Politicians: A Necessary Demystification

Politicians are people with jobs and with bosses.

On its face that seems like a relatively uncontroversial statement, but I’m always surprised at how much time people spend looking for high principle in the decisions politicians make instead of considering the mundane dynamics of political employment.

In a recent column, I pointed out that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) finally opened a formal impeachment inquiry versus President Donald Trump because she’s good at counting votes, not because  she’s personally keen on the idea. Pelosi wants to keep her party’s top job in the US House of Representatives. Sometimes keeping that job involves running to the front of parades she didn’t plan.

When I write things like this, some accuse me of being overly cynical. Agree or disagree with a particular politician on a particular issue, they’re convinced that politicians in general are more like painters or musicians who create art for the sake of art than like fry cooks or janitors who work for paychecks and in hope of promotion.

I don’t think I’m too cynical. I’m not saying that politicians lack principles or beliefs. I’m not saying they never act on their principles or beliefs. But they’re people with jobs and with bosses.

Many people seek particular jobs out of what we might consider selfless, or at least highly principled, motives.

A kid dreams of becoming a veterinarian because he or she loves animals.

Decades later, is that kid still spaying, neutering, smooshing stool samples, etc., solely from pure love of animals, or does paying the mortgage and building a profitable practice (or remaining employed in one) perhaps also play a role?

The average elected official probably answers to more  bosses than the average American worker. Voters. Campaign contributors. Party officials. Fellow politicians up and down the ladder of power.

Those bosses have conflicting goals and priorities, which means conflicting pressures on the politician. Pressure to move slowly on something he supports. Pressure to move fast on something she has doubts about. Pressure to sacrifice his goals to the group’s goals, just for now, we’ll get to your thing soon, pinky promise.

Politicians aren’t ethereal creatures of pure principle, operating on a higher moral plane than the rest of us. They’re people with jobs and with bosses, just LIKE the rest of us. And that’s more than sufficient reason to not give them much power OVER the rest of us.

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Glad to See Space Escape Government

I admit it: I’ve always been a bit of a space geek. Or, would that be “space nerd?”

Whatever the term, I love space flight, and am especially excited to see it beginning to escape the stagnant, innovation-crushing monopoly of government.

I’ve enjoyed watching the recent rocket launches and the tests of the experimental vehicles. I am pulling for humans to walk on Mars in my lifetime; thinking it’s looking more likely all the time.

I resent government agencies pretending to have some political authority over space flight and the companies practicing it, but the nature of government is to get in the way. Government offices are filled with hordes of people unqualified to do anything but issue or deny permits, and they are going to keep asserting control — fighting the future — as long as they can get away with it.

I also realize when people move to another world — whether a planet or a moon — they’ll probably pollute the place with some sort of government.

I wish they’d establish a society instead, but since most people mistakenly conflate society and government they’ll probably make the wrong choice.

The most foolish thing they might do would be to accept an Earth government’s attempt to govern a colony on another world. And you know they’ll try. Gotta keep milking those “tax cows” and make sure the Earth laws are being enforced. Can’t allow liberty to get a foot-hold anywhere, or it might give Earth inhabitants dangerous ideas.

I’ve thought for decades that unless a new, attainable frontier opens up soon, the human race is doomed. Some people are fine with being jammed together in a politically controlled environment, but some of us aren’t. This is why humans have always journeyed over the horizon.

The first church steeple or courthouse was enough to make some frontiersmen decide it was time to pack up and move to freer spaces. This option has been closed off for too long now, and it’s having dangerous consequences.

I doubt I’d go to Mars or the Moon, even if I had the opportunity. Especially not for a one-way trip. I like uncultivated plants, wild animals and free air too much.

Will space, “the final frontier,” open soon enough to salvage humanity? Will it be a place of liberty or oppression? I don’t know for sure, but it’s finally looking a little hopeful for the first time in decades. We aren’t there yet, but we’re going. It’s just a matter of time.

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Rights as a Human Construct

Are rights a human construct? Yes, obviously. As are ethics and empathy and many other things humans value to some degree. You might see those constructs expressed in similar ways in some other animals, especially among the Great Apes, but they only truly reach their human form in humans.

Rights are a human construct in that they only matter between humans, or between humans and something humans want to treat in a human-like way.

Rights don’t exist apart from sentient beings. They only exist within the brain, while still having consequences, with regard to interactions between those bearing the brains, in the physical world. The Universe doesn’t have rights or respect rights otherwise.

A rock will never respect anything’s “rights”, nor will a mosquito. The rock has no consciousness or will (free or otherwise) and a mosquito just does what it must to survive long enough to reproduce– it doesn’t concern itself with anyone else.

Being a construct doesn’t mean rights are imaginary. They are real– at least when you are speaking of human interactions. Life doesn’t turn out well if you don’t respect the rights of others at least a little bit. If you didn’t, you’d be worse than the worst psychopath, and you wouldn’t survive long. You’d be everyone’s enemy and everyone would be doing all they could to end you.

So, rights are a useful construct. And as long as I’m dealing with other humans (or creatures I want to treat humanely) I will respect rights and will expect mine to be respected by other humans as well.

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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The Weakest Generation

“What is wrong with people today?”

It’s a question we hear frequently, in many different forms, but all are probing at an increasingly obvious observation. Previous generations entered their thirties with families, houses, and a decade or more of meaningful work experience under their belt. They bought used cars, built small starter homes, worked their asses off, and somehow made it work. Their families grew as did their homes, they got better jobs, started businesses, saved for retirement, and dressed pretty damn well doing it.

Contrast that with the weakest generation which can’t figure out why spending a quarter of a million dollars getting a sociology degree won’t make them happy and provide them the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. Millennials have extended childhood from 18 to at least 26 (when the big mean government forces them off mommy and daddy’s healthcare plan), while they save nothing, own nothing (other than $50 T-shirts and $200 jeans), and wonder why “the system” continues to fail them.

As it turns out, sharing a downtown loft with a horde of dysfunctional roommates, taking an Uber every time you need to travel, and using Postmates instead of going grocery shopping doesn’t exactly create functioning adults.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Helicopter parenting, participation trophies, a lack of real-world experiences and work (whatever happened to summer jobs?), and the systemic failures of higher education have all played their part. Let’s talk a bit about the last one.

America’s modern higher education system has failed to provide marketable skills to an entire generation (going on two now) while massively increasing costs due to ever more bloated administration and taking on a host of projects designed to accomplish social goals rather than to prepare people to be productive. This is not an insignificant contributor to our country’s present sad state of affairs.

They’re depressed!

Every year or so, it seems that the estimated number of depressed people increases. Current estimates claim that 15 percent of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime. Could it be that the increase in depression is less about any fundamental changes in brain chemistry and more about people allowing themselves to sit around thinking about how bad they imagine their lives to be compared to whatever unrealistic and unrealized fantasies they have concocted?

People have always felt sad, had bad days, and sometimes felt like not getting out of bed. They did it anyway. They got up, put their boots on, did their damn job, took care of their families, and focused on what mattered instead of on their aversions and phobias. Busy people don’t have time for prolonged bouts of introspection and discontent.

I understand that mental health is important. It’s a core component of well-being, in fact, but I believe that people are looking in the wrong direction. Mental health and well-being are not being improved by our modern society—they are being made worse. This hyperfocus on “self-actualization” and other pseudo-scientific nonsense is (quite literally) driving people crazy. Life will never be perfect and happiness is a decision more than it is a reaction to circumstances or environment. Humanity (as a species) has long benefited from the structure of people getting married, having children, producing wealth, and training the next generation to do the same.

Today, people are questioning the basic science of their own existence, mutilating their bodies, attempting to restructure the primary building blocks of society and humanity, all while going into debt and rejecting fundamental biological imperatives. Humanity isn’t evolving at this point. It’s (over) thinking itself out of existence.

The downside of freedom

Let me go on record as being an unequivocal supporter of individual freedom. You absolutely have the right to do or not do whatever you choose so long as you do not aggress against the life, liberty, or property of others in the process. That said, it is still possible to use (or misuse) one’s freedom in a manner which is harmful to oneself and which, if widely adopted, could lead to the downfall of the human race. I’m not just talking about excessive heroin use, either.

Among millennials (although the trend is spreading), there is a growing tendency to question everything—even basic truths and fundamental realities. They question their genders and their sexuality, their purpose in life, their reason for existence. They search for hidden and higher meanings in everyone and everything, all the while condemning those who prefer a more forthright existence. Saving the whales is no longer enough—now they want to save the planet (perhaps the next generation will task themselves with saving the galaxy) as if they are the superheroes of their childhood imaginations.

The result is something of a lost generation. They are not aimless, exactly, but by taking aim at everything, they are effective at nothing. Rather than focus on the fundamentals of career and family, they search for meaning through social justice campaigns and wars against those who hold unpopular or traditional views.

And yet they are still unhappy and unfulfilled.

This situation can be vividly observed in millions of disaffected young Americans embracing the tenets of socialism as preached by a septuagenarian millionaire who has convinced them that their happiness is contingent on torpedoing the economy for short-term gain. Perhaps they will be happy when they are reduced to eating zoo animals as has happened recently in the “socialist paradise” of Venezuela.

What now?

The solution to these problems isn’t particularly complicated, but its implementation is far more difficult. The solution is a return to the proven principles of hard work and free markets that transformed America from an agrarian colony to an economic powerhouse unrivaled in human history.

Human beings thrive when they are busy and productive. Sitting around a coffee shop debating which pronouns most effectively convey one’s chromosomal ambivalence is not the key to happiness. We need purpose and ambition for our lives to have meaning. We need work and responsibly to give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The beauty of a free market is that an individual’s drive is all that is required for success. It doesn’t require that one be born a noble or attend a royal academy. In a free market, those with talent and ambition have truly unlimited potential. Sadly, this seems to scare millennials rather than to inspire them. They want to turn off the market and replace it with a “universal basic income” so that everyone can be equally miserable in a life of perpetual navel-gazing.

I may be a millennial by age, but I have no desire to spend my life in morose self-absorption while blaming those who are successful for my mistakes and bewailing my life in a world that fails to acknowledge my genius. Life is too short to waste it wishing for an unobtainable reality—especially given how much happiness is available in our present reality to anyone with the gumption to take advantage of it.

I refuse to be a part of the weakest generation and to squander my life begging the state to care for me. I want no part of such a pathetic existence. I will make my own way in this world and I challenge others to do the same. Let’s return to the proven strategies that have successfully created prosperity for numerous past generations. They never stopped working. People did.

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Everything Dies Baby, That’s a Fact

Nebraska is the only good album by Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not the point of this post. This post is about death.

For something good to happen, something has to die. Harsh but true.

When you get married, your single self dies. When you become a parent, your childless self dies. When you move into the future, the present dies to the past. Every time.

We see death every day in plants and animals and seasons. Its cyclical nature and preponderance to create something new seem obvious. But it’s harder to see the same process at work in our human lives. We associate death with, well, death. Really, we should associate it with life. For something new to be born, something must die.

This principle is so unavoidable and fundamental that every culture has myths and rituals mimicking it. Apparently, despite its universality and inescapability, we fear and misunderstand it so much that we need to make strange, regular recreations of this principle of nature just so we don’t forget or miss the lessons.

The ancient idea of sacrifices is the crudest and most obvious version, but all cultures are full of less extreme and literal representations of the death-to-life cycle. I remember hearing about a ritual among some African tribes, where adolescents were awakened in the night by masked parents, dragged into the woods, and buried alive. To enter adulthood, they had to dig out of the grave and find their way back to the village.

If you can put aside the oddness and cruelty of the ritual, it’s pretty profound. Adulthood is a kind of death. The ideas, beliefs, habits, frameworks, assumptions, and actions of a child are wonderful. And they must die. If you continue to see the world and the people in it as mostly built around you, owing and freely giving you protection and sustenance, the world will destroy you. If not in body, in spirit. An adult living like a dependent child is a soul-dead existence. To be fully alive as an adult, the child in you has to die.

The cold shock of masked people carrying you off to the woods, burying you, and leaving you to die is quite the metaphor. (The more intense rituals seem to blur the line between literal and metaphorical). It’s an awakening to the fact that the world doesn’t care about you qua you. You won’t be cared for just because you exist. You have to shatter the illusion that you are owed or will be given anything you don’t earn. The ritual is like a hardcore version of this timeless Cracked article.

New vistas, challenges, projects, and adventures beckon. We all talk about them, assume we’ll experience them, and plan for progress. Some people constantly achieve new stuff, while others don’t. It’s not always lack of goals and dreams that keep people from progress. Sometimes it’s fear of death. The difference between a dream deferred and a dream pursued isn’t so much the step into future as the killing of the present. You’ve got to cut the baggage of where and who you are loose and let it sink to the depths before you can become the next version. The old Dr. Who must die for a new one to emerge. (Very sad in the case of David Tennant.)

That’s why I don’t think it helps much when, at some momentous parting, someone says, “This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning!” No, it’s the end. The status quo is dying. Never to live again. You must accept, acknowledge, and own its death.

Of course it is also the beginning of a new era, and one that’s even better. But to ignore the death part and quickly move to the new part is a mistake. You need to really kill it. Really let it go. If you try to let the old live subconsciously with the new, you’ll tear yourself in two. (You’re welcome for the rhyme). This is why those rituals exist, remember? It’s too easy to try to sneak one past old death. “Yep, nothing to see here, just moving on to be a new version of myself”, meanwhile the rotting zombie of your former self is snarling suspiciously under the desk. Time to take it out back and shoot it.

The reason it’s so hard for us to fully embrace the death step as a precondition to new life is probably because the one kind of death that looms largest for us is one after which we can’t see the next step. We don’t exactly know what happens after our heart stops. The unknown hereafter is a lot to ponder, so we tend to avoid it. This avoidance trickles and seeps into all the lesser forms of death that ought not trouble us so much. Like our physical death, we ignore the other deaths. To our detriment. It gets pretty ugly when you see someone dragging along a bunch of dead versions of themselves, insisting they’re still alive, refusing to bury them and give life to the new.

So, if you want to do cool stuff you’ve got to learn to die. There are all kinds of death, and each new level in each area of life requires a different kind. There’s ego death, reputation death, innocence death, ignorance death, nice guy/gal death, and so many more. A good life is a series of deaths. So you’d better find some ritual or process or belief that helps you make your peace with death so you can burst into life.

And who knows, maybe when you get comfy with lesser death, you won’t fear the big one quite so much either.

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