Monday, December 14, 2020

Hope, Joy and an Ironing Board

When my future wife invited me to Christmas dinner at her parents’ house, I had no idea I was the first of her significant others to be invited to dinner – not just Christmas dinner -- any dinner.  We had only been dating a few months and I didn’t know what I was walking into.  Like many a small home in Canandaigua, my future in-laws’ house was overflowing with brothers and sisters; aunts, uncles and cousins; and those like me – no relation but with no place to go for the holidays.


I didn’t expect special treatment.  The dining room table with its added leaves was augmented by the kitchen table and down the hallway by any flat surface of the right height.  I thought I would be seated at the ironing board at the foot of the stairs.  But I wasn’t.  I was seated at the main table between two older brothers interested in learning about the interloper dating their baby sister.  


There’s something about holiday dinners that I enjoy more than any other. Maybe it’s the breakdown of the formality of matching silver and glassware.  We have more matching plates than forks and knives.  When we gather, there aren’t enough napkins of the same color to go around.  Perfection can’t be found in place settings. It’s found in the imperfections of extended families.  


This time of year, it matters not which holiday you celebrate, be it Christmas, Hannukah or Kwanzaa.  What matters is that we lower our guard and allow ourselves to embrace it.  It’s a time to look behind people’s faces and see into their hearts.  It’s a time to remember that love is more powerful than hate and stronger than evil. 


The pandemic presents unforeseen challenges to the joy of the holidays.  Some will ignore common sense guidelines endangering themselves and delaying our global recovery. Others, including my wife and me, will endeavor to keep our spirits up by Zooming with those we love and indulging in a traditional if smaller holiday dinner.  It will be difficult.  Digital communication can’t replace hugs.  A few toasts into the flat screen of a computer won’t replace the cacophony of laughter and clattering dishes.  


But it doesn’t have to be a miserable holiday.  As in any crisis, we have to adjust our mindset. If we have a roof over our heads and food on our table, we can be grateful for what we have rather than dwelling on what we’ll miss this season.  We can use this season as a time to reflect, to rest, to reenergize ourselves for the coming year.  


Even if we can’t embrace our loved ones, we can embrace hope.  Tough times end; they always do.  It is through hope that we endure.  And, next year, the holidays will be a celebration like no other, even if you’re eating off an ironing board.  




Monday, November 30, 2020

The truth or what passes for it: Twitter vs. Wikipedia

The truth is on trial in the U.S. Senate.  Recent committee hearings featuring the CEO’s of silicon valley’s leading companies were ostensibly about a review of Section 230 of the Communications Act.  But, like most things political these days, it was really a circus where the senators took turns as ringmaster and consistently displayed their ignorance.  The exchange between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is a good example.  The senator cited Twitter’s decision to add labels challenging claims of voter fraud saying, “you’re a publisher when you’re doing that.  You’re entitled to take a policy position, but you don’t get to pretend you’re not a publisher and get special benefit under Section 230 as a result.”  Section 230 protects Twitter and other platforms from being sued because of content posted by users.  It doesn’t matter if Twitter is a publisher or not.  


Of course, the principle at the heart of this debate is the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more specifically the Freedom of the Press.  The mainstream news media didn’t testify at the hearings but perhaps they should.  Media publications are subject to recourse by citizens and other legal entities should they commit libel against them.  Not so for the social media titans.  In the early days of the internet, Section 230 gave them a hall pass.  So, any blubbering idiot or blogger (including yours truly) can publish their thoughts on a variety of platforms without editorial review.  And, so, misdirection, misinformation or outright lies abound.


Calls for Twitter and Facebook to reign in the insanity have resulted from complaints from both sides of the aisle.  I think their claims have merit, but I can’t say I’ve heard of an appropriate remedy.  Once you start down that path, where do you draw the line?  Doesn’t the New York Times report the news from a position of bias?  Doesn’t FOX News? 


Flying below the radar is the second most visited site on the Internet:  The site includes over 55 million articles, comparable to its for-profit competitor Encyclopedia Britannica.  In my youth, Britannica was the gold standard.  To this day, its articles are written by paid experts and vetted by other paid experts.  Yet, in a study performed by the research journal Nature, its accuracy was judged little better than Wikipedia.  In its study, they found only eight serious errors – four in each encyclopedia.   


How remarkable that a self-regulated marketplace of ideas has achieved such status.  There is no editorial board  vetting what’s posted; no advertising to sully its objectivity; and no barrage of lawsuits challenging its accuracy.  Yet, the editor of a Gannett published daily once told me Wikipedia is not authorized as a source for reporters.  


So, what does all of this portend for the moguls of social media.  Other than an annual ass-whipping in front of a Congressional committee, will we see platforms reined in or, as some Democrats have suggested, regulated like a utility?  Will they be edited like any other news organization?  Perhaps they should adopt practices similar to Wikipedia, crowd-sourcing new information before publishing it.  Or they could create an artificial intelligence that bounces new information off an online encyclopedia of “facts.”  


Alternatively, they could partner with global news organizations like CNN, Associated Press and the New York Times.  It would be simple for them to block the posting of any source other those approved by a board appointed by them.  There’s a risk of course that they would publish extremist views whether from Newsmax or The Rolling Stone.  Or that they might block those views.  In those cases, would they be recasting themselves as news media?  Would people still post pictures of  cats and their grandchildren?  Who knows?


Whatever “solution” is deemed appropriate, it must come from the platforms themselves.  Once we allow government to decide what we should and shouldn’t see, we have undermined the very freedoms on which our nation was founded, upon which we have come to rely.  As one pundit said when considering government restrictions: “We’re adults.  We will only advance if we deny the proscriptions of our ‘betters.’  We hired them to protect our freedoms – not to remove them.”









Monday, November 16, 2020

How Trump could have won

The US economy started 2020 like a locomotive charging down the tracks.  In any other presidential reelection year, high GDP growth and low unemployment would make an incumbent unbeatable.  But the pandemic had other ideas and Trump’s handling of it was likely the biggest factor in his electoral defeat.  


By many accounts, it was the final straw.  Moderates who might have supported Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, confrontation with China and tax breaks deserted him because of his failure to lead.  In its first post-election poll, Rasmussen Reports (a polling organization that called both the 2016 and 2020 elections accurately) reported that 56% of those voting for Biden were voting AGAINST Trump, not FOR Biden.


I think Trump could have won and won big.  Here’s how:  let’s roll the calendar back to March 11, 2020.  The headlines say that the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic.  President Donald J. Trump, Jr. calls a news conference which is broadcast worldwide.  Here’s how he begins: 


“My fellow Americans, today the World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic due to the rapid spread and deadly effects of COVID-19.  In response, I am declaring a state of national state of emergency to ensure this dreaded virus has minimal impact on all Americans and our economy. 


“The federal government has limited authority to dictate to the states and each state will find they have different needs as the virus spreads throughout the United States.  But we have extensive resources to support the states and I am determined to put them to best use.  At this point, our knowledge about the virus, its impact, and how it is spread is limited.  So, I have asked our best scientists to focus all of our resources on how best to lessen the impact and find a cure.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – a position he has held since the Reagan administration, will be the administration’s point man.  He will brief the press and the American public daily, providing updates as we learn more and guidelines to help the states fight what is likely to be among the greatest challenges in our history.


“What I ask of you, my fellow Americans, is that you heed the warnings and follow the advice of the experts.  


“I have also asked Vice President Mike Pence to lead a task force we are calling ‘Operation Warp Speed.’  Its mission will be to both marshal the resources at our disposal to limit the spread of the virus and to support our pharmaceutical industry in finding a vaccine that will stop this deadly pandemic in its tracks.


“I am also prepared to authorize the expansion of our manufacturing of critical medical supplies under the Defense Production Act, a law that was used to great effect during World War II to convert our factories to the production of tanks and planes.  Our needs during the pandemic are quite different.  We will be reviewing our nation’s capacity to produce critical medical equipment and supplies and respond accordingly. 


“There will be some frightening moments and many families are likely to lose loved ones as we fight this battle.  But we should remember that over the last 80 years the United States of America has come together to defeat the Nazis, stare down the Soviet Union in a Cold War and destroy Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11.  There is nothing we cannot accomplish when we come together as a nation.


“COVID-19 doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat and neither do I.  Together, we can prevent the worst effects of this pandemic.  So, let’s get to work.”


Presidential declarations of this type are rare.  But they’re important when we are facing a national emergency.  FDR’s declaration that December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day) will forever be known as a “day of infamy” was such a moment.  As was George W. Bush’s trip to New York a few days after 9/11 when he stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center speaking through a bullhorn and later threw the first pitch of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.


Such displays of character and leadership are what our nation needs in times of crisis.  Character matters.  Leadership matters.  But President Trump didn’t make that speech because he couldn’t.  He simply lacks the character and leadership skills to do so.  


And, so, we will have a new president in January.  It is my great hope that President Joe Biden can overcome the damage that’s been done.  Our nation needs the healing effect of strong leadership.  





Sunday, November 1, 2020

Libertarianism and the pandemic

As one Twitter pundit put it last Spring, “There are no libertarians in a pandemic.”  There is no possibility of quickly identifying a deadly virus and advising the public at large on its impact and how to deal with it in the absence of a massive, well-established, government-funded medical research agency.  The Twitterverse lit up with glee at the cleverness of this observation.  But punditry aside, most libertarians and advocates of small government would support large-scale government response to public emergencies.  That line of thought doesn’t align with massive, intrusive government full-time, all the time. 


On the other side of the argument, small-government Republicans have pointed to the necessity of waiving a dump truck full of regulations to permit doctors to work across state lines, facilitate telemedicine and accelerate the development of a vaccine.  At a local level, restaurants have been allowed to sell alcohol to takeout customers, streets have been blocked to traffic to accommodate outdoor dining and distilleries have repurposed their operations to produce hand sanitizer.  All with the blessing of local regulators.  


None of these activities supports the extreme views of either liberals (massive government) or conservatives (drown the government in the bathtub).  Yet, the pitched battle waged in Congress reflecting the culture war leaves us with only the two extremes as options. 


Where to draw the line will never be an exact science, particularly when a crisis is upon us.  The mixed signals and false starts that were abundant in March and April remind me of trying to fix an airplane while you’re flying it.  State and local mandates were inconsistent from place to place as infection rates and local conditions varied.  Wyoming would never need the same restrictions as metropolitan New York.  And, Florida still has both a lower infection rate and lower unemployment rate than New York.  That needn’t have devolved into a battle of left vs. right.  But, as things go these days, that’s exactly what happened.  

 Fixing the plane while you're flying it

And, so, the pandemic has raised the prospect or, at least, a discussion about technocratic control a la Europe.  But such control hasn’t saved Europe from the worst effects of the virus and it is never a guarantee that such bureaucratic rule-making would be effective or just.  Is that an argument to turn everything over to the free market?  No, it’s not.


We must recognize that, in the absence of a financial motivation, the private sector would never develop the required regime of testing, contact tracing and quarantine.  Further, only government can mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic by providing funds to keep businesses and households in the black, all the while funding and guiding medical research to the best outcome, whatever that may be.  


The modern libertarian ideal has been distorted by the far right of the Republican Party with their own catchphrases.  I’m thinking of Grover Norquist’s vow to make government small enough to “drown it in a bathtub.”  We have delegitimized government so much that the nation that beat the Nazis and put a man on the moon by exercising its industrial might now can’t produce enough masks for its doctors and nurses.   


As with so many other of our greatest challenges, the American right has rendered itself irrelevant to the task of creating legitimate state capacity to address our greatest needs.  This is a genuine tragedy.  There is legitimacy to the Libertarian ideal.  Suspicion of centralized government power and respect of the power of market forces should form the basis of how we decide to move forward.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have effective government programs. 


The left would like to restore the triumvirate of the 3 BIG’s -- government, business and labor – that drove the economy for two and a half decades following WWII.  But that era was enabled by the destruction of the industrial capacity of Europe and Japan during the war.  By the 1970’s, high taxes had undermined capital investment rendering the US uncompetitive and setting the stage for the Stagflation that characterized that decade.  It also set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics that served us well for about two decades.  


At the dawn of the 21st Century, that paradigm seemed to be getting too long in the tooth to drive economic progress.  The Bush tax cuts yielded economic growth equal dollar for dollar with the growth in government debt.  In other words, the multiplier effect seemed to be absent during a decade when capital flowed more easily into tax advantaged real estate investments eschewing innovating industries like manufacturing and high tech.  The failure of the tax cuts to spur economic growth combined with a failed government response to Hurricane Katrina and the bursting of the housing bubble then set the stage for liberal Democrats to take both houses of Congress and the White House.  Free trade agreements made in the 1990’s made the investor class richer while problems once isolated to the inner city spread to rural communities – family breakdown, drug abuse, education and healthcare gaps.  

As we look forward to a decade of not only overcoming a pandemic but also confronting the strategic challenges presented by China and making economic growth more inclusive, we must fight the instincts of both the left (to put too much faith in government action) and the right (to leave too much to the market).  The legitimate objective of government is to do what we cannot do for ourselves but must be done.  The focus should be on making government effective rather on the dogmatic reflexes of the left and the right. 

Free markets only perform at optimal levels when embedded in common goods provided by government:  education, infrastructure and economic freedom.  And, government can only be effective if its limitations are recognized.  Regulation must be reasonable and consistent. Disincentives to private investment should be removed and corruption must be rooted out. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Distinguishing fact from opinion: a critical skill as the election approaches

As we close in on election day, President Trump touts his "plan" to defeat COVID-19.  Sounds like a fact, doesn't it?  Meanwhile, Joe Biden says Trump doesn't have the requisite leadership skills to govern.  Sounds like an opinion, doesn't it?  

Distinguishing fact from opinion is a critical skill not only in choosing a candidate but also in finding our way through life in general.  Professor Justin McBrayer thinks so anyway.  I received an email from the good professor yesterday, reminding me of a dialog we had a few years ago.  McBrayer wrote a piece in the New York Times about how his second-grader was being subjected to flawed reasoning on the matter.  I responded with a blog post that I shared with him.

My post which is printed in full below doesn't rise to the level of McBrayer's new book, Beyond Fake News: Finding the Truth in a World of Misinformation.  You can find out more about the book on his website here or in a five-minute video clip here.  The book is available at places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, but you can also use the author discount code FLR40 on the publisher’s site to bring the paperback price down to $27.96.

How to tell right from wrong... It ain't easy!

Do your kids think there are “moral facts”?  Are there circumstances where it is okay to lie, cheat or steal?

Philosopher and college professor Justin McBrayer concerns himself with such questions and was upset enough about what his second grader is being taught in school to air his opinion in the NY Times.  He discovered that the common core curriculum, by its definitions of fact vs. opinion, teaches our children that values (or value claims as he describes them) are not facts.  They are opinions.  

Connecting the lessons his son is being taught in the second grade to cheating on college campuses, he observes “that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”

I sent the article to my brother who is a bit closer to this issue than I.  He has worked on education issues with Georgia’s state government and his wife spent her career teaching grammar school.  He expressed amazement that “parents of grade school children extend small things into the cause of the world’s problems.”

He’s probably right.  But, there was something about Professor McBrayer’s argument that stuck in my head.  Then, it came to me. What’s missing in his essay is any mention of a social contract, an implicit agreement among members of society who embrace a common set of values. “All Men Are Created Equal”, for example, is part of a value system that forms the basis of a social contract.  In a literal sense, it is not a fact. Some people are created smarter or stronger or prettier.  However, the statement — which is really meant to convey “All Men Have Equal Rights” — drives legislation and government enforcement of equal opportunity laws.  That is part of the social contract that we accept prima facie.

I agree with Professor McBrayer that it’s appropriate to separate mere opinions from value statements.  "Copying homework assignments is wrong" is a statement of our values and a good lesson to teach our children.

However, children’s values are learned more in their activities and day-to-day experiences than in classrooms.  Kid’s taught to play golf are charged with scoring and adhering to the rules.  There are valuable lessons in this activity that have nothing to do with fact vs. opinion.  They have to do with personal responsibility and how we treat others.  It’s a social contract of a sort.  

Another example of how children learn comes from comparing parents’ behavior to what they say.  You can tell your kid that it’s wrong to lie.  But, they learn that lying is part of the fabric of society.  If Mom tells someone how nice he or she looks and then tells Dad how awful that person looks, the kid learns that - at least in that situation - it’s okay to lie.  Ultimately, they figure out that an overwhelming number of people cheat on their taxes or steal office supplies from their employers. 

Teaching kids not to lie, cheat or steal is important.  And, Professor McBrayer is right when he says, “consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts.”

However, in a world where the social contract is constantly evolving, distinguishing fact from opinion is an important skill. People’s values go well beyond clear rules about what is right and what is wrong and our perspective is constantly changing. Witness the change in people’s attitudes about gay marriage, for example.  

Moreover, I contend that many “moral claims” are relative to culture.   In a complex global community, moral relativism is required to address society’s larger issues.  

In politics… How much should we tax the rich to provide for the poor?

In medicine… Should we administer an experimental drug to a critically ill patient?

In business… Are we treating our customers ethically?

In foreign affairs… When should we send troops to defend another nation?

In a post a few years ago (From Deadly Sin to Virtue), I quoted Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor and co-author of “Practical Wisdom:  the Right Way to Do the Right Thing”.  He compares finding what’s right to jazz improvisation.  The notes are on the page but the musicians play a variation that results in beautiful music. 

In American society, our response to people and institutions that are unprincipled is to create rules to govern their behavior.  But, that doesn’t work.  What we need, Schwartz asserts, is the moralwill to do the right thing and the skill to figure out what that is

Let’s figure out how to teach that lesson to our children.


Monday, October 12, 2020

The case for a third-party vote

So far, each of the two major party candidates for president reflect the opposite sides of the culture war.  As an independent voter (I haven’t voted for the winner in a presidential contest in 24 years), my frustration with the major parties continues.  Our choice seems to be limited to the lesser of two evils.


I consider myself to be a right leaning moderate and would normally hold my nose and vote Republican.  But, if you believe as I do, that character matters, that leadership matters, that Trump’s failures during the pandemic and our racial strife are disqualifiers, it’s easy to declare yourself a never Trump-er.  On the other hand, I can’t say he hasn’t accomplished anything of value.  He has lowered taxes, reduced business regulation, confronted China, facilitated an historic peace agreement in the Middle East and begun to rebuild the military, all which appeal to this former Republican and much of which his opponent would reverse.   


Of course, anyone who believes all those achievements are positive developments would find it difficult to vote for a Democrat — any Democrat.  That difficulty is compounded by the casual way in which leading Democrats would toss our prosperity aside in pursuit of higher taxes, more mandates on businesses, expanded entitlements and government “investment” in green technology.  If you think Biden would govern as a moderate, check out the progressive wish list that forms his official platform.  


I am not alone in my view of the candidates.  Recently, the Gallup organization found that 37% of Americans think neither major party candidate would be a good president, the highest such percentage since the pollster started asking that question.  And, yet, an analysis by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics concludes in part, “[t]hird party candidates typically poll better than they perform.”  Perhaps that’s because many people believe, as one Democrat friend put it, a vote for a third-party candidate “is a vote for Trump.”  Or, perhaps it’s because disaffected voters who don’t live in swing states realize that no matter how we cast our ballots, our vote will go to the majority winner in our state – Biden here in deep blue New York.  So, we stay home. 


I vote third party because it helps me sleep at night to vote for something I believe in rather than the lesser of two evils.  So, on November 3rd, I’ll cast my vote for the only woman running for president this year – Jo Jorgenson of the Libertarian Party (and for Kevin Wilson for Congress in NY-25).  If you think that’s a wasted vote, I would ask you to consider how the major parties would react if the 37% of us who disapprove of both Biden and Trump voted for someone else. 



Monday, September 28, 2020

The search for unbiased news... a shoutout to local journalists... RBG

I just cancelled my subscription to my hometown newspaper.  I’ve been reading the New York Times since sixth grade; but I no longer think of it as news.  It’s opinion disguised as news.  The final nail in the coffin for me was the firing of editor James Bennet following the publication of a controversial op-ed written by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR).  I don’t agree with the senator; but I want to hear what he has to say.  Bennet was forced out as a result of the groundswell of disapproval from the progressive group of journalists who dominate the newsroom.  I needed to look no further than the public resignation letter of columnist Bari Weiss for validation of my view of the Times.  The inmates are running the asylum. 


The search for unbiased news led me to AllSides website.  A non-profit group that analyzes major news sources and regularly updates us on where each news outlet fits, its website is a wonderful source of information about the media.  Eschewing terms like radical or extremist, it places each news source in one of five columns.  It looks like this.  




Each day, the site features a major news story as reported right, left and center in a graphic.  Here’s what it looked like the day after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 






A shoutout for the locals


Rochester has been in the national news lately due to the coverup of the alleged homicide of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester Police officers.  The revelation has brought protesters into the streets, much as we’ve seen in other cities across the nation.  Our local daily newspaper — Gannett-owned Democrat & Chronicle — has been covering the events tirelessly and, most important, objectively.  Reporters Will Cleveland, Steve Orr, Justin Murphy, Victoria Freile, Matthew Leonard and Brian Sharp among others have reported both sides of the story without emotional language, ensuring that both sides are heard.  It’s great to know there are real journalists out there.  




No matter which way your politics lean, you have to admire Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She fought for her passionately-held beliefs, overcame insurmountable obstacles and succeeded where others failed.  She did so by following the rules while advocating for changing the rules.  Her passion was matched by her perseverance, her integrity and her intelligence.  She was a true American hero.