Category Archives: Politics

#KeepFacebook

When my kids were old enough to start using social media and smartphones, they heard me repeat one piece of advice so often you’d think they were training for the eye-rolling Olympics:

“Always remember, anything you share electronically is no longer your own, and nothing online is private.”

Facebook users expressing outrage at a violation of their “privacy” should remember the same.

I’m not saying Facebook is blameless – as I write this, Mark Zuckerberg is facing a gallery of angry senators and telling them Facebook was wrong, they screwed up, he’s sorry. Cambridge Analytica played fast and loose with user data, and Facebook either didn’t try hard enough or didn’t care enough to stop it.

But the vitriol against Facebook today is broader than anger at the Cambridge Analytica situation. Users seem to think the content we post on the site is somehow private, that we own it, and even that Facebook should have to pay us for it.

We need to reflect upon these three truths:

First, Facebook is paying us for our data. Software engineers built a great site. They give us a way to share ridiculous selfies, our kids’ recital videos, and pictures of every restaurant meal we’ve eaten since 2009. They remind us when it’s our cousin’s birthday and help us find that cute kid from our 6th grade class we’ve always wondered about. All this has been given to users in exchange for some profile data. It’s not nothing.

Second, we don’t really care about privacy. We share vacation itineraries, job updates, and pictures of injuries (even x-rays!) with the hundreds or thousands of “friends.” Only fools can possibly believe this stuff was ever private to begin with. Defying all common sense, teenagers post photos of themselves chugging suspiciously from red Solo cups and cliquey adults post pictures of parties to which only the “in” crowd was invited. We’ve all cringed after hurting someone’s feelings because a second-tier friend saw us post that we were in their hometown and didn’t call. When Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” we can’t help but answer.

Third, please admit that we wouldn’t want it any other way. All evidence suggests Americans are happy to relinquish some privacy in exchange for free use of social media platforms. Facebook isn’t the only one that knows a lot about us. There are 328 million Twitter users worldwide. When I type, “best beach…” Google answers “reads” before I finish the phrase. All these products could shift to a subscription model, but nobody wants to pay for things we’ve come to expect for free. The airlines have tried that with checked bags and seat selection, and does anyone love that? Face it – we’d rather look at targeted ads.

Still not convinced? Last I checked, use of Facebook (and Twitter, etc.) was voluntary. No one is holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to “like” baby pictures or comment on our Republican uncle’s diatribe about the Second Amendment. Having a Facebook account isn’t like being gay – we aren’t born with it, we choose it.

I’ll say it again – nothing you put online is private. Rolling your eyes won’t make that any less true.

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Doing the Math on Sexual Harassment

The numbers are staggering. Every five minutes, ’BREAKING NEWS” reports that yet another politician/journalist/executive has groped at his colleagues’ private parts/answered the door in a towel/paid out thousands of dollars in hush money/ etcetera, etcetera. It’s getting exhausting.

And those numbers don’t even include the countless, nameless everyday working class men who absolutely do this but aren’t famous so, therefore, no one cares. The women they grab suffer silently and anonymously, for now.

To those innocents who are shocked – shocked! – by the endless parade of victims and the steady stream of accusations, I have bad news. What you’re seeing now is only the very tiny little tippy top of the iceberg.

And yet – we all know Good Men. So I’ve been wondering about ratios.

If every woman has a harassment story (or twenty), and we know that there are plenty of Good Men out there who know how to behave, how busy are the other dudes?

Very busy, I suspect. The Pareto Principle, also known as the “80/20 rule,” states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. If this applies to sexual harassment, 20% of men may be responsible for most of the mess.

I sincerely hope this is true, and my personal experience backs it up. I’ve worked in retail stores, a Fortune 500 corporate office, countless nonprofits, and the military – I’ve had thousands of male colleagues. Most of them were absolutely awesome, fully civilized adults who would never do any of the crap in today’s headlines. But I can recall one really bad apple who was very busy indeed.

Of the men who’ve been publicly accused so far, none of them has only a single complaint against him. They are overachievers! They weren’t guilty of “making a mistake” so much as they were successful at “being very persistent” and “not taking a hint.”

What do you do if you’re a 60-year-old man and the first 25-year-old woman to whom you reveal your shriveled privates doesn’t swoon with delight? You try, try again! What if the first woman whose ass you grab doesn’t enthusiastically grab yours back, with a welcoming twinkle in her eye? Have your HR department write a settlement check – shhh. What if your new intern isn’t thrilled at the chance to sleep with you in exchange for a reference? Don’t give up – you know she wants you!

If the Pareto Principle applies, the numbers indicate a large pool of jerks but an even larger pool of decency. That’s the good news. What we need now is for the 80% to make life really miserable for the 20%. Let’s shrink the number to 10% or even 5%. Let’s make the number so small that all the names will fit on a list for girls to memorize as part of the 8th grade Health Curriculum (because apparently, at age 14, you are fair game).

Not all men are comforted by the new transparency (Warning: if this describes you, you may be part of the 20%). In the comment section of a New York Times opinion piece on harassment, a man named Mark whined, “Is every man in your life reduced to a ‘groper’ or a ‘not groper?’” Well, Mark, the answer is YES, to be blunt. But here’s the great news for you – God blessed you with free will and a sturdy zipper on your pants. Use both wisely.

Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities. 

All I Want For Christmas

Some women want jewelry; others want designer bags. Not me. I want to play Jedi mind tricks on American political leaders. According to the official Star Wars website, “the Force can have a powerful effect on the weak-minded, a phenomenon Jedi sometimes take advantage of in pursuing their missions.”

Perfect.

What’s my mission? To make 2017 better than 2016. It’s a low bar. If I could just harness the Force, I’d point it directly at our “weak-minded” lawmakers so they would…

  1. …Stop worrying so much about where other people go to the bathroom.

I’m looking at you, North Carolina. When the most well-known piece of legislation to come out of your statehouse is called the Bathroom Bill, it’s time to reflect upon your governing priorities. This panic over public bathrooms is the very definition of a First World Problem, and I use the word “problem” loosely. If you are really that concerned about bathroom habits, consider focusing your time and resources a little further away from home.

Fun Fact: nearly 2.4 billion people in the world don’t have proper toilets (according to the World Health Organization.) So instead of demanding that we show our birth certificates to the ‘potty police’ every time nature calls, consider writing a check to UNICEF.

  1. Remember that America asks the world to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” even when those huddled masses come from Syria.

Half the population of Syria has been displaced and a generation of children is growing up in refugee camps without education or security or hope. Why isn’t our government doing more about it? I’ll tell you why: because we can never be 100% sure that a terrorist won’t slip in among those refugees!

I can’t argue that, but let’s unpack the threat. Suppose 1 of every 1000 refugees is a terrorist (a totally absurd assumption since in fiscal year 2016 we admitted over 6,726 Syrian refugees, of whom exactly zero were terrorists). Canada had welcomed over 25,000 refugees as of last February, and none of them is on Santa’s naughty list.

If we welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees and if 1 of every 1000 was not only a terrorist but also successfully committed a terrorist act, approximately 44 Americans would die in those attacks (fatality assumptions based on 2016 data).

That means we won’t risk the chance that 44 Americans might die, in order to save 25,000 people. Either this great country is filled with cowards, or we are bad at math. Or possibly both (given the falling regard for all things scientific or fact-based, and the tiny percent of us who serve in the military).

  1. …Act like decent humans.

It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Yet time after time, our elected leaders behave like babies (at best) or heartless bastards (at worst). I am tired of turning on the news and hearing about a certain someone grabbing women by the privates, whining about his press coverage, and threatening to create a Muslim registry. I don’t know what’s more exhausting: keeping track of it all, or sustaining an appropriate level of outrage. But what can I do about it?

If I get the Force for Christmas. I will play my Jedi mind tricks. And by this time next year, the 24-hour cable news cycle will go dark for lack of material because our president will actually be presidential. We’ll have some new Americans with whom to celebrate the holidays. North Carolina will no longer be the butt (ha ha) of much bathroom humor.

If my stocking is empty, however, I fear 2017 may be even worse than 2016. In which case, I will seriously consider relocating. To a galaxy far, far away.

 

Is Donald Trump Really a Genius About Taxes?

After last week’s revealing New York Times article which speculated that Donald Trump may not have paid federal taxes for at least 18 years, his campaign surrogates took to the microphones in response to all the fuss.  “The man’s a genius,” declared Rudolf Giuliani, former mayor of New York City.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the story simply proved how qualified Donald Trump is to overhaul the tax code.

 For his part, Trump tweeted: “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president.”

 Really?

 Because if you read the entire Times article, the last few paragraphs featured some pretty revealing insights from Trump’s tax preparer at the time, Jack Mitnick.  Here is the first:

 “[Mr. Mitnick] had long handled tax matters for Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and he said he began doing Donald Trump’s taxes after Mr. Trump turned 18.”

 Think about that for a moment: Donald Trump never, not even once, filed his own tax return. Never completed a 1040 EZ like most of us do when we turn 18 – a rite of passage signaling the arrival of adulthood and full citizenship. Not for Trump – Daddy’s accountant handled that for him.

 But surely as his business interests grew along with his assets, he must have learned how to leverage the tax code to his advantage. He must have educated himself on the basics, if only to protect his wealth and maximize its value. Right?

 Wrong. Mitnick remembered Trump and his wife when they reviewed and signed the tax returns he had prepared for them.

 “[Mr. Mitnick] contrasted Fred Trump’s attention to detail with what he described as [Donald’s] brash and undisciplined style. He recalled, for example, that when Donald and Ivana Trump came in each year to sign their tax forms, it was almost always Ivana who asked more questions.”

 If that’s true, Donald Trump may actually know much less about the tax code than the rest of us.  He’s never filed his tax returns without professional help, and apparently he expressed little interest in understanding what was on the pages he signed.  And yet he boasts that he knows more about the tax code than “anyone who has ever run for president.”

 This is what worries me. I don’t actually care that he used the tax laws to his advantage; I am in the same camp with those who say, “Don’t hate the player – hate the game.” The tax code is what it is. I have never heard any American claim to willingly pay more taxes than he legally owes.

 I worry because Trump believes he’s an expert in something he knows nothing about. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s part of a pattern. He’s previously claimed to know more about warfare than our decorated military leaders. He repeatedly brags about his outstanding temperament (when he’s in between tantrums or resting his thumbs after a 3 a.m. tweeting session).

 But his supporters believe he’s a tax genius, when in reality he probably couldn’t find the signature line without the little yellow post-it arrow his accountant affixes to his returns. If Donald Trump is elected president, he is in for a big surprise when he signs his first tax return in office.

 After all, the presidential salary is $400,000. There are few loopholes or offsetting losses from businesses, so a President Trump would likely have real taxable income on which he would pay actual federal taxes.

 Possibly for the very first time.    

What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen When a Boy Plays With a Toy Gun?

If you watched any part of the recent 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon, you might think you know the answer. The classic holiday film features a white boy named Ralphie who desperately wants to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle under the Christmas tree. Much to his dismay, everyone with whom he shares this heartfelt wish (his mother, his teacher, even a department store Santa) rejects the toy as too dangerous. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they proclaim.

But the story of Tamir Rice tells us that the “worst thing” that can happen, actually, is being mistaken for a criminal who is brandishing a real gun, and being killed by police who shoot first and ask questions later.

Last week, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to press charges against the officer who shot and killed Tamir. Timothy J. McGinty, the prosecutor in the case, said the boy’s death was “horrible, unfortunate, and regrettable. But it was not, by the laws that bind us, a crime.”

Perhaps McGinty’s statement is actually the “worst thing,” for it did nothing to assure parents that any black boy playing with any toy gun couldn’t reasonably expect the same fatal outcome. He reported that the officer who shot Tamir had reason to fear for his life, implying that the fatal shooting was merely an unfortunate consequence of Tamir’s own actions. Actions identical to those of Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Each boy was playing with a toy.

Several recent news reports confirm that the worst consequence for any particular behavior may depend upon the skin color of the one doing the behaving.

Sandra Bland (African American) allegedly changed lanes without signaling, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. She was arrested and jailed, then mysteriously ended up dead in her cell. The officers involved claim she killed herself, but her family doesn’t believe it. A grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Eric Garner (African American) allegedly sold individual cigarettes on the street, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. A video recording clearly shows him being choked to death by a police officer and his death was ruled a homicide. Again, a grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Meanwhile, a white male named Ethan Couch drove drunk and killed four people, then pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner never went to court or entered pleas – they didn’t live long enough to do so). But Ethan was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time. Now that he’s been apprehended for apparently violating probation, maybe he’ll face real consequences. He will probably survive.

These news snippets are selective, but they highlight a painful truth that is undeniable to all but the most blind. While America has spent the last century desegregating our institutions, giving all Americans access to the same rights and privileges, the criminal justice system is a stubborn holdout and still has a long way to go. As long as it’s not working for each and every one of us, it’s not working at all.

With that in mind, what’s the worst that can happen when a boy plays with a toy gun? For now, unfortunately, that depends on the color of the boy’s skin. America can celebrate progress when a boy like Tamir wants to play with such a toy, and his mother’s only warning is “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Testosterone: The Military’s Real Enemy

Two stories in the news this week made me impatient to see women holding more senior positions in the military, and not for the usual reasons. Sure, women have leadership skills and technical expertise, and deserve a shot at those jobs. But the biggest reason of all, and why we can’t wait any longer, is because of something women don’t have. Testosterone.

This pesky little hormone is a troublemaker. Its link to needless violence can be traced back to Cain and Abel (note they were brothers, not sisters). Ill-advised sexual encounters and venereal disease have plagued armies since the beginning of time. British soldiers during WWI were over five times more likely to be hospitalized for syphilis or gonorrhea than from trench foot, the war’s signature ailment.

In today’s military, testosterone is clouding the judgments of men who really should know better.

The first is Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the superintendent at the United States Military Academy. He recently defended the school’s boxing requirement despite overwhelming evidence about the downside of repeated blows to the head. That’s right – every male cadet who graduates from West Point must spend a semester receiving and delivering rounds of minor brain trauma. Concerned mothers and the school’s Board of Visitors (chaired by a woman) are pushing for change but meeting resistance. In fact, the superintendent is doubling down on his machismo by considering making female students take boxing, too, as they do at the US Naval Academy.

West Point has documented 97 concussions from boxing during the last three academic years. When students are unable to complete the course due to too many concussions, they are forced to repeat it later. If that seems perfectly rational, maybe you’ve had too many concussions.

The next example of testosterone run amok comes from Senator John McCain, speaking on the senate floor about recent developments in Syria. As a former naval aviator and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he should know that while he may not like the fact that Russia is flying combat missions in Syria, it was actually a good thing that they alerted us to their actions so we could avoid an international incident or accidental loss of life.

With hormonally-fueled bravado, McCain said that rather than complying with the Russians’ request, we should tell them, “We fly anywhere we want to, when and how we want to, and you’d better stay out of the way.” Which sounds more like something one toddler would say to another than how seasoned diplomats should communicate.

This kind of provocation, if he really meant what he said, is reckless and dangerous. But it’s not unique among the men in charge of militaries. No doubt Vladimir Putin’s actions are being fueled by a similar level of testosterone (including his habit of posing shirtless).

Defenders of General Caslen and Senator McCain may argue that testosterone is vital to producing a combat-ready military, and that it makes men better fighters. Maybe. But female pilots and soldiers seem to do just fine with the amount they have.

I’ve personally seen examples of testosterone doing more harm than good. During my time in the navy I witnessed many promotions, happy occasions that should be celebrated with congratulatory handshakes but inexplicably involve a gauntlet of punches to the upper arm (where the new rank chevrons are worn). It wasn’t unheard of for a sailor to sustain pain and bruises so severe, they interfered with his ability to perform his duties.

Worst of all is the tradition of “blood wings” or “blood pinning,” where a newly-minted paratrooper receives his insignia by having the sharp pins of the new badge pounded into his chest muscle by his colleagues. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage.

Must we be content with a “boys will be boys,” philosophy, even when applied to people who should have become men long ago? I don’t think so. We need more women in the ranks and at the top, because the fairer sex seems less susceptible to hormonal fluctuations. Let that sink in for a while.