Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 117

Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism," by Mark Levin:

Hence, for Jefferson, and most of the Founders, virtue was an essential element of liberty; if the people lack virtue, no form of government can rescue them from tyranny. Again, it must be remembered that the Founders relied on the wisdom of such thinkers as Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke and were influenced by such contemporaries as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, among others, all of whom spent considerable time contemplating virtue. And the Founders returned repeatedly to the importance of natural law, eternal truths, and the transcendent moral order, including virtue.

Indeed, French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755) and his book The Spirit of the Laws (1748) were widely embraced by the Founders, especially during the constitutional period. Montesquieu explained: 

“There are three kinds of government: REPUBLICAN, MONARCHICAL, AND DESPOTIC. To discover the nature of each, the idea of them held by the least educated of men is sufficient. I assume three definitions, or rather, three facts: one, republican government is that in which the people as a body, or only a part of the people, have sovereign power; monarchical government is that in which one alone governs, but by fixed and established law; whereas, in despotic government, one alone, without law and without rule, draws everything along by his will and caprices. . . . There need not be much integrity for monarchical or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. The force of the law in the one and the prince’s ever-raised arm in the other can rule or contain the whole. In a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is VIRTUE. What I say is confirmed by the entire body of history and is quite in conformity with the nature of things. For it is clear that less virtue is needed in a monarchy, where the one who sees to the execution of the laws judges himself above the laws, than in a popular government, where the one who sees to the execution of the laws feels that he is subject to them himself and that he will bear their weight. . . . But in a popular government when the laws have ceased to be executed, as this can come only from the corruption of the republic, the state is already lost.” In despotic government, “virtue is not at all necessary to it.”


Women's History Month Bleg

Ack, Women's History Month is almost half over and I haven't thought through my reading rotation in response.  So far, since December 1st about a third of the books I've read or am reading have been written by women (including one by Condi Rice and a couple by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and some have covered women's history (e.g. first ladies, "Negroland: A Memoir").  Still, I'm making up for lost time because up until the recent past the vast majority of my book consumption was from male authors.  So I welcome any suggestions of authors, titles, and genres. 


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 116

Here are two excerpts from a book I recently read, "Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

Trying to apply his philosophy solely toward winning would be like doing good deeds only because you hope it will get you into heaven. Being good is the payoff, athletically and spiritually. That’s why he didn’t care for sports movies in which the underdog team or player learns the hard way that winning isn’t everything, but then they go on to win at the end. To him, those movies should have ended with the lesson learned, the team taking the court happy in their newfound wisdom, the whistle blowing to start the game, and then freeze-frame and run credits. Showing the team winning sends the wrong message: that life lessons exist to serve as a guide for acquiring things that make you feel like a success. His point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination. 

This book is not just an appreciation of our friendship or an acknowledgment of Coach Wooden’s deep influence on my life. It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren’t diminished or lost altogether. 

Coach was an old white Midwesterner with old-fashioned ideals; I was a quiet but cocky black kid from New York City who towered eighteen inches over him. He was a devout Christian; I became a devout Muslim. He loved big band music of the swing era; I loved modern jazz. On paper, it’s understandable that we would have a good working relationship as coach and player. But nothing on that same paper would even hint that we would have a close friendship that would endure a lifetime. 

It’s appropriate that the first photo is black-and-white. That accurately defined our rigid relationship in the beginning. In this photo he is leading me. He was the coach; I was his player. He made the rules; I followed them. Black and white. Mutual respect but not warmth. It’s also appropriate that we were posed, because we both look a little awkward, stiff as mannequins in a store window. As if there were something artificial about the roles we were forced to play in the photo and in life. 

The second photo, with its rich, warm colors and candid appearance, more accurately reflected the depth of our friendship. Our two hands—one fragile and one strong, one white and one black—entwined. His white head barely clears my elbow, yet I am standing straight and proud, like a man showing off his hero dad. In that photo, I appear to be leading him. But knowing how much he taught me, I knew I was still following in his footsteps, even though he was beside me.


Looking to the Future But Knowing and Building from the Past

The activism of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School teens in the wake of our nation’s most recent major school shooting compelled best-selling author Tim Kreider to pen this op-ed in the Times earlier this month: “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us.”  Here is the impassioned last

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

Whoa. At the risk of sounding like a crusty old man yelling at the young’uns to “get off my lawn,” I think some moderation is in order here. 

Yes, no matter where you are on our contemporary gun-control debate, you have to admire and appreciate the passion of the MSD students to agitate against the status quo and demand real answers and real action.  And, pulling the lens back, we absolutely need our young generation to feel that they have a voice, and to use that voice to advocate for the things that matter to them.  For, by definition, their time horizon is longer than ours, and their perspective often more informed than ours, so they are able to push for the greater good more easily and more forcefully than we can.

However, the best dissent and the best advocacy is an informed one.  And part of  being informed comes from the perspective of time.  A lot of who we are as a society has to go, and the long narrative has borne out and will bear out that much progress has been made and still needs to be made.  But that doesn’t need to mean that every generation needs to burn everything to a crisp and start from zero.  That does a disservice to the collective wisdom that has built up over the years, some of which needs to be updated but much of which needs to be retained and cherished and built on top of.

I realize I am treading on thin ice here.  I am not saying “wait your turn, kid” – oh how I hate that posture.   Absolutely young folks ought to take action and not wait for their time, for their time is now.  But, when up to bat, it’s not good to just start swinging at everything, with no regard to knowing and learning from the lessons of the past and the insights of those who have gone before.  I am humbled by young folks I know who are deeply steeped in history and who have demonstrated commendable wisdom in drawing from history the lessons that inform their view of the world today and tomorrow.

I am also not saying that it is never appropriate to dismantle and start anew.  There are times when entire systems need to be protested and replaced, and at times that even requires civil disobedience and violence and destruction.  But this is more often than not the exception and not the rule, and it certainly is not the case that every single thing needs to be brought down and built back up.  Again, I am appreciative of young folks I know who know the difference, and are brave enough to use extreme measures when it is called for and restraint when it is not.

Again, perhaps I am hopelessly “unwoke,” my words belying my privileged and clueless status.  I’m just nervous about a thought process that takes something noble – young people standing up for what they believe is right – and assigning to that sentiment absolute leeway to consider all things old worth burning to the ground and all things new unassailable.  I hope to be respectful of and open to the things our youth care deeply about.  But I also hope that their desire to effect progress includes room to learn from the past and to accept and steward the good parts of that past into the future.


Upcoming Events You Might Be Interested In

It is fundraising and conference season, and I am honored to be attending or presenting at a number of upcoming events.  Please follow these links for more information and considering coming or
otherwise supporting.

March 9 - New Jersey Redevelopment Forum (New Jersey Future)

March 9 - Sustainaball (Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia)

March 29 - Region on the Rise (Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce)

April 10 - Leverage (Community Design Collaborative)

April 13 - Urban Economic Policy Conference (Drexel University School of Economics and Econsult Solutions)

April 19 - Gala Awards Ceremony (Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations)

May 3 - Solas Awards (Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians)

June 6 - Preservation Achievement Awards (Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)


Money Management Right Out of College

Around this time every year, I get all my paperwork ready to do m
y taxes.  As I was doing this, I chanced upon a stack of six-month budgets I produced right after my college years.  There were seven such documents, perfectly capturing my personal budget from the 3 1/2 year period from July 1995 to December 1998.  Here is the info, averaged to annual and monthly amounts.

Annual Monthly %
Salary $25,000 $2,083 100%
Taxes $7,646 $637 31%
College/Retirement Savings $2,286 $190 9%
Giving/Gifts $6,498 $541 26%
Rent $1,927 $161 8%
Utilities/Phone/Transportation $2,544 $212 10%
Food/Personal/Medical $3,117 $260 12%
Leisure/Discretionary $697 $58 3%
Net Income (Loss) $286 $24 1%

What an interesting window into my life some 20 years ago.  Some random thoughts:

* I earned a $25,000 salary at my first job out of college, at the then West Philadelphia Enterprise Center (now The Enterprise Center).  Depending on how you want to calculate inflation, that works out to about a $40,000-$45,000 salary nowadays.  As you can see, I did not get a raise during this time period; I think my first raise was in or after Year 4 there.

* At the end of 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998, I funded an Individual Retirement Account at the then-max of $2,000.  Between my dad and my job with two stockbrokers, I'd had the power of compounding interest pounded into me, so there was no way I wasn't maxing out my IRA.  (By my recollection, The Enterprise Center introduced their 403b, the non-profit version of a 401k, after this period, so I didn't get to use that vehicle until after the time period in question.)

* During this time period, I was tithing to my local church (i.e. donating 10% of my gross salary), plus supporting a bunch of ministries on a monthly basis, such as Compassion International (sponsor a kid), Christian Aid Mission (support indigenous missionaries in their home countries), and Opportunity International (fund entrepreneurial ventures in the developing world), as well as spending money on the youth ministry (and its youth) that I was involved in at my church.

* My rent during this period was ridiculously low, partly because University City still hadn't exploded in value and partly because I shared a house with anywhere from five to nine people. 

* I didn't have a phone or a car, so my telecom utilities and transportation costs were pretty low too.  (I did pay house utilities, which we split between housemates so again having lots of them helps keep costs down.)

* Re: other living expenses, I didn't have any other mouths to feed except my own (I've added a few since then), I bought all my personal care supplies when they were on sale and I had a coupon (note: I still do this), and hardly ever had any medical expenditures (oh how I wish that were true today).

* Most of the leisure things I did were free or close to free, like go hiking and biking, rather than things that cost money, like go to the movies or get drinks.  (If avocado toast had existed back then, this might've been different.  OK, that's a boomer/millennial joke, never mind.)  I also didn't buy many clothes, and I didn't have a house to furnish.  (I did have a room, but I did that on the cheap.  For example, my desk at one point was a salvaged door resting on two used bookshelves.)

Importantly, thanks to my parents' saving up for me, I didn't leave college with any debt.  Obviously this is a huge piece of many kids' personal budgets nowadays, which as you can see I essentially broke even during this time period so if I had to write a check for several hundreds of dollars a month, something else has to give. 

Not sure if there is a takeaway here; my situation is different than that of many, and today is not the same as 20+ years ago.  Nevertheless, who knew back then when I was making these spreadsheets that the 40something version of me would one day find them and make them into a blog post?


An Economic Perspective on Promoting Civil Discourse

There are many ways to define economics, but I'll offer one: economics is concerned with the best allocation of scarce resources for the greatest good.  Others may use different words but this isn't bad. 

But let's unpack this definition a little.  First, the notion of scarce resources.  We all realize that we don't have unlimited resources, whether the "we" is ourselves our our government.  And yet how often do we think that "X" is good and therefore anyone who isn't for "X" is either evil or stupid.  (Substitute whatever you want for "X," as this can go both ways partisan-wise.)  In a world of unlimited resources, we can give "X" to everyone, as if we were Oprah ("you get a car and you get a car and everybody gets a car!").  But in a world of scarce resources, which is to say the real world, we have to make trade-offs.  If we want "X," we have to pony up for it, or we have to give up "Y."  Seems obvious, but check yourself the next time you spout off about how obvious it is that "X" is good and how is it possible that people can oppose that unless they're evil or stupid.  Maybe, just maybe it has nothing to do with evil or stupid and rather they're opposing because while they are fine with "X," they are not fine with the trade-offs involved in obtaining it.

Second, notice that in my definition are words like "best" and "greatest good."  Again, this seems obvious to say, but I'll say it anyway: what's "best" and "greatest good" looks different for different people.  And in a nation as diverse as ours, there are almost infinite permutations of what is "best" and "greatest good."  So whenever we have to do anything involving multiple people (which is to say basically everything that is not doing something totally by ourselves, which is to say basically everything), we have to figure out how to work together given that we all don't necessarily see things the same or want the same things.  You might be thinking "duh," and yet again I ask you to check yourself when you spout off about how obvious it is that "X" is good and if others aren't getting behind you then they are either evil or stupid.  Maybe, just maybe it has nothing to do with evil or stupid and rather they're opposing because they prefer "Y" instead and have decided that given the choice between "X" and "Y," "X" is going to have to take a backseat.

We lament that our political discourse has gotten so rancorous, and yet we are all guilty of the things I've stated above.  As much as most people prefer harmony over discord, most people also prefer not to have their perspectives automatically dismissed as evil or stupid just because they are different from yours.  We should not be timid in stating our positions and fighting for them, even with harsh words and strong emotion, and I even acknowledge there are times when civil disobedience and even destruction/violence are warranted.  But while we may disagree vehemently with opposing positions, they are not necessarily evil or stupid, and it is a civil and productive thing to consider the logic and merit behind them.