Friday, April 21, 2017

A culture of life

Recently my home state, Arkansas, has been in the news for trying to kill people on a deadline.

(The place where I hang my hat these days, Texas, is no slouch when it comes to killing people, but the squeaky wheel is getting greased at the moment.)


Arkansas's law-and-order governor signed eight death warrants recently, ordering death row inmates to be killed across a ten-day period between April 17 and April 27.  What created the urgency--until last night, the state hadn't executed anyone in 12 years--is that the state's supply of one of the drugs used to carry out the executions by lethal injection is set to expire at the end of April.  


Like many states, Arkansas uses three drugs to carry out executions:  midazolam (which anesthetizes the prisoner), vecuronium bromide (which paralyzes the prisoner's lungs), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart).  The impending expiration of the state's supply of midazolam is what's driving the push to put these men to death, but it should be noted that there are problems with the other drugs as well.


You might be wondering, "Hey, if the midazolam is going to expire, just throw it out and buy some more, right?"  The problem with that is that the makers of midazolam all refuse to sell it for use in executions anymore.  Likewise for vecuronium bromide--and McKesson, the maker of the supply of that drug that Arkansas possesses, has sued the state for deceiving it in order to purchase the drug for executions.  (Potassium chloride is easily synthesized and cheaply available from many sources, so it is not difficult to obtain.)


The whole process has been fraught with difficulties.  The state supreme court has stayed a couple of the executions, and a federal district judge issued a stay of the remaining six, only to have that stay dissolved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For Ledell Lee, the appeals ran out yesterday, and he was executed shortly before midnight.


When it comes to the death penalty, I'm mostly a pragmatist:

  • The death penalty is expensive to administer because the due process of law requires multiple levels of review.  We can't streamline that process because that's one of the things that keeps us from executing innocent people (mostly).  Considering that 158 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, due process is not a luxury we can afford to dispense with.  For the cost of a single death penalty case, we could keep the prisoner locked up for 120 years--longer than the verified lifespan of every human being whoever lived except one (Jeanne Calment died at 122).  
  • The death penalty is rarely administered (as opposed to imposing a long prison sentence), and its frequency has gone down steadily since the high-water mark of 98 executions in 1999 (there were only 20 in 2016).  Meanwhile, the murder and violent crime rate has gone down significantly over that time.*
* - Why?  My money is on the removal of lead from our environment in the 1970s.  Most everyone is aware that children are often rendered slow by exposure to lead from eating old paint chips or drinking tap water in Republican-controlled areas like Flint, Michigan, but long-term low-level lead exposure has less obvious but still significant effects and appears to be a significant driver of antisocial behaviors like violent crime.
  • The penalty is also racially discriminatory in its application.  76% of defendants in death penalty cases are white, but only 56% of people executed are white.  A black person is roughly twice as likely to be executed than a similarly situated white person.  And even though only about 50% of murder victims are white, about 75% of the victims in cases where there is an execution are white.
  • It's also not a deterrent.  States that have the death penalty have murder rates that are significantly higher than states that lack it.  Southern states are responsible for 80% of the executions in the modern era and have the highest regional murder rate (6.7 per 100,000, versus 5.6 per 100,000 nationally and only 4.2 per 100,000 in the Northeast).  In the Northeast, only New Hampshire (0 executions) and Pennsylvania (3 executions) have the death penalty; Maryland (5 executions) used to have it but abolished it, while New York had it briefly but never executed anyone before it was declared unconstitutional under the state constitution. 
There are lots of reasons to oppose capital punishment, and I don't see any good reasons to support it. But on social media over the last few days, I've seen a couple of people make arguments in its favor. What they boil down to, mostly, is a belief in "an eye for an eye," a concept that is traceable to the Code of Hammurabi (though, interestingly, not to the older Code of Ur-Nammu, which specified pecuniary penalties for most crimes). Its presence in the Hebrew Talmud is almost certainly more significant to its currency today. More on that in a moment.

The other argument in favor of capital punishment is more nuanced but of a color with lex talionis, the law of (legal) retaliation, the formal name for the eye-for-eye concept. Essentially, the argument is that these murderers gave their victims no consideration, choice, or comfort as they were being murdered, so we are under no obligation to do any better when executing the criminal.

It's easy to see why these arguments have failed to garner my support. The idea of "an eye for an eye" is perhaps more accurately stated as "two wrongs make a right." Even grade-school children understand the fallacy there. If that's a little too on-the-nose for you, consider the words of Martin Luther King: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

I recognize that it's difficult to expect people to make rational choices when it comes to emotional topics like murder. It is perhaps a fundamentally human reaction to desire retaliation when something terrible is done to a family member. The idea of someone I love being tortured, raped, murdered is too terrible to contemplate. I would most likely be out of my ever-loving mind if something like that happened, and desperate for retaliation.

The problem with that is that these killings are being carried out not by a bereaved and distraught family member, but by the cold, sober hand of a government of and by the people. We do not have the luxury of giving in to our deeper emotions when it comes to the actions of the government. We require more of ourselves--rational, even-handed, reasonable action. The lust for blood has no place in guiding how our government carries out our interests.

Even so, it is none of this that makes me uncomfortable. I will argue these points all day with anyone who cares to discuss them, and if you come to the discussion honestly, I feel confident that I can convince you.

As usual, my main problem with this is one of hypocrisy.

The people of my home state are, in large part, deeply religious, and almost all of them profess Christianity. When you meet a new people upon moving to a new place there, you are as likely as anything to be asked, at some point, "So, have y'all found a new church home yet?" When I moved back to Little Rock in 2012, in looking for a new doctor, I was startled to find that every single doctor I reviewed included church membership in his or her online biography. That did not especially inspire confidence in a science-based humanist like myself.

Now, I have noticed that most of the people who claim to be Christians are either not very well informed about what Jesus actually said in the Bible or more inclined to follow Paul. On the latter point, I tend to regard Paul as a Jesus impressionist, sort of like a Biblical Frank Caliendo. Sure, he sort of sounds like Jesus, just like Caliendo sounds like John Madden, but he's kind of doing a caricature. I mean, I do think that listening to Paul is sort of important for Christians, but if you are going to ignore Jesus or Paul, it's better to ignore Paul.

Where this comes in is in the famous Pauline verse, in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." I have seen well-meaning folks cite that as proof that the death penalty is God-endorsed. The problem with this is twofold. First, you have to consider the context of that verse. Paul isn't discussing how we should handle criminal acts, but rather how the "proper" penalty for sin is death after death (condemnation to hell). In other words, if you commit a sin, what you earn is condemnation. Paul's point, however, is that Jesus's death on the Cross and subsequent Resurrection is payment for that sin, so that all believers can have eternal life in heaven.**

** - I think it's important at this point to note that while none of that makes any sense to me at all on any level, it is nevertheless an accurate accounting of what Christians believe--and, perhaps, the most fundamental tenet of Christianity.

I can see how, in the absence of other guidance, a Christian might be inclined to use that statement to discern what God's will is with regard to earthly justice. The problem, of course, is that there are actual words and actions of Jesus*** that are much more directly on point.

*** - According to the account provided in the Bible, as translated into English. The original is all Greek to me.
Matthew 5:38-39 (from the Sermon on the Mount): 

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Luke 6:27-28 (from the Sermon on the Plain): 

 "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

Even so, these passages aren't exactly on point. After all, you might construe them as guides for private conduct rather than what the government ought to do to evildoers. I would then counter that because we are, rather explicitly, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, there is not really any difference between private conduct and public conduct. We have control over what the punishment should be for crimes. And we could go around and around, never reaching the heart of the matter.

And then there is John.

The Gospel according to John is different from the other Gospels. Unlike the other Gospels, it does not contain an account of Jesus's early life. It is solely focused upon establishing the divinity of Jesus and the validity of his ministry. And in John, specifically in the first 11 verses of chapter 8, there is an account of a group of Pharisees,
1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. 7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Here we have a situation in which the law specified the death penalty for the crime, and the political authority enforcing the law--the Pharisees, who were the Jewish political leaders in Roman Judea at the time--sought Jesus's counsel on how to best to enforce the law.  Jesus's instructions--that the penalty was a valid one, but that its enforcement was left to people who are sinners themselves and thus unworthy of enforcing the law--could not be more clear on this subject.

Now, I am the last person who would advocate for the imposition of lawmaking and law enforcement based on the Bible.  But that's not the point.  I have seen many purported Christians in Arkansas who in one breath condemn abortion and homosexuality; who condemn atheists and agnostics as unfit to teach school or testify in court or hold political office; who fight hard to prevent children from learning about healthy sexual behaviors and contraception; and who voted to prohibit homosexuals from adopting children; all on the basis of their belief in the primacy of the Bible in proper conduct.  In the next breath, they call for the death penalty to be enforced with great frequency and efficiency, even though their principal religious text says to do otherwise.  A large number of Arkansas Christians have been in an utter panic over the last few weeks, worried that they might not get to kill these people.

Perhaps it is too much to expect of people who view forced prayer in their public schools as a good thing, despite Jesus's instructions to pray only privately.

But it is a disgusting hypocrisy, and for it, the supporters of this terrible act have forfeited any claim they have to work toward a "culture of life."

One day, we will come to recognize that the death penalty simply isn't worth it.  That day will come too late for Ledell Lee, whom the State of Arkansas murdered last night in cold blood.  It may come too late for the remainder of the men who have been scheduled to die this month.  But it will come.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The friendly skies

In which I explain the legality, ethics, and optics of overselling flights, and use the term "salty" as a teenager would.

By now you've heard of the incident in Chicago on Sunday on a United Airlines flight to Louisville.

United Airlines oversold the flight (i.e., sold more tickets than they had available seats).  United also needed to get a crew of four to Louisville to fly the next day.  This is not an entirely unusual situation, so United offered volunteers $400 to give up their seats.  Finding no takers, they upped the offer to $800, which is apparently the limit for such compensation per a corporate policy.  They still had no takers, so their next step was to "deny boarding" to a passenger, supposedly randomly selected.

The problem, however, was that they had already boarded the plane, so this meant removing someone from the plane.

The randomly selected passenger was a doctor who said he needed to see patients in the morning, and he refused to deplane.  After he reiterated his refusal, United notified the airport police in Chicago, who bodily removed the passenger, banging his head on an armrest and cutting his head open in the process.

Since cameras are ubiquitous these days, most of this was caught on video.

As a frequent traveler, I thought I might weigh in on this a little bit.

First, you'll find no words of comfort for United coming from me.  In my experience, United is the worst American airline--worse even than the super-discounters Allegiant and Spirit.  I have had a no-United policy for my own travel for around 10 years now.  As a result, the incident on Sunday came as no surprise to me.

But I do feel some obligation to separate what was legally correct--which is what United did--from what is correct from the standpoint of customer service, business ethics, and financial reason

It's true:  Airlines oversell their flights.  They do so because an empty seat is one that the airline will never be paid for.  Airlines feel safe overselling their flights because they know that the chances are excellent that there will be no-shows.  Business travelers like me have changing schedules, and we frequently buy and cancel tickets at the last minute.  For example, tomorrow, I'll be headed to Washington, DC, on a last-minute trip.  I bought my ticket last night, but there was a good chance I would have to delay the trip until Friday.

Occasionally, more people will show up for the flight than there are seats.  For safety reasons, the airline can't put more people on the plane than there are seats (and believe me, they would if they could).  The airlines have various ways of dealing with this.  First, they ask for volunteers to take a later flight.  Sometimes there's another flight in a couple of hours, so the airline will give you a meal voucher and a voucher for future travel (usually worth $400 or so, enough for a round-trip if you plan in advance) and a guaranteed seat on the next available flight--sometimes even on another airline.  If they don't get any volunteers with comps, they will sometimes offer cash.  Volunteering to be bumped can, under those circumstances, be a great way to get some freebies if your schedule is flexible.

But what do they do if they don't get any volunteers?  That's a matter found in the airline's "contract of carriage," the agreement you "signed" when you bought a ticket--although the contents of that contract are heavily regulated by law.  And it turns out there is a federal regulation that governs what happens, found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, in section 250.5.

First, the airline is entitled to deny boarding to any passenger it wishes to on an oversold flight.

If they "bump" you, but they can make alternate arrangements that get you to your next stop within an hour of the original time, they don't have to pay you anything.

If they can get you there between one and two hours of the original time, they owe you 200% of the fare to your next stop, with a maximum of $675.

If they can't get you there within two hours of the original time, they owe you 400% of the fare to your next stop, with a maximum of $1350.

There are some exceptions to this:  If the airline has to substitute a smaller plane for a larger one and bump people, there is no compensation.  If the scheduled flight is on a plane that holds no more than 60 passengers, and they have to bump people for weight or balance issues, there is no compensation.  And if the scheduled flight is on a plane that holds no more than 30 passengers, there is no compensation under any circumstances.

Finally, to get involuntary denied boarding compensation, you have to ask for it.  You have the right to insist on a check rather than a voucher for use on their airline.  But they can offer that to you if they want, and if you take it, that's the end of the question.  By the way, you can decline the standard DBC and sue the airline instead--but don't count on getting more than the standard DBC unless you can show extraordinary circumstances.

So, to review, United was completely within its rights to deny boarding to the passenger in question--even though its purpose was to free up seats for its own personnel.  And the passenger was legally wrong to refuse to get off the plane.  Regardless of his reasons for needing to get to Louisville, the contract of carriage does not give him the right to stay on the plane.

And that's the end of the "legal" part of this story.

United's behavior, though legal, is nevertheless wrong for several reasons.  First, it had to know that the optics of denying boarding to a paying customer in order to fly its own personnel to position them for a flight the next day would be bad.  United could have easily and cheaply arranged for a car service to take its personnel on the five-hour drive from Chicago to Louisville.  I was traveling once to a very important meeting in San Antonio, and I missed my connection in Houston because of a weather delay out of Charlotte.  We didn't reach Houston until 11:30 pm and had to be in San Antonio by 8 am, so my business partner and I hired a car service to drive us from Houston to San Antonio, about 4 hours, while we slept.  It was around $400, and this was about 10 years ago.  So, let's say that a thousand dollars would have gotten the crew to Louisville.

Or, if driving weren't an option, United could have chartered a private plane to ferry the crew to the destination.  That would've cost them something like $15,000--a lot of money, yes, but...well, just you wait.

But I suspect that this kind of thing would have gone entirely unnoticed but for what happened next.  After all, every year, there are about 60,000 passengers who get bumped involuntarily and receive DBC, almost all of them without incident.

The passenger refused to deplane.  And, as illegal as that was, it was completely understandable.  When you have a confirmed seat on a flight, and you're sitting in that seat, and you have acted in reliance on having that seat in getting to your destination, and you have very good reasons for needing to be at your destination, it's reasonable to be upset at being told to deplane.  And, depending on how tired you are, you might be a bit salty* about it.

* - I am reliably informed by my teenage friends that this is a correct slang usage of the term "salty." Historically, "salty" has referred to the use of coarse or vulgar language, derived probably from the association of bad language with sailors and the salty sea.  But I am told that the current vernacular defines "salty" as an emotional state that's something like angry, agitated, or upset, particularly in response to being embarrassed or otherwise mistreated.

When the passenger refused to deplane, however, rather than seeking another solution, United chose to call the police.  Again, this was legal on their part.  It's unclear whether the police officers could bodily remove the passenger as they did--and slamming his head against an armrest is yet another issue--but United could legally force the passenger off the plane.  I predict litigation against United and the police because of the manner in which it was carried out.

United had to know that the process would be filmed.  And even if it didn't, this removal occurred in front of around 150 other passengers, many of whom were traumatized to see a fellow passenger picked up and bashed into an armrest.

And the initial public reaction of Oscar Muñoz, the now-embattled CEO of the airline, to this?  To blame the passenger.  It's hard to imagine a more tone-deaf response to this crisis.  (He has since issued a different statement promising to get to the bottom of this and to do better.)

So United is about to understand what it is to be punished for poor customer service--and that's what this boils down to.  The hallmark of a customer-focused company is one that seeks to do right by its customers.  That doesn't mean that the customer is always right--frequently customers are wrong--but it does mean that treating your customers well is your first impulse.  We've all experienced poor customer service.  Rarely are we given the opportunity to teach the perpetrator a lesson in the way that United is about to learn one.

United could've solved this problem by driving its crew to the destination.  Cost: $1000.

Or it could've driven the passenger to his destination, hiring a swanky limousine.  Cost:  $1000, plus some freebies to make the passenger feel better about what happened.

Or it could've chartered a plane, if it were that important to get the crew to Louisville quickly.  Cost:  Around $15,000.

Or it could've raised the voluntary denied boarding compensation to $1500 or $2000 (and somebody would've taken that).

Instead, United is going to lose a lot of passengers.  That's true domestically, although not as significantly as you might expect because of the way the domestic market is segmented.  But it's about to be exceptionally brutal in China, for reasons that United probably couldn't have anticipated.  United has about 20% of the routes between China and the U.S., and it has made a major effort to serve the burgeoning Chinese travel market.  It turns out that the passenger who was denied boarding, then manhandled off the plane, is of Asian descent.  And that's gotten Chinese consumers talking about a boycott of United.

Over the course of around 48 hours, the video has been viewed more than 200 million times in China alone.

At one point, United's market capitalization--the value of its outstanding stock--was down by a billion dollars, about 6% of the company. It has since recovered to "only" a $255 million loss.

And it really couldn't have happened to a nicer airline.  (I mean that literally. It wouldn't have happened to a nicer airline.)

All airlines have their problems.  All airlines oversell flights, and as long as they handle it correctly, it's really OK.  But some airlines are better at handling it correctly.  That's why I heartily endorse Southwest.  They don't get it right every time, but they do put customer satisfaction as their first priority.  They do everything they reasonably can to make the travel process better, and it shows.  Simply put, I love flying with them.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Trans Nation

N.B. I have been working on this article for quite some time, but a development has prompted me to finish it.  More below.

I write today about the T in LGBT.  T stands for "transgender," and while transgender persons face some of the same kinds of discrimination as homosexuals and other sexual minorities, being transgender is something altogether different from sexual orientation.  Being transgender means having a gender identity that differs from the outward manifestation of your sex--for example, identifying as male when your sex organs are female, or vice versa. (This is a simplified description; there is much more to this issue and the issues that hover closely by it.)

Gender identity has been in the news quite a lot lately.  As the concept of equal rights for homosexuals has gained popular support, that support has begun to extend to other sexual minorities, including transgender persons.  Various cities of all sizes have begun to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that expressly protect against discrimination based on gender identity.  The reaction to these ordinances has been histrionic and predictable.

The standard reaction has been to refer to these nondiscrimination ordinances as "bathroom bills," and to attack them on the basis that they provide cover to (cisgender male) child molesters and rapists, who will gain legal access to single-sex bathrooms by dressing as females, where (presumably) they will commit rape with impunity as law enforcement officers look on, helpless and incapable of acting lest they be sued for discrimination against these predators.

Of course, this sort of thing happens so rarely that it doesn't really deserve mention.  The real goal of these bills is to punish people who step outside what has been traditionally considered normal.  In fact, virtually all of the legislation in the sexual sphere is specifically designed to punish certain classes of people--essentially, everyone who is not a binary cisgender heterosexual person.  (You might, in certain cases, add "married" to that list of adjectives.)

After the backlash against North Carolina's misguided attempt to rein in transgender acceptance, which cost Pat McCrory his job as governor, the traditionalists are focusing on a different approach--setting up laws and policies that expressly permit businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities on the basis of their religious beliefs.

As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this question.  One of the approaches, the authoritarian traditionalist approach, focuses on crafting laws and policies, and on conforming your behavior, speech, and attitude, to express a powerful social disapproval of anything other than married heterosexual procreative sex.  The other approach focuses instead on giving individuals the freedom to chart out their own lives and to make their own decisions when it comes to their interpersonal relationships, especially their sexual ones, and their sexual and gender identity.

As a lifelong liberal, my tendency is toward the second approach on social issues. But I will be the first to admit that I have not always hewed closely to that approach, mostly out of my own fear and ignorance.  For example, I was well into adulthood before I managed to rid myself of the fear that I would be seen by other people as gay--a fear that requires some measure of hatred toward gays, simply to operate.  It takes time and practice and courage to look inside yourself and to define your personal outlook by what's in there rather than by how other people see you.

When it comes to transgender issues, it took even longer to get to where I am.  I mean, I don't think I've ever had any active dislike of the concept, but it was a topic that escaped my understanding for a very long time.  I can remember seeing a Super Bowl ad (Ooh! It's a link! He never posts those!) for Holiday Inn in 1999, when they were touting the fact that they had spent a huge amount of money renovating their hotels.  The setting was a high school reunion.  A beautiful, glamorous woman walks in and draws the attention of every man in the gymnasium, while the voiceover recounts what she's spent on cosmetic surgery.  She approaches one man who can't quite seem to place her.  Soon he realizes who she is--"Bob?  Bob Johnson?"  The tagline is something like, "Imagine what Holiday Inns will look like after we spend a billion."  I thought it was a clever idea, and really funny--and the joke relied on at least the tacit acceptance, if not the outright approval, of the concept of gender reassignment surgery.  (Unsurprisingly, outrage forced that ad off the air, but it scored Holiday Inn a major win in publicity.)

But if you had asked me then about transgender issues back then, I probably wouldn't have had much to say about it.  My outward gender matches my inner maleness.  It's hard to conceive of wanting to change that.  For many years, it was something that I didn't understand.  It is a very human thing to fear what you don't understand.  I'm not immune to that.

Several years ago, I was in the lobby of a Baltimore hotel, waiting on a shuttle to take me to the train station.  I took notice of a woman who seemed to be waiting on a taxi.  She drew my attention primarily because her build was rather masculine--she was taller than me, and I'm 6'2", although that might have been the pumps she was wearing.  She was wearing a nice blouse and a skirt, very professional-looking, but underneath she was built like a linebacker.  And it became clear after a few seconds that she was biologically male but presenting as female.  She smiled at me, and said, "It's a beautiful day today."  She seemed very nervous.  I smiled back, weakly, and agreed.  I excused myself and stepped outside.  I'm sure that my face showed my recognition that this person was "other."  My shuttle wasn't for another 15 minutes, and I could have talked to her.

But I didn't.

Later, as I was sitting on my train to New York, I reflected on the encounter.  I felt ashamed.  This was a chance for me to test the liberal viewpoint I have always talked about, and I failed, because I was nervous and uncertain.

For all I know, this was the first time this woman had shown her true face to the world.  For all I know, she was only looking for someone to see the person she felt like inside.  For all I know, she had decided to be brave and to see what the day would bring.

And for all I know, I could've been the person who gave her what she was looking for:  acceptance of the person she is, without judgment or condemnation or fear or derision.

I don't know what makes people who are genetically male feel female, or vice versa.  I don't know what makes people feel attracted to members of the same sex, or to both sexes.  I don't even know what makes me attracted to women.  It might be genetics.  It might be the environment.  It might be a choice, or simply a choice to follow your true self.  I'm not sure it matters.

Because what I do know is that each of us is a person.  None of us is better than anyone else.  None of us is more entitled to make decisions for others' lives than they are.  No religious principle or social construct can elevate any of us over others, to give some people power over the most intimate details of others' lives.

So, if your birth certificate says you are male, but deep inside you feel female, then it's up to me to respect that.  Your status as a person entitles you to nothing less.  It may be difficult for me to understand, but I don't have to understand why you are as you are to respect you for who you are.

I chose to finish this post today for a man whom I never met.  He was a twentysomething trans man, assigned female at birth, but he knew from an early age that he was really male.  He lived a troubled life, which is understandable because being in a body that betrays your mind leaves you open to the kinds of irreconcilable mental conflicts that express themselves in other, self-destructive ways.  But he was loved by his mother and by his grandparents, and they accepted him for who he really was, even as others in his life didn't.

I never met him.  I've actually never met anyone in his life.  We are connected only loosely, through a chain of acquaintances.  I don't know what might have triggered his despair, but I can't help but think things might have been different if he'd felt a broader measure of love and acceptance.

When I learned today that he committed suicide over the weekend, I wept.

So often, we do not know the damage we cause to others.  I can imagine the course of the life of the woman I met in that hotel lobby.  I can imagine that some other person extended her the kindness that eluded me on that day.  Perhaps she found the acceptance she was looking for, and that emboldened her to live her life more openly and courageously.  But I can also imagine that my giving her the slightest indication of discomfort made her withdraw from her tentative progress.  I will never know how it turned out for her.

But I do know how it turned out for that young man.  And I wept for him, and for everyone like him, almost all of whom I will never know.  I wept because these are valuable people who have much to contribute to our society, and so many take their lives, every day of the year.  They take their lives because what they experience in the world is wrapped up in hatred and derision.

If you want to understand why I believe it is so very important for us to learn to accept transgender persons for who they are, you need look no further than the face of his devastated mother, who only wanted for her child what all good mothers want for their children:  Happiness. Fulfillment. Peace.

What kind of person will you be?  Will you be part of that hatred and derision?  Or will you be kind?

When you back laws and policies that are designed to harm transgender persons, you aren't doing anything to encourage transgender persons to "be normal."  You aren't showing respect for "traditional values."  It costs you nothing to be kind, so you save nothing by being unkind.  You're just causing damage you will never see.

It doesn't have to be this way.  But it will take some courage.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

An outright moron

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

— H.L. Mencken, On Politics

I am not altogether certain that Mencken was right in his initial conditions.  That is, I don't think that democracy has been perfected.  If anything, we have gotten ourselves off track with regard to democracy.  And his approach seems rooted somewhat in the ahistorical belief that our political institutions were set up, in those heady days of 1787, primarily to avoid "mob rule."

I have no doubt that the highly educated men who wrote and debated and instituted our great Constitution were rightly suspicious of the uneducated masses.  They were fearful of the great mass of people who, lacking resources, obtained no great measure of book-learning beyond that necessary to work and pray, which in most cases was none at all, and they did not want those people pulling the levers of government directly in any sense.

But, even then, politics and horse-trading were afoot.  The Electoral College exists, it was said in those days, and specifically in Federalist No. 68 (authored by the now-popular Alexander Hamilton), as a bulwark against mob rule by interposing an erudite, discreet body of the best qualified individuals between the easily inflamed passions of the people and the Presidency.  That was, however, merely the sales pitch.  The real motivation behind the Electoral College was to ensure that smaller states received outsize say in the election, in exchange for their support of the new Constitution.

In No. 68, Hamilton also argued that the existence of the Electoral College "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rather than the popular choice, the body is designed to produce the right choice, the definition of which Hamilton kindly provided.  "The true test of a good government," Hamilton said, "is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration."

In No. 63, James Madison, writing about the Senate (but in any event talking about government generally), said:

Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well constructed senate, only as they relate to the representatives of the people. To a people as little blinded by prejudice, or corrupted by flattery, as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.

It seems Madison knew his posterity better than we know ourselves. But what he and Hamilton and the others could not have anticipated is the degree to which people of such defective ideology as the Republicans are vomiting out these days might, through gamesmanship and subterfuge, gain absolute control over the levers of power and use them to implement a bastard form of tyranny—a tyranny of anarchy (except, of course, in the bedroom).

And that brings us to Mencken.  What Mencken got right is that as we progress through our long descent into self-destruction, the "people," not a majority of us, but the loudest among us, would see the fulfillment of their apparently highest desire:  A President who lacks any reasonable qualifications and whose basic functional intent is to monkeywrench the government—or, as Mencken put it, an outright moron.

It has been said before that we were already there.  Ronald Reagan was no great shakes in the brain department, but he could say his lines and hit his marks.  George W. Bush spoke and acted like a moron until the gravity of events pulled him into a regular orbit.

But nobody tops Trump, at least not in the category of "outright moron."  (I shudder to think of who might outpoint the Fascist Cheeto on that score. Thankfully, Justin Bieber is Canadian and therefore ineligible to serve.)

And here we are, less than 24 hours away, and that outright moron will be the President of the United States—together with his record-low approval rating, his "work when I want to" attitude, his insistence on personal loyalty instead of competence and expertise, and his cabinet of idiots and sycophants.  I'll side with Hamilton:  The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration—and all signs are pointing to "unmitigated disaster."  So much for the protection of the Electoral College.  Thanks a lot, Hamilton.

I will leave it to others to hope for the best.  I believe that the ship has sailed on "the best," and if we can simply survive the next four years, that will be yuuuge.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A bit unmoored

I've been feeling a little bit unmoored lately.

On a personal level, I really couldn't be more happy.  Things are going well for my businesses.  I'm working on 20 years of marriage, and it still feels just right.  I really can't imagine anyone better to share my life with.  I've also got new friends in my life, and that's afforded me the opportunity to spend time doing things I really like to do, but haven't been motivated to do in recent years.  I'm busy at work, but the "work-life balance" has dramatically improved.

On the other hand, 2016 was a pretty tough year for a lot of people who are close to me.  A man I counted as a good friend and a family member by marriage died suddenly this summer.  The father of one of my oldest friends also died suddenly a few weeks ago, and that was merely the worst of several tragedies she had experienced.

Not to mention, 2016 was an utter disaster for the country.  Every time I think about what's about to happen, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I think a big part of the disconnectedness I'm feeling at the moment has to do with the simple fact that my mind will not allow me to process the reality of the words "President Trump."

To be candid, those words make me shudder most of the time, and when I'm not shuddering, I'm filled with furious anger at the people who made that happen.

But this is not about those people.

I'm not especially comfortable with talking about it--I think it's sort of a Southern thing; we're taught to be humble, to do our talking on the field, so to speak--but I've spent most of my 41 years as the smartest guy in the room.  Not always, of course--I've met and been awed by my intellectual superiors many times.  I also believe rather strongly that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that intelligence is difficult to measure in any instance.  But it would ring false for me to deny that I've got an awful lot of brain power on board.

I have always tried to use that aspect of myself for good purposes.  For me, the mark of a good person in my situation has always been having patience for others, a heart for teaching (and, more specifically, for educating, for that word's Latin root means "to draw out"), respect for others as individuals regardless of their status, and dedication to getting the fine details of things right.  I value these traits over everything.  It's great to be smart, even smarter than most of the people you meet--but that means nothing if you're an insufferable jackass who lords his intelligence over everyone else.

If anything, then, I suppose the root of my disappointment with the November election is that it feels like a repudiation of my most heart-felt principles.

After all, from my perspective, Hillary Clinton has spent a lifetime working the same plan I've been trying to work.  She is, by all accounts, the smartest person in virtually every room she enters, but she seems to work very hard at those principles I laid out.  She's a professional in every sense of the word. 

By contrast, Donald Trump:  Not especially smart. Not patient. Not a teacher.  No respect for others. No attention to detail. No professionalism at all.  Sets embarrassingly low goals for his personal conduct, then consistently fails to meet them.  Lies, cheats, steals, rapes.  Has no sense of decorum.

Most importantly, he's an insufferable jackass.

In any reasonable world, it would not have been a contest at all.  We'd be celebrating a huge milestone in our development as a nation:  the first female president.  Instead, a minority--a motley collection of racists, underachievers, religious hypocrites, and short-sighted non-thinkers--used an electoral quirk to put this colossal failure into power, on the theory that ignorance is as good as knowledge, novicehood is as good as experience, peace is as easy as war, and lies are as good as the truth.

I suppose that if you believe these things don't matter, then it would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that any change is good.  Never mind that all of Trump's biggest campaign promises were lies.  They were lies because they had to be.  They were the equivalent of you telling your aunt Mildred that the ugly sweater she spent a month knitting for you is beautiful and that you'll wear it every day--a lie meant to soothe, even as you know you'll never be called to account for it.

That wall he promised Mexico would pay for?  It won't be built, but even if it were, it wouldn't do anything to stop undocumented aliens from entering the U.S.  And the only way Mexico will pay for it is if we horse-trade them something else that will break another Trump promise.

You Trump voters--you bought it.  You took the bait, and put him in, and now you'll be the dinner--and you won't get anything you were promised, and everything else that's good will be taken away.

In the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film The American President, there is an exchange between Michael Douglas's character (the President) and Michael J. Fox's character, one of his political aides. The two are arguing over how Douglas should respond to attacks from his reactionary Republican opponent. Fox says, "People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."

Douglas's response is something I've never really understood, until recently.  He says, "Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."


More than 20 years after I first heard that line, I finally know what he's talking about.

And I find that dreadfully, heart-rendingly, sickeningly disappointing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The "free" press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It was reported yesterday that Donald Trump summoned a variety of executives and on-air talent from five news-reporting organizations to Trump Tower for a meeting that one participant later described (in more colorful terms than I will repeat here) as a dressing-down, primarily focused on their (mis)treatment of Donald Trump the candidate during the campaign.

Many of the participants in this meeting were expecting to have an off-the-record discussion about Trump's plans for media availability once he becomes president in January.  Traditionally, the White House has made arrangements that enable the various media outlets to pool resources for coverage so that they can bear witness to important events without each maintaining a 24/7 presence.  These arrangements acknowledge the importance of a free press in a democratic society, particularly as it relates to the accountability function.

Instead, what they got was--reportedly--a 40-minute harangue about supposed anti-Trump bias in their reporting.

I am gravely concerned about the media.  I am, of course, old enough to remember the George W. Bush presidency.  After the events of 9/11/2001, Bush was given extremely wide latitude by a credulous press that was fearful of losing their access to White House personnel--something that in theory they need to be able to do their jobs.  In addition, the Bush administration used "embedding" of reporters with military units in order to induce favorable media coverage, with disastrous results (at least as far as the role of the media in our democratic society is concerned).

That was bad enough.  But what's happening now is worse.

Two events from last Friday illustrate the problem.

Late on Friday, word came down that Trump had agreed to settle the claims against him in the "Trump University" fraud case, for $25 million.  While that settlement carries not express admission of wrongdoing, there are some important factors to consider:  The plaintiffs in that case were only seeking $40 million.  The $25 million includes payment of a $1 million fine to the State of New York for violating its laws against sham educational opportunities.  Trump thus paid 60% of the amount the plaintiffs were seeking in a case that had been scheduled for trial only 10 days after the settlement occurred—which is very nearly as close to an admission of guilt as you can get without actually saying the words.

Even later on Friday, Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, the smash-hit Broadway musical that centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton.  The attendance was notable for two reasons; first, Pence was booed by the audience (not by the actors, as some alt-right fake news outlets reported).  Second, after the show, the star read a short, respectful statement to Pence advising him that they were fearful of the new administration's history and plans and urging him to consider the views of others, particularly including the LGBTQ community, whom Pence has famously and unrepentantly attacked over the course of his career.

Later, Trump tweeted about how disrespectful the Hamilton cast had been toward Pence.  Never mind how fallacious those tweets happened to be.  The media ate it up--allowing it to dominate the headlines for most of three days.

Look, I don't expect the media to skip the Hamilton story.  It's an interesting story.

But the fraud settlement got virtually no media coverage,* and I'm struggling to understand why.

* My morning news show of choice, CBS This Morning, devoted about 15 minutes of its first hour on Monday to the Hamilton story, but did not mention the fraud settlement at all.

If Hillary Clinton had just been elected, and had just paid $25 million to settle a fraud claim against her, what are the odds the media would (largely) ignore the story?  There would be inch-high headlines in the New York Times, top of the front page.  After all, when James Comey wrote a letter to Congress 11 days prior to the election saying that the FBI had discovered some new emails that might have a bearing on its investigation of Clinton's email server, the Times devoted 100% of its above-the-fold front-page space to the "story."

Meanwhile, Trump essentially admits to conduct that if he were less rich and less famous probably would have seen him indicted for fraud, and our "free" press can do no better than a yawn.

Trump is already the least-transparent candidate in modern political history, having refused to release his tax returns.  When presidents are elected, they traditionally put their assets into a "blind trust"--every investment they own is sold, and the funds are handed over to a trustee who manages those investments without the president's knowledge or input.  Trump has refused to do that.  Instead, he is turning his financial empire over to his children, whom--by the way--he is planning to include as close advisers.  Already reports are rolling in about foreign dignitaries who are seeking to curry favor with Trump by doing him business favors like booking rooms in his hotels and greenlighting projects in which he's involved.

These acts are truly unprecedented.  Even if past presidents weren't predisposed to recognize and avoid the potential for conflict, they were at least motivated to avoid the shame and political scandal that would result if they did not appear to be working solely for the country and not for their own personal financial advantage.  Not Trump.  He is giving every indication that he plans to use the next four years to line his pockets at every opportunity, the country be damned.  Nowhere is that intention more evident than in his plan to live most of the time at his residence in Trump Tower--presumably so he can continue to manage his business affairs.

We deserve better than a part-time President.

But we will never get better than that unless the media do their job, fearlessly and with only one constituency in mind:  the truth.

Unfortunately, after their dressing-down, it appears that they are instead going to serve as yes-men for this fraud of a man who has somehow slipped into a chair he should never have gotten near.

What are they afraid of?  They have all the power, if only they would simply use it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Eating your vegetables

It's no secret that I weigh more than I should.  The reasons for that are simple:  I eat more than I should, I eat the wrong kinds of foods, I don't exercise enough.  I'm not a fan of vegetables; I tolerate them, mostly because I have to.  I'm on a diet now, and part of that diet involves eating vegetables I don't like--but I do it because I need to lose weight to improve the length and quality of my life.

Over the last 10 days, as I've watched the Trump transition move forward, it occurred to me that the eat-your-vegetables analogy can be used to describe the Trump/Republican approach to government.

I have heard several people tell me, in all seriousness, that they voted for Trump because, as a successful businessman*, he can do a better job of managing the federal government than a career politician like Hillary Clinton.  The theory, I suppose, is that running a vast business enterprise requires skills that, properly applied, will make the government run more like a business (and, by extension, like a successful business).  Meanwhile, the lack of business experience means that a politician will make all the same mistakes the supposedly inefficient government makes, and things will never get better.

* I think that at best the jury's still out on whether Trump qualifies as a successful businessman.  But we'll take that at face value for the moment.

This strikes me as the kind of argument that stupid people think sounds smart.  It's fraught with problems, and it takes for granted certain things that just aren't so.

First, the federal government is an enormously complex organization that has 320 million customers and 320 million owners.  With the possible exception of Facebook, no private business has that many different constituents to try to please.  (Facebook has, what, a billion accounts?  But it has an extremely narrow focus, compared to the federal government.)

Second, for what it must accomplish, the federal government is incredibly efficient.  I'll use health care as an example:  The federal government provides health care to the poor and the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid.  The cost ratio of those programs--the percentage of each program's budget that goes to "overhead expense" rather than health care services--is under 3%.  Private insurers, who by law are compelled to spend 80% of the premiums they collect on health care services, struggle to meet the implied cost ratio of 20%.  Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid must insure everyone who is eligible for them, while private insurers can choose the kinds of customers they want to serve, to some extent.

Third, private businesses exist primarily to serve their shareholders.  If a business line isn't serving the shareholders (i.e., it's losing money), the business will generally shut that business line down.  Private businesses have broad latitude to make those kinds of choices.  The government has to find a way to do the things that are needed, even if they are costly.

The problem with the Trump transition--and, I suspect, an enormous wake-up call that happened when Trump met with President Obama last week--is that Trump is used to running his organization as a top-down, hierarchical organization.  Trump has the authority to decide for his companies what they will do, to hire whomever he wants to do those things, to fire people when they don't meet his expectations, and to change directions when his businesses fail (and he has repeatedly done so, apparently with few consequences).

As President, Trump will not have that authority.  The President is powerful, but he is still subject to the law.  He cannot simply do whatever he likes; the law imposes on him certain duties that he cannot shirk; before he can spend money, Congress must agree that it should be spent; and the Constitution imposes still other limitations on his activities.  There is a process and procedure associated with doing things.

Which brings us back to the business of governing.  Only totalitarian dictators get to impose their will upon the governments they head.  Governance in a democratic republic like ours, with the separation of powers like ours, requires compromise and negotiation; it requires knowing the rules and following the procedures.  In short, being the President requires a special set of skills that is completely different from those of a standard--or even a celebrity--businessman.  It requires being able to eat your vegetables, even if you don't want to, because the instant gratification of a meat-and-dessert diet isn't worth the long-term problems.

There are many things about the government that could be improved.  Trump has focused lately on our free-trade agreements, Obamacare, and taxes.  Many of the people who voted for him did so because they liked his message on those topics--they see problems with these things, and they thing that simply removing the thing will solve their problem.

Lost your job because the company moved production to Mexico?  End NAFTA.

Can't afford health insurance anymore?  Repeal Obamacare.  (Or repeal parts of Obamacare.)

Don't have enough money?  Cut taxes.

The problem with these "simple" solutions is that the system exists as it does because the system was designed to solve a problem--perhaps a different problem than one you are experiencing, but a problem nonetheless.  We might take a broadsword to the establishment, but the yesterday's problems will still exist.  NAFTA came about because it was difficult for us to sell enough goods to our nearest neighbors because of trade barriers.  Obamacare came about because 45 million Americans didn't have health insurance and mostly resorted to emergency care.  Our tax code exists as it does because deciding who pays for what is a matter of negotiation and compromise.

It might feel good to end NAFTA, but what about the American companies that sell products to Canada and Mexico?

It might feel good to repeal Obamacare, but what about the 20 million Americans who will lose their access to health care?

It might feel good to cut taxes, but how do we fund the programs that you rely on?

Governing is hard work, and it requires smart work from people who know what they're doing--from people who are willing to eat their vegetables because that's required for the best outcome.

I have more to say on this topic, but it's been a long week.