Friday, December 13, 2013

On Being Part of Something That Does Not Depend on Me

I’m starting to be able to see the world without me. No one thinks he will live forever, but the idea--no, not the idea, the feeling--of the world going on without me is new to me. For all my life the past has been laid out behind me. I could look back and see the road I had traveled and I could read about and imagine all the roads others traveled to lead to that moment. I could imagine the future, in a sci-fi kind of way--space ships and landings on Mars--but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it. That didn’t surprise me. Why should I be able to see the future? No one can.

But that’s not true. I can see it now. It is, broadly speaking, more of the same. There will be changes, but unless we extinct ourselves (always a possibility), they will be incremental. There will be advances in science and probably even in democracy, but humanity is like water: it always fills in the low places. The day-to-day human struggles of a century ago look, overall, remarkably like those of today. In another hundred years, they will look the same.
I don’t remember ever considering what I was doing. I don’t mean ordinary things, like what to eat, whom to ask out, where to go to school. Broadly, though, from the beginning of my memory, I have put one foot in front of the other on a path that seemed to be one I should walk, the one laid down for me by the gods who ordain such things. There was no one else on my path (which is how I got a false sense of uniqueness). I didn’t even think about whether others had their own paths. I might have thought they were just wandering around. I was, at a minimum, pretty egocentric.
When I looked ahead, it was mainly to be careful of my footing or wary of the dangers that might lurk behind a nearby bush. It wasn’t that I didn’t have goals. As Rummy liked to say, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. And what I didn’t know was that I was never looking very far into the future, the real future, not some fantasy concoction. One thing seemed to lead inexorably to another: school to work to marriage to children. When you live that way, before you know it you’ve lived a lot of your life without wondering why.
Now one thing has not led to another. The path is no longer laid out before me. I’m looking up for the first time, as if from a trance, and wondering where I’m going.
Let me just say, it was a lot easier doing it the other way. I’m not sure I know how to make my own path. The problem is that I don’t know where I want to go. My life now isn’t about success or money or children. So what is it about? What am I about? When you look up from where your next footstep will fall, you can get dizzy. It’s disorienting. On a boat you watch the horizon to keep from getting seasick. For me, just now anyway, looking up at the horizon of life has the opposite effect. It makes me feel queasy. It makes me want to look back down. It’s almost enough to make me want to go back to practicing law. Now that was a time when I hardly ever looked up.
The horizon of life. What is that anyway? I can see all of humanity as if we were a great herd. I can see the dust boiling up from the savannas we have crossed and the lands ahead where we will go together. I can see myself in the herd, part of it the way a single blood cell is part of the flow in an artery, and I know that although I am part of it, it does not depend on me.

I’m trapped in a college dorm room discussion with myself about the meaning of life. We all woke up in the morning after those and nothing was any different, not even us. I don’t want to be cynical, though. That’s too easy. I want to figure out my place in things, even if it’s just to occupy my space in the great march. I’m sorry I didn’t think more about it before, but it’s probably just as well. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much done.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lucky Us

I met a tech pioneer on the sidewalk in Palo Alto today. We commiserated over our distaste for a gas leaf blower that was wailing nearby. He gave me his email address to stay in touch. Maybe we’ll see each other again. Maybe he’ll become a friend, like my friend who makes atomic clocks or the one who writes code for new startups or the one who after a career in tech is getting a masters degree in philosophy from Stanford. I have to admit that there are times when I feel a little underpowered for the neighborhood, an intellectual impostor hoping not to be found out. But living here is like being a kid in a candy store of ideas.

It wasn’t long after we moved to Palo Alto that my son Nicholas met a boy in middle school whose father, an engineer, got together a group of kids to compete in a robotics competition sponsored by the Tech Museum in San Jose. That was the match that lit Nick’s fire: he’s now finishing college as CS/EE major and programming for a startup. Because the Palo Alto school district lets kids go as fast as they want in math, even to Stanford to take advanced classes, my son Chris developed a love of math that led to his career in economics, which relies heavily on math.
Nick and Chris might have found their passions anywhere, and I might have smart, stimulating friends anywhere, but it sure is easy here. As easy as a pick-up ball game was in my youth. Palo Alto is like a nuclear reactor with plenty of fuel rods. High energy particles are constantly racing around and colliding with one another, forming and reforming, creating energy.
There are other places like Palo Alto. Places rich in the fuel that feeds a particular endeavor: New York for musical theatre and (for as long as it lasts) publishing; Santa Fe for artists; Austin for musicians; Cambridge for intellectual omnivores. There are many other such places. Incubators, I would call them.
Often when I feel I have something others don’t, I wonder why. I used to think it was because I was so brilliant (in the days when one of the things I did not have that others did was humility), but now I realize I was just lucky to have been in the right places at the right times. I took advantage of opportunities, but they were low-hanging fruit. I didn’t have to be brilliant to pick them, only mildly hungry.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the vastly different circumstances in which we, rich and poor, find ourselves. I think about how we, as a people, bound together by a political system, can help those in need; and inevitably, as part of that, I think about the causes of deprivation. As the wealth gap widens, I have also been thinking a lot about how the rich get rich. What is their secret? Can we share it with others?
I’m not the first to note this, but it is increasingly apparent to me that those of us who do well are by and large just lucky: lucky where we are born and to whom. Birth luck is hard to share. I don’t know what that means for my desire broadly to improve living standards and opportunity, but here are a few thoughts:
1. Think about the advantages you’ve had. How important have they been to your success? Have many others had them?
2. Does having been born with advantages make you anything more than lucky? Does it give you any responsibility to those who not only may not have had low-hanging fruit to pick but who might have grown up in a barren orchard?
3. If you feel any twinge of such responsibility, what can you do about it? There’s always private charity, of course, and that is a good thing. But it is not sufficient. It does not reach all in need.
4. So what is the alternative? Nation by nation, the answer has been the government. In successful socialist countries (largely small, homogeneous Scandinavian states), most people enjoy an acceptable standard of living. Socialism is tough to scale up (in tech speak), though; and cultural diversity can weaken the commitment to one another that is a necessary predicate.
5. The great fiscal debate in the United States today boils down, it seems to me, to one thing: do we care about helping one another, or do we only care about producing the best environment for business. Business drives the economy, but it does not care for those cut out of the herd or left behind. It is up to us to support politicians and programs that have compassion for those who by birth or circumstance have been unlucky. We thrive on free markets, but they are not free.

Our luck neither ennobles nor anoints us, it burdens us. We are Sisyphus. The rock is heavy, it falls back time and again, but we must keep pushing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Golden States

When I moved to California in 1971, it was the Golden State. Having been raised in the Bible Belt, I knew the streets of heaven were paved in gold, and California was heaven to me. It’s a beautiful place, but it was the openness and possibility it offered that appealed to me most--okay, that and the fantastic weather. I arrived with three small children in tow, and I had no doubt they would get a first-rate public education. In the decade before, Clark Kerr, the first head of the California higher education system, had put the finishing touches on a visionary education infrastructure of major research universities, state universities and community colleges that promised a nearly free college education for all who wanted it.

I suppose Ronald Reagan's firing of Clark Kerr for being too liberal (eg, too soft on the Berkeley Free Speech protesters), on evidence trumped up by J. Edgar Hoover, should have been a warning to me that even gold can tarnish. But I was young and optimistic. I hadn’t yet learned that progress could be slowed, or even stopped. I hadn’t learned that sometimes it’s one step forward and two back.
We did take a few steps back here in California, and sideways. Proposition 13 in 1978 starved our schools financially; Proposition 187 in 1994 laid bare a fearful cruelty toward illegal immigrants. For decades we had legislative gridlock too tough for even the Terminator to break through. Only two or three years ago many were saying our state government was politically broken and fiscally bankrupt.
But we’re back, baby. We nudged up taxes and cut spending, and now we have a budget surplus. We’re permitting undocumented children to pay in-state-resident college tuition and giving them and their parents drivers licenses and protections against abusive deportation threats by employers. After years of neglect, we’re pumping our new budget surpluses back into our schools. Under the Affordable Care Act we’ve expanded Medicaid and established one of the nation’s best health insurance exchanges (no small feat, as the federal government has demonstrated).
Our fiscal comeback, and what strikes me as our renewed commitment to progressivism, has got me wondering how we do it, and why we do it. The healthcare debate has been on my mind lately because of what I think it says about who we are. I can’t for the life of me, for instance, understand why twenty-five states have refused to expand Medicaid, even though they have to pay only a tiny fraction of the cost. They’re denying better health care to their poorest citizens for what seems to be no reason. Or a reason that could only be described as spiteful and cruel. Oh, I know what they say, that down the road they will have to pay more, but when you take into account the high cost of providing emergency-room care to the uninsured, most economists say they are just wrong. The states that expand Medicaid coverage should actually save money; and their citizens will get better health care. Why wouldn’t every state do that?
We’re a country of libertarians. All of us. It’s deep in our DNA, passed on from the Mayflower to the prairie schooners. We’re restless questers. When we don’t like the way things are going, we move on. That’s the urge that settled our country. But it’s a selfish urge. Just ask the Native Americans we shoved aside to get what we wanted. When we go questing, we do it for ourselves. We’re seeking something better for ourselves and our families. We aren’t really thinking of others.
Eventually, though, we run out of new places to explore. On the East Coast, where those who crossed the Atlantic settled, and the West Coast, journey’s end for those who traversed the continent, we’re piled up on one another. Even the most steadfast libertarian learns soon enough that living close together requires learning to get along. It’s no longer enough to look after yourself and your family, you have to look after your neighbor too. Because you know you need him to be looking after you.
This is the reason, I think, that our big coastal cities are our laboratories of progressivism. These are the places where we see what it means to live together. Where we can’t run away from one another. Where daily we witness the cost to others, and to ourselves, of neglect.
I don’t know how to explain the persistence of a social Darwinist conservative philosophy in the face of its manifest failure to provide for the commonweal. Pope Francis wrote recently: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
I understand the fear of the welfare state. I understand the fear of big government. A big part of me is as libertarian as anyone. But I don’t understand turning our backs on one another. I don’t understand the myth of self-reliance. I don’t understand the fear that keeping a child from starving, or giving her early education and health care, will create a culture of dependency that will suck the life force out of our republic. It is a hope we all have that we can be anything we set our minds to and work hard for, but most of us know it is a hope that is in the same category as world peace or universally likable relatives. Eventually we learn to settle for what we can get. And for too many, what they can get is too little?
Why should we help them? I suppose that is the central question. Human decency (morality) is one reason. And for many, it is reason enough. Self-interest is the other. Even if you don’t give a damn what happens to others, you’re wise to take their needs into account purely as a matter of your own self-interest. The French Revolution and the Arab Spring remind us of that. Our own country was settled by colonists fleeing persecution and forged into a nation in a revolt against oppressive control by the English aristocracy.
I’d like to think that morality compels most of us, but I don’t believe it. I think the vast majority of us act out of self-interest. The difficulty in recognizing our self-interest in helping others is that, like global warming, it can be hard to see that the current threat is great enough to warrant any meaningful sacrifice.
The mandate of self-interest is easier to appreciate in large cities, where we are jammed together. In the sparser towns and communities across the country, it is less apparent, and therefore more deniable. Like climate change deniers, poverty deniers may not themselves suffer for their lack of vision, for their tenacious grip on the status quo, but their progeny will. Theirs and ours.
What does that mean for those of us who welcome the renaissance of the Golden State? Perhaps the greatest service we can do for those in need here in California and across the land is to make our progressive experiment work. To keep open our hearts and minds while at the same time maintaining a firm enough grip on our wallets to be certain that what we spend is for investment in the future--in health, safety, education--and not wasted. The country is watching, or will be. What we do here will matter.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


There was a magazine in my driveway this morning, in a plastic wrapper. I’m not a subscriber. Someone had just tossed it there. It was printed on heavy, slick paper and was full of photos of attractive women and men in elegant clothes and elegant houses, wearing elegant jewelry. I guess whoever owns the magazine has convinced its advertisers I’ll want to buy those nice houses, clothes and jewels.

I have two reactions to this. The first is that I’m being economically profiled. I feel a bit like I imagine I might if I were dark skinned and wearing a hoodie on a dark night and was stopped by a cop as I walked home from the robotics club.
My second reaction is that there shouldn’t be magazines like that. They celebrate glamor, which is alluring in the abstract but nothing more than expensive in reality. They don’t celebrate virtue, even though there are spreads covering black-tie galas for worthy causes. They celebrate wealth. They celebrate things most people can’t afford.
There have always been Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, of course. Hearst Castles and Biltmore Mansions. One way to look at the lifestyle of the rich is that it offers us something to, if not exactly aspire to, dream of. A kind of grown-up fairy tale.
Maybe it’s just me that’s changing, but somehow depicting conspicuous consumption now, at a time when income disparity is greater than in many generations, when the middle class is steadily losing ground economically, when food stamps are being cut and expanding basic health care for the poor is being resisted in half the states, seems offensive. Marie Antoinette might be the publisher.
I’m not a communist. I love capitalism. I don’t want to conscript anyone’s fortune or nationalize any industry someone has worked hard to build. But I am, I have to admit, an income redistributionist. We get rich in this country in no small part because of our national infrastructure: good roads and rails for shipping; plentiful electricity for factories; a relatively well educated workforce; tax incentives for business investment; the position of the dollar as the global reserve currency; easy access to credit and capital.
But most don’t get to enjoy the full benefit of those imbedded advantages. That goes disproportionately to those well placed by birth, ingenuity or good fortune, or all three. I admire success, but we all know that those who enjoy it have not done it alone. They have used our national resources, and they should pay a fair rent for them. With marginal tax rates at near historic lows, with the tax code a swiss cheese of deductions and benefits for the rich, they are not doing that now.
I can hear some of my friends now: My God, man, do you want to punish the entrepreneurs, the job creators? I understand how they feel. I do. But I don’t think of it as punishment. To me, it’s more like an aristocratic matriarch reminding her heirs of their responsibility to care for the less fortunate. Give up an antique carpet, she might say, or one of your diamond brooches. Have one less horse in the stable. Make a comparatively tiny sacrifice, one that won’t affect your quality of life one iota, so that a child might not starve, so that another might go to preschool, so that a young man might keep his dignity long enough to stay out of gangs and complete his education.

I hope I don’t get any more free copies of that magazine. I don’t want to see it, or the ones like it that crowd the newsstand. I don’t want to be reminded of how dazzled we are by opulence, not just because most of us can’t afford it, but because when we are flipping through those glossy pages, we are kidding ourselves about the world we live in.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Fall of 1963

Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. I was eighteen. There are many things from that time that I don’t recall, but I do remember so clearly, as if watching it happen to me from one of the dorm windows in the college quadrangle, hearing someone call out the news, and then another, and another. It was the kind of thing that you had to hear multiple times to believe. I remember walking past girls standing under gothic arches crying, hugging one another. I remember being shocked by the loss without actually feeling it. John Kennedy was not my father or a close friend, so I did not feel it in that way. But I was stunned by it. I did not know what it meant.

"For young Roddy McCorley goes to die
on the bridge of Toome today."
As it turned out, it meant that I and the country would go into long period of mourning. I did not realize it at the time, and causality is still hard to be certain of, but in that moment in which the president died, something equally unthinkable happened to me: I stopped functioning. I wasn’t dead, but for all I was bringing to life I might as well have been. I stopped going to classes. I stayed up all night. I ate from vending machines because the cafeterias were closed when I was hungry.
When I got to college that fall, I met men--they seemed like men, and I a boy--who were impossibly exotic compared to my southern country club life to that point. My freshman roommate was from Bogotá, Columbia. I barely even knew where that was. I met and idolized an upperclassman who lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for the Arabian-American Oil Company. He brought me leather sandals made from old tire treads and told stories of swimming with sea snakes in the Red Sea.
My friend from Dhahran and another from Florida were members of the Congress Of Racial Equality. The summer I graduated from high school, while I was picking out madras shirts and Bass Weejuns for college, they were Freedom Riders on the busses that took activists into the Deep South to demonstrate for racial equality. They asked me about the lunch counter sit-ins in my hometown, Nashville. Yeah, those were cool, I said. The truth was, I knew almost nothing about them.
I grew up with racial jokes--really, to get any idea how crude and savage they were, you have to call them what most did in those days, as casually as they talked about the weather: nigger jokes. I didn’t hear them at home, but I didn’t have to go far. I would slip into the men’s grill at the country club and Peewee, the bartender, would make me an orange juice, grape juice and club soda drink he called a “transfusion” while men at a nearby table slapped their thighs and chortled as if the black waiters who served them were deaf. Blacks weren’t supposed to be uppity. They sure as hell weren’t supposed to demand to sit in the white section of the Walgreen’s lunch counter. They were caddies and waiters. They looked down at their feet when a white man spoke to them. They gave way on the path. When I wanted to putt for quarters with Sammy, one of the caddies who wasn’t much older than I, we had to do it on the dirt patch in the caddie yard, where no one could see us.
My friends in college who were in CORE took me to folk coffee houses. Folk music, especially the old Irish songs like Roddy McCorley, are about protest, about social injustice, about the striving underclass. Even mainstream music was about to get onboard: Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A Changin’” in 1963, Phil Ochs “There But For Fortune.”
The change in me that fall was like a flu. It made me breathe faster. It dulled my senses. I think my southern immune system was trying to fight it off. Part of the problem, of course, was that my emerging radicalization required that I admit to myself that I had been as bad as the rest of them. True, I hadn’t lynched anyone. I hadn’t hated. But I’d told a racial joke or two. I putted for quarters with Sammy, and I liked Peewee better than any of the men he served, but I had been insensible to their condition. I don’t know what I thought. Peewee wore a crisp white coat and black tie. I guess I thought his life was fine. Sammy was making a pretty good living beating me out of quarters, never mind the tips he got for caddying.
I didn’t go to many classes that fall semester, but I got quite an education. After weeks of late nights in coffee houses, I began to, if not understand, at least recognize the reality of social oppression. It was as if a part of life I hadn’t been aware of was suddenly revealed to me. I don’t mean I hadn’t understood socio-economic strata, I just hadn’t thought much about how they were imposed on some people against their will, how so often they were accidents of birth. I suppose I thought people chose to be the way they were. Or that, as the racial jokes would have you believe, they were lazy.
John Kennedy was my father’s age. They were alike in many ways, charismatic men who could make you believe anything was possible. Dad was a medical pioneer, but he was politically conservative. I think medicine--with its prescription of “First do no harm”--might make you that way. He didn’t tell racial jokes, but he wasn’t marching with MLK either. I remember having political debates with him, but I can’t say I know what he really thought about the civil rights movement. He judged men, but not, as far as I could tell, by the color of their skin. He was a libertarian, I suppose. Somehow he made it seem that racial injustice was happening somewhere else. As far as our insular community was concerned, I suppose it was.
John Kennedy didn’t awaken my social conscience--my new college friends and those old Irish protest songs, did that--but when I started listening to what the president was saying, to what Dr. King was saying, it was like waking from a dream. I was ashamed to have been asleep, and determined to make up for my obliviousness.
Then he was shot. I had been up all night the night before. Wandering around. I wish I could say I had been doing something useful, like homework or preparing protest pamphlets, but my awakening was slow. I was still groggy. And then the president was dead.
I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. It didn’t frighten me that he was killed, but it slapped me across the face the way I thought my father might when I came home from school with such pitiful grades. Kennedy’s death and Dad’s disappointment had the same effect on me. They made me feel helpless. They made me feel like it wasn’t worth trying. I didn’t care about school. The nation didn’t care about social equality. Nothing was going to change.
The nation and I followed similar paths to recovery. I dropped out of that first Gothic limestone college, went to night school, enrolled in another university, got married, had kids, went to law school, went to work for a corporate law firm in Los Angeles, became a dealmaker for the masters of finance, wore expensive shoes, tipped well, and had Hispanic gardeners and nannies rather than black ones. It was as if I hadn't learned a thing in those early college days. The fetus of my social consciousness had been stillborn.
The country’s path was, by my reckoning, similar to my own. We struggled through the loss of Martin and Bobby, the war in Vietnam and the oil crisis, stagflation and our "national malaise" and, about the same time I began doing deals for Wall Street, elected Reagan as president. Sure, there were important civil rights gains in the sixties, but the work of those years, both the nation’s and mine, became finished business. The Voting Rights Act passed. I graduated. That was all done. Out in California, where I had moved to get out of the bigoted South, the racial jokes were about Mexicans. At the California Club in downtown L.A., white businessmen, many my peers by then, joshed about how California had to be next to Mexico so Beverly Hills would have access to domestic workers.
Now we have a black president. If I went back to the men’s grill at my old country club, I can imagine the jokes I would hear. Racial and gender discrimination are illegal, but still widespread. Income disparity is greater than ever. Public schools have fully re-segregated. With the consent of the Supreme Court, granted just a few short months ago, Southern states are bringing back onerous voting requirements designed to disenfranchise minorities. The Tea Party is as virulent as the old Ku Klux Klan.
My father delivered babies for poor families and gladly accepted a country ham or baked apple pie as payment. But as the country has grown bigger and more diverse, the sense that a community can and will take care of its neediest members has dissipated. By default, that job has fallen to government. With that has come a kind of depersonalization of need. People who fifty years ago would not have turned away a beggar looking for a handout at the back door now have no compunction about eliminating public funding for food stamps and health care.
Those of us born right after WW II were nurtured in the relative comfort of the nineteen fifties. By the sixties we were, like all adolescents, restless for change. But our dreams, so eloquently invoked by President Kennedy, were never fully realized. It’s our own fault, of course. No one made us give up our idealism. And yet, looking back, I wonder whether on that bright fall day fifty years ago Lee Harvey Oswald did more than put a bullet through a man. I wonder whether he mortally wounded our youthful passion to be better than we had been.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trick or Treat

On his first Halloween outing, when he was almost two, our son Chris got a piece of candy and sat on the porch to eat it. When he finished, we went to the next house. He sat on that porch and ate the candy he got there too. At the third house, he sat on the porch with his candy and burst into tears. He must have thought Halloween was some primitive force-feeding ritual.

Chris’s brother Nick, when he was in high school, used to dress up like a dummy and sit on our front porch bench, holding a basket of candy and a sign that said “take one.” He had on jeans and an old sweatshirt and a mask and he sat so still kids big and small thought he was a mannequin. When they came up onto the porch, he would say “boo” and they would scream. His fame must have spread over the years, because by the last year he was home for Halloween middle-schoolers would stand on the sidewalk and toss bits of candy at him to see if he moved. “Do you think he’s real? I’m afraid he might jump at us. I don’t want to be scared.”
For some parents, it’s Christmas that brings on bouts of nostalgia. Others, Thanksgiving. For me, it’s Halloween. All those kids and masks. I can almost imagine my children are in the costumed group I see coming up the walkway. Maybe one of the little ones will sit on the steps and eat the Snickers bar I give him. Maybe an older one will rest on the bench and be so still no one can tell if he is real.
I’ve been through this before. I have older kids who are long gone. But Meg’s and mine, Chris and Nick, are still in the process of leaving. Just out of or just finishing college, on their own but not quite settled in places they are ready to call their new homes. They will both be here for Christmas. I made up their beds the other day and thought about their being back in them, although it’s not quite the same when I don’t tuck them in but the other way around.
We have a double bed that my grandfather made for my grandmother in 1920 as a wedding present. It will make a nice (and badly needed) guest bed in the room the boys always shared. There aren’t that many more times they will both be visiting at the same time, so we’re taking the first halting steps toward dismantling the shrine to their childhood. I put up my grandfather’s double bed yesterday, but I left one of the twin beds set up so that the son who loses the coin toss for the bigger bed will still have a place to sleep.
The new bed looks nice in the room. The smaller twin bed is up against the wall at the foot of the new bed, like something for a footman for traveling royalty. It has the red comforter the boys used for many years and both of the red shams, so it looks plush and cozy. I put away everything last night and turned out the light, but as I passed the room this morning I stopped to look in again at that twin bed with the red comforter. I flicked on the light with the giddy anticipation of those middle-schoolers tossing candy at my mannequin son, afraid he would pop up, afraid he would not.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taking Sides

Why do we take sides? Friend or foe. Most issues aren’t black or white, but when we line up on one side or the other, often we make them that way. Views harden, Nuance vanishes.

Most of us know we have gaps in our knowledge. To really understand many of the complex subjects debated today, you have to dig into the data. When I ask my son Chris, an economist, what he thinks about some new theory in his field, frequently his answer is “I’d have to see the underlying research.”
Whether we’re talking about climate change or tax policy, most of the time we don’t see the underlying research. Even when we do, even when we understand it, the deeper we look the more likely we are to realize just how little we know.
I love the line from the musical “Wicked” where the Wizard explains how history is written by the victors, so that with a little messaging a brutal conquest becomes a liberation: “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”
I suspect there’s a Darwinian root here. Our ancestors who followed strong leaders had the support of the group and were more likely than loners to survive. For their parts, would-be leaders tend to exude moral certainty. Except in ancient Greece, it’s hard to attract a crowd with the Socratic method.
We herd together for survival. For our own good. But what if it’s not for our own good? What if we’re being led astray? How do we know which leaders to follow?
I have a friend who sends me global warming pieces by a writer who is certain that man is not the cause of the problem. I looked up the author. His climate credentials are so thin that I don’t pay any attention to him. Every once in a while I send my friend an article from The New York Times on some subject we are kicking back and forth. The last time I did this, he replied that he feels the same way about the credibility of the Times as I do about that of his climate writer. Fair enough.
But is it?
It makes a difference to whom we listen. We may be drawn to those who are saying what we want to hear, but it is the advice of independent experts that we should prefer. The problem is that people claiming to be experts are a dime a dozen. Some are. Many aren’t. How do we tell the difference?
Sorting out the prophets from the profiteers can be a challenge. When we see a street-corner preacher, we know the source of his conviction. But we may not know that a scientist’s research, which we trust to be objective, is influenced by the industry that financed him. The doctors in the 1950s who were paid by the tobacco industry to reassure us that smoking was perfectly safe betrayed the trust we instinctively place in professionals. Today it might be “climate deniers.” Or “clean coal” advocates. Follow the money, the old saying goes. That’s still a pretty good maxim.
These days, so many are directly or indirectly paid to expound their views that we would do well, I think, to view with skepticism positions that are thrust at us: political ads; talk radio; economic or scientific conclusions at odds with the preponderance of thought in the field.
We need to ask ourselves: Why is this person telling me this? What’s in it for her? If the answer seems to be “nothing,” and if her credentials seem genuine, she’s worth listening too. If not, ask yourself that clichéd question: Would you buy a used car from this person?

Even unbiased experts don’t always agree, of course. Sometimes no one knows the answer for sure. But if we’re lining up with a real authority, someone genuinely seeking the truth on the matter at hand, even if there’s a crowd on the other side, chances are that rather than hurling stones across the divide of our disagreement we are going to slowly come together, as our expert and theirs cast about for new ground on which we all can stand.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The (New) Road to Serfdom

I never thought I’d say this: I miss Congress. I miss lawmaking. I even miss the slop trough. It was smelly, but it fed a lot of pigs and kept them in the pigpen. Now a bunch of them have gone feral. They’ve grown tusks and are running wild. The other pigs are afraid to move.

The farmer has noticed. He doesn’t want to go near the pigpen either. He’s giving more attention to the other animals. The pigs are so busy terrorizing one another, or being terrorized, they don’t seem to notice that the farmer has gotten tight with the cows and horses. Wait, listen… Is that the pork slaughterhouse truck I hear coming?
Michael Lynch, a philosophy professor, wrote in yesterday’s New York Times that the gridlock in Congress is fraying the democratic fibers of our government. As Congress becomes less effective at managing government, the executive branch will fill the void. People may even applaud this at first, seeking action over political chaos and stasis. This is how the military in Egypt justified its recent overthrow of democratically elected President Morsi.
Friedrich Hayek warned that socialism, which concentrates power in the state, initially for the common good, leads to totalitarianism; and ultimately, Hayek maintained, totalitarian governments defend their rights and privileges at the expense of the people.
There are many roads to autocrats: Communism (Stalin and Mao). Military might (Egypt, Syria, much of Africa). Mass bribery of the upper class (Saudi Arabia, the Old-World monarchies). Now perhaps we will offer up a new path: voluntary abandonment of a centuries-old democracy.
By and large I believe government can be a force for good in a society. I have no illusions, however, about the character of humans. For the most part, we are like water: we flow downhill and seek out any crack or crevice. We are equally capable of high ideals and low behavior. Our Constitution enshrines our lofty ideals. It is the job of Congress to protect those ideals (and us) from our baser instincts.

Even the nuttiest members of today’s Congress were elected by their fellow citizens. Congress is the vehicle through which we, as a large and diverse citizenry, shape our government. If we lose that ability, or sit by insensibly while it is abdicated by the men and women we elected to exercise it for us, we will be reduced to turning out for presidential elections every four years to elect our monarch. Of course those presidential elections will be free and fair. Just ask those who voted for Saddam Hussein in his day. Or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin last year.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Surprise, Honey...

I took out the trash. Scrubbed the skillet. Left you a full pot of hot water when I heard you get up and knew you would be coming down to make your coffee.

I courted her with champagne and flowers. She brings me tulips and little forbidden tarts. She gave me a car for my birthday once, but that was years ago. Now she moves the family car when it’s behind my little two-seater and she knows I’m thinking it might be a good night for us to sit in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford with thermoses that look like they are filled with coffee. I wax her red 1970 convertible. Just because I like the way she looks in it, top down, sunglasses. She gets spontaneous marriage proposals from men in SUVs when she drives it. My wax jobs are my bragging rights.
I was listening to Click and Clack on “Car Talk” the other day. They were talking to a woman whose husband had searched high and low for a 1963 Dodge Dart (pushbutton automatic) and surprised her with it. It brought tears to her eyes. One of the Car Talk guys said that was the best gift ever, one that he assumed won her undying gratitude. The other said he had read in “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” (or a book like it) that men think that way---that a big, showy gift is good for many good-dead credits---but that women view each gift as one credit. Take out the trash (which he said brought his wife to tears when he did it), one credit. New car, one credit.

I doubt that, but I do know now that the best gifts are the little, every-day ones. Not best best, but best for keeping love alive. You can’t buy each other new cars every day. Or even flowers and champagne (although I tried that for almost a year before I landed her). But you can put a dish of apple slices or a cup of tea on her desk while she’s working. You can pat the back of his hand while you’re reading together and say, I think you’re wonderful.