Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jose's Excellent Adventure

I have some casual pals at Starbucks, where I like to write. One of them is, like me, a father and a grandfather. He reads my blog once in a while and we talk about our kids. Not much. Just in passing. Today he told me that one of the baristas, Jose, is about to become a father. Jose was behind the counter and my friend said loudly, in that jovial way of comradeship, that he and I should take Jose under our wings and give him the benefit of our combined wisdom as fathers.


I had a kind of instant flash through all the things I might say and what came out was "Run." Jose, going along with the laughter, said that occurred to him, but he stayed. His baby is due in June. He's in for a ride, one we've all taken, as parent or child, or both, and yet one that is unique to each of us. Call it the ride of life. After all, what is life all about if not perpetuating the species? Today we don't use such a clinical phrase. We say life is all about family. Certainly it seems to get that way from time to time, especially those times when you would rather be alone. Maybe just to have a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom without being on high alert for incoming.

Of course I was kidding when I suggested that Jose run. It's a male cliche. A mandatory joke about the yoke being slipped over his young neck. Fatherhood changes you forever, no doubt about that. Most of us say the change is for the better, but maybe Darwin makes us say that. Maybe we don't have any real choice in how we feel about being fathers. 

So now that I'm not joking around with Jose, terrifying him, what would I say to him or to any new father.

1. Join a feminist group. Be active in feminist causes, especially workplace equality and childcare. The main thing you have to do as a father is be there. Nature takes care of a lot of the rest. You can be there more if your partner shares roles with you, both work and child-care. This has the added benefit (which pays off in numerous ways) of making your partner happy. Indeed, as things now stand in our culture, you will be seen as a saint. Try not to abuse your halo.

2. Take a deep breath. The biggest mistakes of fatherhood are made when we're angry. Go for a walk. Cool off. You can't teach a child to be loving and patient by being the opposite.

3. Let him fail. Follow the maxim of the technology world: "Fail early and often." Techies know we learn from our mistakes. Tech venture capitalists don't even want to invest in someone who hasn't failed. Children are the world's best at making real-time course corrections. But you have to let them make mistakes for them to learn. Don't expose them to danger, but don't be overprotective. And start young, when the failures don't mean they won't get into college. By that point, they will have learned the lessons failure teaches and you won't have to hire a tutor to write their college essays.

4. Be there. I said that already, but it bears repeating. All the rest will come naturally. You'll give her what you have to give and she'll know she's loved. That's the foundation for everything. Your job is to get her ready to go off on her own. She needs to feel safe and valued, respected and loved. She'll figure out the rest. You can teach her. You can tell her stories. But mainly she'll figure it out herself as long as she knows she's on solid ground at home.

That's all. The rest is just the way we live. Be a soccer dad if you want. Camp out. Take him to ball games. Whatever you want to do. What you do with him doesn't matter. It's the doing, the being there, that makes all the difference. 

How do I know all this? What makes me such an expert? Simple. Look down the list. I've done every one wrong. I've learned from failure. Maybe that's the only way. Or maybe Jose will be spared the big mistakes and only have his own small ones to look back on with regret. That would be my last bit of advice, I suppose. What I tell myself anyway. Do your best and don't look back. Don't beat yourself up when you slip. Get up and keep trying. That's one of the best lessons you can teach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Intellectual Blood Sport

When I was a boy, my father used to lecture me. They were pull-up-a-chair-and-get-comfortable-this-is-going-to last-for-a-while events. He would repeat himself over and over, as if I were deaf or insensible (which, a short time into the ordeal, I usually was), or as if by sheer repetition I could be made to see the wisdom of his point of view. I don't think I ever did--see the wisdom of his views--which is my loss, to some extent. He died when he was fifty, and I twenty eight, and still, decades later, not many days go by when I don't wish I could revisit some of those debates. I don't know whether I want to say "I understand better now, Dad" or "You understand better now, don't you Dad?" Probably both. It's likely we would pick up right where we left off.


In fairness to Dad, his lectures, the real stem-winders, were usually saved for my teenage-boy transgressions, not politics. He was a brilliant doctor and a libertarian. When he died, he hadn't managed to pay a good amount of back taxes. I don't think he thought he government was really entitled to them. Those were the ninety-percent-marginal-tax-rate days, and at those rates, he was probably right. But whatever your father's politics, most boys have to go the other way. At least ones like me. It's all part of breaking free.

I went to law school at Vanderbilt and we kept up our debates until he died, not long after I graduated. He told me once (the nicest compliment he ever paid me) that he wanted to go to law school so he could better argue with me. He may have admired my sophistry, but I don't think I ever convinced him of anything. Except maybe that it was fun to spar around about big issues.


Flash forward. I'm at dinner recently with my father. A kind of second-coming of him, anyway. Same boyishness. Same charm. Same good humor and parrying wit. Same bedrock conservatism. This friend and I have been going round and round for a few dinner parties on the usual political flash points. He's socially liberal, like Dad was, so it's mainly fiscal issues and the proper role of government that we wrestle over, just like Dad and I. And like Dad, this friend is polite enough that from time to time I actually think I'm bringing him around. The dinner table is no place for a fight and the wine lubricates the discussion, but then I send him an email link to a column by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or some other redistributionist and my friend bares his teeth. Oh, dear! He does have big teeth.


He thanked me recently for not giving up on him, which was a charming way to ask why the hell I am so stubborn. Good question. Why indeed? I told him I learned persistence from my father. My father's political views don't live on in me, but his ability to cling to them doggedly, to rationalize them, to see the facts that support them and not the ones that don't, to say the same thing over and over, certain that the cretin to whom I am speaking will eventually have an intellectual epiphany, does.


Talking to my friend is enough like talking to Dad that I love it. Occasionally hate it. Love it. It's sport. And not. When I was a boy, when my father was alive, the issues we discussed were still abstractions to me. Now that I see the consequences, in human terms, of the choices we make as a society, it's getting harder to to enjoy the sport. I feel an increasing need to slay my gladiatorial opponent. The trouble is, he's as fit and well armored as I. What does that mean? Am I doomed to ceaseless combat, or should I exit the coliseum and just let everyone else get hopelessly bloody in what seems to be a never-ending conflict, our country's version of a religious war?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn Me Loose and Set Me Free

I remember when I stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Ah, bittersweet passages. After the elections yesterday, I guess I'll have to give up another of my fantasies: the belief that America, deep down in its heart of hearts, supports a progressive political agenda.

I have an old Merle Haggard song in my iTunes library called "Big City Turn Me Loose and Set Me Free." Merle sings the role of a man who "quit his steady job" and "left the "dirty old city" and wants to be dropped off "somewhere in the middle of Montana." He's "been working every day since he was twenty" and "doesn't have a thing to show for anything he's done." He says, "you can keep your retirement and your so-called social security," as long as you set him free. If he's penniless, I guess that would be free to live off the land like the old pioneers. And to fend for himself when he gets old and sick. 

I can understand the romantic notion behind such a choice. And if the man Merle Haggard sings about wants to make that choice for himself, fine. This is a country that jealously guards our freedom as individuals to decide how we want to live.

The Republicans want to lower my taxes, reduce limits on my ability to promote exploitive financial schemes and kick as many people as possible off the dole and out of subsidized health care plans. As long as I don't look around at the suffering they will create, I'll be better off.

So why am I so sad? That's the right word for it. Not angry. Maybe wistful. There are some things I just cant do anything about, and America's shift back to its conservative/libertarian roots is one of them. I don't like it any better than I did abandoning the Tooth Fairy. I was practical then. I'll be practical now. But I am diminished by the loss of something I so joyfully believed in: the notion that most of us want a political system that strives to level the playing field of opportunity and that looks after those that don't succeed there. A system that, when times are tough, offers the same kind of almost magical hope as a holiday toy or a few coins under a pillow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dangerously Bored

Raise you hand if you're bored. Raise your hand if you think you have a touch of attention deficit whatever. (On that second one, my hand is definitely up.)


I'll bet you've seen that most-emailed NYT piece about how ADHD was a good thing back when we were all hunters. It only became a liability when we settled down to grow crops. Before baguettes and tortillas, a little restless curiosity and a smidgen of thrill-seeking went a long way toward putting dinner on the table. These days, with no wild beasts to ward off, we're hunting Ritalin instead. It takes a boring man to tend a boring crop.

But that need is still in there, isn't it? That dream of something new, something daring. This leads to many ill-advised behaviors. Also to hangovers. It's the chief cause of bad personal decisions, like marital infidelity, and bad political decisions, like our periodic urge to throw the bums out.

This new guy is so cool. He'll be exciting. Not like that putz Im stuck with now. Political demagoguery is like tequila. It makes someone you should know better than to fall for look beautiful.

It's election day. Tonight we'll be sucking on limes and dancing on the tables. The hangover will come later. OMG, this one looks no better than the last one. No, wait, now that I think about it, he's uglier. What was I thinking?

I'm a Democrat. I'm an Obama man. I was so excited when he won. I bought all the hope and change stuff. The difference between me and many Americans is that I'm still excited about him. Well, excited is not exactly right. Satisfied would be more like it. Still committed. As in good personal partnerships, even as the passion heats and cools and (hopefully) re-heats, the love remains.

Many want a divorce from Obama. His fellow Democrats running for re-election in red or purple states, even some blue ones, are saying they never much liked the guy themselves. He's under political house arrest. His nose is pressed up to the mullioned windows of the oval office like a loyal dog who has been left behind and doesn't understand why.

He has disappointed us, many say. He has made us look weak on the world stage. He broke his promise to close Guantanamo. He broke his promise to be a president of peace not war. He broke his promise to bridge the partisan political divide in Washington. He passed that terrible health care bill that let all those deadbeats get insurance partially paid for by our tax dollars.

Pick your poison. Everyone has a gripe about Obama. He's not Mitt. He's not Hillary. He's not Elizabeth Warren. He's not even himself, at least not who we thought he was.

He leaves his clothes on the bedroom floor. He spits his toothpaste in the sink and doesn't rinse it. He doesn't share the housework. He never brings us flowers. We think he's bored with us. 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we're so over Obama: the national divorce rate is fifty percent.

Maybe the new lovers we take today will turn out to be the loves of our lives. It happens. More likely, they'll spit toothpaste in the sink too. The thing is, if you want to build a relationship, if you want to build a life together based on mutual interests and commitment, with little shots of spark now and then, you have to stick with it. You can't be starting over all the time.

The problem is that often we don't know what we want in a partner, in life or in politics. We keep searching. And the searching means changing. And the changing means we don't make much progress toward building something enduring. You have to be patient to build something that lasts. We're not very patient.

Personally, I'm not disappointed in Obama. He's pretty much what I expected he wold be. Absolutely what I expected from a policy standpoint. I might have wished he'd have the political magic or cunning to be more effective in working across the aisle, but oh, well... At least he stuck to his ideological guns. Maybe he didn't shepherd through as much of the progressive agenda as I'd hoped he would, but he held off the revanchists.

There is danger in impulsive behavior. There is danger in the ennui that precedes it. We know that, but still we go to the party and order shots and look around for something new. We can't help ourselves, apparently. When we settled down to farming ten-thousand years ago, we left ourselves without daily outlets for our need to be reckless. Since then we seem even to have forgotten that the need lives on within us, and that, when it comes to setting a long-term political agenda, it's not doing us any favors.

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.


--
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.