Cross the Bridge When You Get There

There are, of course, many types of humans. There are those who are always late, always early, placid, confused, or anxious. Perhaps the most troubled are those who worry endlessly about the bridges they may someday have to cross. To them, I can only offer the simplest advice: “Do not worry about it until you get there.”

The problem and its solution are both illustrated by a true story from about 1900. The father of a large family was accustomed to coming home from his job at a bank every day at lunchtime, to dine with his wife and their eight children. On this particular day he opened the conversation by announcing that he was considering buying an electric buggy–the earliest version of today’s Tesla. He had barely finished the announcement when the children fell into a ferocious squabble. Finally, he calmed them enough to figure out what had provoked them. The oldest daughter said, “Sammy wants to sit on the outside seat, and that is not fair – I’m the oldest!” The father’s solution was swift and effective; he said, “Sammy, get out of the buggy!”

That was that.

‘Getting out of the buggy’ – has become a metaphor for prioritizing future issues and skipping those that need not be solved – and is an effective alternative to trying to unravel a premature and pointless problem.

It was several years before that family got its first horseless carriage!


Speech & Money

Freedom of expression, as required in the 1st Amendment, may be the most important and fundamental right in American democracy. But what does it really mean, and are there any limits to that freedom?

Money is surely one of the most common means of expression, as it is spent on all forms of interests, wishes and views. Consequently, a complete ban on political spending clearly would violate the 1st Amendment.

We know and accept, however, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ruling that free speech does not protect the freedom to cry “fire” in a crowded theater. Since then, there have been many arguments about what constitutes “fire,” and exactly how to define a “theater.”

So we already have some limits on freedom of expression. And, if there can be some limits, presumably there may be other appropriate limits to address the developments in political campaign spending.

Staying within Holmes’ fire/theater standard is not unreasonable. “Speaking” on political topics with billions of dollars triggers the same reaction in most people as crying fire in a theater, given the nature of TV and the internet in the modern world, makes the whole country the theater. Why, then, do some people seek to conflate freedom of expression with unlimited spending?

Though “one person one vote” is not enshrined in our Constitution in so many words, it is nevertheless a bedrock doctrine in genuine democracy.

It follows logically then that everyone should have freedom of financial expression, but I believe that everyone should have the same freedom up to the same reasonable limit.

To do otherwise would be to cede much more freedom of expression to the wealthy. That would create a serious distortion of the framer’s clear intentions.

Our legal system permits many behaviors only up to a certain point–but not beyond.

How about allowing everybody to express their political views with money, up to -say- $1,000 , simply to throw out a number to start a discussion. That would ensure universal freedom of expression, in a reasonable amount – perhaps enough to make a difference, but not enough to be dangerous.

By allowing any one person to spend unlimited money in the political arena, we open floodgates to dangerous favoritism, corruption, distortions, and give disproportionate political power to small and fringe minorities.

We should enact, by legislation, an annual per-person reasonable limit – in accordance with the first amendment, enabling universal expression, to significantly improve the working of our democracy.

Is Perfection a Wise Goal?

When I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I began at a great law firm, run by lawyers trained in the traditional way: namely, producing exceptional work under all circumstances.

Early on in my career there, a senior associate asked me to draft a letter for a small client – simple, short, addressing a trivial matter. I wrote it easily, and sent it to the steno pool – remember, that there were no computers back then – who typed it up. Then I proudly showed to the lawyer who had assigned it.

He read it. He made copious edits and corrections. He said “This is horrible,” and asked me to write it again.

I won’t bore you with the details of the two days and fifteen rejected drafts that followed. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like such hot stuff by the end of the process.

Finally, after relentless rewriting, the lawyer told me that the letter was perfect. I admitted my relief, and told him: “If this is what practicing law is all about, I might not last long.” He laughed, and assured me it wouldn’t always be so tedious. But he added “This is an exercise we put all our new lawyers through, to show them the meaning of perfection. Client’s value our work because it is always perfect, in all ways–research, reasoning, expression and presentation. Many other lawyers cannot and do not bother to strive for that type perfection so that is our hallmark which attracts clients that wish for the best.”

That miserable hazing letter taught me the meaning and purpose of perfection, and I still demand the same standards – of myself and my employees. If a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing perfectly.