February 21, 2017

Trump didn't just happen

Sam Smith- The Trump disaster has been in the works for a long time. Seldom noted changes in our values and perceptions have made it easier for many to believe such a con artist and his promises. Here are a few examples:
Television – With the arrival of television politics changed forever. Instead of careers being built on community connections and actual achievement, it became possible to be just another brand that only needs to be appealingly presented. You didn’t need an actual history, you only needed the money to buy the right image. Sadly, there’s no cure for this. (I have recommended that  politicians on TV be subjected to the same standards as pharmaceutical ads – in which a Trump speech would be followed by something like, “You are advised that listening to Trump can cause loss of life, monetary assets, teeth or other liabilities” but I doubt that will happen.)
Further television also has a lot of time to fill, so politicians can get a much more coverage than their actual actions merit. Rebroadcasting a campaign rally, for example, is nothing more than the free disposition of propaganda for the candidate. 

Business schools – In the 1950s we were turning out about 5,000 MBAs a year. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 142,000. And with a massive shift in our cultural values. As I wrote a few years ago:

There are plenty of worthy arguments to be made correlating the rise of business school culture with the decline of our economy and our country. A cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product has become wasted energy. And not just the physical sort Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, tax advising, marketing, consulting or defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout and the rise of the killer hedge fund.

And, of course, no one even mentions small business much anymore despite its major role in providing jobs.

One of the costs of our obsession with big business has been the Trump argument that a CEO could run the country better than a politician.  This is absurd for a number of reasons including the fact that corporations have customers not citizens, a politician needs social intelligence well beyond that required in corporations, and the president’s power is shared with the Congress and the courts. Trump’s immediate problems on assuming office illustrate how inadequate a corporate executive can be in the White House.  

An embedded media: When I first covered Washington as a reporter in the 1950s, over half the journalists in the country only had a high school education. This placed them, psychologically and culturally, much closer to the American public than to the corporate and political elite than they are today.  

A turning point in the capital was in 1969. As the Washington Post later described its new Style section:

On the Monday morning of Jan. 6, 1969, Post readers (some of you were there!) woke up to find their For and About Women section replaced with . . . with what, exactly? We're still working on that.

As told in Ben Bradlee's 1995 memoir, Style was his baby, and it set out to be a "section that would deal with how men and women lived -- together and apart -- what they liked and what they were like, what they did when they were not at the office. . . . We wanted to look at the culture of America as it was changing in front of our eyes. The sexual revolution, the drug culture, the women's movement. And we wanted it to be interesting, exciting, di­­fferent."

The problem was, in part, that those with only a high school education rarely made it into the Style section, which began to redefine acceptable behavior and culture in the capital as defined by its elite. And that included well educated, well positioned reporters who, perhaps for the first time anywhere in America, were considered to be among the stylish. And, of course, the section encouraged those in power to think more of style than substance. 

In the decades to come, Washington reporters increasingly became embedded in the establishment and its values. Far fewer spoke for the ordinary American anymore. Labor reporters virtually disappeared. It may seem a distant connection, but the Trump campaign in no small part built itself playing against a media that had come to ignore too many Americans for too long. 

Theories over facts – The Washington establishment, including its media, adopted an approach fostered by the less factual side of higher education – such as political science and history: namely that theories beat facts. The well educated typically practice deductive thinking, described by Margaret Rouse as:

Deductive reasoning is a logical process in which a conclusion is based on the concordance of multiple premises that are generally assumed to be true. Deductive reasoning is sometimes referred to as top-down logic. Its counterpart, inductive reasoning, is sometimes referred to as bottom-up logic. Where deductive reasoning proceeds from general premises to a specific conclusion, inductive reasoning proceeds from specific premises to a general conclusion. 

Journalists – like detectives – used to be trained to think inductively, from the bottom up. What do you conclude from the facts? This is far less the case now as symbolized, for example, by the lack of peace experts on television rather than merely military and intelligence experts. Or the unquestioning acceptance by the media that corporate capitalism is better than socialism. Or that those with elegant phrases like “American exceptionalism” get the time slot over merely boring facts. To be sure, Trump is the ultimate parody of this trend, but he had a lot of help getting where he is. 

The disappearance of civics and democracy in the classroom. Rarely mentioned in all the discussion of so-called “school reform” has been the decline in classroom time spent learning about things such as civics, democracy and the history of how America became a republic. Another of our defenses against Trump style tyranny quietly surrendered. 

None of this in any way excuses Donald Trump, but it is important to recognize the truth that disasters do not necessarily come with explosions; they can just as easily occur incrementally through a lack of perception or indifference about  seemingly mild changes. We have been laying the ground for Trump for a long time.

Trump wasn't a real CEO and is running America like a family business

Bert Spector, Washington Post - Trump wasn’t a genuine CEO. That is, he didn’t run a major public corporation with shareholders and a board of directors that could hold him to account. Instead, he was the head of a family-owned, private web of enterprises. Regardless of the title he gave himself, the position arguably ill-equipped him for the demands of the presidency...

Public corporations are companies that offer their stock to pretty much anyone via organized exchanges or by some over-the-counter mechanism. To protect investors, the government created the Securities and Exchange Commission, which imposes an obligation of transparency on public corporations that does not apply to private businesses like the Trump Organization.

The SEC, for example, requires the CEOs of public corporations to make full and public disclosures of their financial positions. Annual 10-K reports, quarterly 10-Q’s and occasional special 8-K’s require disclosure of operating expenses, significant partnerships, liabilities, strategies, risks and plans.

Additionally, an independent firm overseen by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board conducts an audit of these financial statements to ensure thoroughness and accuracy.

Finally, the CEO, along with the chief financial officer, is criminally liable for falsification or manipulation of the company’s reports. Remember the 2001 Enron scandal? CEO Jeffrey Skilling was convicted of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading and initially sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Then there is the matter of internal governance.

The CEO of a public company is subject to an array of constraints and a varying but always substantial degree of oversight. There are boards of directors, of course, that review all major strategic decisions, among other duties. And there are separate committees that assess CEO performance and determine compensation, composed entirely of independent or outside directors without any ongoing involvement in running the business.

Whole categories of CEO decisions, including mergers and acquisitions, changes in the corporation’s charter, and executive compensation packages, are subject to the opinion of shareholders and directors.

In addition, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act requires — for now — regular nonbinding shareholder votes on the compensation packages of top executives.

And then there’s this critical fact: Well-governed firms tend to outperform poorly governed ones, often dramatically. And that’s because of factors like a strong board of directors, more transparency, a responsiveness to shareholders, thorough and independent audits, and so forth.

None of the obligations listed above applied to Trump, who was owner, chairman and president of the Trump Organization, a family-owned limited liability company that has owned and run hundreds of businesses involving real estate, hotels, golf courses, private jet rentals, beauty pageants and even bottled water.

Tip to Democrats: Stop trashing white voters

Sam Smith - A lot of liberal rhetoric these days makes the white vote seem hopelessly racist and right wing. This is a masochistic view not based on facts. For example after Obama's second election, NBC reported, "Obama, in his first election, won 43% of the white vote, the second-highest number for a Democrat since Carter. His 39% in 2012 puts him further down the list of Democrats in the last 10 elections, but only slightly below the average 40.6% share for Democrats through the years."

 And Steve Philips argues in the NY Times, "If Democrats had stemmed the defections of white voters to the Libertarian or Green Parties, they would have won Michigan and Wisconsin, and had they also inspired African-Americans in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton would be president."

Where Philips is dead wrong, however, is when he says, "If progressive whites are defecting because they are uninspired by Democrats, moving further to the right will only deepen their disillusionment."

Seeking support from middle and lower class whites doesn't mean moving to the right; it means rediscovering the economic issues that built the New Deal and Great Society, issues that not only help these whites but blacks and latinos and everyone else.

Talking about "white privilege," for example,  is not likely to turn a working class white towards the Democrats, but dealing with cross-cultural economic issues can.

A handy tool: go after the bad guys, not the people they fool. 

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