Monday, August 8, 2016

The Citizen's Dilemma

As an active-duty naval officer, writing a blog that discusses citizenship and politics during an election year can be fraught with peril.   It is certainly contrary to my oath of office and Department of Defense guidance to publicly endorse a particular candidate.   As military professionals, we are expected to be apolitical, loyal only to the constitution in the execution of our duties.   Yet unlike some countries, we do allow our uniformed service members to participate in the electoral process, and although I will keep my own counsel as to who I ultimately choose to mark on my ballot, it is certainly within the bounds of propriety for me to discuss the dynamics of the election and provide a few morsels for thought.

Quite frankly, in the big picture, there is very little in this election year worthy of endorsement.     This is an election in which many of the established rules and norms have been thrown out the window, including a sitting Supreme Court Justice making public comments disparaging a presidential candidate.  An election campaign during which a major party candidate has encouraged a foreign country to hack the emails of his competitor, who in turn chastised him for putting national security at risk, while at the same time denying that her careless use of an ad-hoc IT infrastructure was ever cause for similar concern, despite comments to the contrary by the Director of the FBI.

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Election 2016.

And then we have the recent spectacle of a presidential candidate making disparaging comments about a gold-star family.  To be fair, the Khan family willingly entered the viscous arena of public discourse and therefore some observers may conclude they are fair game for criticism.   But it should go without saying that callously attacking the parents of a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country shows incredibly poor judgment, discretion, and wisdom.   Yes, the Democrats set a trap for the Republican candidate.   And he walked right into it.

It may very well be an apocryphal story, but I seem to remember during the 1996 election, Bob Dole's campaign strategy was publicly criticized by John McCain in a rare (at the time) display of intra-party fratricide.  When asked about it at a press conference, Bob Dole replied something to the effect of, "That man spent seven years in a box for his country.  He's earned the right to say whatever he wants to about me."   Bob Dole is a true statesman, a man who himself suffered greatly for his country, and a former athlete who never forgot that one doesn't need to swing at every pitch that comes their way.

When I studied government and public policy as an undergrad in the mid-nineties, the overarching concern at the time was the dearth of political participation and voter turnout.   Countless academics and intellectuals feared that our fragile democracy was going to wither due to neglect.   Now we face a far different problem, in which the centrifugal forces of rabid partisanship and unwillingness to compromise threaten to spin apart the machinery of our democratic process. Although it is a recurring lament in the modern media age that our elections lack any substantive discussion of the issues, we are definitely at a new low in this particular cycle.  Have we as a society made the presidential election so vapid, so difficult, such a marathon slog through meaningless appearances and posturing, focusing more on avoiding the errant gaffe than providing anything remotely resembling vision and leadership, that we are finally getting the candidates we deserve?  Have we driven out the true servant leaders, leaving only the vain and self-entitled to vie for public office?  As Plato, quoting Socrates, wrote in The Republic"He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself."  Quite possibly we are in for a string of one-term presidents, much like during the pre-Civil War period, until we get ourselves sorted out politically.  (Although I believe that such a "sorting" will be done without the violence of that previous era.)

So what is a citizen to do, in such an election when many voters find themselves opposed to a particular candidate more than they are inspired by another?

One option is to not vote at all.  In general this is something I would discourage.  Voting is not only the right of a citizenship, it is one of its most sacred obligations.  Yet there is a powerful statement sent by not voting, in withholding a mandate and making it clear through low voter turnout that no matter who wins, he or she does not speak for a vast portion of the American electorate.  My only advice, if one chooses to not vote for a presidential candidate, is to not ignore the state and local elections further down the ballot.

Voting for a third party candidate, or a write-in nominee, is another obvious choice for those dissatisfied with the major party nominees and sends a similar, yet more focused message, than not voting at all.  However, third party voting presents a sort of prisoner's dilemma in that you are relying on the cooperation of numerous other voters to vote the same way in order to break the monopoly of our two-party system.   For better or worse, the design of our political ecosystem is one in which there is only enough oxygen to viably sustain two parties of consequence.  Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good, and third-party voting risks allowing the election of the greater of two perceived evils.

In a political election, there are four characteristics a voter should look for in a candidate:  issue alignment, character, experience, and competence.   When none of the available options meets all (or even most) of the criteria, you have to prioritize.  Which leads to the final option, what I would describe in game theory parlance as a "minimax" strategy, that is to vote for the candidate that will do the least damage.  Or put more colloquially, if you don't like the direction any of them are driving, pick the one least likely to run the car into a ditch.

Regardless, you have an important choice to make this November.  Good luck.  We're all counting on you.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Pokemon and the Future of Reality

This week, for the first and I hope only time, I stood in front of my Sailors at an all-hands call and talked about Pokemon Go.  If you had asked me during Command Leadership School to make a list of all the things I might discuss at quarters with my squadron, the topic of Pokemon would certainly not have crossed my mind.

For those unfamiliar, Pokemon Go is a game played via smartphone.  Using the camera, geo-location, and gyro-scope functionality of the phone, players walk around collecting Pokemon characters that "appear" at various real-world locations.   The more characters you collect, the higher you get in the game.  (And, of course, there are in-app purchases)

I raised the topic to the Sailors I work with in order to lay some ground-rules on when and where the game can and cannot be played.  As you might imagine, there are concerns about an app that takes control of the camera and geo-location features of someone's phone for a game that might potentially be played in restricted or sensitive areas.  The app collects a ton of data; the security and application of such information in not fully understood.   In an age where ISIS is creating hit-lists from harvested open-source social media, and we in turn are targeting them via their own geo-tagged twitter posts, Pokemon Go becomes one more vulnerable aperture in the cyber domain.  Additionally, individuals playing Pokemon Go can lose situational awareness of the world around them, creating significant safety concerns.  And then there is the effect it can have on professional behavior in the workplace.

Despite my concerns, as a military commander, for the potential risks and vulnerabilities, I am also struck by the incredible potential of such augmented reality.  When paired with a more advanced viewing apparatus, the ability to overlay virtual threats or situations onto actual locations during live training events represents the direction we need to be headed with military training, provided we address the previously discussed operational security concerns.    The technology demonstrated by Pokemon Go brings scalability and efficiency that must be explored as we seek to better leverage the full spectrum of live, virtual and constructive training.

Beyond the military application of such technology, imagine the educational and cultural potential.     You could visit Gettysburg, climb Little Round Top, and instead of trying to visualize the 20th Maine's audacious bayonet charge, you could watch virtual soldiers overlaid on the actual landscape you are standing on.  When touring a new city, the downtown area could "come alive" with cultural facts and historical characters.   Or when taking in a sporting event, you might be able to see scores, statistics and other relevant info without taking your eyes off the action.

I love the full-circle nature of this.  It was government that drove the innovation and development of the internet and GPS, the infrastructure and framework that Pokemon Go is built upon.  Now the public sector can benefit from the advances in augmented reality made by private industry.  We are seeing similar effects of this symbiotic synergy in the transportation field, whether it's space travel, high-speed mass transit, or self-driving cars.   Despite what we are continually told by our presidential candidates and my own concerns about societal unraveling, we truly live in an amazing time.  Fraught with peril, to be sure, but also full of incredible possibility.  I can't wait to see what the next few decades will bring.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Play Your Heart Out

A little over a year ago, I celebrated Independence Day at Osan Air Base in South Korea.  The  51st Fighter Wing put on a terrific 4th of July Celebration, with food booths, informative displays, and live entertainment.  One of the performing acts was Alien Ant Farm, a nΓΌ-metal band best known for their 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

Although Alien Ant Farm’s type of music is not particularly in my wheelhouse, I enjoyed the show.  The band put forth a ton of energy and clearly enjoyed performing for the crowd.  At some point, it struck me: they didn’t have to play to that level.   This was a USO show for a relatively small crowd.   They most likely were going to pick up only a handful of new fans (if any) and have no real measurable increase in album sales due to this gig.

But none of that mattered.   Alien Ant Farm meet the definition of true professionals. They approach their work with a level of focus, energy and enthusiasm that does not vary based on the payoff or who is watching.  They performed in Osan as if this it was the Grammys or a Super Bowl halftime show. And they constantly seek to hone their craft, no matter where they are in the arc of their career. 

As leaders, we seek inspiration from a variety of sources.  The experience of watching Alien Ant Farm play their hearts out for us, and execute a flawless set, resonated with me.   Like the band, I get paid to do the job I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid.  Yet sometimes complacency slips in, the urge do the minimum required to fly safely and log the hours instead of ensuring we’re executing the most realistic and demanding training possible that day.   Or in my daily interactions with Sailors, I don’t always bring forth the enthusiasm I could and miss another chance to motivate and inspire.      

It shouldn’t matter if it’s a local training hop, a Red Flag event, or a combat sortie.  It shouldn’t matter if it’s a conversation in the passageway, a five-minute talk at squadron quarters, or a Change of Command speech.   I can always do better.   Fifteen months is a short amount of time to make an impact on an organization.  Every day, every flight, every conversation matters.  

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Week Like This

After FBI Director James Comey's announcement on Tuesday, I had planned on writing a post about classified emails on unclassified servers.

But then the rest of the week unfolded.  On July 5th, the same day as Comey's press conference, Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Louisiana by Baton Rogue police as they had him pinned to the ground.   The next day police in St. Paul, Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.   On July 7th, at an event in Dallas protesting the two killings, a man systematically targeted and killed five police officers, in addition to wounding seven other officers and two civilians.  It was the deadliest single-day for American law enforcement since September 11th, 2001.

I'm not sure there is a way to "make sense" of a week like this.

I want to first start by making clear that there is no moral equivalency to the events I just outlined. The attack in Dallas was cold-blooded murder by a man intentionally targeting law enforcement officials.  His despicable actions took the lives of five public servants and endangered dozens of peaceful protestors.   The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota are incredibly tragic and it will be some time before we know all the facts, but I approach it from the assumption that the police involved acted with the intention of protecting themselves and bystanders.  In that assumption, I admittedly bring forward the bias of my own perspective and experience.

Law enforcement, like military service, is an incredibly demanding job that requires great sacrifice in terms of hours worked, exposure to dangerous conditions, and a level of compensation not commensurate with the demands and risks involved.  I have the greatest respect for those brave men and women that choose this line of work, a group that includes close friends and family members.

But saying that the police may have felt they had need and reason to protect themselves does not by itself justify the killings or absolve them of responsibility.  High levels of risk do not mean you can shrug your shoulders and say, "Tragic events will happen in high-stress situations." Although we must wait for the investigations for these particular incidents before we pass judgement, we should always remember that in these situations, the onus is on the police to remain calm, clearly communicate instructions, and only escalate force to a level appropriate to the assessed threat.  Recent trends indicate that numerous local law enforcement agencies must make greater strides toward better training and greater professionalism within their ranks, such as those outlined by retired Detective Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police in a recent BBC interview (starts at the 7:15 mark).  It's a demanding job, and not everyone is going to have the character traits to be poised in extreme circumstances.  Better to find that out during the qualification process than on the streets.

Ultimately, we must reduce the level of violence in this country.  It runs a spectrum, from mass shootings and the assassination of police officers to tension-filled traffic stops and Walmart brawls. We are a long way from Alexis de Tocqueville's America.  Our civil society is unraveling.  Despite unprecedented levels of connectedness thanks to personal technology and social media, we are stove-piped and vacuum-sealed into the comfort zones of our own perspective.  We are hyper-partisan and have lost the ability to seek and find compromise:  on gun control, on criminal justice approaches, on combatting poverty, on education reform...on a whole host of policy questions that could help us become the best possible version of our great nation.

How do we reach such compromise?  I have some thoughts, but that's a whole other post...

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Instilling Traits and Values: Starting With the End in Mind

I wrote in a previous post that one of the ways my military career has influenced my parenting is the idea of “starting with the end in mind.”[1] For military professionals, the planning process cannot begin until you have a clearly defined end state.   Or in the words of a mentor of mine, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

When my oldest was not yet a year old, I was at sea on my third deployment and communication with my wife was limited primarily to email.  Although such a constraint can feel like a hindrance, it also opens up avenues to deeper discussion than verbal conversation.   Case in point, we began an email thread in which we shared our thoughts on what kind of adults we wanted our daughter (and future children) to be when they grew up.   In a very real sense, by agreeing on certain character traits that we sought for them, we were establishing “end states” for the important work of instilling values in our children.   The consensus we reached would serve to inform many of the choices we make as parents.   It is a conversation that my wife and I continue to have as we hone the list and adapt our parenting strategies to account for our children’s varied personalities.

Ultimately we came up with the following list of traits:

-Culturally and spiritually literate and tolerant. The educator E.D. Hirsch defined cultural literacy as  “that shifting body of information that our culture has found useful…the foundation of our public discourse.  It allows us to comprehend our daily newspapers and news reports, to understand our peers and leaders, and even to share our jokes.[2]  As an example, once my daughter began reading about Greek and Roman Mythology, she enjoyed the “Percy Jackson” series at a much more profound level and understood why the NASA craft currently in Jupiter’s orbit would be named “Juno.” Ultimately, we want our children familiar with as much culture as possible, including the world’s religions.  Such familiarity we hope will breed tolerance vice contempt.    

-Able to think for themselves.  This is the step beyond cultural literacy.  In the words of Hirsch, “Cultural literacy is shallow; true education is deep.” [3]  We try to encourage critical thinking.  Sometimes this involves answering a question with another question.  (“Why do YOU think it gets cold in the wintertime?”)  When discussing topics such as politics and religion – which we don’t shy from – we often suppress our own opinions, or at least make clear distinctions between facts and personal opinions.

-Confident in their values, morals, and decisions.  This might be the toughest yet most important quality to instill.  Being a “navy brat” and having to adapt to new situations can lead to a chameleon-like qualities.  How do we prevent that?  I have no easy answers.  We try to model appropriate behavior and give our children opportunities to make the types of mistakes that build confidence.  Even before they get to the wider socialization at school, we work to ensure our children, in their interactions with siblings and peers, can strike the balance between cooperation and standing up for themselves. 

-Willing to respectfully question authority.  With confidence instilled, we want our children to then be comfortable in speaking truth to power.   (That includes to their parents.) The other night, my daughter and I were watching “The Martian.”   There is a great scene where the mission director must make a choice between doing what he thinks is right or obeying the direction provided by his boss.   I paused the movie, and we had a lengthy discussion about when it’s acceptable to question and even disobey authority.

-Intellectually curious.  This can’t be forced.  Instead, it’s a spark that must be lit through a variety of activities: reading to them, taking them to museums, asking questions.   One method that’s proven successful for us is linking current popular culture interests with wider intellectual topics.  For example, Harry Potter and Star Wars can lead to a discussion of archetypes and why so many great stories include similar characters, like the wise wizards represented by Dumbledore and Obi Wan Kenobi. 

-Equally comfortable in the outdoors and in the city.  Whether navigating a hiking trail or a subway system, both environments require specific survival skills.  My wife, born and raised in Philadelphia, handles instilling “street smarts”, while I rely on my scouting and military experiences to show them how to use a map and compass or build a campsite. 

-Competitive but sportsmanlike.   This transcends participation in sports, and builds on the previous discussion of confidence.   We want them to shine as individuals, but never at the expense of the team.  To always strive for greater improvement but within the framework of fair play.    

-Hard Workers.  There is a tendency, when we talk about “talent”, to assume that at a basic level, you must be initially good at something to eventually be great at it.  Instead, we want our children to understand that even if a skill or activity (math, swimming, playing an instrument) doesn’t come naturally to them, it doesn’t mean they can’t eventually master it. We foster this by how we give praise (“You worked so hard” vs. “You did so well”) as well as discussing times in our own lives when we had to work hard to overcome a lack of ability.

-Willing to embrace failure and learn from mistakes.  This is closely related to the previous discussion about work ethic.  A fear of failure might prevent them from trying, and becoming, whatever they want.   This is tough, because as parents we spend a lot of time correcting our children and pointing out mistakes.   Much of this is necessary for their development (and basic survival).   However, I know I can do a much better job of giving my kids the space they need to make mistakes and learn from them.   (This applies to leadership at work as well)

-Successful. This has nothing to do with income or status.   It means achieving whatever occupation or vocation they want, as long as it's honest work and it gives them fulfillment.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

[1] See Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
[2] Hirsch, E.D., et al, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, (1988), ix.
[3] Ibid, xv.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our Fragile Democracy

A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me a really fascinating question: “You said the colonies started the American Revolution because they were being taxed without having representatives in the British government.  What if the British had just let us have representatives?”[1]

The question opens up a great deal of possibilities.  Parliament, in ceding that the Colonies deserved representation, could have potentially quenched the flames of rebellion that sparked during the Stamp Act Riots in 1765.   Would we then have gained independence later, in a more peaceful and deliberate process, in the manner of Australia and Canada?  Would Canada and the Thirteen Colonies have merged into one nation during such a process?  What impact would a delayed independence have had on Manifest Destiny?   Once the French lost Haiti to a slave revolt and therefore no longer needed New Orleans, would they have been equally willing to sell the Louisiana territory to their rivals in Great Britain as they were to sell it to President Jefferson?  (Without the American Revolution, would there still have been a revolution in either France or Haiti?)

Or would the colonists still have found reason to revolt?   Perhaps allowing representation would have simply delayed the inevitable.  Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar writes, “Not that colonists really wanted direct representation in Parliament.  A small number of Americans amid a sea of British legislators would likely be consistently outvoted.  Moreover, those few colonial representatives…might easily lose a sense of connection with their constituents when living in a grand imperial city an ocean away…[and] might ultimately become part of the problem rather than the solution.” [2]

In all likelihood, the Colonists would have had additional grievances with British rule, beyond “Taxation without Representation”.  But would such complaints have resonated as well with the average colonial?  Would they have equally tipped the precarious balance of risk vs. reward that every colonist had to consider during the revolution? 

I’m a big believer in the idea that history is not predetermined by large impersonal forces, that it hinges on contingency and individual agency.[3]  The independence and freedom we celebrate today was never a sure thing.   The British Army had numerous opportunities to defeat the rebellion on the battlefield.  Once we gained our independence, the shape of our government could have very well taken a different form.   The Constitution, as drafted, barely passed the ratification process amidst highly partisan debate.  
Our Nation, our form of representative democracy, has always been an experiment unlike any other.   Today we celebrate not just a decision made in 1776, but all the choices we’ve made along the way to ensure the survival of our fragile democracy.    

 Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

[1] Perhaps this interest in alternative histories has sprung from the episodes of “Voyagers” that I introduced her to.  Or maybe because her brother has been watching “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on constant repeat. 
[2]  Amar, Akil Reed, America’s Constitution: A Biography (2005): 40.
[3] Schuyler, Robert Livingston. "Contingency in History." Political Science Quarterly 74, no. 3 (1959): 321-33.

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.   

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

[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.