Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Graduate Schools His Father-On

Celebrate with me. 

May is graduation month, and my children are among the graduates.  My son marched two weeks ago for his Masters, and, if you are reading this on Memorial Day, it might be at the very same time I watch my daughter receive her Bachelor of Music. Go get ‘em, kids.  

Perhaps your joy need not be vicarious—you have your own family skittering across the podium. One of the special pleasures of this time of year is that so many of your friends and relations are also submerged in a sea of caps and gowns, blurry pictures, hugs, and the dreaded Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Earworm. They announce themselves with each vibration from your iPhone, a kaleidoscope of happy, and occasionally goofy, images. Can we all stipulate that the whole outfit looks a bit silly?

Graduation also reminds you that time passes (way too fast). Your kids’ time, and your time. You’ve changed, just as has the five-year old who came bouncing out of her room, a huge grin on her face, ready for the first day of Kindergarten. You are a little older (just a little) and a little more “robust,” and your times in the Road Runners races are “moving” in the wrong direction.  

It doesn’t matter.  There are your children, not looking little at all, promising you a peculiar type of immortality. They are going to go do things, great things, going to change the world. They are the discoverers, the communicators, the creators. They will wash away any imperfections you’ve left and build things bigger and better. They really are the future.

You’ve celebrated with me. Now, indulge me.

I’m optimistic about the future, but there’s still the present, and the present is awfully noisy and challenging and pretty darn ugly.  Regardless of what side of the Trump chasm you inhabit, you have to acknowledge that we are sitting on a lava field a lot bigger than Hawaii’s. Blame whom you want, but volcanology should be a required course along with political science. And it’s our kids who have to traverse the heated landscape. Perhaps, before we inevitably become the burden on our children that we insist we never want to be, it’s incumbent on my generation to do something about it.  

Meaning no disrespect to our daughter, who is tied up with last minute packing, discarding, and whatever else college seniors want to do in those last few days (no need to probe), I asked our son what he (and his cohort) wanted from me and mine.  What follows is abbreviated from several hours of discussion.

I was floored by his first response, disarming in its simplicity, and a little damning in its implication. He wanted us to lead. Full stop.  His logic was impeccable. His generation is largely powerless. My generation is in charge. Even if every girl and boy in America could grow up to become President, they still can’t do it before they are 35.  Twenty-somethings can start new technology companies, discover tremendous advances in health and science and math, star in billion-dollar movie franchises, write immortal fiction, beguile us with great music, even literally lay their lives down for us, but, in our system, they can’t lead. Their time will come, but, for now, Baby-Boomers hold the keys to the castle. And we haven’t been using those keys, except maybe to raid the treasury.

At first I didn’t quite get his drift, suggesting that we could make political progress, maybe elect more centrists (as I’m a Democrat, someone like Mark Warner) who could then work across the aisle. If we could change the culture, we could together tackle the big issues. He waved it off. Warner would be fine, but Warner wouldn’t solve the problem. None of the Boomers could. My entire generation had demonstrated, over and over, that we couldn’t be trusted to end the petty bickering because we were the petty bickerers. So, stop pretending to make an effort that is clearly not genuine, forget the moral relativism, and start leading on issues that are really compelling. Leadership is about moving confidently without pandering, about leaving safe spaces to take risks commensurate with the stakes.  

Lead on what, I asked?

Lead on climate change. Conservatives mock the idea of climate change, but my son, who is no economic liberal by any description, takes it seriously, particularly as it relates to the huge social and economic costs of delaying action. There may be nuance between denial and being anti-environment, but that nuance is irrelevant if it results in inaction or willful vandalism. The world we despoil now will be the one he gets to live in later.

Lead on the deficit. It should be obvious to everyone, no matter where you come down on the tax cuts vs. government spending argument, that exploding deficits are being funded by borrowing that will inevitably have to be paid by him and his peers. As will Social Security and Medicare (something he and his cohort hold no hope of receiving themselves). As will the drain of the inevitable commitment of time, energy, and sheer pain of caring for older adults whose life spans may exceed their capacity to live them well. While we still have the energy and ability to choose another path, we Boomers can agree that we shouldn’t be takers—especially from our kids.  

Lead on the economy. Millennials need good jobs, with real prospects, in which they can take pride. Sure, some will fail, and many others will be on a low-salary treadmill, where they will always be dodging the next productivity-designed obsolescence.  But the slacker-kid-in-his-parents’-basement meme is this generation’s Cadillac-driving Welfare Queen—a strawman to raise resentment, so as to obscure not actually doing anything about structural problems. Millennials may not all be economic policy sophisticates, but they can see clearly that what is being done now doesn’t work. I’m going to insert one personal observation here. This is a trap for Democrats: solutions like guaranteed income leave my son and many of his peers wondering where the opportunities for finding and keeping meaningful work will come from. They would rather make it on their own—and, in his words, “the role of government should be less mandate and direct payment, and more convene and incentivize”.

Lead on international relations (which includes trade treaties). Trump may be an exemplar of what American Foreign Policy should not be, but what should it be?  What are our end goals? Do we care enough about democratic and humanitarian values to intercede when they may be threatened? When should we express military power? How much of the common defense should we be providing to our allies?  Is Isolationism wise when the Chinese are willing to engage everywhere, and, being a true dictatorship, can do so decisively and without regard to cost?

All great questions.  This would be about the time when Fred MacMurray would exhale, deliver to one or more of his Three Sons a sober, Dad-like “Well…,” and offer up some profundities. I didn’t—I’m not that smart.

That’s where our conversations ended, and it wasn’t until the following week that I realized I’d had a “curious case of the dog barking in the night” moment. What he hadn’t raised at all was any social issue—things like guns, gays, abortion, the role of religion. I knew he had strong opinions, and yet he didn’t prioritize them.  So, I texted him (how else would one communicate?) and got an intriguing response. Social issues would have to wait for his generation to resolve in a way that met their needs. They would be the ones to debate and resolve the core philosophical question of the scope of government in either supporting, interfering with, or mandating certain types of personal behavior before resolving the specifics. I wondered about the impact of waiting so long, but “the fundamental philosophical debate falls in the bucket, for me, of things I wouldn’t trust Baby-Boomers to do reasonably.” Yet, he’s optimistic.  “I believe our society is strong enough and malleable enough that there will always be a way forward on these issues in the future.”

Interesting to be told, in effect, that my generation lacks the capacity to act rationally when it comes to red-meat issues.  But he has left us with a full plate of other questions, and there are no easy answers to any of them. We are too large, too rich, too powerful, too indebted, too challenged around the world by other countries, too polarized and too swampy to go without some serious upheavals in crafting solutions. Given how inadequate both parties have been in actual governing, I suspect there will be a huge distance to travel, and we quite possibly won’t get far. But my generation ought to start, and Millennials need to keep us honest until they can pick up the mantle. They may not yet be able to lead, but they can vote, and make their needs clear. That’s my son’s challenge to me, and mine to him.

And that brings me back to graduations. I had said at the outset that, if you were reading this on Memorial Day, it might be at the very moment my daughter is getting her diploma. But if you are seeing this first on Tuesday, you will likely find us in the rented minivan, surrounded by crammed boxes and luggage and ripe laundry, somewhere between Ohio and New York.  And at some point, maybe around Snowshoe, Pennsylvania, there might be one or more sleeping graduates in the back seat.  It’s one of the first rules of parenting: You can always count on a moving car.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Is 2020 Rabbit Season? On 3Quarks

by Michael Liss
“You should look into this, perhaps write a little something about it.”
When Ed suggested something to you, it always emerged gently from his mouth as if on a cloud, and somehow morphed into a command by the time it reached your ears. He beckoned, I came, and now we were sitting together in one of his conference rooms, a MacBook and a bottle of unsweetened iced tea between us. My brand, in fact. It was a signal—he was telling me he knew, although we hadn’t talked in some time, that I’d gone cold turkey on Diet Coke. Of course he knew: he always knew, always was so wired in, always five steps ahead on everything. When we first met, roughly fifteen years ago, I had the absurd idea we were equals, but it took all of about a week for me to realize the central fallacy of that conceit. Still, he was remarkably good at recognizing and employing other people’s talents. And so, there would be a call or an email, and I would find myself conscripted to be a foot-soldier in Ed’s Army for some worthy cause.
I opened the iced tea, he clicked on a short YouTube clip, and I got my latest marching orders. Poke around, ask some questions, use that marvelous disguise of harmless late-middle age that allows me to pass unseen among men. Amass information, report back, write and post something. Topic: Bugs Bunny For President.

Of course, it sounds absurd, but, just how absurd is anything in politics these days? And Ed is a serious guy—if he’s lobbing this little gem at me, it means it’s not just him, but others in his happy little group are also considering it. So, on assignment, as it were, I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking, researching, looking at data, and talking to people. What I’ve found was that, the more I learned, the less irrational it seemed to be. Bugs Bunny for President. Doable. And desirable.

Bugs Bunny for President. But, what are the next four words? How do you get there? First, there’s the question of Constitutional qualifications. Article II says “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty-five years, and been fourteen Years a resident …” That Bugs was born here, that he’s older than 35 and been a resident for 14 years is probably better documented than any prior Commander in Chief. The problem is that overly picky word, Person. We all know Bugs is quite proud of being a Rabbit. But is he a “Person” as was intended by the Framers? If not, game over.
To this end, I thought I would start with someone most likely to give me a “no,”, a prominent legal scholar who, given that he’s presently short-listed for a Court of Appeals seat, insisted on anonymity before he would even see me. He floored me with his response; Possible. Conservatives might be unwilling to attack Bugs on Person grounds. “Don’t expect them automatically to be out front on this. The Obama thing is over. And you have to see the bigger picture—ever since SCOTUS decided corporations are people too, no one on the Republican side of the aisle wants to start splitting hairs over it.”
Maybe Person would be off the table. But what about the normal scrutiny, fair or unfair, that candidates have to undergo as part of the vetting? How about Bugs’ personal (rabbital?) life? Could there be a “Bunny Eruption?” Rabbits do like multiplying, and, while there’s never been a hint of a scandal of this type during his film career, a step out into the political limelight might carry some risks. Bugs was known to have an eye for the lady lapins, (wooing both flesh and blood bunnies and the occasional robotic one) and it’s not inconceivable that a love-child or two (or 20) might be lurking about. Disqualifying? No one I talked to was willing to hazard a guess as to whether the existence of multiple unacknowledged Bugs progeny would impact a race. “Unchartered waters” is what I heard from several people.
Character issues could be key. We all live lives of imperfection, and opposition research on such a public figure would be comparatively easy. There’s no question Bugs can be a wise-guy who occasionally takes things a little too far. Does that impact his gravitas? I kept thinking about Richard Neustadt’s formulation that Presidential power is a function of the ability to persuade. Persuasion is rooted in personal credibility and the capacity to project authority. The Leopold clip clearly showed he had both, but was that sustainable in the more corporeal world? After all, we are talking about someone who doesn’t even wear clothes all the time–an interesting metaphor for any politician, but still….
Perhaps this particular moment in history, the day-to-day tweet-and-shriek-fest emanating from Washington, creates an opening? A GOP operative gave me an intriguing insight: “Think about it. How do we attack on any of those issues? First, there’s a huge risk of boomeranging, because he’s very widely known and liked. Second, does anyone really understand what the rules are anymore? Are there any rules? Are we really going to talk about pleasantness, moral rectitude or the fact that he’s a media personality who lacks prior government experience? My team already had our generational flip-flop. I just don’t think we can use it. Maybe if he runs in the Democratic primary someone would soften him up for us.”
Democrat or third party, he’s still a rabbit. And while there’s nothing wrong with being a rabbit, if you are running as an outsider, being a billionaire has its advantages also. How does a rabbit gain credibility as Commander in Chief? Would the military be comfortable with Bugs? “More than you would expect” said a retired Defense Department official who had worked in several Administrations. “To a certain extent, you are never going to escape the ingrown preference the brass has for those who have served. But Bugs’ personal heroism gets him a lot of street cred: That footage of him rescuing the Earth from destruction by Marvin Martian is actually based in fact. The entire truth was never disclosed to the public. After the crisis was over, it was decided that the best way to obscure the details was to have it animated. And let’s add something else: Politicians generally don’t understand the Military. They think of it as either an expensive nuisance, or a first-person shooter game that they can play at being real soldiers. Bugs does get it: Listen to his rhetoric, look at what he does, and you can see he gets it. Bugs knows when and where to draw a line in the sand. When he says “of course you know, this means war!” he’s serious. “That gets a lot of respect where I come from.”

Where is Bugs on the ideological spectrum? He clearly doesn’t fit the contemporary model of either Republican or Democratic. He appears to be liberal or libertarian on some social issues, the environment and the arts, but conservative on military and economic ones, particularly on spending and regulation. Yet that economic conservatism doesn’t translate to being a plutocrat—his personal life is notably Spartan, basically a hole in the ground and a healthy supply of carrots. Not only does that set a good example, it could give him real credibility in negotiations with Congress on some sort of shared sacrifice/Grand Bargain.
And, how does that translate to electoral success? What does a winning Bugs coalition look like? The consensus of the people I spoke with is that personal qualities will have a big impact. Bugs is resilient and suave, in a sort of Daniel Craig wink-at-you-way. That’s going to play really well with younger voters and Millennials. He knows how to get things done and doesn’t take himself too seriously–that could impress Gen-Xers and Boomers. He’s going to have some issues with Evangelicals, who would likely be uncomfortable with his irreverence, and 2nd Amendment types (he’s not a huge fan of hunting). Support among Seniors was more iffy, with Bugs getting the “Woodstock and Opera Vote” while losing a lot of folks who, professed open-mindedness aside, are just not ready to vote for a Rabbit.

Digging deeper, a veteran pollster offered the following: “Forget the demographic crosstabs for a minute. The country is torn between order and disruption. Trump and his base want disruption as a means of fostering a Trumpian order. The Warren-Bernie wing of Democrats want resistance that disrupts Trump’s disrupting. But there’s a third group, and it’s really hard to quantify its size, that, in a very strange way, mirrors the dissatisfaction of crossover Trump voters in 2016. They are tired of the status quo—both the old one and new Trumpian one. They don’t want Warren-Bernie, they don’t want Trump, they aren’t looking to go back to the 1950’s. These folks want serious problem-solvers, and if you have followed his career, Bugs does that over and over. And, maybe more importantly, they want a cultural reset—not a purge, but a change in tone that restores some sense of community and national purpose. I know that sounds amorphous, but a Bugs Bunny candidacy could unite them. He could win.”
Bugs could win. So, let’s measure the drapes a little early. It’s January 2021, and he’s being sworn in. What does his Cabinet look like? I asked a New York-based political consultant whose firm works with more centrist members of both parties. He literally drummed the desktop with glee.
“It’s a grand slam! Bugs wins as a unifier, he owes nothing, no baggage, he picks who he wants. You do have to bring in some of the people from the campaign to show Bugs isn’t just being co-opted by the Deep State. I’d skip Daffy. Too much ego, doesn’t work and play well with others. And he’s greedy.We have enough of greedy. Elmer Fudd for Press Secretary is a very good choice. Bugs likes him, and thinks he comes across as genuine. People forget that Elmer was the big star on vaudeville before anyone had heard of Bugs Bunny. Elmer was a real pro about how it all turned out—it’s not easy to play second fiddle, and Bugs appreciates it. There’s trust there.

“Then, you start constructing my Dream Team. Bill Gates and Tim Cook. Michael Bloomberg at Treasury. Meg Whitman and Elon Musk, maybe. Be a little bipartisan. Joe Biden Interior, Kasich for Education. Think really big—bring back both Obama and Bush—State and United Nations—man, you want to Make Diplomacy Great Again, you can’t make a bigger statement to the world. Find a place for Nikki Haley. Richard Haass and Max Boot. Tim Ryan at PwC is a really bright guy. Mary Barra and Ginni Rometty. There’s a lot of talent in this country, you just have to harness it. Bugs Bunny for President. Make it happen.”
Make it happen. Above my pay grade. Last week, I went back to Ed’s conference room, my own unsweetened ice-tea and write-up in hand. “Less is more,” he nodded approvingly. “Now, tell me what you left out. What did you really learn besides that it was possible?”
We talked for a few more minutes about disappointment in government, about false paradigms and fake news, the value of the private sector and the damage you do to capitalism and democracy when you replace informed Burkean responsibility with grifting and ignorance.
He nodded, stood, and our time was over. “This is good. Clean it up, and I’ll look for it on Monday. Have a conclusion?”

I did. Bugs Bunny, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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