Think like a leader. You can’t start too soon.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”– Peter Drucker

Have the feeling you’ve seen this quote before? Since you’re reading this post, chances are good you have; for example, you’ll find it in the February 14 2019 LOTRW post, and perhaps one or two more; it’s also in LOTRW-the-book.

Why the emphasis? Because even with more than seven billion people, today’s world suffers from a shortage of leaders. In a way that’s to be expected. Most of us report to someone higher-up, and are rewarded for doing things right– that is, as defined by that higher-up. Very few are in positions where they’re rewarded for doing the right things – which can usually be identified only by absorbing a diverse range of outside perspectives, accompanied by a deep process of reflection.

But here’s the stern reality. It’s a mistake to think complacently like a manager on your climb up the employment ladder, with the notion that once you reach the top, you’ll flip a switch and from then on think like a leader. Doesn’t work that way. By the time you get “there,” (and “there” is almost always another step away), thinking like a manager will be ingrained, and you’ll discover you have very little countervailing experience thinking like a leader. It’ll be too late. 

So it’s not too early to start. Most fundamentally, while still in a managerial or subservient role, you have to add an overlay to your thought process: if I owned the company, or ran the agency, or led the university, what would I do?

Easier said than done! So to jump start the process, you should be seizing leadership development opportunities every chance you get.

Here’s good news. There’s one right under your nose, and the timing is perfect. It’s the AMS Early Career Development Academy, just now seeking applicants for its second cohort. (The deadline for applications is March 8.) The website supplies full information; here’s an excerpt:

With support provided by IBM, the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Early Career Leadership Academy (ECLA) aims to build and sustain a diverse network of early career leaders in weather, water, and climate science. ECLA will bring together a select group of early career individuals—in particular, women and underrepresented minorities—for an immersion experience in leadership, such as creative problem-solving, conflict resolution, building trust, and enhancing communication skills. We seek early career individuals from a wide range of professions, interests, perspectives, cultures, and experiences.

You know you want to do this. 

Don’t believe that you should start now? Feeling pressed for time and tempted to wait until next year? Perhaps these two examples will change your mind. 

The February 9thprint editionof The Economistcontains an article about an upcoming election in Nigeria. The reporter documents reasons for skepticism about prospects for good governance or improved living conditions under either Mr. Buhari, the incumbent seeking reelection, or his challenger, Mr. Abubakar (both men are in their 70’s). But the reporter closes with this: 

Four times Mr Buhari has blocked reforms that would strengthen Nigeria’s electoral commission. Such intransigence frustrates Samson Itodo, a founder of the “Not too young to run” campaign, which is trying to clean up elections and make political involvement easier for the three-quarters of Nigerians who are under 35. “We are tired of these same old leaders,” he says. “We are laying the foundation for a revolution in 2023.” Until then, Nigeria will be stuck with mediocrity.

Not too young to run? What a great name for a political party. But perhaps Mr. Itodo needn’t have waited so long…

Consider thirteen-year-oldAlexandria Villasenor and this article from Tuesday’s Washington Post, entitled How a 7th-grader’s strike against climate change exploded into a movement. It begins this way:

NEW YORK — On the ninth Friday of her strike, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor wakes to a dozen emails, scores of Twitter notifications and good news from the other side of the planet: Students in China want to join her movement.

Every week since December, the seventh-grader has made a pilgrimage to the United Nations’ headquarters demanding action on climate change. She is one of a cadre of young, fierce and mostly female activists behind the School Strike 4 Climate movement. On March 15, with the support of some of the world’s biggest environmental groups, tens of thousands of kids in at least two dozen countries and nearly 30 U.S. states plan to skip school to protest.

Surely that draws you in. Sarah Kaplan’s full article on Alexandria merits your careful reading. Ms. Kaplan ends it this way:

His presentation done, de Menocal hands the clicker over and Alexandria straightens in her chair. “Okay,” she says. “Here’s the update.”

The professor leans forward as the 13-year-old launches into a description of the global strike — all the support it has, all the attention it has received. In 30 years of studying climate, in all his uncountable hours of attempting to convey the scope of the crisis, he has rarely felt so humbled, he says — or so filled with hope.

“Do you have a statement I can read somewhere?” he asks.

“Sure,” Alexandria says. “We have a mission statement and a media advisory on our website.”

De Menocal mouths “wow” and turns around to give the girl’s mother an amazed grin. Afterward, he pulls Alexandria aside.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” he says, shaking her hand. “Thank you so much. What can I do to help?”

She tells him about the scientists who are writing a letter of support and suggests that he get involved.

“He can organize the adults,” she says later. “We’re ready for them now.”  [Emphasis added.]

Want to come alongside Mr. Itodo and Ms. Villasenor? Apply for the 2019 ECLA. Dial up your leadership mojo.

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The AMS: a single “point of light?” Or some (much) larger number?

Just what is the American Meteorological Society? Ask this of most of our 13,000 members, and chances are good that you’ll hear one of two pat answers: “it’s a science society,”or “a professional society.” The former might usually be the reply you’ll get back from researcher-members. The latter comes from those applying the science for societal benefit. This second demographic comprises NWS weather forecasters or private-sector meteorologists providing services to agribusiness, the transportation sector and so on; broadcasters, remote-sensing experts/engineers building satellite systems; and others.

You’re unlikely to hear “the AMS is a point of light.”As in, former President George Bush(41)’s inaugural reference to “a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.”

That’s perhaps understandable…but at the same time, a bit unfortunate. First and foremost, it means that meteorologists, whether researchers or service providers fall into the same trap that ensnares most of our fellow workers of every stripe. We’re getting lost in the drudgery and wearying effort that comes with every job (as my wife likes to remind me, “that’s why they call it work.”), and losing sight of the daily/hourly ways each of us is making the world a better place. We forget we’re helping put food on the world’s tables, water in the world’s taps, and energy in the world’s outlets; saving lives in the face of harsh weather; and protecting the environment and ecosystems. Perhaps you can take a moment to give yourself a bit of grace – and reflect on your contributions before diving back into the job.

That lack of self-awareness also suggests members may be failing to recognize the ways the AMS helps us accomplish this, and the full extent of the AMS local footprint in every American community: 

  • Hundreds of operational weather service forecasters, stationed at 120 offices nationwide, who help thousands of communities stay weather-ready.  
  • Some 1500 broadcasters who are meteorology’s face on public and social media. 
  • Thousands of teachers directly or indirectly using AMS training and educational resources to present the geosciences to 
  • millions of K-12 schoolkids, who then take home that excitement and practical knowledge to their parents. 
  • Over one hundred local chapters, comprising members of all these groups as well as university students and faculty. 

In these ways and more, AMS members can and are doing good, and doing it tangibly and locally. So, however you choose to do the sums, AMS aggregates to some number between one (counting AMS as a single entity) or 13,000 individual points of light across the United States and the world. 

It doesn’t stop there. On closer examination, our members, even as their work is supported by AMS journals and technical meetings, are also providing the knowledge and understanding underpinning the work of perhaps more familiar points of light: The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and many other environmental groups, for example. 

Bottom line? Both AMS members and the larger American society alike are likely inadequately monetizing the true AMS value, which combines elements of scientific and professional society with community-action organization. As individuals and institutions, we can and should do more to make up that difference – through donations over and above the member fees, but also through more active engagement, especially locally. 

By way of encouraging accountability, I’m pledging here and now to do both. Maybe you can do the same. Let’s stay in touch as we go forward. 

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The George Herbert Walker Bush remembrances – Redux.

“We can find meaning and reward by serving some higher purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a Thousand Points of Light…We all have something to give.”– President George H. W. Bush

It’s the Presidents Day weekend. Let’s start with a bit of unfinished business – the fourth and last of the series of LOTRW posts to mark the passing of our 41stpresident. The third of these posts, from back in January (! An eternity in blogosphere years), focused on George Bush and the vision thing. It was intended to tee up a post on his “thousand points of light.”

John Plodinec saw it coming. In fact, within hours, he had stolen my speech, writing this in a comment:

And yet, Bush the Elder delivered perhaps the most visionary political speech of my lifetime – the Thousand Points of Life speech. In this speech, he anticipated much of what social scientists are now telling us is important and is needed to break the partisan impasse – collaboration, men [sic] of good will reasoning together humbly recognizing that no one has a monopoly on the truth.

(Well said! All that was needed was to build on John’s insight. But it didn’t happen until now. Sigh. Could give excuses – but let’s just dive in.)

_____________________________________________ 

Some background, excerpted from Wikipedia: 

The term was used by George H.W. Bush in his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. …(The) address likened America’s clubs and volunteer organizations to “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

Bush reprised the phrase near the end of his speech, affirming that he would “keep America moving forward, always forward—for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.”

He repeated the phrase in his inaugural address on January 20, 1989:

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the cynical times we live in – and the trending escalation in that cynicism – the idea was belittled by some back then, and has even since been mocked by the current president.  But fact is, it’s a success story. President Bush followed through. His vision became The Points of Light Foundation in 1990, and continues to the present as Points of Light:

Points of Light has approximately 90 corporate service council members, and that’s before counting partnerships with thousands of nonprofits and companies, and affiliates in other countries. They mobilize some five million people annually in 20 million hours of service worth nearly half a billion dollars.

Hmm. Not bad for a guy who had trouble with the “vision thing.” We should all be so myopic.

___________________________________ 

Community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good?” Calls to mind the American Meteorological Society, and especially AMS Chapters. That’s the intended subject of a follow-on post (hopefully less than a month away, this time).

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Lucy promises to hold the climate-change football.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, refuses to go away.” – Philip K. Dick

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker

The Green New Deal: is it a Big Deal? Or No Deal?

Not unlike Charlie Brown, geo-scientists and environmentalists might be forgiven for harboring a mix of caution and skepticism regarding the Green New Deal generating so much news buzz. To start, the concept by that particular label is not new, but has some history. The idea of blending climate-change measures and economic stimulus has been around for over a decade, dating back to Thomas Friedman in 2007. The intervening years have been hard on climate-change scientists and activists. Repeated warnings, whether global (e.g., the IPCC assessment reports and intervening special reports) or domestic (e.g., the U.S. National Climate Assessments), have triggered momentary media kerfuffles, but these have died down within days or weeks.  Political positions have hardened, even as the science has been weaponized and politicized. Successive U.S. administrations have oscillated, alternately treating the science either as a lodestone for policymaking or as heresy to be suppressed. International and U.S. response has been underwhelming. Perhaps the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal, like so many forebears, will quickly fade to obscurity.

Or maybe, just maybe, this time Lucy will hold the football. Here’s the case for Big Deal:

Responsive to reality. Like other dimensions of Philip Dick’s reality, climate change isn’t going away, despite legislation forbidding its mention, despite heated skeptical rhetoric, despite wishful thinking. Instead, the evidence for the global changes underway is piling up. The reports are proliferating and converging. The implications for the planet, for ecosystem services and society are coming into focus. Opportunities and limitations of proposed technical fixes and policy options are emerging.

And sharpening minds. The 24th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Katowice, Poland, made clear that the world is not following the U.S. lead in disengaging . Instead, the U.S. is increasingly marginalized, isolated on this issue. Here at home, the latest surveys conducted by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication find that American concerns are rising, even among the most skeptical sectors of society. All this at a moment Congress passed the biggest public lands package in a decade. Awareness is on the upswing.

Focusing on the right things. Peter Drucker would approve. The Green New Deal is a bid to encourage discussion about a significant national and global challenge – one far more consequential and problematic than say, immigration, which has preoccupied American minds in a pernicious way for much of the past two or three years. In fact, that immigration challenge is a symptom of the larger, coupled set of natural resource-, hazard-resilience, environmental- and economic challenges worldwide. Make progress on these root causes, and the immigration symptoms will be greatly mitigated. So will the opioid epidemic and other public-health challenges. So will infrastructure. And so on.

Not command-and-control fixes, but re-starting the conversation. It’s important to understand that the New Green Deal is not legislation so much as a resolution.

 It’s easy to lose sight of this. The Markey-Ocasio-Cortez language itself is quite short, an easy read. (You can find one version here.) To read it is to realize that it’s not prescriptive so much as it’s aspirational. It doesn’t provide detailed specifics and particular actions so much as it identifies aspects of the coupled environmental-economic issues that need to be discussed and addressed by the 320 million people who happen to live in a country that happens to be the leader of the free world. It’s about resolve.

But today, thanks to news- and social media, the New Green Deal is a mere speck floating almost invisibly in the (rapidly rising) ocean of commentary about it. That commentary (alert: including what you’re reading here!), is a Rorschach test, revealing as much about the commentators and their institutions as it does about the target. Depending on where you dip in your toe, it’s easy to decide that the resolution is the tip of a subversive wedge designed to destroy America as we know it, or, conversely, that it’s set to right all of America’s past environmental and economic wrongs.

Precisely because its goals are so humble, the Green New Deal may turn out to have great potential for driving change.

_____________________________

Two closing thoughts:

Both sides seem keen to go on record. Strikingly, climate skeptics in Congress seem eager this time around to put the resolution to a vote (here’s a sample link). The thinking seems to be that the Green New Deal, like most big ideas in their nascent stages, has loose ends and wrinkles that make it less attractive today than it may be in more refined form down the road. There’s also appetite to get members of Congress on record one way or another, with the thought that the Deal’s “extreme” views will come back to haunt today’s proponents in 2020. But if public sentiment is changing, this could pose comparable or even greater risks for today’s skeptics. What’s more, action as opposed to inaction at the Congressional level may have an unintended consequence of giving the issue legs – new staying power.

What does this mean for scientists? What should scientists do? The previous LOTRW post offers several suggestions. But at a high-level , the very proffer of a Green New Deal should reassure scientists that years of findings have been noted and are having impact. Any time scientists spend feeling put-upon or being defensive is time wasted.

By contrast, as world awareness builds and the first signs of action appear, we need to step up the pace of our work. The value of advances in the geosciences and related technologies is greatest when they are in time to inform mitigation and adaptation policies and actions, making them more effective. When our work is late on the scene – in time only to document failure, it’s still of some value (we can always learn from mistakes) but less so.

So, let’s get in touch with our inner Charlie Brown. This time Lucy’s going to hold the football. Let’s charge ahead.

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The State of the Union(‘s) Science.

In 2019, every week brings not just its own politics but also a corresponding civics lesson. For example, in the run-up to last Tuesday’s presidential address to Congress, we weren’t just reminded that Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution provides that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” We were also reacquainted with the subtleties, such as the fact this doesn’t have to be done orally, but can be done in writing; or that when given in the Chambers of Congress, it is at the invitation of the House of Representatives, and so on.  In the 21st century, school is always in session.

Ex uno, plures! Out of one, many! Any hope of the Founders that such addresses would be free of politics has proved to be vain. For the past half century, the annual State of the Union messages have given rise to a custom – not foreseen by the Constitution – of a televised rebuttal by the loyal opposition. Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of social media, and the fragmentation of our society, we have more than one. This time around, in addition to that provided by Stacey Abrams on behalf of the Democratic Party, we also heard from Bernie Sanders, from Xavier Becerra, and a pre-buttal (!) from Kamala Harris.

The American Geophysical Union also weighed in. Chris McEntee, the AGU executive director and CEO, put up a crisp, articulate two-minute video the next day. After listing the contributions of the geosciences to economic development, national security, etc., she noted that the State of the Union would be stronger if elected officials would commit to federal funding, end political interference, support a diverse and resilient 21st century workforce, and support the free and open exchange of science across borders.

A great list! Members of Congress definitely own some responsibility here.

But what about our own (geo)science community? Suppose we took the same list and asked whether or how we scientists might better hold up our end – do our bit to foster those same purposes. Here’s how that might look:

Recognize the (sacred) responsibility attendant on federal funding for science. Most research dollars don’t come out of the pockets of handful of political leaders, or from a faceless federal government. Instead they’re contributions from millions of Americans, most of whom earn far less than the average scientist (median research scientist salary some $72K year). Some 70 million American households (including many representing combined salaries) – 56% of the total – earn less than this figure. Most of these are under financial stress, facing competing needs to food on the table, maintain health care, and more for their families. They’re the ones bankrolling the science. We should be thanking them, expressing our gratitude audibly, in writing, clearly, and often – every chance we get. We could stand to do a better job of articulating the return – the benefit to them – not just to a small minority of those already better off – on their investment. That won’t happen without our examining with some unflinching rigor the value of our research, and who benefits – the allocation/distributive implications.

We could do more to say thanks – expressing gratitude for what has been remarkably stable funding over the years, despite the usual fluctuations around the edges, the ups and downs of the American economy, and so on. We could show by example and action (not mere lip service) that we see our work as urgent and consequential – end-use driven. In fact, the best way we can say thanks is by making ourselves useful.

We could be a bit less political ourselves. Or perhaps simply more adept, measured – balanced or diverse – in our politics. Truth be told, when science is publicly funded, and when science is applied for societal benefit, scientists immediately find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. We can’t argue that science is apolitical, and yet we’re ensnarled in controversy the moment we enter the arena. A good approach given such a reality? Listen more, speak quietly, and recognize we’re in a dialog, not a battle. Otherwise, as a financially-favored, well-educated segment of society, we risk coming across as elitist or arrogant.

We could ourselves be a much-more welcoming culture for under-represented groups. There’s been a great deal of soul-searching across our community in the past year or so, and it’s unfortunately justified. Science, particularly physical science, has largely been a white-male purview for some time. Reducing harassment, bias, abuse, exploitation and more begins with us, and we have much to do.

But the challenge goes deeper. We can’t force under-represented populations to choose careers in science. It’s a free choice they make. And many individuals from these populations understandably make that choice based in part on opportunities to create a more just and equitable society – to improve conditions in some concrete way for disenfranchised groups/communities with whom they identify. We can’t necessarily expect them to choose science over alternatives such as law, medical practice, education, community action, etc., which historically have offered clearer, more personally satisfying ways to lend a helping hand to groups or individuals in need. Science and its applications do present such potential – but we do a poor job of articulating that. Often the research connection is social benefit is at best long-term, abstract, and tenuous. We also need to do much more across science to reward researchers who make contributions through such work as opposed to peer-reviewed publications.

Free and open exchange of science across borders? Devoutly to be wished. But this turns out to be a bit above the pay grade for both scientists and U.S. federal-level elected officials, doesn’t it? Clearly the United States has done itself harm in recent years cutting off the supply of early-career scientists from foreign countries, many of whom have historically stayed in the United States, making us a more innovative people, and enriching our culture and economic prospects. But at the same time, we’re belatedly seeing efforts by other nations to use what immigration remains as a means of mining U.S. innovation in order to further their global ambitions. The United States enjoys many reasons to approach any such competition for ideas and values with confidence; and yet some caution seems deserved.

Which brings up two issues that weren’t on the AGU list, and yet would seem to merit attention from both federal elected officials and from geoscientists alike. Both are at their heart state-and-local issues as well. They are salient aspects of the state of the Union.

The state of K-12 public-school STEM education. As a nation of fifty states, we’re doing a terrible job of helping school kids see the attraction and power of, and master, the sciences, mathematics, and engineering – especially when it comes to the geosciences and social sciences, both of which are under-represented in the public schools. Were we to do a better job here, we would remain keenly interested in immigration to round out our 21st-century job force – but not in desperate need of it.

Critical infrastructure. Elected federal officials and scientists mention this, but pay it insufficient attention. The United States faces an infrastructure bill of a few trillion dollars. That seems daunting. But behind the challenge lies opportunity. Over the next few decades, the world’s nations will invest the order of $100T in food, water, and energy infrastructure. The key to return on that investment is good environmental intelligence – a fundamental understanding of the geosciences and their implications.

By mastering the geosciences and engineering necessary to meet our domestic infrastructure needs, U.S. government and industry can lay the groundwork needed to capture a significant fraction of this global market. We can maintain standing as a good neighbor and at the same time advance geopolitical stability and security.

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The heroism of federal work.

Synonyms:bravery, braveness, courage, courageousness, valor, valiance, intrepidity, intrepidness, boldness, daring, audacity, audaciousness, fearlessness, doughtiness, dauntlessness, pluck, indomitability, stout-heartedness, lionheartedness; backbone, spine, spirit, fortitude, mettle, gallantry, chivalry.

Look up “heroism” online or in a dictionary. Chances are you’ll be surprised. You’ll struggle to find an actual definition. Instead, you’ll find the word used in a short sentence; then an immediate segue to a string of synonyms such as that above. 

The word has that kind of singular majesty. We can’t define heroism so much as we know it when we see it.

Which brings us to the present moment in history, and The. Great. Civics. Lesson. The totally unwarranted federal shutdown, the top-down, enforced furloughs, and the requirement that hundreds of thousands of workers perform their duties without pay – the turmoil on Capitol Hill and at the other end of the Mall – have spawned linear miles of newsprint, jillions of tweets and thousands of posts on social media. Much of the focus has been on social disruption: fundamental federal services barely creaking along instead of running smoothly, or the personal suffering inflicted on federal workers as they comb through food banks and depend upon other forms of handout from friends and neighbors to house and clothe their families, even to use public transportation. Shutdown coverage centered early on federal employees taking on part-time jobs, struggling to access or finding themselves denied unemployment benefits, etc.; plutocratic leaders attempting – unsuccessfully – to identify with the workers’ financial plight.

 Over the past several days news coverage is now shifting. To the underlying forces maintaining such a prolonged Congressional-White House impasse. And parallel talk of brain drain. Federal workers beginning to reassess their careers, reluctantly starting to think the unthinkable – walking away from years of dedicated service and making their skills available to the private-sector, in an effort to care for their families. Federal employees – in TSA, the FBI, NWS, and myriad other agencies – are being forced to make life-changing decisions.

Where’s the good in the ashes and ruins of this tragedy? We have yet to reach the end. In the short term, things will probably (may well?) get worse before they get better. But it’s not too early to see the shape of a turnaround. 

With high probability, the long-term outlook is that:

  • Public appreciation for the importance and value of government services, including regulatory protections, scientific research and innovation, and more will revive.
  • The nation will rethink negative stereotypes about federal workers (in many respects, not that much different from racial or gender bias).
  • The public will register its distaste for leaders who attempt to hold federal workers and our system of government hostage to self-serving personal interests
  • Those disaffected public employees entering the private sector will bring new vigor and integrity to ideas of corporate social responsibility.
  • Early-career professionals – youth entering the job market for the first time, looking for a cause greater than themselves – will see the challenge of civil service in a new light, sharing much in common with the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but longer-term. They’ll fill any gap left by retiring federal workers.

Don’t look for any of this in the immediate or even intermediate term, but that’s where the present upheaval is taking us.

Federal workers! Thank you!…for forecasting the weather, shepherding along those tax returns, making national parks available, monitoring food safety, guarding the coasts, preventing crime, and so much more – even when it means extended work without pay or being forcibly furloughed. Thank you for the great civics lesson now underway, at such considerable personal sacrifice to yourselves. You embody all those great adjectives that started off this discussion. Take a moment to reflect on them today. Embrace them. Own them.

You’re heroes.

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The oath.

“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”            – 5 U.S.C. §3331

Every federal worker takes this solemn oath before entering the civil service. Members of Congress make the same vow. As for the federal work itself, the Constitution has this to say: It is “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

An oath is a big deal. It’s a solemn appeal to a deity, or to some revered person or thing, as witness to one’s determination to speak the truth or keep a promise or vow[1]. Oaths often link religion, morality, and political organization.

According to Lycurgus of Athens(d. 324 BCE), “It is the oath which holds democracy together.”

As the Nation slogs through week 5 of this federal shutdown – equal parts (1) wholly unnecessary, willfully-imposed hardship/dysfunction and (2) nationwide civics lesson, there is cause to reflect on this core oath, and the high calling that is civil service. To do so is to discover major reasons to be encouraged.

Civil servants take their oath seriously. Nationwide, the reports keep coming in, and they all speak to federal workers reporting for duty, meeting their responsibilities, remaining steadfastly and honorably determined, though unpaid. Men and women of the Coast Guard carrying out search-and-rescue, drug interdiction, providing national security across the full extent of our shores. TSA employees maintaining safe air travel. FBI agents continuing to risk their lives, working overtime to break up illegal drug supply chains, hunt down sex traffickers, root out gang activity. IRS employees helping Americans access their urgently needed tax refunds. Park Service employees keeping  America’s best idea accessible to the public. State Department overseas employees recalled to deal with urgent needs abroad. National Weather Service employees taking observations, running model forecasts, issuing watches and warnings, maintaining public safety in the face of severe winter weather. Across every agency, entry-level staff and top-management together cobbling temporary fixes to maintain vital government functions at as high a level as possible and for as long as possible.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women working without pay. Similar numbers furloughed, essentially chained to their (cell) phones awaiting individual and group-wide calls to return to work as the inevitable problems arise. But all maintaining unity, cooperating to the extent that top-down prohibitions allow, proceeding quietly, in extraordinarily good order.

All displaying patience and resolve, and even valor, as they “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

300 million Americans have rallied behind the workers. This is the second piece of good news. Government workers are threaded the through the fabric of society, from big cities down into the smallest of communities. Friends and neighbors have shown their appreciation for the work federal employees do. They’ve registered the unfairness of federal families’ predicament. They’ve opened their hearts and pocketbooks.  They’ve set up food banks. Restaurant owners have provided free meals and other services. Lenders have extended credit and taken steps as best they can to see federal workers and contractors through the crisis. The informal social contract connecting government workers, contractors, and the uniformed services with the larger society, if anything, is strengthening.

The media have provided thorough coverage. Third, print, cable, and internet news services are doing their job as the fourth estate. They have reported and documented the continuity of government operations. Through interviews and investigative reporting they have covered the pain and hardship unnecessarily imposed on federal workers, federal contractors, and their families. Unpaid civil servants taking on additional part time jobs. Scrounging for food and health care for themselves and their kids. Coping with financial stress and family anxiety.

And as the days of the shutdown have turned to weeks, journalists have been reporting on the tears and fissures developing here and there in vital federal services. The pileup of waste and the ecological damage in the national parks. The struggle of FBI agents to pay their informants, causing them to loosen their grip on needed surveillance. Across the system, from TSA to the IRS, federal workers are increasingly forced to choose: between their federal oaths on the one hand, and equally solemn marriage vows and other promises to their life partners, children, and elderly dependents.

Such coverage will surely increase policymakers’ motivation to reach accord.

That said, a major, stultifying concern arches over these few patches of cheer: specifically, the standoff in Washington, and the causes behind it. Accusations and counter accusations fill the air, but the news media suggest there is a signal in the midst of this noise. The President believes he can turn the opposition party into as much of a doormat as his own, and that he’s in a position to insist on it. The opposition party believes if they cave on the government shutdown, that they’ll be boxed in on every major issue to follow over the next two years.

As a result, the forecast is for the pain to continue. Fortunately:

  1. The limits of predictability for this particular forecast are more like hours or a day or so versus weeks. The shutdown could end, relatively suddenly, at any time.
  2. The 300+ million Americans, and the subset of government workers and contractors – whether furloughed or working without pay – are standing together. And made of stern stuff.

_______________________________

A closing vignette. Some 241 years ago, a colonial army general was wintering over in Valley Forge after a season of military conflict studded with defeats and setbacks. Over 1000 of his 10,000 soldiers died that winter. But as those men suffered, they knew that he was spending every waking hour seeking their food, clothing, and shelter – and back pay.

A few years later, he would be the first president to take this (shorter) oath of office: “I, <name>, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Today he’s revered, not just because he was president, or even the first president, but because he upheld this oath.

He put the interests of the country before his own, and he saw to it that his people were cared for. Every day he spoke the truth and stood by it. In so doing, he created the metric by which each president since has been judged. We’ll celebrate his birthday in less than four weeks. We can only hope the shutdown will have been ended well before then.

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[1] Its close relative, an affirmation, is used by those who acknowledge no higher authority to solemnize a statement or promise, lift it out of the ordinary.

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Martin Luther King Day 2019

As human beings, to varying degrees, we share a common impairment: we constantly struggle to hold a thought. That attention deficit disorder is hardwired in our DNA; it confers a certain survival value to all creatures living on a constantly-changing real world.

Each year’s annual rhythm of holidays and other special occasions both recognizes this and provides opportunities to cope. Once a year, New Year’s Day helps us remember that each day is a new beginning, with fresh potential. Once a year Thanksgiving reminds us that we daily have many reasons to be grateful, instead of feeling anxious or needy. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day give us opportunity to focus on the continuing debt we owe others for their service and sacrifice to the country. Christmas and Easter, and other days like them, keep us in touch with abiding inner notions of the power of love and forgiveness in our lives and remind us they are not fragile constructs of our own making but robust realities that stem from a Higher Power.

Martin Luther King Day is no different. It focuses on a single man, in the same way that Presidents Day honors George Washington (and Abraham Lincoln). But really it encourages reflection on the larger set of ideas he stood for and articulated: equality, justice, inclusion are the necessary starting point, the foundation, for confronting the problems we face

It’s not the other way around. To first attempt to end poverty and unemployment, provide health care and education, maintain peace domestically and internationally, protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ecosystems we depend on? And only then turn to the “luxury” of addressing fairness, freedom, enfranchisement, and goodwill? 

Won’t. Work.   

By contrast, the promise is, if we relax  (it takes effort to sustain prejudice and hate, to exclude others, to repress those unlike us), we’re likely to discover that jobs, good schooling, and public health; an end to terrorism and war; a verdant planet that can sustain us – all that we desire – will come along as collateral benefits. If we seek first to serve, rather than benefit, we’ll discover we’ve really “put ourselves first,” “made ourselves great again,” in the process.

All this is preamble to Martin Luther King Day’s twofold invitation:

First, reflect on some bits or pieces of this. Here are two suggestions:

Read the text of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech in its entirety and/or watch the video.

Or 

Pick one or two of the fifty Martin Luther King quotes  you can find in this Independent piece as a starting point for contemplation. A sample:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

“Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Unsatisfied with these starting points? Check the link for another 44 possibilities. Dr. King offered us a rich menu. (You can also find a collection of reflections on Dr. King in these LOTRW postsover the years.)

Second/lastly, you and I might translate our reflections into acts of service. The origins of the holiday, established in 1983 and first observed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan unsurprisingly have a complicated story. But in 1994 President Bill Clinton added to it, signing into law the King Holiday and Service Act, inviting us to make the holiday a national day of citizen action volunteer service.

Reflection? Action? Together, they can make for a great day.

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Political leaders, “the vision thing,” the federal shutdown, and the national interest.

A photo of a young George H.W. Bush, center, during his naval service in World War II, with Joe Reichert, left, and Leo Nadeau. (National Archives)

“Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” – Robert Kennedy

Presidents and other leaders are often encouraged to “be visionary.” George Herbert Walker Bush found this demand to be intimidating

As president, Mr. Bush worked long hours and had a penchant for detail. Fred Malek, his campaign manager in 1992, described him as “a guy who wanted to do everything well.” But in stark contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Bush failed to articulate an overarching view of the principles by which he governed.

“The vision thing,” as he called it, eluded him. “Some wanted me to deliver fireside chats to explain things, as Franklin D. Roosevelt had done,” he confided to his diary. “I am not good at that.” He was, he said, a “practical man,” who preferred “what’s real,” not “the airy and abstract.”

Perhaps not surprising! Usual definitionsof “vision” go something like this: the act or power of sensing with the eyes; sightcompare hallucination[!!!]…the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be[1].

The reference to hallucination, or something like it, may have been what gave Bush pause. In presidents and other leaders this holds particular danger. Emanuel Macron was swept into power in France but today is widely regarded with skepticism because his vision reputedly includes a Jupiterian self view. President Duterte (Philippines) and Xi Jinping (China) and some other world leaders readily come to mind in this group.

While artists (think Samuel Coleridge) may find inspiration or vision in drug use, the vision demanded of leadersis of another sort. Successful leaders don’t introspect and then seek to impose their ideas on a larger public. Rather they tend to listen to that public’s grave (but often vague) concerns, give them focus and voice, and work with that public to develop options and approaches for meeting the challenge.

President Bush was actually rather good at this – especially when it involved the extra measure of making the public interest paramount, even at great personal cost. He’d campaigned for election famously promising read my lips; no new taxes. But national circumstances would soon demand something else:

The line later hurt Bush politically. Although he did oppose the creation of new taxes as president, the Democratic-controlled Congress proposed increases of existing taxes as a way to reduce the national budget deficit. Bush negotiated with Congress for a budget that met his pledge, but was unable to make a deal with a Senate and House that was controlled by the opposing Democrats. Bush agreed to a compromise, which increased several existing taxes as part of a 1990 budget agreement.

The country was the better for it.

Why are we still talking about this former president from years past? Because this particular Bush vignette has special present relevance to the now

Today a successor weighs the purely personal political cost of walking back a campaign promise against serving the national interest: allowing government workers to return to their service of the American people, opening up a realistic, inclusive discussion on national security, immigration, health care, infrastructure, America’s place and role in the world, and other issues; and charting a course forward.



[1]Weather forecasters may experience an affinity with this bit.

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Idled: an (imposed) loss of “agency” hurts our nation and the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” – the Declaration of Independence (1776)

Speaking of government,

 The current federal shutdown is entering its third excruciatingly painful and costly week. This is a uniquely American dysfunction; the rest of the developed world seems to find no difficulty in maintaining uninterrupted national services. So why are we going through this?

Because we can. Some or many of our elected leaders are either (1) experiencing a memory loss, a kind of forgetting that governments and rule of law are essential to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, or (2) showing deliberate disregardfor the well-being of 320 million others.

Notionally, there’s responsibility to be borne by both sides in the current partisan standoff. However, one side seems to be acting out a national-scale version of the playground’s it’s my ball[1]and I’m going to go home, while the other seems to be saying, let’s get government back on the job while we work on any remaining differences. Any underlying motivation is a matter for each of us to judge – but this assessment matters less than the impacts.

America is the victim. The burden is falling on individuals and communities, and enterprises unequally. As the news media have reminded us for days, any family with the misfortune to have made plans long ago for a visit to a national park (America’s best idea) has been hit hard. Less notoriously, the same holds true for anyone seeking advice from an actual human being at the IRS, or anywhere else. Just try making such a call. And that’s before we add in the cost resulting from our diminished standing in the eyes of the rest of the world, whether friend or foe.

But those most immediately affected, most victimized, are the federal employees, whether furloughed or working without pay. Sure, the money matters. They’re living paycheck to paycheck to the same extent as the rest of us. But, for them, it’s not just about the money. These are civil servants. They thoughtfully opted for a career devoted to public good: the safety, security, economic well-being, equity of opportunity, and quality of life for every American – versus personal gain. Now they’re forcibly restrained from making progress on these urgent and deeply-held values/national aspirations: safety and public health, education, housing, justice, modernization of aging infrastructure, air- and water- quality, and innovation. What’s more, their vital role in providing the regulations and policies that foster private enterprise, whether small businesses or global corporations, has been put on hold.

In a word, federal employees have lost “agency.” That’s not in the narrow sense of the agency they work for: DoC, DoJ, DoL, EPA, NOAA, NSF, etc. It’s a loss of agency in the social-science sense:

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated—it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems.

One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will…

Federal employees are thus facing the same loss of agency that’s the chronic nightmare for refugee populations in Syria, the Sudan, and other global trouble spots, as well as those who find themselves confined to emergency shelters following hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, drought, and flood. Their ability to help themselves, regain control over their lives has been compromised. Instead, they can do little more than wait, while accepting whatever help others decide they need, or enduring whatever privation someone else imposes upon them.

Globally, a quarter-billion young people, ages 16-24, are suffering this same loss of agency. They’re the so-called NEETS (Not in Employment, Education, or Training). This, from The Economist (not quite current but gives the flavor):

Official figures assembled by the International Labour Organisation say that 75m young people are unemployed, or 6% of all 15- to 24-year-olds. But going by youth inactivity, which includes all those who are neither in work nor education, things look even worse. The OECD, an intergovernmental think-tank, counts 26m young people in the rich world as “NEETS”: not in employment, education or training. A World Bank database compiled from households shows more than 260m young people in developing economies are similarly “inactive”. The Economist calculates that, all told, almost 290m are neither working nor studying: almost a quarter of the planet’s youth...

This lack of agency among young people of the world is a major cause of social unrest, upheaval, and mass migration. It is contributing to the pressure on U.S. borders from South and Central America, and to European influx from the Middle East and Africa. And it doesn’t just matter today; it holds implications for tomorrow. Those disenfranchised now will find their future opportunities more limited as well.

Loss of agency is a big deal.

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The gates of hell are locked on the inside– C.S. Lewis

A final comment, a bit closer to home.

It’s telling that immigration is the trigger. The European and American challenges are to manage flows of people and commerce across borders, not close off such flows entirely. To do the latter is to move one step closer to C.S. Lewis’ hell.

Meteorologists find it natural to recognize this. The atmosphere knows no borders, and so the science and practice of meteorology have had to be similarly global (and open with respect to the virtual boundaries separating public- from private sector and academia) to be effective. Formal international cooperation in meteorology dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.

It’s therefore uniquely painful for National Weather Service employees and government geoscientists to be cut off from communication and collaboration with counterparts both domestically and from around the world. That’s happening with the particular poignancy as these other elements of the American Meteorological Society gather to meet in Phoenix. U.S. government participation will be missed. And progress toward shared goals of global weather readiness, more effective development of food, water, and energy resources, and environmental protection will be correspondingly slowed.

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[1]Rhymes with “wall.”

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