Organized Begging

I have seen this woman a dozen times or more. She begs for money on the Washington D.C. Metro trains.

She is young, maybe in her late twenties. The blue blanket that covers her is actually covering a baby, probably less than a year old.

She gets on a train with the baby strapped on. The baby usually is asleep or otherwise calm, but you can see it’s face as the woman approaches. She holds a piece of cardboard that has written on it something about needing money for diapers and food. She speaks in a soft, hesitant voice to get people’s attention. And it seems that she does not speak English very well.

I have given her a few dollars on several occasions. Often she takes me by surprise, quietly approaching until she is suddenly there. I feel caught, and would feel guilty saying no.

The fact that I have seen her several times tells me a few things. One is that her situation is not a temporary one. It’s not that she needs a few dollars to get by until circumstances improve. Two is that she has a system. She very carefully starts at one end of the train, moving through the car and collecting all that the riders are willing to give. Then the train stops at a station and she moves to the next car to start again. And she always has her baby.

But what’s very interesting is that I have been approached on the Metro train by a different woman using the very same technique. The baby, the moving from car to car, the cardboard sign, everything.

So now I’m wondering if this is organized. Perhaps there is someone like Fagin in Oliver Twist who is running a scheme with young mothers. The ones I have encountered seem to be of the same ethnicity, maybe Eastern European. Maybe they all live in a group home, go out and beg all day, then pool their money at night.

Is that kind of thing still done? It feels so 19th century but maybe it’s very effective, too effective to give up.

Lastly, it is not very clear from the picture, but as she is sitting there, the woman is holding something up to her ear. It is a smart phone. She is making a phone call.

The Professional Network

By his own admission, my father had a great career.

He spent three decades, through the 70s, 80s and 90s, as president of a major commercial printing operation in San Francisco. Customers included many of the city’s important businesses as well as several of the new Silicon Valley companies such as Hewlett Packard and Apple.

He successfully steered the company in the face of rapid change throughout the industry brought on by computer typesetting and graphics.

My dad’s business card.

He retired at just the right time, before commercial printing in San Francisco became essentially a thing of the past.

Now in his 90s, he has maintained relationships with people he met throughout his career, and he remains almost universally well-liked.

I had hoped my own career would come close to emulating his. Unfortunately, I have fallen very short of the mark.

There are a number of reasons for that, which I have discussed before. One that I will discuss here is the cultivation and maintenance of business relationships.

My dad was from an era when those relationships were everything. There was no social media or internet. Relationships were maintained through time spent in person or on the phone.

We didn’t go on vacation with the families of his colleagues. But we did have dinner at their houses, and they came to dinner at ours. He had lunch almost every work day with a colleague. (In contrast, I usually eat alone.)

My dad also had connections with many people not in the printing business. He kept in touch with former classmates, with other business leaders, and was active in the local chapter of the Rotary Club. All of it was important to him.

He once told me that, if one of his friends or colleagues said to him “My son needs a job” he would find that person’s son a job at his company. And he expected the same consideration in return.

Whether that was common for the time or just something my dad did, I don’t know, but that sure as hell isn’t what’s happening today. I admit that I have not cultivated relationships the way my father did, but I know people and I have former classmates. And this has been my experience:

Over a decade ago I began to think about a career move. I had some ideas and I started talking to people. I went to lunch with a experienced lawyer and asked for help with a career change. The most he did was look over my resume and say “Washington is an information town. I’m sure you will find something.”

I sent my resume to a member of my church, asking for help with getting a job in her organization. All she did was suggest that my resume should be formatted properly.

I sent an email to the then-managing editor of the Atlantic, James Bennet, asking for help landing a position with the magazine. This was at my dad’s suggestion, since he somehow knew Bennet through his network of connections. Bennet emailed back to say that he forwarded my resume to his HR department. I heard nothing further after that. (At least he responded. Some don’t have the courtesy to do even that.)

When I got laid off in 2009, my search for a career change took on a new urgency.

A friend put me in touch with a friend of theirs at the EPA. I scheduled an appointment to meet and ask for help landing a job there. He looked at my resume, but all he would offer was to say “We are always looking for smart people here. ” I never heard from him again.

I tried contacting someone locally who went to the same law school as I did. I didn’t know him personally, but I recalled my dad’s words about all it should take is to say that I went to the same school to open doors. I sent this guy emails and regular mail. I never heard back, not even to acknowledge receipt of my mail. Literally no response.

The sister of an acquaintance worked at a firm that placed temps in law firms. I met her for an interview. I never heard from her again.

And so it has gone, time after time.

I’m not entirely sure where I veered off course. Maybe I should not have asked for help, been more bold, told people what I can do for them, all the things that career coaches say to do.

But help was what I needed, and I wasn’t too proud to ask.

Which raises questions about the culture of work in America today. Much has been said (too much in fact) about how “no one wants to work.” And yet when someone is literally begging for assistance getting a job, backs are turned.

Maybe I was seen as a bad risk. I will never know for sure. No one is talking to me.


Epilogue: Once I told a friend that I felt as if I had been blacklisted. He said “How can you be sure that you’re not?”



And the Lies Go On

Lies are alive and well and circulating among us. In case anyone thought my recent posts about the seductiveness of lies were an abstract exercise, current events prove otherwise.

The Washington Post reported this month about a Ponzi scheme that allegedly swindled $500 million from unsuspecting investors. (A Ponzi scheme is a type of financial scam.)

A key point of this scam–similar to all Ponzi schemes–is that the investors believed the lies told to them by people they knew and viewed as having some authority on the investment. These lies were flattering and played to their desire to help others while getting rich.

One person who lost money is quoted as saying “We were a little nervous, but we trusted him. Because we were friends and belonged to the same church, the red flags were heart-shaped. I was like, ‘Wow. We are really lucky to be involved in this investment.’”

It was falsehood with just the right amount of truth to make it believable.

These lies, as lies often do, defrauded many for the personal benefit of the few. And such lies will continue for as long as there are people willing to fall for them.

Dust off and recycle some old lies. Serve them up again. People fall for them. They want to believe them.

What solutions are there? I can think of several. Comment below and I will share some of them with you.

Lies – A Conclusion

People will believe lies. People will go so far as to destroy their own lives and the lives of others for a lie.

People are more likely to believe a lie from someone they view (rightly or wrongly) as having authority.

Conversely, people are less likely to listen to and believe someone who may be telling the truth but who does not in their eyes have authority.

Generally, people have a moral and ethical obligation to promote truth basically because there are real-world consequences for not doing so. By truth, I mean objective, verifiable fact, and not some clerical or political interpretation.

The First Amendment of the Constitution has been interpreted to mean that the government cannot prohibit a particular point of view. It does not matter if the point of view the government is prohibiting is true or not; it is barred from infringing on speech.

The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view.

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, and feel more “right” than the actual, albeit inconvenient, truth. And people believe them for a lot of very real reasons.

To be clear: an unintentional untruth is a mistake; an intentional untruth is a lie.

Lies do not qualify as “legitimate differences of opinion” or “political dialog”; they are scams, intended to mislead. Falsehood with just the right amount of truth to make them believable.

And the lies spread because people want to believe. They need to believe because often it goes to their very identity. Without those lies, they would lose their sense of self. Simply being given more information, or better information, will not overcome the deeply held need identify as a particular kind of person.

So, what is our moral and ethical obligation at this point, as a society? How to we approach situations where lies are being marketed as truth? How much do we owe to ourselves and to our family, friends, and neighbors to stand up to the lies, to call them out for what they are? How do we keep functioning and avoid descending into violence and chaos?

Freedom and liberty are good things, but an overabundance of individual freedom is essentially anarchy. I for one am not in favor of anarchy.

But that’s not really what’s going on, is it? What is going on is people with an agenda and a platform and a megaphone are feeding people untruths they identify with, the desired end result being more and more power to fewer and fewer people.

I am not in favor of fascism either.

The Seductiveness of the Lie, Part 3

There has been a lot of talk in recent years in the United States about “free speech,” much of it misinformed.

It has gotten so bad that elected officials, and not just the fringe ones, and lawyers–people who ought to understand the law–are promoting a theory of protected speech that is unsubstantiated by the legal framework of this country.

Protest march in Washington, D.C. in 2017 past the text of the First Amendment

The term “free speech” or “freedom of speech” derives, as best I can figure, from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….”

What that means specifically has been interpreted by over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions. The key bottom line for me is two things:

  • Citizens and noncitizens are not free to say literally anything in the US. The government can put restrictions on speech that would lead or does lead to violence, cause mass panic, or is used to intimidate or threaten others.
  • The “abridging the freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment applies only to the government. Not private employers. Not your neighbor. Not media outlets that are not controlled by the government. Again, only the government.

In other words, when some idiot is yakking about how suspending someone from Twitter is taking away their right to free speech, that is outright bullshit. Twitter is a private company, not the government.

No one has a Constitutional right to use Twitter. Or to comment on web pages owned by private companies. Or to say anything they want to at work, when the employer is a private enterprise.

What about bald-faced lies? Yes, in the US you have the freedom to say, and believe, lies. The government is not allowed to stop that (unless it involves some of the above mentioned circumstances). But anyone who is not the government can have policies and procedures in place to put a stop to deliberate falsehoods, hate speech, and advocating violence, if applied with equality and with consideration to protected classes of people.


There is another long-standing legal concept of the “reasonable person standard.” This is where judges and juries consider what would be acceptable or unacceptable to a hypothetical reasonable person, when deciding whether to rule for or against someone in court.

This assumes there is agreement and understanding held in common and widely shared of what “reasonable” means. The events of recent years, when people form their opinions based on the intentional falsehoods of celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Tucker Carlson, makes me wonder if that will continue to be the case.


The position the Supreme Court has taken is that the cure for a proliferation of lies is to flood the “marketplace of ideas” with other points of view. The gist is that the more ideas that are circulating, and the more varied those ideas are, truth and a shared concept of reality will ultimately win. (See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York (1980), United States v. Alvarez (2012).)

Unfortunately, many times the lies are more attractive, more comforting, spoken more loudly and with more fervor, than the actual truth. I worry that facts cannot keep up with the constant output of lies.

This to me raises the issue of how long our modern civil society can tolerate this festering subculture of lies. Just being passive is, increasingly, not an option, in my opinion. Rather, those who are still able to identify the truth need to speak, speak loudly, and not assume that one can appeal to people’s reason, compassion, or sense of community.

The risks are real.