EIGHT MISSES AND A MATCH

So, now it’s 1953 and I had a college degree and I’m back in the caverns of the Big Apple looking for a job.

In those days, the N.Y. Times and employment agencies were big in placing people; so after several weeks of running hither and fro, I get a lead to visit Alfred Auerbach Associates.  Alfred Auerbach was a former editor of Retailing Daily and used his connections to build a respectable bevy of clients in the home furnishings field.

Truth be told, he didn’t know much about advertising but he had three talented VP professionals as account supervisors.  I was the mail/messenger, making $35/week (less than I made at Gramercy Carpet) and shuttling between Alfred Auerbach’s three rented apartment/offices all around Carnegie Hall.

It was hectic and it was fun.  One day, after about four or five months, one of the VPs, Mort Trachtenberg, asked me if I’d like to join him as his assistant.  Mort was a terrific, outgoing guy and I jumped at the chance.

Mort’s main accounts included Ethan Allen Furniture plus three other lines they produced and Hammacher Schlemmer, a large staffing old housewares store.

I wrote copy, found out what a trivet was and learned a lot from Mort who was a terrific salesman.

Just one story about Mort’s abilities.  I brought a collection of ad copy and paste-ups down to Dan Brown, the volatile MBA Ad Director at Ethan Allen.

Dan didn’t like any of it and loudly told me to go back, get everything revised and have Mort come back with the redone work.

I trudged back sheepishly to the office and told Mort what had happened.  Mort cheerily said, “Don’t worry about it.”  The next day, I asked if he wanted me to go to the art department to start revisions.

“No,” he said.  “Not necessary.”  After a few days of no action, Mort said, “C’mon, we’re going to see Dan Brown.”  Now that Mort was going, we went in a cab.  I always had shlep on the subway.

As we entered the Ethan Allen offices, Mort said, “I don’t want you to say anything, just listen.”  We barely got into Dan’s office when he stood and started screaming about the poor work we were doing, as well as our shoddy performances.

As Dan got louder and more vitriolic, Mort started to snicker and then laugh.  The louder Dan got the more Mort laughed.

Finally Dan was exhausted, slumped down in his chair and said, “What the hell are you laughing at?”  At which point, Mort got very serious and started to explain the value of all the art work we had shown him two days ago.

I loved it and I was later able to romance my involvement into important career moves.

About that time, spring of 1954, I got married.  Walking across 57th Street on the way to HS I ran into Alfred Auerbach.  He said he was very disappointed because he thought I had a good future at the agency until he heard I got married.

Mort said not to worry about it, but it sounded to me like my days were numbered.

I shared an office with Owen Ward, another assistant at the agency who had received a piece of direct mail from the Aetna Life Insurance Company.  He said, “You just got married.  You ought to explore some life insurance.”

So, I answered the direct mail and that led to the second part of the Eight Misses and a Match for a later blog.

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SURE MAKES YOU WONDER

“If we concentrated on the really important stuff in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles.”

  • If you can get arrested for hunting or fishing without a license, but not for being in the country illegally…you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.
  • If you have to get your parents’ permission to go on a field trip or take an aspirin in school, but not to get an abortion…something is amiss!
  • If the only school curriculum allowed to explain how we got here is evolution, but the government stops a $15 million construction project to keep a rare spider from evolving to extinction…sure makes you wonder!
  • If you have to show identification to board an airplane, cash a check, buy liquor or check out a library book, but not to vote who runs the government…
  • If the government wants to ban stable, law-abiding citizens from owning gun magazines with more than ten rounds, but gives 20 F-16 fighter jets to the crazy new leaders in Egypt…where is the sense of it?
  • If, in the largest city, you can buy two 16-ounce sodas, but not a 24-ounch soda because 24-ounces of a sugary drink might make you fat…what are we thinking?
  • If an 80-year-old woman can be stripped-searched by the TSA but a woman in a hijab is only subject to having her neck and head searched…this is political correctness out of control.

If your government believes that the best way to eradicate trillions of dollars of debt is to spend trillions more…you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

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HOW TO DO REPARATIONS RIGHT

“It’s time to tackle racial disparities,” says David Brooks, a columnist since 2002.

“This moment is about police brutality, but it’s not only about police brutality.  The word I keep hearing is ‘exhausted.’

“People are exhausted by and fed up with the enduring wealth disparities between white and black, with the health disparities that leave black people more vulnerable to Covid-19, with the centuries-long disparities in violence and the threat of violence, with daily indignities of African-Americans and stains that linger on our nation decade after decade.

“The killing of George Floyd happened in a context—and that context is racial disparity.

“Racial disparity doesn’t make for gripping YouTube videos.  It doesn’t spark mass protests because it’s not an event; it’s just the daily condition of our lives.

“It’s just a condition that people in affluent Manhattan live in one universe and people a few miles away in the Bronx live in a different universe.  It’s just a condition that many black families send their kids to struggling inner-city schools while white families move to the suburbs and put on black T-shirts every few years to protest racial injustice.

“The response to this moment will be inadequate if it’s just police reforms.  There has to be a greater effort to tackle the wider disparities.

“Reparations and integration are the way to do that.  Reparations would involve an official apology for centuries of slavery and discrimination, and spending money to reduce their effects.

“There’s a wrong way to spend that money: trying to find the descendants of slaves and sending them a check.  That would launch a politically ruinous argument over who qualifies for the money, and at the end of the day people might be left with a $1,000 check that would produce no lasting change.

“Giving reparations money to neighborhoods is the way to go.

“A lot of the segregation in this country is geographic.  In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, early-20th-century whites-only housing covenants pushed blacks into smaller and smaller patches of the city.  Highways were built through black neighborhoods, ripping their fabric and crippling their economic vitality.

“Today, Minneapolis is as progressive as the day is long, but the city gradually gave up on aggressive desegregation.  And so you have these long-suffering black neighborhoods.  The homeownership rate for blacks in Minneapolis is one-third the white rate.  The typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family.

“To really change things, you have to lift up and integrate whole communities.  That’s because it takes a whole community to raise a child, to support an adult, to have a bustling local economy and a vibrant civic life.  The neighborhood is the unit of change.

“Who has the expertise to lift up whole neighborhoods?  It’s the people who live in the neighborhoods themselves.  No outsider with a foundation grant or a government contract really knows what’s going on in any neighborhood or would be trusted to make change.  The people who live in the neighborhoods know what to do.  They just need the resources to do it.

“A few weeks before the lockdown I was in and around South Los Angeles.  In Watts I interviewed Keisha Daniels from Sisters of Watts, which helps kids and homeless people in a variety of ways.  I interviewed Barak and Sara Bomani of Unearth and Empower Communities, which helps educate and nurture young people in nearby Compton.

“Daniels and the Bomanis are experts in how to lift up their neighborhoods.  If we got them money and support they would figure out what to do.

“How can government focus money on formerly redlined neighborhoods and other communities?

“National service programs would pay young people to work for these organizations.  A National Endowment for Civic Architecture, modeled on, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, could support neighborhood groups around the country.  A Social Innovation Fund would be a private/public partnership to fund such organizations.  Moving to Opportunity grants and K-12 education savings accounts would help minorities to move to integrated schools.  Collective impact structures could coordinate local action and use data to find what works.

“In the progressive era, governments built libraries across the country, which remain vital centers of neighborhood life.  We’re about to have a lot of empty retail space.  Why can’t we build Opportunity Centers where all the groups moving children from cradle to career could work and collaborate?

“It’s true this has sort of been tried before.  The Great Society had a “Community Action” project that professed to redistribute power to neighborhoods.  But it did it in the worst possible ways.  A lot of what it did involved sending disruptive agitators to stir up conflict between local activists and local elected officials.  The result was rancor and gridlock.

“This tumultuous moment offers a chance to launch a new chapter in our history, and reparations are part of that launch.  They offer a chance to build vibrant neighborhoods where diverse people want to live together, where the atmosphere is kids playing on the sidewalks and not a knee in the back of the neck.”

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FAILING WELL CAN BE THE KEY TO SUCCESS

You’ve probably heard the story of what’s arguably the biggest movie disaster of all time.  The script required a massive set built in the middle of an even more massive body of water, even though water is both difficult and dangerous to work with—if you’ve ever had a bathroom flood, you can imagine what thousands of gallons can do to a set.

The budget marched rapidly north of $200 million, which in the mid-1990s made it the most expensive picture ever made.  The sheer scale of the project attracted guffaws and predictions of doom from the gleeful press.  To top it off, the picture was plagued by production delays and a postponed release date.

The film finally debuted four months late, in Tokyo, to a reception that the New York Times described as “tepid,” “muted,” and “subdued.”  By that time, the studio heads had privately started saying things like, “If we can just break even…”  The director himself admitted—well after the release—that he “labored on” for the last six months “in the absolute knowledge that the studio would lose $100 million.  It was a certainty.”

Journalists and movie buffs across America had by then already spent months wallowing in schadenfreude.  How could anyone have thought this was a good idea?  Which just goes to show why so few journalists end up making millions in Hollywood.

Titanic went on to become the top-grossing picture of all time—at least until its director, James Cameron, went on to make the even more successful Avatar.  Perhaps you were expecting me to name Waterworld, the Kevin Costner extravaganza that cost almost as much as Titanic, and grossed just $85 million before an ignominious close.  That’s certainly what many people wee expecting when Titanic hit movie screens in 1997.  The 1995 Waterworld debacle was still a fresh memory when Titanic debuted, and the parallels must have chilled even James Cameron.

All of which illustrates William Goldman’s famous observation about Hollywood: no one knows anything.  Until you put a movie into a theater, there’s no way to tell for sure what’s going to happen.

But there’s something else our exercise illustrates even more compellingly.  It’s easy to believe, especially in hindsight, that you can reason your way to a good prediction.  I fooled you a bit by telling you that it was arguably the greatest movie disaster of all time, rather than the greatest disaster movie.  But the reason I was able to get away with this is the that the line between the two is much thinner than we realize.

We like to think that there’s a plan—that failure comes when you do not prepare.  But if you actually look at the marketplace, that’s not what you see.  Let me tell you about a product that was really well planned.

Once up on a time, an old soft drink company was being threatened by a hot, young competitor.  The Coca-Cola company was frightened that customers had begun taking the “Pepsi Challenge” and seemed to prefer the taste.  So Coke started a top-secret project to develop a replacement.  These men weren’t stupid: they knew that this was risky.  And so they went out and commissioned the biggest market research study in history.  Even before they had finished developing the new project, teams were criss-crossing the country conducting surveys, assembling focus groups, and offering free samples to determine how people might feel about the change.  It turned out people loved it.

The company decided to repeat the process, commissioning the biggest market research study in history again.  The results showed that while a minority of customers were resistant, the overwhelming majority couldn’t wait to get their hands on this new creation.

Once it hit store shelves, however, New Coke lasted less than three months and nearly took the company down with it.  What happened?  The problem was that the executives at Coke didn’t understand the limits of their experiments.  The question they thought they were asking was “If we replace Coca-Cola with this new soda, will you buy more of it?”  But the only question their test could answer was “Which of these small samples would you prefer to drink, if I gave it to you for free?”  That’s not even clos to the same question, but it’s the best they could do.  In short, there is ultimately no way to know whether something works until you put it out there and see how your target audience reacts.

The universe is an inherently uncertain place.  We tend to think that we can somehow engineer failure out of the system, but we can’t.  It strikes me when I read stories about entrepreneurship that they all tend to follow the same narrative:  Genius inventor comes up with brilliant idea and is now standing, arms crossed, on the cover of a business magazine.,  But when you actually talk to entrepreneurs, that’s not the impression you get.  They are basically like baseball players.  A great batter fails to hit the ball 7 out of 10 times.  If you take a group of people who want to start a successful business—let’s say they all have solid business plans, good venture capital support, and won’t run into imminent cash crisis—those people will succeed only 3 times out of 10.  Most entrepreneurs fail.

Not long ago, a guy named Peter Skillman, who was head of user experience for Palm, assembled a variety of groups—from American students to Taiwanese telecom engineers—and gave them each 20 pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, a marshmallow, and a piece of string.  The teams had 18 minutes to create the tallest freestanding structure that would support a marshmallow.

Unsurprisingly, the engineers did very well.  MBA students finished dead last because apparently they spent too much time arguing about who was going to be in charge of the spaghetti.  Lawyers didn’t do well either.

The most successful group, however, was kindergartners.  How did they beat the engineers?  By the simple process of experimentation and iteration.  They didn’t follow rules: the kindergartners were the only group to ask for more spaghetti.  And because they had more spaghetti, they just dove in and started creating.  They ruthlessly called out what didn’t work and discarded it.  With that process—what Silicon Valley calls “failing fast”—these five-year-olds ended up with structures that were on average a full inch taller than what the engineers had achieved.

This is how evolution works, it’s how the economy works, and frankly it’s how most learning works.  If you think about tennis, nobody learns how to play by developing an elaborate theory of tennis ball physics.  You learn first by hitting the ball and watching it go into the opposite direction you had hoped.  Over time, you begin to hit it in the right direction and your brain learns through repetition of those rare events.

When you talk to Europeans who have done business in America, and vice versa, they tell you the same thing: a European executive who works for a company that has failed is an executive who no longer has a career.  In America, by contrast, the assumption is that in your failure, you’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons on somebody else’s dime.

In the business world, we are very good at recognizing the fact that failure holds an enormous amount of critical information.  We are not so good at recognizing this in the prison system.  In fact, the United States is much worse than any other country in the world, having essentially wrecked the lives of two million young men by making them unemployable.  Most of the people in prison have done things they shouldn’t have done.  But it’s a phenomenal waste—both for them and for society—that we’ve thrown away all of that human capital.

In a certain sense, the genius of America’s economic system is that it is so forgiving.  The United States is far and away the bankruptcy capital of the world.  Most of us don’t realize how uniquely generous it is.  But it’s a system that fosters innovation and risk taking, encourages entrepreneurship, and helps folks who make mistakes, even bad ones, get back on their feet.  Everywhere else, bankruptcy is a stigma, an enduring disgrace, a permanent stain.  Here it’s just as likely to be the doorway to a business empire.  By wiping old debt off the books, we help the economy by speeding up the redeployment of capital—both human and financial.

For small-time entrepreneurs, easier personal bankruptcy mitigates the considerable risks of starting a business.  But that’s not the only way easier bankruptcy laws encourage entrepreneurship.  Taking entrepreneurial talent and strapping it to old debt is an enormous waste of a scarce resource.  By freeing people from the sunk costs of their failed business, we free them up to try again.

You might say that all this is worth it if we’re punishing the profligate—keeping people from running up bills they can’t pay on foolhardy ventures.  And it’s true: making bankruptcy more difficult probably does prevent some of that.  But the price tag of easier bankruptcy is surprisingly cheap.

The pain from failure should be short, it should be sharp, and it should incentivize us to overcome without tearing us away from the social fabric of society.  It’s not enough to encourage people to fail.  It matters as much, maybe more, what we do next.  How easy do we make it to recover?

Failing well means learning to identify mistakes early.  It means learning to understand those mistakes so they can be corrected.  Most of all, it means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone whenever something goes wrong.  Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness.

America spent several centuries being really good at failure, and somewhere along the way we built the biggest, riches country in the world.  We did it mostly because we were willing to risk more, and forgive more easily, than most other countries in the world.  We lend more freely and let debtors off the hook; we regulate more lightly and rely on a hit-and-miss liability system instead.  These things are often painted as weaknesses, but in fact they are great strengths.  They are the sign of a country more invested in the future than the past.

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ANTI-ZIONISM IS RACISM

Anti-Semitic attacks that kill Jews in a synagogue are fundamentally no different than attacks on Zionism—Israel’s right to exist.  They’re both racist acts of hate.

Anti-Semitism calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people—whether that is by murder or destruction of the Jewish state.  Those who call for endangering or eliminating any ethnic group—by either the political right or left—are guilty of racism.

What are the facts?

Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination—to the State of Israel in their millennia-old homeland.  According to the U.S. State Department, anti-Semitism is a form of racism directed at Israel using demonization, delegitimization or double standards.  This form of anti-Semitism appears in numerous guises—usually false accusations—from both the radical right and radical left.  The objective of anti-Zionist attacks is to deny the right of the Jewish state, among all the world’s nations, to exist.

Attack #1: Israel is a colonial state.  This assertion bespeaks a double standard, as well as lie.  No campus demonstrators protest Turkey’s military colonization of Cyprus, nor China’s occupation of Tibet.  Yet Israel is falsely accused of colonizing its own ancient homeland.  In fact, Jews are the indigenous people of Palestine—survivors of the oldest sovereign state in this land more than 3,000 years ago, with continuous residency since then.  Indeed, Zionism is an anti-colonialist movement, having fought Roman, Crusader, Ottoman, British and Jordanian imperialism.

Attack #2: Israel stole Palestinian land.  This attempt to delegitimize Israel ignores the fact that aside from private land holdings, the Palestinians have never had sovereignty over any territory.  Therefore, they do not “possess” public lands in present-day Israel or Judea or Samaria (the West Bank).  The territory controlled by Israel today was settled on land that Jews owned or purchased, was public land granted by the British Mandate for Palestine, or was captured when Israel defeated invading Arab armies from Jordan and Syria in 1967—all legal acquisitions under international law, to be resolved by negotiations.

Attack #3: Israel’s claims to the Holy Land are religiously based.  Many oppose the claim by some Jews and Christians that Israel’s right to exist springs from biblical authority.   Yet Zionism is largely a secular movement, and Israel’s right to exist is also supported by indisputable legal, historical and humanitarian rights.  While Israel’s state religion is indeed Judaism—and it is the world’s only Jewish state—it joins 40 other nations, mostly Muslim, that designate a state religion, also including Costa Rica and England.  Above all, Israel is not a theocracy, like Iran, but a secular democracy.

Attack #4: Israel is an apartheid state.  This attempt to demonize Israel is false on its face: Israel is the most diverse state in the Middle East.  Its citizens of all races, genders, ethnicities and religions enjoy equal civil rights—more freedom than in most of the world’s nations.  Arabs serve in Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, and Supreme Court.  Yet who criticizes the Palestinian’s apartheid demand that all Jews be cleansed from their ancient biblical homelands of Judea and Samaria?  Double standard?

Attack #5: Jews are members of a religion, not a real “people.”  Whereas Jews have always been united by a belief in Judaism, the Bible speaks of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—ancient Hebrews who built a sovereign nation, as well as legal, economic and social systems.  Jews are also united by the Hebrew language.  Contrary to this delegitimization attempt, Jews are a distinct people who also share a religion.

Attack #6: Some Jews oppose Israel, so that can’t be anti-Semitic.  Just as blacks, Muslims or any group can express unjust racial or ethnic bias against their own people, so can Jews.  Jewish ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta sect members oppose a Jewish state before the Messiah arrives.  Other Jews, such as members of Jewish Voice for Peace in Palestine, object to Zionism based on the false and slanderous accusations listed above.  The fact remains that specifically targeting Jews—and the world’s only national refuge for Jews—is a form of racial bias, in this case anti-Semitism.

Attempts to delegitimize Israel—whether in the United Nations, college classrooms or by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—are markers of racist anti-Semitism.  Good people will heed the 1967 exhortation of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The whole world must see that Israel must exist and has the right to exist and is one of the great outposts of democracy.”

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IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS

By Bill O’Reilly Staff

“Thomas Jefferson was well into his 70s when he founded the University of Virginia and issued this warning: ‘Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.’

“Wow.  If only President Jefferson could take a glance at the country he helped create.  43% of Americans are unable to define the Bill of Rights, conceived in large part by Jefferson’s fellow Virginian James Madison.  Meanwhile, the same number of people actually believe the U.S. government may have known about 9/11 in advance.  That’s a pithy summary of modern America—equal parts ignorance and looniness.

“The question about the Bill of Rights was included in a survey taken by ‘Newsweek,’ 29% of the native-born respondents could not identify our vice president, 40% did not know our adversaries in World War II, and 67% were unaware that our economic system is a capitalistic one.  That’s a total, unadulterated disaster!

“So what’s going on?  It’s clear that the public school system is one major culprit.  Schools are no longer teaching history, geography or civics in an effective way.  Too many curricula are more focused on America’s alleged past sins, not on the wonders of this grand experiment.

“Number two, the Internet and popular culture have created a generation of self-absorbed, distracted and ignorant people.  The allure of texting, watching cat videos, and keeping up with the Kardashians has diverted a lot of Americans away from real life.  Simply put, millions of us are wasting a huge amount of time pursuing trivial things, and if a citizen is not interested in the outside world, he or she will simply not be equipped to make intelligent decisions.

“More than two-thirds of Americans lament that we are a country in decline, and that is partly because citizens just aren’t paying attention.  They do not seem to be interested in the welfare of their country.  Those of you reading this column are almost surely not in the ‘ignorant’ category.  But if you add up all the Americans who watch TV news and read the newspaper, it is a minority.

“If there is one small bright spot, it’s that 93% of those applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test, meaning they get at least six out of the ten questions correct.  We are not talking about the hordes of desperate people now coming across the Rio Grande into Texas, but immigrants who take the legal route to citizenship.  They generally know the workings of this country better than native-born people who were ‘educated’ in our woeful public schools.

“Unfortunately, Americans’ ignorance does not stop at the water’s edge.  Just this week the intrepid Jesse Watters asked some New Yorkers to describe what’s happening in the Middle East.  ‘I know there’s a lot of stuff going on,’ one woman told Jesse, ‘but I don’t like to pay attention to it.’  Another man said this: ‘I gotta be honest with you, I haven’t been up to date.’  Hey, at least he was honest.

“Some accuse Watters of picking the dumbest, most ill-informed people to interview.  Sure, he seeks out folks who look ‘interesting’ and are willing to talk to him, but their ignorance is in no way surgically enhanced for the cameras.  To verify that, just read some of the polls that seek to determine what Americans know, and what they don’t know.

“If Thomas Jefferson stood in for Jesse Watters one day (and he did have kind of a turned-up collar), he would probably be severely unhappy.  After all, Jefferson also said this: ‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.’  America is in danger from without, faced with a host of enemies wishing to do us harm.  But we are also in danger from within, the result of our growing obliviousness.  Which threat is more frightening?”

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THE OPIATE OF EXCEPTIONALISM

By Scott Shane, writing from Washington for the N.Y. Times

“IMAGINE a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers.

“What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump?  He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania.  He might take on educational achievement, nothing that this country comes in only 2th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education.  He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

“The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare—in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany.

“How far would this truth-telling candidate get?  Nowhere fast.  Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture.  Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.

“Candidates and presidents generally oblige them.  It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems—but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence: Unemployment is too high, so I will create millions of jobs.  It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world—a point made memorably in a tirade by the dyspeptic anchorman played by Jeff Daniels in the HBO drama ‘The Newsroom.’

“‘People in this country want the president to be a cheerleader, an optimist, the herald of better times ahead,’ says Robert Dallek, the presidential historian.  ‘It’s almost built into our DNA.’

“This national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image.  But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed.  Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously.  In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process.

“‘I think there’s more of a tendency now than in the past to avoid discussion of serious problems.’ Says Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian at American University.  ‘It has a pernicious effect on our politics and on governing, because to govern, you need a mandate.  And you don’t get a mandate if you don’t say what you’re going to do.’

“American exceptionalism has recently been championed by conservatives, who accuse President Obama of paying the notion insufficient respect.  But the self-censorship it produces in politicians is bipartisan, even if it is more pronounced on the left for some issues and the right for others.

“FOR instance, Democrats are more loath than Republicans to look squarely at the government debt crisis indisputably looming with the aging of baby boomers and the ballooning cost of Medicare.  Republicans are more reluctant than Democrats to acknowledge the rise of global temperatures and its causes and consequences.  But both parties, it is fair to say, prefer not to consider either trend too deeply.

“Both parties would rather avert their eyes from such difficult challenges—because we, the people, would rather avert our eyes.  Talk to any political pro about this phenomenon and one name inevitably comes up: Jimmy Carter, who has become a sort of momento mori for American politicians, like the skulls in Renaissance paintings that reminded viewers of their mortality.

“Mr. Carter, they will say, disastrously spoke of a national ‘crisis of confidence’ and failed to project the optimism that Americans demand of their presidents.  He lost his re-election bid to sunny Ronald Reagan, who promised ‘morning in America’ and left an indelible lesson for candidates of both parties: that voters can be vindictive toward anyone who dares criticize the country and, implicitly, the people.

“This is a peculiarly American brand of nationalism.  ‘European politicians exercise much greater freedom to address bluntly the uglier social problems,’ says Deborah Lea Madsen, professor of American studies at the University of Geneva.  An American politician who speaks too candidly about the country’s faults, she went on to say, risks being labeled with that most devastating of epithets: un-America.

“The roots of this American trait are often traced to the famous shipboard sermon the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop preached on his way to help found the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearly five centuries ago.

“‘We must consider,’ he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.’  Winthrop’s metaphor has had a long life in American speechifying, prominently quoted by both President John F. Kennedy and Reagan.  But if, for Winthrop, the image was something the colony should aspire to, for modern politicians it is often a boast of supposed accomplishment, a way of combating pessimists and asserting American greatness, whatever the facts.

“Could a presidential candidate today survive if he promised to wage a war on poverty, as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964?  It seems unlikely, and one reason may be that Johnson’s effort fell short, revealing the agonizing difficulty and huge cost of trying to change the lives of the poor.

“Indeed, in the current fiscal environment, promising an ambitious effort to reduce poverty or counter global warming might imply big new spending, which is practically and politically anathema.  And given the increasing professionalization of politics any candidate troubled by how the United States lags its peers in health or education has plenty of advisers and consultants to warn him never to mention it on the stump.

“‘Nobody wants to be the one who proposed taking the position that got the candidate in trouble,’ says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University who studies presidential communications.

“Of course, the reason talking directly about serious American problems is risky is that most voters don’t like it.  Mark Rice, who teaches American studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., said students often arrived at his classes steeped in the notion that the United States excelled at everything.  He started a blog, Ranking America, to challenge their assumptions with a wild assortment of country comparisons, some sober (the United States is No. 1 in small arms ownership) and others less so (the United States is tied for 24th with Nigeria in frequency of sex).

“‘Sure, we’re No 1 in gross domestic product and military expenditures,’ Mr. Rice says.  ‘But on a lot of measures of quality of life, the U.S. ranking is far lower.  I try to be as accurate as I can and I avoid editorializing.  I try to complicate their thinking.”

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THE WORLD AROUND US

The world seems a bit upside down.  We wear masks to venture out in public, kids are staying out of school, workers are logging in from home, and people who have little experience driving pickup trucks are buying 27-foot towable trailers for vacation.  And don’t even talk about sports.  Baseball was always a slow game.  Taking the fans out of the stands, and therefore the fan cams, removed one of the biggest distractions from the fact that four hours of your life evaporated during the game.

Winners and Losers

Many office workers have been logging in from their living rooms for the past few months.  As this looks to become the norm for some time to come, The Time’s Noam Scheiber considers the profound changes that may endure, beyond all those Zoom meetings.

Good for some, but not for all.  Greater flexibility helps high-skilled workers pitch themselves more widely, instead of being limited to a specific area.  This could be a boon for those who live away from major metropolitan areas.  At the same time, a more remote, transactional relationship with employers may promote companies’ use of contractors—which can be more lucrative but less stable for the people accepting such work.  And when workers are spread out, they may have a harder time sharing information and organizing for better pay or working conditions.

The biggest changes are cultural.  We’ve covered how small talk at the office can have a huge effect on morale, but many companies are also learning that informal, person-to-person interactions are also crucial to the flow of mission-critical information  Businesses that successfully ran largely remote work forces before the pandemic tend to exhaustively document their processes and knowledge.  That enables employees to join projects and get up to speed on their own time, without having to consult colleagues first.  This reflects “sound management that companies with physical offices didn’t adopt simply because they could afford to be sloppy.

What could go wrong?  These 47 things, for starters.  A report out today by a London-based financial industry body makes for bracing reading about the risks of long-term remote working.  Although it’s meant for traders, who were mostly forbidden from working at home before the pandemic, the 47-item “risk register” (laid out in a spreadsheet, naturally) is useful reading for anyone worried about the sudden shift to widespread remote working.  A few of the risks it raises:

  • “Improper behavior may not be identified until much later”
  • “Risk to confidentiality and client privacy if family members or housemates work for competitors”
  • “Individuals feel compelled or coerced to return to offices to gain visibility or for career progression”
  • “Risk of staff disengaging from the culture of the firm leading to reduction in shared values and increased propensity to work around existing controls”
  • “Without the natural rhythm and with no opportunity for decompression from work as no commute time, staff are often working much longer shifts and so more prone to errors and to suffering mental health issues”

What do you think?  What’s the biggest risk from remote working?  The biggest benefit?  Let us know.  Include your name and location and we may include your response in a future newsletter.

Away from COVID-19, we have nightly protests in several major cities that regularly morph into violent confrontations.  At one time in the distant past, just after Memorial Day, the protests were centered on George Floyd’s murder while in police custody and police conduct.  Now protestors appear to be focused on federal buildings, which is ironic because policing, the heart of the matter, is by law a local responsibility.

But these things will play out.

We will develop a therapeutic, and then a vaccine, to deal with COVID-19, which will allow us to shed those dreaded masks and go back to some sort of normal life, albeit with differences.  Office space won’t command such a high price, and inner-city landlords will suffer, as more people move out of town.  But most of us will be thrilled to see many aspects of life return we hope by the start of the college football season.

I don’t know how the protests will end, but they won’t go on forever.  If the protestors in Portland wanted less engagement with federal offices protecting federal property, they could simply stop protesting around those sites and go back to berating their local police, but that doesn’t appear to be the goal.

Peak population is coming, and it will likely arrive much faster than many people realize.

When Japan began losing population around 2010 because they were having fewer births than deaths, the world sort of shrugged.  European nations have been aging for some time, but they’re still growing, however slowly.  The U.S. adds people every year because of migration and because recent arrivals are having kids.  And, of course, the population of India is on the rise.  A new study in the Lancet shows that the world population will grow from 7.6 billion people in 2017 to 9.73 billion in 2064…and then decline…by choice.  By the end of the century, the world population is expected to fall by just under one billion people to 8.79 billion, a 9.6% reduction by choice.  To put that in perspective, roughly 3% of the world population perished in World War II.

Because of increased access to contraception and education among women, the researchers believe that by 2050, 150 countries will have total fertility rates (TFR, the number of children per woman of child-bearing age) below the replacement rate of 2.1.  Global TFR will fall to just 1.66 by 2100.

The group expects the U.S. population to grow from 324 million in 2017 to 363 million in 2062 before falling back.

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TIME TO BUY THE BITCOIN BREAKOUT

A blog by Rodney Johnson

“Bitcoin and other digital currencies shot to the moon in 2017.  At our conference in October of that year, I verbally threw cold water on cryptocurrencies, noting they were difficult to use in everyday transactions, difficult to secure, and if successful would threaten central banks.  One of our guest speakers suggested that many crypto critics had never purchased a digita coin, so they weren’t qualified to tear it down.

“I recognize a childish taunt when I hear one.  A wise man learns from the experience of others.

“So, of course, I bought some.

“I purchased Ether and Dash in December 2017, just as coin values were making a blow-off top.  Bitcoin and others essentially doubled in late December and January, and then fell back to earth by February.  I didn’t just sit around.  I traded the position a bit, took some profits, then moved some into Bitcoin, which kept falling just like the others.

“After several trades and exchanges, I totally cashed out and calculated my returns.  On a few thousand dollars, I made about $50.  I was thrilled that I’d not lost any money, because it was all an exercise to gain experience in the field.

“And it proved my points.

“The coin values swung wildly, seemingly not connected to anything.  When I wanted to trade, I had to go through an at least two-step verification, which was time consuming, and I never considered using the coins to buy goods or services.  In short, I treated them the same as everyone else, like online gambling chips, hoping I wouldn’t be the greater fool.

“Today is no different, at least from the standpoint of coin traders.

“After spending some time in the $4,000 range after the ugly drop in 2018, Bitcoin gained a little ground in late 2019 and is up around 50% this year, sitting just north of $11,000.  If you’re an online gambler who got in before the jump over the past month, that’s great, but it doesn’t make Bitcoin a currency.

“It’s possible that people are gravitating to the digital dollars because they’re worried about the value of traditional, state-issued money as central banks print gobs of cash and governments go deep into debt.  Perhaps people bought Bitcoin this year ahead of the “halvening” in May, when the algorithm controlling Bitcoin creation essentially reduced new coin issuance by half.  Or maybe we’re seeing all the new day traders, the professionals working from home, chase the latest momentum investment.

“Whatever the reason for the jump in price, I’ve not seen any evidence that more people are suddenly using Bitcoin to buy stuff, and that’s a problem.

“For all the hoopla surrounding cryptocurrencies, if they don’t serve as a storehouse of value and medium of exchange, they aren’t money.  It’s hard to call something that swings more than 50% in a matter of months a storehouse of value, and it consumers don’t readily use it to purchase goods and services, then it’s not a medium of exchange.

“And then there’s the official response.

“Central banks and governments cannot allow Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies disconnected from official banking systems to flourish.  If citizens moved away from traditional banks, governments would lose control over monetary policy including interest rates and money creation, as well as capital controls.  They wouldn’t like that.

“So far, few people use digital currencies for anything more than speculation, but government officials have taken notice and several are experimenting with central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).  These currencies exist as units in a database with unique identifiers but still count as part of the monetary system.  They don’t travel through banks, so they can be accessed and exchanged easily across borders.  Governments control them, which means they can trace them, tax them, and even change their value at will, which would seem to negate many of the positives championed by cryptocurrency supporters.

“All of this leaves us where we started. Cryptocurrency fans are at odds with official banking systems, few people use them for everyday transactions, they’re difficult to use at a store and hard to secure, but the wild gyrations make them catnip for day traders and speculators.

“Buying them today requires believing a greater fool exists.  That person might be out there, but at least in this arena, it won’t be me.”

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THE REGULATORY BILL OF RIGHTS

It didn’t get a lot of media coverage, given the constant craziness these days.  But believe me, the new executive order from President Trump that contains these new guidelines is a very big deal indeed.  With this new requirement, the president has ordered that all agencies treat Americans fairly.

If it’s properly put into effect by federal agencies per the president’s order, this improved approach would lift a tremendous weight off American landowners, businesspeople, and consumers.

How could anyone possibly disagree with these new guidelines?  Why weren’t such rules always in place to protect citizens’ rights?

As you’ll see, the Regulatory Bill of Rights aims to ensure the basic due process rights of Americans must be respected by regulatory agencies and bureaucrats.

No more should property owners and businesspeople be considered guilty until proven innocent.  No more should government be able to concoct charges without sharing the evidence with the accused.  No more should bureaucrats be able to surprise, bully, and harass citizens who never intended to break the law to begin with.

These declarations were included in the president’s recent executive order urging federal agencies to avoid new regulations that could hinder economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.

Restoring respect for basic due process and fair treatment for Americans accused of regulatory violations is long overdue.

They’ve never heard about the abuses suffered by Mike and Chantell Sackett.  In 2007, the Sacketts began building a home in Priest Lake, Idaho.  Only to have the EPA step in to stop them, claiming their lot was a federally protected wetland.  When Mike and Chantell protested, bureaucrats refused to provide evidence and attempted to deny the Sacketts their day in court.

Years of federal foot-dragging ensued, culminating in a PLF-led case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.  The court ruled unanimously that Mike and Chantell had a right to their day in court to challenge the EPA’s claims.  But despite this victory, the Sacketts still faced more than $150 million in fines!

Only after 12 years of litigation did the EPA finally back down.  Yet would you believe it’s still not clear if Mike and Chantell can build on their property?  We’re still in court to try and make that clear.

They’ve never heard about Navy veteran Joe Robertson from Montana.  After he dug a few ponds on his remote property to provide water in case of a fire, he allegedly ran afoul of the Clean Water Act.  Joe was convicted and forced to spend 18 months in federal prison and pay $130,000 in restitution!

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Joe’s conviction last year, but sadly, Joe had passed away prior to the high court’s ruling.  All this over a couple of ponds!  What an unbelievable miscarriage of justice.

If the Regulatory Bill of Rights had been in force earlier, people like Mike and Chantell Sackett and Joe Robertson could have avoided so much pain and suffering.

By insisting that federal agencies respect due process, you and I will put a stop to bureaucratic “kangaroo courts” that make a mockery of justice!

The problem isn’t that bureaucrats occasionally cross lines in pursuit of clear villains and dastardly polluters.  Instead, they’ve stacked the process against ordinary people, even in mundane cases.

You’ll be glad to know our approach is paying off.  To name one encouraging example, we represented Quent and Linda Cordair of Napa County, California.  The Cordairs own a commercial art gallery where they sell pieces from local artists.

The shutdown hit them hard, as it did so many other small businessowners.  Even though the Cordairs were perfectly capable of following the social distancing rules mandated by government, state officials forced them to stay closed even as big-box retail stores remained open.

When California began its reopening process, their gallery was considered a museum rather than a retail establishment, and so was forced to wait even longer to reopen.  But Quent and Linda didn’t take that laying down.

They sent letters to California’s governor and their country leaders, describing the unfairness of the situation and urging them to treat the gallery like other retail stores.  The county didn’t respond.

But when Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) attorneys got involved and sent the county notice of our impending lawsuit on behalf of Quent and Linda, that got their attention!  The county quickly folded and agreed to treat retail art galleries as retail stores and allow them to reopen.

Now the Cordairs are back in business, safely serving their artists and customers once again.  Their victory was a relief.  But how sad that their case had to go so far.

As Linda put it, “We should be able to pursue our passion, earn a living, and serve our customers without having to threaten legal action.”

The Regulatory Bill of Rights

From President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order of May 20, 2020
Section 6: Fairness in Administrative Enforcement and Adjudication.

The heads of all agencies shall consider the principles of fairness in administrative enforcement and adjudication listed below, and revise their procedures and practices in light of them, consistent with applicable law and as they deem appropriate in the context of particular statutory and regulatory programs and the policy considerations identified in section 1 of this order.

  • The Government should bear the burden of proving an alleged violation of law; the subject of enforcement should not bear the burden of proving compliance.
  • Administrative enforcement should be prompt and fair.
  • Administrative adjudicators should be independent of enforcement staff.
  • Consistent with any executive branch confidentiality interests, the Government should provide favorable relevant evidence in possession of the agency to the subject of an administrative enforcement action.
  • All rules of evidence and procedure should be public, clear, and effective.
  • Penalties should be proportionate, transparent, and imposed in adherence to consistent standards and only as authorized by law.
  • Administrative enforcement should be free of improper Government coercion.
  • Liability should be imposed only for violations of statutes or duly issued regulations, after notice and an opportunity to respond.
  • Administrative enforcement should be free of unfair surprise.
  • Agencies must be accountable for their administrative enforcement decisions.

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