You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make [things] in this country, build [things]. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket. —Frank Sobotka, “The Wire,” Season 2
Leave it to a Baltimore native to quote HBO’s “The Wire” to understand the 2016 election. This quote resonated with me long before the 2016 election, but this year’s campaign brought it back to mind. I wasn’t on the Trump train—I started out thinking I’d vote for Scott Walker and ended up casting my vote for Marco Rubio in the Virginia primary—but nevertheless found the Trump campaign stirring thoughts that I hadn’t had for quite some time. In fact, in watching Trump campaign I felt something like Darth Vader did when he felt the presence of Obi-won Kenobi on the Death Star in “Star Wars”: a feeling I hadn’t felt in some time.
I trained to be an engineer in college and graduate school. When I went to college, I viewed it as job training. School had a purpose, and I had a mission: prepare myself for the working world by developing skills and a vocation. It was hard work: hours upon hours in labs, in libraries working on problem sets, or studying in my dorm room. It wasn’t easy, but I kept going because I believed engineering was one of the most essential disciplines to Americans’ quality of life and the defense of the nation.
Yet throughout my time in school, it always gnawed at me that my fellow classmates in other disciplines—the students of government, political science, and policy, masters of words, theories, and rules—were going to graduate, occupy positions of power, and determine how I would be able to live my life and run my career. Never mind that many of them started their weekends on Thursdays and probably never took a class in the hard sciences while I was sweating away night and day in the engineering library. They were going to grow up and make decisions that would control my life.
I went to an Ivy League school, and the piece of parchment with the school name was going to open the doors to the gilded life that would allow them to, as one of my schoolmates put it, “rule the world.” Use the school name to get the right internships and make the right connections, and the world would open up for them. (Instead, I repeatedly had job interviewers tell me, “I didn’t know your Ivy League school had engineering.”) I resented it deeply.
How Many Doctors Wrote Obamacare?
That resentment dissipated over time, but never quite went away. As much as I found Trump’s campaign off-putting, a kernel of something within the Trump campaign spoke to me and stirred that long-dormant resentment. For me, it was a revelation and a possible explanation of why Trump won the Republican primaries and why Americans’ opinions of Congress and both political parties are so low.
My resentment, long in remission, came back and crystallized in the following thought: Americans are governed by politicians who see fit to reimagine entire sectors of our economy and, indeed, our lives despite having little, if any, experience in the areas of life they seek to reform wholesale. This means Americans, seeing the failures of government from Obamacare to the Veterans Affairs, from the Environmental Protection Agency dumping toxic materials into a Colorado river to the Dodd-Frank regulations strangling local community banks, have had just about enough of their credentialed but utterly inexperienced supposed betters reordering their lives and livelihoods.
Think about it: how many practicing physicians helped design and implement Obamacare? How many doctors did the Obama administration consult in imposing its electronic medical records requirements on physicians? Did the Obama administration take significant input from doctors who worked within the existing system every day and knew a thing or two about how the proposed reforms might affect their industry? Hardly.
Instead, Americans were treated to the sight of ivory tower intellectuals like Jonathan Gruber with their models, charts, and theories about how wonderful Obamacare would be, and to big insurance companies and their lobbyists helping craft the Obamacare legislation. Gruber and the lobbyists never saw a patient in their lives. Never tried to get a Medicare reimbursement. Never had to comply with the onerous electronic medical records requirements.
It was my nightmare scenario come to life. Hard-working, industrious doctors, who spent years in training, often taking on debt to complete their education, having their careers and lives upended by highly educated, highly credentialed, and galactically inexperienced policy “wonks” who had little to no real idea of how their reforms would work in the real world. Obamacare essentially was a case of inexperienced legislative and executive branch staffers, lobbyists, and academics, all of whom had fancy degrees from fancy schools but little to no understanding of the health care industry they were reshaping, going ahead and reshaping it anyway.
All the Kennedy School degrees in the world provide no understanding of what it is like to practice medicine but nevertheless give elites license to tinker, reform, and experiment with the American health care system. They are experts who know nothing. Obamacare was clear evidence that the governing class treats Americans as playthings, as guinea pigs for their social engineering experiments on how to order Americans’ lives.
I Haven’t Ever Done This, But I Know How
Americans more and more are recognizing that Obamacare is not the exception, but the rule. Students can get a fancy degree in a “more luxurious, socially superior major” (as the blogger Ace of Spades perfectly put it), quickly rush to DC, and get a job in a policy shop, on the Hill, or in an administration, and make their way to dictating other people’s lives by drafting legislation and crafting regulatory policy affecting areas of the economy in which they have never personally participated. It does not seem to require years of experience in a particular field to be making policy in that field.
For another example, look at the way President Obama and other anti-fossil fuel politicians and activists repeatedly cite “settled science” regarding global warming and refer to climate skeptics as science deniers. I probably took more science, math, and engineering classes in one semester than most of those politicians took in their entire post-high-school academic careers. How dare they call me a science denier!
There is perhaps nothing more galling to someone who sweated away in the engineering library for most of his academic career than to hear politicians lecture others on what “science” supposedly says. Meanwhile, the elites’ reliance on “science” has put thousands of coal miners out of work, done nothing to support the fracking industry, and eliminated the possibility of expanding clean nuclear energy.
Even a casual listener can hear the lack of experience every time Hillary Clinton or other Democrats start talking about the economy or business. They talk about how they will force businesses to share profits with employees. They talk about how unions are essential to the growth of the middle class. They talk about how employers should pay a higher minimum wage. They are happy to stick their hands in companies’ profits. Yet they speak from having absolutely no experience ever having run a company. They have never had to meet a payroll or make business decisions. They view businesses as bottomless pots of money they can simply raid to provide more goodies for one favored group or another.
We Hate the People Who Do What We Can’t
Looking at the top political leadership of the country, it doesn’t get much better. Joe Biden briefly practiced law before running for office. Julian Castro, a leading contender for the Democrats’ vice presidential slot, was holding fundraisers for his future political runs while he was still in law school. Bill Clinton graduated law school in 1973, first ran for office in 1974, and was elected Arkansas attorney general in 1976.
Chuck Schumer, the likely next leader of the Senate Democrats, graduated law school in 1974 and ran for office the same year, having never practiced law. President Obama spoke of his disdain for private-sector experience, when he described his brief private-sector job as being “a spy behind enemy lines.” First Lady Michelle Obama once exhorted the citizens of Zanesville, Ohio: “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.”
The disdain for “corporate America”— the people who make things, build things, as Frank Sobotka might say—is palpable. Their vision of America is one nation under a bunch of non-profits. If everyone took their advice and went into the “helping industry,” who would be left to make anything? Why isn’t the engineer building the car, aircraft, or satellite that Americans depend on in their daily lives part of a “helping” industry? Weather satellites that can identify oncoming storms and cars that can help you evacuate quickly are pretty darn helpful. So are air conditioner manufacturers, who make the humid, unpleasant Washington climate palatable for these political eminences. But the political purveyors of words do not see it that way.
The truth is, they have no real experience in corporate America. They cannot see corporate America as an engine of creation, of building things, of making things. Technological inventions, manufacturing goods—it’s all a black box to them. Nothing but magic. Wave a magic wand and fuels, foods, appliances, and automobiles just magically appear.
Unfortunately, just as these politicians don’t know how to create the things Sobotka was talking about, they have no idea what actions will destroy America’s creative engines and throw the Sobotkas out of work. Yet they are the ones rearranging the economy according to their theories on how the world should be ordered.
Lack of Experience Is a Bipartisan Problem
The lack of real-world experience many politicians have is a bipartisan problem. Plenty of Republicans have been in politics from the moment they left school and their real-world, private-sector experience is limited. They too are perceived as not understanding ordinary Americans’ problems because they have not been on the business end of out-of-control government. The Senate has only one manufacturer in it (Ron Johnson of Wisconsin). The revolt of Republican voters in 2016 against career politicians—even successful and capable ones such as Walker—and the success of Trump is evidence of this.
I practiced law in the private sector for ten years, and I got a great education in how the American legal and regulatory system affects business. In my trade law work, I learned the costs regulations imposed on businesses. In my patent law work, I learned the costs of patent litigation—especially patent “trolls”—and how these affected the price of consumer goods. Even though I was no longer doing engineering, my real-world experience helped me understand how law and business interrelate. It was invaluable experience for anyone who might someday be in the government reforming those laws and regulatory regimes.
The common thread in all of this is that public servants who seek to reform economic systems come from a background of producing words, while the citizens who have to operate in these systems come from a background of producing things. Physicians and energy engineers innovate, and, like antibodies attacking a virus, regulators dive in and set boundaries and limits and establish “oversight.”
Somehow, the regulators, especially after they have departed for the private sector, seem to get rich. When they are done with their policy job having created unwieldly, suffocating regulatory regimes, they can move to the private sector, selling their services to help victims of the regulatory regimes navigate them. Or they go on the speaking circuit, making four or five figures (or more!) for an hour of talking. In Sobotka’s pithy words, they put their hands in other peoples’ pockets.
At Least Trump Has Made Things
Say what you will about Trump, but Americans look at him as a man who has created things, not merely words. He has built buildings, golf courses, hotels, and restaurants. He is a man who at least has lived in and participated in the real economy. Yes, he’s had business failures and bankruptcies. From all accounts he also engaged in some sharp business practices with creditors.
But to hear politicians like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders who have never built anything in the private economy criticize Trump for his business failures and economic policies is just too much. She’s a millionaire a hundred times over who wears clothes over the course of a week that cost more than the average American income, not because she helped build a building or an industry, but because she gave speeches. That is, she just had to talk to get rich.
As I said, I haven’t been on the Trump train. But his rise seems to me a testament to Americans’ hunger for the America whose disappearance Sobotka lamented. Americans are tired of word-gaming politicians who craved power from the moment they graduated school and have never experienced what it is like to be among the governed.
Americans want people who have built things, made things, and experienced life among the governed leading them. People who had a career before they went into politics rather than people whose made a career of politics from the get-go. People who have experienced the vicissitudes of the economy and have been on the receiving end of laws and regulations, forced to comply with them to get things done. To me, that’s a major source of Trump’s appeal. I think Sobotka—a hard-working longshoreman and one of the most complex characters in “The Wire”—would understand perfectly.