Naming the Tension

The tension we’re all being forced to live with is this:

On the one hand, no one wants to “go gentle into that good night.” (There’s a separate conversation to be had about whether “resistance” is working; the point is that so many people feel such a strong urge to “resist” in the first place.)

On the other hand, we must — must — be gentle on ourselves and each other. (This is, of course, easier said than done: but desolation and desperation truly do not help.)

If you’re reading this, you probably haven’t been preparing for this situation your whole life. It’s likely you have some expendable time and income. You might speak of uncertainty or complexity as if they are obstacles to be overcome, rather than the baseline qualities of human existence.

It’s also likely that all of this — the tension, the felt lack of preparation, the overall context — keeps needling you just where you’re most vulnerable, which only makes the tension harder to bear.

Paradoxes like this are tough. Which is exactly why we need to be gentle.

[HT to Em for sharing the gift of Aldous Huxley]

Exceptionalism and Empathy

It seems to me there’s an opportunity here. A chance to look more critically at our exceptionalism narrative, and at the broader array and evidence of human experience.

“It couldn’t happen here,” “it can’t happen now,” and “it won’t happen to me” are flimsy articles of faith — especially when you consider that the American experience is the selective recording of a particular 200-year slice of history.

What are the chances that, starting with the same human essence as everyone else, on the same planet as everyone else, we’re subject to the same vicissitudes as everyone else?

If we’re going to “build back better,” perhaps there’s a chance to lay stronger foundations. And we could start by acknowledging our similarities and fragility, rather than asserting our difference.

“Cancer of the Wallet”

I read a lot this past week. But I stumbled across one phrase that won’t leave my mind: “cancer of the wallet.”

This is an evocative term for the diseases and deaths of despair: the ill effects of existential stress that pile up in people who can’t see a way to maintain a livelihood or way of living.

This, according to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, is “What Ails America.” His diagnosis is more academic than “cancer of the wallet,” but it’s just as damning:

We would like to think we have health care that incidentally involves some wealth transfer; what we actually have is wealth transfer that incidentally involves some health care. If birth is not safe, and is less safe for some than for others, then something is wrong. If more money is extracted from young adults for health care, but they are less well than older generations, something is wrong. If the people who used to believe in the country are killing themselves, something is wrong. The purpose of medicine is not to squeeze maximum profits from sick bodies during short lives but to enable health and freedom during long ones.

Can anything be done? In the Atlantic, Adam Serwer cautiously hopes that it might. Considering what the ascendence of the movement for Black lives might mean for our politics, he wonders if we might be on the verge of “A New Reconstruction.”

At more and more levels of society, the dots are starting to connect: the United States might be a great country, but it also has a mean streak — a historic and present reality of systems that are actively injurious to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Learning to live with this tension — America is an ideal, and it is deeply sick — is the political challenge of our times. And the reality hits hard: a white male history professor at Yale is the epitome of a certain kind of privilege, yet the hospital system was thoroughly unimpressed.

As the financial crisis unfolded, Warren Buffett famously compared the rescue of the banking system to resuscitating a patient on the operating table. Now, as the Covid crisis drags on, it’s the citizenry at large that’s on the table.

I’m not holding my breath for a competent or compassionate response from the thousandaire embodiment of what ails America. Cancer of the ego is an evil malady indeed.

Two Questions for Progressives

Simple, but not easy:

  1. What are you going to do differently this year?
  2. What are you going to do differently next year?

In the short run, everything hangs on winning.

In the long run, everything hangs on how winning is handled.

If you’re tired of all the “winning” of the past four years (now costing about 1,000 lives each day in the United States alone), what are you prepared to say, do, or not do in order that fellow citizens might be won over rather than defeated?

Signs of the Times

A tale of two political philosophies — and two business models.

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a “news” piece with the scintillating headline, “Does Biden Need a Higher Gear? Some Democrats Think So.”

The subtitle continues the non-specific handwringing: “… [S]ome Democratic officials in battleground states are warning that Joe Biden may not be doing enough to excite voters.”

As a headline, this is a total nothingburger worthy of the Weather Channel. (Will disaster strike? Some meteorologists think so. / Some forecasters warn of potentially apocalyptic rains, while others anticipate merely a deluge.)

This raises at least two questions that sound crotchety but might turn out to matter.

The first is whether we want to keep rewarding the paper of record for shape-shifting into a text-heavy version of CNN. The reason people fish with worms is because fish reliably bite them; when we reward a newspaper for such a wriggly headline, we can and should expect to see more.

The second is whether we can break our addition to “excitement” in politics. The rest of the world moves at the speed of TikTok, but the presidency is a four-to-eight-year custody of the nuclear codes and national mores. And it’s now undeniable that rabidity is the logical extension of excitement — especially in the context of our media culture.

The problem was neatly summed up in the Financial Times the day before, by the columnist Janan Ganesh. His column was titled, “The Welcome Lack of Enthusiasm for Joe Biden” and the subtitle truly says it all: “As the U.S. has found, worshipping political leaders is weird and pernicious.”

I’ve had about all the excitement I need from the celebrity apprentice. Color me enthusiastic for an effective politician.

“Every Time I Skydive …”

“Every time I skydive, I land safely.”

That’s an easy worldview to default to. After all, every time I overeat I still live. Every time I invest it eventually pays off. Every time I drive somewhere I get there safely.

And every time I’ve voted, I’ve woken up in a more-or-less functional republic the next day.

The tension, simply, is this: we can’t walk around constantly worried about pianos falling on our heads. Life isn’t a cartoon, and that level of fear is no life at all. But we also can’t afford to completely ignore the fact that a falling piano can be extremely hazardous to life and limb.

“In all of my 20/30/40/50/60/70 years, I’ve never seen ___________.”

Right. But this is 2020.

Let’s Talk About Climate Change

I’m heartsick over the fate of the West — not just what’s happening now, but what’s likely to happen in the coming years and decades.

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a picture of the town where I used to live. People are standing on one side of the river, watching huge plumes of smoke over the other side of town. (It’s worth noting that the side that’s burning is, generally speaking, home to more lower-income and Native people. This is the big story of climate change demonstrated in the experience of one small town.)

Yesterday, the New York Times and ProPublica released a large, detailed survey of how climate change is already affecting the United States and what kind of changes we might expect over the coming decades.

In short words, we should expect to be living in a vastly different country within five presidential terms. And if that sounds abstract or far away, consider how much things have changed since the year 2000.

People are really, really bad at accurately assessing long-term risks and effects. We eat the potato chip. We fail to prepare for the pandemic. We assume all mortgages only go up in value.

Sadly, it’s clear that exponential change is upon us. Of course the details will be vigorously debated and the history will differ from the forecasts, but it’s (past) time to acknowledge that leaders’ biggest job going forward will be to assess, communicate, and mitigate the risks of global warming atmosphere cancer — and respond to the inevitable effects.

Look at those maps. Look at some photos. Look at your house [the investment that only goes up; home].

Any questions?

Homeland Insecurity (or, How Not to Prepare for the Next Pandemic)

Various federal bureaucracies, each with its own particular and overlapping interests, each with a strong sense of world-class mission and excellence, all directed to prevent the worst from happening.

And yet, somehow, the existential test manages to slip over, under, around, or through the cracks in the system and the agencies are thrown back on their heels in the aftermath of the day they swore we would never see.

These things happen. They’re not supposed to, but they do. And we’re really not good about thinking and talking about them openly in our modern political culture. Clearly, some things are secret; just as clearly, we can’t have everyone looking for bad guys under every rock and around every corner. Yet we do a terrible job of preparing people for the painful but inevitable gaps between “the best in the world” and human fallibility.

The question, then, is what to do in the wake of failure.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we created several new bureaucracies to cover up the gaps in the old ones — at an enormous cost in scale, complexity, and money. Almost two decades later, “homeland security” — the term, the remit, and the agency — has proliferated across every level of government. And the circa-2,000-person Office of the Director of National Intelligence sits atop the $50 billion, 17-agency non-military intelligence community.

We’ve all learned to live with the minor indignities of the TSA (not to mention the larger ones of Homeland Security’s border agencies, federal police, and acting directorship). Thankfully, we’ve also been spared the horror of further acts of mass international terrorism — but it’s impossible to say whether that’s entirely or even mainly to the credit of the post-9/11 agencies.

The Covid pandemic is still raging, and it has found many parts of the federal health agencies wanting. Even as we strive to get this disease under control, it’s safe to assume that (a) there are other viruses out there that might cause problems for humanity and (b) there’s going to be a huge political and bureaucratic push for “never again.”

Where will that lead us?

My hope is that it won’t mean that the federal health agencies are subjected to the homeland-insecurity treatment. Still less would I want the actual Department of Homeland Security to take pandemic-prevention matters into its own hands, making potential viral spread as elastic and unassailable a rationale for almost anything as preventing terrorism has become.

Somewhere, sometime, someone on earth is going to come down with another nasty cough. It might be sooner than we think, and it could be nastier than this one.

What will we be prepared to do, and who’ll be in charge of doing it, then?

What’s the Endgame?

Consider for a moment: what does each party really want?

Undoing the other guys’ work, only more so, is not really a strategy for governance.

And, administration after administration, it’s a recipe for terrible whipsawing.

As the investor Graham Duncan has written:

In life and business, “approach” goals are much more effective than “avoidance” goals. It’s important to give yourself enough time to build a positive vision of a future fund instead of simply reacting against someone else’s vision or your own prior frustrations.

The future belongs to leaders who can communicate “approach” goals that are bold enough to inspire, specific enough to achieve, and uplifting enough to be proud of.

When’s the last time you heard one of those, or saw it realized?

“Persuade Like a Pro”

One of the most interesting things I read last week [via RadReads] was a breakdown of an argument I didn’t read in the original and don’t plan to.

James Altucher wrote that New York City is done forever. Jerry Seinfeld responded in the New York Times. Altucher responded to the response — and, in one blogger’s estimation, utterly destroyed Seinfeld.

I cite this piece for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it’s an interesting example of internet culture and communication versus mass culture and communication. Regardless of what happens to New York City, it’s essential to understand this shift: Jerry used to be mainstream; now, most people get most of their information and opinion from people like Altucher.

Let’s keep pushing this thought in a couple of directions, based on a couple of lines in that blog post:

First, mainstream politicians and columnists still tend to write and speak more like Jerry. Whether or not they resort so quickly to ad-hominem attacks, they generally communicate according to a scripted and poll-tested formula. We’re already drowning in fairly unimaginative ink, and the next couple of months are going to spill a lot more.

Second, there might be a good reason for mass culture to sound the way it does (or did). As the blogger, Matt Tillotson, writes, Altucher “stakes out clear and bold positions that half his readers will hate.” If you’re selling sneakers, go ahead and segment all the way down to your niche. But a political culture that revolves around angering half of the people it governs will be lively but not sustainable.