Silence Can Be Dangerous

Until recently, I had not realized just how deadly silence can be.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, the US House of Representatives held a moment of silence with the intention of honoring the fallen. However, a number of House Democrats protested. They knew that silence would not help anyone. They knew that they owed action.

One of these Congresspeople, Seth Moulton (D-MA 6th), knows the devastating power of modern firearms well—after being educated at Harvard and the Kennedy School of Government, he served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a Captain in the Marines and the aide to General Petraeus, and received decorations for bravery in action. (Some are already saying he may be the second coming of George Washington!) After the Orlando shooting, he knew he could not be silent and wrote that no private citizen has the need or right to own and operate a military-style weapon.

We often teach children that silence is a virtue, but it may not be. The true virtue is knowing when to raise your voice.

Moulton and the other protestors showed courage by speaking up for Americans, over two-thirds of whom favor some form of increased gun control, at a time when the NRA, one of America’s most powerful lobbying groups, demands silence.

The fact is that the Second Amendment says that citizens have “the right to bear arms”, but that has generally been misinterpreted. The NRA wants us to think that the Founders intended that all citizens have an absolute Constitutional right to carry whatever guns they like, when in fact—and all the relevant history supports this view—all that it was intended to mean was that citizens (in those days, just men) had the right to join a militia and use arms in that role.

The NRA has unfortunately been able to control the debate over the Second Amendment, allowing their vocal and well-funded minority to defeat even the least restrictive common-sense measures. Now so many Democrats, Republicans, and Independents dance to the NRA’s tune that Congressional leaders refuse to allow votes on gun issues out of the fear of the political consequences to their members.

The silences that fill the halls of power has become a serious threat to the very fabric of our social order.

It may take something resembling a social revolution to overturn the grip of the NRA on the safety of our population—after all, American history is bound up with the gun in a way unique among modern industrialized democracies—the Wild West and the frontier culture it created may have birthed the American love affair with the gun.

Even so, there is already an instrument—useful and even essential, but potentially deadly—for which we already accept plenty of government regulation, despite its importance to American life and culture. That instrument is, of course, the car.

Not all Americans who want a driver’s license can get one. There are a number of baseline requirements: eyesight, physical ability, knowledge of the rules of the road. We make people take courses and tests before they can get behind a wheel. We require that most drivers have insurance. We permit the government to regulate car manufacturers and even demand that cars meet safety standards.

So why can we not accept a similar degree of control over firearms?

The NRA claims that guns do not kill—people do, but the same ridiculous (and circular) reasoning applies to vehicles, which is why government has properly interceded to protect its citizens.

To defeat the NRA, we have to take on the idea of an ABSOLUTE RIGHT to own a gun, but if ALL qualified and tested people are granted the right to own a gun suitable for a legitimate purpose, one can argue that the alleged Second Amendment right to bear arms has not been infringed upon at all. After all, the Amendment specifies that a militia be “well regulated”. A Supreme Court case on that issue would be very helpful, as all Judges are (at least in theory) immune to the NRA’s influence.

In an effort to curtail mass shootings, a new proposal is being put forward to outlaw large clips and magazines. Limiting magazine size might be a useful step, as it would likely make mass shootings more difficult by requiring a shooter to pause to reload. But it is much too limited and feeble and the basic problems would remain largely unaddressed.

In practice, however, the NRA surely will vehemently oppose any attempts at meaningful gun legislation, including limiting magazine size, and our silence is their boon.

If we want better gun control, we need to end our silence.

We need a new, highly-visible, and well-funded (Mike Bloomberg, here is a great new opportunity for you!)  gun-control advocacy  group to mount a powerful and vocal campaign to “Make America Safe from Guns”.

Let’s end the NRA-powered silence and give our many voices a chance to work for all the people in the USA.

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Beware Brexit

I have held off public comment (beyond reporting what I heard in England a month ago) on the Brexit referendum. Until the outcome of the vote was announced, I hoped that it might be a near miss, perhaps one that gave Britain new clout in their negotiations with the EU.

But, we do not live in a world of near misses. We live in a world of harsh realities.

Brexit, for the few out there who may have missed this foreign debate, was a national British referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. Ultimately, the British people voted to leave, with a margin of over one million people. In hindsight, it was a mistake to put such a complex topic to a popular vote, where emotion so often carries the day.

There were far too many gross misunderstandings flying around England (which began to resemble our pending Presidential election) in recent weeks, which gave the edge to xenophobia, out-right economic protectionism, and simple nationalism.

But there it is. The people of Britain have spoken. What does it mean to all of us?

There are short, simple answers and long, complex answers, but it is important to remember that nothing is certain.

Fortunately, our trading relationship with Britain is unlikely to change dramatically. However, the world economy is an intricate, complex system, full of subtle, even invisible, interactions.

The Brexit decision may turn out to be analogous to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. a grossly protectionist law passed by Congress in 1931. The United States was already in the early throes of the post-1929 stock market crash and had begun to exhibit the real signs of a recession. When Smoot-Hawley passed (despite thousands of experts had counseling AGAINST the law in ads in the NY Times and other leading papers), every country in the world followed suit and world trade fell by 2/3rd in two years and the rest is now history.

The world tumbled into an extended depression, which was followed by WWII, which ironically brought the world ultimately out of the depression.

Of course, Brexit is even more complex. Smoot-Hawley had no effect on immigration policy or the legal status of Americans living abroad. There was no project of European unification for Smoot-Hawley to threaten. Furthermore, it speaks to the complexity of the Brexit vote that the process of withdrawal from the EU could take up to two years and that legal scholars are not sure how it will actually progress.

Now, the hard—almost impossible—question is whether the Brexit maybe be seen in hindsight as a trigger for global catastrophe and/or a canary in the mine, signaling a coming collapse. My personal hunch is that the risk of a serious world-wide crisis has multiplied overnight.

The world is VERY different today than in the 1930s. The US economy and financial markets are in relatively good shape. There are a lot of hot spots around the globe that plague and vex us, but our slow, steady, and incremental political process has seen fits and starts of general progress. Hopefully, we should be able to withstand and recover fairly quickly from any short-term dislocations.

That said, there are signs all over the world that protectionist, authoritarian, and nationalist agendas are generating more and more support (in Russia, England, USA for starters). Some very smart people say that the Brexit success also foreshadows a win for Trump, given that similar forces drive both campaigns. Why in the world did he choose this moment to visit Scotland?

The more subtle, complex answer may require more space than a simple blog post, but it says to me “BEWARE BREXIT!”

While it may turn out to be simply a regional European problem, it just might be a real honest to goodness canary in the mine. A collapse may be coming, might its time be now?

As for your 401k, by definition, you are in it for the long haul, and in the long haul, we will all survive economically if we are prudent.

Many Unsung Heroes in America

At this moment in time, too many of us despair of America’s greatness. Our pluralist society is splintering, our leadership is lacking, and our government is gridlocked. Above all is the view that we are headed in the wrong directions.

What we forget is that America does not need to be Made Great Again. Rather, America remains the preeminent military, economic, and cultural force on the planet.

Despite charges that we may be no longer #1 in the world, we should remember that we have recovered all the lost ground since the crash of 2008 and our official unemployment rate is back to a normal 5%. Yes, our economy is changing shape as we adapt to the global marketplace. Yes, we have fewer manufacturing jobs than in the past. But those are not American problems; they are global problems—no president can (or should) halt the inevitable globalization or stymie technological progress. While some sectors of our economy have not come back as strongly as others, our economy as a whole is strong and getting stronger. Our currency and national credit standing are the strongest in the world. The alleged loss of greatness is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

The proponents of Making America Great Again love to exclaim that our political/military standing in the world is shrinking dramatically. That is not true. Our military may not be exactly what some of the modern threats in the world require at the moment, but there is no military in the world that even begins to be comparable with ours. And while we may not be able to assert as much peaceful political influence in the world as we once did, no other country has more. Our perceived lack of greatness likely has much more to do with changing geopolitical realities in a post-Cold War world than any actual loss of standing in the global community.

On a more personal, individual level, our citizens are as great as ever. Millions of our fellow citizens do their damnedest to protect us from every form of hazard in life. Virtually every community in America has an emergency ambulance service and volunteer fire department on call 24/7. Furthermore, some police departments also rely on volunteers for special occasions and problems. Altogether that probably adds up to at least two million engaged, public-spirited, and generous unsung heroes.

In addition, every community in America has hospitals, social service organizations, and other entities devoted to making the lives of their universe of fellow citizens safer and better. That surely is another two or three million people who are voluntarily engaged in the improving the lives of their fellow citizens.

Now I ask you, is that a picture of an America that is no longer great? Or is it possible that we are all being sold a bill of rotten thoughts, designed to upset us for the obvious implicit purpose of gaining a political advantage.

That one egoistical narcissist (no matter how rich he claims to have made himself) will, like Zeus, throw his bolts of genius from on high and solve today’s problems defies all reasonable imagination.

I hope that the vast majority of the seventy million people who did not vote in any primaries will recognize this ultimate truth and vote overwhelmingly to continue the long held path of dealing with our challenges the way we always have: by rolling up our sleeves and going to work for the public good over the short and long run.

E Pluribus Unum

In recent years, “One out of many” has become nothing more than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Even so, the motto underlies our most basic beliefs and commitments to our descendants.

Ours is a nation that depends on PLURALISM, the celebration and encouragement of a multitude of viewpoints, a philosophy that dominates almost every sector of American political and economic life.

Our economy is based on a market system that thrives on pluralism. Buyers and sellers of everything from financial instruments to grapefruits make for relatively honest and realistic markets that help buyers and sellers alike.

Our human enterprise, energy, and innovation are grounded in the pluralistic blending of human talents drawn for every nook and cranny in the world.

Our artistic and athletic talents have enormously benefitted from the mixing of many cultures and genealogy.

Until quite recently, our political lives have surely benefitted from great pluralism, drawing from such a rich and diverse source of human talent and encouraging healthy debate and compromise.

Today, however, pluralism seems to be under attack by efforts to polarize and a refusal to acknowledge or appreciate the views of others. As a nation, we seem to be forgetting that debates are not games to be won, but a tool—the means to fumble and find our way towards the principles that will best govern our country.

Given the indisputable importance of pluralism in our history and lives, why are we even tempted to tamper with the basic elements of how pluralism works for us?

Hopefully, when the American people vote, it will be clear that WE really are not so tempted!

We must now spend the next several months listening to the raving of a man so sick that he must have no real idea of what he is saying.

If we survive that, we will hopefully have come to better understand and appreciate what is so precious in our E PLURIBUS UNUM.

Love and Hate

Love and hate do not lie on the opposite ends of some spectrum, but are two points on a ring. While people often slide slowly from love to hate in a matter of years, it is just as likely to make the immediate jump from one to another. A great love affair can curdle slowly into bitterness, and/or it can lurch suddenly into hate literally overnight.

We do not know how quickly the Orlando killer descended into hate, nor do we know exactly why. While he declared his allegiance to ISIS, evidence is still emerging that the violence may have been a result of (in part) his personal struggle with homosexuality. Maybe he loved ISIS’s extremist interpretation of Islam. Maybe he despised America and its way of life. Maybe he just despised himself.

While it would be great to be able to identify individuals who were likely to externalize their internal conflicts through violence, any process to try to do so can only be deeply flawed, impractical and most likely ineffective.

What we can only hope for is that more deranged people can find PEACE. Not peace in the geopolitical sense, but the personal sense. Not a mere absence of war, but the acknowledgement of and balance in the internal conflicts that rage within all of us.

Maybe if our culture let go of our exaltation of love as a highest human experience, recognizing how quickly it can become hate, we might be able to promote the notion of peace and balance as a more realistic, ultimate human happiness. And, if we can achieve that, perhaps fewer people would find themselves using hatred as a gruesome and distorted way to give their lives some sort of weird meaning.

Maybe then we would be able to realize the true wisdom of “love thy neighbor”.

A Look at a Future Middle East

Friends have sensibly asked what drew me to take a two week boat trip from Budapest to Amsterdam? The honest answer is that I am not sure. But now that I am about halfway through, seeing the “innards” of Germany and Middle Europe—lush, green, and rich with history—an unexpected parallel begins to emerge.

Beware, most of the dates I cite may not be completely accurate, but they are close enough to help lay out a reasonable long term perspective of what happened in this part of the world in the past and what may be beginning to happen in the Middle East.

In about 1800—as the United States was just becoming a unified nation—Germany was still 100-odd kingdoms based on farming and ore-rich communities. Their wealth came from the earth: they were rich in grain, hops, coal etc., which could feed and warm more than just their own populations. The BIG GUY in each duchy built an impregnable hilltop redoubt and things were fairly stable, with occasional violent squabbles.

By around 1870 –after our Civil War brought accurate artillery to the attention of the world—the many German duchies came together, realizing that they were vulnerable separately (those fortified castles were ripe targets for artillery) and Germany (as we know it) took shape.

Then, the newly assembled Germany promptly beat France thoroughly in the Franco-Prussian war, which was followed—as we all know too well—by the World Wars.

We can see now that a multilingual, multicultural, yet relatively small area of global real estate rich with natural bounty–water, fertile soil and minerals—adapted to changing realities and overcame many of their historical fears and ambitions.

OK—so what does all this tell us now about today’s Middle East?

First, that water and fertile soil were obviously never at issue in the Middle East. Instead oil is the Middle Eastern equivalent of the rich earth of Middle Europe.

Second, that differing religions and languages in the Middle East are not really the primary issues, despite common wisdom. But oil confers money and power on a Middle Eastern nation as the water and fertile earth did in Middle Europe. The importance of oil since about 1900 has been the main source of all the conflicts of ambition and greed that still dominate the region today.

The realities of the changing world slowly and intermittently settled over Middle Europe during the last 100 years, which eventually brought about today’s more-or-less comfortable and relaxed conditions. At the same time the relatively less developed region of the Middle East was embarking on its own long period of disputes, fighting, and anger.

So—what can the crystal ball of Middle Europe tell us about the future of the Middle East?

As oil continues to slowly lose some of its power and value to alternative energy sources and as the owners and users of oil tire of their long disputes that never seem to get resolved, both sides will eventually have to come to accept the reality that they have more in common than they ever would have believed.

In all likelihood, when my great grandchildren take a trip through the Middle East in 2066, they will ask, as I have this past week: “What was all that fuss really about?”

The basic answer has never and will never change:

Slowly changing contours of basic power and wealth alter human behavior in fundamental ways.

We humans are powerless in the face of the laws of gravity and the basic conditions of life!