Is This Candidate Presidential?

It is hat in the ring season, less than a year to the presidential primaries. As we listen to candidates, how are we going to measure them? There is an interesting contest developing on the Republican side, but there are far more competing in the contest to beat the incumbent on the Democratic side. In 2016 the Democrats had four candidates, but the Republicans had 16, using up all the oxygen before nominating the survivor.  So what is the checklist that we voters will use to decide our choice in the primary and then in the general election. (Disclosure: I live in an open primary state, so I can vote in either one.  That adds an extra challenge to my criteria.)

One factor that will affect the outcome is the difference between the parties in how they run primaries.  The Republicans have winner- take-all primaries, so the candidate who finishes first, even with only 25% of the votes, gets all the delegates from that state.  The Democrats assign delegates proportionally, which means the process will likely take longer and wear out the ultimate candidate before the general election campaign starts. On the other hand, the Democrats have more super delegates than the Republicans, so there is a secondary strategy of courting the establishment, which will probably hurt those candidates on the more left wing of the Democratic party.

Do we want to be partisan and select the candidate who appears to have the best chance of winning?  The desire to win may favor white straight male candidates, although the Democrats successfully challenged that strategy with a charismatic candidate in 2008 and 2012. The success of female candidates in state and Congressional races in 2018 may suggest that the glass ceiling, and the persons of color ceiling, and even the heterosexual ceiling may be cracking if not shattering.

In the 2016 campaign, the word presidential was tossed around a lot. It means different things to different people.  Trying to pick out the most presidntial candidate from a big field is a big challenge to the voter.  Economics tells us that the more choices we have, the more we get confused and unable to decide. So each of us needs a checklist of what we are looking for, what makes one candidate more presidential than another. This is mine.

On both sides, we look for charisma.  Very few of our recent winners lacked charisma.  Bush 43, was probably the least charismatic of the lot, followed by Richard Nixon whose election reflected other factors. The magnetic appeal of a strong and persuasive personality has always mattered, but is even more important in an era when candidates are packaged and mass marketed. Despite all the attention given to promises and platforms, they probably matter less than the ability of the candidate to inspire trust and enthusiasm.  Campaigning is marketing, and marketing is designed to appeal to the gut and the emotions more than to the reasoning mind.

The second factor, along with charisma, is vision.  Often the campaign slogan is the most effective way of reducing the vision to a twitter or bumper sticker size–look at Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again and his promise of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. What is this candidate’s vision for the future?  How closely does it match mine on issues of health care, environment, crime, gun safety, war and peace, immigration?  Is this candidate, based on his or her record (and we have lots of senators running!), going to work to implement that vision?  Is he or she pragmatic enough to work with the other party in crafting compromises?

The third factor is the people that the candidate surrounds himself or herself with. Whom do I want to appoint judges, agency heads, and the cabinet?  Will this potential president listen to his advisors, or go it alone? To whom does the candidate listen?  What is his leadership style–is he a loner or a team player?Does he make quick decisions or spend time reading, listening, and negotiating?

The fourth criterion is honesty, openness, trustworthiness, sincerity. (A sense of humor also helps!)  In other words, character. Is there anything in the candidate’s past actions (or inactions) that makes me question whether he or she will be open and honest with the American people? Or to doubt that there is a commitment to and understanding of the demands of public service?  These qualities are harder to assess, but in some ways the most important, because what one does is a product of who one is.

So as I start my sorting process, those are the criteria I will be looking for–charisma, vision, network and leadership style and character.  Perhaps it’s time to start your own list.  The primaries are only a year away.











Lessons in group wordsmithing


Have you ever tried to hammer out something—a slogan, a mission statement, a position, a letter to the editor, an op-ed or other communication from a group? Frustrating, isn’t it?  I recently had some useful lessons in wordsmithing.  It happened in my congregation, but it could happen anywhere—a business, a neighborhood association, a volunteer organization.  In this case, we got stuck, and then unstuck (more or less) on the use of two words with multiple meanings.  The first was church.  The second was law.

Like many congregations in my faith tradition, in place of a creed we have an affirmation.  There are variants of the original in different congregations, but they are pretty similar. The first line of the version we had been using for decades was “Love is the spirit of this church.” The word church kicked off a heated discussion.  After we turned down the flame, we agreed that the word church had multiple meanings.  A building (the Presbyterians are building a new church), A worship service (The minister announced… at church this morning). A congregation (Fred is a member of First Baptist Church). A faith tradition (The Catholic Church practices infant baptism, while the Baptists baptize adults.)

But with all these meanings, there is no question that church is a Christian word.  Jews go to synagogues or temples, Muslims to mosques.  My faith tradition is an inclusive one, with Christian roots but also strong infusions of earth-centered, humanist, and Eastern religious teachings. I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition, so the word church didn’t bother me, but I understood the objection of others.

Church derives from the Greek kyrios, and roughly translates as house of the lord.  In French, Spanish and Italian, the word for a place of worship is derived from the Greek word ecclesia, or congregation, which would apply to any faith tradition.  But we decided that congregation was too long and too specific, because it did not affirm the larger faith tradition to which we belong.  After considering several alternatives, we rewrote the first line to read “We gather together in a spirit of love…”   Church had been replaced by we, which incorporates all of the meanings except a building.

As we worked through the rest of the affirmation, we decided to follow the lead of a sister congregation in replacing the word law. Originally the second line was “And service is its law.”  We replaced service with justice, but the real focus was on replacing law, which several of us found objectionable.  Our two philosophers (literally, both have graduate degrees in philosophy) liked yhe word law as something we chose to impose on ourselves.  But the multiple meanings of law again were a source of dispute and confusion.  The law of gravity? Don’t try defying it, although a few of us escape it for a while with the aid of space-age technology. The laws of nature? Hard to argue with them.  But the more common meanings of law are governmental or religious.  We have to obey the speed limit laws, the no-littering laws, the laws governing domestic violence, theft, and a host of other things that we ignore under peril of fines or jail sentences.  If you are an observant Jew you will also keep the sabbath and observe the dietary laws.  If you are a Muslim there are food prohibitions as well as obligations.  Seventh Day Adventists abstain from caffeine and alcohol, as do Mormons. Our  faith tradition affirms shared values, and has some rules or guidelines for behavior within the community, but no laws.

There is a widespread understanding of the word law as rigid, undebatable, and externally imposed, with violations subject to punishment.  Carrying that understanding into a religious community strikes a sour note with some of those who are asked to repeat this affirmation each Sunday. Philosophers notwithstanding, the second line now reads, “with justice as our guide.” Our philosophers still prefer law, but they did bow to the wishes of the several dozen participants who felt otherwise. language.

Wordsmithing in a group is a challenging exercise.  Poorly done, it can lead to ongoing conflict.  Well done, it can enrich mutual understanding. I hope your next effort in crafting a mission statement, a set of goals, a communication, or an affirmation is also an exercise in thoughful listening and practicing mutual respect.

Lessons from the Shutdown


What lessons can we average, non-federal employees gain from the government shutdown and the furlough of federal workers?

  1. Every powerful weapon, once used, causes some damage to the user as well as the direct victims. Perhaps it is worth the cost, perhaps not. Harry Truman would certainly have understood that weapon, even if that understanding did not change his mind about using the atomic bomb.
  2. The government does more useful things than most of us could have named before the furlough.
  3. Members of the Coast Guard are in military service but, even though it has a role in defense, the Coast Guard is for some bizarre reason under the Department of Homeland Security.
  4. Someone has to stand up to a bully. A grandmother, maybe. Eventually someone does.
  5. Empathy is a powerful tool (for federal workers who couldn’t pay the mortgage or had to go to food banks), but inconveniencing the rich and powerful with flight delays and cancelled flights is much more effective.

Are at least some of those lessons enough to remove a shutdown from the arsenal of political weapons available to Congress and the President?  Time will tell.  Maybe very soon.


MLK Day:Bonding and Bridging


Humans need communities. We are social animals, and we rely on each other for support, both material and emotional. Family is one such community. Sometimes that is enough. Other communities result from being thrown together in work or neighborhoods.  But often we seek out others who share our values, our experience, our interests. We join a church, a bridge club, a civic group, a parents’ group, a tennis association, and form friendships with those who are easy to talk to because of shared backgrounds and a similar way of viewing the world.  And if we are not careful, we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, avoiding conflict with those who view the world differently.  Bonding has been strengthened by social media where we get to pick those we listen to and tune out those we don’t want to hear.  Our society is strong on bonding.  But it is weak on bridging.

In his book Them, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse argues that we need to talk and listen—especially listen—across the bridges, the gulfs that separate us.  Trump supporters and Bernie supporters, native-born and immigrants, rich and poor, male and female and those who don’t identify with traditional gender roles, liberal and conservative, more educated and less educated, urban and rural, Left coast and heartland.

It is good to be bonded to people you love and respect and enjoy, but we also need to bridge if our fractured society is going to move beyond polarization.  When I visited San Francisco last year with my daughter’s family, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.  The view from the bridge was amazing, and we could look back on the city we came from and see it from a different perspective.

Bridging among people rather than places is challenging, to truly listen to people who experience things differently. It’s also rewarding, inviting you to reconsider your world view and maybe do some tweaking. You can start the easy way, with books written by people you don’t always agree with (Ben Sasse in my case), or with TV shows that feature people who are different. The widespread acceptance of LBGTQ people was a result of bridging, most often because it was encountered within our bonding circles—a relative, a friend, the son or daughter of a neighbor. Likewise, men and women have had to both bond and bridge with the opposite sex if they want love, romance, sex and offspring. Sometimes mutual learning has taken place. Other times not.  But the segregation of our society into racial, ethnic, class and urban/rural enclaves makes those encounters across other bridges less frequent.  So we have to find ways of getting out of our comfort zones.  Liberals can watch Fox News now and then while conservatives can check out MSNBC.

Next week is Martin Luther King Day, observed in many communities with a day of service.  We can volunteer with prison ministries, food banks, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity to meet people whose life experiences have shaped their thinking in different ways.  You can seek out events for Black History Month in February to attend. You can volunteer to help an immigrant learn English.  A couple of years ago, I taught ESL to three graduate students wives (Muslims from China, Egypt and Libya).  The increase in cross-cultural understanding was amazing for all four of us.

Bonding takes place over time.  Bridging, likewise, is a process, not an action. In honor of MLK Day, look for a gulf you need to cross and find a bridge to take you there.

The Rhythm of Our Days

Rhythm does not come naturally to me.  I flunked my rhythm test in freshman college physical education. It was hard for me to learn to type, or to dance.  I have good pitch but lousy rhythm when it comes to music.  My husband was the opposite, and fortunately our daughter the musician got her mother’s ear and her father’s rhythm!

I recently read an article about how one should structure one’s day so as to be productive.  Get up early and start right away with work , the writer insisted. Followed by exercise.  Hmm, I thought, that exactly doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t quite mesh with my circadian rhythm. Of course, it also doesn’t work for the millions of people whose  daily lives are structured by others, especially schoolchildren and people with 8 to 5 jobs (or other regular scheduled hours).  But for college students, retirees, the self-employed, and the non-employed, there is the privilege and challenge of structuring one’s time.

My #3 granddaughter felt liberated when she went off to college because she didn’t have to be in school at her desk at 8:10 am.  Not a morning person.  I was married for 53 years to a dear man who was also not a morning person, and my middle daughter and I have such opposite rhythms that the times when we are both awake together are about nine of the day’s 24 hours. Like her father, she wakes up reluctantly and late in the morning, gains in energy throughout the day, does her best work in the evening, and has trouble falling asleep.  That’s a body rhythm that works well for a music teacher and musician! In contraast, I wake up very early (usually between five and six), eager to engage the day, and find myself fading by about four or five in the afternoon, annoyed by evenings meetings or events, and often in bed at nine, rarely later than 10.

When people retire, they often find themselves searching for structure to replace the required times that had governed their days from kindergarten through working (and parenting) years. It can be a bit of a shock to wake up to face 16 waking hours of unstructured time.  Some retirees create structure by taking on volunteer responsibilities, returning to work part-time, playing a lot of golf or bridge on a regular schedule. Others turn to new interests or expand old interests.  Still others complain of boredom or loneliness. Whatever you decide to do with more leisure, it can be a chance to find and make the best use of your circadian rhythm—your  natural sleeping and waking patterns, periods of high and low energy, times when you can concentrate on challenging tasks and other times when you need to give your mind a rest through exercise, socializing, or other less mentally demanding activities.

So, like the writer of that article, I embrace my rhythm rather than fighting it.  I get up early, have breakfast, read the newspaper, write in my journal, and plan my day. I check my email, do some writing (sunrise seems to start that engine), which may include blogs, books, sermons, op-eds, policy pieces (I am an economist) and class preparations for short courses at church and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  I take care of tasks for my volunteer activities, such as meeting agendas and newsletter articles. then get dressed and go off to exercise and errands, including aerobics class and walking the dog. Then there is time for house and yard chores. I usually have a project of some kind going on—housecleaning, gardening, painting (walls, not art), batch cooking, sewing–that I tackle after lunch. I also try to schedule meetings and classes in the afternoon if at all possible, often preceded by a lunch date or followed with wine and conversation with a friend.  I have some regularly scheduled social activities—a weekly Monday night book discussion, a monthly academic dinner meeting, a monthly book group, a covenant group at church. As I start to fade, I turn my attention to reading, television and sometimes quilting or sewing. And the occasional 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The number of scheduled events varies from week to week, but to the extent possible I try to avoid having to get up and hit the floor running at dawn to go to a meeting in Columbia as the co-president of the state League of Women Voters.

It’s a busy enough life, one that is rich in people and useful activities and time to be creative, to relax and to match my activities to my circadian rhythm.  Unlike the author who prescribed his schedule as best for everyone, I had to listen to my body and mind to discern the rhythm of my day and adapt the structure of my time to fit it. I encourage you to go and do likewise.

And Now for Something Completely Practical

My inner economist tends to kick in at the end of calendar and fiscal years with useful tax thoughts.  Back when the standard deduction was lower, some people shifted their itemized deductions, especially charitable contributions and sometimes medical expenses, into one year for which they itemized, and then took the standard deduction the year after.  Now that the standard deduction has been greatly increased, there is a reported 11 percent drop in charitable giving. The standard deduction is $12,000 for singles, $24,000 for joint returns with an extra $1,600 for unmarried filers and $1,300 each on a joint return.  So you might take a look at your itemizable deductions and see how close they are to that figure.  If your total contributions are substantial enough—maybe a big mortgage interest deduction, and/or the maximum $10,000 in state and local income and property taxes, plus charitable deductions—then continue to itemize.

But if your deductions are right on the cusp, you might want to consider bunching deductibles in one year and itemizing the next year.  The easiest ones to move around are charitable contributions. So for 2018 I prepaid my church pledge the end of 2017, focused my contributions in 2018 to nondeductible causes (mostly people running for office), and plan to take the standard deduction.  Most of my favorite deductible charities, an average of about $9,000 a year, can count on two years’ of contributions in 2019, one at the beginning, one at the end, and I will itemize.

As an economist, I view the deductible contribution as a 22 percent federal and seven percent state income tax match to my support of everything from colleges to hunger programs and disaster relief to the arts. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, there is nothing wrong with a man (sic) so arranging his affairs as to minimize his taxes. We can have our charitable cake and “eat” the matching federal share by a simple and perfectly legal strategy of moving some of the check writing from one year into another.


How Many New Years?


I persuaded my oldest daughter to get married on December 31st.  My persuasive arguments? Her sister and brother-in-law would be home for the holidays, they could file a joint tax return, and when they celebrated their wedding anniversary, the whole world would celebrate with them. This year they will have their 25th new beginning as a married couple, a new beginning that starts with a holiday.

January 1st is an arbitrary date, marking the end of the Roman Saturnalia that began with the winter solstice.  Chinese New Year is in February.  On the old style calendar New Year’s Day fell in France on what is now April 1st.  Those who failed to switch and continued to celebrate the old date were—you guessed it—April fools. The Jewish New Year is in the fall, and the Celtic new year began with Samhain, which morphed into Hallowe’en.  Both traditions defined their days from dusk to dusk, so it was fitting that they celebrated the expected return of the light in late December  by going into the darkness after the autumnal equinox.

Each of us has other new years as well.  My birthday is June 30th, the last day of the state fiscal year. (It used to be the last day of the federal fiscal year, but Congress had too much trouble getting a budget passed in time, so they moved it up six months.  Now they never get a budget passed in time.)  So a new year in my life begins every July 1st, and as an economist specializing in state and local public finance, I am pleased to know that it coincides with a new fiscal year.

From age 5 to age 75, my life was also guided by the academic calendar as I progressed from kindergarten o college professor.  Our academic contracts took effect August 15th.  One year I held a new year’s eve party for a group of professor friends on August 14th. Back to school is definitely a new beginning each fall for students and teachers alike, leaving behind the failings of the previous year, committing to do better, and building on the learning of the year before.

While we associate New Year’s Day with parades, football games and in the south, collard greens, for many of us it is a chance to start over, a new beginning.  In the Celtic tradition one casts away those experiences, habits, grudges, complaints, that we do not want to carry as baggage into the new year. On the positive side, we can make resolutions.  The advantage of celebrating multiple new years instead of just one is that we have more than one chance to start over. Your diet and exercise plan or commitment to keeping a journal or promise to call your parents every week didn’t last until the end of January?  No problem.  You can begin again on Chinese New Year, the old French New Year, your birthday, the new school year, and/or the Jewish or Celtic New Year.  It’s never too late, or too early, to start over.

A Happy New Year, and many more in 2019.