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Compromise can be rational, but not logical


We walked into the coffee place, I grabbed a hand-wrapped peanut butter cookie to split and the question arose.

Would it be a medium or a large coffee?

I went large.

Maybe because I was buying, my friend Denny went medium, saving me a little cash.

Given that it’s a sit-down place with all the coffee urns right there on the counter where you serve yourself, I couldn’t help but ask the nice young man working the register a question: What’s a large coffee get me that a medium doesn’t?

That answer, it turns out, is a little better conscience.

He told me there is officially a no-refill policy.

The people who buy the first cup and stay are allowed a 10-cent break or something like that on the second. Of course, that assumes they ask and just don’t pump the handle and get a refill on their own.

“So, are you going to tackle him if he comes back for a second?” I asked.

The young man said no in a tone indicating his correct conclusion that I am the hopeless person I appear to be.

And, as he did, I realized I had ventured into yet another awkward region governed by a longstanding human principle: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The last thing a coffee shop with a laid back atmosphere wants is a Ben Stein character bellowing “Bueller” or a Principal Jones tracking down caffeine violators as he tried to track down the Matthew Broderick character in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

On the other hand, the shop can’t really afford to give away coffee all day to the customers-turned-loiterers who’d want to sleep on the couches overnight unless their mothers or a store employee said they can’t.

Thus, reasonable folks don’t ask about the policy when they go for a refill, and the folks behind the register don’t tell. So, aside from the staff, only bona fide idiots know about the policy, because, for the most part, asking and telling isn’t worth the bother.

The episode made me think of what people 30 years from now are going to make of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military version.

Probably that it lacks logic and rationality.

And they’ll be half right.

To me it seems like the three-fifths compromise that, for representational purpose in Congress, allowed slave holding states to count each slave as three-fifths of a citizen for determining how many congressmen each state was allowed.

No, it wasn’t logical to count anyone as three-fifths of a person for any purpose. And, no, it wasn’t logically consistent, in a way, to count slaves at all, if they weren’t considered citizens — particularly since they’d have no representation in the government.

But that wasn’t what the discussion of the time was about. It was, instead, about the balance of power between the Northern states that did not have slaves and the Southern states, whose populations held slaves in large proportions.

At the Constitutional Convention, the two sides crunched the numbers and came up with a fraction that made the leaders of the Southern states less worried about being bullied by the North in the legislative body of a future Union. All of that seems stupid unless one considered the risk of there not being a Union.

To those at the time, the solution wasn’t so much logical as it was practical and rational. It was a way to solve the problem that could have kept the country from being founded.

That’s the thing about us humans — we aren’t logical, but we can, sometimes, be rational.

Given that, it would be illogical to expect our history to be a steady march across a logical grid of progress. It’s a particularly ridiculous expectation when we consider that we build our logical arguments from different starting points on the grid — starting points set by our assumptions.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the three-fifths compromise, are the kinds of things that are more true to our way of doing things.

So often when we look at history, scratch our heads and say “go figure,” that’s probably what the people of the time were trying to do.

But because their starting points were different from ours, we can’t make sense of it.

Can I get you a refill?


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