Thursday, October 23, 2014

Trial by Combat

I'm watching Game of Thrones, and Tyrion Lannister (a dwarf) has just insisted on trial by combat to resolve the messy question of whether he should be beheaded for a murder he did not commit. Tyrion has issues, but he's a good guy (a low bar in Game of Thrones), lovable even, so I'm rooting for him, hoping he'll be able to pull off some heroic feat, like David slaying Goliath. Of course, the only reason a dwarf who would rather be drinking and womanizing than fighting would demand trial by combat was he was out of other options. 

That's pretty much the way I feel about the American system of resolving disputes: go to court only if you're out of all other options. Everyone has Bleak House stories: deposition dread, interminable delay, spiraling legal fees. Litigators like it. Almost no one else does. So how did it get that way? Why do we fight like sword-wielding marauders from the Middle Ages? And not just in lawsuits. In everything.

These days Amazon is swinging its spiked cudgel at anyone who dares defy it. You can almost hear Jeff Bezos talking about how honor must be preserved at all costs. In his case, honor means market share. To quote another master of expanding market share: "It's not personal. It's business." But it is personal. To authors, for instance, it's as personal as their literary characters lined up in Jeff Bezos's warehouse, waiting for their publisher to kiss his ring before they can go forth and entertain.

Derailing Amazon, or at least knocking it down to size, will be a formidable task. Not one for the fainthearted. So formidable, in fact, that like trial by combat, it will be undertaken only as a last resort, and with much at stake, much at risk. Who will be the brave knight to do that?

People get away with murder, literally, because we are afraid to intervene. Reasonably so. You could get killed trying to break up a sidewalk mugging. Amazon is able to be a bully because so many of us are afraid to confront it. The same was true of Microsoft and Standard Oil in their days.

This is not the first time Tyrion Lannister has demanded trial by combat. The first was when a crazy queen and her even loonier son wanted to see if he could fly. He had a champion in that battle, a paladin for hire. We have our own paladin for hire: our government. We have secured its loyalty in the same way Tyrion bought his champion, with gold (or however you pay your taxes). We urge our knight into battle with those who would enslave us economically, the Standard Oils, Microsofts and Amazons of our world. It may not be romantic, but the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department is often all that stands between us and the barbarians.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Hotel Next Door

Okay, this is going to be a story of a poor little well-off guy being abused by the big bad government. You know, like the way hedge fund billionaires may one day be asked to pay their fair share of taxes. So fair warning. But it is also a story for everyman. It is Frederich Hayek's warning to fear unaccountable totalitarianism. Not quite scary enough to make you want to stock up on canned goods and retreat to a bunker in the mountains, but nevertheless a cautionary tale.

We own a home in Santa Barbara that we bought in 2000, when we planned to move there. By the time we decided to go to Palo Alto instead, we had fallen in love with summer family vacations at the beach. Our house is just a modest 1960s tract home, but it’s within walking distance of the sand and it has a pool in the backyard—a kid's (and parent's) paradise. To be able to afford to keep a second home, we rented it for periods of ten or eleven months and returned ourselves each summer. After a few years of that, our next-door neighbor, a realtor, suggested we rent it by the week. We started doing that nine years ago. We were pioneers on VRBO and Home Away.

Five years ago, we got a letter from the city of Santa Barbara saying we had to pay "transient occupancy taxes." I told them we had no homeless tenants. Seriously, that's what it sounded like to me. They said it's a tax hotels pay for guests who stay for less than thirty days. So we were a hotel? Who knew?

I had a law partner who was a famous tax lawyer. He hated the IRS. He said, "They can do anything they want to, and you can't fight them because they have the full resources of the federal government at their disposal." He was a man of exuberant intellect and passion, so you had to take what he said the way you might one of Macbeth's or Hamlet's soliloquies, but his point stuck with me. We didn't fight the city of Santa Barbara about whether we were a hotel, and for the last five years we have been paying city taxes of 12% of our rental income. We even have a nicely printed business license from the city to operate a vacation rental business at our home.

A few days ago, Catch 22 came knocking. A letter arrived from the city zoning department that said, Sorry, pal, no hotels allowed in residential neighborhoods. But...but... What about the spiffy business license you gave us? What about all those taxes? Does our financial love for you all those years mean nothing now?

We did a little research and here's what we found: The city wants its hotel taxes; it avidly scours VRBO listings and notifies homeowners that they are hotels and must pay the occupancy taxes. The city doesn't know what to do about the pesky language of its zoning regulations that say hotels can't be located in residential neighborhoods. “It is awkward,” said a zoning department employee in 2012. “We in zoning know it is not allowed, but the Council has decided to charge TOT [transient occupancy tax]. The Finance Dept. is responsible for collecting the tax and it is included in the budget General Fund. Finance does not share their information with us.” *

So, for its own financial benefit the city ignores its zoning regulation until someone complains about a specific home and then it closes the unfortunate rental that was ratted out by who knows whom for who knows what reason. As far as we can tell from its dealings with us, the city isn’t concerned about whether our guests have been too noisy or otherwise comported themselves in an undignified manner. We weren't told who complained or why, nor were we invited to present the case that we are good neighbors. The city’s notice to us said nothing about noise or other complaints (of which I am aware of none), only that we were in violation of the zoning restriction. That would be the same zoning restriction the city ignored when it granted us and many, many others like us vacation rental licenses and began collecting hefty hotel occupancy taxes from us.

You're shocked, shocked, you say, to learn that there is government hypocrisy here? Well, me too. It would be funny if it weren't so serious, and consequential. In reliance on our city business license, we spent a lot of money making our house attractive for guests. Now the city wants to take away our ability to recover that investment. It wants to put us out of business. What about the other approximately 500 vacation rental listings in Santa Barbara? Is the city shutting them down? No. It doesn't even want to. It wants their tax dollars.

In 2000, the United States Supreme Court said in Village of Willowbrook vs. Olech that a city may not discriminatorily enforce its zoning regulations. To do so is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court said: "Our cases have recognized successful equal protection claims brought by a "class of one," where the plaintiff alleges that she has been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment...In so doing, we have explained that `[t]he purpose of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is to secure every person within the State's jurisdiction against intentional and arbitrary discrimination, whether occasioned by express terms of a statute or by its improper execution through duly constituted agents.'" 

I think there's a good chance that if we took the city all the way to the Supreme Court, we'd win. Can we afford to do that? We haven’t decided. But I’ll bet the city is betting we can’t. This was my tax partner's view of the IRS. This was Hayek's view of totalitarian governments. Maybe they were right.

VRBO, Airbnb, Uber and Lyft are at the vanguard of the sharing economy. They are liberating dead capital, and at the same time disrupting the status quo. They are giving us exciting new opportunities and at the same time forcing us to think about what interests to protect. There are legitimate questions here, questions that are being debated in cities all over the country. Communities are adopting regulations to let Uber operate side by side with taxis and to let homeowners rent out their spare bedrooms and homes to help cover the rising costs of home ownership. In Ventura, applicants for a vacation rental permit must show that their home is properly sized for the number of guests permitted and that the owner has a nuisance response plan in place for dealing with noise and similar complaints. These are thoughtful requirements for dealing fairly with legitimate concerns. 

Whatever a community decides, however it balances competing interests, the one thing it must do is treat everyone equally. If it wants to ban all vacation rentals, fine. If it wants to let neighborhoods become Las Vegas, fine. Or anything in between, as long as whatever it decides applies equally to all residents. The one thing a local government in America may not do under our constitution is apply its laws in an unreasonably discriminatory fashion. Say, for instance, something like having the city finance department aggressively collect hotel taxes while at the same time telling the zoning department to look the other way until someone (maybe a competing renter) bitches and only then to engage in an ad hoc, ex parte enforcement of a law that it is not in the city's financial interest to enforce evenhandedly.

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Note: As does the municipal code, I use the term "hotel" as shorthand. The applicable definitions are: 

Occupancy tax law: "Hotel:  Any structure, any portion of any structure, or any property or portion thereof which is occupied or intended or designed for occupancy by transients for dwelling, lodging or sleeping purposes, and includes any hotel, inn, tourist home or house, motel, studio hotel, bachelor hotel, lodging house, rooming house, apartment house, dormitory, public or private club, mobile home or recreational vehicle park (as defined in Title 28 of this Code), or other similar structure or portion thereof." 


Zoning law: “Hotel. A building, group of buildings or a portion of a building which is designed for or occupied as the temporary abiding place of individuals for less than thirty (30) consecutive days including, but not limited to establishments held out to the public as auto courts, bed and breakfast inns, hostels, inns, motels, motor lodges, time share projects, tourist courts, and other similar uses. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Family California

I raised my children in California. Most of them are gone now. It's hard for me to imagine why. Who wouldn't want to live here? Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised. After all, I fled Tennessee to come to California. It was mainly my father I was fleeing. I loved him, but he was a bit too much. Maybe my children have been fleeing me. I'm not my crazy father, but I admit to having a clearer idea than anyone what's best for my children, and like me, I'm sure they would prefer to figure it out themselves.

It was more than my father I fled when I was twenty five. My mother was sad and anxious and I didn't know what to do about it. I didn't know my brother and sister that well. They were much younger, and I was so egocentric I was functionally an only child.

I was divorced when my first children were teenagers. That didn't help my credibility with them. My father had died and my mother was struggling. My brother and sister each had problems of their own, but somehow we never got the knack for helping one another. Maybe they resented my acting like the crown prince; no, of course they resented it.

Then a funny thing happened: I moved back to Nashville (to which I had sworn I would never return). I got to know Mom all over again. Because of her I had much more contact with my brother and sister. I tried to help her. I tried, in my know-it-all-way, to help them. We had some ups and downs, the four of us, my mother, brother, sister and me. After she died, we retreated from one another a little, but lately we’ve been extending olive branches. My brother and I are in a new bromance. My sister has moved near her children in Virginia and seems happier than she has been in years. 

One thing I learned from Mom when I was with her as an adult was that she had infinite patience for her family. Her niece was a complete mess, for instance, with the kinds of persistent emotional problems that you read about and thank your lucky stars you don't have. Despite her niece's repeated slips and falls on the black ice of bad choices, Mom kept trying to help her, giving her money when Mom had too little herself, even letting her live with her for a while. I should have known Mom had patience, but in my own case I probably thought I deserved it or had given no cause for it to be exercised.

Lately one of my children has been having a rough time. She gets in situations that are hard to get out of. When I try to help, I don't do it well. She gets mad. We don't speak for a while (days or weeks, not years). Then one of us calls the other and all is well again. Rinse, repeat.

I find that in the repeat cycles, as long as there has been a brief period for recharge, I'm fresh and ready to go again. It's not like touching a hot stove, something you never want to do again. It’s more like drinking too much: you forget the hangover. Talking to her is entertaining, even when the subject is tough. I like it. Sometimes I hate it. I like it.

I moved my family to California but I could not keep them here. And yet I have kept them near in other ways, nearer lately than ever. Maybe that means I'm mellowing. Maybe it means I'm getting old and toothless. Or maybe it's what the Eagles said about roadside accommodations in the Golden State. The Family California: You can check out, but you can never leave.

Monday, September 22, 2014

School Bored

You've been there, right? School bored. We all have. Somehow we muddle through and get on with life, some better prepared than others. Some much better prepared. Most of us forget about it after that ordeal (until we have to relive it with varying degrees of intensity with our children). For some of us, school was a war zone. We have flashbacks and test dreams. PTSD. Like brave and stoic soldiers returning from war, we don't want to talk about it.

Thank goodness the future of our children's education is not in our hands. There are others somehow fresh with passion and purpose who step into the front lines as adults. They are teachers and principals, counsellors and coaches. And they are school board members. 

Thanks to my friend Elaine Hahn I met two Palo Alto School Board candidates this morning. They were amazing. Highly educated, highly qualified. People with successful relevant career experience and keen interest in the issues that face our school district and its students. I'm grateful to them for wanting to lend a hand.

Palo Alto is a rich school district. Both of the candidates I met this morning were, with Elaine, among the founders of Palo Alto Partners in Education, a local non-profit that raises millions of dollars each year and gives it to the school district to supplement state and local funding. Our schools have modern facilities, well-paid teachers, involved parents, access to Stanford, and on and on. There may be better places in the country to get a public education, but not many.

And yet, even here there are the heartbreaking tales of bullying and suicide, of kids lost in the middle of the pack, of children from poor families who feel they don't belong. Kid-by-kid we have the same issues anyone does. Every child, high and low achiever, is an opportunity for us to do better.

My children are all out in the world. Well, one is in grad school, but that's part of his world now. My grandchildren are in public schools in Atlanta and Philadelphia. My oldest grandchild is a freshman in a magnet high school in inner-city Philly. I believe in public education. But it's so tough out there for so many school districts, for so many teachers. They don't have the resources they need. Often their students don't have adequate support at home. 

The war zone metaphor is perhaps even better suited to teachers and administrators than to students. They have to fight for every child they help. Education ideology as expressed in the curriculum is necessary but not sufficient. Even in places where there are still battles over whether to teach evolution, it is not principally those battles that shape our children; differences in lives are made in the classroom, child-by-child.

Teachers need support and resources. That's where school boards come in. They are the supply line. They make sure the generals--the school superintendents and principals--know what is expected of them. They make sure they know someone is watching their performance in the field and is standing by to relieve them if necessary.

Education is a long war. A grinding one. There are not dramatic turning points. It is won or lost gradually, sometimes imperceptibly; you wake up one day, as California has, and see that from the 1960s when we led the nation in education we have slipped to near the bottom. How did that happen? Did the supply lines get cut? Did the generals quit caring?

Well, the two school-board candidates I met this morning care. They are smart, articulate and energetic. They don't have to do this. They are doing it because they want to make a difference. Thank goodness for them, and for the teachers, administrators, volunteers, parents, and students like them. We are entrusting our future to them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

American DNA

I'm making money in the stock market, and I feel guilty about it. I feel good, too, of course, but strangely uncomfortable. I'm not doing anything to earn my rewards. The market is just going up. It has tripled from its low of five years ago. If you've had money in the market over that period, and left it there, you've made a lot. 


Trouble is, most folks haven't. Less than half of us own stock, and most who do are well off: the top ten percent of households have stock investments totaling $282,000; for middle class households, the average is $14,000. [1]  Some got spooked by the crash in 2008 and stayed away. Many just didn’t have much cash to spare. And the system seemed rigged in favor of the big guys. They didn't trust it. So they kept what money they had in savings accounts that earned almost nothing while those who bought stocks made a killing.


You have to have money to make money, the old saying goes. True. But the big reason most of us make lousy investors, and eventually give up, is the brutal whiplash of greed and fear. As my grandfather Clayton, a stock broker who began his career in 1929, put it: When the market is going up, people think it will keep going up. When it goes down, they think it will never recover. This causes them to buy high and sell low.


If people don't have the money or the temperament for the stock market, they shouldn't be in it, you might say. Maybe. But consider this: the stock market is the only reliable way to stay ahead of inflation and make a real return on your investment. Savings accounts don't do it. Neither do bonds, not very well anyway.


When I say stocks, I'm talking about the broad market. I don't think most of us would make good individual stock pickers. The S&P 500, for instance, is a fair proxy for American business. As goes American business, so goes the S&P 500. There are ups and down in the business cycle, but over the long term America and the S&P 500 have grown steadily. Over twice as fast as bonds. Three times as fast as inflation. If you want to have money for retirement, put it in the S&P 500 or a similar broad market index and forget about it until you stop working.


Many folks have a hard time doing that, though. There are a number of impediments, including the two mentioned above: not enough money and not an investor temperament. There are other difficulties too. There's not, for instance, an easy way to invest very small amounts in stocks periodically and hold them for the long term. But perhaps the biggest problem is that despite attractive returns there is not a powerful incentive to choose putting money away in stocks as opposed to buying a new car, a new cell phone or a new outfit. Investing is easy if all of your basic and even frivolous needs are met, but it takes either the frugality of a Quaker or a strong economic incentive to make a weekly deposit in your investment account and skip going out to dinner on Friday night.


Let’s get the easy part out of the way first: the mechanics of making investing easy. What we need is a big institutional investment vehicle that is like piggy bank: put in your loose change at the end of the week and let it grow. Maybe it could be run by the government, maybe private firms. The cost of investing in the S&P 500 through mutual funds like Vanguard or Exchange Traded Funds like SPY has been pushed down to nearly zero, so the costs of the enterprise would be primarily related to bookkeeping and marketing. In the computer age, bookkeeping will be easy. The marketing will be tougher. It will require something like going door to door to convince people to put a little something away for their future. Tough as that may sound, if the funeral industry can sell funerals in advance of need, a smart marketer ought to be able to use the same logic to sell retirement investments: You don't want to be a burden to your children, do you?


Now, let’s tackle the tough part: providing an incentive to invest. We are a nation of consumers, not savers. Seventy percent of our GDP comes from consumer spending. So we’re talking about changing pretty deeply ingrained habits. To do that, we’re going to have to come up with compelling reasons for people of modest means, for whom disposable income is precious and consumption is a way of life, to put money away and leave it there. Here are two simple ideas:

1. Matching government contributions for those willing to sock away their funds until retirement. The way many private employers match employee contributions to retirement accounts.

2. Tax free returns. We already have Roth IRAs, on which gains to the owner are never taxed. The requirements for contributing to a Roth-like retirement account could be relaxed to permit broader use (apart from income earned, for instance).


For a family who saves regularly, the retirement payoff could be huge. Let’s say they save $1,000 per year for 40 years and the government matches their annual contributions. And let’s assume a 7% annual real return (net of inflation) for the stock market, which is the average since WW II. [2]  At retirement the family’s investment account would have a value of $400,000. And that’s after taking into account inflation. (Since WW II the S&P 500 has returned 11% before adjusting for inflation, which would make the nominal value of the family’s investment account in 40 years $1,164,000, but in terms of what that amount of money would buy 40 years in the future, the value would be the same as $400,000 today.)


Why would the government provide these incentives? It would have to pay for them with tax revenues from other, presumably wealthier, people, so it would amount to a wealth transfer. Why do it?


One way or another a moderately compassionate society always gets stuck with the tab for caring for those who can’t care for themselves. We do this now through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social welfare programs. Why not increase the incentives for people to put more of their own resources toward their ultimate well-being? And why not harness the power of the equity markets to add to aggregate available retirement resources? (The Social Security Trust Fund is by law required to invest only in obligations backed by the full faith and credit of the United States;[3]  safe but low returns, lower even than corporate bonds.)


From the government’s standpoint (and therefore all of society’s), the economic benefits are powerful. Let’s say that 30 million families enroll in this new program. If they all invest $1,000 per year and the government matches their contributions, the families and the government would each be putting up $30 billion per year. Run that out for forty years and the total invested would be $2.4 trillion, half by the families, half by the government. If those investments earned the 7% per year average of the post WW II S&P 500, the families would end up with $12 trillion in inflation-adjusted value. In terms of social welfare spending, that’s a pretty good bang for the buck for the government: $12 trillion for its $1.2 trillion investment; a ten for one multiplier.


Think of it this way: Instead of the government matching citizens’ contributions, imagine citizens matching the government’s contributions to their future welfare. And we’d be using using good old American Enterprise (in the form of the stock market), which we love so dearly and which built this country, to provide the growth in value.


I don’t know how such a system would fit in with the ones we have now, particularly Social Security. I don’t think we have to know that for sure to get started. It will take decades to change savings habits; only four percent of us now have enough saved for retirement. [4]  But over time this new approach could lead to a categorical shift in the compact between government and its citizens from “let us help you” to “let us help you help yourself.”


And there might be another huge benefit: shifting us from a nation of spenders to a nation of investors. An economy based on consumption must constantly artificially boost consumer spending, with the result that you end up, as we have, with a lot of old folks with scant resources. It’s likely that this much new money would distort investment markets, perhaps even lower returns, but there would be more capital for new enterprises to access. We might shift from a nation of spenders to one of savers supporting innovation.


What of the tax break? Many want to reduce or eliminate capital gains taxes, but since investments are now principally the province of the wealthy, reducing capital gains taxes only adds to wealth inequality. This new plan would create a new and potentially large group of middle class savers who would be benefited by eliminating taxes on their retirement accounts; as such, it would mitigate rather than exacerbate wealth inequality.


The last great retirement welfare programs were Social Security and Medicare. They are good programs, but we are uneasy with them. We see the problems corporations and other governments are having with their underfunded pension liabilities, and we look at our aging population and we just know that as a nation we are likely to face similar funding shortfalls. We are free-marketers at heart, not socialists. But we are a compassionate people, as well. Using free markets and tax breaks to provide savings incentives and savings growth is in our national DNA. 


We talk a lot in this country about not liking welfare. Even those getting it, don't like it. People want to be as self reliant as they can. This would help them get there. And it would help the government regain sound fiscal footing as it supports its citizens and invests in their future.


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sources:

1. http://money.cnn.com/2014/09/18/investing/stock-market-investors-get-rich/index.html
2. http://dqydj.net/sp-500-return-calculator/
3. http://www.ssa.gov/oact/progdata/fundFAQ.html#a0=1
4. http://www.statisticbrain.com/retirement-statistics/


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Birthright

      --A right, privilege or possession to which a person is entitled by birth.


Birthright means what you get just for being born who or where you were. The "right" part of the word causes some trouble. Kings thought being king was their birthright. Being born on U.S. soil makes American citizenship your birthright. Inheritance is your birthright...unless you piss off the family or they blow it all before they die. Golf at the country club was my birthright. That is I got to play because my dad was a member, and kids whose dads weren't members did not. A college education was also my birthright, although I almost blew that.

Those who are born well usually think they deserve what they have, while everyone else thinks they just won the conception lottery. This creates arrogance in one group and resentment in the other. Sometimes the arrogance morphs into noblesse oblige, which has given us many fine black-tie charity affairs. Sometimes the resentment morphs into vaulting ambition, which has given us many fine department stores.

The circumstances of our birth classify us. By wealth, religion, education, city block. And they divide us. I can't think of many examples of their having brought us together, or even fostering compassion or empathy. We are born with what we have and we cling to it like immigrants clutching tattered suitcases.

Sometimes, when there is almost nothing to hold onto, we walk away from our birthright and make something new of ourselves. These are the great stories of self-made men and women, of triumph over adversity. On the other hand, if we are born with a lot, we hang onto it. These are the stories of selfishness. If we have way more than we need, as we get older we may begin to loosen our grip on worldly goods in the hope of improving the odds of landing good accommodations in the next world, or out of a lifetime of feeling guilty about how much we have and how little so many others have. These are the stories of philanthropy.

Karl Marx had a grand notion that we could all share. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. That didn't work out so well. An approach that socialists like is to tax inherited wealth heavily so that we all come closer to starting from the same point. That hasn't been embraced in America, primarily because those who have wealth want to keep it and those who don't think they might someday and don't want it taken from them after they've worked all their lives to get it.

So we continue to have classes. We don't like to think of ourselves that way, but there is no other word for them. We want to believe we are a land of equal opportunity, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, it is so far rom the truth that it makes me wonder why we have continued the delusion. It's not our only one, I suppose. We are prone to delusions.

The truth is that if you are born into wealth, you are likely to end up well-educated and have a prosperous life. If you are born into poverty, especially if you are a black boy, you are likely to end up in prison.

If I said to you that the birthright of a poor child, white or black, is a life for struggle and paucity, you might say he or she just has to work hard to raise himself or herself up out of those circumstances. That is our common delusion, the Horatio Alger story we tell ourselves to justify looking away. If you were prone to split hairs over semantics, you might protest that that being born into a life of struggle and poverty is is not a right, it is a curse. And you would be right.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Quick Takes

Remember when book covers were boring? Tooled leather with gold lettering. Elegant, I suppose would be a better description. But you certainly couldn't tell anything about what was inside. You had to read the book, or at least some of it, to find out. Despite a whole industry focused on "Buy-Me!" covers, you still can't know what's inside until you read a book. Some would say that modern covers can't be trusted to be honest about the story, as opposed to what the marketing department thinks you want the story to be. All the more reason not to judge a book by its cover.


We don't expect to have an opinion about a book until we read it. Not so with people. We take one look at someone and instantly size them up. Portly white guy at the country club in lime-green pants. Black man in a  hoodie on a dark street. Woman in a short dress and platform heels. When it comes to people, we're better than Cliff's Notes, and faster. Take one look and sit down and discuss the character. Instead of book clubs, we could have photo clubs where everyone gets together, has a glass of wine and gossips about the person in the photo. No more oppressive reading lists. And more fun, too. Why bother with the author's imagination when you've got your own?

I know why we do it. We all know why. Nature taught us. Instant assessment is a survival skill. And we still need it often enough that it hasn't atrophied. Trouble is, its overkill. Like blowing up a city to kill a terrorist. Well, I guess we still do that too, but most of us realize that it's not such a good idea. Innocent people are harmed.

We're engaging in another kind of overkill every day on our streets and in our malls, and innocent people are bing harmed. We make a snap judgement about someones character, and Boom!, there go all the other possibilities, all the inner life, all the back story, all the hopes and dreams, the family at home, the sick mother. Everything else is vaporized in that moment of judgment. And then we walk right past the rubble of that life that we will never know as if we've done nothing wrong.

True, we didn't actually hurt the person. I suppose you could say it's just ourselves we hurt. Closing ourselves off to the rich diversity of human experience. In the moment of that walking by, that may be all the harm that's done. The damage to that person's life comes later. We have seen him. We have judged him. He now falls into a classification system we have created for our own intellectual and emotional convenience. And later, when we act on the basis of those classifications, whether by voting for some anti-immigrant politician or railing against the taxes that support poverty programs, that's when the damage is done. The bomb goes off inside our brains and explodes into our actions. And keeps exploding. And keeps exploding.

We know we can't understand a book without reading it. Wouldn't it be nice if we gave the people around us the same benefit?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Affirmative Action, Country Club Style

It’s Labor Day, so naturally I’m thinking about work and workers. I’ve always been a big fan of the labor movement of the early twentieth century. It was needed to ameliorate capitalist exploitation of labor. Today, the issue of the good and bad of unions is more complicated. Most union members are no longer in manufacturing companies; they are in public employee unions. Workplace safety is now covered by federal law. It’s not 1935 (the year the National Labor Relations Act was passed). Personally, I’d like to see us concentrate on raising the minimum wage—a lot. I think that would do more for lower income workers than anything.

But there is another labor issue of perhaps even greater importance: the opportunity to get a job at all. We are coming out of the Great Recession, but we have not yet regained full employment. Who gets the jobs that are there to be had is telling. It’s not high-school dropouts. It’s not people, young or old, with no skills. Today’s workers need education and job skills. And in many cases, they need something else: a helping hand onto the employment ladder. 

I was an industrious boy. I sold greeting cards and holiday wrapping paper. I sold pots and pans. I cut lawns. I had a paper route. I was a sack boy in a grocery store. I worked the graveyard shift at a printing plant. By the time I really got out into the world, I knew how to work. And I had confidence in my ability to do any job. I was a poster boy for American self-reliance.

Not really.

I was a country club brat. I was the son of a well-to-do doctor who bought a new car when the ashtray on his old one filled up. After my paper route, I played golf at the club and ate chicken sandwiches and told the white-jacketed waiter to put it on my father’s tab. I didn’t need to work, I just wanted to. I liked having my own money. I liked the independence. And getting a job was a piece of cake. Here’s why:

I did sell holiday cards door to door, but most were bought by family and friends of family. Ditto with the yards I cut. The lawn mower was Dad’s. I got the paper route myself, but I couldn’t have handled it if Dad hadn’t bought me a moped to deliver the papers. The grocery I worked for was the one where my mother shopped. The printing company where I loaded pallets was owned by a friend of hers on our block who had a mad crush on her.

A way of looking at my early work experience is that I was an apprentice in the family business, or on the family estate. The owners weren’t all Claytons, but they were friends of Claytons. Dad delivered their wives’ babies. Favors were passed back and forth as naturally as greetings at the country club.

Now, think about what a different situation an industrious lad like me growing up on the south side of Chicago has. It’s unlikely that his family’s friends are the owners of businesses that can employ him (unless you count drug businesses). It’s unlikely that his family can buy his equipment for his jobs and support him so that he gets to save all he earns for college. So he needs help from some other part of his life. That’s where affirmative action comes in. Programs that look for talented, ambitious kids with maybe a few rough edges and help them onto the education and employment ladder.

Affirmative Action seems to have fallen out of favor lately, not just in the Supreme Court but in the hearts and minds of many, especially young people, many of whom have benefited from the same kind of privileged affirmative action that aided me. I think we need to resist mythologizing our success as something we earned for ourselves. We’ve all had help. Everyone needs help. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is in denying it to those for whom it is not their birthright.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Tip of the Spear

I’ve tiptoed around god all my life. I was baptized by my great-grandfather, an Episcopal minister, and confirmed at age 12 (although I’m still not sure what that means). I was even an acolyte (altar boy) for a time. I was good at lighting candles but a klutz at helping the preacher with communion. 

All that time, from as long as I remember thinking about it, I didn't believe in god. I don't know why. I just didn't. The concept seemed too unlikely. I was hyper-rational. I didn't believe in burning bushes, parting seas or virgin births. I didn't even want to. Those notions struck me as perilously close to tossing virgins into volcanoes (and what is it about virgins, anyway?).

I’ve since learned that I am not as smart as I think I am, certainly not as smart as I thought I was then. There are many things I thought incredible that turned out to be true. I had a crabbed and provincial world view when I was young. I’ve unlearned a lot of my ignorance, and learned that I still have a lot to learn. But I still don't believe in god. My emerging intellectual humility has not led me to embrace a concept just because so many others do. Indeed, it has urged me in the opposite direction. There is little wisdom in crowds.

I didn’t know my great-grandfather, the minister, but I knew his son well. He was brilliant and kind, and because I admired him and saw that he felt strongly the faith of his father, I thought there must be something worthy about it. I think he knew I was a non-believer, but he never said anything to me. He did not judge me, or at least he didn’t let me see that he did. For my part, I accepted his faith without question. It was his private affair and a source of great comfort to him. Why should I object?

That was what I used to think, that religion was a private matter that was good for those who believed and not bad for the rest of us. I’ve come to believe, however, that it was not my atheism that was the product of youthful ignorance but my charity toward religion. My grandfather was a gentle and compassionate man. It's hard to imagine him taking up arms to defend his faith. His homeland, sure. His family, certainly. His god, unlikely. He was an historian. He knew better that to believe in crusades.

But god has become the tip of the spear again. I thought that was over and done with. I thought that was relegated to the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages. Well, either we are still ignorant and superstitious, or religion has a hold on us of some kind that makes us act like that when under its influence. It’s easy to denounce beheadings of Christians by the Islamic State as a primitive religious practice, but although more barbaric they are no less zealous than the political attacks in America in the name of god: The crusade against reproductive rights for women. The crusade against gay rights. The crusade against the science of evolution. To name a just a few.

God is the tip of the spear and we, like children who shouldn't be playing with sharp objects, are hurting ourselves with it. What's more, we’re demanding from everyone, even non-believers, tithes (in the form of taxes) to make more spears. Why should an organization get a tax break because it believes in god? Why shouldn't I get one because I believe in humans? We need to get god off our currency, out of our pledges to our nation, away from our ceremonies swearing in presidents, legislators and judges. We need to quit invoking his blessing on our country (yes, I’m talking to you, Barack), with its implication that we are more deserving of that grace.

We should be asking for the blessing of one another. We should be acting in the name of humans, not god. We are the ones who have to live together, the ones who enjoy the benefits of our generosity toward one another and who suffer the pain of our crimes against each other. We need to act in our own right, on our own behalf, not as children doing what god commands. He doesn’t even live here. As a non-resident, he couldn’t get elected to office. Not even as dog-catcher. Why do we want him telling us what to do? 

If you want to be with your god, visit him in private, the way my grandfather did? He helped others as he believed his god wished. He sought and received personal solace from him. But he did not wear him as a badge of honor or superiority. He did not judge others by their faith in him. He judged them by their actions on this earth among men and women.

When his son and wife died, not many years apart, my grandfather had stained glass windows made for his church in their memory. One said “Safe on the Other Shore.” He believed in this life and in the hereafter. He did what he could to make this one better for all he met. As to the other, he worked out his own personal accommodation of his faith to the laws of physics and organic chemistry. 

Maybe my grandfather and his father before him believed in god because their creator wired them thus. Maybe they believed because the community bond of those with similar religious convictions is strong and strong communities are evolutionarily adaptive. Except to theologians and philosophers (and lately evolutionary and cognitive scientists), it hardly matters. The fact is, most of us believe in some god. And therein lies the danger. Faith is faith, after all. If you have faith that the other guy is an infidel and deserves killing, or at least scorn, you have it. It’s as hard to talk you out of it as it is to talk you out of the faith that spawned it.

There’s just not room in humanity for faith in the unworthiness of others. There’s not room in humanity for intolerance based on what we think our god wants. How do we even know that? Did we hear him tell us? If so, maybe those of us with that heightened auditory perception ought to drop in on the psychopharmacologist before we hurt someone.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My College Essay

I remember when all my children got into college. For the first three, I heard about it after the fact. I was a master of the universe, working all the time. I was happy for them, and not surprised. Of course they were going to good schools. I went to their high-school graduations. I may have taken one of them to move into the college dorm, maybe two. I don't remember. Pitiful, huh?

After I had my fourth and fifth children (with Meg), I quit being a master of the universe and went into angsty zen mode. Maybe angsty with occasional moments of zen would be a fairer description. I became a writer. I was home all the time and much more involved in their lives (sorry about that, boys). By the time they were applying to college, they probably wished I would go back to a heavy travel schedule. I gave them lots of advice about preparing their college applications. They nodded angelically and did what they thought was best. I got to read their college essays at the same time the admissions committees did. Gulp! They did great, of course. By then they didn’t need me, at least not for that. I suppose that was kind of the point of all those early years.

You do suffer for your children. You would give any part of yourself for them, for their happiness. But ultimately you realize they are separate people, not extensions of you. You revel in their successes and feel the pain of their setbacks, but they are not your achievements, they are not your failures. You do what you can, but their lives are in their hands, not yours.

Now my latest child, which has been home-schooled and has an attractive font and format, is about to apply for acceptance. Writing and parenting are all about making choices: where will the children live (setting), who will be their friends (characters), what experiences will they have (plot). Unfortunately, as much as fiction writers like to say their books have a life of their own, a novel is not an anthropomorphic child that can insulate one from oneself. My novel is me; and as far as it goes, it is all of me. There are no SAT scores, GPAs, no extracurriculars. You read it and you like it or you don't. There is no explanation. No rationalization. No hardship overcome, no privilege misused. It is itself entirely.

So much has been written about writing, about putting oneself out there, about opening a vein and bleeding onto the page, it seems unlikely there is anything to add. As to fiction, the story is everything. No one has ever seen Homer's query letter. I doubt he had blurbs. We read the Odyssey and are transported, or not.

In my way of being self-conscious and oblivious at the same time, of reacting to emotions inside me that I am barely aware of, I was present at the birth and maturation of my story. But I am not god to it. Its creation myth must be teased out of my life. I have been there beside it for a long time, though, and now, as with my children, I will step back and let it make its way in the world.

Good luck, novel. I love you--or at least I like you a lot and am a little obsessed with you, which are two of the principal ingredients of love. Stay in touch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Brutality in the Neighborhood

No one could remember a time when such terrible things happened. Or when so few seemed to care. Sure, there had been crimes before, but this was different. The murders happened all the time now. No one seemed able to stop them. Honestly, to people who lived elsewhere, it seemed like no one was trying.

I’m not talking about Ferguson, Missouri. Or Chicago's South Side. I'm talking about the United States Congress. In the quiet and sacred capitol, crimes of legislative brutality have become the norm. Like the victims of police brutality, the people harmed are the ones least able to protect themselves, hardworking citizens holding two or three jobs, others looking for work, wondering how they will feed their children.

No actual members of Congress have been harmed in this legislative mayhem. They still have bean soup and cornbread in the Senate Dining room, steam rooms and saunas in the House gym. And excellent healthcare plans. They are safe and prosperous.

In Ferguson, Missouri the people are up in arms over police brutality. They’ve taken to the streets. Angry words and bottles have been thrown. Even the Attorney General has gotten into the act. You have the feeling that something is going to be done, that some justice will be offered. You have the feeling that things will get better in Ferguson, even if only for a while.

But in the United States Congress, there is little cause for any such optimism. Republicans hope to capture a Senate majority this fall. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority leader, vows that if they do they will work with the House, which will almost certainly continue to be controlled by Republicans, to pass legislation to scale back government and reverse or restrict President Obama's achievements like the Affordable Care Act and consumer financial protections. If the president vetoes their spiteful fantasy of small government to serve the few rather than the many, they say they will shut the whole thing down. You can't get smaller than that, literally or figuratively.

When an unarmed boy is shot by police in your neighborhood, it makes you mad. When it happens often enough, at the hands of what you perceive to be a racially prejudiced police force, it drives you to the barricades. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in Watts in 1965. Burn, baby, burn. 

But it doesn't seem to happen in response to the murder of legislation that would offer a helping hand to the poor and disadvantaged. It doesn't seem to happen in response to the mugging of education spending and infrastructure investments that provide the platform for equal opportunity. Why is that?

There are lots of reasons, I suppose: Congress seems remote and isolated, impossible to influence if you are an average citizen. Voting is not as cathartic as throwing bottles. No one person's vote matters anyway, right?

No. Not right.

Our vote is our molotov cocktail. We have to throw it. We have to try to light the fire. It’s our form of peaceful revolution. If we don't use it, we may blame Congress for being unresponsive to our needs, but in truth it is we who are not grappling with the problem. Ultimately, politicians do what they have to do to get elected. It's up to us to tell them what that is.

So if you don’t like what’s happening, or not happening, in Congress, don’t get cynical, get mad. Pick up your flag. Grab your friends. Join the crowd in the street. Vote.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I Hope I Die Before I Get Wise

If I live long enough, I'm going to end up pretty discouraged. Not about myself, but about the human race. I was born into a bubble of optimism and egocentricity that has been deflating steadily ever since. When I was a boy, I didn't understand much about the world. Now I do. It has not been an altogether pleasant awakening. I bit from the apple of knowledge and realized I am naked.

I was at a dinner table with a young man from Bulgaria recently. He said it was rough there in the 1990s. I, showing I still have a lot to learn, asked why. He patiently and poignantly explained the descent into political and economic chaos after the dead hand of communism released its grip. Corruption, thuggery, oligarchy.


He was born in Bulgaria and lives there now, but he spent his teen years in Pittsburg when his mother came to the United States after the Wall fell to try to make a better life for her children. He said that in high-school in Pittsburg he was struck by how little was taught about the history and affairs of Europe and the rest of the world. I guess I come by my egocentricity naturally; apparently it’s a national trait.


It wasn't just the common struggle to find a new way of governing and a new way of organizing business that made things so difficult in the Bulgaria of his youth. Amid the new statelessness, ethnic and nationalistic hatreds dating back to the Ottoman Empire revived. Even today, he said, if you get a Bulgarian and a Macedonian together in a bar and get them drinking, there will be a fight.


As he was talking, I thought of the oligarchs in Russia, the bitter business and national rivalries in Asia, the sectarian wars in the Middle East, the tribal slaughters in Africa and Central America. Considering the durability of provincial antipathies, and the murders committed in their name, even the Tea Party begins to scare me.


I knew about the Cold War when I was a kid. During nuclear war drills, I ducked and covered under my desk with the rest of my grade-school classmates. But I didn't really feel it. I was in my little bubble. In many ways I still am. But it's getting harder and harder to be oblivious to the problems in the rest of the world. I read more about world affairs than I ever have, that's part of it, but the world is just smaller now. With the Internet and constant global reporting, it's like living in my small hometown when I was a boy, where I couldn't hide from scrutiny. Everyone seemed to know what mischief I was up to; now I know what mischief everyone else is up to.


Honestly, I think I liked it better the other way. I'm not sure I want to know as much as I do. The notion that as a species we are unlikely to kick the habit of petty brutality is depressing. I liked it better when I thought I, or at least we, could change the world. I won't say I’m wise yet. I'm a long way from it. I'm just not sure I want to know more.

* With apologies to Pete Townshend, who said that by old he meant rich, like the Queen Mother, who had his old Packard hearse towed because she didn’t like to see it on the street and inspired him to write "My Generation”.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Information Super Highway to Liberty

This is what my brother wrote to me this morning: “There is a difference between liberalism and leftism. The left likes to label itself as liberal, or even progressive, but it is not. It is a much more totalitarian mindset, and not particularly kind to its dissenters.”

I wonder if he might not be right.

David and I share a love of our dead father, golf and nostalgia, but we do not share political philosophies. As he put it himself: “I don't agree with the majority of your socio-political stances, and the role of government…But I will say this: there is a difference between liberalism and leftism.”

It was that last twist, the notion that the left and liberalism are different, that caught my attention. It reminded me of F.A. Hayek, the famous Austrian economist who, in the middle of totalitarianism’s worst hour, WWII, wrote The Road to Serfdom, in which he said that well-meaning but foolish socialists were, in entrusting so much to government planning and control, risking autocratic rule. Planners would want to plan, and as they tightened their planning processes and closed their ranks society would lose control of them. The totalitarian communism of the Soviet Union and China after Hayek published his book bore him out.

I’ve always thought that Hayek was writing about history, but I’ve learned from David and others that many believe he was writing about an eternal truth: central planning bureaucracies can’t—and mustn’t—be trusted. I say again: maybe they’re right.

There are so many big problems that look immune to any but governmental solutions—infrastructure, health care, poverty—that I tend to default to government as the remedy. My son Chris, who is a PhD candidate in Economics at Harvard, suggests I be skeptical of government intervention and welcome it only when no other solution is possible. Maybe he’s right too.

Chris and Meg and I were talking about my brother’s and Hayek’s views over breakfast and I asked Chris what viable alternatives to government action exist in the case of some of the important, large-scale roles it now plays. We talked about the spotty record to date of industry self-regulation, for instance, caused by obvious conflicts of interest. He suggested that our ability to get and share information more broadly in today’s high-tech world could make private regulation possible where it has not been before. Think Yelp instead of the FDA. That’s a gross exaggeration, but you get the idea.

Chris could be onto something revolutionary. We are on the cusp of a whole new world of data and data availability. As he put it: All of capitalism depends on market knowledge. I might add, as he suggested, that all effective and democratic government regulation depends on the same thing. Maybe information, and the means to quickly convey it, will be the bridge between those two great institutions: the free market and the government regulation that helps it behave, or at least not misbehave. It might also serve as a kind of vaccine against corruption in each.

Knowledge is power, the old saying goes. In Hayek’s time, few had it. Now many do. Might it not be possible, then, to achieve the lofty (Hayek said naive) aims of socialism using the power of capitalism yoked to broadly available data? And might it not be easier to trust both the government that Hayek feared and the capitalists that seem to have only their own interests at heart if we all had a clear idea of what each was doing? 

The libertarian in Hayek is in us all. The humanitarian in Marx in is in there too. Maybe now, aided by our new information technology, we can for the first time in history open up a real conversation between our competing instincts, one based on information rather than superstition, on understanding rather than fear.   

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Crimes in the Name of God

When ISIS (now called the Islamic State) took over Mosul in northern Iraq recently, its leaders ordered all women to wear full face veils. "This is not a restriction on her freedom but to prevent her from falling into humiliation and vulgarity or to be a theater for the eyes of those who are looking,” they said.

There were also reports that ISIS ordered all girls and women in Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. These reports are less well substantiated, but the horror they describe is unimaginable.

In parts of India, Hindu widows are still shunned, and a woman who leaves her husband will not be taken back by her own family. Often her only choice for survival is to go to the city and become a beggar or a prostitute. Facing that, some commit suicide by setting fire to themselves in their marital beds.

If you are a Mormon mother, you are expected to stay at home. “The husband is expected to support his family and only in an emergency should a wife secure outside employment. Her place is in the home, to build the home into a heaven of delight.” (From the website of the Mormon Church.)

If you are a woman and a Catholic, you cannot aspire to be a priest.

If you are a woman who works for a company run by someone who, on religious grounds, opposes IUDs as a form of contraception, you must pay for your IUD yourself, even though the Affordable Care Act requires that your employer cover it under your health plan. (U.S. Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby.)

If you have business before the town council of Greece, New York, or many other governmental bodies in the U.S., you will have to miss the very beginning of the meeting if you don't want to hear the prayer that opens the session. (U.S. Supreme Court, Greece v. Galloway.) "When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another," Justice Kagan said in dissent. "And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines." But for now, they will.

Having to listen to a Christian prayer at the beginning of public business is not the same as having to cover your face with a veil. Having to buy your own IUD is not the same as suffering female genital mutilation. But both the inconvenient and the horrific are ushered in under the same auspices: religious conviction. 

Religious conviction often motivates good works, but it sometimes inspires despicable acts. Which is why we would prefer to keep the government out of the business of sponsoring it. Zeal is dangerous, especially to infidels.

Religion is particularly hard on women. Men aren’t forced to cover their faces or have their genitals mutilated to the point they cannot experience pleasure in sex. Men are not the chattels of their wives' families, nor are they directed to say home and raise the kids. Men are not asked to submit to spiritual guidance exclusively by women.

If you are a woman and you want to stay in a misogynist religion, that should be your choice (if you really do have a free choice). But it is not the place of government to force other women or men to play by religious rules they do not accept. It is, instead, the proper role of government to round up the metaphorical members of ISIS when they force their religious commandments on others and put them on trial for their crimes. For make no mistake, they are crimes.