The start of a new cold war

The US is a blessed country. We’ve enjoyed a string of good luck since George Washington escaped capture by General Cornwallace at the Battle of Brooklyn because the fog blew the right way in November 1776.

We have nearly limitless natural resources. We’re protected on two sides by a vast ocean. Our land-neighbors are quiet, stable, and have rarely caused us problems. We’re lucky to have them.

We’ve been blessed to have just the right leaders at just the right time, like Lincoln.

And we’ve been blessed to have never been ravaged by the kind of modern war that has set countries a generation behind. It was remarked after WWII “The US didn’t lose so much as a shack.” Even our human loss of half a million soldiers pales in comparison to the USSR’s loss of 27 million.

During WWII the US aided Churchill “through the language of business” by a program called “lend-lease”. The gist being we sold Britain a bunch of our old WWI-era destroyers and equipment. In exchange they gave us land rights to much of their military bases. Our Congress didn’t have to wring hands over aiding in a war America wanted no part of. This was business!

We don’t talk about that much, but think about that for a second: Winston Churchill handed Franklin Roosevelt Britain’s empire. He had to. He knew by then “[their] little island” could not defend against Hitler as it stood. And he knew their empire was losing control of India, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and many more lands under attack.

That’s when America’s empire began.

Churchill even said afterward that a “torch has been passed” to the United States. In a way he was saying, “Thank you for helping us survive. But now the world is different, and you are responsible for much of it now.”

We also don’t talk about how US companies helped enemies like Hitler. Ford, GM, Singer, DuPont, and IBM funneled money around that ultimately aided the Nazis in pursuit of profits. The US Treasury froze and seized what they could, but other “neutral” countries like Spain and Sweden didn’t make it easy. Those companies knew what they were doing.

After WWII, the Cold War could best be described as what happens when your President can’t tell you what’s happening. The US was in such a furor over supposed gaps in our defense with bombers, bombs, and other equipment we spent and spent and spent. In reality, Eisenhower knew no such gaps existed. He just couldn’t say it because if he did, the natural reaction would be, “Well how do you know that?!” And he knew because of the new U2 spy plane. But saying anything would tell everyone our new capabilities. So he said nothing and just weathered the storm. Talk about leadership.

But today we face a new challenge in China. For the first time in modern history, the United States is no longer unchallenged. There are no nations ravaged by war among developed nations. China has the resources to pose significant challenges to us, unlike the Soviets. And we have no Eisenhower in office.

Like before, we have US companies stuck in a bind between profits and patriotism. China’s regime works. And for the first time the US’ long-time strategy of exporting culture and ideals to the world isn’t working.

What’s troubling to me about Hong Kong is that what was part of the British Empire, then released, and then absorbed into China to an extent has a history of democracy. They’re one of us. Our toe-hold into China to spread freedom of speech and faith and everything else about our country is asking for our help. Hong Kong is looking at the torch Britain passed to us. And our President is not smart enough to recognize this either because of a lack of historical understanding, racism, or both.

We have another cold war of sorts on our hands. America’s greatest threat is undoubtedly China. The best neutralizing force we have with them is continued trade to the extent their ability to earn money is tied to our ability to spend money and vice versa. But our president isn’t smart enough to recognize that, either.

These are vastly complicated matters. In the lead-up to WWII, Americans were firmly isolationist. Some 90%+ of the country wanted no part in a “European problem”. They couldn’t understand how we were all interconnected. To borrow a metaphor: when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t squabble over whose hose you reach for. Our president is squabbling.

There is no moment in US history since immediately after the Revolution where we have been so dependent on another nation. We relied on British trade for nearly everything after the Revolution. Now in 2019, we rely on China. And like Britain in 1780, they need us, too.

The new cold war will not be faught with militaries or technology. It will be fought with innovation and commerce. It will be us versus China. And unlike the USSR’s Gorbachev in the 80’s wishing to compete on friendly terms in space for the advancement of human kind, China is unlikely to play that game.

I think we may look back at Trump’s decision to withhold support from Hong Kong as a flashpoint, like when Reagan walked away from total nuclear disarmament because he wanted his “Star Wars defense system”. We cannot allow our culture to become locked down by China’s. We can’t let our companies quietly aid China like many did in WWII with the Nazis. It is not okay. What starts small can quickly become treasonous.

Like Britons in 1946 watching as their empire faded, I am beginning to think my generation will be the last to witness the American empire. We are about to lose to China. A country with nearly limitless resources and monetary policy equitable to our own.

Where Churchill graciously and solemnly passed a torch to America in pursuit of continued existence, we aren’t passing that torch on to China under some grand cause. China is just going to take it because our president isn’t smart enough to recognize it or care. And I can think of no greater disgrace to our country, democracy, and our ideals than losing this torch passed to us from Churchill. No less to communism under an oppressive regime like China’s.

There is nothing better than the feeling of accomplishment. This is why it’s time to do less.

For the last year or 18 months I’ve tried a radical self-experiment where I try to be useful to people. The idea being if I was responsive to people’s needs, they’d be happy, then they’d care about me.

This has not worked out that way. At least, I don’t believe it has. I don’t think there are somehow more people who care more or less about me. Some of the things I’ve done this last 12 months either quietly or publicly include:

  • Writing a book
  • Starting another book that is in second draft
  • Establishing a goal of 10% body fat
  • Finishing my bachelor’s degree from 14 years ago (I finished August 8th)
  • Running for office and other political activities
  • Growing my business to maximum capacity

Much of this idea was a variant on the popular “don’t say no” strategy of relationship and activity-building. If someone asks you to do something, say yes. Maybe something fun will come of it. Except in rare circumstances, that has not been my case this year. 

In fact, midway through writing this piece someone called to ask me to travel two hours away to speak to a group of people for 30 minutes. Not only do I not want to do that, I don’t have the time and it’s not particularly valuable.

The problem I’ve encountered, aside from the emotional impact, is I am not a multi-threaded human being. No one is, really. People who are adept at moving between tasks and jobs probably come about that way either only in appearance or by some kind of mental disorder, like bipolar disorder or by being a sociopath. Theodore Roosevelt’s many adventures come to mind. Not only would we consider him a genius by today’s standards, many historians believe he also probably suffered some kind of bipolar disorder to make him swing between manic activity and disregard for life and calmer times to do things like writing.

Humans are not multi-threaded machines, and last I checked I am human. We know this from decades of research, but the human brain is too messy to be able to switch from one task to another without the first task lingering. This gets more complicated as you add stress, anxiety, and other tension like relationships to the mix.

The more I’ve done this year the more convinced I become I’m better suited to slow thinking. I’ve often told people off-handedly “I’m a slow thinker about these things”. The reality is I’m much more inclined to do a few things with more attention than many things with a little attention. I’m also much more inclined to do things I actually have a shot at winning. Much of my time this year has been spent on tasks that deserve more time than I can give and are, generally, unwinnable or unachievable.

And therein lies the nugget of this post: there is nothing more satisfying than accomplishment. And I don’t have many accomplishments this year.

You may look at that list and see fine things. I look at it and see projects that haven’t succeeded, gone far, or weren’t all that hard (undergraduate classes by and large are not that hard, for instance).

The strategy for next year is different: fewer pursuits of new clients, saying “no” more, focusing on projects to the extent they can become something, and being a more single-threaded, slow thinker.

An unintended consequence of better bus service in Indianapolis

Most people hate to think. But if you think, you must make your own opinions.

I was thinking this morning and realized while waiting at the 9th Street Red Line station there’s a huge consequence to the Red Line.

It’s perhaps the biggest thing no one’s yet thought of written about. It’ll be hard to measure, and it’ll take years to fully unfold, but it’s big news.

People who ride the Red Line will talk to each other.

I know. It’s likely to start off small, but people who ride a bus regularly tend to notice other people. Those little conversations helping people along makes humans into people. Like the lady who everyone helps on and off the 25 each morning at 6:45 and 3:45 like clockwork. She had a stroke and has trouble getting around. But she walks to and from her doctor every day, and when it’s icy, people get out and help her up the curb.

The knee jerk reaction is “that’s impossible” or “that’s dumb”. Maybe, but if you think about it you know it has to be a little true. We’re all different when we’re waiting in line at the bank or grocery store than when we’re waiting in line in traffic. Once people get behind the wheel, the impetus is different. “Don’t touch my car. Hurry up. Get out of the way.” We become mechanized. Half machine in a bionic kind of way that’s useful in some situations, but has a cost.

People lament “kids these days” with headphones in. I’m always wearing headphones, but I’m always listening to audiobooks or podcasts. I can hear just fine and can strike up a conversation. This weekend a guy asked me where the post office was. Another asked me where the library was. On the Red Line lots of people chatted. At the station, I walked up with a lovely young woman who was curious about payment options. I saw another person I knew who worked nearby.

In a car, those interactions are gone. They are completely removed and replaced by the insulating tomb of metal, glass, and perhaps the radio.

People who move around cities without their cars become less mechanical and more human. Perhaps it’s a vulnerability, but I think it’s good for people.

We know more and more people are insular, lacking friends, and don’t see many people beyond their co-workers or passing customers with brief interactions. Generationally, we have fewer relationships than ever. Even people who think they get out plenty might, if they think about it, not have many conversations.

That isn’t healthy for people or cities. Nostalgically we long for Mayberry-style days where everyone is friendly and waves and chats with you on the street. But no one on Mayberry’s main street ever spoke to Floyd or Andy in the front seat of a car. They were walking around, visiting people and places.

If someone at IU or another school with a medical or psychology program could measure it, I bet we’d find people who get out of their cars more will, over the long term, show signs of being less agitated and stressed. We know this of bicycle riders — no denying exercise is good for people there. I bet there are similar benefits to getting around town with others through transit.

Yes, yes, someone’s complaining this is all unworkable or not for them. That’s fine. But smart cities give people options.

Vonnegut and equality in 2081

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Harrison Bergeron”. It starts with the line, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”

In the story, the government has taken steps to make everyone equal. If you are graceful, you wear weights around your ankles. If you’re beautiful, you wear a mask.

The government’s Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, will ensure you cannot use any of your outstanding qualities.

And if you are more intelligent, then:

“George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hanzel we’re watching television. There were tears on hazels cheeks but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about. On the television screen were ballerinas. A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.”

Vonnegut would have never guessed our ears would be plugged all the time with noise and headphones, in noisy offices, chattering co-workers, with email, Facebook, and Twitter.

They divert us all day long way better than Glampers ever could.

Reflections from the Lost Generation

People who were around 20-40 years old during World War I are what historians and Gertrude Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation”. In the early post-war years, many of the men returned jaded, displeased, and disenfranchised with the world as it was. Among 20 and 30-somethings, the roaring ’20s weren’t great and instead symbolized a lot of what was wrong with the world. Primarily the accumulation of wealth and materials.

Notably, the Lost Generation produced no “great” Americans in typical metrics of success. No presidents, no Supreme Court justices, few patents among its members, and no great cultural movements. There’s a reason your history textbooks can’t pin much on this group beyond Poodle Skirts. This just 20 and 30 years after the mind rush that was the Theodore Roosevelt presidency.

It wasn’t all lost, of course. Great American literature did come of this period thanks to the works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the production of books like The Great Gatsby.

I see a lot of parallels between that generation and millennials today. The wars are on decidedly different scales, but the listlessness and recklessness of both generations is palpable. If the Lost Generation made any lasting impact, it was making people understand the effect of war. How war could destroy men and their souls, particularly in the meat grinder that was WWI. Many would re-live that horror 30 years later in WWII.

I say all this to clarify my thinking on a much bigger warning sign from the Lost Generation. The 1910s and ’20s were a time of explosive economic growth. Like today, many of the gains were at the top, but unlike today crowds of people at the low end of income could rise up. And then it all came crashing down in the Great Depression. We’ve learned a lot from that time in how we structure our economic system and safeguards. We can only hope that was enough of a lesson.

It’s also worth noting the Lost Generation didn’t make much noise as brutal dictators in Europe took power. Like today, the fringes of our worse demons took over slowly, then quickly. It took a shockingly long time for the angels of our better nature to turn the tide.

History repeats itself, and American history has been remarkably repetitive on a generation-or-two cycle in everything from fashion to economic practice. With any luck, I’m wrong and millennials won’t be a generation whose only long-term impact is showing the harmful nature of military and economic warfare on groups of people who had no decision making power in the process.