Cost of a moment

How long is a moment? Contemporary meanings are indefinite, but our ancestors in the middle ages defined it as 90 seconds, which was calculated from their sundial-driven division of an hour into 40 minutes.

As time has become more universally regulated and measured, a “moment” as used in literature and language since medieval times defies any widespread understanding of a uniform duration.

One particularly insightful if not quantifiable description of a moment, by someone somewhere, was: the amount of time that can pass you unawares.

Thus, a moment varies according to its context—longer than an “instant,” perhaps a matter of seconds that would stretch no further than its original minute-and-a-half boundary.

Nicole Hughes of Knoxville, Tenn., knows the forever cost of a lost moment. She joined a grieving fraternity of parents who share that knowledge last month when her 3-year-old son drowned at a beach-house pool in the Gulf Shores area.

In the ensuing maelstrom of such despair, answers are desperately sought but rarely found. In her search, Nicole began to learn what she hadn’t known about toddlers and water safety, and wondered why.

Why isn’t it drilled into parents’ heads, like car-seat safety, that drowning is the No. 1 cause of unintentional-injury death of children age 1-4?

Why aren’t parents warned that two out of every three child drownings occur when they’re not supposed to be swimming?

Why don’t pediatricians constantly remind parents that a child drowns silently in 30 seconds?

Why shouldn’t there be a thunderous, unending chorus of caution, especially in the summer, imploring constant supervision?

Parents all know the dangers in general. That ubiquity is often precisely what lowers the collective guard; everyone is assumed accountable, and thus no one is assigned accountability.

What they don’t know is the particulars: the prevalence the risk presents, the lack of any real margin for error in supervision, the complete preventability of nearly every child drowning.

In her son Levi’s instance, Nicole had just shared a brownie bite with him. Because the day’s swimming was over and it was dinnertime cleanup, Levi had only recently removed the life jacket he’d worn all day.

People were standing around talking, and Nicole was still chewing on her brownie bite when she walked across the room and–like protective moms tend to do—cast a watchful eye toward the pool outside as she passed.

“That’s how fast it happened,” she said. In that briefest moment among a vacationing crowd of a dozen adults, Levi had managed to go downstairs, out the heavy door, through the gate and into the water.

The six families all included doctors, friends from medical school in Alabama who gathered annually at the beach.

Nicole screamed as she descended the staircase. One doctor leapt from the balcony into the pool and reached Levi at the same moment his mother did. They pulled him from the deep end, intubated him, performed CPR and shocked his heart, coaxing a weak pulse.

Levi had skilled physicians trying to revive him till paramedics arrived. But after being airlifted to the hospital, he was pronounced dead a few hours later.

On average, drowning claims the lives of three children every day. In the sweltering Southern heat, with the water a welcome respite, the average is exceeded in the summer months.

Nicole’s nightmare will become reality for a thousand other families this year. Most readers probably know families touched by this tragedy.

But most may not yet know of Nicole’s idea, born of her loss and conceived in hope of saving others from her fate.

She created what’s called Water Guardian tags—credit-card-sized, waterproof cards attached to lanyards.

The idea, she said, is to literally “tag” someone (as in, “you’re it”) as the adult in charge of providing constant supervision of young kids both while swimming and when they’re not supposed to be around water (unloading the car, preparing dinner, etc.).

It’s designed as a visible physical reminder not to be multitasking, checking phones, or looking away even for a moment in distraction.

The cards cost $10 to produce, and are sold at cost through the foundation Nicole started (

For a leading cause of death to be 100 percent preventable, Nicole confidently believes drowning can be eradicated if enough parents know the facts and adopt a constant supervision-with-accountability mindset. She’s also determined to funnel her pain into fueling that change.

Arkansas summers can be as brutal as anywhere, and residential swimming pools are as popular as ever. There’s been a viral rage over the latest mosquito-killing gadget in the news, and heaven knows that in rice-field country those pests can ruin all quality of life after dark.

But really, that’s essentially a creature-comfort issue, not a lethal one.

It would be nice if Nicole’s Water Guardian tags could stir up an even bigger rush to buy, and catch fire as a true cause with real lifesaving results.

If you’re on Facebook, share the idea and her site. Do it in honor of someone you may know who, like Nicole, will always wish they could get back just one lost moment.


Trifecta trends

Hindsight is generally regarded to be 20/20, but for trends affecting the nation’s political parties and voters, it is more accurately 2010.

That was a midterm election year imbued with subtle, though powerful, literal red flags that signaled sweeping change bubbling up across flyover country. Arkansas was a harbinger of the remarkable nature of that change, breaking a blue-state chokehold on majority-Democratic House of Representatives delegations that stretched all the way back to Reconstruction.

Looking back, the destruction of a nearly 140-year-old record should have registered higher on the political Richter scale for the national Democratic Party. Change was in the air all across America, and not the kind Barack Obama had campaigned for two years earlier.

Indeed, one likely reason Democratic leaders ignored the seismic shifts in the nation’s electorate was their delusion rooted in confusion: They misread Obama’s victory.

He won the presidency in 2008 on his personal merits, not his party affiliation—had Democrats watched 2010 more keenly, they would have seen critical indicators that Obama’s popularity didn’t translate to the party.

We are a federalist nation of self-governing states, and while national headlines often revolve around Washington, the lives of citizens are affected most by statehouse politics.

A “state government trifecta” occurs when one political party holds three positions of power in government: the governor’s seat and majorities in both legislative chambers.

Starting with the election of 2010, there have been eight different election opportunities to change the various states’ trifecta status. The 10th opportunity will occur this fall.

Prior to the 2010 midterms, there were 16 states with Democratic trifectas (Arkansas among them), and nine states with Republican trifectas. After the polls closed on Nov. 2, however, the landscape had changed radically: 21 states experienced a change in their trifecta status.

Imagining a U.S. map with red and blue coloring, the pre-election 2010 states were scattershot. Half had divided governments, and the other half were spread out across the continent, with no more than three or four of either color adjacent to each other.

When the dust had settled after the 2010 midterms, the total number of state trifectas had grown to 32. Even more telling, the red trifecta states had increased from nine to 21, and formed swaths across the mountains, plains, Rust Belt and South. The number of blue trifectas fell from 16 to 10.

But the tone and tenor of Democrats was anything but reflective or contemplative, and even seemed contemptible in consideration of exit polling data from around the country.

When asked about the nation’s most pressing issues, 62 percent of voter respondents said the country was headed in the wrong direction. Significantly, the number of voters who identified themselves as conservative jumped by 28 percent from the previous midterm.

Suddenly the sagacity of a campaign slogan like “Make America Great Again” starts to settle in.

With the 2012 elections, the Republican trifecta dominance continued as the party added three more states, while Democrats added only one. Apparently, the identity of key transition states was either overlooked or ignored amid euphoria over Obama’s re-election.

Neither Michigan, Indiana, Ohio nor Pennsylvania had been under single-party control before 2010, and Wisconsin had a Democratic trifecta. After election day in 2012, all five were in the Republican trifecta camp, joined by North Carolina and Virginia.

Maybe the slippage seemed gradual at the time to Democrats charged with watching for icebergs and minefields in the roiling political waters, though it’s hard to imagine any Democratic strategist monitoring the trifecta map data and not becoming alarmed.

On the eve of the 2016 election, the stark significance of the political trifecta shift in six short years painted a national picture of freight train momentum. The 2010 Democratic lead of 16-9 had dwindled to a deficit of 6-23.

One day later, the red sea swelled even more, as Republicans picked up trifectas in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire, as well as the presidency. After West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice switched his party in 2017, the GOP held trifectas in 26 states, as it still does today.

The trifecta factor may well figure into the coming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Among at-risk “red state Democrat” senators who are up for re-election this November, four represent the Republican trifecta states of West Virginia, Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana.

Trump’s popular vote victory by percentage points in those states was, respectively, 41, 20, 36 and 19.

Even though it’s not a trifecta state (yet–both legislative chambers are Republican with double-digit majorities), Montana gave Trump a 20-point victory, and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s seat there is at risk this year.

Were Kavanaugh a weaker nominee, conservative trifecta electorates might understand a nay vote. But most conservatives hold fast to principles above partisanship. At the end of the day, they believed Obama was right when he said elections had consequences, even when they disagreed with his Supreme Court picks. They believe that still, and harbor expectations accordingly.

Red-state Democratic senators would be wise (more than their party’s leadership has been) to pay attention to the trifecta trends.

SCOTUS scores

The present moment is ripe to recall the Prize for Civility in Public Life that Allegheny College awards annually, and especially the latest recipients from 2017.

Allegheny began awarding the prize in 2012 as a quest to reverse “the rise of incivility in our democracy,” as college president James H. Mullen wrote at the time in naming columnists and NewsHour hosts David Brooks and Mark Shields as inaugural prizewinners.

The 2017 honorees for the prize were none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and (posthumously) Antonin Scalia.

The two U.S. Supreme Court justices were known to be fast friends, despite being political foes. In addition to sharing similar personal interests in travel, opera and wine, Ginsburg and Scalia shared something else: high confirmation vote scores.

Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia was approved in the Senate on a 98-0 vote. Nominated by President Bill Clinton seven years later in 1993, Ginsburg won her confirmation in a 96-3 vote (even after flat-out refusing to answer a number of questions in her hearings).

During that same short period Clarence Thomas eked out a 52-48 senate confirmation score, and Robert Bork’s nomination was rejected 42-58.

The character assassination of Bork, widely regarded as one of the most brilliant scholars ever nominated, was masterminded by senior Democratic senate leaders and special interest groups. If memory fails you, go back and read the “Bork’s America” scare-tactic speech given (with the straightest of faces) by Sen. Ted Kennedy just one hour after Bork’s nomination announcement.

The same Democrats who had voted “yea” for Scalia in 1986 just one year later bashed and dashed Bork’s nomination in the most uncivil attack in recent memory at the time.

Before Bork, here are the voting scores for the SCOTUS nominees starting in 1970: 94-0 (Blackmun), 89-1 (Powell), 68-26 (Rehnquist), 98-0 (Stevens), 99-0 (O’Connor), and 98-0 (Scalia).

Incredibly, with the single exception of Rehnquist, in 17 years prior only one senator cast a “nay” vote on a Supreme Court associate justice nomination.

The Bork lynching by Democrats—they had warned of a combative posture, but Reagan rightly characterized the Senate leadership’s collusion with leading special interest groups as a “lynch mob”—negatively altered the civility of such proceedings.

Prior to 1970, most SCOTUS nominees were confirmed by simple voice vote. Both of President John F. Kennedy’s nominees, three of President Dwight Eisenhower’s, two of President Harry Truman’s and seven of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s were all confirmed that way, so no record of scoring exists for those.

The last SCOTUS justice to receive a unanimous confirmation vote is the one now retiring. Anthony Kennedy was confirmed 97-0 in 1987.

Since Ginsburg garnered her 96 “yea” confirmation votes 25 years ago this August, here are the SCOTUS scores: 87-9 (Breyer), 78-22 (Roberts), 58-42 (Alito), 68-31 (Sotomayor), 63-37 (Kagan), 54-45 (Gorsuch).

The paradigm shift that has rendered 90-something confirmation scores a thing of the past isn’t an accident. It’s a product of a distinctive and collective special interest strategic initiative, carried out by the political party prone to pander to those interests.

Fringe groups seeking radical change began to realize that while successful legislation often takes large sums of time and money, the Supreme Court can change the law for 320 million Americans in a single session, sometimes by a single vote. It has proven much easier at times to lobby and convince five SCOTUS justices instead of the majority of nearly 500 federal lawmakers.

That dynamic change, naturally, unduly politicizes the judicial nomination process, creating both contention and (as desperation born of a “live by the gavel, die by the gavel” potential pendulum swing emerges) increased incivility.

With the announcement of the next SCOTUS nominee just days away, liberal groups are already planning tens of millions of dollars in ad campaigns to fan flames of unfounded fears. Political pressure affects senators, no doubt. On both sides of the aisle, for those facing less than certain re-election this confirmation vote will loom large as a career consideration.

It would be better if the political discussion could rise above the next nominee to the more substantive issue of the shaky footing that law-by-SCOTUS-decree creates. That argument—convenience of court rulings versus consensus of legislation—has been a long time coming, and though painful, will in the end be good medicine for both the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

There wouldn’t be frenzied worries over Roe v. Wade had the abortion lobby simply persevered for statutory (or even constitutional amendment) success. At the time, and still today, that ruling was widely criticized as lacking sufficient underpinning in law.

But hey, with a friendly court, it worked.

The fact that special interests are overwrought now about a possibly unfriendly court signifies a colossal problem–not with those groups, but with the modern “law by judicial decree” process. Self-government must rely on elected representatives in Congress and the 50 state legislatures. The only way that works is for the Supreme Court to exercise self-restraint.

Justices are ill-equipped to make law (they’re the furthest thing from representative), which isn’t their job anyway. We need nominees who respect that above all. Hopefully that’s the kind we’ll get next.

America the unique

Oftentimes, in public discourse over current divisive or polarizing issues, comparisons are thrown up with other countries. On matters such as gun crime, or taxation, or health care, it’s easy to present statistics from nations elsewhere and portray the variances as persuasive to the partisan point. Sometimes, in some ways, such contrasts contain some validity.

But the inherent problem in all comparative analysis invokes the old fruit cliché, and its justified invalidation when differences in the subjects compared are too great. Practically put, it’s impossible to ever have an “apples to apples” comparison between the United States and any other nation on earth.

The holiday on next week’s hump day highlights this truth.

There simply is not now and has never been another democratic republic of our geographic size or population or age, self-chartered and self-governed according to the set of principles, morals and social precepts that culminated in our Declaration of Independence.

In addition to America the Beautiful, we are America the Unique.

We’re the third most populous country—and none of the other top 10 remotely resemble us in form of social construct and constitutional governance. That’s primarily because none of them have our history. Indeed, most other countries have histories that run completely at odds with ours regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our singularity is not a slam against other nations, but rather a celebration of distinctive national achievement, albeit one that falls short of the ideal in preserving the ideas that delivered it.

Business leaders today see value in employees understanding the corporate core values and “living the mission” of the organization. But if all a CEO did toward that end was host an annual picnic, few would expect much in the way of results.

Those businesses that excel in that regard do much more: They take a practical approach involving multiple communication channels, from posters on the wall and pocket guides, to accountability measures that improve work habits to align with company values.

By the same token, there is supreme value to the republic in our citizens understanding the core values that produced our independence.

The festivities each Fourth of July can commemorate and celebrate our core principles and self-evident truths, but it is not enough to perpetuate them.

Businesses encourage employees to be able to recite a 30-second “elevator speech” about the company. How many Americans can summarize the Revolution so concisely? More alarmingly, how many would misstate the matter entirely?

“What do we mean by the American Revolution?” John Adams wrote in a letter in 1818. “Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and the hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations …

“This radical change,” he said, “in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

But what brought on that change? The piece of paper adopted in Congress on July 4, 1776, wasn’t the spark; it was, as titled, a declaration and explanation.

Many people don’t want to be bothered with “getting into the weeds” of the philosophers and thinkers—some from antiquity—who shaped the founders’ views. Likewise, many employees get annoyed with so much focus on vision, mission and core values, when there’s actual work to be done.

The key in both instances is that knowledge and understanding are critical to performance.

Part of our political polarity today stems from fundamental misunderstandings about the spirit of liberty as conceived in colonial America.

Indeed, it’s impossible to understand how radical our nation’s notion of liberty was without first understanding what it was before to other nations and other civilizations. Without appreciating the longstanding social orders of royalty, nobility and commons, and the traditional relation between law and divine right, it’s difficult to fathom the full attainment of freedom achieved by the American colonists.

Even the word “constitution” conveyed an altogether different meaning in 1760 than it does for us today. Comprehending how that word evolved from its common definition then as describing the entwined existence of a political system to a limiting charter of government power in 1787 is central to grasping American liberty–and its need for fervent protection.

We take the world we live in for granted. Our plenty is an anomaly among the world’s hungry billions; intellectually we might know of starving peoples in faraway places, but it is disconnected from our daily consumption, as evidenced by our sizable BMI statistics.

We take our liberty even more for granted.

There are tens of millions of people trying to reduce their weight, and countless weight-loss programs and speakers and websites and documents to assist them. Were that even half as many people sought to truly understand the radical change in Americans that produced the United States!

Mention Algernon Sidney or Cato’s Letters at your cookout next week and gauge the blank stares. Better yet, commit to yourself to Google them (both were foundational to the Revolution). Even if you only read a little, you and your holiday spirit will be better for it.

Reflective reverie

I don’t attend as many book-signing events as I would like. So I was delighted to accept the opportunity last Friday night when a friend with a pair of spare VIP tickets called.

As luck (or fate or providence, depending on your worldview) would have it, the last stop in former Vice President Joe Biden’s tour for his book Promise Me, Dad was in Memphis on Father’s Day weekend.

It was an evening of several firsts. I’d never been backstage at the Orpheum. I’d never even seen Joe Biden before; that night I got to meet him and shake his hand and be photographed standing beside him.

I’d also never read much of his writing, and as part of the event I received a copy of the book.

Subtitled A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose, it’s the poignant story of his son Beau Biden’s losing battle with brain cancer.

One reviewer aptly summarized the book as an account of “private grief and its effect on a public life.”

By early Sunday morning, I was deep into the book, reading outside with the rising sun and my steaming coffee.

Biden employs a yin and yang approach in describing the father-son bond, oscillating between the political goings-on and the personal pains in Beau’s final year.

Both parallel paths are insightful. The inner workings of his vice presidency, and his relationship with the president, are interesting and intriguing.

They are made even more so in the context of every parent’s nightmare scenario, and the hindsight of what was happening outside the public view in 2015.

Joe Biden had nearly lost Beau four decades earlier, when a car accident claimed the life of his first wife and baby daughter a week before Christmas in 1972. Both sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured in that crash.

Promise Me, Dad opens with Thanksgiving 2014 and the Biden family traditions associated with that holiday, and chronicles the next six months of hope and struggle with anecdotes, diary entries and a father’s heart-wrenching recollections.

In one passage, Joe recounts coming into the hospital room to see Beau in early May 2015 and telling him about Elton John’s visit to the White House.

Joe writes about reminiscing aloud to a sedated Beau about singing “Crocodile Rock” while driving to school.

I remember when rock was young, me and Suzie had so much fun…

Well Crocodile Rocking is something shocking when your feet just can’t keep still,

I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will …

He didn’t say which verses he sang softly through stifled sobs to Beau, but my own kids loved that song, too, and our family sang it loud like the Bidens.

Just a few pages later, Joe described a medical team meeting with the family at which he was told “the four most devastating words” he ever heard in his life:

“He will not recover.”

When the moment of eternity arrived, on page 189 in the book, my eyes were a watery mess. I read his diary entry of May 30, 2015, with halting breaths: “It happened. My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.”

As a national politician, with prominent participation at a few historical junctures (the Bork nomination comes famously to mind), Joe Biden has earned plenty of detractors and critics.

The book is political enough that pundits have wondered aloud whether its publication and tour constitute another set of feelers put out to gauge public sentiment regarding a possible Biden presidential run.

In it he touts his accomplishments, outlines his ideology, and waxes wistful about the ebbs and flows of events and advice that led to his decision not to run in 2016.

Official word is that no final verdict will be rendered on running in 2020 until after the midterm elections.

In watching and hearing him speak, the sense I got most was that at his age and at this stage in his life, he’s putting his family and legacy to them first.

But that might have just been because it was Father’s Day weekend, and he was sharing intimate emotions as a dad who has lost a child on two different occasions.

I came away inspired to hope for the better from our hyper-polarized political environment.

Joe Biden could never get my vote because we differ too fundamentally on too many foundational issues.

But I admire and applaud him as a father and family man who has known bereavement at a level that is incomprehensible to me, and yet leaned on his faith to let hope not just survive, but prevail in his life.

We all should be able to disagree philosophically, but then turn around and admire personally, and even weep collectively over a soul-piercing hurt.

Few knew what Joe Biden was going through in 2014 and 2015, but everybody with children can imagine it. His book helped me relate to it, and say an extra prayer of gratitude for fatherly blessings last Sunday morning in the reverent quiet of my backyard.

A good holiday was made better. Thanks, Joe.

Right, wrong and liberty

There are valuable lessons from the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which the justices sided with a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

In a strong 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was wrong in ordering baker Jack Phillips to stop making wedding cakes altogether if he wouldn’t create one for same-sex couples.

Reading through the decision, in which just about every justice weighed in, is a refreshing study in uncommon jurisprudence. It’s encouraging to see common sense carry sway on so many points.

For example, the commission had previously denied charges of discrimination against three other bakeries that refused to bake cakes for anti-gay customers. Those bakers didn’t want their work or their name associated with something that didn’t reflect their personal views.

But when it came to Phillips’ case, the commission seemed to attach weight to subjectivity–whether commissioners agreed with the reasons for the refusal, rather than the impartial rule of law. At least one of the commissioners openly disparaged Phillips, characterizing his professed religious beliefs as “despicable” and insincere.

Same-sex marriage was illegal in Colorado in 2012 when the couple approached Phillips, who demonstrated no personal hostility toward them. He didn’t call them names, tell them their money was no good there, or throw them out of his store.

On the contrary, he offered to sell them any of his off-the-shelf products, and even to bake other types of cakes (birthday, etc.) for them. He just didn’t like the idea of artistically creating a cake for an occasion that wasn’t recognized by Colorado law or his own religious faith.

Phillips basically said, “Hey, I’m really not your guy for this.”

The Knot wedding site lists 225 wedding cake bakeries in Lakewood, population 154,000. With that many alternative choices, Phillips’ refusal in no conceivable way deprived Craig and Mullins of the freedom to have a cake for their reception.

The couple chose instead to focus on the embarrassment they say they suffered.

But life is full of embarrassing moments. Just try going, with an average income and budget, to a pretentious purveyor of an opulent luxury item. Some snobby merchants will gently let you know you can’t afford their products or services; others will delight in demeaning and embarrassing you.

Can discrimination based on economic inequality like that make a prospective buyer feel like he is “second class” and not “good enough?” It can and does.

Is it legal? Absolutely.

I believe it’s wrong to treat someone that way, to knowingly and maliciously embarrass someone because they don’t have as much money as other customers. My beliefs are formed from my faith and philosophy; stuck-up luxury-item salespeople obviously have a different set of beliefs.

The greatness of America is the liberty that allows for both those beliefs, and countless more variations between them.

This case recalls to mind Judge Learned Hand, who was supreme in so many aspects but never in the capital-S way.

In 1944, speaking before 1.5 million New Yorkers at a ceremony inducting 150,000 new American citizens, Judge Hand warned against resting hopes of liberty “too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts.”

“These are false hopes,” he continued, with emphasis: “believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

A few moments later, he differentiated liberty from an oft-invoked synonym.

“It is not freedom to do as one likes,” he told his listeners. “That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow.”

Too many of us today misconceive freedom and liberty, to our national detriment.

Should Phillips have simply baked a cake for the couple? It would have been a nice thing to do, and a better thing—acts that celebrate love are always superior to acts that cause hurt feelings.

Should Craig and Mullins have simply exercised their free-market rights and patronized another establishment? It would have been a more selfless and gracious thing to do, and the old saying isn’t that pride cometh before a triumph.

Society would have been better served if both parties had striven to honor the spirit of liberty above their self-absorbed individual freedoms.

The Supreme Court neither constrained nor improved that liberty spirit for same-sex couples or for artistic bakers. As Judge Hand predicted, it proved only a foothold for false hopes.

Court decisions create winners and losers, and perpetuate arguments. Though settled in law—Phillips’ choice is now legally sanctioned—news headlines indicate no less contention on the matter than before.

In retrospect, we can hope that one of the parties might be inclined to be the bigger person if it could all be done over. That’s the hope of true liberty, in spirit and heart. When earlier generations remarked of local disputes, “Don’t make a federal case out of it,” they were more profound than they knew.

But Judge Hand knew, and tried to teach. We need to re-learn it.

The communications gap

It’s paradoxical: College graduates with 17 years of continuous education frequently have trouble communicating effectively at work.

Even more enigmatic is the fact that young adults are at the center of a virtual information vortex; data is distributed and conferred in mass volumes constituting a perfect storm of content. It’s a digital play on the proverbial forest-and-trees adage: They can’t see the meaning for the messages.

Let’s start with doing a little counting, or rather, a little reciting of incomprehensible counts.

The Radicati Group researches email statistics, and reports 3.7 billion email user accounts in 2017, generating 269 billion emails sent and delivered every day—1.9 trillion per week.

By 2021, the forecast is for 4.1 billion user accounts and a daily volume of 319 billion emails.

Suffice it to say that the numerical product of 319 billion multiplied by 365 days is beyond our ability to comprehend. No one can ever count to 116 trillion; a centenarian lives only a little more than 3.1 billion seconds.

As email nears its 50th birthday in 2021, it’s considered the old-fashioned dame among digital interactions. Social media outlets and communications have proliferated in the past 15 years, led by the gargantuan Facebook, which boasts more than 2 billion active monthly users. Facebook Messenger has only been around since 2011, but generates 7 billion daily conversations, or more than 2.5 trillion annually.

Those huge numbers hang a heavy asterisk on reports that teens think Facebook is for “old people”: 76 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds still use it. That’s a higher percentage of teen usage than Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.

Factor in the entire social spectrum and astronomical figures abound: In a year there are 200 billion tweets, 1.8 trillion YouTube videos watched, and 1.5 trillion Instagram “likes” registered.

It becomes mathematical mush to make the mind swim.

And then there’s texting, which at last count by the folks at Pew Research was up to 8.3 trillion SMS messages annually. Millennials are the heaviest users, averaging 67 text exchanges every day.

Today’s powerful personal devices, coupled with the Internet of Things and more broadband reach than ever before, have ushered in an age of interactive overload.

From a pure data-dump perspective, today’s college grads appear to be standing tiptoe on the top rung of the evolutionary communications ladder.

They would certainly agree.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducts annual surveys on career readiness competencies. In the most recent edition, 80 percent of students from the college class of 2017 considered themselves proficient in oral and written communications. But in the same survey, when employers were asked to rate recent college graduates, the percentage fell by half: Barely 41 percent were deemed proficient.

Put another way, six out of 10 college graduates are not skillful communicators in the eyes of the people who write their paychecks.

Given that human resource professionals continually and overwhelmingly list reading, writing and speaking skills as “very important” requisites for career success, the implications for performance metrics like earnings, promotions and raises are dire.

The simplistic answer is higher education has to do a better job preparing students. But that’s easier said than done when freshmen arrive on campus with advanced degrees in video games, social media, TV and texting. That’s a lifetime of bad communication habits to undo. Think passivity, slang, partial sentence fragments—all of which hinder business communications competence.

Work-related communications in our multimedia world transcends mere writing or speaking, too. Upstream from the act of communicating itself is the critical thinking, creativity and preparation that precedes all effective conveyance of information.

Regardless of where graduates wind up working, they’ll be writing memos, reports and instructions. In larger organizations, they’ll write recommendations and plans and proposals. The more college writing assignments can resemble the real-world requirements, the better.

Students also need more corrective instruction on the perils of impersonal electronic communication. Even accomplished writers, highly trained in grammar and syntax and commanding capable vocabularies, can be misinterpreted in texting.

Through the use of emojis and emoticons and other imagery, inflection on social platforms can be simulated to aid in understanding meaning, but those crutches are rarely appropriate at work. Business communications need to be clear, concise, accurate and persuasive. Used improperly or indifferently, email can undermine all of those requirements.

Email is never a conversation, for example. By nature it’s a monologue, not a dialogue, and that dynamic tends to negatively affect things like wording (we’re all bolder in email, usually to our detriment). It is a wonderful medium for itemization, confirmation and information, because email creates a time-stamped record that is shareable and printable.

And while texts seem more conversational, they carry the curse of eternal capture. A spoken misstatement dissipates, and memories fade. But an intemperate or ill-advised text is documented forever.

Onboarding programs probably need to incorporate more communications training, such as when a phone call or visit is most appropriate, and an email or text is least so.

The communications gap is one of the widest in the NACE survey. Closing it will benefit companies, customers and employees’ careers.