What Texas is teaching the rest of us

Half the state without drinking water. Electric bills of thousands, one for $16,752. Gas lines and wind turbines frozen and inoperable. Millions without power. Ted Cruz shamed for escaping to Cancun because he could, while his constituents were dying inside their houses.

That Texas swagger got pretty stilted this week. The storied Lone Star state, bastion of rugged male individualism, self-sufficiency, and humble bragging, got blown away by an old lady: Mother Nature. 

At first Governor Greg Abbott and the coal-oil-gas cabal blamed the renewable energy sector – wind and solar – an easy target. But then the word got out that wind and solar provide only 20% of the state’s energy on a sunny, windy day, and a mere 7% on a cold, snowy day.

Dang it!

So now, he’s blaming the state energy sector, a little closer to the truth, but also a pile of horse puckey. The Texas energy sector was designed built and modified by Texans, and no-one else.

In the 1930’s the Federal government started regulating interstate transmission of electric power. Texas, by that time, the muy grande hombre of energy and anti-regulation, immediately refused to send or receive power across state lines. 

Texas didn’t need energy or regulation from anyone, pardner!

With no regulation, energy competition in Texas became the wild, wild west.

In the 1970’s, in an effort to calm that wildness, the state formed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT. But the people who ran ERCOT were still oil-coal-gas good ol’ boys, so little really changed.  

Natural gas machinery, housed inside buildings in the rest of the country, were left outside in Texas. It was cheaper. Wind farms and solar farms, had no anti-icing features. It was cheaper. Gas lines and pipelines were not winterized. It was cheaper. 

Lower costs meant bigger profits. Yahoo!

In 1999, Governor George W. Bush went even farther. He deregulated the Texas energy sector, leaving it a purely market-driven, supply and demand system.

Yippy kai yay!

But when Arctic weather hit the fan in 2011, Texas did nothing. So it happened again this year, only far more catastrophically. Supply dropped, demand grew, prices skyrocketed. And, because Texas had refused to join either of the two main power grids serving the rest of the country, Texans were left out in the cold – literally – and facing utility bills of thousands of dollars.  

The Lone Star state felt pretty helpless and lonely last week.

Compare that to New Jersey. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, New Jersey residents lost power for weeks. New Jersey utilities, following regulations, billed them only $15 that month vs a normal bill of around $150. No-one was charged thousands of dollars.  

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”, some wise old guy (I think his name was Jerry) said eons ago.

But before we non-Texans laugh up our sleeves at anyone with a twang, we might look at ourselves, too.  

Take the Covid19 crisis. Some states sent doctors and nurses to New York in the beginning. New Yorkers returned the favor later. Even though it has the fifth largest economy in the world, California couldn’t deal with the last two years’ fires by themselves; they needed and got help from other states. New York and its surrounding states are incredibly dependent on each other, economically and culturally.

That is why we call ourselves the “united states”. We help each other out in dealing with things as large as a pandemic or as small as winter storms.

That concept translates equally to international situations. Nationalism is a nice idea in terms of culture and history, but not when it alienates other countries who could help us. We can’t fight off Russia’s or China’s or Iran’s attacks without the help of our allies. We can’t take on the next pandemic without our allies along with other countries. We might get to zero carbon emission by ourselves in 30 years, but we can never survive climate change itself without the help of the entire world.

As Lincoln might have said: we need each other, maybe not all the time, maybe not most of the time, but absolutely some of the time.  

Just ask Texas.

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The 5th Avenue Smoking Gun

I’ve always thought you could divide the world into 2 groups: leaders and followers. 

We talk about leaders a lot. “Hey, that Molly, she’s a great leader!”  

Or, “Don’t work for that bozo! He couldn’t lead his way through an open door!”

We tend to ignore followers because, well, they’re followers. Who cares, right?

Here are some qualities of a good leader you’ll find in most leadership courses: Good communicator, accountable, responsible, motivated, high integrity, emotionally stable, and smart.

George Washington was a great leader. Ditto Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy… I guess I’ll stop before Nixon.  

Good leaders are all around us. The best leader I knew personally was Pat McGuigan, retired ex-Command Sergeant Major in the Army who was the Manager of Malvern, PA when I was President of that town’s Council. He helped turn many of my cool ideas into reality, like getting Congress to designate a Revolutionary War battlefield as a Federal Park…(Wait…No… that was his idea.) Or adding three playgrounds to the town…(Oops… his idea, too). Or after he left, naming the Municipal Building “McGuigan Hall”… (Yep, that was my idea – I’ve always been a leader at naming). 

Marks of a bad leader are: No empathy, ruthless, dishonest, lazy, dictatorial, narcissistic, blames others, vindictive. 

We’ve all known people like that.  

That doesn’t mean bad leaders don’t have followers. Jim Jones had followers; they drank his kool-aid and died. Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jon-Un, Castro, Che Guevara, and others had followers. They didn’t do well, either.

Good leaders do good things for their followers. Bad leader do bad things for their followers.

Followers have only one real responsibility: choose their leaders carefully. It’s a big responsibility and not always easy. It requires good education and good judgment. The turn of the last century saw bad judgement by followers in Italy and Russia who followed charismatic leaders right into loss of freedom. Those followers were followed by worse followers in Germany and Russia (again), not to mention South America, China, Burma, Viet Nam…  

A lot of pain comes to followers of bad guys (interestingly, I can’t name many women who were bad leaders, but that’s another column).

Our recent leader was known as a bad guy well before he ran for President. He stiffed suppliers and banks, cheated on his wives, discriminated against renters.

His followers, for whatever reason – anger at big government, loss of status, racism, fear of liberals – glommed onto him like a horny teenager at a porn site.

And, predictably he did a lot of things that hurt the country internationally and nationally, as well as his followers, many thousands of whom died from his non-leadership of Covid 19.

The combination of his Big Lie and love-struck followers led to the Jan 6, 2021 assault of Congress and, this week, his impeachment trial.

But they aren’t the worst followers in the Trump Saga; the worst followers are those who follow his followers.

California Representative Kevin McCarthy, Majority Leader under Trump, had a chance to remove and admonish Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, anti-semite, QAnon follower, 9/11 doubter, and all around mean girl. Instead, he and numerous other Republican leaders slobbered over the 74 million Trump voters and, in the interest of keeping them unified against Democrats, did nothing. 45 Senators, so far, have done the same thing for the same reason: they voted against impeaching Trump. 

Following followers is not just circular leadership, it’s a downward spiral for the country.

On the other hand, some leaders have shown courage and integrity. Senator Romney and Representative Cheney, along with a few other Republican leaders, have stood up to the Trump mobs at professional and personal risk (death threats and more). Wouldn’t it be incredible if more Republican leaders put the nation in front of their craving for power? 

As the Impeachment unfolds this week, the House Managers have presented evidence that months of Trump’s speeches incited the Jan 6 riot. The remaining question is: did he do it on purpose? Did he know his constant lies would trigger an attack on Congress. 

In other words, is there a smoking gun?

For the answer, go back to a campaign speech before he won the Presidency.

Over four years ago, on September 23, 2016, Trump said: “They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like incredible.”

Substitute “Capitol” for “5th Avenue” and you have your smoking gun.

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Waiting for GoDo-vid

The alarm goes off at 5:35AM. I don’t bother to get dressed. I just roll out of bed and into the kitchen. Ok I don’t roll, but I sure don’t rock at that hour. The dog wonders in as the coffee is brewing. He yawns, then follows me into the living room. He collapses on the floor as I collapse on the couch, laptop on my lap, iPhone by my side.

By 5:55 I am on the vaccine website, waiting for it to allow new visitors. At precisely 6:00AM, the screen changes, telling me the website is full, but the page will refresh in 60 seconds. I scroll down to see a list of counties and the number of vaccination slots available. 

The screen counts down from 60 to 2. (Maybe…, Yes, this might be it!…) It freezes. The 2 changes to 60. It starts again. Cool! Another chance!

And again. And again. And again. Each time it shows fewer slots.  

After a few minutes of staring at the screen, my mind begins to wander. I wonder if there’s some supervisor in some office somewhere watching the screen, too, although not in hopes of a vaccine; they’re hoping the servers don’t crash.

That person(s?) has no idea who I am or anything about the thousands of other 65 and older people, healthcare workers, or other types, that are staring at computers.

We are only numbers…well, not even numbers, just parts of an algorithm, a combination of numbers that need to align perfectly in order for just one person to get in line for that life affirming shot.

Maybe those at the other end of my computer are drinking coffee too. Maybe they’re yawning. Maybe they, too, are looking out the window as dark turns to day. Hey, we might have a lot in common!

I wonder if I can make more coffee before 60 turns to 2 again… 

The dog sits in front of me, an expectant look on his face. (No way, Buddy. You’re just going to have to hold it. We’re talking Covid here!)

Or maybe there is no “they” at all. Maybe at the other end of my computer is … just another computer. 

(He lies down again and lets out a sigh)

60, 59, 58, 57…

Or maybe I’m one of hundreds of thousands of excited over-65 year olds, seconds away from a screen that will allow me to apply for a vaccine slot.

60, 59, 58, 57…

Exactly 84 minutes later the number of slots is a big fat zero. A message says to try again in two days. Darn!… Oh well, two days is better than two weeks!

I look up, bleary-eyed. The sun is up.  The dog is too. 

“Hey! Henry! Outside! Please!”

I quickly take him outside because, well, when you gotta’ go you gotta’ go. 

We walk under birds sunning themselves on telephone wires, squirrels chasing each other up trees, clouds hurrying across a blue sky.  The dog casually waters a few bushes, which don’t seem to mind. Then it’s back to work.

At exactly 9:00, I try another approach. This time, per other web instructions, I phone a county vaccine number. It’s just like before, only instead of watching numbers counting down on a screen, I listen to a busy signal… followed by a click and a dial tone…then call again. 

Zzzz, click, dial tone…. Zzzz, click, dial tone.… Zzzz, click, dial tone…..

At first I imagine a bank of hurried switchboard operators like something out of a 50’s movie. It’s a nice image, but soon replaced by one more realistic: a bank of servers driven by an unseen algorithm, not a person in the frame.

I pace around the house with the phone, wishing I could throttle Trump for pushing this onto the states and wishing I could throttle all those governors who had a year to prepare for the vaccines’ arrivals, a year to set up some way of simply signing up and getting in line, and did nothing. 

After around 25 minutes, I get a recording saying there are no more vaccines, to try again in two days. 

Darn! I enter it in my calendar. Then,.. Hey! Better than two weeks! Right?

I look at the dog who has retired to his favorite corner for a mid-morning nap. He again opens one eye at me for a few seconds, then closes it with a sigh. 

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Would I lie to you?

I don’t know how to answer that. If you’re asking me how you look today, I might lie and say “Great”. Or I might tell the truth and say, “Great!” 

If I’m good, you’ll never know which it is.

Most of us never want to be lied to, except for “Yep! Lookin’ good, pal!” And most of us don’t like to lie, because it can cause trouble, from losing a friendship to going to jail. 

Politicians lie all the time, generally with half-truths. “I met with Putin and we had a very robust conversation” might mean they got along well or they used the F-Bomb to threaten the A-Bomb. That’s why the call it the “Art” of politics.

Lying requires far more brains than I have and a much better memory. 

For example: “Why didn’t you pay the electric bill, Henry?” 

“I was going to, but the lights went out just as I was writing the check”. (See, even I wouldn’t believe that one).

“You said that last month”. (Oh yeah. Forgot)

When I was a teenager, guys would lie about girls. “Oh yeah! She’s really into me. Don’t even ask what we did before we got to the dance!” That led to big reputations. Until the girls found out and stopped talking to them.

One of the most famous liars was Adolf Hitler. His PR guy (Goebbels) gave him the idea of the Big Lie – that Jews were responsible for Germany’s problems after WWI.  Then they got his buddies to repeat it over and over until people thought “Wow. If I’m hearing that from so many people, it must be true”.

Lying is OK for dictators because no-one dares call them on it. (”Hey Putin! That’s a lie!” “Poison him!”)

And it’s OK for cult leaders because they are, by definition, truth tellers – to their followers. (“Try the kool-aid, It’s delicious!”)

Lies cause trouble for democracies, because democracies depend on an informed citizenry. Without true facts, people can’t make good choices on whom to vote for. When the facts are a bunch of lies, people can vote the wrong leaders into office.

That’s why you promise in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there.

Advertisers and merchandizers lie all the time, but legally. They’re like politicians only more so.  

I just got a notice from Comcast offering internet for $20 a month. “Cool”, I thought, I can cut my Comcast bill in more than half. Then I saw the fine print – only for new customers.

Pharmaceutical ads are really clever. They show happy people taking powerful drugs, while lovely music nearly buries an announcer giving legal warnings about how the drugs might maim or kill you. That’s clever because studies show people respond to visuals much more readily than voices, especially voices wrapped in music.

The best advertising of all time was for M&M’s. “M&M’s melt in your mouth and not your hands” was one of the longest running slogans ever – from the 1930’s to the 20-teens. In a 2014 study by Texas Tech University, it was ranked as the most popular advertising slogan. I wonder if part of its popularity was its truthfulness. 

The best liar in my lifetime was our recent President. The Washington Post has kept count and, as of January 17, 2021, cited 30,534 lies over four years.

He’s really smart. He knows it only takes a few seconds to tell a lie, but days or months to disprove one. That kept “Fact Checking” sites active and “Fact Checkers” gainfully employed. When he promised to create lots of jobs, he wasn’t kidding.

He also ginned up profits for Fox News and other far right organizations as they echoed and amplified his lies, not to mention the Main Stream Media for disproving those lies,.. well trying. 

Remembering his lies wasn’t a problem for him. He would just lie about the lies and lie about those lies and so on. For truth-sayers, it was like slogging through mud after a seagull. 

Sometimes, though, too much of a good thing can cause problems, even for him. As any good liar knows, you have to tell the truth once in awhile, because like the high school guy, if you get a reputation for lying, you don’t get the girl. 

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

A Time to Object

The riot at the Capitol last week brought to mind the Martin Niemöller poem, First They Came, about Germany in the 1930’s. For example, in the first lines below, substitute “Black” for “Communist”.

They came for the Communists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t

a Communist;

The Civil War freed slaves and gave black men voting rights. Taking advantage of Lincoln’s death, Southern white supremacists took just a few years to undo those advances. As a result, the fight for black equality has continued ever since, from Jim Crow laws, to school desegregation, to voter suppression, to a racist Justice System, to rioters – almost all white – at the Capitol last week shouting white supremacy slogans.

They came for the Socialists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Socialist;

In spite of the rioters’ aversion to socialism, this country is no stranger to it. We’ve had public schools since the 1800’s. We’ve had Social Security since the 1930’s. Eisenhower proposed national health insurance in the 1950’s (the head of GM at the time told him it was unnecessary). In the 60’s Johnson added Medicare.

Most of those who fear socialism mistake it for communism which, in today’s world, is really dictatorship. Which the right extremists abhor even as they follow a man who dictates.

They came for the labor leaders, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a labor leader;

Republican administrations, along with corporations, have worked to weaken unions since Herbert Hoover. The Trump administration touts support for unions, but has further weakened them. Over the last 50 years union membership has shrunk from a third of the workforce to a tenth of the workforce. Workers at the country’s largest employer, Walmart, for example, have no union and qualify for Food Stamps. 

They came for the Jews, and I didn’t

object – For I wasn’t a Jew;

At the riot last week “The Proud Boys”, part of the white evangelical movement, stopped to kneel in the street and pray for God to restore their “value systems”, after which their leader told the media to “get the hell out of my way” as they moved on to assault the Capitol building and Congress.

Anti-semitism has been a theme of White Supremacists since, well, forever. It was a rallying cry of the Charlottesville violence, at the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and at the Capitol last week with the “Camp Auschwitz”  hoodie and anti-semitic T-shirts.

Then they came for me –

And there was no one left to object.

So Hitler won. 

Martin Niemöller’s poem describes the apathy many Germans had toward Hitler’s fascists. It was as though a Boa Constrictor had surreptitiously encircled the German soul and Germans had no idea until it was too late.

The scenes last week of rioters with assault rifles, knives, Molotov cocktails, and pipe bombs, searching for elected leaders who could only hunker down, recalled the black and white images I was shown as a kid, during history lessons on Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and WWII. But that history has faded and is rarely taught today. A big mistake.

Has “I didn’t object” happened here? Not this week. In fact most of the country has objected at the top of our lungs. But for several thousand anti-semitic incidents over the last four years, from Charlottesville to numerous other venues, we haven’t objected loudly or forcefully enough, because the rate and intensity has grown every year.

There are also clear differences between Germany then and the US now. Our population isn’t penniless and furious at having to pay reparations for the last fifteen years. It has been dealing with a recession, but not a world-wide depression. More fundamentally, we have a culture and heritage deeply rooted in democracy and capitalism.

Which brings up another irony. Donald Trump, the rioters, and Conservatives in general, want less regulation, less government, and more emphasis on “letting the market decide,” because private enterprise is quicker to react and more innovative. 

Guess what happened after Trump’s riot? While the House, the Senate, and VP Pence were discussing the pros and cons of impeachment vs the 25th Amendment, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,  and Amazon simply locked the Inciter-In-Chief out of the Internet. The PGA, Deutsch Bank, Signature Bank, Marriott, and others refused to do business with him. Multiple other companies will no longer donate to Trump or the 147 Republicans who tried to stop the vote count. The market decided – quickly and innovatively.

Now the rest of us need to follow their lead: stand up to thugs, insist on truth over lies, and object, object, object!

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)