A Hero By Any Standard

“I’ve been through worse.”

John McCain

 

As we all know by now, Arizona Senator John McCain was diagnosed this week with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Ironically, this is the same disease that felled to last person known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy.

I stopped after hearing the news to reread McCain’s account of his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.  His courage and integrity through life threatening injuries and torture seems something from another time, and indeed it was.  He almost broke down at one point, but held on through five years of abuse and torture.

As the son of the Admiral over the Pacific Fleet, McCain could have avoided combat like another who ran for and was elected President.  The North Vietnamese offered to release him because of his father’s position, but he refused to leave because there were others who had been held longer.

He still walks with a limp as a result of his injuries, but he held no malice against the nation that held him.  In fact, McCain was instrumental in the normalization of relations between our countries.

Our current president insulted McCain in 2015, saying, “He is no hero…I prefer people who weren’t captured.”  McCain did not respond publicly, to his credit and as seems his style.  I have read that some of his Senate colleagues aren’t fond of McCain because he speaks his mind and heart to anyone, which can be harsh and impolitic.  Unlike our present president though, he makes sure he knows what he is talking about.

I wrote a previous post about another hero of a different type and persuasion, John Lewis.  What they both seem to share is an uncanny ability to turn the other cheek and to rise above the hatred they have every right to feel.  That kind of humility in leadership was once more common.

 

 

 

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The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Declaration of Independence

 

Thomas Jefferson adapted his famous list of rights from the works of John Locke, a philosopher of the era.  He substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s more conservative “property.  His phrase survived to become part of what defines us as Americans.

The funny thing is that we all pursue happiness, but most of us don’t know what it is.  Some pursue fame as their form of happiness.  Others think of it as wealth, which Jefferson certainly did not intend.

For the moment, let’s go with that definition.  If so, how much money does it take to be happy?  The answer, if you believe the experts, is not “more.”  The pollsters have studied Americans of all stations and have concluded that any amount over $75,000 a year does nothing to increase the markers of happiness for most Americans.  Indeed, more money often leads to more worries and no greater satisfaction with life.

I often mention this study to my students, and I find their reactions telling.  Many show signs of disbelief, and I make a mental note that they may be pursuing something other than happiness in their law careers.  Some though find the study intriguing.  They, I believe, are more likely to enjoy the practice of law for itself, and thus find satisfaction in life.

I can’t find the source now, but someone once studied high school athletes to determine which were the happiest.  You would think that football stars, with all their popularity and praise, would be the clear winners.  That, however, turned out to be wrong.  The happiest athletes turned out to be soccer players, who participated for the joy of the sport and the camaraderie that the team bred.

The gold standard for defining happiness seems to be the 75 year and still running “Harvard Study of Adult Development.”  You can listen to its director’s TED talk here.  Over the term of the study, researchers regularly assessed the mental and physical wellbeing of thousands of Harvard graduates and a corresponding number of poor Bostonian youth.  The one defining marker of happiness, and even physical health, was satisfaction with one’s relationships.  The richer one was in this one area, the happier he was with his life.  (The study began with young men, but has expanded to encompass women as well).

All that begs the question, “How happy are you?”

And as a postscript:  Todd Lombardo has written a thoughtful piece, entitled, “You Don’t Have to be Famous to be Great.”  It is well worth your reading.

 

 

 

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Why Do We Vote Against Our Own Interests?

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Winston S. Churchill

Why do poor voters side with politicians who pledge to cut welfare?  Why do middle class voters support those who promise to cut taxes on the rich?  Why do many wealthy voters choose candidates that promise to raise their taxes?  Is voting even a rational choice?

These are not new questions, but I have been pondering them afresh, in light of the current healthcare debate in which those that voted for Republican candidates have enabled those in power to take away Medicare and other funds in order to cut taxes for the rich.  While some of these voters are showing buyer’s remorse, many still support legislation that will directly hurt their interests.

Certainly there are many issues to prioritize in selecting a candidate, and no single representative can align fully with any one voter, much less all those who select him or her.  Some voters go so far as to ignore a candidate’s extreme position on an issue, believing that the government would never actually go through with something so radical.  In a polarized electorate like ours today, that becomes a dangerous gamble, as we can now see.

Some who have studied this paradox suggest that emotions sway many voters, rather than reason. Anger is often cited as one factor.  Many feel left behind by government, the economy and society as a whole. As a result, they lash out against the system and side with candidates that present the same rhetoric.  They are much like those that game theory describes who prefer that no one get anything, rather than have to share.  In a world in which a voter’s economic well-being has been declining for decades, this attitude may not be as irrational as it seems.

Fear is a related explanation.  Regulations and taxes that affect employers prompt fear that jobs will disappear, and so voters judgment is tainted by a simplified view of self-interest.

In a complex world, simple stories often sway voters, even if the stories are patently untrue.  The unfortunately perfect example of the regularly repeated “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton is as good, or bad, an example as one could find.

Values seem often to sway voters more than self-interest.  Many times, extreme values take on undue weight.  Guns, abortion, immigration, and bathrooms come immediately to mind.  The unique American value of self-determination prompts many to reject candidates that offer government lifelines for those in need.

One interesting observation I have read is that people select candidates based on their self-image, and not their true interests.  They see themselves as the members of a common group or “tribe,” and vote accordingly.  Few are willing to identify themselves as middle class, much less poor.  They would rather believe they are part of a group that reflects their goals or ideals, even if the group fails to help them get there.

I happen to be a (somewhat) old, white man, whose demographic would put me firmly among traditional Republicans and within the disaffected group who found Trump’s rhetoric appealing.  The first category doesn’t really describe my politics, and the latter could not be further from my views.  You could say that I too do not vote in favor of my personal interests.  The truth, in my case and perhaps for a great many, is that we are all too complex to put in boxes.  When all is said,  we can’t say enough to predict other’s views.

 

 

 

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Living Every Day As If…

“May you live every day of your life.”

Jonathan Swift

 

I fell down something of a rabbit hole this past week, and the experience was enlightening, if not a bit frightening, as well.  I got up in the night, passed out and ended up in the hospital, where I went through two days of every test they could think of.  End result:  I’m in much better health than I have any right to be, and the doctors had no clue as to what happened or why.

As I reflected during a few days of rest, two thoughts took root in my mind.  First, the human body is immensely complex, and there are so many things that can go wrong that I am surprised it doesn’t break down more often.  Modern medicine, despite its flaws, has advanced to the point that we take our health for granted and are reminded only in the fairly rare event that something like my experience happens.  Even then, we expect our doctors to patch us up, so we can return to our assumed state of blissful ignorance.

Related to that thought was my second realization that, whether life is short or long, every day is unique and is something to live as best you know how.  While in the hospital, I received a message that a friend, younger and by all accounts healthier than me, had died of a heart attack.  It was completely unexpected and highlighted for me the importance of living “mindfully,” as Buddhists say.  I believe a similar saying among actors is “being in the moment.”

Of course, you can sometimes hear one living “fully” though the words, “Hold my beer.”  Another version of the same refrain from here in the South are the typical Redneck’s last words, “Hey y’all, watch this!”  I’m thinking of a more meaningful approach to living each day to its fullest.

With that in mind and having some time on my hands, I went back to an early post from this blog and found a personal manifesto I had crafted for myself.  It went like this:

 

Be Kind.  The world can be a cruel place.

Live Small.  Make room and save resources for others.

Seek Peace.  Both within yourself and with others.

 

In light of my recent experience, I could add a few other maxims, such as,”Eat well, exercise and don’t forget to floss,” or “Avoid hospitals like the plague.” Kidding aside, the important thing, I believe, is that one thoughtfully find his or her own values to live by and keep them fresh and actively in mind.  I certainly have renewed reason to do so, beginning today and until all I have to say is said and I am done.  I hope that will be a long time from now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Americas

Once upon a true time in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln’s election divided the country, not just politically, but physically.  The division is depicted in the electoral map here, although there were dissidents in the minority on each side.

In many ways, this division haunts us still today, only now the party of Lincoln has turned from that of unity to one of division, by embracing a raft of fringe groups and their sometimes radical positions.  These range from gun rights, climate change denial, and abortion opposition to tacit acceptance of white nationalism.

A look at the 2016 electoral map  reflects several trends worth noting.  First, the Republican party has replaced the Democrats in the South.  It has also come to fill in most of the states that had not been formed in 1860, which I often refer to as “square states.”  Added to the Republicans’ tally in this last election are also a number of the Rust Belt states whose disaffected working class sided with the party, although the vote was close in those states.

The county-by-county results are a bit more revealing, as you can see here.  The blue or Democratic counties roughly paint an outline around the continental U.S, particularly if you add in the pink counties, representing areas where the Republican majority was narrow.  Our nation is now divided, not north to south, but by the border regions versus the midsection.

 

Geographically, the image above is dominated by red.  What is not reflected is population density, which is shown in the next image.  The deepest red areas above are generally sparsely populated, while the blue are largely urban, as shown in the yellow to deep blue range of colors.  If you presume that each person’s vote should count equally, the straight popular vote would favor Democratic leaning candidates.

History, however, had another issue that affected the map.  In the negotiations that resulted in our Constitution, the less populous states, largely in the south, feared domination from the others.  Three compromises gave them more power, which still affects us today.  Each state received two Senators, regardless of population.  Slaves, who had no right to vote, were counted as 3/5ths a person for purposes of representation in the House – the “Devil’s Bargain.”  These same considerations contributed to outsized roles for less populous states in the Electoral College, a result that largely remains the case still today.

These compromises fortunately no longer protect the institution of slavery.  Instead, they provide a protection for minority views on a number of more modern issues.  If that sounds like a criticism, I don’t necessarily mean it that way.  In parts of the country where one’s nearest neighbor might be miles away, owning and being proficient with guns makes a lot of sense.  Self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are not just preferences, but necessities in these areas.  Limited government and other conservative views are naturally part of the fabric of this culture.  These are stands that may deserve protection, even if they are minority points of view.

In our more urban areas some of these views make less sense.  The role of government in peoples’ lives has greater relevance.  Things like guns become problematic when people are packed more closely.  We find ourselves, as I’ve said, living in entirely different cultures, or, if you will, two different Americas.  We need to recognize the fact and find a way to live without imposing one position on others whose lives differ.

That is not all there is to say on the subject, but I’ll stop here for now to ponder a bit on what we might do in the face of this reality.

P.S.  A Washington Post poll has underscored the rural/urban divide.  It notes, interestingly, that urban responders do not sense the difference in values as strongly as those in rural areas.

 

 

 

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We Can Still Always Have Paris

I have tried, with limited success, to avoid politics in these periodic thoughts because the
airwaves are saturated with the subject, and I believe there are more important issues in life to reflect on.  The recent news that we have withdrawn, as a country, from the Paris Climate Accord was an unfortunate train wreck in the crossroads between politics and the well-being of life for all.   The plain truth is that the earth is not flat, and climate change is real.  God may have promised not to destroy the earth again by flood, but we still can and are well on the way.

I have had the good fortune to visit some of the world’s great ocean reefs over the years, and I have seen them slowly fade to bleached white.  Last week I visited Belize, home of the world’s second longest reef.  So much of the coral has died that local tourism now boasts access to sharks and turtles, rather than colorful coral reefs, or at least that was my experience.

I lived for a time in South Miami and recall rare occasions when weather and tides combined to flood some low lying areas near Biscayne Bay.  Now it is common enough to take a name, “King Tides.”

Humans, as a species, are remarkably adaptive to a wide range of climates.  We inhabit barren deserts, the highest mountains and even areas where we have rendered the air and waters nearly uninhabitable to nearly all creatures other than vermin and roaches.  Some  may be resourceful or wealthy enough to live on with the remaining rats after we have wasted the earth, but billions of individuals and countless species are apt to die out.  It will not be pretty.

Our current government may have rejected the majority preference to stand with Paris, but that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, are without options.  It crossed my mind that nothing prevents me from living within the Accord.  Consider what might happen if enough of us took the same step.  Already, a number of cities and states have pledged to act within the agreement.  If you compare the GDP of any one of our states to that of other nations, the comparison is often telling.  Georgia, for example, equals the economy of Belgium.

Michael Bloomberg has offered to pay our portion off the administrative costs for the pact. This prompted me to consider ways that I might reduce my carbon footprint, as an individual.  The Internet is full of suggestions and examples.  Some are as simple as making sure your tires are fully inflated.  Raising the settings on your thermostat at home is another.

The list of opportunities is long and environmental change truly can begin person by person and home by home.  We should all take the time while there is still time.

P.S.  Bill Moyers has an article on what states can do to follow the Paris Accord.  Also, the illustration above is from The New Yorker.  I try to be respectful of others copyrights, but this online cartoon was truly topical, as is the weekly publication.  If you don’t subscribe, you are missing out.

 

 

 

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Living in History

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

John F. Kennedy

During this month in 1917, John F. Kennedy was born – one hundred remarkable years ago.  It was truly a different time.  Women could not yet vote.  The U.S. had just been drawn into a World War (the first).  Russia was experiencing its Communist Revolution.  The best selling car of the time was Ford’s Model T.  The flu pandemic that ultimately killed over 20 million was spreading across the world.  Mary and Jack Pickford won the acting Academy Awards in its fourth year, and presciently, The Little American won the award for best picture.

I was in the first grade when JFK was elected.  I (would have) voted for Nixon, echoing my father’s opinion that Kennedy did not have enough life experience.  Ironically, I ultimately did vote for Nixon when I turned 18 in 1972, a fact I soon and have long regretted.

Kennedy’s election came at a turning point in history.  The Baby Boom generation was coming of age and his vision inspired them to believe in ideals and in change in ways that their more conformist parents did not, bearing their childhood memories of the Great Depression.

Some of that optimism suffered when Kennedy was shot three years later.  While he had experienced mixed results in foreign affairs, he had set the country on a path toward equal rights for all races.  He has even set our sights on the moon itself.

There are events in life when you remember where you were when they happened.  Shuttle disasters, September 11th, and even Elvis Presley’s (alleged) death come to mind.

The first such occasion for me was November 22, 1963.  I was in Mrs. Wilson’s third grade class when the Principal made a cryptic announcement over the loud speaker.  Word of the shooting began to spread and we saw Mrs. Wilson cry, which left us confused and disturbed.  As the afternoon passed, the school office placed its microphone next to its radio, and we heard the news as it transpired.  There was no school the next day, but everyone’s shock dampened any joy we might have had.

A reporter who followed in his father’s path asked his dad on his 75th birthday if writing about JFK’s death was his favorite story.  “No,” he said, “It stunk.”  As a lawyer, I can also say that having to do my job on days when the outcome was unfair and stunk in the same sense, even if my client won as a result.

The first unforgettable event for my children was the explosion of the space shuttle.  When I learned of the disaster, I went home to be with my young daughter.  I sat down with her and asked what she had heard.  She replied, The space ship blew up and all the people cried.”  With young children, it is important to explain things at a level they can understand.  I could not have said it better.

When JFK took office he was as far off in time from Teddy Roosevelt as we are now from Kennedy’s time.  Much has changed for us, and change itself has become our norm.  The key now, as it was then, is to know yourself and to live expectantly.

 

 

 

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Knowing Where You Stand

There have been more inventions in my lifetime than, just possibly, all of time.  The microchip, the Internet, and intermittent windshield wipers are just a few.  The one that never ceases to amaze and to help me the most, however, is GPS.  The thought that you could use satellites to navigate here on earth may seem routine to many at this point, but it still boggles my mind.

Add to that invention the fact that a handheld device can hold and locate you on a map of virtually all the world’s roads or its waters, and you have a modern miracle.  And it is fairly affordable as well!

Paper maps are nearly a thing of the past, and paper water navigation charts are being phased out.  Before satellites, sailors had to rely on stars to navigate, using a sextant.  If that option wasn’t available, they relied on dead reckoning, a  foreboding name for knowing where you are.

I was sailing west across the Bahamas one night before GPS was available to the public.  My dead reckoning was off by several miles, and I was saved from an unfortunate collision with a reef only because I kept a good watch.

An incident in 1983 was the catalyst for opening GPS to commercial and public use.  Russia shot down a Korean Air flight after it strayed into Russian airspace.

Operation of the system is so precise that each satellite’s internal clock is programmed to within nanoseconds of the others.  In fact, the effects of Einstein’s relativity have to be taken into account to read a satellite’s signal.

The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation for a number of years, because of the availability and accuracy of GPS.  They may know something that we don’t, because the course is now back in the curriculum. There is a good piece in the New Yorker about what might happen if the GPS system failed.

On the road I rely on the Waze app nearly everywhere I drive.  It maps your route and goes one step further to check against the traffic data from other users.  If traffic is bad, the app searches for a faster route.

There are plenty of examples of GPS leading folks astray.  More than once, it has routed me to places I didn’t intend, because I put in the wrong address.  Waze has routed me through some strange places just to save me one minute in travel time.  Part of the reason for its usefulness is that it tracks your location even when you are not using it, a privacy issue that few know about.  A few of the better, or worse, examples of GPS gone wrong can be found here.

GPS will soon enable a leap in navigation with the advent of self-driving cars, something I’m somewhat wary of.  I remember though when my mother bought an electronic calculator to help her with math.  She never quite got to trusting it, and I often saw her with pencil and paper to check its work.

We may have come far technologically, but human nature remains the same.

 

 

 

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About Nothing

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

Albert Einstein

Infinity is more than the  misspelled name for a car.  It is a number that is the sum of all numbers.  It is a time that is forever and then some.  In cosmology, it is used to define a singularity, or black hole.  In golf, it the odds of my making a hole in one – theoretically possible, but never going to happen.

Galileo was perhaps the first to say that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe,” or at least that history records.  There are sadly, however, too many who espouse that the language of God was English (presumably the American dialect) and that his only message was captured in the Bible.

Although not quite the point of this post, the thing that makes humor most funny is how closely it resembles the truth.  Humor often highlights the distinctions between truth and what we believe.  Sometimes though, it reveals the absurdity in our beliefs.  It was a particularly pedantic version of this sense that cost Socrates his life.

One interesting insight into history is the discovery of nothing, or at least how to account for it.  Many books haves been written about nothing and a few about the invention or discovery of zero and how to represent it.  I recommend Who Invented Zero?, by Jesse Szalay.  The Sumerians used a symbol for it as a placeholder in counting to distinguish 2 from 20, which the Babylonians picked up, trade being the beginning of the only true common language – mathematics.

Some time later, the Mayans independently created their version the same placeholder, perhaps to denote the rough date of their invention – 350 C.E.  (Note my rough consistency with the reference to English above.)

Perhaps a few years earlier, Hindus in India appear to have begun using words to reference nothing.  There began the use of nothing as a true number.  From there the concept spread, although the Italians banned it out of suspicion for a time.  In the end, or at least until now, it became elemental and essential in base two, which is the binary system by which all current computers operate.

I am sure I could continue on into how all this equates to existential nihilism, but I’ve come to think that  nihilism is itself a placeholder for one seeking for meaning that we fundamentally need.

Instead, I hint at a topic for another day – “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This one may new the question that links religion, cosmology and physics into one as yet Gordian knot.  Pray, consider and calculate.

 

 

 

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Preexistence

Healthcare is in the news again – this time for passage of a Congressional House bill that few if any had read and none had had the opportunity to determine its costs or likely effects.  What little that is known is that the rich will receive a significant tax cut, while the old and most vulnerable – including those with preexisting conditions – will suffer  substantially.  The bill was criticized by the AMA and opposed by the health insurance industry.  Under the present Congress, the mentally ill have the right to own guns, but not to receive health care.  The only logic to apply to this anomaly is that Congress supports the concept of the Darwin Awards.

Rather than rant further, I suggest that we follow the old-fashioned and conservative approach to the issue, which is to weigh the importance of the issue, consider the alternative solutions and craft sensible solutions that serve the public in a meaningful and cost-effective manner.

Many consider effective healthcare a human right, and it is recognized as such in many countries, including most of Europe and even in poorer lands, such as Cuba where healthcare is one of the nation’s sources of pride.  The noticeable absence of the US from this group is defended by some under the concept of “personal responsibility”; that is,  we should all live upright lives, so that we will not get sick.  That logic, if one deigns dignify it with the word, fails in the face of most accidents and diseases that afflict individuals and it certainly holds no sway in most other countries.

The truth is that wealth or the simple luck of the insurance draw is all that protects the fortunate here.  Surely we can agree that neither should determine who should live or die.  Considering the lifetime full coverage that Congress gives itself, it is fair to conclude that they deem it so.

Healthcare is too expensive to provide to all Americans, some say.  The fact is, however, that much of the world disagrees, and 36 countries actually provide healthcare superior to ours under objective standards.  These range from most of Europe to Japan, Columbia and even Morocco.  That said, it is the case that healthcare in the US is by far the most expensive in the world.  Costs here are 30 percent higher than even the second most expensive country – Sweden, which ranks substantially higher than us in the quality of care.

Healthcare here takes up almost 20 percent of economic output, which is dramatically more that even what we spend on national defense.  To see how we might do better, we need merely look at other examples.  Experts categorize the alternatives into four groups.

Under the Beveridge model countries like Great Britain provide and fund most healthcare.  Hong Kong still uses this approach, and neither country has been accused of using “death panels” and other silliness.  England is one of the countries that provides better and less costly care than here.

The Bismarck model from Germany and Japan relies on government and employer health insurance.  Most insurers are nonprofit, which holds down costs.

National Health Insurance in countries like Canada is paid into by its citizens.  This primarily single source option is the reason that prescriptions there are available at costs tempting to Americans, who shop there for their pills.

There is also the out-of-pocket model which exists in most impoverished countries.  One gets care if he or she can pay, and only to that extent.  Until the Affordable Care Act, the poorest in the US operated mostly under this model, while those fortunate enough for employer-provided insurance received care as long as they remain employed or until their COBRA coverage (paid at their own cost) expired.  Medicare and Medicaid existed for limited other social classes, if they qualified.  Interestingly, both have proven relatively cost-effective over many years.

I don’t believe anyone claims that our current system is a worthy model, but what some now call “Trumpcare” is anything but that.  Surely any honest, thinking person who read and voted for it (if there are any) can rationally defend it.

Don Henley wrote that “we get the government we deserve”, a line penned first by Alexis de Tocqueville.  Whatever one’s political leanings, surely we can agree that we need responsible adults legislating for us.

I have read that marches, letters, tweets and such do little to sway politicians.  It is money that talks, and it is time, I believe, to speak up.

 

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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