Saturday, November 07, 2020

Repairing the Union: Next Steps

At the time of this writing, Joe Biden is being declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. Congratulations, everyone. After four years of Trump's ineptitude, terrible ideas, and GOP compliance with the same, and with a record-breaking amount of cash consumed by the election cycle, we just barely managed to solve the previous election's problem. You voted. Great job.

However, big problems with our country and world remain. To address those big problems, we must fix problems with our government, and we must start right now. Here are a few suggestions for places to start:

1. Get money out of politics, and undo Citizens United

This will require a constitutional amendment, thanks to Supreme Court rulings. Because of Citizens United and previous Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1976 (if not earlier), the United States is currently stuck with the idea that "money is speech". As a result, the courts are reluctant to put limitations on the amount of money/speech around elections, and has resulted in "dark money", superPACs, and the extremely wealthy having more speech than everyone else. 

This is clearly unfair and absurd, and we have seen the results. For one thing, it means a bunch of wasted capital every few years. Given how rich the ultra-rich have become, the cost of buying politicians and elections is trivial for them, and the resulting tax breaks and other law changes mean they will actually make money on the deal, and We The People will pay for it. 

They don't even have to buy very many people. Mitch McConnell will do just fine, or a few swing votes.

As noted, because of Supreme Court decisions, we will need a constitutional amendment to address this issue. 

Nearly every other responsible democracy in the world has strict and meaningful limitations on money in politics. Until the United States takes similar steps, the ultra-rich will effectively control our government.

2. Moot or abolish the electoral college

The popular vote this time was not close. It is absurd, even offensive, that with a margin of millions of votes, we have to hang hopes for democracy on a few thousand voters in a few states. It is also absurd and unfair that those same few states are pandered to, election after election, while the rest of the nation is taken for granted.

Put another way, Trump lost the popular vote by millions last time and won the electoral college. Biden won the popular vote by even more millions than Trump lost and won the electoral college by the exact same number of electoral votes. The electoral college is absurd and unfair in the 21st century.

This will require either more states joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or a constitutional amendment. The former is much easier than the latter, but is still a huge push. 

Until the electoral college is addressed, every election will see candidates courting the same few states, and our national policies warped by and dragged towards those unrepresentative states' current political leanings and issues. 

3. Find or cultivate compelling Democratic candidates

The GOP has been engaged in a decades-long plan to stack all levels of government (local, state, and federal) with Republicans. They built infrastructure, training, funding, and recruiting systems, and have achieved their goal. Among other results, this has given them relatively young "thought leaders" (and I use both words loosely here) like Matt Gaetz, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Trey Gowdy. They both act as the face of the party and remain operational for a long time. The same is true for judicial candidates and many other government workers.

Until the recent arrival of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad, there have not been comparable people in the Democratic party, leaving aging Boomers like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to represent the party to the American people. 

Schumer, Pelosi, and the other older people have done a fine, even great job. However, their very history makes them a target for both the right (too liberal!) and the left (not liberal enough!), and at certain point, they cannot help but seem like irrelevant olds. 

Perhaps most distressing is looking at the last two Democratic Presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Neither of them are compelling, powerful, or charismatic in the way that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or, frankly, Donald Trump were when they were running. 

Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are old now, and were old when they were running. Again, their extensive service and record of getting things done over decades means both the right and the left targeted their achievements, as both too liberal and insufficiently liberal, respectively.

Part of the job of representing and leading people is inspiring them with your personal presence and vigor. The Democrats must find and cultivate better figureheads for their party. I find it hard to believe after all this time the current crop is the best we can do. The GOP seems to be able to find horrible, kooky people who are still engaging on camera and in public. 

Among other things, dear reader, perhaps you should consider getting involved in local, state, or federal government. 

Until the Democrats are able to consistently put compelling and young people out there, they will face an uphill fight every time, sometimes from within their own party. 

4. A compelling Democratic platform and message

I have read many Op-Eds, articles, and screeds about What's Wrong With America, and Why Wasn't Trump Rebuked? and so on.

The vote is not that surprising if you acknowledge that what you think is important is not what some of these voters think is important. Put another way, how successful do you think this conversation is?

D: If you don't support my platform and everything I say, you're a racist!

I: Well, what's your platform?

D: That your entire system, and everything you have, do, and say is racist.

For starters, that isn't going to win you any friends or converts. 

More importantly, if the last few decades have taught us anything, it is that broad shaming doesn't work. Shaming now only has power in your particular in-group. And you're not going to get anyone to join pre-shamed. (And if you have no shame, or if you take pride in being shamed by "the bad people", this tactic is at best ineffective and at worst activates and empowers the opposition).

If you want to win people over, start with a vision and a plan. Do something. Make their lives better. Show them how great Heaven is before you threaten them with Hell. 

The most dismaying thing about the last couple of elections (if not that last several years of government) was the substitution of identity for policy. As a people, government, and nation, we are defined far more by what we do than what we say. 

We need a policy vision that addresses people's lives and reality. Liberals failed to take the proceeds from globalization and help the people it displaced. That failure tainted beneficial policy. Do not make similar mistakes. 

Put people back to work (when it's safe!) with a massive infrastructure plan. The next time people talk about how ineffective government is, tell them "It built these roads. It built these airports. It built the water system. It electrified the entire country. It built the Post Office." These investments all need care and upgrades. These and similar aspects of our life are so fundamental and ubiquitous they are like air -- we take them for granted until their absence or degradation, and then we see how indispensable they are. 

Don't just throw money at people. Throw jobs at people. Throw improvement at people. Talk about and point to achievements and wins by your side, and talk about failures by the other side. The GOP has done little over the last several years other than give more money to rich people and try to take everyone's healthcare away. I am still amazed this isn't a bigger issue for everyone.

5. The Senate

As currently configured, the Senate is no longer an accurate, balanced, or fair representation of the American people or states. The GOP has again engaged in a long-term campaign to lock in a permanent Republican majority, and so far, they are succeeding. They have leveraged loopholes and peculiarities of various systems (and the Senate itself) so that their modest margin produces outsize benefits and results.

This must be undone, for basic fairness, and for more pragmatic concerns. 

Democrats are unlikely to hold the Senate itself for long, if at all. So we may need another constitutional amendment to make this work.

Another option is to finally admit both Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states. This won't address the existing unfairness directly, but rather add more states that haven't been gerrymandered or compromised (yet) to dilute the effects of the GOP's regime. This isn't as radical a solution as one might think -- both territories are clearly qualified to be states. It's high time. 

Regardless, given the Senate's relative power and similar relative unfairness, the end result is that a small number of unrepresentative Americans effectively set the agenda and laws for the rest of the country. The founders could not have envisioned population distribution and disparity on the scale currently seen. The Senate must be rebalanced, one way or another. 

In Conclusion

I don't expect all of these things to happen. I don't even expect one of them to happen. But it is important for us to acknowledge the scale and scope of the fundamental issues we face in making our democracy more fair for more people. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Remarks on the end of TIP

[The first wave of TIP students held a Zoom gathering this weekend to mark the end of the Duke University Talent Identification Program. I was given the honor of providing the opening remarks, which are reproduced following.]

Thank you for joining today, and for giving me the opportunity to address you all. I wish it were under different circumstances, but I am grateful all the same.

I last spoke at a large TIP gathering in 2011. It feels like a lifetime ago — so much has changed for us as individuals, and as a society.

These last few years have been personally challenging, this one in particular. TIP’s end is one more grim casualty of 2020.

I feel a deep sense of grief and loss at the news of TIP’s closure because of what TIP did for me. It had a direct and transformative impact on my life. Not just as a teenager, but as an adult as well. 

I think about how many of you were friends then and are still friends now, because of the special connection we shared at a critical moment in our lives. I think of how those friendships have persisted and grown as you have turned into such remarkable people. It is difficult for me to fully convey how important you all are, and how much I treasure these relationships and how they have enriched my life.

I also grieve the loss of what TIP represented and meant. The best days of my youth, if not youth itself. The joy of running fast and free, physically and intellectually. The sense of endless possibility and discovery. TIP’s ongoing existence made it easy to tap into those feelings. Seeing first-hand how TIP still had a similar impact on kids decades later provided a sense of continuity and community. I was proud to support the organization and deeply gratified to see its mission continue.

I acknowledge any experiences I would have had during those critical summers of my youth would have likely been transformative and defining, and that friends I made during that time would be important. But I didn’t have just any experiences or meet just any people. I went to TIP. I met all of you.

Beyond personal significance, I am dismayed at the loss of what TIP actually was to the larger world: a program to identify, support, and cultivate talented kids. Particularly those who needed some kind of help, or were in difficult or isolated environments. 

40 years after TIP’s founding, our society is more aware of people, particularly kids, who are different, unusual, or gifted. We may not be achieving the level of attention and care we strive for all the time, but at least there is more recognition of special needs for individuals. That is a significant improvement from what many of us experienced as children at home, in school, in life. 

Some of that is directly attributable to the work of TIP and similar programs. Some of it is because of people like you, who grew up and tried to make the world a better place for those who followed.

There are also more resources for gifted kids, their parents, and educators now, and those resources are more widely available. Again, at least partially thanks to TIP, which set an example, inspired, and provided materials and programs. And thanks to some of you, who became educators, researches, and writers yourself.

The internet has also played a significant role. The internet has made it easy to distribute knowledge and materials related to gifted education. There are videos and classes and online programs, all easily accessible.

The internet has made it easy for people to feel less alone, to find others like them, and stay connected in ways we perhaps only dreamt of 40 years ago, when a long distance phone call cost nearly $1.50 per minute in today’s dollars.

But as COVID and social media have shown us recently, the internet, for all its wonders, is not nearly as good as real life. The virtual world can be superficial, hollow, and unsatisfying, if not actively harmful. Not all people possess the self-discipline required to succeed in fully digital education experiences. Not all people even have access to the technology, much less the training, to fully take advantage of what is offered.

Real life, real connection, is better. There is something special that happens when you bring people together in one place with a common cause. We felt it on East Campus 40 years ago. We felt it at the reunions we have had. 

That spark of connection is essential, vital, and worth cultivating. I notice how it is muted as I address you now, over the internet. I am deeply saddened knowing it has been extinguished for future students.

After 40 years, TIP had obviously changed quite a bit. The program was much larger, for one thing, and reached far beyond Duke. The kinds of classes on offer had changed as well. Less hardcore. No more college or high school credit, for better or worse. Less freedom for the kids. More structure. Traditions. Rules. It had become a much less stressful and improvisatory environment. That is probably a good thing. Probably.

As one of you pointed out to me, TIP’s existence and success as an institution meant that it had become a kind of checkbox for college applications, with some students doing it solely for that reason.

On balance, I think that’s all OK. The world has changed quite a bit as well. Ideas about what’s acceptable and appropriate for kids have changed, too. Perhaps TIP was a kind of mirror, reflecting ideas and ideals around gifted students. Over time it had to change, as our own reflections have over the last 40 years. 

But despite TIP’s influence and society’s improvements, one core aspect of TIP’s mission remains unfulfilled: Supporting underprivileged kids. Students who don’t come from backgrounds or environments like I did, where schools had decent (for the time) gifted programs. Or parents who could afford to invest in their children’s potential, like mine did. 

Over the last 40 years we have seen our society become less equal. TIP had increased its efforts to reach those under-served kids. I commend that ambition, as I wish they had done even more.

And ultimately, that is where I most keenly feel the sadness and mourn the loss. Not for our shared past. Not for the compromised present. But for the possible future.

TIP wasn’t perfect, but it existed. It tried and sometimes succeeded in achieving lofty and ambitious goals. Like us. 

I missed it terribly when it was over for me. I miss it even more now that it is over for everyone.

Thank you, Dr. Sawyer, for creating this experiment and bringing together all of these people for so many years.

Thank you to Dr. Greg Kimble and Mark Delong and Dr. John Kane and the countless other instructors and TAs who spent their summers (if not entire years) making TIP happen.

Thank you, Deborah-Kay, Shawna, Tasha, Vicki, Brian, and the other staff who kept the program running, growing, and thriving for so many years.

Thank you Andrea, for your tireless efforts in building and maintaining our 80s alumni group. Thank you Jonathan Wilfong, as well. 

Most importantly, thanks to all of you for participating then and now.

You all have made a difference in my life, and the lives of many other people. 

Verbally and mathematically precocious youths rule.