Presidential: The Great Abstract

According to, a web based questionnaire used by Fortune 100 technology companies to identify their leaders’ Styles Of Influence™, people have four major internal scales that dictate how they interact with others: cognitive ideas, relational emotions, goal forcefulness and detail order. Each bucket of styles comes with its own range of impacts.

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.”

Writers tend to be abstracts. Lawyers too. And innovators. They’re blue sky thinkers who can connect thoughts with ideas to weave a reality in their mind that can define a world that exists or one that needs to be created. I scored a five on the cognitive scale. It goes to five. It’s not a measure of intelligence. It’s how you think. Not how well. On the other end, for details, I’m a two. Which is why I couldn’t tell you where my keys are right now if you gave me a thousand dollars to do it without wandering around to any number of likely locations.

Abraham Lincoln was an abstract too. He existed almost entirely in the world of the big picture. He spoke incessantly in metaphors and stories. He almost never talked about a person without weaving them or their way of thought into a broader framework of a network of ideas.

Like Churchill, Lincoln 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 was virtuous.

It’s important to remember that the outcomes of that horrific war hadn’t been written into the textbooks then. And it hung more in the balance 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 America 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 him. And a way to express it so that all who heard, then and centuries since, could grasp what he wanted them to grasp.

He did all of this with no formal education. He taught himself to read. He passed the bar exam in Illinois when he was 27 and began to practice law.

In 1858, the uneducated upstart politician who had only held office as a one term congressmen a decade earlier took on Stephen Douglas, a titan of the Senate. Perhaps no instance in Lincoln’s life, or our history, shows more clearly the power of a superior mind. Douglas 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, was a nobody.

Imagine, if you can, the gravity of someone no one had ever heard of debating a Ted Kennedy or a Bob Dole and beating them 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.

Lincoln, on slavery in debate against Douglas:

“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”

Slavery is bad, not just because it’s bad for those in bondage. It’s bad for what it does to even good men. It’s bad for the soul of liberty. And it risks all that we are by its very existence.

Argue against that.

He forced the recognition, and eventual reconciliation that ideas we hold true and dear to our culture were at deep odds with the nature of our actions. And that great hypocrisy not only was present but would eventually undo all that was done that made us who we believed we were. It can’t be overstated that the substance of his mind and his words were judged against such unfair standards, yet still are preserved for all history to see. He was a once in a generation mind. At a once in a generation moment.

Lincoln started in a dirt floor in Kentucky, lost most elections he ever ran in and was the third choice on the first ballot for the 1860 Republican National Convention. He won on a later vote with most voting against their first choice’s rival, not for him. He ended up on Mount Rushmore. Carved into that great granite facade, if Lincoln looked to his right, he would find men who originated from wealth and privilege and education, yet had no greater impact on their country or the legacy of America than he did.

It is literally accurate to say that no man’s arc of existence bent so far from humble beginnings towards the great impact of justice for all time.

And it was all in his head.


The Darkest Hour

On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered. Seven days earlier, its leader, Adolf Hitler, along with much of his inner circle of cabinet members and friends, committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun both took cyanide pills. He tested them on his dog and her litter of pups just before to make sure it would work. He then shot himself in the head to spare himself any suffering.

The war was over.

The scale of death accomplished during the second world war is unparalleled in the history of mankind. In all, over 60 million people were killed directly or indirectly. Included in that was about 8% of the German speaking world. One out of every seven Russians on earth was killed. Europe, the continent that represented the pinnacle of human civilization, destroyed itself in the name of ethnocentric nationalism.

In its totality, World War II was a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude.

The worst of it, is beyond our darkest nightmares.

It started in the early 30’s. Camps began to spring up. First they were simply concentration camps—places where enemies of the state were “concentrated”.   Laws were passed to make it easier to pass laws to make it easier to imprison people. Most were political enemies but they also included gays, gypsies or other social “deviants”.  In all, Nazi Germany built 40,000 camps; concentration camps; death camps.

By the end of the decade, the German euthanasia plan began. The state began to kill infants and toddlers with special needs. Soon they advanced to special needs children and teenagers under 17. And then they went on to adults. By the end of 1939, they had killed over 200,000 handicapped German citizens. And it was getting hard to do.

The Nazi’s worked hard at it though. They innovated and perfected their craft. As they began to execute tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians on the eastern front, German soldiers began to complain of “battle fatigue.”  It wasn’t easy shooting women and children. Necessity is the mother of invention. So they invented a new death. They began to use mobile gas vans to do the job.

And the death engine gained speed.

By 1942, the death camps sprung up at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Jews from all over Europe arrived by train. At first they were greeted on the platform when they arrived with soothing music played by an orchestra of interned Jews. There were flowers and decorations to put them at ease. Later, when over 700,000 arrived from Hungary, there was less time for pleasantries and ceremony. But the outcome was the same.

The belongings the Jews of Europe brought were taken from them on the train platform, inventoried and sent back to Berlin. The Nazi doctors and guards separated the people on the platform. The elderly, the older women and the children as well as the sick and the weak were separated from the men and the young women. The men and young women were taken to work camps, usually about 250 or so out of every couple thousand. Twins and people with heterocrhomia, a rare genetic classification that yields two different colored eyes, were taken for medical experimentation.

The rest were taken somewhere else.

That group was walked to a facility about 100 meters away, clearly visible from the train. They were given towels and told to disrobe in order to be showered. Like cattle, they were pushed into the facility. Guards told them to put their hands up over their head because more people could fit into the shower that way. Once the entire train load was in, the doors were shut and a guard dropped cylinders of gas through an opening in the roof. Within 10-15 minutes, they were all dead. Guards in gas masks removed the bodies and took them to mass graves or crematoriums. The goal was to have the facility ready in time for the arrival of the next train.

This was repeated several times a day.

At it’s height in 1943, the Nazi death machine murdered 6,000 people a day in death camps. Most were Europe’s Jews. All told, six million European Jews were murdered.   Two thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe was gone. 98% of Jews in Germany were gone—most murdered. Though Nazi Germany lost the war, the Third Reich succeeded in its goal of eliminating the Jewish population in the Rhineland. The “Final Solution” was mostly realized. Whole communities and cultures were wiped from the face of the planet. It was a genocide not duplicated in its scale and speed in the long history of a species with a propensity to do horrible things to themselves.

It probably won’t happen again. Not because we don’t have it in us. Simply because it’s extraordinarily difficult to do, from a logistical perspective.

Only about 10% of Germany’s 60 million or so people were card carrying members of the Nazi party. Which means that about 90% were not. Less than 1% of the German army were members of the Schutzstaffel Death’s Head Units, the units responsible for operations at the death camps.

Over the last 70 years we’ve spent a lot time trying to understand how the horrors of the Holocaust happened. How man, on such a horrifyingly existential scale could do that to their fellow man. We’ve looked at the psychology behind group thought and authoritarian tendencies. We’ve looked at the psychology of fascism and racism. But even the most comprehensive studies do little more than piece together parts of the “how” behind it.  No one ever really gets to the why.

And we never will. Because there is no sufficient reason for that outcome.

We know two things—factual irrefutable things about the Holocaust though. The first is this. It actually doesn’t take the majority of a people, or even a plurality, to move a society to a point where they are capable of mass genocide. The second is this. The first fact is only true if the others remain silent. And the first step of that silence is accepting, without challenge, the dangerous notion that other human beings are something less than that.

That they’re not like you.

That they’re not human.

The issues we struggle with in the world today aren’t the Holocaust. But then again, neither was the Holocaust, until it was. The German struggle was one of economics and employment and war debt, cultural racism and a loss of standing in the world community. The same ones we have today. And the forces of blame, anger and fear are useful tools when it comes to political power.

The die for 1930’s Germany was cast in an environment not dissimilar to ours.

Our die isn’t cast yet. And it won’t be. But only if the compassionate majority refuses to yield the floor. As long as we live, we should remember, what authority without compassion looks like. If for no other reason to take stock of how close we are to the edge.

Perhaps we’re not close. But a society is always moving. And destination is simply a function of direction and time. Right now, the direction is a questionable one. But time is on our side. But it usually is though.

Until it isn’t.

Waiting until then to speak up is usually too late.

Longing and Hope

Dwight Eisenhower usually didn’t vote.  When he did, he never told anyone about what or who he voted for.  For years, people speculated about his political leanings. He was old school Army.  His didn’t lean- he served.  In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, offered him a crack at the vice presidency.  Ike declined.  In 1952,  18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden for a rally organized by a citizen’s committee for Ike.  The event included messages from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable, all urging him to run for office.  It ended in Irving Berlin leading a rendition of God Bless America. In his book Ike’s Bluff, author Evan Thomas detailed his response.  To a friend, he wrote “I can’t tell you what an emotional upset it is for one to realize suddenly that he himself may be the symbol of that longing and hope.”

The next day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (retired), tentatively accepted the invitation to run for the office of president-as a Republican.

Less than a decade after he led the largest invasion in the history of mankind to defeat the most dangerous enemy in the history of mankind, Ike was sworn in as our 34th president.   He assumed office during the war with Korea and ended it within a hundred days.

Ike hated politicians-Democrats and Republicans alike.  He disliked the military brass at the Pentagon too.  “I know better than any of you fellows about waste at the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut-because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time” he told an adviser.  He hated grand-standers and “desk pounders”-having once worked for General Douglas MacArthur, the great grand-stander and desk pounder of American military history.  He knew them when he saw them and he had no patience for it.

Ironically, Ike hated war.  Not the way someone who didn’t know war hates war-out of fear or misunderstanding.  He hated it because of his familiarity with it.  As president, he avoided small military conflicts because he understood that whether or not a small conflict became a big one was really just a matter of chance.  In the new world of nuclear power,  our greatest adversary was taking territory and building ballistic missiles, launching polished satellites that flew over America, reflecting the sun’s light down for naked American eyes to see as they passed over head.  Peace wasn’t just a goal.  It was survival.

In his farewell speech, he warned of our industrial military complex, growing at an unsustainable rate-yet sadly, he understood why.  “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.  Happily, I can say that war has been avoided.” he finished.   He suffered the burden of the insurmountable stress of keeping the peace during the first time in the history of mankind when a failure to do so would have resulted in the end of civilization.   It took it’s toll.  He suffered a heart attack in 1955. And a stroke in 1957.  He labored through constant, severe gastrointestinal pain.  By the end, when he left office, escorted by a lone secret service car back to his home in Gettysburg, he was a shadow of the man he once was. He had given more to his country than anyone really knew. He was duty bound to hide it-the servant leader and soldier to the end.

Not since George Washington, had a president been demanded into office by the American people the way Ike was. And not since Washington, was a president’s greatest accomplishment navigating the catastrophically delicate waters of global piece the way Ike had. Ike’s resolve to maintain peace was the fulcrum that lifted the world from the edge of destruction.  And he knew it.

Today, a day after another terrorist attack has successfully evoked a response from those seeking to fill the office Ike once filled, it’s fair to ask, which of them is worthy of his role.  Is it the one that urges us to use religion as a means to identify areas for proactive policing?  Is it the one that tells us that we need to wall America off from the outside and torture our enemies to keep us safe. Is it any of them that didn’t serve-not one day collectively-in uniform.  When we look back through history at our truly great presidential behavior, it’s fair to be disappointed with our options.  Because we’ve lost something in our search for our next leader-the notion of service.

There’s a generation just over the horizon with different values formed by different burdens though.  One, like Ike’s, defined by war and conflict-less sensitive to the populous demagoguery common to those not grounded by the selfless principles of service.  One that understands that the pursuit of power should be tempered by its purpose to aid our fellow man.  One that has seen up close and personal the toll that torture, authoritarianism and reckless hate have on the human soul.  Something happens to you when you see it.  The way Ike did. The way we did.

This too will pass.  And quietly if we’re smart. We’re struggling through the death spasms of a tired time where people who haven’t experienced the problems of today’s world are arguing the principles of a political debate that’s been dead for a generation.  But change will come.  Until then, heed Ike’s warning.  “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”  Wherever this goes, be wary and watchful of where we place our power.  If you can’t get it right, it’s best not to get it too wrong.


The Good Old Days

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 5.44.36 PMTable-1. Data compiled form the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau, The Pewe Research Center, The Brookings Institute and Gallup

You’ve heard it.  At some point someone you know has said it.  It may have been you.  But you’ve heard someone somewhere longing for the better times of the past.  A time in America where “traditional” values were embraced by all and we lived in a harmonious utopia, swimming in the perfectly temperate waters of civility that could only come from a simpler life.  A time when people treated each other better. Where we were safer and less exposed to the horrors that our modern world bestows upon us.  A time before the treacherous “next” generation had infected our stoic wisdom with dangerous thinking, loose morals, and a tragic lack of work ethic.  A time where America was great.  When today, she is something else. You know the tone.  It’s one part nostalgic and one part condescension.  It’s a sentiment that’s been around as long as our collective conscience as a species has spanned more than our own immediate horizon.  It’s what we do.  We long for the past.

For Americans, that time we long for is actually quite specific.  It still lives in the distant memories of our older two generations.  The “golden age” of America, the 1950’s, is that time that represents the zero, zero grid on the Cartesian graph that is America.  It was the post-war origin of our greatness.  The Garden of Eden before the apple.  But was it really that great?   Are we really that worse off today?

Taking a contextual look at the data can help.  So we did.  We took 28 societal metrics that were clearly measurable during the second half of the 1950’s and today and did a comparison.  Our findings, in Chart-1 above, were extremely interesting.  Of the 28 items, 11 were measurably better today than in the 1950’s. Eight were about the same, within 10% better or worse.  Nine were measurably worse.  Of the 28 metrics that can be directly compared, less than 1/3 of them were measurably better in the “golden age”.   The data alone isn’t enough to tell the story though.  But it certainly gives us a few places to start to look.   And it’s important that we do.  Because having an informed perspective about “what’s wrong with America” is a responsibility that requires more than whimsy and nostalgia.  It requires more than a bumper sticker or a snappy hat.  It requires fact in introspection.  Here’s what we found:

Family Life

Contrary to popular belief, marriages aren’t falling apart any faster now than they were 60 years ago.  The divorce rate is slightly lower today than back then.  Which is one of the more surprising metrics.  One thing that is happening is that less people are getting married.  Which has contributed in some part to what is the largest difference in all the data used in the comparison, children born out of wedlock.  In 2014, 42% of all children born in America were born to unmarried parents.  This is nine times the rate that they were in the 1950’s.  One of the more commonly politicized metrics is the present level of African American children born out of wedlock, which was 74% in 2013.  That’s a striking number.  There’s more to it than race though.  The issue is actually not being driven by any ethnic or culturally specific trend.  Since 1965, that rate that African American children are born to unmarried parents has tripled.  During the same time, the rate that children are born to unmarried white parents has increased by a factor of ten.

Peeling back the onion a little more, we see that in previous decades from the 70-90’s, the increase in unmarried births was in teenagers, which correlated to the decrease in the “shotgun marriage” practices.   More recently though, the increase is in women in their 20’s during the last decade and now women in their 30’s in the present decade.  Couple that data point with the fact that less people are getting married, and we see that the traditional American family structure has gone through a radical change over the last sixty years, most specifically because the institution of marriage is in decline.  And there’s a very sound argument that it’s not good.

A massive increase in children born to unwed parents is at a minimum, not great.  Not from a morality perspective, though for some, that is where most of the energy is spent on this topic.  It’s not great because of the outcomes it yields.  I’m not a big fan of statistics pointing out how children of single parents have lower graduation rates, higher crime rates and eventually higher unemployment.  That data is more correlation than causation because single parent rates have a perfect correlation to socioeconomic levels.  There’s an easier way to get to that conclusion though. It’s this.  Married parents are less likely to split than unmarried ones. That results in more single parents and reduces the resources a child has for income, care, involvement  and an almost unending list of parental requirements by 50%.  Which increases the amount of instability in a child’s life.

All this leads you to the hard fact that children born out of wedlock have less consistency and less income during their formative years then those born to two married parents.  And from an outcomes perspective, child development experts uniformly agree that consistency is the single most important aspect of a child’s development.   Which means that we really were in a much better place from a family perspective 60 years ago than we are today.

So what do we do about it?   I don’t really know.  As a person who appreciates liberty and limited government involvement in things like my family and personal choices, I’m not a fan of trying to legislate our way to increasing marriage rates.  There are many “free market” forces in play here, from workplace opportunity for women to daycare availability to cultural norms that are causing headwinds to the institution of marriage.  And one thing that I am certain doesn’t help is limiting who can marry who…in any way.   If we’re interested in growing back a family structure, let’s try not painting the institution of marriage in the irrelevant light of exclusion, bigotry and tradition.  You might find that the next generation of Americans value it more.  And that’s really the goal.  More people living within the structure of a family.  Anything else, really doesn’t help.

The Workplace

This one isn’t really even close.  We have more women and more diversity and more inclusion in the workplace than we did 60 years ago.  After decades of shifting from a manufacturing economy to a services and technology one, we’ve managed to maintain wage growth above inflation and delivered work environments safer than at any time in our history. We went through the great recession and that hurts our last decade worth of numbers.  Though unemployment over the last ten years was higher, comparing the great recession to the economic boom created by the post war reconstruction environment was a tough compare.  We’re back today from an unemployment and wages perspective where we were in a relative sense to where we were in 1959 though.  One of the things that jumps out is that we actually had a higher percentage of people working over 65 in the 1950’s than we do today.  Which is counter to the notion that no one can afford to retire today.   We even have more people receiving a pension today then we did before, though that growth is entirely in the public sector.  We have more people living longer after they’ve left the work force independently than any time in the history of our country.  This is good.  But as we’ll see in the next section, it doesn’t come for free.

Entitlements and Taxation

Almost all of our federal spending increase over the last 60 years has been used to sustain social entitlements.  Whether it be social safety net services, retirement income or medical expenses, government growth has been largely focused in this space.  This is one I’d actually prefer to explain with a needs and outcomes discussion, instead of a rhetorical rant about the evils of government.  Here’s how it goes.

In 1959, there were 177 Million Americans with a median age of 29.7 years old who lived to be 71 years old.  Today there are 320 million American with a median age of 36 years old that are going to live to be 82 years old.  That means that, as a society, we have to account for about 1.6 billion years more of retirement than we used to.  And we have six years less per person, to accumulate funds for it.  I know that’s a lot of numbers and confusing math.  But you can probably agree, 1.6 billion years of retirement is a big number.  So it stands to reason that we’ve got to figure out how to do that.  I’d love to say that the answer is to ask Americans to save more money.  And if you hear people talk today, they point to some time when that happened.  The problem is that history doesn’t support that option.  Americans have never saved to fund the type of retirement we think of in our aspirations.  When you look beyond the rhetoric here, you see that the notion of an independent, decades long retirement is something that never existed in any large scale sense in our country before the advent of social security in the 1930’s.  And even after that, it  existed in pockets of affluence and circumstance.  But not as a whole. So the answer to this problem has to involve some function of entitlement reform or increased investment.  The math is too clear for anything else.    And the problem of caring for our aging population is one side of this problem.  There’s another.

It is true that we now have close to double the amount of people receiving public assistance than we had in the ’50’s.  But we also have almost an exactly equal population living above the poverty line that lived below it 60 years ago.  That’s probably not coincidental.   Which likely means you likely have to be comfortable with one out of four Americans living below the poverty line, if you are comfortable with eliminating public assistance. I am not. There are however, pockets of our society that don’t seem to be moving past the choice of poverty or public assistance.  Our urban poor, which really means minority population, is disproportionately dependent on government assistance.

In 1959, 55% of African Americans lived below the poverty line.  I use that population as a proxy because we had no other reliable minority data that tracked back that far.  So what we’ve done, is move our urban poor out of poverty, which is good, we’d admit, and into dependence.  Bear with me here because this next sentence is going to bother some people.  I’ll take dependence over poverty.  Which I get is a heated debate.  I’m not interested in the risks that come with dumping a quarter of the population below the poverty line. Because large populations of poverty are bad. Really, really bad.  And not just for those in poverty.  They destabilize nations, they ruin economies they do a lot of things that I’ve witnessed first hand to make life and progress hard for  countries around the globe.  Massive populations in poverty are to be avoided at all costs.  What we have today is better than what we had.  But it’s not good enough.  And it’s not sustainable.   So something needs to be done.   But what?

When it comes to the social safety net, we should be prepared to dynamite the whole system in the name of something that works.  I’m not saying cut it out. I’m not saying make it less.  I’m not saying make it more.  I’m saying make it different than what it is.  Because what it is does not solve is our massive segregation gap that we have between our urban, minority poor and everyone else.  This will take some very “non-governmental” thinking though.  But please, let’s get past the two choices that we have now.  More of the same…or cut it all out so they can stand on their own two feet.  We need to disrupt the status quo.  And we can do that.  We’re Americans and we’ve invented or perfected most of the useful things in the world today.  Let’s get out of our own way politically, and aim the same passion that put us on the moon using slide rules and pencils at revolutionizing our social safety net.

As for the retirement  problem, the math behind this is extremely difficult.  It’s hard to imagine how in the world we solve for this without changing it.  Either our retirement age has to increase or our investment does.  Or some function of both.   I understand that when we say investment, that means taxes.  And Americans have an allergic reaction to taxes.  So much so that we’ve told ourselves, with great certainty that a dollar earned today doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Which means that inflation is out of control.  Or taxes are.  Well, inflation isn’t, compared to wages.  So it must be taxes.  Actually, it turns out it’s neither.   Let’s take a look at the federal income tax rates from 1960 and compare them to now, as a function of income.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 9.36.51 AM

Table-2. Data compiled form the Internal Revenue Service

It’s clearly, unarguably less today. When you take into consideration payroll taxes though, those things that we have to pay to fund social security and medicaid, it actually closes the gap between our 2015 and 1960 tax payments.  But it still doesn’t put us in a situation where the government is taking a bigger chunk out of our paychecks then they used to. Which is why taxation falls into the “same” bucket in our comparison above.  But we are asking them to pay for twice the social safety net programs than we used to and 1.6 billion years of retirement that simply didn’t exist before.  So something has to change.  This is one place where, from a quality of life perspective, things are much better today than they were in the good old days.  But from a sustainability perspective, we’re in a heap of trouble if we stay on our current path.  And trouble that is going to land squarely on my generation when it’s time to retire.


There’s more crime today as a percentage of our population than there was in the 1950’s.  According to the data from the U.S. Department of Justice,  you are 2.5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime today then you were 60 years ago.  The increases in property related crimes was more slight.  But oddly, the murder rate is the same.  Which means we’re assaulting and raping each other a lot more than we used to.  But we’re not killing each other more.   There’s actually an encouraging trend here in the data though.  Our violent crime rate in America hit it’s historic peak in the early 90’s.  Since then we’ve seen a dramatic decrease reducing modern violent crime rates to the levels of the mid 1960’s and trending towards the previous decades.  Despite the amount of high profile gun violence, we’re safer today then we’ve been in about 50 years.  With twice the population living in the same amount of territory.  So we should feel pretty good about it.

The issue that compares least favorably than any other issue besides children born to single parents is our incarceration rate.   We have 3.5 times the percent of our population in prison today than we did in the 1950’s.  And our population has nearly doubled.  To put it in even clearer perspective, we have 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the worlds prison population.  We have more people in prison than China and Russia combined.   And it started when we started putting people in prison for drug offenses.

In 1984, President Reagan signed into law the Sentencing Reform Act as part as the Comprehensive Crime Control act that mandated sentencing minimums and consistency federally.  This was a “tough on crime” bill for which two very clear data patterns followed.  The first was our incarceration rate almost immediately doubled. The second, was an immediate decrease in non-violent crime and an equally steep decrease in violent crime within a decade.  Mind you, one may not have caused the others but it’s important to call out data patterns because it allows us to say at least that the legislation did not make us less safe. And though it may not feel right, it does correlate to a period of decreased crime.   Which tells us that massive populations of incarceration are not a crime or safety problem.  They’re a societal segregation problem.  Because right now, when you go to jail, you clearly aren’t likely to commit a crime against society while you’re in jail.  But you and your family have opted out of most of the American dream going forward. Which is a problem for the last section.  Our social safety net.  I’m not sure the data supports reducing sentencing limits or legalizing drugs from a safety perspective.  But it does tell us we have way too many people in jail, and it’s contributing to the segregation of our country.

Global Stability

We can solve this one pretty quickly.   The first half of the 20th century was the most dangerous time in the history of mankind.  The second half, continuing on into the early 21st century has been the most peaceful.   Though the second half of the 50’s was free from war, we were about a decade removed from WWII and a few years removed from the Korean War.  During those two wars, we lost just under a half a million Americans. The world lost 60 million people.  Including the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the 14 years of war that about 1% of Americans contributed in, and we’ve lost a little over 10,000 people to combat.  We’re not without conflict.  But no matter how it feels, the world is safer.  And it’s not close.

So What

There’s a lot of metrics that you could track down and a lot more that you could add to try to make a point one way or another.  But the bottom line is this.   Things were different in the “golden age” of American than they are today.  In some ways they were better.  But in more ways they were either worse or simply different.  Right now there is a large part of the American public, our media and our overall consciousness that believes that we’ve wandered off of a path to greatness and that we are far worse off today then we were then.   And that we need to return to “better times.”  I would issue a word of caution for those that hold that sentiment.   Both the data and the historical context are clear.  For a very narrow portion of our society, healthy white men, things were better.  If by better you meant you had no competition for work in an economy that was booming because of the impossible to duplicate post WWII reconstruction.   For everyone else, things weren’t better.  They were far, far worse.  I’ll play this out in a real world experience, mine.

I’m a pushing 40 white man with a graduate degree.  By all rights, I should look back at the 1950’s as a time that would have suited me fine.   But a closer look tells you different.  My wife, half Latina, would have faced some level of segregation in primary and secondary school for her ethnicity. Even if she made it past it and completed the two graduate degrees she has today, she would have no place helping homeless veterans as she does now, other than administrative support in the mental health profession. My mother’s four year battle with ALS that rendered her incapacitated for the last three, would have bankrupted my entire family.  My non-verbal, autistic child would be locked away in an asylum, the doctor’s would be recommending a lobotomy as his best path for treatment.   When I returned from war and struggled with anxiety and depression, I would have turned to the bottle and soldiered on in silence.  This is would have been my reality.  And I’m a healthy white man.  Which means I’m in the best shape out of any one.  If I were black, I would be in poverty and not allowed to eat or attend school with white people in most states.  If I were gay, I would be a pervert.  If I were handicapped, I had no path to independence or contribution in society.  This was the reality.   It was cruel and unforgiving.  And it makes for a bad bumper sticker.

As for the next generation, they’re fine.  They’re more educated and more technical than ever before.  And we’re right.  They wouldn’t last a minute on the assembly line in a plant.  Which is good.  Because we don’t have many of those these days.  Which is fine.  Because we’ve adapted to our role at the top of the global economic food chain as a services and consumption economy.  That’s how it works.  But they wouldn’t last a minute 60 years ago.   Just like their parents wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the coal mines and blast furnace of the generation before.  Just like that generation never would have lasted a minute scratching out a living off the land in an agricultural society.  Just like that generation of farmers wouldn’t have lasted a minute blazing a trail from sea to shining sea.   Just like that generation never would have had the guile to throw off an unjust government.

That’s how this thing works.   One generation judges the next on their ability to exist in the past.  And that generation learns the skills it needs to survive for the next fifty years.  And doesn’t learn the ones it took to survive in the last. But they’re fine. The kids I served with in war and now show up at my door in the big time technology industry can do things I can’t.  What I know, would not have gotten me hired at 22 today.  But instead of being scared of that, I learn what I can from them and help bridge the gap between what I know and have experienced and what they do so that we might walk across it to a collectively brighter future.  It’s called mentoring.  And when you do it, they listen. And when you whine about “kids these days” they don’t.  So give it a rest.  You sound old and scared.

So what does it all mean?  Well, as far as the political discourse it means this.  If you’re a progressive elected official, you can stand back and admire the social progress that you’ve help engineer over these last 60 years that has made life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness more attainable for more groups of people.  But there’s one thing that you can’t say and it’s that the social safety net that we have in place is moving people out of poverty and into financial stability.  It’s not working.   And you need to own that and help drive solutions in an economy where urban middle class jobs do not exist any more.

If you’re a conservative, you can congratulate yourself that we’ve managed to shoulder the massive load of providing government and services for 320 million people without taxing our constituents to death or crippling capitalism.  But what you haven’t done is find a way to do that without deficit spending.  And when you’re realistic about our aging, longer living population, you need to own doing something about our current revenue gap, or when my generation retires, the draw we will have on the broader economy will cripple us.  It’s simple math. And please stop with the “let’s go back to Mayberry” rhetoric.  Because it’s not real.  And for most of us we just hear thinly veiled bigotry and close minded thinking.  It’s not helpful.

For those of us who still suffer from the burden of free will with our votes, let’s keep an ear out for anything that starts to resemble that kind of discussion.  Until then, just keep tuning out the fear-mongering or blind compassion.  It’s not worth the mind space. We’ve got real things to solve.  And getting back to the “good old days” doesn’t solve any of it.



The Executive

The American political debate predates the political parties that have gone on to organize  the centuries of scripted opposition that we have been conditioned to believe are required for successful government.  It wasn’t always that way-almost, but not always.  For part of one brief administration, we stood united as one political party, aligned in the celebration of our new found self governing zeal.  Our days of unity were numbered though.  The forces of division had already begun. The embryo of political opposition had embedded itself within the cabinet of our first president by way of two men whose collective ideas would chart the course for the first 50 years of our nation’s government.  Tempered, they were critical to responsible governing.  Un-tempered, they would have destroyed us.

The first Secretaries of State and the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton respectively found themselves at irreconcilable odds.  They weren’t at odds because their political parties required them to be or their special interest groups funded them to be.  They were at odds because they believed very different things about government at a time when the pavement of the walk that was our government was still wet.  And the thoughts that would guide the path that would leave their footprints for all time to follow were important.  Jefferson believed fiercely in the democratic republic who’s ideals he so clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  He was the voice of our Revolution and the voice of the enlightened government it gave birth to.  Hamilton, on the other hand,  advocated for a government much more similar to the British form we had just cast off.   We were in uncharted territory at the time.  And many, like Hamilton believed that our new form would not work.  They viewed Jefferson as an ideologue who’s vision and philosophy lacked practical application. We were new Americans at the time. Some believed in Hamilton’s view.  Others, Jefferson. But those on both sides believed something else though.  Something much more tangible than a philosophy of government. They believed in a man. They believed in George Washington.

George Washington was better than everyone at everything he did.  At least it seemed that way.  At 6’2 he was a giant for colonial America.  He was the best horseman anyone who ever rode with him had ever seen, which for the day was the most important thing that a man could do well in the eyes of other men.   He survived smallpox in his youth-forever inoculating him from the disease.  He walked fearlessly among the sick, giving him an air of immortality. There were stories of his invincibility in battle as well, having had four holes shot in his red coat and several horses shot out from under him as a captain fighting as a Brit in the French and Indian War.

His daring conquests against the British Army had made him the most famous man in the new world.  After being beaten out of New York and across New Jersey, losing half of his Army against the same British he once served, he launched one last resolute attack across the icy Delaware River from Philadelphia into Trenton, giving the colonials a daring victory to feed the spirit of our revolution for the winter of 1776 into 1777.   He had every reason to retreat and regroup.  He did not.  He had bested the most powerful army the world had ever seen and won our freedom.  He had rode out as president, the only president to ever do so, with an Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.   He was the human embodiment of our executive branch.  And though he allowed his cabinet to explore the left and right limits of progress as a nation, mostly in the form of Hamilton and Jefferson’s bickering, Washington ensured that the footprints in the pavement that dried behind them would, at all times, be traveling forward.  Writing to Jefferson in 1792, Washington rebuked,

“How unfortunate and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with a avowed enemies and insidious friends that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals. I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or to keep the parts of it together for if instead of laying our shoulders to the machine in which measures are decided on.  One pulls this way and the other pulls that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried it must inevitably be torn asunder and in my opinion the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man will be lost, perhaps forever. “

This was Washington telling Jefferson to quit his partisan bickering and keep his eyes on the prize. It was not given nor received as a request. It was an order.

It was this resolve that the American people assigned their fates to.  And in all things, it was Washington who they trusted.   He begrudgingly signed on for a second term to see the thing through lest all that they work for be “torn asunder”.  But even for him the politics and outcries of our national discourse would grow, and his second term, found him more open to criticism, yet stoic and resolved as ever to lead his people to stability, all be it miserable and exhausted.  Jefferson would resign as Secretary of State the following year and run for president unsuccessfully at the end of Washington’s term and then successfully four years later.  Hamilton would be killed in an 1804 a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr at the age 49.  Within two decades, the Federalist party he founded, which advocated for a strong executive and a national bank, would be gone.  The debate moved on to other issues.

Throughout our history, America has had great variance in our experience with the heads of our government.   The one’s we remember well, tend to come in two flavors. Some serve, by chance, at a time of great significance and their character, intellect and executive savvy serve as the fulcrum for which the American people lift themselves from crisis or pivot towards social change. This is Lincoln. This is FDR. This is JFK. These are men defined by crisis and change whose will and guidance have preserved our nation when perhaps our future was not so certain. Others we remember are the great leaders, above the political fray, whose astute judgement moved us forward, away from crisis and on to a stronger future. This is Jefferson, Jackson, Eisenhower and of course Washington. Though many of these men lived through crisis prior to taking office, something about their experience enabled them to wield power effortlessly with an unquestioning obedience from the American people and in turn from their government. What they had is what we so desperately crave now-the unwavering trust and allegiance of the American people.

As we assemble to pick our new head of state this next year, we must measure our options wisely, though I fear we’ve already lost this contest to the same forces of dissent present in Washington’s cabinet 230 years ago.   The great leaders of crisis mean hard times, death and war.   Those are the leaders you can’t and hope never to choose.   So in our hearts we long for the transcendent leader who can stay above the fray and unite us in our march forward towards continued peace and prosperity.  The leader who, though forces at work move to pull the very fabric of our discourse apart, stands silently above it, holding watch over our government and our people, as Washington did when Jefferson and Hamilton had their  earthly squabbles.  This is what we long for.  And for those of us not imprisoned by the dangerous vigor of blind ideology, this is what we vote for.

There’s a problem though.  And it’s not going to fix itself over the next 12 months. The fray today is too big.  Our political factions are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War, arguing with great passion, things that simply don’t matter any more.   Our all powerful media knows no other way than to fan the flames of outrage and discontent, providing heat and oxygen to a flame that, if it were up to the people alone, would have long died out.   And those who might rise above it, the great men and women of our day, understandably, aren’t interested.

Things look dim.  We are hungering for someone, anyone, who isn’t poisoned by the sickness of our political discourse.  We want it so badly that we’re clinging to candidates, the “anti-establishment” ones on both sides, that are comically unsuited for the title of leader of the free world just to stave off accepting that we are exactly where we are.  We are stuck.

Though I commend our current administration for driving needed progress in narrow, long overdue areas, I also regret that the division in our nation has grown.  Our executives over the past 30 years have operated within the fray, not above it.  Which leaves us where we are.  For four more years at least, bumping along the seabed of our potential through the irrelevant debate of the last 50 years.  For the last ten elections, there has been a Bush or a Clinton on the general or primary election ticket for President of the United States in nine of them.   We are stuck in not just an ideological loop, but a literal one.  One that, because of its incessant focus on “shrink vs grow government” leaves us paralyzed and incapable of addressing the critical problems of our government insolvency, entitlement reform and urban decay.   We are incapable of addressing the impact our transition from manufacturing to services and technology  has had on our workforce-a change that started 40 years ago.  We’ve been flatfooted for decades. Now the sickness has seeped into our foreign policy, an impassable barrier that once stood to ensure we faced our external problems as a united front of American will.  Head’s of state now address our congress without the consent of the president.  Things are dim.  But fear not.  There’s a light on the horizon of our long, dark political night.  Change is on its way.

The 2012 Presidential election was the first one, by law, that my generation would have been able to participate in, as a running member.  My generation, the one that had internet in college.  The one that was too young to care about the color of people’s skin or their sexual orientation.  The one that spent all of our 20’s and most of our 30’s fighting the longest war our country has ever seen, only to likely have to fight it again in our 40’s.   The generation whose social security checks won’t be there when we retire at the trajectory we’re going.  My generation who will live to watch our children grow up in the global climate impacted by three hundred years of industrial growth. My generation who has participated in a workforce whose wages haven’t increased since we’ve been in it. My generation is coming.  It may be a bit.  But our votes count.  And soon we will be there with more than our votes.   Not those of us who rushed into the political life because we were drawn to it as a vocation.  They’re already there, driving the churn of the irrelevant debate.  But those of us tried by something else.  Tried by the crisis and failure of those that came before us.  Tried by decades of war and economic struggle. We are coming.  And real change will come with us.

The Three Dimensions of Useful Political Thought

Five days before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April of 1865 and ten days before his own assassination, Abraham Lincoln considered a request by the Virginia State Legislature to assemble for the first time since Union troops had occupied her capital in Richmond three days earlier.   Though his cabinet was in violent opposition to the notion of an occupied enemy legislature assembling, Lincoln believed it was necessary.  He noted “there must be courts, and law, and order or society would be broken up, the disbanded armies would turn into robber bands and guerillas.”   He believed that the best course was to allow, “the prominent and influential men of their respective counties…come together and undo their own work.” After four years of war and over a half a million people killed, America was in need of healing, not punishment. And in order to get there, he needed the leaders of the South to lead their people through it. In April of 1865, the singular political question of consequence in America was how to deal with the reunification and reconstruction of the 11 states that seceded from the Union four years earlier.   Lincoln, as usual was thinking about the problem in three dimensions.

Three Dimensional Thinking

Lincoln was a man of deep principle.  He formed his policies on the belief that a nation founded on the ideals of liberty and equality was equal parts worth preserving and incompatible with the institution of slavery.  His willingness to hold to that principle at great cost is likely his most significant contribution to the preservation of our Union as it exists today.   But what made Lincoln so special was that he didn’t stop with principle. He had the compassion to consider all that the Southern people had been through and the pragmatism include even the chief architects of their secession in the solution to their ills. Like an object needs length, width and depth to be an object, political ideas need principle, compassion and pragmatism to work.  And by work we mean make people’s lives sustainably better.  Our great leaders, the one’s that have built and sustained our society, think in three dimensions when others do not.

Less Than Three Dimensions 

Principles are dangerous things without compassion. Believing that your role as a government is to create the greatest nation on earth is a fine principle. But if you decide to exterminate members of your society that you believe are holding you back from that goal and conquer and subjugate your neighbors to prove it, you’ve got Nazi Germany. It’s an extreme case, I know, but one that effectively shows what happens when principle is devoid of compassion.   Principle tempered by compassion is a truly powerful thing. But it’s still not enough.

For a policy, movement or activity to be effective, it actually has to be possible. Let’s explore an example.  If you have a principle that says that Americans have a God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and temper that principle with the compassion to include those whose basic medical needs cannot be met by their own employment or economic circumstances, you may come to the belief that healthcare reform is required. But if you decide that you want to do that through a single payer system where the government pays for all of it without raising taxes, you don’t really have a policy.  You’ve got something else.  Thankfully, we didn’t decide to do that.  Contrary to popular belief, the Affordable Care Act is not socialized medicine. It is, however, based on  the same principles and compassion that would lead you in that direction.  It diverges from it though with the critical pragmatism of privately provided health insurance.  The Affordable Care Act is actually three dimensional. Much of its criticism is not. Which is why it actually appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do.  Get more people health insurance at a reasonable cost to our society.

The Two Dimensional Era

So what’s happening today? We appear to be stuck in a two dimensional loop.  We either stop once we’ve devised a principle and try to form an opinion based solely on that, or we do something equally ineffective. We cry out in compassionate outrage against the unfair suffering of others independent of principle.  Which has created a binary ongoing discussion that never actually gets completed with the pragmatism that is required to fix anything. But it does get lots of attention and passion. So it continues.

Let’s look at the Black Lives Matter –v- All Lives Matter debate (the silliness of how that actually looks in print is not lost on me). We either have an almost mature formation of a movement if we do it three dimensionally, or an unhelpful toxic unformed argument that will yield nothing but division if we don’t.  In three dimensions we’re leading with the principles that no one is excluded from the protection or enforcement of an effective criminal justice system, including those we depend on to enforce it. That principle is informed by the compassion that we feel towards those who are subjected to the violent reality of life in our urban poor areas, again, including those with the impossible task of policing them. And finally, we start to talk pragmatically about what to do about the root cause of the issue, which is a massive segregated divide between our urban minority neighborhoods and the rest of America. So in three dimensions, we are circling in on a mature, potentially successful discussion on how to address the issue. But we’re not doing that. Like most of our debates today, we’re doing something else.

Right now our society is broadly locked in the death grip of arguing principle versus compassion, which is like engaging in an argument over whether a car is fast or blue. Neither side is wrong. They’re just arguing incomplete thoughts. Which is actually impossible. Just because it’s not possible, doesn’t mean we won’t try to do it every chance we get though. We’ve got a two dimensional, $280 billion dollar media market getting fat on the industry of conflict and outrage and our political discussions have been infected by it. But that doesn’t mean you have to.  And it’s really not that hard to keep yourself three dimensional, even when all around you are flat.  It takes a little introspection though. Turning to memes, tweets and soundbites won’t get you where you need to go.  They’re one dimensional at best. So instead,  next time you’ve gotten yourself worked up about a societal problem, ask yourself a few questions. What principle of yours does this societal problem upset? Second, how does this societal problem impact the people it involves; all the people, not just the ones exactly like you. Lastly, ask yourself what you’d have to do to fix the problem.  If you can’t bring yourself to do this, you may need to ask yourself if you’re really interested in fixing the problem or if you’ve become addicted to the glorious outrage of its existence.  Which is another problem all together.  One for another time.

Sharing is Caring: Our Memes and What They Say About Us

Meme mēm/ noun

1. an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

2. a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

Like it or not, what we share, like or retweet in our social media presence actually says something about us.  I know many of us spend little time filtering or applying judgement to such a simple action as hitting a button on our smart phones or web browsers.  My Facebook newsfeed is a clear testament to that. But what we choose to share is after all, a choice.  So I took some time over the last few weeks to capture some of the memes that illustrate some common themes that my “friends” have chosen to share.  Here’s a little slice of what I found and what opinions it may serve to inform about those who chose to share them.

1. The Warning From The Past

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What it sounds like to the rest of us:

“I’m not that big on understanding the history of America, but I’ve got an opinion about what’s historically been good for her”

I’m about as big a fan of Abraham Lincoln as you are going to find.  But finding and using a quote by Abraham Lincoln as a warning against executive overreach is akin to using a Bill Clinton quote to warn about the dangers of infidelity or finding a John Boehner quote highlighting the evils of spray tan. Lincoln’s presidency, beginning to end, is a shining example of the expansion of executive power; thankfully or we might be two countries today.   Most of the legislation he did sign was passed by a congress who lost a little less than half of its members because they quit the government and started their own country in protest.  More over, The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863 declaring all slaves living in states participating in the rebellion free, is considered the Babe Ruth of all executive directives. A meme like this is a softball for anyone who remembers third grade social studies, but I’ve seen it shared by educated people who should know better about a dozen times. Apparently, when we see something that agrees with our gut, context and accuracy play little role in whether or not we want to share it.

2. The Obscure, Unverifiable Reference

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What it sounds like to the rest of us:

“I don’t know who this is or if he said it and neither do you but man does it sound smart.”

Louis Brandeis served with distinction on the United States Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939 during which time he wrote countless dissenting and majority opinions. He also published a book Other People’s Money and How Bank’s Use It. He was without a doubt a supporter for social causes and considered progressive for his time.   There is, however, nothing in any of the volumes of his work that remotely resembles this quote. He may have said it, but no one knows when. I’ve seen it multiple times on my own Facebook feed and if I didn’t have a sworn policy against sharing memes, I probably would have shared it myself. Which is one of the reasons I don’t share these things.  Because frankly, I have absolutely no idea if it’s accurate.  And that matters to me.

3. The Playful Quip About the Good Ole Days

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What it sounds like to the rest of us:

“I’m older…and new things scare me.”

If there’s one consistent theme that lives throughout history it’s the notion that the next generation is completely screwed up, at least compared to the last one….according to the last one.  The simple truth is that each generation is better equipped to handle the next fifty years than it is to handle the last fifty years.  Which is scary for those of us who learned how to live in the last fifty years. I see it in the interns that we pull into my tech firm each summer who do things that I couldn’t imagine were possible at their age. I was a history major for crying out loud.  Most of the things that run our world today didn’t exist 20 years ago when I was in school.  That’s a little frightening for some people so we have to come up with something to help us feel empowered.  And that’s youth bashing. Here’s the thing about kids these days. We’re right. They’re not cut out for the industrial world. Which is actually good for them because we don’t live in the industrial world any more.  And yes, they lack wisdom and social skills and can seem entitled. Because they are. Because they’re young. And just like the world moved forward with every screwed up generation in the past, it will move forward with them. So try to spend a little time understanding what they can do well.  Because its what people will be doing for the next 50 years.

What else it says to us:

“I think it’s a good idea to beat your kids.”

As a licensed foster care provider and someone married to a mental health professional, I can say with some experience and authority exactly one thing about parenting. If you want to ensure that your children have the best chance of being a destructive, non-functioning member of society, go ahead and beat them regularly. It’s the most common thread amongst people with substance abuse, a history of violence or a propensity to abuse their own children. So, thank you FM 95.9 The Hawk (Southern Utah’s Classic Rock) for sharing your support for beating your kids. If anyone actually listened to FM radio any more, this may have actually bothered someone.

4. The Slippery Slope

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What it says To the Rest Of Us:

“I’m Crazy”

I have more than one Facebook friend who shared this.  In doing so they freely proclaimed that they are so warped by their own political views that they’ve confused advocating for healthcare, gun control and immigration reform with murdering 11 million people because of their ethnicity or disabilities and invading 16 countries on three continents en route to starting the deadliest armed conflict in the history of mankind.  Fortunately for us, that slope isn’t that slippery.  And if you think it is, you may be crazy.

So What?

It’s good fun to poke fun at those who are predisposed to share their political views through the venue of social media. After all, this is a blog about political and social issues and those that choose to do so through the turnstile of sharing or liking memes are pretty easy targets. There’s an important message in here somewhere though.  It’s this. A lot of this stuff actually matters. This isn’t Yankees v Red Sox where you get to spout off endless rhetoric about how you loathe Derek Jeter and how he’s over rated despite all evidence to the contrary.  This isn’t reality TV where it’s open season to poke fun at or mock those who voluntarily allow us into their lives to do so.  Those things don’t matter so if you want to invest no time in forming your opinion on them and continue to distribute nonsense, that’s acceptable and encouraged.  It’s all in good fun. When it comes to political and social issues though, remember one thing. You’re participating in generating a collective opinion about things that actually effect people’s lives.  So that should require some thought. Don’t like Obamacare?  That’s your right as an American to disagree with the government. But there are 17 million people who get get healthcare through that bill, many of which couldn’t without it so before you spread rhetoric about it, do a little work to understand it. Think our foreign enemies view our country as weak and we need to go put “boots on the ground” to go teach someone a lesson? That’s your right to believe it. But someone has to go do that and someone’s going to die in service to that opinion.  So do a little work to inform it.  So what am I asking for?  It’s pretty basic really. Before you hit share, ask yourself two questions. 1) Does this issue have a material impact on someone’s life? 2) Do I actually have any substantive knowledge about it?  If it’s “yes” to #1 and “no” to #2, just move on.  If you can’t do that, then at least understand how it sounds to the rest of us who can.

Fear and Immigration: A Journey Through America’s Sense of Self

The American story is one long continuous struggle to expand our sense of self. Our charter identifies our union as an establishment of the people, by the people, for the people. In that we have been universally consistent. The grand internal struggle has been and still is answering one question.  Who are the people?

The great civil rights saga of the past 230 years has played itself out in the form of protest, legislation and even war. Nowhere is this more clear than in the evolution of our immigration policy.   Few things serve as a more accurate proxy of our collective efforts to include or exclude than how we guard access to our most sacred gift of citizenship. One underlying theme flows through our past though.   Exclusion gives way to inclusion, and our country grows in strength and relevance. We’ve long since determined that the eligibility for the honor of being ordained American lies not in one’s specificity of race or national origin. Hundreds of years of painful, sometimes violent, change has beaten back that particular call for nativism into the dark corners of our society. Instead we have but one more hard question to answer. And this question sits at the heart of our 21st century immigration debate. How should one become one of “We the people”?

Understanding that we Americans have varying degrees of comfort with the concept of inclusion, it may be hard for some to accept the theme that exclusion giving way to inclusion is universally positive. Taking a little time to study the language of our legislation and the light it sheds on the horrifying ideologies that motivated it can help with that. Here’s what happened over the first 180 years or so.

The United States Naturalization Law of 1790 granted citizenship to free white persons of “good character.” The emphasis of course being on white.  We were less specific about the metrics of good character. We added all people born in America with the 14th Amendment 80 years later after we killed about 600 thousand of each other to solve the question of slavery.

In 1870, we included “aliens of African nativity and persons of African decent” but excluded “all other non-whites” from citizenship. It’s not particularly clear what is included in “all other non-whites” but it was implied that it meant everyone else…in the world.

By the 1890’s we opened the floodgates at Ellis Island and started to realize that we needed a national strategy for immigration. After all, our citizenship laws were pretty basic. White’s and blacks are in.  All others are out.  There were a lot of other people out there though so we needed to take action. Enter the immigration Act of 1917. The act was specific in barring, “homosexuals, idiots, feeble minded persons, criminals, epeleptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars (amatuers were fine), all mentally or physically defective, polygamists and anarchists”.  And one other group….all Asians. Previously only Chinese were not allowed to immigrate. We let them back in 1943.

By 1921, we shifted to an emergency quota system, which allowed up to 3% of any given national origin, as documented in the 1890 census, to immigrate to the United States. This sounds on the surface to be an equitable approach. Though somehow people of Asian decent still weren’t allowed to be citizens yet. Since most people in America in 1890 were of German, Irish or British decent, from 1921 to 1965, 70% of all immigrants came from those countries. We did make progress though. The Luce-Celler Act let people of Asian decent be real live American citizens in 1946. It also allowed for 100 immigrants a year from each Asian country.   Yes….100

Enter the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This actually, for the most part, is our current policy of record. It focused on skills based Visas and immediate family of American citizens.

Oddly, there’s little mention at all in any of the immigration policies aimed specifically at Latin America.  Which is interesting because the term immigration in 2015 is almost entirely about Latinos.  Referring to the United States Census Bureau adds to the confusion because Hispanic is actually not a race according to them.  It’s an ethnicity.  I encourage anyone to read their explanation of the difference and make heads or tails of it.

If you’re confused and amazed and potentially outraged by this collection of facts and timelines, don’t fear, that’s normal. If anything, it strengthens my resolve in the belief that applying high level intellectual thought to the categorization of human beings isn’t a great use of our time.

So what does it all really tell us.  It tells us that our history on immigration and citizenship is not a straight line. Our preferences and policies bounce from one crisis to another with knee-jerk reaction to whatever hysteria is happening at the time. Without question though, when you read out loud the actual words of exclusion in our policies, it sounds ridiculous. Because it is. Nowhere in our history does it show a period of inclusion followed by horrifying social or economic outcomes as a result. Since we broadened the scope of our immigration allowances, we have seen a massive influx of people from around the world of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We are not, however, overrun by foreign-born people.   By 2013, 13% of people residing in our country were not born here. With the exception of the 30 years following WWII, 13% is entirely aligned with our historic norms. It’s usually been about 12-13%.  Certainly since 1965, innovation and economic growth have not been impacted. We have been and are still as relevant, profitable and prosperous as we’ve ever been. So what’s the problem? It relates back to our original question. How does one become one of “We the people”? In this, we actually find two problems. One of them isn’t hard at all, if we’re honest about it. The other is tougher.

The first problem: What do we do with the 12M undocumented immigrants presently living on our country?   This is not going to be a popular answer in certain circles but it’s pretty clear if you look at it through a historically contextual lens.  Which is what you do when you want to make a good decision. What we do is we find a way to make as many of those who are not here in a legal status, legal residents with the fastest path to citizenship possible. And we do it quickly.  They are already here and participating in our economy and our society.   60% of them are located in six states, Texas, California, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Florida. Which means that for 44 of our 50 states, this is an issue in principle only.  This isn’t about skills either. They’re already doing the work that others won’t.  The engine of an upwardly mobile society fires best when those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are there because they just arrived; not because they’ve been held there by generations of exclusive and divisive policy (see Jim Crow).

I am also not forgetting that this group of people “broke the law”.   One of the wonderful bi-products of military service over the past 15 years or so, is that you get to see the world, one destitute wasteland at a time.  In doing so you truly appreciate the beacon of hope and progress that is the first world. Having had that experience, I will not begrudge any person who, assuming they’ve broke no other laws, simply does exactly what I would do if I were born into the hopeless poverty that these people come from. When we’re truly honest with ourselves, most people can find a way to accept that. Unless of course they are in the throws of the second issue.  Good old fashion fear. That issue will be more difficult to crack.

The fear of foreigners in our country is as old as our country. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, all the way up through our modern debate about undocumented residents, it has been present.   The level of fear, like the common ebb and flow of modern opinions tends to be related to our reactions to whichever event we’re closest to in our history. To highlight just how different our views can and have swung, check out a comparison of two national party platforms.

Platform 1:

We believe there should be local educational programs which enable those who grew up learning another language such as Spanish to become proficient in English while also maintaining their own language and cultural heritage. Neither Hispanics nor any other American citizens should be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.

Platform 2:

To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society.

Surprisingly, both of these platforms come from the same party; The Republican Party. The first one was what Ronald Reagan ran on in 1980. The second is the one Mitt Romney ran on in 2012. By definition, both highlight the conservative view on the most basic of cultural identity aspects, language.   They also show that, even in the conservative circles, our points of view are highly subject to our national mood. And right now, our mood is still very afraid.

We’re 14 years beyond the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and quickly approaching, I hope,  the back slope of a fear peak. As we approach the great political debate that will be the 2016 presidential election, how can we have the most effective outcomes relative to immigration? Take the fear out of it. If we don’t we’ll get something that resembles the “birther” debate,  which has a special place in my heart.  I’ve actually lived in Kenya. Any person who is one generation removed from someone who figured out how to get out of there should be celebrated, not forced to show their birth certificate or called a religion that they’re not. Kenya, by the way, is about 70% Christian. As an independent, nothing turned me off more to the conservative cause during the 2008 presidential election than the layers of stupidity that was the “birther “debate.  So when it comes to immigration, let’s not do that.  When it comes to immigration, let’s be fearless. Because in war, business and policy, the motivation of fear is an absolute killer.   Replace your fear with thoughtfulness and perspective. The history shows it’s the path to prosperity and progress.

The American Presidents….By the Numbers

In 1948, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger conducted a poll of 75 historians asking them to answer the question, who are our greatest American presidents?  Since then, and probably before, it’s been a pretty popular debate.

Though previous attempts to rank our presidents have been based on observation and opinion, the names at the top and the bottom of the lists are pretty consistent; Lincoln, Washington, FDR at the top. Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Warren G. Harding are at the bottom. When you actually think about it though, it’s really an impossible question. Is Washington better than Lincoln? Probably not at winning the Civil War at least.  He owned slaves and had a penchant for leading uprisings against his government. Washington probably isn’t your guy in 1861. We’ll never know what speech Millard Filmore would have given the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of us will never know anything Millard Filmore said. I promise you though, he was our 13th president.

Circumstance plays a big part of it and so it becomes an illogical discussion.  So why do we do it?  Partially because debate is an inescapable function of the human condition. It’s what we do. We argue about just about anything we can compare. There is another reason though. A more practical one. We debate who our great American presidents are because we are bench-marking our current prospects. We are looking at the greats of the past to see the potential in our future and so we find value in the debate. Because we find value in the debate doesn’t mean that we are having the right debate though.

A more effective question is what makes a great president? And if we were to look at how we’ve evaluated them in the past the answer is clear. For the most part, it’s crisis.  The true great ones, Lincoln, FDR, Washington, led through periods of dire crisis.  Which begs the next question.  Do we really want the next great president? It probably sounds counter-intuitive but I hope I never live to see our next great American president.  I hope that great American presidents are over.  Great American presidents mean war, suffering, economic catastrophe and death.   So when we talk about great president’s, might we have the debate differently? Shouldn’t we shy away from desiring a great president and instead focusing on desiring a great presidency?  That’s what I’m rooting for.

With that in mind, we took a shot at looking back at our presidents through that lens.  We built an algorithm to see what the data says and then compared it to what history says.  The results were interesting.

The good news is that this is actually pretty easy.  Because you can  measure prosperity, progress and opportunity, things we would likely agree make for a “great presidency” by observing patterns in economic data, scope and scale of war, territorial expansion and Constitutional legislation.   So that’s what we did. The table below illustrates the rankings of American presidents by using an algorithm incorporating historically collected data.  The table compares the outcomes of the algorithm to the aggregated results of a dozen or so polls of historians regarding presidential rankings.   As you might expect, the data tells a different tale then the anecdote.

Score Algorithm Ranking Historical Ranking
100 George Washington 1 3
74 Ulysses S. Grant 2 37
73 Thomas Jefferson 3 4
69 Andrew Jackson 4 8
67 James Monroe 5 14
65 Bill Clinton 6 21
63 Ronald Reagan 7 17
63 James Madison 8 13
62 Franklin D. Roosevelt 9 2
61 Grover Cleveland 10 19
60 Rutheford B. Hayes 11 25
58 Dwight D. Eisenhower 12 9
57 Theodore Roosevelt 13 5
57 John Adams 14 18
57 William McKinley 15 20
52 Harry Truman 16 7
52 Andrew Johnson 17 41
52 James K. Polk 18 10
51 John Tyler 19 36
51 Barrack Obama 20 16
50 Lyndon B. Johnson 21 15
50 Woodrow Wilson 22 6
49 John Quincy Adams 23 18
48 Millard Fillmore 24 39
47 James E. Carter 25 27
47 George W. Bush 26 33
47 Calvin Coolidge 27 31
46 William Taft 28 22
45 George H.W. Bush 29 23
43 Franklin Pierce 30 40
42 Martin Van Buren 31 24
40 Chester A. Arthur 32 28
40 Richard M. Nixon 33 32
39 James Buchanan 34 42
37 Warren G. Harding 35 43
37 Benjamin Harrison 36 38
36 Gerald R. Ford 37 26
35 John F. Kennedy 38 11
22 Herbert Hoover 39 30
22 Abraham Lincoln 40 1
19 Zachary Taylor 41 35
17 William H. Harrison 42 38
14 James. A. Garfield 43 29

The data behind the comparison shows several things.  First, the algorithm and the historian polling are moderately correlated, meaning that the two lists are not entirely at odds with each other.  Immediately, some clear differences jump out at us though.  Here are some of the more glaring insights.

Where’s Lincoln? 

I challenge you to find a historian that does not include Lincoln in their top three on their index of presidential greatness. This algorithm, however, does not measure personal greatness.  It measures outcomes relative to the quality of life of the people being governed. Lincoln’s presidency was marked by unprecedented carnage through war, national crisis and ultimately assassination. It’s safe to say if we could have avoided it, we would have.  The numbers clearly show that, giving him the most significant historical overvaluation relative to the data.

There’s something else interesting though. You can’t really capture, through data, the accomplishment of paying off the debt of overdue societal progress. Which tells us that ignoring required change, like abolishing slavery, ultimately results in really lousy outcomes for the people who actually put their foot down to change it.  And though history treats them well, the lives of the American people, as they lived them, were miserable.  So if you can, change things before you have to.

Was Washington really that great?

Was Washington really worthy of the title father of our country?  The data says so.  He had the highest average economic growth of any two term president outside of FDR.  Despite our fledgling status as a nation and our relative inability to defend ourselves against foreign enemies, Washington managed to steer us clear of war.   He signed just under half of all Constitutional Amendments ever passed and he expanded the territorial holdings of our country from nothing to something.  The first eight years of our country’s existence could have gone terribly wrong but it did quite the opposite.  Washington oversaw prosperity, stability, growth and progress on a scale not duplicated by any president since.

Did we really get Grant that wrong?

Grant was a great general, but a bad president.  That is what I was taught in history class growing up and obviously what our historians voted as they ranked him the 37th ranked president out of 43.  The data shows something different.

Though recession hit during the latter years of his two terms, the recovery and post-Civil War boom actually show that America experienced 5% GDP growth annually during Grant’s two terms. This ranks him fourth among all two term presidents behind FDR, Washington, and Jackson for economic growth.  As a modern frame of reference, Reagan and Clinton, both uniformly considered to be fiscal successes as presidents, were both about 4.1%.

President Grant also governed during a period of relatively stable peace and even ratified the 15th Amendment providing the right to vote to African Americans, a significant political debate of the time. So why is history down on Grant? The headlines point towards corruption and the eventual recession of the mid 1870s. Data doesn’t measure corruptions.  Just outcomes, but it does raise an interesting question.  Should we care about corruption if it doesn’t hurt us?  I think we do but perhaps the lens is that it is more of a long term problem.  We shouldn’t tolerate corruption, even in an environment of prosperity because it erodes the fabric of our political discourse. And ultimately it breaks down.  Site Bill Clinton and the damage his character issues did to the perception of trust in our politicians.  More on him later though.

There’s something else interesting in the data relative to Grant. If you look a little deeper, we begin to see indications of what may have been influencing our historians in their selections. Of the presidents that have the largest historic undervaluation relative to the algorithm, the top two, Grant and Andrew Johnson immediately followed Lincoln.  Rutherford B. Hayes, who followed Grant, also cracked the top 6 of undervalued presidents. This group who ushered in the era of those labeled the “forgetful presidents” has been much maligned by history.  But they actually governed during a period of unprecedented growth and stability.  But we know growth and stability isn’t what we remember. We remember the other stuff.  It’s safe to say that Grant, along with Andrew Johnson and Hayes suffered mainly from a case of not being Abraham Lincoln.  History has never really gotten over the fact that America was robbed of being led through post-Civil War reconstruction by the hero that delivered us from near destruction as a nation.

What gets a president noticed?

James Garfield spent 200 days in office.  Despite that, historians have him ranked as the 29th greatest president.  That means, despite being in office for about as long as a single Major League Baseball season, Garfield is considered a more effective president than 14 other men by historical opinion.  Only two of those 14 also served for under a year. Which means Garfield, having done nothing at all, in a literal sense, is considered more effective than 12 other presidents who served in office for years. This includes two term Presidents Grant and George W. Bush.

How is that possible?  The pattern in the data is very clear.  Of the four most overvalued historic presidents, three were assassinated.  Lincoln, Kennedy and Garfield were all killed while in office.The fourth most overvalued president, Woodrow Wilson, was a war time president.   If you want the American people to remember you fondly, get killed in office or go to war. Both things, most would agree would be outcomes to avoid, if we could.


What about the new guys?

The algorithm doesn’t care about how recently you were president. Reagan and Clinton are both ranked in the top ten, having served two peaceful terms of economic prosperity within the last 40 years. Both also crack the top eight undervalued presidencies. Historians tend to need some water under the bridge before they feel justified in giving due credit. After all, they are historians.  The data says that President Obama is ranked 20, just four rungs below where our historians forecast his placement.  The data behind his predecessor, George W. Bush, hands him the title for the lowest ranking full two term president at 26. I have some particularly leftward leaning friends who wonder regularly how “W” got two terms. The data supports their concerns. To keep this discussion data driven and bi-partisan, the outcome of the “Hope and Change” promised by Candidate Obama has him looking up at President John Tyler. From a data perspective, Tyler had a more effective presidency despite his somewhat less inspiring campaign slogan of “Tipecanoe and Tyler too…”

So what?

In the end, the data is just another way to debate the question.  It’s an algorithm that was built by a person, which means it is subject to its own biases and inadequacies. What it does show is that there are patterns to our bias that data and analysis can point out. It also shows that data, while important, often misses the qualitative aspects of measurement, like the gross injustice of slavery that mandated Lincoln’s great national and personal sacrifice.  Or the scandal and clear instances of dishonesty of the Clinton era and the long term erosion of the confidence in government.  But the data does serve to offer a different perspective. It’s why we use data in business.  It’s why we use it in sports.  And now, more than ever before, data is how we make sense of our past and the world around us.

For me it brings our two critical insights.  And the first is that presidential performance is outlived by societal impact.  You can change, for good or bad, things that long outlive your term.  The second is that change is easiest before its needed.  And though we celebrate the presidents who force it under dire circumstance, the lives of Americans who lived through it are largely miserable.  So change things before you absolutely must.  Think social security, climate change etc.  If you don’t and you rely on the “great man” to do it for you, the fee is high for that service.

In the end, it’s data.  And data helps start the discussion.  If it ends there, it’s less useful.  But if you ignore it, you tend to start in the wrong spaces.