The End Game

We can’t live without the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. That we tell them is as consistent across time, space and culture as the physical makeup of our biology. Our stories give meaning to the experiences of our past. Good. Bad. And everything in between. And in that meaning we find hope for a purposeful future.

Without hope, we have nothing. 

I don’t watch movies about the contemporary American wars. It’s not because they trigger traumatic memories or open the old wounds of a tortured war veteran. They don’t. The truth is closer to the contrary. The bad ones don’t trigger anything at all. The good ones just make me miss the old life. And so they don’t make me feel the things I need to feel from the stories I experience if I’m willing to spend a few hours on them instead of the next best alternative.

So, I don’t watch them.

More than anything else over that last decade, I’ve found myself watching super hero movies. It helps that my three boys are 13, 12 and 10 and they love super hero movies too. There’s probably an overly sappy narrative that I could weave about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave me and my sons with unique developmental issues something to connect through. That’s a story for another time though. Not an entirely honest one though. Because the real reason I’ve watched a few dozen super hero movies a few dozen times over last decade is because of the parts of the human spirit the Marvel movies help me tap into.

People will read this, roll their eyes, maybe giggle a bit, at my naivety. Others will scowl at my falling prey to the corporate machine that is the modern entertainment industry. The CEO of Disney makes 1400 times that of his median employees after all. And those movies are produced for one reason. To make money.

All true.

But what’s also true is that someone made those characters. Someone wrote the scripts. And someone directed the movie. And where those visions came from, money doesn’t matter. Because they’re stories. And we humans are story tellers. We’d tell them for free. We can’t help ourselves.

The Marvel movies are stories of transformation. Of selfless acts. Of loss. And victory. Of purposeful deaths and unconquerable resurrections.

The Marvel heroes aren’t born with their powers. They find them along the away. And in their transformations, we find hope; hope to be saved from whatever it is we’ve assigned our fates to. Hope for ourselves and our own transformations.

The world is not inevitable.

But only if we’ll let go of the cynicism that unburdens us of the exhausting task that hope is.

Last night I took my family to see Avenger’s End Game. I won’t spoil it with details. But I went to the theater feeling like I was about to walk into a funeral I wasn’t ready for. And I walked out of the theater when it was done feeling like I was right.

The story, at its core, is the story of the iron necessity of human hope. And the truth that we simply can’t live with settling for a permanent future that’s not brighter than the pain of our past.

If we try to live without it, what comes in place of the hope for a better day is the worst of us.

We climb to higher peaks. We sail for better shores. We search for something more beyond our horizons. It is the defining trait of our species. And it all runs on hope.

The movie is three hours bathing in that reckoning. For me, it felt like 10 minutes.

My life hasn’t been easy. I’ve been to war and lived through abuse and personal tragedy. I battle the daily struggle of the life-long task of being a special needs parent. This isn’t a fluffy essay by someone who’s resigned to live life vicariously through fantasy movies. I’ve been on the other side of hope. And I’ve had my own purposeful death and triumphant resurrection.

And I can still let something as silly as a super hero movie move me to tears. And I hope I always can.

Now go see the damn movie…


The Future of Capitalism

Humans and other great apes share a common ancestor.

Somewhere between four and 13 million years ago, a spread we could fit a few thousand western civilizations in, our species branched out from the other modern great apes and became human.

Our genome is still 24/25ths the same. And so we spend a lot of time studying the other great apes to try to parse out that last 25th. The thought is that finding the behavioral delta is proof of what makes us human.

It turns out, we have a pretty good idea what it is.

It’s the shared understanding required for high levels of cooperation. Comparative Psychologist Michael Tomasello’s book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny explains the theory well.

Though it looks like apes and chimpanzees and bonobos and orangutans cooperate at a high level, they don’t. They use each other as tools to maximize individual benefit. If an activity takes two chimps, one views the other one the way we view a hammer. When they go on a group hunt, each participant goes to the space that they believe will yield the most likely outcome that they will make the kill and get the largest share of meat. If the best spot is taken, they understand that sharing the spot is worse than moving to the next best spot and occupying it by themselves.

The apes never really get that doing something for the greater good of the group, in and of itself, is a worthy endeavor. Because they aren’t capable of seeing the world through another’s eyes. This is something only humans do, as best as we can tell. It’s an ability we develop between two and three years old. Children with autism do it later or not at all. The inability to do it causes a tremendous disability.

Animals have equal or greater instinctual intelligence than humans. They have greater or equal spacial and physical intelligence. And machines can store many more times the data and make much better decisions than we can. It’s reason that makes us human. And there is no reason without the full world view that comes from shared understanding. Empathy and shared understanding are what makes us functionally human.

The ability to organize beyond our own needs and grow relationships and groups beyond our horizons is what has allowed us to dominate our environment. And so the notion that man’s natural state of being is one of boundless liberty and competition is not real. Nor is the notion that our best outcomes are achieved by the same means.

Unregulated competition is the domain of animals.

We humans require something else.

The running debate of what we do with our resources, as a society, is as old as tribes. And the notion of unequal distribution of those resources is as old as our ability to produce resources that allow us to live above subsistence. The ebb and flow of the value of capital and the value of labor isn’t something produced by the discovery of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

Economic historian Walter Schiedel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century paints a picture of a constant pattern, from the ancient Sumerians to the Chin Dynasty to modern day America and all stops in between, of long periods of peace and stability leading to increased economic inequality. Scheidel believes, and makes a strong case, that the only things that have ever curbed the progress of inequality are pretty dreary events; the four horseman of leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. And so we should take a measured approach to stating that economic inequality is the great evil of our time. As it’s solutions tend to be far worse.

The last 50 years in America has seen the distance between the richest and the poorest among us grow. It has seen the concentration of wealth grow too. Consequently, a debate about the fate of the capitalism is upon us. And if Scheidel is correct, it’s important we have the right one, lest we rely on one of his four horseman to relieve us of our burdens.

There are some important things to get right if we’re going to have that debate though.

First, capitalism didn’t create economic inequality. Economic inequality comes from excess resources above subsistence. And it exists, and has existed, in every form of government and financial system.

Chen Liangyu, a communist party elite in China amassed a fortune of billions that would have put him near the top of Forbes list of the world’s richest by using the state positions he had to defraud state institutions. He did it for decades until reforms led to his arrest. Monarchies used titles and land rights. Empires used mercantilism. The church used religion.

Whatever avenue allowed for the amassing of wealth, we’ve found a way to manipulate it. Capitalism, more specifically the mechanisms and innovations that have enabled protection of property rights and the ability to pool resources for investment, has simply been the most efficient engine of abundance. And so blaming capitalism for inequality is a trope; presently a popular political one.

If we want to eliminate abundance, we should take aim at capitalism. If we aim to limit economic inequality, that’s another matter. One that will take some a-political thinking.

Contrary to popular opinion, the governing documents of America don’t call for any specific economic system. Nor would the Founders have been able to imagine the specifics of an economy that has traveled several innovations beyond the agricultural one that existed in their time. Instead, they set an original position from which citizens (narrowly defined at first) could benefit from the mutual advantages gained within a state that ensures access to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. And they gave us the power through representative government to hold that state accountable to ensure it.

What’s evolved over the last quarter of a millennia has been a uniquely American story that mixed free markets, centrally managed banking functions, control over foreign trade, socialist investment and a nearly endless list of other characteristics that has made up the unique American economy.

Saying it needs to be left alone in the name of liberty is to misunderstand, fundamentally, what it is. Saying it is broken and that we ought to be more like Denmark to fix it is more of the same. It’s a bit like telling an Olympic weightlifter that to win more gold medals they should swim faster. Fast swimmers after all, win the most gold medals.

To get to Denmark, one need start in Denmark, an ethnically homogenous country with a population one third the size of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

One question to ask ourselves is whether or not we think that the gap in resources between our most wealthy and our least is actually the problem. Materially, does it matter to someone in the lowest quartile how much someone in the highest quartile has? Is it something that’s particularly observable in daily life? What matters is how hard it is to be poor. And how difficult being poor makes it to not be poor. So, perhaps better questions are, how can we make the quality of life for the poorest among us better? And how can we make it easier for them not to be poor from one generation to the next?

There are some very obvious answers.

To the former: Daycare. Healthcare. Affordable housing.

To the latter: More high paying non-professional jobs.

Deciding to dive headlong into a tastes great/less filling screaming match about capitalism and socialism is where some part of our current political debate lies. A better way might be to try to start to discuss, in earnest, what to do with our excess societal resources. And to have that discussion from the position that accounts for the reality that, like trees, inequality doesn’t grow to the sky. Eventually something redistributes it.

It would be beneficial to pro-actively figure out how on our terms.

We are not apes whose best outcomes come from dominating each other. And our founding charter as an American people provides no limits on most questions of how we cooperate. It only demands that we do, within the constructs of a basic rule of law. And so perhaps it’s time we did again.

There are some ground rules though. Pointing to EU socialism as a panacea is dangerous. For one, it does not hold up well to the forces of immigration. And it does not provide for the economic dynamism Americans have relied on to move our future forward or to keep pace with the Chinese economic miracle. But it does clear out some space somewhere between them and us to ask a few good questions.

Here are mine:

What innovations do we need in our markets and tax code to account for an economy where 80% of corporate valuations are from intangible assets (assets that lack physical substance)?  Not long ago, that number was 20%. .

What problems would building affordable housing on a mass scale solve?

Same question for infrastructure.

Why don’t we have enough science jobs? (Hint: It’s because we don’t fund enough research…not because we don’t have enough scientists.)

Could a single payer healthcare system for the $3.7T healthcare market create an industrial complex similar to that of the one created by the $700B DOD budget?

Would that be bad or good?

Does an education system where a college education is the goal produce anything other than education spend and college graduates?

What would happen if we built a city of two million population capacity 100 miles west of Austin? Or ten of them in ten places just like it.

How come there’s not more nuclear power?

What other questions should we ask?

These are a good start. And though the answers are important, the point isn’t just the answers. The point is to shift the debate to what to do with our existing resources. And to stop the debate on who is worthy of resources.

And start behaving like humans again.

On Service

Early one morning in June of 2005 I received a panicked phone call from the wife of a friend of mine. She asked me if I had any information on the rumors of casualties that were starting to circulate within the families of deployed members of the Naval Special Warfare community.

Her husband was deployed. It her first experience as the wife of a deployed Navy SEAL. And she was worried.

I gave her the line I was trained to give her. That I had no information that I could share. That if anything had happened to her husband, she’d be informed, in person, by a representative of the command. And that if rumors were already out there and no one had contacted her formally, it’s safe to assume he’s fine until she hears otherwise. She was skeptical but satisfied.

I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and got sick.

I wasn’t ill. I wasn’t lying either. I simply had no information on her husband. I had no information on anything. I didn’t hear the rumors. I didn’t even know that there was an operation or casualties. I knew less than her; less than anyone. And I was about to spiral headlong into a reckoning of all that it meant to not be a part of anything anymore.

I was not prepared.

Seven months earlier I had returned from a deployment attached to SEAL Team ONE and separated from the Navy six weeks later. It was a quick departure, but it was all part of the plan. I’d done my five years after Annapolis; five years that started before 9/11 and ended after two wartime deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Six months later, I was working for a marine engineering company in San Diego. I was applying to business schools. My wife was pregnant with our first son.

Everything was going according to plan.

The plan, however, hadn’t accounted for something — the reaction I had to that phone call.

In the days and weeks that followed, news of Operation Redwings circulated in the media. 19 Special Operations personnel had been killed in Afghanistan, including eleven SEALs. At the time, it was the deadliest single day in the history of the SEAL community. Following along in the headlines, I sank deeper and deeper into a funk; a funk I wouldn’t come out of until I was recalled back to active duty two years later.

What surprised me most about my reaction to the first time I separated from active duty, clearly illustrated by my reaction to that phone call, was that I’d done the work to avoid exactly what was happening to me. At least I thought I had. I knew I wasn’t a lifer. I never pretended I would be. I was sure to take the endless appreciation for service one receives these days in stride. I didn’t buy into the narrative that I had endured heroic suffering and selfless sacrifice. I had gotten a free college education. And the job of Naval Officer paid well. By 28 I had a home, no college debt and a hell of a resume.

I focused on the reality of all that serving in the military had done for me. Less what burden I bore for the greater good of America. And so I viewed the transition in minimalist terms. It was, after all, just a job. I had little problem leaving a life of honor and public prestige, as I didn’t really think of it as such. What I didn’t account for was the overwhelming diminishment in purpose, a gap made acutely clear to me when I took that phone call as I was getting dressed to go into the office to sell marine engineering service contracts that morning in June of 2005.

For years, in fact, for my entire adult life, I existed as a small part of something that was much bigger than myself. It was more than being a small cog in the machine with the worthy mission of defending America. Rationally, that was easy to reconcile and walk away from.

What’s one less lieutenant in the grand scheme of things?

What went on in the background of my time in the navy though, was harder to leave behind. It was the role of a teammate. It was the role of a servant leader. It the role of a husband who had come to expect that he would go months without sleeping in the same bed with his wife. A brother who would miss weddings. A son who wouldn’t be there for a cancer diagnosis. And it was, no matter how hard I tried to downplay it, a life of risk and danger.

I’d risked myself and my teams with enough regularity to need to believe that what I did was worth it; that it mattered. And I learned to put myself behind the needs of nearly everything the life of service put in front of me. In turn, I devalued my own needs so exhaustively, that I didn’t know any other way to be. It wasn’t conscious. And didn’t feel like much of a burden. Yet it was clearly heaped upon me. And though I never could bring myself to manufacture the persona of a tortured hero, when my life of service was over, I tried to put whatever came next in the same spot.

It didn’t work.

Marine engineering service contracts, as decent and honest as that work was, wasn’t going to fill the void. Neither was being a stock broker. Neither was pursuing an MBA. Or even coaching my kid’s T-Ball team. Once one commits to the life of service, that service becomes the purpose. And when that service is important enough to shrink everything else about you to an irreversible minimum, it’s tough to pull the nose back up.

Purpose is everything.

Above all, we are beings who crave purpose. We can live healthy, adjusted lives without success, recognition or resources beyond our basic needs. But without purpose, we wander into the dangerous territory of feeding the lesser angels of our nature.

My class from Annapolis will hit twenty years this May. And so many of my classmates are about to embark on the same journey I did, twice; now as forty somethings who have left much of their best years and best efforts in far off places doing important things soon to be lost to the distant reaches of their memory.

My advice to them?

Find a way to continue to serve. Most understand that a departure from the life is a shift in purpose. Few understand what living a life where that purpose was service actually does to those living it, until they stop.

Next week I’ll be participating in a panel at the Brookings Institute with other vets who have found a way to continue on in a life of service of a different kind. From non-profits, to government to political office, there’s ways to stay engaged.  I’m looking forward to the discussion.

For info, click here.


When I was twelve years old, I pitched a one hit, sixteen strike-out game against my team’s Little League rival in the playoffs. I stole home on a delayed steal without a sign in top of the sixth inning to score the go ahead run. Then I struck out the sides in the bottom half to end it.

I remember what my coach said to me on my way out to the mound for the last inning. I remember what the ump said to me after the game. And I remember every pitch of the last at bat.

I’ve lived a pretty full life. I’ve been off to war. Married, had kids. Lived, loved and laughed. But I’d be lying if I told you I have many better memories than that game.

For a kid, baseball is magical. I don’t have a better word.

Of late, football has gotten more popular. Baseball is slow. It’s methodical. It takes time. You have to do it right. There’s no way around it. The best athletes still have to hit a round ball with a round bat squarely. And a pitcher still has to get batters out. There’s no clock to run out. Nowhere to hide.

It’s the hardest thing to do in all of sports.

It’s a strange game with obscure rules and many non-transferrable skills. But generations of fathers and sons and grandsons and great-grandsons have been playing it the same way. It’s worn its paths. We all groan the same way and say the same things when we see our kids doing the wrong things. When a catcher reaches for a ball in the dirt instead of getting down to block it. Or when a short stop takes a grounder off to the side instead of getting in front of it.

The greats last forever too. Because baseball is the original statistically significant activity. Big league players face thousands of pitches a year. They have ten thousand at bats, all tracked in detail since the 19th century. We can compare players from different eras the way you can’t with any other sport. My ten-year-old reminded me of this when he called out, while inspecting the back of a baseball card, that Nolan Ryan struck out 301 batters in a year when he was 42. He understood how absurd that was.

“Aren’t you 42 Dad?”

Baseball math is a thing. Three hits in a double header is a .375 average. Calculating ERA is runs times innings divided by nine. July equals half of 162. September equals 3/4 of it. I’m not sure how much of the daily math I do in my head for my job was learned from baseball. But it’s probably more than you’d think. Simply keeping score, in the book, takes a graduate level course to figure out.

Before there were endless options of things to watch on endless platforms to watch them on, we could count on there being a baseball game on TV after dinner. Now that there are so many alternatives, I still watch baseball. It’s my default setting. It plays in the background like the sounds of nature. Every night. Six days a week, for six months, we watch the story of a season unfold.

And if you ever go to a game, today’s ballparks are modern wonders worth seeing.

The best teams lose to the worst teams all the time. And on any given night something remarkable can happen. But mostly it’s just familiar faces and familiar voices and something to pay some small part of our attention to.

There’s plenty wrong in the world today that I could, and do, write about. There are modern problems that we have to fix. And plenty of things that just don’t make sense any more. But today baseball is back. And I’m taking my son to the ballpark. And for a few hours things will make sense to me and to him and we’ll be together with a connection we find with few other things for a few hours.

Because for both of us, baseball is magical. And today it’s back.

Iraq: A Reflection

Sixteen years and two days ago, the United States invaded Iraq.

Sixteen times this date has come and gone. More and more it does without much more than a brief mention in passing. Sixteen times it’s come since we fumbled clumsily with the questions of accountability. Sixteen times we’ve missed the opportunity to have an honest dialogue about what it all means for people like me who served there.

Yesterday Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took to Twitter with some sharp words. “16 years ago the U.S. illegally invaded Iraq, leaving a trail of destruction and lives lost…We must hold accountable those who repeatedly lied in the run-up to war”

I served in Iraq. And I served in Africa. I’ve been to southern Somalia near where Congresswoman Omar grew up. I’ve seen the types of camps in eastern Kenya from which she immigrated to the United States. And so I wouldn’t expect her to let issues related to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East pass without remark. Her district elected her to give voice to marginalized people, including the global citizens impacted by our decisions to go to war in regions few here in America will ever see.

In as much as it matters, as one of the 1.5 million service members who served in Iraq, I take no offense.

It’s taken a bit of time for me to wrestle with my role in the war in Iraq. And though it might be easy for me to backslide into an apologetic posture, some form of revisionist regret, I won’t. And it might be equally as easy to double down on my patriotism and dive headlong into a jingoistic rant about all that the world owes me for standing the watch. I won’t do that either. Because the reality is more nuanced than either of those approaches allow.

The reality is that I volunteered to serve in the United States armed forces. And to some degree, I voluntarily served in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq took days. The war took years. The overwhelming majority of those that served spent their time protecting themselves and others from the violence of the aftermath of the invasion. And in that context, our life of service in war played out.

We were once warriors.

A warrior’s life is the sacrifice of service. A warrior’s life is war. It’s not at odds with the message of love and grace that my faith teaches me. For us, war was love for the men and women we served with and for. For us, war was love and grace and charity for those we protected. For those we swore to give all we had and ever will have to see them safe.

I know what I did there. It’s not at odds with who I am. It took me a while to get that, but I did. And so the belonging and brotherhood I felt in doing it is nothing I look back on differently, no matter how obvious a mistake the war has become since I fought in it.

Wondering over the Twitter-verse today, in reflection of the heroism witnessed in the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, writer Julia Galef asked “How would one train for heroism?”

Most replies were what you’d expect. Military training. Combat experience. Other kinetics. For me, the answer comes out of the same reflection I had on my time in service in Iraq. The true heroism I witnessed didn’t come from training. It didn’t come from glory seeking violence. It came from valuing others around you so much, that you couldn’t bear to see them hurt if it were up to you.

No matter what the cost.

As it pertains to my role in the war, that’s all that matters.

As it pertains to our role in that war…that’s another story. We do more to dishonor those who serve by not insisting we take an honest account of our government’s record on how when and why we go to war than we ever will by speaking up.

That’s a lesson I hope lasts longer than 16 years.

Better Thoughts

Words won’t take us where we need to go. But they’re all I have any more. And it doesn’t feel right, today, to keep them to myself.

I was struck by a thought, not long ago, that it matters how we think the ugly thoughts that we think. The truly ugly thoughts are about other people. And it matters how large a group you think those ugly thoughts about.

A person. A family. A city.

A religion? An entire race?

A rational person understands that the bigger the group you think those thoughts about, the less likely they are to be true.

We are not that rational though.

I was deployed on 9/11 when the towers fell. I was a part of the initial air strikes into Afghanistan a month later. I was a part of the global war on terrorism for the next ten years. I walked out of Iraq in 2010 when we announced official combat operations were officially ending.

I saw it. End to end.

I spent a decade of my life hunting, finding, and neutralizing terrorist threats. Every single one, and there were hundreds, were radical Muslim terrorists.

There’s plenty about that life that I don’t wish to carry around. And a few things that I do. One that I would scream from the highest mountain tops today, after a terrorist murdered 49 people at prayer in New Zealand, is this:

The overwhelming beauty in the imperfect humanity of the people of the Muslim culture in the places in which I served.

You would recognize it.

Mothers and fathers caring for children. Children playing the way children play. Husbands protecting their family. God fearing people, gathering to pray to something bigger than themselves. Bigger than their fears. Bigger than their pain.

Warriors, fighting shoulder to shoulder with my teammates to hold the line against the version of hatred motivated violence that had infected their society.

The infection is a common one. I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve ever been. The need to hate the other group. Asia. Africa. The Middle East. America.

New Zealand.

Today I’ll mourn the innocent killed at prayer. And I’ll give no name to the common instrument of hate that delivered their fate.

I pray that we keep the humanity of those all to easily classified as “not us” near our hearts and in our minds. There are no two sides to this debate. There is no debate to be had. Just sadness. And loss.

And hopes for a time when we think better thoughts of each other.

The Odd Institution

There’s a conversation I once had with the director of admissions at a top west coast business school that I’ve kept tucked away in the back of my mind for the past 15 years or so. Yesterday’s college admissions fraud scandal  that was plastered all over my social media feed brought it back to the front of my mind.

I had recently returned from my second deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and I was smack in the throes of my first military separation after six years as an officer. I had a plan. That plan was to go to a top business school, transition into work in the private sector and start a life and a family.

It was a good plan.

I didn’t get into my top choice school though. And that led to the conversation. When I contacted the director of admissions for feedback on why, he told me plainly that my undergraduate GPA at Annapolis was too low.

I asked him if he had a frame of reference for how overall GPAs at service academies, notorious at the time for not participating in grade inflation, stacked up with other groups. He said he didn’t know. And that it was something that they didn’t consider. He said there was a waiver system for low GPAs. But he told me that they had run out for the year. And that he didn’t know what the cut line for how many waivers was based on. Or how they chose priority for who got the waivers. Or to what other standards, besides GPA, the waivers would be considered against.

My take away from that conversation wasn’t that I had been unjustly wronged by an institution and denied something that I deserved. Instead, I concluded that it was clear that the process was pretty loose. At least relative to how much it mattered to my personal outcomes that I went to a top business school.

In the end I ended up going to another good, but not “as good”, business school. One nice enough to hold my spot when I got recalled and sent back to Iraq after my first semester. I had no problem with the academics as everyone got A’s and B’s pretty much no matter what. And then I transitioned out for good into the tech sector in Silicon Valley where I am a decade later.

My experience affirmed my original suspicions. A whole lot of this doesn’t really make much sense. This being the role higher education and things like admissions processes and standards play in our society.

If an alien came down to earth, or even someone from Denmark really, and tried to figure out what’s going on in American higher education, they’d have some questions.

Why does it matter if I can swim fast?

Why do text books cost more than tablets that could hold a thousand text books worth of data…or access all the text books via the magic of internet?

What’s tenure?

Why does it cost so much? And why is that cost rising faster than other things?

What role do Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, our two highest paid state educators, play?

Can you use a government loan to pay for tuition at a government school? If so, how come the government loans you money for you to pay back to another government, which is partially funded by the same government, to give you something that you can then pay interest back to the government.

What does one do with an endowment larger than 37 state budgets?

What’s the Fiesta Bowl?

They’d fumble around with these novelties and then eventually get to the big one. What’s the purpose of higher education in America?

The quick answer is to provide America with an educated society, so that we may be a more capable one. Economist Bryan Caplan offers a compelling argument in his book, The Case Against Education. Caplan takes a data backed approach to addressing the question. Is it all about human capital, as the answer I provided above would lead you to believe?  Or is it about signaling a mixture of intelligence, commitment and the ability to follow the rules to future employers.

Caplan believes it’s mostly the latter; much more than anyone cares to admit. And in a society in which that’s true, educating one’s self is the right thing to do in order to benefit one’s own potential outcomes. As a society as a whole though, the entire activity yields limited positive impact that couldn’t be duplicated with a much less ridiculous and far less resource intensive vetting process.

Even if one believes that Caplan has overstated his case, it’s fair to ask, in a world of skyrocketing education costs and overwhelming student loan debt, is the juice really worth the squeeze?

My experience in education is that it’s far more signaling than human capital. My Naval Academy ring has earned me more money than my ability to work our differential equations. I need little science to prove this as I’ve done zero differential equations in my work life and spent the majority of some period of my life learning how to do them in school.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s news about the college admission scandal. It’s everything we want in a story. It’s people of privilege with no-good kids that they can’t get to do anything, doing unbelievable, reprehensible and illegal things to get those kids into school. We can’t get enough of the moralizing and finger wagging at the things that we love to hate. Restrictive elite organizations. And people of privilege. And no-good kids.

As I read through the list of bad deeds and unbelievable behavior, I couldn’t help but wonder about that 15 year old conversation. And just how odd the things that we care about are. And that when pressed, people that ought to know why we care, can’t really say why we care.

Sailing teams. Special considerations for standardized tests. Community service. Money.

I value the place academia has in our culture highly. There needs to be a place where knowledge and learning and science are the objective. Not the means to an end. But I can easily separate that purpose from the industrial complex that is higher ed today fairly easily. And I can see the great burdens and barriers to opportunity the institution is contributing to society. And I can’t help but wondering how many better ways are there to do what we’re doing.

The Case for the Green New Deal

One of the lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election is that of the dominant power of an asymmetrical actor in a crowded field of conformists. The larger the field and the more conforming the conformists, the more susceptible it is to disruption.  Discussions of merit aside, one certainty was that Donald Trump disrupted early 21st century American politics. And since his election, there’s been a feverish effort to explain that disruption. Historical comparisons abound.

Trump is Nixon. Trump is Andrew Jackson. Trump is Hitler.

In reality, Trump is Trump. And the world is a complex system in which comparison of individuals from different times and places for comparison sake yields little useful insights. Comparing the patterns of political outcomes is more useful.

Thinking about the inflection points of national level politics, patterns do arise. Value systems present in population bases and cultures show some consistency. The media has leaned liberal for some time. Big business has leaned conservative for some time. Urban and Rural America rarely move together. Through history, parties have emerged, died out and flipped their constituencies wholesale.

If we think about the last two major inflection points for how our parties have organized, we see a fracturing of the Democratic party, twice over. The first was during Roosevelt’s run up to his unprecedented third term. The defection of his Vice President, Cactus Jack Garner, the Texas Democratic stalwart (there once was such a thing) who chose to run in a primary against Roosevelt as an alternative to a continuation of New Deal liberal policies best highlights the divide.

While the New Deal government programs aimed at helping working class America resonated in depression era rural America, growth of the federal government for growth’s sake personified in a third term for Roosevelt, did not. As a result, Garner left, and took with him some of the non-liberal strain of the democrats focused on state’s rights.

The second inflection point was that of Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic party of the 60’s and the expulsion of segregationist southern democrats. Passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago depended on a vote that broke along regional lines, not party. And so the democratic party fractured again. Nixon’s much discussed “southern strategy” was less a diabolical effort to continue to subjugate marginalized populations and more of a politically logical on-boarding of disillusioned democrats from the previous two decades of party demographic shifts.

Intentional or not though, the outcome was clear. A political debate that broke neatly along culture lines. And so the political and cultural divide has grown in the decades that we’ve fed it.

If we try to see the rise of Donald Trump as another pivot we might find that, in reality, no such pivot is obvious. President Trump’s first term accomplishments have been a massive cut in corporate tax rates and a shrinking of government institutions and regulations. No new ideas. No departure from the GOP of the last hundred years.  And so one is left to search for exactly what the asymmetry of the Trump candidacy was and is left with realization that it was nothing more than the same culture war, accelerated by the Trump brand, along already existing party lines.

Trump was willing to pour gas on the cultural divide. Not only would the party of the old ways not apologize for who they were. They were going to go on the offensive to show why America was still theirs.

The 2020 Democratic field is taking shape in response. And if there is one hope I have for the upcoming election, I hope we get something else to argue about than whose culture is better. Or who’s way of life is more American. It’s a debate of impossible philosophical arguments and imagined crises.

Abortion. Immigration. The Second Amendment.

All issues that if we insist they are central problems for which the government solving (or re-solving) will do little to make America a more livable place for the next 100 years. They’re simple re-treads of decided or undecidable law that aim only to energize a political base. Issues that don’t enable substance only compel candidates to blow dog whistles loud enough for their bases to respond to.

If there is a beacon of hope on the horizon, it’s the introduction of the New Green Deal. Not because it’s a good idea. Admittedly, I simply don’t know enough about it yet to make that decision. But it’s something to discuss. It’s a platform that isn’t aimed at winning a culture war. It’s something to say you are for, or against.

Infrastructure investment. Higher Education Reform. Sustainable Healthcare Reform. Economic Development. Climate Change.

There are problems to solve in those domains to make America a better place for the next 100 years. If debating the Green New Deal gets us kick started out of muck of the culture war we’re in now, I’m for it.

Even if I’m against it.


When I was 14, I was thrown out of the first high school I attended.

It was a public school with plenty of great teachers and opportunities to learn. But it was also a large school with thousands of students in a rough neighborhood that had bigger problems to solve than to make sure some harmless freshmen who kept to himself went to class.

So I didn’t.

And when my first report card came, with mostly D’s and F’s and below the minimum attendance required to continue on to the second semester, that was it. My mother, a single mom with one kid in college and one screaming full speed in the wrong direction, called in a favor. We had a family connection with one of the priests at the local Catholic High School. He pulled some strings that allowed me to enroll immediately.

There were two catches.

The first was that I would have to pay the tuition out of the money I earned as an ocean lifeguard in the summer. The second was that I would have to stay after school every day with that priest doing my homework in his office.

For six months, that’s what I did. My grades turned around and soon he let me join the crew team. And then the football team. Eventually, I graduated with honors and six varsity letters and was on my way to Annapolis to attend the United States Naval Academy. I have no idea where I would have ended up without the intervention of that priest and that Catholic school that gave him the platform to help me.

During countless hours alone with him in his office, nothing remarkable ever happened to me. He had many similar arrangements with other boys. He had none with girls.

Yesterday the Camden Diocese in New Jersey released a list of 57 clergy members accused of child sex abuse. The priest, the one that took me under his care and gave me an opportunity to turn my life around, was on the list.

In 2005, ten years after I graduated, he was permanently removed from the ministry for credible accusations that he sexually abused a boy in 1964. The boy was about the age I was when I was introduced to him.

The list that the Diocese released is something out of a nightmare.

There are other priests from my high school on it. One was the principal when my father went there. The principal that followed him was on the list too. There are priests from the Catholic grade school I attended. The head priest of the church I was baptized in is on the list. A priest from the church my son was baptized in is on the list. A half dozen from the Catholic elementary school my father attended are on it too.

Over and over the pattern is the same. Men born in the 30’s and 40’s, ordained in the 50’s and 60’s, moved from parish to parish and then died. Of the 57, 47 were in the county I grew up in. Of the 47, 12 were eventually removed from the ministry.

The rest are dead.

I come from a small town where it seemed like everyone was Catholic. The church was woven into our culture. Today, 25 years after I left home, I read a list of names in an article shared on Facebook that told me it was also riddled with sexual predators.

The response from the local community has been a justified mix of outrage and disgust. There’s some shame mixed in there too. There will be plenty more to come. But that’s not why I’m writing this tonight, in my hotel room on a business trip after midnight thousands of miles away from anyone who has heard of places like Absecon or Ventnor.

I’m writing this because of the feeling I had discussing the article via text with a friend from my hometown earlier today. The feeling that won’t allow me to include the priest’s name when it’s a mere Google search of “priest, Camden, abuse” away for anyone to see.

It’s the feeling that I shouldn’t say anything at all.

Because after all, Lord knows where I’d be without the opportunity that priest and that church provided me. And in saying something, I can’t help but feel like an ingrate.

The reality is, the Camden Diocese ran an organization in which they provided unabated access for sexual predators to children. I was one of them. That I wasn’t a victim of abuse seems more remarkable than if I were. That they had no idea they were putting us at risk when instances of abuse were clearly happening on such a broad scale is insulting.

But that’s not how I feel. Not completely. I still feel like maybe I should just be quiet. After all, where would I be if not for them.

This feeling, this broken, misguided feeling is the feeling that silenced countless mothers and fathers when their children came to them with the stories of what happened in the trusted care of men of God. It’s the feeling that kept children from saying anything at all to them in the first place. This is the power dynamics of a church that abuses its parishioners. This is the unforgivable evil that lived, and still lives, within the Catholic Church.

As I type this, I’m imagining the people I’ll be letting down that will read what I just wrote. They’ll tell me that the accusations are exaggerations. Or that the church found out about it after the priests were dead. Or that they’re doing all they can. They’ll tell me that I’m just an ingrate piling on an institution that has been at the center of our community’s faith for generations.

After all they’ve done for me. How could I say anything at all?

I can say something because the Camden Diocese and the Catholic Church at large harbored sexual predators for decades and gave them unquestioned access to children. And they hid behind God to do it.

And by their own beliefs, they’re in for much worse than a critical blog post.

Why I Root for the Patriots

The last time I didn’t root for the Patriots in a Super Bowl was 2002.

I didn’t know then that they’d be in it eight more times with the same coach and the same quarterback over the next seventeen years. If I did, I would have been pulling for them then too. That’s contrary to the trend, I know. That year I rooted for the team I thought was the most remarkable at the time. The 2002 Kurt Warner led Rams were the “greatest show on turf”. They were fast and dynamic and they were changing the game before our eyes.

That’s what I root for.

That thing that is most remarkable.


On Sunday I rooted for the Patriots to win their 6th Super Bowl in the last seventeen years. No one else I know, outside of Patriots fans, was rooting for them. The true Pats fans have no choice. We humans choose our political affiliations and our sports teams between the ages of nine and fourteen. And once locked in, they almost never change no matter what evidence is introduced to the environment.

My wife tried to hate the Chargers for moving to L.A. She lasted until opening kickoff.

That those two preferences–sports team and political allegiance– lodge themselves into the same irrational parts of our brains is telling. I have a bit of a soft spot for my childhood heroes, the Dallas Cowboys. But I’ve always found myself inherently rooting for whatever team is doing something remarkable.

The same can be said for my politics, by the way.

Few teams evoke the type of vitriol the Patriots do, with their smug quarterback and his supermodel wife and the old curmudgeon head coach who never smiles and doesn’t suffer stupid sideline reporter questions. There’s charges of cheating and deflating footballs. Their politics are dicey. There’s plenty of reasons not to like them. Yet I do. For one reason.

I’m never going to see this level of excellence again, in football at least, in my lifetime.

Belichick and Brady have played in more Super Bowls than the bottom 11 teams in the league have combined in the 53 years the NFL has been playing them. They’ve won more than the bottom 18 teams combined. In a league of frequent injuries, salary caps and free agency, that record is absurd. There are things about the way the world works that can be learned from how they’ve done it. And so I hope they keep doing it.

I’m not one for hero worship. They’re just men playing a game after all. I don’t want my kids to grow up to be them. Their performance says little of their character or morals. But saying that it’s just football misses the point too. Because football is a highly competitive, highly complex system involving actors with misaligned objectives. And so is much of the world around us. If you care enough to wonder why they achieve such a consistent, positive outcome, you might see a few things.

Here’s five that come to mind:

Execution is king. Talent helps. Strategy is important. But execution is the multiplier. If you watch the Patriots play, and you know what to look for, the variance between what’s supposed to be done by their players and what is actually done by their players is extremely low. The instances when the variance is high, is when the other team’s athleticism or talent has actively prevented them from executing what the Patriots want to. Which means, in sports talk, that the Pats rarely, if ever, beat themselves. You have to beat them. That’s the power of execution.

Strong link strategies dictate weak link responses. One of the most common observations in the business or military worlds that I’ve worked in, is that it’s more effective to concentrate energy in your strengths than to distribute resources to shore up weaknesses. The Patriots apply this as a core principle.

On Defense, they focus their strategy on stopping the other team’s best offensive players, not defending against all outcomes. They dare their opponent to try to beat them with what they don’t do well.

On offense, they focus on whatever the other team’s defense can’t stop, and they do it relentlessly until it’s stopped. Both strategies evoke a response from the other team that doesn’t allow them to flex their strengths. Which most teams simply can’t win without doing against an experienced team that makes few mistakes.

Flexibility is underrated. I’ve watched the Patriots win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback who didn’t look like he could throw the ball more than ten yards downfield. I’ve seen them win low scoring games with suffocating defenses. I’ve seen them win by throwing the ball 60 times a game. I’ve seen them re-introduce a two-tight end offense when no one had seen it in decades. Sunday, they played with run two running backs in the backfield like it was 1991. Generally, teams find a great quarterback and maybe some surrounding talent and ride out a few years of winning with that strategy. The Pats have re-invented themselves at least 5 times that I can count and been better than everyone else each time.

Disruption leads to dominance. The Patriots study the trends and figure out what no one is doing anymore and they do it. In doing so, they make teams play differently against them then they have to against the other 31 teams. At the end of the year they’ve played a season the same way against teams that only play one that way once. And so they’re understandably better at it. The Greek poet Archilochus wrote in a classic poem and oft used business school trope that the fox knows many solutions and the hedgehog knows one big thing. The genius of the Patriots are that they are both fox and hedgehog at the same time. Their one big idea is that they have no one big idea. They win a million ways as a rule.

The players matter. Maybe not the way you think though. One of the funniest things anyone can see on the internet is Tom Brady’s 2000 draft combine performance set to music. He’s awkward, skinny and un-athletic and went in the sixth (that’s late) round of the draft. Sunday’s Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelmen went in the seventh (the last) round. One in five Patriots players weren’t even drafted at all but instead joined after as free agents; the NFL version of college walk-ons.

Assuming the baseline athleticism of any NFL player, Belichick and his staff put a premium two things. What they call “football IQ” and coach-ability. Flexibility and execution require smart players who follow directions and buy into the system. There are transcendent talents all over league who could play for a hundred years and not win as much as Brady did. And he ran the 40 yard dash slower than I did.

I know it’s not popular to like the Patriots right now. And maybe it’s not great for the NFL that they’re winning every year. But it’s not unreasonable to appreciate what they do. If you lead teams or build things for a living, I’m pretty sure there’s some things to be learned from them. Execution, focusing on strengths, flexibility, talent standards and disruptive creativity have universal value. I’ve built teams in corporate America and for the U.S. Special Operations command and I’m not sure I can come up with better first principles.

Whether you can stomach Tom Brady’s Instagram account or not is a different issue. I just hope he keeps playing football some more.

I’m ready for number seven.