$50 Million or Twenty-Five Years Old?

Here’s the question:

If you were given the choice, would you accept $50 million tax-free, no strings attached, or would you return to your life when you were 25-years old, taking with you all the knowledge and experience you possess today? Whichever you choose, why did you choose it?

I asked this question on my Facebook page, and was surprised by some of the answers.

Several people made the point that if they were given the choice, they’d happily go back to when they were twenty-five years old. A few of them, pointed out that, with the experience and knowledge they’ve gained over the years, they could easily make $50 million or more as a twenty-five year old.

Others said they would stay the age are now and accept the $50 million. Their reasoning was that they could do so much good in the world with the money, including helping their loved ones.

There were even a few people who said they wouldn’t choose either option. These people say that they have already been blessed in life and wouldn’t change anything. It might be these people I envy most, although, wouldn’t $50 million make their already blessed lives even more blessed?

On Facebook, I didn’t answer the question, although I had a complicated answer already in my mind. Here’s what I was thinking:

My kneejerk reaction is that I would go back to when I was twenty-five and live my life over again, but this time with the benefit of a lifetime of experience and knowledge. I’d have a second chance to do more with my life, I could correct or avoid mistakes, be more productive, more effective, and as others stated, make a significant amount of money from my knowledge and experience.

But there’s a catch.

Unless I re-lived my life exactly as I previously lived it, I likely wouldn’t end up with my two kids. And losing them would be a deal-breaker. Sure, I could have other kids, and they’d likely be great. But they wouldn’t be the kids I have now. And there’s no way I’m going to lose them.

My latest novel, The Ones That Got Away, is all about the chance to go back and re-live a life that was less that satisfying. The thought of getting a second chance at life has always intrigued me. But the truth is, if I was offered the chance, I don’t think I could do it. I couldn’t risk losing my kids.

I guess I’ll just have to settle for $50 million.

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Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Why do smart people do dumb things? I’m not talking about ticky-tacky little things like backing the car into a garbage can or touching a hot stove. After all, people are human, and humans make mistakes. What I’m talking about is choosing to do the wrong thing even when you know it is wrong.

For instance, several years ago, a friend and I got into the cattle business. Roger, my partner, had been a farmer his entire life and knew how to run our operation. I was a newbie, a city kid who wanted to be a new age cowboy. I paid the bills. Roger made all the decisions.

Our cattle business was what is called a seed stock operation. We bought the best cattle we could afford, and we set out to improve their genetics—things like weight, pace of growth, temperament, age of weaning, etc.—with the goal of selling those cattle to other farmers to improve the genetics of their cattle.

Seed stock operations can be very profitable, but it can take years to become established enough to turn a profit. So, to help pay the bills, we sold off steers (castrated bulls with less than ideal genetics) and older or undesirable cows to farmers who would finish them (feed them until they reached slaughter weight) and sell them for beef.

To improve the genetics of our herd, we would artificially inseminate our cows with semen from bulls with genetics that would complement the cow’s genetics and improve the traits of the offspring. However, AI breeding is not foolproof, so we would put a “clean up” bull out on pasture with the cows. The goal was for the cows to calve during the first quarter of the year, so we had to make sure that breeding took place in late spring or early summer.

Calving during the first quarter of the year (January, February, or March) provides a lot of problems for farmers like us in Wisconsin. Those months are usually bitter cold, often snow-covered, and good nutrition for the cattle is at a premium. During the winter, cattle are brought in out of the pasture and are confined to pens where they are easier to feed. The pens are often crowded, muddy, open to the elements, and full of manure. It was not unusual for us to lose several calves each year due to the harsh conditions.

Because I was new to cattle ranching, I was open to new ideas, since I didn’t have old ideas to crowd them out. Roger gained all of his knowledge through experience. I had to learn mine from books. I don’t remember where I first read it, but one author suggested calving in spring or even summer, when the weather is better and food is much more plentiful. He said that cows in less harsh conditions and better health are less stressed when they give birth. That made sense to me. So, I suggested to Roger that we move our breeding program to the fall so calving would take place in the spring or summer.

Roger said “no.”

I thought I was on to something and I didn’t understand Roger’s reluctance to change our program. Naturally, I asked him why.

At first, his answer was, this is the way it’s always been done. He was right, cattle ranchers throughout our area calved at about the same time. During calving season, the discussion between farmers in the first few months of the year was about how calving was going. When a cow gave birth later in the year, it was considered a mistake.

As far as I was concerned, “That’s the way we always do it” was not a good reason. I pressed Roger. His response? “Farmers are looking for feeders (cattle ready to be finished on feed shortly before they reach slaughter weight) in October and November. In order to get them big enough by then, we have to calve at the beginning of the year.”

That seemed reasonable until I gave it a little thought. What Roger was talking about seemed like a chicken and egg problem. Was calving taking place early in the year because farmers needed feeders in October/November or did farmers buy feeders in October/November because cattle were calving early in the year? I asked the question and found out that, while a lot of feeders are purchased in October/November, there is a market for feeders year-round. The October/November time frame is just the main feeder season.

Then why couldn’t we start calving later in the year? Roger finally came clean and told me the real reason he didn’t want to change the program: He didn’t want other farmers looking at him like an outlier. Changing our calving schedule would embarrass him, and he didn’t want to deal with that. We never did change our calving program.

Let’s review:

  1. Conditions early in the year in Wisconsin are harsh;
  2. Harsh conditions can lead to difficult births, which is hard on the cow, the calf, and the farmer;
  3. Farmers lose money when calves die;
  4. There really is no credible argument against calving later in the year;
  5. Even so, we didn’t change our procedures because we were afraid other farmers would judge us.

We knew there was a better way, yet we stuck with a worse way to avoid potentially looking foolish in front of other farmers. We were smart people purposely doing a dumb thing.

This phenomenon is not confined to farmers. In fact, it happens to all kinds of different people in all walks of life. As one example, in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a game against the New York Knicks. Of his 100 points, 28 came from free throws. Chamberlin made 28 or 32 free throws, an 87.5% success rate. This was unusual because Chamberlain was not considered a good free throw shooter. In fact, he was a 51% free throw shooter for his career. How did he do so well in this one game?

During his first two years in the league, Chamberlain was a miserable free throw shooter. His teammate, Rick Barry, one of the all-time great free throw shooters in NBA history, offered to work with him. Barry had a different way of shooting free throws. Rather than shooting from in front of and slightly above his head like most people, Barry shot underhand. He convinced Chamberlain to give it a try.

Although Chamberlain was reluctant, he finally agreed. During the 1961-62 season, the season that included his 100-point game, Chamberlain made a career high 61.3% of his free throws. His work with Barry was a paying off. The next year, he went back to shooting overhand and his free throw percentage dropped. Chamberlain played for fifteen seasons in the NBA and he never had a better season shooting free throws than he did in the 1961-62 season. Why would he quit shooting underhand?

In his autobiography (the one where he claimed to have slept with more than 20,000 women), Chamberlain admitted that he was wrong to give up shooting free throws underhand. He knew it at the time he quit. But he did it anyway because he was worried people might think of him as “a sissy.” This supremely gifted, 7’1” athlete, who was one of the best players to ever live, was afraid people with none of his ability, none of his grace, none of his accomplishments, would call him a name. So, he chose to be less of a player than he could have been.

Wilt Chamberlain was a smart guy who did a very stupid thing, knowing full well even when he was doing it, that it was wrong.

It’s not just individuals who fall into this trap. Entire organizations do things they know are wrong. There are a plethora of examples in other areas, but let’s stick with sports.

David Romer is an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley. He’s also a football fan. His gut told him that punting on fourth down was a bad play. But it was just a gut instinct, and most of the history of the NFL disagreed with him. So, he did what economists do. He analyzed the issue using math. As it turned out, his gut was right.

Romer examined the choice to punt, turning the ball over to the opponent, versus going for a first down on all four downs of a team’s possession. What he found was that going for a first down increased the chances of a team winning by between 0.5%-2.1% versus punting on fourth down (The findings are more complicated than this. I’ve provided the dumbed down version.). Yet, even though NFL teams are aware of this study and don’t dispute the results, they still overwhelmingly punt on fourth down, even in short yardage situations. Why is that?

I suspect the reason is that going for it on fourth down and failing is too visible. I almost said “mistake” instead of “too visible,” but is it really a mistake, even if it doesn’t work?

In his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, author Tony Hsieh compares making business decisions to playing poker. He says that successful poker players are those that understand odds and probabilities, and make decisions based on them. For instance, if a player makes a bet based on the probabilities every time she is dealt a certain hand (what poker players refer to as “hole cards”), more times than not, it will be a successful bet. When it is not successful, the decision to bet isn’t a mistake. It’s just part of the process. The moral of Hsieh’s story: Successful people focus on process, not just results.

Likewise, a football coach who goes for it on fourth down isn’t making a mistake when his team fails to make the first down. His decision was right. The result just didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. Even so, the decision will work out more times than not, albeit just slightly more times.

Another economics professor, Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago, analyzed the NFL draft and came to the conclusion that teams value first round picks too highly, and lower round picks not nearly highly enough. He concluded that teams would be much better off trading first round picks for multiple second and third round picks (a common trade exchange rate). For the cost of a first round pick, teams can sign four or five lower round picks and will almost always receive more production from those picks than they would from a single first rounder.

Thaler’s paper caught the attention of the NFL and he has now consulted with multiple teams. Without exception, every team he has consulted with has refused to follow his advice. They knew his opinion when they hired him. They paid him a lot of money to go over the findings of his study and make recommendations. And then they went out and did the exact opposite of what he suggested. They knew they were doing the wrong thing, so why did they do it?

Thaler thinks there are a couple of reasons. One is that fans like the big name, exciting players available in the first round. Teams aren’t in the business of disappointing fans. Even so, wouldn’t winning more games by having lots of good players rather than one great player make fans happy? Maybe, but that’s not the only reason teams ignore Thaler’s advice.

Generally speaking, team owners and team officials like shiny objects. They try to find ways to make that highly-touted quarterback or speedy wide receiver their own, and it rarely matters to them that they can find players almost as good at a fraction of the cost in lower rounds. So, they go for the quick rush of adrenaline, the headline grabber, the short-term high rather than the long-term investment. They know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.

People, and as an extension, organizations, are interesting creatures. We are weird and wacky and wonderful. And sometimes, even when we know doing something is wrong, we do it anyway. We say we want to win. We say we want to be successful. But mostly, we want to be happy and comfortable and accepted. And the need for these seemingly simple things is apparently much more powerful than our desire for success.

This blog post was inspired by an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History.

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Democracy or Authoritarianism: What’s It Going To Be?

I have a sinking feeling, a sense of dread that is threatening to consume me. And every day, it seems to get worse.

Although I try to avoid writing about politics these days, I feel the need to express what I’m feeling. Politically, things are not “business as usual” in the United States at the moment. We are as close to losing our democracy as we’ve ever been (even more so than during the Civil War), and each day brings more cause for concern.

We have two political parties in this country; one trying to save democracy and one pushing it toward authoritarianism. The party pushing for authoritarianism is ruthless and shameless and power-hungry. They exist to reclaim power, with little to no interest in actually using that power for the good of the country.

The party trying to save democracy is largely timid and ineffective, often concerned more with process than progress. They seemingly care more about institutional integrity and decorum than they do with stopping the destruction of our form of government and way of life.

The party pushing for authoritarianism is filled with unrepentant liars, aided by a cadre of right-wing media outlets that both create and amplify bigger and more outlandish lies. The lies are often proven false by fact checkers, yet they persist.

The party working to save democracy often ignores the lies, as if they will just go away. They want to investigate corruption and insurrection, but they refuse to do so without the authoritarian party’s permission.

We have a president that, by all accounts, is a decent, honorable man, but he refuses to get caught up in the fray. He presides the way a president from another time would preside. He goes about the job of governing without paying heed to those that would destroy the very country he is governing. He is a man seemingly unequal to the task before him. While his house is being robbed, he makes sure the dishes are put away and the beds are made.

Almost every day since our democracy was attacked and Congress was seized by insurrectionists, new, damning information has come out laying blame for the insurrection at the feet of former President Trump, several high-ranking officials in his administration, and a handful of Congresspeople who insist that there was no insurrection, even as they work to foment another one. Yet, no one in a position of power has been arrested, charged with a crime, or otherwise made to account for their actions.

The party trying to save democracy has proven largely feckless in bringing these people to justice or even conducting an investigation into their behavior. There is reason to believe that members of the House of Representatives—our elected officials—participated in organizing the insurrection, including giving tours of the Capitol to the insurrectionists a day before the insurrection was carried out. Yet, not one of them has been investigated. Not one of them has been charged. Not one of them has been removed from their committee assignments. Not one of them has been censured or removed from office. These people allegedly helped carry out an attempted coup, yet they have not faced any type of meaningful repercussion. Is there any doubt that they’ll try again?

I’m hopeless because the authoritarian party currently has the upper hand. Even as a minority party, they have been successful in obstructing the business of the Congress. And if pundits are correct, the authoritarian party is likely to take over both houses of Congress in 2022. When that happens, it is unlikely that we will ever see our democracy again.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University and an expert in fascism and rising authoritarianism, wrote this about our present circumstance:

“President Trump tells a big lie that elections are rigged. This authorizes him and others to seek power in extra-democratic ways. The lie is institutionalized by state legislation that suppresses voting, and that gives state legislatures themselves the right to decide how to allocate the electoral vote in presidential elections.  

“The scenario then goes like this. The Republicans win back the House and Senate in 2022, in part thanks to voter suppression. The Republican candidate in 2024 loses the popular vote by several million and the electoral vote by the margin of a few states. State legislatures, claiming fraud, alter the electoral count vote. The House and Senate accept that altered count. The losing candidate becomes the president. We no longer have “democratically elected government.” And people are angry. 

“No one is seeking to hide that this is the plan. It is right there out in the open. The prospective Republican candidates for 2024, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, are all running on a big lie platform. If your platform is that elections do not work, you are saying that you intend to come to power some other way. The big lie is designed not to win an election, but to discredit one. Any candidate who tells it is alienating most Americans, and preparing a minority for a scenario where fraud is claimed. This is just what Trump tried in 2020, and it led to a coup attempt in January 2021. It will be worse in January 2025.”

There are a thousand reasons I’m feeling dread about the future of our nation. But there’s one reason I am hopeful. I have always believed in the goodness of the American people. We get things wrong a lot, but we usually find a way to make things right. My hope is that most people who support the party of authoritarianism do so out of habit, not out of a wish for authoritarianism. When they see what their party is doing to this nation, how they have been constantly lied to and played for fools, my fervent wish is that these people will come around to the cause of democracy.

My further hope is that the goodness and perseverance of the American people will kickstart a new commitment to democracy, pushing the party of democracy to do whatever is necessary to defeat those that would bring our country to bended knee in service of their proto-fascist agenda.

It’s clear that the authoritarian party is not interested in governing, let alone participating in bipartisan legislation. It’s time for the party of democracy to use their majority to push through programs designed to help the many rather than the few; programs like HR 1 “For The People” Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, designed to restore and strengthen our democracy. Tomorrow may be too late. The time to act is now.

ADDENDUM: After finishing this essay, I remembered a Twitter thread written by Thomas Zimmer, history professor at Georgetown University, that captured my feelings on the democracy vs authoritarian crisis we are facing. It’s worth a read:

“Unless the system is fundamentally democratized, we’ll soon reach the point where it will become impossible to stop America’s slide into authoritarianism through elections. Some thoughts on what is at stake, based on this important piece by @RonBrownstein:

“If democratizing reforms do not come, all the states in which Republicans are in power will soon resemble apartheid South Africa much more than anything that could reasonably be called a functioning multiracial democracy. In about half the states, Republicans will be erecting stable one-party rule and install a system that is best described as a herrenvolk democracy: A system that is fairly democratic if you happen to be a white Christian man – and something entirely different if you are not.

“Does that sound far-fetched? Alarmist? It’s not. In many ways, it would constitute a return to the pre-1960s situation and be much closer to the historical norm in the United States. Remember that until the 1960s, apartheid was the reality in many regions of the country.

“What about the national level? If you combine the current system’s anti-majoritarian distortions with the GOP’s many aggressive anti-democratic initiatives, Republicans are basically guaranteed enough power to obstruct and make functional Democratic governance impossible. The result is definitely not a functioning democracy.

“The question is: Would it even be a sustainable country? @davidmfaris worries about a breakup in this interview – and he’s right! America is already facing a crisis of democratic legitimacy, and it’s only getting worse.

“In a representative democracy, the party that consistently gets significantly fewer votes on all levels of government shouldn’t be able to hold onto power and control the nation’s fate. At some point, this crisis of legitimacy will have to be resolved – one way or another.

“History doesn’t repeat itself. There won’t be another Civil War blue vs. gray – the coming crisis will look different. But the idea that things are definitely going to work out somehow is mainly based on a ‘It can’t happen here’ type of American exceptionalism. And still, ‘It cannot happen here’ seems to be, as @AmandiOnAir puts it in the @RonBrownstein piece, the animating principle for too many Democratic officials and liberals more broadly. American democracy can’t afford this sort of willful ignorance and naivety. 

“We must face the fact that the radicalization of the Republican Party has outpaced what even most critical observers imagined, and we need to grapple with what that should mean for our expectations going forward and start thinking about real worst-case scenarios.

I think @perrybaconjr really captured the situation perfectly in last week’s important column: ‘Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn’t do enough to save it.’ 

“Will America become a stable multiracial democracy – or will the history books record multiracial democracy as a fairly short-lived and ultimately aborted experiment, an interlude from the mid-1960s to the 2020s, when the country returned to its previous historical norm?

“I understand the criticism of what @ezraklein calls a “self-fulfilling cycle” in this great conversation with @pastpunditry: By emphasizing how high the stakes are, they get even higher – making it more difficult to solve the situation politically. But I maintain that for journalists, analysts, and scholars, the prime responsibility is to cover, describe, assess, and interpret American politics as objectively, accurately, and adequately as possible. We shouldn’t downplay, appease, play politics.

“I don’t think the situation is all bad, by the way. Reactionary forces are radicalizing because America really has become more liberal, more pluralistic, and is closer to being a truly multi-racial democracy than it’s ever been. But that’s exactly what makes the current moment so acutely dangerous. Reactionaries who define “real America” as a nation dominated by white Christians feel their backs against the wall and are convinced that all measures are justified to defeat an illegitimate opponent.

“I believe this struggle is of world-historic significance. And we are witnessing a very similar conflict in all Western democracies: Is it possible to establish a stable, truly multiracial, truly pluralistic democracy?

“I tried to make this point at the end of this @DinDpodcast, on democracy in Europe and how it compares to the situation in the U.S.: Such a truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy has never been achieved anywhere – it would be a world-historic first.  There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with (think Sweden); or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group, or “herrenvolk.” A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere.

“The U.S. is in many ways the most advanced, most acute test case: Will it become a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or remain a white Christian nation, defined by white Christianism, in which white Christians dominate socially, politically, and culturally? It’s an open question, one of enormous significance for all of us, all democracies around the world. Which is why the stakes, right now, are enormously high. We must hope that Democratic elected officials understand the situation – and are willing to act accordingly.

“Democrats will have to accept the challenge that accompanies the recognition that they will act alone to protect democracy, or it won’t happen at all.’ This here, from @ThePlumLineGS, goes right to the heart of the matter. So the question is: Will they? “

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Tulsa Was Just the Tip of the Iceberg

I was watching 60 Minutes recently and saw a story about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. It was an amazing story, made all the more amazing by the fact that the massacre occurred 100 years ago, yet I had never heard of it. I wasn’t alone. The 60 Minutes crew interviewed a man who was born and educated in Tulsa, but he had never heard of the massacre either.

In case you’ve never heard of the Tulsa Massacre, here’s what the Zinn Education Project has to say about it:

“One of the most violent episodes of dispossession in U.S. history began on May 31, 1921 in Greenwood, a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From May 31 through June 1, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 Black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”

Learning about the Tulsa Massacre made me wonder if there were other events in our country’s history where blacks were terrorized and killed by white mobs. I suspected there were others, so I decided to dig into it. What I found stunned me.

U.S. history is replete with massacres of minority and marginalized people, including Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and LGBTQ people. In addition, Italians, Irish, and Jews have been the target of violence, along with laborers of various ethnicities.

Because of the facts of the Tulsa Massacre, my main focus was violence against blacks. I found thirty-four different incidents where multiple black people were killed or injured by violence. I find it amazing that I was unaware of almost every one of these massacres, including one that happened near where I grew up.

Why don’t we know more about these violent events? Why aren’t they routinely taught in history classes. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that most school districts prefer to whitewash history rather than deal with the truth head-on. In the U.S., we tend to only want to remember the good parts of our history. But we can only grow and reach our potential as a nation if we acknowledge our entire history and learn from it.

That’s a conversation for another day. For now, here are the thirty-four black massacres I found, along with links if you’d like to learn more.

New York City Draft Riots  (New York, NY — July 11- July 16, 1863)

Massacre at Fort Pillow  ( Ft. Pillow, TN —  April 12, 1864)

Ebenezer Creek Massacre   (Near Savannah, GA —  December 9, 1864)

Memphis Riots of 1866   (Memphis, TN —  May 1-May 3, 1866)

New Orleans Massacre of 1866 (New Orleans, LA — July 30, 1866)

Camilla Massacre  (Camilla, GA — September 19, 1868)

Opelousas Massacre  (Opelousas, LA — September 28, 1868)

St. Bernard Parish Massacre  (St. Bernard Parish, LA — October 25, 1868)

Colfax Massacre  (Colfax, LA  —  April 13, 1873)

Elaine Massacre (Elaine, AR —  Sept 30-Oct 1, 1874)

Election Riot of 1874  (Eufaula, AL — November 3, 1874)

Vicksburg Massacre  (Vicksburg, MS — December 7, 1874)

The Clinton Riot  (Clinton, MS  — September 4, 1875)

Hamburg Massacre  (Hamburg, SC — July 8, 1876)

Danville Riot  (Danville, VA — November 3, 1883)

Thibadoux Massacre (Thibadoux, LA — November 21-23, 1887)

Polk County Massacre  (Polk County, AR — August 5, 1896)

Wilmington Massacre (Coup) (Wilmington, NC — November 10, 1898)

Atlanta Massacre of 1906  (Atlanta, GA  — Sept 22-24, 1906)

Springfield Race Riots of 1908 (Springfield, IL — August 14, 1908)

Slocum Massacre  (Slocum, TX  —  July 29-30, 1910)

East St. Louis Riots   (East St. Louis, IL — May 28-July 3, 1917)

Washington Race Riot of 1919  (Washington, DC — July 19-24, 1919)

The Red Summer of 1919  (Chicago, IL  — July 27-August 3, 1919)

Bogalusa Labor Massacre (Bogalusa, LA  —  November 22, 1919)

Ocoee Massacre      (Ocoee, FL — November 2, 1920)

Tulsa Race Massacre  (Tulsa, OK  —  May 31-June 1, 1921)

Rosewood Massacre   (Rosewood, FL  — January 1-7, 1923)

Catcher Race Riot  (Catcher, AR  —  December 29, 1923)

Detroit Race Riot 1943  (Detroit, MI  — June 20-June 22, 1943)

Orangeburg Massacre   (Orangeburg, SC  —  February 8, 1968)

Greensboro Massacre (Greensboro, NC —  November 3, 1979)

The MOVE Bombing (Philadelphia, PA  — May 13, 1985)

Charleston Church Massacre  (Charleston, SC  — June 17, 2015)

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The Best Places to Live (2021 Edition)

I like living in the United States. Sure, I’ve never lived anywhere else, but I think we have a pretty good quality of life here. We have freedom, and opportunity, and at least in general, civic pride. True, the United States is not perfect. Our healthcare system is among the worst in the free world (It’s the most expensive with some of the worst outcomes), we imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other country on earth, and we don’t do a particularly good job of taking care of the least among us. Even so, most people in the United States enjoy a high standard of living when compared to other countries.

Or so I thought…

I recently went down a rabbit hole trying to determine the best country in which to live. I, like a lot of Americans, take it for granted that the United States is the best place to live. But in recent years, I’ve started seeing more and more evidence that things in the United States are not as good as I’ve previously believed.

Before I get into the meat of this essay, let me state for the record that I still like living in the United States. This is where I was born, where my friends and family live. At least in theory, I can live anywhere I want, and I choose to stay in the United States. My purpose in writing this essay is not to besmirch the United States. But I do think it is valuable to see where our shortcomings might be so we can address them, making the country even better than it already is.

American Exceptionalism would have us believe that the United States is the greatest country on earth, and questioning that notion not only denies what many Americans believe, but is considered unpatriotic. I’ve traveled the world enough to know that people in almost every country feel that their country is the best. But unlike Americans, they don’t trot out the idea of [Fill in the Country] Exceptionalism to actively promote the concept the way we do in the United States. We use it as a sword and a shield. Most other countries simply hold the idea, if they hold it at all, quietly in their hearts. My hope is that this essay, and the data contained herein, will help dispel the corrosiveness of American Exceptionalism and will show us that, while we are great, we still have some work to do.

Background

In 2009, Mladen Adamovic, a former Google software engineer from Serbia started Numbeo to collect data from around the world to determine worldwide consumer prices, crime rates, quality of life indices, healthcare data, etc. Each year, Numbeo post reports comparing countries based on their collected data.

In 2021, Numbeo published a Quality of Life Index that took purchasing power, safety, healthcare, cost of living, property prices, traffic commute time, pollution, and climate into their equation. Initially, I thought this index would tell me which countries were considered the best, and I was interested to find out where the United States finished. But as I studied the list, I started to think that the methodology used for the list didn’t correspond with what I thought should be included in a ranking of quality of life.

Here are the top 20 countries on the Numbeo Quality of Life Index:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Denmark
  3. Netherlands
  4. Finland
  5. Austria
  6. Australia
  7. Iceland
  8. Germany
  9. New Zealand
  10. Norway
  11. Estonia
  12. Oman
  13. Sweden
  14. Slovenia
  15. United States
  16. Spain
  17. Japan
  18. Portugal
  19. Lithuania
  20. Canada

I suspected that many of these countries would make any list of the top quality-of-life countries, but there were a few surprises. Most obviously, Oman seems to be an outlier on the list. Slovenia is another country I didn’t expect to see in the top 20. I was also surprised that countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Italy weren’t in the top 20. I decided to put my own list together.

Methodology

I have no doubt that, based on the data they used, the Numbeo list is accurate. The problem I have with the list is, I don’t think, at least for my purposes, they’re using the correct data. Of course, using different data makes my list different, but not necessary better. I admit that. What I wanted to do is rank countries based on the happiness of its citizens, by the amount of freedom they enjoy, and by the relative cost of living in the country. These were the things I felt were the most important when analyzing a country’s quality of life.

Having said that, I’m not ignoring crime rates, healthcare, pollution, etc. These things are baked into the happiness experienced by its citizens. I suspected that the freer a citizenry is, the happier they will be, but I wasn’t sure. So, I turned to the Human Freedom Index published annually by the Cato Institute, and factored in their data. And to round out the data set, I used Numbeo’s Cost of Living index. Utopia may exist, but if it’s unaffordable, I don’t want it on the list.

Equal weight was given to each of World Happiness Report (from World Population Review) rankings and Human Freedom Index rankings, and the countries that made up the resulting list were then ranked based on cost of living. The top 30 countries on the World Happiness Report and the top 30 on the Human Freedom Index made up the final list of 39 countries. Those countries were then viewed in isolation to determine their relative cost of living ranking.

Here’s what each of the individual indexes has to say about their methodology:

World Happiness Report

Founded in 2011 by Shane Fulmer, World Population Review is a website dedicated to global population data and trends. According to Fulmer, “Most demographic data is hidden in spreadsheets, behind complex APIs, or inside cumbersome tools. World Population Review’s goal is to make this data more accessible through graphs, charts, analysis, and visualizations.” World Population Review monitors world population with real census and UN data, as well as real-time estimates based on birth and death rates.

“The World Happiness Report looks at countries with respect to their performance of six particular variables:

  • Gross domestic product per capita
  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Freedom to make your own life choices
  • Generosity of the general population
  • Perceptions of internal and external corruption levels”

Human Freedom Index

The 2021 Human Freedom Index was authored and compiled by Ian Vasquez and Fred McMahon of the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, DC. The following was taken directly from the report.

“The Human Freedom Index (HFI) presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. This sixth annual index uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the following areas:

  • Rule of Law
  • Security and Safety
  • Movement
  • Religion
  • Association, Assembly, and Civil Society
  • Expression and Information
  • Identity and Relationships
  • Size of Government
  • Legal System and Property Rights
  • Access to Sound Money
  • Freedom to Trade Internationally
  • Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business

“The HFI is the most comprehensive freedom index so far created for a globally meaningful set of countries representing 94 percent of the world’s population. The HFI covers 162 countries for 2018, the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. The index ranks countries beginning in 2008, the earliest year for which a robust enough index could be produced.

“The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being, and they offer opportunities for further research into the complex ways in which freedom influences, and can be influenced by, political regimes, economic development, and the whole range of indicators of human well-being.”

Cost of Living Index

The following was taken from the Numbeo website:

“To collect data Numbeo relies on user inputs and manually collected data from authoritative sources (websites of supermarkets, taxi company websites, governmental institutions, newspaper articles, other surveys, etc.). Manually collected data from established sources are entered twice per year.

“We perform automatic and semi-automatic filters to filter out noise data. We utilize user behavior and previous data for the city/country to determine likelihood of a certain input whether it is considered as spam. There are more than 30 sophisticated filters which in use. The performance rate of the filter is enhanced once more inputs are included.

“One of the advanced filters tries to eliminate bad training data. It digs into discarded data (spam data) and if it notices irregularities, it moves them back into the calculation. The algorithm which determines irregular spam data uses the following filter: if for a single item in a city exists a high number of classified spam data with a relatively small standard deviance from users that have more positive inputs, that means these data are misclassified and the algorithm fix it to the proper classification.

“To summarize our filters, Numbeo uses heuristic technology to get the data quality. Using the existing data Numbeo periodically discards data which are most likely incorrect statistically.

“Numbeo also archives the values of old data (our default data deprecation policy is 12 months, although we use data up to 18 months old when we do not have fresh data and indicators are suggesting that inflation is low in a particular country). The values of old data are preserved to be used for historical purposes.

“To aggregate data for a country, we use all entries (for all cities) to calculate average country data. Note that it is different from the aggregating calculated data for all cities in that country. So, in calculations for the country, we are weighting a city by the number of contributors. Since there are higher number of inputs for a country than for a city, aggregate data showed on a country level consists, in general, much more data points.”

Surprises

As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised to see Oman and Slovenia on the ranking of the top 20 countries for quality of life. For instance, Oman ranked 133rd on the Human Freedom Index, and wasn’t listed at all on the World Happiness Report. It’s hard to imagine that the cost of living or level of crime or pollution could make up for the lack of relative freedom or happiness in Oman.

On the other hand, I was wrong about Slovenia, which was formerly a part of Yugoslavia. Slovenia ranks 33rd on the World Happiness Report, as well as 33rd on the Human Freedom index. Both rankings eliminated Slovenia from this list of best countries to live, but it was much closer than I anticipated.

I was also surprised that other countries I expected to make the ranking of best countries to live didn’t make the top 30 on the World Happiness Report or Human Freedom Index. These Countries include Greece (77th on WHR, 56th on HFI), Brazil (32nd on WHR, 88th on HFI), Colombia (44th on WHR, 86th on HFI), Argentina (55th on WHR, 70th on HFI), and South Africa (109th on WHR, 68th on HFI).

And then there’s Panama…

Many years ago, I questioned where I would move if for some reason I had to leave the United States. I considered several places and was influenced heavily by International Living, a publication targeted at American ex-pats and ex-pat wannabes. It was through International Living that I became interested in Panama. They seemed to have everything: a democratically elected government, low cost of living, tropical location, the Panamanian dollar was tied to the American dollar, and there were a lot of English speakers among the country’s population. Panama seemed great. Yet, they were only 36th on the WHR and 40th on the HFI. Sorry, Panama. Close, but no cigars.

A Quick Caveat

You’ll note that Hong Kong made the list of best places to live. They finished 78th on the World Happiness Report, 3rd on the World Freedom Index, and 27th on the Cost of Living Index, placing them 35th on my Best Places to Live List. However, most of the data used for the 2021 editions of the three resource lists are from 2018, the most recent year that complete data is available.

Things have changed for the worse in Hong Kong since 2018. China has clamped down on Hong Kong, limiting citizens’ rights and implementing more restrictive regulations. As a result, Hong Kong most assuredly will not appear as high on future lists.

Also, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia made the Best Places to Live List. UAE was 38th and Saudi Arabia 39th. They are on the list because they met the requirement of being in the top 30 on one of the resource lists. In both cases, they were top 30 on the World Happiness Report. However, both countries were ranked so poorly on the Human Freedom Index that I would never seriously consider either country to be one of the best places to live. Their people seem to be pretty happy, but they are both among the least free countries in the world.

The Results

And the best place to live in the whole wide world is:

Canada?

I assumed Canada would be on the list, but I didn’t expect them to take the top spot. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is great. I just didn’t think it was this great.

Canada didn’t lead either the World Happiness Report of the Human Freedom Index, but it did very well in both. They were 11th on the World Happiness Report and 6th on the Human Freedom Index. And among the finalist countries, they were 15th in cost of living. In the end, they were good enough in each category to earn the top spot.

Following close behind were Finland and New Zealand. Finland took the top spot on the World Happiness Report, and New Zealand did the same on the Human Freedom Index.  Their results, when coupled with their cost-of-living rankings (22nd and 25th respectively) propelled Finland and New Zealand to a tie for second on the Best Places to Live List.

The Netherlands was alone in fourth position, finishing 6th in the World Happiness Report, and tied with Finland for 11th on the Human Freedom Index. 

Tied for 5th on the Best Places to Live List were Denmark and Germany. Although they were tied, they went about it very differently. Denmark did great in both the World Happiness Report and the Human Freedom Index, finishing 2nd in the WHR and 4th on the HFI. Germany was 17th in the World Happiness Report and 9th on the Human Freedom Index. So, how did they tie? It came down to the cost-of-living. Denmark was 24th out of the 39 countries on the list, while Germany was 16th.

Here is the entire Best Places to Live List:

# Country Happiness Index Freedom Index Cost of Living Combined Total
1 Canada 11 6 15 32
2 Finland 1 11 22 34
2 New Zealand 8 1 25 34
4 Netherlands 6 11 24 41
5 Denmark 2 4 36 42
5 Germany 17 9 16 42
5 Sweden 7 9 26 42
8 Switzerland 3 2 39 44
9 Austria 9 15 21 45
10 Czech Republic 19 24 4 47
10 United Kingdom 13 17 17 47
12 Australia 12 5 31 48
13 Ireland 16 7 30 53
13 United States 18 17 18 53
15 Luxembourg 10 11 35 56
16 Norway 5 15 38 58
16 Taiwan 25 19 14 58
18 Iceland 4 20 37 61
19 Costa Rica 15 42 7 64
20 Lithuania 41 21 3 65
20 Malta 22 23 20 65
22 Belgium 20 25 23 68
23 Spain 28 29 12 69
24 Estonia 51 8 11 70
25 Chile 39 30 5 71
26 Uruguay 26 38 8 72
27 Italy 30 31 19 80
28 France 23 33 28 84
29 Latvia 57 22 9 88
30 Singapore 31 28 32 91
31 Guatemala 29 63 2 94
32 Portugal 59 26 10 95
33 Israel 14 53 33 100
34 Japan 62 11 34 107
35 Hong Kong 78 3 27 108
36 Mexico 24 86 1 111
37 Korean Republic 61 26 29 116
38 United Arab Emirates 21 124 13 158
39 Saudi Arabia 27 151 6 194

What We Can Learn From The List

The United States came in a middling 13th place on the Best Places to Live List, tied with Ireland. In fact, the people of Ireland are, on average, happier than Americans, and enjoy more freedom than we do in the United States. The only reason we ended up tied with Ireland was because of the comparatively lower cost-of-living in the United States (18th) when compared to Ireland (30th).

We in the United States have a skewed view of the world. We are confident that one of the things that make us great is our relatively low taxes. Sure, we don’t have some of the nice things other countries have—like universal healthcare and no-cost college—but we have lower tax rates. We get to keep more of the money we earn, and that makes us happy.

Not so fast.

The countries at the top of the World Happiness Report are generally happier than people in the United States. According to Investopedia, the United States ranks 24th in the world for single tax-payer rate, and 25th for married couple rate. Yet, we are only 18th on the World Happiness Report. The vast majority of the countries ahead of us on the WHR have a higher personal income tax rate than we do. Do high taxes lead to happiness? Probably not, but the services those taxes pay for likely do.

Likewise, most of the countries ahead of us on the Human Freedom Index also have higher taxes than the United States. I think a lot of Americans conflate low taxes with high freedom, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Many high tax countries seem to enjoy more individual freedom than we do in the United States.

What About Guns?

One freedom that Americans enjoy more than any other country in the world is the freedom to purchase and possess firearms. It is very easy to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in public, and despite a plague of mass shootings, legislators in many states are trying to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to carry loaded firearms in public.

Here’s why I bring this up: Not too long ago I was having a conversation with a friend about the whole concept of freedom. COVID-19 and the need to wear a mask in public started the conversation, but it quickly broadened into the larger topic of freedom. I mentioned that New Zealand, along with several other countries, enjoyed more freedom that we do in the United States, yet, in many of those countries, citizens had willingly worn masks. They didn’t complain about having their “freedom” taken away from them, and as a result, their countries and their economies had recovered, while ours continued to suffer.

“Can people in these other countries buy guns with little or no restriction?” he asked.

I admitted that in most other countries, firearms were not nearly as easy to obtain as in the United States.

“Then they’re not really free, are they?”

That stopped me cold. It’s hard to have a conversation with an irrational person. If he equates “easy access to guns” with “freedom,” there’s not much I can tell him that he’s going to listen to and accept. I can’t explain to him how our societal happiness decreases in part because of easy access to guns. I can’t tell him that one of the reasons our overall freedom suffers is because we sacrifice those freedoms in favor of widespread gun availability. He simply would not hear of it. To him, ability to purchase guns equals freedom.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not in favor of a ban on gun sales. The 2nd Amendment is one of our country’s most cherished Constitutional rights.  Even so, I do think there are common sense steps we can take to make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, and I think it’s time we address the gun culture in this country. The power of the gun lobby and the sway it has over our elected officials makes the United States a less good place to live.

Final Thoughts

I have no intention of moving out of the United States. This is my home and I’m not looking to make a change. However, I think we in the United States can learn a lot from other countries, particularly countries that enjoy more happiness and freedom than we do.

Too many people in the United States have been made to believe, through the concept of American Exceptionalism, that the United States is better than any other country. We’re good, but we’re not the freest and we’re not the happiest. In fact, we’re not even in the top 10 in either category. That might surprise a lot of Americans, but until we recognize that we’re not the best, it’s much harder to make the commitment to become better.

The Biden Administration, along with most Democrats in Congress, seem committed to strengthening the social safety net and rebuilding the infrastructure in the United States. There’s also a push for universal healthcare, two-years of no-cost college, and perhaps student loan forgiveness. There has even been talk of universal basic income for adults, free or subsidized childcare, and other programs designed to help low- and middle-income families.

Even if you are opposed to these programs, it is important to recognize that they are similar to programs already in place in several countries that enjoy more happiness and freedom than we do in the United States. If these programs could increase the happiness of most Americans and would provide us with ever greater freedoms, would they be worth the additional taxes required to pay for them? I don’t know the answer, but people in countries with more happiness and more freedom almost universally believe the better lifestyle they enjoy is well worth the cost.

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Alabama and Mississippi: It’s Like Looking in a Mirror

If you look at a map of the United States and focus on the southeast portion of the country, you might notice something kind of unusual. Look directly at Mississippi and Alabama. See anything strange or interesting. If you see that the two states are near mirror images of each other, you’re seeing what I’m seeing. There’s a story behind why these two states look so much alike.

At one point in our country’s early history, Georgia was three times the size it is now. It encompassed the land we now know as Georgia, as well as modern day Alabama and Mississippi.

After the Revolutionary War, Georgia was financially and militarily weak. They had trouble protecting the western part of the state, known as the Yazoo Lands, named after the river that runs through the area. The state legislature tried a couple different times to establish settlements in this area, but they were unsuccessful. A third attempt ended when the state demanded that land speculators pay for their land in gold and silver, rather than in the depreciated paper currency. The speculators balked and Georgia was back at square one.

In 1794, Georgia reached an agreement to sell 35 million acres (the size of present-day Mississippi and Alabama) to four companies for $500,000. But to get approval for the sale, the state had to “gift” substantial land holdings to US Senator James Gunn, several state legislators, state officials, newspaper editors, and other influential Georgians. When word got out, angry Georgians protested the sale, claiming bribery and corruption.

When US Senator James Jackson learned of the sale, he returned home from Washington, determined to overturn the arrangement. He held hearings that led to the 1796 Rescinding Act, overturning the sale of the Yazoo Lands. In 1802, the Yazoo Lands were sold to the federal government, who quickly extinguished any claims to the land by Native Americans.

The land speculators were not anxious to give up their claim on the land, but the federal government resisted their efforts for reparations. The land speculators sued the government and in 1810, the case of Fletcher v Peck was heard in the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the 1796 Rescinding Act was an unconstitutional violation on the right to contract, and the federal government eventually paid the land speculators $5 million of the proceeds of land sold in the Mississippi Territory.

In 1803, the United States made the Louisiana Purchase, buying a large swath of land from the French. The United State now owned all the land east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of a small area to the south of the Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico, leaving the Mississippi Territory landlocked. The land, which was claimed by Spain, was desired by the United States to give their new territory access to the Gulf.

In 1812, the military was sent to the Mississippi Territory to confront the Spanish, who ceded the land along the coast without a fight. The Mississippi Territory now had access to the Gulf, making distribution of cotton and other crops by boat much easier and more profitable.

Five years later, in 1817, The Mississippi Territory was separated, with the Alabama Territory to the east and the Mississippi Territory to the west. Each territory was roughly the same size, and each was given 60 miles of shoreline on the Gulf.

Although Mississippi and Alabama were split equally, the Alabama legislature wanted more land. Between 1811 and 1901, Alabama tried several times to annex the land in the western panhandle of Florida. The Florida territorial government, and later, the state legislature, rebuffed these attempts. But after the Civil War, it became obvious that the western panhandle was much more connected to Alabama both spiritually, and by infrastructure, than it was to Florida. For instance, Pensacola was connected by train to Mobile and Birmingham in Alabama, but to get to the Florida capital in Tallahassee required an arduous journey through swamps and thickets.

Florida finally relented and set the price of giving up the western panhandle at $1 million. The Alabama legislature agreed, but the citizens of Alabama, who initially approved of annexing the western panhandle, thought the price was too high and fought the legislature’s efforts, stopping them from raising the funds needed for the purchase. A railroad line from Pensacola to the interior of Florida was constructed in 1883, and serious attempts to annex the western panhandle ceased shortly thereafter.

I find this type of history fascinating. It’s easy to take something as mundane as a state’s shape for granted, but there’s almost always a story of corruption or intrigue from long ago that led to what we now take for granted. The shape of the states of Mississippi and Alabama is one such story.

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Almost Heaven: Where Are John Denver’s Country Roads Really Located?

People of a certain age don’t even have to think about what words come after the phrase, “Almost Heaven.” The obvious answer is, “West Virginia.” But is that really correct?

There’s fairly strong evidence to suggest that the words following “Almost Heaven” are, “west Virginia.” In other words, the western part of the commonwealth of Virginia as opposed to the state of West Virginia.

In case you’re unaware, the line in question is the opening line to John Denver’s 1971 hit, “Take Me Home Country Roads.” The following line is, “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” It’s this second line that gives us some insight into exactly what Denver was singing about.

The Blue Ridge Mountains run north-south from Pennsylvania to Georgia, barely encroaching over the West Virginia state line. Conversely, the Blue Ridge are prevalent in western Virginia.

The Shenandoah River runs for 150 miles, from it’s headwaters near Front Royal, VA to the Potomac River near Washington DC. Again, the Shenandoah barely crosses into West Virginia, running for about 20 miles through the eastern panhandle.

Despite these facts, it’s unlikely that Denver knew which state he was signing about. At the time he recorded the song, he had never set foot in either Virginia or West Virginia. His co-writers, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nifert, claim that the song was inspired by a drive they took on Interstate 81, which runs primarily through western Virginia.

But to make thing more complicated, Danoff and Denver said in an interview that they wanted to write the song about two completely different states. Danoff wanted to write the song about his home state of Massachusetts but couldn’t get the cadence right using that state. For his part, Denver said that he was inspired by Maryland, but just as with Danoff, couldn’t get the state name to work in the song.

Despite the controversy, West Virginia doesn’t seem to care much about which state the song is about. They’ve adopted it as one of four state anthems, and when the University of West Virginia football team wins a game (which they often do), the marching band launches into “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

So, which is it? Is the song about West Virginia or west Virginia? We may never know.

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Gone Far Too Soon – RIP, Brett

I met Brett when we were both in fourth grade. He had a curly mop of hair, a crooked smile, and a mischievous personality. He liked to have fun and didn’t take much of anything too seriously. We became fast friends.

We remained close through grade school and junior high, then Brett went off to a private high school while I stayed behind in public school. Even so, we saw each other often, especially in the summer.

Brett went to three different colleges. He started at St. John’s College in Winfield, KS, where he got a baseball scholarship to play soccer. I don’t remember all of the particulars, but Brett was a really good soccer player and St. John’s wanted him to play for them. Unfortunately, they were out of soccer scholarships. Brett was also a decent baseball player, so the school gave him a baseball scholarship to play soccer for them. He was on the baseball team, but he was there to play soccer.

After two years at St. John’s, Brett moved back home and took classes at Waubonsee Community College. I didn’t see him much while he was in Kansas, but once he came back to Illinois, we saw each other much more. I was at Western Illinois University at the time along with several other friends, and I talked Brett into joining us there the following year. Five of us, including Brett, lived together in a house on the east side of Macomb. What a crazy year that was. We had a lot of fun.

After college, Brett moved to St. Louis where he got a job with an insurance company. He had been there a couple of years when I talked to him about my plans for the future. I was having trouble finding a job and decided I would join the Air Force if I didn’t find work by the end of the year. Brett encouraged me to apply for a job with his company, but I didn’t know anything about insurance. I resisted him for a while, but as the year wore on, I applied. I also set up a date to take the test to get into Air Force Officer Candidate School. The test was scheduled to take place on January 4. On December 30, I was hired by the insurance company. I’ve been there ever since, thanks in large part to Brett.

When Brett got married, his life changed again. The fun-loving, gregarious guy was replaced by a married homebody. He really took to marriage. My former partner in crime transformed into an adult. He was a different guy. Of course, we were still friends, but I was immature and single, while he became mature and married. The dynamic had changed.

Brett moved back to Illinois and settled into marriage. He and his wife bought a house, had a couple of kids, and generally moved on with life. We didn’t talk as often or see each other as much. But when we did, it was clear Brett had changed. He was more introverted with his thoughts, quieter. Even though we remained friends, it was hard to get too close to him. I think I knew this was happening at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s much easier to see now. 

Several years later, Brett was divorced, and the experience broke him. He never recovered. Despite not easily sharing his feelings, I could tell he was hurting. When the pain became too much, he quit his job, moved away from his family, and left for California. I think the big draw to California was that it was far away from the pain he experienced in Illinois. Of course, it’s impossible to run away from pain, so Brett carried his with him to California.

He met a woman in San Francisco and they were together for a while, but the relationship didn’t last. Brett moved further north in California and bought a rundown cabin in the woods. I never saw the cabin, but I envisioned him living there like a recluse, alone with his dog and his thoughts.

It was at the cabin that Brett got seriously ill, beginning the final chapter in his life. He reached out to his family to let them know he was likely to die, but almost miraculously, doctors were able to save him. Unfortunately, the illness left him with badly damaged kidneys, and he was put on a kidney donor list.

Brett continued to work as much as he could, but his illness took its toll on him. He was often sick, and didn’t have anyone nearby to help him. He did the best he could, but life really became a grind for him. During this time, when I’d talk to him, Brett was rarely happy or hopeful. I don’t think he saw any brighter days ahead for himself.

A year or two ago, that changed. Brett moved back to Illinois where he could be closer to his daughter and grandkids. He established a relationship with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and for the first time in a long time, had hope that his health situation could improve. I had high hopes that the move to Illinois was going to be a new start for Brett.

And then he got sick again. For the next year, he was in and out of the hospital, and he was removed from the kidney donor list. He was just too sick to undergo a transplant.

I had the opportunity to see Brett about a year ago, at the start of the COVID pandemic, along with friends Keith Johnson and Paul Baudouin. Brett had just been released from the hospital the previous day and looked drawn and tired. I hugged him and he felt smaller, diminished, as if life had ground him away. Regardless, it was good to see him.

We ate and talked for a few hours. It didn’t dawn on us that the restaurant had closed and we were holding them up from locking the doors and going home. We said our goodbyes, thinking we would see each other again soon. Sadly, that will never happen. Brett died this past weekend. He was just 61-years old.

While I grieve his loss, I can’t help but remember all of the fun times we had together. The memories have been flowing the past 24 hours since I learned of Brett’s death. Let me share a few of them.

We were both good kids, but we could be troublemakers too. For instance, we liked to throw snowballs at passing cars. One winter day, the temperatures turned bitter cold, and we didn’t want to be outside. So, we filled several buckets with snow, brought the snow in the house, and threw snowballs out of Brett’s second-floor bedroom window at cars passing below on Fifth Ave, the busy street that ran in front of his house.

Another time, we were throwing rotten apples at cars, near our friend, Paul Bettcher’s house. The idea was to allow the car to pass, then step out of the bushes and launch a throw as the car drove away. This seemed like the safest way to do it. Brett had other ideas.

As a car approached, Brett stepped out of the bushes and rifled an apple directly at the front of the car. The apple splatted on the car’s windshield and the driver slammed on his brakes. Paul, Brett, and I took off through the bushes and sprinted down the street to Paul’s house, the driver in hot pursuit. We ran down Paul’s driveway, burst through his back door, and locked it behind us. The driver must have seen us, because he pulled in the drive, got out of his car, and began pounding on the door. We hid in the dark, along with Paul’s mom, who quickly became a co-conspirator. After several minutes, the driver gave up and left. Once the coast was clear, we headed back to the bushes and our rotten apples, making sure Brett better understood our strategy.

I spent a lot of time at Brett’s house when we were kids. His mom became like a second mom to me. But that doesn’t mean she was always happy with me. One time, Brett and his brother were wrestling in the house when they crashed into a table, knocking over and breaking a valued hurricane lamp. When their mom found out, they both blamed me, saying I broke it. The truth was, I wasn’t even there when it happened. Even so, for years, Faith, Brett’s mom, was upset with me for breaking her beloved lamp.

One of Brett’s favorite places in the world was at his family’s cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan. I joined the family there several times and completely understand why Brett loved it up there so much.

Near the cottage was a breakwater wall at the mouth of the canal leading from Lake Macatawa into Lake Michigan. We fished there a few different times. Brett was a fairly serious fisherman. I was not, so I screwed around while Brett actually tried to catch fish.

At one point, my lure got caught on something at the foot of the breakwater wall. I couldn’t get it unstuck, so I began climbing down the face of the wall. After a step or two, my feet went out from under me, I fell hard on my back, and slid down toward the water. My body froze, and I was sure I was going to drown. I hit the water and came to a dead stop. Somehow, I didn’t plunge into the lake.

As it turned out, there are big metal plates at the foot of the wall about six inches below the surface of the water. I had landed on one of those plates. I was relived I wasn’t going to drown, but having had the air knocked out of me, I laid there, unable to move. I looked up to Brett for help. He was staring down at me, unamused.

“Would you get up here?” he said.

Not wanting to irate him further, I stood up on the metal plate, dripping wet, and made my way up the side of the wall.

The year that Brett went to Waubonsee Community College, I went to WIU. It was Friday, and we had just started spring break. When I got home to my parent’s house, I was tired and just wanted to chill in front of the TV. But Brett called, excited. He said he met this girl in one of his classes and was going to go out with her that night. He also said he had gotten a date for me. I told him I was too tired, plus I didn’t have any money to go on a date. Brett said he would pay for both of us. Having Brett say he’d pay was akin to hearing the Pope say, “Don’t worry about those commandments. Go have a good time.” In other words, it never happened. I knew he must really want to see this girl. I agreed to go.

I met Brett and the two girls at a local bar. To my surprise, my date was actually very cute. She was the sister of the girl Brett was dating. After the bar, we went to get something to eat. As we waited for our food, we talked, and during the conversation, my date revealed that she was just 14-years old. I was 21. Earlier, I had scooted up close to her, but now I moved away. I said I was tired and thought it was time to head home.

Later, I confronted Brett about setting me up with a 14-year old, who I had been buying drinks for at the bar. He didn’t see the problem. It wasn’t my money, he reminded me. He had paid for the whole date. It seemed lost on him that he had set me up with a minor.

In his defense, I doubt Brett knew she was so young when he set her up with me. He just wanted to date her sister, and getting her a date was a prerequisite. And considering that she didn’t look fourteen or act fourteen (she was at least as comfortable in the bar as we were), I’m sure her age was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me.

There are so many other stories I could tell. We grew up together, lived together in college, Brett was best man at my wedding, and we were lifelong friends. I’ll miss him, and I pray that he truly is in a better place, free of the heartache, the health issues, and the daily grind that wore him down far too soon. Rest in peace, my friend.

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Update on My Writing

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been writing much in recent months. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve been writing a lot about our current political reality, but I haven’t been able to make any progress on the two books that are in process.

The truth is, I’ve been consumed by politics for the past 8-10 months. That’s not like me. I like to think that I am politically aware, but I’ve never let politics take over my life before. I spend good parts of my day scouring the Internet, following social media, reading books and articles, and keeping an eye on TV news. I feel a bit like a political junkie. That’s not the person I want to be, but recently, I haven’t been able to help it. As a result, I’ve made precious little progress on Second Chances and Paris, the two books I’m working on.

They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Trust me, I have a problem. I also have a plan to pull myself away from politics and start spending more time on writing.

For the next several months, I will be working on revising short stories and submitting them to literary journals. I find it easier right now to focus on smaller projects, so I’ll focus on essays and short stories. In time, I should be able to start focusing on larger projects, like the two books I’m working on.

The deadline for my first project, a nonfiction essay, is February 22. I plan on meeting that deadline, then revising and submitting one short story a month for the next four months. That will take us to the middle of the year, when I should be ready to return to my longer works.

Let’s put some dates to these smaller projects:

  • 2/22/21 – Revise and submit “The Greatest Catch”
  • 3/31/21 – Revise and submit “The Art of Charcuterie”
  • 4/30/21 – Revise and submit “Little Bass Lake”
  • 5/31/21 – Revise and submit “Pie”
  • 6/30/21 – Revise and submit “The Barking Dog”

That’s the plan. Now it’s time to get busy.

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Lincoln’s Philosophy of the Purpose of Government

In early July 1854, Abraham Lincoln took some time to prepare for his upcoming campaign by writing down some thoughts he could use in speeches on the campaign trail. At the time, Lincoln’s political philosophy of the purpose of government was considered radical in comparison to his contemporaries. No other president before him took such an activist approach to governmental purpose as Lincoln did.

It is believed that the following fragment that was written in early July 1854 was composed in preparation for a lecture, although there is no proof that such a lecture was ever given. What is known is that Lincoln never shared these thoughts as part of a campaign speech while running for president, or in campaigns prior to his presidential run.

This is what Lincoln wrote about the purpose of government:

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.

“In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

“The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

“The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

“From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”

Before Lincoln, most politicians, including presidents, felt that the purpose of government was to not intrude on the life of the individual, other than to protect them from foreign invaders and provide them a freedom from government interference. Former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, who was a well-regarded Lincolnphile, had this to say about Lincoln’s thoughts on the purpose of government:

 “Some said government should do no more than protect its people from insurrection and foreign invasion and spend the rest of its time dispassionately observing the way its people played out the cards that fate had dealt them. He [Lincoln] scorned that view. He called it a ‘do nothing’ abdication of responsibility. ‘The legitimate object of government,’ he said, ‘is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. There are many such things…,’ he said.  So he offered the ‘poor’ more than freedom and the encouragement of his own good example: he offered them government. Government that would work aggressively to help them find the chance they might not have found alone. He did it by fighting for bridges, railroad construction and other such projects that others decried as excessive government. He gave help for education, help for agriculture, land for the rural family struggling for a start.  And always, at the heart of his struggle and his yearning was the passion to make room for the outsider, the insistence upon a commitment to respect the idea of equality by fighting for inclusion.”

As I said, Lincoln’s approach to government was fairly new and out of the ordinary. In his life, Lincoln’s philosophy never got a fair hearing. He was too busy running a government engaged in a civil war, and he didn’t live long once the war was over. However, his words found a home with Theodore Roosevelt who became the father of what is generally known as “progressive Republicanism,” a term that seems like an oxymoron to us today, but which was popular with conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just as Theodore Roosevelt borrowed his philosophies from Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt borrowed his philosophies from his cousin, Theodore. In other words, the philosophy of government that led to the New Deal, found their origin in a fragment that Lincoln wrote back in 1854.

I’m really interested, not only in Lincoln’s philosophy of the purpose of government, but also in the way that philosophy inspired Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and how it led to one of the most progressive policy proposals in our country’s history. If you have any suggestions on readings (books, articles, etc.) that deal with this topic, please let me know in the comments.

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