Friday, August 24, 2012

Padawan Redux

The other day there was an op-ed piece in The New York Times that had a nifty chart proving a point I liked. I sent it around to a few people who I think see the world the way I do; I wasn’t trying to change any minds (not that time, at least), just kind of gloating. Two of my sons replied that the assumptions underlying the nifty chart were something short of unassailable. “Idiotically simplistic,” the older one (who still enjoys poking at the old man), called them.

Here’s what the chart showed: since Truman, U.S. employment has increased twice as much in years when a Democrat was president as when a Republican was hosting state dinners. See, I knew it, we’re the party of prosperity, not those money grubbing plutocrats.

Here’s what my sons said: Maybe the lag time between proposing, legislating and implementing fiscal policies and their effect on the economy is the length of a presidential term, so that the chart has cause and effect exactly backward. Or maybe the go-go excesses of one president have to be paid for by the next, as in economic booms that lead to busts. There’s too little data to support the conclusion, they said.

I have to say, they’re right. That doesn’t surprise me. They’re both smart and thoughtful. What does surprise me, though, is how easily I fell for the sketchy logic that led to a conclusion I wanted to be true.

When I was in law school, and for a few years after, I went through a period of not being able to have opinions on current events. At a cocktail party someone would ask what I thought about some issue and I would say I didn’t have enough facts to have an opinion. That’s what reading law taught me: to drill down to the relevant facts and only then to reach a conclusion.

In politics though, either as a politician or as a voter, that isn’t always possible. You can’t stand on the sidelines. You have to have opinions, even when you can’t get all the facts. Ultimately you have to vote. You get as much information as you can (or as you can stand), and you make a call. Inevitably, to give what you learn a context, you form a worldview. And just as inevitably that worldview affects the way you view new facts and opinions. You begin to fit the world to your view of it, instead of the other way around.

It’s an intellectual sin that gets talked about a lot these days as increasingly we band together with others who share our views and tell each other what we want to hear. It’s one I suppose I have to admit being guilty of myself. Good thing I raised my children to look hard at the facts before reaching a conclusion, even if I don’t always.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Is This a Great Country, or What?

Near one of my writing retreats (Peet’s coffee shop, Menlo Park) a young woman and a young man had set up a sidewalk table stacked with pamphlets and decorated with a poster calling for the impeachment of President Obama, who was pictured sporting a Hitler mustache. The man had on a safari-ish hat and the woman was wearing gray cargo pants. I went over to see whether the Tea Party, or maybe the KKK, had invaded Nancy Pelosiville.

“Why do we want to impeach president Obama?” I asked the woman. She didn’t look scary; she had lovely light cocoa skin and lustrous brown hair. She said that if Obama goes ahead with his plans to bomb Iran and invade Syria, we are going to end up in another war in the Middle East. Oh. Not where I thought this was coming from.

She had a booklet in her hand that she opened to a page calling for the revival of the Glass-Steagall Act. Even Sandy Weill wants it back, she noted. So do I, I said.  We desperately need great infrastructure projects like we used to undertake, she said. These produce jobs. We could bring water from Alaska to the parched lower forty eight. John Kennedy had the vision to put a man on the moon, she said. We did just land Curiosity on Mars, I said. She handed me a flyer saying Obama is anti-science.

I asked with whom we should replace Obama. Mitt Romney? No, not him, she said. He and Obama are both captives of Wall Street and the war machine. We don’t want to replace Obama with a man (or a woman, presumably), she said, but with ideals. She quoted Franklin Roosevelt: “I want to speak not of parties but of universal principles.”

About that time a wiry white-headed guy came up and sized the situation up much faster than I had. He asked her if she was a “LaRouchie.” She said she admired Lyndon LaRouche. He asked if old Lyndon was still in jail (for mail fraud). He was feisty and amusing, a hard-headed pragmatist poking at an idealist. I left them to it.

We aren’t going to elect a universal principle anytime soon, but the encounter was entertaining and, in a whimsical way, heartening. This woman still believes in the power of the people to rise up and shake the system to its foundations.

Or maybe her radical idealism isn’t inspiring at all. Maybe it’s depressing. Think of all those Naderites who took down Al Gore. Think of Rick Perry going out for a run (for president) and shooting the GOP. The thing about zealots, on either end of the political spectrum, is that, to paraphrase the old song, the thinking is over and the preaching has begun.

At that sidewalk table in Menlo Park it was unsettling to see such cultishness and paranoia, such misinformation, living side by side with so many political positions I agree with. It made me wonder how I sound to others. Am I a fanatic too? I don’t think I’m a conspiracy theorist, although now that I think of it the NRA does seem to have more influence than is understandable in the absence of it having J. Edgar Hoover-like files on most members of Congress.

I hardly know what I’m trying to say here, but I think it’s something like: Come on, people, think! We need to be practical. We’re not going to have a revolution, from the right or the left. We are what other countries hope to become with their revolutions. We aren’t children struggling to break free of our parents, we are on our own now. All we have at this point is each other.

This political season we are (again) having what feels like a bloodless civil war. We aren’t shooting at each other, but the ideological lines are drawn and we are flocking to the cultural and economic barricades. Like all civil wars, ours is hurting us. Instead of rebuilding our economy, we are calling each other names. We’re behaving only slightly better than the tribes and sects currently duking it out in the Middle East.

Civil wars always end. People get tired of fighting and pick up the pieces and go on together. But they do a lot of damage while they rage. We know that from watching what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq; we know it from our own Civil War. Nothing unites a divided people like a common enemy, they say. I hate to think we need a real Hitler, not just President Obama made up to look like one, to shock us to our senses, to get us working together again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dad's Vulcan Mind Meld

Remember that thing Mr. Spock did on Star Trek, the Vulcan Mind Meld, where he read the thoughts of some imponderable being? I used to do that with my children. I remember it so clearly with Cord, my oldest. Beginning when he was five or six, when some difficulty would come up, we would sit down together, maybe over pancakes, and I would be able to see into him. Like Spock, I felt like we were almost a single mind in those times. With my gentle probing, interspersed with long patient silences, there was no problem we could not solve. (The patient interlocutor is how I remember my part. Cord might say it was more like a breakfast lecture, although I am quite sure he liked the pancakes.)

Spock hasn’t done his mind trick in a long time now, and neither have I. My youngest, Nick, is twenty. It’s tough to get any of them to sit still for a good probing. A pointed silence from me over a meal today is more likely to prompt not a revelation of inner turmoil but a worried look: “Dad, are you okay?”

Adapting, I try to be craftier. On a walk, I might toss off a casual anecdote (never too long) with a thinly veiled moral. To their credit, they rarely roll their eyes anymore. I fear they may no longer feel they need to keep their guards up. They know that I’m toothless, that, as Bob Dylan put it, my sons and my daughter are beyond my command. They usually smile and put their own comic spin on my desperately earnest point. “Yeah, I heard about that guy, Dad. Isn’t he the one who [ended up in jail; flunked out; joined a Satanic cult]?”

I haven’t lost my power to see into my children’s thoughts, to guess their plans and schemes, hopes and dreams. What I have lost is the illusion that I have the power to alter them. When Spock came out of those mind-meld trances, he always seemed stunned. He would look gravely at Kirk and say: “I could see his thoughts, Captain. He’s planning…”

Kirk always knew what to do. Maybe he’s the one I should be emulating at this point. The good-hearted man of action. Kirk wasn’t a brooder. I’m sure Spock is on Prozac by now.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What to Tell Your Children About the Future

Tell them that the four men at the table next to me in a Palo Alto coffee shop are planning a venture investment fund they want to start in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where budding engineers and computer scientists are bursting into bloom at the University of Michigan. Tell them that a woman who came by my table to say goodbye is moving to Albany, New York to lead a biomedical research team that SSNY is letting her set up. Tell them that Gabby Douglass won gold in London by leaving home at fourteen to live near her coach in another state, where on some days she felt like the only black person in town.

There are plenty of stories now about college graduates who can’t find work. Plenty more stories about people who are so poor their children don’t get a fair shot. It’s unequal out there. Income and opportunity are not evenly distributed. It would be nice if there were a utopian fix for that, but there is not.

There is that drive within us, though, that makes me hopeful. Given a chance (and sometimes when not, when we have to make one), we want to do things. We want to solve problems. We want to compete. We want to be the best.

So a question I have been asking myself is not why are we like that--I leave that to evolutionary psychologists--but rather what conditions foster and support our being that way, what conditions make it most likely that our society as a whole can benefit from our individual desire to excel.

The answer, I think, is freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to take our shot. Freedom to fail and try again. No barriers.

See, that’s what we’ve been telling you, my Tea-Party friends say. And they’re right. I take my freedom for granted. Nothing (but me) has ever blocked my path. Indeed, it is only from the redoubt of my freedom that I am able to urge compassion for the less fortunate.

I’ve read The Road to Serfdom. I can see where Hayek (Granddaddy Libertarian) was coming from. But this is not 1943. Hitler and Mussolini are not running over Europe.

Nevertheless, there are threats to freedom today. Not totaliarinism. Not even spirit-crushing bureaucracy. The threat is symbolized by our Congress. The threat is doing nothing. The threat is not investing in our future. 

It is our national infrastructure that has made us the land of liberty, that has made freedom available to more than the landed gentry. It is our national infrastructure that makes it possible for venture money to flow from Silicon Valley to Michigan. For a Californian to move to New York to build a biomedical research team. For Gabby Douglass to go through Iowa on her way to London.

The underpinnings of our freedom are public safety, a healthy and well educated citizenry, and public support for commerce. Police and fire protection. Roads. The power grid. Clean water. Scientific research. Broadly distributed and affordable food. Good free education. Affordable health care. A little something in a rainy day fund for when you fall on hard times and need a little help getting back on your feet.

If we do not invest in these things, if we do not continue to make them broadly available to the public, they will not disappear, they will simply become attainable by only those who can afford them. Private tutors and private security forces. This is the way things worked in feudal Europe (you remember Europe, the place we don’t want to be like). A time of benevolent (or not) monarchs, toiling peasants, and revolutions. Entertaining to visit in movies, but not a way of life many of us want to return to.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lady Liberty's New Lover

In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote the poem “The New Colossus,” which in its closing couplets gave us something like our national soul. With apologies to Ms. Lazarus, and with longing for the sentiment she so beautifully expressed, here is my update.

No longer Mother of Exiles,
Embracing all within these lands.
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates now stands
A timid woman with a torch whose flame
Has dimmed, and her name
Fear’s Courtesan. From her beacon-hand

No light shines; her averted eyes demand

Nothing of those who invoke her name.

“Keep, Suffragettes and Freedom Riders, your storied pomp!” cries she

with hardened lips. “I cannot bear your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses beseeching their brothers.

The wretched refuse of poor health,

The homeless, the tempest-tossed I leave to others.

I turn my face to the caress of wealth.”