Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I'm having a political mid-life crisis. It's like waking up and finding that I'm a bug. Well, maybe not that dramatic. But unsettling.

First, as Paul Krugman would say, some background. I was raised by a Goldwater conservative. For those of you who don't remember Barry, let's just say my father was a compassionate conservative with a big libertarian streak. We argued all the time. In fairness, I would have argued with him no matter what his politics; and he with me. We liked the duel. Then I got married and had children and my political evolution was put on hold while I learned to be a father and a lawyer. I did like Constitutional law, so there was that, but the issues we studied in law school were old and well-settled.

Before I knew it Reagan was president and I was making enough money to think tax cuts were a great idea. My clients were investment bankers and big companies that needed money to buy other big companies. I didn't so much stop thinking about anything else as enter a long period during which I hardly even realized there was anything else to think about. 

One thing led to another and, as if waking from a dream, I found myself sitting on a farm in Baltimore, watching the snow pile up in deadening drifts as I thought about what to do with my life. I started writing then. Kids stories. Short stories. Finally novels. An occasional essay. And a few years ago, this blog, the Dad App, about being a dad and the kind of world I want for my children.

The thing about writing is it makes you think. Sometimes I'm not sure what I think about something until I write about it. Mostly I'm predictable, but sometimes I surprise myself. I'm a big Obama fan, for instance, but I wrote a little allegory the other day in which I almost involuntarily castigated him for turning over the ACA to the insurance industry. Maybe politically he had no choice. Still, we're in the clutches of pirates now, and they're holding our health care for ransom.

But (also as Krugman says) I digress. 

These last twenty years I've become more and more concerned about the poor. Especially the lack of opportunity that is as much a part of their lives as freedom from want is of mine. I have come to see the government as the only institution with the commitment and resources to help the poor. So I have become an apologist for it.

I say apologist, because it seems that is what I am always doing--apologizing, rationalizing, on its behalf. "Yes, the government is inefficient, even a little corrupt, but it's all we have to weave the social safety net." A lot of otherwise charming dinner-table conversations with friends have slipped down that slope.

You know how they say it's hard to hate someone you know. Take gays, for instance. We all have gay friends (or friends we have learned are gay now that they feel safe coming out). They've changed us. They've made us more understanding. Even hard-core anti-gay men like Senator Rob Portman, who did a 180 after his son came out. And good for him.

Recently I've had a couple of experience with local government that have made me see my libertarian, small-government friends in a new light. Like so many of us with gays, I just didn't really appreciate what my Ayn-Rand-groupie friends had been through. I have a better idea now.

For instance:

Not long ago, I was notified of a zoning violation by a local zoning department. I wrote to seek guidance. Twice. No answer. Bureaucratic rope-a-dope. At some (fairly high) cost, I stopped doing what was bothering them, but I still haven't heard from them. I guess they just don't feel they need to explain themselves.

More recently, I gave some thought to adding a second story to a house. I interviewed architects and they all said that getting the plans approved would take six to nine months and would depend on the eccentricities of the particular reviewer. What? It takes as long to approve remodel plan as to have a baby? And it depends on the proclivities of the government employee you draw? The very idea of putting myself in that kind of situation, of giving someone that kind of power over me for what should be an easy process (I mean, the building codes are pretty clear), gives me shivers. The same kind I used to get as a boy when I spotted a police car on the side of the road, even if I wasn't driving too fast.

The truth, I guess, is that I want to be let alone. Let alone to work and live my life. I've been lucky enough, and well-off enough, to mostly pull that off. But then I'm not a small businessman who has to deal with the government at every turn.

I like the idea of government. I like having a coordinated approach to planning and executing infrastructure upgrades. I like having someone look after the underprivileged. I like fiscal stimulus in downturns (although my economist son warns me to be cautious about that). But I don't like being mindlessly told what to do by a bureaucrat who doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on what his job is or how to do it. I want him to keep order, to keep me safe, to keep the trains running, but I don't want him pushing me around in ways that seem irrational and capricious, or worse.

So now I'm a bug. Looking for fellow bugs. It's a strange world out there.


  1. Some would say going from a lawyer to a bug is not really much of a metamorphosis.....LOL.......

    1. That's a good one, Dave. Maybe true.

    2. Mac, I really love this piece, especially its insightful recount of McCord Clayton's life with fathers & sons & politics. I somehow have no fear that you will become a libertarian, however, or anything close!! You'd just like government to make sense, and be rational and fair. Your sense of social justice, I have a feeling, trumps all. Thank heavens! What I always admire about you, though, is how you turn a question this way and that, looking at all its facets; you never think you know 100% of any answer. And as with all your pieces, I wish you could pop this onto an op-ed page in a well-read newspaper!!! You write so beautifully and with such soul.