Mrs. Miller and the Brexit

She stood at all of 5’1’’ at her peak, but her gravelly smoker’s voice could have stopped an elephant.  By the time I met her, the lines on her face were so deep that you could’ve lost a dime, but this tiny Jewish dynamo from Watertown, SD seemed to emanate a power that couldn’t accurately be described. Old enough that she didn’t subscribe to the politically correct notion of “treat all students equally”, she unabashedly picked favorites. Favorites were picked on the basis of talent first, and personality second. Her second career as an admissions officer at Northwestern University demanded that she size up talent accurately and quickly, and she did it in every aspect of her life.

Her favorites became an incredibly accomplished bunch, becoming New York Times bestselling authors, lawyers arguing monumental cases in front of the Supreme Court, CEOs, professors and more. She had a wide net in a rich intellectual pond, and she relished her ability to pick the best.

Joan Miller was probably 65 years old when a scrawny, bespectacled 13-year-old boy sat down before her in the front row of University Hall. Over the next three weeks, she taught me more than I would learn in the next four years. By the time I left her formal tutelage, Mrs. Miller had given me the most valuable of all gifts, the confidence to compete with anyone.

She was a debate coach first, foremost and always. Policy debate was her passion, and she trained generations of Highland Park high schoolers in the arts of persuasion and public speaking for decades. Later in life, she taught gifted high school students from across the globe, and they sought her out by name, wanting to come meet the Cicero of the North Shore.

I was fresh out of a small town in Indiana, where I’d been the smart kid for as long as I could remember. Getting to Northwestern, with kids who had already scored perfect SAT scores at the age of 13, I was in a whole different league now. Adolescence is full of self-doubt, but suddenly I was overcome with the palpable fear that I’d managed to fool everyone to this point; including myself.

Being from a small town herself, Mrs. Miller knew exactly what it was to be a doubt filled outsider from nowhere sitting down to their first class in University Hall. She’d done it herself 47 years earlier.

I can’t remember how long it took her to latch on to me, a few days at most, but she taught me the most valuable lesson that any child can be taught: “It doesn’t matter where you came from, only what you accomplish today.” Sitting next to the sons and daughters of CEO’s, published authors and the like, I didn’t need to be told that I was the peasant in the bunch. Sitting in my only faded Abercrombie shirt, anyone with eyes could see that. By Wednesday of that first week, she made me understand that it didn’t matter.

She gave us a crash course in policy debate, but more importantly she taught us how to be orators, able to communicate any message. From signposts to crescendo to speeding and spreading, she taught us how to logically trap opponents into forced agreement by framing an argument with simple proofs. It was all about framing your argument in Teflon, making sure that detracting arguments wouldn’t stick.

I got back from the Conquest and as I drove from Chicago towards Bedford, I called Mrs. Miller to tell her I’d gotten home safely. For all of the horrible stereotypes about Jews, the ones about Jewish mothers being unparalleled worriers are completely true from my experience, and Mrs. Miller had adopted me as her goyim grandson long ago.

The phone rang as I waited for that familiar croak or Don’s singsong voice shouting “Joanie, it’s Chris Moorman” up the stairs. When a different voice picked up, I think I knew before he said it.

I got to the side of the interstate and bawled. To this day I’m still not sure how long I sat there mourning a woman who gave me my only irreplaceable talent, a confident voice. 2 years later I’m sitting at the keyboard crying just as hard.

I didn’t mean to turn that into a written eulogy, but sometimes the dead deserve their due.


Turns out that I told you that story so that you’d understand this one.

I waited up until 2AM on Thursday night, waiting for the Brexit results to come in. For those readers who know me well, staying up until 2AM for me requires wine, women, song and stimulants in great amounts. Or volatility.

The trader within me, like a catastrophic ex-girlfriend addiction, welled up to the point of bursting as the Brexit drew nearer. I would’ve given three toes off my left foot to have a real spec portfolio and platform last week. (The right foot being reserved for footy kicks obviously.) I read the news, watched the polls, and tried to figure out why every market had implied a 0% possibility of a Brexit. The polls appeared to be 50/50 but the world, both financial and media, was convinced that the establishment would win again, just like the Scottish Referendum in 2014.

And they were wrong.

Aside from my fanatic addiction to trading, I am also a student of history. Without getting too far into the weeds, I believe that in the modern era that history is on roughly an 80 year cycle starting with the wars of Spanish Succession (~1700).

1780, American and French Revolutions (Modern Conception of Representative Government)

1860- American Civil War/End of Chattel Slavery as an economic model in Western Societies

1940- Great Depression/WW2/Beginning of American Hegemony


I truly believe that we are on the precipice of the next great sea change in history. Just as the world was a fundamentally different place before the revolutionary period surrounding 1780, so too were the rules of engagement fundamentally different from the beginning to the end of the next 2 sea changes.  

The Brexit is yet another signpost on the change that is coming. The postwar period in the Western World has been one of “peace at any cost.” I haven’t gotten the historiography up, but I am confident that you’d be hard pressed to find any 71 year period in European history with less bloodshed between the major powers.

This has all been accomplished through a consistent tightening of bonds between the major (and now minor) powers. Like a jerry rigged team building exercise, Europe has sought to tie a large rope around the herd. While this makes it tough to fight, it also makes it tough to get anywhere. The rope took the form of endless regulations, agreed to by appointed diplomats and administered by countless unelected bureaucrats. The rule of law acted as the large shield built by patchwork.

Going back to another era in European history, the Greek Phalanx was once the greatest fighting force ever seen. Its power was not that of nuclear weapons or superior firepower, it was in the uniformity of action among the men who filled its ranks. So long as everyone moved in lockstep, a gapless shield wall protected while a series of marching spears methodically marched down more freewheeling enemies.

Discipline was the secret sauce of the phalanx. The spears and shields used were no more advanced than the enemy, only the method of utilization. The phalanx depended on an implicit social contract however, and that was one of a mutually desired outcome. Shared goals are a great way to keep discipline; consequences and fear, much less so.  

Peace was the shared goal of the EU for many decades. Peace was seen as the desirable byproduct of free trade, a mutually beneficial tightening of bonds. Familiarity breeds contempt however, and soon peace was seen as a given instead of a goal. The resulting philosophical shuffle from peace to “prosperity” has had many ramifications, from the sovereign debt crisis to the ever widening inclusion of new members on the margin.

Goals are hard enough to agree initially, but changing goals midstream means that formerly happy bedfellows can begin staring down very different motivations. The EU started out as an economic free trade zone, now it was starting to look like a federal government run by unelected bureaucrats.

Looking around the world, unelected bureaucrats running supranational organizations don’t work tremendously well (see FIFA, IOC, FIA, IMF, UN…) Technology might have made information more readily available, but the human brain does not follow Moore’s Law, and to try to rule across cultures, mores, and continents from 100k feet does not allow anyone to see what happens on the ground. Fiascos like the upcoming Brazilian Olympics (or better yet, the Greek Olympics that set the whole EU sovereign debt fiasco in motion) occur because the separation between noble ideals and workable plans become yawning chasms made invisible from the heights of the ivory tower. Leadership in these organizations find themselves find themselves in a gilded cage of “high minded ideals” yet their proclamations have real effects on real, breathing people.  

My people. Not the sons and daughters of the 1% that I tried to fit in with so long ago at Northwestern, but the children of the working poor who grew up in those Lawrence County trailer parks, to whom the debate over minimum wage is more than an academic exercise in economic modeling. The children of meth addicts who came, dirty and underfed every August into my mother’s kindergarten classroom. To my high school friends, who left as green 18 year old kids, and returned glassy eyed veterans from a warzone that they should have never been asked to go to, looking for a pill or a needle or a bottle to take away the horrors of war. To the mothers of those same veterans, who intrinsically knew that her son was safer in Iraq than in the decaying small town where he was born.

In the words of Churchill, “Democracy is the worst government ever designed, except all the others.” While democracy has wrongly become framed a modern euphemism for “freedom”, as opposed to an inclusive yet neutral system for the allocation of governmental powers, the EU started to look like something different. The emergency monetary powers granted to the EU during the sovereign debt crisis became standard, and the mechanism for power allocation went further and further afield from classic representative democracy.

Democracy’s success is inexplicably intertwined with its trust in the people. All the people, not just those at the top. The woman looking in the mirror knows her struggles better than any technocrat in the capital ever will. If her vote displeases the bureaucratic establishment, then I challenge our rulers to come out of their ivory towers.

Because we’ve got a war going on down here. It is not a war of choice but of survival. It is a war against a never ending barrage of awful choices. This is not some political euphemism, like “the war on women” or a high school football coach telling his team to prepare for “48 mintues of war.” This is a real one, costing life and limb and opportunity, and the casualties stack up every day.

The EU referendum seemed like a low risk means of shoring up a mandate when David Cameron proposed it. Europe was on a path for more cohesiveness, not less, and Cameron calculated that he could ride that wave. Somewhere along the line however, he found that himself and his government pulled under by an unseen undertow.

Having made more than a few British friends during the Conquest, I found myself intrigued by their multiparty parliamentary democracy as opposed to the binary two party democracy of the US. It seemed to me that the views of individuals were better reflected by varying degrees of the UK political parties. Whereas the US is told to vote with whatever party better reflects 51% of their views, the UK had a variety of parties to choose from, from Conservative to Labour, UKIP to Green.

The British system engendered a belief in the voting population that 51% agreement should not be tolerated. Various parties aligned platforms that reflected much more of the views of the voter. When projecting this inherent belief against the technocracy ruling the EU, the population saw themselves being a party to a supranational system unlike their domestic one.

Once the Brexit passed, the blame began in earnest. Claims of xenophobia, isolationism and outright stupidity were leveled at the majority of Britons who voted in favor of leaving the EU.

Enter the lessons of Mrs. Miller.

Just as she taught me to frame an argument with simple, unassailable claims, so too did the Brexit debate seek to distill an immensely complex issue into a series of binary questions.

Britain will be fine in the long term. They are one of a few indispensable nations on earth, and whatever the short-term fallout from the Brexit, they will always find themselves with a seat at any table that matters. The specific economic and social arguments surrounding the Brexit are far less important than what they have accomplished in traditional English fashion.

When the scourge of Nazism seemed destined to overwhelm Europe, they were presented with a seemingly horrible offer from one of the greatest leaders in European history, Winston Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”

In a courageous act, Britain looked at a system of power allocation and said, “No thanks” in opposition to the entire global establishment. To write off a majority vote as “that of the stupid and uneducated” should bring about a whole different kind of debate about the state of public education if nothing else. Again, in the vein of framing an argument, I can almost hear Mrs. Miller asking a set of leading cross-examination questions, “Are you opposed to immigration? Do you consider yourself a racist? Would you ignore the advice of a medical professional in matters of health? Would you consider a doctor to be an expert? Does an intelligent person ignore the advice of experts?”

As Mrs. Miller taught us to debate, it was all academic so she could afford to leave out that most important lesson about framing.

Any art collector can tell you, frames are meant to be hung.

As we frame the political opposition in increasingly stark terms, I fear we are edging closer to hanging ourselves. Let’s think about framing things in a different way.