A Saturday in 'This Town' for the Books

Far too often we hear about the worst parts of DC, but every once in awhile, you get one of those days that speaks to how special this town truly is and this past Saturday was one of them.

  • I saw huge crowds gathering for the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a collection of fantastic speeches from everyone including Rep. John Lewis, Chief Justice John Roberts, Presidents Obama and Bush, and so many others.
  • It was hard not to be moved when hearing the Chief Justice speak passionately about the things the Supreme Court got wrong in its long history, or to hear President Bush proclaim "A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws, and corrects them." You should definitely watch the entire event via the CSPAN archive. It was truly something to see.
  • And "the hug" made us all briefly forget that the first Clinton/Trump debate is in just a few hours.
  • From the National Mall, I had just thirty minutes to make it over the Convention Center for a 1:00PM session at the National Book Festival featuring Candice Millard, author of the phenomenal "Destiny of the Republic." I sprinted from the Washington Monument, down Independence Ave., under the Department of Energy Headquarters, and over towards L'Enfant Plaza metro station. There's a place, in the concrete paradise of L'Enfant Plaza, where you briefly cross over the 9th Street Expressway and the moment I got there I could hear the sirens of approaching police motorcycles - the usual call of an impending motorcade. It's a common DC sound, something that quickly becomes part of the background noise. But this time I decided to stop and watch the motorcade speed by into the tunnel underneath.
  • Over at the Convention Center, the National Book Festival already swelled with huge crowds of book lovers and smiling children. In a mastery of DC transit, I was only five minutes late to the aforementioned session with Candice Millard. Later I heard John Meacham give a powerful talk on his 9-years interviewing the 41st President for his book "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush."
  • Later, I ran into Rep. John Lewis again. In the morning, I watched him on the giant screens on the National Mall. Now in the afternoon, I watched him from the front row as he spoke on his powerful graphic novel, "March." To my everlasting disappointment, I don't think CSPAN recorded his talk, it was one of the best John Lewis speeches I've ever heard. Sitting in that audience that day, was a privilege I won't soon forget.

These are some of the memories that make DC a special place, the unmistakable sense of being surrounded by history.

Crowds gather on the National Mall to watch screens of the dedication events at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, in the distance on the right.

Parents brought their children to see the dedication events.

Parents brought their children to see the dedication events.

Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith present at the museum grand opening.

Rep. John Lewis takes a moment to greet an audience member before his talk on his graphic novel series, "March."

Rep. John Lewis takes a moment to greet an audience member before his talk on his graphic novel series, "March."


As a country we challenge ourselves annually to #NeverForget 9/11. We also have to challenge ourselves to #NeverForgetSandyHook and one of the true tragedies of American history that occurred there at 9:41AM on December 14, 2012.

We must never forget the lives lost, including the twenty precious children.

In the process of writing this post, I was shocked to discover a community of Youtube-based conspiracy theorists who adamantly believe that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened, that it was all a giant hoax. Thankfully, very few people subscribe to that theory. But just in case you run into someone that does, Snopes.com has gone through great efforts to painstakingly debunk each of the ridiculous hoax claims: http://www.snopes.com/politics/guns/newtown.asp

On some level, it's hard to blame them. The tragedy in Newtown is of such unrelenting horror that's it's easier for some to pretend that it did not happen at all.

But it did happen. The event should be permanently seared into our minds, a constant fuel for not words, but for concrete action to prevent these atrocities from occurring in the future.

Having a position in the gun control debate - no matter what that position is - in no way absolves us from the duty to take action to form real solutions to this national problem. All of us share that burden. All of us share that responsibility. All of us share the ire of the future should we shamefully choose to do nothing.

It begins by never forgetting tragedies like Sandy Hook, and using that anger to fuel real and lasting action.


Pro Policy Moves

Hat tip (h/t) to the Post Carbon Institute for originally  sharing this comic on their facebook  page in September.

Hat tip (h/t) to the Post Carbon Institute for originally sharing this comic on their facebook page in September.

This! - Because you know, actually addressing domestic and global challenges could cost you an election. Can't have that apparently. But one imagines that the people tasked to deal with our issues won't be none to happy with us in the future. Sorry, grandkids, our bad.

Or, to quote Iron Man, "That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far..."

Tradition is a Terrible Reason for Anything

One more quick post about Adam Conover's new show since I originally wrote about it back in September. ReasonTV recently aired a short interview with Conover explaining some of the key themes behind the show and its obvious influences from programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight.

If nothing else, the grand lesson is that we can always afford to spend more time examining our cultural norms, asking why we do things, and thinking about how we want things to look going forward.

If you work for a large company, you probably have some type of annual review process. Most people hate them, but the reason they exist is just to give everyone a chance to formally think about things.

Society at large needs to have more "reviews." If I could wave a magic wand over our democracy, I'd suggest that we have state-organized constitutional conventions every 25 years. Not something tied to elections, nor something people would have to vote on - something automatic coded into the system itself. A 25-year review that would give society a new and needed opportunity to assess where we are and where we want to go.

Today is December 5th - Repeal Day. A reminder - of something we tend to forget in modern times - that we can amend the constitution, and if we happen to screw up completely, we can then amend the amendments too. Getting to a more perfect union means occasionally changing things, taking risks, assessing the results, keeping what works, and discarding what doesn't. But that process takes the type of political courage our country hasn't had in quite some time.

Pennies are not even worth what they're worth. So why do we still make them?

So for now, just think about smaller bits of our culture and democracy. Spend some time over on John Oliver's youtube channel. Wonder openly why things like tipping in restaurants, the lottery, Columbus Day, our criminal amount of food waste, and pennies - yes pennies, are all still things.

The short answer is that change takes effort, change is hard, and sadly it's a lot easier for everyone to just continue with the status quo because... tradition.

Seriously though... the penny thing makes zero sense on any level.


Adam is Still Ruining Everything

How about that, they actually gave Adam Conover a TV show. Conover is best known for his Youtube videos on the CollegeHumor channel under the same name "Adam Ruins Everything." The videos use a mix of comedy, history, and science to dispel widespread misconceptions about everything we take for granted.

The comedy part of Conover's program comes from the fact that when we really think about some of the routine parts of our lives... many of them are sort of ridiculous. Why do we still vote on Tuesdays, why has no one changed that? Why do we have car dealerships? What other consumer good has a random middleman stuffed in the middle between producer and consumer? If you've ever read Paul Keegan's 2014 article about the war between auto dealers and the website TrueCar or the on-going battle between my home state of Michigan and Tesla Motors on how Tesla can sell their product to consumers, you'd be right to think that are current system is sort of bonkers.

Or even much more basic customs of day-to-day life. To this day, I freeze in silence when someone near me sneezes because I once made the mistake of learning the history of the phrase "God bless you!" - now I'm constantly torn between not saying anything and genuinely feeling horrible because it's such an expected part of American culture.

The masterclass of this "our everyday life is ridiculous" concept are the weekly rants on John Oliver's show, which should absolutely earn Oliver a much deserved Emmy. Conover's program won't be on that level, but it should still highlight some of the odd things about everyday life. Things we might not want to think about... but we should.

Here are a couple of my favorite videos from Conover on Youtube:

Adam's earliest work about wedding rings ends with the depressing and true line "... but you'll still end up buying one." That's just how deeply this - one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history - is tied into our culture. Maybe our grandchildren will be able to evolve past this. Until then... rings for everyone!

Discuss tipping with friends and expect to get into an argument, especially if they work in the service industry. We all know why we tip, because servers get horrible pay if we don't - and that's just cruel. But how did we get here? How is it simply OK for restaurants to pay workers wages that guilt tips from customers to make up the rest? Lots has been written on this including "Tipping Is an Abomination" by Brian Palmer in Slate and another piece by Brandon Ambrosino in Vox demanding we get rid of it.

Short version: Getting rid of tipping won't be easy, and is a long-term challenge. But if we get to 2050 and we're still tipping in restaurants, it's because society was too unwilling to deal with an obvious problem right in front of us.


One of the most interesting people I met was a woman named Nancy Sullivan, a scientist at NIH who has spent a decade working on a vaccine for a disease that had never had an outbreak of more than 100 people, that was over in Africa, that no one really knew about. She’s laboring away in a lab for a decade trying to build this vaccine that no one really cared about, to be honest. And all of a sudden, Ebola was a big global problem. And the vaccine she spent a decade working on was a critical part of the response. The president went to her lab at NIH, went to the bench she’s been working at, saw her notebook with her notes from when she first discovered this vaccine, a little notation in her notebook where she’s just written in the margins, “Yahoo!” Seeing her fill these little pipettes and tubes and all these things, do this work, you know, it was just really inspiring. And knowing that there are just people out there doing this work quietly in labs, no one really knows if their work’s going to matter to anyone; they’re just doing it because of their dedication to science and medicine and trying to find cures—it was really amazing.

From Michael Grunwald's fascinating extended interview with Ron Klain on the White House Ebola effort.

In December, I posted my thoughts on the US Ebola response.

The Steady Degradation of Our Prospects

One of my pet peeves actually is that people talk about policy as if, as long as you’ve avoided a hot crisis, things are okay even when they’re obviously not. The pet peeve that affects me personally is the cancellation of the Hudson Rail Tunnel in New York City, and it’s kind of perfect. Essentially, because of political partisanship, we still have the world’s greatest city totally dependent on a tunnel completed in 1910 for all public transit linkage to the west. That doesn’t show up in an abrupt collapse, but those sorts of things show up in a steady degradation of our prospects.
— Paul Krugman

This is from part of a longer interview of Paul Krugman from Ezra Klein that's well worth reading. And it mirrors my thinking as well. Sometimes analysts act like there are only the two extremes of "everything is awesome" and "the world is ending," when neither are ever true. In energy, climate, infrastructure, and many other areas, there's plenty of room in the middle for situations that look just fine on the surface, but are slowly deteriorating over a time period longer than our attention spans.

Ebola Didn't Disappear, They Just Stopped Talking About It

Ebola Didn't Disappear, They Just Stopped Talking About It

As the President provided an update on Ebola from the National Institutes of Health the other day, few noticed because the media barely reported on it. While at the same time, a meme floated around social media wondering what happened to the Ebola threat in the first place. It's telling on two fronts, the lack of appreciation of the US Ebola response, and the amazing way we pretend that Ebola isn't an issue even though it's still a major problem...

Read More

"Compassion Isn’t a Sign of Weakness, but a Mark of Civilization"

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.
— Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times

The Realities of Our Democracy

In a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can’t otherwise win their fights through elections, can’t win their fights in Congress, can’t win their fights for the Presidency, and can’t win their fights in Courts. For this right-wing minority, hostage-taking is all they have left – a last gasp of those who cannot cope with the realities of our democracy.
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Obama and Climate Change: It's the Follow-Through That Matters

I hope the President’s speech will be followed up by a decision to make this challenge a centerpiece of his leadership during his remaining three and a half years in office. The hard truth is that the maximum that now seems politically feasible still falls short of the minimum necessary to actually solve the climate crisis.
— Al Gore

My thoughts on the speech sound a lot like Al Gore's response on his blog. Was it the best climate change speech by a US President ever? Yes, yes it was. But the only way it matters is if it's "followed by skillful and thorough execution of the plan" & "continued and constant use of the bully pulpit, determined follow-through on the steps announced"

The President and the Process

Trying to do my best to contain my jadedness, because at the end of the day - The President of the United States giving a speech on Climate Change next Tuesday is a really really big deal.

And you don't want to pre-judge a speech that he hasn't given yet.

But looking forward, on the process side, Ryan Lizza's "As the World Burns" in the New Yorker is still the best look at Congress and the failure of the last chance at climate legislation - and the difficulty future fights will face.

On the President's side, it's hard to expect much follow-through after a speech or two, because his record rarely shows follow-through. The best recent example is gun control. After some of the most passionate speeches of the President's career, we just haven't heard much on that issue at all from the White House these past few months.

The White House has rarely shown the heart to fight battles that it cannot win. But those are the battles you have  to fight, because even in failure, those fights will set-up the next battles in the years to decades to come.  

We'll see over the next weeks/months, how much follow-through the President will put behind his climate change effort, or if it's just another check mark on the second term "To-Do" list. A way to tell the historians, "Hey, I gave a speech about it! Check! Hillz you got this, right?"

Know why we vote on Tuesday? Neither does Obama's Voting Commission


When thinking about improving voter turnout, the top of the list, 100% obvious choice, has always been to implement weekend voting, multiple day voting, or at least ask the question: Why do we vote on Tuesdays? In fact, the Why Tuesday organization has been asking that very question for years.

So when the President's Support the Voter commission launched their website this week, I just assumed "voting day" would be at the top of the list.

The commission is considering 11 different voting issues, and NONE of them deal with day of the week. Oh well, if you work on Tuesdays like most normal people, guess you're still out of luck. But at least the commission is going to work hard on "efficient management of voter rolls and poll books."

Being a US Senator is apparently as fun as being a Detroit Lions Fan

Being a US Senator is apparently as fun as being a Detroit Lions Fan

In trying to express how much fun the US Senate is, Chris Cillizza reaches for the classic "bag fan" photo during the Lions 0-16 season. But it does seem like a pretty poor gig, you work for a few years to raise tons of money and win an election, so you earn the right to spend a third of your day on the phone begging for money for your next election, and the rest of your day passing no legislation because of the increase in obstruction... ​

Read More

The next civil equality movement

Todd Stiefel, a wealthy businessman, is responsible for bank rolling many atheism activism projects.

Todd Stiefel, a wealthy businessman, is responsible for bank rolling many atheism activism projects.

I consider myself working on the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American Civil Rights. We are still in the early stages of eliminating discrimination against atheists and humanists. That is something I really want to accomplish.
— Todd Stiefel

If Not Now, When?

President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he speaks soon after about the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he speaks soon after about the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Not much needs to be said, but Mike Lupica nails it in a scathing reply to Pols after it became clear that an assault rifle ban won't be included in pending gun legislation:

If Sandy Hook Elementary doesn’t make every member of Congress take a stand against assault weapons in this country, then what does? How many small coffins do we need the next time?
— Mike Lupica

The part that continues to annoy me about stories like these is the continued dysfunction of the US Senate that George Packer so eloquently covered in the New Yorker article "The Empty Chamber." I have no problem with Senators voting "No" on bills, or amendments, or cabinet appointees, or judge appointees, etc. They have the right to vote their conscience. But their JOB is to take votes. And it's endlessly frustrating that members of Congress can so effortlessly slither their way out of taking tough votes.