No One Sleeps in Afghanistan Tonight

Right now, the country of Afghanistan is being overrun by a the military of a fundamentalist religious organization. You’ve heard of these bad guys. They are called the Taliban.

The scene in Kabul, the capital city, is terrifying. Government officials are fleeing buildings. The airport is overflowing as people rush to evacuate. In the city, people are tearing down advertisements. The reason? Images on the ads may anger the hardliners who are taking over.

Within a week, this will not be the nation it was. And those citizens are petrified. No one sleeps in Afghanistan tonight.


There’s a lot to unpack here: how America got involved in Afghanistan in the first place. Why we were there, what happened, and where we are now. And everyday citizens deserve fair and complete answers to those questions.

But right now, the situation is changing too quickly. The people of Afghanistan are fearful of what is about to happen, minute by minute. They may be rounded up or separated from their loved ones. They may be judged for supporting the democratically-elected regime. Or worse.

Because no one sleeps in Afghanistan tonight.

Tomorrow we can ask about the trillion American dollars we spent on the war, and if it was a waste. Tomorrow we can ask about the 2,312 American lives lost in the conflict, and if their sacrifice has been forsaken. Tomorrow we can discuss policies and practicalities.

But tonight is for the Afghans. For the people of Kandahar and Jalalabad. For the Pashtuns and the Tajiks and the Uzbeks. We should be thinking not of us, but of them.

Because no one sleeps in Afghanistan tonight.

The Art of Fair Questions

I was cleaning up some dishes at work last week when a guest stopped me with a question. “Do you have salt and pepper?”

“Yes, absolutely!” I said, and walked away.


Okay, that’s not the end of the story. I did bring them one shaker of each. But the point is that do you have salt and pepper is not quite the right question. In order to answer correctly, it has to be interpreted in the way the person asking meant for it to be.

We were at a restaurant and I wait tables, so this one is pretty easy to figure out. But in politics, the questions are often not as straightforward. That’s because these questions aren’t just accidentally unclear. They are unclear on purpose, as they are designed to be divisive. These questions are purposefully unfair.

How do you make a bad question? Start with a simple one, and then add assumptions. For example consider:

What is freedom?
vs.
Why does the other party hate freedom so much?

Fair questions can seem silly about every day topics. Wondering why is the sky blue doesn’t seem to be improved by saying why does the sky appear blue to me. But compare these:

Less FairMore Fair
Why are poor people so lazy?Is there a connection between poverty and work ethic?
Why don’t billionaires pay their share of taxes?How much do extremely wealthy people pay in taxes?
Which party raided the social security trust fund?How does the social security trust fund work, and has that changed since it started?

Fair questions sometimes take a minute to say. That’s because acknowledging bias requires effort.

Which is one more way you know you’re not in a civil discussion. The more we’re talking in soundbites, the less we’re talking in detail.

Politics needs good ideas in response to hard questions. And that, my friends, takes time.

One Vote at a Time

At the corner of 10th and Sherman on the east side of Indianapolis, there’s a quotation stenciled onto the part of the overpass:

Whatever you do in life may well be insignificant but it is very important that you do it.

Ghandi

This is not a great part of town. Crime here is about three times the national average. And I don’t know who is reading these words as they drive, pedal, or walk by.

But I do know that I find them inspiring. Not just for this campaign, where I am trying to talk to voters every day. But also for every decision in life. Do I hit the snooze button or do get up and go? Do I eat an extra dish of ice cream or do I make smarter choices? Am I thinking of others with each individual action I take, or I am thinking only of myself?

Maybe all politicians have these questions running through their minds. I do not know.

But what I do know is that everyday people do. The individuals I know and love, the parents and children and employees and caretakers and business owners all around us–these are people who are doing things with great intention.

So, I am going to keep writing. I am going to keep listening to others and talking to them. Because none of this may be significant in the end.

But it is significant right now.

Bigger Than a Conspiracy Theory

Everybody knows that the U.S. government keeps a massive stockpile of gold at the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky.

It was first moved there in the 1930s, and the building is one of the most secure in the world. You’ve heard the expression before: “as secure as Fort Knox.”

(And yes, the gold is really there. In addition to all of the media coverage when the vault was being loaded back in the day, it’s been audited by many professionals and visited by senators and at least one Treasury Secretary.)

But here’s a funny question about Fort Knox. If an enormous and powerful government wants to keep their gold depository in a safe location, why announce where it is?

This question should irk you. Remember, governments do need to keep secrets sometimes. It’s probably the case that you have some secrets of your own, or secrets for your family. Maybe the business where you work has a secret recipe or a bit of software or something that it’s best to keep under wraps.

So why did the U.S. government announce where they were going to keep all the gold? Because it’s impossible to keep a secret that big.

This is what I ask when I hear theories about “something” enormously dangerous that “they” don’t want you know about. What would it take to keep that a secret? How would you convince thousands of professionals to keep quiet about a secret that would change the world if discovered?

The answer is that while it makes for great television, in real life it’s usually impossible. We couldn’t even stop leaks from the atomic bomb project [1]. So it seems pretty unlikely that there is some mind-blowing, worldwide secret conspiracy of a handful of wealthy elite who are controlling virtually every aspect of our lives.

What is happening instead is far more frightening. The reason we have global conflicts, supply chain issues, labor strikes, public health disasters, each and every humanitarian crisis, and lines out the door is not because of some conspiracy to make things difficult. It’s because of incompetence.

You know this, because you’ve experienced it. You’ve had a boss that clearly had no idea what they were doing. You’ve spent hours on the phone trying to resolve a billing problem that should not have been that hard. You’ve personally seen mistakes that cost people thousands of dollars, or more. And there may be a time that you yourself did something wrong but never faced any consequences.

The crisis we face is not one of a handful of conspiracies, but an epidemic of incompetence. And most of the time, the problem is buried machinery of life. It’s whoever hired that idiot who was your supervisor. It’s the committee that failed to notice the recurring problem in the accounting system. It’s the well-intentioned rule that backfired under real-world conditions.

Government is about as the same as anywhere else. Mostly good people trying to do their best in a broken system. But government is huge, which means the problems are bigger.

And if we’re going to solve the problem, we’ve to to start with the truth. The problem is not a conspiracy. That would be easy to solve: round up the bad guys and put the good guys there instead.

The problem is incompetence. If we can admit that, we can begin to make everything better.


[1] http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2013/09/20/worst-manhattan-project-leaks/

That Was Depressing

I went down to the Indiana statehouse today to attend a public hearing on redistricting. This is the once-every-ten-years process of drawing the boundaries for election maps. Typically, these events will have some opening comments by lawmakers, and then there will be the opportunity for citizens to ask questions or make comments. Usually there’s at least two sides to the topic at hand, with lots of other spin-off issues as well.

Not this time. Instead what happened was the representatives said their names, and then the public made the same comments over and over again for two hours.

Sure, there were some variations. But basically people said they wanted the new districts to be fair. The lines should be drawn so the shapes aren’t all wonky, so that each district is about equally diverse in terms of race, party membership, and so on.

I don’t get the sense, however, that any of the elected officials care about that.[1] Because if they did, they could have already appointed an independent commission to draw the lines. Or they could have already announced their criteria so that when the Census data comes out [2], they would plug it into the pre-announced formulas and walk away. Or they could have commented on the existing districts and their plan to change them.

None of that has happened. Because even though there were over a hundred people at this event, we are not the constituents.

The money is the constituent.


[1] With the exception of some members of the party that’s not in power.

[2] That’s tomorrow. As in literally this hearing is being held the day before the U.S. Census Bureau does their data release.

A Template for Bad Political Arguments

Pick a number: 1, 2 or 3. Remember it, and read this:

We could make ______ illegal. Yes, it would be politically challenging, as people are extremely divided. Those who are for ______ (which includes many corporations and lobbyists) have tremendous political power and resources. Those against ______ would have a hard time getting a majority. We’re unlikely to see any change.

But the worst part is that even if ______ were made illegal, that wouldn’t stop most individuals. People would find a way to ensure that ______ are available and accessible. They would have ______ in secret. And really, the problems that do exist with ______ would continue, but would be harder to study because ______ would be illegal.

So really, banning ______ wouldn’t work. The main effect of changing the law would be to drive ______ underground.


Now, go back and substitute one of the following words based on the number you chose, and read that again.

  1. Guns
  2. Abortions
  3. Alcoholic beverages

Feel free to try it again with the other two.


This is one of the many reasons that politics is broken. Issues are framed as extremes, and we all know that nothing will change if we’re only focused on some idealized outcome. However:

In truth, we can make real progress on the issue of ______. We can have meaningful discussions about whether or not ______ are a fundamental human right, and if so in what situations. Because even those of us who do think that ______ are an essential freedom that must be maintained, we all generally agree that there are some limits worth at least discussing. For example: should _______ be available to everyone, regardless of their age or mental status?

I know it’s hard to talk about ______ without feeling emotional, especially if ______ have had a deeply personal impact on your life. But we must, in order for us to decide, together, what to do next.

That’s for 1, 2, and 3. And also 4, 5, 6 and thousands more.

Let’s not jump to extremes. Let’s try talking.

Do This Experiment, Right Now

I am interested in politics, but I don’t like how seemingly everything has become political. By that I mean people seem to want to take simple concepts and use them to demonize others.

Here’s an example: the idea of doing an experiment. This is giving something a try because you have a prediction of how it might turn out. We do it with recipes and restaurants, hoping the experience will be tasty. We do it when we take a new route to work, believing it might be faster or feel safer. This idea–the idea of doing an experiment–is a perfectly normal activity.

But now I’m going to suggest you do an experiment, on your own. It’s going to feel political, because everything has become political.

I want you to open your mouth and cough on the back of your hand. Notice what it feels like. And then I want you to grab one of those face masks that we’ve all been carrying around for the last year, put it on, and repeat the experiment.

I am not going to tell you what will happen. But I will say that the results of this experiment will tell you something. The question is: are you focused on what occurred, or on how it was politicized?

Try it for yourself. And then decide for yourself what that means.

Of Course You Think I’m Foolish

I was reading about this French police officer named Alphonse Bertillon. About his life, about his work. I imagined all of Alfie’s friends down at the café. I bet they made fun of him. I assume they would tell jokes at his expense. And also, his pals surely worried about poor Alfie when he was away.

Because Alphonse Bertillon started his career at the Prefecture of Police in Paris back in 1879. And he had this absolutely out-of-this-world notion that you could keep track of criminals that were repeat offenders. So he invented the idea of taking and tracking body measurements. Of carefully posed photographs we know as mugshots. Of using a bit of ink to do something called fingerprinting.

No wonder they thought he was nuts.


I get if if you’re a little concerned about me. This idea of mine—regular person running for Congress as an independent with no real budget—I understand if you’re shaking your head. Oh, Robby.

But I feel a bit like Alphonse Bertillon. And while I recognize it’s egotistical to compare myself to him, it’s not like you had heard of him either.

Yet, he must have believed in himself, despite all the pushback and the low probabilities. He must have had people who listened, who helped, who spread the word.

So that’s what I’m doing, too. I know some of you might be worried about me. But I believe that this—a regular person running for Congress as an independent with no real budget—this is possible. I think it’s something you and I can do.

Thanks, Alfie.

I Lost My Car Keys

It happened earlier today. I was bringing a bunch of things inside and I must have dropped them. This is because my keychain is damaged and the car keys can slip off. I’ve been meaning to fix this, of course, but we all know how that goes. We all have tasks we are planning to do but haven’t gotten to just yet. I need to repair a part of my keys.

Once I realized they were missing, I began to look for them. I checked inside and out, in the hallway and the stairwell. I peered under the car and in the grass nearby. Nothing.

And then when I gave up to go back inside, I found the tiny, oval-shaped device sitting neatly on the concrete trim outside the building. Someone had found it and placed it there, hoping the owner would see it. Which I did. And now I can drive my car again.


The reason I am telling you this story is because there was a stranger who did the right thing. And I think stories like this are actually quite common. People do the right thing all the time. They turn in wallets and keys to the lost and found. They help strangers. They hold doors and carry packages and let other people go first. They give to charities, say prayers, and are kind when no one is watching.

If you watch the news, you’re likely to think that most people are horrible. But if you lose your keys, there’s a surprisingly good chance that anyone who finds them will try to help.

Which is why I think there’s hope for politics. Most people are good. Even if we’re often told they aren’t.

Thank you to whoever found my keys.

Yes, It’s Overwhelming

I was driving down Main Street in Carmel today, thinking about the opportunity to represent the people of our community in Congress. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the idea of that is in fact terrifying.

It’s overwhelming because there’s so much I know that I don’t know. I spot businesses that have sprung up since I was last paying attention. I notice a sea of faces in restaurant patios of people who I have not met. There are construction projects that I don’t recognize. And that’s one street—one I usually drive down a few times a month.

This follows a trip around the district a few days ago, up to Westfield, over to Sheridan, down through Big Springs and then to Zionsville. These are places I’ve driven through before but I don’t know them well. And they are full of people and stories it would take a thousand lifetimes to truly understand.

Because in truth, no one could know all of this. No one could be intimately familiar with every square mile of a single town, much less an entire Congressional district. It’s humbling to consider being elected to this office. Because no matter what one person does—no matter what I do—one can never be completely qualified to represent others. Even with total devotion to service, we will always fall short.

There are other candidates in this race already. Many people have already decided to vote for them. I might disagree with those candidates on policy, on messaging, on the challenges that face us.

But I truly hope that anyone who is running is feeling humbled. I know, every day, that I am.