The Truth About Monuments

I’m not a fan of monuments, of any kind. And I think much of the debate about monuments today threatens to distract people from the larger, more important issues, and play into the hands of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racists and the president.

But I am a fan of knowledge. And I loath propaganda, especially the kind that is designed to spread division and hatred. Hence, I’m sharing this much needed brief history lesson from a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, which he shared on his Facebook page late last night:

I wish more folks understood how many of the monuments now being debated are not really from the post-Civil War period as a way to remember war dead. Rather, contrary to popular understanding, many of these statues were explicitly erected as Segregation Monuments in the twentieth century, during Jim Crow, as a way of shouting – against the American Idea – that public spaces were to be whites-only spaces. Tragically, many of these monuments were erected exactly when lynchings of black Americans were being celebrated in those communities – and the timing overlap here was not accidental. (It’s also worth noting that Gen. Robert E. Lee had opposed erecting Confederate Memorials because he worried, wisely, that they would become scabs of bitterness to be endlessly picked at.)

People are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. But no one is entitled to their own facts.

Freedom of Expression Isn’t Absolute But Some Is Essential

I’ve always been amazed by the number of people who think they’re totally free to do and say whatever they want, without repercussion. Permit me to be blunt on this point, Vera: don’t be an idiot when it comes to your understanding of freedom.

There are constraints on the freedom that all of us enjoy. Sometimes, those constraints are rooted in laws or regulations. Often, they’re rooted in social norms.

This issue came to the fore again as some of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend are finding out they’re now unemployed. Their employers don’t want such people on the payroll.

It’s possible, although I have no way of knowing, that some of the counter-protestors have lost their jobs, too.

This comes on the heels of an employee of Google being fired for expressing views that were out of step with the company’s policies and values.

Public protests aren’t the only thing that can get you canned, of course. Employers and clients can refuse to hire you, or decide to fire you, pretty much for any reason or no reason at all. They can’t do it for illegal reasons — for instance, because of your race, sex or age — but, of course, that happens all the time. Doing something unlawful and being held accountable for it are different things entirely. Many employers unlawfully discriminate with impunity on a regular basis.

Expressing yourself through your appearance can have repercussions, too. Visible tattoos are a show stopper for many employers. Hair, dress, drug use, language, names and hygiene are biggies as well.

Employers routinely check Facebook and other social media sites for postings or photos they might consider offensive or objectionable. Colleges check, too. I’m amazed by the stuff some people post and then by their surprise when doors fail to open.

I suppose it would be nice to be able to say or do anything you wanted to say or do without repercussion, but that’s a fantasy of course. For better or for worse, that’s not how the real world works.

Some people decide to stay well clear of saying or doing anything that could elicit an adverse reaction. Others don’t seem to care and pretty much say and do what they want. They usually pay the price. Others take a more nuanced approach, venturing as much individuality as they deem safe. Sometimes they miscalculate.

Sometimes fear keeps people in place. You see that with corporate CEOs today. Some of them go along with our president because they fear his wrath. His immediate and harsh reaction to the three CEOs who resigned from his Manufacturing Council the past couple of days is illustrative. If only he reacted to Nazis as quickly and harshly.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, Vera, you know that I place a lot of value on financial independence. One of the reasons is the freedom it brings. Simply put, you don’t have to be as concerned with what other people think, and you don’t have to worry about kissing up to some boss, client or committee. You can choose to work only with people you respect and trust.

Without financial freedom, most of us have to be ever mindful of who butters our bread. We have to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds us. Alright, enough with the clichés! You get the point.

I can’t decide what approach might be best for you. I wouldn’t even try. But I would caution you to be careful not to allow yourself to get into a position where someone effectively owns you — that is, in a position where your values must be subservient to those of some company, congregation, board, boss or trustee.

Whether you exercise it or not, there’s a certain sense of freedom in being able to walk out the door (as I did once, albeit not abruptly or rudely). There’s a certain freedom that comes from not having to work for assholes.

Indeed, there’s a certain freedom — and joy — in being able to do the right thing, consequences be damned.

In certain times and places, doing the right thing can get you killed. We’re lucky: that’s not likely here, although it can and does happen sometimes.

Usually, however, it’s not a matter of losing your life. Rather, it’s a matter of losing your self-respect and soul. Or feeling trapped.

It’s fantasy to think our freedom is or need be unconstrained. Absolutes are not what the world is about.

However, it’s just as fanciful to think we’re free if we have become subservient with respect to the most important things in life. We may delude ourselves and think we’re free. But we’re not.

What To Make of Heroes Who Did Bad Things

In a press conference this afternoon, President Trump equated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The first two were founders of our country. The last two led a revolt against our country to preserve an economic and social system that enslaved African Americans and were responsible for the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousand of Americans.

These four men shared something in common of course. They owned slaves — that is, they held other human beings in captivity because of the color of their skin.

But there are differences. For starters, 100 years separated them. We’ll never know what either Washington or Jefferson would have done if presented with the possibility of succession — dissolution of the Union they fought so hard to establish.

There were other differences. Jefferson had conjugal relations with at least one of his slaves. More bluntly, he didn’t mind sleeping with his captives.

Washington, by last will and testament, granted his slaves freedom after the death of his widow.

Does any of this mean Washington and Jefferson were less immoral than Lee and Jackson?

What it does mean, of course, is that all four men cited by President Trump did bad things. Well, at least some of us think so. Obviously, some of us, apparently including the president, don’t think so, or at least aren’t so sure.

Nobody is perfect, as we know. Each of us transgress in some way or another. Yet few if any of us transgress to the extent of enslaving other human beings. And no one I know is willing to kill other people in order to preserve the institution of slavery.

Some will say the standards were different back then. They were, but it’s also true that many people, back then, thought slavery was immoral.

Fortunately, it’s not up to any of us to judge any historical figure, or contemporary figure for that matter. But it is up to us to judge conduct.

I never thought I’d hear a sitting president of the United States come to the aid of two generals who sought to dissolve the Union which Washington and Jefferson helped forge in Philadelphia. But there are a lot of things I’m hearing these days that seemed unimaginable not that long ago.

It’s one thing to refrain from judging another person’s soul. It’s quite another to defend their bad acts.

David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was thrilled with the president’s comments this afternoon. And why not? The Confederacy finally has an apologist in the White House. And so do the Nazis.

P.S. Lest an erroneous inference be drawn, none of the aforementioned men is a hero of mine.

The Dangers of False Equivalency

Political hacks have been pushing false equivalence in the recent past as a strategy. I heard it again on Sunday. Apologists for the president picked up on his theme to try to convince voters there was blame on both sides in Charlottesville and that neither side (the white supremacists or what they termed the “leftists”) was any worse than the other. It’s a logical fallacy yet one that has a superficial appeal to many.

If, when you grow up, Vera, the political landscape remains as toxic as it is today, you’ll hear a lot of false equivalence. It’s a way extremists try to camouflage the harshness or the flaws in their arguments. And, most importantly, it’s a tactic to change the subject and move the light off of them and their positions and onto something else. Politicians and their hacks are particularly adept at this tactic.

Don’t be fooled. And don’t be as easily sidetracked as many reporters and viewers seem to be.

Some ideas are worse than others. There is no equivalence.

The immoral cannot be rendered moral by the actions or inactions of another.

And don’t be a sucker for head fakes. Don’t allow bigots and others to divert your attention from the real issues. Be in control of your own thoughts and attention.

Address each idea independently, on its own merits. Never assume the choice is between this or that. Life isn’t as simple as that; it’s far more complex.

There is no need to acquiesce to another person’s characterization of a situation. Think for yourself.

We live in an era in which the manipulation of public opinion is an art form. People will do and say just about anything to get you to believe what they want you to believe, and to support their cause (usually by casting your vote a particular way).

Thoughtful, independent thinkers don’t allow themselves to be led down the path of despotism and destruction. Yet it has often happened that society has been led down such a path. It’s our duty to ensure it never happens again.

Think. Question. Reason. Subject the claims of others to intense scrutiny. Beware of the dangers and risks.

And, above all, don’t allow yourself to be pulled down by people of poor character and hate-filled values.

False equivalence is just that: false.

Justice Isn’t Free

Today, three people lost their lives in or near Charlottesville, Virginia, in connection with a white supremacists’ rally.

Since the beginning of our country, many of our citizens have believed in the superiority of whites and the inferiority of people of color. Indeed, today’s violence occurred near the site of one of our country’s preeminent universities, the University of Virginia, which was founded by a racist, Thomas Jefferson.

Today I have heard politicians react. Our president had what may have been his worst day in office. He ridicules many people. But today he declined to speak out strongly against white supremacists and Nazis.

I also heard a United Church of Christ pastor interviewed on television. He was eloquent and spoke clearly with a strong moral voice. He reminded us all that justice isn’t the default position, but that it comes slowly and only after much hard work and sacrifice. He reminded us that justice isn’t free. People who earnestly seek to follow Jesus and the Gospel understand that well.

Today is a reminder of the choice each of us must make. We can choose to stand with the oppressed or the oppressor.

We can choose to believe that all people are equal or they’re not.

We can choose to subjugate or liberate.

People have given their lives for both causes.

Nothing is free in life. But some things are worth the price.

Making America Less

Our president was speaking to police officers today. Mr. Trump endorsed police brutality. The officers laughed and cheered.

What can I say, Vera?

By now it’s abundantly clear that the concept of “greatness” means different things to different people.

I suppose it’s always been that way. But, at least in my lifetime, we’ve never seen anything like this.

I hope this will prove to be an aberration and that America will reclaim the values and principles that made this country great.

If not, then … . I don’t know.

In the meantime, we’ll do our part to help you grow up to be a truly great person, as opposed to the kind of person who’s leading our country today.

As best I can tell, our future rides on your generation and the generation of your parents. My generation has certainly failed us miserably.

Conservatism At Its Worst

I lived in a blue state for five years: Colorado. For heaven’s sake, we even decriminalized marijuana.

I recently moved to a red state: Indiana. Yet it feels the other way around.

Not entirely of course. You’ll find some of the worst roads in the country in Indiana and Indianapolis. I suspect it’s because of the brand of fiscal conservatism here that is championed by people such as former governor (now vice president) Mike Pence. Penny wise and pound foolish. That’s a generous characterization.

It’s conservatism that thinks the only thing that matters is lower taxes, regardless of the impact on living standards or social well-being. It’s conservatism that shifts costs from the rich to the poor and working class (often via hidden subsidies). It’s conservatism that rejects the ideals upon which the country was founded and instead embraces the radical ideology that government is inherently bad. In essence, it’s a conservatism that is inherently anti-democratic.

As noted investor Jim Chanos recently remarked:

In the U.S., an attitude of hostility toward government involvement in the economy has developed over the last several decades. In the U.K., when it comes to the economy, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party both see a role for government. The Conservatives see a role that needs to be shaped and controlled and limited, while Labour feels that government should have a bigger role. But they both understand that it has a meaningful role to play. In the U.S. we have a much different situation. The Democratic Party in the U.S. is more like the Conservative Party in the U.K., while the GOP is a party that is actually opposed to the government, taking the view that the government is bad and needs to be reduced or limited. That’s a significant difference, and it shows up in our infrastructure.

And so it does. Indiana, as a bastion of conservatism, has a lot of shitty roads and streets.

With exceptions. Fortunately, we live in one such exception: Carmel (great roads!).

I’m told Carmel is really conservative, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s investment in public infrastructure and economic development far outstrips any place we’ve ever lived. As a result, it’s a vibrant place to live, replete with cultural, entertainment, outdoor and other amenities. (To be fair, however, it’s also obvious Carmel has more money that many other cities in the state and that it’s success would not be easily replicated in other parts of the state.)

In any case, compare that to my blue state experience in Loveland, Colorado, a city that sits square in the middle of one of the fastest growing, dynamic economies in the country, spanning from Fort Collins in the north to Colorado Springs in the south, with Boulder and Denver in between.

Loveland’s downtown is shoddy and embarrassing. Yet city council refuses to invest even a few million dollars in infrastructure upgrades and streetscaping. They finally initiated a big downtown project, but did so begrudgingly while still refusing to upgrade the adjacent commercial and retail corridor.

Loveland’s schools aren’t first-rate, either. I can’t think of anything more important than the quality of a community’s schools. But kids aren’t the highest priority in Loveland.

Meanwhile, Loveland sits on more than $200 million of reserves in the bank (on which it actually loses money due to its dubious investment policies and management), and stubbornly refuses to finance public infrastructure with bonds. The mayor and council persons tout their fiscal conservatism, but in reality they’re simply making some imprudent, short-sighted decisions.

But that’s the way much of conservatism in the States is these days: short-sighted and self-destructive. Perhaps there is no greater example of the self-destructive nature of this ideology than Kansas.

If this new brand of conservatism thinks it’s a good idea to ignore public infrastructure, public education and the growing inequity of income and wealth in our country, its adherents will be in for a surprise. The impact on their economies, competitiveness, standards of living and social stability will be profound over the mid to long term.

Moreover, if this newfangled belief in the inherent evilness of self-government spreads, people will be in for a harsh surprise by what such an ideology yields.

We’re seeing conservatism at its worst today. But this too shall pass, Vera. Will it pass before it gets worse? That isn’t clear.

In any case, I’m eager to see what it looks like when you’re old enough to vote. I hope it will look better. A lot better.

(P.S. Liberalism At Its Worst will be forthcoming.)

Celebrating a Declaration of War

Two hundred forty-one years ago the elite of the American colonies met in Philadelphia. They agreed on, and then signed, a declaration of war against England. For obvious reasons, the declaration was called something different: a Declaration of Independence.

It took a while longer, but eventually their act led to the creation of these United States of America (which later became known as the United States of America).

A lot has happened since 1776. Some good. Some bad. Some, who knows?

One thing is indisputable, however: people immigrated to this land from around the globe. Obviously, they thought life could be better here. And for many, it was.

People still want to come. Yet we’re no longer sure we want to welcome them.

Your ancestors on your father’s side came from Europe, Vera. Your ancestors on your mother’s side came from Mexico (although some of them probably hail from Europe and Asia if you go back far enough).

I don’t much care. It’s you who matters. Where your ancestors were born and raised is of no consequence. People are people. The idea that worth is somehow tied to skin color or ancestry is absurd and ridiculous. It’s nothing more than a lie some people tell to feel better about themselves.

But I’m not completely stupid either. I realize tribalism is real. It has been since humans started keeping a record of their affairs. And it probably was even prior to that.

We all belong to at least one tribe. That’s fine. But it’s hard for me to think it’s fine when we start believing our tribe is inherently more worthy than another tribe. Such thoughts always turn ugly. Sometimes they turn violent.

These words are written in that document signed in Philadelphia nearly two and a half centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Since then, we’ve revised the principle to include women. And people of color. And people of non-Christian faiths.

We didn’t live up to our principles in 1776. But we’ve been working at it. And we’ve made progress.

My hope today is that we don’t decide to forfeit the progress we’ve made. And that we’ll continue to pursue the ideal that has helped make this tribe of ours so appealing to so many.

It was a declaration of war. But it wasn’t one primarily directed at England. It was war against something far more insidious and destructive. It was a war on the principle that all men and women are not created equal.

There Is Something Wrong with This Country. Gravely Wrong.

From my perch, all seems right with the world. We live in a nice house in a nice community — indeed, a community replete with new things and amenities. I want for nothing. We’re near you Vera. You stayed with us twice this past weekend. Being near you and your parents is a blessing unmatched by material things. It makes this place special. Very special.

Yet there is something very wrong, too. Yesterday, the president of the United States tweeted a video in which we takes down CNN. It was a doctored version of an old pro-wresting video when he supposedly body slammed someone to the floor. “The president of the United States of America tweeted this,” I thought. “How did we get to this place?”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Trump has encouraged violence or done something cringeworthy that made himself (and us) look foolish. And utterly out to lunch. And it probably won’t be the last. Nonetheless, it was another stark reminder that something is wrong with this country of ours. Very wrong.

How could anyone think this man is fit for the presidency?

The Republicans had countless options. The number of candidates numbered in the teens. Perhaps none was great, but none was as bad as the one they chose (with the possible exception of one).

I’ve read all the explanations. I get it why people are angry. And cynical. Feeling disenfranchised. And fed up with the status quo. What I don’t get, however, and probably never will, is why anyone thought that putting this man in this office was a prudent and responsible thing to do. Or in our country’s best interest.

My hope is that we’ll get through this presidency without an unmitigated disaster, which basically means a war and people dying (that is, more people than Mr. Trump has already killed in Syria and the Middle East). I have no hope that we’ll get out of it without severe damage to our country.

We’ve already been damaged, and the fallout from that damage will last a generation or more. We deserve it, of course. Decisions have consequences.

I realize it could get worse before it gets better (in the long run, it will get better!). Indeed, I realize that, if we don’t address some of the problems that gave rise to such a man taking power, the next guy (or woman) could be even worse. Much worse: he or she could actually be competent.

Yet I have no reason to believe we’re prepared to address those problems. To the contrary, if Mr. Trump’s policies are enacted fully, those problems will get worse.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my own little utopia. And wondering what, if anything, I can do to make a positive difference in our country. And trying to discern how best to protect myself and my family from the fallout of the next financial crisis.

The chair of the Federal Reserve assured everyone that there wouldn’t be another such crisis in our lifetimes. For some reason, I take no solace in such assurances.

A relative of mine thinks I’m angry about all of this. I don’t feel angry; however, if that’s how it appears, then perhaps I am.

What I feel is sadness, shame, deep disappointment and hope. I see how politicians (Mr. Trump wasn’t the first) successfully employ fear-mongering to advance their personal fortunes and political agendas, and it makes me sad to witness the effectiveness of their ploys. I wonder why people can’t see through it all.

I’m ashamed we as a country have unleashed a man such as Mr. Trump on the world community. They didn’t deserve it.

I’m disappointed that we don’t address some of the issues that have brought us to this place — things like antidemocractic gerrymandering, a political system that is for sale and, indeed, is sold to the highest bidder (campaign finance reform), the out-of-whack distribution of income and wealth brought about by the age of digital technology and global over-supply of labor, and the massive build-up of debt (sovereign and private) throughout the world.

Can this country survive much less thrive without fixing the things that brought us to this precarious ledge? I’m not so sure.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my own little utopia, realizing that our country will never be the same again. The despicable has become the acceptable. The abnormal, normal.

Apparently, anything goes if it’s in furtherance of our quest for “success” and “greatness.” I despair at how those principles have changed since our country was born. I am saddened by our country’s rejection of the teachings of the Nazarene.

I hope things will get better. I hope the world my generation leaves behind for yours, Vera, will be even better than the world we inherited from our parents. I hope you will be free and safe and will be supported by a community and nation that fosters the best within you. I hope you will read a history book and look back to this strange period when American elected a self-absorbed, immature fool to the presidency and yet somehow, in spite of it all, managed not only to survive but also to thrive in the long run.

And, if not — if America’s best days are behind it — then I hope, at the very least, I can help carve out a bit of utopia for you.

Reflections on Health Care

Some things I think about health care in America:

Our system of employer-based medical insurance makes no sense. It’s an accident of history that should be scraped. It places American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, it impedes mobility, puts a drag on the labor market and simply makes no logical sense.

Treating health care as a partisan issue makes no sense either. Disease and death don’t respect party affiliations, ideology, race or wealth. Neither should our health care system.

It’s not a matter of entitlement. No one is owed anything. Rather, it’s a matter of what’s right and just. We’re a rich country. America’s brand of capitalism and democracy has allowed many of us to accumulate vast personal wealth. But it’s a system that is poor at ensuring a fair and just allocation of the fruits the system produces. It’s not that we don’t have the money. We spend more on weapons than the next seven countries combined. It’s an issue of priorities. We can afford to ensure no citizen is denied access to treatment and care because of the inequities built into our economic system.

No child, grandparent or other person should die, languish untreated or be compelled to go bankrupt because they weren’t fortunate enough to be born to the right parents, be free of the inherited diseases or conditions that plague some, be well connected, or have the abilities or desire to land a lucrative position. It’s not right that something as basic and precious as health care is rationed on the basis of parentage, personal income or wealth.

Americans are their own worst enemy when it comes to our health. We haven’t adjusted our diets to our sedentary lifestyles. Our habits, propelled by individualistic and materialistic cultural values, are notoriously harmful, yielding high incidences of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, stress-induced chronic conditions, emotional and mental conditions, avoidable cancers and drug addictions. Moreover, our over-reliance on chemicals (we call them medicines) and our fear of death also lead us to spend obscene amounts of money to compensate for self-destructive habits and to extend life, regardless of quality or the impact on the community or family. But it is what it is. The health care system must accommodate these realities.

Insurers and monopolists (pharmaceutical companies) walk away with huge profits at the expense of sick and dying people and the country as a whole. Privileged positions afforded by laws passed by elected officials (from both parties) who do the bidding of their donors/masters (insurers and big pharma) need to be rescinded. Patent laws should be changed, and insurance processing should be moved to the public sector or profits capped. Further consolidation among insurers should be blocked and greater competition encouraged and fostered.

Allow citizens to buy their medicines from Canada and Mexico, countries who are more committed to the provision of affordable heath care for their citizens than we are. End protectionist policies that serve the needs of the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class.

Stop protecting the wealth of doctors by excluding well-qualified immigrant professionals. Health care, like education and other systems, abhors competition. Moats are erected to protect the status quo and wealth of its incumbents. Get rid of those moats. Use government regulation to ensure quality and safety, not to protect the incomes of the rich.

Incentives matter. If the system allows for — indeed, encourages — excessive profit-taking, over use, inefficiency and waste, that’s what we’ll get. Indeed, that’s what we get. Design the system to encourage and reward affordable, quality health care for everyone.

Require radical transparency, so patients can compare providers and hospitals by cost and outcomes.

Republicans need to get over Obama. Their guy is president now. And they control both houses of Congress. Own it. Take responsibility.

And come on, Mr. Trump, man up! Honor the promise you made to the American people during the campaign. Chose honor and virtue. Show America what true leaders look like. You have the power to make things better. Stop all the whining and excuse making. Lives and personal well-being of our citizens are at stake. Think about someone other than yourself. Do something that is good for America and Americans.

American can afford affordable, quality health care for all.

The only question is, do we want it?