WHAT DOES A POTUS REALLY DO? How and why?

When I was in my late 20’s and loving my work as a lawyer/ investment banker for a large NY investment banking firm, I was summoned suddenly by THE Senior Partner, who said “Frank, I want you to take over the Investment Management Department.” Our brief conversation went something like this:

ME: “Thanks, but that is not what I want to do!”

SP: “I don’t think you heard me correctly. I was not asking you; I was telling you.”

ME: “If I can continue with my deals at the same time, and see that what needs to be done actually gets done, I should consider it.”

SP: “That is all any good exec ever does. OK and thank you!”

By now you’re no doubt wondering what on earth this personal story has to with a POTUS?

Answer: Everything!

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An executive first needs to see/establish what needs to be done; set out a process to address those needs and then follow up sufficiently to ensure that it gets done.

First, Presidents have very little time to spread over a large world, and it is difficult for anyone to do many serious things simultaneously.

Second, even the most experienced, well-educated and smartest Presidents cannot possibly know, or even learn, enough about any one subject to make a useful difference on a personal level compared with the experts around them. 

Third, their primary job is to hear out solid well selected advisors, weigh conflicting opinions and, ultimately, make good choices.

The well-kept secret is that most ‘Presidential decisions’ NEVER actually reach the President. They are thrashed out by the Cabinet and staff experts at lower levels.  When and if a consensus emerges, if the President agrees, that is promulgated as a Presidential decision.

If no consensus can be found, then the President is fully informed and has to use his/her wits to ask a lot of tough questions and come to a final decision.

Effective Presidents must begin by painting in broad strokes, outlining goals and ambitions on critical issues like taxes, war and peace, tariffs and economic leadership that his team can use as the framework for developing specific plans.

While I am not a real expert in how a POTUS does or should work, I have seen it up closely, read about it a lot and talked to many people who have been far closer to a working President.

What I have learned is that the job of a POTUS is more like that of an orchestra conductor – bringing myriad pieces/instruments, individually insignificant in themselves, together for a greater purpose. For example, the conductor need not know how to play the violin, but she does need to know how to make a violinist play the violin properly in concert with dozens of others, as well as other instruments.

Effective Presidents must be broad gauge managers of large complex processes (like some Governors and other large institutions), which no one can do well enough alone, thoughtfully and properly.

The nature of the job, ironically perhaps, should have served as a bulwark against the worst instincts of our current President. With vast stretches of “executive” (read, television) time throughout his day, his legendary disdain for reading, and an apparent allergy to learning, the simple truth is this President doesn’t deal with real issues seriously very much at all.

Mercifully, our government can largely carry on without him, almost certainly to better ends than would be achieved by his more active and substantive engagement in his job. But that is not enough.

For this reason, I am amazed at how little the new candidates for POTUS talk about how they would go about the job they are pursuing and mostly know very little about.

We should be asking ALL of them a lot of tough questions. If all they have are lame, minimal answers we should draw a line through them IMMEDIATELY.

The candidate who takes the best orchestration approach – who also likes to read and learn, who values the counsel of experts, and who acknowledges the limits of their own ability to know and do everything —should be our next President.

People can and should know what they stand for, whether they have instinctive voter appeal and whether they are electable.

But, first, last and always do they know how to do the JOB!?

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WHAT TO DO BETWEEN 5-7 PM?

The other day when the Mueller report was expected shortly, and the Trump era looked possibly to becoming a thing of the past, I asked my wife of 69 years what we would do between 5-7 pm daily when for the past two years we had sat together mesmerized by CNN to learn the latest horror stories.

She said what we used to do. But, neither of us could remember what that was?

It was then that I recalled a French story about a married man who for years had a lady friend he visited quite regularly on weekdays between 5-7 pm on the way home from his office. Suddenly his wife up and died and the lady friend suggested that perhaps it was time for them to marry.

He said without hesitation, “Impossible, what would I do between 5-7?”

These dilemmas seem related except for the difference that the Frenchman apparently looked forward to and enjoyed his 5-7 time.

If only? Only if?

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS FIASCO

As a grandfather of nine grandchildren—three of whom who have already finished their educations as part of a third generation in the same college, including two doctors and a lawyer, and six more on the cusp of college—I have learned more than I ever imagined was to be learned about the whole tricky process of college admissions.

First, the good news. The recently reported serious frauds that distort the wheels of the admissions process perversely  is GOOD NEWS because it indicates clearly that the system has been working pretty well, by excluding some very dubious folks, with exceptionally bad judgment, who believed they had to game and corrupt the system to overcome it for themselves. That is a genuine positive aspect of otherwise terrible news.

At the same time former Harvard President Larry Summers has now observed that the admission systems inevitably benefit some more than others by recognizing factors such as special sports abilities and what they call ‘legacy’ issues where some people, who have a serious history of helping Harvard (not just with money), because they have been part of the Harvard family over time. Evidently, Harvard has thousands more kids who are academically qualified than they can take and, therefore, they have no choice but to make tough choices and decisions. Happily, Harvard was not one the colleges that got scammed.

The scandal also, happily and usefully, uncovers several serious soft spots in the admissions process that can be pretty easily addressed:

  1. The ability for people to ‘sit in’ for students is appalling – knowing how it was done should help the College Board and others better prevent it.

  2. The ability to bribe testing companies by jiggling and inventing scores also should be easy to stop by only using ‘unidentifiables’, or two random people, with access to the process of recording or transmitting scores.

  3. Giving serious admissions priority to secondary sports is no doubt excessive. If colleges can afford to waste these spots on phony athletes, perhaps the number of athletic scholarships allowed under NCAA rules is too high.

  4. Major sports do present a problem. Increased transparency and special procedures for approving any exceptions to academic qualifications can help.

Our modern world has spawned a great many new rich and famous people whose only real lacking may be their difficulty in breaking into what they see as an inaccessible, charmed circle that they want for their kids. These are people for whom money has long opened doors, and who became accustomed in many of the worlds they succeeded in to simply ‘buying’ success. In the process they are both hurting themselves and their children.

The ‘legacy’ issues are touchy and difficult, but so are the special skills and talents that all schools are looking for.

Part of the problem is also that some intermediaries, who make their living by advising ambitious and rich people (who incidentally never learned the rules of the road in private education), saw a new way to get their job done effectively and easily, and also make more money for themselves at the same time. That said, there are a lot of very legitimate ‘advisors’ who would ABSOLUTELY NOT engage in those rotten shenanigans that most people know without thinking is plain wrong.

Bottom line: it is a scandalous and salacious story BUT by itself should kill and cure the problem, which is good for all of us.

Unfortunately, some innocent people have been, or will be, badly burned in the process. It remains to be seen, for example, what will happen to the girl who got a soccer ‘ticket’ without ever having played the sport. She almost surely would have known what was going on.

The other people who knew, or should have known, that they were cheating will get what they deserve, AND they also should be thanked for their stupidity in helping to cleanse the system.

MANAFORT’S LIGHT SENTENCE?

People seemed astonished (appalled, for many) that Manafort got off unexpectedly lightly, receiving a prison sentence of just under four years for a host of crimes including tax evasion and fraud.

There may be something –not on the surface—behind that.

To begin with, we must remember that judges have GREAT discretion in arriving at a sentence to jail. Their assessment can take into consideration almost anything and everything starting with the Defendant’s demeanor, the risk of appeal, etc.

In this case the Defendant was pretty ugly, and the Judge was clearly not amused.

Yet, there are two other cases and sentences yet to come.

And Manafort is about 70 years old and apparently in poor health.

And, there is the ‘threat’ of a pardon hanging over the case.

All that leads me to think that the Judge cleverly tried to thread the needle to make a sentence that would stick, BUT not so long that Trump might feel he owes his ’friend’ a get out of jail card –which might end up hurting Trump more than it would help Manafort.

After all, we know that Trump’s key question is how something plays with his base.

The base would probably favor a pardon, BUT it might bring down the house.

This way, almost everyone wins: Manafort gets a light sentence; Trump will say ‘see even the Judge did not think he was so bad!’ and Mueller gets Manafort locked up. We the people, in the meantime, continue to hold our noses and hope something, anything, happens soon to rid us of the foul stench of this administration!

ARTIFICIAL VS. HUMAN INTELLIGENCE

The rapid advent of artificial intelligence (AI) is scary to many people, promising to others, and a little of both to most.

It is scary partly because it more unmanageable than the Internet and social media. In a world already beset by ransomware, Russian manipulation and privacy invasions, it is harder to control than Facebook, which does not inspire a lot of confidence. At the same time, AI is promising in that it may, for example, help solve societal problems and/or lead to improved medical care. And undoubtedly some other benefits yet unimagined.

A first order question is figuring out the real differences between artificial and human versions of intelligence. One age-old definition of exceptionally good human intelligence is the ability to associate dissociated things/ideas. That, of course, involves pure intuitiveness. It is not yet obvious to me that AI can clear that hurdle.

AI’s self-learning algorithms and limitless memory notwithstanding, it is still basically dependent on the speed and capacity of computers to almost instantly scan and consider millions of possibilities looking for all relevant matches and possibilities relating to the issue/question at hand. If, however, two things have never been associated (which obviously happens), a ‘match’ is not there to be found. Hence, exceptional humans may always [hopefully] have an edge over machines. The fate of the rest of us is yet to be determined, presumably by our eventual robot overlords.

In the meantime, there is much to beware. Machines, for example, never forget a face. Therefore, people may have to be more careful in where they go and show their face, because the evidence that they were there at a certain time will be available more or less forever. That might be an advantage in establishing an alibi. But, it also could put them at the scene of a crime. Those are not necessarily off-setting possibilities. Opportunities for abuse by law enforcement or despots abound. Freedom of assembly is a cornerstone of our democracy – one that cannot exist without freedom of movement.

AI therefore might just be on the verge of impinging (even unintentionally) on our basic freedoms. And it is this aspect of AI – the dark, all-knowing technological Big Brother – that worries experts in the field, and others.

A recent Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, now again Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, regards this as one of the least visible but biggest problems we face today, and he worries that if we do not address it aggressively –and SOON—it might successfully undermine a lot of our own cyber strength.

In this era of digital revolutions, we are beset on all sides by subtle new issues and questions.

We need to take this one HEAD ON and get ahead of the curve.

HOW—WHY—WHEN—EVER????

The deeper and longer we have been immersed in the Trump sinkhole, the more vexing and confusing it has become for many of us.

My most recent exposure to that reality came with the preliminary results of my recent mini-poll asking what other people were thinking as the Mueller probe is winding to a conclusion.

My instinctive assumption was that many people were likely to see that moment as the beginning of the end for Trump, or the end of the beginning. But almost everyone, I thought, would see Mueller’s report as a major turning point, whether for good or bad.

But the array and dispersion of answers from most people proved both my assumptions wrong. Most respondents to my admittedly unscientific survey don’t appear to believe that the conclusion of the Mueller investigation will make much difference at all.

Sadly, it seems to me that can be due to only one of two things.

Either people (who virtually all indicated their disdain for Trump) credit him with more resilience, brilliance and slipperiness than appears on the surface.

Or, they are so tired of being disappointed as each new horror failed to disappoint the MAGA base – and Congressional Republicans – from their moral slumber that they have either truly lost all hope or are trying to protect themselves emotionally from the next assault.

Whichever is correct, the current state of mind indicated by the poll sadly helps and contributes to Trump’s staying power.

Big polls still indicate that about 40 percent of the American people support Trump, and about 90 percent of Republicans. That means roughly two out of every five Americans or almost every other person you see in a crowd backs a President most of the other 60 percent believes to be some combination of evil, inept and insane. How can so many Americans see virtually the same thing so very differently?

What are those folks thinking?

Are they more racist than most Americans? Stupider? Do they resent that the country does not appear to understand or appreciate them? Can they possibly believe that isolationism will improve their overall lot in life?

Sadly, neither pollsters nor analysts have found any good rationale for those and similar questions. Many believe that the blind loyalty of the MAGA crowd augurs poorly for democracy.

But my own poll takers may perhaps have similar problems to confront: It’s not at all clear, for example, how limiting ones hopes and expectations advances changes people clearly want to see.

There are two possible answers: one is they may fear retribution, if things stay or get worse. The other is they are tired of being wrong for so long that they are setting their expectations so low as to certainly be right!

There is a final possibility that one shudders to consider: it may be that the 60 percent  – that is, the rest of the U.S. population—simply has not caught up with Trump’s wholly different view of the world, and we are just plain wrong about the future. Trump, in his craziness, may see things that many of us either cannot, have not, or refuse to see.

I will not deal with that possibility in this blog, because I believe so clearly and strongly that it cannot be true. Capitulating could lead to a national phobia.

One way of putting the question (free from Trump himself) would be to assume that if Trump were like Romney, in character, temperament and demeanor, it might be reasonable to pause and think.  But, with Trump’s long history of being wrong so often, except very lucky in his selection of parents, coupled with his endless lack of candor and honor, it requires an extreme leap of faith that simply cannot exist.

So where in heaven or hell are we?

The Trump phenomenon is truly mysterious, and it has a curious hold over an amazing share of our diverse population.

Most of the alleged ‘facts’ underpinning his beliefs and policies have proven to be wrong. Those that undermine his beliefs and policies are, of course, fake.

A sane person does not ‘seek’ the Nobel Peace prize. They seek peace for its own sake, and for the sake of the world, not as a trophy to display in their clubhouse.

Breaking the bonds of the US with other democratic societies while kowtowing to Putin does not make any sense in the real world.

Still the laws of gravity and human behavior are well enough established that the non-Trump believers among us should stiffen our lips, raise our chins and be prepared for a long slugfest before we can move on to the other new and unexpected challenges from a highly uncertain future!

THE EVOLUTION OF HOMO SAPIENS?

We learn more every year about how “we” came about and evolved.

For example, I very recently learned that we have NO need for 5 toes per foot. The little ‘piggy who went to market’ toe is entirely superfluous. The big toe, by contrast, is essential to walking, and the other three are helpful.

How then do we have the extra toes? The answer is that they are part of our original equipment. For example, look at the hands and feet of chimpanzees. They are pretty much the same because the chimps do pretty much the same things with both their hands and feet. Fossil evidence indicates that Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary forebearers, had five toes on each foot. Five toes, in fact, was common for prehistoric animals of all sorts. (For those interested in such things, The Evolutionary History of the Human Foot may sate your curiosity.)

On a larger, longer scale of things, that tells me that we have not changed physically as much as we have mentally.

Scientists are still quite baffled about when and how our sapiens ancestors broke off and developed from the species that preceded them.

We still have prehensile tails. Males still have breasts and nipples, for no apparent purpose (further evidenced by Adam Levine’s shirtless performance at last month’s Super Bowl). At the same time, we never developed a host of features that would be useful – such as an eye in the back of our head, which could protect us in crowded, dangerous forests as well New York City traffic.

It is not clear how we communicated back then. And, it still is not clear to some of us how we communicate now, with social media confusing a great many of us much of the time.

The basic unit of most animal and human lives is ‘the family’— mother, children and sometimes a father, but that is NOT a universally observable truism.

How those basic units of animals and, more recently, humans evolved into larger units to ensure their survival and enhance progenation has long been studied by sociologists and anthropologists. But, they may have gotten lost in a forest of confusion by looking for sensible developments, when they might have found more important fundamental truths had they not assumed that more complexity was the inevitable path.

The fact is that, even with all the advances in all forms of communications, work, travel, etc. we are all still pretty basic creatures.

We need and like to sleep. We need and like to eat. We need and like to make babies. We need and at least try to have friends—not too many, not too few. We need money to do most things. We love freedom in all varieties – movement, thought and voice.

And perhaps most of all, we do not want ‘others’ (government) telling us what to do or not to do.

None of that has really changed much since our Neanderthal cousins exited the evolutionary stage, except that over time more people have been able to realize the basic needs of humanity.  

So why then do we assume that we have evolved into a form of sapiens that is better adapted to the modern world?