The president will lead us back from the brink

Pennsylvania Avenue is now quiet. The swans drift along without interest in the canal. Sitting in the White House at 73 years old, the President is responsible for keeping Americans alive. He will come on television and radio soon and make a series of announcements. Summoned by destiny and fate, he will prepare the nation for sacrifice.

To reduce the amount of people walking around at night, all street lights will go dark nationwide. Mailboxes will be coated with special paint so if the virus is nearby it will change color. You must keep calm and do not carry on.

Rapid construction of trench graves have been ordered to bury the dead. The ideal depth is 8 feet.

Sentries and guards will be placed around key cities and industrial areas as the manufacture of new equipment and supplies must be prioritized if our nation is to have a chance at survival.

Watchers will be tasked with identifying potentially compromised individuals. Anyone suspected of being compromised will be detained.

Masks will be issued to everyone. You should sleep with it nearby and carry it on you at all times.

In the event you are traveling and suspicious individuals come near you or you see the light signals overhead, immediately disassemble your bicycle. If you are driving, remove the spark plugs and carburetor. If you do not know how to do this, go to your nearest garage and learn how.

Shelter your house by placing cardboard over the windows or use blackout curtains. Use paint and other supplies to seal every possible crack around doors and windows.

Volunteers of women and able-body children and seniors are needed to move much-needed supplies into transport across the nation. Contact your nearest police, fire, or health department for information on where to proceed.

Children will be placed on trains and sent away from the cities and into the countryside. Your local train station will have details starting tomorrow.

The above account, with a few changes by me for our current medical crisis, is what Winston Churchill did to prepare Britons for the inevitable air bombardment of the island.

It’s remarkable how similar our current situation is to May 1940. Instead of gas masks we need face masks. Instead of painting mailboxes to change color in the event of gassing, we need flu tests. Instead of sentries looking for paratroopers and bombers, we need people looking for the sick.

Within hours of becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had established most of his government. Within days he had prepared the nation with what German propaganda minister Joseph Goebels called, “Perhaps the best messaging of the war.”

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” said Churchill.

It was a sentiment that dated fifty years earlier to Theodore Roosevelt, whom Churchill admired:

“Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of the perils over which, in the past, the nation has triumphed; because of the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.“

Donald Trump is no Churchill, and he sure as hell is no Theodore Roosevelt.

In London, people tripped over sandbags and curbs as the city went dark at night to prevent pilots from identifying the layout of the city.

People carried masks with them, issued by the government, wherever they went. In the countryside, farmers and residents left heavy equipment scattered through their fields to deter gliders and enemy aircraft landings. Everyone knew their duty.

As the nation and world swings violently economically and pushes ahead confusingly and without direction or leadership right now, it’s nice to think about what could have been with the right leadership.

With leadership that treated Americans as patriots, intelligent, and with as much to lose as we stand to gain. Ironically, America wasn’t much of a world leader then, either.

Real leadership in turbulent times means preparing your citizens for what is likely to happen. It means devoting all of your attention to the problem at hand. While you maintain the big picture strategy in your head, you give clear instructions to the nation about what is expected, and what is expected of each person.

We’ve not had that. Governors and sometimes mayors have tried to step in to fill the gap, but this is what Americans elect Presidents to do. Nixon remarked that “most of the job is just foreign policy”. The domestic stuff only came to pass in emergencies.

The British were prepared for the Germans. They knew what was coming and they made sure the public knew it, too. But they weren’t always right.

Churchill and Neville Chamberlain before him had developed strategies that relied on the French. Britain could defend herself only if the Germans had to continually fly from and back to bases all the way in Germany. The French, with their well-trained and well-armed army were there firewall. It was unthinkable to them that they could fall so fast, or at all.

We’re in the same situation with COVID-19. It’s unthinkable to us that we might fall so fast, or at all. But we can’t rely on the imagined firewall of our doctors or healthcare sector. There is no Maginot line for viruses.

Americans need to be told the reality of the situation and prepared for war. Treated with respect and recognition for the labor we have done and have yet to give in debt, time, energy, and tears.

Coronavirus is like a really lousy snow day

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, and it’s not every generation that gets to fight a global pandemic. So, it’s time to immortalize some thoughts on this blog.

Like most of the news today, I find solace in knowing this isn’t entirely new. In the 1918 Flu Pandemic people would drop dead in the middle of the street and no one knew why. It might seem silly to think we’re reminding people to wash their hands, but at least we have the good sense to wash our hands. Our understanding is vastly improved. And we’ve learned how to manage health before we totally overrun our healthcare network.

I see rumblings of people irritated that if they can work from home now, clearly we always could and “capitalism wouldn’t let us”. That strikes me as a little self-serving. An immense amount of value is brought into the world through collaboration, teamwork, and just bumping into other smart people. Also, to say nothing of the fact we all know work is different at home. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but rarely has purposeful. There’s a big difference between sitting on the couch with Netflix on in the background vs. the conference room.

Likewise, much of humanity’s greatest works of art, literature, science, and math came from people who sequestered themselves off from humanity for long periods. But no one operated in a total vacuum. They relied on spouses, kids, and the collaboration of others before and after their best work.

Unlike 1918, our ability to work remotely at all is itself a remarkable bit of progress. Cities ground to a halt and entire economies just stopped when cities closed schools, public gatherings, and quarantined themselves 100 years ago.

We’ve experienced all parts of this COVID-19 situation before. Just never all at once. This is like if we had the flu of 1918 and the stock market crash of 1929 at the same time. But it’s all overseen by Harding’s total incompetence, Andrew Johnson’s racism, combined with Nixon’s fragile ego and paranoia.

What’s more remarkable is if this situation continues for several weeks or months, and it looks like it will, this will be the first time a generation of Americans will have to live with scarce resources.

It’s one thing to talk about a dwindling social safety net, but most Americans haven’t had to live without access to on-demand toilet paper, dining out, and other supply shortages in a long time. Our parents surely remember the gas lines of the 70s, but gas is cheaper than ever right now. Prior to that, this nation hasn’t had to “do without” something since the 40s.

It is fruitful timing considering this nation continues to debate healthcare, too. As reports from the BBC have noted, “America does not have a health system. They have a health sector.” That’s about the best description I’ve heard of how we choose to operate healthcare.

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.