Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Do We Still Need Unions?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Unions are on the decline, and have been for many years. Should we care? Are unions even necessary anymore? Some would argue yes; some no. Many people believe unions were only needed in the early days of the industrial revolution when corporations had immense power compared to workers. Some of them employed children, for example, to work as much as 7 days a week, 16 hours a day.

In fact, it was images captured by photographers that made a big dent in public opinion regarding the harm of childhood labor, and which raised the labor movement into what it became at its peak.

Once the unions, with the assistance of the courts, infiltrated the workplace, making demands for fair pay and fair hours, and once Congress stepped in to prohibit the nastier forms of exploitation of children/workers by employers, many believed unions had served their purpose and were no longer required.

Especially because unions, like employers, often overreached.

Look at some of the outrageous policies brought about by unions – like the teachers’ union in New York that bargained to prohibit incompetent teachers from being fired, forcing the government (us) to pay them to sit around all day doing nothing.

Or policies that specify employees will be kept on the job on the basis of seniority rather than competence. No matter how skilled the junior employee, the senior employee must be kept on the job in any layoff or reduction in force.

Some of these policies resulted from corrupt employers, of course. Certain employers wanted to rid themselves of problem employees who spoke up about worker rights, so these policies were put in place to protect workers from arbitrary and retaliatory actions by management.

So without unions, employers might never have put in place safety protocols and equal pay that we currently enjoy (even though many workplaces could still be safer and equal pay still isn’t as equal as it ought to be). Or those advances would have taken many more years to achieve.

Obviously a group of employees has much more power than any one person. So employers were forced to concede some power in order to keep the company alive. A certain amount of waste (in the form of worthless employees) was acceptable as long as overall the company/government entity could continue as a going concern.

Now many employees no longer want to be part of a union because they don’t want to give up part of their pay to support political causes they don’t individually support, and they see lobbying as entirely political. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t. Without political pressure, some of the worker rights we enjoy today might never have come to pass.

So where should the line be drawn? How much political lobbying is too much? What limitations should be placed on union activity not directly related to employee pay and safety? These are complex questions with few easy answers.

But one thing I know is this: we still need unions. We still need checks and balances on employer overreach. Employers should not have all the power. Neither should unions. If only the two sides could look at each other as partners instead of enemies, more might get accomplished.

Too often, one side sees the other’s successes as a personal loss. Management wants to maximize shareholder gain, even at the expense of workers. Labor often places its members’ desires above the welfare of the company. Neither position is healthy.


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Voting for Change

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve spoken with many people about the issue of voting over the years and one of the comments I get most often is from people reasonably happy with the status quo who say that if people want change, then they need to get out there and vote. Yes, that’s true. To initiate change, you need to get out there and vote.


Here’s the problem with that assessment: both parties have vested interests in keeping the status quo as it is. Only rarely does a politician come along who wants to completely upset the cart and do things in a different way.

For example, in the previous presidential election, both parties fought like hell to keep the status quo. Republicans didn’t want Trump. Democrats didn’t want Bernie Sanders. Both parties did what they could to ensure their preferred candidates won. The Democrats succeeded; Republicans failed. Then they embraced Trump.

So what happens is that when you vote for change, you’re voting for a candidate who is working within the system, and if that candidate wins, he or she is now butting heads against a machine that cannot be easily overthrown. Lobbyists and elected officials from both parties have certain expectations.

A newcomer has limited options. Seniority counts for a lot in politics. Pay your dues and be a good soldier and maybe a few years down the road you’ll get to wield real power. So it doesn’t matter that your constituents voted for change because the people you have to work with don’t want that. They want things the way they’ve always been. And if you fight them too much, you become irrelevant, and even despised by your own party.

So people vote for change, expecting (or at least hoping for) it to come this time even though it never really has for the past four or eight or twelve elections. After a number of failures, they give up and decide that voting doesn’t really matter.

They voted for change in the last six elections and either their candidate lost (the most likely outcome) or their candidate won and wasn’t able to instigate change. Sometimes the change candidate tried to make a difference and failed, and sometimes the change candidate got into office and changed into a traditional politician.

The bottom line is that change didn’t happen. How do you motivate those people who have not done well under the status quo to keep on voting, election after election, when every promise of change is broken.

Of course the people who are doing well will vote. They’ve done well by the system. Why wouldn’t they keep voting? But those left behind do not have unlimited patience. They hear the hollow promises and sometimes they believe them, like Charlie Brown and his football, always yanked away by Lucy at the last second.

Eventually they decide to stop playing the game. And who can blame them?

So yes, we should all get out there and vote, but we need to be aware that even if we win in our efforts to seek change, we’re still unlikely to get it, at least not for a long time. Real change takes years, sometimes decades, sometimes even revolution. The entrenched interests that run this country cede ground slowly, fighting to retain every last yard.

Your vote is a teaspoon of dirt, but it’s not nothing.


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Managing Expectations

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The world often gives us something other than what we expected. We go to a movie and walk out disappointed that it wasn’t exactly what we wished for when we went inside. Or we finish the work day and on our commute home, we relive an awful moment when our boss trapped us into working unpaid overtime, or we fret over a customer who complained until we were forced to give him a discount.

Our bosses and customers also reflect on how they received something other than what they desired today. They thought they were getting a super dedicated employee (instead of someone who just wants to give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wages) or a product that was perfectly designed, without a single flaw.

Expectation feeds into desire. Because we expect certain outcomes, we come to either desire them or dread them. We find ourselves planning our lives based on our expectations without giving sufficient weight to unforeseen possibilities.

We let our emotions dictate our actions, and the strongest emotions are negative: fear, anger, hatred. We are less inclined to run toward something pleasant than we are to run away from something scary.

Often we enter a situation with anxiety and emerge on the other side largely unscathed. Or we look forward to a party and return to our abode realizing that we would have had a much better time if we’d stayed home and read a book. Whatever our expectations, they’re often wrong.

They’re also internal. We can change them if we’re willing to open our minds. We just need to edit the story we tell ourselves about what is going to happen. Maybe the movie won’t be that bad. I’m going to open my mind and watch it in a non-judgmental way. Maybe she doesn’t love me the way I love her. Don’t fall apart if that’s the case.

By keeping our minds flexible, we can often deflect both negativity and unrealistic positivity.

So I guess the lesson is this: embrace change, revel in adapting to new circumstances, delight in the unexpected.

Whether your expectations are met or not, know that you have control over how you’re affected by them. You can choose to be a prisoner to your expectations or learn to adjust your mindset so that you are in control.

And know that every situation will eventually change. If you can control your negative impulses during the bad times and embrace the felicity that surrounds the good times, you will become a happier person. Nothing lasts forever, not even the earth and sky.


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Dear Id

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The certitude of your betrayal

Outrages my soul

Overwhelms my infinite capacity for hope

For a brief time

As I contemplate how idiotic

Your actions and opinions always were.

I wonder how anyone can attain

Such an advanced age

Hold such a position

While holding such dissociative views.

I consider while I quiver

The disasters that await

The agony yet to come

From the fulfillment of your prophecies

Which will come to pass

By dint of your directives.

Yet in the darkness

I ask myself if this is truly wrong

If what you do is actually better

Than the lingering pain

Of all your opponents’ proposals

Which also have the potential

To drive us to the vicissitudes

Of despair.

Your progeny’s progeny’s generation

Will reminisce on your legacy

In their doddering years

And finally decide

What you did was good or evil.

I have no horse in this race.

My concern is purely theoretical

A detached observation

Accepting the possibility

I might be wrong

And you might have stumbled


Onto the precise combination of stupidity and luck

Necessary to propel us to the next level

Of development

Of evolution

Into creatures capable of more than we currently are.

I still hope.

God help me

I still hope.


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The Slow March of Truth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

For most people, facts still matter. But for a few of us, they no longer do. Why? One problem is the easy access of information and misinformation on the Internet. When you can open your phone or computer and search for anything, you can find essentially anything.

And for every carefully researched article on a given topic, you can often find a junk article pretending to be scientific. So what happens is that people who believe something strongly can go online, find something that supports their position, and continue to believe it regardless of how fanciful the evidence is.

We see this especially in politics. I saw a report on a nail manufacturer in Missouri that might be forced to close – it has already laid off a large percentage of its workforce – due to the Trump tariffs.

Yet when a reporter asked one of the affected employees about the matter, the employee indicated that despite the negative effect of the steel tariffs, she still supported Trump and would vote for him again in the next election. Obviously this is just one example, and anecdotal at that. However, this mindset is very common.

“This candidate is my guy. I like the way he speaks and how he pledges to take care of these problems that I perceive are hindering my advancement. Thus, he’s the one I’m going to vote for. And if while in office he fails to accomplish what he said he’d do, I don’t care. He’s still my guy.”

The more someone attacks a candidate using facts, the more that candidate’s supporters back him. They insist that people are ganging up on him, unfairly targeting him with false data because they can’t believe the facts are correct.

If the facts are right, then they must be wrong. And they can’t countenance that. So the facts must be wrong. Otherwise their world doesn’t make sense. They cling to their beliefs because those beliefs allow them to define their place in the world.

“I’m one of these people. I belong to this tribe. We stand for this and not that.”

The acceptance of facts can take years, and the one thing you can’t do is threaten people’s worldview. If you do that, then the defensive shell goes up and the mind shuts down.

Look at climate change, for example. There was once a large group of people who insisted the climate wasn’t changing. For years they maintained that stance. Then, when the facts became overwhelming against them, they shifted to saying that of course the climate is changing. It changes all the time. That doesn’t mean humans are behind it.

In 10 or 20 years of the facts continuing to build, they’ll be forced to accept that humans are behind it and then they’ll say, “Of course we have a small influence on climate. That’s old news. We’ve always accepted that.” And they will believe that.

So continue to hunt down facts. Present them as best you can in a nonthreatening way.

Be aware that it will take a long time before hardcore believers in any particular fantasy will accept the truth. Change comes slowly, one person at a time, one idea at a time. But eventually, truth will win out.


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Progress for Progress’ Sake

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true for progress too. Every time we move forward, part of our society moves backward.

What I mean by this is that every time a winner emerges from some new technology, a loser emerges along with it. For example, when renewable energy progresses due to advances in solar technology or wind technology, coal and gas take a hit.

When the railroads took over many of the transportation needs of the country, other forms of transportation (like the stagecoach) suffered. Those who aligned themselves willingly or not with the railroads fared better than those who stayed with the older technology.

When air travel supplanted the rails, a similar economic outcome occurred. Rail travel never went away, but its ubiquitous nature changed. Now it’s used mostly for transporting large and heavy objects like oil, vehicles, lumber, etc.

When computers became affordable, they eventually began to take away jobs even as they created new ones for programmers and technicians. So progress always comes at a cost.

And this holds true for more than economics. Consider the presidency of Barack Obama. Many thought this a transformative occurrence (and it was), but it also produced a backlash of sorts, composed in part of people who felt we were moving too fast away from the kind of nation we had traditionally been.

Some of these people thought it was a bridge too far to vote for a woman after seeing a black man in the White House. “This far and no farther,” they decided.

There were also those who simply didn’t like the system, who wanted it blown up, and who saw in the alternative someone who wouldn’t be afraid to change the status quo. They felt that not enough changed with the previous few presidencies and they were still being left behind.

The progress that had been made had excluded them. Yes, the economy was humming along, but they weren’t seeing the benefits. They were in the group that had been left behind by progress.

This holds true for the natural world as well. We build roads and factories and cities. We transform “waste” areas into parks or ballfields. We make these spaces better for humans. Progress. All the while, we’re making these areas worse for other creatures. Coyotes and bears and pumas find themselves squeezed into tighter and tighter habitats so they begin to roam where they’re not wanted.

Inevitable confrontations ensue. More natural resources get consumed, changing not only the climate but other aspects of our geophysical world too. We dam up rivers and tunnel through the ground, every action bringing progress of one sort and harming someone or something else.

We use pesticides and herbicides to kill weeds, in the short term succeeding, while in the longer term nature adapts, creating stronger weeds, better able to withstand our poisons. Ditto for antibiotics.

Not all progress is progress. Perhaps no progress is progress. Perhaps it’s just change. The winners call it progress because winners always get to write the history books. But make no mistake: progress always comes with a cost. And sometimes that cost is too great.


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Summer in the City

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I live not in the heart of the city but rather an inner ring suburb – relatively close to the downtowns and yet with a lawn that contains a few trees beside a small lake that’s more accurately described as a pond. In the right light and with the blinds partially closed it provides the illusion of being away from the city.

This illusion of separation keeps me reasonably happy. I get to pretend that I live on a lake even as I partake of all the city has to offer. I’m close enough to the action that I don’t have to drive hours to get where I need to be. I have friends and relatives who live a good distance away and I see them only a few times a year.

The country offers its own delights, of course – primarily a slow pace that’s excellent for meditation and thoughtful analysis of complicated questions. With time, provided one is correctly motivated to study an issue, one can eventually discern most truths.

Winter may be the best time to live out in the country. Yes, you can get snowed in here in the upper Midwest, but if you plan accordingly, you needn’t worry about starving or freezing. You just sit back and enjoy the solitude. The world seems to drop away, leaving you in your own quiet world.

But in summer, with festivals, events, and friends seemingly always going somewhere or doing something, it’s better to be in close. The city feels alive, the susurration of traffic and the hum of machinery providing a background, the rhythmic rise and fall of pedestrians surging in morning and evening, the tangy bitterness of burning gasoline commingling with cooked onions and garlic, the aroma of fresh-baked bread inducing a heady euphoria.

There’s an energy to the city that you can’t find in the country, a combination of movement and potentiality, the possibility that at any moment something truly amazing might happen, for good or ill, that rural communities seem incapable of delivering.

And yet, to be trapped in the city all the time would, to me, be unsettling after a while. Living without the opportunity for respite from its constancies would fatigue me. I need time to decompress, to recharge for the next day or week or month. A house in the suburbs fulfills that need.

The city hammers you. It demands attention in a way that the country doesn’t. It pushes and pulls, sometimes rudely, insistent on inserting itself into your frame of mind. The country, on the other hand, reclines on the porch with a glass of iced tea and a magazine that does not beg to be read.

The suburbs, at least the inner suburbs, offer tantalizing glimpses of both while actually providing neither. It is more illusion than reality. But isn’t that what life is? Illusion? Do we ever truly know anything or anyone?

We think we do, certainly. We make assumptions about the world and our peers but we are all wild animals capable of lashing out at any moment given the right circumstances. So I’m going to enjoy my illusion of summer in the city. I hope you enjoy whatever illusion you’re experiencing right now too.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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My Garage, My Driveway

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When I first moved into my home, there was no garage, only a small shed for storing tools and my one-human-power reel lawnmower. The previous owners of the property made do for nearly thirty years parking on the street or the gravel driveway that ended in front of a small fence.

My shed sufficed for several years and perhaps would have served me longer but a particularly heavy snowfall one winter caused the roof to collapse, so I built a garage. I kept the gravel driveway, however, thinking it looked more rural, more unspoiled than the asphalt and concrete intrusions of my neighbors.

Over the years I let the gravel settle into the ground, leaving a topcoat of grass and dandelions and creeping Charlie. Soon I found myself mowing my driveway in the summer and clearing snow with a plastic shovel in the winter so as not to gouge out the greenery with the harshness of a metal blade.

During that time I accumulated more stuff, more things that I placed in my garage: a snowblower that I rarely used and eventually was unable to use because my disuse of it caused it not to start anymore; a spare lawnmower; my bicycle and tire pump; some fencing, a hose or two, a wheelbarrow and other gardening tools; and a couple packages of shingles from my re-roofed house; not to mention my car (in the winter).

In short, my garage eventually became somewhat cluttered. Not packed like my neighbors’ garages, where they seemingly have to scuttle in sideways to reach the doors and contort their bodies to gain access to their vehicles, but more crowded than I like.

So I began removing items. I gave away my wheelbarrow and the old shingles. I offered a drip hose to my neighbor for his garden. I brought some wood over to my brother’s house for a bonfire and used a few bricks as a border for a planting.

Recently I installed an asphalt driveway because this past winter was difficult. I struggled with snow removal and realized I either needed to make shoveling easier on myself or hire someone to help.

I recall the early days when I first purchased the house and thought I would leave it as is – a simple rambler on a little lake that’s really more of a swamp. But at some point I added a porch to the back so I could look out at the lake without getting eaten by mosquitoes, so I could sit out there in the late fall and early spring without wearing a winter jacket.

I minimized the eco-footprint as much as I could. But I worry about how even I – an aspiring environmentalist – have contributed to the problem of climate change by my actions.

We add stuff to our lives. We build and improve, making small alterations to our habitat, only intending to make our small patch more livable, more comfortable, rarely considering the global effect of our actions. After all, what’s one garage or one porch or one driveway in the grand scheme of things?

And yet when you multiply that by 7.6 billion souls, you find that the cascading effect is much larger than you imagined.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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All People Are Gray

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We’ve been fighting racism for what seems like forever. Now we’re dealing with nationalism. Those people (those others) aren’t like us. They don’t have the same values and they don’t want the same things. This attitude drives our perceptions of folks who are different, whether they be gay or atheists or black or Guatemalans or drug addicts.

But all these distinctions are superficial because underneath it all, we all pretty much want the same things. That’s what it means to be human. That’s what our bodies have evolved to desire over millions of years. We want to eat and procreate and take our ease in reasonable comfort.

The ways that we strive for those goals differ, but the results toward which we aim are generally about equal. Republicans and democrats both want an optimal society – they just disagree on how to get there, on the means that should be employed to achieve utopia. They also disagree, of course, on what a perfect society ought to be.

Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe in the same God. They just disagree on some of the tenets put forth by the other religions’ leaders. And sometimes they disagree with the teachings of their own leaders.

People with darker skin are descended from folks who lived closer to the equator while those with lighter skin have ancestors who resided farther north (or south). But we’re all essentially the same once you strip away the superficial coverings and ideologies.

Adolph Hitler was a poet in addition to a murderous dictator. Mother Teresa believed that God abandoned her, and she squirreled away millions in donations that her organization still hides from public view, possibly because she thought suffering was a necessary part of life.

Scott Pruitt wants to essentially strip away every bit of authority the EPA possesses. Does he really want us to have filthy air and water? I doubt it. More likely, he believes that over-regulation is harming companies, putting people out of work, stifling the American way of life – the free market.

The Earth Liberation Front is a loosely affiliated group of individuals who use “economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment,” according to their press office. They probably don’t consider themselves to be terrorists even though that’s how the FBI sees them.

All of us want to be good. We consider ourselves to be heroes – the heroes of our own stories. Some of us credit ourselves as successful more than others but that’s basically what we all strive for: goodness.

Yet we each define it differently. A NASCAR driver might see himself as good because he donates time and money to various charities, while an environmentalist might see him as evil because he drives around in ovals wasting fossil fuels for nothing more than money and a trophy.

I don’t have answers to a lot of questions, but I do think that when we attempt to define others as lesser creatures – as evil – we do them and ourselves a disservice.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Love Is Not Enough

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The Beatles sang that All You Need Is Love. The Bible says to “abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And Virgil wrote: omnia vincit amor – love conquers all. We tend to believe that love is the most important thing we can bring to the table.

And love is a powerful force. It enables us to do more than we thought possible. A person in love can endure pain that others can’t. A lot of people think that life without love is merely surviving and not really living. And when you really love someone, you do things for them that you wouldn’t do for anyone else.

But how important is love really?

It can’t stop illness or death. It can’t prevent financial hardship. It can make those events more palatable, certainly. But however much you love someone, sometimes that’s not enough.

So while love may be important, it’s only an emotion. It’s the actions surrounding love that really matter. If love makes me assist someone in need (if thought propels deed), then perhaps love is the greatest feeling in the world.

But I think agapé (selfless love) is a better term and a better kind of love than the love we think of in songs and poems. The love of another is generally selfish. It reflects our desire to be closer to someone, to have that person want us in the same way we want that person.

Love implies a certain narrowness, the targeting of another, while agapé suggests goodwill toward an all-encompassing set of others. Love does not necessarily demand sacrifice from the giver, but agapé impliedly does because if you want what’s best for everyone, you have to stop to consider what that might be and then do so even if it’s not in your best interest.

There is no selfishness in agapé. Whereas, particularly in romantic love, it’s really all about selfishness. It’s about me and one other – just us against the world. Even in parental or familial love, it’s about us as a group. You love your family or your tribe. And the rest of the world takes second fiddle.

Of course love can mean agapé, but most people don’t understand it that way. They may make concessions to that position if asked, but they really mean love of their group. Or they mean love of all, but at a secondary level. Primary love for mine, secondary love for others.

So the nature of the love is less intense, less encompassing. Nitpicking, you say? Perhaps, but here’s why it matters. When we assign a lesser value to some kinds of love, we diminish those secondary and tertiary loves into something that really isn’t love at all, but rather fondness or collegiality.

When things get difficult, we’re going to side with ours and let you side with yours. And then the love we profess to have won’t be love at all, but the beginning of indifference. So we need to consider all people like our family and that’s a tough thing to ask.


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