The Empty Faucet

There is an old saying that every society is just four square meals away from a revolution; I wonder whether it could also be said that our planet is only one cup of clean drinking water from catastrophe.

We have seen the problems that can arise from a lack of drinking water in other parts of the world; Cape Town in South Africa, a city of 4 million people, avoided running out of water for its residents this past year only by instituting the most draconian possible water restrictions and stringently enforcing them. Closer to home the city of Flint, Michigan was able to provide water—but it was tainted with toxic levels of lead. Many other towns and regions across the United States have dealt with water emergencies caused by contamination from agricultural run-off, industrial pollution, and fracking used for oil extraction. These are problem that appear briefly in the news and are often quickly forgotten, but those residents and their children are left to deal with lifetimes of fear and health problems thereafter.

Although we all prefer to believe a lack of access to safe water is a problem that occurs somewhere far away from us, it has been estimated that 20% of Americans have been exposed to contaminated drinking water at one time or another during the past decade alone. Given that no human can long survive without clean water to drink, these problems should cause more concern than they seem to right now.

It is rather pointless to debate whether the spate of droughts affecting many parts of our nation are due to cyclical climate processes or global warming—whatever the reason, the changes are upon us. As we continue to draw down our supplies of surface water and drain our precious aquifers to sate our vast array of needs for more and more water, we need to consider whether we must better utilize this life-giving liquid before it is too late. We waste immense amounts of water, and much of our waste is either thoughtless or invisible. We pamper our lush lawns, ignore our leaky municipal water systems, and pay no attention at all whenever we run a load of laundry or flush a toilet.

Moreover, few pay any attention to the unending flow of water that makes our daily lives possible, and most would be surprised at the amounts of water used for activities that we take for granted. For example, three liters of water are needed to produce a plastic bottle that holds only one liter of liquid. We expend between 3-7 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of biofuel. A coal-fired power plants uses 20 to 50 gallons of water to generate each kilowatt-hour of electricity. A family of four will use (depending on their shower head) from 400-700 gallons of water per month just to keep their bodies clean. Over 1800 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of beef. To grow but one pound of almonds, over 1900 gallons of water are required.

Agriculture is, by a wide margin, the majority of our water use—and, thank goodness, the rain occasionally does fall. However, modern agricultural practices often rely on extensive irrigation systems that draw enormous amounts of surface and ground water to grow the foods that sustain us. Industrial uses of water to produce that which makes modern life possible—electrical power, plastics, metals, electronics, fabrics, rubber, finished wood, paper, and so much more—are too numerous to even consider listing. Even the mildest and briefest interruptions in our ready supply of water would cause unimaginable disruptions in every facet of our daily lives.

If water disappears altogether, we already know what happens from looking at the historical record: Civilization collapses. We need only to glance back through the millennia to find many examples—the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, the Mayan Empire in Mexico, and the Ming Dynasty in China being but a few—of highly developed nations and cultures erased from the earth by protracted droughts that ended their existences. Within our recent history the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s destroyed a generation of American farmers. Today’s horrendous civil war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe can trace their beginnings to a devastating period of regional drought that began in 1998, which caused large scale crop failures, economic distress, and widespread hunger. The misery that results when the rains do not fall is a tale as old as humanity itself.

Drought and despair will, sad to say, always be with us—but we are now able to reduce their effects due to our globalized systems of production and transportation that allow for the shipment of foods and goods from areas that are unaffected to help those who are stricken. Moreover, although we cannot create water, we can renew what we have through the desalination of seawater and the treatment of waste in order to extend our supplies while we continue to look for more ways to conserve.

However, we can be certain that the continued growth of our planet’s population—and the relentless demands for safe supplies of water that will inevitably follow—will lead to societal, economic, and political stresses and crises that we cannot easily foresee. Those steps we take now to plan for the global challenges that most assuredly lie ahead will be the difference between problems that are manageable and those that bring death and destruction. We risk much if we fail to prepare today for our troubled tomorrows, and we all need to think more carefully about what we can do to reduce the use and waste of water in our own daily lives in order to make our personal contributions to helping others—and protecting our own futures.

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The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.

Secrets and Lies

The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some.  However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex.  They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.

This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy.  That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions.  Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.

We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.  

First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes.  There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples.  We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.

There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.  

The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy.  It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity.  The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.

Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.  

In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials.  We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth.  However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.

That was then—and this is now.

Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history.  Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts.  As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded.  Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.

Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past.  Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long?  Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war?  On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?

We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials.  However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.

There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”  We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”

How To Shrink Government—For Real

When I first started working in the advertising business in New York City many years ago, one of my senior colleagues told me the following joke—both to make me laugh and provide me with a little insight into reality….

 Starting his first day at a new job, a man ran into his predecessor cleaning out his desk, who gestured to the top right hand drawer.

 “I hear you’re taking over from me.  This is a pretty demanding position, so there’s a little tradition we keep up here.  I’ve put three sealed and numbered envelopes in this drawer.  When you hit your first crisis with our boss, open envelope number one.  When the second crisis strikes, open number two.  When you and our boss have your third falling out, open the third envelope.”  

 Smiling at the seeming absurdity of the three envelopes, the man said goodbye to his predecessor and started his new job.

 However, one terrible morning several months later, after his boss had chewed him out for not meeting his performance goals, the man went back to his desk and—his hands shaking—opened the first envelope and read the note: “Blame your predecessor.”  After lunch he went in and explained to his boss what a mess his department was in when he took over the position. It worked.  Mollified by the explanation, his boss sent him back to his desk without further comment.

 A couple of months later his boss was on the rampage again, demanding to know when improved results were forthcoming.  After anxiously reaching into his desk, the man pulled out the second envelope and read the advice: “Announce a reorganization.”  Racing into his boss’s office, the man explained that he was changing around the responsibilities of the people in his department in order to increase productivity.  A bit disbelieving but still satisfied by this plan, his boss sent the man on his way.

 Unfortunately, as yet more months passed, no improvements were apparent.  Frothing with rage, the boss told his underling to be in his office the next morning with a new strategy to finally turn around his department.  Remembering how the first two envelopes had saved him, the man raced back his desk and frantically tore open the third envelope.  

 Inside he found a note that read as follows: “Prepare three envelopes….”

 A good deal of private sector work tracks right along with the three envelopes.  Managers and supervisors have, from time immemorial, followed exactly this arc to keep those above them happy—at least for a while.  Government bureaucracies—and the bureaucrats and elected officials that run them—are likewise prone to either blame their predecessors or announce a reorganization when problems become too obvious to ignore.

 However, those who survive in government jobs become experts at one particular “skill” above all others: keeping their heads down and asking no questions.  Consequently, we employ millions of men and women who will—from the day they start work until the day they retire—plod placidly along while paying little heed to either the utility of their work or its societal outcomes.  The consequence is an ever growing chasm between the costs of government and the actual benefits that are provided to our nation.  

 If you’ve ever wondered why we spend our lives paying taxes for schools that don’t educate, roads filled with potholes, and various departments and agencies that seem to have no discernible or logical function, you are asking the right questions—but you are wrong in believing improvements are possible.  Absent the private sector accountability provided by the need to both produce measurable results and turn a profit, it will always be the predisposition of government to cost more and provide less over time.  Although there are many who believe—believe with all their hearts and souls in many cases—that those who want to reduce the size of government are heartless haters who are putting our lives and the future of our nation at risk, the catastrophic rise of both daily government expense and government indebtedness compels those with the least smidgen of sanity to question our current direction—and seek change.

 Obviously, we need government, and there are basic responsibilities that government is best suited to fulfill.  National defense, local law enforcement, health and safety regulations, and maintenance of the infrastructure and the regulatory framework necessary for interstate and international commerce are clearly the purview of government managed by elected officials.  Protection of our environment is also necessary to help ensure the health and welfare of our citizens.  A free, taxpayer-supported system of primary and secondary education—whether provided by public or charter schools—must certainly be in place to put each generation in a position for future success.

 However, the accountability necessary for well-managed government programs is impeded by the sheer immortality of government agencies and departments—that which is once funded never goes away.  Much like that famous fictional Count from Transylvania, government agencies and departments live forever, sucking the life blood of the citizenry and striking fear into the hearts of all who dare defy them.  Elected and appointed officials, although nominally in control, rarely have the staying power to do much to rein in their inexorable growth.

 Government is, at least in theory, the servant of the people, so the solution might be to let the people decide—directly.  

 Therefore, we should consider allowing the appropriations for every government agency and department—except for a very select few deemed absolutely vital to our nation—to “sunset” every ten years.  In order to continue operations, they would need to be voted back into existence by our citizens—not a handful of legislators who have been purchased through campaign contributions.  During the ten year cycle, appropriations and oversight would be left to elected officials and appointees, but thereafter a plebiscite of the citizenry—local, state, or national, depending on the department or agency or question—would decide whether to allow it to continue to function.  There would, of course, be a brief winding down period if programs were closed so that the enforcement responsibility for regulations promulgated could be smoothly transferred, but this would be manageable—and of limited duration and cost compared to the eternal life and expense prior.

 There will, quite naturally, be those who for a variety of reasons would vociferously oppose such an idea.  The status quo always has its fans—particularly when there is (as is always the case with government) jobs and money involved.  Nonetheless, unless we want to continue to spin on as we are until every last penny is gone from our pockets—and the pockets of our children and grandchildren—we must take affirmative and direct control over the mechanisms of our government.

 If not, we will soon be preparing our own “third envelope” for our nation and its future.  This is an outcome we dare not allow to occur.

Who Gets To Vote?

The history of American democracy is also a history of our sloppy, exclusionary, and infuriating system of voting. As much as we might want to paint our elections as some sacred system designed to produce that most perfect of all unions, the plain fact of the matter is that winning candidacies boil down to a very simple and cold-hearted equation: Make certain that my supporters vote and those of my opponent don’t. All the rest is political science theory.

Not surprisingly, the methods of winning elections by controlling who votes have run the gamut from the rascally to the outright despicable. Here in my own state of Illinois, the dead have a long and storied history of rising from the grave to cast their ballots. For much of our history women were denied the vote. Long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had to sometimes risk their lives to enter a polling place. Gerrymandered districts have long been used by both major political parties to neutralize the votes of some while amplifying the impact of the votes of others. The limitations of our continued reliance on balky voting machines and volunteer electoral judges perhaps reached an apogee—or nadir—in 2000, when we all had a chance to learn what a “hanging chad” was, and the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly—perhaps too abruptly—ended a Presidential recount in Florida and declared a winner.

Therefore, to blithely celebrate our “free and fair” electoral system requires a least a little willful blindness at times. We cannot discuss improvements if we deny our historic failures.

However, recent discussions about expanding the franchise by permitting felons, sixteen year olds, or even illegal immigrants to vote in some elections veer into territory that goes far beyond simply improving the systems we now have. We are now asked to decide whether felony convictions should be sufficient grounds for revoking a basic right of citizenship, when sufficient maturity to vote responsibly has been attained, or whether unlawful residency should provide voting rights that have historically been restricted to citizens. These are all huge questions that have profound implications for the future of our nation.

The question of whether states should continue to restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote hinges on a very basic question: Do we believe voting to be an irrevocable right or an earned privilege? At least to this point in time we have generally restricted the rights of felons to vote while in prison. The question today is whether voting rights should be automatically restored to felons upon release or there should be additional restrictions until other conditions set by individual state legislatures are satisfied by that ex-convict.

We might also reasonably ask whether the same restrictions should apply to both violent and non-violent offenders, but this often crashes into the question of whether we are giving preferential treatment to white-collar criminals. As regards the right to vote, should we distinguish between the accountant who facilitated a real estate fraud and the purse snatcher who knocked down a little old lady during the commission of the crime? Is the integrity of our voting system more at risk from someone running a marijuana grow house or someone who was stealing cars and stripping them for parts?

Having taught high school, I know my viewpoint regarding allowing sixteen year olds to vote has been affected by my professional experience. Some liberals are, of course, thrilled with this idea in the wake of student protests in favor of more—and more confiscatory—gun control laws because younger people generally skew hard left politically, and this tendency could affect the outcome of many elections. However, although the exuberant idealism of the young can be useful counterpoint to the weary cynicism of older voters beaten down by the eternal gulf between the promises and performances of politicians, bright-eyed ideology unleavened by messy life experience can be problematic.

Anyone who remembers their youthful belief in their own infallibility—which, of course, stood in stark contrast to the blind stupidity of the oblivious adult world—has at least at once grimaced at the utter cluelessness of their younger selves. The French have a lovely aphorism, quoted and re-quoted in various permutations, that ably captures this dichotomy: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” A world run by 16 year olds might by long on energy and short on practicality—or it might resemble The Lord of The Flies. Perhaps there is something to be said for the sagacity that comes with age. In addition, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age in only 1971, so it is likely worth another bit of a wait before we fiddle with the voting age yet again.

The issue of granting some voting rights to undocumented immigrants is a topic of intense discussion in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Their laws designed to protect the many who reside in those states illegally readily morph into granting this population more and more public aid and benefits of all types—so voting rights seem to some the next natural step. This is also viewed as a way to battle the entrenched “racism” of those who support stricter enforcement by helping to boost the electoral fortunes of those candidates who are friendly to the notion of a world without borders.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find a developed nation where policies that reward lawbreakers are commonplace, and it is reasonable to ask whether open borders and a modern welfare state are a potentially ruinous combination. Although it is certainly true that we are a nation of immigrants, those immigrants almost always arrived under supervision and with documentation—and rules and limitations have been crafted throughout our history to maintain a manageable flow of people into our great nation.

Of course, although our legal immigration policies have historically been quite generous, there is no doubt they have often reflected the prejudices and preconceptions of the people who crafted them. This is sad, and at times it has resulted in injustices that have affected individuals and their families, but we cannot undo the past and now must muddle along from here. Additional domestic and international issues, which are far beyond our ability to predict, will affect our immigration legislation and procedures going forward in ways we cannot imagine, so all we can do is continue to be as welcoming as our economic conditions and security considerations allow. Beyond this, the question of granting some voting rights to those who have entered the U.S. illegally will be a priority for some immigration partisans—but I strongly doubt the vast majority of Americans will endorse this idea because it fails to account for basic common sense.

There was once a time in American history when our polling places were in taverns and saloons—and a vote could be had for the price of a couple of beers. Our election procedures have obviously improved a great deal since, but much improvement is still possible—particularly as regards expanded voting opportunities and convenience.

Moreover, we can continue to improve the security and accuracy of the ballot in a variety of ways, and the increased infiltration of dazzling and powerful technology into every facet of our daily lives may someday mean that we will be saying “Siri, it’s time for me to vote for President.” on a Tuesday in early November. That would certainly increase voter participation—and reduce the opportunities for the chicanery and silliness that have marred too many of our elections in the past. In addition, it would be way, way cool.