Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Get Even President

     Donald J. Trump is the Get Even President.  He has emerged as the champion of Americans who feel that they have been gravely wronged and who seek retaliation against their enemies, real and imagined.  Trump’s behavior reflects the mood of his base: confrontational, indignant, impatient, defiant, abrasive, and unapologetic.  Not far beneath the surface exist layers of pain, fear, and anger.
     Who are the people who support Trump?  The Trump coalition consists primarily of six groups, among which there are many overlaps.
     The first consists of highly partisan and “yellow dog” Republicans.  Their faith in the GOP is largely based on family political tradition, regional political preferences, the ideals of individualism and free enterprise, and vested interests.  They include Republicans who remain enamored with Ronald Reagan and adhere to the conservative principles of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater.  They generally fear and loathe Democrats, who threaten them through government regulations, taxes, and social reforms.  Many Republicans continue to hold great disdain for Bill Clinton and his unseemly personal conduct as President; they also greatly distrust Bill Clinton’s wife, or “crooked Hillary” as Trump calls her.
     The second group is the American déclassé that I discussed in my blog posting of June 1, 2017.  These include people from the middle and working classes who suffered from the Great Recession of 2008 and never fully recovered.  Many lost their jobs, savings, homes, and their comfortable lifestyles and they want them back, now!  They feel victimized by various evil-doers in a corrupt system (“drain the swamp”) and exploitive illegal immigrants (“build the wall.”).  They are very angry, and in particular damn President Barack Obama.  Anything connected to him (such as Obamacare, environmental restrictions, global climate change, trade agreements, and post-2008 banking and financial regulations) must be reversed.
     The third group is Baby Boomers who are now approaching retirement and who still have vivid memories of the 1960s.  They recall the violence of the Civil Rights movement (especially the urban race riots) and the war in Vietnam, both in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in the streets of the U.S.  They resent the perceived shunning of Vietnam veterans as though they were war criminals.  They want a strong military that will be allowed to win foreign engagements.  They in particular want to “make American great again,” or a return to a world order in which countries defer to the U.S.
     Americans who have a persistent fear of criminals and terrorists make the fourth group.  They abhor street shootings and random acts of violence.  They remain traumatized by the Al Qaeda attacks upon New York City and Washington, DC, on 9/11 of 2001.  They generally supported American retaliation in Afghanistan and the unilateral, preemptive invasion of Iraq.  In contrast, they bemoaned the seemingly irresolute policies of the Obama administration in the Middle East.  They defend domestic gun rights and distrust Muslims (“the travel ban”).  They cheer a strong leader who will end criminal violence and foreign-generated acts of terrorism one way or another.
     The fifth group are members of the social conservative movement, especially those who embrace traditionalist social and religious views.  They are defenders of their own religious freedoms.  They may not always condone Trump’s language, but they support him as a national leader who will curtail abortions, gay marriages, and the mandated coverage of contraceptives in Obamacare.  Most importantly, they support Trump’s appointment of conservatives to federal courts, like Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
     Finally, the sixth group consists of Trump’s fans who love his books, reality TV shows, speeches, and tweets.  They are awed by his great wealth and CEO style.  They see Trump as spectacular political entertainment.
     Will these groups find satisfaction?  And will they be better off in the long run?

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)     

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The American Déclassé

     Toward the end of the 19th century, the French introduced the word déclassé to describe people who had fallen in social status.  The déclassé might include aristocrats who lost their titles or their estates for one reason or another.  They might also be middle class who lost their businesses, white-collar employment, savings, and homes.  They were reduced to the tattered trappings but no longer the substance of their former comfortable lifestyles.  They felt victimized and marginalized and often blamed others for their own misfortunes.
     Many Germans experienced a middle class déclassé in the 1920s due to hyper-inflation that wiped out long-term savings.  Then they suffered further from the Great Depression and deflation.  Financial reverses along with personal loses and the humiliating defeat in World War I caused many German déclassé to turn to hyper-nationalism, including German racial superiority as expressed by the Nazis.
     Now the United States has its own déclassé.  They were used to middle class standards of living until the Great Recession of 2007.  Some were upper- and middle-middle class who were overextended in debt, particularly inflated home mortgages.  When the financial and real estate bubble burst, many lost their houses, which were their principal assets as well as their homes.  Others lost their businesses and investments, too.  Meanwhile, white collar workers lost their jobs to process innovations and business cost reductions.  After decades of wages and benefits that lifted so many factory workers from the working to the middle class, millions of industrial jobs were eliminated by factory automation, offshore production, and layoffs by companies faced with reduced demand for their goods and services.  For many, the upward spiral of the American Dream had suddenly reversed its course downward.
     Particularly devastated was the new working poor, broadly defined, of people who could not find any jobs, or took jobs that paid significantly less than their previous jobs, or went into retirement without pensions and adequate savings.  They found themselves on the wrong end of the growing income-wealth-education gap in the U.S.  Having once enjoyed a middle-class standard of living, they now had to struggle to just make ends meet.  If they still bought the things they were used to, they went more heavily into debt.  Many became very bitter about their losses and retreated into social isolation and alcohol and drug abuse.  Some turned outward and blamed various other people, including Wall Street fund managers and bankers, the one-percenters, the Federal government that seemed pleased to help the chronically poor but not the working poor, and illegal immigrants who allegedly exploited public assistance programs.  In addition there was a growing fear of public violence and acts of foreign-generated terrorism.
     Some of the American déclassé personified their anger in President Barack Obama and railed against the well-educated and well-paid elites who appeared to dominate the Democratic Party.  They hated when the President lectured them about large corporation bailouts (but none for the “little guys”), mandatory healthcare insurance (which for some people resulted in unwanted coverage with unwanted premiums and new taxes), race relations, and global climate change.  What about good jobs with good pay?  What about people who were not working but getting public handouts?  What about illegal immigrants from Mexico?  What about Muslim terrorists shooting and bombing innocent Americans?
     Then came the elections of 2016…. 

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Who Protects American Individuals?

     Perhaps no country in history has valued individuals as much as the U.S.  American ideals amplify the rights and value of individuals – we talk about individual freedoms and opportunities and making life better in the future.  The American Dream is ideally open to everyone.  But who provides the safeguards that protect American individuals and allows them to assert their individuality?  
     At the basic level, each American has assumed responsibility for his or her own well-being and rights.  If you are an American, you have to watch out for yourself.  You are expected to work, earn a living for yourself, and provide for your family.  You have to guard your own home and personal safety the best you can at moments of danger.  Yet, no American is empowered to assert his or her prerogatives upon other individuals without justifiable cause.  We all live under the same laws that protect individuals and maintain social order.
     There have been times and places in which people had to defend themselves in the wilderness or on the frontier because nobody else was around to help them.  For most Americans, however, individuals tended farms and ranches, built businesses, and labored within communities.  Once Americans came into social organizations, they were expected to help their friends and neighbors and to live by the law.  Uninhibited individualism might have led to people willfully fighting and killing each other.
     The law as practiced by communities provides the police on patrol.  It also provides the courts and prisons that back the law up with consequences.  And who makes the law and pays for its enforcement?  In the U.S., from the earliest colonies, it has been the people working together through a prescribed process within communities.  Directly or indirectly, they made the laws, raised the taxes, and operated the public institutions.  In the final analysis, communities protect and serve American individuals in regard to personal safety, property rights, civil liberties, due process, and public health.
     To carry this point further, who protects American workers and consumers as well as honest business people in the pursuits of earning a living or building a fortune?  There have always been bad guys in stores and offices as well as in the streets.  Many business people are not criminal but are still self-serving and greedy while taking advantage of other people.  Who protects workers from inhumane conditions and treatment?  Who protects American consumers (who are also citizens and voters) from broken promises, misrepresentations, cheating, and swindles?  Again, the communities do, at all levels.  Local governments, for example, have passed zoning laws to protect private property and neighborhoods.  They have also passed building and health codes and maintained standard weights and measures.  State governments also protect individuals from certain business crimes and abuses of workers and consumers.  So, too, does the Federal government at the national level.  The whole purpose of regulations passed and enforced by communities is to protect individuals and maintain the integrity of the free enterprise system.
     In the face of combines to monopolize interstate products, services, and prices and in the face of nationwide corporations that proclaim “Let the public be damned!,” the protection of individual rights from abuses of Big Business was the one community that represented all the people:  the Federal government.  Or so argued President Theodore Roosevelt over 100 years ago.  In a growingly complex and rich commerce, the national community has to regulate the national economy.  Meanwhile, Americans through voting, expressing opinions, and demonstrating peacefully must guard against the abuses of the Federal government as well as those of huge interest groups, especially when the interests of a few, as expressed in hidden political donations and intense political lobbying, dominate government policies over the interests of the many. 


© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)          

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Most Important Word

     I used to ask my MBA students what was the single most important word in business.  Many would respond “profits,” and indeed that is how many business people think.  But the most important word is “trust” – without that no business can be conducted.
     Customers buy products and services that they trust from providers that they can rely upon.  The quality and consistency of goods and services are reflected in their reputations and brands.  It may take years for a company to build an attractive brand, which can be quickly destroyed by an accident or loss of consumer confidence.  Businesses also have to trust each other:  if you pay out money, then you expect value in return, each and every time.
     When people know each other and share positive experiences, they might make agreements based on a handshake.  They trust each other to do as promised.  In far more impersonal and complicated situations, we rely on contracts, which are legally binding agreements whereby the law provides trust.
     Likewise, there was a time when people shopped at the same stores all the time – the storekeepers knew which customers wanted what products and whether they could be trusted to pay their bills.  In addition, an individual might use the same bank over a lifetime.  Credit from stores and from banks have always been based on trust, both personal and legal.  Today when we use our credit cards we trust that most if not all merchants will accept them and that the credit card companies can be trusted to protect us from fraud.
     Not all businesses, unfortunately, are trustworthy.  Some seek as much profit as soon as possible.  They cut corners.  Some businesses will act unethically; some will even break laws.  While many business people can be trusted – it’s in their long-range interest to be so – there will always be those people who cannot be trusted.  They may deceive customers and take advantage of them.
     Trust is also the most important word in government as well as in business.  Our system works because we trust it.  The power of the Constitution, like the value of our money, ultimately rests upon the full faith of the American people.
     Trust relates to  fairness, and as I wrote in my book, American Ways:  “In both private and public affairs, the management of fairness requires the sharing of information, transparency of procedures, the participation of stakeholders in decisions, and people abiding by the results of agreed-upon processes.”  (p. 339).  Since colonial times, officeholders at all levels have needed to build trust in many of the same ways that businesses have built it.  They have to offer services consistent with expectations and at acceptable prices (taxes).  They have to do what they say that they will do.  They have to be honest and abide by the law.  They have to include many people in their policy-making in order to achieve full cooperation and they have to be transparent with the real-time sharing of full information.  No lying, suppressing facts, contradictory stories, and broken promises. 
     Perhaps someday in the future we will see these qualities of trust restored to American governments.

© Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)  



Monday, May 8, 2017

Money in a Hurry

     Several years ago a senior economist told me that most business people manage “by the seat of their pants.”  I didn’t understand then what he meant, but I do now if I equate “by the seat of their pants” to a decision-making and investment-making style that emphasizes the here and now.  We might call it management by the moment.
     For example, in the early 1990s I was consulting for NCR, which was in the process of being acquired by AT&T.  I was told that when the CEO of NCR was asked how long his company had been in existence he allegedly replied about 424 quarters.  Indeed, a company’s stock price often goes up or down based on nothing more than the most recent quarterly report.
     The focus of American business on short-term performance dates back to the 1620s.  Governor William Bradford was outraged when the London investors pressured him for profits when his Plymouth colony was barely surviving, having lost half of its population during its first winter.
     The American short-term perspective has been based in part on the gold rush mentality that drove early European colonization of the New World.  During the 1500s, the Spanish pulled out enormous amounts of gold from Mexico and Peru, leading many generations of investors and immigrants to believe that in America the streets were lined with gold.  The colonists of both Virginia and New England, however, discovered no gold – but with hard work and some luck they produced crops (such as tobacco, corn, and wheat) and products (such as flour, lumber, and rum) that eventually paid off handsomely.  The real gold rushes came later in North Carolina (1799), Georgia (1829), California (1848), and Alaska (1896).  We still have periodic gold rushes today, but they occur mostly on Wall Street.
     There is an old American saying that if you are going to get rich then quick is the best way.  Yet, so many successful enterprises have taken years to develop, while most startups fail.  The get-rich-quick mentality survives despite common sense and history; many business people manage resources, employees, and processes with an eye to sooner rather than later results.  The problem, however, is that short-term thinking can lead to short-sighted decisions.  People become too satisfied with the expediency of today and put off potential problems to tomorrow.
     American business people in the 21st century will have to learn to think in the long-term because global competition and financial risks have become so great and the periods of return have become so long that they can no longer afford just short-term thinking.  They have to stop solving today’s problems when doing so sacrifices new product and service R&D, market positioning, and brand-building.  They must remember that all businesses survive on customer loyalty and repeat business, and they have to understand and anticipate how consumer behavior changes over time.  You have to satisfy customers both in the present and the future.

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)


Saturday, April 29, 2017

What Drives Economic Growth

     The primary driver of the American economy is consumer spending.  Historically, the people of the U.S. have worked hard, earned wages, and spent money.  Now as in the past, Americans spend for housing and energy, furniture and appliances, food and beverages, clothes, personal hygiene and health care, transportation, recreation and entertainment, education, etc.  Ever since the 1600s, whenever consumer spending increases, the national economy grows, and vice versa.
     We think of the American economy as a free market, with individuals and businesses offering their services and products while consumers freely pick what they do and do not want.  As long as consumers have choices, they can make or break businesses.  
     In 1932, at the peak of the Great Depression, consumer spending accounted for 83% of the GDP in the U.S.  It hit a low of 49.5% in 1944 during the Second World War.  From 1946 to 1980, consumer spending averaged 63% of the GDP.  It rose to 67% in 1981-2011 and over 70% since 2003.  
     In 2016, the American GDP was about $18.5 trillion in current dollars.  Of this amount, 70%-71% was consumer spending, 11%-12% was business investment, and roughly 20% was government spending.  Net imports may have been -4%, as the U.S. imports more than it exports, with the net coming off the GDP.
     Historically neither business investments nor government spending has sustained economic growth as strongly as consumer spending.  Yet, some pro-business economists and politicians have argued that the Federal government could stimulate further economic growth by giving benefits and incentives for businesses to invest more, as if the principal driver of business investments were government policies and taxes rather than consumer spending. 
     Since the presidency of George Washington, Federal government spending, barrowing, and taxing have impacted the people and national economics.  It has always been a matter of how the government benefits some interests more than others.
     You can lower Federal taxes on businesses, from small enterprises to large corporations, but they may use the extra cash to buy back their stock, give executives bonuses, buy out competitors, or just hold on to it, as corporations have since 2008 held an unusually large amount of cash (perhaps $2 trillion).  Or they can invest in further process improvements, meaning more automation, which will require still fewer employees.  Where is the assurance that if businesses had more cash because they paid less taxes that they would necessarily invest more money in new product and service offerings that consumers will want, hire more workers and pay higher wages in the face of consumer apathy, and pass the savings of process improvements on to consumers with lower prices? 

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)                             

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Party of Know Nothings

     In the 1840s and 1850s, several secret societies arose in reaction to the heavy immigration of poor Irish, southern Germans, and Central Europeans into the U.S. due to the potato famines in Ireland and the suppressed revolutions of 1848 across Europe.  These societies became openly political in the forms of the American Republican Party in New York, then the regional Native American Party, and finally the national American Party by 1855.  When asked about their organizations, one member answered “I know nothing.”  From that point, these people became the Know Nothings.    
     The Know Nothings were extremely anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.  Many believed that Pope Pius IX, who was widely accused of being anti-democratic, had hatched a plot for millions of Catholics to immigrate into and then take over the U.S. by force of arms if not by ballots.  Conspiracy theories ran rampant.  The Know Nothing story was particularly popular among the American lower middle and skilled working classes, especially Protestants of English, Welsh, Scottish, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and northern German ancestry.  They saw the new immigrants as slovenly, stupid, criminal, and unwitting tools of unpatriotic Catholic bishops and corrupt city machine politicians.  The Know Nothings argued that immigrants posed serious threats to traditional (their) American ways and therefore should be denied the rights to vote, run for public offices, and American citizenship when residency was less than 21 years.      
     The Know Nothings varied on points of emphasis in different parts of the country.  In addition to anti-immigration and anti-Catholic sentiments, in some areas they were also anti-elitist and anti-intellectual.  In other areas, they advocated social and political reforms that anticipated future popular causes, especially temperance and Progressive political reforms.
     The Native American Party (with “Native” meaning white and older generational Americans, not Indians) swept elections in Massachusetts in 1854.  The Know Nothings also exercised major political strength in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, and California (where the anti-immigration hatred was directed at the Chinese).  They successfully elected mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.  The movement hit a high point of popularity in 1855, and then began to decline after a serious Know Nothing riot killed 22 people and wounded many others in Louisville.  The American Party ran candidates for President and Vice President in 1856, but then virtually disappeared by 1860.
     It was another issue that eclipsed the anti-immigration movement:  slavery.  Northern Know Nothings migrated to the Republican Party, even though Abraham Lincoln of Illinois disapproved of them.  (The Irish and German immigrants, by the way, became furiously loyal to the Union and supplied numerous troops for Lincoln's army.)  In the South, the Know Nothings bitterly opposed Lincoln and supported secession when racial proved stronger than ethnic prejudice.
     Periodically, nativist groups have gained popularity in American politics because they reflected deep fears and biases concerning generation-after-generation of newcomers to the U.S.  Once each immigrant group took hold in America, they tended to object to new immigrant groups, which were seen as threats on several levels.  Having worked so hard to win social respect and middle-class lifestyles, Americans have jealously guarded their advantages against foreign-born intruders.  There have always been Know Nothings.  They may even exist today.

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (all rights reserved)