When Will The 21st Century Start?

This is the post excerpt.

It’s been a politically hot summer: Russians, Failed Healthcare Reform, Scandals, Conflicts of Interest, Lies, Nazis, Tiki Torches, Antifa, Marches, Civil War Statues, and the “cherry” on our “chaos sundae”: Hurricane Harvey, a heartbreak of an incredible magnitude.  Whew!  We need a vacation from our vacation!

As I watch the news, an odd sensation comes over me.  As if the same film reel has been running for 60 years: same issues, the same faux outrage, finger-pointing rhetoric, and the same politics line-up around the thread-bare themes of the 20th Century.  The projector stops and the film burns through…fade to white and one question appears: When will the 21st Century start?!

In the US our politics has become outdated and unable to fully face the challenges of the 21st Century.  You can see it in the rhetoric from our 70 year old politicians: a confusion, a retreat, a turning away from a daunting future, a childish wish for a past where things were easy and simple.  Well guess what, the 21st Century is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be simple.  Instead of our leaders leveling with us, all we hear are the hollow promises of post-WWII America.

So here it is.  We are facing one of the biggest societal upheavals since the industrial revolution, but this revolution is not fought on Karl Marx’s 20th Century terms (labor vs capital), this revolution is being “fought” by Tech (digitization, automation, AI, Industry 4.0, et al.) which is “at war” with Human Labor itself.  Everyone from Accountants, Financial Planners, Lawyers, and Doctors to Truck Drivers, IT Technicians, Cashiers, and Bank Tellers is in the crosshairs of Tech.  Some experts predict that 50% of jobs will be gone by 2025.

Work: the thing that defines us, gives us dignity and purpose, the reason for the miracle of our Middle Class, the basis of our tax system.  What are the implications of a world where human labor is devalued to zero?  And what our are backward-facing politicians doing to prepare us for this revolution?  The answer is…nothing; they are doing nothing to prepare and unite us for this fight.  They are too busy fighting the trite culture wars of the 1960’s because our system incentivizes them to do so.  If that weren’t bad enough, they are simply out of ideas.  The politics of distraction pays, it keeps us triggered, in fear of our neighbor, and (most importantly) it keeps us watching the TV through the Life Alert commercials; meanwhile Rome burns.

But wait…it’s not all gloom and doom.  We are in a 10 year “twilight” of human labor where, if you have marketable skills and are mobile, you will survive and maybe thrive.  However, for those left behind there is only more confusion, angst, division, scapegoating, and a susceptibility to demagoguery.

Forget about blame and fault (there’s too much to go around).  No political party can claim “clean hands” from pedaling the politics of distraction.  Instead, let’s imagine a solution, a clean slate, a new party.  A party that faces the 21st Century head-on!  What would such a party look like?  The Politics of the 21st Century must:

1. Fully enter, occupy, and engage the 21st Century.  No more hiding, no more distraction.

2. Embrace fact-based decision making (empirical evidence, peer reviewed works, and the reliance on experts).  Seeing “strikes” instead of “balls” when it suits your team is the greatest from of distraction.

3. Discard outdated notions of Left and Right in order to focus on solving our biggest and most pressing problems.  Marxian terms like “labor” and “means of production” hold no meaning in a future where AI owns your mortgage.

4. Address the digitization & automation revolution and its effects on the value of human labor.  I’m open for suggestions, but we need to get ahead of this, 80,000 Class A truck driver jobs are at risk (for example).  Additionally, because automation replaces a tax payer, who will fill that tax-void for our police, schools, and roads?

5. Long term strategic thinking: Investments in people, infrastructure, employment, and businesses.  Short term thinking has lead to wasteful spending and our nation’s atrophy.

6. Unity over digital tribalism: Coalition-building across many diverse and disparate groups.  Identity politics is dead.  This fight requires us to work together!

7. Detente on the Culture Wars of the 20th Century: abortion, gun rights, identity politics, etc.  These issues have never created a job or educated a kid.  Enough is enough.

8. Restore western democratic norms and institutions: the rule of law, separation of powers, anti-corruption, and the sanctity of the vote.  I can’t stress this enough.  Democracy is the worst form of government…except all others.

9. The protection of shared natural resources and the human biosphere.  98% of the world’s climate scientists agree, climate change is real.  One way or another, we’ll pay for climate change.  Let’s talk about it like adults.

I’m sure there are many more ways we need to restructure our politics to face the 21st Century, let’s open our minds to the discussion and move forward together. The future is here and time waits for no one.

Stormy Norms…

norman-oklahoma-lightning-dangerous-66867.jpegI’ve been thinking about norms lately; maybe “obsessing” would be better word.  And not just norms for our elected officials (we’ll get to that, believe me) but also the norms that bind communities, keep us safe, and make rural America a very special place to live.  For example, in my hometown of Elk Point, SD if you see some kids walking down the middle of the road, you pull over and let them know that’s a very dumb and dangerous thing to do.  It’s also the reason you’d be a fool to: not pay your bills, steal your neighbor’s newspaper, or have an affair.  In small communities, we are interconnected in ways the rest of the country is not.  That guy you stiffed for mowing your yard, guess what: He’s a volunteer fireman or has a kid in your class or his grandpa and your grandpa were punching Nazis together in WWII or a million other connections.  Jerks become hermits, cut off from resources and community benefits.  But alas, these norms are eroding for what seems like a tsunami of reasons: digital tribalism, economic insecurity, and fear of the “other” (sowed by news outlets more interested in keeping us afraid rather than holding our public officials accountable, the once noble cause of the Fourth Estate).

Which brings me to our government and elected officials.  There was once a time when holding office was a sign of service and selfless duty to better your community, like serving in the military (nobody goes into the military expecting to get rich, trust me).  It may be one of the reasons why the US Military ranks the highest in public trust.  Unfortunately, the new expectation is that politicians seek office for personal gain.  It has jaded us and closed our minds to the possibility of public service being its own reward.  (I’ll keep us out of the Trump-weeds here, his disdain for norms is well documented.)  However, there are other norms we are slowly losing besides lying, conflicts of interest, corruption, and vulgarity…and not just in D.C.

The latest and most insidious form of norm-breaking is the disregard of the voters’ expressed will.  In South Dakota, the latest manifestation was the Anti-Corruption Law passed in November of 2016, to which our law makers said: Nah, we don’t want to have to answer to an Ethics Committee and track our meals from lobbyists.  Once they got their “sea legs” they came up with “Ah…it’s unconstitutional, yeah that’s it” (never mind that it’s up to a judge to determine that) and “The voters were duped, yeah we realize they voted for us”.  On the back of this stunning disrespect for the will of the voters, here in SD in 2018 our legislature has opened the flood gate on a number of bills diminishing the power of DIRECT DEMOCRACY: initiatives, referred laws, and constitutional amendments. These bills range from changing “Yes” to “No” on ballot issues to increasing the number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot in the first place. The question is WHY???  After much thought and consternation, I’ve only been able to come up with one answer: Because they can, without any electoral consequences.  We the voters of SD have allowed them to break this norm.  All of this and they have the gall to ask for a pay raise!

You might say, “Hmm, no biggie” or “It doesn’t really affect my life”, but I’m here to tell you that each paper cut inflicted on a patient in the ICU matters.  Our Democracy is dying the death of a thousand paper cuts, each of them draining the power of the voters and placing power into the hands of party hacks, lobbyists, and special interests.  Each nick is extremely difficult to repair, if repairable at all.

So how to restore our norms?  First we must recognize that we are not hapless victims of our elected officials, our Founders gave us the power to make swift and lasting change.  We must hold our officials accountable, shame them by phone or email, and USE OUR VOTE to send them home when they look the other way.  In short, we need a restoration: of our trust in good government, of accountability, and of, wait for it…our democratic norms.

Otherwise, this patient will bleed-out and be lost forever.

Hiding The Ball: How endless wars, using troops as props, and outsourcing disconnected the US public from military reality

JerryThe recent uproar over NFL athletes who choose to #TakeaKnee during the National Anthem has led me to a very simple question: Why?

Why do we care so much about full grown men who toss a ball around for a living?  Those who are most outraged by “the kneeling” say that their ire is not racially motived; that seems debatable, but for now I’ll take their word for it.  The only other answer that makes sense to me is that the American people have become so detached from military service that they have fused and conflated it with professional football.

So how did this happen, and who is to blame?

In many ways, we can’t completely blame the public.  If one of the few opportunities I had to contemplate what it means to be an American was during football games, I, too, would place an outsized weight on the sanctity of our National Anthem.  And don’t get me wrong, every Sunday you’ll find me cheering on my Kansas City Chiefs with reckless abandon.

But as a soldier, I’ve had many opportunities to think about our country, my oath to protect and defend the Constitution, the many freedoms we enjoy, and our military’s role in our lives.  I believe the blame starts with our leaders in government and the cynical and disconnected way we now fight wars.  A historical perspective will help illustrate the evolution of our military and definition of patriotism.

It hasn’t always been like this.  During the early stages of our country, the Founding Fathers abhorred the idea of a professional/standing army.  While addressing the Continental Congress, James Madison expressed his deep concerns of what a standing army would mean for freedom.  He said, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”

The idea was that armies are to be created from the citizenry for specific wars. In times of peace the army should stand down.  It was thought that an army without a war would find something to do.  That’s the way it was for more than 100 years: citizen armies were raised to fight wars and were dismantled after the conflict. I’m simplifying here, of course, to keep us out of the weeds, but that’s the way it was until World War II.  In 1940, President Roosevelt implemented the first Selective Service and the military stopped being a volunteer force.

WWII was a turning point in Americans’ relationship with their military.  Nearly everyone served in some capacity in the war effort.  Nearly everyone had lost something or someone.  The public had never been so close to understanding the consequences of war and the importance of service.  On the international front, the United States and the U.S.S.R. emerged as the last two heavyweights left standing, and our leaders’ thinking about the need for a standing military changed.  It was thought that the threat from the Soviets was so great that we needed to match their military might bullet-for-bullet (and they weren’t wrong).

A curious side-effect of having a military was the need to use it; President Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of the growing “Military Industrial Complex.”  General Curtis LeMay chided President Kennedy for not using “the bomb” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Both the Korean War and the Vietnam War were conflicts fought under the auspices of containing Communism.  Both drafted soldiers, and each cost the US public dearly.  Vietnam was the last time the draft was used in the US.  Our military leaders came to understand that a public who too closely felt the pain of war wouldn’t grant them a blank check.  So the Gulf War was a return to an all-volunteer (standing) military.  And then 9/11…whitney

After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration made some very deliberate decisions about how the next war will be fought (and the public’s involvement in that war).  One of the first statements from then-President Bush was for Americans to return to normal life. “Go shopping!”, he said, encouraging us to go back to our routines, and in turn, keep our eyes turned from the horror we’d all just endured.

Then came the bumper stickers “Support the Troops”, which suggested that the people fighting the war are not us, but are somewhere out there in need of our support.  Then the Bush tax cuts.  I remember Sen. John McCain being horrified of the idea of a tax cut during a time of war.  Where was the “war effort” – the rationing, war bonds, and public sacrifice?

Finally, since the draft put the public too close to the action, the cynical decision was made to use contractors whenever and wherever possible…resulting in the final evolution of warfare.  From no standing military with citizen soldiers, to standing military plus a draft, to all-volunteer/standing, and finally to outsourcing to contractors; the disconnect from the US public was complete.  During this time, the NFL and many college teams, did their part to opportunistically coopt our pride in the military: fly-overs, military appreciation days, and even camo uniforms!  The faith and pride we placed in our fighting heroes was transferred to athletic men playing a game. A new breed of hero emerged.

Fast forward 16 years and here we are: a public disconnected from the longest war in American history, people who think standing for a flag is proof patriotism, a corporate football league happy to use military personal and equipment as props, and a government relieved that nobody seems to be asking the tough questions.  We currently spend $700 BILLION a year on our military without batting an eye because we’ve been conditioned to “Support the Troops” without asking what that means.  We are all complicit in this farce.

The reason that much of the American public cannot separate troops from the flag and from the sport is because we’ve all hidden the ball.  Patriotism means more than being outraged at a football player not standing during the National Anthem.  When our grandparents marched to war in WWII, everyone pitched in, everyone suffered, everyone sacrificed, and we learned what war really is.  Now war is reduced to bumper stickers, slogans, and football.  Maybe that’s the reason we care more about football players than the wars we send our troops into.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s the reason we don’t really “win” wars anymore.

If You Want To Save Capitalism, Know Its Limitations

Here in the US in 2017, two interesting notions are emerging in parallel that will determine the fate of capitalism: 1) An almost religious faith in its ability to solve all problems at all times (usually held by people on the right who have forgiven capitalism for its shortcomings in the light of the alternative: Soviet-style communism), and 2) A complete collapse in faith by people who are witnessing how modern capitalism is becoming an exclusive club that favors passive wealth over labor (usually held by people on left who equate all capitalism as corruption, or young people who came of age during the Great Recession).  According to Fast Company magazine, “51% of young people in the United States no longer support the system of capitalism. And a solid 55% of Americans of all ages believe that capitalism is fundamentally unfair.”  By stating capitalism can do everything or it can do nothing, both of these movements are hurting a system that has raised more people out of poverty than any other philosophy or economic system.  In short, capitalism is sick and besieged on both sides.  If we want to cure this “sick man” of the 21st century, we’ll have to get real about what it can reasonably do…and what it cannot.

Let’s start in the beginning, I am a capitalist, but I’m also an eyes-wide-open realist. Being both a capitalist and a realist, I would like to see capitalism saved it from its own blind spots.  If you’ve read my other blog posts you’ll notice I’m partial to making lists, an old military habit I suppose…so here’s another short list to illustrate capitalism’s blind spots:

1) Unbridled capitalism doesn’t do well thinking long term or strategically.  One only has to look to the boom-bust cycles of the 19th century, our quarterly earnings report mindset, or our current aversion to reinvest in our infrastructure and people.  In the microeconomic view, I’ve been in food processing facilities where the leadership made an intentional choice to ignore food safety in order to gain efficiency; with disastrous results.  Another example is healthcare.  There is no profit motive in providing healthcare for poor or sick people, yet there are massive strategic economic benefits to ensuring healthcare for all (lower costs, less bankruptcies, more mobility, and greater risk taking by small business owners).

2) It has no mechanism for assessing the prices of shared resources.  For example imagine a company that makes its money by ruining the biosphere (air, water, etc) without properly paying for the long term damage. Back before we took these issues seriously, health hazards like smog, rivers on fire, and lead in water plagued our health and environment.  This is a topic both sides agreed upon back in the 1990’s when we almost passed “cap-and-trade” which would have assigned a price to carbon emissions but also allowed for trading with those who reduced carbon. 

3) A true free market demands perfect information for all players to properly price goods and services, but it is often co-opted by the powerful players in the market who collude to fix prices or obscure prices from the less powerful players.  This is pretty obvious to anyone who has only slightly studied the stock market…by the time the news hits you, it’s too late, the fatcats got out and you’re stuck.  For a recent example, look to the Equifax security breach where top executives aledgdly sold stock before the news of the breach hit “the street.”

4) Even for those who have a religious belief in capitalism, they/we already agree on limits to the free market (based on both our experience and common sense). We have child labor laws even though the free market wants the cheapest labor. We have borders that stop cheap labor from seeking market needs. See also, bank regulations, Americans with Disabilities Act, public schools, roads, FDA, SEC, etc.  Most of all, for $600b per year (more than the other top 10 countries combined) we demand that the government, not the free market, provide our common defense (schooling, healthcare, and housing for military families are all paid for by the tax payers).  Common defense is a puzzle that capitalism has yet to crack.

The very best example I can give you is coal. Coal is a 18th century technology that has become so efficient that barely anyone still works in coal, yet the industry still has a huge sway on politicians to protect it when it pollutes or to help it stifle cleaner, more innovative energy technologies. This example proves the point, short term thinking, exploiting shared resources, and a lobby that protects itself from competition…the very worst of all worlds.

I think you get the point, capitalism has some huge blind spots, so enough bashing on capitalism.  We also know that capitalism has great potential for saving and improving lives through innovation.  I happen to think that market-driven innovation may be the only way out for pressing issues like climate change and jobs lost to automation, but the incentives need to be right…and here’s where government still has a role to play. 

So what’s the answer?  Socialism?  No, the answer is balance. Our grandparents knew this.  After experiencing hunger and poverty during the Great Depression and witnessing the horrors WWII, they purposefully built a system where hard work was rewarded, old folks didn’t die from hunger, and children were sent to school instead of the mines or the fields.  Even though they are gone, we need to renew their vow to a balanced approach where we can unleash the power of capitalism where it works and restrict/exclude it where it only works for the very few or threatens our children’s future.  Once it wasn’t controversial or political that we demand our government to be strategic, people focused, free from corruption, and balanced.  It can be that way again if both sides agree to balance. Because without balance, there will only be imbalance and capitalism will only get sicker.  We must move forward, together. 

Why Trump Doesn’t Know Americans

WatercraftPresident Trump loves his rallies.  His rallies are the time when “real” Americans reaffirm his presidency and position at summit of all US politics.  However, outside of these events, Trump has shown a complete misunderstanding of who we Americans truly are.  In a recent instance he was forced to play the role of “consoler-in-chief” for victims of the hurricane Harvey floods in Houston TX.  In his ill-fitting un-scuffed work boots, his goofy “Made in China” MAGA hat, and tailored suit, Trump was simply at a loss for what to say to people who had lost everything.  It’s almost as if he couldn’t conceive a world where so many of us are one illness, injury, or natural disaster away from being homeless.  Instead he commented on the size of the crowds that came out to see him; a standard applause line at his rallies.  He missed the moment and he missed us.  The question is Why?  Why is it so awkward for Trump to interact with us?  In short, why does Trump not know us?

To answer the question one need not explore the dark corners of Trump’s psyche.  One must simply look to his experiences, worldview, and a lifetime of avoiding Americans.  There are two main reasons for his lack of understanding: 1) because he has rarely ventured out of his opulent NYC bubble to meet us, he is simply ignorant of the American experience, and 2) he see his core angst (a nouveau riche Queens kid rejected from “proper” Manhattan society) as a quintessential American experience…it is not.

First his ignorance of what it means to be an American.  Here’s a short list of instances illustrating Trump’s misguided view of American life:

  1. He doesn’t know what we do for a living.  Here his preference for two types of “manly” jobs is telling; seemingly only Coal Miners and Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund Managers exist in Trump’s world.  He doesn’t know that more people work in renewable energy than coal, or at Arby’s.
  2. He’s never been laid-off or fired.  Utilizing tax and bankruptcy loopholes doesn’t come anywhere close to the sting of having to pay COBRA, or being uninsured, or having to rely on food stamps.
  3. He doesn’t know how much a gallon of gas or milk costs.  I don’t know this for a fact, I only know it’s true.
  4. He’s never taken out a student loan.  See his Trump University scam.
  5. He’s never attended a public school.
  6. He “feels” like he was in the military because he attended a posh military school, but he received a draft deferment for “bone spurs.”  As a veteran, I find this “feeling” to be the least forgivable part of Trump’s ignorance of the American People.
  7. And on, and on…

The second reason he doesn’t know us is a little more complex: He has a misplaced sympathy for the forgotten American working class.  At Trump’s core is a burning rage against the established Manhattan old moneyed elites.  This is why his strident tone hits home for many of us who have been left behind by globalization and automation, but it’s an amazing coincidence of aligning attitudes…not understanding, empathy, or a plan.  Most of his supporters don’t know of his intense desire for inclusion and ultimate rejection by New York’s elites, or that his tone alone will never produce policies to get the forgotten workers of Rustbelt back to work, but they are waking to that reality.

With all that he doesn’t know, Trump has made one final miscalculation out of ignorance.  Even though we can be politically polarized, Americans are polite, charitable, and neighborly.  Especially in small communities (like where I live) where his brand of bravado and failure to pay contractors would get you run out of town on a rail.  We watch out for each other, because we know what it’s like to be down on your luck in the US in the 21st Century.  He has underestimated our unity, and it may be his own undoing.

Trump may not know us, but he is going to meet us soon enough.