Getting my Snoot on in Toledo: Disappointment with Obama, Worry with Romney

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Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

As I frequently do Sunday’s mornings in Toledo, picked up the Sunday Toledo Blade at the 7/11 (Comenatchi? (Hi!) Paloatchi (Hi back at you!) Gorum! Gorum! (Hot! Hot!) Rodje! (Sunny!) Tanda! (Cool in here!) being the usual Bengali conversation I have with the staff there) and went over to Rick’s on Bancroft for breakfast before church.

As I sat down at the counter, I opened the Blade to the “Behind the News” section and saw an article entitled “Romney in exclusive company at Harvard, Relatively few finish MBA-law program” with a picture of a young Romney with kids and wife, a picture of Obama, and a picture of Bush 43.   The lead was “President Obama has a Harvard law degree.  Former President George W. Bush has a Harvard master of business administration degree.  Will the next president have both?”  Seemed to be a reprint of the article that got me going two or three days ago writing these essays.

I joked with Rick and my waitress that they were in exclusive company as I also had a JD-MBA.  We had a laugh and my waitress reminded me that Romney was going to be speaking at the Toledo Club this week and was going to be doing a stop in Wood County.

I am going to see if I can get into that Toledo Club event and, ask Romney the following question,”

“Mr. Romney, Obama has disappointed me because he has not prosecuted the high-level Bush people for (1) torture and (2) lying us into the War in Iraq with all the deaths and wounding of American soldiers, let alone the other deaths, and wasted money.  At one of the Republican debates last fall you raised your hand when asked if you would make use of the Bush “enhanced interrogation techniques” if you were President.  You also have been bellicose about starting a War with Iran.  If you were President, would you prosecute the Bush people for torture and lying us into a war?  If you were President, would you torture and would you lie us into a war like Bush did?”

If I can not get in, maybe I can stand around outside with a sign (singing songs and carrying signs) that say “Harvard JD-MBA’s for Accountability for Torture and being Lied into the War in Iraq – prosecute now” and “No more torturers in chief.”  I was going to do this kind of thing a couple of weeks ago when Obama was in town, but, it was too hot and that weakened my resolve.

As I dug into my regular breakfast, I thought that what with all this preening about Harvard JD’s, MBA’s and now JD-MBA’s in the paper, I really needed to work on my snootiness or else I was not holding up my end of the bargain expected of a real Harvard man (one who had also gone to the College).  Yet, in many ways, I feel that person is another person compared to who I am from the years working in the international arena.  I also think that the person that was built by my parents in the international space, no matter how much of this elite education I received, remains impervious to its blandishments and trappings.

It is not a feeling of not belonging but more like the club has, on the American side, too much of an upper-class nationalist and almost nativist dimension.  And, on the international side of it, the club has a very strong upper-class but foreign dimension.  The expected paths associated with the club (Wall Street Firm, Consulting, Finance, Corporate or Corporate Law America) contrast with the less beaten path that I felt I needed to tread for my bliss with 17 years overseas and then into teaching.

I may also not have developed the appropriate snootiness for other reasons.  Sitting on the porch this afternoon with my neighbor Zeno White – Great-Grand Nephew of George White last black Congressman from the South after Reconstruction whose famous speech in 1901 was a Farewell of the Negro to Congress ( well worth reading today as we talk about voter suppression – nothing new under the sun) –  we talked about his luck at sitting on a porch with a Harvard JD-MBA and me needing to  get my snootiness on.

I said to Zeno that maybe I needed to move to some of the more fancy neighborhoods like Old Orchard or Ottawa Hills, but Zeno disagreed because he said knowing I was a regular guy and knowing the folks there I would be eaten up by the folks over there.  I said that my son sometimes wanted me to move to places like Sylvania and Maumee – suburbs – but I liked being able to walk to work and living in a neighborhood that is mixed with lots of different kinds of people.  I said I had been the one and only for so long, it just wasn’t fun for me to move to a place where I would be the token Negro again – especially when I could walk across the street and sit on the porch with him.  Zeno talked about his family saying he should sell and move to a fancier place on the other side of Ottawa Hills, but he said his family did not understand either about living around here – Alvin Street down toward the cemetery.  There are white college students,  couple of white families (heard a white supremacist lives nearby but don’t know him) next door and down the street, black folks like Zeno and Mary and younger families down the street, some Asians down in the next block, but no Hispanics (except me from what I have seen) but people change often in this neighborhood near a university.

It occurred to Zeno and me that not having the proper level of snootiness was probably a result also of worrying about being seen as arrogant as a black man making my way in the world.  We all remember the effort to label Obama as arrogant as a way to emasculate him.  Too snooty would mean too arrogant which would mean the dreaded “uppity.” Of course, down at Morehouse College one year, I saw they were selling t-shirts with”Uppity Negro” on them and I got one for my mother who was celebratingt her 55th reunion year from Spelman.

Or maybe it is what I learned from watching Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead – not a great deal of melodrama but some beautiful music.  Meritocracy without the Nitwitocracy.

Which brings me back to MBA’s and JD’s and solidarity.  Today’s Blade article gives one an impression of the Harvard MBA program but, for those who have not been in that program, I wanted to highlight an important thing about the program – one does the numbers.  One gets extraordinarily analytical with numbers – learning to make numbers sing.  Also, in several classes up to half of one’s grade was what one said in class.  With 88-90 other aspiring sharks in the room, it was  a feeding frenzy.  The impression one gets is that it is a very purely meritocratic place.

Yet, during my First Year at HBS, something was revealed to me about my classmates and about me.  We were doing a case about ITT and Harold Geneen (we were told the story that when his name was mispronounced he is reported to have said, “it’s not a hard G like God, but a soft G like Jesus”).  Harold Geneen had been able to assure 14 or so years of earnings per share growth in the 60’s and 70’s at the helm of ITT.  He was a “by the numbers” and inspirational corporate leader.  He would sit around with the 55 country managers with big books with little red notes in  them (“red flags”) going over the operations of all of them in excruciating detail.  At the same time, those who did well there were paid handsomely, more than at other corporations of the time.

The professor started class by asking “Who would like to work at ITT?”  Of the 88 students in the class, and to my surprise, I was the only one who raised their hand.  To me ITT under Geneen was the most purely meritocratic structure – you made your numbers, you did well – I had seen in all of the cases.  Surely all of the sharks in that class would want to work in such a place.  But no, only me.  The professor asked me to make an explanation and I did at the beginning but it did not seem to convince.  The discussion went around and around and I got every animated as I sat there listening to the others.  After about an hour, I remember just not being able to take it anymore and – breaking etiquette – I apologized and told the professor I had to speak.  For the next ten minutes or so I responded to each of the things said by the others in the class – cutting and slashing  through all of it in this intense adrenalin fueled rush or urge to power.  I even thought of the 55 person meeting at the top of ITT as 55 lights being on and Geneen as this big light helping send the electricity around so that remarkable things could happen.  After I had gone on at 100 miles a minute for way too long with all my reasons I finally said something like, “In this meritocracy, finally it would be a place where my skin being black would not be the issue but only what I could produce.”  And then, gasping for air, I added, “But, it’s not just because I am black that I like ITT.”  I think I received an ovation after I finished. We went on to discuss whether the results oriented vision of ITT and the win at all costs approach of Geneen was one of the reasons ITT got into trouble in Latin America (Chile in particular – lots of heavy history here) and finished the case and the class.

It struck me that all of these HBS’ers shied away from what seemed to me to be the purest meritocratic enterprise we had studied.  I write of this case because from what I glean about the analytical abilities of Romney I believe that he is cut from the jib that definitely runs all the numbers.  In fact, Bain and Company and Bain Capital, I suspect, are extremely analytical numbers driven entities as they make their recommendations and investment decisions.  I saw some of this in my work in banking, consulting, and in international commercial arbitration.  On the other side, Obama is not necessarily numbers driven but he has a keen analytical mind coming from the JD side.

Yet, with both of their keen analytical abilities, one of my worries is that they do not have the heart – like the heart in the Zidane moment.  For those who do not know of Zinedine Zidane former French soccer star, in the finals of the  World Cup in 2006 Zidane got exasperated with an Italian player who was checking him,  head-butted him, got a red card, and was ejected.   With all of the marbles on the table, I worry that each of them are geared to play it safe to avoid losing as opposed to  play to win.

One thing about strategic consultants is they can do the numbers to figure out who is in the dominant position and who is in the dominated position in a given industry and it seemed that the choices were always very narrow: become low cost producer, get a niche, milk the business, or get out.  The numbers have this kind of totemic quality to them – they dazzle – much like matrices in presentations.  Yet, the numbers themselves are based on issues as to whether the strategy is to gain market share (Japanese 70’s approach) or get profits to please Wall Street (American perennial approach).  Different time horizons for returns on investments would impact how interesting an investment might be.  The rate of return required in investments was another variable that impacts what is an acceptable investment and what is one that should be dumped.  All of those background assumptions on numbers may not be present, and yet the analysis will tend to  lead to different conclusions depending on those unstated or less overtly stated numbers.

For a Romney Presidency, I am worried that the so-called numbers vision will have inside it all kinds of unseen assumptions.  Those numbers will then be attempted to be sold to us as “what the numbers say” and neutral arbiters of reality as part of getting us to go along with his recommendations.  My fear on the recommendations will be that in  the background there will be the ultimate version of  “I do this, because I have to feed my family.”, “I do this, because I have to save the company.” and now it will be “I do this, because I have to save the country.”  Inevitably, in these settings with HBS’ers when they have to deal with powerful interests they relent.  But, if they are dealing with weaker interests, they crush them.

The harshness of the numbers thinking was brought home to me in a magic phrase I learned in French business.  With these two phrases one could become a great French businessman.  All one had to do is sit in a meeting and keep saying, “Mettre le paquet.” (Put in my marbles.) or “Retirez mes billes.” (Take my marbles home).  Like the investment vision of Buy or Sell only with no Hold option, the philosophy is one of going ahead 100 per cent or getting out 100 per cent with no middle ground.  That concept of no middle ground in the high-level finance place along with other assumptions about who has power or not worries me that in a Romney Presidency the ruthless cutting will be quick, deep, and wide for all those who are not the well off.  The rationale will be, “I have to do this, to save the country.”

For a continuation  of the Obama Presidency, his relenting in  the War on Terror in seeking accountability for his predecessors torture and lying us into the War in Iraq, together with the  accommodations to a hostile Republican majority in the House and minority in the Senate, and the coddling of Wall Street suggest to me that he too lacks the heart of Zidane.  He sees these centers of power and he accommodates to them.  At the same time, he does have a ruthlessness (drone strikes, going after OBL) for spaces where he thinks there will be a consensus – going with the grain.  Of course the enormity of the Affordable Care Act in trying to deal with problems of all Americans is significant as is the war he has fought to get such health care.  In that setting, Obama has demonstrated a capacity for toughness but it did seem that he was relenting on many things (“public option”) in order to attempt to get bipartisan support for the law – some of which complicate the actual process forward under the law.  Those efforts give the impression that he was played by some of the Congressional Republicans.

Whether on War or Peace, both of these potential leaders with their exquisite analytical abilities worry me, because they seem to play to avoid losing rather than play to win.  The JD and the MBA channel their boundless ambition, but I am not sure that the heart of either is that of a champion – they seem to seek to win without peril, and to succeed without glory.

Of course, glory may be something passe to many.  Yet, when Lyndon Baines Johnson said “We shall overcome.” there was such glory in that moment.  When Robert Kennedy first walked in the Delta there was glory in what he did.  There is glory in the monuments to those lost in all our wars down on the Mall.  There is glory in the Jefferson Memorial and at the MLK, Jr. Monument.  There is glory for those who lead.  But as they lead, I hope it is not in the sense of lead, follow or get out of the way.  Rather, that they lead America to glory of a kind that has meaning.  I know they are both with guts, but I am not sure they each have enough guts.  And so, I fear that, without enough guts there will not be enough gloriousness done by either of them.

During the sermon at church today,  speaking of Herod and his ego and the head of John the Baptist being served him on a platter, my preacher warned us not to be “Harvard” types and think more toward the poor rather than with ego.  I went up afterward with mock indignation and said with 3 Harvard degrees I was hurt – and smiled – and told her I understand exactly what she was saying. So maybe we should put our snootiness away my dear JD and MBA Harvardians and think in terms of glory through solidarity with not only the well-heeled and well off with power.  Whether in running the numbers or in doing analytical analysis, let us make sure that the relevant information is considered admissible and that the weighting of options does not subconsciously put to low a value on the powerless, the poor and the weak, the one who is not like you,  and the one who does not have people to lobby you and blandish money on your campaign, but who relies on you to do right by them.  I did it to save the country does not cut it for me.  Too much of a rationalization particularly if one gets too snooty in one’s defense.

Paraphrasing. Mr. Jordan Anderson, in his August 7, 1865 Letter From a Freedman to His Old  Master ( also subject of an article on the same page of today’s Toledo Blade).

“If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”

Whoever ends up winning, let them not defraud us.