Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Real Donald Trump

I must confess that I have just gotten around to reading Donald Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal.”  I thought it was going to be a “how to” on negotiating, but it turned out to be autobiographical.  The focus is on Trump’s early business success and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the way our president operates.
During last year’s campaign, Charles Krauthammer complained the Trump was not intellectually curious.  It was evident from the candidate’s style that he was not well read.  This was interpreted to mean that he did not have the depth—or breadth—of understanding to be our chief executive.
This turns out to be a serious mistake.  Trump is a man of action, not an academic or intellectual.  He concentrates on what he needs to know in order to get a particular job done.  He did this when he was a real estate magnate.  He does it in the oval office.
The first thing to realize about our president is that he is a people person.  He transacts business by interacting with individuals who can move his projects forward.  They are therefore the ones who need to comprehend the relevant details.
I, along with many others, was surprised by the quality of the cabinet Trump put together.  I had assumed that he would be too intimidated by expertise and intelligence to surround himself with managers more accomplished than himself.  This was completely wrong.
Trump prides himself on his ability to recognize talent and to allow those who possess it to exercise it.  He also takes pleasure in judging character.  This way he learns whom to trust.  In the past, if he was going to make a multi-million dollar deal, he wanted to be sure his interlocutor was as good as his word.
Trump likewise believes in common sense.  He sizes up a situation, often by personally investigating a project.  While he acknowledges that this frequently involves following his gut instincts, he considers these superior to intellectualized rationalizations.
As a result, he dismisses study committees and professional consultants as a waste of time.  These are described as mechanisms unsure executives use to put off making decisions.  Guess what?  I think he is right!
Having just returned from a conference on applied sociology, I heard a bevy of consultants explaining their trade.  I was struck with how out of touch with reality many were.  Although they had a good line of patter, many hid their lack of insights behind an academic fa├žade.
Trump’s discussion of the reconstruction of the Wollman ice skating rink is a stunning illustration.  As he recounted the many mistakes of New York City officials, I could not help but laugh.  Their level of irresponsibility was almost beyond belief.
Trump, as you may know, accomplished in five months, for less than three million dollars, what the government could not do in six years for over thirteen million.  The difference was that he cared, whereas those using other people’s money didn’t.  They were more concerned with how they were depicted in the press.
Two more lessons I gleaned from Trump were that he is not afraid of taking risks or of engaging in intimidation.  He has been willing to lose and, as a consequence, has often placed himself in a position to win.  Instead of holding back because he is uncertain of every detail, he goes ahead when he considers the odds are in his favor.
Nor has he always played the nice guy.  He has, on more than one occasion, been a bully.  If this sounds crude, it also translates into not allowing others to bully him.  Even as a young man, he was prepared to confront people who had more power and status than he did.
Much of this should sound familiar.  It is of a piece with strategies Trump now employs in the White House.  Being the commander-in-chief is not the same as being a real estate developer, but there can be no doubt that our president has adapted practices from one to the other.
I can’t predict the reader’s reaction, but I came away with a better opinion of Trump.  Yes, his book is self-serving; nonetheless it provided me with a reassuring window into his methods.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Do Your Job!

Dozens of Americans were senselessly shot in Las Vegas.  A CBS executive said they deserved to die because, as country music fans, they must be Republicans.  Meanwhile the President of the United States got into a public brawl with the mayor of San Juan about hurricane aid to her island.  As for football players, many continue to take a knee while the national anthem plays.
 Nonetheless, we have much to learn from football.  Few would disagree that Bill Belichick is one of the best coaches in the National Football League.  Year after year, he cobbles his team into a contender, despite an occasional dearth of talent.  He may be despised for his habit of winning, but he keeps doing it.
One of the things Belichick insists upon is that his players do their jobs.  As members of a team, they have assignments to fulfill.  They are role players, who if they perform their duties as designed, contribute to shared victories.  On the other hand, if not all will suffer.
This is true, not just of football, but our entire society.  We are a mass techno-commercial civilization.  As such, we are dependent upon millions of interlocking role players.  People have different jobs they must perform well or there will be no food on our plates or roofs over our heads.
Although a myriad of strangers surround us, we expect them to be as dedicated to their occupations as any linebacker.  While we may not personally know them, we are generally aware of their jobs and hence what is expected of them.  Ergo cab drivers are supposed to drive to the correct destinations, while sales clerks must charge the posted prices.
If this sounds trivial, no modern society could survive without a dependable division of labor.  This is especially crucial if a community is under stress.  When the bonds holding people together begin to rupture—as in contemporary America—it becomes imperative that we do our jobs, and do them well.
Because we cannot be acquainted with over three hundred million strangers, we deal with most in terms of their roles.  To illustrate, when I visit a strange city, I get hungry.  But I may not know anyone there.  So who is going to feed me? 
You know the answer.  I go to a restaurant, where I will immediately be confronted with persons I have never previously met.  How then do I know how to behave?  It’s simple.  Despite a lack of personal knowledge, I know their roles.  I recognize the waiter as a waiter and he me as a customer. 
This is how mass societies operate.  They cannot depend on love to elicit cooperation.  They cannot rely on a legacy of interpersonal knowledge for people to decipher each other’s intentions.  Without a network of widely understood jobs, they would fly apart.
But these jobs must also be done well.  If they are not, battalions of strangers will work at cross-purposes.  This is increasingly problematic once occupations become complicated.   Whining or complaining do not get the job done.  Nor does a sense of entitlement.
To put the matter bluntly, we need to be more professionalized.  Millions of us have to become self-motivated experts.  Whether we are doctors, engineers, nurses, or police officers—and yes, waiters, we need to be skilled in our specialties.  We must, in short, be able, and willing, to perform our jobs.
Our world is too big to be a loving family.  The tensions we are experiencing will not subside when we suddenly discover that we are biologically related.  We are not related.  We may not even be friends.
But we are role players.  As such, we can be competent at our jobs.  Unfortunately, our unprecedented affluence has convinced many people that they deserve whatever the want.  They don’t think in terms of upholding their responsibilities, but of demanding a larger slice of the pie.
How can we keep a society like ours together?  How can we prevent it from fracturing into mutually hostile camps?  One answer is that, as per Belichick, we can do our jobs.  If more of us are devoted to being the best we can be at work and at home, the more assistance we can provide each other in fulfilling our respective dreams.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Divided By Race

When Barack Obama became president, most observers expected race relations to improve.  As a candidate, he told us that whether we were black or white we were Americans first.  The mere fact that so many whites voted for him was also evidence that old biases had eroded.
That, however, is not how things worked out.  Barack, despite his verbal elegance, was a divisive figure.  We did not realize just how divisive until he was succeeded by Donald Trump.  Now we find Trump routinely accused of racism based on little or no proof.
The latest indication of accelerating racial tensions arose after black football players refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem and Trump called those who emulated them out.  Although administration spokespersons stoutly insisted that this was about honoring the flag, his adversaries contended it was about race.
When this issue came up in one of my Kennesaw State University classes, the passions produced in my black students were evident.  How, they wondered, could anyone accuse them of not being patriotic?  Taking a knee when the anthem played was a protest against racism, not disrespect for the flag.
These students were sincere.  They genuinely believed their words.  What they did not realize was how offended most white Americans were.  They did not understand that a symbol many of their countrymen revere was being maligned.
The point is that although blacks regularly demand that whites understand their situation, the reverse is seldom expected.  Those who oppose racism correctly ask others to appreciate the plight of African-Americans.  The damage done by centuries of oppression has to be recognized if reforms are to succeed.
What gets lost in the translation is that whites are also people.  They too have feelings and dilemmas.  To ask that only they understand black sensibilities, while simultaneously excusing blacks from sympathizing with theirs, is a prescription for lasting frictions.
As long as all blacks are regarded as injured innocents, whereas all whites are treated as privileged despots, racial reconciliation is impossible.  With one side always regarded as the good guys and the other as the bad ones, resentments are guaranteed to chafe.
That reformers demand a reversal of the moral status of the races is comprehensible.  On the surface, this seems a reasonable way to balance the scales.  Nonetheless, no one likes to be disparaged.  This goes for whites as well as blacks.  Thus, if we constantly tell people that they are depraved, they will not thank us.
This goes not only for individuals, but the nation with which they identify.  Defile its flag or show contempt for its anthem and they will not be pleased.  It is a slap in the face that few humans appreciate.
African-Americans need friends.  We all need friends.  But, as ought to be realized, in order to get a friend, one must be a friend.  This truth about human relationships extends beyond the racial divide.
When people have been grievously injured, it is natural for them to retreat into a defensive posture.  They look inward because their wounds continue to ache.  Even so, they must eventually understand those with whom they must deal.  Only in this way can they get ahead.
This is true for children, who, when they become adults, must now perceive their parents as three-dimensional beings.  It is likewise true for blacks who need to recognize whites as fellow humans.  If not, they will never be able to distinguish their friends from their foes.
Overcoming the consequences of slavery has been a long-term ordeal.  We have been dealing with this festering sore since the Civil War.  No doubt we are fated to deal with it for many more decades.
Crucial to this process has been the requirement that whites recognize the humanity of blacks.  They need to come to terms with their past prejudices and habits of discrimination.  But, as is so often the case, this is a two-way street.  Blacks too must overcome deeply entrenched habits of mind.
The legacy of slavery is very much with us.  Whatever our hopes, it was never destined to disappear in a puff of legislative smoke.  As a result, if we are to make progress, there is work to do.  This goes for whites, but also blacks.  As humans, we must all cope with the sensitivities and weaknesses that go with being human.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Losing More Ground

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, its rulers sought to keep the inhabitants of its capital city from engaging in an insurrection.  The emperors did not want to be overthrown by a mob of proletarians.  And so, they sought to keep the lower classes distracted.
The method used was “bread and circuses.”  Gladiators, who sometimes fought to the death, riveted the attention of the poor in the Coliseum.  Charioteers, who often threw caution to the wind, similarly elicited raucous cheers in the Hippodrome.  This fun was free.  So were the many holidays where work could be set aside.
Nor was there fear of hunger.  Free grain poured in from Egypt.  Insurgencies still occurred, but their source was either the Praetorian Guard or ambitious generals fresh from the provinces.
In the long run, this policy had disastrous consequences.  Ordinary Romans no longer volunteered for service in the legions.  There was no need to.  Barbarians instead filled the ranks.  They remained lean and hungry and hence were motivated to take military chances.
Eventually a majority of officers were also Barbarians, whose primary allegiance was directed toward their tribes.  Given this development, it should not be surprising that Rome fell.  With few homegrown defenders, there was no one left to resist the thuggish hordes.
Is this to be the fate of the United States?  Will we emulate the strategies that brought Rome to its knees?  In fact, some surprising proponents have advocated schemes that are likely to have this effect.
One of these is the political scientist Charles Murray.  Years ago, this prescient observer wrote a book called Losing Ground.  In it he argued that generous welfare programs were sapping the strength of the poor.  Rather than raising people into the middle classes, extravagant benefits encouraged dependency.
People, who got free money, did not worry about holding down jobs.  Parents, who obtained additional stipends for every child they had, did not fret about supporting sizeable families.  Although they did not live well, their motivation to move ahead had been undermined.
As a former caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare, I knew this to be true.  Scores of my clients declined offers of employment, so as not to put their checks in jeopardy.  This tactic placed bread on their tables, but prevented them from improving their circumstances.
Now Murray, in accord with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, is promoting a guaranteed income for all.  He suggests that every adult in America be given ten thousand dollars annually.  They would not have to work for this; they would simply receive it as an entitlement.
My rejoinder is that I cannot think of a better way to eradicate the motivation to work.  An overly generous safety net has already removed millions from the workforce.  Why would we want to extend this to the whole of society?
The young, of course, love the idea.  It would enable them to break free of their parents.  As yet unsure about their economic prospects, it would likewise protect them from abject failure.  Many of the poor also like the idea.  It would normalize their condition and remove the stigma of public assistance.
Nonetheless, we humans often need to be motivated to perform unpleasant tasks.  Take away the incentive provided by a dread of starvation and we decline to engage in them.  Yes, retaining this fear means that some people would experience insecurities.  And yes, this would be disagreeable.  But it is a spur that many frequently require.
Lots of folks fantasize about a life filled with unearned luxuries.  They imagine that an unending vacation, replete with skiing trips and lavish yachts, would be ideal.  What they forget is our need for achievement.  Indolent layabouts are not respected—even by themselves.
Our current affluence has therefore placed us in a quandary.  We are rich enough to support millions of individuals who never contribute to our joint welfare.  What is more, many of them are clamoring for this indulgence.  Even so, is it good for them—or us?
Don’t we require our children to wait for dessert until they finish their vegetables?  Shouldn’t this apply to adults as well?  Shouldn’t everyone be expected to put in effort on our joint behalf?  If not, won’t our civilization be headed for abrupt decay?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University