I admit it: I lose my sense of humor in the heat of political discourse, all the time. Ironically, in most other spheres of life, I’m known for being a bit of a cut-up. If you ask my seven-year-old daughter to describe her dad with one word, she’d probably say “funny” (of course, seven-year-olds are “an easy room”). But political discourse makes me mad, and sad, and often sick-to-my-stomach.

On SquareState, a progressive blog dominated by blind ideologues I briefly (and wishfully) tried to promote as an alternative to the unfortunately currently alternativeless Colorado Pols (unfortunately, because Jason Bain, the driving force behind Pols, and probably his anonymous partners as well, are arrogant pricks), I was savaged for cross-posting  “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Why Our Tea Party Future Will Be The Left’s Fault” by people on the left who, faithful mirror images of their counterparts on the right, believe that compromise is evil, extremism is good, and demanding from their party what would ensure their party’s long-term demise is their civic duty; my candidacy, hair-cut, and preference in pizza toppings all brought in as arguments to prove why I am both wrong and evil (okay, only my candidacy, but the other two might as well have been for all the relevance of some of the responses). To my immense discredit, I don’t just disregard, or laugh off, these absurd Glenn-Becks-of-the-left, but instead engage them, respond to their nonsense, and, by doing so, let them drag me down into the gutter along with them.

But the truth is, despite all that is at stake, and the consequential significance of current political and ideological trends, there’s no denying that a nation in which one of the most reported on U.S. senatorial candidates starts a campaign ad with “I am not a witch,” and in which the Tea Party Nation in early October cited Campbell’s new halal soups as proof that Shari’a law is infiltrating the United States, is a knee-slappingly funny nation…, though tragically so.

The November 1 issue of Time Magazine includes an excellent article on Jon Stewart and Stephen Cobert, two Comedy Central political satirists who compete with, and highlight, the hilarious reality of modern American political discourse. Cobert, for instance, took Tea Party Nation’s absurdity to the next step, suggesting (in character) that it’s no coincidence that bananas are crescent shaped. Stewart’s “cruelly accurate” parodies of Glenn Beck are hysterical,  because they’re true (

The article discusses the difficult line Stewart and Cobert tread between comedy and commentary, remaining funny while remaining incisive and relevant. The article also discusses the competition these satirists face from current American political reality, the latter often being more absurd than anything they can invent. Stewart can often just play an authentic newsclip and make a face to receive raucus laughter in response, the joke having already been made for him.

The combination of humor and sincerity, of recognizing absurdity and shining a spotlight on it, so that we can, hopefully, laugh our way to sanity and moderation, may be the most significant contribution to raising the quality of American public discourse that exists today. Cobert’s reference to “truthiness,” the belief that what one feels in their gut is more important than objective reality, draws attention to a real, and tragic, absurdity dominating a broad swath of public discourse. It isn’t just humor; it’s an attempt to interject profound rationality into a profoundly irrational national dialogue.

Let’s all take a deep breath, laugh at ourselves, and scrub the humor of the tragedy, recommitting to being reasonable, and light-hearted, people of goodwill, doing the best we can. We don’t need to privilege the paranoid ravings of a Glenn Beck (or his blogosphere counterparts on the left), or the incredible ingnorance of a Christine O’Donnell. We just need to laugh at ourselves, and then build on the humility that that engenders.

The three 2010 Nobel Prize Winners in Economics won on the basis of work that shows friction in labor markets which leads to increased job vacancies do not necessarily lead to decreased unemployment ( Two things to note: 1) Their work was directly applied to a British program called “A New Deal for Young People”, getting people between 18 and 24 employed after long periods of unemployment, and 2) Obama had appointed one (Peter Diamond, a former professor of Ben Bernacke) to the Federal Reserve board, but republicans have dragged their feet on confirmation, arguing that Diamond doesn’t have enough experience for them. These two observations illustrate that: 1) the government has a vital role to play in greasing the gears of the economic engine (mostly by reducing transaction costs), and 2) the Republicans are increasingly obstinately wedded to ignorance, eschewing the implementation of good ideas and the utilization of those who have them in favor of the rabid promotion of their own blind ideological false certainties. The Republican rejection of one of the creators of the current model of how markets work is an eloquent testimony to the nature of the ideological contest we are in: Those who want to apply the best analyses to address the challenges we face, against those who want to cling to shallow platitudes that serve their own interests and the interests of those they identify with.

Nelson Mandela had given a team of archivists with the job of distilling from the plethora of notes, letters, and recorded conversations he had produced over the course of his lifetime, charging them not to consult him or protect his reputation in doing so (;;cbsCarousel). An amazing man thus leaves two amazing legacies, a political one, and a biographical one.

Computer algorithm driven “High Frequency Trading” now may account for as much as 70% of current trading on the New York Stock Exchange (most of which no longer occurs atthe New York Stock Exchange). These high-speed computers deploy programs that are designed to sort through and analyze virtually all quantifiable data regarding virtually all corporations trading on the NYSE, making split-second decisions to buy and sell in order to make fraction-of-a-penny gains millions of times a day. This creates a combination of benefits, problems, and dangers for the market. The primary benefit is increased liquidity: Their massive, rapid buying-and-selling function means that other traders always have a seller to buy from and a buyer to sell to.

The primary problem is market-distortion: These massive, high velocity trades, dominating the market, have nothing to do with the long-term value of the stocks, or the long-term prospects of the enterprises. Thus, they confuse the market signals being sent by flooding them with information that is only of split-second relevance. A secondary problem is the loss of transparency: No one knows, and few understand, the algorithms being utilized, and what impact they have on the fairness and functionality of trading. And yet another problem is a sort of de facto inside trading, obtaining, processing, and utilizing information before all others not engaged in high frequency trading, an advantage so sensitive to even split second differences that proximity to the server from which such information is obtained creates an advantage.

And the primary danger is that the algorithms they implement can sometimes go awry, which was exactly what happened in the case of the sudden 600 point market freefall several months ago, that shook market confidence and cost traders billions of dollars. The lesson of High Frequency Trading is that in a complex, high tech modern economy, we need to have a government regulatory structure that can keep up with it. I’ve often referred to “information asymmetries” as one of the primary reasons why the elaborate and expensive federal regulatory regime we’ve created is an absolute necessity, and, in fact, probably still too small for the task it must meet. High Frequency Trading is a perfect, almost archetypical, example of what is meant by “information asymmetries”: Those who are more centrally located to the flow and processing of relevant information have the opportunity to manipulate markets to their advantage, and to the public detriment.

Glenn Beck, still twirling his baton in the vanguard of the wing-nut parade, while busily calling all people who disagree with his, ah, “imaginative” interpretations of U.S. History and the U.S. Constitution (which includes, I would wager, somewhere north of 99.99% of all American Historians and Constitutional Law scholars) “idiots,” demonstrated for us what a non-idiot such as himself understands: That slavery was fine until the federal government stepped in to regulate it ( It’s difficult to select which aspects of this absurdity to comment on, but I’ll choose one that is not completely obvious, but is most relevant to the ideology that Beck represents: Defense of the institution of slavery (and, after abolition, of systematic institutionalized discrimination) was tightly intertwined with states rights advocacy throughout the history of this nation until at least the 1960s, when the federal government, in the culmination of a national-history-spanning evolution prioritizing the protection of individual civil liberties over states’ and private rights to violate them, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beck got it exactly backwards: It was federal government intervention that had always both threatened to end, and eventually, against the most violent opposition yet against it, actually succeeded in ending, slavery, and ending government sponsored discrimination against African Americans. And it was this precise role of the federal government, regarding this precise topic, that always was at the heart of states’ rights advocacy, and anti-federal government fervor. Whether the Tea Party is a predominantly or implicitly racist movement today (a hotly debated topic), it is certainly heir to the anti-federal government ideology that racists depended on throughout our history to protect and perpetuate their right to institute and enforce their racism in law. Defining themselves by reference to slavery (which their ideological forebears defended and perpetuated) is just not a smart move.

Susan Greene of the Denver Post, with whom I generally agree, was, I think, slightly off mark today in her overzealous definition of how broad a range of speech is, or should be, protected by the First Amendment ( The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Kansas pastor Fred Phelps has the right to mar the funerals of fallen soldiers by holding demonstrations within sight of them holding placards with such endearing phrases as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Without trying to decide the case on the legal merits, I will definitively state that I think it would be good public policy to outlaw such speech in such a context, nor would doing so be a clear violation of the First Amendment (the Supreme Court will decide whether it is a violation at all, by exploring the nuances of the issue).

Free Speech protections have always been limited in certain ways to protect other rights or public interests that might be violated by speech (e.g., laws against libel and inciting violence, and diminished protection of student speech in public schools). Time, place, and manner restrictions have always applied (you can’t disrupt any event or meeting in any way you please); the kind of “forum” involved, even when a government forum, affects how much freedom of speech others have. Private forums are that much more protected. Obviously, if the funeral were in an enclosed private space, Phelps would have no right whatsoever to violate that space. The lack of walls blocking the view from a cemetery is hardly a major legal distinction. Given the ways in which we have delimited freedom of speech in the past, I think that protecting mourners from the harassment of such speech at the time and place of mourning is well within the range of a reasonable exception to free speech protections.

Research suggests that people who believe in God tend to conceptualize God in one of four ways: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant ( Unsurprisingly, which view of God we adhere to correlates to gender, race, socio-economic status, and educational-level, and to particular social and political orientations. The irony, of course, is that right-wingers, who claim to be the defenders of liberty, tend to believe in an authoritative God who, by divine right, sharply circumscribes what liberty we should allow ourselves and others to enjoy, whereas progressives tend to believe in a more remote God, who leaves us with the responsibility of creating our own destiny.

Freedom, once again, has less to do with how free we are from our own democratically elected government than with how free we are from our own lack of imagination (or surplus of self-shackling imagination). Freedom is not a function of crippling the primary vehicle we have developed for exercising our wills in cooperative and coordinated ways (i.e., government, at all levels, including federal), but rather a function of how able we are to imagine that we are indeed free, charged with the responsibility of wisely and compassionately confronting the challenges and opportunities that we face here on Earth.

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Senator Bennet constantly impresses me with his understanding of nuances, with his awareness of social systemic complexity, and with his reluctance to reduce things to simplicities that they are not. In one speech in a small venue, for instance, I was struck by the simple phrase “…create a context in which it is more probable rather than less probable….” Rather than typical political bluster, feeding the audience whatever it wants to hear, he went to the trouble of capturing some of the complexity and nuance of governing. Rather than speak in absolutes, he spoke in deference to reality, and did so in a way which clearly engaged his audience.

Many (including me) were bewildered by Governor Ritter’s appointment of Michael, then DPS Superintendent, with a very thin political resume, to the Senate seat that was vacated when Ken Salazar was appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of the Interior. There is speculation, possibly accurate, that there were negotiations involving the president himself, who wanted to make sure that an effective and politically durable replacement for Salazar was chosen before making the Salazar appointment, and took an active hand in choosing Michael. That would only be a further recommendation of Michael’s talents, if President Obama had had any hand in his selection. But Governor Ritter tells a different story, which struck me as certainly at least somewhat accurate: That he (Gov. Ritter) had asked sitting senators, and others in positions to know, what qualities made for a successful U.S. Senator, and then compared the profile thus constructed with the list of people he was considering, concluding that Michael Bennet most closely matched the description.

But it hasn’t been an easy journey for Michael, despite having been appointed. He was wrongly cast by opponents, to the extent that opponents were able to make it stick, as someone in the pocket of big money interests. His votes in the senate, taken as a whole, don’t support that allegation, and most of the evidence used to support it is disingenuous. His rate-swap investment deal as DPS superintendent, for instance, which some use as fodder, was, according to the best informed accounts I’ve read, actually a good financial move, and preserved DPS’s long-term financial health better than any alternative would have.

In the Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff (whom I also like and respect) made a (political) virtue out of necessity, and emphasized his refusal to take PAC money. To many, that was, and is, an admirable position to take. To me, it is based on a classic kind of logical fallacy, called a “levels of analysis error”. What is desirable on one level is not necessarily facilitated, and can in fact be undermined, by pursuing it on another, pretending that the world is simply the sum of such actions.

Most of us probably agree, for instance, that world peace is a laudable goal, that carefully implemented multilateral disarmament could certainly contribute to that end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings (as Michael does of campaign finance reform). But most of us probably also agree that an American policy of unilateral disarmament would neither serve these laudable ends, nor lead to a happy outcome for the American people.

Similarly, most of us probably agree that the role of money in politics is horrible, that campaign finance reform is a highly desired end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings. But we should also realize that unilateral campaign-finance disarmament in the domestic political competition between two broad visions for our country (conservative and liberal) suffers from the same defects as unilateral military disarmament does in the geopolitical and military strife among nations. It does not serve the desired end, and does not bode well for the camp that attempts it.

I use this example not to fight an old fight, but to illustrate what I consider the necessary combination of integrity and intelligence, a commitment to serve the public good, even when it means not yielding to the demand to make empty and counterproductive political gestures that undermine one’s ability to do so. Michael stayed on message during the primary, and stayed focused on the necessity of balancing political reality with idealistic goals. That’s not easy to do.

I’ve listened to Michael many times, and he never panders to his audience, never says what he thinks they want to hear at the expense of truths he knows they don’t want to hear. Sure, he couches hard truths in the most palatable way possible; that’s part of the skill set his job requires. But he isn’t willing to compromise the truth to win support. That takes integrity. It is abundantly clear to me that Michael isn’t running for office for personal glory; he’s running because he’s a very bright and talented guy who wants to do what he can to improve the world we live in and the quality of our lives.

But what separates Senator Bennet from the many other very intelligent and capable people who would like to be a U.S. Senator (none of whom are in the race against him) is a talent that the very best and most successful elected officials have, usually as a natural trait (though it doesn’t matter whether it is learned or inherent, as long as it is authentic), that many others, even with immense charisma and public speaking skills often lack: His ability to put anyone he is talking with at ease, to make them feel that they are in the company of someone who is just a humble, reasonable, well-intentioned person trying to work together with all others to get the job done. Bill Clinton was famous for that skill. President Obama is well known for having that skill. And Michael Bennet has that skill.

Not all politicians do. And it’s value isn’t just (or primarily) that you win over the electorate that way; it’s value is that you win over other politicians and captains of industry and agency heads and leaders of non-profits and activists and all and sundry others at the nexus of political decision making that way. It’s value is that that is the trait that makes someone effective in the inner-political arena, where decision-making occurs. It’s value is that those who have that quality are the ones who can get the job done.

In our few brief one-on-one interactions, I have always been impressed with Michael’s personal aura of humble, good-natured affability. Some might say, “sure, all politicians play that role,” but most of those who are playing it rather than are it, deeply and sincerely, with more concern for the welfare of others than for their own self-glorification, betray their actual priorities in various small ways. Some of them are wonderful people, with a very real commitment to the public interest, but if their ego is bigger than that commitment, you can usually tell, especially in one-on-one conversations. There are a few, and they are the best and most successful, whose special talent is to make each person they are talking to feel like the sole focus of their attention. Michael has that talent, and it is a talent that makes him the right person for the job.

I supported Michael in the Democratic primary against a very charismatic, very popular, very talented, and very deeply loved leader of the Colorado Democratic Party, the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and someone, to his immense credit, who had generated deep and passionate loyalty among those who had worked with him and knew him. I didn’t make that choice because I thought Michael’s opponent was deficient, or would support an agenda that I opposed (I thought neither), but rather because, as impressive as his opponent was, Michael was more so.

As you might imagine, I support Michael with an incalculably greater sense of urgency against his Republican opponent, Ken Buck, a torch-bearer of Tea Party fanaticism, a person who is rapidly making a name for himself as a political chamelion of convenience by trying to back-pedal from the extreme (and clearly sincerely held) positions that won him the primary (in a contest of extremism with Jane Norton, who could not hope to keep up).

For the positive reasons of Michael Bennet’s formidable talents and qualities, and the negative reasons of who he is running against, we need to get out there, talk to our friends and neighbors, and ensure that Michael Bennet continues in his role as our junior U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

I’ve always wanted to be too cool to care about being in the presence of celebs, if and when I ever should find myself in that situation. Reason dictates that it’s both absurd and unbecoming to go ga-ga over people just because everyone knows who they are. But I’m too honest not to admit that I’m not completely immune to the hold fame has over us, that I casually covet my few direct and indirect brushes with those who occupy the stratosphere of social renown, and even a few who hover only slightly above the rest of us.

Here are the brushes (both direct and indirect) I remember: One of my brothers dated for a while (or was just good friends with, I’m never quite sure) Stephanie Zimbalist, who co-starred with the still-famous Pierce Brosnan in the television show Remington Steele a few decades ago; another brother was center screen for an incredibly long time as an extra on “Ali,” playing a reporter taking notes while Will Smith tried to look a hundred pounds heavier than he was; I chatted with Timothy Busfield (of  30-Something, Field of Dreams, and West Wing fame) in line to board a plane from Newark to New Orleans; I met Sam Elliot by the keg at the post-production party for High-Low Country in Santa Fe that I more or less crashed (by invitation from a friend of the host), not knowing anything about the film whose completion I was supposedly celebrating (so when Sam hung out with me, and asked me my name, I thought it only reasonable to ask him his as well, not recognizing him at all until later, retroactively; he seemed a little taken aback that someone presumably on the crew of the movie he had just completed not only wasn’t honored by his gift of a little attention, but had even failed to recognize him!); I had a brief encounter with Condoleezza Rice when she was either Secretary of State or National Security Advisor and living in the Watergate complex, when I was staying across the street and having my morning coffee in a little courtyard in the complex; I just saw Time Magazine icon and Chris Matthews Show panelist Joe Klein walk quietly into a candidate forum in Denver a couple of weeks ago, and kicked myself afterward for not slipping him my card with this URL on it…, and so on. I know there are at least a few other similar encounters that I can’t think of now, but you get the idea. Fame is all around.

I myself have managed to get my mug on local TV, and my mugless voice on radio, a few times over the years, most recently on Denver Channel 12 and some radio station or other on Mike Zinna’s TV and radio shows. The occasional op-ed. Little itsy-bitsy droplets of public recognition.

As a marginal state house candidate, or even just as a social activist, I’ve learned how easy it is to become familiar with political big-shots. I can’t help but play a little game with myself, gauging how well this U.S. Senator or that Congressman remembers me; and they play it as well, demonstrating that they recall my name (when they do), because they know that it’s appreciated. (One found a pretext to shout my name across a parking lot as I was leaving a function, because he clearly hadn’t remembered it the last time we had met).

But why? The last example is the easiest to use to demonstrate the answer: Because fame is social capital. I’m trying to make a career in public policy analysis and advocacy, and getting to know people who are hubs, and hopefully bigger hubs, in the hub-and-spoke social networks in which I want to work is good for my career ambitions. “Social networking” is a valuable skill, because social networks are valuable assets.

It’s primal, and it’s wired into us early in life. When we lived in bands of primates foraging on the savanna, you wanted the strongest to be your friend, and so the strongest was very popular. He had as many allies as he could handle, which made him just that much more formidable. His reputation soared, and the desire to be in his inner-circle soared with it. Life was just better if you could manage to be among the chosen, and you often could, because it served his interests as well as yours. Fame, charisma, the human rallying point of social organization, it’s all tangled together, though not always coextensive (there are famous people with no charisma, for instance).

As a child, if you’re not one of the cool kids, you sure want one of them to take you under his or her wing, because that’s a form of protection. Their local fame provides a penumbra under which you can shelter, and “bask in their reflected glory”. If you can’t be cool, you can at least be a mascot.

People who droolingly seek an autograph from a celebrity secretly dream that they’ll be noticed, have a chance to show how lovable or talented they are, and maybe actually become a friend of the celeb. That desire isn’t irrational (though the belief that it might be fulfilled may be): Elvis’s friends made a darn good living being Elvis’s friends, and becoming a member of a celebrity entourage has long been seen as an awfully good gig if you can get it. The fantasy that contact can lead to connection, like buying a lottery ticket, drives the desire to touch, to encounter, to have one moment to have a shot at striking it big.

But reason sometimes intervenes: I always had a stronger desire to meet and talk with people whose fame was based on accomplishments that impressed me than on non-accomplishments that didn’t. I sincerely have no desire whatsoever to meet the vast majority of today’s crop of celebrities, and even the one’s I respect I don’t care that much about meeting. I treasure my conversations with famous scholars far more than I treasure my chat about the New Orleans weather with Timothy Busfield, or my comical encounter with Sam Elliot.

And I treasure encounters with people whose fame is very minor indeed (or even non-existent), but have some admirable talent or achievements or social network location that make them more famous to me. When (Denver Channel 9 political reporter and talk show host) Adam Schrager emailed me to compliment a fund-raising poem I had written (the same one, with a different last stanza, now gracing the home page of this blog), and stopped by my table at a candidate forum to chat with me for a few minutes; or when (hopefully soon to be Colorado Speaker of the House) Rep. Andy Kerr, with whom I did a legal internship during the 2009 legislative session, treats me like the casual friend that I am; or when State Senator Moe Keller warmly greeted me at a “legislative breakfast” hosted by Mental Health America yesterday, and later emailed me that she “loved” my blog, I was as delighted as I could be, because the accessibility of local luminaries is more valuable, and more pleasant, than the “immensity” of national and international ones.

Andy and Moe and Adam will probably feel, on reading themselves referred to as “local luminaries,” and discussed in the context of the attraction to famous people, pretty much the same way I felt a couple of weeks ago at Summerset Festival in South Jeffco, where I spent the weekend at the Jeffco Dems booth, when a young fellow, probably in his late teens, upon learning that I was a state house candidate, took on the demeanor of someone talking to an important person, with a little bit of a tremor in his voice, not realizing how astoundingly unimportant I really am!

But that’s just it. Importance or unimportance is situational, and subjectively perceived. In this brave new world of ours, we don’t have to wait for gatekeepers to allow us to show our stuff; we can type it on our laptops and send it out there, for others to admire or disdain, letting our own qualities distill from the social continuum a little dew drop of fame, evaporating with the rising sun. The person who posts something witty, or insightful, or inspirational, is admired by all who read it, and admired in a more meaningful and substantial way than a Paris Hilton by a gushing fan. We all have gifts to give one another, a song, an insight, a gesture of goodwill, that we can share as broadly as we choose, and by doing so, generate something of lasting importance, flashing through our social networks, rapidly evolving as it goes. We can earn fame in small doses, for moments at a time, and let others earn it as well. And we can retract it from those who have only attracted attention, reserving it for those who have done something of merit.

Just like other forms of capital, fame can be earned, inherited, acquired by deception or chance, horded, spent, or invested. Celebrities who use their celebrity to promote causes and to raise money for charities are spending their fame. When they open a restaurant in their name, they are investing it. When the promote someone else (such as Oprah regularly did with her book club), they are giving some of it to others, though their own supply is not diminished by doing so.

Fame has become more diffuse, too often trivial, a circus of balloon boys and party goers, but also occasionally well deserved, such as the little girl whose brilliant operatic voice on U-Tube landed her on American Idol. We are no longer apes on the savanna, no longer needing to focus on centralized individuals toward which to gravitate and around which to form hierarchies. We are now a decentralized network of interconnected minds, the juice of fame coursing among us all, lighting up momentarily here or there, and moving on.

Like other forms of capital, it is increased by being dispersed, it flows rather than resides, and it should be invested rather than horded. Recognition from the recognized has value, and increases the quantity and quality of recognition to be bestowed.

Let’s be one another’s entourage, sharing a fame that belongs to no one in particular, bestowing on one another the respect that we can all strive to deserve, and creating together the penumbra under which to shelter ourselves. Let’s bask in each other’s reflected glory, in our collective glory, without burdening any one of us with its exclusive possession, or denying the rest of us its occasional delight.

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