Monday, April 3, 2017

The Insidious Trump Infection

One thing we know about organizations is that culture starts from the top. It is the values, demeanor, practice, outlook, personal characteristics, and worldview of leadership that comes to characterize an organization. And not only an organization: an industry, a country, a world.

As a doctor, I'm very conscious of the culture of medicine. We have to maintain the worldview of medicine, that yes, we get something out of it personally, often a lot, but that we are there to serve people, and that the patient comes first. And that everyone deserves respect and service regardless of position in society. That's what the profession of medicine means to me. We serve patients, and we don't cheat and steal from them, and we try our hardest. That's one reason that I've been reluctant to see there be a strict limit set on resident hours of service. I hated being on call and up all night. But I learned. I learned what it was to serve. I came to take pride in having survived, and having done well, and having had a hell of a night my final night on call and gave report at 10 AM after not having slept and having done one hell of a good job with my patients, and being able to give a full and very competent signout. I wasn't the greatest doctor, in my own opinion, but I came through fine. It worked.

There are other professions with other ethics, all somewhat different. One of the most important is the ethic of public service. Listen to the Kennedy's talk about “public service.” There's something holy about it when they say it. It's always italicized for them, for emphasis, for respect for the holy. “Public Service.” When you go into public service, you are in it to, well, serve the public. You are supposed to make a financial sacrifice; you aren't supposed to fill your own coffers – leave that for the Panamanian outlaw public servants, as my son Allie, married to a Panamanian, keeps pointing out with outrage. What a violation! The French seem to have some idea of the inevitability of corruption – the president is immune while serving, but after Chirac left office, off he went to the tribunal. Even now, Fallon is out of the race because of sinecures he assigned his wife. So, I guess it isn't just “accepted” after all. Public service is public service, not private looting.

Unless you're Putin, of course. The Commies came in and took power, and pretty soon they had all the luxury dachas. It wasn't in their names personally, but it didn't make a difference, they had it, it was theirs. Now that it's all privatized, boy is it privatized, it's in their names. Even “good guy” Medvedev has mansion after mansion. Kleptocracy doesn't have a good name in the West, but in Russia it seems to be different. Of course, not to paint with too broad a brush, that's because the thugs have won and the opposition is suppressed. But it would be a long row to hoe to change that long-established political culture.

And in China, I understand that Xi's anticorruption drive is really just a way to solidify his control and get Hu's and Bo's people out of the way. The private wealth amassed by Party officials is more than substantial. The princelings control, the princelings have lots of money, and Vancouver is close to a Chinese abroad province. So in Russia and China, we have major counter-examples to our ethic of public service.

I wrote a review some time ago of the book by Sarah Chayes, “Thieves of State.” In it, Chayes sets out her conviction that to build nations one has to make lack of corruption a first priority. To quote myself:

Chayes' thesis is that failed states are not really failed states, they are countries captured and run by criminal associations. Their modus operandi is the shakedown at all levels. Therefore, the strategy of the United States – first to establish stability and only afterwards to root out corruption – does not and cannot work. Oppression is not a good strategy for the long term.”

I think you probably see where I'm going with this now. Donald Trump seems to me to be a would-be gangster – he'd like to be one, he acts as though he is one, he's not, but he tries to steal like one. Not exactly steal, but to practice self-emolument. He, and everyone around him, are bringing a perverted modern business ethic to the government – do it if it's legal or close to legal, and if it's not legal, make it legal – and the effect could be like an infection in the body politic. I've made this point in a couple of my last posts, I know, but now I'm taking it further.

The problem is, nations act according to laws, yes, but those laws are really just the shadows of norms and customs. You can't legislate and you can't enforce everything people do. In some countries everybody cheats on their taxes. I heard that one year someone in France decided not to cheat on his taxes and he wound up on a list of the 10 richest persons in France. Part of Greece's problem is that no one pays his or her taxes – they just don't. And if everyone acts that way, you can't enforce it, you don't have the manpower, and you don't have the consensus of the country behind you. If the law of the state is somehow widely regarded as illegitimate in an area, it won't work. Yes, remarkably, our tax system works pretty well, but even though we do have an enforcement mechanism where everyone wants to avoid an audit, to some extent we are on the collective honor system.

To get back to where I started, organizations and industries and countries get their cues from their leaders. When you lead an organization, that's what you find out quickly, or your organization fails. You can get a bad leader who doesn't measure up to the traditional standards, and then getting rid of them clears the infection, if the new leader reapplies the old ethic. I think that's what we have to hope for with Trump. If it stays too long and becomes too pervasive, people start to think: why am I paying my taxes relatively honestly? Am I the only chump in the country? Resentment sets in, and becomes widespread, and then it becomes hard to root out.

And another thing: it's not good for business. Is this what the ethic of business is, Carl Icahn using government to cut himself a special EPA deal to net him millions? The Trump brand netting the Trump family millions while in office? It didn't used to be this way. In World War II, FDR recruited the best of business to employ the Dollar A Year men, the business leaders who left their companies to mobilize the country to be the Arsenal of Democracy, under the leadership of Bill Knudson. The good businessmen, not the enemies of the public good whose hate FDR welcomed. That, Donald, is what the ethic of public service is all about. They are not starry-eyed do-gooders. They are patriots.

And while I'm at it, that's part of what sank Hillary. Even if you have left public service, if you intend to go back, you don't bank tens of millions. You just don't. Sunk her, imho.

I'm less worried about fascism than I'm worried about a decay in the ethic of public service. They're too incompetent, and the country is too sophisticated to accept fascism. I don't think the country will even accept Right Wing Republicanism for long. But a decay in the ethic of public service, leading to cheating up and down the line, in addition to the perceived failure of what Obama talked about, working hard and playing by the rules and then not getting your just reward – that's what is at stake.

The violation of public trust of the Trump Administration will need to be stopped. It's usually up to Congress to do it, but the Right Wing Republicans are too compromised to do it. We'll probably have to wait for the next election. Meanwhile, it will have to be up to the courts and private groups bringing actions. And meanwhile, back in the states, that's where the positive action needs to grow and grow, associations of states who uphold the public trust, who believe in the action of people bound together by an ethic of public trust and public service and concern for others and not just themselves and their immediate friends.

And then, there is the ethic of business. Trump and friends do not represent the business ethic, or what the business ethic should be. To rescue their profession, businesspeople all over should be rising up and saying, “This does not represent us; posturing, blowing smoke, being incompetent, and stealing is not what our ethic calls for, and it's not what we do.” They have a profession to protect. They might not have a natural leadership structure to enable this statement to be made easily, but informal organizing could overcome that. They need to protect themselves from the scourge.

And you know what? I'm confident that this will occur for the country. I'm not so sure about the business community, but I'm pretty sure about the country. This isn't me exercising the moral imperative of optimism. I really believe it. I believe that the scum will be contained.

Color me optimistic, for real.

Budd Shenkin

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