In Memory of My Friends

Freedom isn’t free. That’s the message playing out on my social media stream with heartfelt devotion this Memorial Day weekend in pictures of Arlington National Cemetery or flag draped coffins, reminding us, maybe for just a few days, that some have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. And as a Veteran, I am deeply appreciative of the honor that my friends and family show my fallen comrades. They’re right. Freedom isn’t free. We pay for our freedom. We pay for it with our industry and our innovation. We pay for it with our compassion and our willingness to compromise in the name of the greater good. We pay for it with our commitment to pay attention to things that matter in service to exercising our democratic duties as Americans. Sometimes, when we must, we pay for it with the lives of our young men and women.   And so this weekend we honor them.

I would like to take our collective conscience a little further though, past honor and respect. Past gratitude, past reverence. This weekend I would like ask people to move past all of it and spend some time in conscious thought about what the cost of war is; the honest cost of war.  In our history, we have lost 1.2 million men and women to combat deaths. Of these dead, the logical majority were young people at the dawn of their membership in the brotherhood of mankind. The average age of the 58,220 Americans killed in Vietnam was 23.

What masterpieces of art, what forces of industry, what transcendent leaders and humanitarians were snuffed out well before their prime? What husbands and fathers, mothers and sons paid the ultimate bill for goods they never received? As has been the case through the ages, the youth pay dearly for the misgivings of our elders and their inability to find solutions without violent ends. In With the Old Breed, the most honest war book I’ve ever read, written by a true American hero who served in the hell of Okinawa and Peleliu, Eugene B. Sledge gave voice to our dead.

“I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.”

Freedom isn’t free. And so neither is war. Though we stand ready to fight to defend our freedom and our way of life, it’s not the only thing we fight for. We’ve fought for our security. We’ve fought for politics. We’ve fought for our economy. We’ve fought and sacrificed our countrymen for many things, not just freedom. In one of his earliest speeches of record, a 28-year old Abraham Lincoln captured a truth that 177 years later, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know to be true today.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

There’s still the same amount of ocean between us and anyone as when young Abe made his point. It has been a long time since American men and women have died to protect our freedom alone.

As for my generation of fighting men and women, we have a similar, yet different price to pay.  As it was for many of my graduating class from Annapolis, I was on my first deployment when this war started 14 years ago. Since then, over 8,000 men and women have lost their lives. And as callous as it sounds, that’s not a lot of death for 14 years of war. The American warrior is hard to kill these days. There’s another cost that we continue to pay out in much more subtle figures though.

After multiple deployments in the longest war in the history of our country, many continue to suffer the effects of long-term exposure to stress and trauma. Like a car stuck in drive, often the only peace for them comes when the tank is empty or they crash like my classmate Ben. Ben was a Marine Corps officer who served multiple deployments in Iraq. He took his own life this last March after suffering for over a decade with PTSD and depression. I didn’t know Ben well. I didn’t have to in order to know that he was the energy and light in every room he was in. Now that light is gone forever and the world is worse off for it.

For many of us, the environment we lived in put us in a state where we couldn’t stop chasing it. Every year at this time I am reminded of my friend and classmate Jeremy. Jeremy was a Force Recon Marine Corp Major with multiple hard deployments under his belt during the worst of the fighting Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeremy was a hell of a man. He was better than everyone at everything he ever did. If you knew him, you know what I mean. He died in a BASE jumping accident while on leave from the war. Jeremy was my friend and I miss him. He would have made a strong husband to a good woman or a mentoring father to a son or daughter. He’s gone now.  These are the more subtle costs of our modern war.  Less acute but somehow, more painful and cruel.

I am not a pacifist. I don’t believe that, as a nation, the activities of our military in the near past have been entirely in vain. I was a voluntary part of much of it. There are pictures of my teammates and medals on the wall of my den in the open for my kids to see and be proud of. I don’t wish that my country would lay down her arms and surrender the will to wage war in the name of our freedom, our interests or even our principles. I’m asking for something else. What I ask of my American brothers and sisters is that you take the time this weekend to consider something very important.

Ask yourself, when you formed your opinion about when and how our country should engage in armed conflict with foreign countries, did you put enough thought into it to bet someone else’s life on it? Have you truly taken the time to consider the honest cost of war? If you haven’t, try to spend a little time over the next few days to think about it. There are a few people I won’t be able to stop thinking about this weekend that you owe it to.

The Great American Economy: A Study in Data and Self Deception

Economy  noun econ·o·my \i-ˈkä-nə-mē, ə-, ē-\ the production, distribution or trade, and consumption of limited goods and services by different agents in a given geographical location.

When we ask the American people what their top considerations are in any congressional or presidential election, without question one of the top issues they raise is the economy.  From the definition above, it’s hard to actually imagine that people care about the economy in a literal sense though.  The theories and systems related to that which is described by the definition of an economy are best left to classrooms.   What people actually mean when they say “the economy” is that they care about aspects of our fiscal and monetary policy that actually impact our lives.  Fiscal being budgetary and taxation activities.  Monetary being activities conducted by the Federal Reserve that impact interest rates.  We choose to use the word “economy” to sum all that up in one average sized word.  We like terms that we can put in our back pocket so we can pull them out when required in discussion or debate to prove a point.   So the “economy” is what we care about.  And so it becomes top issue.

If you think about it just a little bit more though, you can actually give some purposeful voice to the demands of the people’s economy.  When you think about it in reasonable terms, and its important to be reasonable here because there’s quite a bit at stake, you can produce a pretty distinct list of exactly what we care about. To be even more precise, you can get to eight portions of the economy that we really care about.  Here they are in a somewhat particular order.

What American people want of their “economy”:

1. Income that keeps pace with inflation

2. Job growth equal to employment demand

3. Stable employment rates

4. Historically moderate tax rates

5. Affordable cost of borrowing

6. Participation in growth through investment

7. The ability to retire at a reasonable age

8. A safety net in hard times.

The good news is, we actually have data on all eight of these categories. When you throw economic theory and political principles out the window, you can do some unbiased statistical analysis.  So we did that.  We analyzed 19 separate economic categories that included government spending, income tax rates, interest rates, trade deficits, financial markets, GDP, budget surplus/defecit and corporate profits.  By simple correlation analysis, we can ignore the rhetoric and theory and look at simply what the data tells us.   So here it is both in raw form and commentary.

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What happens when taxes went up? 

People had less money.  But you didn’t need data to tell you that.  But interestingly, job growth increased and unemployment decreased.  The S&P 500 went up.  Corporate profits decreased, which makes sense, because they were paying higher taxes.  In the statistical world, we are always careful to point out that correlation is not causation.  Which means in lay terms, just because two points of data showed a pattern, it doesn’t mean one caused the other.  What we do know is that the data alone does not support the history of dire economic consequences from tax increases.  That doesn’t mean we have to like them though.

What happens when corporate profits increase? 

Surprisingly nothing.  Though profits increased with lower taxation, the growth doesn’t appear to materialize into wage increases, job growth or significant financial market gains.  From a data perspective, the only thing that appears to benefit from corporate profits, is well, corporate profits.  This isn’t a purposeful commentary about the evils of corporate America. It’s simply what the data says.

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What happens when corporate profits decrease?

We don’t know because it’s never happened.   Even during the great recession that started in 2008, corporate profits continued to grow at record rates.  What correlates to the spike in unemployment and the crash in financial markets is a slow down in the rate of growth.  Which means companies were more profitable during that time than in the years previous to the crash, they just weren’t more profitable enough.  And why did it slow down?  As far as the data shows, for no reason at all related to taxes, wages, spending, interest rates etc.  Which leads us to believe that free market forces of expansion and contraction dictate rate of growth; not taxation, wages, spending, trade, currency exchange rate etc.  Again, this is not principle or rhetoric, just data.

Do we spend more tax payers money when we raise taxes?

Oddly, no.  One of the strongest correlations in the entire analysis shows that we spend more when taxes are lower.  Clearly no one is arguing that when we lower taxes, we spend more because taxes are lower.  What we are saying however, is that the data shows us that we spend independent of how much money we collect from taxes.  Which is why our national debt is higher now as a percentage of GDP than at any time in our history.  The conclusion is that it has at least as much to do with historically low tax rates than it is out of control spending.

Is our spending out of control?

We do spend more than we used to.  The increases in spending exist in social security, medicare and medicaid, and social safety net programs.  People live longer then ever before and medical care that simply didn’t exist in the recent past presently does exist.  What we choose to spend on safety net programs is a choice. When unemployment spikes, our government spending does as a result.  Choosing to do so however appears to have no negative impact on any economic outcomes that we care about, other than supplying us with income and resources when we fall on hard times.  It simply means we spend more money.  Which matters, especially when you don’t fund it.

So what’s the “so what”?

What does it all mean?  The rhetoric around taxes and spending and how it impacts our lives is not supported by the data.  We certainly don’t like to pay higher taxes.  Nor should we.  But the increased costs associated with modern lifespans and healthcare are taking their toll.  And this is not because of the Affordable Care Act.  At least not yet. Most of this data comes from well before it was in place..  There is one important consideration though.  Whatever our political affiliation, we all agree that at a minimum, a government’s role is to exist and remain solvent so it can continue to govern. Which is a pretty low bar.  If you take this data seriously, and I do, you see that there’s nothing that actually supports the “trickle down” effect from lower taxes.  Which is actually good in one way.  It leaves us with a clear choice; to have the services that our government presently provides or to not have the services that our government presently provides.  Right now we’re choosing to have them and not pay for them because we’re hiding behind the rhetoric that choosing to pay for them would be bad for the economy.   The data doesn’t support it but our inability to have effective political debates in congress, or anywhere won’t let us get to that choice.  My guess, is we’d have some, divest of others and maybe even improve ones that weren’t working.  We’d be forced to prioritize.  That is, if we could actually talk about this.  Which we can’t.

This level of analysis isn’t particularly hard to do and the conclusions that it yields are strikingly conclusive.  They’re just not popular ones to advocate for because frankly, we can’t have honest discussions any more without being stuck in the irrelevant loop of “government bad” -v- “government good” paralysis.   Which puts us in the impossibly dysfunctional position of having more, paying less and not being able to prioritize anything until we drive off a cliff of insolvency.  Painful truths hurt.  So we don’t say them.  If we don’t want to pay for the social programs, then cut them.  But there will be no denying that we are cutting them in order to preserve the lowest tax rate in my life time. Or, maybe we try reviewing and prioritizing, like any organization on the planet that has a budget. But we can’t, because we’ve stopped talking.   And so the self deception continues and our deficit grows as does our compliance with our insolvency as a nation.  This one actually isn’t that hard. But it’s going to take a discussion.  And we can’t do that any more.

Ike’s Cross of Iron: 70 Years after V-E Day

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.  Though the date that WWII started is debatable, it lasted about 2,200 days, during which an estimated 60 million military and civilian human beings lost their lives. Those 60 million souls represented about four percent of the world’s population, the ratio equivalent of killing every living person in the United States today. During those 2,200 days, an average of 27,000 people were killed a day. That’s three times the population of the town I grew up in, every day, for six years. My generation’s grandparents lived through and witnessed the most horrific time in the history of mankind. They met this horror with courageous resolve and they did so to ensure that the forces of autocracy and genocide did not march unchallenged across the globe. I hear regularly how crazy the world has gotten and how dangerous these times we live in are. Clearly time has dulled the memory of what truly dangerous times we have seen. 

One man who understood fully what dangers war brought was Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Having served as Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force during the battle of Normandy and the 10 months of war that led to the final surrender of Germany, Ike had a front row seat for the most comprehensive organized violence in the history of mankind.  As we take a moment to honor those who sacrificed to accomplish this great end, we must also take a moment to reflect on the legacy of the uneasy peace that has helped form the America we know today.

Eight years after V-E Day, less than 100 days into his presidency, Eisenhower delivered his “Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  It was given a month after Joseph Stalin’s death in what we now know to be a last chance effort to stave off the arms race. In it he warned of the grim outlook of a nation driven by militarization and defense spending.  His words were prescient.  By 2014, the United States would be responsible for half of all defense spending on the planet.  His words serve as a reminder to us that once, our leaders, even those painfully familiar with the horrors of war,  believed that there was another way to live as a nation.

“It instilled in the free nations — and let none doubt this — the unshakable conviction that, as long as there persists a threat to freedom, they must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war.

It inspired them — and let none doubt this — to attain a unity of purpose and will beyond the power of propaganda or pressure to break, now or ever……

…….This has been the way of life forged by 8 years of fear and force.

What can the world, or any nation in it, hope for if no turning is found on this dread road?

The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.

The worst is atomic war.

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.

It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty.

It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower April 16th, 1953

Our Candidate

As the field of potential presidential candidates rounds out for the 2016 election, we at Chartwell West wanted to offer an early endorsement to our candidate. This candidate comes not from a specific party and holds no specific ideological outlook. Instead, this candidate will come with an outcomes based plan to address five strategic initiatives. To give credit where credit is due, three of these come directly from The No Labels National Strategic Agenda. No Labels (www.nolabels.org) is a movement aimed at bi-partisan, results based government action. Their concept of a results based strategic agenda is important. It’s important because effective organizations have outcomes based goals that guide their long-term strategies. Ask any Fortune 100 company executive leader what their strategic initiatives are and they will rattle them off without hesitation. I know I can name mine because it’s what I organize my thoughts and work around. Like successful corporations, the federal government is an important organization and important organizations are clear on what their priorities are. I don’t mean to minimize the power of being principled and let ideology influence your opinions. But if that’s all you have and you bring no real substance to the table on how to fix these important problems, than you have not sufficiently stated your case for candidacy.   Here they are, in no significant order:

Create 25 Million new jobs over the next ten years: The economy of making things is dead. The economy of doing things is fast upon us.   As the earth cooled after the violent destruction of the great recession, we’ve awoken to realize that many jobs that previously existed are never coming back. The good news is, we’re quickly approaching the science fiction future that we all assumed would be here by now so there’s a lot of new industry on its way.   If you are the head the executive branch in our country, you are on the hook for this.   We’re less interested on your principled view of how the economy works and more interested in an outcomes based plan. China has to come up with 10 million jobs a year. You are on the hook for 2.5. That seems fair.

Balance the federal budget by 2030: People live a lot longer than they used to but can’t work a whole lot longer than they used to. This is a fact. Medical care that didn’t exist 20 years ago does now and it costs money. This is a fact.   Pensions no longer exist and we presently are the only military power on the planet capable of effecting stability in regions other than our own. These are two more facts. This last one is also a fact. Our effective personal and corporate tax rates are lower than they have been in over 35 years. Consequently, our budget is not balanced. Top down economics, bottom up economics, that argument doesn’t matter.  Not overnight, but within the next few decades balance the budget. We need to start talking about the math behind it and not just the principles. Principles are good, but model it out and set a goal to execute like any other institution that cares if it is fiscally viable does.

Make America energy secure for another 75 years:   Being dependent on another sovereign country to keep the lights on in your sovereign country is a lot like being in debt to the mob. It makes you do strange things that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t in that situation.  In July of 1941 we froze all Japanese assets in the United States. We had a good reason. They were invading other sovereign countries in Asia. The result was that we deprived Japan of 88% of their oil. Which was a problem for them so they started a war with the most capable industrial power the world has ever seen. Because being dependent on another country for energy makes you do stupid things. I have personally spent years of my life in the Middle East as a part of the blunt instrument of our foreign policy.   Some of those policies were without question influenced by our dependence on foreign energy.   So lets fix that and get back to making decisions independent of where we get our energy.

Secure entitlements for 75 years. This is Social Security and Medicare. It also includes health care in general.   In 1935 the life expectancy of a human being in America was 62 years old. It is presently 79 years old. That’s an increase of 17 years.   During that same time, we have increased the full retirement age for Social Security a whopping two years. Since the average person actually died 3 years before they were able to receive full retirement benefits when we created the bill, and now they live a full 12 years, on average after full retirement we have an increase of…..well, infinity….mathematically speaking. So something has to change.   As for healthcare, it saves more lives annually than the police, fire and public safety services combined.  200 years ago, or so,  when we were setting the norms for what we expected our government to provide, if we had anything that resembled our modern capabilities to heal and prolong life, we wouldn’t be having this debate today. If you’re not a fan of Obama-care, fine. Give me an alternative. But people get healthcare. Non-optional.

Eliminate Areas of Urban Neglect by 2025: We have parts of our cities that have no place in a first world country.   I’m not talking about your garden-variety poor neighborhoods. I’m talking about places that most of America would not actually believe existed unless they saw it with their own eyes. And most never do. Places like Sandtown-Winchester on Baltimore’s west side; Freddie Gray’s neighborhood to be exact. Areas like the U Street Corridor before it was rebuilt less than a decade ago were burned out in the race riots after the assassination of Dr. King. That’s right, 1968. We have neighborhoods still burned out since the race riots of 1968.   The consequences of this institutional decay are exhaustive. In Baltimore an estimated 30,000 people are suffering from lead poisoning because they still have lead paint falling off the walls of the row houses that no one thinks people still live in. Freddie Gray was one of them. I call out lead poisoning not as a root cause for social strife, but as an unacceptable phenomenon in modern America. My father taught in a neighborhood like this in North Philadelphia. He took me to work with him one day when I was 13.   I wouldn’t see that level of physical and societal decay again until I served in war zones in Iraq and Africa. This isn’t singularly about crime, education or employment. This is about areas that have been left behind by our country and beyond the capacity of local or state governments to fix.

These are not easy problems to solve. But they are the problems we have. Clearly, the other branches of our government will have to cooperate in order to accomplish them. But here’s the honest truth.   Over $7 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential election. Is it asking too much for a candidate to invest in something other then rhetoric? Is it too much to expect for a candidate to have a detailed plan on how they would address our serious problems.? The answer is no. So here’s to our candidate. The one who does just that.

A Voice

If you take some time to do a little research, you’ll see there have been about 500 or so instances of civil unrest (academic for riots) in American history. Give or take. We’ve rioted over employment, public transportation, taxes, whiskey distribution, drinking in general, even prostitution. Rioting is a racially and culturally inclusive activity. Irish, Italian, Black, Latino, Catholic, Protestant, you name it, we’ve rioted. Our most concentrated period of rioting came in the 20th century, around the time when we had just about had it with state sanctioned racism. Well, at least most of us had. Rioting didn’t start there though. There were 85 or so documented instances of civil unrest in the 19th century. And since we white folk had the market on, well everything, we also had the market on rioting back then. Oddly, there are only three documented instances of civil unrest in the 18th century. If you look closer, there’s some more to be found. There’s four if you count the Boston Tea Party. Five if you count that whole Revolution riot.  Those didn’t make the list though, probably because of who we were civilly unresting against.

I know its crazy to lump our historic origins in with our uniquely modern problems, but if you read what those imperialist Brits said about us unruly, uneducated colonists, it sounds disturbingly like what I read on my Facebook feed the night the rioting started in Ferguson. The Brits, like many of us a few months ago missed the message.  Parliament responded by passing the “Intolerable Acts” declaring military rule on the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It did not have the desired effect. The rest belongs to text books.

So what’s my point here? It’s this. People don’t riot because they are poor or because it’s a part of their culture or because they don’t know any better. There are poor people that don’t know any better all over the world tonight of every culture sleeping peacefully in their beds, civilly resting. People riot because they feel, right, wrong or indifferent, that they have no voice. That they have, no representation. This is the clear common thread that materializes throughout history. Those pure patriots in Boston even took the time to make up a snappy rhyme about it. Taxation….representation…something like that.  When people have no voice, eventually, it comes to a head.

I work in the consumer software industry.  Bear with me, there’s a relevant analogy here.  When a single customer struggles with something in a consumer software product, we are happy to help that customer, but we don’t change the product.  When many customers struggle with the same thing in a software product, we change it, because there’s something wrong with the “experience”.  We don’t hide behind principal or ideology to maintain status quo.  If the data tells us there’s a problem, there’s a problem and we fix it, or people don’t buy our program and we all get fired.  Here’s why this is relevant. Right now the data is telling us there’s a problem with the African American “experience” in our country.  Unfortunately, no one can opt out of the product so for decades we’ve chosen not to believe what the data is telling us in the name of ideology, ignorance or simple racism without consequence.  Or so we thought.

Here’s where it comes full circle.  Remember, when people feel like they have no voice, eventually it comes to a head.  It starts with civil outrage and unrest and if we’re smart it transitions into a dialogue.  If we’re not, it eventually degrades into something worse.  The Arab Spring may feel like extreme reference, but it’s fundamentally a similar argument.  This is where we need to give ourselves some credit. The dialogue is happening now. We are starting to talk more openly about what the data has told us for decades.  We are starting to talk about how this is our problem to solve.

This is what has changed over the last six months. We haven’t fixed the symptoms of the disease.  Unarmed black men are still being killed by law enforcement officers.  Disproportionately, black men are still being arrested. We still jail people for traffic fines and continue to remove steps from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic mobility ladder.   There’s inexcusable violence taking place on the streets in Baltimore and Ferguson, but once where there would be only outrage, there’s acknowledgement that there is more going on here.  And we’re  talking about it.  We’re paying attention.  Where there was once no voice, no representation, the discussion is everywhere.   We’re asking questions about our incarceration rate.  We’re asking questions about whether or not sending someone to jail for not paying child support has any positive impact on any participant in any part of society.  We’re talking about understanding the root cause of the problem of the race divide in America.  We have given the under-represented our voice.  And a voice is the only thing that has ever led to change.  

The Rail Splitter: What Made Lincoln, Lincoln

The 19th Century German Philosopher Arther Schopenhauer stated, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”If true, Abraham Lincoln had a penchant for delivering bulls-eyes entirely invisible to his cabinet and his opponents.  Though Lincoln was not unique in his shrewd grasp of the political landscape and his ability to leverage relationships to influence, there was something incredibly remarkable about him. Outside of his two years as a member of Congress from 1847-1849, Lincoln had little to no experience in Washington.

An abnormally gracious and tolerant man, his personal temperament was ill-suited for the backroom bare knuckles politics common during the time. He was a backwoods lawyer ridiculed by the press and his opponents. They called him the “rail splitter” because of his time working on the railroad, akin to an uneducated day laborer wandering into the oval office today. His arrival was so uncelebrated, he sneaked into Washington ahead of his inauguration, shamefully as the media of the day was quick to point out, to avoid spectacle or threat of assassination.

So why was Lincoln able to accomplish so much with so little preparation or pedigree? Where did his political genius come from? Beyond the Providence of chance, it came from his mind and the powerful way in which it grasped the big ideas of his time when others could not.

PART I: The Great Abstract

According to theSOI.com, a web based questionnaire used by Fortune 100 technology companies to measures their leaders Styles Of Influence™, people have four major scales: Cognitive Ideas, Relational Emotions, Goal Forcefulness and Detail Order.  Those who score on the highest side of the Cognitive scale are considered to be “abstract” thinkers. “Concrete” thinkers are on the other end of the same scale. The assessment states:

“An abstract person understands the importance of an idea intuitively from a principle or value-driven perspective. Because of this, they are more likely to grasp how one idea can affect another, changing the meaning of both……This person will tend to speak in abstractions and metaphors in order to inspire or motivate.”

Lincoln was an abstract.  He existed almost entirely in the world of the big picture. He spoke incessantly in metaphors and stories. Like Winston Churchill, he had a savant like recall. From a young age, he would entertain whole parties late into the night by reciting, word for word, one of his favorite plays or chapters from his favorite books. He had the ability to keep an enormous amount of information in the front of his mind and recall it when it was most appropriate and attach it to something relevant and easily digested by the room.

Also, like the assessment’s description of “abstracts”, Lincoln had an unequaled grasp of the principles behind the ideas he toiled with and how they ran into and out of each other.

At Gettysburg, he lead with “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He called on the foundational ideals of our forefathers and linked them to the sacrifice of Gettysburg and even more broadly, the Civil War. He drove home the message that this effort was a continuation of the work of our founders that all agreed upon was virtuous.

It’s important to remember that the outcomes of that horrific war hadn’t been written into the textbooks then. And were more in question than most of us are comfortable with understanding. Less than a century after Jefferson wrote the words, the very notion of the viability of democracy and the principles of liberty were still in question. This wasn’t permanent yet. Those tiring of war or politically opposed to the cause of Union or abolition needed to understand what was at stake; the very question of whether government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The people of his time understood Lincoln’s abstract message, as has history. His ability to deliver it in a clear, succinct fashion in less words than I’ve taken to tell you about it was what made Lincoln so enormously effective. His mind, in a real and material sense, had a firmer grasp on the ideas of the moment than those who opposed . And a way to express it so that all who heard, then and centuries since, could grasp what he wanted them to grasp with him.

Part II: Amazing Grace

If you read enough about Abraham Lincoln, you see a  continuous pattern in how he viewed his relationship with others. Lincoln was startlingly self aware and reflective. As a result, he had the supremely empowering ability to accurately evaluate  and understand his impact on any relationship, whether positive or negative.

In The Art of Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute refers to the ability Lincoln exhibited as “getting out of the box.” In any situation of conflict, the most common response of those involved is to have an unrealistic view of their role in the conflict. They are more likely to focus on the other party’s deficiencies to substantiate beliefs that justify their feelings of anger hurt or frustration.   This perpetuates self-deception.Once self-deceived, they see the others involved as obstacles to the outcomes they desire. Often they miss opportunities to value the points of view or inputs of others and take constructive action to effectively manage the best outcomes. In short, they are “in a box” where it is impossible to see the problem objectively.

One of the most telling stories that illustrates Lincoln’s tremendous capacity to “get out of the box” came shortly after a personally difficult defeat in his bid for a seat in the United States Senate in 1855.   It plays out amidst the backdrop of a high profile patent infringement case involving Cyrus McCormack, the inventor of the McCormack Reaper, and a local Illinois manufacturer, The John Manny Company. Since the case was to be tried in Illinois, Lincoln was hired by the Manny Company’s Philadelphia based law firm because of his familiarity with the Illinois legal landscape and the judge presiding over the case. Fresh off of his stinging political defeat, Lincoln threw his energy into preparing the high profile case, recognizing that this was a tremendous opportunity to further his legal career.  It was becoming painfully clear to him, he had little future in politics.

Lincoln spent countless hours meticulously constructing his argument, even traveling to the factory to actually examine the machine. As fate would have it, the case was moved to Cincinnati and Lincoln’s services were no longer required. Unfortunately for Lincoln, though eventually fortunate for history, no one ever let Lincoln know that he was no longer on the case. True to form, he continued to prepare in earnest. He arrived in Cincinnati at the start of the case only to be met by his client and Edwin M. Stanton, an established Ohio lawyer who had since been hired to try the case. Stanton looked at Lincoln and said to his client, “Why did you bring that damned long armed ape here….he does not know anything and can do you no good” Stanton went on to argue the case himself. Lincoln provided his written argument to the legal team that no longer included him and spent the week observing the proceedings from the audience. Though he stayed in the same hotel and ate dinner in the establishment as the legal team trying the McCormack case, they never invited him to join him or asked his council on any matter. His humiliation was complete.

Lincoln’s response to what had to have been a tremendously embarrassing and difficult time shows his truly remarkable immunity to personal insult or bitterness and his empowering, nearly divine capacity for grace.   Lincoln described Stanton’s performance as, “so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared.” As confident as Lincoln was in his abilities as an attorney, and he was confident, he realized that Stanton was the better man for the job. He continued, “For any rough and tumble case (and a pretty good one too), I am enough for any man we have out in the country; but these college-trained men are coming West. They have had all the advantages of a life-long training in the law…..Soon they will be in Illinois…and when they appear, I will be ready” He went home to, “study the law.” Even more remarkably, he was so impressed by Stanton’s performance, six years later he appointed him Secretary of War. Lincoln held no grudge and Stanton grew to respect and love his Commander and Chief, standing by him on the night of his assassination and declaring, “Here lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” No longer, in Stanton’s eyes, a “damned long armed ape.”

In this example, we see clearly the depth and eventual impact of Lincoln’s grace and magnanimity.  He could reasonably have felt entitled to argue the case. He could have reasonably felt bitterness and contempt towards Stanton, especially in light of his behavior. He wasn’t though. He remained clear eyed and “out of the box” and as a result he resolved to better himself and eventually choose Stanton to be one of the most effective cabinet members the United States Government has ever seen. This pattern was consistent whether it be with his cabinet, his generals or the American public as a whole and was one defining characteristics that made Lincoln, Lincoln.

Part III: The Darkness

In February of 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son William Wallace Lincoln died at the age of 11.  Willie, as he was called, had fallen ill and succumbed to typhoid, an unfortunately common occurrence of the times. Somewhere between the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Lincoln lost and buried a child. His wife Mary, emotionally fragile to start, was inconsolable.  She locked herself away from her husband and other young son, Tad, who was also gravely ill with the same disease. Lincoln continued on as head of state and Commander in Chief through a personal darkness that continued through the war.   Willie was the son that was most like his father.  Lincoln’s grief was exhaustive. Standing over the body of his son before he broke into uncontrollable sobbing, Lincoln muttered. “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”

During my last deployment to Iraq, tragedy fell on my family.   A few weeks after I had deployed, my middle son, then two and a half, began to show significant developmental regression. He began to speak less and less and eventually fell into a listless, unresponsive state, barely aware of his surroundings. Two months into the deployment, he was diagnosed with autism. My wife emailed me the news. I read it at my desk in the operations center of the task force I was attached to. Shortly after, my Commanding Officer sent me home for three weeks to be with my family.   I will be forever grateful for his compassion. The three weeks away from the problems of war saved my family. Even with that break, though, the pressure was too much for me to take. When I finally returned home from that deployment, having gone back to Iraq for the final three months, I was a shell of the man I was before. I wouldn’t be the same for a long time.

I aim to make no comparisons between myself and Abraham Lincoln.  Only to provide context and insight for our analogous experiences.  Lincoln had not the luxury of time nor relief from responsibility that I had.   Amazingly though, he was grief stricken but somehow not defeated, as I had been. “There sat the man, with a burden on his brain at which the world marvels — bent now with the load at both heart and brain.” Nathanial Parker wrote. Yet he continued on for three more years of death, doubt and crisis, eventually delivering our nation from its own destruction.   The human toll of the Lincoln story is one that cannot be lost.

History gets the facts right, most of the time. It sometimes gets the motivation or strategy of its cast of characters right too. It rarely remembers their humanity though.   It tells us that FDR had been paralyzed by illness from the waste down. But it does a lesser job to tell us what he was feeling when, at 39, he suddenly lost the ability to do most things that he had been able to do his whole life. It tells us George Washington cast off the yoke of British imperialism, but says much less about the sleepless nights he faced as the full weight of his actions sank in when the future had not yet been written into our textbooks.  History tells us that between 1861 and 1865, 600,000 men lost their lives to combat or disease while Abraham Lincoln through force of will and genius preserved the union and eradicated slavery in America.   It tells us less about the broken heart that beat in his chest while he did it.

A few weeks before he was assassinated, and shortly after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln described a dream that he had to an associate. He had dreamed that he saw a funeral in the White House, and had assumed it was for the President.  Some have used this story to illustrate a sort of premonition or an acceptance his resigned fate.  I know the truth too well though. I lived it. This was the first of many sleepless nights that John Wilkes booth spared him as the stress of crisis and personal loss drained from his conscience.   More than a three story marble statue or a stoic face on our currency, Lincoln was a man.  He was a man who’s suffering and pain helped crease the history of our nation, but a man; no more, no less.

Part IV: Greatness

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were something that millions of children have learned about in elementary schools over the last 150 years. The story tells of the great debates that effectively chronicle the differing points of view between abolitionist and pro-slavery America on the eve of Civil War. The nuance that gets missed is what actually highlights the greatness of our 16th President.

By 1858, Stephen Douglas was a political titan. He had been a member of the Senate for the better part of the past two decades and was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the 1860 Presidential election. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a virtual political nobody. Yet his performance during the series of seven debates gained him national attention, though he lost the Senate election that provided the venue.

Imagine an upstart taking on a modern political stalwart like Ted Kennedy or Bob Dole and beating him so soundly on substance alone that it propelled him to national attention. Lincoln stood, awkward with his freakishly tall frame and ill-fitting clothing, delivering in his high-pitched voice words of heavy consequence.

“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest”

We see this pattern of understated reputation giving way to recognized greatness even in his selection as nominee for 1860 presidential election. Though the 1860 Republican National Convention was held in his own state of Illinois, Lincoln was only able to secure the third most votes in the first ballot behind Republican powerhouses William Seward and Salmon Chase. As a result of secondary and tertiary ballots, jockeying between rivals eventually concluded in Lincoln securing the nomination.

Lincoln started as a third choice and ended up on Mount Rushmore. We see it again when general after general initially dismissed his inexperienced guidance when in the end, Lincoln had the wisdom to understand, from the beginning, that the only military objective that mattered was to destroy the Confederate Army, not to hold territory or win battles. The Confederate ability to take up arms and continue to fight was the war. He ran through a half dozen generals before he finally found one that got it.

Again, in 1863 when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, or due process of prosecution, one of the foundational tenets of our basic rights of Americans, a public outcry began to boil over. He responded by penning a letter released in the press. The argument in the letter was so sound that even his political opponents, and he had many, wandered away from the fight, realizing they were in over their heads if they chose to take on the logic of Lincoln. Even the most optimistic idealist would be hard pressed to imagine that happening today.

So what made Lincoln, Lincoln. Put plainly, his greatness. He was a man stirred by a common motivation. All he desired was to live a life that left a mark. Like most men of substance, he had principled beliefs. Most notably, he believed that ideals needed to be consistent. They needed to make sense and be explained in an honest way. If all men were created equal, then all men were created equal and believing in policies to the contrary void that initial belief.

He didn’t have uncommon principals. What made him uncommon was his thoughts and his words and his temperament. What made him so a titan of our history was what he actually did in service to preservation of the very Union that has gone on to dominate the landscape of the modern world as we know it. If Abraham Lincoln, carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, looked to his right, he would find men who originated from wealth and privilege and education, yet had no greater impact on his country or the legacy of America than he did. It is literally accurate to say that no man in the history of our country traveled from such humble beginnings to such heights with such dramatic consequence.

Lincoln’s legacy as Edwin Stanton rightfully put it, “…belongs to the ages.” A century and a half later, it still does.

A Republic….If You Can Keep It

exceptionalism noun (ĭk-sĕp′shə-nə-lĭz′əm)

  1. The condition of being unique.
  2. The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm

How fragile is your appreciation for the country you live in? Is it something you could be convinced to abandon? Is it subject to a review of the facts? Is it natural law?  A recent bill, introduced by the Oklahoma State legislature, and passed preliminarily by the body’s Education Committee serves to give the State Board of Education the ability to replace the existing Advanced Placement History Course with a separate state approved curriculum that emphasizes more “American Exceptionalism”.   Presently, the language of the bill is being “reworded” in response to national criticism. The impact of the bill’s passing will likely be minimal; a more positive, yet reasonably factually correct version of American history for some kids in Oklahoma. The questions its proposal evokes, however, are more interesting. What is American exceptionalism? Where does it come from? If I don’t entirely agree with it, does that mean I don’t love America? I served to defend it in two wars. Clearly I love America. But why? If I dare to look in the dark corners of our past, do I still feel the same way? The only way to find out, is to do just that.  Here’s what you might find.

All men are created equal, but some have a denominator…..

Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, also known as the Three Fifths Compromise, is one we would rather forget. It wasn’t an accident. It was the outcome of a long, intentional, broadly argued and long digested debate on how to account for “non-white” persons in a state for federal taxation and representation purposes. The words as they were written:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Read, black people and Indians are 60% of a person, written in the same ink as “We the People….”

Mostly Unalienable

How long did we wait to throw the Bill of Rights out the window? About five years. The Alien and Sedition Acts were signed into law in 1798 by President John Adams.   Less than a decade into our existence we had enough of “unalienable rights” and decided to extend the requisite time in country for citizenship from five to fourteen years and imprison or detain anyone in the country who wasn’t a citizen for just about any reason we saw fit. At this point in our country, we had a lot of people who hadn’t been here for 14 years. The country wasn’t even 14 years old. To top it off, we also made it illegal to say anything bad about the government in the press or in public. Fortunately, most of those acts expired in 1800, except one. The Alien Enemies Act is still in place today. It was used to imprison 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

The One Sided Debate

Somehow there is actual debate about the role our country played in the elimination of the indigenous people of North America.   Using words like genocide, extermination or apartheid make people uncomfortable, especially in the land of the free. So instead of debate, I’ll offer you two facts. Do with them what you will. 1) The following speech was read by one of our more celebrated presidents, Andrew Jackson on Dec 6th 1830 in reference to the “Indian Removal Act”. He’s on the $20 bill.

 “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.”

2) Prior to European and then American involvement in the territory now encompassing the United States, Native Americans represented 100% of the population. Presently, they represent 2%.

The Somewhat less than Supreme Court

On our way to ensuring there would be no way to wean us off our slavery addiction without unprecedented bloodshed, we run into Scott –V-Sandford, widely regarded as one of the most desctructive of United States Supreme Court rulings. Which is saying something when you consider the whole “separate but equal” of Plessy-V-Furgeson that set back racial equality about a hundred years. The Dred Scott decision, as it is more commonly known, basically made a slave’s freedom entirely unrelated to whether or not he presently resided in a state that prohibited slavery. If you were a slave, and you escaped and moved to a place where it was illegal to own people, legally, your previous owner could come and get you back. By force if he needed to. It may not sound like much but Dred Scott effectively provided Constitutional protection to slavery with the same vigor that it protected freedom of speech or the right to due process. Which is a big deal. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in writing his majority opinion outlined the risks that would arise from allowing states to determine the legality of passage of former slaves.

“It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went”

The court ruled 7-2 against Scott, who was really just suing for the freedom of his wife and kids.  It was a landslide by Supreme Court standards.

Freedom Fighters

290,000 men gave their lives to preserve the right to own slaves. To put it in perspective, more than a quarter of all American service men killed in combat in the history of our country gave their lives for slavery. I’ve heard from some of my brothers from the South, especially those of my military brothers from the south, that the war was about states rights. In 1860, after the Stephen Douglas, a moderate who would not support Constitutional protection of slavery, became the front runner for the Democratic nomination for President, delegates from the 10 Southern states left and decided to hold their own convention. Begin war. End discussion on states rights –v- slavery as it pertains to the origin of the war.

How Not to Avoid a Second World War

At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson represented the United States at the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the Treaty of Versailles, effectively ending the war.   One of the pillars of the treaty was the League of Nations. The League, proposed by Wilson, was a precursor to the United Nations and represented an international framework with the aim of eliminating future wars between civilized nations.   After the treaty was signed, The United States Congress failed to ratify American membership because Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson was a Democrat, led a partisan campaign against it.   We never joined and the league was largely declared irrelevant.   We’ll never know if American membership in the League would have avoided World War II. It would have been nice to find out though.

Off to War…or something like it.

Since 1950, the United States has participated in active combat on a large scale in four countries, in which over 400,000 U.S. service members were killed or wounded. During the same time period, over two million men were drafted into service involuntarily.   The last time the United States Congress passed an official declaration of war was June 5th, 1942 against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.  Which means we’ve suffereed a lot of loss and heartache of war, without a war.   I mean this in no way to disparage those who served and sacrificed in these conflicts. As stated earlier, I myself served in two.   The truth is, when history fades our passion and the cold light of day is shone on our motives to wage combat, we tend to feel a lot better about those conflicts for which we put a little more due process behind. And it’s been awhile since we’ve done that.  

So What?

There’s a lot more chronicled catastrophe to be found if want to do a little research. But I think you get the point. There are parts of our history that we have no excuse for and not always because we forgot what our forefathers intended. Sometimes, we’ve gotten it wrong completely because of what our forefather intended. We’ve gotten it wrong so many times with such dire consequences that it’s a wonder we haven’t collapsed under our own injustices at one time or another. Our history is a testament to the power of misguided civic leadership and political zeal. I feel that point is fairly easy to make.  For those of you less tolerant of an assault on American exceptionalism, take comfort though.  It’s actually not my point.  If you fear the fragility of my love of country, like our esteemed representatives from the Oklahoma State Legislature, take heart.  Through it all, my faith doesn’t waver. Let me explain.

My love of my country doesn’t come from our historical record. It doesn’t come from the structure of our government or the paper it was written on 228 years ago. It comes from somewhere else; somewhere anchored in the bedrock of our collective DNA. It comes from the promise that was made, upon our conception. Like a husband promising to honor and obey his wife or a father holding his newborn child promising to always to protect, we made a promise as a nation, as a people to serve the interests of each other, without compromise.  And like all who commit to grand and unforgiving purpose, we fell and will continue to fall short, sometimes too frequently. If we’re worth our salt, we neither fear our shortcomings nor lose sight of what was promised.  Every day we move ever closer to the realization of that promise.

The Constitution of the United States is not a divinely inspired document weaving the framework of God’s intent for the governing of man.   The Constitution was and still is, an aspiration. It’s an aspiration to be fulfilled by its people for its people. As history shows, you can get it wrong. Even when you follow the rules you can get it wrong. Sometimes exclusively by following the rules you can get it wrong. Yet we struggle on with the spirit of that promise engrained in our souls, fueling the righteous progress and the mighty failures that dot the timeline of our history.  We have shaped the modern world for whatever it’s worth.  We are an inflection point in the trajectory of mankind.  But most importantly, we did it, as best we could, in the name of serving each other. Even if our definition of “each other” started far too narrowly, we knew the “pursuit of happiness” only worked if it was for everyone.    Which means we preserve it for everyone.  Benjamin Franklin was asked,  when leaving the Constitutional Convention, whether we had a Republic or a Monarchy.  He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” For 228 years we have. A nation built for the people by the people; imperfect in our actions, pure in our intent. That is why I love my country. I fear no facts.