Thursday, December 5, 2019

Political correctness is killing America

A recent incident brought home the impact of language and how we use it.  I wrote a guest column for our local newspaper titled “I’m just an old white guy, who is angry.”  The bifurcated response was extraordinary.  Many saw it as evidence of racial bias resulting from “white privilege.”  A friend passed me notes taken from an interracial group meeting within the city limits during which whether I was a racist was the subject of debate.  Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, a local furniture store owner said, “you must be reading my mind”; a neighbor told me she “loved it”; and, someone crossed a busy restaurant to tell me it was “genius.”

From my perspective, the former group reacted to the headline rather than the substance of the column which had nothing to do with race.  Reacting (or overreacting) to a word or a phrase taken out of context has infected our society with a disease.  It is among the many ways in which political correctness has deteriorated our ability to function.  Examples run from the ridiculous to the terrifying.  A Seattle teacher is reported to have renamed “Easter Eggs.”  They should be called “Spring Spheres” to avoid offending those who don’t celebrate Easter.  The absurdity has crossed the pond too.  In the UK, the Turnbridge Wells Borough Council banned the use of the word “brainstorming” for fear of offending mentally ill people. In Sydney, Australia, Santa Clauses have been instructed not to bellow “Ho, ho, ho!” for fear of offending American prostitutes.  More serious is the firing of a Harvard Law School professor because he agreed to work for the team mounting Harvey Weinstein’s defense.  Apparently, not all Americans are entitled to an attorney to represent them, only those deemed worthy.  

Last month, a student newspaper at Northwestern University apologized for its coverage of protests objecting to a scheduled speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  They had included some unflattering photos of protestors.  To their credit, many professional journalists objected to the apology.  The newspaper is edited and staffed by students at Northwestern’s top-rated journalism college.  Pointing out that taking photos of people in public places and reaching out for interviews is a reporter’s job, Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler wondered how “a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting.”

Most Americans are sick of it.  A study by a non-profit group called “More in Common” reported last year that approximately 80% of Americans think political correctness has gone too far.  Some report fatigue at having to keep up with frequent changes to acceptable language.  

While moving the goal posts can be frustrating for those just trying to live our lives, the true impact is more pernicious.  There is a class of people who specialize in being offended.  Many of them take to Twitter to express their outrage.  The Twitter Mob, in turn, has an outsized impact on mainstream media.  Once a politically incorrect utterance is widely reported, the consequences can be catastrophic.  Just ask the North Carolina police chief, the California schoolteacher and the Google engineer who lost their livelihoods for daring to speak their minds.  Suppression of language effectively makes the thoughts they represent become unthinkable.  Is that what we want in a free society? 

The cure for this disease is not an easy pill to swallow.  It requires each of us to examine our own biases and to be open to discussion.  Self-righteousness is so much easier.  The Harvard Business Review (HBR), noting the negative impact on work environments, has outlined five principles to enable constructive dialog.  Among them: pause, connect, question yourself and shift your mind-set.  HBR’s prescription is intended for business leaders.  But it could be adapted for use in any community.  


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Livin’ the US Economy Benjamin Button style

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was made into a feature length film that was nominated for 13 Academy Awards.  Benjamin lives his life in reverse – born as an 84-year-old man, dying as an infant – as the calendar advances.  A recent report on our economic prospects over the next 30 years has me wishing I could live out my years like Benjamin Button.  Only, I would wish that the calendar would go in reverse as I got older.  Sort of a double reverse. 

The report from Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) projects the US in third place as measured in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) by mid-21st Century.  Six of the seven fastest-growing emerging economies today would be among the seven largest in the world by this measure.  Vietnam, Bangladesh and India would be the fastest growing during the intervening timeframe.  PWC, of course, is among the Big-4 global accounting firms.  Being business oriented, they recommend global companies invest in creating supply chains to serve those markets.  Since WWII, the US has relied on positive Foreign Direct Investment to maintain dollar strength and offset our negative trade balance.  If that flow were to reverse, we slip down the slope to less prosperous lifestyles.  

Moreover, Americans would have to adjust their world view.  Our economic power enables our military power.  The combination of the two enables us to influence world events and create a buffer between us and foreign adversaries.  We are protected not only by the two oceans but also by military alliances with NATO, Israel, Japan, Australia and the Philippines.  

It would be better to go back in time. 

If I were born today and could live my life as time went backwards, I would be oblivious to the slow growth economy of the 2010’s.  My parents might be awash in credit card, mortgage and auto loan debt.  But I’d be a kid.  What the heck would I know about it?  We would go through the reverse bursting of the Internet bubble, cashing in our tech stocks just in time to pay my college tuition which would be about half what one might pay today.  

I would get my first job during the booming 90’s benefiting from the Reagan and Clinton tax cuts and the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War.  In the 80’s I would buy my first house – a huge house supported by the two incomes my wife and I would earn.  I would go to Vegas and bet the longshot L.A. Dodgers to win the ’88 World Series behind Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in Game 1. Our middle-class lifestyle would include two new vehicles every three or four years, one of which would be a minivan to cart the kids around with all our stuff.  And, there would be plenty of stuff because I would be entering my peak earning years and spending money like I planned to die tomorrow.  

I would enter middle-age during the sluggish, high inflation 70’s and would buy a townhouse when the kids went off to college.  I would trade in my VW Beetle for a Buick LeSabre as gas dropped below a half a buck per gallon.  I would bet on Secretariat to win the Triple Crown while trying to remember whether the Steelers beat the spread when they won four Super Bowls in six years.  I would invest in big oil companies knowing they would get richer as a result of the oil crisis.

In the 60’s, I would grumble about all those hippies protesting on campus while I adjusted the rabbit ears on my TV so I could watch Neal Armstrong plant the first human footprints on the moon.  My Vegas bet would be on Broadway Joe to take the Jets to Super Bowl victory over my hero Johnny Unitas. My car would be lower, longer and wider with a massive V8 engine under the hood, all the better to get a quick start at red lights.  I would buy skinny ties and pocket protectors to prevent my ball point pen from ruining my dress shirts. I would know that the JFK tax cuts would be reversed and worry about the impact of higher taxes on my lifestyle.  I would invest in blue chip stocks as insurance against my smaller net salary – GM, AT&T, GE and IBM.

I would be secure in retirement and maintain my middle-class status while living in a 1,000 sq. ft. home and sharing one car with my wife because that’s what middle-class meant in the 1950’s.  There would be no smartphones or flat screens to distract me and no credit card debt to undermine my financial security. 

Benjamin Button lived to the age of 84.  Were I to live that long in reverse time, I would witness the devastation of WWII and the holocaust and pass on to my reward during the Great Depression.  But I would have lived during the American Century, the most prosperous time in our history… a time when children of immigrants could transcend their socio-economic status… a time when our leaders enacted bold legislation… a time during which the United States set a standard by which other countries were measured.


Monday, November 11, 2019

A Boomer who’s OK with #OKBoomer

I just returned from a European vacation -- blissfully unaware of current events – in time to head to the polls.  Of course, one can easily follow current events from Europe.  All one needs is an Internet connection.  I simply chose not to read the news or follow the latest social media nonsense. 

My first clue of the latest potboiler was a tongue-in-cheek Tweet by WXXI’s Evan Dawson lamenting that a Rochester radio host had gained national attention and it wasn’t him.  He faux-whined “Am I doing this wrong?”  Later, I learned about Bob Lonsberry’s comparison of the hashtag #OKBoomer to the N-word.  To say Lonsberry’s analogy was overreach is stating the obvious; but I understand the emotion from which it springs.  Just as I wrote a few months ago that being a white male is considered an original sin, Boomers are now being dismissed as an irrelevant generation.  As an older Boomer, I should be insulted. 

However, I have to say I agree with many of the complaints of Millennials who will inherit from us a mass of structural impediments to our progress as a society.  We once lectured our elders about environmental pollution and bought Volkswagens and Toyotas instead of huge sedans.  Now, we buy SUV’s.  We protested the war in Vietnam and take credit for bringing it to a close.  Now, we have led the nation into the longest wars in our history.  We advocated political reform to rid society of “smoke-filled rooms.”  The reformed process has yielded Donald J. Trump.  The failure of four Boomer presidents is monumental, leaving us with unresolvable deficits, unviable social safety net programs, and government that is captive to industry.  

Historian and demographer Neil Howe has researched generational transitions back to the War of the Roses. He posits that every fourth generation – those who come of age during crisis – brings forth a heroic new paradigm for governance.  The last generation to do so, was the WWII generation.  Their post-war world order has given us 70 years of unprecedented prosperity  and is now, like Boomers,  getting a little long in the tooth.  So, dramatic change is perhaps due.

Like many of my contemporaries, I shake my head at Millennial ideas that seem crazy, from Green New Deal to free tuition to socialism (Socialism? Really??).  But Millennials are unlikely to tolerate an unsustainable model that has its roots in the experience of their great grandparents.  A generation of Americans that grew up with the Internet isn’t going to tolerate public institutions that operate on a 19th Century bureaucratic model. Nor will they tolerate a healthcare system that absorbs more and more of our national income without improving outcomes, a social safety net that will collapse of its own weight or an education system that doesn’t match graduates with jobs and careers.

Going forward, the national debate won’t be about spendthrift compassion vs. cold-hearted austerity.  It will be about developing a healthcare system that can care for our poor and elderly without bankrupting the country, restructuring education to deliver globally competitive graduates and ordered liberty that provides equal opportunity to all.

Just don’t mess with my Medicare, okay?


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Am I a libertarian or a utilitarian?

Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recently wrote about his experience teaching an ethics course based on Michael Sandel’s book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?” (which I’ve read and loved).  He taught the course for a semester at Appalachian State in Boone, NC, thinking he might find a difference in how people make ethical judgments in the Deep South when compared to Manhattan-based John Jay.  He didn’t.

While exploring how people make those judgments, one student stood out – one he describes as a libertarian.  Mandery tells us he believes the student would “sacrifice himself for the greater good” and observes that “people are too willing to prioritize what’s politically expedient over fundamental values.”  I confess I find his view confusing as sacrificing oneself for the greater good sounds more utilitarian than libertarian.  It was John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian ethicist, who defined the “greatest happiness principle” as “a moral action that maximizes utility, or happiness, for the greatest number of people.”  If that’s utilitarianism, wouldn’t one who sacrifices oneself for the greater good be utilitarian?  

Lately, I’ve taken to calling myself a libertarian. It’s how I express my distaste for the two predominant political parties without engaging in a long-winded explanation.  It has the added advantage of not having to defend policies or candidates affiliated with one or the other.  

But, that’s an expedient position rather than a principled one.  The truth is I am more pragmatic than dogmatic, arguing for the action I believe benefits society most.  So, for example, I would never argue that businesses should not be regulated as a true libertarian might.  To argue in favor of the chaos that would result from the complete elimination of regulation is, in my view, both lazy and impractical.

So, am I a utilitarian?

French economist Thomas Piketty has observed that elites may be divided between the “Brahmin left” (Silicon Valley) and the “merchant right” (Oil & Gas magnates).  Each has captured one of the major parties leaving out those with little money or education.  And, so, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren gain favor among them by espousing the theory that the system is “rigged.”

I reject the excuses of declaring the system rigged.  Sure, moneyed interests pour cash into our political system.  And, yes, those interests don’t much care about you and me.  But, at the end of the day, those of us in the middle-class are just trying to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and enjoy ourselves with what’s left over.  The system, rigged or not, is what we learn to deal with.  In that sense, we – those who occupy the middle-class suburbs of most cities – might be libertarians.  We take responsibility for our own families and our own outcomes.  

So, am I a libertarian?   


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Borrowing Your Way To The American Dream

My leafy, little neighborhood in Fairport, NY could be the poster child for the middle-class American dream.  Located within the village limits, in walking distance of three public schools, the streets are lined with well-kept homes, the garages of which contain late model SUV’s and sedans.  Free-range children can be observed riding their bikes, playing games and rolling down the streets on scooters and skateboards. 
Were that our only reference point, we might conclude America’s middle-class is thriving.  Unfortunately, it’s not.  It’s shrinking according to a Pew Research report.  There’s good news and bad in their report.  Yes, the middle-class is shrinking (bad news).  However, more families are moving up than down (that’s good, right?).  
The report uses family income as the criteria for defining middle-class. You are middle-class if your family income is between two-thirds (about $54,000 for a five-person household) and double the median annual income ($162,000) according to Pew. 
Income is one way to look at economic status.  But Pew’s report ignores net wealth.  Think of it this way: who’s more secure? A family of five with an annual income of $100,000 and $50,000 in savings or the reverse?  
And then there’s debt. Americans are borrowing heavily to maintain their middle-class lifestyles according to the Wall Street Journal.  Many families take seven-year auto loans to afford an average new vehicle cost that exceeds $32,000, often leaving them in the predicament of needing to trade-in an aging daily driver before they’ve paid off the loan.  No worries, though.  You can simply roll your balance due into the next car loan.  At the same time, debt to equity ratios on home mortgages now equal pre-financial crisis levels.  And, credit card debt exceeds $1 trillion for the first time since the Great Recession. 
Hedge-fund investor Ray Dalio has analyzed the split between the Top 40% and Bottom 60% of income earners.  The Top 40 earn, on average, four times the average of the Bottom 60 and have ten times the wealth.  This spread has grown over the last 20 years as manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the mix of household assets and liabilities have changed.  The Top 40% are more likely to own tax-advantaged real estate, stocks and bonds while the Bottom 60% are more likely to incur expensive student, auto and credit card debt.  So, over time, the split grows wider. 
Maintaining a middle-class lifestyle has become more expensive while incomes have not kept pace.  And, I haven’t even mentioned the impact of rising tuition and healthcare costs.  We learned a hard lesson in 2008.  Sooner or later, borrowing more than we can afford to repay will lead to financial ruin.
How will that impact our leafy suburbs?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Teach your children well... Worry Warts... A footnote from the old, white guy

I stumbled across a 2002 article in Smithsonian magazine by historian Stephen Ambrose telling a story about his encounter with a University of Wisconsin history professor who had dropped Thomas Jefferson’s writings from her curriculum because he had owned slaves.  Ambrose describes Jefferson as racist and asks, “To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?”

Their achievements were what I learned in school. But the incident makes me wonder what schools are  teaching our children.  When it comes to U.S. History (if they’re studying it at all), they may be learning it the way you and I did, or they may have some important elements left out by design.  There is a revisionist view that teaches your children that our preeminent position in the world is the product of an immoral conquest characterized by raping, pillaging, cheating, lying and murdering.  This presentation captures factually accurate events but omits context – and, apparently, Thomas Jefferson.

You can say some things that are true and still not be telling the truth.

The approach reminds me of George Orwell’s fictional but prescient work ‘1984’ in which he writes:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
If we remove all the symbols or, as Orwell suggested, rewrite all the books, repaint all the paintings, tear down all the statues, what will replace it?  Should your children grow up thinking that they are the beneficiaries of the acts of evil dudes and should feel guilty about our prosperity?

Here’s something your children are likely not being taught: 
·       Private property rights, affirmed by the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Jay, are the foundation of our economic prosperity, our right to private enjoyment of our homes and protection against government overreach. 
·       Governance by the rule of law ensures that government officials – elected and otherwise – are held accountable and that contracts will be enforced even if such enforcement is to the detriment of someone more powerful than you. 
·       Economic freedom enables us to have the lowest cost of capital in the world and attracts foreign direct investment that ensures the pie we divide among us keeps getting bigger. 
·       We should not take our prosperity for granted and many politicians who advocate for government to restrict corporate activities will undermine that same prosperity without an understanding of cause and effect. 

Our children must be taught something to offset the voracious attack that’s been mounted by media and educators who find a populist audience eating up the idea that the system is rigged, CEO’s are evil, and the capitalist economic system should be shelved. 

Worry warts

Are human beings natural worriers?  It’s debatable and the folks at Psychology Today tell us worriers are made not born. Twenty-first century philosopher Noah Yuval Harari takes a different view.  In his great book Homo Deus, he points to the worries of mankind since the dawn of time.  What most often took the lives of human beings was famine, plague or war.  Not anymore, he tells us.  “For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.”

So, with all those major worries out of the way, we worry about income inequality, politically correct speech and “fairness.”  We forget that we have the luxury of such worries because of the unprecedented prosperity of the last 70 years – prosperity created by the very system that many now decry as predatory.

Let’s not take that prosperity for granted. 

A Footnote from the Old White Guy

An abbreviated version of last month’s post “I’m Just An Old White Guy” was published in our local newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle, whose editor added “… Who Is Angry” to the headline.  It kicked up enough dust for me to be invited to discuss it on a talk radio show on the local NPR affiliate WXXI.

My piece was not about racism but was perceived to be.  The inclusion of the word “white” in the title is apparently a trigger.  In advance of the show, I suggested to the host that I was not qualified to discuss racism. Nevertheless, most of our discussion was about race.  A caller – a self-described “old, black guy” – challenged my expertise to discuss racism.  He was right about that.  The core premise of my essay is that categorizing people leads to tribalism and the political polarization from which we suffer. 
There are people who specialize in being offended.  There are people who specialize in calling out racism.  I am not sure if one is a subset of the other, but I know that it doesn’t lead to constructive dialog. 
My wife and my gay son will not vote Republican.  They feel excluded.  Their voices are not heard.  Their argument has merit.  But the response on the left shouldn’t be to exclude me based upon my race and gender.  If you exclude me from the conversation, you shouldn’t expect my support.  


Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Battle for “The Soul of America”

I just got around to reading Jon Meacham’s best-selling book ‘The Soul of America.’  Like most non-fiction books, the title is intended to get your attention and the subtitle tells you what it’s about: ‘The Battle for Our Better Angels.’

Meacham is a left-leaning editor and presidential historian.  So, I expected to get some moralizing about the current resident of the White House.  But I didn’t get it.  There were a few swipes at him in the introduction and the first chapter.  That was just to set the tone for what followed.

Meacham lays out a history of the United States as we have made progress on racial justice by consistently overcoming a tribal fear of “the other.”  The story he tells - mostly through presidential history - reveals the complexity of presidents who had the political courage and the moral leadership to enact laws, enforce court orders and espouse a moral philosophy consistent with that of our founders.  

He does so while pointing out the moral failures of those same presidents.  Harry Truman used racial slurs in private but wrote to Congress in 1948 about our belief that “all men are created equal and that they have the right to equal just under the law.”  He faced down the inevitable backlash from Southern Democrats saying, “I’m everybody’s president.”

Teddy Roosevelt (TR) was the first president to invite a person of color – Booker T. Washington – to dinner at the White House. He later recalled, “the very fact that I felt a moment’s qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself…”  And, yet, he worried that low birth rates among the “best people” (the English-speaking, white population) might lead to “race suicide.” 

The two-steps-forward-one-step-back struggle for racial equality and acceptance of immigrants has always been a study in contrasts.  Initial reforms under TR and Woodrow Wilson were “plagued by theories of racial superiority and fears of the ‘other.’”  FDR rescued capitalism and “redefined the role of the state to lift up the weakest among us” but interned “innocent Americans of Japanese descent.” 

Meacham spends more time discussing the courage and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson than other chapter of our history.  Paying scant attention to the failure of the Vietnam War and the five decade long failure of his Great Society, he paints LBJ as a hero of the same stature as Lincoln. And, indeed he was.  Despite my distaste for LBJ who lied us into a war we should never have fought, I gained a new appreciation for his moral and political courage.  Like Truman, LBJ was a Southern Democrat whose moral sense overcame his background.  He relentlessly advocated that we as a nation rise above racism, saying, “whatever your views are, we have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for [The Civil Rights Bill of 1964] and three-fourths of the Republicans… I signed it, and I am going to enforce it…”

Meacham closes his book thusly:

“For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the [American] experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”