Great and Small

Small men hide their mistakes and admit no error. Great men expect and own theirs. Small men require adulation; great men earn respect. The small man will punch down (but never up), trying to improve his own standing by standing on others. Great men reach down and lift up.

The small man believes that marble and bronze likenesses are proof of greatness. The great man’s monument is his achievement, memorialized by the judgment of history. The small man pounds his chest to make a point; the great man pounds the pavement to win the day. Small men remain small despite their puffery; great men know the worth of words and of ideas.

Great men lead the way into battle; small men say, “The fight is over yonder, come back when you’ve killed something.” Great men will explain a higher purpose and persuade to do the hard things; small men don’t look beyond where their followers are going anyway. Great men know that a chain, or an army, or a nation, is only as strong as its weakest component; small men know only the rhetorical intimidation of projected strength.

Great men learn from their mistakes; small men repeat them.

This Independence Day, as we look towards the nominating conventions and a national election, let us all aspire to greatness. Mistakes are the human condition, but a failure to learn — and a compulsion to repeat — looks like willful stupidity.

Respect

Respect is earned: it is not given. Which is to say, an indivdual must work to gain respect beyond whatever is granted by default, by virtue of his office. A group manager is respected insofar as she is the group manager; but she doesn’t get the respect she wants without earning it, without treating her people well, without having their backs.

What to say, then, to the man who demands respect but gives none; who is too lazy to earn it, let alone understand it. How does one respond to the man who demeans himself, his office, his nation. What rational answer is there to the foolish, aimless, and irrational mental wandering of a man so contemptuous of others, so needy of adulation, as to be utterly and completely beyond redemption.

It’s impossible to respect a man who doesn’t respect the office he holds.

The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

Intellectual (Dis)Honesty

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don’t want to defund the police. A sloppy slogan — which Carlson, at least, knows doesn’t mean what he says it means — has become a rallying point for the collapsing conservative movement and Trumpism. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean — as, again, Carlson is surely aware and which Trump might or might not be — abolish the police, dismantle the police, disband the police, dismiss the police, or even replace the police.

What it does mean is simply this: we ask the police to do too much, and it’s long past time we cut back on their mission to allow them to focus on the things only a well-trained professional police force can do. It’s time to stop asking them to be social workers, truant officers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention counsellors, poison control specialists, drug treatment counsellors, election monitors, and the thousand-and-one sundry other things we throw money at the police to do because, well, it’s just easier than hiring people who actually trained for this or want to do that.

The truth is, the police are failing right now: they fail because of mission creep. “Protect and serve” was never meant to mean, “Protect our bloated budgets and we will serve your political interests.” The answer, it seems (to listen to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys of the world), is to repair and reform the police, presumably by throwing more money at them.

These are the same people, mind, who believe that failing public schools should be defunded — by which they mean, disbanded and shut down. Take the education budget and shovel it towards the private sector where it won’t so much educate children as enrich the well-connected, in much the same way the law-enforcement dollars spent on tanks and riot gear don’t keep the peace so much they as effect an enormous transfer of wealth out of the public coffers.

It has long been an article of faith in conservative circles that competition is a sort of magic bullet that will solve every problem. Schools not doing the job? Take away their money and inject some competition into the system, and may the best school win! Health insurance not covering your expenses? Competition is here to save you! Just read the fine print from every carrier and make an informed decision!

Public schools fail for the same reason policing fails: the ever-expanding mandate makes it impossible to focus on the core mission. If we want everyone to have a future in this country — black children, white children, special-needs children, gifted children, everybody’s children — we might take a few minutes to consider why the answer for one failing institution is to withhold funding; and for the other, to continue to throw money at the problem.

It’s past time for the proponents of charter schools and school vouchers, and the defenders of shockingly abusive police practices — so often the same people — to be honest about their agendas. The results of your intellectual dishonesty are always, always deadly.

Banana Republicans

“It was the greatest crime in the history of our country,” says Trump. “It’s been going on and it’s still going on and it should never happen again.” What was the crime? asked Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. “You know what it was. It’s very obvious to everyone. You can read about it in every newspaper except yours.” Well, then, what was the crime? “Next question.”

There’s so much to unpack here; there is really nothing to unpack here. Of course it’s another lie, another smokescreen, another attempt to deflect responsibility and blame, all while keeping himself in the spotlight. It’s quite a talent, one worthy of admiration if it weren’t so disgusting. There is no crime, except the one Michael Flynn admitted — twice. There is nothing “going on” either now or “for a very long time.” Nothing about it is obvious except the Hail Mary nature of the accusation.

Since conservatives (by definition) want to conserve: what’s with the wrecking ball aimed at the institutions of democracy? When the Justice Department wants to withdraw a guilty plea in its own prosecution we are become, officially, a banana republic. That sounds like a betrayal of conservative principles unless your objective is ruling and not governing.

Small Government and the USPS

Grover Norquist likes to say that government should be small enough that he can drown it in the bathtub. With the possible exception of Stephen Colbert, nobody has asked the obvious followup questions: And then what? Will you drown it? Why is that a good idea? How does that serve the American people? Republicans and libertarians are fond of talking about small or even tiny government, but the former are so lost in their rhetoric that they don’t know what it means; and the latter (for the most part) aren’t so delusional to believe that we can function without a government and be anything but a failed state. Almost everybody wants lower taxes for themselves (Warren Buffet is an admirable exception); few people want to have the more difficult conversation about what they’re willing to give up in exchange.

Government does have a purpose. There are some problems only government — big government, in fact — can solve; but for now let’s stick to small government. How small? There are four essential things a government must provide:

  • a national army
  • a national currency
  • a national road system
  • a national postal service

These (and a few other things) are all enumerated in Article 8 of the United States Constitution. This is about as small as government gets, and without these things no nation can properly call itself a functioning state. To lower your tax bill, please consider:

  • Will you give up the national defense? Do you have an alternative jobs program for the soldiers you’re throwing out of work?
  • What happens when we return to a system of private money, where banks issue their own currency?
  • Are you willing to stop complaining about potholes even while highway tolls increase under private ownership?
  • USPS is required to serve every single address in the United States. Private carriers like FedEx and UPS are not. (They’re not required to carry the junk mail, either.)

During the pandemic the postal service has proven to be an absolutely critical piece of infrastructure, a literal lifeline for millions of people who cannot leave their homes. The USPS is not without its problems, even before considering how the overnight delivery services have eaten into its market share and eroded its profitability. But there is a much bigger picture here.

Essential infrastructure must serve every business and every household. Telephone (land line) service and electric utilities are state-regulated and are required to reach every corner of their service areas no matter how remote or inconvenient. Cellular phone and broadband Internet should have reached that threshold years ago but regulators have so far failed to require universal service, arguing that robust competition among carriers will solve the problem. It has not, and it will not. Basic mail delivery — letters, packages, and bulk mailings — is, likewise, an essential part of a functioning democracy.

To threaten the existence of the USPS (and that is what is going on, though not quite so overtly) at a time when it is more necessary than ever betrays an open hostility to the basic functions of government. So let’s call it that instead of dressing it up in the usual fetish-objects of “competition” and “market forces.” Not every ill can be cured by open markets or by privatizing the functions of government. History tells us that those remedies are far worse than the disease (and they are almost always more expensive, too). We should stop pretending otherwise.

Critical Thinking (Making Flippy Floppy)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a Talking Heads lyric stuck in my head:

Our president’s crazy
Did you hear what he said
Business and pleasure
Lie right to your face
Divide it in sections

Well, David Byrne could have written that yesterday — but it was 1983. “Divide it in sections” indeed: this is what has happened to the United States. We are engaged in a cold civil war; education should be the way out, but the GOP long ago declared war on public schools. The ability (and willingness) to examine facts and arguments critically before accepting them, is a crucial skill in civic life. It is the civic equivalent of the scientific method — but the GOP has declared war on science, too.

There’s also this gem of a lyric two or three lines later; the conspiracy theorists really should take it to heart:

There are no big secrets
Don’t believe what you read

Problem is, they don’t believe what they read unless it originates in their addled, paranoid echo chamber.

Petty Power Play

The French verb tutoyer has no real English counterpart. It is used to indicate the use of the familiar form of “you” — the second person singular, for which English also has had no parallel since “thee” fell out of common usage around 1800. The nearest equivalent verb might be to “first name” someone; it’s an awkward locution but we know what it means.

Trump, it turns out, knows — or, rather, intuits — exactly what tutoyer means. I doubt he could tell me what I mean when I say to him, Ne me tutoie pas, s’il te plaît, nor would he recognize the inherent disrespect. But it’s a technique he uses daily: Deborah Birx, whatever her flaws, is a medical doctor who has earned her degree and the respect that goes with it. To anyone not bred in a stable she is Dr. Birx just as Anthony Fauci is Dr. Fauci. To Trump they are Debbie and Tony, and not because he’s particularly familiar with them, nor because he socializes with them, nor because he wants to run a more informal White House.

No, it’s a power play: he first-names them to demonstrate the inherent disparity between their positions. They are mere public health officials, civil servants; he is the President of the United States and will be addressed as such. It’s a sign of contempt — everything, with Trump, is a sign of contempt, except for his fawning over dictators. There, too, he recognizes the disparity of power: theirs is absolute, his is a gift from a servile senate majority. And as such, it is time-limited.

Got that, Donnie?

Essential Workers

Driving along the Interboro – – excuse me, Jackie Robinson – – Parkway, one passes through several cemeteries. It’s a common site around here. When several of New York City’s highways were constructed in the early 20th century, they literally cut through cemeteries and many graves were relocated.

What I see now shocks me. Last weekend I counted at least a dozen mounds of fresh earth, and several more open sites ready for an interment. Funeral directors report at least triple their normal business, with many more cremations than usual due to long waits for burial. Hamlet’s gravediggers didn’t think of themselves as “essential workers” but they were. In a time of plague, it’s not just the butcher and the baker who keep us moving forward; it’s also the teamster, the apothecary, the embalmer.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it’s the people at the bottom — the minimum-wage workers — whom we most rely upon. The stockbrokers and hedge fund managers aren’t going to help us get through this. The nurses, grocery clerks, letter carriers, and, yes, the gravediggers, are the ones we need.

It’s time for us to rethink how we value, and reward, work.

Seize Authority, Shirk Responsibility

Years ago, working full time and about midway through law school, I took a new job: more interesting work, flexible hours, and a project I could really sink my teeth into. Management gave me full responsibility for its successful completion; what they didn’t give me was any authority to shape the outcome. I had an hourlong talk about it with the area VP whose response to me was simply, “You will graduate and leave here in a year, so I don’t see any reason to make you happy.” The next day I submitted my resignation. Two years later the project failed precisely because my successor wasn’t permitted to make any critical decisions along the path. He had accountability but no authority; the results were a botched implementation and a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Accountability and authority cannot be divorced from each other. In a well-run organization, individuals will be motivated to excel: their decisions are tested but not arbitrarily overridden by management, and failure is tolerated, up to a point, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Good managers know what they don’t know; and what they do know is that their subordinates often have better technical skills than they do — and in fact they almost always should. It’s not the CEO’s job to skillfully turn out widgets (though she should have a general knowledge of the widget-manufacturing process), it is her job to ensure that employees at every level have the resources they need to succeed and more. Put another way: line workers make widgets, managers make decisions.

The administration of Donald Trump turns this model upside down and inside out. Trump wants complete authority with no responsibility: the consequences of his actions can’t be laid at his door, and he is unaccountable for anything. At least, that is how it works in the fantasy world of Donald Trump — aided and abetted by both his lackeys in the White House and the Congressional bootlicks who put party above patriotism, career above country. In Trump’s world the Constitution of the United States grants the president not just authority but power: the power to do “whatever I want.” (This is not the language or rhetoric of democracy, and Republicans who decried previous (Democratic) presidents’ use of executive orders as “authoritarian overreach” should be seething in anger. That they are not speaks loudly of their commitment to principle and to the rule of law.) In the current crisis — incredibly enough, the first in three years not of Trump’s own making — his aversion to actual decision-making (what CEOs are paid to make) and shirking of responsibility have come into sharp focus for everyone.

In any business a Board of Directors faced with such C-level incompetence and mismanagement would fire the offending executive. Given the lack of interest, among Republican senators, to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the commission of actual crimes — bribery and extortion, not to mention Constitutionally-prohibited emoluments foreign and domestic — there is no way to hold him accountable for this. The only remedy left is for the voter-shareholders to fire both the executive and his enablers at every level of government. Incompetence and decision-avoidance are the stepsisters of grift and corruption; all four are brazen hallmarks of this administration. Corruption is always a problem in government, but in Trump and McConnell’s hands it is the governing principle.

Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, just as not everyone is equipped to be a carpenter, a sculptor, a musician, or an auto worker. People have different interests and skillsets which will intersect and interact in unique ways. Some people, it turns out, aren’t really equipped — by temperament, by skill, or by experience — to do much of anything at all. November 3, 2020 is the day we tell all of them, “You’re fired.”