Whoa There!

The Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in 2016, blatantly flaunted the clear and undebatable Constitutional requirement that the Senate must vote, in a timely way, up or down, on a proper Presidential nomination for a Supreme Court (and for that matter any Federal Court) appointment.

Using a simple delay tactic dubiously based on the election calendar and a rule about ending judicial filibusters (though not yet for Supreme Court seats), he denied Obama’s nomination of outstanding Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland when the Democrats in the Senate still had a majority to confirm.

If it were not for the extreme and long-term significance of that appointment at that time, one – no matter his/her political views — could almost be breathtakingly admiring of McConnell’s chutzpah and gall in attempting and pulling off his astounding stunt.

But, ‘what goes around-comes around’ and here we are two years later with a very similar situation in reverse.

We are a nation committed to the rule of law, to our veritable Constitution AND to precedents that arise along the paths of politics and justice.

Even some hard-right Trump supporters will privately say the Senate process of 2016 was wrong, and to be fair this year a confirmation vote should not be held until after this fall’s election to give the voters a real voice in the vitally important Supreme Court seat. To do otherwise would surely taint the prestige and authority of the Court down the road. As polls have repeatedly shown, the Supreme Court holds a special place of respect among our institutions, on both the left and the right, as an unbiased arbiter of justice. Democrats didn’t abandon that view even in the wake of Bush v. Gore.

That in turn could lead to all kinds of ways to change the composition of the Court. Remember, for example, FDR’s effort to expand the size of the Court, which was only avoided when FDR backed away after a timely Court retirement.

Accordingly, what is really at stake today is not just a few important precedents, but the forever forward precious standing of the Court in our constitutional system.

Republican and Democratic Senators should stop and pause to consider these thoughts. Despite all indications that Republicans will still hold the Senate this November, there is a good case to be made that riling up Democratic voters even further by pushing the nomination through might be in the longer run a greater threat to the Republican majority than delaying further gratification to that base for a few months. But that does not protect the Supreme Court’s reputation.

Regardless of any political implications, it is hard to believe that any single Senator — R or D — could be so concerned about his or her personal tenure when weighed against the colossal damage that is about to happen to our most revered institution — up to now — the Supreme Court.

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Have A Heart

We take a lot of things for granted in our lives.

Perhaps the most taken for granted and least well understood things among most of us are integral parts of our bodies like our innards – liver, kidneys and even our faithful pump – the heart.

They are taken for granted because, for most of us, they simply do their day and night jobs without much fuss or notice. If we were transparent (ugh), there is little doubt in my mind most of us would be more interested and knowledgeable about our inner workings. But we are, in fact, opaque; therefore we go along blithely until some chain jerks us into reality.

Which is what recently prompted me to quickly learn a lot more about my pump than I had planned or anticipated.

My doc is a leading NY cardiologist who has been tracking my heart for more than 30 years and noting that I have had a constant murmur of arrhythmia but otherwise it has been doing its job nicely. He has been treating my cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood thinners and saying we will keep an eye on developments.

Recently I called his attention to some new shortness of breath and sleepy fatigue – completely different from my normal excess of energy and curiosity.

After a few new tests that showed my heart beat more slowly than usual and blood pressure drooping, he said the time had come to get a pacemaker.

I have, of course, heard of pacemakers, but knew next to nothing about them.

Not surprisingly, not all pacemakers are created equal—as to size, function and purpose.

Mine is installed next to my left shoulder and has ‘wires’ that are cleverly installed in the left and right, lower ventricles and I am told should keep my heart pumping nicely in rhythm for a very long time. At least, all other things equal, long enough to need a battery replacement in about six years.

At 87 today, that is great news!

Why am I telling you all this gruesome detail, you are no doubt asking yourself.

The answer is that about half of all the people I have spoken to since have chastised me for not asking for their advice because they have had a pacemaker, or 2 or 3, for 25 years. Shame on them, and me, for being so private that I stayed so ignorant for so long.

And, I thought perhaps the time has come to share this useful information for everyone’s long term benefit.

Indeed modern medicine is truly amazing.

And, now another doc has suggested that I amend my living will to add a clause reading, “When my brain dies be sure to turn off the f#&%ing pump, or I might linger forever!”

And nobody would want that!

The Vital Need For Different Views

Every now and again we make mistakes that could have been avoided had we gotten input from a more diverse group of people.

A group of Proctor and Gamble white shoe junior executives in Cincinnati regularly shared a commuting car with a Jewish lawyer who was their neighbor and friend. One morning, the P&G gang was excited about a new shampoo product they were about to announce. Seeing that they were particularly excited about the name, the lawyer pushed his friends to reveal it. After swearing their friend to secrecy, the executives told him they would be calling it “Dreck” after one of its active ingredients. The lawyer was struck dumb.

“Are you guys crazy?”

The executives didn’t understand why the lawyer was getting so worked up until he explained that ‘dreck’ is a Yiddish word that basically translates to “shit.”

According to the story, that is how Breck shampoo got its name.

Of course, the story is apocryphal—Breck shampoo was named after its creator and had nothing to do with P&G which has very few Jewish employees —but it is told and retold because it contains a deep truth: a diverse group can catch a potentially very embarrassing problem faster and better than a homogeneous one.

This is why vetting must be done by multiple people. Candidates should rarely be hired or appointed by executive fiat. When that happens, the result is often a disaster.

For example, ask rear admiral Ronny Jackson who was, until recently, the president’s physician, a role to which he was appointed by Barack Obama and in which the most attention he had previously drawn centered on his bizarrely hyperbolic statements about the health of the current Patient in Chief. But when Trump attempted to elevate him to the head of the VA without a proper vetting process, Jackson went down in scandal.

Trump looks—once again—like he has no idea how to run a competent organization, and Jackson received what may be a career-ending black eye. Maybe Jackson should have known better than to accept the nomination given his past, but he also probably should have known better than to loosely distribute opioids and drink while on official White House business.

Trump is used to the world of private business, and an idiosyncratic portion of it, at that. Perhaps he should have sought the advice from someone from the public sphere before attempting to install Jackson at the VA.

Like any sector of society, this White House needs to enable better cross-pollination between business, government, and non-profit types. While he does little to aid his own cause, the President is also paying dearly for the inexperience of White House and senior executive branch staff. There is a White House fellowship program that brings private sector stars into the White House for several months; making better use of it could help an administration that stumbles over its own feet all too frequently, and could be a model for similar exchanges in Cabinet agencies. Even (especially?) Congress and business and not for profits could benefit from perspectives and insights gleaned elsewhere.

While it is impossible to prevent every mistake, we owe it to ourselves, and everyone we have contact with, to try harder by elevating a diversity of viewpoints!

Foresight Is The Key To Managing The Future

I experience the wisdom and essential truth of this post’s title almost daily on my way to work when I pass through New York City’s Central Park. The park is, in its way, a testament to the value of foresight. It’s not easy to get something right, but we must always keep trying.

In the 1840s, Frederick Law Olmsted led a group of local visionaries to carve out a space in the middle of Manhattan for a natural park, one that would survive in perpetuity. Its 843 acres represents a significant chunk of a rather small island holding some of the most valuable real estate in the world. That no one questions the arrangement speaks to the foresight of Olmsted and others in planning it.

The 1870s saw a big, beautiful new apartment building erected at today’s 72nd Street and Central Park West (back then still in the middle of nowhere!). It was humorously nicknamed The Dakota because it seemed so far out West.

Wow, has that part of the world changed! I know. I live there.

It is hard to imagine NYC today without the Park. In the main, most New York residents and visitors pretty much take for granted the grace and beauty of the Park and the full impact of that on the life of the City.

To dramatize the importance of foresight or lack of it, consider the following story: in the 1890s a man in the Southeast was offering business people in Savannah, Georgia an opportunity to invest in 80,000 acres of North Florida land covered with very valuable yellow pine. The offer was declined with a question/statement: “but there is no rail road.” Consider that Central Park is a mere 843 acres. What a lost opportunity to those folks in Savannah for failing to foresee that demand for that valuable yellow pine would surely bring the railroad in short order.

It is still gushing yellow pine 100 years later.

Other great examples of foresight:

  • Bill Gates recognizing that personal computers would become a dominant technological and economic force in the late 20th century;
  • Steve Jobs knowing what people needed and wanted before they did;
  • Jeff Bezos using the internet to revolutionize commerce;
  • Google reinventing search; and
  • Elon Musk understanding that the age of fossil fuels is inevitably ending and our concept of both automobiles and travel more broadly must be rethought.

There are always more reasons NOT to accept a vision for the future than to embrace one. Thus, visionaries have to be stubborn and have very powerful imaginations.

What are some of today’s challenges that cry out for new visions? Here are my top three:

  • How can democracies improve democratic processes and institutions to bring all their citizens together peacefully and productively?
  • How can nation states resolve economic and military conflicts short of mass killings?
  • How can the uncomfortable bunching of masses of people into complex cities be reversed with more people reverting to less dense populations without sacrificing much of what they seek in large cities.

Those three questions are the proverbial tip of a large iceberg we might just call ‘the future’.

The future of the USA and NYC in the 1840s had to be just as obscure then as it appears today.

If there are visible and important differences today, they are the more unconventional and smart people today and more tools at hand to imagine the future and how to improve it.

Three cheers for good old Central Park!

How about a Center Party for our national politics?

Politics And Money Make Chaos

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison saw this coming. Both spoke eloquently in the Federalist Papers about the corrosive influence of money on the political process. But, sadly, they did not fully foresee the consequences and missed an early chance to propose a solution.

Thus, we are stuck with a fundamental problem, with no clear way to remedy it.

We have to start by going to a very high-level perspective to explain the problem and then simplify it enough to try to get at some possible points of entry to fix it.

Politics is fundamentally a complex process of citizen voters electing people to represent their collective interests in how to tax and spend their hard earned money. That tough and grinding process has been going on for more than 200 years.

It has now begun to collapse of its own weight because the country has become tribalized in such a way that ‘haves’ consistently out-gunned the ‘have nots’. If we stay on that course much longer, it could well lead to a very messy revolution. (The animosity toward the political class that animates many Trump supporters is a measure of deep and dangerous problems.)

To make matters even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that use of money in politics by people and corporations is the equivalent of freedom of expression and speech and therefore cannot, for the most part, be limited or regulated. The consequence of that obviously important (and obviously wrong) ruling has been to amplify a lot the troublesome effects of money in politics — ushering in the age of the billion-dollar presidential campaign, among others — something most of the framers of the Constitution surely never intended, largely because they could not anticipate anything beyond newspapers. The writings of both Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers make that crystal clear.

Since about 1900, with the advent of the now massive federal regulatory process, a continuous grouping and regrouping of American voters into ‘special interest groups’ vying for more tax dollars to support their ‘special interests’ has been accelerating.

Now, many legislators have effectively stopped trying to rationally and intelligently accommodate competing interests in the overall national interest because doing so has often put their reelections in peril. Money and votes tend to flow toward the extremes of the political spectrum rather than the center.

Thus, we see today, a severe breakdown in the central function of representative government – serving the interests of all Americans, not just special interest groups.

Looked at this way, our politics and money problems have begun to collide in unforeseen ways, spurring on what may be a basic unraveling of our political organizations, particularly the two main political parties, which are on the brink of splitting in two. The extreme left and extreme right both want nothing to do with the center left and center right. And, none of those four groups seem able to work with any of the other three. Hence NOTHING is happening. That is a genuine recipe for chaos.

Given the Supreme Court’s view that money equals speech, we cannot readily stanch the flood of money into politics.  Instead, we’ll have to find ways to reform the political process to either reduce the influence of money or redirect it toward the center of the political spectrum.  Luckily, there are a host of things we can look at and study as possible ways to get at this problem:

  • Ranked Choice Voting has been used in several places — Maine and California for starters. Under this system, voters choose several candidates, in order of The candidate with the lowest first-choice votes is eliminated, and candidates who were the second choice of those voters get their votes. The process is repeated until someone secures a majority of votes cast.  Ranked choice voting has the possible advantage of requiring an outright majority to win, and thus gives a preference to candidates in the middle of the spectrum. The far-left or -right candidates might be the first choice of a plurality, but likely will be the second choice of far fewer. The method looks like it might elect more Centrist candidates more representative of the majority of voters.

    Because money is intended to cultivate influence, its first and foremost priority is backing a winner. If centrist candidates (from both parties) are more likely to emerge victorious, more money should flow to them naturally.

 

  • Address Gerrymandering. Many states have had their Congressional Districts so distorted that many of their citizens have effectively lost their rights to fair representation. Both parties are equally culpable.  “Safe” districts – defined as those unlikely to switch parties, regardless of the individual holding the seat – encourage extreme candidates because election outcomes in such districts are often decided in the primary, and primary voters said to be more extreme-oriented than their general election counterparts. Again, money goes where it’s likely to matter, and competitive, non-gerrymandered districts make it more likely the center of the political spectrum thus will become better represented.
  • Public Financing for Congressional Races. For many years, presidential candidates accepted limits on their own fundraising in exchange for money funded through an optional $3 “check-off” on tax returns (choosing it did not increase the tax owed). In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to reject public financing, confident (and rightly so) that he could raise far more money outside the system. Given the cost of modern presidential campaigns, it’s unlikely that system will return any time soon. But that model might be more effective at the Congressional level, where members of Congress (particularly Representatives who stand for re-election every two years) are forced to spend hours each day, year round, chasing dollars from interests large and small alike.  The average winning Congressional candidate spent $1.3 million in 2016. So, for less than $3 million per district, or $1.3 billion overall, we could dramatically reduce the influence of outside money, AND free up our elected officials to spend more time focused on their jobs, rather than on just keeping their jobs.  Similarly, the average winning Senate candidate spent just over $10.4 million in 2016; there are only 100 Senators, though, so the overall cost would be only $2.08 billion or so – and because only a third of Senate seats are contested in each election cycle, that $2.08 billion is incurred over six years! This is a tough road to hoe. How to allocate and award the money is not easy. But it should be doable if the goal is both important and proper.

Those three general ideas deliberately do not target any specific policy issues (because that probably would kill them before arrival). Individually, any of them could somewhat reduce the corrosive influence of money that Madison and Hamilton warned about; collectively, they could dramatically reshape American political campaigns to get representation for a majority of voters.

The one thing that we surely cannot do is nothing.  If we simply hope and wait, things will certainly get worse.

How To Age Well

If we are lucky, we get a chance to age well. If we are very lucky, we’ll recognize it and plan for it.

How? And what does “age well” even mean?

Our goals for aging well are probably not so different from the wide variation of goals throughout our lives.

We want to stay involved with our families. We want to keep our mental faculties and physical health. We want to stay engaged with the world around us. If possible, we want to keep on making some difference.

We do not want to fret all the time. We do not want to be constantly worried about the future that we are handing off to our descendants.

Many of these goals require an adaptive frame of mind and a willingness to accept some of the inevitable creeping up of reduced energy—sometimes lethargy—and willingness to tackle aging head on.

Keeping in touch with growing grandchildren takes work. They no longer use email; they grew up with texting and social media. Ugh! And they cannot quite figure us out because what they hear about us from their parents describes a world they do not see or comprehend.

Grandchildren with children are easier to deal with than children with children. Your children hold you responsible for mistakes you made with them and do not want your advice about how they raise their own children. But your grandchildren hold you blameless and welcome advice! Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

And then there is sex. No children, or any of their children, can or want to think about how they came to be. The idea of parents having sex shocks them out of their wits. They also seem to think that once they were immaculately conceived, all sex between their elders stopped. Sex is only for the young.

What they do not grasp is that sex is an important part of most of most people’s lives – until it isn’t.

A nice way of explaining that is the story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous lawyer/jurist who went on the U.S. Supreme Court in his 60s, but never lost his eye for a pretty girl. One day, some 30 years later (at about 90), Holmes was lunching with a colleague at an outdoor café when a pretty girl walked by. Holmes exclaimed to his friend “Oh, to be 80 again!”

Oh, to be like Holmes, who died happily on the Court at 94.

He is my gold standard of aging well!!

Artificial Vs. Human Intelligence

The rapid advent of AI is scary to many people, promising to others, and a little of both to most.

It is scary partly because it is more unmanageable than the internet and social media, which in a world of ransomware, Russian manipulation and privacy invasions do not inspire a lot of confidence. It is promising in that it may, for example, help inarticulate Uber drivers better and more easily find their riders. And probably some other benefits as yet unimagined.

A first order question is what the real difference is between artificial and human versions of intelligence. One age-old definition of exceptionally good human intelligence is the ability to associate dissociated things/ideas. That, of course, involves pure intuitiveness. It is not yet clear to me whether AI can clear that hurdle.

AI’s self-learning algorithms and limitless memory notwithstanding, it is still basically built on the speed and capacity of computers to almost instantly scan and consider millions of possibilities looking for all relevant matches and possibilities relating to the issue/question at hand. However, if two things have never been associated, [which obviously can happen] presumably a ‘match’ is not there to be found. Hence, exceptional humans may always have an edge over machines. The fate of the rest of us is yet to be determined, presumably by our eventual robot overlords.

In the meantime, there is much to beware. Machines, for example, never forget a face once seen. Therefore, people may have to be more careful in where they go and show their face, because the evidence that they were there at a certain time will be available more or less forever. That might be an advantage in establishing an alibi. But, it also might put them at the scene of a crime. Those are not necessarily off-setting possibilities. Opportunities for abuse by law enforcement or despots abound. Freedom of assembly is a cornerstone of our democracy – one that cannot exist without freedom of movement.

AI therefore might just be on the verge of impinging [even unintentionally] on our basic freedoms?

A recent Secretary of Defense regards this as one of the least visible but biggest problems we face today.