ensued. For quite some time, I traveled with a full-on Walter White-like smoke hood and ran out of several hotel rooms in a state of panic.

Today, 25 years later, the fire stays with me. Upon checking in at any hotel, I nudge my windows to see if they open and always take note of fire exits. “Mindfulness” may be today’s buzzword, but it roared into my life in Cairo, saving me by keeping me laser focused and thoroughly present. For that I’m grateful. And though that night I jumped for my life, when it comes to swimming pools, I still take the steps.

When Getting Fired Should Be Against the Law

A protester throws gas back the national police of Venezuela.

There’s not much to envy about the Venezuelan economy: As oil prices dive, inflation has reached staggering heights, and basic goods like food and medicine are running short. But the country does have one piece of good news, though: Venezuelans won’t get fired this year. 

How? Why? Whaaa? 

Since companies can’t downsize during the current economic collapse, many businesses will go bankrupt — and everyone gets laid off.

That’s right. In January, in the direct opposite of a hiring freeze, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro decreed that companies won’t be able to let anyone go in 2015. It’s a bold and oft-tried move by a leader facing the total collapse of his nation’s economy. And you know what? Maybe it’s a policy whose time has come — at least in very specific situations. 

OK, we’re not calling for socialism or communism — please lay off, McCarthyites. But the strategy may be particularly effective where labor protections don’t really exist. In an ideal world, government entities would protect workers from labor injustices, but we live in far from an ideal world. Changes wrought by globalization happen fast, much faster than any paper-pushing labor bureau could keep up with. 

Same goes for countries dominated by individual oligarchs, who control large swaths of resources. While trying to wrangle power from the private sector, sometimes the state has to use forms of “economic warfare,” says Alejandro Velasco, an assistant professor of Latin American studies at New York University. But before you think it’s just socialist meccas in Latin America fixing employment, the United States has done similar things in the past. Remember the New Deal, through which thousands of unemployed were picked up by the state to fix up national parks and clean highways? Yep, pretty much the same thing. 

Of course, if not used sparingly, mandating employment can be crippling for the economy, as it has been for Venezuela and likely will continue to be in 2015. Since companies can’t downsize during the current economic collapse, many businesses will just go bankrupt — that way, everyone gets laid off in the end, says Steve Hanke, chief economic minister for Venezuela’s former President Rafael Caldera. In the end, it’s just a political tool. Maduro can point at the unemployment statistics and say, “Look, we care about you, the people,” says Hanke, without actually needing a healthy economy. 

And even though it goes against everything we learned in Economics 101, full employment comes with a host of social benefits, from keeping the jobless off the streets (and potentially protesting) to reducing crime to providing citizens with a sense of dignity. Besides, at least for now, it’s good for everyone’s résumé.

The Hidden Muscle in the Immigration Debate

Nine-year-old Mukal Verma (C) from India participates in a citizenship ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on February 12, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

If you were an immigration-reform lobbyist, you probably wouldn’t put Avinash Conda’s story front and center. It’s not hugely sad. No teary separation between child and parent. No detention. No major financial struggles. The 27-year-old’s story is, he says upon reflection, a “best-case scenario.”

He came to Kentucky from Hyderabad, India, for college, and quickly got a work visa with help from his first employer; when that ran out, he moved to a New York tech company and got his H-1B visa. He’s now a senior SEO manager at Shutterfly in cushy Silicon Valley. He didn’t even have it as rough as a character in your average angsty Jhumpa Lahiri short story.

But Conda is now part of a rising number of first- and second-generation Indian-Americans who may turn out to be some of the most important players in the country’s ever-mounting immigration debate. Well-educated and highly skilled, they are bent on addressing issues like border fences, undocumented workers and more, and may well have the clout to shape the talk. In Conda’s case, he’s leading an organizing team for a group called FWD.us — backed by heavyweights like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — which represents the tech community and is single-mindedly focused on passing comprehensive immigration reform. As he puts it, he’s jockeying for change on behalf of people he “didn’t even know existed” not long ago. 

It doesn’t hurt to have booming Silicon Valley wheedling Washington.

At a time when President Obama is pushing for immigration reform, and when it’s sure to be on everyone’s tongue in 2016, much has changed for Indian-Americans. In 1980, 400,000 Indian immigrants lived in the U.S. Today, that number is 2.8 million. It was enough, in 2012, to occasionally swing the vote to the left in traditionally Republican districts like Orange County.

This group’s real power may lie not in their vote numbers — they’re a mere 3 percent of the electorate — but in their prominence and wealth: A Pew report showed that Indian-Americans have the highest average income levels in the U.S., a median of $88,000 per year. Some are already flexing that muscle. Groups like Conda’s FWD.us work on grassroots campaigns — everything from “sharing stories” to crucial clicks on those “Help Pass Reform” buttons. Last March, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), a traditionally apolitical group, began pushing on Capitol Hill for reform. (AAPI did not respond to a request for comment.) And with Indians’ huge presence in tech, well … it doesn’t hurt to have booming Silicon Valley wheedling Washington.

Portrait of Avinash Conda

Avinash Conda had an easy path — but still considers himself an immigration activist.

Source Pete Souza/The White house

On immigration, there’s a lot up for debate, from unaccompanied minors to caps on H-1B visas, meant for those with advanced degrees who can get employers to sponsor their stint here. The high-skilled stuff is most associated with Indian-Americans, but still more applies: An oft-forgotten undocumented population lives in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2011, that group grew the second-most, after only Hondurans, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Or take H-4 visas, issued to dependents (often wives) of those here to work. 

For Indian-Americans, the story goes way back, though. While today they’re best-known as doctors and engineers, Indian-Americans have a more complicated history. They first arrived in California in the 19th century during the gold rush. Others made their way here, often illegally, during Colonial times by jumping ship at New York or New Jersey ports. It was less than a century ago that the Supreme Court ruled against a Sikh immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind who claimed he was Caucasian, thereby banning all Indians from immigrating to the U.S. until 1965, when the gates reopened.

Today, Indian-Americans overwhelmingly (83 percent, Pew found) believe immigrants are good for America. But will they act on this belief? There’s a difference between casting a vote and picketing on Capitol Hill. And even if Indians are sympathetic to reform over some issues, like shortening the waiting list, many get their backs up when it comes to being lumped with Hispanics or the undocumented. So let’s say Indians do push for H-1B reform and get it — that still may not trickle down to comprehensive policy, says Jayesh Rathod, professor of law and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s law school.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 29, 2013.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 29, 2013.

And the “auntie-uncle community” often feels more like “How can we let those illegal immigrants drain our resources?” says second-gen Sapna Pandya, who works on immigration and language issues as the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Many Languages One Voice. The daughter of doctors, Pandya is familiar with upper-middle-class Indians who see their lives in culs-de-sac as far from the border fence.

However it plays out, don’t assume “Indians for immigrants” means “votes for the left.” Sure, there’s Obama’s push. But George W. Bush was strong on guest-worker visa rights, while Obama has deported many more people. And with Jeb Bush (who is married to a Mexican-born woman), Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the like, the GOP is well-armed. And in 2016, wonders Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, who studies ethnicity’s interaction with politics, “What if Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley were a VP candidate?”