Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planners and politicians.

Planners work in the realm of ideas and they use data, analysis and the application of rationality to work through the problems they encounter.

Politicians work in the realm of emotions and they use a community’s hopes and fears about the future, its shared and unshared values, and the multiple ways history can be interpreted to work through the problems they encounter.

These two worlds are not directly translatable one to the other, but they are bridgeable.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Notes on reading Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763.

James Boswell is one of those fascinating characters in history, the misfit, the ne’re-do-well, but also the scribbler, the recorder of the internal mechanisms of his mind and the quotidian details of his life. His great contribution to the world is not through some grand application of mental prowess and extended exertion and focus. It’s through his more rambling style – of living and of using writing as a kind of therapy – by which he painted a marvelous, richly detailed portrait of a time (the early 1760s) and a place (London) through his very distinctive set of eyes.

The issue before London society in 1762 was the end of the French and Indian War. The war originated in the power struggle between France and Britain in North America. Starting in the 1750s, the French began a system of forts that would link their possessions in Quebec to their possessions in Louisiana and the British sought to contest these territorial claims. After seven years of fighting, the war ended as an extensive British victory.  By 1762 peace had to be negotiated. This required a new politics in London to replace the leader of the British war effort, the tremendously popular William Pitt, with someone who could better negotiate the terms of peace.  This was the world that Boswell inserted himself into, a 22-year-old Scotsman new to the British capital.

But Boswell doesn't necessarily see that entire picture.  He’s as much about being a young man on the make, a provincial ready to leave his mark.  He records the coffee shops and the conversations and the rich textures of everyday life. He records stopping off at the grand houses of dukes and duchesses, noting the warmth and familiarity of these people.

He records a debate that sparked up one coffeehouse afternoon over the peace negotiations underway. Boswell described the passions as hot, and the opinions as strongly expressed. A proponent thought the terms of the deal a sham but the other argued that peace was necessary. There wasn’t enough money to support a continued war, and even if the money could be borrowed from bankers in the City, where would you raise the needed troops?  Is this argument any different from one 250 years later either in the UK or the US about Iraq or Afghanistan?

Captain Andrew, one of the coffeehouse people, couldn’t care less about either peace or war or confusion in Europe “provided he and his own agreeable circle be safe and happy.” Boswell then adds, “I must own that I am much of that way of thinking. I cannot help it. I see too far into the system of things to be much in earnest. I consider mankind in general, and therefore cannot take part in their quarrels when divided into particular states or nations. I can see that after a war is over and a great quantity of cold and hunger and want of sleep and torment endured by mortals, things are upon the whole just as they were. I can see that Great People, those who manage the fates of kingdoms, are just such beings as myself: have their hours of discontent and are not a bit happier. This being the case, I am rather passive than active in life.” The credo of a scribbler.

Of course, a decade after the French and Indian War, the Americans, the very people this war was designed to “protect”, stood up in revolt against the crown and British troops were again boarding ships headed to the New World, this time to subjugate or kill their own people. The debt that Britain had incurred fighting the French led to the crown's revenue seeking measures, starting with the Stamp Act in 1765, that sparked the American Revolution. The French support of the colonists makes perfect sense in this context.

* * * *

Boswell is earthy and tangible where John Locke is abstract and ethereal. Still, reading them consecutively prompts questions like “what is the nature of learning?” which itself produces a vague stab at a thought:
Learning is the process of either the confirmation or refutation of our expectation.
Perhaps less abstractly, there are moments in one's education and development when one makes a mental choice to think in this manner and not in that manner. Cultures encourage this. Indeed, cultures patrol the boundaries of this and they teach little short hand mnemonics to remember it.  By way of example, George Bernard Shaw’s witty observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language points to the gap. We mistake our common language for a common culture, but actually, we are very different.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Jesse Jackson told us about James Robertson.

James Robertson's tale is heart-wrenching in so many ways. James Robertson, a man who has walked 21 miles every single day to work in the city of Detroit, also answers this question: What do the working poor look like?

Many years ago, a Washington Post columnist wrote about being admitted overnight to a hospital for surgery. Waking early the next morning, he looked out his hospital room window only to see the day shift arriving for work. The sight made him think of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic Convention speech, with its line “They work every day!” ...

Most poor people are not lazy. They are not black. They are not brown. They are mostly White and female and young. But whether White, Black or Brown, a hungry baby's belly turned inside out is the same color -- color it pain; color it hurt; color it agony. Most poor people are not on welfare. Some of them are illiterate and can't read the want-ad sections. And when they can, they can't find a job that matches the address. They work hard everyday.

I know. I live amongst them. I'm one of them. I know they work. I'm a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day.

They raise other people's children. They work everyday.

They clean the streets. They work everyday. They drive dangerous cabs. They work everyday. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can't get a union contract. They work everyday.

No, no, they are not lazy! Someone must defend them because it's right, and they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commodes. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right. We are a better Nation than that. We are a better Nation than that.

The context of that Democratic convention was a decade of unrelenting Reagan demonization of the poor and their abandonment by the broad center of American politics. The self-justifying mantra of the value of markets had relegated the political left to wander on the outside looking in.

Fast forward to 2015, and we now finally meet the person that Jesse Jackson told us about. After almost three decades of our own greed, we at last can see his face. We can hear his story. We now know the sound of his voice. It’s the story of a decent, hard-working man who committed his life to his work. In exchange, he could sleep only two hours a night for fear of being late. He relied on a dilapidated bus system that wouldn't even get him all the way to the front door, in either direction. For all of this, he got paid under $11 an hour.

This is America in 2015 and this is crazy!

This is also the difference between those who rely on capital to live — and we have profited wildly over these past 30 years — and those who rely on labor — what they can do with their hands. It is also the clearest indication of who we want to reward and who we don’t.

As if to highlight this wealth gap, UBS Vice President Blake Pollock — a man of good heart and good intentions who can claim some just credit for changing James Robertson’s life dramatically for the better by bringing his story to the attention of the Detroit Free Press — helped a suburban car dealership gift Robertson a brand new Ford Taurus. It only goes to show that in this land of plenty it’s actually not that hard to get a man a free car. But you have to have wealth, access and power. For those who don't, a woeful third-rate system is the best you’re ever going to get.

The most painful truth however is painted in stark relief by Robertson’s sudden change of fortunes. He himself says it best, with his characteristic directness and sympathy, "Even if my situation changes, you never forget that there are so many other people that are in my situation.”

This is America in 2015. This is painful. This is crazy.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Brian Murphy, 1964-2015.

If ever there were Irish eyes that smiled, they were Brian Murphy’s.  To me, that knowing twinkle always said:

Here we are, a roomful of people staring at a puzzle with only two pieces in it and still we can't figure out how to fit them together. Look at us! A sorry lot, aren’t we? But this isn’t a cause for tears. No, it’s a time to rejoice. It’s a time to smile. Because in our failure we also see what makes us wonderful, and why this project is worthwhile. 

Brian died yesterday while traveling in New York City on work. He was a friend and a former colleague. His wit, intelligence, kindness, generosity and capability will be sorely missed by us all.  We think of his work colleagues in the City of Cambridge, and especially, we think of his family in this time of sorrow and challenge.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cape Wind, the project that will neither begin nor end.

The other day, while feeling particularly virtuous for finally signing up to MassEnergy’s New England Wind Fund, the mechanism for supporting renewable wind power in Massachusetts, I started thinking about green energy in the Commonwealth.

When I first became active on local issues, the question of Cape Wind was very much in the air. The proposal to site huge wind turbines in the water off the coast of Nantucket left people split. The environmental benefits were pretty clear, but the idea also raised the hackles of some pretty well-healed people and not all good-minded types lined up in support. Even Ted Kennedy, the grand man of Massachusetts liberal politics, opposed it. So it was no small gesture when candidate Deval Patrick, while on the campaign trail in 2005, came out in favor. Us environmental types were thrilled.

Well, that was a long time ago now, and let's see what's happened since then. Ted Kennedy has died and Deval Patrick, after two very successful terms as governor, just handed over the key to the corner office to Republican Charlie Baker.  A whole decade has passed. And this morning, I receive this blurb from Green Cambridge, my local enviro group …

Cape Wind news! The project is facing numerous issues, and its future seems unclear. Show your support for offshore wind: the Better Future Project is organizing a rally on February 28, and has made a petition for you to sign!

What does this say about us that after over a decade of wrangling, there still is neither a wind farm off the coast of Nantucket nor a decision not to build a wind farm? Is our process so moribund, or are powerful interests so powerful, that we just end up sitting on a fence for generations on big-scale infrastructure that truly can make a difference? The Green Line Extension also comes to mind, a project only 25 years in the making, without a shovel in the ground yet. These time lags are too long. There’s got to be a better way.