Sunday, November 28, 2010


I hope your Thanksgiving weekend is going well. Mine certainly has. It was nice to see my 89-year old mother get well just in time to come over and spend the holiday with the rest of the family. And given that one of my daughters is in college and the other will be there next year, I don’t take it for granted when both of them are home. So yeah, it’s been a great Thanksgiving.

This time of year, it seems appropriate to turn this blog into an opportunity to express gratitude generally, for even in the darkest times (like the fall of 2001), there are always reasons to do so. Here’s my 2010 list of that for which I am especially thankful:

1. Second Acts

Americans see it all the time in the entertainment industry: some rogue actor, musician or athlete makes a comeback, and if they can produce high quality work, all is forgiven. Maybe we’re too forgiving. But that’s America for you. It’s not a nation of grudge holders, it’s a nation of dreamers. When we find people who inspire us, we tend not to look a gift horse in the mouth and inquire as to whether everything in his or her past has been exemplary.

Tiger Woods certainly has not behaved in an exemplary fashion. By contrast, Barack Obama’s ethical record has been spotless. But let’s face it – 2010 has been a year that both would like to forget. For Tiger, it has provided plenty of shame off the golf course and futility on it. For Barack, it has been a year of standing eight counts, during which the Republicans and Tea Partiers kept throwing body blows, and he seemingly had no answers at all, other than just to protect his face and hope for the end of the round (or in this case, the final tallying of the midterm election results).

Well, that round is over. It’s time for a second act if there is to be one. And in the case of a President in the third year of his presidency, that second act is often glorious because the other Party overplays its own hand after a victorious midterm. Look for that to happen again this year – the GOP seems to think it has a mandate to implement a hard-right agenda, which it clearly does not, any more than Barack had a mandate to govern hard to the left. Once the Republicans overreact, then we can see if Barack has it in him to identify a coherent vision that will appeal to most Americans, or if he truly is like a punch-drunk fighter who is ready for the showers. I personally won’t count him out yet – there’s still a lot of political talent in that mind of his, and the man does seem like a fundamentally decent person. So let’s give him a chance and hope for the best. We’ll likely find out his fate soon enough due to the budget crisis that will be coming to a head in the early spring.

As for Tiger, I wish I knew enough about golf to sensibly predict what will happen in his second act. Clearly, the imposter who has been walking the course over the past few months is not Tiger Woods. Once (the old) Tiger put together a decent round of golf, you knew for a fact that he would be solid for the rest of the tournament. It’s called getting in a rhythm – or as they say in sports, in “the zone.” But the imposter is just a run of the mill PGA golfer – one moment he hits a great shot and the next moment he looks like a bum, and that’s the way it’s been going from round to round, tournament to tournament. You can win money on the PGA tour playing like that, but not tournaments, and certainly not the five Major tournaments Tiger needs to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major titles. It was a record that seemed unbreakable before Tiger, but incredibly vulnerable from the minute Tiger won his first Masters. Now, nobody has a clue what’s going to happen, and that is what makes it so exciting for a sports fan. So Tiger, let’s see what you got. The Masters will be upon us at right about the same time that Barack and Boehner get to play brinksmanship on the budget. If nothing else, these second acts will be Must See TV.

2. Setting Suns

There are few things more beautiful than a sunset. My family is fortunate to live in a house with a western exposure that backs on to a 77-acre field. It makes for incredible moments at dusk.

Well, if you too like setting suns, I think you may be about ready to witness a doozy. I’m referring to the Presidential aspirations of the former Governor of Alaska turned reality TV star. I for one am thrilled about the prospect that her 15 minutes are just about up. She’s one of my least favorite politicians, and that’s probably as nice a way as I can put it.

To be sure, as a “celebrity,” Sarah is still a hot commodity. Most people find her to be quite the curiosity, and as a result, the media can’t talk about her enough. But the same could have been said about, say, Paris Hilton, two or three years ago. That hardly made Paris electable to high office. Eventually, her sun set altogether, and now she’s just a has-been, even as a celebrity. I’m not sure that Sarah will soon be quite as irrelevant as Paris, but I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that her fans are nothing more than a passionate fringe, and that most Republicans want little more to do with her as a politician than do the Democrats.

Think about it -- first, she gets dissed by Karl Rove, and then ol’ Barbara Bush takes a shot at her. Isn’t it clear that “momma grizzly” isn’t exactly the favorite of the Republican elite? What’s more, she is absolutely loathed by the Democrats, and presumably those who run the Tea Party are smart enough to realize that the one person most capable of waking up the Democrats from their slumbers is none other than Sarah Palin. She inspires both fear and disdain on the left – disdain that she thinks she belongs in the White House without paying her dues, and fear for the country and the world if she ever realized her dream. If you want a Republican elected to the White House in 2013, the last thing you’d do is let Barack Obama debate Sarah Palin and watch her talk about our North Korean allies.

So yes, I do see a constellation of interests conspiring to render Sarah Palin increasingly irrelevant in American Presidential politics, but what I can’t say is exactly how this sun is likely to set. More like Howard Dean screaming? Or more gracefully, as when Teddy Kennedy wisely satisfied himself with a career as a legislator instead of an executive? There is a shrewdness to this woman to suggest that she might well recognize her limitations before she declares her candidacy for the presidency and becomes fodder for the late night comics. For now, though, she seems determined to continue to make an ass of herself, most recently by taking on Michelle Obama’s efforts to confront childhood obesity. If she keeps this up, I’m going to have to find a new metaphor, because whether it’s sunny or rainy, cloudy or clear, I’ve never seen a sunset as ugly as Palin can be when she’s in full-demagogue mode. Imagine being unconcerned about the recent diabetes epidemic and the other side-effects of childhood obesity. Even the Tea Partiers have to be wondering if they have had a crush on the wrong girl.

3. Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck

On behalf of all of those who bleed Stanford Cardinal (the color not the bird), I wish to thank Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck for giving us the greatest year of Stanford football in nearly four decades. All of the talking heads are saying that Harbaugh will be coaching somewhere else next year, even though Stanford surely will want him back, and all of the talking heads are saying that Andrew Luck will be quarterbacking somewhere else next year, even though Stanford surely will want him back and he will not yet have graduated. If the yentahs are right, no sooner will those guys be gone from The Farm than Stanford football will take its customary place mired in Pac-10 mediocrity. Still, here’s one thing the yentahs will never be able to take away: the memories of 2010.

In the past several weeks, Stanford has defeated Washington 41-0, Oregon State 38-0, UCLA 35-0, Wake Forest 68-24, California 48-14, Arizona 42-17 and Notre Dame 37-14, among other victories. It’s pretty impressive stuff, considering that shortly before Harbaugh and Luck came to the campus, this team wasn’t 11-1 (like they are this year), but rather 1-11. Back then, we alums were reading in an alumni magazine about how Stanford couldn’t compete in football because the school was too good academically. It’s funny how easy it is to make excuses, isn’t it?

Let that be the lesson of this year’s Stanford football team: no more excuses. If you fail at something, begin by looking in the mirror. You’ll always find something there from which to learn.

So, to one and all, Go Stanford! And I hope you had great Thanksgiving -- even if you went to Berkeley.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


You’ll forgive me if I’m too full of joy today to type for very long in my blog. Yesterday was magical. It started off in the morning at one of my favorite synagogues (albeit not my own) attending my friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, then it got better in the afternoon when I watched my beloved Stanford Cardinal football team simply dismember their hated rival Cal-Berkeley by more than 30 points (Stanford is now 10-1, whereas five or so years ago we were 1-10) … but the strangest thing of all was that this incredible butt-kicking of a football game wasn’t even the high point of my day. Last evening, I went to the Jewish Folk Arts Festival concert and heard a number of professional Jewish cantors and other singers, including some of the most accomplished Jewish voices in the world. Somehow, my 20 year old daughter got invited to perform a couple of songs, and the crowd absolutely loved her. At the end of the evening, one of my favorite performers told me that she and a couple of the other professionals were talking about how great it was to hear Hannah, because it assured them that there is a new generation of Jewish voices who can keep this music alive. I kept a straight face. But now, when I think of those words, my eyes well up.

So what does all that have to do with a post about politics? It’s very simple. What I’m describing in the paragraph above is one word: passion. Football makes us passionate, music makes us passionate, and our daughter’s accomplishments make us REALLY passionate.

Passion is the sail that leads the way for all of our accomplishments. Indeed, when in The Creed Room I set out to describe the philosophy of “Empathic Rationalism” and then to summarize this philosophy in one sentence, this was the result: “Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder.”

Two years ago, when we were electing Barack Obama President and bazillions of Democrats to the House and Senate, practically all the nation’s passion was on the side of the progressives. To be sure, conservatives were passionate about Sarah Palin during the two or three weeks after she was nominated – and indeed, thanks to her, McCain was briefly ahead of Obama in the polls. But once Palin finished showing her vacuity in an interview with Katie Couric, and once the so-called “Stock Market Crash of 2008” revealed the Republicans’ failure to exercise responsible stewardship over the economy, that passion was gone. Plenty of conservatives continued to support the McCain-Palin ticket, but they were choosing the lesser of two evils, rather than enthusiastically endorsing either ticket. By contrast, progressives were going crazy over Obama –throwing money at him and volunteering time. When he said “We are the change we have been waiting for,” they thought they knew exactly what he meant and believed every word of it … even if he himself hadn’t quite figured it out.

I throw out these ideas now because the Democratic Party generally, and this White House in particular, is at a crossroads. Conventional wisdom tells them to tack to the center – as Clinton did after the first two years of his presidency – and enter into what a parliamentary system would call a “Unity Government.” That would begin with compromises on such fundamental, and yet partisan, issues as tax cuts for the rich.

But there is another alternative. And that is for Party leaders to stand their ground and govern as if they still control one branch of Congress and the Executive Branch of Government. Would that be political suicide? Would that constitute flipping the bird to the American public, the will of which was loudly heard during the Midterms? The answer to those questions, at least for me, is a resounding “no.”

From where I’m sitting, the last election can largely be attributed to a HUGE passion gap. Right now, conservatives and libertarians collectively monopolize that commodity. Throughout Red America, people are excited at the prospect of “taking their country back” from the so-called “socialists” in Washington who have no appreciation for the legitimate needs and importance of the private sector. This Administration of Democrats, by contrast, has compromised and compromised and compromised. “We are the change we have been waiting for” now appears to be empty rhetoric, and nobody quite knows what the Administration stands for other than the desire to work in a bi-partisan way. Under the circumstances, is there any question why Democrats could muster little enthusiasm for these past midterms? What exactly was supposed to be their rallying cry: “We are not as bad as the other guys!” Talk about a fear-based campaign.

For those who would say that the Democrats’ many accomplishments during the past two years should generate enthusiasm, think twice. The Wall Street bailouts that brought us from the brink of an economic collapse were obviously no different than what the Republicans would have enacted. Frankly, so are the measures we’ve taken in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The “stimulus package” that Obama pushed through is obviously different than what the Republicans claim to be supporting, but it was hardly a bold package. Just read the progressive op-eds and blogs and you’ll find many diatribes against the stimulus package, contending that it was neither large nor focused enough to do for Main Street was Obama was willing to do for Wall Street. Such a package is not exactly the kind of thing that breeds progressive passion.

Of course, the crown jewel of the past two years – the “groundbreaking legislation” – is the President’s health care plan. Clearly, this was his greatest priority once he stabilized the economy. But even this plan, as popular as it is among progressives, isn’t exactly causing them to turn cartwheels. The supposedly socialist “Obamacare” plan that the conservatives love to ridicule is little different than the previous ideas advocated by moderate Republicans (like Mitt Romney’s plan, when he was Governor of Massachusetts, or the proposal of Robert Dole, when he was running for President). Plus, what is particularly interesting about the present dynamic is that the plan will largely not be implemented for years down the road, and by then, the Republicans may have made good on their threats to repeal it. So even this groundbreaking legislation isn’t something on which the Democrats can truly count.

What should the Democrats count on? What should they be rallying around? How about this: at a time when our economy is in trouble and a small group of Americans are amassing ungodly wealth while most of the country is having trouble treading water, Americans can ill afford to cut taxes on the ultra wealthy. We simply must fight those tax cuts. And doing so is anything but “class warfare.” For it is precisely out of respect for the ultra-rich and their patriotism that we must take this stand. Patriotic billionaires don’t leave the country simply because of a small marginal tax increase. They do their part and help out – and Lord knows that there is plenty to be done, even if it just means paying down the debt.

If the Democrats want to function as a legitimate Party, they need to remember what the Republican Party has long ago realized. While it is important to work with the other Party whenever possible, and while it is vital to listen to the American public, never should a Party take its base for granted. Never should a Party give up on issues that are the most critical to that base. And if you’re a Democrat, never should you voluntarily give up on an issue like tax cuts for the rich without first waging a battle royale.

If you do, kiss your base’s passion goodbye!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Ideologically, I may be progressive, but dispositionally, I am quite conservative when it comes to money. I don’t like to borrow beyond my means, and it makes no sense to me that our federal government should perpetually live with trillions of dollars worth of debt – particularly given how much of this debt is owed to foreign countries. Consequently, I view myself as fiscally responsible and have been awaiting a report from the National Debt Commission as to how best to raise more revenues or cut expenses.

That Report is now out. And instead of allowing me to see red tape, it just has me seeing red.

I will leave it to others, progressives and conservatives alike, to chronicle everything that is wrong with that report and confine my brief statements today to a single provision – the suggestion that the Government freeze federal salaries for a period of three years.

Supposedly, federal salaries have become bloated because they never dropped as a result of the recession that began in 2008. But that statement is misleading for two reasons. First, federal workers’ retirement plans were largely affected by the recession insofar as they were tied to the stock market. But more importantly, the statement is a half truth – for just as it is true that federal (non-pension) salaries didn’t appreciably decrease due to the recession, it is also true that federal salaries didn’t appreciably rise during the boom years that preceded the recent recession. Federal salaries, in short, move like turtles – slowly, and steadily – whereas private salaries can skyrocket or shrink depending upon short-term trends in the economy. Simply to examine one particular slice of time in an effort to show that the federal employees are a fat and happy bunch is patently absurd.

If there are folks who have effectively beat the system, it isn’t federal workers. Rather, it’s workers like those on Wall Street who made gobs and gobs of money when the economy was going great, and then when it tanked, they were bailed out by the Government. Federal workers never had such a luxury. There was no time I can recall when their salaries increased dramatically. So if they are not benefiting when the economy is going well, why should they be punished when it isn’t? How could that possibly be fair?

Surely, the Debt Commission recognizes the conceptual error in their reasoning. But they are desperate to find ways of reducing the Debt that are politically palatable. And what could be more palatable these days than bashing Government workers? In fact, as my conservative friends often remind me, even the term “Government worker” is an oxymoron. According to the Fox News/Tea Party narrative, we are lazy people with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and an unwillingness to be held accountable. We resemble those on welfare much more than we resemble people who do real work (meaning in the private sector).

Seeing as how I have been working roughly 80 hours a week lately on my own federal job, you will hopefully understand that I find these arguments to be nothing short of revolting. What I’ve noticed with my own eyes – which mean more to me than the ideology spewed by Government-hating talking heads – is very different from the image of the federal worker portrayed on Fox News. Line attorneys for most Government agencies, even after achieving the very top grade and step of the GS pay scale, now earn roughly the same amount as first year associates at Washington, D.C. law firms, and about half of what law firms pay experienced attorneys who never made partner. As for those law firm attorneys who did make partner – and these are the ones who attorneys like myself are expected to battle in court – they frequently earn four or more times what we earn.

Those are the facts. But unfortunately, they aren’t persuasive to the dyed in the wool Government hater. The Fox News crowd would surely add that law firm salaries should dwarf those in the Government because law firm attorneys work appreciably harder than their federal counterparts. From what I’ve seen, however, that is bunk. Junior associates may be expected to kill themselves, but I suspect that federal litigators work similar hours to those in the private sector. As for the credentials of those in the public and private sectors, I would again argue that they are comparable. Certainly, any differences pale in comparison to the differences in pay – we in the federal government are working comparably hard for MUCH less money. At least I can say that’s the case for my own office and for many others I’ve observed.

From where I’m sitting, there are plenty of folks who could easily afford to “take one for the team” and pitch in on the effort to shrink the National Debt. People who earn over $300,000 … or for that matter $300 million, immediately come to mind. And what about those farmers who are receiving many millions of dollars in federal agricultural subsidies? Can’t they afford to pitch in? Why then is the National Debt Commission throwing the federal workers under the bus?

We all know the answer. There’s a tidal wave of rhetoric flowing from the hinterland these days and it is directed to those people who are seen, bucolically speaking, as “sucking on the federal tit.” I can just hear the demagogues unload their bile: “Welfare queens, your time is up! Government workers, you too! It’s time for a little pay cut. And if you don’t like it and feel like quitting, don’t let the door hit your fat ass on the way out.”

This is today’s America. It wasn’t yesterday’s and it won’t be tomorrow’s, but it is the mood of the moment. These attitudes are cyclical, and right now the Government worker is not an object of respect. Well that’s fine, I suppose. Disrespect us if you must. But don’t insult our intelligence -- and remove your own credibility – with arguments that show no basic grasp of economics.

As for the folks on the National Commission, if you’re going to freeze our salaries for the next few years, are you prepared to advocate that we get raises of 10% or 15% the next time the economy enters a boom cycle? I’m still waiting for an answer. I didn’t read anything about that in your report.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Especially after seeing the title to this blogpost, you're surely expecting some comments about the Democratic bloodbath otherwise known as Tuesday’s Midterms. But you’re probably up to your ears in political analysis, whereas I can’t imagine you’ve seen anything lately like what you’re about to read.

What follows is taken from an e-mail I received from the wife of a former high school classmate. I will remove all the names and refer to my former classmate as “Friend” and to everyone else based on their relationship to my former classmate. For what it’s worth, the subject of this e-mail is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Here goes:

From: [Friend]
Sent: Monday, September 27, 2010 10:44 PM
To: _______
Subject: Good bye from [Friend]

Dear friends of [Friend],

On Friday, September 24, [Friend] made a decision to end his life. He specifically asked me to share the message below with all of you (and any other friends).
As you might imagine, I'm feeling a little fragile right now. So, email communications are fine but I'm not ready for phone conversations yet.

I appreciate your prayers and I can feel your loving support. I don't yet know how we will commemorate [Friend], but I'll let you know when plans are set.

Love to us all,

[Friend’s wife]


Good bye,

To my wife. Thank you for the gift you’ve been. You have been the absolute highlight of my life. Without you, I would not have made it this far. While I expect my departure will be rough on you in the short term, I hope it opens up space for a new partner who can meet you in the routine activities of the living that have become closed to me over the years. And should the stories of a wonderful place like heaven turn out to be true, I’ll look forward to seeing you there when your time comes.

To [my children]. This brings an end to the role I play in your lives. From here on, you will remember and forget that which you choose. I hope that you will remember my love for you.

To Mum, We’ve both wondered for years who might cross this bridge first. I’d hoped I could outlast you to spare you the pain, but events conspired so the choice about timing became no choice at all.

To my Brothers and everyone else. The answer to the question why is really quite simply that my living had become a hell of pain and nausea and hundred other tortures of my brain and body, some of which I could not describe given months to think on the right words. Each day I awoke to a nightmare that just got worse and worse. Occasionally there were leads, but ultimately whatever is eating away at my brain and wreaking havoc with my mind is something that is not yet understood. I hung in there as long as I could, but ultimately chose to have mercy.

Recent experiences and studies have shown that my body does not have an effective way to regulate cerebro spinal fluid pressure or temperature. For years doctors have tried to pigeon hole me into either high or low temperature even though the evidence indicates that I suffer from both. As yet, there are no conditions characterized by the inability to regulate pressure and temperature in the brain. Not surprising, when doctors see things that don’t fit the buckets in their text books, they tend to dismiss the case rather than question the buckets. In some number of years may be 15 or 25, they will have a handle on the condition that has brought my brain low. And then they may fix it. I have been wrestling with my diminished capacities and mounting distresses for 11 years and simply do not have the stamina to continue.

Some look upon suicide as a sure route to damnation. For that to be true, god would have to be less merciful than myself, which seems unlikely. Others might condemn me for the pain this will cause [my wife] and other’s that love me. All I can say is that their pain has tracked my deterioration all along as they have watched me turn into a wrecked shadow of my normal self, always struggling to reach the next patch of peace to rest upon.

It was simply time for me to go. I, tried to do this in a way that is swift and sure. I apologize to all of you who will be harmed by my passing. If there is some aspect of my gifts during my lifetime that means something to you, I’d invite you to work [with my wife] and bring those pieces to life again whether that be writings on personal growth, hitchhiking, government policy etc. To the extent that people desire, I can live on through the actions of others. At the very least I will rest in the peaceful knowledge that I contributed my all, right up to the end.

Love to you all