From the Backseat: What makes a Millionaire?

Is Donald Trump a good businessman?

I mean, he’s rich. But is he rich because his family was rich? Because his dad made a lot of money in real estate back in the day? Or is he rich because his entrepreneurial ventures have been successful?

Is he good at his job? That’s the question.

I know lots of people already have answers. His supporters say he’s clearly a billionaire with a business empire, and therefore my question is dumb. His opponents say he was born rich, and it is his string of failed businesses — casinos, an airline, a university, meat products — that make my question dumb.

But these are partisan answers. I’m looking for something different. I’m looking for a nuanced definition of entrepreneurship, of risking it in business and seeing new ideas take, and then to compare that definition to the president-elect’s record.

I don’t know a lot about being an entrepreneur, but I know it requires a willingness to fail. No one comes up with a brilliant idea first go, and no one learns everything they need to know to be successful in college or an MBA program. It takes experience, and experience is just a gentle word for failure. Success is built on foundations of failure, and it’s only in hindsight that the failures look like inevitable lessons along the way.

Maybe that’s what Donald Trump’s casinos, airline, university and steaks were — a trail of lessons. Maybe Trump was already rich, so unlike some guy selling widgets out of his garage, his failures were bound to be public and spectacular.

The fact is, I don’t know. It’s almost Inauguration Day and I don’t have a clue. That wasn’t how America approached this election. There were those with undying support willing to look past his failures, and there were those who dismissed him completely, laying his successes at the feet of his father.

I imagine it’s more complex than that. Surely, Trump has both made money and lost money. But my question is whether the rate at which he made it leans closer to success or failure.

Then again, maybe Trump’s goal all along wasn’t money, but power. If that’s the case, his past seems to have definitely been worthwhile. There’s no doubt he was successful at getting elected the most powerful position in the land.

That, however, strays from my point. Is Trump, the businessman (versus Trump, the politician) successful? He sold himself as a businessman — and America bought. But is he a good one? It feels like a question someone should have asked, but never did. There must be a business professor out there, or a handful of business professors, who can explain what a normal failure rate for entrepreneurs looks like. There has to be someone able to contrast that with the record of the president-elect. Is he doing well for himself? Did he do poorly? Is he at the top of the game? The middle? The bottom?

These are questions we’ve stopped asking. This election left so little space for issues, so little time for a hard look at resumes. Instead, we scrutinized temperament and character, talked border walls and Muslim bans, bickered about emails and tax returns. We never took a step back to ask basic questions about who was running. We engaged in partisan conversation, and the only clues to whether or not Donald Trump was a successful businessman came from looking at those who support him and those who opposed.

Now, here we are in January, and it’s still not really clear who we elected. That seems a poor recipe for success.

CDS Column: Scraps at the Christmas Table

It’s less than a week until Christmas. I still have shopping to do, cards to write, family to see. There is snow on the ground, the ski lifts are running, and Mount Washington is glistening its most majestic. I don’t really want to write about politics.

But I feel like I ought to. Somehow evidence that Russia meddled in the U.S. election has become partisan. Hackers did what they could to sway the vote, and here we are bickering about it like children.

How did it come to this? How did we get to a point where we fight among ourselves while a foreign power toys with our democratic process?

This shouldn’t be complicated. It is easy to focus all citizens on concerns about Russia’s foray in our election. It’s an issue that affects every American.

Lots of Americans are concerned with unfair elections. That was made clear this campaign season. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the American electoral process. He even said he might not accept the outcome while his surrogates raised concerns about voter fraud.

But now? Where is that concern now? Who is willing to stand up and say something about the sanctity of the American process? Who is willing to rebuke Russian influence in our election? No one within the president-elect’s administration. Somehow defense of basic American civic process has split along a partisan divide, and KGB-style meddling goes unchallenged.

But that has become a theme in our country as the American Century has splintered. We have become bickering children arguing over table scraps. Trump won. There would be no punches pulled. Even as the American electoral process takes a hit.

We’ve seen this before. For years we have watched the Congress choose winning over governing. There was no compromising on workable solutions to real world problems. The fight was bitter, and We the People wound up the losers.

Supporters of Donald Trump rejoice that his rise will bring change to Washington, the draining of the swamp. But his blind eye toward Russia indicates more of the same — someone more invested in winning than on governing.

But regardless of his temperament, his party will have to govern. His promises to scrap regulation and Obama administration programs like the Affordable Care Act mean he and his team will be forced to implement a new American vision. What will that look like? Will it be one more winner-take-all proposition, or can Trump conceive of America as a place of growth for everyone?

His initial rhetoric is not encouraging. But the fact is despite Trump’s language of exclusion, America is not a zero-sum country. If our history has proven anything, it is that capitalism and ingenuity mixed in an American pot make it possible for everyone to rise. The children of immigrants can become wealthy. The descendents of slaves can be president. This is America’s legacy.

But the current strain of conservatism seems to read a different narrative, one where America is a land of scarcity. There are winners and losers and where anyone willing to pull punches might find themselves at the bottom.

That narrative has kept Donald Trump from coming out strong against Russian election influence. If Trump gives an inch, according to this reasoning, his entire victory and future administration could come crashing down.

But is his administration that fragile? Wouldn’t it be possible to fight for the sanctity of the process and the rights of all Americans to be left unmolested as they choose their president without handing Hillary Clinton victory? Where is that confident voice, Mr. Trump?

This isn’t the only place where this administration divides the world into winners and losers. Jobs and immigration get the same treatment: There are only a certain number of jobs, the narrative goes, and if immigrants are willing to do jobs for less, Americans lose. If China and Mexico are willing to produce cars or air conditioners or computers for less money, Americans lose again.

But economics doesn’t work that way. The beauty of capitalism is its capacity for growth, the ability to take a given set of inputs and leave everyone with more. Adam Smith described this idea more than 200 years ago, in 1776, the same year we declared our independence. And it is how we’ve approached commerce ever since. We aren’t left with table scraps. Yes, there are winners and losers, but that is part of capitalism’s creative destruction. And on balance America is winning.

This used to be the heart of conservative ideology. Adam Smith was Republican dogma. But just as Democrats were once Dixiecrats and Republicans were once the natural party of black voters, things change. Now conservatives abandon faith in the market and backpedal from free trade.

It is sad to watch the incoming administration approach the American worker so pessimistically. Our capacity to exist, survive and thrive on the world market is not weak. Yes, we have sectors that have become obsolete. I work in one of them: Newspapers are tanking as a result of the internet. And while we may look back nostalgically, we can’t unwind progress. We can’t disconnect from a global economy. Our job is to figure out what we do well, how we can best compete, and then throw our collective might into that sector. This is not a time to blame immigrants or trading partners, to lash out at natural allies (Mexico) and ignore the provocations from adversaries (Russia). It’s a time to claim our place within the world and its markets confidently, and to support those caught in capitalism’s creative destruction.

Instead we’re chasing table scraps and ignoring Russia. Merry Christmas.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.

And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?

This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.

Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.

But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.

Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…

“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”

Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.

Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.

“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”

“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”

Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.

This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.

Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”

Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.