Letter to the Editor

Hello,
An excellent column today by Brian Watson! I enjoyed that one very much.

Although I agree the situation looks bleak, I think the solution lays in the one thing we can all agree on – JOBS. Imagine the headlines, “Today Tesla announced plans to open a manufacturing factory in Flint” or “Today Apple announced plans to build a factory in Cleveland.”

Both moves would turn the region blue overnight. It is ridiculous that Apple, worth half a trillion dollars with $200 billion sitting unused in overseas accounts, claims they can’t afford to build a factory in the Midwest.

Bill Clinton won two Presidential races with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” I can only hope Democrats realize the wisdom of that. When we abandon these regions economically, people revert to tribalism and we all lose.

Again, I enjoyed your column very much. As you can see, it stirred quite a bit of thought for me. I look forward to the next one.

Best,
Dave

The Disconnect

A friend of mine living in rural upstate New York told me a story that I found interesting. About a year ago, a big construction project was floated out to local contractors. Good paying jobs are scarce in the region so everyone jumped to put in a bid.

amish-family-in-buggy8

Photo courtesy: David Reese

The construction job was eventually awarded to an Amish company. I know, the Amish! I didn’t know they still existed and did that kind of work. But they do and they won because they were able to put in a bid that was way lower than everyone else’s.

Why? Part of it is because the Amish live modestly and, as part of their religion, they believe in taking personal responsibility for everything they do and not blaming others or events. That’s admirable but, more importantly, it means if one of them gets injured on a job site, they won’t sue.

Because of this, the Amish are not required to pay for job site insurance while all the other non-Amish companies do. Freed of this requirement they can put in bids that are a fraction of the cost of their competitors.

In effect, people who are not Amish in the region get hit twice – they are legally required to pay money to a big, impersonal insurance company to work and then they don’t even land the contracts they were supposed to get in return. They are punished for legally playing the game.

But, here’s where it gets interesting, if anyone starts calling this into question, business interests can win over gullible media types by floating stories about “Amishphobia sweeping upstate New York.”

In the 24/7 news cycle, media people in New York City are under constant strain to “feed the beast.” They don’t have time to investigate stories in-depth, they just need a someone who looks good on TV who purports to know a lot about the subject.

So audiences get a bunch of well-paid pundits to appear on TV to say, “We don’t understand this hatred of the Amish. It must be because stupid rednecks living upstate secretly hate people who wear clothes from 1880 or they hate driving behind a horse and buggy” without investigating the true cause.

If you are wondering why Democrats lost, here you go

If you are wondering why Democrats lost, here you go

Then, writers like Jamelle Bouie can seize these stories, because of confirmation bias, and spare themselves the bother of talking to people involved and go on long tirades about the native racism, sexism, and blah, blah of the white working class.

Bouie’s readers can then read about the stupid yokels living upstate while reading Slate on their iPads at Starbucks and feel good about themselves. Everyone who is not the white working class wins!

Unfortunately for Bouie, he appears to have fallen prey to the old saying, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Bouie’s toolbox consists of a prism of racism and little else.

In an effort to broaden Bouie’s scope a little bit from the narrow one he clings to, I’d like to review the county election map of the last three elections. The following is the results of the 2008 election which pitted Barack Obama vs. John McCain:

new-york-2008

And this is the one from 2012 where Obama faced off against Mitt Romney:

new-york-2012

I’m struggling to find any evidence of broad-based racism in these results. According to the map, enormous sections of upstate New York voted for a black man for President.

Now take a look at the results of the 2016 map:

new-york-2016

Counter to Bouie’s brainless analysis, maybe this election wasn’t about racism, sexism, or Islamophobia, or Comey, or Russian influence or whatever non-reason Democratic leadership is currently citing at the moment.

What appears to have resonated in this region is the message both Trump and Sanders shared, “The game is rigged.” My story about the Amish would support this analysis and would help explain the total failure of the media in NYC and DC to foresee it.

Making Predictions

One of the best parables in “Zen Shorts” is this one:

A long time ago there was a farmer living in China. One day his horse ran away and all the villagers said, “What bad luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the horse came back with two wild horses and all the villagers said, “What good luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the farmer’s son was riding one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his arm. All the villagers said, “What bad luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the army passed through town recruiting young men for a distant war. The son was passed over because of his broken arm. All the villagers said, “What good luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

I bring up this story because of the rigid technocratic view that has recently taken over the world. In this view, popularized in Silicon Valley and emulated by everyone, all events can be predicted, anticipated, and manufactured with extensive data analysis. Collect the data, analyze it, and come up with sweeping conclusions.

Unfortunately, like all things, over time this dependence went from giving one a competitive edge to becoming a limiting crutch—creating enormous blind spots to things that should have been obvious.

This election was a powerful reminder that although the tools we use are new, the forces we are dealing with are both very big and very old. Our naive belief that we could control and anticipate them now in this brave new world were abruptly snapped back to reality with tremendous force.

One lesson learned is never doubt that people make predictions based on their own personal self-interest. It’s a strong cognitive bias – people have a tendency to search for facts that confirm what they want to be true and discard those that don’t match. Sometimes predictions based on this data is accurate and other times it misses, but no one, not even pollster Nate Silver, knows with certainty what happens next.

So, here’s a relevant historical example to help you deal. After Federalism and Alexander Hamilton fell from grace, Thomas Jefferson and the states’ rights movement took power. As President, Jefferson preached life, liberty, and small government principles. He then presided over the single greatest expansion of the federal government in history.

The man was called the American Sphinx for a reason – he was filled with so many contradictions that you never knew what he was going to do. Sound like anyone you know?

In the meantime, calm down and stop trying to figure out the future, either in anticipation or dread. The only surety of doing that is to suffer crippling anxiety and to be unable to cope in the present.

As the Buddhists counseled, instead of being preoccupied with the future, live in the now. What is happening now? Is there something you can do about it? If yes, do something. If not, accept it. Because no one knows what happens next and anyone who pretends they do is a charlatan. Let go of what you want to happen and be the farmer who says, “Maybe.”

Veterans Day

grandpa01That’s a photo of my grandfather during his Navy days. Born in 1912, he lived in a German speaking section of Queens before enlisting and spending 30 years in the service.

He was twelve years deep when Pearl Harbor was hit and, fortunately, his boat, the U.S.S. Ellet, was out on patrol when it was. He was there a few days later and saw the wreckage. “A pile of junk!” he told me, “It was all going to be mothballed anyway. We knew they were coming.”

Grandpa went on to fight in some major battles—none of which he told me about, I only learned about them after he died. The man would give you the most detailed directions to the gas station but only once told me about the time he saw a test detonation of an atomic bomb. He never mentioned going behind enemy lines in perfect radio silence to help launch the legendary Doolittle Raid or the time he was at a little battle called Midway.

grandpa-log-book

A portion of Grandpa’s Navy log book noting service at Midway, Guadacanal, and the Solomon Islands

When I learned about that one I picked up a book about the subject and was pleased to learn the aircraft carrier his destroyer shielded, the U.S.S. Enterprise, was instrumental in the battle. Later I tracked down a man who served with my grandfather on the Ellet and called him. I damn near cried when he told me, “When I knew your grandfather aboard The Ellet he was the Chief Boatswains Mate. I remember him very well because he was one of the kindest gentleman I met during my four years on the Ellet.”

Grandpa went on to become a Chief Warrant Officer, which, I believe, is the top rank someone can achieve without attending the Academy. A friend of mine who went to military school told me, “That’s the equivalent of Top Sergeant in the Army. They are the guys you want to be around when the bullets start flying because they know what to do.” Not bad for a guy who dropped out of school in the 8th grade.

Because of his Navy and Electric Boat pensions, Grandpa had a comfortable retirement and, although he lead a modest life with my grandmother, I grew up thinking he was one of the richest men in the world.

While he was a thrifty German to the core, he was generous to those he loved. Before I graduated from high school he told me he would pay for my college education if I opted to go. I did back when tuition at the University of New Hampshire was $8,000 a year and Grandpa paid for all four years for both me and my brother. Not sure I would have gone if not for him and my professional career was effectively launched by him and funded by the Navy.

We lost Grandpa in 2009 and he was buried with full military honors. Although I would never would wish it on anyone, military funerals are one of the most deeply effecting experiences you can attend.

At the close of the ceremony, two officers fold up the flag, walk over and solemnly hand it to the next-of-kin, in this case, my mother. The soldier delivering it looked deep into my mom’s eyes and said something that had the emotional power of a fist on an egg. I don’t remember the words exactly but I remember bursting into tears so hard I was embarrassed. When the bugle plays taps, forget it, you are done. If there is one thing the military knows how to do, it is conduct a funeral that will leave you emotionally overwhelmed.

In short, my grandfather was a role model and, quietly, a badass. The Navy shaped him into the man he was—a resolute man of honor with a good heart.

Thank you for your service, veterans. Today is your day.

Understanding What Just Happened

The whole thing is worth reading but this is the story that stuck with me:

There’s a man named Danny Hartzell, who I met down in Tampa, which is one of the main locations of the book. He’s a husband, father of two kids, didn’t get past high school. In fact, I think he dropped out around ninth grade. But he had skills as a welder and for a while was gainfully employed and he had the satisfaction of making things and working with his hands, of doing a job well.

Then those welding shops began to close down. He ended up in a plant packing potato chips and other snacks which is not necessarily a job that a man like that sees as being worthy of his skills and dignified. And then that went away with the Great Recession.

Then he was left to shuffle between part-time jobs at Target and Wal-Mart, never sure what his hours were going to be, completely up in the air with no say over his schedule. He was forced into it because he was desperate for hours because at times he was working 10 – 12 hours a week. It all depended on what the store needed.

He was operating a forklift or moving, carrying boxes and talking to customers, which was not his favorite thing to do because he said to me once “I’m not a hello, how are you, what’s your dress size?” – kind of guy. Because of this the family fell on very hard times as his hours and wages dropped. They became homeless for long periods of time.

The worst was this was the heartbreaking case of a man who in some ways was doing everything right. Although he blamed himself for quitting school, he’d assumed that there would be employment for him and a living to support a family. The family stayed together. They were not doing drugs. They were not drinking. They were not committing crimes. They were in some ways doing exactly what politicians ask of them, and they were still desperate. I mean, they were barely surviving.

And what I felt most of all was their aloneness. There was no one, nothing to support them. They weren’t in a church. There was no local civic group that had adopted the kids and the family in a way. There was the corporation which was an utterly indifferent heartless animal that used him and then threw him aside as it needed to. They didn’t have a neighborhood watch – they weren’t part of anything larger than themselves.

And this struck me as being a way more and more Americans live in a way that has undermined our confidence in ourselves and our democracy. So that was the Hartzell family in Tampa.

At around the same time the Hartzell family were losing their home, imagine them watching rich Silicon Valley / DC / Los Angeles / New York City kids on TV talking about how great their new Tesla drives (so much better than the crap Detroit makes!), getting a billion dollars for their five person startup, and raving about all the fun features in their new Chinese manufactured iPhone.

Now imagine the Hertzell family turning to their leaders and hearing, “I’m sorry but those jobs are not coming back. College is now a requirement for getting a job that pays a living wage. Sure it’s $45,000 a year but don’t worry, you can take out these crippling loans while we come up with a plan to make it more affordable someday in the future.”

Now imagine a legion of well paid talking head “journalists” broadcasting the popular views of the rich living in Washington DC, Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine Tom Friedman typing up an op-ed in the New York Times while safely ensconced in his 11,000 square foot mansion in Maryland pleading with Trump voters to not do it after ignoring them for decades.

Now imagine the Hartzell family being called “stupid”, “racist”, “sexist”, or “deplorable” for voting for Trump.

Do you think they show up at the polls? You bet your ass they do and they don’t give a shit if Trump is a liar or charlatan or a neo-Nazi or whatever. Because he took the time to meet them, talk to them, and tell them what they needed to hear. Democrats failed to meet that challenge.