Thursday, October 1, 2015

Too Wise

That’s not possible, right? To be too wise.

Apparently it is.

I read a comparison recently of the differing approaches of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Kerry rushes in where Obama is, if not afraid, reluctant to tread. The president is comfortable assessing a situation as one that U.S. intervention would only make worse. Kerry sees a problem and attacks it with the good-old American bias—some would say hubris—to engineer a solution.

That same day I read another piece about why homo sapiens are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. There were once several human-like species, now there is only us. The last to survive, Neanderthals, were brilliant at what they did, which was mainly killing big game with efficient stone weapons. They had an ax, it worked, and they stuck with it. But as the climate changed, and the forrest where they hunted thinned, they needed different weapons for smaller game. They didn’t develop them, and you know the rest of the story.

Our homo sapien ancestors constantly tinkered, though. Even when they had a weapon that worked, they developed others. They experimented. They innovated. And they were the first to communicate through symbolic art. This led to the ability to pass along knowledge broadly and enhanced the formation of social networks. Those are apparently the big three of our success as a species: innovation, art and social networks. (Page, Rodin and Zuckerberg) 

We’re restless. We don’t settle for the status quo. We’re constantly looking for something better. Sometimes it gets us in trouble (examples to numerous to enumerate), but apparently it is the secret to our survival. So you have to give it some respect. If you like survival.

Temperamentally, I’m a mix of Barack Obama and John Kerry. I don’t like mucking about in situations I don’t think I can influence, but when it comes to matters close to home—family, career, neighbors in distress—I have to do something. I can’t stand by and say it’s out of my hands. Maybe it is, but I never think so. I try to do something. I have to. It’s just the way I’m wired. Ask any of my grown children.

I don’t think about what I might be able to do about Syria. Too big and too remote for me to have an impact. But it’s the job of our president and our secretary of state to do so. I think I agree intellectually with the president that what is needed over there is about a thousand years of their learning to live together in pluralistic societies. But if I were in John Kerry’s job, I’d be wading in diplomatically, as he is, trying to get them there faster.

The Neanderthal experience offers the cautionary note, of course. They had a big ax and that’s all they used. In the long run, that didn’t work out so well for them. We have a big ax too, but it would be good to develop other tools for situations like Syria. That is, if we want to survive.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Gun at a Time

All along the sidewalk on that bright California morning armed men were gathering. They carried pistols and rifles and shotguns. I don’t mind telling you they made me nervous. Some of them looked like they were just stopping to chat with friends on their way to knocking off a convenience store. I imagined I saw Charlie Manson.

There were police on the grassy lawn between the sidewalk and a government building. They were there to keep an eye on the crowd, but they were also there as buyers. The East Palo Alto Police Department was buying guns for a hundred bucks each, no questions asked, and from all over sellers were lining up.

I was there with my sweet little Smith & Wesson twenty gauge. In its case. Trigger lock in place. Barrel oiled from the last loving cleaning I’d given it years ago. I hadn’t shot it for more than a decade, but still I hated to give it up. My oldest son and I had shot doves and skeet with it. Now he wanted to give it to his son, who had become an avid skeet shooter too.

The line was long and slow, and I felt too restless to say in it. In part because all those guns on a city sidewalk made me nervous, and in part because I hated to let the gun go. I hated to disappoint my son and grandson. I figured if I stayed too long, I might change my mind, so I found a policeman who was monitoring the line and told him I had to go and asked him to please turn in the gun. I told him to donate the hundred dollars to the police auxiliary.

That was three years ago. In the last few months my grandson, who is sixteen, and I have been having an animated discussion about gun control. I didn’t know it until now, but he has become an avid gun rights advocate. I sent him the famous studies done at Harvard by David Hemenway and he sent me studies he had that pretty much said the opposite. Apparently there are enough facts to go around to satisfy every point of view.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have an individual right to be armed. Never mind if your community suffers with horrific gun violence and you and your fellow local citizens say enough is enough, we’re going to do something to get guns off the streets. The Court will not, in my opinion, stick to its current position. Over time, as it has so many times in the past, it will catch up with the cultural norms in the country and permit some kind of local rule on gun control. That may not happen for a while, though. Racial segregation was approved by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was the law of the land until it reversed course in Brown v. Board in 1954.

About a third of Americans own guns. Who knows what kinds of guns, or why, but I suspect that many are in the hands of people who use them rarely. It seems funny that our laws so strongly support a right that seems important to so few but harms so many. As I say, ultimately the law will catch up with the culture. America isn’t the Wild West anymore.

Martin Luther King advocated, indeed demanded, non-violent protest against racial discrimination. There were risks to that approach. It got him killed. But it worked. There may be risks to disarming, but I don’t think so. The police protect us. All the studies show that as a practical matter personal weapons are remarkably ineffective for self-defense. You are not more likely to be killed by a gun if you are not armed. Just the opposite, when you take into account accidental death and suicide.

My sensitivity to guns is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe its myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I couldnt bring myself to send him my gun. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I got rid of one.

Monday, September 7, 2015

216 Avery Street

Meg was at the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival this weekend. I started looking at Google Maps while we were talking and told her she was only a couple of blocks from 216 Avery Street, the house where my mother grew up. Oh look, I said, there’s Winona Park school. That’s where she went to elementary school. How do you remember that? Meg said. I didn’t. I saw the name on the map and the memory shimmered back into focus. Not just that she went there, but that it was up the hill from her house and when she came home each day, her father, a history professor at Agnes Scott college, just around the next block, was there, usually on his way to play tennis with one of his pals. 

Mom’s father, the historian, lived to be almost one hundred. He wrote a history of our family that is engagingly packed with births and deaths and life passages. I know, for instance, that I am a distant relative of Colonel John Page of Colonial Virginia and of Judge Alfred Foot of New York and his wife, Jane Campbell Foot, for whom my mother’s mother was named. I have silver spoons and whatnot from generations of Foots and Pages and Davidsons.

But I don’t know why my mother, who died almost exactly seven years ago, at age eighty-four, was the way she was. Some things about her don’t need explaining: her kindness, her wisdom, her gentle spirit. But as to others, I just ask myself, man, oh, man, how did she get that way? The trouble is: I didn’t ask her. 

I know so little about what happened when mom got home from those days at Winona Park school. Did her father sit on the porch steps with her and ask about her day before he went off for tennis? Did her mother have a snack waiting for her? I know she played piano beautifully and that when her piano teacher said she was good enough to play in concerts she stopped playing rather than go on stage. Was that the first sign of the anxiety that would plague her all her life? Did her parents know? Did they understand how bad it was, or was it a secret she kept? Did she tell them she was just tired of piano?

Her father moved from Agnes Scott to Vanderbilt University and Mom met my father there. He was charming and mercurial. Maybe bi-polar, I now think. Or perhaps he had narcissistic personality disorder. That’s popular now. All I know is that by the time I was paying attention, he was alternating between acts of extravagant generosity and marathon scoldings. Mom was in the background. Like a frightened villager at the foot of a smoldering, belching volcano. That’s the way I remember her in those days: in the background. Later I came to understand that she was being driven underground to an emotionally subterranean place where she could survive.

And survive she did. My father died at fifty and she lived another thirty-four years without him. Alone. But maybe that was better for her than being with him. Gradually she came back to herself. At the end, she was the mother I remember from my early childhood. Sweet and kind. Still anxious, but not truly afraid.

When you’re a kid, everything is about you. Your parents are something to be dealt with, not understood. When you’re an adult, especially near the end of an aging parent’s life, everything is about them. Day-to-day, that comes down to what you need to do to help them. Which is just another version of everything is about you, I suppose.

I did a lot for Mom near the end of her life. For ten or fifteen years, I was the parent and she was the child. You know how it is with children: you want to understand them, but most of your time is taken up keeping them safe and making sure they eat right. You try to amuse them too. That’s they way it is with aging parents. I kept Mom safe, made sure she had good care when she needed it, and tried to amuse her. I tried hard, but to this day I don’t think I did enough for her. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had done more.

And now I’m beginning to realize I have yet another regret. I wish I had tried harder to understand her. Not who she was. I could see that. I could see what needed treating. But why she was that way. Were her parents emotionally aloof to that little girl who went to Winona Park school? Did she never feel good enough for them? I could see my father’s rages, but what did they mean for her? When did they start? Did she, like a battered wife, feel they were her fault?

Some families may tell those stories. The whys, not just the whats. They’re hard, though. Hard to ask. Hard to tell. We fill in the blanks as we need to. In real-time, we do more coping than understanding. But later, after someone is gone, the longing to understand begins. Without the press of everyday events, there is time and space. And there is guilt. Guilt is a great catalyst for the desire to understand. Maybe in the hope that you’ll discover that it wasn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have done more. That nothing you could have done would have made a difference.

I wrote a novel that fictionalizes some of my life. Mom is in there. In the novel I explain her. I fill in the blanks. Now, years after her death, and a year or so after that novel, I have trouble remembering what was true and what I made up. Maybe I didn’t make it up. Maybe it was in there on some subconscious level, waiting for me to reach some place of peace and release that would permit it to show itself. 

I was at dinner with a friend last night who is making arrangements for the last year or so of his mother’s life. He’s a good son. She has been living nearby and he’s been good to her. Now he is considering having her move to be near his sister in another state, where care is much cheaper. He feels conflicted, ambivalent and, already, guilty. He wants what’s best for her, but he can’t help wondering if he doesn’t also long for release from day-to-day responsibility for her. I told him we all go through that. I told him he’s a good man. I told him that whatever he does he’s going to feel guilty about it. When she dies, he’ll wish he’d done more. No matter how much he does, he’ll wish he’d done more.

I’m going to see him this afternoon. We’e going to the driving range to hit some golf balls, something I used to love to do with my father. I’m going to tell him the other thing I’ve realized: when his mom is gone, not only is he going to wish he’d done more for her, he’s going to wish he’d asked her more about herself, about the person who was inside the woman he knew as his mother. 

Maybe there’s still time for him to avoid that second regret. I don’t think so, though. Our parents’ lives are only truly mysteries after it’s too late to ask.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Child That Might Have Been

I read today that Ohio legislators want to ban abortions if the reason is the fetus has Down syndrome.

It’s a life after all.

Well, of course it is. A potential life anyway. But aren't there many potential lives? Potential doesn’t mean egg must have met sperm and snuggled up to the swelling uterine wall. Potential as well can mean boy meets girl. Why are those other potential lives not entitled to consideration?

Why make parents have a child with Down syndrome? Why not let them try again? Why make parents have children of any kind, genetically normal or not, before they are ready? Perhaps before they can afford to pay for the child’s care and education. Why not let them choose another time? Another potential life.

What about the rights of those not-yet-conceived children? If their parents are free to make their own choices, they will likely come into the world healthy and normal, born into a family that wants them and is ready for the emotional and financial responsibility of parenthood.

What about those potential lives? What about the parents who will cherish them when their times come?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Civil War II

This year is the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, a great battle fought over the enslavement of blacks. I wonder when we might have Civil War II (at the voting booth, this time) between women and the men who insist upon controlling their reproductive choices.

As long as Roe v. Wade holds, women with money are like black freemen in 1850, not treated equally to men in all respects--there are still widespread pay gaps and glass ceilings--but at least in control of their bodies. But women who are poor are chained to their biology. They need free contraception because they’re barely scraping by to put food on the table. They need abortions to undo a teen mistake or avoid the poverty of an unwanted child, but they might live in Texas or one of the other states that have passed abortion clinic requirements so onerous that all but a few have shut down. They need reproductive counseling and healthcare from Planned Parenthood, which Republicans are determined to deny them.

Women want affordable contraception and gynecological care. They want to break free of unwanted pregnancies. They want to break free of men’s control of their bodies. They don’t want to be told how to live their sexual lives by old white men in Rome or old white men in Congress. Or by the new Hispanic Pope. Or by Marco Rubio. Hispanic male chauvinism is nothing new. Hispanics in a position to make the rules for women are. Still men, though. Always men.

Why do these men care so much about what women do? Religious doctrine commands it, you say. Okay, fine. If a woman wants to be in that church and chooses not to use contraception, that’s her choice. It’s worth pointing out, though, that not many women in America, even those who think of themselves as good Catholics, for instance, don’t use birth control. They’ve made their peace with their religion.

That choice, though, that personal accommodation of faith and practicality, shouldn’t be theirs to make, according to the men in charge. Women must be saved from their heresy by restricting their access to birth control. It’s the same urge behind keeping the whiskey locked up when there are teenagers in the house. No, it’s more like leaving the whiskey within easy reach and then letting the kid rot in jail when he gets a DUI. Do the crime, do the time.

Maybe it’s Puritan morality that beats in the hearts of men who would deny women a right to choose when they have children, but I don’t think so. I think that’s just their excuse. I think it terrifies them for women to be free agents. To be able to say with whom they have sex, and when. 

Too many old white men (and their Hispanic successors) want to keep their women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen. They don’t want to lose the power over women that pregnancy affords them. They don’t want to lose the dependence of women on them. Like the plantation owners of the first Civil War, they don’t want to free the unpaid servants who’ve been shackled to them by the economics of having a baby.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Rights We Give Ourselves

I’m having a debate with my sixteen year old grandson about gun rights. He’s pro, I’m con. He’s smart and articulate, and he has spent a lot of time reading about the issue. He has his facts about the correlation between gun ownership rates and the incidence of gun violence, and I have mine. We are at something of a stalemate.

On this, as with so many policy issues, though, the debate isn’t really so much about facts, which can be tortured into many shapes—“Lies, damn lies and statistics”—as it is about what we value as a society. Guns kill people. No dispute there. The question is whether having them around is worth that undeniable cost. Gun owners have an interest in being able to own guns, and we all have an interest in not being shot. 

Balancing competing interests is the primary tool on the workbench of a constitutional law scholar. The more fundamental the individual interest (or "right," as we commonly refer to it), the more compelling must be the state's interest to justify abridging the individual interest. The state has to have a damned good reason to censor the press, for instance, because we value freedom of speech so highly.

The abortion debate comes down to the same thing. Science cannot deny that a life, or at least a highly likely potential life, is being aborted any time after conception and implantation. The question is, do the interests of the parents and society in not having an unwanted child outweigh the interest of the embryo. One can reasonably take either side of that argument. It's a question of what you value.

With guns, too, this is the proper analytical approach. How important is the individual interest in owning a gun compared to the rest of society's interest in avoiding gun violence? Like abortion, like free speech, this is a value judgement. For me, guns are unnecessary and ineffective to protect us either from crime or from government tyranny. This is why I support the considered judgment of a community that seeks to limit their incidence, as both Chicago and D.C. did before their local laws were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Frankly, I can't think of an important individual interest that is advanced by forbidding communities to try to keep themselves safe from handguns and assault weapons. That's my value judgment. As a people, collectively, we have to reach our own. 

We have the “rights” we permit ourselves. No others. They are not ordained. They continue by common consent. I have to assume at this point that we have so many guns, and so much gun violence, because that’s the balance of interests we want. If not, we ought to do something about it. What to do is no mystery. Vote for change. It’s not going to happen any other way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Who are our heroes?

Explorers. Inventors. Jonas Salk. Larry Page.

And what do our heroes all have in common? They open up the future for us. They show us ways to aspire to a better life. Even our sports heroes do that. Wow, if that guy can run the hundred that fast, and look that buff, maybe I should get in better shape.

What else do they have in common? They don’t bring us down. They are never about negativity. They are never about how hopeless it all is. They are the opposite of that. They are all about hope, the dream that we can be better.

Are you with me so far? Do we agree?

Well, then let me ask you this: Why do we support the politicians we do, the ones who want to tear down others, tear up the rights and lives of those who are not like them? The ones who appeal to the opposite of hope. The ones who appeal to fear.

It’s not their fault. They’re like well-trained rats. They’re doing what they have to do to get the electoral cheese. No, my friends, the fault is ours. We’re telling them with our votes and our polls and our rallies what we care most about, and a lot of what we care about, day-to-day, has more to do with not losing what we've got than with reaching for something more: don’t let in those illegal immigrants who will take our jobs; don't ask us to pay more in taxes to support people who won’t work for themselves; don’t attack my religion with your secular intellectualization of rights that the Bible (or the Koran, or whatever) says don’t exist.

So, to ask the question again, but with a slightly different spin: Why are we so afraid? If our heroes look to the future, why do we want to cling to the past? Do we think our heroes are braver than we are? Do we think we could never be anyone’s hero?

It is hard to imagine that you might invent the polio vaccine; or dwarf wheat; or Google. But you don’t have to shoot that high to be a hero. Most of us have a worshipful audience waiting for our wisdom, waiting for our inspiration. Children. Our own, our nieces and nephews, the kids down the block. They’re looking for heroes too. They might not think they can be LeBron James, but they are quite clear that they can be you. You’re just mom or dad, or auntie, or the neighbor. Of course they think they can be you.

So what are you showing them? Who do you say you are? What do you say you stand for? They are watching? They are listening. They will take their first cues from you. Will you teach them to be hopeful, to look to the future, to plan for it, or will you teach them to be afraid?

Monday, July 20, 2015

How to Change the World

Once there was a young man who planned to change the world. He could see clearly the things around him that he could improve. He could see bigotry that could be enlightened. He could see hunger that could be served a meal. He could see ignorance that could be educated. He set out to be a doctor, to heal. Or a lawyer, to bring justice. Or a scientist to find new ways of living on the planet without destroying it. He knew he would have to choose. He knew he could not do it all. But he had faith in others. The problems he didn’t tackle others would. Change would come. It was inevitable.

His chosen field had a long apprenticeship. He was good at what he did, and he was flattered and rewarded and coaxed into more and more sophisticated, complicated endeavors. The sense of discovery and achievement was intoxicating. He hardly noticed that he was solving only his employer’s problems, not the world’s.

He found a mate and had children. He saw the world through a child’s eyes again. He explained it to them and taught them what mattered about the way they would live and work with others. He taught them to want to change the world.

His children grew up and left home and left a hole in his heart. He thought that was the pain he felt, but it was more than that. The loss was of himself. He had not changed the world. He would not. He knew that, suddenly, awfully. It wasn’t his fault, he told himself. He had been naive as a young man. The world was as inexorable and immutable as human nature. He would not make a difference.

As he lay on his deathbed, his wife gone before him, his family gathered in the dim room: his son and his daughter, and his grandchildren, two girls and two boys. The young ones fidgeted and exchanged glances and occasional giggles. Their parents shushed them but they could not impose on them their grief and solemnity. The children knew what was happening, and they did not want it, they loved their grandfather, but they could not for long turn away from themselves and what they planned to do next in the world that was opening up to them in the ways their parents had told them it would.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Instinct For Bias

Confirmation bias. Apparently we all have it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing. Bias sounds like prejudice. No one wants to be thought of as prejudiced.

I read a piece in the NYT recently about a study that showed how when trying to find answers we look in safe and familiar places. The article had a test as part of it. A set of three numbers. The test was to determine the rule governed them. You could enter other sets of three numbers yourself to test your theory. The second two numbers were each double the one before, so it looked like that was the rule. It was…and it wasn’t. It turns out the rule was each number merely had to be higher than the one that preceded it.

Over ninety percent of those tested (including me), said what they thought the rule was without ever entering a number set that failed, even though there was no penalty for that. In other words, we didn’t probe the edges of what the rule might be, we raced down the first safe path we discovered. 

Gotcha, the article said. You don’t want to be told your answer is wrong, so you only test the rule with safe answers. You have confirmation bias.

The authors made it sound like a character flaw. Like prejudice. What I think it is, though, is a survival  instinct. If you are trying to make a quick decision about what to do, and you’re pretty sure what the safe move is, that’s the one you tend to make. Long ago in our evolutionary development, those who made the safe play lived to play (and procreate) another day. Confirmation bias is nothing more that an adaptive trait that helped the species survive. It doesn’t show weak character, just good survival instincts.

That distinction may sound like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The better we understand our behavior, the better equipped we are to modify it. If we think those of us in our red and blue political tribes are preferring to listen to what we want to hear just because we are morons, we miss an important opportunity to break through that evolutionary adaptation and inspire more considered thought, more testing of conventional wisdom, more understanding of what the rule really is. Not just the middle road, but all the possible paths that might lead to common ground.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Father's Day, You Magnificent Bastard

My father was crazy. Literally, I now think. He was also brilliant and charismatic. He saved pregnant women and their babies and slept with every woman he could. He abused his family and bought us all new cars. He made a fortune and died with a big tax lien on the ancestral family home. He taught me to play golf, and that my hunting boot was not a good place to try to hide my high-school bottle of Jack Daniels from him--that or the bottle levitated of its own accord up onto my dresser. Just sitting there. He never said anything about it.

The four Everett McCord Claytons, in 1971, three years
before my father (looming over us all) died
He's been dead for forty years, but he lives on in the purgatory of memory. If you want to know more of the story, you can read my novel Angle of Approach. It's all there. The way I imagine it, which is more true that the way it actually was. Indeed, you can get some feel for his impact on my life by reading any of my five novels (assuming they get published). They are all father-son stories: men searching for their sons, boys longing for their fathers. They are the stories he put inside me, for better or worse.

And still, today, even knowing the full extent of his abuse, profligacy and narcissism, when the sun casts late shadows on a sloping lawn, I am back on our golf course with him. We are walking along talking about the next shot, about whether I can bend it around the old oak tree on number one, or about how close to the hole he plans to hit his four iron. He was a master of long irons. Just one of the many things he did better than I. One of the many things I’m still trying to do well enough to earn his highest praise: "Good shot."

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identifying as Black and Brown

I'm starting to get annoyed with white people. We're sitting pretty--on top of the cultural, educational and economic food chain--and still we can't seem to figure out how to help our black and brown brothers and sisters. We need to go back to kindergarten to learn to share.

Im not talking about the white nutzos, the hate-killers. And I'm not talking about the white folks who are themselves struggling to get by; they've got enough problems of their own, and very little to share. I'm talking about you and me.

When are we going to do more than shake our heads in sadness and disgust when blacks get senslessly murdered? By racists. By cops. When are we going to do more than express dismay over dinner with our friends at the fact that so many young black men are in prison? When is the extraordinary educational achievement of my friend Gabby Aguilar, the first in her immigrant family to go to college, going to become the norm instead of a rarity?

Black and brown poverty is the civil rights issue of our time. Just as voting rights were the issue of a half century ago (and still are today, come to think of it). Martin Luther King knew that. He had just begun his crusade against poverty when he was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, a son of Texas who would not be welcome today in Rick Perry country, knew it. He tried, but he didn't get far. Since then, it doesn't look to me like we've even been trying.

It's not enough to support social service programs. The problem is socio-economic segregation. As long as poor people--black, brown or white--are effectively ghettoized, they are not going to have the same opportunities as those living together in affluence. We may say we care, but we're not moving into Watts or East Palo Alto. 

I have no idea what the answer is, but I do know this: if we cared more, if we thought of poor black and Hispanic children as if they were our own children, we would come up with something. We're just not trying hard enough.

"In the end," Martin Luther King famously said, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Something to Say


Anyone out there?

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago called "The Wolf of Conditional Love," giving my slant on an aspect of parenting. I borrowed the title phrase from a David Brooks column of the same day, with which I took modest issue. This morning I saw a tweet in which both my piece and Mr. Brooks' were listed as among the top five parenting advice blogs of the week. 

If you'd had a brain scan of my delight, you'd have thought I won the Pulitzer Prize.

I started writing about my experiences with my children as soon as they were all gone, when the last one left for college. Is that ironic, or is it just the way my writing mind works? Putting my thoughts, and feelings, on paper helps me sort them, make sense of them. In the case of some feelings, it may be the only way I can consciously access them. And the process seems to work best with distance. My understanding of what is going on inside me is like cask of wine that should not be opened before it has aged. Until then it's just sweet grape juice.

I've branched out from my children to the world I want for them, which is my excuse to write about politics and social issues. As with my my feelings about being a father, sometimes I'm not that certain what I think about an issue until I write about it. Intuition and bias are vague and sloppy things. Reason is the order that writing imposes on them.

My blog has been for me. It has helped me learn about myself and understand others better. It has helped me grow. But I would be a liar if I didn't admit I want to reach others. Touch them. Persuade them. It's vanity, I know, but there you have it. It's more or less what we do as a species. Communicate. Understand. Persuade.

Who knows what most readers think of what I write. I get comments of support now and then, but mainly from people I know. I wonder sometimes if anyone else is paying much attention. And then, suddenly I've written a piece someone puts in a top-five list. Someone I don't know. 

To paraphrase Miss Marion, the librarian from The Music Man: "Thank you, my someone."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Your House is on Fire, Run Away Home

Angry. ANGRY!

Maybe I need therapy. A little Prozac.

I think what I need is to disengage. But I don't know how to do that.

I've spent all my life solving problems. How to earn a living. How to raise children. How to be helpful to those around me. As the needs of my family for me have become less pressing, I've turned my thinking to the wider world. What about all those people who I haven't been thinking that much about?

Turns out, they're not doing so well. So, lets talk about that. What can we do?

Talk I have. And written. Both have revealed many things to me. One, how much I don't know. Two, how ready others are to cure my ignorance. I have a few very smart friends and family members who are much more fiscally conservative than I. No nanny state of sloth enablement for them. I see their point, but really, do we think people want to live in paucity and hopelessness? Food stamps are not an education. They are not opportunity.

Some people say opportunity comes to those who work for it. If you miss out, you must not be working hard enough. That's certainly true in some cases, but not, in my view, most. Poverty is a pathology. Tough love is leeches.

The problems are huge. The solutions are not obvious. That is a little depressing, but does not make me mad. It makes me want to look harder for the answers.

What makes me mad is that while thoughtful people, more thoughtful than I, are sifting data and trying hard to understand what is happening and what to do about it, their voices are being heard mainly by themselves and a few others of like mind. Those who disagree are listening to themselves and their tribe. Those who aren't thinking that hard at all are emoting off the cuff. Political discourse, where the solutions ultimately must be forged into governing consensus, has devolved to a herd of wildebeest ranging across an intellectually barren land, spooked by every primitive stimulus, careening en masse this way and then that, with pastures and watering holes nowhere in sight.

It's just stupid the way we do things. We don't act until there is a crisis. This seems to be how evolution has wired us, but the habit of tending only to immediate needs has ceased to be adaptive. If we are to survive, we have to plan for the long term. We have to make sacrifices today to provide for the future. Parents are good at doing that for their children. Otherwise, as a species, we suck at it.

Global warming. Water shortages. Power shortages. Nuclear proliferation. Poverty, poverty, poverty. These are problems that have to be worked on over decades and centuries. I wonder if we have it in us.

Here's a concrete example of a looming problem that is painfully obvious and easy to understand, yet largely ignored: unfunded pension liabilities. Boring, right? It won't be when cities and states can't honor their obligations, when retired teachers and policemen and others don't have a retirement income. It's a huge problem. Everybody knows it. Not many are doing anything about it.

Why? Same reason we don't do anything about so many long-term problems. The consequences of our failure are not immediate. We don't feel threatened. Maybe they won't happen. They're too hard to think about.

The people who should be thinking about them, in the case of unfunded city and state pensions, are the public officials who are trying to get re-elected. Their next campaign is their time horizon, not some retiree's problem in twenty years. So they kick the can down the road.

One way to solve the pension problem would be to change accounting standards to record on balance sheets the present value of the future cost to cities and states of their large unfunded liabilities. If you did that, many cities and states (and companies) would be insolvent. They wouldn't be able to borrow to finance their operations. They'd be Greece. 

Politicians don't want to hear it, and accountants don't want to get fired. So they all look the other way and do what we all do: hope something will happen to make everything work out.

As parents, when we see a child doing something stupid or harmful, we intervene. A childhood of such interventions is what parenting is all about. It ingrains habits that our sons and daughters take with them and live by. Not always, but most of the time.

We're not doing that now. We're being bad parents to our earth, to our fellow man. If I saw a parent negligently ignoring a little girl wandering from the playground toward a busy street, it would make me mad, but at least I could take that child's hand and lead her back to safety. But there are too many small hands to take and keep safe. And while we gather smugly and self-righteously in our homogeneous intellectual cliques, they wander closer and closer to danger.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Mad Faith

We had some friends over for dinner last night, and somehow the conversation segued from how computers work to religion. Surprising myself, and with the benefit of only a single glass of wine, I launched into a blistering rebuke of religion of all stripes. We'd be better off without them, was the gist of it. This morning I wrote a contrite note to one of our dinner guests who I thought I offended, apologizing for my intemperance. I do know better. My mama didn't raise no rude hosts.

So I told myself: stop railing against religion. Then I amended my admonition: stop doing it over dinner; it's no aid to digestion. But rail in public I feel I must.

I've written a few times about how much I admired my grandfather, a man of great intelligence and faith. His was the tolerant and giving religion I was raised with. I admired it, even though I never believed in its god. Live and let live, was my approach.

No more. Take a look around at what is happening in the name of one religion or another. ISIS beheadings and oppression of women and girls. Sunni and Shia suicide bombings. Boko Haram kidnappings of girls. Evangelical Christian and Catholic opposition to women having free access to birth control.

I defy you to name a religion that does not subordinate women. Maybe that was okay once, in a different time and culture. It is no longer.

There have always been religious wars. That, for me, is reason enough to get rid of religion. But the seemingly united view of religions around the world that women are less than men is the last straw. Maybe I just woke up. But I'm awake now.

We cannot and should not tolerate this. No matter what benefit you get from your faith, or what benefit you feel it bestows on others, if it oppresses women--and in one form or another they all do--you should renounce it. Maybe a new religion will be born out of that, one that puts women and men on equal footing. I prefer none, but if there must be faith, I want the dignity and equality of women to be upheld as part of it. 

Come to think of it, just that step might go a long way toward bringing religion back to the way I saw it as a boy: a personal choice that comforts in times of trouble and extends a helping hand in times of need.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Parent Bonus

What if you got rewarded at work for being a good parent?

Your daughter reports that you inspired her to tutor a struggling classmate: here's a bonus of a week's salary. Your son tells us you're never home for dinner: we're going to have to dock you for that.

Good parenting skills and good work skills share common attributes. Good coach at home, good coach for the work team. Inspirational at home, inspirational at work. Realistic goal setting at home, realistic goal setting at work. A Career Builder poll timed to coincide with Mother's Day this year found that 69% of employers see work benefits in parenting skills. High on the list, as any parent knows, were multi-tasking and conflict management.

When I was a lawyer, we billed our time by the hour. The firm's managers, not surprisingly, gave the highest financial rewards to the lawyers who worked the most hours. I don't have to tell you that among a group of highly competitive, ambitious young lawyers, that was a prescription for missed family dinners and soccer games and pretty much everything else but major holidays, and then only for a half-day. The managing partner of my firm, the one who was prodding us all to work harder, once told me late in his life that his only regret was not spending more time with his family.

There was a time when people worked closely together and knew each other's personal circumstances. The wife is sick? Take off as long as you need, family is the most important thing. But for a long time now, the opposite has been the norm. Don't bring your personal problems to work.

That's ridiculous, of course. You can't check your personal problems at the reception desk. They are with you always. And if you can't deal with them in a satisfactory way, they eat at you. They degrade your work performance. Eventually they can cost you your job. Or your family. No one should have to make that choice.

For reticent employers, here's a modest beginning: Tell your people to take all their vacation days or you'll reduce their pay. Take all their maternity leave. Fathers too. No overtime over a certain limit. Tell them you don't want to see them in their cubicles at all hours of the night on a regular basis. Tell them you'll pay them less, not more, if you do.

This is a gender-equality issue. Not just for women, for men too. Women don't want to be forced onto the mommy track. And men don't want to miss all the soccer games. Even if a man wants to be an equal partner in parenting and housework, employer expectations do not accommodate that. "He's not a fighter pilot. I don't want him on my team." I used to think that way myself.

In too many jobs, the path to success does not run close to home. Men and women who climb the competitive ladder by giving it all at the office may be happy for a while--or think they are--but many end up with same regrets as my old managing partner. As Rabbi Harold Kushner famously said: "Nobody on their deathbed has ever said 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"

Of course the biggest benefit of rewarding workers for being good parents will be the joy it brings to children everywhere. “Mom and Dad, I’m not sure my evaluation of your parenting this quarter is going to be so good. I think a trip to the ice cream store might be needed to boost your ratings."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lazy Days

What's worse: being bored or being busy at something you don't want to do? Are those the only two choices? I hear you asking. I don't know.

On again, off again I've been busy at things I wanted to do. Legal work was fun (hard to believe, right?). Trying to make a tired old company into something new was fun. Even failure was a kind of bitter tonic, a shocking, smelling-salt reminder to pick yourself up and go on. Writing is fun. And it comes with a lifetime supply of that bitter tonic I just mentioned.

Here I am, picking myself up again. Actually, it's a kind of anticipatory pickup. Eyore-like. I wrote an oped piece I like and sent it out. A couple of agents are reading my new novel. In the timeless words of the world's most famous stuffed donkey: "Oh, well, I don't suppose anyone is going to like them anyway."

I need to start a new novel. That's fun. In the same genre as considering a cluttered attic or garage, dreading moving that first ratty cardboard box or rake even as you begin to imagine a glittering new space that will bring pleasure to so many...or at least to you.

I could go play golf. I love golf. The problem is, I can't play it with my dad or my sons. I like playing alone. Sometimes. But that leads nowhere. I'm all about going somewhere. I don't even know why. My DNA won't leave me alone.

I suppose I've answered my own question. Busy is better than boring. Not busy for the sake of being busy (although it sometimes turns out that way), but busy in the hope of getting somewhere I know I want to go, even if I don't know precisely where that is.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Wolf of Conditional Love

           The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes.
            --David Brooks, NYT

In his column yesterday, "Love and Merit," David Brooks warns us not to link our love for our children to their achievements. On the most obvious level, few would argue. A few examples of bad parenting:

"A minus! A minus! You are no son of mine." 

"If you marry that girl, you are dead to me."

"Say that again and I'll smack you."

So, we all agree on that. What Mr. Brooks is talking about is more subtle. He says:

"Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college."

Guilty! And proud of it. Indeed, I would be even more proud had I used only smiles and praise to reinforce behavior I valued, as opposed to the odd threat or swat on a young bottom.

Let's examine the words that strike such terror into Mr. Brooks' timorous heart: "the wolf of unconditional love."

Wolf: a fierce and cunning survivor. Raised Romulus and Remus.

Conditional: You can have this if you do that. Examples: you can stay at the dinner table if you don't throw food at your brother; you can have your allowance if you take out the trash; you can not be grounded if you come home on time.

Love: In the case of children, affection and protection.

Of these three, love is the trickiest. It has taken on so much secondary meaning that it is hardly recognizable. Boiled down to it's Darwinian basics, it means this: In the case of lovers, lust that morphs into affection. In the case of parents, protectiveness that morphs into letting go.

Letting go means releasing children to survive in the wild. It's hard to let go. Terrifying. But all of us know that our job as parents is to prepare our children to live on their own. Keeping them out of traffic in the street morphs into keeping them away from drugs, which morphs into making sure they can get a job to pay their own rent. A Nobel Prize would be good, but probably not absolutely necessary.

Brooks concludes:

"Parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

That sounds great, but what does it mean? Most households don't live in states of grace. They live in lightly controlled chaos. Parents are not saints. They are guides. Loving, nurturing guides, to be sure, but first and foremost guides. That's their job. Anyone can hug a child. A parent has the harder job of helping him become a well-adjusted, high-functioning adult. Unconditional love is a nice concept, but in practice, it is baloney. Hugs are not love. They are comfort. Frowns at bad grades are not a withholding of love, they are guidance. 

Love for your children is what you feel inside. It is the flood of joy when they run to greet you. The ache when they are gone. The fear that you have not done your best. Self-doubt in the parent/child relationship goes both ways. It's just a fact of how we are wired: a parent's protectiveness colliding with a child's need for independence. Both parents and children feel a little guilty now and then about how they navigate these emotionally treacherous waters. The answer isn't to shy from the conflict but to contend with it vigorously, rowdily, flexibly, messily, empathetically. This is what makes us strong. As parents and children. As people.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Storming the Castle

My father sent me off to college with plenty of money. What he wouldn't give me, his executive assistant (called a secretary in those days) did. She wrote all his checks. Apparently I wasn't ready for all that freedom, personal and financial, because it wasn't long before I found myself wandering through a variety of academic institutions on my way to entering law school with a wife and two kids. By then, I think Dad had decided I needed some skin in the game. So I wrangled a little scholarship money and about twice that in student loans and rolled into L.A. for my new job at a law firm with fumes in the gas tank and plans to feed my family at all-you-can-eat buffets until my first paycheck.

My kids also went off to college with plenty of money. I'm happy to say that none of them wasted their time the way I did. I don't know why. Good mothers, I think. So my personal experience teaches me little about the virtue of struggle, or the curse of wealth. Some of us try harder. Some of us find ourselves sooner rather than later. I know of plenty of wasted lives at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

It is with this in mind that I have been lately thinking about income inequality. The rich have a head start. No doubt about it. That seems unfair, and in some general way I suppose it is, but it's not a sin that can be preached out of us, it's just a fact. 

It bothers us, though, and lately we are again wondering out loud whether inequality threatens our way of life. Can we be the America of our collective mythology, the land of opportunity, if we have such an un-level playing field, if the bottom rung of the ladder of opportunity has been raised out of reach of most?

We don't seem to think so. Although it's worth pointing out that there was a lot of immigration to America during the Guided Age. So opportunity is relative.

But the Gilded Age is not a time we long for, or not most of us anyway. And now that economists like Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz are writing that we are headed back in that direction, it has become popular to talk about beefing up that old by-product of the Gilded Age: the estate tax.

I believe in robust social welfare programs. To a point, I am a redistributionist. But I'm also a capitalist. I believe that free enterprise is the economic engine of increasing productivity and broadly improving living conditions. The estate tax is like a narrow wall I walk along from which I see below on one side green fields and plenty and on the other fallow land and scarcity. The trouble is, I'm not sure which side is which. I'm not sure whether the estate tax helps or hurts in achieving our objective of a just society with opportunity for all who are willing to do their parts in making successes of their lives.

There are generally two stated objectives of the estate tax: raise money from the rich to fund social welfare programs; and prevent political domination by plutocrats. I'm not sure it does either very well.

Inherited wealth gets wasted quickly: seventy percent by the second generation; ninety by the third. This has been true for so long that many cultures have an expression for it: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations; clogs to clogs; barn to barn; rice paddy to rice paddy.

Two or three generations isn't long for a political dynasty. Plus, Bernie Wooster didn't care about politics any more than any other rich wastrel. And as to helping the poor, if the rich are plowing almost all their inherited wealth back into the economy in two or three generations, that's a pretty good economic stimulus program.

There are other ways to raise tax revenues to support social welfare programs. Income taxes have been much higher in the past. Dividends and capital gains today enjoy almost hallowed low-tax status. We don't need the estate tax to fund the government; last year it contributed less than one percent of federal tax revenues.

There is a lot of Puritan in our DNA. And we love Pete Seeger songs about labor unions. The rich are an easy target. But what do we get for going after them? What are we saying about the kind of people we want to be, the kind of state we want to have?

Class warfare is not a good idea, going in either direction: see, eg, slavery on the one hand, the French Revolution on the other. But the national psychological problem with the estate tax is even deeper. You can't be a nation of great opportunity if you don't let people keep what they earn. In that scenario, we are all only renters. (Which may be true philosophically, but we're talking economics here.) 

I don't care how much you want to help others, the notion that the government is going to take a big chunk of your property when you die grates. That's what dictators do. Communists. We rebel at that, even if we aren't the ones being looted. It goes against deeply ingrained views of property rights and justice.

The other thing is that many of us don't have much confidence in government to be a good steward of the money it confiscates. Government may have good intentions, it may be the only practical resource for helping many of the poor, but it is not that good at it. It's inefficient in the best of times, corrupt and wasteful in the worst. So when it proposes to take money from someone who has proved to be just the opposite, someone who has been efficient and productive in amassing her fortune, it seems a particularly foolish policy. Maybe the heirs will just blow the money, but that's not a good reason for the government to take it. Indeed, it's good reason for it not to.

As to the political dominance of the plutocracy, the estate tax is a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is needed. We don't need to dismember estates, or metaphorically chop off heads, we need to keep their money out of politics. Having money is not a sin; using it to buy political influence is. That is the problem that should be addressed. The fact that we have failed to do so, at all levels of government, including the modestly paid Supreme Court, apparently means we aren't serious about it. Maybe we secretly like being told what to do by men like Lord Grantham. Who doesn't like a man who is so nice to his dogs?

In Baker v. Carr the Supreme Court established the principle of one man one vote. If we're standing around letting rich men and women essentially buy the votes of others, we have some collective soul searching to do. But I don't think it's necessary to burn down the castle.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Things I Didn't Do For My Mother

I didn't fly back to be with her in her last days. I shipped her off to another state when she needed skilled nursing care. I didn't let her lend my sister twenty-five thousand dollars. I made her do what I thought was best for her. I was like my long-dead father in that way, minus the yelling. Okay, maybe I even yelled once.

It's complicated. 

Maybe it's not complicated. Maybe it's just me that's complicated. Fucked up also comes to mind.

When I was a boy, Mom was, how shall I say it, vaporous. My father was El Jefe. He brooked no dissent. My solution was to escape to California. Mom could not do that, so she escaped to within herself, an anxious place of fierce imaginings. She and Dad were fifty when he died. A psychiatrist treating her, with Thorazine, so that I hardly recognized her on the phone, said I just had to accept that she would never be normal.

So, one good thing about me, I'm not so good at accepting hopelessness. I flew back to Tennessee and got her a new shrink and she began her long road back, a road she walked alone. Her parents lived in town nearby, she had friends, but in a way that is hard for anyone who hasn't survived it to understand, including me, she was profoundly alone.

But she was strong. She did crummy jobs just to have something to do, and to make a little money, since my dad left her without much. She came out to see me once in a while. We had nice visits, but she always seemed emotionally shaky to me. I worried about her, but I didn't know what to do for her, so mostly I did nothing. I wouldn't say I avoided her. But that might well be the truth.

Then events took me back to my hometown, the one to which I had sworn never to return. Thus began my reintroduction to my mother. She was her old self by then. The person I remembered from my early childhood. She was still anxious, a condition I had only vaguely sensed as a young boy, but all the gentle wit and wisdom had come back to her, like a spring bloom. For eight years I breathed in the scent of her blooms, smiled at their beauty, wondered now and then how they had survived her long winter.

That was a lovely time. She got to know my wife and young children, and they her. They loved her gentle kindness. I got to know her too. You don't know your parents when you are a child. When I got to be with her day in and day out as an adult, I understood so many things so much better. Among those, frankly, was what a bastard the man I adored, my father, was. He was a revered doctor. Everyone loved him. He saved some dark side of himself for my mother.

When I moved to California, I sent Mom to a retirement home near my sister in Virginia. That didn't go well. For one thing, Mom said she never fit in with the other women at the lunch tables. They dressed up. They had to invite you to sit with them. It was like middle school. She and my sister had a few issues too, for which neither was really to blame. It was too much change for Mom. Within six months, she was heading back down the rabbit hole of xanax and klonopin. After a phone call that reminded me of Thorazine days, I moved her to California. In a matter of days. Like a rendition.

We had a good five years together out here. At least I want to think they were good. She said they were. We had some fun. I saw her often. She came for Sunday brunch most weeks. But she was lonely. I knew that, but I didn't know what to do about it. I told myself I was doing as much as I could. Thanks to a bequest from her parents, she had enough money to almost certainly live out her years comfortably, but I had heard the horror stories about huge medical bills in the last years of life and I was obsessed with not letting her run out of money.

So I didn't want her to lend money to my sister. She didn't really need it anyway, that's what I thought. But for many reasons, Mom wanted her to have it. It was just a financial decision for me, but I understand now, and maybe even did then, that for her it was like I was telling her she couldn't love her daughter. 

When the time came that assisted living couldn't meet her daily needs, when she needed skilled nursing care, the only places I could find nearby that were remotely affordable were ones where she would have had to have shared a room. A curtain might separate the beds. Bring three comfortable outfits, sweatpants kinds of things, from Target, one told me. That was all she would need. No more family portraits. No more antique furniture and silver. Just sweatpants.

In my brother's hometown, Louisville, KY, I found a wonderful place with reasonable prices and spacious private rooms. She'd love to have some time with my brother, Mom said. When I flew her there, even though I knew my brother would be good to her, I felt like I was abandoning her in the woods.

Over the course of the nine months she lived there, I went to see her a few times, the last a few weeks before she died. On that trip, I authorized hospice care for her. I feared it would be our last visit. The day the nursing home called to say she had died was a Sunday, the day we had shared so many brunches. In what struck me as a horrible, deliberate neglect, when the phone rang I was walking in the door from brunch with my wife's parents.

I'd like to think I was a good son. I'm certain I could have been better. Even as I was doing what I did for her, I wondered if I was doing all I could. Was I being selfish not to visit her more often? Should I lighten up on the financial frugality? Was I treating her like a child? The way my father had.

Scott Simon has a new book out now about the time he spent with his mother in her last days. He tweeted lovingly, achingly, from her bedside. I didn't do that. The last time I saw Mom I pushed her around outside in her wheelchair and talked about the birds that we saw. We listened to their songs, even sang ourselves. But I didn't sit by her bedside for weeks. I went home. 

And now, seven years later, not a day goes by that I don't wish I could hold her hand one more time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Working Capital

Everybody needs working capital. That's not something you build up on your resume, it's the term businesses use for cash on hand to pay bills. Many a business with a bright future has failed because it couldn't meet payroll or pay for its raw materials. The business world is pitiless.

In that way, in that vulnerability, everyone is a business. Working families have to have cash on hand to buy groceries or the kids go hungry. Up and coming young adults have to pay the rent or they end up on the street.

When businesses run low on working capital, they borrow from banks. For six years now, the Fed has helped them by cutting interest rates to zero. This has enabled many businesses to weather the tight times of the Great Recession. Not only did they survive, but they grew and added jobs and helped the economy get back on its feet. Had it not been for the Fed's making money easy to get, we might still be in recession. Certainly many small businesses, and some big ones, wouldn't have made it.

Families and individuals haven't been so blessed. The easy money for businesses did not trickle down to personal loans. Banks, still feeling the (somewhat self-inflicted) pain of sub-prime mortgage defaults, did not make credit broadly available to individuals. Bushinesses were put on Fed welfare, if you will, while individuals were forced into austerity. Like Greece. 

When they run out of money, many working people turn to payday lenders. These are the Shylocks of the lending industry. They'll give you what you need to carry you through until your next paycheck---$100, $500, $1,000--but they charge such high rates of interest that if you fall behind you might never catch up. A payday loan can sink you. And even if it doesn't, it takes an obscene cut out of your income.

Elizabeth Warren made her bones railing against this practice and others like it. Nobody likes payday lenders, but like cockroaches they manage to survive extermination. Part of the reason is that they provide, even though at an exorbitant price, something people desperately need. Unless the Fed can figure out a way to make banks pass along to individuals with less than sterling credit histories the easy money it gives them, or government shuts them down, payday lenders will continue to be a last resort for struggling families and individuals.

Many of us give to charity; and there are many good causes deserving of generosity. I've begun to wonder whether increasing working capital for hardworking people living paycheck-to-paycheck might not be another good cause. I think of micro loans in Africa, where investors with a charitable bent go into a village and identity the woman (and it's usually a woman) who is something of the village matriarch and give her small amounts of money to start local enterprises: weaving; water purification; whatever the village needs that human capital can leverage if it has seed money.

Micro loans are meant to make money, but at their heart they are save-the world projects. Catalysts for entrepreneurship. Grease to lubricate the potential of people. 

How about grease for the working-capital needs of workers living on the edge? To keep them afloat. To keep them productive. Like African micro loans, that kind of investment would be meant to do good, in that it would help people, but it would also be economically farsighted, in that people would stay productive and benefit the economy in general.

Donors would identify a person in a struggling community--East LA, Southside Chicago, Ferguson, MO, plenty of towns in the South--and give him or her a small amount of money to lend to people in need for very short periods: a week or two, maybe as much as a month. No interest, the borrower would be told. Just pay it back. If times get better for you, maybe you'll put a few dollars in the pool so others can benefit as you have.

What do you think would happen? How many would pay back their loans? How long would the pool last?

Those are good questions. The pessimist in me thinks this is a really stupid idea that will result in free money to a few and a lending bank account that drains as fast a backyard wading pool with a hole in the side. Maybe. I'm not sure how much good a lot of my charitable contributions do in any event. To me, they are more like hopes. Hopes that my donation might help a little, even though the problems we try to address this way are vast and perhaps intractable. Still, we try.

But what if my pessimistic side is wrong? What if our local godfathers and godmothers have the moral suasion within, and practical knowledge of, their communities to keep the money going out and coming back in. Think of the good they could do. They would be the neighborhood Fed, increasing the money supply, but not just for businesses, not just for the well off. For regular folks working hard to make ends meet. For most Americans.

This isn't a money-maker, so private capital isn't going to be interested. Maybe there is a way for government to help, but I don't think so. Government, even at it's best, is inefficient; at it's worst, corrupt. There is so much room for corruption and abuse here, that I think government would almost certainly fail to pull this off. It would take people finding the people they trust, people they believe have the respect of their community. Those personal connections are what would make this work. Maybe that means it could never get to be very big. Or maybe it just means it would have to build slowly and carefully. Not a bad thing. Quick solutions are almost never durable

I have a friend who would be a great candidate to be one of the people to look after and dispense this kind of funding. She came to this country with little and is now a citizen who runs a licensed day-care business in her home and has raised three wonderful children, two of whom will be the first in their family to go to college. She and her husband work hard, not just two jobs, but many jobs. She says she doesn't know why everyone comes to her to resolve their problems. But I do. It's because she is, in Sonia Sotomayor's words, a wise Latina.

I asked her what she would think if I gave her $1,000 to lend to people in need, people she knew and trusted. She said people in her community do that. They always ask for a little interest, she said. "You borrow $100 for a month, you pay back $110."

That's 120% a year, I told her. She understood the number, but not the point. It's just the way they do things. And maybe that's best. Maybe you need the interest to keep people serious and responsible. Or maybe if you're lending out of your own pocket you just need to make it worthwhile. "Everyone's got to make money," she said.

I asked her if she thought she would get the money back if she lent it at no interest. I asked her if it would be too much trouble, too much pressure, to be the one to decide who would get money and who would not, and to make sure it came back. She was enthusiastic, if somewhat incredulous. I'm not sure she thought I was serious. Or that anyone would be serious about such a thing as free loans.

Little wonder. In the world of predatory payday lenders, when even your pals charge 120% annual interest, free money, on trust, just because you need it, would take some getting used to. Like clean water and electricity. Like so many of the things introduced in the last century that we now take for granted. The fact that we take them for granted, that one day we might take these kinds of community lending pools for granted, does not diminish their importance to making us a prosperous country where individual effort is rewarded, and where a helping hand is there when we need it. Not just when the Fed cuts rates for the financial industry. For everyone. For the people who do the work and pay the bills and buy the products that make our economy work for all of us.