• Giving Optimism a Chance

    • Posted on Mar 11, 2018

    Here's today's (Sunday 3-11) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  It's about clear-eyed, evidence-based optimism based on Steven Pinker's new book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW. The book deserves a good look, and after a good pondering, a mind-change.  Hard-core pessimists will find reasons to dismiss it, but open-minded folks might find it helpful for rethinking the question of whether humankind is getting better at reaching long-held ideals.  

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    So, is the glass half empty or half full?  I’m trying a new answer. 

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s, when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally.  As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle—not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

    I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.     

    My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook, and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long.  Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery. 

    Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause. 

    Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has improved. 

    I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors. 

    At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea that mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years.  Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television, and the movies.  It all felt familiar and safe.  

    This was back when a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.   

    Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

    Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is that those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease, and cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm.  Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs, and data for every point.     

    In 2016, President Obama asserted, “. . .if you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.”  Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence, and so on.         

    Pinker cautions that none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems, and large-scale financing.  Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything.  No complacency allowed. 

    So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree. 

    Pessimists, is the glass half full after all?  Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.  

    Go comment!
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  • Lunch with a Leader: JON CREWS

    • Posted on Apr 07, 2017
    Jon Crews, Cedar Falls' longest serving mayor (15 terms) died yesterday.  Last April 23, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier published my extensive lunchtime conversation with Jon.  Seems timely to republish it now.  

     

                “Steady as she goes” may not work as a campaign slogan, but it surely worked for Jon Crews as mayor of Cedar Falls for over thirty years.

                Crews began his mayorship in 1974 when he was 24, and ended last summer when he withdrew from the campaign.  

                He had won fifteen two-year elections, most of them easily. He left the position twice for a total of 14 years, then returned for 16 more years.   “I successfully succeeded my successors,” as he put it.   We met over lunch, and I found him down to earth, funny, honest, self-aware, and moving on without a trace of bitterness.  

                While deciding to retire, “I was worried about filling my days after so many years in City Hall,” he said, “but I’ve found plenty to do.”

                 Besides visiting six grandchildren from a blended marriage, he’s enthusiastic about two projects, both community-oriented.  He works locally with the “Senior Medicare Patrol,” which alerts seniors locally and nationwide to Medicare fraud and abuse.  He speaks to seniors and concerned groups about where such scams are found and how to thwart them.

                “Medicare fraud is a multi-billion dollar business, and can wreck seniors’ lives.” 

                He’s also helping develop a new de-stressing tool that involves electronic signals to help calm anxieties—which he believes show promise for helping vets with PTSD, as well as people on the autism spectrum and anxiety issues.    

                So Jon Crews still contributes to his community, and does so with energy and good will.

                He acknowledges that he was “ubiquitous” as mayor, a tag that describes his ongoing attendance at most community events, from art shows to jazz concerts to school plays to bicycle races.  “Even if we didn’t see you,” one citizen told him, “we knew you were there.”

                Crews’ leadership style amounts to “hiring good people and getting our of their

    way—I didn’t micromanage.”  And that means collaborating, cooperating, and compromising.  Not flashy, but refreshing in our current politically stalemated culture.        

                Using this approach, Crews saw the city develop a huge and successful industrial park, with 170 businesses.  It barely existed when Crews began.

                 Downtown Cedar Falls now vibrates with energy, with a Main Street that’s a model for similar cities. Eyesore buildings are being replaced, new restaurants are starting, old ones are remodeling condos are filling up along the riverfront.  All manner of small businesses fill the street and attract customers from across the Cedar Valley.    

                It’s how College Square used to look as Main Street went moribund. Now that’s reversed.  

                Crews recognizes that not everyone has been happy with his leadership, and cites the roundabout controversy as a current example.  “I tried to do the right thing rather than what’s popular.  All the data showed that roundabouts are safer and better for traffic flow.  So we listened to objectors, but found they couldn’t back up their complaints.  So we went ahead.” 

                He agreed it’s a mess on now, but street repairs are always disruptive, especially on major roads.  

                Of all his accomplishments, he cites a humble but important innovation: the one-person garbage pickup truck.  “Garbage pickups used to be the most dangerous job in the city.”  Now it’s safe and cheaper, thanks to his administration’s support for changing garbage pickup protocols.

                His low point?  The flood of 2008, which all but inundated parts of Cedar Falls, causing serious damage to neighborhoods and buildings.  

                However, it was not all dark.  “That flood and the cleanup did show the resiliency of the city.  We were back on our feet fairly quickly, with little lasting damage.”

                The city also re-zoned flooded areas so that fewer buildings now stand in harm’s way from inevitable Cedar River floods.   

                Another controversial area was “cross training” police and firefighters, so that both can be certified for policing and firefighting.  This doesn’t sit well with either group, but Crews supported it, and it still stands.   “Many firefighting jobs aren’t very specialized, so we thought it made sense to offer double duty.”

                What’s the purpose of city government? I asked, and he immediately answered,
    “the health and safety of its citizens, and prosperity, to the degree we can influence that.”   Overall, he’s satisfied with all three, but took little direct credit.  “The good people I hired and supported did their jobs well.  I always appreciated how good they were,” and that included a number of local volunteers, as well as Main Street Cedar Falls, a group that oversees downtown activities. 

                I wondered about Cedar Falls as a city without much racial diversity, and he agreed.  “Real estate costs more everywhere in Cedar Falls, and that may be part of it.”

    That’s an issue that deserves attention, I thought, and has been all but neglected.

                He mentioned two high points of his career: the day he started, when he realized that he actually had been elected mayor of a good-sized city.  That news made the Wall Street Journal---“above the fold,” he said proudly.

                And when he left office, his son organized a retirement party at City Hall that provided an overview of his career. “That’s a day I won’t forget.”  He felt a tide of gratitude that still makes him smile.

                Finally, he’s been surprised that he received so few angry or even complaining phone calls.  “One a year—that’s it.”  

                Collaborating, cooperating, compromising, few complaints.  I’d say Crews discovered the secret to good leadership, and implemented it.  

                Steady as she goes indeed.

               

               

               

               

                 

     

     

                

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