Paddling Out Past the Fear

Christine Blasey Ford doesn’t consider that her real name. At work, she’s Dr. Ford. For old friends, it’s Chrissy. In the mind of the public, however, it’s Christine Blasey Ford. That one detail – not being able to name oneself – encapsulates much of what it is like to be a media/political story. Ford’s memoir, One Way Back, is a fascinating exploration of what that all is like. The simple summary? It is awful and best avoided if at all possible.

Ford, as a reminder, is the academic research psychologist who came forward during the Senate hearings surrounding Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. He attacked her decades earlier when they were in their teens. Ford was traumatized, pushed much of the assault aside – the norm for the time period. Through therapy many years later, though, Ford realized how the assault affected her, its interplay with family dynamics, and other questions of choice and preference. When Kavanaugh was named, she thought sharing what happened to her was the right thing to do.

Morals, unfortunately, have little to do with the way that politics, political theater and the media operate.

One Way Back is about Ford’s journey, the why behind her decisions, and the terrific costs she and her family endured along the way. She’s a very intelligent, focused, and clear-thinking professional. Ford is also an avid surfer. More than a hobby to her, surfing is essential to her personal grounding, to her identity, and to her health.

I came away from the book liking her and admiring her choices. The memoir is not about policy and it is not an argument for anything. It is about her life, her values, and telling her story. Ford’s directness, which no doubt has caused her challenges over the years, is central to her identity. As a work of non-fiction, it offers credible first-hand information about how statements can be received (or not), how they are manipulated and shaped by others, and the massive distance between “history” and “media accounts.” One other important takeaway from One Way Back: be careful of snap judgments and headlines.

David Potash

Triumph and Freedom – Fighting the FLDS

An American religious cult based in the far west, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is a polygamist group that split from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) more than a century ago. For decades the FLDS has attracted concern and attention from law enforcement, often because of its sexual abuse of girls and casting out young men. The FLDS believes that its leader is the one and only voice of God. Accordingly, FLDS membership, family structures, work, and nearly all aspects of life is controlled and directed. The current leader, or prophet, of the FLDS, issues edicts from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for sexual assaults and other crimes. The FLDS has been covered extensively in the media, from news stories to documentaries. More is on the way as people escape the cult and attempt to create new lives, integrating into the modern world. A nativist domestic cult that has harmed thousands, the FLDS has patriarchy and the subjection of women at its core, along with violence and white supremacy. The FLDS is an evil organization.

Two memoirs, promoted at a local library, opened a window into life in the FLDS. Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs, by Rachel Jeffs, is the story of life in the cult and the author’s escape. Carolyn Jessop’s Triumph: Life After the Cult – A Survivor’s Lessons is written from a different place, as the author left the FLDS years before and is now working to free others from its grasp. Both Jeffs and Jessop hail from FLDS leadership families. Both authors had extremely difficult childhoods, were abused, and were forced into arranged marriages. Family ties – and through FLDS practice of arranged marriages and multiple wifes, the connections are very complex – supported and constrained both women. They love their children and their family members, yet at the same time, so many of the extended family and FLDS practices were toxic. Both women are heroes, fighting for agency and independence. The journey to agency, though, is neither quick or nor linear. It is no surprise that both actively resist being labeled as victims.

It is fascinating to learn how both women, and their friends and family, have wrestled with their personal histories and gaining independence. We are, by nature, social and our understanding of ourselves and our world is shaped by those around us. Change is difficult, and for these authors, it has required time and great strength. One cheers for them as they fight for decency and agency.

For those interested in what life was like in the FLDS, Jeffs’ account is the more immediate. To better understand how the FLDS used laws and structures to maintain power, Jessop’s book is more helpful. Read in conjunction, the two memoirs offer something else – a lesson on how extreme patriarchy functions. It is toxic, antithetical to democratic values, and denies people – especially women – anything akin to real humanity. This is not abstract academic gender theory. One does not need to study the Taliban or ancient history. The FLDS offers a close to home primer on the malevolent ways that religion, sex and family structures can persist, even today, while causing great harm.

The books are harrowing, frightening, and very personal. These are memoirs. The authors write directly, from the heart. Despite the hardships portrayed, ultimately, both books affirm the power of individual growth, choice and agency.

David Potash

Elderly Democracies: Hospice or New Life?

David Runciman, a professor of politics of Cambridge University, is a prolific scholar whose work resonates in the public sphere. He podcasts, appears regularly on television and other media, and has an impact on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. An academic with a scholarly legacy, Runciman has the rare ability to make complicated subjects accessible while remaining appreciative of their complexity. These and other skills are in full display in How Democracy Ends, Runciman’s 2018 publication. Clearly written and organized, the book makes the claim that democracy, in particular American democracy, “is going through a mid-life crisis.” It is a refreshing and provocative lens through which to understand the passivity, anger, and impulsive behavior found in much contemporary politics.

At pains to recognize the lessons of history while stressing that the path is no guide to the future, Runciman’s book draws on the scholarship of political scientists as well as a comparativist perspective. It is structured around three broad themes or ways of imagining democracy’s demise: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. Runciman’s overall perspective is somewhat gloomy but not deterministic. He believes that therapy for the middle aged, be it individual or system of government, can shake things up and lead to new and healthier behavior.

The section on coup looks at the many ways that conspiracies can end democratic rule. Trump’s presidency figures prominently, even though the book was written well before the 2020 election. Runciman notes that in healthy democracy, the analogy of a civil war without violence is apt. Consensus is illusory. Instead, one finds continuous and vigorous debate. That process can be subverted when a small group is able to seize control of the system through a coup. The 1967 coup in Greece is examined and contrasted with more recent upheavals due to debt. The issues, dynamics and threat to democracy simply did not play out the same way in Greece in 2015. The 1961 attempted coup in France failed, as did the 2016 attempt in Turkey, yet the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe was successful. Runciman argues that a successful and coordinated conspiracy is essential, yet not determinative, of a successful coup.

The section on catastrophe looks at three possibilities for democracy’s end: through war, through poisoning the environment, or through evil. For the latter, think of the Nazi’s or other forms of state sponsored killing. The challenge that Runciman stresses is the disconnect between the bread and butter issues of everyday politics and the more abstract and long-term ways that these threats might materialize. Through this and other chapters, Runciman weaves into the narrative the works of scholars and examples from history and around the world. In the last section, he focuses on the possibility of technology bringing about democracy’s end. The section also looks at the flow of information through various media and the elusiveness of “truth” in shaping decision-making.

Runciman concludes the book with a reflection on what might be better, what could help democracy. He is to be congratulated for his candor in admitting that he does not have ideal solutions. Admitting the appeal of promised solutions to many voters that may reduce individual agency and choice, Runciman posits the dignity inherent in a healthier democracy. He sees some hope in technology offering greater freedoms. To get to this point, though, Runciman warns that we have much learning to do.

If there was one way to improve the work, it would be to give greater consideration to economic factors as well as to the tremendous dislocations affecting more than a hundred of million of displaced peoples. These issues, I contend, will and do have great impact on local, national, and international politics.

How Democracy Ends is a thoughtful and provocative work. It raises more questions than providing answers, and that is fine. Runciman does not pretend to know the future. His work does make, though, for significantly more informed prognostication.

David Potash

Tune-up or Rebuild the Machinery of Government

A few years into the Trump presidency, two Harvard University professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die. The book was a best-seller, calling out the decline in tolerance and respect across political party divides. The pair followed that effort in 2023 with Tyranny of the Minority. Equally popular, this volume highlights historical crises to make arguments for deep structural reform in the American machinery of government.

The authors frame current political conditions through a particular lens. They believe that as the US has been moving to a multiracial democracy, whites have led a retreat from democracy and embraced an authoritarian alternative. They stress that the US’s embrace of extremism stands apart from other countries and that America’s backsliding from democracy is unique. The US Constitution, the book argues, is a key reason. Institutions do not save democracy, the authors stress. Instead, they claim that it is people and action.

Tyranny of the Minority draws on historical examples from countries other than the US. Levitsky is a comparative political scientist and Ziblatt has studied conservative parties in Europe. They note that in healthy democracies, the peaceful transfer of power in paramount. Looking at American history, they stress the difficulties the Federalists faced in 1800. They believe that the peaceful transfer of power is easier when the losing party believes that it stands a chance of winning in the future and that losing will not lead to catastrophe. These are not rules but instead observations drawn from historical examples at the national level.

The authors also draw comparative examples from France in 1934. At the time, a period of significant economic hardship across many countries, there were widespread politically motivated riots and little accountability afterwards. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify semi-loyal democrats, leaders whose commitment to democracy wavers in the face of opportunity, as one of the greatest threats in times of conflict. Weak democrats (small “d”) provide the environment for authoritarianism to grow. Authoritarianism, they believe, is “banal” and tolerated to a dangerous degree.

From that point, the authors pivot to ways that authoritarians and weak democrats can erode democracy: exploit gaps in rules, excessive use of the law, selective use of law enforcement, and “lawfare,” the creation of laws that go after political opponents. They draw on US history to demonstrate that this has happened in America, in the failures of Reconstruction and especially through the riots/coup in Wilmington, NC, in the 1890s.

The book then jumps to contemporary American politics, noting that the current Republican party has changed dramatically. The authors believe that the source of the shift stems from America’s growth of a multiracial democracy. Issues of class do not figure in the argument. Rather, white fear, exacerbated by the Obama presidency, is identified as the culprit. Radicalization of the GOP took place through primaries, moving the party farther and farther to the right with each campaign. Trump accelerated the process. As a consequence, the authors affirm, the Republican party today is not in alignment with key democratic principles: accept the results of fair elections, reject the use of violence to gain power, and have no ties with antidemocratic extremists.

And what of majorities? Tyranny of the Minority highlights the many ways in America that majority impulses are constrained by the courts, the constitution, as well as laws and practice. The authors admit that majorities do need limits in healthy democracies, especially when it comes to civil liberties and in the rules of democracy itself. For example, a law that facilitates someone staying in power indefinitely is not acceptable. Going deeper into the scholarship, the book references Melissa Schwartzberg, who has studies how supermajority rules can advance the rights of specific minorities. As an example, think about white slaveholders in the 1800s or wealthy farmers securing water rights.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the book underscores the many provisions in the constitution that limit the power of majorities. Known to everyone who has studied basic government in high school, they include the formation of states, the bicameral US Congress and Senate, the Electoral College and much more. With the oldest form of government on the planet, America has not addressed these deep anti-majority provisions, the authors argue. What remains, or has remained in the United States, is minority rule. Two examples put forward include abortion/reproductive rights and gun control, issues where the majority of Americans have opinions that are in conflict with law and policy. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt are not concerned about this tension. Instead, they worry that the minority will subvert laws to become permanently entrenched.

Other countries have navigated these changes. The US has not and the stumbling block, the authors assert, is the difficulty of amending the Constitution. Their call, accordingly, is to change and become a multiracial democracy or not be a democracy at all. The authors push for expanding and insuring the right to vote, making sure that majorities who win elections do get to rule, and a number of other changes, from ending the Senate filibuster to judicial terms limits.

Tyranny of the Minority is written clearly in a matter-of-fact tone. Its description of America’s current problems is well-reasoned and the book’s call for attention and reform of the nation’s machinery of government is timely. Moreover, the author’s contextualization of the US within global and historical examples is commendable. Far too often implicit American exceptionalism clouds analysis.

On the other side of the ledger, I have concerns with the book’s use of historical examples and the authors’ diagnosis of America’s current political landscape. The term “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. That was not accidental. Understanding and appreciation of democratic norms have varied tremendously over the years. Implicit in the book is an assumption of wide understanding and appreciation of democracy, perhaps as hoped for during the Obama presidency. Instead, history illustrates, again and again, that democratic processes and assumptions are always being tested. Whether it is voting rights for people of color or women, or when and how certain decisions are made (referendum, judicial decision, initiative), democratic concepts are more fluid than the authors acknowledge.

Further complicating the book’s argument is the absence of appreciation of republican conceptions of government. The Constitution guarantees a “republican” form of government. Tyranny of the Minority would have been significantly stronger if the authors has given attention to an analysis of representative democracy as exercised through a republic. Likewise missing from the book’s big-picture argument are economics and financial concerns. The authors regularly write of multiracial democracy. They do not write about an inclusive democracy that affords rights to the poor. Many scholars believe that economic inequality is of equal if not greater importance to diagnosing America’s current political conflict.

Tyranny of the Minority rightly raises vital historical, political and policy issues that are central to keeping America’s democratic traditions alive and vibrant. Levitsky and Ziblatt deserve praise for making these issues accessible for public debate. However, the book is far from the definitive or last word on the issue.

David Potash

Tall Fences, Happy Neighbors and Unhappy Communities

Richard H. Kahlenberg is an idea machine, a writer on public policy who offers new and challenging takes on difficult problems. He has written on higher education, schools, affirmative action, teachers unions and more through books, journals and articles. A graduate of Harvard, college and law, his curiosity and desire for a fairer, more just America, drives his work. Kahlenberg’s latest effort, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimybism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See is provocative examination of one of the country’s most intractable issues: fair housing. Overflowing with observations, ranging from history to policy to economics to anecdote, the book makes a compelling argument that the problems surrounding housing are much deeper, and influential, than most realize. It had me thinking about housing in America in different ways.

How might one think about and explain housing in the US? Focus on a city, a neighborhood, or region? Some scholars do comparison analyses while others look to explore policy, framing high-level issues and contrasting that with what happens locally, in a particular city or neighborhood. Complicating the question, there are many different housing policies and practices, as well as local histories of housing, throughout the country. The topic is so large that definitions and boundaries inherently complicate the work and potential understanding. In Excluded, Kahlenberg’s focus is on exclusionary zoning and its impact. He argues that exclusionary zoning is discriminatory and causes great harm, possibly even more than sexism and racism. Zoning determines who lives where. That has tremendous consequences, shaping opportunities, jobs, education, health care, quality of life and even length of life. We all know that poverty, a seemingly intractable problem, is concentrated in geographic areas. Kahlenberg stresses in this book that those concentrations are the result of political policy choices, often expressed through zoning policy.

Excluded, though, is not just a policy study. It shares the stories of people, families, and the effects of housing on their lives. It may sound basic, yet it is vital to underscore this point. Where one lives dictates so much, shaping and framing the boundaries of a life.

The book is not only interested in those that are excluded. On the flip side, those that have been able to secure housing have seen tremendous economic benefit, particularly in the past fifty years. The book underscores how zoning, tax policy and other imposed limitations on housing have driven up prices and will continue to do so. Kahlenberg reminds up that it was not always so in the United States. Decades ago affordable housing facilitated internal migration and greater opportunities. Current policy framed through exclusionary zoning works in the other direction. Its negative impact is mostly felt by those of color and without wealth.

Exclusionary zoning can take many forms. Excluded would have been stronger with a more systematic exploration of it. These include banning multiple family dwellings to increased lot size to landlords refusing to rent to those with housing assistance, and many other policy decisions. “Economic zoning is perfectly legal,” Kahlenberg repeatedly emphasizes. The book’s chapters do not make distinct arguments so much as reinforce each other. Class bias, the smugness and self-interest of those that have (be their on the left or the right), and the unwillingness of political leaders to address these core vehicles of inequality are likewise recurring themes. Moreover, most attempts at zoning reform fail.

The history is not all dire. Excluded does a fine job highlighting innovative efforts in Minneapolis and Portland. Kahlenberg stresses, though, that change at the federal level is essential. The latter part of the book is an overview and plea for the Economic Fair Housing Act, proposed legislation that never became law during the early years of the Biden administration. In fact, a shorter rewritten version of Excluded would serve as a powerful argument for the act.

Excluded is very interesting. It is informative, without being particularly systematic nor wonkish. More than anything else, it will raise your awareness and make you ask questions about housing policies, be they local or larger. How we think about the question of who lives where needs new life. Towards that end, Richard Kahlenberg has done important service.

David Potash

Seeing Through Myths and Stories

Nesrine Malik is a London-based journalist who writes for The Guardian and presents on the BBC. Born in the Sudan, Malik spent most of her early years in the mid-east before moving to the UK. She writes about contemporary politics, especially in the U.S. and England, Islam, and identity politics. Malik is very smart and unapologetic in her critiques. She provides a vital perspective, informed by her personal history.

Right before the pandemic, Malik’s book, We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom, was published. It is a short, accessible and thoughtful presentation of six “myths: that frame US/UK political culture. Do not think of Joseph Campbell. Instead, conjure up what everyone knows to be true but turns out is not, actually, true. Malik efficiently assesses and critiques these myths, or commonly accepted “truths”, as most definitely creative fictions. They are lies or misunderstandings with a purpose and impact. She effectively argues in the book that the myths stand in the way of human freedom.

Malik’s focus, accordingly, is not on just on using data to demonstrate what is and is not accurate. She is after something slightly different, the effect of mindset when it comes to how important big picture political issues are framed. The six myths Malik calls out are the myth of the reliable narrator, political correctness, a free speech crisis, harmful identity politics, national exceptionalism and gender equality. The terrain is all contemporary. Each chapter, though, provides some reference as each of these have lengthy and complicated historical roots. Woven throughout the exposition are examples and observations drawn from Malik’s personal history as an Islamic woman growing up in the Sudan. She sees things that many of us who have lived in the culture might not recognize.

For each of the myths, Malik presents data, resources and examples to illustrate the fundamental unsoundness of the commonly accepted story. The reliable narrators in the past two decades, for example, reliably get many things wrong and rarely apologize. She examines here the “wise leaders” who preach a particular course of action and the preeminent example is the invasion of Iraq. Untold numbers died, billions were expended, and accountability never really happened. In fact, the same leaders and leadership structures remain as influential today. Our narrators, in other words, need to be questioned. Malik’s argument is compelling. When it comes to political correctness and a crisis of free speech, Malik emphasizes that what is different today is that those with power and influence are peddling these issues for gain. Are we truly in a crisis where many are afraid to speak honestly because of the heavy weight of political correctness? Malik underscores the recurring strategy of creating a sense of victimhood to motivate identity and political action. Exactly who is being harmed and how when people celebrate their identities? Or interrogate stories of national exceptionalism?

The book is interesting, well-paced and solid. Malik delivers her claims effectively. Missing are discussions of why these myths are so prevalent and exist across countries, cultures and histories. She does not give much energy into exploring why these myths are so successful. In the marketplace of ideas and arguments, why does an imagined fear of political correctness have legs while other fears and issues do not? Malik hints at reasons, but does not travel that path. It is unfortunate, for many of her exploded myths tightly align with decades of provocative scholarship on nationalism. Stories of injustice and victim hood are effective tools at mobilizing political support and agency in some circumstances. It is key to remember, too, that victims are rarely asked to think of anything or anything other than themselves. Perhaps in another book.

I am looking forward to reading more from Nesrine Malik. We need her insights and perspective.

David Potash

Navigating Sprawl with Pop Culture

One of the iconic figures from Paris in the 1800s is the flaneur, a man of leisure who wanders through the city, observing and writing. Flaneurs have been linked to modernism, in particular a sense of simultaneous engagement and alienation, and above all, with the city. They are our historical experts in describing the day-to-day as well as the profound, making sense of the complexities of urban life in the nineteenth century.

What does one do today with the American suburbs? Who can explain these strange spaces?

Those questions circled around my reading of Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering The Weird American Suburbs. Diamond, now a denizen of Brooklyn, is a product of the Chicago suburbs. He is a journalist, critic, writer and modern day flaneur. The Sprawl is a thoroughly researched yet idiosyncratic wander through America’s suburbs, a road trip across the country as well as down memory lane. Neither history nor social science, the book is a very interesting meditation on sprawl through the eyes of a very well-informed critic.

There’s history and some facts in The Sprawl, but Diamond’s primary vehicle of understanding is popular culture. Want to understand the Chicago suburbs? He would give us the movies of John Hughes, as well as reference indie rock and Wayne’s World. While I’m reasonably up on many of his references, Diamond’s knowledge is encyclopedic and deep. He spins a network of popular culture to map the burbs. Woven throughout the book are Diamond’s personal recollections, his personal history, and his predilections. He comes across as a very interesting person, a pleasant and curious guy who writes very well.

Are American suburbs all that strange? Sprawl – America’s suburbs and exurbs – are by definition spaces defined by what they are not. They are neither rural nor urban. They are not small towns. Sprawl is the space around and in between, the plazas, roads, highways and byways between shopping plazas and housing developments. It is easy to get lost, physically and in terms of meaning, when the only available markers are negatives. Diamond’s challenge is that what he is looking at is everywhere and nowhere.

Despite the constraints, Diamond tells a good story. The Sprawl rightly received several awards. It is not a map, but this book is most certainly an entertaining and informative guide.

David Potash

Gentrification 301: Beyond the Basics

“Gentrification” is a loaded term, bemoaned by most, resisted by many, and championed by more than a few – especially real estate developers. While healthy cities change all the time, the dislocation of the less fortunate and their replacement by the wealthier has become a major factor in every city over the past fifty years. The trends have reshaped neighborhoods, framed politics, and led to social and political movements. Gentrification has likewise become a focus for academic research, policy studies, and a lens through which urbanism is understood.

What does gentrification mean? For Matthew Schuerman, a journalist who recently wrote a book on the subject, gentrification is the process by which poor neighborhoods become wealthy neighborhoods. It is a useful grounding, for it bypasses loaded expectations. His work, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, is a nuanced study of gentrification in three cities. Schuerman’s take, guided by close local research, reveals the complex factors that can lead to gentrification. It is not a simple process, as his work with primary sources and detailed investigation reveals.

Newcomers zeroes in on Brooklyn, from Brooklyn Heights through Park Slope, the Mission District of San Francisco, and to a lesser degree, Cabrini Green in Chicago. Schuerman’s historical periods starts after World War II and extends through the early 2000. This is not a study driven by tables and statistics. Instead, Schuerman works through local neighborhood groups, planned developments, and the politics of land use and government support or resistance. While broad societal and economic changes took place nationally, the particular shape, pace and feel of gentrification is affected significantly by local conditions. Schuerman offers the reader some, but not much, of those national factors.

Schuerman takes pains to avoid snap judgments or easy generalizations. He neither champions increased property values nor romanticizes less wealthy neighborhoods. What we learn about are the multiple steps, rarely in one direction, by which these neighborhoods became wealthier. He makes sure that we understand that “gentrification” has become a conduit through which other political issues and concerns gain oxygen and burn bright. Gentrification can be a fighting word.

Newcomers makes one give pause when it comes to the changes in cities. That’s a valuable gift. The book is a very welcome study shining a light on a complicated social, economic and political process. In so doing, he teases out the relationships between the local and the larger. That helps explain why policy rarely achieves its stated aims. Schuerman is to be commended for a deliberate and carefully crafted book teasing out a complex phenomenon.

David Potash

Addendum

A dear reader wrote to me about this post with a query: “But what do you really think?” It is a fair question, for while I stand by every word in the post (it is all what I think), the issue of gentrification cannot help but stir strong feelings.

What Schuerman’s book and other writing has convinced me that “gentrification” is probably better understood as a particular subset of economic dislocation. The Genus is expansive, from gentrification to planned communities to urban renewal, and is woven deeply into our core belief that market-driven decisions are the most effective and efficient. Most, though, believe that some countervailing forces are appropriate and needed to soften consequences. Consequently, I believe that if the massive dislocations taking place on a daily basis in our cities are to be addressed through countervailing forces, it is necessary to consider policy and practice holistically. For example, the gentrification taking place in Chicago’s northwest side is part of the same processes that have contributed to the disinvestment on Chicago’s west and south sides. A wonderful topic for more research and, one would hope, action.

Generation All: Models for Tomorrow

Mauro F. Guillen tosses of ideas like a glitter gun, shiny an in many directions. A professor, scholar, theorist and public intellectual, his most recent book is The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society. It is chock full of observations, data, theories and provocative asides. Pitched at the level of a business executive or perhaps an aspiring entrepreneur, the book is both easy to read and difficult to digest.

Guillen’s key argument weaves together demographics, deep shifts in work, technological shifts and policy. First, he explores how people society are living longer and are enjoying healthful life longer. That shifts the way that we think about work, retirement, and many life choices. He notes that there are changes in when women decide to start a family, what sort of family structure is sought, and the growth of intergenerational households. The nuclear family is a relatively recent innovation. Add to that mix the desire of more and more people to finds to ways to balance work, family, and pleasure. These all add up to broad societal shifts, Guillen stresses. He believes that the ways in which we think of generations (Boomers, Millennials, and so on), as well as their priorities and values, are becoming obsolete.

Interesting, isn’t it?

While the broad argument Guillen posits is very general, there is much to recommend in the “megatrends” he examines. For instance, he makes a strong claim for abandoning the “four stages of life” theory. That is play, study, work, and retire. It simply does not hold true for many people. However, much of our societal structure and expectations is grounded in this concept. Educational, housing, health and retirement policies immediately come to mind. Guillen shares data which indicates that the nuclear family ideal has peaked. As for how people make money, net job growth does not align with expected mindsets, either. The fastest demographic finding employment is now for those over the age of 60. Guillen looks closely at the many shifts in the lives of women, from career trajectories to different models of family.

The Perennials is built on a consistent structure. Guillen makes a provocative big picture observation and explores the concept, mixing research and good quotes and examples. The stories stick. However, one cannot help but wonder about the many factors and complications mixed through each big idea. Is the “megatrend” sustainable? For all or for some?

Education figures prominently in the book. Guillen sees many opportunities for higher education to provide new and different types of learning opportunities. One major shift he explores are means that might match older potential students with new jobs and careers. He rightly observes that demographic changes call for new models that many institutions of higher education have not created. Guillen is correct, too, in observing that mindsets, policies, practices and even laws limit new thinking about multigenerational thinking. Everything from funding models to course and program structures have roots in generational assumptions.

Spinning this out, The Perennials is the sort of book that leads to questions and imagined future. It also makes you wonder what Guillen would be like in the classroom, at the seminar table, or at a party. I would wager that he would be memorable, the kind that would inspire challenging ideas. Smart, eloquent, and with a striking ability to weave data points into potential big-picture ideas, Guillen’s The Perennials is a welcome and creative read.

David Potash

Addressing Addresses the Illinois Way

Having moved house in Chicago recently, I decided that it would be prudent to update my address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Neither a priority nor mandate, it was one of those tasks on the “to do” list, like vaccinations and getting the oil changed after 3,000 miles. The journey to a correct drivers license – and it most definitely was a journey – was an interesting experience in citizen-state interaction.

Updating the address for my vehicle registration was easily done, handled all on the web with a straightforward form to complete. A little more than a week later, the new registration arrived in the mail. A model of simplicity. It was a different story for the drivers license.

I prepared on the Illinois DMV website. It offers a template that illustrates the various types of acceptable documentation necessary to prove a new address for a drivers license. I printed it out, checked and rechecked, and determined that I was in good shape with my new vehicle registration and a new voter registration card. Next step was an in-person visit to a local DMV office.

A few years ago, during a financial crisis, Illinois closed several DMV offices. Accordingly, my choices of sites was somewhat limited. I found one reasonably close, though, and took a bike ride on a sunny Saturday to prove that I had a new address. Thirty minutes on the bicycle got me to the facility where I locked my bike and stood in line to talk with an official standing outside, directing people to different lines. Lots of folks were milling about, herded this way or that. The DMV official looked at me with surprise when I said that I wanted to update my address and I did not have an appointment. “You have to make an appointment! How didn’t you know this?” Somehow I missed that in my web preparations.

Later that day I logged into the DMV site and secured the next available slot at that site, only three weeks in the future. The morning of my visit, I checked out Google trips to see if it would be easier to drive or to bike. Ironically, the thirty-minute bike ride saved eleven minutes. I thought of the irony as I rode on the cloudy morning to the DMV.

When I arrived two officials were outside, directing the throng. When I stated that I had an appointment, showing the message on my phone, I was ushered in to a building. Not exactly like the VIP line at a club, but I was grateful. The first line had about eighteen people in it, all of us weaving back and forth to talk with one of several clerks at a counter. This initial function was set up to determine what task we were there to complete. Accordingly, I was next directed to the photo line, where I had but a short wait before getting an updated photo. The clerk indicated that I was looking pretty good for a cloudy morning.

From there, I was sent to a different line with but a short wait. The woman behind the desk looked at my documentation and commented that it was smart to have multiple documents. “You never know,” she opined. “It can be really difficult.”

We started talking. She’d worked for the DMV for many years. She liked the job, particularly because roles were rotated on a regular basis. Employees were cross-trained, from taking photos to doing driving tests. Most customers were well-behaved. Having the screeners out front helped, she said. That role was difficult. On the other hand, doing driving tests could be a lot of fun.

We were interrupted by a colleague. A few weeks back, an official from the Springfield Secretary of State‚Äôs Office visited. He had ideas, and the local employees were concerned. However, if you want to know why employee resignation has become a pressing issue in our workplace, it’s important to consider several factors.

A bit of background may help. For many years, Illinois’s Secretary of State was the charismatic Jesse White. He held the office for 24 years, deciding recently that seven terms was sufficient. White is a larger than life Illinois politico. A gifted athlete, White was a high-school stand out, a college phenom, and an Army veteran. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1959 he created the Jesse White Tumblers, a group that has remained a staple at events around the state ever since. White was politically gifted, too, and he served in the state assembly and as Cook County Recorder of Deeds before becoming Secretary of State. For decades Jesse White has been a key figure in Illinois politics.

Stepping into White’s shoes has been Alexi Giannoulias. A financier with political ambitions, Giannoulias served as Illinois’s Treasurer before his election as Secretary of State. It has been clear, too, from the news that Giannoulias’s desire to advance and make a difference remains.

Back at the DMV site, employees were talking about this new initiative to dress them all in vests. The Springfield official decided that standard wear, along with name tags, would improve service and customer satisfaction. The employees on the other side of the counter were skeptical. On my side of the counter, I could not see how it would improve service. We talked a bit more about uniforms, working for larger systems, and office humor. I was sent to the next station.

The wait here was short. I presented my paperwork and was billed $5. With a little cash in my wallet, I paid and received a receipt. It was only a short step to the next station, where a clerk gathered my paperwork, reviewed it, and presented me with an updated paper drivers license. He punched a hole in my old drivers license, gave me both, and informed me that I would receive an updated license within two weeks. Six stations, many conversations, and I was on my way.

It’s been a week and I am still waiting for the updated license.

Jokes about DMV services aside, everyone I interacted with was pleasant, friendly and helpful. Fast or easy? Perhaps some room for improvement. But I have to give it to the staff – they made the visit memorable. I hope that the vests aren’t uncomfortable.

David Potash

Addendum

Recently had an opportunity to hear Secretary of State Giannoulias speak. He’s very, very impressive. Count me as a fan.