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. 

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.

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