Review of the 2018 Surly Big Fat Dummy

I have purchased and owned many bikes in my life, but I have NEVER coveted a bike like I coveted the Surly Big Fat Dummy. I have been riding one for a few weeks now, and while it is precisely the bike I hoped it would be for the applications that I had in mind, it is definitely not a bike for everyone. I wrote this review to help out others who might be thinking about the same purchase.

Why did I buy this thing? In short, we are a one-car family and we want to stay that way. Generally our neighborhood and lifestyle allow us to leave our one car at home and either walk or take buses to wherever we need to go, but occasionally my wife does take our one car to work or on ski trips and I wanted to be able to run errands, especially trips to the grocery store and farmers market, on those car-less days. And I wanted to take my daughter along (she’s 5), and I wanted to run my errands at any time of year in any sort of weather.

Once I decided that my errand-running included carrying a 50-lb child, I exceeded the capabilities of the “commuter bike” category and entered the world of “cargo bikes”. I looked at all the brands and Surly’s Big Dummy stuck out because I had seen them around town and had heard rave reviews from friends. Surly’s fat bike version, the Big Fat Dummy was relatively new at that time, less than a year on the market, so I didn’t know anyone with first hand experience riding one. But I was intrigued.

I spent a full month of late nights and fever dreams deciding between the Big Dummy (which was available at the time) and the Big Fat Dummy (which was not). Couldn’t I just install larger tires, and even studded tires for snow and ice, on a regular Big Dummy? Yes I could have, and people do that. Isn’t a Big Fat Dummy a lot of bike, and especially a lot of rubber, compared to my day-to-day need? For sure. Would I ever take a Big Fat Dummy off pavement? Fair question, since I already own both a mountain bike and a cyclocross bike that I ride often and love.

In the end, I decided on the Big Fat Dummy for four reasons: (1) it sounded like a stiffer and better-designed bike than the Big Dummy (e.g., dropper post compatible); (2) we live just one mile from great trails and yes I could imagine taking my daughter on many off-street adventures; (3) I could always downsize the wheels and tires whereas there would be a limit to up-sizing on the Big Dummy; (4) I did not already own a fat bike and the Big Fat Dummy could get me out on the snow without buying Yet Another Bike. More on (1) and (3) a bit later.

Once I committed to the Big Fat Dummy (hereafter BFD) I didn’t look back, despite needing to wait for my frame size (Large) to come back into stock. I pestered my local bike shop week after week until finally I saw the announcement:

And two weeks later, I was pedaling one home from the shop. Nearly four weeks after that, I have used the BFD to both drop off and pick up my daughter at school, drop off recycling, pick up 4 days worth of groceries, and conduct a short but rigorous trail test. The BFD has exceeded my already high expectations for its stability, comfort, utility, versatility, and design. My daughter loves riding on the back and typically requests that we ride to school rather than take the bus. Even without a passenger, I love riding the BFD and leaving the car in the garage while I get both a workout and my jobs done. The bike handles just like a regular fat bike, especially on flats and descents; I mostly cannot tell that the rear wheel is a mile behind me. And I enjoy being a minor neighborhood celebrity riding something so unique. People stop me all the time either to inquire what the hell this thing is or to get my first impressions because they too plan to buy one.

For sure there are some details about the BFD that I wish I had understood before I made the purchase. That’s not to say that I would have purchased something else; I just expect better of myself when researching new products. Specifically:

  • The BFD is a fat bike and it rides a like a fat bike. Yes I sometimes feel like I am pushing a lot of rubber, but the bike holds momentum really well once you get it up to speed. Like any other rigid frame fat bike, bounciness can be a problem if you’re not careful about the shape and efficiency of your pedal stroke, and especially if you ride flat pedals. Partway through this video, the guys at Surly say something like, “it’s a mountain bike, you can go places!”. They could also have said “it’s a fat bike and you should get your head around that”.
  • The deck is 235mm (9.25in) wide, and that’s wider than the commercially available seat pads that you might install for passenger comfort. We are currently using a folded yoga mat attached with bungy cords. It works just fine and I expect that will be our long-term solution, but frankly we were lucky to have had an old mat laying around. (To be fair, the Surly documentation clearly says that the BFD deck is wider than the standard deck, but the actual dimensions of either deck are nowhere to be found.)
  • The BFD’s wideloader receiver tubes are farther apart than on the Big Dummy. That’s actually very clear from the Surly website. What I did not understand is that the larger dimension means there are no commercially available wideloaders for the BFD. No problem, I will dust off my engineering skills and recruit my family of welders and we will come up with something. I just wish I had thought through this detail before the purchase.

That’s not a terrible list of surprises and I’ve already improvised a partial solution to the third one: mount an old Thule bike rack onto some 7/8″ tubing inserted into the wideloader receiver tubes and you can ferry a kid and and a kid’s bike up the hill to the neighborhood pedaling spot.

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Now that I have a few weeks of experience on the bike, I would like to make a few observations about the design and the ride quality that might not be obvious or noteworthy from the Surly documentation. Some of these points are very well explained on the Surly website, but they just didn’t mean much to me until I had ridden the BFD myself.

Yes, it is nearly impossible to meaningfully un-weight the front wheel, which makes it difficult to get over obstacles. Here I am trying to get through a relatively infamous rocky section of the local trail up Dry Creek Canyon.

I really enjoyed the ride up to that point, and my mind started to wander to the meals, beers, and camp chairs my wife and I would one day cart up the trail to watch the sun set over Salt Lake City on a summer evening. But that daydreaming was on mostly hard-packed sections. Once I had to actually pick a line and finesse the bike over something, I stalled out.

And then I spun out, because indeed the rear wheel is so far behind me that it is difficult to maintain traction. The above spot was one place where I noticed this issue. I noticed it again at another infamous section of the Dry Creek Canyon trail: the switchback about 1.6km (1 mile) up. That section is so well known that when I tell people I took the BFD up Dry Creek Canyon their first question is usually, “did you make it up the switchback?”. Sadly but not entirely unexpectedly: no I did not. I’m going to go back and take another swing at it in warmer and drier weather, but on my day of trail testing the surface was slushy and loose and I spun out almost immediately at the start of the switchback. I don’t have photos of my multiple tries going up, but this one from the same spot on the trip down gives you a sense of the trail conditions.

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On those two points, finessing the front wheel and keeping traction on the rear wheel, I knew what I was getting into. I’m not disappointed and in fact I credit the crew at Surly for being so transparent about those implications of the design. So I have to walk a few sections and obstacles when I’m fleeing town and loaded with gear during a zombie apocalypse. I will get over it. The BFD still crawls up steep, relatively non-technical grades without a problem, and it descends like the tires are velcro-ed to the trail. (I’m already dreaming about other adventures where technical sections are not such an issue: like a multi-day self-supported ride of the White Rim Trail, basically a fire road, in southern Utah. Or wait, maybe a bike-supported run…) Update 26 February 2018: now that I have more experience riding the BFD on both fresh and hard-packed snow, it’s clear that my tire pressure was far too high on that first trail test. I was probably running something like 15psi and that was fine for the hard packed dirt. On the ice and snow and slush, I should have backed off to 7 or 8 psi.)

Yes, it’s heavy: just shy of 57 pounds for a Large, but what did you expect for a long tail fat bike? The front wheel assembly alone (wheel, tire, tube, rotor) weighs just under 7 pounds. The rear wheel assembly is surely more. Add extra tubing and a deck and bags and it’s pretty easy to get to the BFD’s fighting weight. It’s a big unit but not needlessly or sloppily so and I swear I don’t notice the weight anyway. My daughter and I weigh 193 pounds and 50 pounds, respectively. Between the two of us and the bike, we are an even 300 pounds on the climb up to school in the morning. The grade is an average of 6% over 1km (0.6 miles), but really it’s three 100m climbs approaching 15% or 20% mixed with some flats of a few hundred meters each. The BFD has the gears to get us up those kinds of climbs and longer and while I’m working hard at the top, I would be working almost as hard if Surly had found a way to make the bike half as heavy. I don’t spend much time thinking about about the force of gravity on the bike itself. I do spend time thinking about how awesome it is to have a bike that is strong and stable enough to handle the weight of me and all I’m carrying.

And on a related topic, yes you need all those gears. Single chain rings are all the rage these days and on social media you can occasionally find someone who has built up a BFD with a 1x up front. Those guys don’t live in my neighborhood. Where I live, where it’s several hundred feet of elevation gain or loss to do just about anything, riding with a heavy load means you need the low low end for the ascent and then the bigger gears for the opposite direction. I confess that I thought about having the local bike shop build up my BFD with a single chain ring, but I decided to try out the stock drivetrain before making that kind of conversion. I’m glad that I did.

The frame sizing and proportions are really well thought out. I am 6’5″ tall and I normally ride an XL-size mountain bike. The Large BFD is a perfect size for me. I sit a little more upright than I do on my Scott Spark, but that’s precisely how I want to be sitting when I’m navigating city streets and carrying precious cargo. And even better, the Large frame size also fits my wife who is 5’9″ tall and normally rides a Medium mountain bike. The Large BFD’s standover height is just at the limit of what she can tolerate, and she is a little more stretched out than she would be on her Medium-sized Scott Spark. But it works.

Speaking of frame dimensions, yes, the BFD is long. You can derive tip-to-tail measurements from the Surly website (about 2.4m or 7’10” for my Large), but even if you do it is difficult to visualize the enormity of the thing until it is sitting in your garage or hanging on your hitch-mounted bike rack. I clearly need to think more carefully about this setup:
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Big Fat Dummy on a hitch-mounted bike rack. (Car is an Audi Q5.)
It feels strange to say this about a bike, but it’s true: the combination of the BFD’s length, weight, and weight distribution make it a challenge to park and secure the thing. The first part of the problem is that the bike is a bit top-heavy whether loaded or unloaded. You need a method to cinch it to whatever solid object you plan to lock to. I often use an Ottolock which easily tightens around the frame and the bike rack or fence or whatever. I feel comfortable with just the Ottolock if I’m making a stop of just a few minutes, but I add a U-lock for extra security if I’m staying for longer or if I’m in a sketchy part of town. The second part of the parking/securing problem is keeping the bike out of the way of foot traffic. A lot of sidewalk bike racks are oriented so bikes stand perpendicular to the sidewalk and the paths of pedestrians. That’s not a problem for bikes of normal frame sizes but with the BFD I would be “that guy” who blocks the entire sidewalk or the entry to a building. In those situations I end up being “that other guy” who takes up the entire bike rack.
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A recurring dilemma: how to lock up the BFD in a way that is secure (won’t get stolen), stable (won’t fall over), and yet not in everyone’s way?
Because we proved that the two adults in our household can indeed ride the same bike, we do plan to buy a dropper post to make saddle adjustments less abusive to the seat tube. It’s convenient to have this option and it’s one of the reasons that I preferred the BFD over the regular Big Dummy. However, the use of a dropper post (or really any means of frequent saddle height adjustment) means that we can’t install a stoker bar for our daughter to hang onto. We quickly abandoned that idea and aimed for something deck-mounted. We settled on the “Ring” from Yuba bikes and it has turned out to be a great solution. The ring diameter is about 250mm, which fortunately is narrower than most stoker bars. Plus the mount point on the deck makes it easier for my daughter to reach. The only downside is that you will need to drill your own mounting holes in that pretty purple deck. The Ring’s mounting holes are on 100mm centers while the pre-drilled holes in the BFD’s deck are separated by only 90mm. (The Yuba Ring also creates a convenient and sturdy handle to grab onto when I am sliding the BFD’s ample backside over to get closer to a bike rack or fence.)
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Yuba’s Ring installed in custom-drilled holes.

I can geek out on advanced bike technology all day long but on the BFD it’s simply the bags that I find most delightful. Someone was thinking when they put this accessory together. In the mid position the bags work great for small loads or as footrests for a 5-year-old. In the fully extended position you can load up with a whole week of groceries settled down deep and secure and not worry that light stuff like spinach or a bag of chips will fall out the back. And there are drain holes in the bottoms of the bags! Smart.

We are just on the tail end of a very mild winter here in Utah, and the change in seasons has me thinking about tire choice. In a normal winter I would keep the 4.3″ Ednas installed just so I can be ready to make an early trip to school even after a fresh snowfall. But for summer I plan to install a set of 3.8″ Black Floyds which have less tread and (I believe) will support a higher pressure. It’s not that I’m worried about pushing the wider Ednas on dry pavement all summer. I just don’t want to prematurely and unnecessarily wear out the tread. (I also considered the Apache Fatty Slick from Vee Tires, but at 4.5″ wide I expected the rear tire to rub on the BFD’s chain. As it is the Ednas leave just a little chain clearance and I don’t feel comfortable shrinking it.) For what it’s worth, I’m going to lose about a half inch of bottom bracket height when I switch to the Black Floyds.

I do have some minor beefs that I hope someone at Surly is already thinking about:

First, Surly’s documentation talks up the importance of rail collars if you plan to carry a passenger. That’s cool, I get it, and even without a passenger I can understand how they stiffen up the rack. But the stock build only comes with two rail collars, and “good enough” are not words I use when I’m securing my daughter.  It’s easy enough to buy and install the extra two collars, but I feel like the website could be clearer about how many collars are included. (I was lucky my local bike shop happened to have an extra set on hand.)

Second, the way the kickstand mounts to the bike is absurd. The kickstand constantly rotates out of place, constantly leaves the BFD leaning more severely than it should, and constantly creates a risk that the bike will fall over (even unloaded).

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Left: head of the BFD’s stock kickstand; Right: rotation of the kickstand causes scoring on the underside of the kickstand mounting plate.

The design clearly relies on bolt tightness and friction to prevent the kickstand from rotating. Maybe this idea works on smaller bikes but it fails on the BFD. To be fair, I have not owned a kickstand in 30 years and I have not researched what other designs exist. Maybe that’s the best that Surly could do. For now, I mostly don’t use the kickstand.

Third and finally in my short list of objections: I really need to keep an eye on the cleanliness of the front brake caliper and rotor because if anything gets in there, like trail dust or mud, I get a lot of flex and shuddering in the fork during braking. I understand some of that is to be expected with a rigid steel fork and that the same problem is probably just being absorbed by the suspension on my other bikes. But still, if I were Surly I would aim for more front-to-back stiffness in the fork, especially on a bike that could be asking that front brake assembly to help stop, what, a total of 457 pounds? (That’s 57 pounds of bike plus a maximum 200 pounds of rider plus a maximum 200 pounds of cargo.) The video below shows the problem as it exists today, recorded on a GoPro camera at 120 frames per second. That’s carrying zero cargo and after a thorough cleaning, but clearly I have more work to do.

Independent of these fairly minor objections, I clearly love my BFD. Surely some of my exuberance comes from that new bike feeling when the chain is quiet, the shifts are smooth, and fresh paint, tires, and geometry just make me more likely to get out the door and ride. But this addition to our bike collection also feels more primal. The BFD is not a new mountain bike that is just going to make me faster and more comfortable and more confident on rides I already know well. The BFD represents a massive expansion of why and where and when I ride, but not in a way that is awkward to fit into my life. I don’t need to carve out extra time for this bike I just spent a bunch of money on. The BFD naturally fits into what I already spend a lot of my time doing, mainly buying things and chauffeuring my kid, and along the way allows me to share more smiles, burn fewer hydrocarbons, and get fitter and stronger for all those other activities I also like to do. (Mostly that’s just riding other bikes.)

Should you get one? That’s your call. I can easily imagine the kind of lifestyle or location that would cause me to prefer other bikes. It’s fair to say that I agonized over my decision, but that’s the reason that I wrote this article and I hope someone finds it helpful. For me, once I understood my own requirements and constraints, it was clear the Big Fat Dummy was for me. And now that I own one I am happy to say that I made the correct decision.

Proud to Vote for Hillary Clinton

I will never forget what he said: “look what our country just did.” We were in Santa Monica on Election Night in 2008, Barack Obama was the President-Elect, and a random guy on the sidewalk found the words to describe what all of us were feeling. He was getting out of a Volvo with a car seat and he looked just like JJ Abrams. (Hey, maybe it WAS JJ Abrams!)

People I knew had lost jobs and homes and savings. America felt foreign to those of us who believed in truth, facts, peace, privacy, economics, and the Geneva Convention. It was time to think better of ourselves and present ourselves differently to the world and being a country that elected its first black President felt like a momentous first step.

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 election because I was not yet a US citizen, but I took care of that unfinished business in 2009 and I was happy to help re-elect him in 2012. Becoming a citizen helped me understand and love America more than was possible in the previous 18 years when I was just a resident. Citizenship made me a part of something I had only previously observed and kept at a distance. The greatness of America became mine to celebrate and contribute to; the weaknesses of America became mine to either accept or work to change.

I was so naive on election night in 2008. The country felt like a certain kind of place, populated by a certain kind of people, and I was eager to call myself one of them. Sure, there were people who voted against Barack Obama, but even some of them would say “look what our country just did” and then we would all move forward together. Right? Right?!

Who knew what fear and ignorance were really motivating some of the people — Americans! —  who felt Barack Obama wasn’t the right choice to lead our country? Who could have foreseen how many political opportunists would exploit that fear and ignorance to paralyze one branch of government and obstruct the progress so many of us had voted for? And who could have imagined that the fear and ignorance would metastasize so severely that now there are only three camps among the supporters of  Donald Trump: (1) those who enthusiastically buy what he’s selling; (2) those who loathe him but think he will rubber-stamp their draconian agenda; (3) those who fear (1) and (2).

I didn’t see that coming, but I’m still optimistic and I’m smarter now. I still believe politics can be a battle of ideas and enthusiasm, but I’ve learned that it’s also a battle between the informed and those who would take advantage of the uninformed. If you’re part of the latter, I see you and I know what you’re doing and I know better. So do you.

Hillary Clinton is a smart, tough, earnest, committed public servant and she has been showing us that for decades. Read her books, watch her in the debates, do your homework on her history and on the issues and it will be obvious: Hillary Clinton is absolutely the best choice to lead America at this time. Of course she is human and flawed like you and me and Barack Obama and any other person on the planet. But I’ll take that too because if she is the chief executive I think she can be, she is humble enough to recognize her blind spots and then surround herself with smart tough people to illuminate them. That is what leadership looks like.

I fell in love with my future wife during the 2008 presidential campaign, and now we have a daughter who has only known one President and one style of presidential leadership. Who is next?

I am proud today to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton as President of the United States of America. #ImWithHer

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#FeelTheBern

One of my weaknesses is that I tend to have too much confidence in people’s ability to change. You know how it is: one thinks, “we talked it over, things will be different now”. Maybe, but usually not. Most people just don’t change their behavior unless you create incentives and penalties to force and cement the transition. You pay managers on different metrics. You take the TV away from the child.

When I recognized this weakness early in my professional life, it forced me to develop a sensitivity to broken systems and processes. In any situation where people are not doing what is expected, I always ask myself, “what is the structural reason for this behavior?” It’s a valuable skill. Who has the wrong incentives? Who has a job that is undefined? Who is taking advantage of weak or inconsistent penalties? How can we change the systems that drive human behavior?

There is no greater system of broken processes, mismatched incentives, and ineffective penalties than the system by which Americans govern themselves and their economy. Concentrations of economic power have created concentrations of political power and private citizens, particularly in the lower and middle classes, hold less of that power every day. There are structural reasons for this: too much money in politics, underfunded government agencies, gerrymandering of congressional districts, voter suppression, and a weak-kneed media — among others.

But don’t just take my word for it. Most of my thinking on the structural weaknesses in the American political process and economy come from Robert Reich’s excellent book Saving Capitalism (and particularly the first two-thirds of it). Seriously, even if you don’t agree with my politics, read the book for a very interesting take on how the rules of the game have gotten away from us.

So what are we going to do about it? At some point we have to stop electing even highly qualified people to play the same old roles in the same old broken game. We need to change rules, processes, and penalties to shift more power back into the hands of working people. There is only one candidate for President who is talking about this kind of revolution: Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Sanders earned my vote tonight at the Utah Democratic Caucus (March 22nd).

For the record: Sanders earns my support because he recognizes that we have common strategic and structural problems underlying almost everything we wish to change in the American political process and economy. I think universal health care (not health insurance) is a valuable pursuit; I think the cost of college education needs to come down and down to zero would be ideal. But what excites me about these proposals is that they could be outcomes of fundamental and persistent structural reform and not just tactical wins. They would be outcomes that show we truly govern ourselves as “we the people”.

Yes I know:

  • Hillary Clinton is highly qualified to be President, perhaps the most qualified candidate in decades. If she is the Democratic nominee I will be there for her in November.
  • Hillary Clinton has had a lot of dirt thrown at her and perhaps some of it has been justified. I don’t consider that stuff in my support of Sanders.
  • Donald Trump will probably be the Republican nominee and a Trump presidency is so horrifying that progressives need to aim for the strongest possible candidate. I think either Sanders or Clinton will beat Trump badly.

To be fair, I don’t believe that a Bernie Sanders presidency is the best way to achieve the kind of revolution that he and Reich talk about. What we really need is to energize progressive voters in mid-year elections and on down-ballot positions like Senators, Congressmen, state legislatures, and governors. Only then will we turn this country’s politics and economy into the kinds of systems that work for all Americans. But let’s at least start with the presidency and go from there.

On to the general election!

Governing to an Outcome

For a few weeks now I’ve had this word bouncing around in my head: consequential. It came up around the time of President Obama’s last State of the Union address, as the press gave him credit for being consequential. The word has stuck with me as one of many lenses for evaluating political debate and the capabilities of the (now shrinking) crop of presidential candidates. The world’s most powerful office, the American Presidency, comes with an implied freedom to accomplish things, but neither governance nor consequence are easy.

And to be clear, at all levels and in all branches of government we should be thinking about who is and who is not consequential. It’s not just a label for the Presidency. But how do we decide who fits the bill? What is the framework that allows us to evaluate a person or an institution that is supposed to be serving us?

I see it like this… if you hold elected office then you have a responsibility to do two things:

  1. Feed and optimize the institutions that do the people’s business.
  2. Achieve a measurable outcome for a particular constituency.

Number 1 is pretty dull, but it’s critical. Number 1 means funding and staffing and managing the agencies that serve the American people. It’s keeping the lights on and the doors open, for everything from the military to national parks to the drivers license office. Previous generations of citizens and public officials created these institutions. They need resources and attention to keep from withering away.

If you’re doing this job number 1, you also have a responsibility (an opportunity!) to optimize cost and performance and to root out the creeping inefficiencies that plague all large organizations. Does the job include cutting, reorganizing, shifting resources from one place to another? Of course. If you’re an elected official running an institution then you are in a leadership role, and leaders always need to seek ways to do more with less. If you’re a cost-cutter, a superb manager, a government-efficiency aficionado, maybe this part of the job appeals to you.

Now, if you understand and if you deliver on your responsibility number 1, then you get to work on responsibility number 2. Number 2 means advancing an agenda for some group that you represent. There was probably a message or a mission that you made the basis of your campaign for public office in the first place. You promised to do something, to deliver something, to make a difference in the lives of the people who elected you. Responsibility number 2 is your opportunity to deliver on that agenda.

BUT NOT SO FAST! Did you really fulfill responsibility number 1? Did you really keep the engine running, the machine churning, so the government continues to do the people’s business? Because if you didn’t, you didn’t earn the right to work on your own stuff, that agenda you’re trying to deliver for a particular slice of the American population. Have you let the government run out of money? Have you denied the government the ability to borrow? Have you lumped your agenda in with something unrelated and held that other thing hostage while you whine for what you want? YES? REALLY? OK then you have not fulfilled responsibility number 1, the most basic function of government and you have not earned the right to work on number 2. Perhaps you need a simple word to label the kind of selflessness and maturity that it takes to put responsibility number 1 ahead of responsibility number 2. Try this one: integrity.

Feeling good about number 1? Feeling like you did your duty? Great, let’s move on to number 2. If you want to provide something more or different or better to the people you represent, I support that. But I CALL FOUL if what you are “providing” merely takes away from or discriminates against another constituency that you don’t actively represent. Need some examples of this kind of ridiculousness?

  1. The Affordable Care Act ensures millions of people have access to affordable health insurance and are protected against medical bankruptcies. If you want to repeal the law, you need to have a replacement in mind to continue to protect those people. Otherwise you are just reinserting people into jeopardy to serve a political interest.
  2. Gay marriage is now legal in this country. If you propose changing that, you also propose invalidating one of the most fundamental legal constructs upon which Americans have built relationships, families, and wealth. To deny gay people the right to marry is to deny them the same legal construct that so many of your constituents already enjoy and depend upon. You should explain that to them. (Emphasize the “legal” part, since that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not about religion.)
  3. Abortion is a legal medical procedure and each woman in America is empowered to decide how that procedure aligns with her own values and family planning. If you propose outlawing abortion, you are really outlawing a woman’s right to choose and you should explain that to your female constituents. Let them know that you want to take their medical decisions out of their hands.

My position on governing to an outcome is really about operating and governing between two constraints or limits. One the one end, if you’re an elected official, there is a long list of things you MUST do to keep the government functioning. Do those things. If you’re not too busy outside of those tasks, then you get to work on your own agenda but you will be constrained at the other end. That is, your agenda needs to be more sophisticated and more empathetic than to simply undo the progress that has already been made and the security that has already been delivered for millions of Americans. Don’t tear down what others have achieved just to appease the fears of the people you represent. You need to deliver something, achieve something, change people’s lives for the better.

That’s how you govern to an outcome. That’s how you be consequential.

 

 

 

On Universal Healthcare

Healthcare is in the political news in a way I didn’t expect. Of course we’ve all watched the GOP rants against the Affordable Care Act, and Congress’s repeated votes to repeal it. They are like this guy, and just as successful:

I was prepared for more of these antics, and we will probably see them. But what caught my attention this week was the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: what is the correct path from what we have today to the longstanding Democratic Party goal of true universal healthcare? Sanders is going all-in with a model he calls Medicare for all. Clinton is being more pragmatic and risk-averse and wants to “build on” the Affordable Care Act rather than “replace it” with a different program. Sanders cites gaps and inefficiencies of the current model; Clinton cites the divisiveness of the last healthcare debate and the risk of Republican attacks. Sanders and Clinton both make valid points.

I have decided which approach will get my support, and maybe I will write about that another time. But for now, can we just cut through some of the mythology that surrounds the terms used in this debate? Can we be clear about what the goal is?

In my view, healthcare means health services. It means affordable and local access to the medical professionals and facilities that my family and I need to live healthy, productive, and long lives. Health insurance is protection against financial ruin. It puts a cap on the costs that a family might pay for health services, whether that’s regular doctor visits or more extreme or costly treatments in the event of an accident or severe illness.

Fine, a health insurance policy might include some health services, like regular checkups for children, just like some auto insurance policies include free windshield repair or roadside assistance. But the existence of policies that deliver such benefits leaves us far short of truly ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health services.

When progressives talk about universal healthcare, they need to ask themselves whether they really mean universal protection against financial ruin. If they do, they are much more likely to accept a step-wise, patch-work, and unfair model of coverage. As long as we reduce or eliminate medical bankruptcies, we’re good! Right? We just need to “cover” more and more people, no matter how we do it.

And fundamentally that’s the problem with the discussion of this issue: everyone has a different definition of what it means to be “covered” and has had a different experience with the way “coverage” and “services” are delivered. People with employer-provided insurance, and especially those with high-end plans that ask for only small personal contributions, have no idea what it’s like for a person buying his own coverage, or coverage for his family. People with high-end employer-provided plans have no idea what questions an insurance consumer needs to ask himself when he is shopping for a new policy:

  • Can we afford a premium of $785 for my family of 3? Sure, no problem.
  • That plan has an annual family deductible of $7,500. Seems like a big number.
  • We’re pretty young and healthy, will we really go to the doctor so much that we would have to spend that $7,500 before the insurance kicks in? No, doesn’t seem like it. (Then what are we getting for our $785/month?)
  • But if something terrible happened, like a car accident or a severe illness, could we come up with $7,500 (every single year until we’re healed)? Or could we afford that number if we have a baby? Yes, I guess so. [Contemplates draining savings accounts and dipping into retirement funds.]

These questions are like the life-and-death versions of “is my car nice enough to carry collision insurance?” My guess is that most Americans have never had to go through this process, and if they did they would feel as uncomfortable and as exposed as my family did when we bought our own insurance policy for a short time in 2014. (And by the way, there is an equivalent fear framework for those Americans with employer-provided plans: what if I lose my job?)

Universal healthcare needs to be better than this. It needs to be easier, more affordable, and… more universal! When we envision a population-wide healthcare program, we should not have Americans asking themselves these questions, making decisions about health and quality of life based on affordability and the likelihood of an accident or illness or job loss. Universal means the same high standard for everyone. The question is how we get there, and when, and whether it’s possible to achieve that universal standard in a system of for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Disclosure: I am originally Canadian and I grew up with universal healthcare. I moved to the United States in 1990 and I became a United States citizen in 2010. Despite now living in the United States for longer than I ever lived in Canada, framing the healthcare debate in terms of bankruptcy-prevention and for-profit insurance companies just feels… foreign.

The Place for Military Strength

Allow me to summarize the ISIL discussion we will hear from all of the remaining debates in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination: troops here, troops there, ships here, ships there, bomb this, bomb that, military funding big, bigger, biggest,…. The candidates will position this discussion as a strategic one, as one about American strength, and debate moderators will let them get away with it. Hours will be wasted on muscle-flexing, on stern looks, and on one-liners about that weakling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We voters should not fall into that trap.

What is strength? Even if you agree with the content of the discussion, to debate military funding, targets, and troop and equipment placements is to discuss tactics and operational details. It’s not a strategic discussion, not the kind of discussion that presidential candidates should really be engaged in, not the kind of leadership that we select presidents to deliver, and not the kind of leadership that really makes America “strong”.

Presidents should decide what priorities to pursue and where to allocate resources across ALL of the functions that make America respected and exceptional in the world: diplomacy, justice, treasure, commerce, natural resources, infrastructure, science, health care, social programs, the arts, and YES THE MILITARY. The combination of those functions makes America great, the envy of the world, and a magnet for immigration. To flex one’s military muscles, and no others, is to scavenge for the largest club and then declare dominance. The world is more complex than that, and America’s exceptionalism flows from more than that one source.

The GOP candidates will say that President Obama lacks a strategy on ISIL. They will say that Americans should fear a Democratic president because Democrats are “weak on defense”, or “soft on ISIL”. Not true, if we’re talking strategy. President Obama and ALL of the presidential candidates from both parties have declared that ISIL is a strategic threat that needs to be addressed. The only difference across the candidates is how they choose to respond to that threat, the operational details, and I would argue that the vast majority of voters are not in a position to decide which of those approaches will be effective.

Seriously, try to imagine a twenty-something voter in Omaha or Grand Rapids or Salt Lake City making an informed choice across questions like whether Bashar al-Assad is a necessary evil, or how we should engage with Russia, or the number of troops that should be on the ground in Syria. Candidates who frame the election predominantly in these terms are looking for opportunities to talk tough and sound presidential with all the usual phraseology: boots on the ground, red lines, no-fly-zones, threats to the homeland. One of my favorite tweeters David Roberts put one such phrase in its place this week:

The next president, from either party, will take action against ISIL. You could make the details of his or her approach the basis of your vote for the Presidency. Or you could ask yourself what America really stands for, what makes us multi-dimensionally strong, and whether pursuit of ISIL as a number one priority really delivers the durable day-to-day world leadership that America is so fortunate to enjoy.

I argue that ISIL is a threat but not an existential one and not one that deserves a dominant place in our discourse or our allocation of resources. I argue that defeat of ISIL is (1) important but not the most important priority for the country; and (2) going to come from more than just a display of military might.

To be clear: I believe in a strong military. I’m proud of America’s fighting force and I’m humbled by the sacrifices that troops and their families make on my behalf. In fact if my daughter (now nearly 4 years old) grew up and wanted to join the military I would not only support her I would encourage her act of selflessness.

I just don’t think a military-first discussion is very helpful in choosing our next president. In fact I think that one-dimensional, sub-strategic focus fools some of us into thinking “strength” when really it should signal “weakness”.

 

We the Oppressors

There are two kinds of people in this country: people who see government as THEY, and people who see government as WE.

The former, the THEY-ers, like to use terms like the government(!) and tyranny and they see state and federal institutions, and their leaders, as nefarious and oppressive and untrustworthy. THEY-ers see themselves almost as unwilling subjects ruled by a separate entity that needs constant reminders of how useless and unfair it is.

The latter, the WE-ers, use terms like governance and reform. They see government as a set of institutions and processes that we citizens own, staff, and fund. WE-ers may not like every aspect of how government works, or every leader in it, but they understand the system is something that multiple generations of “we” created and that it’s ours to either accept or fix through debate and political processes.

Count me among those who believe government = WE. For one thing, I just find that outlook to be more pleasant and optimistic and in line with my tendency to act rather than complain. We have this thing, needs some work. Can we fix it? Sure we can! What can I do?  And, government = WE is the approach you will find most common and effective in the real world. Employees of big companies, for example, don’t last very long if they think and act like powerless ruled subjects under an autocratic empire.

Disgruntled rancher Ammon Bundy presents himself as a THEY-er. He and his gun-toting buddies made a miscalculation in their decision to turn a peaceful protest into an armed occupation. They will not get what they want, they already look like fools, and they may also end up dead or in prison.

But let’s use this THEY-er of the week to make two larger points:

Point 1: the character difference between a THEY-er and a WE-er is accountability, one’s ability to look at a problem and ask, “what could I have done differently, or what can I do now, to improve the situation?” A THEY-er will point at an institution and say “that needs to go” or “that’s out to get us”. A WE-er will point at himself and his neighbors and say, “this system that we all own isn’t working well for any of us, we can do better here, and here is what I propose…”. (There are legitimate reasons why the federal government owns so much land in the West. If Bundy and his crew were WE-ers, they’d propose changes to the system and drive those changes politically and legislatively so that the outcome is fair for all citizens and not just the ranching crowd. True, huddling around fires at a vacant bird sanctuary looks better on TV.)

Point 2: the Second Amendment, which provides Mr. Bundy’s ability to carry a gun, was itself a creation of WE-ers for a population of WE-ers. It was a mechanism for a young country to self-defend against insurrections, not a mechanism for a population to fight and overthrow its own government. The historically accurate narrative has been stolen by THEY-ers and reworked into fear-based variants of the government is coming to get your guns, and the result is that nothing gets done to properly regulate the firearms in this country (something most of the WE crowd are actually demanding).

In this political season, we should all be wary of candidates with THEY-er tendencies. (Looking at you, nearly every candidate for the Republican nomination, but especially Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz.) Low-accountability people should be in low-responsibility jobs. They can do real damage in leadership roles (or simply fail to show up). And by the way, what is it about these people that makes them simultaneously hate the government and also want to lead it? That mentality can’t be good for any of us.