Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trump’s Billionaire Cabinet

Donald Trump won election as our next President partly by appealing to Americans who are unhappy with the way the economy has left them behind, while benefitting only the wealthy.

Nearly all Americans told pollsters just before the election that they think the American economy is rigged in favor of the powerful. Almost 90% said the economy is rigged to benefit the rich generally, banks and bank executives in particular, and corporations.

Trump told these angry voters that they were right: middle-class Americans can't get ahead, because big political donors, big businesses and big bureaucrats are keeping wages down and hogging all the gains of the growing economy for themselves. Only he could fix this broken system. “The economy is rigged. The banking system is rigged. There’s a lot of things that are rigged in this world of ours, and that’s why a lot of you haven’t had an effective wage increase in 20 years, folks. And we’re going to change it.”

Trump specifically pointed the finger at Wall St. He told an audience in Ottumwa, Iowa, “I know the people on Wall Street. I'm not going to let Wall Street get away with murder. Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us. I don’t care about the Wall Street guys. I’m not taking any of their money.” He stressed the unfairness of the tax system. “The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder. They're paying nothing, and it's ridiculous.”

Now that he has won election with those arguments, Trump has been assembling his team to run the government. His cabinet choices are not yet complete, and none of them have been confirmed by the Senate. But his selections so far give us some idea of what he plans to do.

Trump’s cabinet will be the richest group in American history, dominated by the very people he criticized on the campaign trail. For Secretary of Commerce, Trump is nominating Wilbur L. Ross Jr., a billionaire Wall St. speculator. He owned Sago Mine, a West Virginia coal mine where a dozen miners lost their lives in a 2006 explosion. His company settled a lawsuit for negligence in their deaths. A few months ago, Ross’s company paid a $2.3 million fine for charging his investors excess management fees.

Just under Ross, Trump is nominating Todd Ricketts as Deputy Commerce Secretary. His father founded the online broker Ameritrade. Ricketts is even richer than Ross, and is co-owner of the Chicago Cubs and CEO of Ending Spending, an organization “dedicated to educating and engaging American taxpayers about wasteful and excessive government spending,” according to its site.

As head of the Small Business Administration, Trump selected another billionaire, Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, and one of Trump’s biggest donors. The Treasury  Department will be headed by Steven Mnuchin, another big donor and a former Goldman Sachs executive, now CEO of a hedge fund. He is worth only about $665 million.   

Much further down the list of richest Americans, Trump’s Secretary of Labor will be Andrew F. Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants, which owns fast-food outlets Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Puzder opposes increasing the minimum wage, because his restaurants would have to pay more to their workers, meaning less income for shareholders.

Another billionaire with input into Trump’s economic policies will be Carl Icahn, a Special Adviser on Regulatory Reform. Icahn began as a stockbroker and now is one of the richest Americans, buying and selling companies and a business partner with Trump.

Another cabinet secretary who is worth billions will be Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, whose family started the multilevel marketing company Amway. Amway has been successfully sued in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom for fraud, and has paid millions in fines.

Rex W. Tillerson will head Trump’s State Dept. He was president and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, and will get a severance package worth $180 million for leaving his job. Some other billionaires have been appointed by Trump to serve on his economic advisory committee or inaugural committee.

The Republican-dominated Senate appears to be rushing the process of confirming these nominations. They have scheduled six hearings for this Wednesday, apparently hoping to minimize media scrutiny. Several of Trump’s picks have not completed the usual vetting process, which includes tax returns and ethics clearances, which might be complicated for some of the billionaires with vast financial holdings. The head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., has said that the Senate has never before held hearings before his office completed its review.

We don’t know yet exactly what policies Trump will direct his cabinet to implement, or even if they all will be confirmed. This is what we do know: none of them have shown the slightest interest in the economic plight of the voters who backed Trump. They are precisely the people who have profited the most from the financial system that Trump said was rigged against most Americans.

Trump not only took plenty of money from the Wall St. Guys. Now he is hiring them to run the government.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 10, 2017

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Out with the Old, In with the New

I’m writing this on New Year’s Day, an obvious moment to think about the past year and wonder about the next. The calendar makes it seem like an ending and a beginning, but the New Year happens at different times around the globe, and different seasons in different traditions. The calendar is an evolving and arbitrary social creation, yet it offers a convenient moment to satisfy our human need to think about beginnings and ends.

Every year has its sad endings. My father-in-law died a few days after his Christmas Eve birthday. His long struggle with Alzheimer’s was perhaps longer than most, because Roger Tobin kept his athletic body going long after most people have given up. We hoped his end was a relief to him.

My son-in-law’s father died earlier in 2016. He was about my age, still vigorous, still working, still strong in every way. He had much left to do, but cancers strike at much less predictable times than Alzheimer’s, meaning they take the young and old.

In the future, those endings will be different. Human science has cured so many afflictions and made so many others more livable. Fighting disease is one of the most successful international collaborations that modern society has developed. Beware of those who would say that work is unnecessary, too expensive, too cooperative.

It seems like many cultural heroes died last year, people of the most varied and individual talents: David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Muhammad Ali, and Elie Wiesel. Some deaths became important news, although the lives were virtually unknown. Black Lives Matter began in 2012, but burst into prominence in 2016, because the ending of some ordinary black lives, such as Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, finally penetrated public consciousness. Perhaps that kind of ending will also become less common in the future.

Some more metaphorical deaths occurred. The long political career of Hillary and Bill Clinton, stretching back to Bill’s election as class president at Georgetown University in 1964, is over, landing with a thud in November. The 8-year presidency of Barack Obama, which I believe will be remembered and revered long after his numerous opponents have earned their deserved insignificance, is over. He will accomplish much more over the next decades.

Some are lamenting the “death of democracy”, but that seems pessimistic to me. Not outrageous, because apparently strong democracies have been killed in the past by people with many resemblances to Donald Trump. But I don’t predict the death of American democracy, because Trump is much more interested in himself than in any authoritarian program and is not smart enough to actually lead an organized movement.

2017 will certainly be the start of a new political era in America, characterized by changes that are still unpredictable. Trump will cause some, but others will come from real social movements, born to oppose him. Those movements will define the newest version of American democracy, ever changing, usually improving. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I share his optimism.

A New Year’s baby symbolizes beginnings. Babies point us all forward. My nephew’s family added a second child in the fall, one of millions of babies whose feelings about 2016 will have nothing to do with politics. The wisdom of children helps us get beyond the regrets of the past, because the whole idea of regret is foreign to little children. My nephew told us about driving his older son, not yet two, on the day after the election. He was too bummed to notice the song that was playing for little Jack, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. The singers said, “If you’re happy and you know it, say hooray!” Jack put up his hands and shouted “Hooray!”

It’s a lesson to us all. Too bad about 2016, but it’s over. There is much to do in 2017.


Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 3, 2017

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Our Family’s White Christmas

We had a white upper-middle-class Christmas this weekend. I don’t mean that we did the same things as all the other white upper-middle-class families, or that there exists a single model for a white Christmas in our tax bracket. I mean that our Christmas is shaped by the facts of our economic status and racial privileges.

As thirteen of us gathered around the dinner table, our commonalities were striking. Everyone around the table has a college degree, with quite a few advanced degrees. We all have good and interesting jobs or had them before we retired. Although we all are anxious about money some of the time, none of us worry about where the next meal is coming from or paying the rent. In fact, nearly all of us live in our own homes. Our celebration was determined by benefits accumulated over generations.

So there was nothing unusual for us when we exchanged more than 40 books, with lots of exclamations of “I’ve read that,” “Her other books are great,” and “Can I have that book after you?”

Although none of us are artists, we value artistic creation. We gave each other paintings, prints, ceramic tiles, and framed photographs, passing them around the circle, admiring the skill and vision behind them. All those gifts will be displayed in our homes, adding beauty to our daily lives.

The phrase “artisan foods” labels the contemporary desire for individually designed and carefully crafted foods of all kinds. We exchanged dried Michigan cherries and artistically decorated chocolates. “Homemade” hardly does justice to the foods created by my relatives: I got spicy coated nuts and mustards from my niece, sauces from my sister-in-law, and jam from my brother-in-law’s mother.

Food is always central to life, and modern American culture has radically transformed eating conventions in ways that showed up on our table. A staple of our Christmas breakfast had long been chipped beef on toast, what my father and father-in-law would have called SOS from their WWII days. Now that and the Christmas turkey are only memories. Our meals were meatless and much more imaginative and varied than the famous Norman Rockwell image of a holiday meal.

The new foods exemplify the gradual changes in our family Christmases each year. We remain comfortable with the familiar, but over many years small changes accumulate. Some are voluntary, like the abandonment of tomato aspic after years of mocking complaints by children. Others represent the inevitable passing of family time. Forty years ago, I was brought into this family’s Christmas by marriage, adding a bit of eastern European heritage to a northern European gathering. Now all the younger generation around the table have partners. A new generation has just made its appearance, although this year only virtually by instantly transmitted pictures.

Generations arrive and others pass. My family’s Christmas has long been defined by the December 24th birthday and grand personality of my father-in-law. A long struggle with Alzheimer’s that took away his personality now nears its end. He gave many gifts to all of us. We have given him the collective love and care that only family can offer. Around our table, hope for peaceful endings surrounded by family was a universal Christmas wish.

In our world, that is a luxury. Everything I’ve described is a luxury. We are so lucky to need nothing and be able to give everything.

We all recognize our good fortune. We worked hard for what we have, and owe much to previous generations who paid for our educations and could afford to help us financially at crucial moments. A new element in our family Christmas is the explicit recognition that we should use this occasion collectively to share our good fortune with others who have more unfulfilled needs. Many gifts were made to organizations who use our money to provide food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, and legal protection for the unjustly targeted. The dozen 30-somethings in my children’s generation decided that their gifts to each other would be charitable donations to causes they shared. That new idea makes a parent proud.

What’s white about our Christmas? I can’t be sure, because I have never experienced Christmas with a black family. I imagine that many minority families have celebrations like I have described. So our white privileges can seem invisible and thus easily overlooked.

But I know that our whiteness has made certain things much more likely for us in America. Our families could buy and grow up in homes in good neighborhoods. Grandparents and parents and children could get good jobs, earn good salaries, pay for fine educations, and then get another set of good jobs. None of us has been harassed by authorities, been passed over for promotions, been ignored or insulted or humiliated or threatened for being the wrong color.

My penniless immigrant father could move past Americans who had been here for centuries because he was white. Nobody challenged my right to succeed because of the way I looked.

I’m lucky, but I’m not thankful for that. It’s just what I, and everyone else, deserve.

Steve Hochstadt
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 27, 2016