Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Great Unraveling

On Thursday, the citizens of the United Kingdom chose, by a slim majority, to withdrawal from the European Union.   Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to the referendum due to mounting pressure from members within his own Conservative Party, who chafed at the various rules imposed by the EU and viewed the costs of membership (monetary and otherwise) as outweighing the benefits.  Of particular salience was the desire to regain control of the Great Britain’s borders, especially with regard to economic migration.  

Cameron supported Britain’s remaining in the EU.  Yesterday he made the painful decision that he could no longer lead the UK, given the newly established mandate.  He agreed to step down as Prime Minister by the fall.  His concession speech was remarkable for its grace and humility, at great contrast to the whining petulance we often hear from U.S. politicians when their agenda does not succeed. 

And yet despite the fact that this vote occurred overseas and under parliamentary processes, there are significant parallels to U.S. politics. 

First and foremost are the similarities between the arguments made by the “Vote Leave” campaign and the strains of populism, nationalism, and isolationism that the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns have both harnessed.   There is a vast distrust of globalization from both sides of our political spectrum.   Trump specifically has gained support from working class voters whose wages have stagnated over the last decade, whose job prospects have diminished due to automation and global trade, and who feel that the policy elites in their own party have ignored them for too long.

The “Vote Leave” campaign was noticeable in its rejection of economic experts, who foretold of grave consequences for British and global markets. [1]   This mirrors a disturbing trend in American discourse, as politicians and voters alike dismiss expert opinion, whether on climate change, foreign policy, or the safety of immunizations and genetically modified food. 

Second is the unreliability of polls.  Prior to the vote, the polling data suggested a win by the “Remain” camp.   Yet the numbers indicate that likely “Exit” voters were less likely to answer candidly when asked face-to-face or via phone call than when they responded to anonymous Internet surveys.  A similar dynamic is at work with potential Trump voters, calling into question the current lead that Clinton holds in national polls.   Further,  “Vote Leave” gained victory despite a divided UK Conservative party.   Democrats in the U.S. who assume that the disarray in the Republican Party will automatically translate into electoral defeat may be dismayed come November. 

Finally, the Brexit vote once again demonstrates the perils of direct democracy in the form of voter referendums.[2]   By their very nature, such ballot questions must distill complex policy considerations with into grossly simplified yes or no questions.  (Should I Stay or Should I Go, to quote the Clash.)

The irony is that such a simply stated choice will ultimately result in an extremely complex policy process.  Withdrawal in and of itself will be a two-year process.  But beyond that, the UK must now renegotiate the myriad policy agreements that were painstakingly worked out over decades of integration into the EU.   Scotland, whose population overwhelmingly voted to remain in the UK, will see its independence movement reenergized.   Voters in Northern Ireland demonstrated a similar preference and may very well seek to reopen the discussion of reunification with the south.   Whether that would ultimately be a peaceful process remains to be seen. 

Robert Wright, in his powerful book “Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny”, writes that even as the world grows complex, we experience- at the personal and national level- a drive toward greater cooperation and problem solving that is inherent in the cultural evolution of the human species.  Ultimately it was up to the voters of Great Britain, and well within their rights, to determine the cost-benefit analysis of staying within the EU.  But it certainly feels like a large step back from the forward progress of global integration and cooperation that’s occurred over the last century, a process that in the aggregate has been overwhelmingly positive.  Time will tell if the “Brexit” vote will lead to a greater global unraveling.   I for one certainly hope not.   


[1] The British pound has subsequently crashed to its lowest levels in 31 years
[2] California Proposition 8 is an obvious example. Madison’s classic “Federalist No. 10” remains the quintessential treatise on the benefits of representative democracy. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Casting Stones

Last month, a boy climbed into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the staff having to make the difficult but ultimately correct decision to kill a gorilla in order to save the child.   More recently, an alligator killed a boy in Florida while he and his family played in a man-made lake. Many commentators have expressed the opinion that the parents of both children are to blame, and that the mother in Cincinnati should be held criminally responsible for the death of Harambe the gorilla, because she failed to properly monitor her child.

I will be the first to state that parents in America need to step up their game and pay more attention to their children, but I was relieved that no charges would be filed against the mother in Ohio.  Parents make mistakes, even the best-intentioned ones.   I know from personal experience.

Two years ago, on a late spring evening, my family and I were eating dinner.   Five of us were at the table, but our oldest son was in the playroom at the front of the house.  He has autism, and although in almost everything else we hold him to the same standards as his siblings, when it comes to dinnertime we let him come and go from the table.  (There are many battles we wage to further his development.   This is not one of them).   We could hear him playing and singing along to the show he was watching.  As my wife and I got caught up on our respective days and coaxed the younger two to eat, we eventually noticed that it had gotten quiet in the playroom.  (As a parent, you want noise to stop, yet become anxious as soon as it does…)   I went to check and noticed he wasn’t there.  Nothing unusual at this point.  He’s probably upstairs.

After checking his room and the backyard, we began to get worried.   We started roaming the house and calling for him, more and more urgently.   That’s when we noticed that the window screen in the playroom was ajar.  Despite a device we installed on the window to prevent it from opening too far, he was able to squeeze through the space and pop open the screen.  

I suggested that my wife keep searching the house while I scanned around outside.   He was not in the front or side yard.  Not in the neighbor’s backyard.  I have experienced the sickening feeling of dread before, but nothing like this. It was as if I had swallowed a kettlebell, juxtaposed with the light-headed panic arcing through my brain.

While my wife got on the phone to call police and ask for friends to help search, I began driving around the neighborhood in an ever-widening spiral until I was convinced I had surpassed a radius he could have reasonably traversed in that period of time.  No one I stopped to talk with had seen a young boy walking on his own. 

As I drove around, multiple thoughts took up an uneasy co-existence in my head.  First, I was confident we could find him.  We’d always lived an unremarkable life.  These types of crises just didn’t exist in our world.  Second was a horrible brainstorm of all the possible scenarios in which my son could have found himself (lost, injured, god-forbid abducted).  And third was a selfish, back-of-the-mind understanding that if we didn’t find him, we would never again have a day of happiness for the rest of our lives.

No court fine or prison time or social-media parent-shaming can compare to the horror and anguish the parents in Ohio and Florida experienced as they helplessly watched their children in danger.  The father who had to fight an alligator in a vain attempt to save his son will probably never be the same man again. 

We were lucky.  Our story had a happy ending.  We found our son, after a half-hour of panicked searching, in our neighbor’s house.  They were out running errands, but left the backdoor unlocked.   Apparently he really wanted to play their piano and use their bathroom.   We have since made significant modifications to the security of our windows and doors.

Parents make mistakes.  The mother at the zoo took her eye off her child.  The father in Florida clearly had no idea the lake at a Disney resort might contain a wild animal.  These were clearly acts of omission, not commission.  This is not a case of parents purposefully abusing or neglecting a child.  They did not drive drunk with the child in the backseat, or leave him in a parked car on a hot day in order to shop in peace.   

Let’s leave these parents alone and allow them to deal with their grief and trauma.  Had my story turned out differently, I would have wanted the same.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Breaking the Faith

I have up until this point demurred from writing about the recent defense authorization bill that will reduce future cost of living adjustments to military pensions.  (As J.S. Bateman correctly argues in his blog, a 1% COLA reduction is indeed a pay cut.) I assumed that the resulting clamor would force our legislators to reconsider and rectify their mistake, but recent essays written in defense of the cut have led me to conclude that I need to speak out.

First off, let me be clear in saying that I am not opposed to cuts in overall defense spending.  The United States needs to reduce spending and decrease its national debt, and the DoD budget should be part of that solution.  I also recognize that military pension reform may be required.  Any such reform, however, should be grandfathered (as the current administration had promised as recently as last September).  I might further add that cuts to retirement pay would be more palatable if I knew that such spending cuts would ultimately be leveraged to reduce the debt as opposed to offset increased spending for other programs.  I am not optimistic in this regard.

The arguments made by politicians and pundits in support of the cuts give me the chills, because they pave the way for further cuts and lead me to the realization that much of the "support the troops" rhetoric of the last decade was a mile wide and an inch deep.

Let us review a few of the more egregious arguments in favor of the pension cut:

''The current pension system is overly generous."  "Generous" is a word used in relation to a gift.  My future pension is not a gift.  I will have earned that pension.  I earned it with every catapult shot into an ink-black night with no horizon.  I earned it with all three Christmases (so far) that I have spent away from my family.  I earned it when I missed the birth of my third child when I was on my fourth deployment. My wife and children have earned it with every move, every new school, every new neighborhood (seven in ten years, at current count).

"The current pension system is unlike any civilian sector pension".   Indeed.  Because a career in the military is unlike any career in the civilian sector.    See the above paragraph.

"Personnel costs have doubled over the past decade."  Besides being a misleading statement, this argument speaks louder than every "People are our most important asset" bromide ever uttered.  If people come first, then reforming the bloated acquisition process that results in overpriced weapons systems should be a higher priority than cutting pensions.

"The current system encourages service members to leave early." Since when is leaving the military after 20 years considered "early"?  If anything, the current system encourages people to stay in longer.   There have certainly been times throughout my career that I have seriously considered getting out and devoting my talents to far more lucrative pursuits.  Although I have stayed in the Navy for a number of reasons, I must admit that it was the promise of a pension that often nudged the calculus in favor of staying.  Whether we have an all-volunteer or a conscription force, the US military will always need talented individuals to choose to continue their service beyond initial obligations, in order to provide continuity and professionalism.  The pension system ensures retention of talent, and we alter it at our peril.

"40% of military personnel have never seen combat."  Even if this statistic is true, it is irrelevant. The pension system was not designed to make such a distinction.  A 20-year career is a 20-year career, and we still need to retain talent in the military, whether or not those individuals conduct combat operations or stand the watch in order to deter combat operations.  Furthermore, as US military involvement in Afghanistan comes to a close this year, this statement is an ominous portent of a return to 90's era views of military personnel and their service, which at best manifested itself in apathetic ignorance but was often characterized by cynical disdain.

Unfortunately, the pension cut seems to have bipartisan support.  One party seems to only support the military when it's politically convenient (exhibit A:  John Kerry's acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention).  The other party had no previous ideological conflict with unsustainable operational costs during the last decade of war, but now is so suddenly concerned about the debt that they are willing to break faith with those that fought that very war.

Please do your part to reverse this recent legislative error and ensure further cuts are not politically feasible.  Write your Senator and Representative.  Sign the petition on   Tell your government that they have broken the faith.

Disclaimer:  This essay is my personal opinion, and in no way represents the official position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Much Thanks

I'm fortunate this year that life has slowed down enough for me to give serious thought to what I'm thankful for:

- A house that's filled with laughter.

- At 38, I still have the same job I dreamed about since I was seven.

- An amazing wife who knows all too well that this dream job isn't always convenient, yet supports me nonetheless.

- Therapists and educators who are collaborating, cooperating, and doing everything they can to help my son lead as typical a life as possible.

- The excited cheers that greet me when I get home after a long day.

- The chance to live part of my life in a place as sublimely beautiful as the Pacific Northwest.

- Parents and a sister whose love and influence are always with me, even when they're not.

- Living in an incredible time when everything seems possible and old friends are only a click away.

- The opportunity and privilege to serve this great country of ours.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Leadership, at Home and at Sea

As I wrote in the introduction to this blog, I truly believe that the practice of leadership has certain aspects that are universal in application, even toward the seemingly disparate jobs of father and military officer.  I often ponder how I can leverage and mutually reinforce these two leadership roles, without treating my children like subordinates or my subordinates like children.  Fortunately, I have two great exemplars in this pursuit.  My father and brother-in-law (both of them fellow naval officers) managed to set and enforce high standards both at work and at home, and without the use of a boatswain pipe like Georg von Trapp.

So here are some specific examples of how each role has influence the other.   This is certainly not an exhaustive list.  I expect that future posts will build and expand on this concept.     

What the military has taught me about being a parent:

-Start with the end in mind.   A classic from Stephen Covey.  Like one of my mentors often said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get your there. “  Military planning efforts, whether for a theater campaign or one-time airstrike, focus first on the objectives and end states, to ensure that all subsequent decisions about courses of action, assigned tasks, and prioritization of resources will ultimately support the attainment of the desired goal.  The same principles apply to parenting.  What kind of adults do I want  my children to grow up to be?  What values and traits do I hope to instill?  What types of decisions do I want them to make even when I’m not around?  

-It’s not a popularity contest.   “Better to be respected than liked” is an adage I learned as a young naval officer.  This doesn’t mean “go out of your way to piss people off”  but leadership involves getting people to do things they don’t want to do. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t need a leader) It entails motivating people to perform beyond what they may believe possible of themselves.  This is challenging.  It is much easier to accept standards that subordinates think are reasonable and comfortable, and let those become the default setting for expected behavior.  As a parent, I must fight similar temptations to be the best friend instead of the leader.  I have to ensure I consistently give my children what they need instead of regularly allowing what they want.

-Mistakes are the best teachers.  In a military that has increasingly become “zero-defect” in terms of expectations, it is important to remember that mistakes are a necessary facet of learning.  Some of my best commanding officers gave me the latitude to make mistakes, knowing that was the only way I was going to gain experience and confidence.  I think the same applies to raising children.  This doesn’t mean as a military leader or as a parent, that I shrug my shoulders and say, “mistakes happen.” But I have to be able to tell the difference between a premeditated breach of the rules and a well-intentioned mistake.  If it’s the former, I provide appropriate discipline.  If the latter then I counsel and assist in dissecting the incident for lessons to learn.  With regards to parenting, I have much to learn.  Too often I am quick to jump in and help my children do something “perfectly”, instead of giving them the space to try, fail, and then try again. The important thing, whether it’s in the ready room or the living room, is for me to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable admitting to mistakes and learning from them.   

What parenting has taught me about being a military leader:

-Embrace the chaos.  I like order and organization.  It’s one of the many reasons I was attracted to a career in the military.  And my time in the military has reinforced that need for order.   Although being organized serves me well both as an officer and as a parent (all praise to checklists and routines), I also have to be able to thrive in a chaotic environment.  More than anything, being a father of four has taught me how to cope with noise and entropy: The near-constant chatter at the dinner table after a long day at work.  The clamor of conflicting demands from multiple sources. The minefield of a carpet strewn with legos and dolls.  All of this will serve me well at work, where I must separate the signal from the noise and focus on what’s truly important.     

-Be Patient.  I’ve never been a patient person, and life in the military has not changed that much.  We tend to have a bias towards action.  We loathe inaction. And yet parenting requires the patience of Gandhi.  As we watch our child slowly putting on his shoes, we must fight the urge to put them on for him.   As we help with math homework, we must let them reach the right answer on their own.  At home and at work, my efforts won’t always yield immediate results.  I have to let things develop. 

-It’s not about me.  When I was a brand-new father, a colleague (himself a father of seven) told me that parenting had taught him just how selfish a person he could be.  I am reminded of that marvelous statement every time I find myself chafing at the tedium of getting the baby back to sleep or listening to one more Wiggles song.  (Ah, the irony of being annoyed by my children while writing my blog about fatherhood….)  Parenting is the ultimate example of servant leadership, but my role as a naval officer requires the same selflessness.  I must remember that my energies should always be focused towards ensuring my Sailors have the resources they need to accomplish the mission and then recognizing their tireless efforts.   Or as Lao-tzu wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware he exists…The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.  When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”[1]  

[1] Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, trans. Steven Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988)