In Defense of Normal

We often underrate the value of normal.

We think normal means dull, average, or mediocre. Normal is unimaginative. Normal is being like everybody else. 

Ads promise to save us from the tragedy of being normal. “Don’t be like them,” they say, “be like you.”

At school and in our careers we work hard to distinguish ourselves. We strive to be star performers, standouts, individuals. Anything but normal.

But a strange thing happens in life: the farther we go, the more welcome normal becomes. 

For some it starts with having a family. When our lives are changed by the unknown of new life, normal becomes what we want most. A normal pregnancy. Normal child development. Family challenges that fall within the bounds of normal. 

Normal means safety. Normal means others have been here before. Normal means we’re not the only one.

A sense of normal isn’t just helpful for normal things. It’s helpful for abnormal things, too.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro spent seven long years writing his first book, The Power Broker. Towards the end of that process, he worked in a space at the New York Public Library reserved for authors. Here’s Caro:

“In my memory, no one spoke to me for the first few days I was in the room. Then one day, I looked up and James Flexner was standing over me. The expression on his face was friendly, but after he had asked what I was writing about, the next question was the question I had come to dread: ‘How long have you been working on it?’ This time, however, when I replied, ‘Five years,’ the response was not an incredulous stare. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.’ I could have jumped up and kissed him, whiskers and all — as, the next day, I could have jumped up and kissed Joe Lash, big beard and all, when he asked me the same question, and, after hearing my answer, said in his quiet way, ‘Eleanor and Franklin took me seven years.’ In a couple of sentences, these two men — idols of mine — had wiped away five years of doubt.”

Even for one of the literary giants of the 20th century, learning that his experience was normal brought profound relief.

When I was CEO of Kickstarter, I had breakfast each month with Fred Wilson, a boardmember and highly regarded figure in tech. During these breakfasts I’d share with Fred the challenges of the moment. Because of Fred’s wisdom and experience, I was always eager to hear his perspective. Some of the most helpful words I ever got from him were the simplest: that the challenge I was then facing was normal. Everyone goes through this. It wasn’t just me.

Learning that a challenge is normal is liberating. It goes from a personal shame to a badge of honor. This is what people (or companies, parents, couples, bands, etc) like me go through. They got through it. So can I.

Knowing what’s normal gives us a target to work towards, and lets us know when we get there. 

A New York Yankees pitcher named Jim Bouton wrote a fascinating book while pitching in the big leagues called Ball Four. In it he writes:

“When I first came up I thought major-league pitchers had pinpoint control and I was worried that the best I could do was hit an area about a foot square. Then I found out that’s what everybody meant by pinpoint control, and that I had it.”

We can’t define what’s normal on our own. We need our own experience plus an external reference point to know what’s normal. Our individual sample size is too small. It was only after Robert Caro learned how long it took his heroes to write books that he knew where he stood. It was only once Jim Bouton was in the big leagues that he learned he had “pinpoint control.”

This is why sharing our experiences with our peers and others is so important. The dissemination of experience creates a more informed sense of normal for all. This significantly improves everyone’s ability to succeed, especially in more specialized areas. This is the value that peer groups, professional societies, and platforms like Stack Exchange and The Creative Independent create in their domains.

This defense of normal is not an endorsement for aiming low, settling for less, or following the herd. Progress depends on people breaking the expectations and boundaries of what’s normal. This is how normal gets better over time.

This defense of normal is, however, a celebration of similarity. We live in an age where what’s desirable is what’s different. But there’s more value in our non-individuality than we admit. We’re not the first people to become parents, experience hardship or injustice, or to create innovation or success. Without diminishing our individual achievements or stories, we have much to gain and little to lose by better appreciating the ways our experiences make us similar — and even normal.

This Could Be Our Future

A couple weeks ago I received the first advance copies of my book, coming out this fall.

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Holding it in my hands for the first time was a wild feeling. You imagine a moment like that, but experiencing it was something different. I felt proud, to be sure. I liked the cover a lot. But I also, surprisingly, felt melancholy.

As a writer, I’m a stonecutter. I’m forever shaving, molding, and clearing things up by cutting away. The book in my hands was printed and bound — the stone had been cut. It was as good as it would ever be. My time with it as a writer was over. (This part of the process, anyway. The other day I told a book industry veteran that the book was finished. “Congratulations on being half-way there,” he told me, referring to the work it takes to release and promote a book.)

While taking it all in, I noticed a grid of post-it notes that hangs on a window in my office.

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This was an early outline for the book. I remember the day I put this up, and how far away the book’s completion seemed then. I was still on Chapter Three, trying to convince myself that if I surrendered to these ideas, worked really hard, and trusted in the process, the book would show itself to me.

As I sat there a year later holding the finished book for the first time, I realized that’s exactly what happened. It was hard to believe.

Money rich, value foolish

This Could Be Our Future is about how financial maximization — the idea that the rational choice in any decision is whichever option makes the most money — became the hidden default that runs our world.

Last week I came across two very different articles that show what’s meant by this.

In the magazine The American Conservative, writers Matt Stohler and Lucas Kunce show how a focus on financial maximization by defense industry companies has made the United States’ military significantly more vulnerable than ever before. They write:

“First, in the 1980s and 1990s, Wall Street financiers focused on short-term profits, market power, and executive pay-outs over core competencies like research and production, often rolling an industry up into a monopoly producer. Then, in the 2000s, they offshored production to the lowest cost producer. [S]ome of the biggest names in the industry have never created any defense product. Instead of innovating new technology to support our national security, they innovate new ways of creating monopolies to take advantage of it.”

Now that the military is increasingly dependent on private monopolies focused on financial maximization:

  1. Smaller companies have been bought up by bigger players, essentially ending competition to produce better products.

  2. As companies consolidate, workers are laid off and executives are generously rewarded.

  3. Defense contractors use their monopoly power to raise prices indiscriminately for existing goods, converting US tax dollars into inflated profits.

  4. The quality of materials produced by these companies has gotten much worse.

  5. The stock prices, profits, and profit margins of these companies have skyrocketed.

Because of #5, this strategy is viewed as rational and successful. But by any metric other than financial maximization, the negative impact of these choices is incredibly clear.

Had these companies focused on maximizing other values — like innovation, quality, or reliability — the benefits would be significant and plentiful. But these companies focused on short-term financial goals instead.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the world.

In another recent article, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Italian city of Venice is suffering from an over-tourism problem that local officials refuse to address because it’s too lucrative not to. Cruise ships pay officials €30,000 a day to dock in the harbor and overcrowd the city. The government prioritizes that short-term windfall above the long-term costs despite significant evidence that this strategy will eventually become self-defeating.

We struggle to see value beyond our immediate self-interest. In everything from defense contracts to Italian tourism, we’re trapped by a limited understanding of value. We believe financial maximization is the only rational value. It isn’t. This Could Be Our Future is about new areas of value we can grow instead.

The book comes out October 29. If you’re intrigued by these ideas, you can preorder the book from any of these fine establishments: Amazon, Indiebound, and Powell’s. Pre-orders have a big impact on which titles book stores decide to order and promote. Please grab a copy if you can.

Honoring Barry Kowalski

A longtime friend, extraordinary person, and Ideaspace reader named Barry Kowalski passed away this week. Barry was a giant in work and in life. From 1981 until the 2000s, Barry was a lead prosecutor in the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department. Over his career he prosecuted Klu Klux Klan members, Neo-Nazis, and, in his most high-profile case, the LAPD police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. Barry was also a Vietnam veteran who enlisted because he thought it was “unfair that poor guys had to go but rich guys didn’t.” (You can learn more about him in his Washington Post obituary.) Few people have made more of their time on Earth than Barry. He entered this world with a mission to make it better. Without question, he did. You made your mark and it mattered, Barry. You will not be forgotten.

Good Music

I’ve got a great new mix of music for you. It’s called Trim Oh Low.

  1. Fela Kuti — “Rofolo Fight”

  2. Willie Griffin — “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire”

  3. Sensational Saints — “How Great Thou Art”

  4. Pharoah Sanders — “Love Is Everywhere”

  5. Alton Ellis — “What Does It Take”

  6. Erlend Oye — “Every Party Has a Winner And a Loser”

  7. Yaeji — “One More”

  8. A Tribe Called Quest — “Whateva Will Be”

  9. Solange — “Nothing Without Intention (Interlude)”

  10. Alice Coltrane — “Journey in Satchidananda”

  11. Paul McCartney — “Every Night”

  12. The Velvet Underground — “Lisa Says (Live)”

  13. Willie Griffin — “I Love You”

You can listen here.

Do you enjoy reading this post? Then sign up to get your own copy of The Ideaspace here.

Peace and love,
Yancey

Reading the Mueller Report

This week I've been reading the actual Mueller Report. It's been well worth it. The takeaways so far: the United States was the victim of "information warfare" conducted by "Russian military units" in the 2016 election (and continues to be). The President benefited from this attack (the Report notes that the Trump campaign shared detailed internal polling data with Russian intelligence about the same Midwestern states that gave Trump his Electoral College margin), knew about it before the public did, used it to help his campaign, lied about it, and has abused the powers of his office to try and stop it from being investigated since.

Mueller: "the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign," and those individuals "lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russia-affiliated individuals" and "those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian interference." As a result, Mueller says, we still don't know the full nature of what went on.

The Report paints a narrative of two teams working in parallel: Trump working to get elected, and Russia working to help him. Whatever Russia could do to help Trump, they wanted to. They saw him as a friend of Russia and saw Hillary Clinton as its enemy. Trump welcomed their support, but isn't recorded as offering anything explicit in return. Russia and Putin come across almost like godparents to Trump. Mother Russia cares about you, Donald.

While Russia's intentions were warm towards Trump, they were acts of war against the United States. The Report notes that while they were helping Trump, Russia was systematically hacking election machine manufacturers, state and local election board offices, and their employees. Presumably many of those machines and offices are still compromised. And potentially the Presidency itself. To what ends we still don't know. But they are acts of war.

The Russian social media campaign — which involved Russian agents creating fictional Americans and posting on various platforms (including Tumblr — go Tumblr!) as them — reached an audience of more than 120 million people. Almost a third of the population. Russian agents pretended to be militant activists and everyday Americans. They helped shape opinions. They Googled words like "Illuminati" before using them in posts. If we one day learn that QAnon is a Russian troll conspiracy I will be not at all surprised.

Whatever Trump's dirt was and is, he appears to be getting away with it. By stonewalling the Mueller investigation (Trump never consented to an interview, and even in his written answers he refused to respond to many Russia questions), convincing those around him to lie on his behalf (many close advisors have been charged with lying in one form or another), and keeping anyone from squealing (offering pardons if people keep quiet), the Teflon Don appears to have dodged the rap.

That is unless Democrats, who are suddenly holding a very hot potato of The Last Hope for Responsible Governance, take charge and act on Mueller's findings, as the report clearly suggests they should. It lays out a string of potential obstruction of justice charges, all clearly impeachable in a normal universe. In this uniquely corrupt moment, however, it's harder to tell.

So far, the Mueller Report hasn't seemed to change many people's minds. Mitt Romney is possibly running for President again and a few Republicans have gone on the record saying that investigations and/or impeachment are warranted. Beyond these voices though, the battle lines remain the same. Despite their professed patriotism, few Republicans are stepping up to defend their country. It's too politically inconvenient to do so.

Whatever happens next comes down to the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who have the Constitutional authority and duty to launch an impeachment investigation if warranted. Elizabeth Warren was the first Presidential contender to call for impeachment proceedings. I agree with her. This isn't going to just end on its own. And even if Trump gets the full eight years, his name needs an asterisk in the history books so that no one can ever mistake this for an acceptable form of governance.

But note that the Trump* administration has yet to provide a single piece of paper that Democrats have lawfully subpoenaed, despite the Constitution requiring they do so. He is defying the law and daring someone to stop him.

We're three years in, and no one has yet.

Seven Takeaways From TED

Last week I was in Vancouver for the TED Conference. For five days, I and 2,000 other people watched about seventy TED talks exploring new ideas in art, science, tech, and social issues. It was a lot to take in. By the end it was hard to even remember my own name. Here are the themes that stick with me a week later.

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1. The downsides of technology. The downsides of the internet, social media, and tech generally were a theme. No one went full philistine and suggested killing your phone, but the tone against social media was strong. An opening night talk by British journalist Caroline Cadwalladr called out Facebook for partial responsibility for Brexit, and even challenged their executives — some of whom were in the audience — for not taking accountability for their role. The talk got a standing ovation. (Watch online here.) There were also talks about the truly terrible things that the internet facilitates (a talk by Julia Cordua of Thorn on sexual abuse) and the attention that social media brings (Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the war for our attention and Jonny Sun on finding others in the eye of the storm). The pro-tech talks focused largely on gaming, reflecting the new Zeitgeist. It’s a certainty that talks calling out the downsides of gaming will appear on a future TED stage.

2. The crowd wanted heads. The morning after the journalist called out Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the same stage for a Q&A with TED’s Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. The talk was… awkward, especially after the giant screens behind Dorsey were filled with live feeds of people on Twitter bullying him after a TED hashtag intended for audience interaction was hijacked (“eat a hamburger,” “what’s wrong with you,” etc). It was the perfect embodiment of Twitter in 2019. (Watch it here.)

Dorsey spoke extremely deliberately and showed little emotion. Twice he pointed out that he had been interrupted before he could fully answer the question. And his answers came back to similar themes: acknowledgment of the problems, and the need for long-term solutions and better incentives. This wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. People wanted emotion. They wanted Jack to get fired up. But what did they want him to do? Say he would strike down the accounts of their enemies? It was unclear. But you could feel a lurking buzz that corporate sacrifice of some kind was desired.

Among the people I talked to, most disliked how Dorsey came off. But I actually thought he did a good job. That was how the leader of a utility like Twitter should be: focused on the structure of the platform, seeing it as a tool, not obsessing over money or growth, and keeping emotion out of it. Even though it’s not in line with our current age of melodrama, I was a fan.

3. Inclusion pays dividends. Many standout talks this year were by African-American speakers. My absolute favorite talk of the conference was by Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, which presented a kind of live mix-tape of her performances and life. It was breathtaking. Here she is performing one of those pieces in the 1970s.

Center for Policing Equity Co-Founder Phillip Atiba Goff presented convincing solutions for race-driven police violence. He showed how policing tools like Comstat can be used to lower police violence, that police chiefs want to be part of the solution, and suggested that these behaviors can end in a generation. This work is part of TED’s Kickstarter-like Audacious Project.

I also loved Jon Gray’s talk about Ghetto Gastro, bringing food to the Bronx and bringing the Bronx to kitchens around the world. Twenty-something Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California gave an inspiring account of his journey to leadership. Teacher Brittany Packnett spoke powerfully about confidence. And Baratunde Thurston gave a masterful talk combining gamification and police violence.

There was also a gesture towards conservative inclusion, with a talk by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who gave a messaging lecture that ultimately sold a “pox on everyone in Washington” message. Also possibly in this category was Nasdaq President and CEO Adena Friedman, who defended the effectiveness of markets. In 2019, giving the status quo a chance to make its case is its own form of radicalism.

4. Derren Brown. The mentalist Derren Brown wowed. He invited the audience to write a question on a piece of paper, seal it in a black envelope, and write their initials on the outside. Brown then pulled out random envelopes, found the person in the audience who wrote it, and asked them just one or two startlingly specific yes or no questions before correctly guessing their question. He correctly guessed that a woman was from Virginia and that her question was about whether she should sell her farm. He correctly guessed that a man asked a question about a dislocated left toe. He correctly guessed that another man was thinking of his internet password and then told him his password, a string of gibberish. Incredible.

The next day I saw Brown walking the halls. I stopped him and asked whether he’d ever heard of the Ideaspace. I told him about this theory, created by Alan Moore, of a separate universe where ideas originate and the John Higgs book about the KLF that I read it in. The reason I was telling him this, I explained, was that when I watched him perform I’d thought, “this is a man who knows how to listen to the Ideaspace.” Brown had never heard of the idea, but seemed to enjoy it. He then said my name multiple times in a serious tone. Awesome.

5. Exciting architecture. The artist Sarah Sze presented her dream-like work of patchwork scaffolding and haunting reflections and projections wonderfully. She brought the audience into her process. Same goes for architect Bjarke Ingels, who showed designs for buildings around the world, including a soon-to-be-realized vision of floating, self-sustainable water pods that will anchor in the ocean. The most Italo Calvino-like talk came from architect Rahul Mehrotra on temporary cities in India. He made an inspiring call for urban impermanence.

6. New ideas for the climate. The work of plant molecular biologist Joanne Chory was exciting. She presented a way to radically increase the CO2-absorbing proteins in plant roots, enabling food crops to absorb more of the Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere. This is also one of TED’s Audacious Projects.

7. Other favorite talks:

1. Es Devlin, a set designer who’s created stages for Kanye, Beyonce, U2, and others, and whose talk was a delicate piece of poetry.

2. Physicist David Deutsch, who used the size and sameness of the universe to make the case that we underrate human creativity as a unique force of change.

3. Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped from North Korea at age 13 and explained what it was like to see the world as a North Korean. She was especially affecting as she was not a planned speaker — she was an attendee invited on stage to speak, and who presented herself honestly and powerfully.

4. Eric Liu making the case for civics as religion, with a proposal for Civic Saturdays.

5. Roger Hanlon, a marine biologist, showing how differently squids and octopuses process information compared to other creatures on Earth.

As always, the people and the conversations between sessions and at dinners each night were the other highlight. Thanks to everyone at TED, the speakers for sharing their ideas, and the other attendees who made for a memorable experience.

This Could Be Our Future

On October 29, Viking/Penguin Books will publish This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World.

Here's what it looks like:

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What's the book about?

It's about something I call financial maximization. That’s the belief that the right choice in any decision is whichever option makes the most money. Financial maximization is the default setting that runs our world.

The pursuit of financial maximization has created unprecedented prosperity — and significant consequences. Corruption, environmental exploitation, inequality, mass displacement, and a growing social disconnect can all be traced to its influence.

This Could Be Our Future is about how we got here. And where we should go instead. Our world feels locked into place. It isn’t. Things were very different not that long ago. Somehow we got from there to here. Just as we’ll get from here to somewhere else.

But where?

The answer isn’t to make more money, or even to get rid of it entirely. It’s to expand our concept of value. A world of scarcity can become a world of abundance if we expand our idea of value. New forms of rational value — that help to grow things like community, sustainability, and purpose — are possible. Some exist already.

This is the ideaspace that This Could Be Our Future explores.

Keep in mind that it’s me writing this. I’m not an economist, historian, or philosopher. I explain these ideas the way they make sense to my civilian brain. The book uses pop culture references (Adele, Pulp Fiction, and the three-point shot all make appearances), my experience with Kickstarter, and things that actual economists, historians, and philosophers have written to make its case.

I'm very happy with how the book turned out, and can’t wait (slash am totally terrified) to hear what y'all think.

To pre-order This Could Be Our Future, click here. To get it on Amazon, click here.

The Fix Is In

Before dinner, my wife and three-year-old like to play a game.

It starts when Omma (my wife) pours him a cup of milk. As she pours, she marvels at how much there is. “You really think you can drink all this?” she asks.

But when she goes to bring him the cup, there’s a problem. Because there’s so much milk, the cup is too heavy to lift. Like a silent movie actress, Omma dramatically struggles to pick it up. She fake-lifts with both hands as hard as she can. But no matter what, the cup won’t budge.

Our son then reaches over, casually picks it up, and takes a big slurp. “How are you so strong??” Omma asks, incredulous. He laughs.

Here’s the other funny thing about the game: it gets genuinely tiring to pretend that the cup is heavy. I don’t mean tiring as in tedious. I mean tiring as in physically tiring. If you go for it with 100% gusto, pretending that the cup is heavy can feel nearly as strenuous as it actually being heavy.

See for yourself.

Try grabbing the nearest object with both hands, screwing your face into a Sly Stallone scowl, and pretending it’s the heaviest thing in the world and it’s your job to lift it for ten seconds.

Don’t forget to breathe.

I’ll wait.



Not easy, right?

Our brain tells our muscles to clench for a powerful lift. Our body coils in anticipation of this major exertion of force. Maintaining this pre-lift pose for even ten seconds takes significant energy. For parts of our body, pretending that something is heavy and actually lifting something heavy are the same experience.

Reality isn’t always required for something to be real.

No one understands this better than Donald Trump, who has successfully kicked sand in the public’s eyes about what’s real and what isn’t for three years running.

The latest in Trump’s assault on reality was the release of a four-page memo by Attorney General William Barr that claimed to summarize the Mueller investigation and clear the President of wrongdoing.

The rollout of this memo reminded me of my wife’s game with our son. Trump and Barr pretended the memo was as weighty as the Mueller investigation even though it spent more time reporting meaningless statistics (how many witnesses interviewed, etc) than what the investigation actually said (only four partial sentences from Mueller’s actual report). But don’t worry, we were assured, even though we can’t show it to you for national security reasons, it totally proves the President is super-duper innocent.

The press fell for it. Here's the New York Times front page the day after the memo about the report was published:

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Another A1 New York Times headline declared “A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted.” Cable news chryons said the Mueller Report exonerated Trump (it didn’t, and we still don’t know what it actually says), that the Russia investigation was settled and behind us (it isn’t), and that the President wanted it released in full (no way in hell). All of this about a sketchy summary of a report that no one except Mueller's team and the President's administration have read.

Trump has successfully seeded the public consciousness with a pre-judgement that he's been declared innocent (by himself, the only voice that matters) regardless of what the actual investigation found. Trump’s non-reality space continues to successfully compete with the “reality-based community," as a George W. Bush advisor once derisively described the world of facts compared to the ideology-based, self-serving thinking of that administration and this one.

Trump promises to release the report in the coming weeks, but I'm not holding my breath. More than once the administration has used shifting deadlines to deflect attention from unfavorable stories, discourage opponents from mobilizing, and then do the thing people saw coming all along anyway. I expect continued counter-narratives and even further partial excerpts intended to sow more confusion.

The New York Times and Washington Post reported that members of the Mueller team are unhappy and even alarmed at how Barr has represented their findings. Apparently Mueller’s team wrote multiple summaries of their investigation, some intended for public release. However the Justice Department elected to put out their four-page memo declaring Trump in the clear instead. 🤔

I believe the actual Mueller report will show evidence that:

  • Trump knew about Russia's hacking before the public did, used it to his advantage, and lied about it (the Roger Stone stuff)

  • Trump offered Russia sanctions relief and other favors in exchange for business dealings that he continues to lie about (the Michael Cohen stuff)

  • Trump’s campaign manager shared sensitive information with Russian intelligence that would help with their campaign to beat Hillary during the 2016 election and continues to lie about it (the Paul Manafort stuff)

  • Trump has used the office of the Presidency to influence the investigation by offering pardons in exchange for favorable testimony (Manafort, Cohen, others)

And possibly more.

I can imagine why Mueller would hesitate to charge these things. It can't be easy to prove a criminal conspiracy when the boss at the center of it is the President of the United States and it's unclear what counts as a crime and what does not. This is uncharted territory.

Mueller’s report likely lays out this predicament, leaving it up to the American people and its political system to decide what to do about it. But that assumed we'd be allowed to see what was found. It assumed that this gang would play it straight.

Instead, the cover up is continuing right in front of our eyes.

Fixing the fix

So what should we do about it?

Three things.

1) Vote Trump out of office in 2020. More on that in a second.

2) Stop waiting for someone else to address the Trump problem. Too many of us sat on our hands waiting for Mueller and the authorities to solve this. They haven’t. The waiting game is a winning game for Trump. The longer this goes, the more damage he does and the more he becomes normalized.

What does it mean to stop waiting? I keep thinking about South Korea in 2016, when citizens held vigils protesting a corrupt President for six straight months. She resigned. The voice of the people, consistent and respectful, remains undeniably powerful. The million-plus people marching in the UK to stay in the EU shifted that debate.

What does it take to create such a movement in America today? Is there a sign-up sheet where I take my shift sitting-in outside the White House? The people can't keep waiting for politicians to do the right thing.

3) Impeach him (maybe).

I’ve repeatedly made the case that Trump is likely to be impeached and reelected in 2020. He’s the odds-on favorite to win, and I don’t think impeachment changes that.

But if — an important if — it does end up being the case that the Barr memo is yet another attempt to block the American people from learning the truth about how its President came to power, this leaves Democrats with no choice but to impeach.

The Presidency is an office built on precedent. What the last President did tends to continue on with the next one. As far as I’m aware, the Constitutionally sketchy spying programs that the Bush administration created continued under the Obama administration. By then they’d become normalized. They were just another tool in the belt.

If left unpunished, it will be the same with a lot of what Donald Trump is getting away with. Tax evasion, campaign donation violations, money laundering, and outright fraud will become new normals for politicians if Trump is left unchallenged. The idea that the President or any politician should be above any kind of criminal behavior will be hard to defend after two terms of Trump.

Impeaching Trump requires a good reason (of which there are several) and a majority of votes in the House of Representatives (which, thanks to midterm voters, the Democrats have). But impeaching Trump does not remove him from office. For that, 2/3rds of the Senate is needed. There’s no way 20 Republican Senators will vote against him. Impeaching Trump is symbolic. It will not remove him from office. But the symbol is important for future precedent.

Still, impeachment is not an easy call. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this week, 49% of people wanted impeachment or further investigations of Trump and 47% said impeachment proceedings shouldn’t start and Trump should finish his term. In a poll by The Economist/You Gov in early March, just 17% of Republicans supported impeachment if Donald Trump were proven to have asked Russia for help to win the election. To put this in context, 20% of Americans believe Big Foot is real.

Rubber will meet the road through the legal process. Prosecutors in multiple states and federal districts are pursuing criminal cases against Trump and his organizations, and House Democrats are using their subpoena power to attempt to gain access to Mueller's findings and Trump’s tax returns.

Will Trump continue to successfully flaunt the law or does the law still matter? That question (including whether we see the full Mueller report) could make its way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Roberts will cast the most important swing vote in American politics since Bush v. Gore.

Gulp.

2020

If Trump loses in 2020, these constitutional questions become moot and the justice system can deal with Trump while America repairs and rebuilds. But who can beat Trump?

I want to once again put in a word for Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s far from the only worthy candidate and he remains an extreme long-shot, but I like how he faces off against Trump.

In a race between Trump and Buttigieg, the choice wouldn’t just be left versus right. It would be young versus old. Or, as Buttigieg likes to frame his idea of generational change, young and old working together to solve our hardest problems.

That can be a winning argument. It shifts the metaphysics of the race into a place where Trump is weak and likely to be self-conscious (as the old guy, the no-longer-new thing, etc) into a place where the Democratic candidate is strong.

And it’s not like Mayor Pete is some Fyre Festival-attending millennial. He’s an ex-Marine who comes off as very sober-minded. He has the vibe of someone who’s been pre-old their whole lives. He's probably had monogrammed slippers since he was eight.

I like how his candidacy would shift the race. It creates a new field of competition. That’s the kind of move required to topple Trump.

Music

As usual, we close with a mix, this one called Magic. Click here to listen on Spotify. Here's the tracklist:

1 Deakin, “Golden Chords”
2 Mac Miller, “Small Worlds”
3 Solange, “Jerrod”
4 Solange, “Binz”
5 Delroy Wilson, “Have Some Mercy”
6 The Evens, “Cut From the Cloth”
7 The Cure, “Seventeen Seconds”
8 Tortoise, “TNT”
9 Neil Young, “Organ Solo”
10 Usman Achmad, “Stambul Naturil”
11 Mountain Music of Peru, “Andina-Huayano”
12 JJ Cale, “Wish I Had Not Said That”
13 The Durutti Column, “Otis”
14 Brian Eno, “Here Come the Warm Jets”

Peace and love,
Yancey

My friend Noel

For six weeks while writing the book, I worked from the home of an 89-year-old woman named Noel Osheroff.

I first met Noel after being invited to speak at an event held in her house last fall. Afterwards, Noel very graciously invited me to write there. I accepted.

Noel’s house was built in 1934 by famed architect RM Schindler. Her parents commissioned the house, and Noel grew up in it. After not living in it for sixty years, Noel returned to it last year to restore it. Here's a picture of the house I took one afternoon.

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For November and December, Noel and I were unlikely coworkers. While I wrote in the back bedroom (the far left in the picture above), Noel worked on the house.

By "worked on the house," I don’t mean Noel rearranged pictures or bossed people around. I mean I watched Noel expertly take an electric sander to a door frame while on a ladder. One day she took apart every chair in the house, re-stained them, and put them all back together again. She drove her Chevy pick-up to get supplies at the store. All of this by herself and all of it at 89-years-old. Watching Noel was like watching a superhero in real life.

The first day I worked at Noel’s she said to me: “I’m ignoring you because I think that’s what you want me to do.” I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. She was right.

But talking to Noel was fun, and we’d chat once a day. I enjoyed sharing what I was thinking and looked forward to her perspective.

One day she pointed out that when she was born, there were 3.5 times fewer people in the world than there are today. We have the same amount of land and 3.5 times more people. Why doesn’t anyone else see how this is at the center of our challenges? she wondered.

The stillness of working at Noel’s helped me complete the last stretch of the book. Two weeks ago I sent a finished manuscript to my editor. Though we still have edits to go, I hit my deadline. The feeling was even better than I imagined.

Last Friday I stopped by Noel’s to return my house key and to share a gift: the first print-out of the manuscript. I thanked her again and again. She told me I was good for her ego. Afterwards we took a selfie.

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Noel’s work on the house has finished too. It's back to its original condition, and Noel is renting it out.* As for Noel, she’s onto the next project: hand-restoring the house in Venice where she raised her family. There’s always more work to do.

*If you’re interested in staying at Noel's, reply to this message and I can put you in touch. Here’s a paywalled Monocle article from last year about Noel and the house.

2020

In two previous emails I’ve declared my belief that Trump is likely to be reelected. Even with his historically poor approval ratings. Even if he’s impeached.

Some of the first polls about 2020 show his strength. Polling that came out last week shows that against the leading Democratic front-runners, Trump is neck and neck or a slight favorite. And if Starbucks ex-CEO Howard Schultz continues with his campaign, they show Trump winning against everyone except Joe Biden, who beats Trump in every poll.

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Trump is the favorite heading into next year’s election. Especially when you factor in the advantage enjoyed by incumbents, and the fact that Republicans have won 40% of Presidential elections this century while losing the popular vote. For a Democratic Presidential candidate to win, their margin of victory has to exceed the impact of the Electoral College. Like passing a bill in Congress these days, somehow having a majority of votes is no longer enough.

Who will Democratic voters nominate to run against Trump? Recent history would suggest a woman. In Democratic primaries for the 2018 elections where a woman ran, the woman prevailed 71% of the time. (For the smaller number of Republican women who ran in primaries, 35% of them won.) Democratic voters were excited to vote for women, and they'll continue to be. This bodes well for Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, who are among the front-runners in the Democratic field.

The big question is which of them — or if any of them — can beat Trump.

Democratic voters will probably want a candidate who can out-Trump Trump. Someone who can be an even louder voice. Who can take up just as much space. We forget it now because she lost, but this is what Hillary did. She dominated the debates. Her social media was pointed. She was just as much an alpha as Trump in many Trump-ian ways. And we know how that turned out.

The difference in 2020 needs to be starker. It needs to be someone whose very presence signifies the rottenness at the core of the other side. It needs to be a significant difference on the level of values, not who can deliver the biggest punch.

One long-shot candidate I’m excited about: Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigeig is a gay former Marine who fought in Afghanistan, and a small city mayor. I recommend watching his appearance on the talk show The View last week. As gigantic an underdog as he would be, this is someone I could imagine standing next to Donald Trump and clearly signaling a vast difference in values, temperament, and readiness to lead.

If I were managing the campaign of Trump’s opposition — whoever that may be — I’d portray Trump as the corrupt King Donald. A man who embodies the exact values and ideals that America forcibly declared its independence from at its start. A modern King George III.

We’d run ads showing Trump in an 18th century powdered wig. The campaign’s spokespeople would be America’s Founding Fathers. Its slogans would be their past quotes warning against tyrants and greedy kings. A rotating cast of famous actors would portray Jefferson, Paine, Washington, Hamilton and others in 30 second spots that felt somewhere between KFC ads and an episode of Drunk History. The Founding Fathers would be swooping in like a Colonial-era Justice League to defend the Republic.

Would that be enough? Would that move the needle? With four more years of destruction to our institutions, environment, and social fabric at stake, no idea should be off the table.

Brexit Pt 2

In my last email, I wrote that Brexit was "not a bad idea." I noted the possible long-term upsides and acknowledged the viewpoint behind the decision.

Left unstated was that this position is based on an extraordinarily pessimistic view of the world. To justify raising the draw bridges, you'd need to see the world as a pre-zombie apocalypse where the mayhem is about to begin so we might as well start it ourselves. This is a dire way of seeing the world, and no way to run society or live life. Ideas like these manifest the realities they claim that they want to stop.

I couldn’t see the world more differently. So I want to clarify: Brexit is not a bad idea, it's a terrible idea. It’s a waste of time. It’s not solving a problem, it’s creating a problem that's getting worse by the day. I recommend this extremely insightful talk by the former UK representative to the EU on just how bad it all really is.

But I also try not to reject new ideas out of hand. I believe there are often benefits in going the other way, in straying from the pack. There are opportunities for learning and growth in everything. Those words on Brexit came from that spirit, not as an endorsement. I regret writing so flippantly about something so grave.

Recommendations

The video for the Strokes’ “Last Nite" is perfect drunken innocence. Performing live on an Ed Sullivan-type TV show set, the Strokes are tight, careless, and cool. And tender. I love the sibling-like way Julian Casablancas throws his shoulder into his bandmates. Craziest of all? This video is almost twenty years old.

This essay by Mike Pace in The Creative Independent called "I am not the next big thing: on creativity and aging" is thoughtful, wise, and will help you love yourself more. I felt the same about this TCI interview with DJ Juan Mendez on taking care of yourself while having a job surrounded by partying.

As is typical, I leave you with a mix. One of my favorite musicians is named Bill Callahan. I made a mix of his best work that I’ve shared with friends over the years, and I've recreated it on Spotify since he was recently added to streaming services. Check out my Rough guide to Bill Callahan and stay warm out there.

Peace and love,

Yancey

Brexit

The news around the world today is Brexit. The headlines are about Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to delay a scheduled parliament vote on her proposal for the UK’s departure from the EU. Without the delay, the deal would have ended in defeat. It still probably will.

The whole thing is a catastrophe, to put it mildly. And by “whole thing” I don’t mean the vote itself. I mean the politics that have erupted ever since, beginning with former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to call the vote and then resign immediately after the votes came in. By shirking responsibility for an outcome that he invited, Cameron set the tone for what was to come.

In the two years since, Theresa May, another conservative politician — and one who personally voted against Brexit — has had the impossible task of negotiating an exit with the EU that would fulfill the grandiose promises of the politicians who campaigned to Leave. A vote to Leave, they said, would result in instant British sovereignty, increased social services, and on and on.

The deal that May struck will create UK independence, but it will take time. It’s a gradual transition, with certain agreements staying in place for a bit to prevent total disruption. From my understanding, in about three years the UK would be close to fully on its own again.

The conservative politicians who made this happen have vociferously argued against this deal because of this delay. “Unacceptable!” they charge. But really they’re hammering the deal because the politics of opposing it are good — nobody is happy with where this has ended up — and the politics of supporting it require more courage than any of these people have. So rather than do what they can to practically implement the events that they set into motion, they’re accusing May of betrayal. It’s mostly about a delay in implementation. But how important are three years, really?

The short-sightedness is beyond me. These are massive, fundamental changes and the people in charge are mucking around with the politics of the moment, with winning the day’s headlines, and pwning each other on social media rather than taking responsibility for what’s happening. To call it childish would be an insult to actual children.

Through all of this Theresa May has steadfastly tried to get the job done. She’s taken on repeated, challenging negotiations with the EU. She’s endured multiple of her cabinet ministers making dramatic resignations at critical moments to damage her. Today members of her party suddenly launched a no confidence vote to try to remove her form power. And yet she keeps on, the one adult in the room. My respect for her grows.

As I watch her ordeal I keep thinking about a study that found that women and minorities tend to be made CEOs when companies are failing. Men don’t want to be the captain when the ship goes down, so they choose to give “diversity” a try and watch as that person takes the fall. That’s exactly what’s happening here.

To my eyes, the failure of Brexit is not the original vote. The failure is in what has come after. The inability of the political class to look beyond their own immediate self-interest even for one second. In a moment that’s about the future of Britain, these men can only think of their little egos and the politics of now. It is small and it is shameful.

The Brexit longview

As for Brexit itself, the whole thing is a distraction from much more important challenges. But still, I'm of the opinion that in the long run it's not a bad idea. Detaching from and decentralizing the global economy is something more countries may have to do in the future.

To be clear, there is no universe where that divorce will be a smooth, orderly thing where nothing is lost. There’s too much that has to change and too many unknowns for that to be the case. Yet this is what the conservatives who oppose May are demanding. A pony would be nice, too.

If Brexit happens, we should assume that the next five to ten years will be quite rough for Britain. Many unknowns to sort through and many opportunities to make even worse decisions. But some of these decisions are things we may all have to face.

Think about where we are now, with the terrifying climate change reports, mass migration due to war and famine (which will only get worse thanks to climate change), and the increasing dependency on large corporations and their proprietary products and opaque algorithms. These challenges — not the next three years of local British politics —  are the real stakes.

Does it still makes sense, I wonder, for us to keep sending carbon-emitting planes, trucks, and ships around the world every second of every day to deliver avocados to Dubai and uni to London and iPhones to Tennessee? How sustainable is that, really?

What’s wrong, I wonder, with a country producing all of its own goods? I think about Japan, a country where essentially everything is produced in-house, where everyone has a job supporting the furthering of Japanese society, where self-sufficiency is the goal. In a world that needs to change its behavior to limit the devastation of climate change, is that not what we’ll all ultimately need to do?

Economists might say well, Japan is a low growth economy. To which I say: exactly. That might need to be what we all become if we want our societies and life itself to survive.

The story of the past three decades is that globalized growth is the cure to all our ills. But that story does not appear to be sustainable. Both for reasons of climate and resources and because of the local politics it flares up (see: Brexit, Trump, Italy, and now France).

The seeming naturalness of the path we’ve been on in recent history is beginning to diverge into a new path. Which is normal. Our current path hasn’t been here forever. The EU is only a generation old. It’s not the basis on which all life rests.

The question we need to be asking is: ten years from now where do we need to be? Scientists say that by 2030, we will cross critical thresholds where climate change will get much more severe. What does it mean to be ready for that? What needs to change?

For starters, we need to be self-sustaining. We need to learn to be more resourceful. We need to learn to fix and repair things, not buy new things. We need to learn that we can’t outsource everything — that every job is up to us to do. We’re not on the doorstep of a post-work world. We’re on the doorstep of needing to do real work for the first time in a couple of generations.

I applaud this. It’s time we face up to what has to change. We can’t keep hiding from it. Brexit is a dramatic way to get there. This whole fracas and the mess it will continue to create in the next decade will be discouraging. But ten years from now? I suspect we may see benefits, though for different reasons than what inspired people to vote for it in the first place.

Checking in on Trump

A lot has happened since we last spoke about the President. His lawyer, his campaign manager, his national security advisor, and other members of his campaign have plead guilty for lying to the FBI and/or Congress about their contacts with members of the Russian government and intelligence agencies. The Washington Post points out that we already know about 14 different Trump campaign officials who had contact with the Russians during the campaign. This after Trump repeatedly denied any connection or communication whatsoever.

As Marcy Wheeler, who blogs as the absolutely essential EmptyWheel, has written, 126 pages of Mueller’s report have already been made public in the form of extensive background information that’s come with each of these plea deals. It’s her belief that the anticipated “Mueller Report” is being written right in front of our eyes.

The information in these filings strongly suggests that the special counsel will prove that Donald Trump collaborated with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to swing the election in his favor. It is my belief that this will be proven with clear-cut evidence. But to go back to an earlier email on Trump and the OJ defense, will this matter?

With a Democratic House being sworn in, impeachment proceedings will begin next year. Mueller’s findings combined with a Democratic majority in the House means that Trump will be impeached. You can count on it.

But, as you may recall, this won’t actually remove him from office. All it does is officially censure him in a way that shames the President. But this President, as we know, is beyond shame.

When Trump is impeached his case will then go to the US Senate, where Trump will almost certainly not receive the needed 2/3rds votes to remove him from office. That would take more than 20 Republican Senators turning on their party leader. It’s hard to see that happening.

Which means that the likely outcome of all of this will be an impeached but still standing President Trump running for reelection against pick your choice of Democratic and potentially Republican challengers. And in that fight, despite Trump’s unpopularity and Democrats getting millions more votes than Republicans in the midterm elections last month, I would still put my money on Trump.

The electoral map will be in his favor. The Democratic presidential candidate has gotten the majority of votes in six out of the last seven Presidential elections (Bush vs Kerry in 2004 being the one exception), but Democrats have lost nearly half of those campaigns because of the electoral college system. Think about that: more Democratic votes in six out of the last seven elections, and only two presidents to show for it.

What happens if we learn Trump was in bed with Russia, rigged the election, gets impeached for it, and gets reelected anyway? God help us. I can picture the Peggy Noonan Wall Street Journal editorial about how F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote America is about second chances and Trump is getting his second chance. But if that’s where we end up, it may truly be the end of America as we know it.

There remains a universe where Republicans turn on him. This would happen if a) public opinion on the right turns against Trump (89% favorable rating among Republicans, the highest since his inauguration) and b) Fox News turns against Trump. There's a chicken and egg there.

Trump’s crimes might be so bad and blatant that this might happen. But it’s far from a given. There’s been enough dust kicked up already about the “witch hunt” investigation that all facts are ignorable. A lot of people have heavily invested their identities in the success of Trump. That’s a hard thing for anyone to let go of.

In a universe where Republicans do turn on Trump, don’t expect much vindication. The new narrative on the right will be, well, you know Trump was never a real conservative. He was a secret Democrat all along. This is exactly how Republicans turned on George W. Bush after seven years of strident support. In the conservative history of American politics, the Trump catastrophe will somehow be a failure of liberals. It’s the American way.

Music

I really enjoy the music of Kurt Vile. He’s a master of crunching, monotonous grooves. His music is sophisticated and kind of stupid. He has good taste but doesn’t do anything fancy or complicated with it. He’s chill, man.

I wasn’t crazy about his new album, Bottle It In, but I made an alternative version of the record that I think is my favorite thing he’s ever done. My goal was to make something like Can’s Future Days, just a long groove from start to finish. My version — called Let It Out — only includes the grooves. Twice in the past month I’ve gone to Joshua Tree for writing retreats and both times listened to nothing but this on repeat. Listen here on Spotify. Highly recommended.

The book

The book is nearly done! I have two more chapters to write and the road ahead is clear. By year’s end I hope to be wrapped up, then spend January and part of February revising with my editor. I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out and can’t wait for all of you to read it. More on that soon.

Peace and love and thinking of you.