Ben Carson, his mom (aka The Real MVP), HUD, and management versus leadership

My brilliant (and gracious) colleague Richard Green commented on Ben Carson’s appointment on KPCC. His brother shared this interview on Fboo, and one loudmouth Trump supporter immediately condemned Richard as typical leeeebral…and then had to admit that he hadn’t even bothered listening to what Richard said before jumping in to yell and scream about liberals, and to note that Carson “grew up in the projects so of course he is qualified.”

Way to show us that you, right-winger, epitomize rationality, open-mindedness, and everything wonderful about reason that we damn libs do not.

Carson did not, in fact, come from the projects. Now, the NYT reported this bit about Carson’s life, so it’s a mistake that anybody could make, and he did come from a neighborhood where, to put it mildly, his success was not guaranteed. Richard Green notes this, and says that while Carson’s story is impressive, it’s also exceptional. Not everybody is born as gifted as Dr. Carson, and it’s a bad idea socially to set up systems where only those as gifted as Carson gain skills and flourish. You wind up with much less overall when you let people fail because they are surrounded by barriers to success.

The GOP is fond of doing this: they trot out exceptional people like Condeleeza Rice or Dr. Carson and say “Ha! Proof that blacks can make it in America if they only sacrifice and try.” It’s proof for them that the system rewards merit and the problem resides with the people not the system. But, as Richard suggests, society winds up with much less made of human potential when we expect individuals to tear down all the barriers themselves. (Conservatives say “No, that’s why there are churches” etc))

Beloved colleague Richard, however, misses another rather important point: it sounds like Dr. Carson’s mother was exceptional, too, as in “You the Real MVP, Mom.” She worked three jobs to keep them out of public housing because, I assume, she wanted him to have a different peer group. I have questions about what the difference between ‘the projects’ and his neighborhood really are; it can mean the difference between schools, too, and then we get into a significant Mom-Public Service difference question.

My point, however, stands: Dr. Carson is not the only exceptional individual in this story. It sounds like his mother sacrificed and worked extremely hard for him to have opportunities. Like Abigail Adams, Ms. Carson made some pretty damn big contributions to society with her work raising her boy, and it’s the kind of work that gets rendered invisible and swept away when we focus only on how accomplished Dr. Carson is.

Of all the many contributions that Rawls makes to justice thought, the way he argues that growing up in families that teach good character is also a matter of good fortune (moral luck, to put in Bernard Williams terms) excited me the most. It’s absolutely true that you can pull yourself up in America. I did, to some degree. But it helps–a whole freaking lot–if you get born into a family of people who sacrifice for you and believe in you. Everybody comes into this world naked and helpless, and what greets them when they arrive is a big deal.

As Richard answered in his discussion with public radio, I don’t really know what Trump is thinking, but I have a guess. I think he just likes Ben Carson, and Trump doesn’t see management as a function of expertise at the upper echelons of an organization. Evidence for the fact that Trump likes him: DT was always reaching out and poking and touching him onstage during debates, and as awkward as that was, I think it was Donald Trump being friendly, and DT clearly has trouble with personal boundaries. Evidence for the latter is obvious. Whenever asked about anything that involves details, Trump talks about “his people” or “the guys with the yarmulkes.” “People” fret the technical stuff. Business dudes at the CEO level routinely switch industries. MBAs do not specialize in industries. They specialize by skills set: marketing, management, finance, etc. Trump thinks the folks he’s choosing are good leaders and that makes them qualified enough to be executive officers in agencies.

I don’t know really what Trump is doing, and I think people have been a little too quick to assumed there is a crafty, crafty, wiley strategy behind All Which Trump Does. I do think everything he does with the media is carefully choreographed, but I don’t think there are grand political strategies going on here, except insofar that he is actually listening to Preibus. How much does that matter? I don’t know.

We can get very blunt: the history of cabinet appointments suggests that we can and do have complete idiots as titular leaders and while damage can get done, leadership at the cabinet level is not necessarily about the details. Dr. Carson is not an idiot: he believes some things I think are pretty weird, but he’s clearly not incapable. The question becomes: what kind of expertise ought one have to lead? Not to manage, but to lead? How much of Carson’s new role is leadership versus management? Trump has emphasized the former.

In today’s world, if you think that people should be educated in order to engage in democratic leadership, it’s rather easy to pull out the lazy trope “ELITIST” among knee-jerk whiney types or, dressed up in fancier language, “fascist Neo-Platonist Supporter of Philosopher Kings.” I think it’s fair to say that no, I don’t think being a nonspecialist disqualifies you from democratic leadership. And yet the practicality of specialized public administration goes back a long ways: ancient sources from Egypt and Babylon show a highly sophisticated, hierarchical structure of educated people who reported on up to leaders who didn’t specialize, but who were born into their positions. Plato hardly invented the technocrat, and my read of Plato is that he did note some pretty severe drawbacks of having experts run things.

In other words, we probably don’t need philosopher kings, but it’s genuinely helpful if at least somebody knows something about what’s going on, and it helps a bit if leaders are willing to consider that in the directions they choose to go.

Regardless, what does Ben Carson’s “nearby” knowledge of the projects from 40 years ago really get him? (Maybe he’s younger than that; I am too lazy to look it up.) His advocates say “he never lost touch” with those neighborhoods, but I have questions. I grew up poor in rural Iowa in the 1980s. Do I know rural Iowa now that haven’t been to it in 20+ years? Housing policy has changed a lot during that time, and so have many of the issues that center on public housing in the US. Perhaps Dr. Carson has kept abreast better than I have. What my growing up poor in Iowa and moving on to a successful career has gotten me is that I am a person without a country: my colleagues in the academy, whether they admit to it or not, tend to think that people where I’m from are stupid and backward, and thus whatever poverty occurs there must be the fault of those there, and in turn, the less I speak of my life and experiences there, the better. People from back there hate California and hate academics, and now I’ve lost any and all common sense I ever did have for all that fancy book-learning instead of “the real world”, like somehow I don’t have to pay my bills or deal with cranky, powerful people who can make my life difficult. IOW, neither side thinks I can ever possibly understand anything about anything.

What I do have is empathy for poverty and impatience for those who think there is no social mobility, with an equal amount of impatience with people who think everybody can make it in America if they just try.

Back to Dr. Carson: a lot has happened in housing policy in 40 years, and a lot has happened in housing projects and poverty since then: mass incarceration took some steroids during the time period, for one, and programs that were in place to help his mother, and him, get access to social programs that helped him get where he is, regardless of whether he chooses to acknowledge those or not, and regardless of how great he, personally, is, or how great his mom was. Again, it helps if somebody at least knows a little about what is going on.