Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Only Human

Meg and I were walking on the beach and came upon a young seabird in distress. He was staggering around and didn’t seem to be able to use his wings. We called a local wildlife rescue line and left a message. Later that evening, June called us back. It was probably a young grebe, she said. They aren't meant to walk on the beach; they’re water birds. If he was on the beach, he was probably in distress.

June called Jim who called me and asked for more precise directions to where we had seen the bird. He said he would go out and try to rescue it when he got off work at eleven. June had given me her home number and Jim gave me his cell phone, for next time. They also told me where in the future we could take birds in distress.

Meg and I walked that same beach the next day and didn’t see the bird, so here’s hoping Jim helped him. Thanks, Jim. Thanks, June.

Jim and June are amazing, but not extraordinary. We humans do this kind of thing all the time. We rescue birds and whales and sea otters. On other days we (presumably not the exact same people) behead infidels or shoot at a car that has cut us off on the road and kill the toddler passenger.

It’s enough to make you ask: Who are we? Are we Jim and June or ISIS and road-rager?

Both, is the obvious answer. But why? Why aren't we one or the other, preferably the nicer one? How can both our kindness and our anger be so intense?

Evolution, you say. As a species we needed both to survive. I suppose. But I don’t think anyone is going to attack June or Jim for helping stranded birds. They don’t need anger to protect themselves. 

We could learn a lesson from them, a prescription for a better life: Walk along a dark beach at eleven at night, after a long day of work, to find a frightened and helpless bird, wrap it in a blanket, keep it warm and feed it, and when it is strong enough let it go.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Waste Not, Want Not

“But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

—David Brooks, writing in the NYT about the governing incompetence of the far right.

“Could confiscation be so unfathomable? And once confiscated, will the government transfer that wealth, or keep it. I think we both know the answer to that........It all starts by assigning too much virtue to the political classes.”

—David Clayton (my brother), worrying about the long (redistributionist) arm of the left.

It’s official. We’re polarized. A good thing in sunglasses. Not so much in politics.

Compromise is a thing of the days of the arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson and the Irish bonhomie of Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neill. No more. Shut her down.

The source of our current sorry state has been probed ad nauseam. But it’s not complicated: we don’t trust each other. The left thinks the right is a bunch of selfish libertarians who are happy to play Hunger Games. The right thinks the left is a bunch of lazy takers who want to feed out of the public trough.

Both sides have their points.

The problem with trying to compromise in this overheated and moralizing environment is that it’s just not gong to happen. Not on the issues before us: health care, welfare, taxes. The battle lines are drawn. No one is coming out of their foxholes.

What is needed is compromise of a different kind: A new platform for going forward. A new OS, to use a tech analogy. The old code of government bureaucracy is corrupted. We need to start over. 

Remember the ACA website? So well intentioned, so badly designed. The whole thing had to be thrown out and re-coded by people who knew what they were doing. Now it works great.

The right doesn’t trust the government with their money. They’ve got a point. The government is hugely inefficient and not a little corrupt.

But the left doesn’t have any way to achieve its redistributionist agenda except through the taxation and spending power of government.


There’s an easy way out of this. Easy conceptually, anyway. Make the government more accountable, transparent and efficient. 

That would mean a lot of changes, a lot of upending of entrenched bureaucratic interests. Government is our Augean Stable. 

Could we clean it up? I think so. We brought in the tech wiz kids from Silicon Valley to fix the ACA website. Why not do something like that for the whole government? The secret to accountability, transparency and efficiency is data. We have to know what’s going on to monitor it and make it more efficient (and less corrupt). That sounds like something for the same folks who fixed the ACA site. Set up a dashboard, monitor the systems, report what’s happening, repeat.

We spent a lot of money fixing the ACA website. It was worth it. We would have to spend many times that to achieve the broader objective of streamlining the entire government and making it more transparent and accountable. But that would be worth it too.

So I say this to my fellow progressives, to Democrats of all stripes. Let’s open up the books. Let’s let everyone (including ourselves) see what we’re doing with their money. In something like real time. Without bookkeeping mumbo jumbo or hocus pocus.

Maybe then we could earn the trust we must have if ever we hope to come together on the great issues facing us. I don’t think many on the far right are cruel. I don’t think they want to see people go without enough food or education. They just don’t trust us to spend their money wisely.

Let’s do something to earn that trust. 

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.