Tuesday, June 21, 2016

There is no WE in TRUMP

It is impossible not to be fascinated by Donald Trump’s focus on himself. You can’t write anything new about his egotism, his bragging and re-bragging, his historical fantasies where he plays the star, because it’s all been done so often.

So let’s take that as a given. When Donald Trump talks or writes books or sends Tweets, he can’t stop talking about himself in ways unique to him. “I will be so good at the military your head will spin.”

Every president and presidential candidate is an egotist, believing that the whole country should vote for them to hold the highest office. No other person matches the power, the attention from the whole world, the gravity of the American President. The Presidents I have seen have all been judged by their character as much as by their political success. The character of our possible leader is one of our most important political questions.

American presidents have never become The Leader, Il Duce or Der Führer. The system of checks and balances is a big idea that high school kids must learn about American government. The founders knew no models to teach them about separation of powers or national democracy. They made them both up and they’re still working.

Perhaps not working so well now. Yet the political struggle between a Republican Congress and a Democratic President over the past 21 years has led neither to economic disaster nor military intervention nor coups d’état. The closest we have come to national breakdown were the two government shutdowns by the new Republican majority against President Clinton in the fall of 1995. It happened again against Barack Obama in 2013. Most Americans rejected these shutdowns and blamed the Republicans.

The Republican Congressional refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court is symptomatic of the current deadlock, but also of the importance of the Supreme Court as the appointed adjudicator for these fundamental disputes. The Supreme Court acts independently of the other two branches, and can stop them both in their tracks. No other country has lived for so long under such a system of separated and balanced powers.

We need to be sure that a President has the temperament, the character, and the spirit to be one leader among many, to seek consensus, to stay within the rules which make the President one of three co-equal powers.

Donald Trump has shown only disdain for our system. No candidate for President has ever personally insulted so many people in government as Trump. Trump’s insults show no respect for the other players in the political process, neither legislators nor judges.

Late-night comics are amused by Trump’s constant refrain that he is the best at everything. But that kind of fantastic self-esteem, superiority in every way, and contempt for what anyone else has to offer will not long abide sharing power, being thwarted, being criticized, being out-smarted by other political actors.

Trump scorns democracy as weakness. He mocks the inability of both Republicans and Democrats to break through their stalemate with some powerful stroke. They’re all stupid for not being able to do what he does all the time – lay down the law. Trump’s idea of leadership is strength. His epithets for other politicians are all about stupidity and weakness.

And who is Trump’s model leader? Vladimir Putin. In September, Trump told Bill O’Reilly, “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he's getting an A, and our President is not doing so well.” On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December, he was asked about the connections between Putin and the murder of journalists and political opponents. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country. . . . our country does plenty of killing, too.” In the March 3 Republican debate, he denied that he had expressed admiration for Putin at all: “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” A week later, in the next debate, he said, “I think Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”

What has Putin done as Russia’s leader? His troops invaded neighboring Ukraine and shot down a Malaysian passenger plane. The ruble has lost half its value against the dollar in the past two years. The national economy contracted by 4% in 2015, and it’s worse this year. The Russian stock market has lost two-thirds of its value since 2007.

The American government considers Russia to be “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state”, according to secret communications leaked by WikiLeaks. Russia’s entire track and field team has now been banned from the Rio Olympics because of their national policy of doping and deception.

Putin turned Russia’s young democracy into a one-party state with a puppet legislature and heavy censorship. Maybe what Trump especially likes is the cult of personality that Putin has created for himself.

Putin has been a disaster for Russia and a danger to the world. Trump thinks he’s great. He would be a disaster for our balanced democracy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 21, 2016

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Tyranny of Quantity

More is better. That rule dominates much of our lives. Too much, I think.

Sometimes more is the only thing. The NBA players from Cleveland and Golden State are unbelievably skilled, unpredictable, and flamboyantly athletic. But all that matters is the final score, the quantities of points and games. Nobody will care about or remember the beautiful game played by the losers. Quantity is everything.

Many people seem to believe that money is like that, too. No matter how much you have, more would be better and more than that would be best. For most of the world’s people, a little bit more could make a big difference. Even in the wealthiest nations, there are always people who do not have enough for basic needs. Among those wealthiest countries, the US does particularly badly on any measure of how many poor people there are.

For the poor, as far upwards as they can see, more would be better. But is that true at any level, no matter how high? Is more money better for a millionaire, for a billionaire?

That’s a devilishly difficult question to answer. It’s easy to measure money, but not happiness. Nevertheless, researchers on the economics of happiness have recently concluded that more money leads to more happiness only up to an income of about $75,000 per year. After that, increases in income seem to make little difference in daily happiness.

Some very rich people appear to be unhappy because of their money: a survey of people with over $25 million found that one quarter worry “constantly” about their financial situation. Too bad for them. The rich people whose lives are displayed on reality shows don’t seem especially happy, but happiness doesn’t make for riveting TV.

One startling bit of research found that money itself can make people less happy. People who were shown pictures of money and then given chocolate to eat enjoyed their snack less than those who had not seen the money. The psychologists surmised that the satisfactions to be gained from small pleasures, like chocolate, were lessened when people thought about what they could have if they had more money. A different study of lottery winners found that they got less enjoyment from mundane events. Don’t show me the money!

Other research shows that how much money may not be as important as what one does with money. Spending money on others, including just giving it away, creates more satisfaction than spending it on ourselves. If that’s true, the happiest people may be the middle class. Those with incomes around $50,000 give away about 4% to charity, while those making from $100,000 to $5 million a year give less than 3%.

Right now, as I slide into retirement, I’m thinking about time, more time. It’s almost always better to have more time, even though basketball announcers sometimes say, “He had too much time to think about that shot.” Not enough time usually translates into more stress. We all have confirmed the truth of the saying “haste makes waste”, because not enough time means hurried and incomplete work.

My retired friends all delight in saying that they seem just as busy as when they were working. How can that be? I believe the answer is that they continue to fill their days with accomplishment, but the nature of their work has changed. They now have more time to attend to things they want to do. They have more time to do those things properly.

I imagine more time will allow me to increase the quality of what I do – more thorough weeding in my gardens, more books that I really want to read, better cooking. I’ll spend more time with my friends without checking the clock. I won’t always be distracted by thoughts of what I am not doing that I should be doing.

I imagine waking up in the morning and deciding then what I will do, possibly rejecting the plans I made the night before. I imagine fewer deadlines and more pleasure in the moment.

Too much time could be a problem if there was too little to do. Lots of time but no money could mean less ability to do those things that can make life enjoyable.

I don’t want endless time or unlimited money. I want to savor life’s simple pleasures: a red flower in my garden, a good book, a bit of dark chocolate. I hope I have enough of each to enjoy each day without worrying too much  about tomorrow. I’m hoping for quality, not quantity.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 14, 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

He Was the Greatest

Muhammad Ali is dead. His life at the end was severely restricted by the consequences of repeated blows to his head. The debilitating effects of concussions are now a national topic, beyond boxing, even beyond hockey and football. Ali was a shadow of his former self, better known for his daughter’s boxing successes than for anything he could do or say.

He is universally known for his joyous insistence that “I am the greatest,” an outrageous boast that he first made when he was 18, right after winning the gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Typically it was combined with a taunt to a rival boxer, Floyd Patterson: “Hey Floyd — I seen you! Someday I’m gonna whup you! Don’t you forget, I am the greatest!” He repeated that boast after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964.

For a long time he was the greatest. He was undefeated as a professional until Joe Frazier beat him in 1971. He won back the heavyweight championship twice. But in his prime, Ali transcended his sport by insisting loudly that sports, politics and race were inevitably intertwined. He used the outsized personality he created as a boxer to turn the spotlight on racism.

As Cassius Clay, he had felt the lash of American racism as it was still practiced in the postwar South. His mother remembered a time when her little son was refused a drink of water in a store. A decade later, returning to Louisville after winning the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was refused service at a whites-only restaurant.

Although Cassius Marcellus Clay had been an abolitionist politician, who published an anti-slavery newspaper before the Civil War in Lexington, Kentucky, the young Clay changed his name right after defeating Liston, as he joined the Nation of Islam. He had been moving closer to the Black Muslims since meeting Malcolm X in 1962.

Ali became a much more prominent political figure when he was drafted in 1966. He had failed the written induction test earlier, but the needs of the escalating Vietnam War led the Selective Service to lower the standards, and Ali was reclassified 1-A. He refused induction.

His heavyweight title was taken from him, he lost the right to fight in the US, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He had won 29 fights in a row since turning pro in 1960. He did not fight for over three years, between age 25 and 28, prime years for a boxer. Rarely has taking a principled political position caused someone to lose so much.

His opposition to fighting in Vietnam was not only rooted in his religious belief. It was also about race, not just about him, but about all African Americans. In February 1966, he said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” On a campus speaking tour to support himself in 1967, he said to white students, “My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home.” “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me.”

That same year Martin Luther King, Jr., came out against the Vietnam War, and referred to Ali: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all, black and brown and poor, victims of the same system of oppression.” Ali inspired other athletes to connect sport and racism. When Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, one of their demands was “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” Eventually the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, on the grounds that the government had not given any reason for disallowing his claim to be a conscientious objector on the basis of his religion.

These days we hear another outsized personality constantly proclaiming that he is the greatest. Donald Trump was a friend of Ali, but when he advocated banning Muslims from entering the US, Ali responded immediately in a statement entitled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States”. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam.”

Ali devoted years to becoming champion. But he was willing to give up his personal agenda to defend his principles. That was great.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 7, 2016