In conversation, I mentioned to someone that I considered myself a libertarian. He immediately (and rightly) challenged me to explain what I meant by that, since many politicians whose policies I despise also embrace that label. I decided that the best way to answer the question was on the personal level. The result is a short essay that I have just posted: Am I a Libertarian?
I thought I had come up with a great analogy for Social Security: It is a ship rushing towards an iceberg, but that berg is very far away and a simple and small course correction is all that is required to avoid disaster. But, as expected, the fundamental disagreement with my conservative friends is not tactical, it is strategic. I got a response that went something like this: “The Social Security fund is projected to run out of money in my lifetime, and I don’t have any faith that I will be able to collect anything close to what I put in. If they would give me my actuarial benefits today, I would ever so gladly take them and invest them myself.”
We haven’t yet gotten to the core issue, but nonetheless it is useful to address this common complaint. Social Security is an insurance program, not an IRA. My friend doesn’t want insurance, he wants an IRA. Fair enough. But let’s not say that Social Security is broken because it is insurance, not an individual retirement account.
I have fire insurance on my house. I will be very, very happy if I live out my days never having to collect on that policy. Does that mean all those premium payments have been a waste? No. That’s the nature of insurance. Likewise, Social Security is insurance against poverty in retirement. I hope that I will never need it. That will be success for me. But for 40% of people in this country aged 65 and older, social security is their only income. They need it. I’m glad they have it. My friend and I may be better off with an IRA, but they wouldn’t be.
The whole discussion about Social Security as a sinking ship is a ruse. The course corrections required to avoid disaster are simple and relatively painless – and such corrections from time to time are inevitable for all such insurance programs. But by saying we need to get rid of Social Security because it is broken, one avoids having to debate the true issue: My conservative friends want to get rid of Social Security even if it is not broken. The philosophical/policy issues involved are fundamental and worthy of debate (properly balancing individual versus shared risks and needs), but instead we argue around the core issue. That’s a shame.
I recently got into an argument (I mean, a discussion) with some conservative friends of mine about Social Security. And, as such discussions are wont to go, rather than dive into the core philosophical differences that divided us we argued over the economic viability of Social Security. Very quickly, analogies to sinking ships and the Titanic were brought up by my friends. Imaginary conversations of the captain refusing to acknowledge reality were proposed: “All we need is more paying passengers…”
My friends have a pretty bizarre idea of what constitutes a sinking ship. Social Security has a surplus (surplus!!) of $2.2 trillion. Not only is it floating, it is also helping to float the US government since that $2T was used to pay a fair portion of the $9T national debt.
Yes, yes, we can all make the forecasts 40 or 50 years into the future and see trouble ahead. But the conversation on the deck of the ship would be something like this:
Captain: (sorry there is no captain, this ship is piloted by committee)
Committee member 1: Look – there is an iceberg 800 miles in front of us. We’ll need to change course at some point.
Committee member 2: Turn right!
Committee member 3: Turn left!
Committee member 2: Right!
Committee member 3: Left!
Committee member 2: Right!
Committee member 3: Left!
Well, you can guess what might happen if our committee members remain stubborn. But if we do keep heading straight and plow into the iceberg in 40 years, I would be hard pressed to blame the ship or the iceberg.
At Jeff Byers burial service, John Petersen shared these thoughts:
I first met Jeff at SEMATECH. He first struck me (and later my wife Rae) as impish and that brought to mind:
“What revell rout
Is kept about,
In every corner where I goe,
I will o’er see,
And merry be,
And make good sport with a ho, ho, ho!”
These words about Shakespeare’s Puck well describe my first impressions of Jeff.
Story: For instance, we had a great time doing stuff, I mean science, in the lab. One time we made videos of wafers developing in attempt to extract the dissolution behavior. It kind of worked but it was mostly fun setting up our movie studio.
Another time I will always remember: We were in Jeff’s cubicle working on his computer. The guy across the hall (who maybe is here today but I don’t know) was ease-dropping on our work. All of sudden Jeff while typing madly turned and watched the guy while continuing to talk to me (and typing). During this time, he hacked into the guy’s computer, took it over and typed in no uncertain terms to mind his own business. (This impressed me at many levels: the ability to do the hacking; the ability to touch type and send commands without looking - I’m just a hunt-and-peck kind of guy; the ability to talk normally and intelligently about the project during all this other activity.)
This view (of the imp) was never lost.
+ Jeff loved life
+ Jeff loved friends
+ Jeff loved his family
+ Jeff loved Carita
He loved to share and to collaborate.
As Jeff and I grew from colleagues, to friends, to brothers. I learned, like Puck, Jeff’s prerogative to utter the TRUTH that no one else will speak.
It was the collaborative search for these truths that endeared him to me and to the people who knew him. It is what made him great!
Hand-in-hand with his fierce Love he had hate. He railed against all forms of tyranny, rejecting all dogmas: religious, economic and corporate (all things that inhibited thought and created hurt).
Story: For instance, I would come to his office and he would bring up the web page showing the profits and money in the bank for his employer. Stabbing at the page he would say four billion in the bank and they are laying people off. I quit! And he did!
+ Jeff sought knowledge
+ Jeff sought community
+ Jeff sought justice
And in the end I believe Jeff ultimately sought peace.
It is this pursuit that made him a tireless man of action:
+ Scholarship in-action
+ Mind in-action
+ Justice in-action
And I would say, though he would (probably) deny it:
+ Grace in-action
We can all be happy, proud and humbled to know Jeff.
I urge you all to look at Jeff’s legacy:
+ Look to Yak Farm
+ Look to his community
+ Look at his work.
I grieve our loss, my loss.
Jeff I Love you.
This description of Jeff Byers' burial service was written by Mark Maslow:
By no means take this as an official account of the days events. I thought I would share from my perspective for the folks that would have liked to attend but couldn't.
Jeff arrived at Yak Farm around 1:30pm. His coffin was put into place and small private service was held by Carita for their dogs. All of the dogs were brought over and some of Jeff's favorite clothing were placed in the coffin with him so that the dogs could say goodbye.
Also, Eliot the cat was brought over and given the chance to say goodbye. They all reacted in their own way and it was beautiful.
Carita then asked for some privacy for herself and those of us there continued with what tasks were necessary to prepare for the later service.
The location of the grave is in a field near some of the trees that Jeff and Carita had worked hard to save. It is in view of Jeff's woodshop, one of his favorite places. Yak Farm Cemetery will soon be a sign along FM696. There are quite a few small cemeteries along that road.
A large tent was setup with chairs and a microphone and speakers were provided. A great many people attended the event and many brought their own camp chairs. Some estimates put the number near 200 people, but no official count was taken. A small table with a signature book was provided.
People were directed to the area behind the main house when they first arrived. This is where the tables were setup for folks who brought items for the potluck and generally a good place to mingle.
At about 4pm everyone was requested to move towards the grave site. Luminaries were setup to help folks follow the path to the field.
At first many of the chairs under the tent were not occupied, but once the families had been seated, it was requested that people who wanted to sit, should. There were not enough chairs for everyone, so many people stood.
MC Chris Mack was initially upstaged by Molly, Jeff and Carita's oldest dog who wanted to be the first to speak, then he started by making a few announcements. He related a story about Jeff. He spoke about how Jeff's life will continue to influence those of us who knew and had our lives touched by him. Surprisingly brief, Chris yielded the microphone to Jeff's niece Amanda who shared stories of growing up with an Uncle Jeff and how she felt working for Texas Instruments as an operator, being so proud of her Uncle Jeff. Amanda was followed by Kim Dean who shared her story of meeting Jeff at UT and how he was always someone whom she could count on to help with problems. Jefe was her Lithography Handyman. Kim was followed by Jeff's roommate during his undergraduate work who spoke about Jeff and Carita's wedding and the start of Jeff's (in)famous beer brewing career.
Finally, John Petersen spoke of all the trouble that he and Jeff would get into. I know that I could relate my own personal experiences with Jeff to all of the things that were said of him.
Flowers were provided and anyone who wanted, was encouraged to place a flower on the coffin. Their rooster, Stew, didn't realize it was late afternoon, serenaded us with his crooning. Maybe it was a 21 cock-a-doodle salute. Afterwards everyone was requested to return to the main house while the undertaker/gravedigger folks handled Jeff's final burial.
Kegs were tapped, food was opened, and everyone who could, mingled and shared stories about Jeff. The luminaries were moved so that they led a path to and alighted Jeff's grave. Quite a few people poured some beer for Jeff, as we all knew he would've wanted to have some. It gets very dark, very early, in Big Sky Texas country, the luminaries were beautiful. A very clear night, many many stars were visible. A campfire was started and the stories didn't stop until late in the evening.
Soon there will be a celebratory party for Jeff's life at Yak Farm. I look forward to hearing more stories about the fantastic guy that was so advanced, he had to leave us early.
(Friday, November 9, 2007)
I miss Jeff.
Dr. Jeffrey Byers was an amazing man. For the people who knew him, this is a statement of the overwhelmingly obvious. He made his mother proud. He adored his wife. He treated his nieces and nephews as if they were his own children. His friends universally regarded his friendship as a privilege. He was a man who thought carefully and deliberately about who he was and who he wanted to be. Then he put the resulting philosophy into action and lived his life with compassion and integrity. I admired Jeff’s integrity. I envied Jeff’s integrity. I wanted to be like Jeff, and I still do.
I miss Jeff terribly.
The tragedy of Jeff’s death assaults us with grief. A man as young and vigorous and loved as Jeff should not be dead. We react to this injustice in a myriad of ways, but two reactions are universal: an uncompromising sense of loss, and an image of our own mortality. I won’t speak much of my feelings of loss today – I don’t have to; it’s the easiest thing in the world for you to understand. I see that as I look at the loss expressed in each of your faces. I would, however, like to talk for a moment about mortality, or rather, immortality.
I know some of you had conversations with Jeff about spirituality – I never did, though I suspect I know some of his beliefs. And I know there is a great range of opinions on the subject among people here today. I think, however, that I am only qualified to speak about my own views of immortality, so I hope you will indulge me on this topic, and let me share with you my thoughts.
I have two views of immortality. One is scientific. Jeff was a scientist – he loved being a scientist – so I think he would appreciate this. Possibly the most important and universal law of physics is the conservation of mass-energy: the mass and energy that exists in the universe today has always existed, from the beginning of time, and will always exist till the end of time. And this applies to each one of us as well – every atom and molecule in our body has always been. As Carl Sagan liked to say, we are all made of stardust. Jeff was made of stardust, and now he is returning that dust back to the world he borrowed it from. It will not be lost, but will go on to become something new. I pleases me to think of that, and I think it would have pleased Jeff, too.
Jeff was a scientist who loved science, but he loved people more. And it is through that love that Jeff will, in a deeper and more important sense, achieve immortality. Through Jeff’s life, by the way he lived, Jeff has changed us. These changes are not temporary – they cannot be taken back. They stay with us. Our immense feelings of loss come from knowing that we have been robbed of all the good Jeff still had to offer. But what he achieved in his life we continue to carry with us, and in that very real, very concrete way, Jeff lives on.
A few hours before Jeff’s accident, on September 7, my second daughter Anna was born. Jeff would have loved to have seen Anna (he loved children), and I am heartbroken that she will never get to meet Jeff. But Jeff will be a part of her life, nonetheless. Maybe Anna’s big sister Sarah will teach her how to color her toenails with crayons, the way Jeff taught Sarah. Or maybe Anna will watch me act, in some small way, with integrity and compassion, the way Jeff taught me. I can’t take Jeff out of my life, and of course I don’t want to, which means that he will be in Anna’s life too. And I am so very glad for that.
I miss Jeff. I will always miss Jeff. But I am lucky, because missing him means simply that Jeff was part of my life, and I will always be thankful for that good fortune.
Last week, things looked so promising for Jeff Byers. After transferring back to the rehab center, Jeff showed improved signs of consciousness. He made attempts at vocalization, so that many of us began a game to guess what his first words might be: “I love you, Carita”, then “I want a beer”? But early Friday morning things changed. Jeff went into cardiac arrest – exact cause unknown. He was resuscitated and rushed to an intensive care unit. By Sunday morning his organs began to fail. Around 10pm last night he died quietly, surrounded by family and friends.
Jeff was an incredible person. He was more thoughtful and compassionate than anyone I know. He could also whip up a bout of righteous indignation when he saw a wrong; he put his philosophies into action. He loved his wife dearly. He was smart – oh my goodness was he smart. He taught me so many things because he learned so many things – he was always learning and teaching. Mark Mason, another friend who met Jeff through work, may have said it best: “It’s hard to describe how much Jeff is liked, admired and respected. He stands out as very special in an industry already full of nice people and mental giants.”
I have loved Jeff for a long time, and I will continue to love him. Now I will also miss him.