The Truth About the Ultra Rich

They’re very different one from another. Too often, people paint them with a broad brush.

The Buffets, Gates, Bloombergs, Allens are intent on contributing to the common good. Big time. In the case of the Gates Foundation, they seek to enhance global healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.

Then there’s the oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Read what motivates them, in “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country“.

“The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.

One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.

‘Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry,’ said Ashley Robbins, a researcher at Virginia Tech who follows transportation funding. ‘But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.'”

The Koch brothers oppose whatever slows their fortune from growing ever larger. Things like low income people gaining mobility and conserving natural resources.

David Koch’s networth is between $50 and $60 billion. How much is enough? Based on his actions, no amount.

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

A Key to Intellectual Vitality

Physical fitness results from two things, engaging in physical activity until muscles break down, and replenishing the body with healthy food and rest, especially sleep. As a result of this pattern, one’s muscles spring back a little bit stronger.

In similar fashion, intellectual vitality results from serious consideration of ideas that challenge one’s worldview. Instead of muscles breaking down, one’s assumptions do. Dan Dan the Transportation Man reminded me of this recently. DDTM is a good friend with whom I run about 25-30 miles a week. He’s the Federal Government’s boss man for Washington State’s freeways. Which means whenever anyone in our running posse gets stuck in traffic, we give him shit.

At the end of a recent run, he excitedly told me about a bold traffic experiment taking place in a small town in Northwest England. Here’s the introduction to the story:

No traffic lights. No traffic signs. No painted lines in the roadway. No curbs. And 26,000 vehicles passing every day through a traditional village center with busy pedestrian traffic.

It’s called “shared space.” Is it insanity, or the most rational way to create a pleasant place where drivers, cyclists, and people on foot all treat each other with respect?

The village of Poynton in the U.K. has undertaken one of the most ambitious experiments to date in this type of street design. . . .Variations on the shared-space model have been implemented in other European cities since the early 1990s, but never before at such a busy junction. Poynton’s city leaders sought the change because the historic hub of their quaint little town had become a grim and unwelcoming place.

After explaining the concept of “shared space”, Dan said, “It challenges everything I’ve always thought to be true about traffic planning.” Intrigued, he’s wondering whether some elements of the concept can be applied in Washington State. It speaks well of his intellect that he’s open to entirely new ways of thinking.

That sounds elementary, but it’s not. Increasingly, people surround themselves with like-minded people. We suffer from intense intellectual insecurities so birds of a political feather fly together. Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats read different periodicals and blogs, watch different cable television news programs, and listen to different radio stations. Then on the weekend they socialize with people whose politics affirm their own.

As a result, intellectual laziness prevails. It’s not nearly as obvious as our suspect physical health, but our intellectual well-being is just as bad. It’s impossible to maintain any kind of intellectual vitality in an echo chamber. We must exercise our minds by reading material and talking to people who we know see the world differently than us. For example, this weekend I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal article titled “The Inconvenient Truth about Benghazi” (nearing 3,000 comments).

Many of my liberal friends wouldn’t read the article because it appears in Rupert Murdoch’s paper and they’ve disagreed with things Noonan’s written in the past. We write one another off, on both the left and the right, all the time. I’m guessing most of my liberal friends would give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt regarding their initial explanation and believe the mainstream media already accurately reported the story. I found Noonan’s article well reasoned; cogent; and in the end, quite damning. My intellect is better for having considered her perspective.

Live differently. Test your assumptions and exercise your mind. Your intellectual vitality is at stake.