Where Do I Get a Ticket to Kepler 452-b?

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterThere’s nothing like an American political campaign, especially one dominated by the rolling freak show of our “new conservative movement” to make you wonder if intelligent life exists anywhere in the universe, including here.

Thank God then for Stephen Hawking and the NASA teams responsible for the Pluto fly-by and the discovery of “Earth’s twin”, Kepler 452-b. They didn’t quite drown out the buffoonery and cynicism of Donald Trump-Scott Walker last week. But if you were so inclined it was quite pleasurable to ignore the clamor of their toxic grifting and let the mind wander, imagining truly advanced civilizations and what they might think of us.

Among the most interesting people I’ve ever and had the chance to talk with is Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science-fiction writer, best known for co-authoring the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which was drawn from his short story “The Sentinel”. in 1984 Clarke flew halfway around the planet from his home in Sri Lanka to do publicity for “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, an instantly-forgotten sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic. By no means a typical Hollywood type, Clarke arrived for interviews at some Beverly Hills hotel looking like an Iowa mortician. Black suit, white shirt, black tie, horn-rimmed glasses and the demeanor of the guy who makes certain the deceased is returned to the earth with due gravity.

One of Clarke’s many classic quotes is his response to being asked if we are alone in the universe? “Two possibilities exist,” he said, “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” He also said when asked what we might expect from contact with an extraterrestrial society, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I had only 30 minutes or so with Clarke, and there didn’t seem to be much point in wasting it getting his reaction to the noisy, formulaic sequel to a truly audacious film that left no intelligent viewer with an option other than to contemplate our modest accomplishments — standing upright, conquering to survive and traveling beyond the pull of our own planet.

I doubt the news about our “twin”, Kepler 452-b, 1400-light years away, would have surprised Clarke much. Terrified or not, he found it it difficult to believe, based on the astonishing immensity of the universe that we were all that unique in terms of complex organisms or all that advanced, given the relative youth, 4.5 billion years, of Earth and the Milky Way. Organisms in other parts of the 14 billion year old universe could have hundreds of millions of years head start on us.

I do think Clarke, who died in 2008, would have been delighted to hear of Hawking’s collaboration with a Russian billionaire to re-start a long-term radar search for signals from another civilization, likely a “mega-civilization”, a culture likely generations, millennia or more advanced than ours. He was generally appalled at the priorities of so-called social leaders. (The fact that a single football stadium in one obscure Midwestern city cost more than we invested in the Pluto mission would have been to Clarke a prime example of barely post-amoebic thinking.)

One part of my conversation with Clarke centered on why any truly advanced culture would have an interest in us? And if they did how they would go about looking us over? This of course was the gist of “The Sentinel”, in which millions of years in our past a probing civilization, perhaps assessing Earth’s position in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone in relation to our sun, drops down a kind of cosmic tele-prompter, sparking the decisive leap one species makes toward sentient thought … and then a fire alarm (on the moon) to alert the civilization that one of the species it has incubated is one the move.

I was pleased that Clarke agreed with me that it made no sense at all that a “mega-civilization” (he didn’t use that term), would visit this planet in any kind of mortal form. No little grey men like in bad Hollywood or Japanese sci-fi. No bizarre, multi-tentacled deep space octopi like out of a comic book. Robotic probes alone, and most-likely the size of molecules rather than city-wide flying saucers could tell culturedeep space s capable of spanning  everything they needed to know about life on this rock. That is if at hundreds of thousands or millions of years of development beyond us they had any interest.

Clarke’s argument, in various books, in the script for “2001” and in conversation in Los Angeles is that immortality is probably a primary initiative for any self-aware species, and that following the logic we saw in HAL the computer and see today in any number of the artificial intelligence advances made since his death, the process of separating consciousness out of and away from the frail, mortal carbon container we evolved in would be Job One.

In the “acid trip” sequence of “2001” there’s a shot of seven shimmering crystalline objects, generally regarded as Kubrick and Clarke’s depiction of “mega civilization” life forms. When I asked him if that was in fact the point of that shot, he smiled and said, “I don’t want to say. It’s more fun to imagine.”

So what then? Having transferred consciousness from flesh and blood (or whatever chemical stew might work on other “goldilocks” planets) to a form immune to the ravages of wind, fire, war, radiation and time, what interest would such a form of being have in us? Why would we be of any particular interest at all? We’re probably flattering ourselves that we’re exceptional. Most likely we would be no more interesting than plankton in a tidal pool. Ours would be an existence to be acknowledged, at best. But nothing more.

More likely, Clarke thought (and wrote in several novels, although maybe most provocatively in “Childhood’s End”), such a culture would practice a form of dispassionate benevolence, offering cues to lower life forms (us) for sustaining evolution, but taking no active role. (They’re a bit more involved in “Childhood’s End”.)

One commentator writing about Hawking’s endeavor reminded readers to do the math on Moore’s Law, which says computing power, in terms of transistors on a CPU, doubles every two years. You can find people who say we’ve reached a limit and that that isn’t going to happen. But since the number of transistors in a CPU has increased from 37.5 million in 2000 to 904 million in 2009, we’re kind of in range. Point being, by 2050, at this rate, our own technology will seem like magic to us today.

And that’s 35 years. For the sake of this discussion, add six zeroes. 35,000,000 years. Then try and imagine what “life” looks like. Most likely we wouldn’t recognize if it was standing next to us.

Now back to the plankton we know as Trump, Walker and the others vying to lead our civilization.

 

 

 

 

The Trump Bump, As Viewed Through a Minnesotans’ Lens

With the Trump Bump in full swing, we Minnesotans have an obligation to explain to our fellow Americans how these political crushes work.  Been there.  Done that.

Jesse_Ventura_Curve_of_Voter_Crushes

Why Progressives Have Every Right To Question Hillary Clinton

Hillary_is_ready_for_HillaryA lot of liberals I know are privately not all that sure if they are “Ready for Hillary,” as the Clinton boosters put it.

How can a good progressive not want to elect the first woman to the White House? If we’re not “ready,” that must mean we are sexist, right?

Hillary Clinton is running for President, not just precedent. Progressives have to make sure she truly is the best person to promote the progressive agenda over the next eight years.

This progressive has questions, and I’m not apologizing for them. Here are a few:

Is Hillary progressives’ best messenger? John Kerry.  Al Gore.  Michael Dukakis. They are all fine people, brilliant policy minds, and relatively unpersuasive on the stump. Consequently, progressives lost with them.  The 2008 vintage Hillary Clinton fell into the same category for me – relatively robotic, condescending and insincere in tone.

After President Obama, progressives are spoiled on this front. During the last two presidential elections and debates over the stimulus, health care reform and other issues, Democrats have re-learned what we learned during Bill Clinton’s time in the White House — what a huge advantage it is to have a talented Persuader-In-Chief.

Having this concern doesn’t mean I’m a misogynist. It means I want progressives to win arguments. After watching Hillary Clinton on stage for a long time, I’m not at all convinced she possess that talent.

Is Hillary a hair-triggered neocon?   In the wake of President Obama finally cleaning up George W. Bush’s messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, liberals are understandably wary of more catastrophic preemptive wars promoted by neocons.  Therefore, it should give progressives pause that neocon Robert Kagan reportedly advises Ms. Clinton on foreign policy and military issues, and considers her a kindred spirit. Here is what Kagan told the New York Times.

“If she pursues a policy, which we think she will pursue,” he added, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that…”

Because of disturbing reports like this, and because Hillary voted to authorize the disastrous Iraq War, progressives have every right to question her very carefully before blindly endorsing her.

Will Hillary Take On Wall Street? As a U.S. Senator from New York, Hillary has built very close ties on Wall Street. She is no Elizabeth Warren in either tone or substance. Politico recently reported what corporate types who know Hillary well have concluded about her:

Two dozen interviews about the 2016 race with unaligned GOP donors, financial executives and their Washington lobbyists turned up a consistent — and unusual — consolation candidate if Bush demurs, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t recover politically and no other establishment favorite gets nominated: Hillary Clinton.

The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton, a familiar face on Wall Street following her tenure as a New York senator with relatively moderate views on taxation and financial regulation.

At a time when the country has the most income inequality it has had since 1928, I’m just not too thrilled with the idea of electing the corporate lobbyists’ favorite Democrat.

An unpersuasive communicator?  A darling of the hair triggered neocons?  The Wall Street lobbyists’ favorite Democrat?  No, progressives should not automatically pronounce themselves “ready” for that kind of leader.  These are not small issues for progressives. The rumpled septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders is hardly an electric personality, but he is getting an increasing amount of interest from progressives, because of these types of concerns about the front-runner.

To earn the right to win the Democratic presidential election, Hillary Clinton needs to prove to progressives that she has improved as a communicator since the 2008 race, explain in detail what kinds of military actions she would and wouldn’t support, and lay out a detailed plan for reigning in corporate abuses and reducing income inequality.

If Hillary Clinton doesn’t do those things in the coming months, I will make no apologies for supporting an alternative. (Oh, and I’m also extremely ready for Senator Elizabeth Warren, if she changes her mind in coming months.)  At the same time, if Hillary does those things, I then would be ready for her to be my party’s nominee for President, and precedent.

Note:  This post was featured in MinnPost’s Blog Cabin.

Why Aren’t The Best and Brightest Flocking to the Minnesota Legislature?

Both political parties are busily approaching new candidates to seek seats in the Minnesota Legislature for the 2016-2018 legislative session.   This is a noble cause.  For those of us who care about good public policy, this is an opportunity to recruit Minnesota’s best and brightest to elevate the level of discourse, analysis and decision-making that will guide our great state forward.  I’m thankful to all who do this work.

So if you know anyone who has the right stuff, encourage them to run!

HELP WANTED:

Help_wanted_retroBecome a member of our dynamic Minnesota House of Representatives team!  We are seeking candidates with deep professional experience, strong educational background, extensive community ties, impeccable personal ethics and morals, outstanding interpersonal skills, uncommon diplomatic acumen, stellar leadership qualities, deep policy expertise in several different areas, and a highly photogenic family.  Come associate your good name with an organization that has the approval of  a historically low 17 percent of your friends and neighbors.   Candidates must be willing to work round the clock, seven days per week, surrounded by often manipulative, self-serving colleagues and associates, many masquerading as friends.  Even the most talented employees should be expected to remain largely silent and powerless for several years, due to seniority rules that ensure that major decisions are shaped by senior committee chairs and caucus leaders from gerrymandered-safe legislative seats.  Employees will be constantly criticized by news reporters, snarky bloggers and anonymous Tweeters, often based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Employees shouldn’t be surprised if they are audited, scrutinized and prosecuted for partisan purposes. Even the most highly accomplished employees will be automatically fired every two years. However, employees willing to work round the clock may earn rehiring,  following thousands of job interviews conducted by hostile and lightly informed interrogators who are often basing their rehiring decision  on just one of the thousands of official decisions the employee has made over the course of their career.  To finance the rehirement attempt, employees will be expected to continually raise large sums of money from friends, relatives, neighbors, strangers and interest groups making shady demands.  The non-negotiable salary for this position is less than the average salary of a sewage worker, $31,141 per year.

I ask you, what thoughtful Minnesota citizesn wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity?

Note:  This post was republished on MinnPost.

Donald Trump: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Jeb Bush?

Billionaire politiciian Donald Trump has discovered that being bluntly bigoted — as opposed to being racist the old fashioned way, through dog whistle politics like the rest of the Republican Presidential field — attracts bored political reporters and activists. In an indirect way, Trump’s new found infamy/popularity may be helpful to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

funny jeb and george bushPrior to the Trump surge, Jeb Bush was being compared to his brother former-President George W. Bush, and he wasn’t managing that comparison well. He was hiring W.’s discredited neocon military and foreign policy advisers, and stating that he still supports the disastrous invasion of Iraq, even knowing what we know now about Iraq’s relative lack of threat to our national security. In other words, prior to the Trump surge, the myth of Jeb being “the smart Bush” and “the different kind of Bush” was being exposed.  Jeb Bush desperately needed a change of subject.

He got it. In the dog days of summer, we are no longer hearing about Jeb, the Bush family’s newest Bumbler-in-Chief. Now that Mr. Trump is emerging as a viable challenger, we are now talking about “Jeb the moderate.“ For Jeb, this is progress.

Substantively, of course, Jeb is no moderate. Consider:

  • He has called himself the most pro-life Governor in modern times.
  • He signed the “stand your ground” pro-vigilante gun law.
  • He reduced the size of an already underfunded southern state government.
  • He cut taxes on the wealthy.
  • He ended affirmative action by executive order.

jeb_conservativeThis is hardly a Republican “moderate” in the tradition of other Republican Presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who was pro-union and anti-corporate monopoly, Dwight Eisenhower, who spent heavily on government-funded infrastructure and warned us about the military-industrial complex, or Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency and worked with Teddy Kennedy on a more generous version of Obamacare. Those are Republican moderates, not Jeb Bush.

By the way, I’m not alone in this conclusion. This is what other observers told the Washington Post about how Jeb governed:

When Bush left office, “he was widely, unanimously, unambiguously regarded as the most conservative governor in the United States,” according to Steve Schmidt, who was Sen. John McCain’s senior campaign adviser in the 2008 presidential race. Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, said, “He governed as a conservative, and everyone in the Florida Republican Party considered him a conservative.” Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell stated it more bluntly: “a union-busting, school-voucher-promoting, tax-cutting, gun-loving, Terri Schiavo-interfering, hard-core conservative.”

Still, sitting alongside the boorish billionaire bigot Trump, Jeb is now being labeled a “moderate.”  Everything is relative.

In a Republican primary, it’s difficult to tell how this moderate label will impact Bush Part 3. On the one hand, many hard core conservative primary voters think “moderate” is a synonym for “sell-out,” and it will undoubtedly hurt Jeb with many of them. At the same time, those ultra-conservative voters are essentially being split 19 ways, with 19 stanuchly conservative candidates on the presidential ballot. This may leave room for Jeb to win a plurality of primary voters by piecing together a coalition of 1) genuine moderates, 2) conservative voters attracted to a candidate skilled at masquerading as a moderate in order to be successful in a general election, and 3) lightly informed voters inclined to impulse buy the name brand.

However it plays out, “Jeb the Moderate” stands a better chance of winning a general election than “Jeb the Bumbling Defender of W.” or “Jeb The Conservative Extremist Governor.” For that reason, Jeb ought to be sending Trump a giant bouquet of roses, for making him look reasonable in comparison.

Out on the Fringes: Bernie and The Donald

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterThe next time you hear someone blither on about how “both sides” are equally to blame for how colossally [bleeped] up government is, or how the “extremists on each side” have driven them to distraction with their hysterical gibberish, remember this moment in time, and remind them. The “fringes” of each wing, right and left, are currently in full display and it couldn’t be easier to judge the nature of wing-nut “extremism”, if making a reasoned judgment were actually ever the point.

Out there on the left fringe/extreme is Bernie Sanders, a sitting U.S. Senator chronically PO’d at the way his party and the political system in general is forever grabbing its ankles for any big money influence that knocks on their door. To listen to the nuance-free argument of the “both sides do it” crowd, most of whom give off the odor of dime deep apologizing for the status quo, Sanders is a dangerous if not senile radical, barely more coherent than the rumpled drunk railing at a parking meter. Again, that gives them credit for ever once listening to what Sanders is saying, which I sincerely doubt they’ve ever done.

Nonetheless, Sanders is the current face of the “left wing extremist”, replacing people like Michael Moore and, oh I don’t know, Bill Maher or anyone who writes for The Daily Kos.

Meanwhile … 180 degrees to the right, among a dense herd of loudly-braying like-thinkers, we have … Donald Trump, currently nudging up in the polls of likely Republican voters with his “really classy” rants about drug-dealing, raping Mexicans, Obama’s birth certificate, his torrent of law suits and absolutely anything else that will earn him free TV time.

Candidates like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are just as silly, and Scott Walker is far more sinister, but Trump is the guy of the moment telling the modern conservative base exactly what it wants to hear. He’s the guy with mojo in the polls, to the point that his comrades-in-candidacy are attacking him, and (I sincerely believe) putting pressure on Republican National Chairman Reince Preibus to call Trump and tell him to “tone it down” … and then go on national TV and tell political junkies that he … told Trump to tone it down. (Sort of like The Doomsday Machine in “Dr. Strangelove”, you defeat the purpose of such a call if you keep it a secret.)

As far as I know, no Democratic leader has as yet called Bernie Sanders. Mainly because Bernie, as “extremist lefties” are wont to do, has not made genuinely screw-loose, racially-offensive charges against anyone, much less an ethnic group composing 15% of the population. Nor has old, frazzled-looking Bernie made a habit of absurdist fantasies about birth certificates or hired dozens of chumps off the street to wear campaign t-shirts and shriek his name as he glided down a gilded escalator. (I could get into hairstyles, but in fairness to Bernie I’m guessing he spends a lot less time getting his bouffe looking camera-ready.)

Now, I’m not saying either gentleman has even a remote chance of winning their party’s nomination. Trump is playing this summer’s version of The Loudest Fool, because every available metric tells conservative candidates that they can not sound too unhinged, hysterical or racist if they want to fire the imaginations of the GOP’s almost exclusively white, exurban-to-rural base. But as the real Big Lebowski tells The Dude, in the end, “The bums will always lose.” And Trump most certainly will, leaving the field to Jeb or, don’t think about this before you go to sleep, Scott Walker.

The (very obvious) point here is simply that the left extreme’s avatar, Bernie Sanders, is by the starkest of contrasts, making entirely reasonable complaints about the way we govern ourselves, if anyone can say “govern” without laughing. What is “appealing” to the “extreme left” bears no resemblance to that which excites the “extreme right”. Your classic lefty may be smug, sanctimonious and a simmering pot of righteous contention. But he/she isn’t willfully ignorant.

Personally, I don’t know where exactly I disagree with Sanders. (The exception would be leaving gun control to the states. A set of federal regulations is the only way to apply even a modest level of sanity.) His criticisms of the system and the Clinton’s coziness with the most cancerous elements of the system are entirely well-founded and fair. The crowds he’s drawing and his rise in the polls are a reflection of the large (but not large enough) appetite among liberals for, at the very least, a vigorous discussion — with Hillary Clinton — over what exactly she would do to re-align the distribution of wealth in this country and how, exactly, she would clamp down on our pay-to-play political game.

Bland, conventional thinkers, whose first order of business is truckling to customers pretty much like themselves, are simply too lazy to make qualitative assessments of “fringe” characters like Sanders and Trump. They certainly aren’t going to explore Trump’s appeal, beyond “telling it like it is”.

Characterization is so much easier. Even better: Counter-balancing characterization.

The Problem With Political Untouchables

Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, among many others, have made the case that our contemporary politics are “vehemently adversarial.”  That’s not exactly breaking news, but their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” does a particularly good job of documenting the phenomenon. Even more than at most points in history, our leaders are clinging to their partisan corners, and rhetorically portraying Americans in cartoonish hero versus villain terms.

A lot of attention is given to the corrosive effects of partisans’ villainizing.  But in its way, the partisans’ hero worship is just as harmful.  Polarizing partisans have effectively created groups of Untouchables, constituency groups that are so celebrated by one or both of the major political parties that leaders fail to responsibly oversee and regulate them.

Both major parties have their Untouchables. With Democrats, government workers, teachers, and union workers are among the Untouchable groups often described like infallible heroes. Meanwhile, Republicans place business people, military brass, and religious leaders on unreasonably high pedestals.   Both parties compete to see who can slather the most flattery and government benefits on bipartisan Untouchables, such as soldiers, health care providers, and seniors.

Untouchable Teachers

Miss_BeadleAs a case study, consider how the left often treats teachers. Listening to Democrats talk about teachers, you would think that every last one of them is a cross between saintly Miss Beadle from the television series Little House on the Prairie series and life-changing John Keating from the film Dead Poet’s Society. Anyone who has spent time in the public school system understands that the reality is more complicated.  Teacher quality ranges the full gamut from excellent to poor, as is the case with every profession on the planet.

So what’s the harm with a little too much constituency group rah-rah? Can’t the world benefit from more positivity?  The problem is, this over-the-top hero worship leads to bad policy, where everyone in the worshiped group is treated as if they are all equally noble and skilled.

They aren’t. While teaching is a very noble profession, poor teachers obviously exist. Being a poor teacher doesn’t equate with being a bad person – I’m not a bad guy, but I would be a horrible teacher – but bad teachers are harmful to children. Ineffective teachers, even well-meaning ones, can do a lot of damage to students when they are allowed free reign to teach ineffectively.  The education reform group Students First explains:

Unfortunately, the reality is that many current policies treat all teachers as if they are interchangeable. These policies often cause highly effective teachers to be paid less than their least effective colleagues. And they fail to protect the best teachers—the ones who are most positively impacting student achievement—from layoffs. As a result, most districts have low retention rates and retain their best and worst teachers at similar rates.

Despite this, many Democrats universally treat even poor performing teachers like Untouchables. For instance, this year Minnesota again failed to enact a law that would allow teacher performance to be one of the factors considered in teacher retention decisions. During this debate, anyone who dared to say that teachers should be judged on performance – as happens in almost all other professions — were called names by liberals.  “Anti-teacher!”  “School-basher!”  “Right wing extremist!”   (By the way, about two-thirds of Minnesotans currently fall into this category.)

Untouchable Business People

GeorgeRepublicans also have many Untouchables that they fail to regulate responsibly. Listening to the right talk about business people, or ”job creators” as their PR gurus coach them to say, you would think that all business people will automatically turn any type of tax break into great-paying jobs.  You would think that every last one of them is some combination of the job-creating genius Henry Ford and the Main Street humanitarian George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Obviously, the reality is that some businesspeople do use tax breaks to invest in ventures that create good jobs, while others will use their tax savings to amass personal wealth, expand their operations in other countries, make poor investment decisions, or invest in purchasing a plutocracy that will deliver still more tax loopholes to them.

Yet anyone who objects to giving more tax breaks to business people is labeled by Republicans as “anti-jobs,” “anti-business” or “socialist.”

The world is just not that black and white.  No group of Americans is 100% virtuous, or 100% worthless, and public policies have to recognize that.

While it may be unpopular to say in the partisan cheering sections, the truth is that some health care providers are unethical, greedy and/or insufficiently skilled, and need to be regulated.  Some government workers are incompetent, unqualfied, and/or lazy, and allowing them to continue offering sub-par job performance hurts taxpayers and vulnerable citizens they are supposed to be serving. Some seniors are wealthy enough that they don’t need to be lavished with government benefits at the expense of more vulnerable Americans. Some military leaders are too trigger happy or myopic, and therefore need to have their arguments carefully scrutinized or rejected.

When partisans blindly apotheosize political Untouchables, important oversight and regulation goes undone. Untouchable constituencies lead to unaccountable policies.  A leader fighting for accountability among Untouchables shouldn’t be shouted down with simplistic name-calling. They are merely doing their job as responsible public managers, regulators and legislators.

If Only We Really Were Terrorized

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterAs President Obama was preparing to give yet another eulogy for a mass murder by one of his constituents word was coming in of ISIS maniacs chopping the head off a man in France and slaughtering dozens of people on a beach in Tunisia. I’ll let you guess which of the two killing sprees will be universally described as “terrorism” and which has not.

Oh sure, since the Charleston church slaughter, there has been the usual attempts by the usual people to attach the “T” word, with all its emotional weight, to this latest incident of psychopathic gun play. But it hasn’t stuck, and it won’t the next time a white male American maniac — who may or may not have been given a high-caliber revolver and a few 40-bullet clips of ammo by his father for his 21st birthday (a rite of passage into American manhood) — exercises his Second Amendment rights in a grade school, a church, a movie theater or (wait for it) a football stadium.

Americans are now so inured to these mass shootings they have all but completely lost the ability to shock or upset us. Despite the vastly more likely possibility that we will be gunned down by some pathetic nitwit armed with a small arsenal he bought off the internet or out of some guy’s trunk in a WalMart parking lot, the freakout fear factor about “terrorism” simply doesn’t register. Who among us even thinks about it as we buy a ticket to “Jurassic World” or settle in for a show biz sermon at some mega church? The answer is: Practically no one.

Terrorism of the kind that makes us demand elected leaders “do something about this, now” applies only to dark-skinned foreigners. Scrawny white creeps spraying innocent folks with bullets are merely, “disturbed individuals” who skipped their meds. So instead of freaking out over how people like that can buy assault rifles and all the ammo they want, the conversation, abetted by a media terrified of upsetting conservative gun fetishists, turns instead to … the Confederate flag. A symbol rather than a lethal reality.

Contrast the impassive response to our bi-weekly mass murders to the number of people you know or hear about who devote time every day digesting and imagining the horrors of ISIS jihadis running amok in Times Square or the Mall of America.

Point being, one could be described as a rational fear. 300-plus million guns, no end of mentally disturbed time bombs lurking in every city and suburb and no real restraints on their ability to arm themselves any time the urge compels them vs. organized fanatics on the other side of the planet.

Of course, when, not if, some “ISIS inspired” nut job actually does kill someone here, the ensuing media meltdown — think of CNN and FoxNews with their hair on fire — will insure that everyone connected to a TV set is scared witless by the return of terrorism to our shores. At that point, more billions will be spent and more Constitutional freedoms gladly shucked away to prevent anything of the sort from happening again.

Meanwhile, while we wait for the first beheading in Disneyland or some other strategically chosen symbol of American infidel-ism (I’d skip Las Vegas, personally), we will calmly observe, with appropriate head-shaking and mutterings of practiced dismay, the regular and routine slaughter of our fellow innocents by characters who look pretty much like us.

Some of the stunted response to this self-inflicted terror comes out of sheer resignation. Gun control forces have accepted that given Republican and blue dog Democrat control of Congress and their fealty to the NRA, no good will ever come of pushing for tougher legislation. Post-Sandy Hook, red states generally loosened gun restrictions while blue states enacted only marginal new controls. Congress, as usual, was an embarrassment.

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “Government is the problem.”

Until someone or some influential entity figures out a way to castrate the NRA, to the point where the quivering fence-sitters dare to vote against gun nut interests and survive their next election, nothing will change.

All in all it’s a case of how we’d be better off if we really were “terrorized”.

 

Who Negotiated That Stadium Deal Again?

Vikings PR people like to tell Minnesotans that the team’s owner, billionaire Zygi Wilf, is paying about 60 percent of the ever-growing $1.2 billion stadium cost.  The truth, as Star Tribune/1500ESPN columnist Patrick Reusse pointed out back in May 2012, is that something like $450 million of the Wilf’s share will be paid by people other than the Wilfs. For instance, season ticket holders will be making exorbitant seat license payments to the Wilfs, the National Football League will be paying a subsidized “loan” to the Wilfs, and U.S. Bank will be making naming rights payments to the Wilfs.  All of this will offset the Wilf’s stadium costs by about $450 million.

Taking all of that into consideration, Mr. Wilf looks to be shelling out more in the neighborhood of  $250 million of his own money, or 21% of the cost of the $1.2 billion total, not the 60 percent the Vikings claim.  It’s difficult for an outsider to come up with precise numbers, but that seems like a pretty fair, pardon the pun, ballpark estimate.

Meanwhile, state and local taxpayers are paying about half a billion dollars for the Vikings’ stadium, or about 40 percent percent of the stadium cost.  In other words, taxpayers are paying significantly more than the billionaire owner.

Despite being the majority investor, taxpayers have no say in the name of the stadium, and will be getting 0 percent of the estimated $10 million per year of corporate naming rights payments that U.S. Bank will be paying over the next two decades.  The billionaire Wilfs will be getting 100 percent of the $220 million in naming rights payments.

Formerly_People_s_Stadium

mao_tiananmen_squareIt’s bad enough that U.S. Bank looks to be getting more corporate visibility than Chairman Mao demanded for himself at Tiananmen Square. To add insult to aesthetic injury, taxpayers aren’t getting a single penny for putting up with U.S. Bank’s excessive corporate graffiti.

And so ladies and gentlemen, I give you U.S. Bank Stadium, formerly billed to skeptical taxpayers as the “people’s stadium.”  State leaders should be doing some retrospective soul-searching about how they got so thoroughly fleeced by the Wilfs on this deal.

Damn, We Love Our Badassery.

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterMy nominee for the quote of the week has to go to Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton. Reacting to the Sons of Anarchy-like shoot-out between rival biker gangs in front of a local “breasteraunt” that left nine dead, eight injured, something like 170 weapons scattered about and as many bullet holes in bodies, buildings and vehicles as an ISIS jihadi attack, Swanton, a Texan let’s remember, remarked, “This is one of the worst gun fights we’ve ever had in the city limits.”

Key words: ” … one of”.

Not “the”.

Merely, (“… one of”).

‘Murica. Where nine dead in an OK Corral gunfight between thug gangs in an Anywhere USA strip mall still doesn’t rate as “the worst”. And where thanks to misinterpreted gun laws, lobbyists and powerful feelings of personal inadequacy we keep well-armed militias on the highways and in parking lots terrorizing innocent shoppers popping into Cabela’s to restock their ammo before grabbing a lunch of burgers and fries with a side of large-ish jiggling boobs.

I’ve been more embarrassed for this country. There was George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and “Rocky” beating “Network” for Best Picture in 1977. But the scene in Waco was such a stunning convergence of so many of the elements that make us a morbid laughing stock to the rest of the First World you really have to give yourself a few minutes to absorb it all.

I mean, after you’ve digested the particulars I’ve just mentioned; the gangs of free-roaming thugs, the quantity of weaponry they’re always carrying, the booby-bistro setting and the first line casualties, you move on to the high likelihood that just like every other over-the-top gun rampage we’ve endured this one too will be quickly forgotten (which in a way is to say “forgiven”), because the media, which pays no real attention to organized crime until it explodes into view in an episode like this, is far more comfortable covering the crises of Bruce Jenner and the buffoonery of Ted Cruz than getting sideways with people who would actually … kill them. (Not that I’m blaming them. I’m just saying that’s reality.)

Then, just for icing, scroll through the pictures of the Waco aftermath. Were the only cops and bystanders allowed on the scene the morbidly obese? Did you have tip past 300 pounds to get through the yellow tape? Does that particular strip mall have a requirement that you be at least 150 pounds overweight before you’ll be served? Or is it just Texas? Frankly, I’m astonished there weren’t more deaths by diabetes than gunfire. But that’s the land we love.

Forgetting the usual gun debate, since it is abundantly clear after the the Sandy Hook massacre that the only legislative response we will ever in response to our own home-brewed terrorism is to make it easier for psychos to buy guns, let’s just make a comment on the male and intensely ‘Murican need to project … badassery.

The Waco thugs — and do note that the usual right-wing pundits are not deploying that loaded phrase on 99% white biker gangs — are flat-out criminals, running drugs, guns and women pretty much as they please, with the biggest threat to their bottom line coming from other gangs, not the FBI or local (grossly over-weight) police. The Bandidos even have the phrase “we’re the people your parents warned you about” as their club motto.

They are, put another way, a bunch of psychos.

So, walk me through the psychological gear links that make aging urban desk jockeys so eager to emulate the look of these feral lunks? And I’m not talking people riding motorcycles. I’m talking the whole black leathers, do-rag, probably-packing, flash-me-in-Sturgis, has-to-be-an-unmuffled-Harley crowd. Certainly there’s a conscious association the bond salesman/weekend Bandido is making to the celebrated criminal class. Why?

The claim will be that it’s all a bit of ironic fun. Another tribal thing for (mainly) guys who’d blow out a knee or rotator cuff if they engaged in anything more fraternal and physical than cruising all day on a 900-pound motorcycle. But, come on. The sense that you’re (still) a threat (if you never were to anyone but yourself) is fundamental to the faux biker ethos, just as it is to the gun fetish crowd. It’s the cheapest imaginable buy-in to a veneer of warrior masculinity. Go to a store. Try on some chaps, a vest and a bike and … voila! … one dangerous dude. Or so you hope the chicks will think.

It’s be ridiculously, laughably adolescent if the white collar wannabes weren’t lending a form of credibility to their criminal/mostly Aryan role models.

But that’s what we tolerate in the land of the free, over-armed and over-weight.

 

Finally:  We had some technical issues with WordPress here at “Wry Wing” lately. But we’re better now.

Save the Planet … with Fourth Generation Nukes

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterMy suggestion for Earth Day is that liberals in particular reexamining their attitude toward nuclear power may be one of the best things they can do for Mother Earth.

President Obama is down in the Everglades today drawing attention to the fact that climate change and continued growth in south Florida, up and down both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is pumping salt water in and sucking fresh water out of the state’s porous limestone base at a rate that will soon leave that rainy, spongy area in a predicament nearly as perilous as the American Southwest is facing in its current historic drought.

“Water and nukes?” “What’s the connection?”

Glad you asked.

But first, let’s emphasize that while no new nuclear plants have been brought on line in the United States since Three Mile Island, significant advances have been made in how to generate nuclear power, to the point that a comparison between what is known as Generation II nuclear plants — the hulking, multi-billion dollar monstrosities at Monticello and Prairie Island here in Minnesota — and Generation IV plants largely on drawing boards around the world is kind of like comparing glowing rotten apples to nectarines.

Most liberals, in my experience have simply closed their minds to nuclear power on the grounds that A: It always produces toxic waste that lasts thousands of years, B: Can melt down in any terror attack or natural disaster and kill thousands in the surrounding area, or C: Is an energy source that can only be built by the same greed head bastards who have polluted the atmosphere and wound us into god knows how many international conflicts with medieval sultanates and lunatics around the world.

The third issue there — lining the pockets of the likes of Koch Industries — is still a factor, but the first two are no longer anywhere close to relevancy as too many otherwise sophisticated people believe they are. In fact, Generation IV nukes have the ability to consume, i.e. “clean up” all the existing waste sitting in concrete casks and once planned for centuries of internment at Yucca Mountain north of Vegas.

Don’t believe me. But read this from James Hansen, arguably the godfather of climate change, the man who brought the issue to the world’s attention almost 30 years ago and is still a respected thought-leader on how to actually reduce the impact of this human-exacerbated disaster.

Says Hansen: “In all countries first priority should be energy efficiency, which has tremendous potential. After that comes renewable energies and improved low-loss smart electric grids. Everybody hopes that will be enough, but I cannot find real world energy experts who believe that is likely in the foreseeable future, even in the United States. This is all the more true in India and China, which are even more dependent on coal and have faster growing energy demands.The current fleet of (2nd generation) nuclear power plants is aging. The 3rd generation plants that are likely to gain construction approval soon have some significant improvements over the 2nd generation, using less than1 percent of the nuclear fuel, leaving the rest in long-lived (>10,000 years) wastes. If that were the end of the story, I would not have any enthusiasm for nuclear power. However, it is clear that 4th generation nuclear power can be ready in the medium-term, within about 20 years. Some people argue that it could be much sooner – however, the time required for its implementation is of little importance. The reason that 4th generation nuclear power is a game-changer is that it can solve two of the biggest problems that have beset nuclear power. 4th generation uses almost all of the energy in the uranium (or thorium), thus decreasing fuel requirements by two orders of magnitude.”

For a slightly more pop and more easily-digestible version of what Hansen says and the current reality of 4th generation nuclear power in reducing carbon emission, dial up the 2013 documentary “Pandora’s Promise” on Roku or Apple TV.

Fellow liberals have mostly ignored the startling advances in nuclear power generation in the belief that the world’s energy demands can be met, in our children’s lifetimes at least, by an aggressive commitment to solar, wind and geothermal power. But while substantial advances are being made in all those technologies, each would have to experience truly exponential growth, and immediately, to provide anything close to the amount of fossil fuel that is going to be burned over the next 50 years powering advanced and burgeoning economies and … providing water to climate change-ravaged regions of the planet.

A vast new supply of electrical power — for desalinating sea water — could be a viable long-term solution to Florida’s dilemma, the so-called “mega-drought” currently effecting California and most of the heavily-populated desert Southwest, along with innumerable other regions around the world. (Additionally, the infusion of an immense, almost entirely “renewable”, source of electric power could radically accelerate the transition to electric-powered vehicles. Not just pricey Teslas, but cheap scooters and vehicles for Third World economies, thereby offering a substantial, secondary reduction of carbon emissions.)

Obviously, in an era when half the American legislative system has nothing to offer but juvenile obstruction there’s no reason to get our hopes too high that anything far-sighted will occur in our remaining years. But the cynicism of one end of the political spectrum is no reason that supposedly more open-minded progressives shouldn’t at least drop their blinders and educate themselves on what is both possible and pragmatic.

 

The Return of Randy the Ombudsman

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterWriting for MinnPost.com I recently waded back into the lack of ombudsman at any local news organization, by which I mean someone – anyone – who regularly explains what in the hell the newspaper, radio or TV station was thinking when they ran Story X or ignored Story Y.

In an age when no healthy skeptic has reason to take anyone at their word, an ombudsman, someone who does the ‘splainin, as Ricky Ricardo would say, would be a bona fide value-added service. Or so you’d think. (On the other hand, if you’ve actually got something to hide, setting someone loose to ‘splain how completely clueless you were when Story X went down is probably not a good thing and stonewalling may be a prudent move.)

Well, it turns out fortune has smiled on Twin Cities media and what still passes for their newsrooms. After a multi-year hiatus, when his seasonal bear-baiting and booya service occupied his every waking hour, an old friend, Randy is returning. It seems he has hired on his cousin, Leonard, to scour northwest Wisconsin’s highways and ATV trails for booya meat, leaving Randy with several more hours a week to gather his thoughts at Douglas County’s finest road house, the Dry Dock Saloon, right off Highway 35 – and practically underneath the giant microwave tower.

We hadn’t seen Randy since the Dry Dock aborted its $10 All You Can Drink Wednesday special. But a week or so back, on Taco Night, we found him there, nursing his sixth Spotted Cow and found him entirely agreeable to resuming his freelance ombudsman work, not only for the Star Tribune, but the Pioneer Press, MPR and every Twin Cities TV and radio station that hasn’t bothered to explain themselves in forever, which is all of them.

The deal was pretty straightforward as media negotiations go. In exchange for covering his Spotted Cow and taco habit, Randy would ‘splain everything that needed ‘splainin’, until all questions were answered or he fell off his stool, whichever came first.

All in all Rand’ looked pretty good, especially considering the nasty frostbite he got after getting lost in the state forest, with flu-like symptoms, after the big Moose Junction Booya in early March. Thank god those dudes heading for their meth shack found him just before dawn.

By way of priming the pump, I hit Randy with a few ombuds-like questions that had been sent my way on the off-chance that we would reconnect.

Maintaining a strict one Cow to every three for Randy ratio I tossed out the first question.

 

“Randy: I see some East Coast university has proven that the media has gone all-in on Al Gore butt kissing and has started ignoring “climate realists” like me. The survey says a lot of these half-bankrupt daily rags are refusing to run letters  clear-headed folks write pointing out the millions of flaws in this global warming bull [bleep] hoax [bleep]. I’m a big supporter of local businesses, even lefty apologists like the Star Tribune — being an east side guy, the Pioneer Press fits my style of thinking a lot better. But I’m worried. Is this second-class citizen thing for people like me spreading to Minnesota? I mean, hell. You want to see my plowing bill for the driveway last year? It snowed! Thank god TV stations are still holding the line against this liberal snake oil.” Signed, SSH, St. Mary’s Point, MN.

Randy says: Well here’s a news flash for you: The big time media types have people who go outdoors for them. Their idea of “climate” is an air-conditioned tennis court. I haven’t tipped a Cow with one of those prisses since I can’t remember when, unless they snuck into the Moose Junction party uninvited.

So they think they can just willy-nilly up and decide that a hoax is not a hoax and some of the best scientific minds BP and Exxon have ever hired are making [bleep] up? Well, excuse me! They can try it. They can pull all this “peer review” crapola and say some nerd in Iceland is out there with his slide rule measuring glaciers, but you and I, people who buy our groceries and clothes from real stores, like Menards and Fleet Farm, have a way of reminding the pencil necks in their swank newspaper offices how their bread gets buttered. If the Star Tribune or that other one start going ‘New York’ on us, we’ll remind them pretty quick what happens if you don’t give real Americans equal time on this science-y [bleep].”

“Randy: I’m a huge Vikings fan. I took out a second mortgage on my trailer to get my personal seat license for end zone seats at the new place and I am so stoked for that first kick-off. But here’s the thing, neither of the papers in town gives anywhere near enough attention to the second-biggest season of all. You know, screw baseball, basketball and hockey. We’re talking mock-draft season! That sweet spot time of year, from mid-January until late April, when great football minds speculate 24/7 on which can’t-miss 21 year-old The Purple will draft to guarantee them a Super Bowl win for the new People’s Stadium. But where real papers used to give mock drafts a good two or three ages pages a day, the locals are slacking off. If I get one piddly story a day, I’m lucky. If this doesn’t change, I’m getting one of those app phone things, just as soon as my credit improves.” SidH, Golden Valley.

Randy says: I hear ya on that, dude. Football is the only true American sport. I know because I see more ads for trucks and beer watching football than anything else. Hell, what do they advertise on soccer games? Panty liners? These people are short-shrifting real Americans and real men by not running more mock draft stories. If they need more experts they can come up here. Leonard and I’ll give ’em something to write about. If they buy a couple rounds.”

Randy: I don’t know much about TV news but i used to think it was all about getting good-looking gals out in front of house fires, car wrecks and yellow police tape. But lately I see stuff like a couple dudes running off to some resort and partying with the locals. Sometimes they even run these stories about some local bait shop or boat motor repair joint, which I used to think they called “ads”, but they seem to doing for free. What gives? Or maybe I should say, “How do I get them to come up here and plug my bear-baitin’ business?” I could tell those boys a couple hundred good stories. P.S. Those guys aren’t poofters are they? I ain’t never seen hair like that around here.” Leonard, Foxboro, WI.

Randy; Jeezus christ, Leonard! You done driving Pioneer Trail like I told you? I heard AJ clipped a doe out there last night. That meat’d still be fresh enough. But to what you’re sayin'; as I understand it these TV folks aren’t getting anywhere near the dough your Don Shelbys were getting. So they gotta work in some perks anyway they can. If this means they grab a few days fishin’ or personal water-crafting up here in God’s country, I’m all for it. Plus, who says that ain’t news? I mean if they stayed down in the Cities what would they cover? Little kiddies making Easter bunnies? Some new, toity restaurant? People get tired of that hard news crap after a while. A couple brewskies by the lake sounds a lot better.”

If you have a question for Randy the All-Purpose Ombudsman, send it to:

brianlambertmn@comcast.net

 

or, write it on a coaster and leave it on the bar at the Dry Dock.

Five Reasons I Can’t Get On The Wild Bandwagon

It’s not that I’m opposed to fans jumping on bandwagons. I not only am tolerant of bandwagon fans, I highly recommend the practice.   Supporting chronically losing teams is something with which I have a lot of experience, and I can attest that it is not at all good for your mental health.

Still, I’ve decided I can’t jump on the Wild bandwagon. As inspiring as their dramatic comeback in the second half of this season has been, I can’t make myself into a bandwagon hockey fan, even when the hometown boys are the hottest team in the National Hockey League (NHL).

This realization caused me to do some reflection.  These are the five reasons why I decided that I can’t get on the Wild bandwagon.

#5. The grammar is too awkward. I don’t have a lot of hard-and-fast rules in my life, but I do have this one. Sports teams must be named after nouns, preferably critters or violent human beings. They should never be named after adjectives. They also must be plural, not singular, because the team name is referring to a group of people. In my book, any team that forces me to awkwardly exclaim “The Wild are, um is, um are, um is, going to kick your ass” in a moment of passion is not worthy of my face paint.

toddler_cheering_hockey_fight_-_Google_Search#4. Toddler fans screaming for entrails during fights. Fist fights happen in other sports, but in other sports they are greeted with immediate league expulsion, stern sportscaster condemnation and the vast majority of fans sadly shaking their heads. But in hockey, bloody fist fights are greeted with bored referees picking up teeth instead of breaking up the fight, and fans of all ages enthusiastically jumping to their feet to cheer for maximum bloodshed.  Though starting a fight results in penalty box time that would seem to weaken your team’s chance of winning, it is still universally celebrated in hockey culture as being savvy and heroic. It’s not that I’m too pure for violent sports – football is my favorite – but even I have my limits.

Hockey_penalty_signs#3. Overregulated anarchy.   For a sport that celebrates lawlessness and fighting like none other, there sure are a lot of confusing penalties in hockey. Some of them are pretty self-explanatory. “Elbowing,” “Eye gouging,” “Kicking”, “Headbutting,” and “Spearing” are pretty clear to me, though I still am baffled about when each qualifies as a minor penalty, major penalty, misconduct penalty, game misconduct penalty, match penalty, gross misconduct penalty, stacked penalty, and penalty shot. But I do know one thing for sure: I will understand the theory of relativity, how to cure cancer, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the meaning of life before I will understand “Icing.”

foxtrax_-_Google_Search#2. The focal point of the game is invisible. Even when I had much younger eyes, I couldn’t begin to follow the puck when watching hockey on TV. When you can’t see the puck, all there is to see are a mass of bodies chaotically gliding and colliding until punches are thrown or horns are sounded and celebrations ensue. I’m sorry, but a sport in which the focal point of the game is invisible to fans lacks a minimum requirement to be considered a spectator sport. Until they bring back the FoxTrax glow puck, I’m not going to stare at the screen for three hours pretending that I have a clue about what is happening.

sad_vikings_fan#1. Not their turn yet. The final reason I can’t get on the Wild bandwagon is this: As a long-suffering Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Gophers fan, I have to say that the Wild has or have (see what I mean) not suffered nearly long enough to have earned the right to succeed. In Minnesota, it is considered impolite to win championships after a mere 18 years as a franchise. The Twins waited 26 years. The especially snakebit Vikings have been in the hunt for over a half century. So it wouldn’t be fair for me to cheer for the Wilders so early in their fans’ misery cycle.

Note:  This post was also republished on MinnPost.

Dear DFLers: This is Minnesota, Not MinneSweden

These are very heady times for Minnesota DFLers. Governor Mark Dayton and DFL legislators had the courage to raise taxes, increase long-term investments, and raise the minimum wage.  In the process, Minnesota Republicans were proven wrong, because the economic sky did not fall as they predicted it would.   In fact, liberally governed Minnesota, with an unemployment rate of just 3.7 percent, has one of the stronger economies in the nation.

And the subsequent coverage from the liberal echo chamber has been positively intoxicating for DFLers:

“This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Increased the Minimum Wage — Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country” (Huffington Post)

“The Unnatural: How Mark Dayton Bested Scott Walker—and Became the Most Successful Governor in the Country”  (Mother Jones)

“What happens when you tax the rich and raise the minimum wage? Meet one of USA’s best economies” (Daily Kos)

Comparative_Economic_Systems__SwedenHigh as a kite from these clippings and the vindication they represent, DFLers run the risk of over-stepping, of pushing Minnesotans further than it they are comfortable going. As much as DFL politicians fantasize about bringing the social welfare model of a Scandinavian nation to a state populated with so many Scandinavian immigrants, a recent survey in the Star Tribune provides a harsh reminder that Minnesota, politically speaking, is not MinneSweden.

In the wake of a $2 billion budget surplus, only one out of five (19 percent) Minnesotans wants to “spend most to improve services.” Among the Independent voters that DFLers need to persuade in order to win elections and legislative power, only one out of four (24 percent) supports spending the entire surplus.

At the same time, two times as many Minnesotans support the predictable Republican proposal to “refund most to taxpayers” (38 percent support). Their refund proposal is also the most popular option among the Independent voters that Republicans need to win over in order to have electoral success in 2016.

The Star Tribune also reported that their survey found that Minnesotans are not too wild about the gas tax increase the DFLers propose.  A slim majority (52 percent) oppose “Governor Dayton’s proposal to raise the wholesale tax on gasoline to increase spending on road and bridge projects?”  A healthier majority (62 percent) of Minnesota’s’s Independents oppose the gas tax increase.

I happen to agree with the DFL on the merits.  Minnesota has a lot of hard work to do in order to remain competitive into the future, so I personally support investing almost all of the budget surplus, with a healthy amount for the rainy day fund, and a gas tax increase. However at the same time, I’m enough of a realist to recognize that sustainable progressive change won’t happen if Daily Kos-drunk DFLers overstep and lose the confidence of swing voters in the process.

DFLers who want to win back the trust of a majority of the Minnesota electorate would be wise to enact a mix of sensibly targeted investments, a resilient rainy day fund and targeted tax relief.  That kind of pragmatic, balanced approach won’t turn into St. Paul into Stockholm, but it might just put more DFLers in power, so that the DFL can ensure Republicans don’t turn Minnesota into South Dakota or Wisconsin.

Frat House Group-think, from Oklahoma to the U.S. Senate

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterNot being a big “joiner” — no bowling league will have me and the Elks Lodge want too much in dues — two nearly simultaneous events this past week reaffirmed my long-held belief that the truly wise man follows his own path.

First, those Oklahoma frat boys. When I was in college, during the height of the anti-Vietnam counter culture, nothing was less cool than a fraternity. Country club prep houses for kids too self-absorbed and weirdly rule-bound to notice or care that the times were a-changin’. A duller crowd you couldn’t invent, even if a lot of flashy girls turned out for their parties.

Mainly though it was the tribal mindset, the appalling group-think required to gain entry to … what? A band of brothers who might some day rule hedge funds that could single-handedly crush a Third World nation? Or, more likely, the possibility of exchanging a secret handshake with an insurance agent selling you your first homeowner policy? The thrill didn’t register. Worse, the thought of acquiescing to the herd mentality that required you to run naked through a girls’ dorm with a propeller on your head while singing “Wild Thing” didn’t strike me as particularly, well, dignified.

Clearly, I was an outlier. Post counter-culture, the Greek culture has come roaring back, or ranting back as was the case with the astonishing numbskulls on video from Oklahoma, who at least have the excuse that they are a bunch of liquored-up kids. (Over dinner last night my wife and I agreed that short of John Wayne Gacy does anything reflect worse on your parenting skills than a kid leading a “no n—–s” singalong? Jesus!)

Human history is littered with examples of the extreme downside of tribalism, the need to belong to a group that you believe gives you more power than yourself alone, the feeling of affirmation, the certainty that if so many others who look like you are doing it must be okay. It’s no great consolation that the young are most susceptible to the allure of malignant group-identity.

So, second example, what can you say about 47 Republican Senators who … sign their names … to a letter to the Great Satan-hating Ayatollahs of Iran urging them, tribe-to-tribe, to resist a deal impeding their nuclear ambitions? These aren’t stupid kids, and as far as I can tell none of them were drunk at the time they signed on, although there’s no guarantee a few of that crowd aren’t on high-powered dementia medication.

The letter of course was the inspiration of newby Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a 37 year-old Harvard man with deep Tea Party roots and ambitions far beyond Razorback-holler. (Over the years, local bloggers, the Powerline lawyers, have regularly soiled themselves promoting young Mr. Cotton as a “true conservative”, i.e. tribal warrior). It goes without saying that as a dragon-breathed Constitutionalist (or whatever) Cotton’s master plan is far more about himself than saving the free world from a bad deal on nuclear tubing.

Cotton is following the well-marked path of other archer-than-arch conservatives like Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, the entire House class of 2010 and every foghorn on talk radio. Go big. Go loud. Go half-insane. The people who will send you money and push you forward as their next savior will be delighted far beyond reason. They will give you license to go forth and smite the infidel libtard tribes until not so much as a lame dog walks among their burning huts.

There’s no downside whatsoever for Cotton. But what can you say about … John McCain, a guy already stamped by history as have demonstrated some of the worst judgment of any top-level politician of his era? (Sarah Palin.) How does he explain, I mean truly explain, attaching his name to something so nakedly self-serving as Cotton’s letter?

The suspicion is that like the muddled-head frat kid egged on by the house’s alpha-party animal McCain piped up and added his voice to, you know, prove he too is worthy of the tribe.

Making Standardized Tests A Less Evil Necessary Evil

standardized_testsFor a lot of years, whenever I thought about standardized tests, I only thought about how much I sucked at them. The difference between my strong grades and my weak standardized test scores was dramatic.  My low standardized test scores cost me early academic opportunities, scholarship money and self-confidence.

But now that I’ve been professionally successful for a few decades, I’ve been thinking about those tests in a different way.

The primary reason I was lousy at standardized tests was that I was always running out of time, and being forced to randomly fill in answers at the last moment. More to the point, I was running out of time was because I couldn’t stop thinking about things unrelated to standardized test problem-solving.

While reading through questions, I’d continually think about all kinds of extraneous things:

  • “Why did the test makers word it that way? Wouldn’t it have been more clear if they had said…(composing in head)?”
  • “What is it about me that makes me a crappy test taker?
  • “Why do test makers think that particular kind of question is a reasonable indicator of future success?  Are they right?”
  • “Why do they need to time tests?  Is life like Jeopardy where you have to buzz in the fastest?”
  • “Why a #2 pencil?  What do the numbers even mean?  Is there a good reason for that, or is it a control thing?  Would they really throw me out I snuck in a rebel pencil?”

Why? What? How? You don’t need to be Stanley Kaplan to understand how this kind of frivolous intellectual meandering hurts standardized test performance. Every moment I was diverting thoughts to those kinds of questions is obviously a moment I wasn’t solving problems.

But I couldn’t stop myself. Today they might say I had inattentive type Attention Deficit Disorder. In those days teachers said I was “dreamy” or “spacey,” and they were correct.  I was more successful in the classroom, where time was much less of an issue and different things were evaluated, but my off-topic musing was devastating when it came to tightly timed standardized tests.

Weakness Becomes Strength

But in later years, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts about all of this: It occured to me that the thought processes I was using when I should have been focused on the standardized test is precisely the kind of thought processes that has made me successful on a professional level.   I get hired because people say I’m analytical, creative, unconventional, curious about a wide variety of subjects, a persuasive writer, and can put myself into others’ heads.

In other words, if I had been better at the things that made me a poor standardized test taker, I might have stunk at my chosen career.

Ban Standardized Tests?

The realization that standardized tests weren’t entirely correct in their verdict about me doesn’t make me want to ban standard tests.  Many poor test takers seem to go there, but I don’t.

A world without standardized tests certainly would have been good for me, but I don’t think it would be good for society collectively.  Standardized tests are necessary for holding administrators, teachers and students accountable, and for helping administrators, teachers and students understand specific weaknesses and strengths, so they can use that knowledge to improve. These tests are far from perfect, but relying solely on random anecdotal evidence presented by people with self-interested agendas is much worse.

Last week, Governor Dayton announced that he was recommending a reduction in the number of standardized tests used in the k-12 system, from 21 to 14.   I haven’t studied the issue nearly enough to be qualified to judge the specifics of his recommendation.  But whatever the optimal number of tests, I am glad that most of the standardized tests that I detest will continue to be used.

We don’t need to do away with standardized tests.  What we need is for counselors, teachers and parents to be doing more to help kids understand what test results do and don’t mean. We need lower scorers to understand that, while the ACT, SAT and GRE will close some doors, research indicates that they still can be academically successful.

As scores are being shared, students should be told this broader truth:  Lots of people with great test scores struggle mightily in their careers, while lots of people with poor test scores excel. More importantly, students should study why both of those things happen.  They should study the role effort, creativity, and passion will play in making their post-standardized test lives.    We need to explain the ways in which adults routinely turn their disadvantages into advantages, and how the skills and knowledge evaluated on standardized tests aren’t necessarily the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in many fields.

The problem with standardized tests is not that they exist.  They problem is that we do too little to help dazed and confused test takers put their scores into proper perspective. If we were just a little more deliberate and thoughtful about helping students gain a deeper understanding of what their test scores do and don’t mean, we could make this necessary evil slightly less evil.

Note:  This post was also republished in MinnPost.

Dirty Job Dayton Dusts Himself Off

Dayton_dirty_2Governor Mark Dayton is Minnesota’s political version of Mike Rowe, the star of the Discovery Channel television show “Dirty Jobs.” Rowe’s show is all about him taking on difficult, disrespected and grotesque jobs that others avoid, such as being a sewer inspector, road kill scavenger, worm dung farmer, shark repellent tester, maggot farmer, and sea lamprey exterminator.  Who knew that worm dung needed farming?

Dirty Job Dayton

Governor Mark Dayton may not be farming worm dung, but consider just a few of the filthy tasks Dirty Job Dayton has already embraced in his five year’s in office.

Taxing Most Powerful Minnesotans.  Before Dayton, non-partisan analyses were showing that the wealthiest Minnesotans were not paying their fair share of taxes.  So Dayton ran for Governor unabashedly championing tax increases on the state’s most wealthy citizens, which earned him some very powerful enemies. At the time, progressive political consultants considered advocating almost any kind of tax increase political suicide for candidates. But Dayton ran on a platform of large tax increases, won a razar thin victory at the polls, and then promptly passed the tax increases into law as promised.

Implementing Unpopular Obamacare.  Dayton wasn’t done there. One of his very first acts of Governor was to champion Obamacare, which many politicians were extremely nervous about at the time. In contrast to his fellow Governors in neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota, Dayton embraced Obamacare’s Medicare expansion to cover 35,000 of the most vulnerable Minnesotans.   The Governor had Obamacare protesters shouting him down in his announcement news conference, but he let them have their say and stuck to his principles without looking back.  As a result of taking on a number of controversial Obamacare implementation tasks, Minnesota now has the second best rate of health insurance coverage of any state (95%).

Resolving Vikings Stadium Quagmire.  Then there was the Vikings Stadium debate that had been festering for almost a decade before Dayton came to office. Despite polls showing that subsidizing the stadium was unpopular, Dayton provided active backing for legislation to publicly subsidize the Vikings Stadium.  While noting that he is “not one to defend the economics of the NFL,” he plugged his nose and embraced a job he didn’t welcome, but felt was necessary to keep the Vikings in Minnesota and boost a then-suffering construction sector.

Cutting Coveted Social Safety Net.  Early in Dayton’s tenure as Governor, he even made significant cuts in state safety net programs, which is one of the very worst jobs any progressive can ever get.  Faced with a large budget shortfall, he proposed cutting $950 million in planned spending, told agencies to cut their budgets by up to 10 percent, and cut the state workforce by 6 percent.  That work had to leave even Dirty Job Dayton feeing grimy.

Love these positions or hate them — and Dayton himself didn’t relish many of them — no one can accuse Dayton of political timidity.

Dirtiest Job Yet

But this winter, Dirty Job Dayton finally met his Waterloo. With no political allies in sight, he attempted to push through salary increases for state agency commissioners, who are making less than their peers in many other states.   Dayton said he “knew there would be negative reaction,” but, as is his habit, he plugged his nose and pushed forward anyway.

How did that go for him?  Well, in the last few weeks Dayton learned that attempting to raise bureaucrats’ pay makes shark repellent testing look like a walk in the park.

Fresh off that experience, one might expect that Dayton would now stick to clean, safe, and easy jobs for the remainder of his time in office.  But if you believe that, you obviously don’t know Dirty Job Dayton very well.

Next Up:  Slinging Asphalt

After the salary increase shellacking Dayton endured, he has already found a new thankless task to champion – fixing Minnesota’s deteriorating roads and bridges.  While Republicans want a modest short-term fix funded out of the current budget surplus, that would be much too easy for Dirty Job Dayton. Dayton is attempting to put in place an ambitious decade-long $11 billion solution. Such a long-term fix necessitates a 16 cent per gallon (at current prices) increase in the gas tax. Not surprisingly, the polls are looking a little rough at the moment.

But Dirty Job Dayton doesn’t care. Like Mike Rowe, if the assignment stinks, scares, or stings, he’s in!

Ladies, It’s Time You Got Tough with Hillary

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterAre we having another deep doo-doo deja vu Clinton moment, or what? Suddenly it’s 1998 all over again. If only the economy was nearly as good.

So it seems Hillary Clinton, presumptive next president, played by her own rules and kept her State Department e-mails (more or less) hidden from official prying eyes. That is except for government types who received her e-mails. Those are still on the big server system, accessible to every EOH (Enemy of Hillary) who wants to root around and prove she personally armed the terrorists who killed the ambassador in Benghazi.

Now … obviously … this is a (big) deal because she’s Hillary goddam Clinton, with an empty six-lane freeway in front of her leading to the White House. If she wasn’t we’d still be obsessing over that stupid dress thing. Whether this outrage(!) actually has legs, which is to say if the conservative outrage machine can sustain it for 18 months, remains to be seen. Personally, I doubt it, since Es of H have a bad habit of picking the wrong horse to saddle up their righteous indignation. See: Whitewater, Benghazi.

But this email flap is another reminder that liberals might want to demand a hell of a lot more from Her Regency before the coronation. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the acclamation route to big power. I like candidates who have had a scare thrown into them, people who have been forced to explicitly defend and/or adjust their thinking and promises based on aggressive examination from E’s and F’s alike.

The current Hillary-Jeb match-up is so embarrassing. Clinton and Bush. Again. We look like a goddam banana republic, alternating between owners of the two biggest estancias every eight years. It’s bad enough we have to endure a system at both the national and state level where millionaires (of both parties) essentially buy themselves a job, usually guaranteeing that their previous stakeholders have primary access to their souls. It’s so damned unimaginative, if nothing else.

More to the point, as many have written before, the Hillary ascension, with no Plan B, strikes me as recklessly perilous. Even if the jowl-flapping buffoons of modern conservatism fail to make “Email-gate” stick, where are we if something truly grave happens to our one-and-only roadblock to Bush III, or President Scott Walker? Tomorrow is promised to no one. Hillary may not get hit by a bus, but not being the springiest of chickens, her health could fail, or we could discover that she really did plan the Benghazi attack. What then?

Given a choice between female candidates, I’d much prefer Elizabeth Warren. (Hell, I’d prefer Warren over any other Democrat, x or y chromosome, off the top of my head.) But a Warren candidacy would ignite the most godawful firestorm of coordinated, multi-front, big money attacks this back water oligarchy has ever seen. She’s despised and feared that much by Wall Street. And frankly, I doubt she’s prepared yet for that level of intensity of defamation. Hillary on the other hand seems quite cozy and well-triangulated among the Goldman Sachs and Citigroups of the world.

Liberal women in particular seem all but unanimously united in their support of Hillary, which is understandable to a point. After 240 years of alleged democracy, a woman president is waaay overdue and Hillary clearly has more experience and retail savvy than any plausible male on the scene. (Sorry, Joe Biden. Ain’t never going to happen.) That said, it may be that the women rushing to carry Hillary’s sedan chair up the White House steps are precisely the people to be grilling her most intensely on how exactly she intends to transform this country’s financial regulatory system, which is so tightly inter-locked with campaign finance, which is to blame for the obscene, truly Guatemala-like corruption and waste of DC?

There are a half dozen other good questions, but getting Her Highness on record, explicitly and in detail on that point alone would be a damned valuable start.

And if (not when) she answers, don’t put up with any of the usual Clinton-ish legalisms.