Not Exactly Profiles In Courage

In Profiles In Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote of eight United States Senators who, at different times in the nation’s history, took brave stands against prevailing opinion, risking their careers by voting against popular causes or opposing what they believed was wrong.

Boy, things have really gone downhill since then.  Now the people running for the Senate seem to be more interested in demonstrating their cravenness than their courage.

Consider Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky.  In her meeting with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal she was asked repeatedly whether she had voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.  And she declined to answer the question — again and again and again.  It’s a pathetic performance by a candidate who is attempting to hide behind the “sanctity of the ballot box.”  And Grimes is not alone.  Other  Senate candidates this year also are declining to answer questions about whether they voted for President Obama.

When someone is trying to be elected to a position that will make them one of only 100 members of the United States Senate, and if elected will be serving during the final two years of the Obama Administration, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask whether they voted for the President.  If a candidate running as a Democrat is unwilling to answer that question, what does that tell you about that candidate’s ability to be open and transparent, actually tell you what they believe, and let the chips fall where they may?  Why would anyone — regardless of their party affiliation or political perspective — trust a candidate who won’t directly answer a question about who they voted for in the last presidential election?

This is a big problem.  We don’t have candidates who actually believe in anything — other than getting elected.  In my view, if you’re not willing to simply answer the question Grimes was asked, and then add whatever additional caveats you think are appropriate, you are simply too gutless to hold a job that requires both responsibility and leadership.

Only The Lonely Old Guys

Yesterday UJ and I decided — unwisely, it turned out — to go to a sports bar to watch the Browns.  The place was crowded with hopeful fans, so we had to share a long table with a couple.  As the game started, an old guy asked if he could sit at the table, too.

We said sure . . . and then I was surprised to see that, rather than sitting in an open chair farther down, the guy sat right at UJ’s elbow.  During the game he kept chattering away and interrupting, clearly hoping to engage us in conversation.  At first it was weird and annoying, but eventually it got to be so absurd it was funny.  As the Browns’ horror show mounted, it became one source of humor in another otherwise grim Browns debacle.

It reminded me of an experience Kish and I had on a trip.  When we passed through a common room in a hotel, an older man was sitting there with a few bottles of wine and invited us to come back for a “wine tasting.”  Kish felt sorry for him and said we should join him, so later we did.  The guy turned out to be a colossal know-it-all who chattered away non-stop, overriding the comments of others and one-upping every observations and anecdote.  No matter the topic, he knew more about it than you did.  Name a place, even a remote spot in a foreign land, and he had had an extraordinary experience there.  It was an amazing performance — so extraordinary that when Kish and I finally escaped the onslaught, we also got a few laughs out of it.

Although they produced a few chuckles, the incidents with the Wine Guy and the Random Browns Fan were kind of sad, too.  I can see going to a bar to watch a game on satellite dish that’s not on regular TV; I’ve done it before.  But I’ve never tried to intrude on the conversations of others, and I’ve certainly never bought a few bottles of wine in hopes of enticing random people to sit and listen to my boring tales.  (That’s what a blog is for!)

There must be a lot of lonely old guys out there, searching for positive human contact.

Slowing The Aging Process

Mention “aging” to someone in their 50s — like me — and you’re likely to provoke a grim expression.  We feel the aging process in our muscles and bones, we get that ugly twinge after a sudden move, and we see it when we look in the mirror and notice the grey hairs, the wrinkles, and the pathetic turkey neck.

But what if aging could be slowed?  What if therapies and treatments could be developed that would decelerate the ravages of time, or stave it off altogether?

Scientists are looking into the possibility that gene therapy, hormone treatments, and other approaches might have that effect and have been using some of the new treatment concepts in experiments on animals.  Economists believe that treatments that successfully delay aging — and thereby allow people to be productive and healthy longer — could have enormous economic consequences.

Speaking as one of the aging generation, I’m all in favor of seeing whether reasonable treatments can be developed.  At the same time, however, I question whether heroic efforts should be devoted to deferring the effects of aging when there are many other public health issues that also need attention.  And a public health focus on aging makes sense only if the years that are added are healthy, sane, active, non-institutionalized years.  When you regularly visit a nursing home and see how many Americans are living their final years, you can legitimately question whether living longer is inevitably a great thing.

Norah Jones

America has enjoyed many blessings.  Two of the more obvious ones are extraordinary national parks and exceptional women singers.

On the latter category:  if you haven’t already done so, give a listen to the Norah Jones CD The Fall.  Sure, I know it’s been out there for a while.  So has Zion National Park.  That doesn’t make it any less amazing.

You could spend days talking about incredible female voices in American music.  Judy Garland.  Rosemary Clooney.  Aretha Franklin.  Patsy Cline.  Janis Joplin.  Linda Ronstadt. Gladys Knight.

In The Fall, Norah Jones holds her own with this impossible competition.  Her smoky voice, with its deliberate pace and terrific lower register, adds an incredible depth to her songs.  Listen to I Wouldn’t Need You and December if you don’t believe me.

Friday night, after a great night out catching up with old friends and a few cold Blue Moon Beligian Wheats, is just about the perfect time to listen to Norah Jones.

The “Avoiding Panic” Dodge

These days we’ve got plenty of people advising us not to panic about the Ebola virus.  Whether it’s those ubiquitous, generic “psychologists” who seem to pop up whenever there is some significant incident, or public health officials who want to reassure us that in the grand scheme of things Ebola is really not that big a deal, experts galore are urging us to control the inner demons that might otherwise transform us into a howling, red-eyed, torch-wielding mob that could end modern civilization as we know it.

The counseling to avoid panic is a dodge, of course, because no one is panicking.  But by depicting concerns about how the Ebola issue has been poorly handled as indications of unfortunate mass hysteria, the people who have dropped the ball can deflect and avoid legitimate inquiry.  Tsk, tsk!  They’re the rational ones; the rest of us are excitable, poorly informed boobs who are just going to make matters worse.  Like the policeman at the yellow tape of a disastrous crime scene, they just want us to move along.

We shouldn’t fall for this sham in this case, and should insist on getting answers to some entirely reasonable questions.  Ebola isn’t a phantom menace; it is a deadly disease, and in the latest outbreak in West Africa it has had a mortality rate of 70 percent, according to  the World Health Organization.  In America, we have established the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention precisely to deal with the enormous risks posed by such dread infectious diseases. When a man infected with Ebola reached America and received treatment in Dallas before dying, it appears that the CDC and the Dallas hospital that provided the treatment were unprepared to deal with the case in a way that ensured effective containment of the disease.  First one nurse, and then another, were found to be infected, and now we learn that the second nurse was permitted to board an airplane when she was exhibiting a low-grade fever that is one of the first signs of the virus.

Is it panicky and irrational to question how and why these circumstances could possibly occur?  If you were one of the 132 unsuspecting passengers flying from Cleveland to Dallas with that nurse — people that officials are now trying to trace and presumably monitor — wouldn’t you think it was entirely legitimate to question the competence of the CDC and to ask whether it was following any kind of meaningful containment strategy?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the CDC has badly fumbled this situation, which means that it is failing at the principal reason for its existence in the first place.  Demanding answers about how that happened is not a a sign of hysteria, but rather of requiring accountability by a government agency that simply has not done its job and, in the process, is exposing the people it is supposed to protect to unnecessary risk.

Why Are Marriage Rates Hitting New Lows?

The latest census data show that the rate of marriage in America is still declining.  In fact, the marriage rate has hit an all-time low, and the number of Americans over 25 who have never been married has hit an all-time high.  In 1960, nine of ten Americans over 25 had been married; in 2012, half of that population segment had never been married.

Why is this so?  The article linked above discusses three possible reasons, two of which seem totally off-base and the third of which may be looking in the wrong direction.

The first is the economy and issues of “financial security,” which some young people cite as reasons to defer marriage.  There no doubt are people who want to be settled, in terms of their jobs and careers, before they get married, and the current economy is making that settling process more challenging.  However, the decline in marriage is a long-term trend, not a temporary blip that tracks economic performance.  Moreover, data shows that married couples, with their pooled resources and shared expenses, are far more likely to be wealthy than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.  No one should get married for purely economic reasons, of course, but if you are in love, getting married and staying married is far more likely to produce financial security than any other course.

The second is whether the increasing availability of same-sex marriage has caused rates of marriage to fall.  I think it is far more likely that the opposite is true.  As a mathematical matter, the fact that couples who previously could not marry are now part of the potential marriage pool is bound to increase marriage rates, and the zeal with which loving gay couples have pursued their right to marry assigns a value to the institution that should encourage more people to make that commitment, not the other way around.  It also seems implausible that those people who vigorously resist any change to “traditional concepts of marriage” are going to eschew getting married simply because gay people now have that right.

The final potential reason is the eradication of taboos on unmarried cohabitation and having out-of-wedlock children.  Those taboos, too, have been gone for a long time and therefore wouldn’t explain recent changes in marriage rates.  I think other, less noticeable long-term social forces provide an explanation.  It’s not the eradication of sex-related taboos that is at work, but rather increasing acceptance of the concept of being alone, both by the individuals in question and society as a whole.  Whether it is because they enjoy their private, internet-focused lives, or because they find their work far more rewarding than awkward social interaction, or because they don’t want the pressure of a permanent relationship, more people are perfectly comfortable with being single.  Decades ago, their families and friends would have put enormous pressure on them to get married; now those forces don’t exist.

Student Loans And Shrinking Choices

We’ve all heard a lot lately about college students graduating with crushing amounts of student loan debt.  A recent Washington Post article brought home the grim and spiraling reality of student loan debt — and made me wonder what its long-term ramifications are for the families of those students and the economy as a whole.

The Post article compares consumer debt loads in 2005 to those in 2014.  Nine years is not a long time — less than a decade and only one presidential administration ago — but the changes are dramatic.  The percentage of 20-somethings with mortgage debt has fallen from 63.2 percent to 42.9 percent, and the percentage with student loan debt has almost tripled, from 12.9 percent to 36.8 percent.  In short, fewer are borrowing to buy a tangible asset and more are borrowing to acquire an intangible asset with uncertain value.

We don’t know how far up the age scale this exchange of mortgage debt for student loan debt extends, but the homeowners among us should consider what a shrinking pool of potential buyers means for the value of our property and our chances of selling it.  Banks won’t view young people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans as good candidates for hefty mortgage loans, and young people who can’t find the high-paying job they need to make debt payments won’t want to be saddled with a house that might interfere with their freedom to move to where jobs are more plentiful.  The upshot is shrinking choices for debt-addled 20-somethings and shrinking options for the rest of us.

But the impact goes even farther.  The Post article shows that people in their 60s also have increased their student loan debt, and that more families in every income bracket are borrowing to pay for college.  The cost of a college education thus affects entire families, with credit-worthy senior citizens taking out loans to help their children and grandchildren pay for that diploma.  The acquisition of new debt by 60-somethings runs counter to the most fundamental rule of retirement financial planning, which is that people nearing retirement should pay off debt rather than taking on more.  How many older people are deferring retirement to pay off student loans — and in the process hanging on to jobs that might otherwise be available to those recent college graduates?

For too long we have viewed a college degree as a kind of holy grail that will inevitably produce a successful career and have geared national policy to make college more “affordable” by increasing the availability of student loans.  That approach has removed any incentive for colleges to hold down costs, and the result is sharply increased tuition costs funded by long-term consumer borrowing that affects entire families.  I’m as much of a fan of a college education as anyone, but isn’t it time to challenge our colleges and universities to figure out a way to provide that education at lower cost?