6/20/2018

My Favorite Quotes

A compendium of my favorite quotes, with no particular order, rhyme or reason.

"You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life." -- Winston Churchill

"A fool is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." -- Oscar Wilde

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it." -- Henry Ford

"Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies." -- Robert Kennedy

"Then there was the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches." -- W.I.E. Gates

"Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think." -- Thomas Edison

“The greatest danger in turbulent times is not the turbulence, but to act with yesterday’s logic.” - Peter Drucker

4/25/2018

My 14 Day Affirmative Challenge

I have often been told I should spend more time outlining what I believe, rather than what I oppose. Therefore, I am going to challenge myself to outline affirmatively what I believe each of the next fourteen days. While this may lean more toward principle, values and foundation than actual policy prescription, it forms the basis for whatever policy prescriptions I might support (or oppose).

Day 1
We must put aside identity politics on the left and "us vs. them" politics on the right, instead living up to our nation's founding creed that all men (and all women of all races, creeds and colors) are created equal. Let us respect what makes each of us unique, but celebrate that which unites us.

Day 2 
We must engage those we disagree with in a battle of ideas. It is fine to question the media, it is fine to question those we disagree with. It is even fine to question faith. But it is not fine to immediately dismiss those with whom we disagree simply because we disagree. Instead, we must engage them in a search for understanding and common ground using the rights to freedom of speech, press and religion enshrined in the First Amendment, otherwise we will find ourselves engaging each other using the rights enshrined in the Second. We cannot permit that for a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Day 3
We must recognize the difference between ends and means. Most of what we argue about - limited government, redistribution, free markets, regulation, taxes, spending – are simply means to an end. The ends we seek as a nation are enshrined in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If we are the Constitutionalists we claim to be, let’s begin first with the end in mind - and let that mind be an open one as we seek how best to attain the true vision our founding fathers had for this great experiment in self-government.

Day 4
It is important we recognize that the era of general peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed since the end of WWII is largely due to our nation’s efforts and investments in global affairs. Human endeavors are subject to the laws of nature, one of which – the Second Law of Thermodynamics – states that the universe trends toward disorder without an input of energy. We can argue whether it’s fair that we supply a disproportionate amount of the energy required to maintain order, but we must recognize that whatever the financial cost we have borne to maintain that order is far preferable to the tragic human cost that has been, and must be, paid to restore it.

Day 5
We should recognize that neither free markets, nor government are the panacea nor evil that some make them out to be. Both have their place and their drawbacks, with each serving as another important check and balance in our system of self-governance. Free markets naturally resist the imposition of an overbearing government that would limit human endeavor and ingenuity, while government restrains the worst in human nature that often manifests itself in the exploitation of free markets for personal gain at the expense of workers, customers and society.

Day 6
History shows that long before tyrants seek to confiscate guns, they first discredit the elites, academics and truth-tellers. Whether Lenin’s attacks on the intelligentsia, Mussolini’s promise to “drenare la palude” (drain the swamp) or Hitler’s attacks on the Lugenpresse (lying press), each first seized control of the “truth” and dissent before seeking control of arms. Once in control of the narrative, the government could act with impunity and the people obeyed passively. We must therefore learn from history and hold our First Amendment rights in at least as much esteem and defend them as unwaveringly as those in the Second, lest we find ourselves armed to the teeth with nothing left worth defending.

Day 7
We must rediscover community. We are a nation of immigrants, millions of people who left home, family and congregation to seek a better life in America. But once here, they settled in places like Chinatown, Little Italy and Hamtramck, where they formed communities in the truest sense of the word. Their children then took advantage of the educational and economic opportunities afforded them, settling into lifelong careers that placed many in the same home, parish and community for a lifetime, leading to lives with a far richer texture than many enjoy today. Today's lack of community has turned us into a nation of seekers full of angst, unsettled by change and uncertainty as we create more change and uncertainty in search of...what?

Family, friends and community are far more important than the latest smartphone or larger flatscreen TV. We must take care of our families - and wealth allows us to attack many ills our forebearers suffered, but we must not sacrifice our connection to others in pursuit of wealth, either individually or collectively. It is only through connection to people who matter that we can truly find Life, Liberty and Happiness.

Day 8
Emotions win elections, but we must acknowledge that not all emotions are healthy. Confidence, optimism, resolve and compassion are foundations for both a healthy life and healthy society. Fear, anger, mistrust and selfishness are not. We can be vigilant without being fearful, compassionate without being weak, resolute without being bullies. Let's base our politics - the means to the ends we seek - on healthy emotions, while looking into our own hearts and minds to purge emotions detrimental to the health of democracy and the soul of society.

Day 9
Compromise is not a dirty word. The United States itself would not exist had our founding fathers not compromised on the powers of the presidency, the structure of Congress. the counting of slaves in electoral and Congressional apportionment and the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. It was imperfect, but the alternative would have been a continent of potentially hostile nation-states. We must learn from their lesson that imperfect agreement, rather than perfect obstinance, is the only path to a more perfect union.

Day 10
With rights come responsibility, and among the most important responsibilities is to remain informed. This means studying history, seeking hard journalism and perusing sources we do not necessarily agree with. History gives us an understanding of where we've been and how actions have real consequences. Hard journalism is history's first draft, giving us insight into where we are. And differing opinions act like resistance training for the mind, keeping us sharp and flexible as we try to discern where events might lead. Wisdom can only rise from thoughtfully considered, fact-based knowledge. Therefore, facts matter and knowledge is good.

Day 11
Civil is the root word of civilization. Therefore, to succeed and sustain society, we must learn (or relearn) to be civil with one another. That begins with respect, not only for others but for ourselves, for it is impossible to respect others without self respect. It is possible to question and criticize respectfully, and when we ourselves are the target of vitriol and disrespect, we must learn to turn the other cheek. It is hard, but it's also why walking away or seeking the high road is a sign of strength of character and self esteem. Let us be strong - resolute - in demanding civility of ourselves and our public officials.

Day 12
We must tread lightly regarding religious faith and politics. While many of our founding fathers were deeply religious, they were also wary of mixing faith and politics. If the two are to cross paths, we would be well-served to return to Lincoln for guidance. His Second Inaugural, regarded by many as the finest speech in US political history, surpassing even Gettysburg, could easily be mistaken for a Sunday sermon. Yet, it was far from an infusion of faith into politics, where one leans on God to impose one's beliefs to control the behavior of others. Instead, it was an attempt to frame the Civil War and future turmoil as God's price for the sin of slavery. It was faith as a path to understanding rather than a path to power. Those are two very different applications of faith. Lincoln's example was faith as a foundation of life itself, outside of politics, which is precisely where it should remain.

Day 13
Values are the basis for culture. That is true of a team, an organization or a society. Therefore, the values we expect of our elected leaders will become the basis of our culture. Falling into the trap of believing all politicians lie, cheat and steal will make it so. Conversely, if we make moral character built on values of honesty and integrity, rather than politics and policy, the foundation upon which we choose our leaders, and hold them accountable for same, we will see government and society reflect those values - from our local boards and councils to Washington, D.C.

Day 14
Day 14: Defending democracy demands that we defend the institutions that make it possible, the institutions upon which it relies. These are the rule of law, free elections, in a free press, the separation of powers. I've said it often, but when faith in banks is destroyed, banks fail. When faith in currencies is destroyed, currencies fail. And when faith in the institutions of democracy is destroyed, democracies fail. We must defend those institutions. Not blindly, but when they are attacked we must both question the motive of those attacking them and consider the charges with as clear and open a mind as possible. And if those charges are the least bit suspect, we must defend those institutions as though our lives, liberty and happiness depends upon it. Because they do.

3/13/2018

Education Must Serve All, Lest It Serve None

In her 60 Minutes interview Sunday night, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos stated she has not visited failing schools because she wants to study what is working at successful schools. I understand the logic behind visiting such high-performing schools and championing their innovative endeavors. However, this is where a purely free-market approach to education raises its greatest threat. That's because every successful free market endeavor must segment the general public and seek to serve a specific subset of that market. Our public schools cannot - and must not - do the same. They must serve all students, regardless of geography or demography.

Thus, it is imperative that we study not only what works in successful schools, but what is behind the failure in less successful schools. The programs that work in good schools may be successful not so much because of the program itself, but because of the audience it serves. What works in Brentwood may not work in the Bronx or in an opioid-afflicted rural community. There may be factors beyond the lack of the proper program that stunts achievement.

I understand the logic and potential merits of school choice, but we must be careful that we do not do to our students what we have done to our young athletes, which is to create a system of "select" programs that do a wonderful job of serving those with the means and motivation to participate and the parental support to enable such participation, but leave behind a larger group of children with poorer instruction, fewer peers to serve as outstanding role models and measuring sticks and the stigma of being disposable.

Our nation is already well down a troubling road of creating an insurmountable chasm between haves and have-nots. The single best way to close that gap and ensure not only a healthy generation of children, but a healthy society is through universal, quality education. Studying only what works without identifying what is wrong is akin to studying disease by ignoring the sick and studying only the healthy. We can't ignore half the population. Public education must work for all students, or it will wind up working for none of us.

3/01/2018

Life in the NRA's USA

In 1975, Lynyrd Skynyrd released Saturday Night Special, a song about the iconic six-shot revolver that left no doubt the band questioned the value of a weapon good for nothing but to "put a man a-six feet in a hole." That same year, my high school freshman civics class held a series of debates on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. I was assigned the Second Amendment.

I do not recall which side I had to take on the amendment. I do not recall if the debate centered on the individual right to possess firearms, on the intent of referencing a well-regulated militia, or the pros and cons of adding the amendment to the Constitution in the first place.

What I do recall, however, was that as a public high school student, school shootings were not part of the conversation. The thought never even entered our minds. Why would they? Such events, if they took place at all, were so rare as to be neither part of the public discourse nor public consciousness. We didn't think about them because they didn't happen. What was in the public consciousness - and what was a central part of the overall discussion on crime and violence - were those Saturday Night Specials, so-called because they were the weapon of choice for spurned lovers, burglars and drug dealers, who often found reason to use said weapons to resolve a drug deal gone bad or mete out justice on an unfaithful lover, often on a Saturday night.

The results of our high school debate are irrelevant. But what is relevant is where that societal debate on Saturday Night Specials took us, because suggestions to register those weapons began the NRA's shift from an advocate of gun safety to one vociferously defending and arguing for the individual right to own a gun. The NRA warned us those early suggestions of registration were the beginning of a dreaded slippery slope.

Time covers show the evolution of US firearms from 1968-2012
It was a slippery slope, alright, but not the one of ever tighter registration, restriction and eventual gun confiscation that the NRA warned about. Instead, it was the slippery slope of ever increasing exploitation of fear to justify the right and need to possess guns. The gradual but steady portrayal of our government as an evil threat to arm ourselves against using the guns protected in the Second Amendment, rather than to engage via the rights enshrined in the First. The NRA raised funds warning of jack-booted government thugs coming to take away guns. They lobbied for lax Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms enforcement of existing laws. They fought restrictions on the sale and firepower of guns. They enabled and encouraged the growth of gun shows where background checks are virtually nonexistent and the gun trade became the equivalent of model trains - a hobby with an insatiable thirst for cooler, more realistic accessories that leaves a small, but significant subset living in an unhealthy fantasy world where they are defenders of truth, justice and the American Way.

Gun shows have made the American arms race a hobby and money machine

Meanwhile, we adapted to the new publicly-held firepower. We installed security cameras and metal detectors at airports, courthouses, football stadia and more. We began inspecting purses and backpacks when entering concerts and ballgames. We began to witness the militarization of our local police forces. And now, the NRA is using those examples to argue that our schools are "deserving" of the same protections. That our schools deserve metal detectors, surveillance cameras, inspections, armed guards, armed teachers. That to do any less is neglect and a dereliction of our duty to our children. Their term of choice for what they envision is "harden."

There is another term that describes the NRA's vision of America.

Police state.

Bottom line, we are allowing those with the weapons to dictate how we are to live our lives. Therein lies the sad irony of the NRA's forty-plus year fight for gun rights in the name of preserving liberty. In pursuing those rights, they have created a society that is less free, less secure. The NRA's world is Orwellian in the purest sense, where words mean the opposite. Guns mean safety. Surveillance ensures liberty. Inspections deliver freedom.

Some liken what we are witnessing to the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot, where bit by bit, we cede our real freedom - the freedom to move about without worry of harm or the scrutiny of unseen watchful eyes, the freedom to send our kids to school without fear - until one day we realize the world we've created is precisely the dangerous dystopia our chosen path was meant to prevent.

A 2017 NRA ad warns of Americans as the enemy
In some ways, however, what we are witnessing is more like a pressure cooker. The growing concentration of guns in the hands of fewer people, fueled by NRA warnings against dark forces inside and outside of government risks not just our safety, but society itself. In the NRA's world, not only is the government something to be viewed as sinister, but so are any who question the motives of the self-proclaimed righteous. The media, Hollywood, protesters and liberals are all presented as enemies of liberty. It is the classic "us versus them" construct, whereby the NRA is not only encouraging the development of a heavily armed, unregulated civilian army, but is also creating an enemy against which they must prepare to do battle. With a complicit conservative media fueling the flame, anger simmers and pressure builds. It is doubtful those weapons will remain forever sheathed. People looking for a fight are rarely disappointed. What the triggering event might be is a mystery, but just as pilots are warned of the "moth effect," whereby they fly towards objects they fixate upon, so should we beware that those fixated upon a righteous battle with evil adversaries will find themselves drawn towards - and into - just such a battle.

God help us if they do. The thought of an angry, disorganized mob of self-styled patriots who fancy themselves modern-day Minutemen, but lacking modern-day Washingtons, Jeffersons and Madisons to back their fervor with intellect and principle, leading a revolution against the United States of America does not lend itself to images of desirable outcomes. It could end quickly in a more serious, though no less decisive, Apache helicopter/A10 Warthog version of Indiana Jones and the guy with the sword. It could end with large parts of like-minded military units joining in to take on our government. Or, it just might never end. It's impossible to predict what life, politics or our system of government would look like on the other side of such an uprising, but it is hard to believe it would be an improvement upon the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever seen.

Which all begs the question - is this the path upon which we wish to continue? Do we want the NRA and the most heavily armed among us dictating that we must accept intrusion in our personal lives, inconveniences in our public places and occasional mass death so they can continue to arm themselves against our own government? Because that is what five decades of NRA advocacy and activism has delivered.  And their answer - their only answer - is more of the same. The word for that is insanity. It is time to stop. More guns are not the answer. In a civil society, they never are.

Our founding fathers gave us all the tools we need to protect us from an overbearing government with rights enshrined in the Constitution that do not require taking up arms. With a free press to keep us informed, the freedom to speak out as we see fit, the right to hold our government accountable through peaceable assembly and petition, all backed up by the might of the ballot box, we have all the power we need. But in our zeal for guns, fueled by a fear-mongering NRA, we've lost sight of that.  The first step is to end the fascination with guns and the fantasy that they are the tool of choice in defending us from ourselves, lest we wake up one day only to find we are armed to the teeth with nothing left worth defending.

2/18/2018

Bias, Facts and Lies

I've been a news junkie since I was ten or eleven years old. Like anything, the more experience one has the better one can evaluate what is good and what is bad about the subject of their passion. For most of my adult life, though I realized the mainstream press had a liberal bias in the stories they chose to cover and how they covered them, I also knew that they were careful in being factual. Still, I found comfort in conservative media (print, radio and TV) because they discussed those same facts through a conservative lens. Following in the tradition of William F. Buckley, their conservatism was based upon intellect and ideas, which permeated the discussion of the day's issues.

About ten years ago, however, something began to change. Instead of viewing issues through an intellectually conservative lens, conservative media began viewing and reporting everything through angry, often irrational eyes. In the process, finding something to be angry about took precedence over reason and fact. It wasn't long before it became an endless feedback loop, where a lie or distortion would be stated, callers and listeners would obsess on it, and the lie or distortion would take on a life of its own. A perfect example was the report that an Obama trip was costing $200 million per day. That originally appeared on an obscure website, but once Rush Limbaugh picked it up, it gained credibility even though it was flat out false. But the audience ate it up. Soon, such falsehoods became routine fodder for agitating and engaging conservative audiences.

That was the point when my lifelong attachment to the news made it apparent that conservative media was no longer trustworthy. Worse, as those lies and distortions gained a greater foothold, conservatism itself was no longer what it once was. Instead of being based upon ideas of personal liberty, responsibility and optimism, it became based upon emotions of anger and fear. I could no longer associate with conservatism or the Republican party. As Reagan had famously said of the Democratic Party, I now said of the GOP, "I didn't leave the party, the party left me."

Unfortunately, too many people never noticed the change, never realized they were being fed lies. Conservative media was no longer about discussing what was best for the country, but what was best for ratings - which they did cynically by pretending what they were doing was for the good of the country. Like passengers on a cruise ship with a derelict captain, a not insignificant segment of society are reveling in a journey they are blissfully unaware is charting a course for disaster.

All one need do is peruse social media to find how one can fall for that cynical, sad deception and argue that lies are fact. And now we find that Russia is helping sow some of those lies, making those who help propagate them complicit in aiding a sworn enemy. Forrunately, my nearly fifty years of following the news helps me identify those lies as lies. I'll take the mainstream media's biased fact over conservative media's biased lies every day of the week, especially when those lies aid and abet our adversaries.

2/03/2018

The Real Question About Mueller

One of my wife's friends posted this question. Answers appreciated.

"Help me out here.  Robert Mueller signed up for Vietnam after graduating from Princeton.

As a Second Lt. in the Marine Corps he led the rescue of a trapped rifle platoon in the jungles of Vietnam and received the Bronze Star. He rarely talks about that or the wound in other action for which he received the Purple Heart. He then completed his tour of duty.

Mueller has been appointed to or held top jobs in the administrations of *all 5 of the last Presidents.* 

He was appointed to the Justice Department, as the head of the criminal division, under George H.W. Bush's administration. He was appointed a U.S. attorney by Bill Clinton. Then he was appointed the acting deputy attorney general by George W. Bush. One week before the Sept. 11 attacks President Bush appointed him director of the FBI.

After Mueller completed his 10-year term as FBI director, President Obama reappointed him for a 2-year term, which required a special act of Congress. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 100-0.

What in this man's record of bi-partisan appointments, military service, and being the unanimous choice of the U.S. Senate for one of the most vital positions in the land -  what would lead anyone to believe that he suddenly can't be trusted to do the right thing?"

2/02/2018

It's About Country, Not Politics

I've been a Republican since I was old enough to choose sides. My opposition to all that's going on is not driven by partisan preferences, but by the exact opposite - the commitment to put party aside to view events with an eye to what I see as truth.

Note that I have not quoted "Fire and Fury." I have not commented on Stormy Daniels. I prefer to share hard journalism pieces, rather than opinion pieces, though when I do share such pieces, they tend to be from voices that have a demonstrated history of conservative or non-partisan pedigree.

People like to denigrate me as a "liberal," and there is no doubt I hold some liberal beliefs (protecting our environment, taking a human view of immigration, gay marriage, stricter limits on gun ownership), but that in no way makes me a Democrat. I have attended anti-Trump rallies and protested his appearances with my hand-made Republicans Against Trump sign, but there is much that Democrats espouse that I do not agree with (identity politics, the shutting down of opposing viewpoints on college campuses, what I view as the shortsighted insistence on higher minimum wages that make hiring the least employable more unaffordable, thus dooming many to a life of inconsistent employability).

No, my opposition to what is going on in Washington is due almost exclusively to what I see as the systematic undermining of our institutions of democracy. I've said it many times, when faith in banks is destroyed, banks fail. When faith in currencies is destroyed, currencies fail. And when faith in the institutions of democracy are destroyed - a free press, a robust and independent system of justice, elections and the rule of law - democracies fail. This administration, now with the acquiescence and outright assistance of an obsequious Congress, is systematically working to destroy faith in all these and more.

So, no, my opposition does not rise from partisan prejudice but out of what I sincerely believe to be principled patriotism. I have been a student of politics and U.S. history since Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace battled each other when I was eight years old. I have never been so concerned about what is being done to our country and I place blame for that squarely on the president and those he has enlisted in his effort to protect himself at the expense of our country.

That being the case, I cannot and will not remain silent.

12/30/2017

My 2017 Books in Review

Last year, a friend posted his top five book reviews (plus one). I like that idea, so I'm stealing it (though mine is top five plus short takes). For what it's worth.

The Road to Serfdom (F. A. Hayek)
Finally got around to reading this because I know this treatise, written during WWII as a warning against central planning, was pivotal in forming the free market doctrine that has become such a part of today's politics and policy. No doubt, the author opposes central planning, but this is far from the pure, free-market gospel it has been taken to be. While Hayek opposes central planning of production at the expense of competition, he fully supports regulation to protect workers, consumers and society, arguing that such regulation should be designed so business bears the full cost of production, passing it on to customers in the form of higher costs, rather than to the aforementioned parts of society in the form of pollution, defects and safety hazards. Hayek also argues in favor of a government role in things like health care, stating, “Where, in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are weakened by the provision of assistance, the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is quite strong.” Such thoughts are so at odds with how this book is portrayed that it begs the question, how'd we get it so wrong? Turns out, the version popularized in the U.S. was the Readers Digest condensed version, meaning we've been basing an entire school of thought on a half-assed rendering. Capitalism is great, but it is flawed. Hayek knew that, but we ignore the second part of that previous sentence at our own peril.

Hitler: The Ascent 1899-1939 (Volker Ullrich)
I chose to read this book because I wanted to know how an educated, advanced, culturally liberal and diverse nation could permit the rise of someone like Hitler - a political outsider scoffed at early on by intellectuals, the elite and much of mainstream society who did not take his political ambitions seriously. Nonetheless, he gained his nation's highest office despite not winning a majority of votes, thanks to the quirks of national electoral politics. He did so by exploiting peoples' fears, creating us versus them narratives that painted foreigners and members of non-Christian religion as threats to be stopped, banned or vanquished. He excoriated his opponents as unpatriotic and railed against the "lugenpresse" (lying press) as purveyors of lies and exaggerations. With the truth-tellers discredited, he garnered support from a not insignificant portion of his nation's religious leaders, and begrudgingly, the business and political classes who had believed at first that they could control him. Eventually, they began to ignore the worst of his tendencies and dismissed global criticism because he delivered much-desired economic growth. Even when his most extreme supporters rose in violence against minorities, he was able to quiet dissent by placing blame on the victims for bringing it on themselves. In many ways, the people were like the proverbial frog, not noticing what was transpiring around them. Unfortunately, the book ends in August of 1939. I'll have to wait for Vol. 2 to learn how this all plays out.

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
When asked what made his books so readable, Elmore Leonard answered it was because he left out the boring parts. Ayn Rand is no Elmore Leonard. I revisited this book because I wanted to see if it would resonate today like it did when I first read it as an unattached, unencumbered 27 year-old. It did not. This book is one-dimensional in every way - characters, plot, theme. The heroes all strive with purpose, the villains all snivel and whine. Every action by the capitalist heroes makes mankind better, every action taken by those who would seek to ease the suffering of others simply makes that suffering worse. And the only thing that matters in life - this is the theme of not just this novel, but the entire life work of the author - is the almighty dollar (the $ sign is the branding mark of the book's magnificent cigarette). Worse, they prattle on about their virtue and their misery without end. One monologue by uber-capitalist John Galt stretches for more than 70 pages without interruption. I bought into this when I was younger, in part because I was younger, in part because times were different. The U.S. was just digging out from a decade of stagflation, Great Britain was still a largely socialist country with nationalized industries regularly shutdown by labor strife. It was a time when the pendulum had swung a bit too far to the left. Now, it seems clear the opposite is true. Sadly, this simplistic view has influenced policy makers like Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP benefactors like the Koch Brothers, explaining why that pendulum is swinging too far right. We need a return to sound, centrist approaches to our challenges. A first step would be to recognize this book for the simplistic tripe it is.

Dark Money (Jane Mayer)
My wife says talking about this book makes me sound crazy. With good reason, because the deliberate, coordinated financial manipulation of our democratic process, and the amount of cash involved, that is described in this book is insane. "Dark Money" details the network of conservative donors led by Charles and David Koch. What I learned is that what I once believed was a general devolution of conservative thought driven by a ratings-conscious right-wing media that understood an agitated audience was a loyal (and profitable) audience, was actually the result of a long, well-funded, deliberate effort to inculcate think tanks, universities, media outlets, the Republican Party and the public with free-market, anti-government mantras based upon the shallow, one-dimensional rantings of Ayn Rand in "Atlas Shrugged" and the largely mistaken lessons gleaned from misreading F.A. Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" (see above). All the usual suspects are here - Betsy Devos, the Mercers (Cambridge Analytica), the Scaifes, John Menard, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, George Mason University, The Club for Growth, Glenn Beck and on and on. "Dark Money" brings together in one place all the names one will come across when Googling who is behind the seemingly innocuous story on climate change or tax policy or charter schools or gun rights. Like bread crumbs, the trail inevitably leads from a university group to a think tank to a foundation to a person with ties to the Koch Brothers. The breadth and depth of their involvement makes cries of "George Soros!" seem quaint by comparison. It would be funny if it wasn't putting our system of government at risk. If we are a nation that believes in one person, one vote, and that dollars sway votes, then those who spend the most dollars have the most sway. These folks have the money, and thanks to the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, have the avenue to use that money to sway votes as best suits them.

The Undoing Project (Michael Lewis)
A book by one of my favorite authors about one of my favorite authors (Daniel Kahneman) and his partner, Amos Tversky. Kahneman and Tversky are Israeli psychologists who changed the world by identifying just how bad we humans are at making rational decisions. That inability to choose wisely has led to mistaken medical diagnoses, airline disasters and the financial meltdowns following the housing and dotcom bubbles. The best description of their work comes from Tversky himself, who, when asked if their work was the basis for artificial intelligence, answered, "Not really, we study natural stupidity instead of artificial intelligence." That natural stupidity gives us death, bankruptcy and, well, whatever else we've got. The amazing thing is how people I've shared this with will argue how true it is, except for themselves. Silly people - glad I'm not susceptible to the same delusions. Or am I?

Short takes:

John Adams (David McCullough)
As a young man, John Adams mused how the fall of Rome began with the fall of Carthage, their greatest enemy. Might the fall of the U.S.S.R. be the catalyst behind a similar fate for the U.S., as we turn our anger inward now that we have no common foreign threat?

Ben Franklin (Walter Isaacson)
The man who replaced "sacred and undeniable" with "self-evident," as in "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Jefferson may have gotten all the cred, but Franklin had the goods.

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)
Writing about my old dry cleaning employees (the book is set 10 miles up the road from where I sit), JD makes a great point about how policies to encourage homeownership ended up trapping people who could not afford it in dying communities. An example of how our mantras can blind us.

The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker)
This book deserves far more space, but any book that dives deep into everything from nursery rhymes to nuclear war to describe and explain that we are living in the least violent period in history, is sure to be thorough. This one is entertaining, to boot.

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah)
Trevor Noah's mom was black, his father white. He was born in South Africa, and thus, his mere birth was a crime. To know what he's achieved given the story he tells here makes one want to shout, "Toughen up!" to anyone who complains that life isn't fair.

Shoe Dog (Phil Knight)
So refreshing to hear such a humble billionaire's tale of success. Memorable line: "If products don't cross borders, soldiers will." Something to ponder in protectionist times.

On The Brink (former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson)
The third book I've read on the financial meltdown reads like a financial thriller, which it is, as told by the ultimate insider. More proof that everyone - bankers, borrowers, Wall Street, Republicans, Democrats - everyone was at fault. And without those bailouts, we'd still be digging out from Great Depression II.

We Need to Talk (Celeste Headlee)
When good friends give you a book about becoming a better communicator, well, one best read it. Let's see - wandering mind? Check. Not listening to the other person because I'm trying to think of my response? Check? Relating every story back to me? Well, let's just say, thanks, I needed that.

Coming in 2018 - Born to Run, How the Right Lost it's Mind and more. Good reading, all.

12/18/2017

Tax Bill Closes Door on Needed Solutions

In his book On the Brink detailing the inside story of the 2008 financial meltdown, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson relates how, as the financial system was crumbling and in desperate need of immediate cash, GOP lawmakers argued for stimulatory tax cuts. In today's booming economy with little room for upside growth, GOP lawmakers argue for stimulatory tax cuts. As the old cliche goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. There could not be two economic scenarios more disparate than those described above, and yet, all the GOP can suggest is a shopworn, one-size-fits-all solution. Nothing could better demonstrate the vacuum that passes for intellectual conservative thought these days.

It is more than a shame, because given the disruptive nature of today's economy - from job-killing technologies to the rise of new global economic powers - the need for new ideas to address the challenges we face has never been greater. Unfortunately, such thought is in limited supply. Instead, stale thought is about to lock us into another decade (generation?) of record deficits at precisely the time we need fresh, disruptive thought to match the economic disruption of the times.

The challenges we face are myriad. We have entire communities whose livelihoods have disappeared, as trade and technology have reduced the value of the repetitive skills and reliable work habits of those folks, while simultaneously improving the profitability of those they once toiled for. That is both the elegance and the evil of capitalism's creative destruction, displacing the few for the greater good. However, unlike days gone by, when the displaced could rather quickly and easily find often better-paying work requiring similar skill sets (think farm worker moving to the urban factory), today's disruption often leaves those displaced with options that offer neither the pay nor protection of their previous employment. Thus, the family breadwinner who had health insurance and a pension to go with his or her $25 or $30 an hour job frequently feels fortunate to find a job without benefits at half the pay.

And yet, our public response is not to address the pain and pathologies these forgotten people and communities suffer, but rather, to reward those benefiting from that misfortune even further by cutting taxes on the additional profits that accrue from the misery inflicted upon those left behind. Hoping those tax savings will be invested in ways that help those suffering ignores that it is the investment of past tax cuts that gave us the technology that eliminated these jobs in the first place. The argument that we've weathered such dynamics before as new businesses absorb those made obsolete ignores the fact that today's technology delivers a double-whammy in that technology is not seeking to make repetitive manual labor easier, but to eliminate such work altogether, thus requiring a new skill set that cannot be learned quickly - all while the pace of such change accelerates more each day, making it nearly impossible for the displaced to keep up.

This disruption will only get worse. As robotics and artificial intelligence make more roles obsolete, we'll see even those thought secure at risk of marginalization. The same technology that transformed the shop floor can now be seen in warehouse automation, order entry and checkout kiosks and more. Self-driving trucks threaten to eliminate some two million high-paying blue-collar jobs. And everyone from diagnostic radiologists to software coders are in the crosshairs of the automation revolution. As society becomes more and more automated, as more and more workers are marginalized, the benefits will accrue to those who remain.

That seems only fair, but at what cost? We already see entire communities struggling under a wave of addiction. Families fret over how to pay for needed health care, let alone the education they know their children will need to survive in this changing world. The anger that has divided us and delivered today's dysfunctional leaders will only get more vocal, more desperate. We risk permanently cleaving into two separate societies - one plagued by crime, poverty, addiction and poor health, the other safely protected in gated communities. That is not freedom. Not for those unable to provide for their families and not for those living behind guarded gates.

The irony in all this - and the great opportunity we are about to squander when this tax bill becomes law - is that what business craves most, what they consistently argue is the greatest need they have, are skilled, reliable, educated workers. Yet an intellectually bankrupt GOP is about to deliver more of what they don't need, and in the process severely cripple our ability to invest in what they do need. They'll argue this tax cut will spur growth that will cure our ills. But when it proves once more it won't, they'll then argue we haven't the resources to invest in people or education or infrastructure or addiction treatment. And so, they'll argue for another round of stimulatory tax cuts, while our roads deteriorate, our schools suffer and an ever larger portion of our population falls further behind. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There's another familiar cliche that says doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Well, that describes the GOP's tax bill. We've been pursuing that path for a generation now, leaving a trail of forgotten Americans who are slowly losing the wherewithal to educate their children for a future that seems ever further out of reach. Is that really our best path forward? Are we not the nation of immigrants whose parents sacrificed their own creature comforts for the well-being of future generations? Did we not learn their lessons? If not, what have we become - and is this who we strive to be?

12/15/2017

Nationalists Were Wrong in 1992, They are Wrong Today

In the days before the internet I would actually write down thoughts, not to be shared with the world, but to capture them for later consideration. Here is one of those journal entries from March 1992 that seems to have some meaning today:

"There are conservatives (such as Pat Buchanan) who have the attitude that it's 'us against them,' whether 'us' is the U.S., working people, WASPs, etc. They simply want to hold onto what 'we' have and screw the rest. On the other hand, there are conservatives who feel that all can benefit through conservative principles. This approach is promoted by people such as Jack Kemp through 'Empowerment.' I definitely subscribe to the latter."
I would argue that today's Republican Party has been taken over by the Pat Buchanan wing, as personified by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Thus, why I find myself so opposed to it and the president. I have never been a believer in the us vs. them, zero-sum narrative upon which they base their entire approach to governing.