Are America’s most admired simply America’s most powerful?

Peter Beinart looks at the most recent Gallup’s most recent Most Admired poll and notices a trend:

Nor is it true that Gallup merely measures celebrity, since athletes and Hollywood icons are largely absent. Looking at the winners across the decades, the most common denominator is power. Indeed, the only female winners not in close proximity to political power are Mother Theresa in the 1980s and 1990s and Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who gained fame treating polio, in 1951.

The men tell a similar story. Presidents almost always win. When they’re deemed weak or unpopular, the public anoints another strong political figure: Douglas MacArthur supplants Harry Truman in 1946 and 1947; Dwight Eisenhower tops Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and 1968; Henry Kissinger replaces Richard Nixon between 1973 and 1975. Even the religious figures who do best are the ones closest to power. Although he never wins, the Reverend Billy Graham—famous for pastoring to presidents—makes the top-10 list more than other man between 1948 and 2005. The other highest-scoring religious figures are popes. Missing are any of the clergy, like William Sloane Coffin or Daniel Berrigan, who made their names fighting the Vietnam War.

In fact, activists protesting injustice rarely rank highly. That includes Martin Luther King. He doesn’t make America’s top 10 most admired men in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. King comes fourth in 1964 and sixth in 1965 but then falls out of the top ten again in 1966 and 1967. The same is true for Nelson Mandela. By the mid-1980s, the global anti-apartheid movement had made Mandela a household name. But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t crack Gallup’s top-10 list until he is elected South Africa’s president in 1994. (To be fair, I was only able to check 1983, 1984 , 1986, 1987, and 1992. For 1993, I could only find the top five. After 1994, Mandela becomes a top-10 regular. But by then, the Cold War is over, the controversy surrounding his communist sympathies has evaporated, and he’s become safe.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Part of it could be that people get to vote for some of the political positions so they feel like they had a voice. Additionally, the media tends to cover the most powerful a lot. Celebrities may get a lot of attention but they tend not to do too well, whether star athletes or Hollywood stars, in job prestige rankings.

Beinart suggests the American public should pay more attention to activists, people fighting for justice rather than people holding the reins of justice. These two things are not mutually exclusive: powerful leaders can be good leaders. But, this could be a problem if people are admired simply for the power they command rather than for what they actually do with that power.

Who is the most powerful person in the world?

One commentator argues Janet Yellen would become the most powerful female in history as Chair of the Federal Reserve:

The Fed is as powerful as it is boring. (Alright, maybe not that powerful, but you get the point). See, its job is to make sure the U.S. economy stays in the Goldilocks zone: growing neither too fast nor too slow, but just right to keep both unemployment and inflation low. It raises interest rates when it thinks growth is too high, and cuts them when it thinks growth is too low — and it does all this by controlling how much money is in the economy. But the Fed’s interest rate decisions don’t just set the course for the U.S. economy; its decisions set the course for the world economy too. That’s because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and so many emerging markets have pegged their own to it — which means they’ve decided to import our monetary policy. Think about it this way. If I say my currency will always be worth a certain number of dollars, then I have to print more of it when the Fed prints more dollars. That’s why economists call the Fed a monetary superpower: it’s the world’s central bank all but in name. And, as you can see in the chart below from economist David Beckworth, the Fed’s hegemony isn’t limited to emerging markets. The European Central Bank (light blue line) and the Bank of Japan (black dotted line)  have also followed the Fed’s lead the past 10 years or so.

In other words, Janet Yellen will have more control over the global economy than any other living person once she’s confirmed as Fed Chair. Now, the Fed is a democracy, not a dictatorship, but it’s a funny kind of democracy — the Chair alone sets the agenda. So if Yellen even just talks about slowing down the Fed’s bond-buying, Europe’s troubled economies are liable to see their interest rates rise, and emerging markets are liable to see their currencies collapse.

This might be enough to get conspiracy thinkers going: the Fed Chair, an appointed position, certainly has a lot of international power. This got me to thinking: if Yellen has all this power, who else might be in the conversation for most powerful person in the world? Here are some options:

1. The President of the United States. Political power backed with a lot of economic, military, and cultural power. The “leader of the free world.”

2. The wealthiest person in the world. Bill Gates has $72 billion, the most in the United States, but Carlos Slim has the wealth in the world at $73 billion. Both men are connected to powerful companies. However, just how much can even the wealthiest business leader do compared to the economic prowess of a large country?

3. People that Time names as Person of the Year. It is an American publication so that skews the data with lots of American political leaders. But, still a well-known list.

4. Another Time list: the 100 most influential people in the world. This list tends to make room for more cultural and artistic leaders, in addition to the more typical political and economic leaders.

5. People who subvert international norms on a global scale. Think Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. With some resources put to more nefarious uses, they are able to dominate policy decisions and cultural understandings.

6. The flip side of #5: people who are leaders of successful large social movements. Think Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. They become icons for helping bring about great good.

7. Whomever currently has the most Twitter followers. Justin Bieber currently tops the list followed by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Barack Obama. Definitely more about cultural power and Twitter users are still a relatively small percentage of the population.

I’m sure there are more options out there. From a Marxist perspective, we would want to look more at economic leaders while Weber’s addition of status and power are also helpful. And, we could also think of how big of a structure or number of followers a single person can leverage – by themselves, individuals, even the wealthiest, may not be able to do much.

Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

Architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. are drawing criticism. Curbed sums it up:

Anyone who still believes that “any press is good press” doesn’t know a thing about Frank Gehry’s plans for D.C.’s Eisenhower Memorial, which, ever since renderings were released for public fodder well over two years ago, has attracted a publicity buzz not unlike flies swarming a dying animal. Indeed, the memorial’s most hyperbolic and outspoken critic, the National Civic Art Society, has called Gehry’s plans for an architectural memorial park—which, with 80-foot columns and woven steel tapestries, is as nonlinear and flourished as the rest of his oeuvre—”sentimental kitsch,” “a temple to nothingness,” and a “behemoth [that] commemorates Gehry’s ego, not Eisenhower’s greatness and humility.” President Eisenhower’s grandchildren have spoken out against the design, as well, most recently calling it “regretfully, unworkable.” Oh, and don’t even get them started on those tapestries, which have been likened to the stuff of Communist regimes, derided as an “Iron Curtain to Ike,” and described by the NCAS as “a rat’s nest of tangled steel, a true maintenance nightmare.”

This week, Congress joined the clamor: Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has just introduced legislation that would officially halt all of Gehry’s efforts and start the whole process afresh. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) chimed in: “I want to know how we came up with this monstrosity.” This, of course, has ruffled a whole other set of feathers, namely those of the American Institute of Architects, which has said in a statement that the bill “is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.”

This highlights the socially constructed nature of memorials. What are they supposed to look like? To know, we often look at genres. We have memorials that celebrate war victories and they look a certain way: perhaps a big arch, perhaps a leader on a horse. We have memorials to celebrate the loss of life and the ambiguous outcomes of war. See the Vietnam War Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. These public discussions can help ensure the public or leaders get what they want out of the memorial but might also stifle innovation.

In addition to this issue of genre, I see a few other issues in this criticism:

1. Why build a memorial for Eisenhower in the first place? Is it for his actions as president in being in charge during a time of prosperity or is it for his leadership in World War II (though we tend not to honor generals in these large ways anymore)? Here is the reasoning courtesy of the official website: eisenhowermemorial.gov.

Why honor President Eisenhower with a Memorial?

Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is entrusted with the task of building an enduring memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower understood war as only a soldier could and believed the possibility of a nuclear or thermonuclear, World War III, would be unwinnable for mankind.  He set in place a strategy for winning the Cold War, that was followed and implemented by future Presidents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower’s prescience and his strategic understanding of science and technology in establishing the United States as a pre-eminent world power was essential to securing freedom for generations of Americans to come. Eisenhower was influential in bringing World War II to an end and his efforts throughout the War, especially with the planning and execution of D-Day, stopped the Nazi war machine. He also ended the Korean War and maintained active communications with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.This Memorial will not only tell the story of Eisenhower, the young man from Kansas who became a great soldier, a U.S. President, and a world leader, but will also reflect the story of America – humble, isolated beginnings, and a rapid ascension on the world stage.  His example is an inspiration that, through leadership, cooperation, and public service, we too can achieve the American dream and make a difference in the world.  Eisenhower, like America, rose to the occasion with courage and integrity.With the 60th Anniversary of his election to President and the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, it is fitting to celebrate Eisenhower´s numerous accomplishments as a General, President, and world citizen. Dwight D. Eisenhower´s dedicated service to his country spanned 50 years. It is appropriate that the first national presidential memorial of the 21st century will honor President Eisenhower.  If there was ever a moment in our nation’s history to recognize a leader committed to both security and peace for the good of his nation and the world, now is that time.

How many presidents will receive memorials like this? How many should and who gets to decide?

2. I wonder how much of this is tied to Frank Gehry as architect. Gehry has a particular approach to structures. What if it was a lesser-known architect or even an unknown? Back to the official website:

How was Frank Gehry selected to design the Eisenhower Memorial?

Mr. Gehry was one of four finalists in a competitive process  managed by GSA under the guidelines of the General Services Administration Design Excellence Program.  The process consisted of three stages.  A notice was published in FedBizOpps announcing the opportunity for any designer with an existing portfolio to compete for the project.  Submissions were received from forty-four qualified design firms in 2008. Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial´s pre-design program. That program addressed Eisenhower´s accomplishments as well as the physical parameters of the memorial site. Mr. Gehry´s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness demonstrated his understanding of Eisenhower as a General, President, and world citizen. An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry.  The Eisenhower Commission unanimously accepted their recommendation.

3. How much should the family of the memorialized person be involved? Curbed cites the family’s dislike for the structure. But, isn’t the memorial more for the people of the United States? This is a matter of competing interests.

4. I wonder if there are any critics of Eisenhower’s presidency who might object loudly to the design of the memorial. The Eisenhower administration wasn’t perfect…

In the end, this memorial partly reflects something about Eisenhower himself but also strongly reflects our understanding of Eisenhower from the years 1999 when the Memorial process started to 2016 when the project is supposed to be done.

The Presidents who can’t go to church

Much has been made of American’s desire for the President to have religious faith and/or attend church. But what happens if the hoopla that comes with the President going anywhere means that they can’t go to church?

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.

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The effect of race in presidential pardons

An analysis from ProPublica shows that whites benefit more from presidential pardons:

In an in-depth investigation of the presidential pardons process, published this week, ProPublica found that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities, even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence were considered.

The president ultimately decides who gets a pardon, but Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have relied heavily on recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney inside the Justice Department.

The experts ProPublica talked to don’t all agree on exactly what should be done. Sociologist Frank Dobbin has this suggestion:

“If the goal you want is equivalence for black and whites, the solution should not be to put in more bureaucracy to limit decision-makers’ authority,” Dobbin said. “The solution should probably be some oversight system where the numbers are looked at regularly, and then decisions should be revisited when it looks like there’s some disparity.”

Studies show that more minorities get jobs when companies track race and appoint an individual or board to independently review hiring decisions, Dobbin said.

A number of other experts seem to agree: having an independent board review the decisions would help keep the issue of race at the forefront and help avoid implicit biases.

My first thought when reading this is that why should we expect this to be any different knowing that the criminal justice system is tilted statistically against non-whites and away from white-collar crimes. If traffic stops, convictions, jail time, and death-row decisions are influenced by race, why wouldn’t pardons?

My second thought: are presidential pardons archaic? Do they really benefit society or are they about tradition or political favors (see the recently-revealed disagreement between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney over pardoning Scooter Libby)?

According to the analysis, some other factors that help people get pardons include having “letters of congressional support” and being married.

Great Quotes in Homeownership #2: Herbert Hoover on the value of owning a home in 1931

Herbert Hoover is not a well-regarded President. But he did have a lot to say about home ownership even as the country was going through the Great Depression. Here are some of Hoover’s thoughts from 1931:

“Next to food and clothing, the housing of a nation is its most vital problem. . . . The sentiment for home ownership is embedded in the American heart [of] millions of people who dwell in tenements, apartments and rented rows of solid brick. . . . This aspiration penetrates the heart of our national wellbeing. It makes for happier married life. It makes for better children. It makes for courage to meet the battle of life. . . . There is a wide distinction between homes and mere housing. Those immortal ballads, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘The Little Grey Home in the West’ were not written about tenements or apartments. . . . They were written about an individual abode, alive with tender associations of childhood, the family life at the fireside, the free out-of-doors, the independence, the security and the pride in possession of the family’s own home. . . . Many of our people must live under other conditions. But they never sing songs about a pile of rent receipts. . . .”

Over these warm words and some 1,900 others like them President Hoover had worked with a full heart for two months. One evening last week he took them all, in the form of a keynote address, to Constitution Hall and there, in a voice brimming with emotion, delivered them to the assembled delegates of the President’s Conference on Home Building & Home Ownership. At this great gathering President Hoover again demonstrated his ability and leadership in an unofficial activity outside the constitutional realm of the Presidency.

The conference’s major purpose, President Hoover said, was “to stimulate industrial action,” not “to set up government in the building of homes.” To promote home owning the President urged a better system of home financing, thus keying his program in with his proposed Home Loan Discount system (TIME, Nov. 23).

Of course, Hoover gets some of the blame for not being able to move the country out of a position where it was difficult for many Americans to imagine homeownership, let alone a steady job. But these and other quotes from Hoover suggest he was a President who was committed to helping average Americans move from a monthly rent to a mortgage even in dark economic times. He suggested homeownership would lead to better social outcomes plus lead to feelings of nostalgia, “independence,” “security,” and “pride.”

This is also a reminder that the American value of homeownership was not just a post-World War II phenomenon. The rate of suburbanization was impressive in the post-war period but there had been a wave of suburbanization in the more prosperous 1920s that was interrupted by the Great Depression. I have occasionally found it interesting to think about how suburban growth patterns would have been different without the Great Depression and World War II. Several things might have happened earlier, like the building of interstates or the mass building of suburban communities (exemplified by the Levittowns). Perhaps the whole process might have simply taken longer, giving citizens and politicians more time to react and adjust.

I also wonder how Hoover’s goals of homeownership are viewed by today’s scholars who look back at this period: did these sentiments directly contribute to prolonging the Great Depression? How many of Hoover’s ideas ended up getting implemented in some form by subsequent leaders?

Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major

I occasionally run into stories about famous people who were sociology majors in college (these are often professional athletes) and found another example yesterday: President Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major. And this came from an unlikely source, Newt Gingrich, who was speaking at Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College:

Gingrich, who announced last week he is seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2012, braved rain and wind to speak to about 140 students at Eureka College in western Illinois.

The former House speaker said the small liberal arts college was one of the most influential institutions of the late 20th century because of its ties with Reagan. The 40th president graduated from the school in 1932.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union began here in 1928,” he said to audience members. “The resurrection of general economics and the development of American economic growth and jobs for 25 years began here when Dutch Reagan took a degree in economics and sociology.”

I had never heard this before so I did a little digging into this:

-The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation says Reagan was an economics major: “Ronald Reagan officially majored in Economics at Eureka College, but unofficially minored in extra-curricular activities.”

-The Reagan portal for Eureka College gives a lengthier explanation:

Academically, Reagan’s major area of study was Economics and Sociology in which he received his degree in 1932. Somehow, blinded by the lights of Hollywood, this academic element has been overshadowed in history, yet, as U.S. President, it had a powerful intellectual impact on Reagan. Eureka College taught Economics and Sociology as a joint degree purposefully as a pure reflection of the College’s goals reflecting “the mutual development of intellect and character” or Economic=Money and Sociology=People or How Money Effects People. The servant leadership focus of the College founders still pervaded the culture and curriculum of Eureka College.

Several thoughts quickly come to mind:

1. Would it be bad for Reagan, probably the foremost conservative in the late 20th century, to be known as someone who studied sociology as opposed to economics? (I am thinking of the Presidential Library emphasis on economics while Eureka explains how the two disciplines were combined.)

2. Would it be possible anywhere these days to have a joint major in economics and sociology? These two often seem to be placed at opposite poles of thought.

3. It strikes me that having a former US President as an alum could be a huge boon for a small college. However, it does mean that Newt Gingrich wanted to visit…