Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Child for Life

Children feel pain.

Broken hearts. A toy not beside the birthday cake. An unjust spanking by a parent who, let’s face it, always loved his siblings more. Those are the ones many of us remember.

I never knew the pain of hunger, though. I was never afraid to walk outside. I never flinched every time I heard anything that sounded like a gunshot. I never stayed home from school because no one had taught me to read and I was embarrassed to admit I could not. I never hid in my room while my father beat my mother. Well, once or twice on that last one, mostly loud shouting, a scratched cheek once (his).

A fetus feels pain too. Some say as early as 20 weeks of gestation. It is because of that, that reflexive recoiling, that Nikki Haley and the legislators in South Carolina have now banned abortions after 20 weeks.

The Supreme Court has said a woman may legally abort her pregnancy at any time before the baby could live on its own outside the womb. They drew the line there for practical reasons. “Viability,” as the standard is called, is as good a test as any for when an unborn child becomes a life worthy of the full protection of society.

There is a respectable case to be made for the proposition that life begins at conception. Or at the time the fertilized egg bonds implants on the uterus that will nurture it until birth. From the standpoint of logic, those are perfectly fine places to draw the line between life and not life. If left alone, a fertilized egg may well implant and grow to viability and then birth.

Pregnancy is often a blessing. Often not. If you have too many kids to take care of already, you may not want another. True, you could have assured that result by abstaining from sex, but we’re talking about human beings, here, not robots. People have sex and get pregnant and regret it. They want to take it back. Roe v Wade lets them, up to a point.

The right to abortion articulated by Roe was found to grow out of an implied constitutional right of privacy. Roe held that the mother’s right of privacy to do as she wanted with her unwanted fetus ended when the fetus, if born at that moment, could survive on its own.

That was an intuitively moral place to draw the line. None of us want to think the law makes it legal for a mother to kill her newly born baby. Roe merely gave that same baby protection in utero back to the time when it could be born alive to be killed. Before that, no viable baby, so no murder.

This is, as we have all seen, has been morally difficult and contentious issue. We cannot countenance murder, so we have put the issue in those terms—the right to life—and have, so far, drawn the line at a place, viability, that fits with that moral dictate.

This has not satisfied everyone. Many want to return to the pre-Roe blanket restriction on abortion. I can understand that. They believe that once the train of life gets started, no one should be putting boulders on the tracks.

The problem is that theirs is an absolutist view. It is morally unrelenting and unforgiving. It ignores—some say cruelly denies—the fact that we are driven hard, often to temporary madness, by our sexual passions. Mistakes happen. A new life is on the way to a woman who doesn't want it.

Maybe she can’t afford it. Maybe she wants to finish her education first. Whatever the reason, she doesn't want it. The Supreme Court has said she may fix her mistake until to do so would be murder. Now comes, courtesy of South Carolina, a rule that she may do so until the fetus would feel the pain of its elimination.

I sympathize with what they are trying to do. No one wants to hurt anything, least of all a baby, or even an almost baby. And when the argument is put that way, it’s hard to have an answer that does not seem callous.

But that is not the right way to look at what is gong on when a decision to abort is made. As we’ve all read in numerous personal accounts, it is a difficult personal choice. It is the same choice as whether to conceive, just made after a slip rather than before. As the pregnancy progresses, the choice gets messier, and more difficult, but it is essentially the same choice. I don’t want this baby.

I was talking to a friend about this, and she made the point that if people care so much about the life of the child, they should do more than just assure it is not aborted. If they insist that the child be carried to term and brought into the world by a mother who does not want it, they should take care of the baby if the mother can’t or won’t. They should make sure it has prenatal care and nutrition. They should make sure it has good food and an emotionally healthy childhood. Pre-school. Good elementary school. Warm clothes. Someone to come home to.

My friend’s observation puts a fine and practical point on the competing considerations inherent in the choice whether to abort. To Nikki Haley and her legislative friends in South Carolina, and to anyone who wants to limit a woman’s right to abortion beyond the Roe guarantees, perhaps we should say this: if you insist that a child be born to a parent who has said she cannot or is not ready to care for it, step up and support the social service programs that help support that child.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Long Way From Cheese Day

Remember Cheese Day? According to Leo McGarry, fictional chief of staff to fictional president Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing, Andrew Jackson opened the White House once a year and welcomed all citizens to come and share a big block of cheese and their ideas about how the government should be run. The closest we’ve come to that in the modern era is Mark Zuckerberg serving fruit and cheese to conservative pundits who think Facebook is too left-leaning.

I was in the White House once, years ago, on a tour. It was easy then. I have visited it often since, snapping photos from an increasing distance. As one tourist, looking across a kind of wide neutral zone toward the White House, said to his companion, “You used to be able to…”

Too many fence jumpers, I suppose. Not to mention terrorists. It’s a shame, though. Physical distance increases the sense of political and moral distance. Jackson had the right idea for how to keep the political dialogue alive and well (one of his few good ones, among many other bad ideas).

I was thinking as I was snapping photos of the West Wing today, under what I imagined to be the increasingly interested gaze (yes, I’m a little paranoid) of the Capitol police and the Secret Service, that in North Korea I would surely be off to fifteen years at hard labor for doing what I was doing. So we’re not that bad.

With a zoom lens, I got one photo of a Marine guard in formal uniform outside the Oval Office. That’s the way I like to think of our security for the President: formal, dressy, not really expected to have to spring into action. Like the palace guard at Buckingham Palace, or the Swiss guard at the Vatican. Colorful.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to expose the President to risk. We don’t want the heartbreak and disillusionment of another Kennedy assignation. We don’t want to see Ronald Reagan thrown on the floor of his car after he was shot. We don’t want any opening for the crazy violent impulses that men like Donald Trump incite. So I guess I’m down with having to use a long zoom lens to get close to the White House.

But it saddens me. Our security comes at a terrible emotional cost. Seeing that those who protect our President are afraid for his life makes us all afraid. Not just for him, but for ourselves as well. If the leader of the free world is not safe, what about the world he leads? What about the rest of us?

Friday, May 13, 2016

How My Sons Will End Revolutions

Meg and I were in Paris when Francois Hollande was elected president of France four years ago. The streets were a joyous celebration of the return to power of the socialists. The French people, like so many of that time, were feeling beaten down by the global recession. Angela Merkel was offering austerity. Hollande offered hope.

We’re going back to Paris soon, and we just got a notice from the US State Department to avoid certain areas where mass demonstrations on behalf of labor are expected. Things could get ugly, the notice warns. There might be tear gas. Hollande is on his way out.

One of my most enduring, and oddly fond, memories of Paris is of demonstrations and tear gas. I’ve been seeing those newsreels off and on for decades. The French Revolution, it seems, is not over.

Nor, perhaps, the American Revolution. We are railing against tyranny again this election season. Only this time, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said on Earth Day in 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Revolutions happen when people get really pissed off. They just need to burn down the castle. Nothing less will do. They are sure there is a better way to arrange society for the common good. And they are mad enough to throw caution to the wind. Anything will be better than this.

What has often followed revolutions has been disappointment. The way communism promises a better life for all, for instance, is by the state controlling the means of production. We see how that worked out in terms of the economic welfare and personal freedom of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, China.

Our American Revolution was a little different: it was more, Get off our backs, will you! They did and we went on about our business. We are a land of great opportunity, but we are a far cry from communist or socialist. It’s hard for us to agree on universal anything. Not even television streaming standards, and lord knows, we all want to stream Game of Thrones.

We are having something like a revolution in our politics this year. I don’t know what else to call Donald Trump. He is our Robespierre (same hair, not as smart). Many are pissed off. Heads will roll.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? The two biggest culprits are: too little (undeniably) correct information; and too much misplaced anger.

Economists have been battling for hundreds of years now about the best way to arrange society to maximize production and provide for the wellbeing of as many as possible. The battle continues. You’d think we’d know by now what works—and we are getting better at it—but there is still a great deal of uncertainty. At what point does raising the minimum wage hurt more people than it helps? We don’t know yet. Ten dollars is certainly okay. But fifteen? We won’t know until we try it. 

Our economic policy swings from trickle-down to expanded welfare are the way we learn. No one expected getting tough on crime in the 1990s would lead to bloated prisons and a lost generation of black men. Now we know, and our politicians are ready to storm the Bastille to free the inmates.

The economy is like the climate, they say. So complex, with so many inputs and variables, that it is impossible to predict. But, as with the climate, we are getting better. Our economic models are more sophisticated every year, and they are plugged into more data streams than ever. One of these days we will know, in advance, whether the optimum minimum wage is $12.50 or $17.50. 

This is where my son Christopher comes in. He’s a budding macroeconomist. He and his pals are going to figure this out. He’s never let me down.

Now, even if we know the optimum way to structure the economy, some people are still going to be pissed off. Maybe a man has lost his job. Or a woman’s son has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s ready to work and, in a just society, he’d have a job, the man thinks. The woman has worked hard to teach her son to be a good boy, and in a just society, she thinks, those bums who led him astray would be in jail. 

There is no utopia. So even when we are doing our empirical best, some will be left out, some will be aggrieved.

A lot of disaffection stems from a feeling of powerlessness. This is a close corollary of feeling we are not heard and understood. But what if others heard? What if they understood?

This is where my son Nick, and his tribe of computer scientists, comes in.

Social media is the tool of the future. And not just for kids and advertisers. It’s a practical way for each of to be a meaningful part of the conversation about our lives. With machine learning, and eventually true artificial intelligence, our smartphones will be able to empathize. They will be like “Her.” But instead of being our romantic partners, they will be something like our personal therapists and life coaches.

“It’s not that bad. These recessions rarely last more than 18 months. You can get unemployment compensation at this address. You have been pre-qualified based on your biometrics. There is a party tonight for out-of-work young adults sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Open bar. Don’t drink too much, though. Employers come to these things hoping to meet good prospective workers.”

Desperate people need someone to talk to. Why not Her?

Does this sound too big-brotherish for you? Not sure you want your smartphone to know that much about you? 

Fair point.

But think about the kinds of communities that we mythologize as the best of the good old days. Small villages where people knew and supported one another. Everyone knew everyone’s business. That was how the support happened. You could be a recluse, but you didn’t get the support of others if you chose that path.

Technology can make us a village again. (Thank you, Nick.) And deep data access and analysis can keep us informed about each other and how we can best work together. (Thank you, Chris.) All this and indoor plumbing too. And no tear gas. What could be better? The only thing I might add would be fresh croissants.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apatosaurus Policy

“Some of the Justices appointed by Republicans often don't vote in a way that advances conservative policy.”

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that on the Senate floor not long ago. He was complaining about Chief Justice John Roberts who twice—twice, can you believe it?—saved Obamacare with his activist vote.

Grassley’s remark got me thinking: What, exactly, is conservative policy? (Skipping for the moment the question whether it is ever the proper role of the judicial branch to advance any particular policy, conservative or liberal.)

The dictionary definition of conservative is: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

So, what about that? Is that a good governing principle?

Some change is surely bad. Global warming, for instance. Most is unavoidable. Usually the best we can do is manage change. Clean up super-fund contamination sites. Fight crime. Go soft on crime. Fight crime.

Adapt or die, right? Natural selection built that in for us. 

Sometimes hunkering down is necessary for survival. Sometimes talking the long march in search of new habitat is what is needed. The problem with a bias against setting out on the long march is that you’re likely to be left behind to die. Or maybe not, maybe the herd moves as one when the need is overwhelmingly obvious. By the time things get to that point, though, many will die.

That’s the way herds behave. Perhaps we are doomed to do so too. The thing about natural selection is that it takes a while, and there is a lot of carnage along the way as the herd is right-sized for the available habitat. It isn’t pretty. Maybe it’s the inevitable fate of all populations, but it seems that by this point we should be smarter than the instincts that have driven us for millennia. What was the point of developing our big brains if not to use them?

Conservative policy, by definition, protects and preserves the status quo. Maybe that worked in rural hamlets a few hundred years ago, maybe it was even a good thing then, but it doesn’t work now. The dynamic rate of change has become too great to reckon with by not thinking about what is happening. It will overtake us. There will be no habitat to move on to. 

We are at an inflection point in the course of human events. Population growth and climate change leading to drought and flooding will kill millions. There may have been a time when what happened in the wider world wasn’t our problem, but that time is gone. Look at how immigration from the Middle East is shredding the social fabric of Europe. Look at how oligarchs world-wide are leaving millions desperate for sustenance. These are the conditions of revolution. 

We’ve had plenty of revolutions and none have destroyed us, you say. Yes, that’s true. But even the most sanguine isolationist must admit that what happens in the rest of the world is starting to feel increasingly, and uncomfortably, close. How long will it be before the revolutionary peasants up their game with nuclear weapons?

Senator Grassley and his ilk remind me of a herd of lumbering apatosaurus, munching on leaves from ever higher and scarcer trees, unconcerned about the bright flames overhead of the approaching asteroid. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Why should they worry. Move over and let me get to that tasty branch, will you?

Monday, May 9, 2016

An App For That

I’m watching the world from Google Earth. Not from so far away that it looks like a blue marble, but from high enough that I can see that my neighborhood is a bunch of boxes. With cars. The bigger boxes are malls. And the long roads are full of cars. Some arteries are clogging. Heart attacks are imminent. 

If I dial back a little more, I can see the vast deserts and tundras that belt the planet There is no water in those places. Not enough to live on year-round. And they are spreading. Millions of people are migrating to water, and away from war. Their neighbors don’t want them. Their homeless, country-less children are starving. The fact that those children are growing up—if they do grow up—uneducated is the least of their problems. But not ours.

Not far from my neighborhood of boxes are communities with bigger more expensive boxes: the gated homes of the one percent. Truth be told, even though I live in a smallish box, it too is an expensive one. The best thing about my part of the country is that it is called Silicon Valley. 

Yes, the denizens are rich, but they are less likely to be clipping coupons and playing golf than struggling to solve problems they have set themselves against. Some are trivial, in terms of those starving migrants, but others are consequential. We do not yet fully know the global contribution to civilization of communications platforms like Facebook, for instance, or the transformative power of the information Google gives us all as easily as plugging in a lamp, but they are likely to be huge.

I live almost as far from our nation’s capital as possible, in miles and mindset. I mourn the state of our politics. Our elected representatives are wasting precious time and resources squabbling like school children. Blame who you will. There is plenty to go around.

Our government now is, at best, following our society. It certainly is not leading. Perhaps it never does. Perhaps politicians only do things when enough of their constituents force them to. There have been surges of government leadership—the New Deal, the civil rights acts—but we have seen nothing like them in a while. 

I wish I could use Google Earth to go back in time. I think I know what I would see. Instead of vast expanses of boxes, I would see villages. The people would be farmers. They would grow enough to feed themselves, then some would sell their crop surpluses to others, and maybe design a better plow and sell that, and commerce would be born. Soon you would be able to get things others grew or made. Then plumbing. Then electricity. Hospitals would be closer. Vaccines. A zippy motorcar.

You can argue about whether all that amounts to progress. Most think it does. Sure, we have frightful economic stratification today, but when we were living in villages, there were kings in castles. On the whole, the villagers are better off now.

So the question I ask myself is: Why is that, why are we better off now? Was it the noblesse oblige of the kings. I don’t think so. We’re better off now because we worked hard to become so. We did it individually, with invention and effort, but the effect was collective. This is why I love Silicon Valley. My neighbors are inventing today’s new plows, today’s steam engines, today’s electricity, today’s railroads. They are in the vanguard of the march of progress.

I don’t know if we needed feudal kings—maybe they provided mafia-like protection—but I’ve always accepted that we need government today. Someone has to build the roads, provide for the desperately poor, etc. But the lot we have at the helm of our national government is collectively incompetent. Any company in Silicon Vally would have fired them. Teamwork is a watchword in Silicon Valley. Washington is pretty much the opposite of teamwork.

Am I swinging toward libertarian? Maybe. Our government is now so inept and dysfunctional that I think that we might be better off trying to go to the next stage in the evolution of our civilization without it. Or at least without it on a national level. 

Who would defend us as a country? Good question. Maybe Elon Musk. He’s better with rockets than Kim Jong Un.

Who would keep the usurers and fraudsters at bay? Another good question. This may sound ridiculous, but I believe there may soon be an app for that. Think crowd-sourced yelp-like machine learning algorithms, think bitcoin.

Who would arrest and imprison the criminals? Maybe we should take a break from that. We seem to have overdone it. Contract security, electronic tethers, maybe the odd shock collar. Who knows. We couldn’t do worse.

Who will collect taxes and take care of public works? Why can’t that be collaborative? By community. There is always money to be made in public works. Let road builders put in toll roads. Let the people nearby vote on whether they support the idea. There’s easily an app for that.

Who will stop global warming? No one, apparently. The one thing I am pretty sure of is that whatever is done will be done out of self interest. Ultimately, and over the long term, the savage Darwinism of commerce is the best incubator of self-interested behavior.

The commercial world is full of fraud. It’s the birthplace of fraud. But government is doing no better on that score, and it is lazy and inept to boot. At least in commerce you have to hustle or some other guy will take your customers. There will always be fraud in commerce, but with more information more readily available than ever, the consumer’s ability to detect fraud is better than ever. Much better than or ability to know what the hell the government is doing, if anything.

I don’t know how we shrink government to the size we can drown it in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist proposed, but I’m beginning to wonder whether that shouldn’t be the next project for my brilliant neighbors in Silicon Valley. Our government as it is now functioning is obsolete. As an investor might say, it is ripe for a takeover.

Maybe someone will design an app for that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Faith To Be All In

Father Daniel Berrigan died a few days ago. He and his brother burned selective service records in a Maryland parking lot in 1968. They rejected the notion that the moral thing to do when you commit a crime is to serve your time, and they took it on the lam. They were soon caught and served three years. It wasn’t to be the last time for either of them. Daniel Berrigan protested against injustice as he saw it until the day he died, at 94. Like Martin Luther King, he called us to moral arms.

Berrigan was a Jesuit priest. King was a Baptist minister. Berrigan’s church wasn’t fully supportive of his radicalism, but he kept the collar, and he kept fighting. Reading his obituary made me think that maybe I’m wrong about religion. Maybe it shouldn’t be eradicated like a pest infestation. 

These days not much good is coming out of pulpits. Pope Francis is an exception, in his words if not his institutional reforms. But radical jihad is doing nothing for the image of Islam (and who is, I might ask?). The hard right shift of American Protestantism, and American Catholic dogmatism, threatens pluralism and free expression.

The thing about being a priest, or equivalent in other religions, is that it gives you (literally) a pulpit. People are predisposed, indeed conditioned, to listen to what you have to say, to consider it thoughtfully. You don’t (not right away) get ignored as a kook. You are Father Berrigan. We are taught to honor our fathers.

The other thing about religious training (the responsible kind, anyway) is that for the most part it teaches moral behavior. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Help the poor. Visit the sick. Have mercy. If you internalize those messages, and if you aren’t corrupted by the inside game of the church hierarchy, it is hard to look away from injustice. You preach against it. You march against it. You go to jail in protest.

Maybe we will develop a class of secular (Atheist) moralists. Maybe they will gain a following. Bernie Sanders comes close. He hasn’t put his life on the line, though. He hasn’t gone to jail. When you get down to it, he’s just a politician. His ideas are noble, but he has no more hope of passing single payer health care than Father Berrigan did of stopping the Vietnam War. Actually, that’s not true. Sanders probably has less hope. The protests Berrigan started ultimately did lead to the end of the war. A big reason for that was that Berrigan (and King for civil rights) was willing to go all in—personally all in—for what he believed. We saw that, and we followed him.

Father Berrigan believed that one must keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that it will make no difference. That is a heavy burden. One that his faith helped him bear. Can we match his resolve without his faith? Or in the absence of faith, in the absence of a belief in a higher order and purpose, does making a difference seem too pointless?

At the end of his obituary, The New York Times published one of Father Berrigan’s poems. As so often, the poet tells the truth beautifully:

My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
too loosely webbed against
deicide homicide
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
indulging also
her backhanded love of freakishness
allows us to stand.