Monday, September 30, 2013

They have ways of shutting that whole thing down

In a couple of hours, barring the House GOP coming into unexpected good sense--I'm not holding my breath--the federal government's authorization to spend money will end, and most of the government's activities will cease.  Certain critical functions will carry on, but the people who carry them out will not be paid (for a little while, anyway).  Soldiers on duty, TSA agents, the FBI, etc.--those folks will still be working, but most government employees won't be.  I'm told the federal courts will stay open--and it's a good thing; I have a hearing on Friday in Arizona and will be mighty unhappy if my trip there is wasted--and the mail will continue to get delivered, because those functions don't rely entirely on Congressional appropriations to function.

How did we get here?

In order for the government to spend money, Congress has to pass a law appropriating the money from the Treasury to some other purpose.  No appropriations means no operations.  Ordinarily, even though they have policy disagreements that keep them at each other's throats, the Democrats and the Republicans both generally agree that the government has to continue to operate at some level. If they don't pass an appropriations bill, the government can't spend, and it must therefore shut down.

This time, as the last appropriations bill winds down--they're always time-limited--the House GOP has decided that they want to use their ability to refuse to agree to keep the government open to extract concessions from the Democrats, who control the Senate and the White House.  (All three must agree for a valid appropriations bill to become law, as a practical matter.)

This time, the hostage is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA, but popularly known as "Obamacare."  Starting tomorrow, state-run insurance exchanges can begin selling health insurance policies as part of the ramp-up to January 1, 2014, when all Americans will be required to carry health insurance or pay a penalty.  The GOP is scared to death for that to happen.  They are pretending that it's because Obamacare is a horrible, horrible program that will bankrupt us all, destroy our freedom, expose us to "death panels," and probably kill kittens and puppies.

In fact, that's pretty much the opposite of the truth, and when they claim they are protecting you, John Q. Public, from the evils of the Muslim socialist fascist communist bla---er, dictator, they are lying.

Right now, because they have been lying to you about what Obamacare actually does and what it will mean, a lot of people think they won't like it.  Of course, when people are asked about the individual features--like kids being able to stay on their parents' insurance policies until they turn 26, or the end of pre-existing conditions as a means of excluding people from the insurance marketplace, or the end of lifetime caps, or the ability to buy health insurance in a competitive marketplace with minimum coverages, or no co-pays for birth control, and a whole bunch of other stuff--it turns out that Obamacare is pretty popular.  As long as you don't call it Obamacare.

It's not a perfect program.  In fact, it's a pretty disappointing compromise.  I would have much preferred a more aggressive reform that included, at least, a "public option," where people could buy into Medicare if they wanted.

But the GOP is scared to death that Obamacare will get implemented, and that people will like it.  Because all indications are that people are going to like the new options that the ACA opens up.

Now, let's not forget that Obamacare is the law of the land.  It was duly passed by Congress and signed by the President several years ago.  We've been waiting patiently for these reforms to take effect, and a lot of people are counting on these reforms to take place.

Rather than accept defeat, the House GOP caucus is acting like a bunch of petulant children.

Think about it:  Rather than allowing all the good things that are going to happen when Obamacare takes full effect to take place as scheduled, they want to delay, to defund, and if they can't get that, they're just going to shut down the government until they get their way.

They are harming you and me, and they're doing it because they're scared that President Obama's signature program will succeed.

Is there any part of that cynical, terrible display that isn't absolutely disgusting?

But that's today's GOP.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


I have, at various times, employed people other than myself.  Because we have a stupidly inefficient way of paying for health care in this country--principally as an employee benefit--and because it has been virtually impossible for anyone other than young, healthy people to buy decent health insurance on the open market, I have always felt obligated to provide health insurance to my employees, although it was not always possible to do so.

In later years, we had a very generous health insurance plan (still do, in fact) that had low co-payments and a low deductible and paid 100% in-network after the deductible was met.  It was expensive, but because we were eligible to be members of a health benefit trust set up by the bar association, it was less money than it might have been.

But I always thought it was stupid to tie health insurance to your job.  That fact of American life makes indentured servants out of people who can't afford to give up their health coverage by quitting their jobs.

This has been in the news lately because the dawn of ObamaCare is on us.  Starting October 1, you will begin to be able to shop for health insurance through public exchanges for coverage that begins at the beginning of next year.  A couple of days ago, the Arkansas exchange released rate tables.  We don't know precisely what these plans will cover yet--they will all provide 10 types of core coverage, but the details haven't been released yet.  The rates depend on age and tobacco status alone.  Applicants cannot be turned down for pre-existing conditions.

Currently, I write (or, rather, the business writes) a check for a bit more than $1,000 a month for coverage for Michelle and me.  According to the rate tables I reviewed, the most expensive plan available on the exchange for our age bracket would save us about $250 a month.  What I don't know is how that plan compares to what we currently buy, but that's before any subsidy that we might be eligible for (and some 85% of participants will be eligible for some subsidy).  If the coverage isn't as good as what we have currently, we can keep what we have.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2009, I was skeptical that it would do much good.  I have long been an advocate for the "public option"--in fact, I was writing about it before anyone on the national scene was doing so--because I recognize that we're probably not quite ready for single-payer (a system like most of the rest of the world has).  In the public option, the government would enter the insurance business as a private market participant.  You could still buy private insurance if you like, but if you chose, you could buy a guaranteed-acceptance plan from the government that looks like Medicare.  In fact, you could call it "Medicare Part E"--E for "everyone's eligible"--and administer it all through the same office.  To me, this would give us the freedom of a market while allowing a very efficient provider who has no profit motive to service the market.

Such a system would be superior, I think, to the ACA, and it would eventually lead to a de facto single-payer system.

But that doesn't mean I don't like the ACA.  In fact, a lot of the reforms the ACA has implemented have come at a tremendously beneficial time.  From my perspective, guaranteed acceptance and the expense ratio rules are true game-changers.  Insurance companies now must spend 80% of their collected premiums on actual care; before that rule, some insurance companies spent as little as 50% of the collected premiums on care.  The lack of a minimum care-spend gave insurance companies a financial incentive to deny as many claims as possible.  And the elimination of pre-existing conditions as a basis for denying coverage will make true mobility in the marketplace possible.

It's become clear that the ACA's reforms are going to have a huge impact.  For that reason, the right wing is in a full-on panic.  One of the Koch brothers' front groups has been desperately running cynical ads on college campuses, urging young people not to sign up for coverage (because it will allow GOVERNMENT into the health care equation).  One ad shows a guy in a creepy Uncle Sam costume--think the King from the old Burger King ads--speculum in hand, about to do a pelvic exam on a twenty-something woman.  Another shows the same character pulling on a glove from the "ObamaCare prostate exam."

I'm surprised that even the Koch brothers think kids are that stupid.  The government's involvement in health care as a result of the ACA is mostly about (a) subsidizing private insurance premiums, (b) requiring that everyone has health insurance, and (c) subjecting private health insurers to rules that make coverage more available.  It's true that more people will be eligible for Medicaid, of course.  But Uncle Sam will not be doing anyone's pelvic exam, and the government certainly won't be making any decisions about them other than to make sure that they're available.

The Kochs, and Republicans generally, are desperate to make ObamaCare fail, because they know that if it succeeds, they're done.  So their strategy has to involve keeping young, healthy people out of the insurance pool, in order to make insurance more expensive all around.  That is, unless they can somehow repeal the ACA.

Even more cynically, the Republicans are trying either to shut down the government by not passing appropriations bills to keep the government running after October 1, or to make the U.S. default on its debt by refusing to raise the debt limit when it's reached sometime after that.  The ransom they're demanding?  Repeal ObamaCare--something the GOP-led House of Representatives has voted to do more than 40 times since it was passed--or, at least, defund it so that it cannot take effect.

They can't pass a jobs bill, or a farm bill, but they can certainly vote to stop abortion and repeal ObamaCare.

By the way, let's don't forget that if you tabulated all of the votes cast in Congressional elections in 2012, citizens pulled the Democratic lever more than 1 million times more than they pulled the Republican lever.  Yet, because of aggressive gerrymandering designed to rob Democratic candidates of votes and the public of a meaningful voice in who represents them, the Republicans hold a slim majority in the House.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  Part of me is hoping that the GOP does jump off the cliff this time.  Maybe then we can dispense with their nonsense and get down to fixing the actual problems we face.

Monday, September 23, 2013

To Have and Have Not

I have found that there are few topics that ruffle feathers more than the subject of the Haves and the Have-Nots.  The Have-Nots feel constantly put-upon by the Haves.  The Haves bristle at criticism from the Have-Nots.  "If you were a Have," the Haves say, "you wouldn't be so cavalier about things."

I am, of course, talking about those people who have children, and those who don't.

The universal opinion of people who have children is that people who don't should keep their mouths shut when those children misbehave..

It's true.  Michelle and I don't have kids.  For various reasons, it just hasn't been in the cards.  (For those who care, we're going to go the adoption route, hopefully sooner rather than later.  And it will probably be older kids.)

Unsurprisingly, to people who have kids, that makes us unqualified to comment on others' parenting methods.  I don't agree, but I do understand the rationale.  Never judge a parent until you've walked a mile in their shoes, or at least stepped barefoot on one of their child's Legos.

Hey, I get it. Child-rearing is hard work, especially for parents who have mentally or physically taxing day jobs, who have children who need constant stimulation by electronic media, and who limit themselves to non-lethal punishments.  If I am to tell the truth, I can barely get myself through shopping at Walmart without suffering a panic attack or the threat of divorce. I couldn't do it with a three-year-old who apparently runs on Cheerios, fruit sugars, and a fusion reactor.*  At least not without stopping by the pharmacy for a child's dose of Unisom.

* - If only we could tap into the energy of 3-year-olds to run the planet. We could solve the oil crisis.

I like kids.  I really do.  I have been privileged to have friends and family members who have calm babies, bright toddlers, and interesting, well-adjusted children, and I like spending time with them.

But I try never to forget that at the end of the day, they usually go home.  So even if I have a taste of the toddler experience, I'm not eating it for every meal. 

Nobody likes having to be around a toddler in full meltdown mode, least of all that toddler's parents.  You have my sympathy, Mom and Dad. From what I've seen, parents fall into one of three categories when their toddler is doing this:

(1) The parents who will do anything, anything, if you will just please, please, stop behaving this way in public.  You want Goldfish crackers? Sure.  You want a Mountain Dew?  Please take a swig.  Just please, please, stop this.  These parents are hoping to just get through this so they can get home, where there is TV and wine.

(2) The parents who threaten a series of escalating punishments, hoping to reason with someone whose brain has about the same level of sophistication as that of an adult howler monkey.  These parents are to be commended, because you should never negotiate with terrorists.  Of course, not negotiating with terrorists means that sometimes stuff gets blown up.

(3) The parents who have simply become numb.  They don't hear the tantrum. They just keep trudging through, shrugging off the increasingly potent glares from their fellow shoppers.

Category 3 reminds me of a man, Mr. Barnes, who was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid.  He was partially deaf, and he wore an old-style hearing aid, the kind that you put in your shirt pocket, with a wire leading up to the ear.  Younger readers will probably never have seen such a thing, but I assure you, they did exist.

This man's hearing aid apparently hummed, because he ended every sentence with a verbal tic:  He would hum to match the frequency of the hearing aid's hum.  So a conversation with him would go like this:  "Nice weather we're having, huh? HmmmmmmmMMMMMMM." "Sure is, Mr. Barnes." "They say it's going to rain Thursday, though. HmmmmmmmmMMMMMMM."

He must have heard that hum constantly.  And it must have been nerve-wracking, so much that he had to imitate it just to get the noise to quit for just a second.  Eventually it got to the point where he couldn't hear himself doing it.

And so I think it must be for the parents of toddlers.  There are just so many instances of antisocial conduct by toddlers that they simply have to tune most of it out for their own sanity; otherwise, they would be constantly reprimanding their howler monkeys simply for doing what howler monkeys do.

I'd like to say that the Category 3 parents are the most frustrating.  But the reality is that there is no solution to this problem.  Toddlers are going to melt down no matter how good their parents are at parenting, no matter what their parents do to stop them.  Bribery, punishment, ignorance--all are the same, and all are equally ineffective. They are going to run around stores, knocking over things, falling down and bloodying a lip, making everything...sticky, and screaming and crying and yelling "Why?" like Kirstie Alley being stood up for a date.  That is what they do.  We should be grateful that they don't do worse things.

A few years ago, the brilliant David Foster Wallace gave a graduation speech at Kenyon College, which he later turned into an essay, that was essentially about choosing to live as an adult by making small choices that cost nothing but that vastly improve your outlook on the world.  An excerpt of that speech, "This Is Water," was made into a short film that illustrated the concepts Wallace was talking about.  Stupidly, the filmmakers failed to get the necessary copyright permissions to ensure it could stay published.  Here is a link that works as of this publication, but I'm sure it will be taken down at some point.  If you can find it, it's worth watching.

(It's a shame that Wallace decided one day that he'd said and done enough for the world and ended it all.)

Non-parents, it's time to stop expecting better.  This is the world in which we live.  You can choose to accept it and make the best of it by cutting people some slack.  Or you can choose to reject it and avoid places where toddlers congregate by doing all of your shopping online (or at Sam's; I rarely see misbehaving toddlers in Sam's Club for some reason--maybe it's the giant quantities that keep them engaged) and avoiding McDonald's and casual-dining restaurants.  Or when you see a toddler in full meltdown mode and you can't do anything to help (and who can, really?), instead of expecting the parent to remove the toddler from your presence, just remove yourself.

You can't force it to change.  There will always be toddlers, and until they develop a reliable robot babysitter, parents are going to continue to bring their little terrorists to public places.

But don't worry.  These kids will eventually grow up to be sullen teenagers.  And at least then their parents can leave them at home.

EDITED to remove an overenthusiastic number of carriage returns and a bit of word salad in the fifth-from-last paragraph.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Passing fancy

I travel a lot.  When I'm driving, it's not unusual to encounter a construction zone where one lane is closed.  When a lane is closing, otherwise skillful drivers begin to exhibit some bizarre behavior.

I'm talking about attempts to get into a slow, single-file line before the "choke point" of the lane closing--sometimes miles before.

This behavior is wrong, inefficient, and frustrating.

It's our Puritan heritage at work.  I have, over the last few years, come to realize that much of the opposition to social progress in this country is rooted in the idea that NO ONE should get ANYTHING to which they are not entitled.  That's kept us from getting a single-payer health care system (unlike the rest of the civilized world, much of which enjoys greater efficiency and substantially healthier outcomes overall).  It's what causes some people consternation in the supermarket checkout line when someone pays with food stamps for something that's just a little bit too extravagant for someone who's getting help.

And it is extraordinarily frustrating to people who are "being good," sitting in a long single-file line of cars waiting for a lane to close, to see another car--usually a fancy low-slung sports car with a middle-aged driver--whizzing by to jump ahead in line.  I've even seen some extremely anti-social behavior, like when two 18-wheeler trucks collude to block both lanes so that line-jumpers can't pass, or drivers who refuse to let the line-jumper in at the merge point.

Some states have even made line-jumping a citable offense.

This is madness.  And here's why:

I offer you two propositions that I think you'll agree with in the abstract, plus one that you may have a little bit of trouble with.  First, the flow of traffic through any given point is affected by the number of lanes that are available.  An eight-lane (in one direction) superhighway in L.A. can carry more cars per unit of time than a single-lane (in one direction) country road.  It's just a matter of physics.

Second, without changing lanes, you can only move as fast as the slowest car that's ahead of you in your lane.

These two propositions combine to tell us that the more lanes there are to choose from, the faster the cars can go, and the fewer lanes there are, the slower they can go.

Now, the third proposition:  When the number of lanes is being reduced, the fastest way to get cars through the merge point is to have a car immediately ready to go through the merge point as soon as the preceding car is ready.

Think of it like marbles in a bottle with a neck that's a bit larger than the diameter of the marbles.  The marbles obviously fit through the bottle neck (they got in somehow).  When we turn the bottle over, the marbles will generally fall out one-by-one.  Each time a marble clears the neck, the marble that is closest to the opening will fall out next.

But notice that the marbles spread out across the widest part of the bottle.  They don't line up single-file.  That's because marbles pack in more efficiently when they are not lined up.

Cars are sort of the same.  Even when traffic is slow, or stopped, you're still keeping at least a few feet, maybe most of a car length, between you and the next car, just in case they stop suddenly.  You need time to react to stop.  Traffic studies have shown that people (thank goodness!) tend to leave more space than they actually need to leave.

The consequence of this is something interesting.  Other traffic studies have shown that the most efficient way to move from two lanes to one is something called "alternate merge," or the "zipper method."  Just like a zipper, which knits one prong from the left, one prong from the right, left, right, etc., the zipper method involves one car from the left moving forward, then one from the right, and so forth.  This is efficient because it allows us to use the "extra" space that people leave.  People intuitively feel more comfortable about this because traffic moves in a very predictable pattern.

It's also intrinsically and obviously and scrupulously fair:  One for you, one for me, one for's a method of divvying that everyone understands from a small age is fair.

The problem with the anti-line-jumping crowd is that when you force people too early into a single-file line, the efficiencies of the zipper method are impossible to realize because of the lack of predictability.  For the zipper method to work most efficiently, it has to take place at the point where everyone knows exactly what's going to happen--and that only happens at the point where the "extra" lane is ending.

I suppose that it feels like the line-jumpers are cheating.  And yes, I used to feel that way, too.  But the line-jumpers are the smart ones.  If we all waited until the merge point to merge, then no one would feel like someone else was getting an unfair advantage.  Line-jumpers are only taking the advantages that the cars ahead of them have voluntarily given up by getting over too early.

Now, I would never advocate that you do something that's against the law--although, to be perfectly fair, I don't think I've ever seen anyone pulled over for line-jumping.  But this is yet another example of one of those rules, whether it's an actual law or just some sense of collective morality, that just needs to change.  If we can all get on the same, efficient page, we can save ourselves a lot of time and a lot of heartache.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Rules

When I was in college, The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, a book of dating advice for women, was published and became a runaway bestseller.  Being a man, I haven't actually read the book, although I have read a synopsis and, as a man, I believe that qualifies me to have an opinion on the book.

I don't like it.  My theory of human relationships is that people should be open and honest with prospective partners (and themselves!) about who they are, what their goals and interests are, and what makes them happy and unhappy.  Any dating advice that is predicated upon following a set of rules that may or may not comport with those things is, in my view, artificial.  And I can speak with authority; I've been married for 16 years, we're happy and in love, and we've never given any serious consideration to breaking up.

But I do understand that not everybody can get it right without practice.  There are lots of people who have self-destructive habits and who need strong guidance to help them make the right decisions.  So The Rules isn't entirely unhelpful.  Fine by me.

By now, you might be wondering, hey, Jim, why are you bringing up a two-decade-old self-help book, only to criticize it, then ultimately acknowledge its value?

I'm not really talking about The Rules, but I did want to talk a little bit today about rules in general, and more specifically about disregarding them.

Pope Francis has been making headlines over the past six months with some pronouncements about the Christian religion that, well, raise some eyebrows.  Il Papa has been on an iconoclastic tear lately, announcing that the focus of the Church over the last, say, 2,000 years has been sort of wrong, that even atheists can go to heaven, that maybe Christians have spent a little too much time worrying about abortion and homosexuals and birth control lately and not enough time comforting the afflicted and feeding the hungry.

I'm not a Catholic and never have been, so I don't really recognize the authority of the Pope, especially not at this point in my life, having made some public declarations that I made recently.  But a lot of people do, and lots more may not recognize Francis as their spiritual leader but certainly regard his opinion as important, or at least worthy of consideration.

But I do sort of have to respect the kind of man that Francis is, seeing as how he's apparently going to drive his own (used) car, he lives in simple quarters instead of the usual palace, and he views himself with more humility than one would expect the winner of perhaps the world's most extremely political election to have.  We don't have to agree about spiritual matters--and by "agree about spiritual matters," I mean "agree that there are such things as spiritual matters"--for me to tip my cap.

I am reminded of one of the most famous, if apocryphal, quotes of Mohandas K. Gandhi, bestowed by his people with the title "Mahatma," meaning "Great One."  Gandhi was asked by a Christian missionary why he rejected Christ, despite quoting the words of Jesus so often.  He replied, "I do not reject Christ.  I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

If I have any criticism of the popes of my lifetime, it is that one--they have laid their focus far from the teachings of Christ.  Except this one.  I admire that.

But it is coming at the cost of some grumbling from those who view Catholic doctrine as "the Rules" and from those who prefer to focus their Christianity on Paul rather than Jesus, or at least want to focus on codifying in law what they view as instructions from God, particularly on social issues.  As to the first group, Francis can change the rules if he wants.  He is, according to Catholic doctrine, infallible.

But I suspect others will not be so easily swayed.  They view Francis's iconoclasm as heresy, or treason against the cause of conservative Christianity.

And they sort of have a point.  If there is a rule, and it is willfully broken without apparent consequence, that set of circumstances tends to undermine rules in general.

To provide a less charged example, consider taxes.  The truth is that almost everyone tells the truth about their income when filing tax returns, even when it would be difficult for the IRS to prove they were lying.  That's a good thing, because it would be difficult and frustrating to live under a system where the IRS had to expend a lot more effort to get people to pay their taxes.  But there is a widespread belief that cheating on taxes is an American tradition, and that most people fudge things at least a little bit.  That belief undermines the tax system by encouraging cheating by people who view the perceived state of affairs as permission.

Early last year, I had to drive several times between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.  The distance is about 112 miles.  The posted speed limit on that stretch is 75 mph.  It is desolate, with little evidence of human activity along the route.  There is a small city, Casa Grande, between the two, and one must generally slow down a bit there.  But in the many times I have driven that stretch, I have never seen a police car, and I have certainly never seen anyone pulled over.  Traffic frequently moves in excess of 90 mph.

I admit that in Arizona I don't mind breaking that rule, the 75-mph limit, by so great a margin.  But I do speed on rural stretches in other states, generally keeping it to 9 over.  Figuratively knocking on wood, I have never been pulled over for anything less than 10 over.  (When I was 22, I was victimized by an unfamiliar speed limit change while on a late-night Taco Bell run, which resulted in my being cited for 71 in a 60 by a trooper who obviously needed to write some tickets, since he had the ticket written out before I even gave him my license.)

But I've noticed that few people follow the speed limit.  Worse still, people who don't follow the limit get frustrated by those who do.  I will admit to being in that category.

The unenforced 75-mph limit is dumb in that area because it only breeds contempt for the law.  Whether you are a public safety officer, or a tax policy wonk, or a Pope, or a self-help guru, or anyone else charged with setting rules, if there is one principle for you to serve, it ought to be that rules that command no one's respect are worse than the absence of rules.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


American exceptionalism has been in the news lately in the context of the Syrian crisis. 

In his address from the East Room, President Obama attempted to justify action in Syria on the basis of a reference to American exceptionalism:

America is not the world’s policeman.  Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.  But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
In response, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, wrote in a column published in the New York Times:

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal. 
I agree with Barack Obama that the United States is an exceptional nation, but I disagree with what the President apparently thinks our exceptionality means.

I agree with Vladimir Putin that Obama's reasoning is flawed, perhaps deeply so, but I disagree that it is dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.

The United States of America is an exceptional nation.  I have recently written on what makes us exceptional.  Unlike most if not all other nations, we are highly diverse on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds.  We are united instead by a belief in a political philosophy.  One becomes English, or Russian, or French, or German by birth and parentage alone.  No amount of time will make someone who is born French into an Englishman.

But we make new Americans of those who were born elsewhere, and they are no less American than those whose ancestors came here on the Mayflower.  Their children are largely indistinguishable from the children of those who were born here.

The concept is summarized in the Latin phrase, e pluribus unum, "out of many, one."

We are the exception to the general rule of homogeneity, yet we have created homogeneity through general freedom of the individual, equality before the law, and due process of law.  Our way of life, being so based, is in combination more productive and more fair than any other system yet devised, because literally anyone can come here and succeed.

That is not to say we did not have advantages or that we lack problems.  We have advantages over other nations, enormous natural resources being the most obvious example--but other nations have resources, too.  We have problems, but we have a mechanism for solving them in an organic fashion, by relying on our first principles and allowing natural politics to produce consensus.  Because the law is subject to change through democratic processes, and because every citizen may access the levers of democracy, our politics and policies have a tendency toward self-correction.

(I worry at times that we are beginning to step away from those principles, as money and moneyed interests take control of our politics, but I view that as a problem that we can solve.)

Stated another way, the best America is yet to come.

Our model commends itself to the world.  Most Western nations have adopted our models to some extent, though the degree to which they respect them is the subject of some debate.  Even China has taken furtive steps toward the American system.

Where I depart from the modern American exceptionalists--the neoconservatives, the chickenhawks, the proponents of the Project for the New American Century--is in what I think our exceptionalism means.

To them, our exceptionalism gives us the right to intervene in the affairs of other nations; to impose our choices upon them; to use our political, economic, and military advantages to control the process of affairs both global and local, and to turn them to our advantage.

Putin is right:  That kind of thinking is indeed dangerous.  It runs contrary to our highest principles of equality and justice.

To me, our exceptionalism is a blessing and a burden.  We enjoy the fruits of the labors of our ancestors, both economic and political.  We lead a rich life as Americans--richest of all, in the sense of the luxury of self-determination that so many non-Americans lack.  But we must take care to use our power to promote only the very best of our ideas to the world; we must never adhere to the idea that our might makes us right, regardless of merit; we must never act to create an unfair advantage over others simply because we can.  To do so violates our first principles.

If we believe in the strength of our ideas, if we believe in the righteousness of the American Experiment, then we have no need of force to impose them on others.  If we seek to impose by force ideas that could not win on merit, then no amount of force will bring merit to those ideas.

It is dangerous to teach people that their exceptionality makes them more entitled to a say in how things go than others who are not exceptional.

We don't award votes to people based on IQ points or bank account balances.

Where we do have an obligation to act is where those without power are unreasonably endangered by those with power.

We have a moral obligation to stop genocide if we can do so without worsening the situation.

We have a moral obligation to use our power for the common good of the world, where that common good is clear, and where doing so promotes our core principles.

It is hard to know where the line is.

I have long believed that the efficacy and genius of the United Nations as an organization lay in its core premise:  That there is a community of nations, all different, all equal, dedicated to the peaceful resolution of their grievances; a body to which all peace-loving nations may subscribe, and be heard on equal footing.  In my view, the international luster of the United Nations has faded because rather than remaining committed to this concept, the United States has spent much of the last thirty years denigrating the democratic aspects of the UN and concentrating its use of the UN upon an oligarchy of five nations, the permanent members of the Security Council.

Regardless, it ought to be enough for us to know that we are first among equals.  It ought to be enough for the rest of the world to know that while we could act alone, our principles dictate that our actions be subject to consultation with others and a modicum of consensus.

That Obama resorted to an American exceptionalism argument to bolster his position was, in my view, a cheap trick that fooled no one.  It was designed, it appears, to get a political leg up on conservatives who take our exceptionalism as an article of faith and who do believe it justifies our actions, whatever those actions are. 

I suspect that Obama's words rang hollow because he doesn't really believe in them.  Our ability to have an impact does not make us exceptional; incorrectly applied, it merely makes us a bully.  I have to believe that Barack Obama did not mean what he said.

If he did mean it, he is wrong.  I have never believed in the principle of "my country, right or wrong."  I support my country when it is right by advocating for it.  But I support my country when it is wrong by opposing it.  I love this great nation, and I have hope for its future.  I have many times sworn an oath upon my honor to defend the Constitution, and to me, that means defending its principles at all times, even if the government does not. That is the solemn obligation of us all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I graduated from Sheridan High School in 1993.  My parents still live near Sheridan, and my mother is a teacher in the district.  I have many friends who live in the district.  Many of them have children who attend school there. 

Sheridan was in the news yesterday for what I can only term a bizarre reason.  Some teachers thought that yesterday, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11/01 terrorist attack, would be a good day for their students to get some perspective on what happened that day, and what happened before and since with respect to the Muslim world, from someone who is a practicing Muslim--an Arkansan, an American, who adheres to Islam, and who happens to be the neighbor of one of the teachers.

This particular person, whose identity has not been revealed to me, reportedly planned to offer his perspective as a Muslim who abhors violence and terrorism.  That's not news in any real sense.  His position is the same as that of almost all American Muslims.  The Muslims I know strongly condemned the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks and were sickened by the death and destruction carried out in the name of their religion.  (It appears that a lot of people, ignorant people, believe that all Muslims hate Americans and want Americans to die.)

Notably, the guest speaker was not there to proselytize anyone to Islam, or to advocate for Islam, or to compare Islam to other religions, or even to speak for all Muslims.

He was there to offer his own opinions on the subject of terrorism.

Judging from the reaction to his proposed presence, his presence was sorely needed yesterday.

Dr. Brenda Haynes is the superintendent of the Sheridan School District.  Dr. Haynes put out a press release [PDF] yesterday in which she announced that the guest speaker's appearance had been canceled and may be rescheduled for another day.  As she noted:

The purpose of the invitation was to have a member of that faith inform our students that Muslims are not identical in their beliefs with regard to the use of terror; that, on the contrary, some, probably most, strongly disapprove of it. There was no thought of having this person address the classes to paint Islam as "a religion of peace." Rather; it was to give him an opportunity to state his personal point of view in strong opposition to terrorism in general and the events of September 11, 2001, in particular. The teachers considered it instructive to the students to hear a different viewpoint.
I understand the reasons why the district canceled the speaker's appearance.  This is a controversial subject.  Parents have the right to be involved in their children's educational experience.  The district is a public institution, and therefore a politically controlled one. While teachers and administrators must put the education of children as their highest priority, it is also necessary that the schools have the confidence of the public and of the people who are most heavily invested in the schools' success at their mission.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Dr. Haynes for nearly 25 years, from the time when I was a seventh grader at Sheridan Junior High School.  I once served on a committee with her.  She and my mother have been employed by the district for a long time.  She is my mother's "superboss," to use a phrase I have heard other teachers use to describe their relationship to the superintendent.  Neither my mother's employment nor her opinions influence what I write here, and I am not certain that she even reads it or knows how to find it, nor do I care.

That being said, I have unqualified confidence in Dr. Haynes's leadership on this issue, both in the decision to cancel the speaker's appearance and in her explanation of the situation.  Her statement on this point is smart, even-handed, respectful, and confident.  I expect and hope that she is able to convert this controversy into a greater opportunity to educate.

I am also bitterly disappointed, though not surprised, that this was even controversial.

In the reaction to these developments, I have seen the worst aspects of ignorance and hatred and hypocrisy and pretended martyrdom on proud display.  I have never been one to withhold my opinion, but I am confounded by people whom I know are smarter than this who nevertheless display these qualities.  It is an emotional reaction, but it is out of control.

Sheridan schools are some of the best in the state.  They are led by able, student-focused, principled administrators who are educators first.  The teaching corps is solid from top to bottom.  In the quiet moments of my reflection, I am proud to have been a product of these schools.

In the louder moments such as these, when unimpeded, half-cocked hate fills the air, I wonder sometimes if my Sheridan education is something I have overcome rather than something that set me on the path to where I am today.  It is, however, a waste of time to wish to have had better origins.

I am, as most of you know, an admirer of the intellect of Louis Brandeis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice from the first half of the 20th century.  His words gave this blog its name.  Perhaps his most famous quote is below:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.
Brandeis meant, of course, that the best way to determine the value of something is to get it out in the open, for free examination, comment, and criticism.  He was talking about a marketplace of ideas.

"Brandeis," Justice William O. Douglas, who replaced him on the Supreme Court, wrote, "was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible."

Brandeis knew, and overcame, prejudice in his own time.  He was a Jew, the first to be nominated to the Court; though non-religious, he suffered through the anti-Semitism common at the time.  His 1916 nomination to the Supreme Court was bitterly contested by conservatives who deemed him a "muckraker" and "unfit," and who derisively dismissed his supporters as "a bunch of Hebrew uplifters."  For the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings before voting on his confirmation.  At a time when the judicial nominating process usually took days at most, his confirmation took four months and was split along ideological lines.  Yet he is today one of the most admired and often-cited Justices in our history.

I do not understand the people who want so much to hold onto their hate, and to pass it on to their children, that the mere possibility that an opinion contrary to that hate will be expressed is enough to send them into wild tangents of rage.

But I do understand that hate hides in the shadows.  It cannot survive scrutiny, because hate is irrational.  Hate is contrary to our nature as humans.  The more information we receive, the more experience we gain, the less we can hold onto the hate we have.

I also understand that the source of hate is fear, and the source of fear is ignorance.

In my lifetime there have been two great human cultural changes.  One is the end of the Cold War.  The other is the recognition of equal rights for homosexuals.  The end of the Cold War came about not because of an overt victory, not because of a triumph of our philosophy over theirs.  It came about because of cultural exchange that allowed each side to recognize the other as humans.  Hate cannot survive the light of understanding.

And no one has been more surprised than I am by the rapid acceptance of homosexuals as equal citizens in our Republic, with equal rights and privileges.  But that came about first through cultural exchange; in the 1980s, gays were seen as promiscuous, lascivious spreaders of a dread disease.  But it's hard to hate Ellen DeGeneres.  It's hard to hate that which makes you laugh and feel good.  Soon, gays began to be seen as ordinary people with different preferences.  Then one state, and another, started recognizing gay marriages, and the world didn't end, and soon I expect it will be the law of the land everywhere.

And we are better for it. 

I hope beyond hope that Dr. Haynes uses this opportunity to teach us all a far more important lesson than what one Muslim might think about a horrific act.  The lesson that needs learning is that exposure to ideas is the entirety of education.  When you prevent your children from being exposed to ideas, you make them less intelligent.  This is something she hinted at in her statement:

We know that our students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds about world events and the causes of those events, but that requires that they have as much information as can be made available to them.

I can't think of a better way to describe what needs to happen, or to express what education is all about.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


On the morning of September 11, 2001, when I learned about the crashes of two commercial airliners into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, I was sitting in a conference room on the 42nd floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.  It was the sixth day of my tenure as a new attorney at a medium-sized law firm in that city, and I was receiving orientation into the various practice areas of the firm.

At a break, I remember someone stepping into the conference room and saying that a plane had crashed into the WTC.  My thought at that point was that something had obviously gone horribly wrong--a major malfunction with the plane, something wrong with the pilot, perhaps someone's suicide.  At that point, it was not altogether clear that the plane was a commercial jet.  I visualized someone's private plane.

That was followed a couple of minutes later by someone saying that a second plane had crashed in the same location, and that both had been commercial airliners.  In the shock of the moment, as my understanding of what was happening rapidly recalibrated to these new facts, I remember remarking, with a nervous laugh, "that's obviously no accident."

It soon became clear that it was not a laughing matter.  Our orientation sessions were canceled.  I returned to my office, which was located in another building downtown.  I called Michelle and told her to turn on the news.  I remembered that my father often traveled for work.  I called his wireless phone; thankfully, he was not in the air that day.  He'd flown to Indiana the day before for an assignment.

An hour or so later, the managing partner of the firm, whose office was in my building, knocked on my door to tell me that the firm was closing for the day, not because we believed our building was a target, but out of respect for what was happening.  We were living downtown at the time, so I walked the seven blocks home, where Michelle and I watched the coverage.

Millions of words have been written about that day, a few thousand of them coming from my keyboard.  And today marks 12 years since it happened.

As we would later learn, that day was a day of remarkable courage on the part of some otherwise ordinary people--people who, when the time came to show it, demonstrated the best that Americans have to offer the world.  That day, what was required of these people was all that they had, and they stepped forward and gave it anyway.

What is required of us is to remember their sacrifice.  I do remember it, and I respect it.  But what is also required of is to remember why their sacrifice is meaningful.  So, today, I will write words that perhaps would not otherwise be written, in the hope that in some small way they pay a tribute to the sacrifice of these Americans, and of the thousands of other Americans who paid the same price in service of our highest principles.

I expect that these words will hurt before they heal.  They need to be said anyway.

*   *   *

I have written lately quite a bit about what I don't believe.  You can find those entries if you are interested; I'm not going to draw attention to them today.  Today I will write about some things that I do believe.

I believe that our nation is exceptional.  Every other nation on earth is defined by race or ethnicity or language or religion, or by some combination of these.  We are different; there are Americans of all races, of all ethnicities, of all languages, of all religions.  We define ourselves by allegiance to certain principles:  equality before the law, due process within the law, democracy as the structure of the law.  These principles are so deeply ingrained in us that we support them reflexively, even when they do not necessarily serve our individual interests. It does not take much to be an American, and most importantly, it does not require birth as an American.  All that is really required is to accept these principles as we have come to understand them.

We take our nationality from our political system, which derives from characteristics within ourselves.  If I had to articulate a single characteristic of Americans that contributes most greatly to our political system, it is an amazing capacity for empathy.  We are simply brilliant at putting ourselves in others' shoes.  But while we usually think of empathy as a positive human characteristic, it is often an inherently selfish one, driven by the fear that if we do not act justly toward others, there may be a time when we need justice ourselves and find it unavailable.

In that sense, our political system, and thus our nation, is the perfect extension of who we are:  egalitarian individualists.  That's not a contradiction in terms.

Seeing the potential for justice and injustice, and fearing the latter, our forebears designed a Constitution that contains numerous safeguards against injustice:  the separation of powers, checks and balances, representative government, free and frequent elections, lifetime tenure for judges, specific and broad guarantees of rights, and the due process of law.  Over time, we have adjusted and refined these safeguards' structure, and added new safeguards, but the core remains recognizable and alive 226 years later.

We are not a perfect people, but we have always--often grudgingly, but always--tended toward these core ideals.  It took us a long time to get our house sorted out, and we still have some distance to travel on that point, but we have made the world better for our having existed.  The 20th century was the American Century because we made it so.  Twice in that century, the world was at war.  It would have been easy at that point to withdraw, protected as we were by oceans.  We spent the first three years of World War I on the sidelines, more or less, till a president who had campaigned on the slogan "he kept us out of war" brought us into it less than a year later.  But our presence was determinative to the war and influential on the peace that followed.  Our official entry into World War II came after the Japanese attack on our installation at Pearl Harbor--more on that later--but we were in it long before, providing material aid to Britain, France, and the Soviet Union against the Germans.  Again, our presence and leadership in that war was salvation for the world.

And after it, we rebuilt what we had destroyed, securing new alliances and extending the influence of our revolutionary ideas to Europe and Japan. 

And we held accountable those who had brought us past the brink--with real trials, with evidence and due process, and articulating a new idea, that human rights belong to all humans, and that aggressive war is antithetical to those rights.

I believe that we are exceptional because, and only when, we use our enormous power for the good of others.  We were exceptional in those days.

And I believe that we will be exceptional again one day.

But we are not today, and we have not been for the last 12 years.

*   *   *

Two thousand, four hundred two Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.  That is nearly as many as were killed on September 11, 2001.  The national mood shifted, and soon we were directly involved in a war that had been raging for more than two years by that point.  There was an element of revenge associated with our attitude.  My grandfather, who fought against the Japanese, still harbors some resentment for what was done; at 95, he probably doesn't have much time left to feel that resentment, and when World War II has receded from living memory, that will likely be it.

But the leadership focused our national energy on what became a national task:  winning the war, and thereby making the world safe for democracy to flourish in place of fascism.  President Roosevelt drew on our better selves to man (and woman) our forces, to build up the arsenal of democracy, to encourage us to sacrifice for the greater good.

I cannot help but draw a stark comparison.  After we were attacked on 9/11/01, our leaders' reaction was first to fix blame where it did not belong, to open for business a new surveillance and security state, and to ask no more of most Americans than to "go shopping."  I am certain that after Pearl Harbor, many Americans feared for their future, but we were lucky at that time to have leadership who stewarded us out of that fear into action and, ultimately, triumph.  The war provided catharsis and healing.

The leadership after 9/11 has used our fear against us.  It is one thing for the government to tell its citizens, after an attack, to "keep calm and carry on" in the very British phrase that is memetically popular these days.  It is quite another to keep us in a perpetual state of dread and worry.  That is what continual spying gets us.  That is what the security theater at the airport gets us.  That is what "shelter-in-place" advisories, issued after the Boston Marathon bombing, get us.

We are vulnerable to a government that keeps us in fear because of our capacity for empathy.  We can imagine ourselves in those towers, or on the plane that crashed at Shanksville, or on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

We can feel the searing heat.

We can imagine being forced to choose between dying in a collapsing building and dying from a jump from the 80th floor.

The national wound that day caused has scarred over.  We are tougher and ruder, more suspicious, more fearful.  But scarification is not healing.  We have an abscess, a deep infection hidden by our scars.  We are in pain and don't know why.

But I do know why, and now you do:  We have not been allowed to heal from the trauma.  True healing requires examination and cleansing of the wound.  It requires rehabilitation.  And, if I may depart from the metaphor for a moment, it requires a return to our better selves--the selves that weren't scared by the shadows of terrorism, the selves who were not terrorized by those who would hurt us, the selves who trusted in our principles.

We need to be told, on this day of all days, by a person of authority, that it is okay to let go of what happened, to accept it, and that we can free ourselves from fear's prison and be better for the world despite what happened.

We need to be told that it is not too late to absorb the blow and move forward.

We need for our leaders to stand up for principles other than protection.

We need for reason to triumph over fear. 

So much of who we are depends on it.

*   *   *

Eleven months before Pearl Harbor, a couple of weeks before his historic third inauguration, FDR gave his second most famous speech, now known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, which is now celebrated at the FDR Memorial on the National Mall.  He summarized these freedoms as follows: 

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
Today we cannot seem to secure these essential human freedoms even in our own borders.  Free speech and protest are met with police control and NSA wiretaps.  While the majority is free to worship the Christian God, religious minorities--especially Muslims--are frequently beset with regulation and repression.  Our economy has been allowed to stagnate, leaving behind massive unemployment with no effort to ameliorate its effects, even as billionaire bankers are propped up by zero-interest government loans and the freedom to commit fraud.  And, most of all, we live under a constant condition of fear.

I believe that one day we will fix this.  I believe in the irrepressible American spirit.  I believe in our better selves.  But we must act for it to come to pass.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I spend a lot of time--too much, really--on Facebook.  I do it because (a) I'm really not accountable to anyone else for my time, most of the time, and (b) it allows me to keep up with news both important (breaking news of world- or nation-wide significance) and petty (what my friends are up to or thinking about).

And it's free, and you can't beat free.

Gmail, which I use for my personal email, is also free.  In fact, I use a lot of different Google services--maps and navigation, phone apps, and even this blog--that I've never had to pay a dime for.

And lots of other sites I use are free, being mostly advertising-supported.  I feel like I'm getting something for nothing because I rarely click on ads. I'm not as guarded about what I click on as I used to be, but it is a rare day when I spend money as a result of an ad I saw on an internet website.

Of course, I have to pay for my internet connection, but I would be paying for that anyway.

The grocery store where I do most of my shopping, Kroger, is willing to give me all sorts of discounts and incentives if I show them my card whenever I shop there.  In addition to discount prices, they give me 10 cents off per gallon of gasoline for every $100 I spend there.  That's a lot of "free."  (They are kind enough, at times, to give me as much as 10 cents off for every $25 I spend.)

Why on earth is everybody giving away all of these things for free?

Before Prohibition, it was common for bars to provide a "free" meal with the purchase of at least one drink.  These meals were composed of salty, fatty foods, the consumption of which would stimulate thirst, which would--in theory--produce more sales of high-margin alcoholic beverages.  (This tradition lives on, in a much diminished form, in the provision of salty peanuts, popcorn, and the like at your finer and not-finer drinking establishments in fair cities around this great nation of ours.)

During Prohibition, there wasn't much need to stimulate alcohol sales, the ban being incentive enough to drive demand.

The Great Depression, whose arrival ushered out Prohibition and other high-minded Republican ideas, saw the return of the "free" lunch at a time when it was sorely needed.  But folks needed to be reminded, of course, that there's no truly free lunch--it required the purchase of a drink, the price of which was often difficult to muster.

I say all of this to raise the issue of what the price of all these "free" goodies happens to be.

And I don't think it would surprise anybody to learn that there is great value in keeping track of what people talk about with their friends, and look at when they're shirking their work, and buy from the grocery store, and where they go and whom they email about what.

My friends, if you use any of these "free" services, you should know, first and foremost, that you are the product that is being sold.

Your eyes and ears.

Your data.

You and I aren't Google's customers.  Google cares about making our experience online a pleasant one, but not because they are pleasing us as customers.

We are Google's product.  Google's business is delivering eyeballs and information to people--well, not people, exactly, but corporations--that are willing to pay for it, all on the theory that those eyeballs and information will transform into revenue through one mechanism or another.  Google has to keep us happy, because without us, Google has no product to sell.

We are Kroger's customers, of course.  But Kroger recognizes that by giving us strong incentives to allow them to track our purchases with precision, it can sell that information to manufacturers, who use it to tailor products and advertising so as to raise revenues.

I'm not sure how comfortable I feel about these relationships.  After all, I've grown accustomed to the convenience of these services, and I'm certainly as addicted to "free" as anyone.  I could replace Google Maps with a dedicated GPS device.  I could run my own blog server (I have the capacity to do it, but Blogger makes it so easy).  I could run my own email (and, in fact, I do, for my business emails).

I could even forego the discounts at Kroger by paying in cash, not showing my card, when I shop there.

But I don't, because of inertia, or sloth, or carelessness.

The National Security Agency has been in the headlines--and I've blogged about it--for spying on Americans.  I have no doubt that the NSA vacuums up every bit of data it can grab, and stores it for later use, and uses it whenever there is a "need" for it.  That strikes some people, a lot of people, as unbelievably invasive of privacy.  It strikes me as horribly unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ... .

In the 18th century, there was no concept of telephone calls or electronic documents like email.  But it is no stretch at all to consider telephone calls and emails to be "papers."  After all, what makes "papers" something that anyone would want to have privacy over isn't their physical form but their content--the very thing that makes telephone calls and emails useful to the NSA.

It is no exaggeration to say that how the courts deal with this issue might be the most significant Constitutional question of the 21st century.  We face a clear choice, a right one and a wrong one, and I have little confidence in these courts, these days, to make the right choice.

I suppose you could say that it is perfectly reasonable for something to be untoward if done by the government but reasonable and legitimate if done by a private entity.  After all, private entities cannot act without your agreement to allow them to do so.  There is the notion of consent.  Just because you don't have the time, energy, or intellect to read through every Terms of Service document doesn't mean that those terms don't apply.  And let's face it:  You're going to agree even if it makes you uncomfortable, because you want the "free" lunch.

The trouble is, that applies to government and corporate actors alike.  If you consent--and by using these "free" services, you definitely do--to incursions by private entities into your personal papers and effects, why is it so unreasonable for the government to get a crack, too?


But even if I can't articulate it, it makes me uncomfortable.  I suspect the root of my discomfort is that I still believe in the Fourth Amendment--and all of the Constitution.  We are supposed to be better than this.  Our forebears long ago made a choice to limit the power of the government.  Our ideas about how our Constitutional government ought to work have evolved from what Madison and Hamilton thought, but the arc of that evolution is clearly bent toward freedom and individuality, not to security and fascism.

There are two principles here at work.  As to the government, we must reacquaint ourselves with the idea that it is better to be a dead freeman than a living slave.  What the NSA is doing in the name of protecting us from enemies must be stopped, even if the cost is that some people will die at the hands of terrorists. There are those who would do us harm, yes--but if we give up who we are in the course of protecting ourselves, what's the point?

(I hasten to point out that it must be stopped through the political process, by people who have courage and conviction. Arming oneself against a government with cruise missiles is a fool's errand.)

The second principle, which is related to the first, is one best illustrated by a story from the Bible.  It might surprise you to see me tell a Bible story, but the comparison is so apt that I cannot help myself.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, was married to Rebekah.  Rebekah bore Isaac two sons, twins, Esau and Jacob.  Esau, the first-born, under the tradition of the times (known as primogeniture), was entitled by birth-right to receive the entirety of his father's estate at death.  One day, Esau returned home from a day in the fields, famished, and begged his brother Jacob for some of the stew Jacob had for his evening meal.  Jacob agreed, on the condition that Esau grant him the birth-right.  Esau, mad with hunger, agreed, and in so doing, gave up all that he had for the comfort of a day.

No one forced Esau to enter into this contract with Jacob.  He did so willingly, even eagerly. Prophecy aside, it was an unfair deal.  It should be a warning.

I fear a government that believes it may do what the NSA is doing, let alone "should" or "must."  But I fear even more the influence of grand corporate interests who feel bold enough to offer us only a dish of red pottage for something so important.  We are indeed in need of protection, but not from terrorists.

Our privacy is part of our birthright as Americans.  It was hard-won by our forebears and secured to us by men who were wise beyond the age in which they lived.  It would be a shame to sell it for a handful of maps and status updates.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


As a recently repatriated Arkansan, I find that fifteen years of absence from this wonderful state has caused a bit of culture shock that I wasn't entirely prepared for.  I spent twelve of those years toiling in North Carolina. Those were preceded by three years in Maryland/DC, which I have mostly tried to block from my active memory.

If you have never lived in North Carolina, or known someone who lived in North Carolina, you might not be aware of the fact that despite their distinctly Southern heritage, North Carolinians tend to view themselves as cosmopolitan in a way that doesn't exactly find purchase in other parts of the South.

Atlanta is, I think, probably the only Southern city that has any claim to being a "world city" in the sense I mean, but Atlanta is, in my experience, entirely wrapped up in its Southernness and its Southern ways.  I do love that city--I spent most of my honeymoon there--but the things that make Atlanta world-class seem to be things that Atlantans tolerate rather than trumpet.  (They do hate them some General Sherman, even now.)

But North Carolina is different.  North Carolinians look down on the "other" Carolina, which they regard as backward, with low taxes and the infrastructure to match.  Perhaps it's the influence of outsiders.  North Carolina has grown explosively over the last thirty years, largely due to growth in the banking and technology sectors.  In living there, I found that, like me, a large number of my neighbors were from somewhere else.  Charlotte in particular is "all business," a buttoned-down prig of a city that had to will into existence any sort of nightlife.  Even its hipster population isn't organic.  It's like an ill-tailored jacket:  the right size, but somehow just not quite the right fit.

That isn't to say that it was all bad, or that the kind of culture that inhabits North Carolina is altogether negative.  There were a lot of things I enjoyed about living there--and in the end, the only thing that mattered to whether I could stay there any more was the one thing it could never be:  home.

And it's different here.

Having been absent for so long, I find the affection Arkansans seem to feel for public religion to be sort of jarring.  I cannot help but feel that the populace has gotten more religious, more tied to public declarations of faith, than it ever was before.  Maybe it's not so; maybe it's just that I spent so much time away from the culture that I notice things now that would not have been conspicuous to me before I left.

But a great many of the people I encounter seem to be able to talk about nothing else, and I really don't understand why.  The Arkansas of my youth was a much more progressive place than it is today.  This is a state that repeatedly elected liberals to high office, again and again.  I can scarcely believe that this is the same state that sent Bill Fulbright, Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Jim Guy Tucker to high office.  None of those men could be elected today except on the nostalgia of their prior service, if at all.

One of the things that happens when you move to a new state is that you need to find new doctors.  That has been a bizarre process to say the least.  When I choose a doctor, I am looking for two things:  scientific competence and a willingness to treat me as a partner in my own health.  I research doctors before I call for an appointment in an effort to determine who is most likely to meet those criteria.

There is an unreasonably large number of doctors in this state who feel compelled to assure me of their Christian bona fides in the biography sections of their websites.

(This has been exceptionally acute in the case of Michelle's efforts to identify a good gynecologist. I imagine that part of that is driven by the absolute loathing that many Christians have toward gynecologists because of the abortion issue.)

Don't get me wrong...I certainly don't have a problem with doctors being Christians.  I don't exactly "get" it, but physicians have the right to their own religious beliefs. 

But these doctors give the impression that they put their religious beliefs first and foremost in their medical practices.  That probably makes them excellent Christians, but it makes them suspect as doctors.

A doctor should be dedicated to providing the best advice, diagnosis, and treatment to his or her patients, consistent with a scientific understanding of the body and its diseases.  I simply cannot tolerate a doctor who would provide advice, diagnosis, or treatment on anything other than what is, from a scientific standpoint, best for the patient's life and health.  I simply cannot trust a doctor who gives me the impression that he or she would allow religious beliefs to govern his or her activities in respect of my health. 

I think few people would disagree with me as long as we posit that the doctor is of a different faith from the patient.  Would you have confidence in a Hindu doctor who professed to base his diagnostic decisions on what he read in the Bhagavad Gita instead of what he learned in Anatomy and Physiology?

I would be profoundly disappointed in a doctor who knew that a particular procedure was scientifically the best for my health but failed to recommend it on the basis of some religion-based moral code that I don't share.  It is a simple question of priorities.

To be fair, we encountered this a bit in North Carolina, too, but it has been much more common here.  The simple fact is that I don't care what church my doctor attends. 

I will, however, take solace in the fact that these otherwise inappropriate public declarations of faith do serve a purpose, in that they make it much easier to identify the doctors whom I should not patronize.  Silver linings, I guess.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blurred lines

What to do, or not do, in Syria?

I generally fall in with the interventionists when it comes to humanitarian crises.  As Madeline Albright once said, what's the use of having this marvelous military that outspends the next 25 nations combined, if we can't use it?

But I worry that my view of intervention is too romantic.  When I think of what we are contemplating, I visualize commandos taking control of the situation, setting up a functioning democracy, and standing up for the American Way.

The problem is that what is being contemplated mostly consists of sending guided missiles to blow stuff up.  I find it hard to believe that will help the situation.

Bashir al-Assad controls much of Syria and rules as a dictator; he has control of the military and has almost certainly used chemical weapons against the rebels.  Most of that is unfortunate, but that last bit is unacceptable.  I agree with the idea that we must stand up to defend international agreements banning the use of chemical weapons.  And I think it is utterly irrelevant whether we have done so in the past or not.  We can only make the moral decisions that confront us now; we cannot allow ourselves to be bound to the inaction of the past.

But what exactly does it mean to defend those agreements?  Does it mean announcing to Assad that he has violated the law of war and that a cruise missile will be heading down his chimney in 10 seconds to take him out?  Or does it simply mean degrading his military capability by blowing up a few buildings or arsenals, and thereby aligning ourselves with the rebels?  Who are these rebels?  Are they worthy of our alliance?

Sometimes there are no angels to be on the side of.

I dream of a world where our differences are settled at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield.  I believe that we stood for that concept at one point.  I want to believe that we stand for that concept.  I find it difficult to believe that the solution to war is more war.

In Syria, what do we stand for?  Is it democracy and self-determination?  Is it peace?  Do we help our allies and those who believe will ally with us? 

Can we even accomplish what is needed to stand up for whatever it is we're standing up for?

I would have an easier time knowing where to stand if I had confidence in our motives as a nation.  I believe we Americans are, as a whole, good people who want only to help.  I'm just not sure that those in power have that goal in mind.

Oh, Miley

I try not to comment too much on meaningless celebrity scandals.  It's a shame that there isn't more interest in the tough choices we face in Syria and less in the daily lives of people who happen to be famous.

But I can't not comment on Miley Cyrus.

I also must speak about Robin Thicke.

I have no infantilized version of Miley Cyrus running through my memory.  Hannah Montana is a cipher to me.  This is probably because I don't have kids.  I've never seen even the tiniest snippet of her show, and if you put up an uncaptioned picture of Miley Cyrus I might have to think a long while before telling you it was her and not, say, Taylor Swift.  I cannot name a single song she's recorded.

For that reason, I cannot say with any honesty that I was shocked by her performance at the Video Music Awards.

She's a 20-year-old woman.  She is not a 14-year-old girl. She is, biologically, at the peak of her raw sexual attractiveness to men.  If you have a problem with her performance because she was expressing sexuality, then I think your standards are misplaced.  There is not one thing wrong with a 20-year-old woman being aware of and exercising her sexuality.

But what she was doing was grotesque for a different reason.  Artistically, it was a disaster.  It was demeaning to her because there was simply no artistic value to her performance.  Being an adult means making meaningful choices.  It was a gratuitous, pornographic display.

I use "pornographic" in the original sense, which referred to the depiction of prostitutes.  What Miley Cyrus was showing to the VMA cameras was the prostitution of herself to controversy.  I don't believe for a second that she didn't know precisely what she was doing, and why.  This is the new Miley, all grown up and ready to spit out her bubblegum.

As for Thicke, his participation in that spectacle was just as gratuitous and therefore just as disappointing.  I'm a Thicke fan in some sense.  His "When I Get You Alone" is one of my favorite songs and has a permanent place on my Spotify playlist.  "Blurred Lines" has been at the top of the Hot 100 for 11 weeks as of this writing, and it's no surprise--it, like "Alone," has a catchy tune and is strongly cross-genre. (In some respects, they have similar messages; in both, Thicke wonders about the motivations of the target of his affections, perhaps less bitterly in "Alone.")

"Blurred Lines" is not without controversy.  The lyrics describe Thicke's efforts to convince a married woman to have an affair with him.  (I don't endorse that, but I don't find it so bothersome as to be offensive.)  To some, those lyrics are "rapey," a charge I find as gratuitous as Miley's grinding and twerking on the VMA stage.  The lines in question are "I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it/But you're a good girl."

To me, those lines describe a man who's tired of receiving mixed signals from a woman who's clearly interested in him.  There is no indication that this man will take by force what he cannot get consent for.  To the contrary, this is a man who recognizes and respects the woman's power to control her own sexuality--he just wishes that she would not be so coy about things. 

This is, I think, a larger lesson for how women function in society.  There is a significant component of our society--men and women fall into this group--who believe that women are constitutionally incapable of managing their own sexuality.  As a result, they are trying very hard to legislate abortion out of existence with paternalistic requirements, ostensibly related to women's "safety"; they also want curbs on birth control; even more incredibly, they want to deny young women a vaccine against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus that is endemic in our population.  Essentially, this movement is about punishing women for having sex.  Calling Thicke's lyrics "rapey" plays into this movement, too, because that implicitly endorses the idea that women have to defend themselves against the suggestion that they might enjoy sex.

Come to think of it, the criticism of Miley Cyrus on the basis of her overtly portrayed on-stage sexuality, as though doing the things she was implying--the grinding, the masturbation, the foreplay--are shameful in and of themselves.  They aren't, and it's wrong to suggest to girls particularly that they are.  What made those acts inappropriate was that they were displayed at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and--artistically--in the wrong manner.


It's been an eventful month in the Harrington household.

I spent most of August preparing for and executing my first jury trial.  More on that experience in a future blog entry.  (Though the execution was great, the result was unbelievably disappointing, to the point where I'm considering a career change.)

August has also been moving month.

The combination of those two facts has meant Michelle has done most of the work.

When we first came back to Little Rock about this time last year, we took the first property that met our basic needs (two bedrooms, pet-friendly, in a decent area, affordable rent) and it was essentially sight-unseen.  A year of that revealed just how big a mistake it was to rent something sign-unseen.

But this time, we began looking for a new place to rent about 3 months before our lease was up.  We knew exactly what we were looking for.  We were on Craigslist nearly every day, searching for properties, reporting the scams (unbelievable in many respects), and driving through neighborhoods to see what fit and what didn't.

As it turned out, it was driving around that landed us the place we're in now.  This place was not advertised except for a yard sign.  But here we are, and even though we're not settled in, we love it already.

It's great to live in a place you love--and since I work from home (when I'm not on the road), it's doubly important to enjoy my surroundings.  But before you can get from a place you hate to a place you love, you have to move.

Thus the "augh" in today's title.

I have blogged previously about our efforts to simplify our lives.  We embarked on a campaign a couple of years ago to focus less on accumulation and more on appreciation.  As successful as I thought that was, it turns out we still have a lot of stuff.  To be fair, a lot of it is office stuff that I can't throw out, at least not for a few years.  But even a sparsely furnished apartment can hold a lot of bulk.

So I suspect we will be on to round 2 of the reduction.