Reflections on Janet Yellen and Bill and Melinda Gates

It is such a pity that the flawed administration in the White House aggravated its flawed approach to responsible governance by choosing not to reappoint Janet Yellen to Chair the US Federal Reserve.  On the first day in office of her successor, Jerome Powell (whose policies were not expected to be a significant departure from hers) the stock market went into a nose dive of record proportions.  There were many reasons for this turbulence – bond prices were up, wages were up, inflation fears, bonuses to workers in major corporations as part of the “benefits” of corporate tax reform – many possible factors have been cited. What if?  What if Janet Yellen had not been displaced?  Might the very continuity of her presence have helped to calm things down? 

The “woman thing” haunting the occupant of the White House has ramifications everywhere one might look. His failure to acknowledge the harm done to two ex-wives (and at least one ex-girl friend) by a cocky but likeable White House aide, Rob Porter, is symptomatic of a major character flaw.  This individual, that is to say the current occupant of the Oval Office has a serious problem (as does Mr. Porter, of course) with relating well to women. He has been accused by many women of sexual abuse and has so far gotten away with the alleged abuses because he won the election in spite of the charges and so on and so forth. What a disaster! One has to feel sorry for the likes of Melania and all the others with whom he might have engaged in exploitative and abusive behaviour.

The key, though, is the fundamental disconnect in the way he relates to women in general.  He may have women in his Cabinet, including a gutsy one serving as US Ambassador to the UN.  He may have token women speaking up on his behalf in the White House itself – the current Press Secretary, for one and a Counselor to the President, for another  –  and, of course, his own daughter.  But it is mind-boggling that his character flaws, including his lack of gender awareness while also missing the point about relating to both men and women as human beings, have become so regularized in his tweets and flippant remarks that they are no longer triggering shock and dismay. Even the more diplomatic Melinda Gates has recently wished that he “would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets”.  (See her comments in the 2018 annual letter to the public regarding global development from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here.) What will it take to reach the limit of acceptability?  And how long will it take?

One has to wonder, as well, about the state of our values when someone’s Ivy League credentials and family lessons learned still produce a flawed character that gets away with more than he should.  It is sad that there is so much of this life of privilege to cover up the flaws of mental disorder.  Yes, we all lack empathy for mental illness and live with hiding it from view and throwing up barriers to its healthy management.  But the additional dismay comes from knowing that this particular individual with the two ex-wives was clearly the son following in the footsteps of the father – a father who built his own career by serving multiple US presidents – first with Gerald Ford as a White House Fellow and then with both Ronald Reagan and George Bush in high-ranking White House positions (albeit all Republicans, but then….)

Roger Porter, the father, is a stellar academic, well integrated into the Harvard University culture although originally a Mormon from Utah and a graduate of Brigham Young University – and still, regrettably, a staunch Republican.  He earned his graduate degrees from Harvard and has spent his entire professional career at Harvard whenever he was not in a Republican administration in Washington, DC.  I highlight his role as a father, not only because it was a model that his son was apparently following but also because I myself had a few opportunities to cross paths with this particular individual, the father.  In fact, I found it rather daunting to relate to this very obviously different person than me.  Deeply religious in a somewhat fringe religion, ideologically conservative and highly literate.  Perhaps he, too, had had a privileged upbringing as the son of a professor himself, but then he has managed to operate with integrity.

I don’t really know where to go with this.  The elder Porter apparently voted for the disaster we are living with today, and his son followed in his footsteps, although not as a White House Fellow along the way.  It is interesting, although not widely reported, that he was actually the Chief of Staff for Senator Orrin Hatch before being appointed to the White House position.  A solid Utah-based Mormon, it seems.  But that did not save him from his turbulent domestic life – or now to its devastating effect on his professional career.

To return to Bill and Melinda Gates, which is a good way to end this reflection on a more positive note, I am impressed by their 2018 annual letter, which was posted and sent out on 13 February 2018. It showed up as an email that invited me to provide feedback both before and after reading the letter. An interesting exercise.  The letter is organized as a response to some 10 questions, including one on how they are relating to the current occupant of the White House.  Their response correctly notes that foundations can only serve as incubators and that scaling up for development depends on both governments and the businesses.  This is a refreshing message.  American foreign aid, they note, has been a leader in the fight against disease and poverty abroad, and they will continue to lobby against budget cuts.  But they also said that they would work with the current administration where it fits.  As for businesses, it is also a refreshing message that they are crucial for sustainable development, with examples cited primarily from the health sector but some preliminary signs of engagement in the food and agriculture sector.

Finally, the resonating message from Bill and Melinda Gates is that “The sanctity of each individual, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, is part of our country’s spirit”.  It seems, however, that they also recognized how important it was for these values to have been imparted to them by their parents.  Family and community are the foundation for any country’s spirit.  Maybe these can be foundations for a global spirit, too!

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