9.11.2001 – Reflections

September 11th Memorial Tribute In Light 2014
Tribute in Light, in 2014, by Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.

I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.

Far from Home

I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.

Breaking News

The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.

It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.

The Hunt for Information

It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.

After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.

By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.

Processing

That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.

My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.

Cut Off

The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.

For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.

Silence

I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.

Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.

Why Am I Writing This?

So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.

I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.

If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.

Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.

Experience and Reason

The following is Madison’s summary of a truly excellent speech by John Dickenson, a delegate from Delaware to the Constitutional Convention:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them. This is then our guide. And has not experience verified the utility of restraining money bills to the immediate representatives of the people. Whence the effect may have proceeded he could not say; whether from the respect with which this privilege inspired the other branches of Govt. to the H. of Commons, or from the turn of thinking it gave to the people at large with regard to their rights, but the effect was visible & could not be doubted-Shall we oppose to this long experience, the short experience of 11 Years which we had ourselves, on this subject. As to disputes, they could not be avoided any way. If both Houses should originate, each would have a different bill to which it would be attached, and for which it would contend. -He observed that all the prejudices of the people would be offended by refusing this exclusive privilege to the H. of Repress. and these prejudices shd. never be disregarded by us when no essential purpose was to be served. When this plan goes forth it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword; the Shibboleth among its adversaries. Eight States have inserted in their Constitutions the exclusive right of originating money bills in favor of the popular branch of the Legislature. Most of them however allowed the other branch to amend. This he thought would be proper for us to do.

This is so excellent that I simply had to share it.  You can read Madison’s journal of the debates online in a number of places; this particular speech can be found at Yale’s Avalon Project – Madison Debates – August 13.

A Lesson in Constitutional Interpretation

In light of the current debate on Capitol Hill, the quotation of the day comes from the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller:

Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment. We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications, e.g., Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 849 (1997), and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 533 U. S. 27, 35–36 (2001), the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.

h/t Aaron Spuler at Weapon Blog for reminding me of this passage.

Post-Mortem, Episode II

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

— Benjamin Franklin, upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787

I do not want to say much about the election today, but I do want to share a few thoughts.

I will begin by referring the reader to my post-mortem of the 2008 election. When I wrote that post, much was still unknown: how Barack Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress would govern; whether they would unite us or divide us; whether the campaign-trail talk of bipartisanship was at all legitimate or just so much smoke; and so on. Now, four years later, we know the answers. Obviously, half of the people who voted in the last few weeks liked the answers they came up with.  Others — nearly as many, in fact — did not like the conclusions that they reached, and so we are even more bitterly divided than we were four years ago.

As those who know me well — or read this blog — already know, I think last night was a catastrophe. But it was a catastrophe in the sense that a heart attack is a catastrophe for a person who has smoked heavily and drunk too often and too deeply for the first seventy years of his life: terrible, frightening, but hardly unexpected to anyone paying attention. The election was only a symptom of the nation’s condition, not an unforeseeable landslide or a paradigm shift.  This is simply true, whether or not you were happy with the outcome. People went to the polls, and they voted for what they believed in; they did not suddenly reach some new and startling conclusions in the privacy of a voting booth. The results are a symptom: either that we are recovering from many of our maladies, or that we have taken a turn for the worse. Either way, our course of treatment is largely set for at least two more years and arguably far longer.

The good news today is that, as I observed after the 2008 election, we still are a nation, and we have again chosen new leaders with essentially no bloodshed or rioting and with minimal (but not zero) fraud and voter intimidation. The framework set out in the Constitution and its handful of amendments has survived, at least in this sense, for another four years.

As for the bad news, there is plenty of it.  We are a deeply divided nation in countless ways, a reality that only got worse, not better, in the last four years. We are mired in debt, bitter factionalism, and debates that involve more ad hominem attacks than reasoned arguments. There are very few topics that we can talk about without someone hurling (meaningless) epithets such as “one-percenter,” “____-phobic,” “anti-woman,” “anti-child,” and so on. Measured without accounting gimmicks, our deficits and our debt are soaring and are already well beyond levels that can be bridged even with punitive levels of taxation. Indeed, our country’s credit, once seen as the safest in the world, has been downgraded and is on multiple watch lists for further downgrades. Our military is weakening and faced with further, eminent, and debilitating cuts unless action is taken quickly. Our foes are emboldened, while some of our most faithful allies no longer even question whether we can be depended upon; we have proven all too often that, at least for now, we cannot. I pray that our leaders — all of them — can work together to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the people governed by it.

Whether we can overcome the challenges ahead, only time will tell. A look at the history of nations with such deep debts and deep divisions does not bode well. If we are to overcome the tests ahead, it will be a remarkable feat, and it will take all of our effort. As a start, please pray for this nation and her people. They do sorely need our prayers.

Election 2012: Please Vote

I have been quiet about this year’s election, but not for lack of caring.  The last few months have been extremely busy for me; to my shame, my busy schedule has meant that I have been silent about what is likely the most important presidential election in more than 30 years, not to mention extremely important battles for control of Congress, many governorships, and thousands of other state and local elections.

The first and most important thing that I want to say is this: go vote.  Voting for our executive, legislative, and — at the local level, anyway — many judicial and administrative offices is a huge part of what makes this country special.  It made America unique at the time of her founding, and it still makes us unique today for the orderly, peaceful, and overwhelmingly honest and fair way in which we manage transitions of power.  So, vote.  Please.  If you don’t, you can’t complain when whomever we elect does things you don’t like.  Yes, you may still have the constitutional right to complain about it, but the choice not to vote is a choice to waive any moral right to whine about the outcome.  At the very least, it waives any chance of the rest of us taking you seriously.  If you care about how this country — or your state, or your city — is run, go vote.

As for my take on the election, well, I don’t expect to persuade anyone here and now, but I have to share my thoughts anyway, just in case.

I am a conservative first and foremost, in the tradition of Edmund Burke.  My heroes are people like Ronald Reagan and Russell Kirk.  In this post, if I can accomplish nothing else (beyond reminding you again to go vote), I hope to outline briefly why conservatism is the only safe choice for this election.  I am not going to delve into social issues such as abortion, not because they are not important, but because, realistically, how we vote in this election has little to no impact on these issues.

Our nation is at great risk, due to years of inattention to the federal budget, a military with aging equipment and little new materiel coming online, and a foreign policy that is naive at best and timid, even spineless, at worst.  Government increasingly intrudes upon the lives of average citizens, making it harder and harder to afford a good education; harder for our teachers, schools, and universities to pursue knowledge and learning rather than focusing first and foremost on the bottom line; harder to get and keep a good job; harder to start and run a business; and harder even to exercise everyday rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience.  Every new statute, rule, regulation, executive order, permit requirement, or other government action serves only to make government’s powers larger at the expense of the rights of the people.  More startling still, those powers are increasingly concentrated in a national — not federal — government, of which, as Reagan warned, the states are becoming mere administrative districts.  Our democratic federalism is dying, and it is being replaced by a monolithic, paternalistic government of bureaus, administrations, agencies, and czars.

The result is this: our official national debt is 16 trillion dollars — that’s $16,000,000,000,000 — and counting, or more than $51,000 per citizen.  But the real story is far, far worse.  By the standards that public companies must use (known as GAAP), the government has unfunded liabilities in excess of $120 trillion, or more than $1,058,000 per taxpayer.  And it only gets worse; every time the government passes a “stimulus” package which fails to stimulate, engages in quantitative easing, or even repairs a pothole, that number — and your share of it — gets bigger.  This is scary enough when we are only talking about legitimate functions of government, such as defense and administration of a justice system.  But that’s not all we’re talking about; we are also buying countless handouts to private parties, pork-barrel projects, and a reality in which more people than ever are on food stamps, even as it gets harder for employers to offer good jobs due to the crushing regulatory and tax burdens they face.

To fund all of this, we are borrowing trillions of dollars from China, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Taiwan, Switzerland, and so on.  Even worse: the single biggest creditor of the United States government is our own Social Security system, which, when combined with other federal pension systems, holds 5 trillion dollars in federal debt.  Who will be left holding the bag for that?  Our children and even my own generation, because the debt train will run out of track long before we reach retirement.  We need to spend less.  We need fiscal responsibility, but our elected officials don’t seem to have any.

Meanwhile, our military is weak.  Our navy and coast guard have aging ships, and fewer of them than anytime in the last decades.  The air force is flying old and increasingly obsolete planes, leaving us entirely dependent on drones to project air power; it’s not the same, and it’s not enough.  The army drives vehicles that are ill-equipped for a world of IEDs and fighting wars in which the enemy does not always do us the courtesy of wearing uniforms.  Our ever-faithful marines are underfunded, with all of the problems of the other forces.  Our elected officials seem to think the military is an obsolete relic of a dangerous world that no longer exists, which we can always “turn on” again if the world becomes dangerous.  Yet that same military is engaged in multiple undeclared wars and countless “peacekeeping” missions, even as our nation’s diplomatic representatives come under attack and die due to a lack of security.  We need to maintain a strong defense, but we are at risk of losing it.

We need a foreign policy that other nations respect, even if they do not find it pleasant.  There is a reason that President Obama has been endorsed for reelection by the likes of Putin, Chavez, and Castro, and it is not that they think he is strong.  We need a president who recalls that he is President of the United States of America, not of the world, and who bows to no one.

Our country was founded on a simple idea: the people, not their rulers, are supreme.  They have endowed the government with certain powers; the government has not bestowed upon the People the rights that they received from their Creator.  The Founding Fathers gave us an intricate system, balancing the need for unity with the demands of individualism, local needs with national interests, and the need for a strong government with the even more important need that it never be too powerful.  It’s time to reclaim their great idea, and restore a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not of technocrats and career politicians, by the same, for the same.

It’s time for some real hope and change — hope for a stronger future, in which America is prosperous, strong, and free, and in which Americans do not fear their own government’s excesses.  It’s time for a real conservative.  Not a neoconservative who runs up our debt and needlessly engages in protracted wars, not a statist who sees government as the solution, but a Reaganite conservative who sees government for what it is: the problem, not the solution.

As in 2008, I am again endorsing Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates for office.  Governor Romney is a proven leader and strong conservative, as is his running mate, Paul Ryan.  They are merely men, with no pretensions to be more than men, but they are good men and proven leaders.  I honestly believe that this presidential ticket is the most genuinely conservative ticket this country has seen since Reagan proclaimed that “it’s morning in America.”  They are the right choice for America in this election cycle.  When you vote, please vote for these proven leaders and all of the others who want to get this country back on track by restoring the proper balance between the People and their government.

If you are so inclined, please consider donating to help Governor Romney and Representative Ryan bring real hope back to America.

More on Inequality

On the heels of my post on upward mobility comes an insightful post by Cato’s Michael Tanner. Two key quotations:

In the end, however, one has to ask a more basic question. Why do we care about inequality at all?

Poverty, of course, is a bad thing. But is inequality? After all, if we doubled everyone’s income tomorrow, we would eliminate an enormous amount of economic hardship. Yet, inequality would actually increase. As Margaret Thatcher said about those who obsess over inequality, “So long as the [income] gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer.”

Another Nobel Prize winner, F. A. Hayek, concluded, “The rapid economic advance that we have come to expect seems to be in large measure a result of this inequality and to be impossible without it. Progress at such a fast rate cannot take place on a uniform front but must take place in an echelon fashion, with some far in front of the rest.”

We should all seek a prosperous, growing economy, with less poverty, and where everyone can rise as far as their talent and drive will take them. Equality? Who needs it?

Well put.

Upward Mobility

I read an interesting article on economic mobility in National Review Online, which got me thinking. The article is good in that it points out some of the statistical challenges in measuring upward mobility. For example, who counts as poor? Who counts as middle class? Are we measuring intergenerational or intragenerational mobility? In acknowledging these questions, the article does well. Where the article falls short is in two key areas.

First, it assumes that upward mobility in the United States is lower than in many other countries. This may or may not be true, depending on how it is measured. For example, how much credit should be given to official statistics as reported by various countries? Certainly, focusing on the official “poverty” level will give bad results, as discussed here.  But even using income percentiles poses challenges. For example, should welfare and other “benefits” in socialist European countries be counted as income? When I lived abroad, I routinely encountered people making more money than I did, for doing absolutely nothing. The individuals in question were not independently wealthy or trust-fund babies; they were merely beneficiaries of a very generous welfare state, which rewarded them for being unemployed and sitting around various public areas all day, which making no effort to find work. The artificial support given to such individuals may mask the natural cause-and-effect relationships between work and prosperity on the one hand and sloth and poverty on the other.  The NRO article, like most discussions of economic inequality, also totally ignores wealth, focusing only on income. There are good reasons for this, chiefly the availability of data on income and lack thereof on wealth, but the distinction is still an important one and is totally ignored in the article in question.

The second and more significant failing is in the article’s assumption that increasing upward mobility is always a good thing.  That’s not necessarily true.  Certainly, increasing opportunities are always good, but one can easily imagine a very high-mobility society with an extremely dysfunctional economy.  For example, imagine a tax system in which anyone whose parents were in the top 40% of the income distribution at the time of his or her birth pays a tax surcharge of 40% of his or her gross income, which funds are then distributed to those whose parents were in the lowest 40% of the income distribution.  This would, at least temporarily, result in incredibly high mobility, but it would be manifestly unfair and strongly disincentivize anything resembling ambition or hard work.  The point is that mobility is not the goal; opportunity is. Past a certain level, increased mobility can only be achieved at the cost of stability and fairness.  For every person who moves up the income distribution, somebody else moves down, because rankings are a zero-sum game.  Foster too much movement from the lower end of the distribution into the higher end, and you are by extension fostering an environment in which many of the highest earners suffer precipitous plunges in their incomes.

These are just some quick musings on the article; I would be curious to hear what others thought.

Reading List

A number of people have asked me lately what I’m reading on economics and the financial markets right now.  Truth is, I’m always reading such things, and no short list can even come close to covering the variety of material I try to read, from the scholarly and serious (e.g., Posner, Becker, Mankiw, etc.) to the popular and light.  That said, I thought my other readers might appreciate a list of some of what I’ve been looking at on the internet in the last few weeks, at least.  Without commentary, opinion, analysis, or even a particular ordering (in fact, the first list was intentionally randomized), here it is.  I express no public opinion on the accuracy, validity, merit, or usefulness of anything below; these are just links I have found interesting – in some cases because I think the contents to which I’m linking are totally wrong or even bordering on insane… but I think I’ll decline to say which ones.  Read the material for yourself, if you’re interested – it’s more likely to be useful, that way, anyway.

Sites or people with lots of information in general, some good, some bad, some possibly crazy:

Some interesting specific links:

EMP: Still Something to Keep You Up at Night

In case you’ve already resumed sleeping normally after my prior post on the EMP threat, the Wall Street Journal has more to remind you of the danger.

Nation of Burkeans?

The National Review features a fantastic piece by Alexander Benard and Anthony Dick on America’s True Genius. The thesis: change does not make a nation great, and it certainly is not what has made America great. Rather, it is the constitutionally-mandated stability of our system of laws – the difficulty of implementing radical change – that makes this nation so good at weathering storms and enduring for so long. My favorite bits:

In fact, the Founding Fathers designed our Constitution so as to make it very difficult to bring about significant changes. New legislation requires majorities in both houses of Congress followed by a presidential signature. Constitutional amendments are even more difficult — the easiest method is for an amendment to pass both houses of Congress by two-thirds majorities and then be ratified by three-fourths of all state legislatures. This suggests the Founding Fathers were suspicious of quick and easy change.

The actual genius of America, and what makes our country unique, is precisely the opposite of change. It is that our country was founded on certain timeless principles, laid out in the Declaration of Independence and put into practice by the Constitution. These principles include the conviction that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights, and to provide freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and equal protection under the law.

and especially:

Our constitutional structure recognizes the value of stability, and that change can be (indeed, often is) more damaging than uplifting. It acknowledges that existing social structures and traditions are not merely vestiges of an ignorant past, but rather reflect the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors and the evolutionary fruits of centuries of social experimentation. It respects the organic nature of political communities, with their interdependent parts woven together in a web of complexity that confounds even the most well-laid plans of radical social engineers.