Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year from the Empathic Rationalist

I am on holiday but wanted to send a quick note to wish all my readers a wonderful 2019.  I realize that this past year was chaotic in so many ways and this next one will be starting under a mound of uncertainty.  But please take the time to appreciate the beauty in this world and in the unique lives that each of us has created.   

Talk to you in 2019.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Partial Shutdowns: Total Kicks in the Teeth

There is a school of thought that America needs a draft, because without one, rich chicken-hawks can start stupid wars (see, e.g., the Iraq War of 2003-2011) and do so without any risk to their families.  There is also a school of thought Congressional staffers need to be the first people who are furloughed in the event of a Government shutdown, because otherwise, Congresspeople can start stupid shutdowns (see, e.g., the shutdowns of January 2018, February 2018 and December 2018) and do so without getting any grief from their staffs.

Oh, let’s be clear.  Don’t pay attention to what Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are saying.  This latest shutdown isn’t owned by Donald Trump.  President Trump hasn’t been asked to sign a bill to keep open the Government.  This shutdown is the responsibility of Congress – and the Republicans in the House, to be specific.  They are the ones who refuse to send him a bill to veto.  They are the ones who can’t get a two-thirds majority in support of keeping the Government open.  They are the ones who are willing to destroy the morale of the federal workforce so that we can build a “wall” that covers a tiny part of our southern border – a wall that would cost more than ten times what Congress funded for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” and would be just as pointless.

But don’t just take my word for it.  This is what the new White House Chief of Staff said when he was asked three years ago about building a wall:  [T]he bottom line is the fence doesn't stop anybody who really wants to get across. You go under, you go around, you go through it. And that's what the ranchers tell us, is that they don't need a fence. What they need is more manpower, and more technology, and more willingness to enforce the law as it exists today. There are parts of our border that are secure and parts of our border that are not. A lot of that comes down to whether or not we are just willing to enforce the law as it exists. So it's easy to tell people what they want to hear, 'build the darn fence, vote for me.'"

Let me translate -- it’s easy to demagogue.  It’s difficult to govern.

I will never forget what I saw five years ago, during the Shutdown of 2013.  Many of the people in my office were allowed to work, many others were sent home.  I was coming home on the subway after having worked that day when I ran into a colleague -- a respected, hard-working attorney with many years of experience in the federal workforce.  Somehow he had received the impression early in the day that he was not going to be furloughed.  When he learned that was a mistake, he became depressed.  “I’ve got to get out of here,” he told me.  “I’m through with working for the government.”  And sure enough, it wasn’t long before he would find a job in the private sector – for more pay – and he has never returned.   If not for the Shutdown, I’m convinced he would still be a Fed.

From one standpoint, that man’s perspective is an odd one.  After all, didn’t he get a 16 day paid vacation?  Neither he nor I was guaranteed to be paid, but I had to go to the office whereas he could have been hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Which one of us was better off?  In fact, less than a week ago, a retired friend of mine asked me if I was going to be furloughed or if I was going to get a paid vacation.  He, obviously, shared that same perspective that the best thing that can happen to a federal employee is that you can get furloughed – because they’ll pay you anyway but you don’t have to work.  It’s all good, right?

Wrong.  People like my former colleague work for the federal government knowing that they could get more pay in the private sector.  People like my former colleague put in extra hours on their (non-essential) federal jobs knowing that they won’t get paid overtime.  They do it because they believe in what they do.  They think their work actually matters.  They want to be allowed into their office so that they can serve their client (the United States of America).  They truly are public servants.

Of course, they harbor no allusions that they are especially well-appreciated.  We hear all sorts of tributes to the troops, or to school teachers, or even to the Congresspeople who shut down the government.  (In the last case, they are customarily referred to as “the Honorable” whenever correspondence is directed to their attention.)  But who is paying tribute to the Labor Department economist?   Or to the statistician at the Consumer Product Safety Commission?   I can answer the last question pretty well, because my dad was a Labor Department Economist and my mom was a statistician at the Consumer Protect Safety Commission.  Not only did I never hear tributes paid to them, but when I got older and left the friendly confines of Washington D.C., I even had to listen to right-wing assholes make fun of them for how they made their living. 

It is difficult to imagine a more stupid motivational tool than separating the workforce into essential and less-essential components, and into essential and non-essential employees within the less-essential components.  It’s not surprising that it is responsible for people leaving the federal service and never returning.   

Today, if you read this blog, I want you to think about the so-called “non-essential” federal employees.  I want you to think about the “Honorable” Republican Congresspeople who are putting them into a position thrice a year where they are reminded of just how inessential they are.  And I want you to think about the word “partial” the next time you see a reference to the shutdown of the government over a pointless wall.  What is being partially shut down isn’t just the government but the morale of those who work for it.

On behalf of my mom and dad and all other non-essential people, Merry Christmas, Congressmen.  Happy New Year.  I hope you can live with yourselves.  I would find it challenging.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jumping the Gun

Martin Luther King, Jr. had his dream.  I had mine.  His dream was to live in a country where one day, people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

Mine was to live in a country where one day, people would elect a woman President who had been relentlessly vilified by the greatest personal attack machine known to humankind (the contemporary Republican party) but who had the perfect combination of characteristics needed to weather those attacks (poise, class, inner strength, resolve, kindness, intelligence, wisdom, etc.). 

As I explained in a recent post, I am so sick of the politics of personal destruction and so sick of political sexism (which allows people with a straight face to call Elizabeth Warren “shrill” when at the same time they find Bernie Sanders’ yelling perfectly acceptable) that I desperately sought a Presidential candidate who (a) is female, and (b) has the kind of personal sexism-proof characteristics that make her electable. My hope was that maybe, just maybe, the election of such an individual wouldn’t simply put to an end the national embarrassment that we have never had a woman leader in our 242 year history but would also put a dent in the kind of political sexism that makes me so sick.  Accordingly, as soon as the Midterms were over, I endorsed for President of the United States Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

In offering that endorsement, I referred to Ms. Klobuchar as “Minnesota Nice.”  I have noticed over the years the way she presents herself publicly and saw the kind of person who could withstand the Republican attacks that are sure to come in spades.  Having judged her by her public appearances, I had included her in a certain category of calm, unflappable, strong and brilliant women who I’ve been privileged, on occasion, to work with over the decades.  Now, I’m starting to wonder if I had jumped the gun by offering this endorsement. 

What I have subsequently learned is that Ms. Klobuchar has a proven track record for being one heck of a tough boss.  According to Legistorm, an organization that tracks Congressional turnover rates, during the period from 2001 to 2016, Ms. Klobuchar had the highest annual staff turnover rate in the Senate (36%).  Indeed, she was the only Senator of either party whose turnover index was more than twice the Senate average. 

Is that disqualifying?  No.  But it is troublesome.  Because if you think the job of a Senator is stressful, you should try the job of Presidential candidate who is taking on the greatest personal attack machine known to humankind (Swift Boating, anyone?).  And if you think that job is stressful, you should try actually being the President who has to clean up the current situation.  The last thing we need is a stress level and turnover rate that are through the roof.

The Legistorm data suggests that there is more to Ms. Klobuchar than her “Minnesota Nice” exterior would suggest.  I’m not suggesting any deep character flaws here, or even that she is not a nice person. What I am saying is this issue bears closer scrutiny.  The Democrats can’t afford to screw up this nominating process after having screwed up the last one.  We had better nominate someone who connects with Ronald Reagan Democrats and Bill Clinton Republicans, appears relatively unflappable on the stump (remember, “No Drama Obama”), and who doesn’t come across as a technocrat or a phony. 

In short, I had a dream that we’d soon be electing Amy Klobuchar.  But if we have to elect someone like, oh I don’t know, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, that will work just fine. 

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Stripping Bare the False Hopes Behind Climate-Change Complacency

Shortly before the end of the 18th century, a British intellectual named Thomas Malthus made a prediction that turned out to be wrong.  He suggested that because human population would grow geometrically and food production only arithmetically, absent a dramatic drop in birth rates or a dramatic increase in death rates (due to wars or illness), the world would no longer be able adequately to feed itself.   What Malthus didn’t foresee was the tremendous technical advances in food production that would follow the writing of his essay.   Over the past 220 years, we have seen dramatic improvements in agriculture, refrigeration, machines, you name it.  This has enabled us to produce far more food than Malthus could possibly have envisioned, and so now, the poor chap’s name has come to be sullied with the label of doomsayer.  We take him no more seriously than we take Chicken Little. 

And therein lies a problem.  Our world has become dangerously post-Mathusian.  We live in an age where our movers and shakers feel duty bound to ignore doomsayers like Malthus.  Especially in our more entrepreneurial classes, it has become an article of faith that the Chicken Littles should be ignored.   Now, every time a man of letters preaches that the sky is falling, the barons of business simply laugh it off.   “You sound like that silly ol’ Malthus,” they think to themselves.  Or to be more precise, even if we personally have never heard of Malthus himself, we’ve all come to appreciate the existence of thinkers from yesteryear who’ve envisioned all sorts of future horribles, only to have failed to take into account the effects of human ingenuity as reflected in greater and greater technological prowess.   This is why in some circles, it has become almost a religious imperative never again to bet against the ability of the human mind to solve what may appear on the surface to be an intractable technical problem.

Personally, I saw this phenomenon play out when I started my career as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in 1984.  Back then, there was a real push to improve communications technology – to usher in the kind of “information age” that has come to characterize the 21st century.  However, the Malthusians among us were warning that if we shook up (deregulate) the telecom industry, we may indeed bring greater prosperity to the rich but the poor may lose their ability to enjoy basic telephone service.   That warning turned out to be bunk – we went ahead with deregulation, and our telecom technology continued to advance so dramatically that rich and poor alike were able to enjoy the fruits of this advance without the need for regulation.   Once again, we all learned a lesson: don’t let the cluckings of Chicken Littles turn us into silly pessimists.  Whenever we really need human technology to come through for us, we can assume that it will advance by leaps and bounds and stave off disaster.

But you know what happens when we “assume” – we make an ass of u and me. And so it appears that our post-Malthusian assumptions are leading us down a path of carbon-guzzling complacency.  The barons of industry and the politicians they fund are well aware of the ubiquity of scientists who make Mathusian noises about the effects of climate change.  But they just don’t care.  They don’t want to hear about Chicken Little.  They are obsessed instead with Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”).    Surely, they figure, we’ll be able to improve our technical ability to produce renewal and non-dangerous sources of energy so as to minimize the effects of human-induced climate change.

I don’t think so.  Even if we stipulate advancements in the harnessing of solar and other renewal energy sources, that alone won’t solve the problem.  For one thing, the demand for energy – and for the creature comforts it produces – won’t go away.  You see, demand for creature comforts, once enjoyed, never seems to lessen, and the world’s population continues to rise significantly.   As for the supply of energy, we are deeply addicted to the fuels that threaten our planet.   Perhaps, with a bit more political will we could do away with coal.  But oil?  So many powerful and wealthy companies in so many powerful and wealthy countries are thoroughly dependent on producing oil (as opposed to renewable sources of energy) that it would take a true miracle to stop us from continuing to do so.  Just consider how many people would stand to lose their fortunes – or their jobs – if we attempt a rapid transition away from oil.  These individuals would fight to continue to make their livelihood in the same fashion, politicians would dare not stand up to such a powerful coalition, and demand would continue to surge for their services.  Expecting a dramatic change under these circumstances is like expecting the Titanic to move rapidly to evade the iceberg.  Quite clearly, this is a very different dynamic than the one faced by Malthus in the 1790s (where farmers of all types welcomed improvements in agriculture) or the telecom industry in the 1980s (where AT&T could easily enough transition from old-style phones to improved telephone technology).

I realize that it’s no fun to sound like Malthus or Chicken Little.  It’s far more satisfying either to deny climate change like our President does, or to sound like one of those upbeat social reformers who talk as if we can still stop this freight train as long as we put our collective minds to the task.  I’ll give you this – I think we should try to stem this horrendous tide.  I think we should listen to our scientists, restrict our personal demand for carbon, support renewable energy sources, advocate international climate treaties and domestic regulation on carbon, etc.   But Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy of honesty – both with others and with ourselves.  And I won’t lie to you: I see dire consequences ahead.  I believe we’ve passed the point of no return.  And while I hope I’m as wrong as Malthus turned out to be, I’m no longer living in a post-Mathusian age.  The central “article of faith” I’m following is simple logic.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Time for a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Before I begin addressing my topic for the morning, allow me to join in the chorus of those who are sharing their grief at the death of George H.W. Bush.  I never voted for the man, but I have always liked and admired him.  Some of the most fulfilling years of my career were spent at the Federal Trade Commission under a Chairman who he appointed (Janet Steiger), and I realized then that President Bush was someone who respected the civil service and who appointed people to positions in Government who cared about advancing the mission of their agencies, were pragmatic instead of rigidly ideological, and deferred when appropriate to their staffs. 

This country is as great as it because of men and women like George H.W. Bush.  I am proud to have served in his Administration. He was a patriot in the best senses of that term.   He will be missed.

Now, let’s turn to the topic of the day.    

Like George H.W. Bush, I am a huge sports fan.  His favorite sport was baseball, which should not be surprising since he once captained Yale’s baseball team.  My favorite sport is football, which should not be surprising since I have a real mean streak in me.  But at least I recognize it, I’m not thrilled about it, and I would never it let it cause me to hurt anyone or anything other than my own arteries.

This week, football fans all over the nation were forced to remind ourselves about the connection between football and violence.   Subconsciously, we see that connection whenever we watch a game.  Inherently, the sport is violent – perhaps not as violent as boxing or Mixed Martial Arts, but close.  If you don’t hit hard, you can’t play defense, and if you can’t play defense, we might as well be watching basketball or track.  What makes football great is the irresistible force facing the immovable object.  Without the violence, the object just gets moved down the field like butter facing a knife.  Who wants to watch that?

If you love the game as much as I do, you’re probably at peace with watching the hits, at least if they don’t involve gratuitous shots to the head.  But it is difficult to be at peace with the reports that have come out in the past decade about the consequences of these hits on the body, and especially the brain.   I’ve spoken to a lawyer who handles claims on behalf of football players and their families.  The physical devastation he has reported to me is truly appalling.  And yes, as someone who religiously watches these games and frequently attends them, I recognize that I am an enabler of these consequences – the torn ligaments, the broken bones, and all the symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (e.g., early onset dementia, depression, uber-aggression, personality changes, etc.).  Those destroyed lives remain on my conscience.  What can I say?  I love the game.  Always have.

Only in the past decade have the barons of football proposed to do something, anything, to minimize the problems discussed in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, not enough is being done.  I can’t tell you how often vicious helmet-to-helmet hits go unpenalized, and therefore undeterred.   To be sure, we can expect the league to more vigilantly punish this conduct, yet that won’t change the fact that the sport is necessarily violent.  Maybe fewer players will get CTE, but the number will never go to zero.   We fans have to accept that fact.

All that said, here’s what we DON’T have to accept: that the gladiators who hit hard on the gridiron also frequently hit hard off of it.  We don’t have to tolerate the wife- and child-beating that so many of these gladiators seem to view as their birthright.  We also don’t have to tolerate the “boys will be boys” attitude that comes out of the mouths of the suits who run the National Football League, or the football programs that seem to dominate so many universities these days.    It is one thing to love football.  It’s another to accept football culture.  The former had better evolve, within limits.  The latter had better transform itself dramatically.  Stated simply, violence against women and children (or, in the case of Michael Vick, against dogs) must no longer be tolerated by our society.  Full stop.

You would think it was enough this year when the Washington Redskins, my local NFL team, brought in Adrian Peterson to play running back.  You may remember Mr. Peterson as the 6’1” 220 pound man-missile who a few years ago beat his four-year old son with a tree branch 10-15 times, injuring the child’s back, buttocks, legs, and scrotum.  I used to be a big Peterson fan.  Once that happened -- and once Peterson seemed to show only a modicum of remorse -- my ability to enjoy his exploits on the field ended.    This past week, the Redskins signed another off-the-field tough guy to the team.  The new addition is a 23-year old linebacker named Reuben Foster, who had just been cut by the 49ers.  His reputation was already marred by a well-publicized verbal altercation with a hospital worker, and by separate weapons and drug offenses.  This past Saturday night, Foster was arrested in Tampa as part of a domestic violence investigation.   According to his female accuser, he “slapped her phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the right side of her face.” 

In justifying the Redskins decision to sign Foster, team executive Doug Williams responded, “We got people in (high) positions that have done far worse.  This is small potatoes (compared to) a lot of things.”  Probably true – for example, what Adrian Peterson did to his FOUR-year old son is worse.  But let’s just say that when I turn on a football game, I’m not signing up for either.

Later this week, Kansas City Chiefs fans were treated to a video of their star running back, Kareem Hunt, kicking and shoving a woman.   The incident had been reported months ago, and Hunt was allowed to remain on the team.  But after the video came out, the Chiefs had reached their limit – they said that Hunt had lied to them about the incident and were therefore cutting him from the team.   Perhaps the Redskins will want him too – Adrian Peterson is getting older, so maybe Hunt would make a fine replacement on and off the field.

When will the leaders of this sport get together and impose some rules?  When will they create a zero tolerance policy?  And when will my local team, the Washington Redskins, move the hell away from my city so that they can pollute some other environment? We already know that their franchise history is mired in racism – from their unwillingness to hire any black players (they were the last all-white team in NFL history) to their racist mascot (the Indian on the Warpath), no football team says “Bigots” quite like the Redskins.  But do they have to stand for woman and children abuse as well? 

I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say that if there is any decency left in this sport, can we please change the culture now?  Can we please confine the violence to the field of play?  Can we please tell these players that if they want to beat up on defenseless people, they will have to figure out a different way to make a living than one that pays millions of dollars to play a ball game?

Enough is enough.