Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Way We Were

We didn’t used to shoot each other at the slightest provocation. Or without any provocation, just because we were pissed off about something and wanted to kill someone. 

We didn’t used to tell people that they had to follow the dictates of our religion, whether or not it was what they believed. We didn’t used to refuse to follow laws we felt were at odds with what we believed our religion commanded. 

We used to be better at minding our own business.

We were both kinder to one another and at the same time more libertarian. More “Don’t tread on me,” but also more respecting of the correlative: Live and let live.

Now we’re just mad and spoiling for a fight. We’re mean drunks, and the booze we’re guzzling is self-righteous self-pity. Somebody else must be to blame. Let's kill the bastards. Or at least mock and heckle them and drive them out of our incestuous village of paranoid delusion.

I’m gettin older, so maybe I just don’t understand. Maybe I’m just not with it any more. Well, if “with it” is what describes the way we are behaving today, I hope not. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

To Be, Or Not To Be...Afraid

If I get a scary medical diagnosis, I focus on dealing with the problem, but I admit it makes me nervous. Same thing if someone I love is threatened by betrayal of mind or body. Otherwise, I don’t worry much.

Lately, with society at a low boil in a shallow pan, I think I should worry more. I read the cautionary tales, I study the uncivil behavior that in another time might have been unthinkable, and I express concern, but I think it more than feel it. 

I just seem to have a hard time believing the worst is going to happen.

Why is that? Lord knows. The worst has happened plenty of times, over and over again. Wars, genocides, mass shootings—of children, for gods sake. Maybe it’s my own lack of proximity to those tragedies that has left me sanguine. No enemy has invaded my country. I missed Vietnam, without even having to go lame with a bone spur. I’ve never been close to an active shooter.

Even though I know about them, it’s hard to imagine those things happening to me. Is that a failure of imagination, or is it a form of psychological armor that keeps me going forward and not hunkering down in a defensive crouch?

If it’s the latter, as I’m sure it is, at what point will it deceive me into believing that I am safer than I am? Why would it do that, anyway? Surely that’s not evolutionarily adaptive.

Or, perhaps it is. Life can’t go on if we are cowering in fear. Chores don’t get done, food doesn’t get put on the table. Paralyzing fear is just that…paralyzing.

There is a difference between acute danger and chronic threat. We all respond pretty well, and quickly, to acute danger. Fire in the kitchen, for instance. We’re slower to deal with chronic threats. Climate change is a good example. Is it real? we ask. What could I do about it, anyway? 

That kind of thinking lets us off the hook and permits us to go back to daily life, where dishes piling up in the sink are a more acute problem than an ambiguous threat that the planet is warming. Or that Donald Trump is going to tear down our democracy. 

Weather cycles and politicians come and go, we tell ourselves. Neither has destroyed us yet, at least not our own politicians. It’s easy to become complacent.

Then one day the tornado touches down on our home and it’s gone. After the next election, the mob doesn’t just put their feet up on the Speaker’s desk, they burn down the Capitol.

What then? 

We’d likely wander around in shock that the unimaginable happened and then try to put the pieces back together and get on with life, even if that meant starting over. We’re good at starting over. That's an adaptive trait.

How much better not to have to lay a new foundation for our home. How much better not to lose all we treasure.

We know how to avoid those calamities, even though we have distracted ourselves with our infighting to the point that we seem to have forgotten what the long history of civilization has taught us.

We have to build storm cellars, and we have to pay attention to the character of the men and women to whom we entrust the sacred job of protecting us and providing for our welfare. 

That job is not about retribution. It is about sober planning and an old-fashioned sense of responsibility to one another. It is grounded in a recognition that we are all in this together, and that fighting like pit bulls who have been tormented to the point that they only experience rage is only going to leave us bloodied and weak.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

People Get Ready, A Train's A'Coming

I have become a prepper. 

The disaster I’m preparing for is a natural one, a storm of human nature. I see it forming on the horizon, a black funnel cloud sucking into its vortex fences that used to give neighbors a sense of their own place and safety.

I’ve never worried much about threats I couldn’t control. Partly that was because I was too busy with work and family, partly it was because I’m an optimist. It’s hard for me to think a disaster is about to befall us, especially since in my lifetime, although we’ve had some bad storms, we’ve always come out of the storm cellar not only alive but also chastened by the savagery of the world we live in, even more wary of its dangers, even more determined no to let them destroy us.

This time, I’m less sanguine.

I now believe there is a non-trivial chance Donald Trump will be our next president.

That’s the disaster I’m prepping for.

In his first term Trump was a wanna-be-dictator who created chaos in domestic and world affairs that caused significant but not irreparable damage. This time he may well succeed in becoming an actual dictator. 

We all know the risks: martial law, jailed enemies, suspended civil rights. General Milley wont be there to stop him from using the military as his personal police force, nor will Merrick Garland be around to block his use of the Justice Department as his personal star chamber. He has grievances—he lives for grievances—and he will have the means to settle them to his liking, with little restraint. 

Could we depend on the courts to stop him? What armies do they have?

In 2015 and 2016, I enjoyed the jokes about Trump. Then suddenly, he won and they weren’t funny. Yes, Biden beat him in 2020, but Biden’s approval has sunk to the lowest of any president in the last 15 years. He’s in trouble.

And Trump just keeps getting stronger politically. I read today in the NYT that his charismatic strongman persona is appealing to many in Iowa, the first caucus state. Another NYT piece said college-educated Republicans nationally are finding their way back to him. His blue collar base, of course, never left.

The things I want to protect are the personal and economic safety of my family. Out on a farm in Iowa in the 1800s that would mean keeping my fences mended and my rifle loaded. 

But how do we keep assets safe from government appropriation in today’s world? By stuffing them under mattresses or in closet safes? By making deposits in local banks under the control of the Fed and the Treasury Department?


Personal safety is trickier still. Despite our lust for guns, rifles aren’t going to save us from assaults by the FBI, IRS or Justice Department, never mind the US Army.

I’m new to apocalypse planning. I’ve been like the wealthy Jews in Vienna in the late 1930s before Hitler took everything from them, including their lives. They thought that couldn’t happen to them. They were pillars of their economic community, after all. 

Of course it did happen to them. Is Trump our Hitler? I don’t know, but he says things that make me seriously concerned he would like to be.

All I’ve been able to come up with so far is to keep financial assets in liquid securitie in big national investment firms. I should be able to get at those from anywhere in the world, as long as I am not personally under attack and my assets frozen, which, since I am peaceful and law-abiding, would mean the US had devolved into a Fascist state determined to persecute anyone who might challenge it, a category I would certainly fall into. Couldn’t I just be quiet to protect myself? I don’t know. I doubt it. Honestly, I hope not.

Riding out the storm in another country is appealing as a last resort. I like it here. Specifically, I like it in California, a state that aligns with my values. I don’t want to move, but I’d like to know I had a sanctuary if worst came to dreadfully worst.

The Jews who got out of Vienna before Kristallnacht fared a lot better than those who had faith in their government, indeed in their fellow citizens, and stayed.

The risk of complacency here in the US has now become, for me, unacceptably high.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Not of This World

Hello from 37,000 feet. I’ve been up here many times over many years. It’s always the same. Ethereal, beautiful, empty. My home is down there somewhere, on the ground, with all the people who live there with me, but they are not up here (at least not out the window, thank goodness for them, since it is minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit out there).

When I fly alone, or remotely from my traveling companion, I stare out the window and let my mind drift to wherever it wants to go. I see mountains and deserts, wind farms just now, cities, evidence of our human presence on earth and of the vastness of the landscape where we make our homes, our businesses, our lives, and intermittently our wars.

From up here the misery in Gaza and Ukraine is invisible. So many things on earth can’t be seen from high above the clouds that nurture us with their life-giving rain as their part in the atmosphere that permits us to live.

I have had these thoughts many times. They are not exactly thoughts of the futility of human existence, or more particularly mine, but they return me always to the question so many of us ask ourselves. What are we dong here? Or, better put, what should we be doing here?

I have acted my part in the play of family and commerce. I have children I’m proud of. I’ve done things in my work I’m proud of, as well as some things that were disappointing, but none I am ashamed of.

I am not, however, helping the children of Gaza or Israel or Ukraine who are ripped asunder by war, or the millions of others who are as surely brutalized by abject poverty and cruelty, cruelty in some cases from the very family members and countrymen from whom they rightly expect kindness. 

Over the years I’ve helped a few people who needed help, but not enough to feel I’ve made a difference in the overall balance of hope and despair. I vote for and support politicians who want to help others with medical care and unemployment benefits. I would likely vote for someone who said we should just give everyone enough money to get by, a guaranteed basic income, as it is referred to by some, or enervating socialism, as it called by others, often in the bloodthirsty tone we used to reserve for witches on their way to the bonfire.

I believe in democracy. I believe that government is the only viable vehicle to undertake the big projects of collecting taxes, building infrastructure and protecting its citizens, including by looking after the needs of the less fortunate among us. Government in America is not in a good place now to do it’s job. 

Government cannot act (for long) without consensus among the governed about what action should be taken. Consensus of any kind has become hard to reach these days. Consensus almost always requires compromise, and our political leaders, both the ones who would be just as happy to see government shrivel up and die and the ones who want to usher in a modern New Deal, are not in a compromising mood. Both sides are sure they are right, and to some extent they both are. They’re just not completely right. Hence the need for compromise. 

They have to see that for it to happen. Or things have to get so bad they are voted out. That’s usually the way it works, but gerrymandering and hard-ball election politics are likely thwarting the will of the majority, which means that “bad enough to get them voted” out probably has to be really terrible. And “really terrible” sometimes leads to worse, when people get so frustrated they start looking for a political messiah to lead them out of the wilderness.

Beyond giving to relief organizations, I can’t help the war-torn, poverty sickened children of the world. Beyond voting for and supporting political causes I believe in, and writing about them, I can’t aid our democracy.

As a practical matter, maybe what I’m doing is all I can do, but it does not feel like enough. I am not so vain as to believe that a heroic hurling of myself upon the barricades is going to make much of a difference.

That leaves me with two feelings. One, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who cares about people, is sadness. The other, for reasons that are equally obvious to anyone who has spent time tilting at windmills and come away with a broken lance and the windmill still spinning merrily, is detachment.

I admit, I like detachment, even though I know there is no real worth in it. I’m not doing any harm—indeed, I do a little good now and then—but I am not engaged in the way I would be if I were attacked in my home with my family, or if we were starving, or if we were reviled and bullied for our political or cultural views. In those personal circumstances, I would fight—to the death if necessary.

Indeed, some part of me wants to do that now, even though I know my death would be the certain and futile result. At least I would have gone down fighting. That I have not done so, in the face of all the misery around me, makes me feel like I have already died. Like I am not of this world.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Watching the Sun Go Down

In the most fractious time in American history, Abraham Lincoln said, “I am an optimist because I don't see the point in being anything else.” A few days ago, in times that are in rhetoric if not yet cannon fire a runner up to Lincoln’s era, Kevin McCarthy expressed the same sentiment on the eve of his eviction as Speaker of the House.

I’m with them.

I’ve never considered the philosophical roots of my own optimism, it’s just the way I am. When cause for pessimism growls, I start looking for a way to get past the monster without getting eaten. In that way, optimism is more than just a state of mind, it’s a survival mechanism for spotting and avoiding danger.

Lately, the growling is pretty loud. And the path to a safe exit isn’t obvious.

Trump. MAGA. Or, if you prefer, the commie Democrat party. Whatever side you’re on, it’s pretty obvious that the battle has now devolved into partisan trench warfare. We’ve got everything but barbed wire and mustard gas. Remind me, how did that work out in WW I? In our Civil War (still called the Lost Cause by many in the South) how many boys were carried home to die in their mother’s arms? How many more died in an anonymous ditches? 

Well, A. Lincoln preserved the Union, so maybe he was justified in his optimism, for the life of the Union, if not his own. Maybe a modern Lincoln will pull us together. And maybe there won’t have to be bloodshed this time. 

But we got dangerously close on January 6, 2021. If Trump gets back in the oval office, I’m confident he won’t leave. Just as Hitler insisted that the good people of Austria cried out to him for liberation from the Jews, when it comes time for him to leave, Trump will bellow that American patriots demand that he declare martial law and remain in office to save the country.

When Meg and I walk along the shore at the end of the day, we often pause to watch the fiery ball that gives us warmth and life slide into the sea. It sinks slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. At the end, though, it goes fast. And in a blink, it's gone.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

If I had Been Kinder

When I was a boy, not yet even a teenager, I trapped squirrels and tried to keep them as pets. They didn’t like it. They rubbed their noses red trying to break out of my wire mesh walls. I’ve never thought I had a cruel streak—I didn’t vaporize ants with a magnifying glass—but I did trap those squirrels, so what was that?

In law school, I found another outlet for my instinct to dominate. Combat by verbosity. Early on, the stuff I did was boring. No chance for a well-placed dagger to the soft belly of opposing counsel. The only thing opposed to me were shelves of dusty law books.

Eventually, though, I broke out of that research cloister and began doing corporate acquisitions. Papering them, really, but I thought I was an indispensable warrior in my clients’ battles to take over companies that were underperforming and needed a shot in the arm…or a kick in the pants.

I had been ambling along in my law firm to that point, working hard but not zealously. Something changed in me when I suited up for combat, which was the way we viewed it. To the companies being pursued, or at least their managements, it was a life-or-death struggle. The lawyers on each side were the mercenary troops. I was one of them. Through field promotions, I became platoon leader, a persona I retained even when I became a white-collar general.

I’ve never been in actual combat, but I understand about motivating people to do a job. We were an elite squad, we told ourselves. Indispensable, ready to give our all to win our battles. (Our all in this case was largely sleep and time with our friends and families.)

Not everyone in a fighting platoon is the strongest member, but each is crucial to the success of the unit. If there is a slacker, he has to be convinced to dig in and work harder…or he has to go. 

Usually there was time between battles to adjust staffing so that every member was as dedicated to the mission as the others, but sometimes adjustments had to be made mid-battle. When a deal we thought was dead sprang back to life, one person on vacation refused to return. He was cut from the squad and his reputation sullied.

Even now, many years later, I feel badly about that. Wasn’t there a kinder, more humane way to make that transition? After all, we ended up getting along fine without him. Couldn’t I have just made a substitution on the fly and let him enjoy his vacation? I told myself at the time that a tight squad could only function on loyalty and commitment. If he didn’t want to make the sacrifice, he should just go work peacefully somewhere else and leave the fighting to the warriors.

Really, that’s the way we thought about it. War metaphors. It was only money and ego that were being fought over, but we worked ourselves up to the same fever pitch I imagine in real warriors.

Why did we do that? Why did I do that? Obviously, it was an effective way to get deals done, just like it’s an effective way to win battles, but was it worth it? And, as importantly, what atavistic urges underly bringing that level of life-or-death intensity to mere business transactions?

Maybe some of us just can’t help ourselves. We want to cage squirrels to see if we can domesticate them. We don’t outgrow those domineering impulses, we just re-direct them. We tell ourselves we are the masters of the universe, when the truth is we are on an ego trip. If you’re not in our platoon, you don’t matter. If you’re in the opposing squad, it's a fight to the death.

The Godfather famously said, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” But there is nothing more personal than lives damaged in pursuit of a bigger fortune or another notch on a corporate gunslinger’s belt. 

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Changing the World

    We thought we could change this world

    With words like love and freedom — Eagles, “The Sad Cafe”

So many of us did. All of us young. All of us idealistic. Our world was so small in our youth that it did seem manageable, and changeable. We grew up, saw how big it is, how diverse, how Darwinian, and soon enough we settled for trying to make it a better place. We marched and carried signs, we volunteered for causes. Some of it helped. I hope.

I do think the world is a better place for many than it was when I came of age. Less global poverty, more literacy. Nations have their ups and downs. Dictators rise and are overthrown. But rise again. Democracy is a messy, unorganized effort, and fragile, as we are sensing in the US today. Some days hope seems naive. Why do so many people still support Trump?

I know, they’re angry about being left out, or behind, or both. Angry about being dissed by the elites. We should strive to give everyone a good shot at making their way in the world, no doubt about that. We are having a tough time agreeing on the best way to do that. Kill off government and let everyone fend for themselves? Or give everyone a guaranteed basic income, regardless of whether they do anything to earn it? Or something in between those extremes?

And what is the best way to steer the policy ship? Top down? Bottom up? Ban what we think hurts us, or tax it so it is just too expensive to be practical for most of us?

I realize now that these debates have been going on for longer than I have been alive. They started before I was a gleam in my parents’ eyes. Long before that. All the way back to the beginning of time. They will never be settled. We can hope that the means by which we seek to resolve them trends away from violence toward reason. Even that hope is tested every day. Even in a country as thoughtful as ours. There was nothing thoughtful about the Capitol riot. There is nothing thoughtful about “If you go after me, I’m coming after you.”

So where is the hope?

It’s in our children.

I have five. All of them have good moral compasses. All of them are kind and thoughtful. All of them are generous and loving. None of them stormed the Capitol. None of them thinks Trump won the election. None of them thinks migrants should be left to drown in the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande. None of them thinks anyone in the US should have food or healthcare insecurity.

When I was born, the global population was 2.3 billion. Today it is 8.1 billion.

That’s a lot of new people. Who knows what their values are. It’s clear to me that not many of them are listening to anything I have to say. I’m not going to convince anyone that we should all be responsible for cleaning up our own negative externalities. Or for helping our neighbors who don’t look like us. The reason I know this is because I’ve tried and haven’t, as best as I can tell, made a dent in anyone’s opinion.

But their mothers and I did raise five excellent citizens of the world. I’m proud of that, and of them. They are my hope for changing the world. It’s just going to take a little longer than I originally thought.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Businesses United for Stability

Businesses like stability. You generally can’t trust them to look after anyone but themselves, but they and the general public share a lot of common ground. Businesses make things we need. They innovate. They strive for efficiency. They do all that in the name of profit, but we all benefit from those efforts. Historically they haven’t been great stewards of the environment, and they are slow to fess up to other harms they cause, but we have laws and regulations to keep them more or less in check in those areas.

Businesses have to plan ahead, sometimes far ahead, so they don’t like unexpected changes in the rules of the game. They don’t like trade wars. They don’t like economic conflict. Businesses who need lots of workers like sensible immigration policies.

Not surprisingly, businesses want to have a say in government to assure their needs are considered. So, they liked the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which gave them broad rights to contribute to politicians. 

Many of us, including me, thought that decision was a bad one. We thought businesses didn’t need more political clout. 

I think I may have have changed my mind. Why? Because I like stability too.

Trump gave us the opposite of stability. The rest of the GOP is not much better. These days, businesses are looking like my friends. They are like a gyroscope on our national clown car to keep it from careening out of control.

Businesses got us where we are economically. So, if they want to make big donations to politicians who share their interests, fine. At least I know that most of their interests align with mine. I can’t say that about the MAGA wing of the Republican party, which seems to hold sway over most of the GOP these days.