This is what democracy looks like…

The United States Capitol is supposed to act as the architectural embodiment of America’s highest ideals. Last week, it was the scene of an ugly mob that devolved into a deadly riot. Words like “sedition” and “insurrection” sound hyperbolic; yet by definition, they work in this case.

In the ensuing (and notably bipartisan) criticism of this disturbing demonstration, one theme that keeps popping up is the characterization of these protests as “anti-democratic.” This moniker isn’t so neat a fit.

It is true that the Capitol rioters’ immediate goal was to reverse the outcome of the election, yet it’s worth noting their motivations. They had apparently fooled themselves (with the validation of one very powerful voice who ought to know better) into believing that anecdotes about election irregularities constitute widespread fraud. Under that set of beliefs, storming the Capitol must have seemed like a righteous mission — not just to a fringe few who organized it, but also (as I wrote about on Medium) to the hundreds of others who joined the insurrection and to countless others who may have felt the same but weren’t there that day.

Mobs are not “undemocratic.” In fact the knock against democracy has always been the chance for majority rule to degenerate into mob rule, and for popular whims of the moment to become laws chiseled into stone. Flip through the Federalist Papers and you’ll see plenty of ink spilled discussing how the U.S. Constitution mitigates the effects of majority rule. Concepts like checks and balances, diffused power, and frequent elections all exist to help temper the effects of “the will of the people.”

That will could have used some tempering last week, and some powerful people who may have been in a position to do so clearly misread how upset their followers were and are. However you feel about last week’s events, there are more people out there who share in the frustration and anger that boiled up into the Capitol. We can and should prosecute the actual rioters, but that alone isn’t going to solve the problems that caused the riot to happen in the first place.

Break up the Nats!

Joel Sherman, baseball columnist for Our Nation’s Newspaper of Record, chronicles the now-systematic underachievement the Washington Nationals have suffered over the past four years:

  • The 2012 Nats won 98 games, won their division, and seemed destined for a run of excellence despite losing a hard-fought first-round series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
  • In 2013, the record fell to 86-76, 10 games behind Atlanta for the division and four out of the second wild card spot.
  • The Nats were back on top of the division 2014, with 96 wins and a roster finally coming into its own – until their bats went cold in the first round of the playoffs and San Francisco beat them in four games.

It’s 2015, and the Nats are in second place again, seemingly stuck in neutral (and under .500) despite big years from Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer. Like a Member of Congress in a safe district, the Nats appear to excel in even-numbered years and coast in between. Sherman correctly warns that without a second-half surge, they are in danger of losing the division to an underwhelming Mets team and becoming the “best team that never was.”

The manager and general manager are on the hot seat, but the house cleaning may have to include players as well. The only thing worse than being a bad team is being a mediocre team – where the limited successes come just frequently enough to avoid the big shake-ups. If they are serious about winning a championship, it’s time for the Nationals to stop tweaking and start looking at turning over their roster.

It would be a really, really, really, really bad idea for Metro to post Muhammad cartoon ads.

No one has the right to gun another person down due to speech. Obvious, right?

At the same time, mocking someone’s religion is impolite. It’s not punishable by violence, but you could understand the discomfort someone would fee when the key figures of their religious tradition are mocked. That should be obvious, but people still seem to like draw cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will not accept an ad featuring the winning cartoon from the Texas “Draw Muhammad” contest which ended in gunfire earlier this month. Good for them. It’s one of the few good decisions Metro has made. (Though they, did go overboard by banning all issue-related ads through the end of the year. Perhaps Metro can’t help but be a little wrong.)

What does the American Freedom Defense Initiative think would happen if such ads went up on Metro? Anyone with $1.70 and patience for delays can jump on the Metro without so much as a pat-down or a peek inside a suspiciously bulky book bag. It is, like many places, a “soft” target for terrorists now. Muhammad cartoons would make it a desirable target as well. “Soft” and “desirable” and “not chocolate chip cookies” is not a good spot on the homeland security Venn diagram.

Sure, a violent response from radical Islamic terrorists would be evil and wrong, just as it was in Texas. But it is not unpredictable, and because of that there are many people – train passengers, Metro staff, and the like – unintentionally in the crosshairs.

They would not engage in any speech at all, yet would bear the brunt of the repercussions. In fact, they may not want to engage in such speech at all – since Muhammad cartoons are offensive not only to the radicals who will respond with violence, but for the civilized who won’t respond at all. There’s no need to needle the latter to poke the former.

By rejecting the Muhammad cartoons, Metro is not limiting free speech. In the first place, that’s because Metro owns the ad space, and should be able to rent it to whomever they choose. But beyond that, there will be plenty of people who don’t want to bear the predictable consequences of that speech. Why should anyone be allowed to put words in their mouth?

Three ways Max Scherzer’s contract is typical of Washington, D.C.

Tonight, President Barack Obama will use his second-to-last State of the Union address to ask for more taxes. (The economy is apparently doing very well, so America can tap the brakes on silly, frivolous things like college savings and job creation). Since this is his solution to the nation’s wealth disparity, it certainly helps his case that Washington, D.C. welcomes Max Scherzer this week.

1. It’s expensive: The newest Washington National’s contract totals out at $210 million. (Why, that’s McLean money around these parts!) The next highest known offer was Detroit’s extension offer last spring, reportedly for $144 million over the same seven-year span. A week ago, observers of the game were wondering where Scherzer could expect a massive contract. This week, we were reminded that Washington D.C. is always willing to spend more money.

2. Future generations will foot the bill: Half of Scherzer’s contract is deferred, so the $210 million is actually paid out over seven years. If, after the 2021 season, he decides to sign elsewhere or retires, the Nats will still have to keep sending Scherzer checks. The front office will have to account for the equivalent of a seven year, $105 million contract for a ghost player who isn’t even on the roster. (How embarassing would it be if Scherzer signs with, say, the Mets in 2022 and pitches them past the Nats in the playoffs while still on the Nats’ payroll? The Mets know this pain, since they are still on the hook for another 20 years of Bobby Bonilla payments.)

3. It’s not as lucrative as it sounds thanks to inflation: Scherzer has to be excited, but can’t blow it all on some fancy record player just yet. By deferring half of that money, it’s subject to the effects of inflation. In 2015 dollars, the actual value of Scherzer’s deal is closer to $172 million. That’s still enough to eke out a living, but it’s $30 million on paper that’s heading out the window. (Depending on what the President gets from tonight’s State of the Union wish list, the effects of inflation could be even greater.)

All that said, signing Scherzer is actually a smart deal for the Nationals – if they play their cards right. Local sports pundits are questioning the move because the Nats had one of baseball’s best starting rotations already, and have two pitchers hitting the free agent market next offseason. Why sign Scherzer when they could sign Jordan Zimmermann and/or Doug Fister? Or, why not bolster an offense that went through an 18-inning postseason game and barely threatened to rally?

In the short term, Scherzer gives the Nats an unquestioned front-of-the-rotation starter; more important, it gives the team flexibility for next year’s offseason. Both Fister and Zimmermann figure to turn down qualifying offers to test free agency, meaning the Washington can let them both walk, pick up two early draft picks as compensation, and still have a very good rotation heading into 2016. (They can also trade a pitcher this year if the right opportunity presents itself.)

It may not have helped any of the team’s weaknesses, but the Scherzer deal gives the Nationals the talent and flexibility to maintain their strengths for the next several seasons. That’s a good foundation for improvement.

If they don’t screw it up, that is. But wouldn’t that be typical of Washington, D.C., too?

Clown Questions and the Post-Media Era

It’s 1951.  Underneath the stands at Old Yankee Stadium, Joe DiMaggio dresses after a game, a gaggle of sportswriters crowding around his locker eager for a nugget of wisdom from Joltin’ Joe.  A cub reporter from the 78 daily newspapers New York City had at the time elbows his way through and asks if he plans will celebrate tonight’s win with a late night rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe.

Joe’s eyebrows raise in a mixture of mockery and disbelief.  “I’m not going to answer that,” he chuckles.  “That’s a clown question, bro.”

As the entire world knows now, that quote didn’t come from the Yankee Clipper but the National Treasure, Bryce Harper.  There were t-shirts for sale by the next morning, there are video mash up jokes, and, of course, tweets-a-plenty.

Mark it down: this is when Washington DC officially accepted baseball.  For all Ryan Zimmerman’s heroics as the franchise’s first home-grown star since the relocation from Montreal and Stephen Strasburg’s at-times otherworldly pitching and always otherworldly hype, nothing feeds this particular home town crowd like a witty retort to the press.  Inside the Beltway Bubble, pundits pondered over whether the quote might find it’s way to the podium at the White House briefing room.

Jokes aside, it’s a valid point.  And one the other Mormon looking to stick around DC might think about. Harper’s disdain for the reporter (if not his word choice) might work for politicians.  Remember the infamous 2008 interview where Katie Couric asked inane inquiries about Sarah Palin’s news consumption habits?  Palin did herself no favors trying to answer what were pretty dumb questions.

When done right, a snarky, off-the-cuff comeback is more powerful than answering a question “the right way.”  That reporter who wanted to know if Harper was going to crack open a cold one might have been put off by Harper’s flippant response, but it didn’t matter.  The rest of the world saw it, and liked it, and unless that reporter is friends with Cole Hamels there isn’t much he can do.  Harper’s message is out.

It’s doubtful that the communications firms in town are prepping an office for Communications Strategist Bryce Harper after his playing days are over – he may be a whale of a ballplayer, but his wisecrack was just a wisecrack.  Maybe there’s a second lesson there though: that if you have to overthink your response to a question, your answer will suffer.

Or as Yogi Berra put it, you can’t think and hit at the same time.

Urban Renewal

Last night, Centric played the first two episodes of In Living Color from way back in 1990.  This sketch was on the second episode:

If you had flipped over to the local DC news during the ensuing commercial break, you might have seen that Mayor Vincent Gray is rapidly losing public approval thanks to – you guessed it – a scandal.   More than two decades later, DC residents still suffer corruption from city hall.  They have company in other urban centers like Detroit.  In most cases, corrupt urban centers are run by Democrats.  In fact, that’s probably why they’re corrupt; without another political party ready to exploit scandal for political gain, politicians get sloppy and party leaders are less diligent about kiboshing candidates with skeletons in the closet.

In places like DC, the Republican party apparatus is almost non-existent – even if it’s well organized, national party committees and donors aren’t likely to funnel money into urban regions where wins are unlikely.  But short term losses may net long-term gains, and the Gray scandal offers a prime opportunity for the DC GOP – or other, like-minded groups – to make a very plain case to the District’s voters.

You’ve tried it their way, the pitch could go, now give us a chance.  You’ve tried big government, and it attracts corruption like a flame attracts moths.  Maybe we can do better by doing less.

Again, the DC GOP (nor any counterparts in other cities) likely doesn’t have the extensive resources it would take for this kind of hand-to-hand combat.  But if I was a wealthy Republican donor, I’d be interested to see what kind of traction a good, aggressive, forward thinking campaign could accomplish.

After all, Vincent Gray got elected, and he might as well have stepped out of this:





The shrinking relevance of power centers

In a guest post on Social Times, entrepreneur Elle Cachette talks about her experience moving her business out of Silicon Valley.  The business has since thrived, to the surprise of those who advised her that technology companies could not exist in the outside world.

In hindsight, Cachette finds the Valley overrated:

Stop digging. What you see is what you get – there is no gold in ‘them waters. Silicon Valley is the Hollywood of tech, where every waiter is an entrepreneur and every app is the next blockbuster… When you are in Silicon Valley, everything in the media environment confirms that you are indeed in the center of the universe. But similar to a communist North Korean regime,  Silicon Valley drinks much of its own Kool-Aid.

First, it is ironic that in the geographic region that created so much of the technology that Americans now use to telecommute and communicate across great spaces there exists a culture that highly values proximity to a geographic region.

Second, the success of companies beyond places like Silicon Valley is another demonstration of the new realities of work – that almost any job can be done anywhere.

Third, if you substitute “Politics” for “Tech” and “Washington, D.C.” for Silicon Valley, the post would still make a lot of sense.

Stewart/Colbert rally demonstrates government competence levels

As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were wrapping up their apolitical comedy and music show last, their crowd unwittingly demonstrated the reason many people are suspect of government running things like health care.  Just after Stewart’s closing keynote, an errant DC Metro escalator at L’Enfant Plaza sped up and start spitting folks off, injuring four to six freshly-sane rally goers.

Luckily, Metro’s crack administrative staff was prepared since, according to Unsuck DC Metro (the best-titled blog in the history of the internet), a report issued a month before the rally detailed the issues with escalator brakes throughout the system.

Ending Labor Day Weekend in style by bashing the DC teachers union

This is probably a losing proposition in Your Nation’s Capital, where local government officials and their cronies seem to conspire to keep the District depressed.  (Seriously, the unemployment rate in Southeast DC was as high as 28% in the last year, while the rest of the metro area was around 5-7%.  It’s like they’re trying  to keep people poor.)  But it’s still an excellent commercial – calling out teachers unions with the type of blunt-force sarcasm and satire necessary to warrant a chuckle during the morning news.  It’s been playing on the local channels for a few weeks now, and I expect it will continue through the mayoral primary next week.

Of course, the group behind the ads, the Center for Union Facts, might want to be careful – their antagonists’ version of blunt force might include populating the area under the end zones at the New Giants Stadium.

A bicycle built for failure

Google’s new bike-friendly option on GoogleMaps (GoogleBike?) came just in time for DC.  Your Nation’s Capital will connect the Capitol and the White House with a bike path – right down the middle of the road, removing traffic lanes.  Luckily, DC doesn’t have a traffic problem or anything.

DC’s bike commuters doubled in the past decade or so, going from 1% of the commuting population to over 2%.  Meanwhile, Metro’s ridership has only risen about 25% in a similar time period – to a total of 726,000.  One out of five commuters use Metro, which has its share of well-documented safety issues.

A bike path sounds like a great idea.