Sharing the Shhload

By Shlomit Auciello | Oct 28, 2020

My stepmom is a champion of wordplay. She had to be, just to survive her decades with my dad.

Today, on the phone, she referred to the tasks that face her this week as her shhload, a newly coined word that, for most everyone alive today, requires no further definition. We're all juggling a million 1990s-era super bouncy balls while the walls shift angles and close in on us.

In any other time in recent history, I'd sound absolutely bonkers. But this is 2020, and late 2020 at that. The shhload keeps coming and each cycle of change speeds by in about 20 minutes and lasts for years.

This is the last column I'll write before the general election, and I want to say a few things that might influence your choices. Note the use of plural here; We've got a few things to decide and in Maine we are testing out a fairly new way to express our political will. In terms of a learning curve, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is another bouncy ball to add to the shhload. If you make it to the bottom of the page, I promise to give you Shlomit's RCV for Dummies.

Putting aside the technical challenges of voting – and if you think ranking candidates is hard, imagine standing on line, six feet apart and masked, for 10 hours – I'm a bit stunned by how poorly many of us understand the purpose of government and the jobs of those who operate it.

We often find ourselves choosing between those who do good government well, those who do terrible government well, those who do good government poorly, and those who like to stick their fingers in the gears.

The Democrats and the Republicans (and here I'm talking party organization, not individual voters) both do that last one, putting celebrity and brand loyalty ahead of the public interest. But from where I stand, those currently holding the Senate and Executive Branch are masters at distracting us by sticking our fingers in the gears.

I'm a bit of an originalist, agreeing with the authors of The Declaration of Independence, who said governments are instituted to help secure 'certain unalienable Rights,' among which “are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As an English language geek, I notice that the wordsmiths of the 18th century called for a system that would help us stay alive and at liberty, and offer us the right to look for, but not necessarily attain, happiness. Anyone who had any of that happiness knows how hard it is to hold onto. I guess the founders knew that, while a stable political and economic system might help us stay healthy and independent of tyranny, all the power and money in the world can't secure happiness.

Yet, we seem to be asking our political leaders for just that. The idea that government owes us happiness corrupts our electoral processes, causes us to nominate candidates for all the wrong reasons, and bruises our ability to calmly debate the issues. Happiness, like freedom, is an internal experience – an emotion.

Liberty, on the other hand, is a political condition. Because it is a function of the social contract that was all the rage in Jefferson's time, Early American liberty included a recognition of the rights and liberties of others. That's why voter intimidation is a federal crime and also why it harms democracy to spread false information in order to influence votes.

The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that doesn't mean we have to devote our lives and liberty to it at the expense of the common good. We can vote for candidates who are less than perfect. I can find flaws with every person who has ever offered to represent me in government. In this election, I'm voting for those who will try to give me a chance to breathe.

Which leads me to our collective misunderstanding about the jobs required to deliver the goods in a working democratic republic. (Note the lower case letters here. This isn't about party; it's about how we define the way we are organized.)

The way this system was set up legislators propose laws and the president gives final approval. It isn't any one person's job to make laws – to give us what we need and want. The design calls for collaboration but our focus on style over substance, and our fear of making a personal decision that might be unpopular in society as a whole leads us to chose alpha dogs over those who might actually know how to work as part of a representative body.

During last week's debate, President Trump asked former Vice-President Biden why, during his tenure in the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, he didn't fix serious problems in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Biden helped write. His answer: “We had a Republican Congress.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is a master of obstruction. It's why the HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May, has seen no action since a single Senate committee hearing in July.

For those who missed this COVID-19 response bill, passage would use our collective treasury to provide assistance to state, local, tribal and territorial governments; direct payments of up to $1,200 per individual; expanded medical leave, unemployment compensation, nutrition and food assistance programs, housing assistance and payments to farmers; grants for employers to provide pandemic pay for essential workers; expands several tax credits and deductions; fund and establishes requirements for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing; improve broadband service, and do a whole lot of other stuff that most of us need.

Our lives are at risk, and will always be. But in this moment, the federal government can minimize that risk. In doing so, it can put money and equipment into the hands of public institutions like schools and private ones like restaurants. It can use our taxes in ways that feed a rapidly changing economic system, by providing living incomes to those who are doing their best and coming up financially short: we all know people who have been looking for work since March. Those who wisely saved their extra unemployment benefits are likely to see winter sweep the savings away.

So there you are, looking at that ballot, wondering how this will all turn out. You don't like the choices it has come down to, because none of them will give you what you feel entitled to. So, maybe it's time to renew your social contract and vote for a Congress and a president who will think about someone else's shhload, at least a little bit.

Shlomit's RCV for Dummies

Imagine it's Thanksgiving, there are 14 people at the table, and it's time for pie. The choices are pumpkin, pecan and apple. Your cousin, who loves the family but hates the traditional offerings, brought a tofu cheesecake. You also need to imagine everyone will have to eat the kind of pie that gets the most votes.

Most people in the U.S. get to make only one choice. If six of you want pecan, four of you want pumpkin, three of you want apple and your cousin wants tofu, then no flavor has a majority of fans and everyone eats pecan, including your tofu-eating cousin who also has a tree-nut allergy.

Under RCV, the final choice must have an actual 50%-plus-one-vote majority. To get there, each of you will make a series of choices, showing who you'll support if your first choice doesn't make it. Because tofu got the fewest votes your cousin's second choice, pumpkin, will now count. Because there is still no majority, you go to the next ranking. Now apple has the fewest votes. The apple lovers ranked pumpkin second.

When the dust clears and the math is done, the new score is: Pecan 6, Pumpkin 8. While you voted for apple and are not initially happy with the outcome, you taste the winner and discover that, like Ranked Choice Voting and much of our shared shhload, the challenge of pumpkin pie with crystallized ginger chunks could contain a lovely surprise.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992.

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