Perspective in Art and Politics

In art perspective is important. It is used to draw the eye into a painting or to position an observer on just the line intended by the sculptor. Writers use characters’ differing views to show the reader all may not be as it seems. Art touches the deepest parts of our humanity when we can follow the journey the artist guides us on, when we understand from whence the story comes and where it might lead. When art fails, it is most often because there is a fracture between perspective and perception. It is for this reason I cannot appreciate a Picasso. I cannot understand where the great man is centered, and I am profoundly ignorant of where he intends to lead.

Perspective is important in politics too. It is becoming more so, because we are now faced with a chief executive who revels in chaos, who believes all press is good (though all in the press are bad), and is undaunted in an ability to deal in falsehoods. Without perspective, it is too easy to be caught up in an attack on a federal judge, the intentional omission of recognition of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, or the confirmation of a Secretary of Education so lacking qualification or even understanding of the system she now directs that she received more “no” votes than all previous nominees to her position combined. Without perspective one could be driven mad by the audacity of the Senate Majority Leader to ignore his Constitutional vow and a nominee of the duly elected President of the United States. In politics, as in art, it is important to understand where a politician is coming from, because it tells you everything about where he intends to go.

It is in this view that we must assess the president’s pick to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court. Democrats are rightly incensed at the treatment of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to fill that seat. The idea that Senate Republicans wanted to “give the people a voice” was disingenuous in the extreme. Twenty-one percent of the president’s term remained when Republicans denied the people their rightful say. The people had spoken. Twice. They chose the man who nominated Merrick Garland, and then—for a third time—more of them chose Secretary Clinton than her opponent. Yet none of that addresses the issue now at hand.

Only a sense of perspective can save Democrats from a grave error with the potential to fundamentally alter the stature of one of the greatest deliberative bodies the world has ever known. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch is one that must be viewed in relation to other nominees this president might have chosen, not in relation to the choice the last one made. It is fantasy to consider what might have been without the necessary mechanism of the Electoral College. The despicable actions of the last Senate and its majority stand on their own demerits. What is left for Democrats now is to go about the work they are sworn to do and give Judge Gorsuch a thorough and fair vetting. What is left is for them to model for the nation how Senators ought to behave. In so doing they will demonstrate perspective and communicate a journey far more justly led. In so doing they will show us, like great art, one conceivable path to our better selves.

America(ns) First?

Remember the good old days of U.S. car manufacturing in the late 1970s and 1980s? No? I don’t either. Those were perhaps the worst years for quality, value, and innovation in the industry’s history. Those years produced the boxy and very bad Chrysler K-car and, in the words of one automotive writer, a Ford Thunderbird that resembled “a living room on wheels.” It was bench seats, crushed velvet, floorboard dip switches, and a great expanse of American steel without much form or function. The “big 3” were complacent behemoths cranking out inferior products and charging more than they were worth. It was all done under the protection of the U.S. government’s enforced import restrictions.

The new president said he will tariff European cars at 35% if they are not built in the U.S. A tariff is meant to discourage industries from actions nations find objectionable. The unintended, but wholly predictable, consequences are that tariffs limit both the supply of goods and competition among firms. When supply shifts in response, prices rise. Where competition is lacking, there is no forcing function on quality improvement or innovation. Neither of the latter can affect prices, so consumers always end up paying more for inferior products. That is exactly what happened to the U.S. auto industry the last time the government tried to limit Americans’ choices of cars.

In the early eighties, Japan and the U.S. agreed to limit Japanese-made vehicle imports. The “voluntary export restraint,” or VER, had far-reaching effects. A Brookings Institution study by Robert Crandall found that in 1985, American-made cars cost $750-$1000 more than prior to and primarily because of the agreement. The study also found that profits by 1985 were 33-45% higher “despite sharply lower domestic sales” and were 40% higher than they were in 1974-76 when domestic output was similar (Crandall, 1987). Consumers paid more with no gain in quality, while superior products were kept from market, and domestic companies made significantly greater profits.

As the VER was expiring companies became wary. Japanese car companies did begin standing up factories in the U.S.—the desired effect of import restrictions—but U.S. companies feared competition on their own soil. A NY Times article noted some fears were alleviated by a belief that ultra-compact cars would not affect “big 3” sales, that they would not directly compete with U.S.-made cars (Holusha, NY Times, March 1st, 1985). In fact, Japanese companies upended the U.S. industry. After multiple bankruptcies, the competition set the U.S. auto industry on the road to continuous improvement and innovation and created a domestic product that competes well against carmakers around the world. It was not supply restrictions that drove that improvement; in fact, VER only delayed it.

Japanese cars were introduced in the U.S. in 1958. Had U.S. industry reacted then by competing directly—by energizing the strength of U.S. engineering and labor—instead of turning to protectionism, the consumer would never have had to suffer a “living room on wheels” that only lined the pockets of executives who felt no incentive to improve. History may not repeat itself, but it does play out in harmonics. If President Trump follows through with his protectionist threats, we can all look forward to paying more and getting less across every sector of the economy. That has never been a recipe for economic greatness.

Things I Learned From Mollie

Every so often as a writer you are given a gift. The first is that you find a subject so compelling you must spill it onto the page. The second, far more precious and so very rare, is that you learn your writing has real meaning to someone else. This piece, originally written in 2008, is a story of both of those gifts. My mother-in-law wrote me last night that Mollie has just moved back to the continent. To Las Vegas. In the move she misplaced the piece I wrote about what a humble, unassuming, but so very strong older woman is capable of teaching a younger, at the time less-than-secure fighter pilot, about to be entrusted with the lives of our country’s youth. She hoped my mother-in-law might find a copy, so she could share it with her sons. It is quite possibly the most affirming thing about my writing I have yet experienced, and it came at the perfect time. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you can thank Mollie.

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We drove up to the condo complex after missing several turns and having to make two separate phone calls to get us back on track. She was waiting outside the front door three floors up and waving down to us below. I thought we were just picking her up for a nice dinner out, but was informed she wanted us to see her place. During one of the phone interventions we learned most people just park in front of the fire hydrant directly below where she was now standing—parking in Honolulu is usually an adventure, certainly never dull. There are a few traffic laws I clearly despise and rarely follow—I recently paid 250,000 won in speeding tickets because my German car finds it difficult to only go 100 kph on the open road—but I never park in handicap spots, and I never park in front of fire hydrants. As my wife tried in vain to discuss this point from thirty feet down, a perfect space across the street suddenly became available and enabled me to do my civic and social duty all at the same time. We climbed the stairs and I greeted Mollie for the third time in my life.

The first time I met her was at my wedding, now nearly 18 years ago, as I was embarking on my career as a husband and Air Force officer—at the time it was unclear whether it was in that exact order. The second was when we visited Hawaii for a friend’s wedding. Then I was finally embarking on my career as fighter pilot. The third time there was no wedding to celebrate, but I was about to begin a critical job in my career—one that was beginning to weigh on me, and I was in Hawaii to learn a few things designed to make it go a little more smoothly. Mollie is a seventy-something lady who has been a friend of my mother-in-law for some fifty years. They are part of small group they call the Round Robin who have kept in touch with each other throughout their years since college. Mollie is the most far-flung of the bunch having moved off to the islands nearly on a whim and taken up residence in the fiftieth state of the union.

The condo is nestled among many on the southwestern slope of Diamond Head and looks out toward the vast and desolate Pacific Ocean and the dense and well populated Waikiki. It’s a small, one-room suite where first only she called home until her mother moved in to live out the rest of her life. Now one of her three sons also calls it home—the other two live a block away. From the balcony the ocean view that sold the place is now obstructed by then juvenile trees, but she knows the water is still just over there. On the other side the mountains of Oahu’s western range rise majestically into the near constant companion of their misty shroud. It’s raining just a few miles to the north.

The story of how she came to be here and how it eventually cost me $4000 is an interesting one. In the car on the way back to the base, I asked Ann about her husband. Apparently, she grew bored with him and kicked him out when the boys were out and on their own. She had things to do and he apparently wasn’t going to be part of it. For a woman of her generation, that was a bold realization and an even bolder execution. She moved to the island without much of a plan, except that she wanted to be close to the sea and the mountains, and eventually ended up landing a job in an art gallery. Having spent only a few hours with her, I recognize it as the perfect profession. She is one of those rare individuals who finds aesthetics in seemingly everyday things; the old tree groves that now block her view of the ocean, particular orchids hanging as wall decoration in the lobby of a hotel, the comforting return of the trade winds that must have once driven a fantastic migration. These are things that can easily go unnoticed in a world of bustle, manufactured light, and climate control.

On the way to the restaurant she directed a stop at an overlook. Waves crashed against the rocky shore hundreds of feet below. The ocean stretched out before us to the south where the next nearest land lies perhaps 10,000 miles away. We are farther from any large land mass here than anywhere else in the world. It’s at once an ominous and soothing thought. I remark on the row of multi-million dollar homes lining the beach beneath the ancient volcanic slopes. Mollie observes that the beach is free—we could walk right down there and enjoy the same view these people paid more money for than I will ever make. That too is a soothing thought.

We drive through perhaps the richest neighborhood on Oahu on the way to the restaurant, and she points out where various movie stars once made their homes. Jack Lord lived here. Someone else from another era lived there. At the hotel, and after noticing the orchids I would have walked right by, I watch two dark shapes break the surface of the man-made lagoon. Two dolphins glide through twilight waters and remind me the ocean beyond is not such a desolate place. There is a presence even when their silvery-grey backs descend below the surface. In an attached pool, sea turtles slowly ply shallow waters giving us a glimpse of rare creatures seemingly custom-made for their surroundings.

When I met Mollie the second time we were in the Wyland Gallery in Waikiki, and I became enamored with a brass sculpture of a dolphin. I loved it, but it was a hell of lot of money for something that would sit on the mantle. We passed…and I have regretted it ever since. So some eight years later while out to dinner with a friend we stopped in a Wyland Gallery in Las Vegas and dropped nearly two grand on a different dolphin sculpture. The next year we did the same thing on a whim and scored a sculpture featuring sea turtles. She didn’t know any of this when she picked a restaurant in a resort housing live versions of two of my favorite pieces of art. It was full circle and our human—even cosmic—connection seemed so real the instant I recognized the closure.

On the way back to her place to bid her farewell, she wanted to drive by the little shopping mall where she does her shopping—by bus, because she hasn’t owned a car for years. I thought it strange at the time, but now it seems such a completely fitting end to an evening that connected two generations and four distinct families intricately woven together by time and the simple act of living a life. She is a modest and unassuming student of the beauty of the natural world and its creative representation for whom seemingly banal details of one’s own existence are an important window into our collective soul. I thank her for teaching me that simple truth. I suspect it was the lesson I came to Hawaii to learn.