Saturday, October 28, 2017

Why All This Complacency, Democrats?

My mother was born in 1921.  Since then, seven men have been elected President of the United States as Democrats.   Their median age at the time of their first election was 50.  In my lifetime, which began in 1960, there have been five Democratic Presidents.  Their median age at the time of their first election was 47.   Just look at the ages of the following political icons at the time of their first Presidential victory:  JFK – 43, Bill Clinton – 46, Barack Obama -- 47, FDR – 50.  Apparently, when it comes to electing Democrats, America likes ‘em young.  

Now, take a look at the Democratic leadership today.   In the House of Representatives, you have Nancy Pelosi (who will be 80 by the time of the 2020 election) and Steny Hoyer (who will be 81).  In the Senate, Chuck Schumer (who will be 70) and Dick Durbin (who will be 75).   In terms of the de facto leaders of the Party, you have Bernie Sanders (who will be 79), Joe Biden (who will be 77, Hillary Clinton (who will be 73), and Elizabeth Warren (who will be a mere 71).    Recently, Dianne Feinstein decided that she should seek re-election for her job as Senior Senator from the nation’s largest state.  She will be 87 by the time of the 2020 election.  That would make her old even in comparison to the other prominent Democratic politicians.  It would appear that if you want to lead this party, you should be in your 70s, not your 80s.

Sobering stuff if, like me, you are a Democrat.  But I gather from the pundits on TV that many of the other members of my Party aren’t nearly so sobered.  They’re getting drunk with joy from all the reported Republican in-fighting that’s been going on lately, especially the statements against the current President by Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.   My fellow Democrats ignore the fact that Messrs. Flake and Corker consistently vote with the Administration on all major issues of the day, including those awful health care bills, and that when they do leave the Senate they will quite likely be replaced in their Republican-leaning states by other Republicans.  My fellow Democrats similarly ignore the fact that their Party controls only 15 Governor’s mansions, even fewer state houses, and are dominated in all branches of the federal government.  And yet, despite those stubborn facts, my fellow Democrats not only expect to excel in the mid-terms of 2018 but also count on regaining the White House in 2020, just as they counted on keeping it in 2016.

Why all this optimism?  Or perhaps the better question is, why all this complacency?

From where I’m sitting, this is a rudderless, leaderless Party which is currently kept together entirely by the ability to oppose the current Administration.   Yes, the “just say no” approach to serving in the minority worked for the GOP when Obama was President and its use by the Dems may indeed preclude many a Republican initiative advanced by Trump and Pence.   But it is not, by itself, an election strategy, as evidenced by the fact that the mainstream Republican candidates who ran in 2016 got trounced by a political outsider who did stand FOR something (call it the “America First” strategy) and enunciated his views in extremely plain-spoken terms.

Do the Democrats have a leader who is going to stand FOR something and who will make that case in extremely plain-spoken terms?   And if so, will he or she seem youthful, vibrant and relateable enough to appeal to those swing districts that elected a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama?

Until those questions can be answered in the affirmative, the Democrats might want to think twice before donning their party hats every time the GOP stubs its toe.  From where I’m sitting, the Republicans aren’t the only ones who have problems these days.  They’re just the only ones who have power.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Embracing Regulations ... Up to a Point

My first job after law school was at the Federal Communications Commission in the Common Carrier Bureau.  I worked on rulemaking proceedings designed to deregulate the telecommunications industry.  At that time, many of my fellow progressives were concerned that such deregulation would hurt the poor.   For years, they had argued that monopolization in that industry was needed to ensure the universal availability of cheap phone service.  According to this argument, deregulation would unleash the uncaring forces of a competitive market.  This could benefit affluent consumers, but the poor would be out of luck, as businesses could hardly expect to profit from subsidizing their phone services.   

Being that I was a young man who lacked either a crystal ball or a sophisticated understanding of telecommunications, I simply did my job and watched to see what happened.  Soon enough, the picture became clear; I witnessed a deregulation-driven revolution in telecommunications that has clearly benefited everyone, rich and poor alike.  

That didn’t stop me from being a progressive.  But it did stop me from being an ideologue.
For example, I developed a fear of monopolization and a love for accountability, market-driven or otherwise.  Years after I left the FCC, got married and began raising two daughters, my family took a trip to California.  We were staying for a few days with a friend in San Francisco and I needed to get a parking sticker for my car.  We easily spent two hours waiting in line at a government office to get that stupid little sticker, and I used half of that time to lecture my daughters about the inherent inefficiencies of government as a provider of goods and services.    Just think about the last time you visited the Department of Motor Vehicles in your town.  Those needlessly long lines didn’t just happen overnight; they emerged from decades of complacency and perverse incentives.     

In short, I didn’t want my children to grow up as “progressives” and not appreciate the limitations of government.  I didn’t want them worshiping at the altar of regulation.  But I also didn’t want them worshiping Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” either.  There are times when the free market simply malfunctions.  Upstream companies pollute and downstream neighbors pay the price.  Executives commit larceny by trick and then hire a bevy of lawyers to cover up the problem.  Consumers fall in love with dangerous products and suppliers inevitably arise to satisfy that demand – while innocent third parties are left to pick up the pieces.   We see these patterns as well.   That is, if we’re willing to look with unbiased eyes.

In the last couple of days, I’ve seen a number of articles that serve as clear reminders of why we need strong government regulations despite the inherent potential for overreach.  Yesterday’s Washington Post contained back-to-back articles reporting the results of pro-regulation studies that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  One article was entitled “Study ties loose conceal-carry laws to higher gun death rates.”  In other words, if you allow every Tom, Dick and Harry to secretly pack heat, folks are going to get pissed off from time and time and shoot somebody.   Makes sense, don’t you think?   Another article was entitled “Study links fewer recurrent concussions in young athletes to new state laws.”   In other words, if you require high school football players to stop playing when they’ve “just had their bell rung,” maybe – just maybe – they won’t have their bell rung so often in the future (and they might not ring your bell as often after they retire from football).     

To me, regulating the use of concealed-carry weapons or the ability of football players to continue playing with concussions is so obviously needed that it seems almost silly to have to argue the point.  And yet there are plenty of folks who oppose these types of laws because the government would be responsible for making the laws and enforcing them. 

Wednesday’s New York Times had an article about Moran, Texas, a small town that survives largely because of a plant that manufactures bump stocks, the gizmos that are widely viewed as being responsible for many deaths in the recent Las Vegas massacre.  You might not be surprised that in Moran, bump stocks, which serve to convert semi-automatic into automatic weapons, remain insanely popular.  According to one resident, “Guns don’t kill people. [Bump] ... stocks don’t kill people.  It could have been just as lethal, if not more so, with a good scope.”   

Blah, blah, blah.  Spare me the rationalizations.  To me, the problem is inherent in a capitalist economy.  You show me a person with an itch to buy something crazy and a wallet big enough to pay for it, and I’ll show you a second person with a willingness to scratch that itch and a hundred explanations of why they’ve done nothing wrong.    Sometimes, regulation is all that stands in the way of matching up those two people and ruining innocent lives in the process. 

We live during a time when America is divided into multiple sub-cultures.  In one, government is so despised that even sensible regulations are viewed with suspicion.  In another, the one with which I associate myself, government isn’t seen as a “necessary evil” at all – just a limited good.  Folks like me recognize that it’s not government’s job to dominate an economy, for nine times out of ten, the marketplace truly knows best.  But we also realize that if we let the marketplace decide ten times out of ten, the results can get very ugly, very dangerous, and very tragic.  

When it’s time to go to the ballot box next year, please listen closely to the way candidates talk about the value of government.  Are they respectful?  Or do they like to treat government regulation and government workers like piƱatas?   Just as the Czars of Russia used to blame everything on the Jews, some politicians like to blame all of society’s woes on the public sector.  As a 32-year veteran of public service and a 57-year old Jew, you’ll forgive me if I’m sensitive about either type of demagoguery.           

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Beyond the Casting Couch

Last week, the Empathic Rationalist was compelled to point out Hollywood’s hypocrisy when it swims in violence while preaching about love.  But truly, you can’t even begin to talk about hypocrisy in Tinseltown without touching on the one other vice that “sells” even better than gore.  And I’m not talking about drugs or rock ‘n roll.

Our topic today reminds me of the old saw about the celebrated ethics professor who is caught cheating on his wife.  “Being an ethics expert means that I have to know a lot about ethics,” he responds.  “It doesn’t mean I have to be an ethical man.” 

To be sure, Hollywood knows a lot about romance.  It gives us star-crossed romances, fairy-tale romances, and romances where the hot guy falls in love with the single mom’s kid and only later falls in love with the single mom.   It gives us single-gender romances, inter-generational romances, and inter-racial romances.   It gives us visions of life-long romances -- like the old couple holding hands on the Titanic knowing that they’re about to die, but at least they’re about to die together.    You name it, if there’s a way to show two people falling in love, being in love, or tragically falling out of love, Hollywood has done it.  And the rest of us lap it up like Pavlov’s dogs. 

Then we read about the “stars” and their personal lives.   Love gurus they’re not.   If you’ve been in that town for decades and you’re only on marriage number two, that alone should qualify you for a star on Hollywood Boulevard.   But rushing in and out of love affairs is the least of Hollywood’s problems.   The far more profound issue is that many of these people seem incapable of loving in the first place.  And this stems from an attitude where they treat members of the opposite sex more as bodies than as minds.  When you combine that pervasive malady with a hierarchical power structure, you create a sub-culture that is as ugly as ugly gets.   There’s the real irony:  the environment known for producing the most “beautiful” of people may actually be producing the ugliest.  

This week, the award for Manifest Ugliness in Tinseltown doesn’t go to a narcissistic star but rather a studio executive.   While his face might not have been as recognizable as the leading men and women he promoted, Harvey Weinstein had a name known to anyone who has paid even a scintilla of attention to films.   Literally every movie goer would have been familiar with his work.  Weinstein produced, among other flicks, Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, and Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar).   Literally dozens of Academy Award winners have thanked him personally during their acceptance speeches.  He is, by most accounts, one of the most successful movie producers who ever lived. 

Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein seemed to be on top of the world.  Today, he has become a punching bag.  “I have a brother that’s indefensible and crazy,” said Weinstein’s brother Bob, who served with Harvey as a co-founder of Weinstein, Inc.  “I want him to get the justice that he deserves.”  Bob Weinstein went on to claim that brother Harvey was a “bully,” “arrogant” and “treated people like s—t all the time.”

In the past fortnight, one woman after another has made accusations against Weinstein, some of which involve horrible criminal acts.  The Empathic Rationalist is a law-free zone, and I will not comment about the specific allegations or their merit.  What I will point out is how striking it is that for years, Weinstein’s reputation was apparently well known in Hollywood but only in Hollywood.  Despite the fact that he associated with legions of liberal politicians and movie stars, many of whom are surely feminists, nobody saw fit to blow the whistle. 

What should we make of all this?

First, let’s not allow Hollywood to minimize the problem by pretending it’s not pervasive.  To suggest that Hollywood’s “casting couch” problem is merely a Weinstein problem is like saying that the performance enhancing drug problem in sports is merely a “(Mark) McGuire” problem.  From everything I’ve heard, PEDs in sports are exceedingly common, and it is precisely because that scourge is so common that sports leagues would rather address it on the margins than attempt to eliminate it root and branch.  Similarly, the problem of expecting women actresses to “perform” if they hope to get parts in films is hardly one that begins and ends with Weinstein. 

We’ve already seen the entertainment industry whiff when Bill Cosby’s antics were exposed.  He became the story, not the sexual abuse of young women.  We now have an opportunity to face the same challenge.  Do we want to make this story about Weinstein?  Or about Hollywood?  You know my vote.

Second, once we’ve recognized that this is not merely a Weinstein problem but a Hollywood problem, our work is hardly finished.  The next task is to identify what the problem is.  Is it confined to situations where men take advantage of hierarchical power structures to take advantage of women sexually?  Or should we be talking about drawing a broader line and addressing issues of sexual objectification?   In other words, do men cross the line (a) only if they misuse a hierarchical power relationship to advance sexual goals, (b) whenever they make clearly unwanted sexual advances to a woman regardless of whether they have some sort of societal position of power over the woman, (c) whenever they address a woman primarily as a sexual object rather than as a human being with dignity and intelligence, or (d) whenever they find themselves even thinking sexually about a woman with whom they are not involved romantically?

I’d rather not attempt to answer this question for any of my readers.  I simply wanted to raise it.  Personally, I don’t find myself at the most Victorian side of the continuum, but nor do I tolerate the opposite end either.  Clearly, this is a question that each of us must confront for ourselves as individuals, and if we as a society are smart, we’ll use the Weinstein moment as an opportunity to ask this question publicly and start a dialogue. 

Finally, can we please recognize that honest-to-God whistleblowers are among our society’s greatest heroes?  They know that as soon as they blow that whistle, they’ll become targeted by an entire apparatus of defense lawyers and publicists.  If they have ever done anything the least bit wrong – and who hasn’t? – their past foibles will be exposed, and the media will shy away from giving them the respect they deserve.  After all, our media likes to present stories in simple good-versus-evil terms in which our heroes can be depicted as perfect angels; by contrast, whistleblowers tend to be regular people, with warts and all.    

Our society has created all sorts of ways for powerful folks to get away with misconduct.  When they finally get caught, it’s typically because some principled soul steps up and, like a dog with a bone, just won’t let go.  Can we please show respect to those people?  And can we please not allow the whistleblower’s imperfections to get in the way of our respect?   Courageous, principled people are few and far between; we shouldn’t demand that they also attain saintly status before we give them a tip of the hat.

In conclusion, I realize that this is an inherently complex topic, one that is worthy of book-length, not blog-post, treatment.  But I am writing about this topic in my blog because it is imperative that we all consider the relevant issues before this opportunity passes.   As a husband and a father of two daughters, I cannot sit back and watch women treated as they have been in Hollywood and in so much of our society and simply pretend that this is the human condition.  This is the 21st century.  We can do better.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

America and Its Guns -- A Bi-Partisan Love Affair

According to a study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States is roughly twice as high as the Palestinian Territories’, four times India’s or Pakistan’s, five times Iran’s, eight times Canada’s, 27 times Denmark’s, 32 times Germany’s, 64 times China’s, 100 times Japan’s, and well over 100 times the rate in Singapore.  So what is our response to this scourge?   To regulate bump stocks.  Maybe.

It’s a bit like the German government reacting to the Holocaust by doing nothing more than regulating the use of Zyklon B gas?  Talk about confronting a symptom, not the disease.

In our case, the disease is clear: we love guns.  By “we,” I mean the people who run Blue as well as Red America.  And let’s face it, our leaders aren’t the only ones who’ve been smitten.  On these shores, you’ll find at least twice as many guns per capita as anywhere else.  In fact, if we buried 75% of our firearms, we’d still rank among the top 10% in the world in gun ownership. 

As of 2013, America had roughly 40 million more guns than people.  And the thought of banning handguns is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Whereas 60% of Americans supported such a ban in the year I was born, that percentage has now dropped to less than 25 

Lest you think this is a partisan issue, think again.  In 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton touted the American gun culture.  "You know,” she said, “my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl. ...[S]ome people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

Hillary is not alone among politicians in her party.  Bernie Sanders has also referred to himself as “pro gun and pro hunting.”   But to appreciate the Democrats’ love for guns, don’t simply focus on the statements of their politicians.  Focus on what their politicians are NOT saying.  Namely, focus on their conspiracy of silence in reaction to the work of some of their most reliable and powerful sets of supporters: the moguls and “stars” of Hollywood.

I’m reluctant to join in the chorus of criticism against Hollywood because it’s often a thinly veiled way of expressing anti-Semitism.  But on the issue of guns, Tinsel Town must be taken to task.  Its infatuation with guns has reached epidemic proportions. 

As any movie lover can tell you, the role of guns in movies is becoming increasingly central, and I’m not just referring to R rated movies.  Even PG13 movies are awash in gun-induced blood.  One study found that of the top-grossing movies over the past quarter century, nine out of ten contained a main character who is violent.  So not only does America love guns, we export this love to movie-watching audiences all over the world.

Believe me, I’m not simply looking back longingly for the “old days” of film.  Notably, while our on-screen heroes are becoming more and more weaponized, they are drinking less alcohol and smoking way fewer cigarettes.  Apparently, substance abuse isn’t as cool now as it used to be, thank God.  But weapons?  Those are way cool.

I’m often reminded of that line from the James Bond movie, “The Living Daylights,” in which James Bond was armed with a handgun, but Brad Whittaker carried a machine gun and delightfully so.  “You’ve had your eight,” he chuckled, “now I’ll have my 80.”  What followed was a fusillade of bullets, something that was once confined to war movies but has now become commonplace in all sorts of film genres, and especially the high budget films.

“I know what you're thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”  That was the climax of one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American cinema.  It comes from the 1971 classic, Dirty Harry, which at the time was associated with a big powerful man carrying a big powerful gun.  Today, however, that gun would be thought of as a joke.  After all, what kind of amateur would bring a six shooter now to a gun fight?  Certainly not Stephen Paddock, Omar Saddiqui Mateen, Seung-Hui Cho, or Adam Lanza.  Those men are all modern, sophisticated gun users.  They recognize that American consumers have the right to possess weapons that fire large numbers of bullets in an extremely short period of time.   They also recognize that we Americans possess these rights because, apparently, such weapons help to put us in a better position when we are hunting animals or protecting ourselves against human intruders. 

Well, please allow me to respond to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians who are willing to praise guns in return for votes. And please allow me to respond to the Republican politicians who won’t buck the NRA no matter how many Americans are gunned down on the streets of this country, or to the Hollywood moguls who make movies involving assault weapons that kill lots of people, or to the “liberal” actors who appear in those movies.  For all of you, I offer the following response:

I hate guns.  I don’t think they are cool.  I think they are ugly.

I hate hunting.  I hate the idea that human beings shed innocent animal blood.  And yes, I hate the idea that people feel entitled to kill animals in order to eat them.    

I hate the idea that a human being would call killing a defenseless animal a “sport.” 

Yes, I understand that sometimes herds have to be thinned.  So thin them – but say the Mourners Kaddish when you do.

And yes, I understand that sometimes people need to be shot in self-defense.  But nobody in this country, except for soldiers and police officers, needs assault weapons in order to defend themselves.

As for what happened in Las Vegas last weekend, it is unspeakable.  But it is also characteristically American. 

There is an old saw that says “When you go to bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”  But when you go to bed with guns, you sometimes don’t wake up at all.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Few Personal Reflections on the News Stories du Jour

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am proud to live in a country where private citizens are allowed to choose not to stand for the national anthem.  

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I take an expansive view of the ways in which private citizens should be allowed to peacefully protest.  It clearly includes kneeling down in silence.

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I am reminded that here, unlike in certain Western European nations, we haven’t been tempted to ban religious face-coverings precisely because we care so much about freedom of expression.   

As someone who loves the United States of America and its flag, I hate to see all the vituperation that is being heaped against private citizens who are simply trying to stand up respectfully against a true scourge (institutional racism) and who have decided that the easiest way for their voices to be heard is by quietly kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.   I also hate to see how divided this country has become about fundamental values.  But unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in today.


As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game on a professional level, I can think of various reasons to boycott the game.  They include, for example: allowing individuals to continue to play the game despite a proven history of concussions, taking a relatively lax attitude toward the use of performance enhancing drugs, and generally downplaying the health risks of playing this sport as a youth, an adolescent, or as a professional.  

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, the last (meaning worst) reason I can think of to boycott the game on a professional level is that a fraction of its players choose to take a knee during the national anthem as a protest against institutional racism.

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I could care less if millions of Americans boycott the game because of peaceful protests on the part of some players.  Fans always have a right to boycott, just like players have a right to take a knee.  If your boycott results in the owners and players getting less money, I can live with that too. 

As someone who loves the game of football but also cares about the health of those who play the game, I am saddened by the statement of the President that the 15-yard penalties imposed to deter players from hitting with their helmets are “ruining the game.”  I just pray that the powers-that-be who run the sport ignore that statement and continue to call penalties designed to make the game safer. 


As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am saddened by the fact that all anyone was talking about during the first few days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico was whether football players should be taking a knee during the national anthem.

As someone who loves the game of football but realizes it is just a game, I am glad that more public attention is now being given to Puerto Rican hurricane relief than to football.   Whether the people of Puerto Rico “win” or “lose” in their efforts to return to normalcy is far more important than whatever NFL team wins or loses on Sundays this fall.


As someone who cares about institutional racism, I wish the NFL players great success in figuring out a way effectively to protest against that societal scourge. 

As someone who cares about institutional racism, I feel sorry for any football fan, politician, or other citizen who seriously believes that institutional racism is purely a thing of the past.