When Mr. Donald J. Trump ran for the President of the United States of America in 2016, many argued that a successful businessman might make a better world leader. I pointed out the fundamental fallacy of that thinking then – such thinking is still fallacious – and now that the current POTUS is Mr. Trump, let’s use some business yardsticks to look at how his performance has been.
Before such an assessment, though, let’s examine some fundamental premises of Mr. Trump’s business operations. To begin with, it is highly suspect to say that Mr. Trump was a “successful” businessman. He was, however, excellent at marketing his brand. And no doubt after he retires from running the USA, he’ll cash in on his tenure at the White House to strengthen his brand, whether he will have tarnished the brand of “White House” or not. Sometimes, infamy works well too; there is no shortage of people with perverse penchant for anything that can make a splash in the headlines.
Many have pointed out that had Mr. Trump simply invested his inheritance in routine vehicles, he could have accrued more assets than his current standing, particularly after at least four bankruptcies and countless lawsuits. But more importantly, what does the brand “Trump” signify? other than hotels and golf courses? It is particularly dismaying that we collectively keep equating moneyed class with successful class; what’s more disheartening is revealed in this question: What have some of these “successful” businesses, their owners or CEOs, produced? Have they created any products that have benefited our lives, and/or, contributed to the advancement of human race? Shifting money, such as hedge fund mangers, selling image, or marketing fancy services or goods does not make us better educated, informed, healthier or wise.
Furthermore, while Mr. Trump was the owner of his brand and business empire, he was never a true CEO running a big corporation of, say, 50,000, employees where he might have to better understand the actual operations of a big organization. He ran a family business where he could throw his weight around, stiff contractors willy nilly, or, hide behind bankruptcies while relying on taxpayers to provide him with a cushioned landing. These acts do not make a successful businessman. Yet, many have equated his significant name recognition, often gold plated, with “success.”
So, now Mr. Trump is running the government of this world’s leading nation. How has that been going? First, he appointed a bunch of “outsiders” to lead the various departments they purported to disdain before the appointments. I can understand a strand of argument that perhaps the best way to eliminate an organization is to have someone as a leader who has no knowledge of but with full disrespect for the said organization. Yet the very same people who support this argument would whine whenever an organization leader wants to cut their jobs or funds. A blanket slogan, such as “cut regulations,” or, “smaller government” offer neither direction nor enabling specifics. What does a small government actually mean and entail? Have we, as a country, had such discussions? other than throwing size-only generalizations? Based on the administration’s submitted budget proposal – cutting all major services and programs except military spending and building a wall, the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) proclaimed the difficulty of making a genuine assessment because the outline is too vague, but offered a picture of a weak economy with little projected growth.
We certainly have too many useless and cumbersome rules, but which ones to eliminate? The rules I favor may be thorns in others’ sides, and vice versa. What are the metrics by which to cut rules? No one from the current administration has offered any clear definition…mostly because the top executive knows only how to produce catchy slogans without directives.
Let’s use the EPA as an example. So far, the EPA secretary, relying largely on the input of industries, has eliminated rules on asbestos, lead-based ammunition, the pesticide chlorpyrifos that can cause cognitive damage in children. Really? When proven substances have been banned for decades (or, about to be banned under Obama administration)…why allow them back now, or allow a pesticide to hurt children? Yes, yes, one could argue that since no sane business operators would knowingly use these substances again, why not ditch the rules? However, do we really and truly trust the business world? How many scandals do we need, especially at the expenses of people’s lives, savings, or health?
There is another erroneous narrative for free-market among the general public: that competitive business is always for the betterment of consumers. Yeah. How many times has our collective private information been sold without us knowing? Or, been hacked with companies being reluctant to owning the mistake of insecure cybersystems? And why would any private citizen who pays even a modicum of attention to the net neutrality issue consent to let the big companies dictate how the internet should be organized? And who in their right mind still believes that reserved seats and paid-for airline tickets means the seats are guaranteed? The list is long and ugly.
Let’s further use the “free market” or the “invisible hand” argument for running the country like business operations. Shall we then allow all the small and poor towns that are on the verge of losing everything to just simply die out? Shall we let all big cities and states that are struggling financially just declare bankruptcy? Shall we let all the elderly and the poor who can’t afford housing or health care just lift themselves with their own bootstraps? Because that’s what ruthless business models would propose … until when chips are down and the big players crawl to D.C. for bailout, taking taxpayers’ money. If we truly want to rely on business models, we should ignore the coal industry’s cry for help; it’s been dying for decades, not just under Obama administration.
Speaking of energy issues, if observing green energy would cost jobs, how do we account for all the growth in the alternative energies sectors? And if solar and wind energy markets have been growing and creating jobs worldwide, why don’t we go with that trend even more? instead of ceding market and thought leadership to China, Germany, and other countries? If we want to make America great again (why hasn’t anyone defined clearly and succinctly what era shall we aim for that “greatness?”), why don’t we assert our leadership in solar, wind, electric cars, high speed trains, etc? For heaven’s sake, US pioneered solar technology, and now we are giving that position (and market) away.
In all the brouhaha of “Making America Great Again,” no one bothers to define in what ways shall we be “great” again, and therefore in what ways have we lost our edge. When I entered this country in the mid 70s, I didn’t articulate why I wanted to come to the States or how I have grown to embrace my newfound home. In retrospect, it has been the freedom of speech, the joy of pursuing whatever comes to people’s minds, the enthusiasm of tinkering with ideas, the celebration of brain power. Many have complained that Americans have always been either suspicious of, or harbor borderline disdain for, brain power, and I have often puzzled over this.
Is brain power only manifested in high test scores? While American schools always seemed to be “loose” on disciplining children (especially compared to schools in Chinese culture), I contend that it is such “loose” freedom — to think, to play, to wander, to try — that has provided the bedrock for innovation and creativity. Interestingly, most countries scoring mediocre on tests are the ones showing higher entrepreneurial accomplishment or pushing the frontier in basic sciences. It is indeed in these areas, especially cutting edge research, that America has been slipping. It is definitely not because we are not using as much coal nor seeing less people embrace religion, or accepting gay culture that has made America weak. It’s our enthusiasm for, even our aptitude for, critical thinking that’s been under attack.
No longer do we seem to celebrate the thinking class. Somehow we have come to scorn those who think. I will never ever forgive Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-president candidate, for epitomizing such scorn…thereby forever staining those who promoted her.
One could argue that Mr. Trump has been on the job for only six months, and therefore, we should give him more time to grow and learn. But, has he shown willingness or capacity to listen to others who are not in his family, and grown in knowledge of operating a government? To what extent can we trust that the country and the world this country is supposed to lead will be improving in the next six months? If the recent G-20 summit is any indicator (recent? It feels like eons ago.), it seems that the rest of the world is leaving us behind.
China has stepped in the vacuum Mr. Trump has deliberately created. Whether Europe will work with China and allow her to assert the leadership role remains to be seen, but we can’t expect Europe to wait around for us to wake up. Those who think with Mr. Trump that NATO has soaked up our wealth forget history. US helped create NATO to contain the elements that made WWII possible, and to eliminate the costs that WWIII would incur; it was a way for the European countries to stay connected, while seriously inhibiting any one actor from taking up arms or military dominance again. So, now we are handing the reins back to Germany and France, and giving a green light to Russia. Perhaps we really can’t learn from history.
None of the above is what a truly good business leader would do. Even if we accept that US government is a global conglomerate organization – which it is not — it is unwise to hunker down to domestic affairs only. In negotiating with global partners, a CEO does not delegate power without first delineating the prime directives. A CEO refrains from allowing young children without any qualifications to run the show. And entering into a negotiation by first belittling or disparaging potential partners- maybe ok in a near-term real estate deal but an invitation to our “partners” to stab us in the back when a future international alliance is at stake.
Sometimes, becoming a business leader requires deviant thinking and behavior, breaking a few norms, stepping on a few toes. However, had a CEO insulted disabled people and veterans, or openly bragged about taking pleasure in seeing teenage women naked or scoring grabbing women’s genitals, that CEO would have been fired, sued, or discarded in no time, and in no uncertain terms. Somehow, the same people who want a business person to run the world’s largest government regard these acts, or the complaints about them, as unimportant “diversions.”
Most importantly is the fact that the US government is not a global conglomerate with profit making as the goal. As I said before, and I will say it again and again, running a government, any government, is about juggling a wide range of diverse and potentially conflicting goals with a budget that’s never enough. Prioritizing these goals is maddeningly complicated and executing action to achieve them is even more complicated – “Who knew?!” – and sometimes a leader has to cajole allies, massage egos, bully opponents without seeming to do so, or lie subtly (white, blue, or black…depending on the local situations) in order to get things done or move along. Smashing china is easy – most likely fun for a 5-year old – but creating the next generation of design and high-quality china requires very different skills than smashing. Side note: A five-year old would be great for creativity, but not old enough to understand “quality.”
America made an insane choice in the 2016 election. I only hope that when all’s done someone can help us restore this beautiful country that I have come to love and embrace as my “first” country.
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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