Conservative: You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo-Montoya-SwordWhen it comes to civil liberties and personal freedoms, I’m a self-avowed flaming liberal. Marry whom you love, worship whom you will, or don’t. Smoke dope. Paint your house neon green. Dance naked in the street. As long as your actions don’t directly infringe someone else’s freedom, have at it.

But in the realm of economics, foreign policy, commercial regulation, etc. I consider myself fairly conservative.  That’s “conservative” with a lower case “c”. It’s “conservative” in the sense of the dictionary definition. Someone who favors existing proven pragmatic methods. Someone who likes to preserve. Someone not prone to extravagant new experimental ventures. Someone who is cautiously moderate, and fiscally responsible.

This is far away from what “Conservative” with a capital “C” has come to mean in America. When you capitalize the “C”, suddenly you become someone who advocates for hawkish foreign policy, unabashed capitalism, and socially Darwinian domestic policy. Someone who favors dogmatic inflexible situationally independent rules.

The bizarre reality of being a Conservative in America is that you aren’t really very conservative at all. On the other hand, being conservative now makes you politically Liberal (with a capital “L”). It’s all so confusing. Perhaps a couple of examples would help.

Let’s take healthcare. On a per capita basis, American healthcare costs double what is spent for care in every other industrialized western country. And no, the quality of care is not better here. Health care costs are a drain on businesses and wages because providing employee healthcare is so expensive and continues to grow at multiples of the inflation rate.

The Conservative answer is basically to stay the course. There is a conservative angle here in that conservatives are resistant to change. But this is being ignorant of the larger picture. Sure, you can be resistant to policy change, but that doesn’t stop the change in healthcare costs that is eating up the economy. This is like sitting on your roof, refusing to be evacuated while the flood waters rise around you. The myopic conservative position may be to stay the course, but the safe, pragmatic, less risky position is to get in the next boat that comes by.

Looking around the world, some form of government run universal healthcare is the norm. There are any number of varieties including true socialized healthcare ala Great Britain, Medicare for all ala Canada, or even regulated and compulsory private insurance ala Switzerland.  All deliver roughly equivalent results at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system. Further, there are so many variations of this system all succeeding, it can’t be that tricky to implement. Given, the clear choice for true conservatives should always be to solve a problem using a cost effective, proven, and time tested technique, the answer to healthcare should be clear.

In a somewhat related vein, there is a vested conservative interest in having a healthy and well-educated citizenry, who are living in a country with a solid modern infrastructure. All of these are foundational elements to the capitalistic industrial success that ultimately drives the economic prowess that makes this country great. Collapsed bridges, flooded cities, unreliable communications or power networks, or unemployable and non-productive citizens are all largely preventable problems if the society as a whole is making persistent and solid investments in its long term future. A liberal might advocate for something similar because it was the humane thing to do or because everyone deserves a chance. But a conservative should advocate for these things because they are solid practical ways to enable a productive society and minimize the collective expense.

Think of it this way. A conservative would clearly buy insurance on his home and make every effort to keep it well maintained. In this way, it’s a safe reliable shelter that should meet the needs of his family for decades to come. What could be a more conservative position than that?

When it comes to the environment, how can you be conservative and yet oppose environmental conservatism? No, I don’t think preserving every last species of minnow or song bird is vital. Species have been going extinct since the dawn of time. That’s the circle of life. But preserving and protecting the larger ecosystem we live in and depend on is about as conservative an idea as I can imagine. From deep sea oil drilling and fracking to carbon emissions, acid rain, and nuclear waste, the capital “C” Conservative position is diametrically opposed to the lower cased conservative one. I don’t get it.

On foreign policy, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s conservative about the kick ass and take names approach to the world. There are absolutely national interests that lie outside our borders, but diplomacy and economic power are far more cost effective, with less risk to domestic lives and treasure, than military action. It’s important to carry a big stick, but that doesn’t mean you never bother to speak softly.

On economics, Conservatives have the equation completely backwards. A conservative approach would be to take on some debt when times were bad and investment was needed. But then to be responsible and pay that debt off when things were going well.  Instead, we see Conservatives opt for austerity in bad times, in essence compounding the downturn, and then claiming deficits don’t matter during prosperous times, thereby compounding the recovery. A conservative should favor a nice even economy, not one that slingshots about like a roller-coaster.

In a very real way, the current capital “C” Conservative movement has become radical. Meanwhile the Liberal movement has morphed into something downright lower case conservative. Minimally, this means that hanging your identity on a label rather than a solid ideology may lead you to a point where you are unintentionally advocating for outcomes you would very much oppose. Modern marketing means you have to be a very intelligent consumer; and not just when you are shopping for margarine, but when you are shopping for politicians.

My ideology makes me politically conservative. But the current state of politics means I align most closely with the Liberals. Clearly, in today’s world, words don’t mean what you think they mean. Vote wisely.

Smile! You’re Not On Candid Camera

old-coupleI’ve spent two long weeks taking my Dad to the doctor’s every day for radiation treatments. Today was the last day, and following the treatment we celebrated by going to see his cardiologist. This man knows how to party.

We had a rather long wait in the waiting room, and while we sat patiently, a made-for-TV scene unfolded around us. An older Italian couple sitting to our right were clearly the actors on the Candid Camera payroll, but Allen Funt never made an appearance.

He was clearly hard of hearing, and she was clearly used to compensating by speaking at a volume I’m pretty sure OSHA should have required ear protection for.  As they were recounting their respective ailments and medications in preparation for their appointment, a rather large African-American woman came in the room and sat across from them.  Her smile lit up the room, and probably a few of the adjacent offices. She was followed shortly by a woman pushing her 90+ year old somewhat frail looking mother in her customized rad-looking plaid wheelchair.  They set up camp across from us.

Following standard waiting room protocol, three of the four groups promptly buried their noses in magazines or cell phones.  Even Plaid-Grandma was intently studying an old issue of Family Circle.  The remaining room occupants did not get the memo.

I quickly learned that the loud couple’s granddaughter had a new boyfriend. There was a certain oddness to the description of him though.  They seemed to be making a big deal about the kid being a perfect gentleman, holding down a job, and being good in school. At that point I was assuming that maybe their granddaughter had a history of dating deadbeats and miscreants… but no.  He was… wait for it… “so nice for a black boy.”


But it didn’t stop there. They went on to self-justify their open-mindedness by recounting other black people they had known throughout their lives who had apparently made extraordinary impressions on them by being perfectly normal and acceptable human beings. I smiled weakly toward the lady on my left. Her beam was unabated as she shook her head so slightly. It seemed like I was more offended than she was.

Gratefully, they finally ran out of black people they knew. Unfortunately, this didn’t exhaust their will to speak. The woman looked over toward Plaid Grandma’s daughter and asked how old the woman was. “96”, the daughter replied politely as she went back to her magazine.

“She looks like she was quite a pip back in her day. I’ll just bet she was,” came the unnecessarily loud response from the woman who apparently assumed everyone was deaf. The daughter feigned a polite smile in response, as Plaid Grandma looked toward her child. Her expression clearly asking, “Why the hell are they talking about me like I’m already dead?”

Loud and Louder returned their attention to each other, and the conversation switched to airplanes. The whole room seemed to relax a bit. What could possibly go wrong with that topic?  Which is just about when Hubby launched into a rant about how fat people should have to buy two tickets. He didn’t get far before his wife, now using her indoor voice which was still clearly audible in the next room, hushed him saying this was not the right place for a topic like that.

He was undeterred. This was a man on a mission to reform the airline industry, one seat belt extender at a time. And his wife had no choice but to talk over him. She explained to him in no uncertain terms that there was a large woman sitting across from them, and that it was not appropriate for him to talk about this now.  She then pointed across the room to make her case clear.

The flagrant finger hung in the air while the now bickering couple inadvertently made their case for why they should be sacrificed in the spirit of social Darwinism. On the other side of the room (and the finger) the smiling woman was now shaking her head in disbelief… but still smiling. It was a genuine, pleasant, happy-to-be-alive and nobody’s-gonna-ruin-my-day smile.

This woman has mastered a level of serenity I find hard to glimpse, much less to hold.  She taught me that people may suck, but they don’t have to suck the life out of you… But let’s be clear. They still suck.

Atheism, homosexuality, and other reasons your neighbors look at you funny

atheismJune is LGBT Pride Month, and what better way to celebrate than to talk about how much easier it is to be gay now than to be an atheist. Would my parents feel better if I was gay instead of atheist? That’s not at all clear.  (But I’m pretty sure my fiancé prefers the latter.)

Ronald Lindsay’s essay does make the accurate point that the LGBT movement is farther up the acceptance curve than atheists are.  Sure, gays are only despised in many areas of the country, while atheists are a scourge throughout it.

Yet it’s pretty clear that equal rights and social equality for gays and lesbians is inevitable, even if they must first wait for all the Baby Boomers to die.  I think atheists will get there too, but that may take an additional generation.  Repeated studies have indicated that a Muslim Hispanic lesbian high school dropout with a kitten drowning fetish would be elected to the Oval Office long before anyone entrusts the nuclear codes to an Ivy League educated white male golf-playing baby-eating atheist.

Clearly, there are parallels between the groups, much as any of these freedom movements have parallels, but they are not the same.  One of Lindsay’s points of difference is that atheists, unlike homosexuals, make a choice.  I’m not so sure.

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that homosexuality was a choice.  Genetic studies and other scientific evidence have since dispelled that myth.  I strongly believe that gays being born that way has contributed more than a little to their societal acceptance.

If you talk to a few gay people it becomes pretty clear there was no point in their life when they decided to be gay.  However, most do have a point where they stopped pretending to be heterosexual.  Those are not remotely the same things.

Science has yet to nail down a “god gene”, but there is work going on that does at least suggest a genetic origin for predisposition toward the spiritual.  I think discovery of such a DNA based origin for faith or the lack of it would go a long way toward making atheists less threatening.  However, I won’t be able to stop snickering at the delicious irony if it turns out religion was an evolutionary trait along.

I know for me personally, I could not choose to be religious. My brain is simply not wired that way. I could choose to act religious, but that’s not the same thing.  Especially in this country, the bar for appearing Christian is quite low in most communities.  Simply don’t talk about religion, wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and show up to church every Easter.  That clearly doesn’t make you religious, but you’d pass as a default Christian in the average American town.

This may be the real key difference between gays and atheists in society. Homosexuals are not asexual. If they were, they would have no desire for romantic attachment. As an asexual, it would be fairly easy to just keep your mouth shut and let everyone assume you were single and straight—much like the closeted atheist.

But homosexuals do have desires. They want to be in relationships, have families and all that social-centric stuff.  In religion terms, being gay is more like being Hindu than atheist.  They want to practice, just differently. It’s definitely easier to just decline to play rather than want to play, but by different rules.

So, I think it is harder being gay in society than atheist.  And I think the ease of ignoring or hiding one’s atheism is also why getting atheists to come out of the closet will always be more problematic. Hence,the reason the movement toward atheist’s rights will progress slowly… glacially even.  We’ll get there, but probably not in my lifetime.

My mother always said I could grow up to be President.  It turns out that’s not so true.

IPv6, Vonage, and why I’m smiling…

I bitch a fair bit about tech support, and in my defense, it’s not totally unjustified. My family can attest to the 7 calls and 5 hours it took me to get my mom’s new Tracfone activated recently.  (To Agent #1, yes, I do think it’s reasonable to expect to be able to use a mobile phone when I’m not at home.  And to Agent #2, reading me the scripted response slower and with enhanced diction does not make what you are saying any more correct.)

I’ve worked in tech support. I get the challenges, and I get the cost pressures companies are under. And I know why the person I’m talking to lives in Argentina, just started last week, and is armed with all the knowledge that three days of crash courses and access to a cobbled together database can provide.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

But once in a while, you get that special and exceptional experience that cements your loyalty to a company.  This is the holy grail of customer support.  It’s what it’s all about. And today, Vonage nailed it. I want to recognize them for that.

I’ve been a Vonage phone service customer since the company was in its infancy 10 years ago. I’ve always had good phone service with them, and on the rare occasion I’ve needed support, they’ve always been helpful and good to deal with.  But today was completely unexpected.

You see, June 6th was IPv6 launch day.  A brand new Internet addressing scheme was turned on and left on for the first time. There’s no need to panic. The old IPv4 scheme will still work in parallel for years. And the vast majority of users won’t ever know the difference.  Most of the changes will happen with your ISP, but some older home networking routers and such may need to be upgraded or replaced.

Anyway, I’m currently running a Vonage provided wireless router which is not IPv6 compatible. So on a whim, I drop Vonage an email asking what their upgrade plans are. I specifically said this wasn’t a problem now, but wanted to know if they had a plan and what the timing was. I completely expected to get a canned response explaining they were working on it and I should just be patient.

Instead, a few hours later I received a personal response saying that my existing router was, in fact, not IPv6 compliant. They have an IPv6 compliant single-port device they’d be happy to send me at no cost to me. Then they went on to offer that they recognized this means I would now need to buy my own wireless router in my home, so they were issuing me a $50 credit toward that purchase.  All I needed to do was confirm my shipping address.

Well confirm it I did, and they promptly responded that they upgraded me to overnight shipping since I was such a long-time customer. And oh by the way, the old (perfectly good for several years) router was of no use to them, so I could just keep that too.

Frickin’ awesome.  Above and beyond.  I’ve been debating lately whether or not to keep the home phone service at all as I mostly just use it for conference calls at work.  But I’m committed now.  I’m keeping ’em. Hell, I’m hoping they launch a cell phone service, a line of refrigerators, designer tube socks… whatever, sign me up!

And that, my young Padawans, is what customer service is supposed to feel like.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

Thanks Mom, for everything.  You may not be an imposing figure walking down the street, but you’re far tougher than the average tiger.  No matter how much life surprises you and tosses you things you weren’t planning on, you find a way to pull it all together and make it all right.  And it’s important you realize your contributions and sacrifices do not go unnoticed or unappreciated.  Your strength is inspiration to us all.  I’m proud of you, and I hope you have a wonderful day.