Ends vs. Means

I’ve been listening to National Public Radio the past few days after a long hiatus.  While I enjoy their more in-depth coverage, their obvious bias towards liberal politics and social issues continues to annoy me.  I caught this brief interview this morning, where a pundit examined Donald Trump’s claims to be a self-made man and successful businessman.  I am not a Trump supporter, but I like that he brings an outsider element to the mix, and it’s humorous to watch both Republicans and Democrats scramble to deal with someone who is has not sold himself out to the political machinery and therefore can say what he wants.

The pundit deconstructed Trump’s claim to success.  Pointing out that Trump inherited $40 million from his father when he took over the family business in 1974, said pundit deduced that if Trump had just invested that money in a basic stock index fund, he would be far richer today than he is based on his business exploits.  I was struck at the disjunct between the pundit and what Trump claims to represent (whether he really does or not is another matter).  The pundit’s criticism was that Trump could have been richer by just sitting back and letting his money work for him in the stock market, and the implication would seem to be that a smarter man, and therefore a better qualified leader, would have done exactly that.  Trump’s claim is that his experiences as a businessman are what makes him valuable and useful in a position of leadership.  The pundit was critical of Trump because he took risks – some of which resulted in bankruptcy – rather than playing it safe.  Trump is proud of exactly the same thing.  Despite his risks and mistakes and a personality that is grating at best and a hairstyle that has flummoxed people for decades, Trump is a very wealthy man today.  Which is the more valuable route to riches – investing in someone else’s business acumen, or working to develop your own?

I wonder how many of our Senators are self-made men and women, women who rose from nothing to riches and power?  I’m sure that quite a few of them, like Trump, come from families of wealth.  What did they do with that privileged base?  Did they play it safe, preserving and expanding the family fortune, or did they go out and discover how the world and business works and make a name for themselves in the process?  Which demonstrates greater smarts?

The answer to that question would depend a great deal on what it is that you value.  Do you value the end or the means?  If the former, then preserving the family fortune and growing it safely is the laudable route, as the pundit this morning implied.  If it is the latter, then regardless of how much money you end up with, Trump’s route is the more laudable one.  I tend to think that the latter is a far better education and qualification for leadership than an Ivy League degree and relatively safe positions in a family business.  Making mistakes – even bankruptcies – should not be considered a failure in and of itself.  Rather, what happens after the bankruptcy ought to matter just as much if not more.

What sorts of qualifications along these lines should we expect in our leaders?  It might change things quite a bit if we held our leaders to standards that more resemble what the average (whatever that means, anymore) American experiences.   Increasingly our leadership seems distant and disconnected from normal life (whatever that means, anymore).  Why is it that our lawmakers can pass mandatory health-care coverage for all Americans, yet exempt themselves from participating in it?  Why should we have any confidence in programs designed ostensibly for the greater good, but from which the architects and promoters opt to exempt themselves?

I don’t always like what Trump says or how he says it.  But there are topics that I think he has some greater wisdom on than most of the professional politicians who lead our nation.  And at the end of the day I have to respect him to a certain degree because of what he has accomplished.  I wish I could say the same of our political leaders.


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