Four More Years: A Short-Termism Battle Cry

It’s here. It’s finally here. After two years of scratching, clawing, eye gouging, and worse, Election Day is upon us. What happened to us during this election cycle? Already-bitter divisions have given way to a new level of abhorrent discourse. It seems as though we’ve lost faith in our fellow man. Matt Taibbi had a great piece at Rolling Stone this morning about just that. There is a genuine belief that, if elected, the “other guy” actually wouldn’t do his best to serve the interests of the American people.

I mean, I wouldn’t blame either man for abdicating his moral responsibility to serve the 49% of voters who end up voting against him. Both candidates have been subjected to unrelenting and unprecedented assaults, thanks largely to a Citizens United ruling that has allowed “independent” groups to distort, smear, and lie with virtual impunity. It would be hard not to hold a grudge. But the suggestion that the President of the United States wouldn’t do his version of the best is pretty insulting.

We all want prosperity for ourselves and future generations, we just disagree on the right way to get there. No President would consciously advocate against citizens who didn’t vote for him. Congress, for all its squabbling and obstructionism, is working against the other half of the aisle, not the other half of the country. It’s not just Republicans either; Democrats are equally capable of crippling obstructionism. As The Atlantic reports, this “unprecedented obstructionism” we keep hearing about is in fact quite precedented.

We’re all in this together and any realistic plan for making the United States a more vibrant place surely requires participation from everyone. Of course, each Presidential candidate favors different policies that would affect our nation in different ways. For example, economic planning that more aggressively redistributes government revenues works against the interests of affluent voters while across-the-board tax cuts end up hurting our vanishing middle class. The salient point is this: both candidates have a vision of their ideal America and some sort of plan on how to make it a reality. Whether they’ve been honest with the electorate about how they intend to make that vision a reality is another issue entirely.

Presidential candidates are selling a grand vision, but they’re constrained to an electoral process that leaves them little time and even less practical ability to enact the majestic fantasy on which they campaigned. Every four years we’re sold a reimagining of the American Dream, and every four years the President scarcely gets off the starting block before being bitch slapped by the cold hand of our current reality. This pattern is extremely significant. Our political process and indeed our entire industrialized economy has become locked in a destructive pattern of Short-termism.

The inability of our political system to act much beyond a four-year timeframe has crippled our ability to affect transformative change at a time when we need it more than ever. Economic imperatives force Wall Street to measure success in 90 day increments when their very survival requires they take a much more expansive view. The challenges we face don’t have four-year solutions. These are generational problems that require a strategic approach, but Washington is mired in tactical thinking. James Gustave Speth, former White House adviser to President Jimmy Carter, just released an excellent book entitled America The Possible, which presents a hopeful reimagining of the American economy. As always, the first step is admitting we have a problem. Here’s a sample from Speth’s book. He outlines some important areas for your consideration:

Compared to the 20 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), America now has:

  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
  • the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being for children”;
  • the worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, and yet the highest infant mortality rate, prevalence of mental health problems, obesity rate, percentage of people going without health care due to cost concerns, and consumption of antidepressants per capita, along with shortest life expectancy at birth;
  • the third lowest scores for student performance in math and middling scores in science and reading;
  • the second highest high school dropout rate;
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • the largest prison population, both absolutely and per capita;
  • the highest water consumption per capita and the second highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita;
  • the lowest score on the Yale-World Economic Forum’s Environmental Performance Index, and the second largest Ecological Footprint per capita;
  • the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
  • the third-lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
  • the highest military spending in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
  • the largest international arms sales.

Does anybody have a four-year fix to any of the challenges on this list? If you do, submit your application to the Nobel Foundation right now. The truth is we can’t solve any of these without a concerted effort spanning multiple Presidential administrations and both parties of Congress. A small handful of the conditions above would be shocking; looking at all of them in a big long list is enough to make some folks give up. How can we even begin to whittle away at that rap sheet of social, environmental, and economic crimes? A model for the required mental shift can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Wall Street.

Before you close this webpage in protest, let me explain. Wall Street, you say? A place where pathological dishonesty and corruption is rewarded with bailout checks? A place that has, until quite recently, operated outside the constraints of pesky laws? A place where Short-termism is the holy word of the Lord? Well…yes.

In any system there are outliers. Darwin would tell us that sometimes these mutations produce a species that is better adapted to current environmental conditions than the previous generation. Over time, this outlier shifts to a position of genetic supremacy and becomes the new normal. This evolutionary process plays out in our biological processes as well as in our social constructions. Currently there is an evolutionary shift happening in the backbone of our industrialized economy. All of the problems on Speth’s list have economic roots and fortunately for us, Wall Street is slowly mutating into something more reasonable.

The 90-day doctrine has arguably done more to constrain our economy’s true potential than anything else. It forces the maximization of short-term earnings and stock prices at the expense of long-term value. This in turn creates an investor base that is more short-term oriented which of course produces a more volatile market. In the same way, the firm reports on a short-term basis and the investor base expects firms to focus on short-term goals. The resultant firm-client relationship is a positive feedback loop of negative behavior.

Given uncertainty about future performance and the observability of current performance, executive compensation is typically tied to stock price. When executives are compensated based on short run performance they pressure their managers to deliver favorable short run results. What’s more, it encourages firms to systematically underperform their full potential by forcing them to publically set expectations and then actively positioning to just slightly exceed those expectations in order to appease the Street. This whole management ideology reinforces the 90-day doctrine, often at the expense long run valuation. Shockingly, 87% of companies that were on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer appear on that list today, either the result of bankruptcy, acquisition, privatization, or valuation collapse. The 13% of those firms that remain are companies like Boeing, Campbell Soup, Deere, IBM, and Whirlpool.

The good news? There is a growing pool of mutants. These companies that set longer-term goals and back those goals up with systems that reward long run management. Firms run on this basis consistently out-perform the 90-day sprinters of the world. George Serafim and some of his colleagues at Harvard Business School have written a number of articles on the high risks of short-term management. There’s one in particular that I love called Short-termism, Investor Clientele, and Firm Risk, published in February of 2012. Mr. Serafim and his colleagues have been able to demonstrate a measurable market advantage for firms that have environmental and social policies in place. In this video he explains how firms that imbed sustainable (see: long-term) practices in their strategy and operations clearly outperform their competitors.

In their study, Short-termism, Investor Clientele, and Firm Risk, Serafim and his colleagues reviewed over 70,000 earnings conference calls for more than 3,600 firms from 2002-2008. Using precise key word testing they were able to determine “the time horizon that senior executives emphasize when they communicate with investors.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that the firms who engender a systemically focused, long run attitude financially outperform the other group.

What the hell does any of this have to do with the Presidential election? Everything!! Nationally and at the local level, the disadvantages of short-term thinking and clearly demonstrable advantages of long-term thinking have never been more important. Tomorrow (God-willing), this election will be over and it will be time for our newly entrusted officials to start governing. Look back over that list of items that desperately need attention. Pick one of them and ask yourself, is any one man capable of solving this problem in four short years? Even in an ideal world, I seriously doubt either Presidential candidate could deliver on their broad vision of reshaping America in 48 months.

Our political system could seriously take a lesson from the slow, silent transformation of Wall Street. Pretend for a minute that tomorrow morning, General Motors’ CEO Daniel Akerson announced to the world that by 2030 GM would offer only electric vehicles to consumers. Akerson is 64 years old and is very unlikely to remain GM’s CEO for the next 18 years. Just because he wouldn’t be in charge to see the vision realized doesn’t mean he can’t survey the market, identify key trends, and respond accordingly. Then Akerson just has to trust that the next guy who comes along will see the same value in his long-term vision and believe that customers are going to continue to respond favorably.

Surely there would be individual employees at GM, perhaps many high-ranking managers who would disagree with Akerson’s decision. Still, I have to believe that Akerson would be making such a decision because it lines up with his vision of how to keep GM competitive well into the future. Some other potential CEO might have a different idea of how to best serve the GM shareholders, but the goal remains the same: invest in the long term health of General Motors.

All I want for Christmas is a United States government that’s willing to do the same.  If we want to start crossing items off that foreboding list of failures, we need to set some long-term goals. Those goals should be rooted in an explicit acknowledgement that in many key areas, America is no longer the leader it once was. It doesn’t matter who starts the process of reconciliation, as long as the next leader doesn’t come along and try to dismantle it because its got the other sides’ cooties on it. Mr. Future President: Is this attempt at long-term planning serving the best interest of a majority of Americans? Yes? Okay, leave it the fuck alone.

The current elections process is Washington’s version of a Wall Street 90-day sprint.  When it’s all said and done each candidate will have spent about $1 BILLION and not have much to show for it. On May 31st, 2012 FiveThirtyEight Blog had President Obama polling at 50.6% and Romney at 48.3%. Now several billion dollars later (if you include outside money), the President is polling at 50.8% and Romney is virtually unchanged at 48.3%.

If that doesn’t blow your freaking mind then I don’t know what will. Raising and spending billions of dollars on a two-year campaign that leaves voters’ opinions virtually unchanged is the exact opposite of an effective election system. It’s distracting, it’s corrosive to our national spirit, and it doesn’t allow our elected officials to do their jobs.

In the system I just described, one candidate barely squeaks out a victory and we all lose. It keeps us stuck in the same toxic polarization and undermines any attempt to set and administer new long-term goals. It’s up to us to decide that our growing list of failures is one item too long. Government responds to constituent demand. Are you as frustrated by this as I am? Who is your Congressman? Who is your Senator? Who is your State Representative? Take a minute to write (as in hand-write) your Representative. Tell them that you want them in their office working on your behalf, not out on the campaign trail stumping for half their term. Don’t be rude, just outline what you expect and what types of behavior would earn your vote in the future.

Want to get involved in other ways? Look at the list at the top of this post. Pick the item that shocked you the most and talk to a friend about it. American exceptionalism is alive and well; I’d bet dollars to a bag of doughnuts that most American citizens wouldn’t believe half the items on that list. Spread the word.

If you haven’t already, vote! But after the election is over, your voice is still your vote. There’s nothing stopping you from standing up for what you believe in, especially when we’re not in an election cycle. Talk to your friends. Talk to your enemies. Talk to the man in the mirror. Help someone understand that these are generation-long challenges that require persistent attention from all ends of the political spectrum. No single Presidential administration is equipped to solve challenges on this scale. It’s up to us to decide that we want a new way forward and demand a sacred, long-term plan capable of delivering the goods.

Hurricane Sandy v. Denialism

Hurricane Sandy v. Denialism (AUDIO)

As Hurricane Sandy barrels into the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, we’re being treated to a sunny fall morning in the Pacific Northwest. Out here it’s the sound of silence that prevails, something I desperately wish I could share with the folks in Sandy’s path. There is another type of silence that is as damaging to people here in Seattle as it is to those on the East Coast. This insidious silence affects families all around the world and generations yet unborn. I’m talking about climate silence.

Last week I wrote about the complete absence of a discussion on global climate change in our Presidential debates up until that point. Well, we had the final debate last Tuesday and once again neither candidate felt compelled to go off-script. They swept the debates like the Giants swept the Tigers. This is the first time since 1984 that climate change or global warming was not discussed as a major policy issue in the debate process. This week, Sandy is providing a reality check for both party platforms.

Hurricane Sandy is a hybrid super storm born out of an Arctic front, which made a mutant storm baby with a tropical storm that had proceeded across the Atlantic in the usual fashion. It is the largest storm ever to hit the eastern seaboard, and while it’s not as powerful as Hurricane Katrina it could easily be as significant. The storm stretches an unprecedented 525 miles from its eye, giving it a reach Muhammad Ali would covet. It has gathered historic volume over a record-warm Atlantic Ocean and amid the lowest pressures ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. Don’t let “Category 1” fool you. It is, quite simply, a monster.

“But wait!” you say, “Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes. This whole argument is bunk.” I concede. Climate change does not, in itself, cause hurricanes; tropical storm systems are naturally occurring events that would happen regardless of our atmospheric tinkering. What climate change does do is provide the conditions ripe for more frequent extreme weather events. Seems to me they should really rethink the name “hundred year” flood, drought, hurricane, or storm when they are happening every single year. This morning 350.org founder Bill McKibben warned Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:

Well, look, I mean, global warming doesn’t cause hurricanes. We’ve always had hurricanes. […] But we’re producing conditions like record warm temperatures in seawater that make it easier for this sort of thing to get, in this case, you know, up the Atlantic with a head of steam. We’re making—we’re raising the sea levels. And when that happens, it means that whatever storm surge comes in comes in from a higher level than it would have before. […] What really is different is that there is more moisture and more energy in this narrow envelope of atmosphere. And that energy expresses itself in all kind of ways. That’s why we get these record rainfalls now, time after time. I mean, last year, it was Irene and then Lee directly after that. This year, this storm, they’re saying, could be a thousand-year rainfall event across the mid-Atlantic. I think that means more rain than you’d expect to see in a thousand years. But I could pretty much—I’d be willing to bet that it won’t be long before we see another one of them, because we’re changing the odds. By changing the earth, we change the odds.

So no, climate change doesn’t explicitly create new hurricanes. What it does do is juice up the ones that do form; it makes them bigger, stronger, more persistent, and more dangerous. Shortly before Mayor Bloomberg issued an evacuation order for almost 400,000 New Yorkers yesterday, there was a demonstration in Times Square that urged people to connect the dots and “End Climate Silence.”

Demonstration to “End Climate Silence” in Times Square. Courtesy of ThinkProgress.org

It’s not just protesters urging anyone who will listen to take seriously the connection between anthropogenic ocean warming and freak storm systems. Two weeks ago the National Academy of Sciences —not exactly an activist organization—published a study that concluded that North Atlantic hurricanes are,  “more of a danger when ocean temperatures are higher. In particular, we estimate that Katrina-magnitude events have been twice as frequent in warm years compared with cold years.” Convenient findings since we’re currently nearing the end of the warmest year on record.

Does everyone remember the hydrologic cycle from elementary school science class? Water evaporates more quickly in warm environments than cold ones. It’s that simple. I have no professional scientific training, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand what is happening. When we warm the earth with heat-trapping industrial emissions, there’s more water evaporating into the atmosphere, therefore it’s more likely we will experience the consequences of that energy-saturated atmosphere in the form of extreme weather events. Every year we continue down the same path, we’re loading the dice even more.

Let’s pause and check my assumptions. 1.) Global climate change is happening. 2.) Humans emissions and impacts are largely responsible. 3.) Climate change increases the likelihood of a whole host of extreme weather events including hurricanes, droughts and floods. If all of these are true, it leads to the same obvious and enormous question that has been completely absent from our electoral process. Why isn’t the United States doing anything about it?

The percentage of U.S. citizens who believe in human-caused climate change has actually declined significantly from four years ago. In 2008 both major political parties devoted time to outlining their different plans to deal with global climate change. At the national level there was no debate over the importance of addressing this monumental issue. On the contrary, McCain and Obama sparred about who would deal with it more forcefully. This year the number of Americans who agree that humans are responsible for climate change has dropped to about 50%. We were not treated to a discussion of climate change mitigation strategies in the debates, even though a realistic discussion of our economy is impossible without acknowledging the reality we will soon have to confront one way or another.

Emergent confusion about climate change is the result of a highly orchestrated and well-funded misinformation campaign by organizations like the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. These “think tanks” (think is a very generous word) have one goal, create uncertainties in the scientific validity of climate science. They don’t even need to “win” the argument. Partly because it’s impossible for them to legitimately win with their bunk science, but mainly because the creation of doubt is their raison d’être. Introducing doubt where there previously was none is enough to slow down the response and keep things moving along nice and steady for their boosters. Speaking of funding, the financial support for these organizations and their kin is intentionally muddy; suffice it to say they are financed largely by fossil fuel lobbies, industry groups, and fabulously wealthy executives who benefit from the status quo.

The doubt they have sewed into the American consciousness is holding up progress in the rest of the world. The United States has the power to tip the scales in the response to global climate change, but as long as the political process remains beholden to fossil fuel lobbies and the Chamber of Commerce little can be done. Compared to the rest of the world the United States near the top of the list in terms of citizens who know about climate change, but is near the bottom of the list in terms of acceptance of human causation. Shame on us.

Please don’t take my word for it. I strongly suggest you watch this fantastic Frontline report entitled “Climate of Doubt” about the misinformation campaign currently being waged in an effort to keep us trapped in a fossil fuel circus. You’ll have to watch it soon; who knows how much longer the folks at PBS will last.

Contrary to what the Heartland Institute would have you believe, the science is settled. Their efforts on behalf of the fossil fuel industry have bordered on offensive. Check out this priceless billboard they put up in Chicago last year.

Heartland Institute Sponsored A Denialist Billboard Campaign. Classy, Right?

It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. The fact remains that over 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real and is accelerating. Both the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA have issued numerous startling reports saying virtually the same thing. Don’t want to believe the scientists? Okay, that’s fine. How about the insurance industry? In early 2012 representatives from The Reinsurance Association of America met with members of the U.S. Senate to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change and plead for some sort of legislative action. It’s very possible the insurance industry as we know it will not survive the accelerating pace of “hundred year” weather events.

I can’t underscore the seriousness of our collective failure to act strongly enough. This blog is in part a chance for me to get on the record. It’s an opportunity to be on the right side of history. If we don’t confront this challenge I’ll have to explain to my children and grandchildren what was going on in the other Washington and why they didn’t act until it was too late. Check out this clip of Fmr. Representative Bob Inglis (R-SC). In 2010 he lost his reelection bid in a landslide to a Tea Party candidate. His crime? He admitted that he agreed with 97% of climate scientists about the validity of climate change and that humans were likely responsible. Imagine that, a ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment listening to climate scientists.

Instead of addressing this issue head on, our elected leaders are putting their heads in the sand. Perhaps it more accurate to say that industry lobbies have dug the holes to make the head-putting easier, but ultimately it’s a failure of leadership. This failure to act is extremely significant. As Noam Chomsky recently observed, “Our response demonstrates an extraordinary willingness to sacrifice the lives of our children and grandchildren for short-term gain. Or equally remarkable, a willingness to shut our eyes so as not to see impending peril.”

I really hope that Hurricane Sandy spares everyone in her path. We used to live in Miami. I have been through hurricanes and let me tell you, they’re no fun. I earnestly pray that no lives are lost at Sandy’s behest. Being in the middle of that kind of storm is a humbling demonstration of the awesome power of nature. A hurricane does not negotiate and it does not respond to opinion polls. At the same time, sometimes the only way to encourage wholesale policy change is through widespread discomfort. Famed economist Milton Freidman said it best:

Only a crisis —actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather is an apt reminder of who is in charge. We are all subject to the whims of Mother Nature and if we continue to abuse her, she will continue to respond in ways we humans have no control over.

Want to get involved? Come to 350.org’s Do the Math Tour. They’re coming to a city near you. Get informed. Join the movement!!

Coal For Christmas

If I were Santa Claus, I would give President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney a stocking full of coal for Christmas. Santa knows when you’ve been naughty (mischaracterizing your opponent is so naughty), consequently they’re both on the list that I’d be checking twice. But even if they weren’t naughty I’d still have to give it to them because, well…they both asked for it!

Responsible world leaders with future generations’ best interests in mind don’t argue about who is more supportive of antiquated, dirty technology. They don’t get in a pissing contest about who will open up more public land to exploitation. They don’t perpetuate the myth that US oil production somehow controls the price of a global commodity. And they certainly don’t do any of these things without in the same breath speaking to the importance of developing permanent domestic energy sources and the supporting infrastructure which ensure a vibrant future for our children and grandchildren.

I can’t take the President or Mitt Romney seriously because neither of them seems to take their own energy policies seriously either. Discussing long-term economic policies without a corresponding realistic discussion about our energy future is like talking about smoking without talking about cancer. I don’t feel the need to remind everyone that fossil energy is the lifeblood of our industrialized world. There’s no doubt we need oil, coal, and natural gas right now. But we should be spending more not less on figuring out how we’re going to keep our economy healthy in a world where fossil energy isn’t as abundant as it has been for the last 200 years. Oil production in Texas peaked in 1972. Do either of the candidates have any ideas about how to keep the US economy competitive other than “drill, baby, drill”? We’re 40 years into the down slope of US oil production, people!

We’ve just come out of a summer season that broke 17,000 heat records in the US. Despite this alarming statistic, as Jamie Henn at 350.org notes, there has been 270 minutes of debates and not one peep about climate change.

Not one mention of the drought that devastated half of our national corn crop and sent food prices soaring or the wildfires that swallowed up millions of acres of the American West this summer. We’re on the verge of a new Dust Bowl but both of these men would prefer to stick their heads in the parched Earth. Not one glance towards the Arctic, which has lost 45% of its summer sea ice coverage since the 1980s. Not one word about mounting biodiversity losses or expanding oceanic dead zones caused by industrial chemical runoff. Nothing about sea level rises, which are proceeding much faster than scientists originally projected and will reach six feet by 2100 at current rates.

When I was a boy we lived in Miami, Florida for five years. I loved it there. We rode our bikes to the beach and went fishing off the pier. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and the awesome Cuban food. We also occasionally hunkered down for a passing hurricane that would disrupt life-as-usual for weeks at a time. As these storms grow more frequent and severe I wouldn’t want to raise my children there. They wouldn’t enjoy it like I did. At this rate they won’t have the option because a six-foot sea level rise puts most of southern Florida squarely underwater, and I’m not talking about their mortgages. Actually, I’d imagine the houses won’t be worth much at that point so maybe it’s an “underwater” double endentre.

So what should we do? Give up? I think not. This is a website about the eternally possible future. But until political or social conditions force the hand of government, we’ll have to be satisfied with the kind of vacant discourse that is currently being heaped on us. It’s actually kind of insulting to our collective intelligence that we don’t have a real conversation about the future. I expect more. My unborn children and grandchildren demand a real discussion! I don’t want to have to someday answer the question, “Grandpa, what was Miami like?”

Coal for you both!

The Power of We the People

“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, yadda yadda yadda, Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven, yadda yadda yadda.” Constitution!!!

Or something like that…

It’s a beautifully written document, which in its very first proclamation establishes the power of we. We the people. In a constitutional republic such as ours, we are supposed to be in control of our collective destiny. Those “yaddas” —which make up the core of our founding documents and still serve as our social and economic rudder—are obviously rooted in their contextual history.  On the other hand, we the people are timeless and irrefutable. We are beautiful and unique and completely indefinable by a piece of parchment. We are powerful beyond measure. So why does it seem as if we’ve begun acting against our self-interest? Why are we so willing to cede our right to unite, to create a more broadly inclusive civilization?

Given the choice, I’d assume most of us would like a more civilized life over a less civilized one. As Seth Godin masterfully point out, the higher choice of a more enlightened life requires a focus on the whole system rather than on the individual. He confronts the difficulties associated with harnessing the power of we:

There are always shortcuts available. Sometimes it seems like we should spend less money taking care of others, less time producing beauty, less effort doing the right thing–so we can have more stuff. Sometimes we’re encouraged that every man should look out for himself, and that selfishness is at the heart of a productive culture. In the short run, it’s tempting indeed to trade in a part of civilized humanity to get a little more for ourselves at the end of the day. And it doesn’t work.

This focus on the individual, which is so widely celebrated in the cult of celebrity, is deeply troubling since none of us actually exist in a vacuum. We live on this Earth together. We breathe the same air and drink the same water. I don’t know about you, but this election cycle is killing me. It has taken the narrative of “Blue vs. Red” and “my ideas vs. your ideas” to a whole new level. We are locked in a polarity where one set of ideas must be validated and the other rejected, even though the details largely overlap and the ostensible macro-goal is exactly the same: a more perfect union for we the people and a better society for our children and grandchildren.

Our beautiful democracy has recoiled into gridlock, unable to systemically cope with a situation where nobody will consider others’ opinions as unique, possible, and valid from their perspective. We’re more polarized than ever at a time when we should be leaning into our collective strength in order to effectively confront the challenges of our generation.

Perhaps worst of all, our polarized infighting about mostly rhetorical differences of opinion is completely distracting us from the uncivilized inequality seeping from the pores of our stressed society. We’ve become unable to dispense the level of compassion and care that is required to heal enormous social injustices perpetrated by the real beneficiaries of our individually focused culture.  Some of our laws incentivize gluttonous behavior, while other laws effectively institutionalize self-interested squabbling.

Let’s not get lost in context and miss the big picture. Those yaddas are important, but we must never forget whom they are designed to serve. If the finer points of our current operating manual no longer equip us pursue a more civilized world, it’s time for some new yaddas. We the people must never underestimate our own power to evolve.

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

Last week I wrote about Thomas Jefferson and his prophetic suggestion to James Madison that tenants of intergenerational justice be included in the Bill of Rights. I painted Jefferson with broad strokes of wisdom and a strong sense of responsibility for future generations. Lest you think I’m only giving you a one-dimensional portrait of the man, check out this incredible article by Smithsonian Magazine on The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.

Of all the Founders, Jefferson was one of the most outspoken critics of slavery. In his original draft of the Declaration Jefferson went as far as decrying it as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But something happened to Jefferson between the 1780s and the 1790s. He backtracked criticisms of slavery while he quietly continued to employ a small army of slaves at his palace on the mountaintop, Monticello.

History is full of paradoxes and Jefferson is no exception. An idealist? An opportunist? A hypocrite? Is it fair to observe the man’s great contributions to history while ignoring his potentially discrediting personal shortcomings?

Read the article from Smithsonian for a rich cross examination of one of the most important figures in United States history.

The Earth Belongs to the Living…Sort Of.

In September of 1789, shortly before the first Congress of the several States was convened, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris. It was the last letter in a years-long correspondence with Madison concerning the Bill of Rights, which was to be proposed at that first Congress. In that final dispatch Jefferson raised an issue that the burgeoning American government had yet to consider:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government.

Jefferson seems baffled. To his knowledge this critical intergenerational issue had not been addressed in the founding documents.

As insightful as this first passage may have been, Jefferson’s letter is more well-known for the next rumination, the one where he prophetically acknowledges, “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” To the modern man, this seems only a casual observation; of course dead people have no powers or rights over the earth… they’re dead. But 18th century wig-wearing men talked funny. It is Jefferson’s careful choice of words that reveals his apparent ability to time travel.

On the surface, Jefferson focuses the attention of his letter on generational debt and land transference. He’s urging Madison to consider how the new States want to deal with moral issues associated with an older generation contracting large debts, and then leaving the settlement of that debt to the next generation. However, his use of the word “usufruct” exposes a much broader sentiment about stewardship and intergenerational justice.

In the historical context, as well as the modern one, “usufruct”, which I had to look up, refers to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It appears that Jefferson and his contemporaries had a well-established philosophy of intergenerational responsibility, the likes of which are completely absent from our national discourse at present. Just to be clear, Jefferson is writing to James Madison—the principle author of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights—to impress upon him the importance of preserving future generations’ opportunities by actively advocating for them. The timing of his letter suggests that Jefferson was urging Mr. Madison to enter such a license into the impending Bill of Rights. Of course, no such Article was explicitly included in the Bill of Rights or any subsequent amendment to the Constitution.

The fundamental question is this: Does the living crop of humans on our one shared Earth have a moral obligation to consider the well being of the next crop? The founders of our great Nation believed that we do and long before Europeans set up shop in the New World, native cultures understood the importance of considering future generations when making current decisions. The now-ubiquitous Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nation required their people to work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. Ask yourself this, what kind of world do you want to leave for your children and grandchildren? I’m a newly married man, so for me this question has shifted from abstraction to reality. I want my children to have the opportunity to leave a better world for their children, my grandchildren. That’s what this website is about.

What if everyone (myself included) considered how their actions affect future generations? I take every element of our industrialized society for granted because it’s all I’ve ever known.  I grew up in this world of plenty, where everything I could possibly need or want was readily available and cheap. I’ve been indoctrinated with the paradigm of infinite economic and material growth since the day I was born. But when my children are born they will be coming into a different reality, a reality I will explore through this public forum of self-expression.

I’m just like you. I want my life to keep coasting on the tailwinds of all the modern comforts I’ve enjoyed until now. However I can no longer fully participate in our consumption culture without feeling that I’m contracting a large debt and leaving it to my children to pay down.

Thomas Jefferson sought to officially establish our collective responsibility to leave the Earth, not just habitable, but in prosperous condition for future generations. Can you imagine what kind of world we would be living in had his sentiments been given legislative teeth? Towards the end of his letter to James Madison, Jefferson makes another critical point, “On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”  He correctly observes that governing documents and indeed the societies that they govern are subject to the current milieu, not some past version of reality. Our context is changing and we would do well to change with it.

Hello Out There.

Hello. I’m Mark. This is my first blog post ever. I might delete it later when I have some actual content to deliver. However this post of mine, it will live on…somewhere out there in the ether. Google will keep a copy on file– you know, just in case. Either way, acknowledging that the internet is forever is a good thought exercise. I’m not planning on being controversial so I don’t think I’ll have to cover my tracks in any way. At the same time if, by the end of this experiment, I’ve achieved my goal then I will have reached some people who don’t necessarily agree with me. Those are the people I’m after. I’d like to communicate with some folks who are outside the bubble, people who are just like I was about five years ago. Time is short and we need to get to work, but before we do we need a bigger team.

You say goodbye, I say hello.