What Does the Presidential Medal of Freedom Truly Value?

With a new administration in Washington, much is changing. One thing that will not change is the forthcoming numerous photos and video clips of individuals having a medal draped around their neck by President Biden.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony has been consistently embraced by our Chief Executive. Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, presidents love the photo op of awarding the medal and recipients enjoy the attention upon receiving it. It is one of few constants in a constantly changing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded by the president, “for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The defining criteria are sufficiently vague to allow sitting presidents to award the medal to basically whoever they desire, and from just about any walk of life.

In many ways, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the ultimate lifetime achievement award for individuals lucky enough to elicit favor of the White House. It’s obviously a big deal for the recipient, and prior recipients (excluding a few in hindsight) were deserving.

But it also serves as an indicator of what and who the elite political class value most. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to the same walks of life, careers, and sectors that government is designed to fund, nurture, and grow. What the government awards correlates to what the government thinks is most important in society.

Which got me thinking. What do the award data tell us about what our elite leadership thinks is most important and less important in society?

The Analysis and the Data

The successive terms of Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump provide nearly thirty years of data. Over these four presidential administrations, over 300 Presidential Medals of Freedom were awarded. That’s a decent sized data set to perform a quick analysis.

To assess the data, recipients were classified into eight categories, using general career/sector descriptions. The eight are:

  • Charities, foundations, and advocacy
  • Politics, government, and civil service
  • Arts, entertainment, and media
  • Sports
  • Academia
  • Labor
  • Business
  • Science, technology, and engineering (STEM)

For some recipients, assigning one of the eight categories was a judgement call. For example, 2018 medal recipient Alan Page enjoyed accomplishments of note in both government and sports. For individuals straddling more than one of the eight categories, they were assigned to the category they were most known for. Thus, Alan Page is included in the sports category.

When you mine the data set of these medal recipients, what conclusions stand out?

Conclusion #1: Presidents Enjoy Awarding Medals

Not a shocker. We know politicians love attention and awarding medals is a great opportunity to be seen in a positive light. Thus, it comes as no surprise presidents hand out these medals like candy. Clinton, Bush, and Obama all hit the one hundred medal mark during their tenures, with Obama being the most prolific awarder, clocking in at a rate of nearly 15 medals per year in office.

Interestingly, Trump had the lowest medal award rate per year in office, at six. That’s half of his three predecessor’s average rate of 12 per year in office. Was it because Trump didn’t place as much importance on the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was more selective in his criteria when choosing awardees, or had a smaller pool of candidates due to the Resist Movement? Hard to say, but Trump stands as an outlier on medal frequency versus his predecessors.

Conclusion #2: Government Picks the Most Winners From…Government

Perhaps a shocker to some, but it should not come as a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to how government tends to operate in an insulated ecosystem separate from the citizenry it is supposed to serve. For all four presidents save Trump, the biggest grouping of awardees is from the combined categories of “charities, foundations, and advocacy” and “politics, government, and civil service.”

For Clinton’s class this grouping comprised over 75% of the total, while for Bush’s class it tallied nearly two-thirds of the total awardees. The representation tailed off a bit under Obama and Trump, coming in at 43% and 29%, respectively. Across all four presidents cumulatively, half of the 300+ awardees hailed from government, politics, or advocacy closely tied to both.

Although I am sure these 150 awardees are deserving of the award (maybe a few exceptions), it shows that government has its greatest affinity for itself.

Conclusion #3: Hollywood, Media, and Sports Are Medal Magnets

Presidents are increasingly drawn to the entertainment complex when doling out Presidential Medals of Freedom, like moths to a flame. Trump loved the jocks: he awarded nearly 60% of his medals to individuals in sports. Obama loved the arts: he tied almost a third of his medals to the necks of singers, writers, and actors.

Bush was slightly less weighted to sports and entertainment than Obama and Trump, but still awarded 38% of his medals to this combined group. Surprisingly, Clinton was the least impressed with athletes and cultural celebrities, having awarded a relatively paltry 5% to the group.

Clinton aside, the data show our leaders place enormous weight on those who provide entertainment to society. If you can consistently sink three-pointers or stream a hit song, the trend indicates you may be in line for a Presidential Medal of Freedom someday.

Conclusion #4: What Matters Most is Recognized Least

The United States is a capitalistic society based on a foundation of free enterprise and individual rights. Americans have a 200+ year legacy of technological innovation that continually raises quality of life for all.

This is a country of “doers” who disrupt the status quo and create wealth. Someone should remind Washington, D.C. of this.

Nearly thirty years of four presidents handing out Presidential Medals of Freedom shows that our political elite care little for business and STEM. The share of awardees hailing from business and technical fields is consistently embarrassing.

Bush (at 15% of awardees) and Obama (at 14%) were slightly less embarrassing than Clinton (at 8% of awardees) and Trump (at 4%), but all four are saying the same thing: those who achieve and create value are not placed on the same pedestal as those who entertain or live in and around government.

A Stark Contrast Between Two Rivals

Almost thirty years of data from the Presidential Medal of Freedom paints a clear picture. Our leaders favor the image (sports and entertainment) and the familiar (government and advocacy groups closely tied to it) over the substance of those who create value in business and technical fields.

We have the Presidential Medal of Freedom. China has its Thousand Talents Program.

The Biden administration is mulling over who the next celebrity or athlete will be to join the ranks of prior awardees Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro, and Tiger Woods. Meanwhile the Chinese are figuring out which advanced technology it needs to procure from us through its program funding and rewards.

Which country is playing the long game and which is fixated on shiny distractions?

We are running out of time to adjust course as to what matters in American society.

A good start is to improve the optics of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—shifting its weighting of awardees to those who create, enable, and serve the vital pillars of free enterprise, technological advancement, value creation, and geopolitical competitive advantage.

The more medals we tie around those types of necks, the better off the world will be.

Assessing Trump’s Four Years

With President Biden now in the White House, let’s objectively assess President Trump’s four years in office.

An objective evaluation is neither construed from the Left’s Resist Movement (there are plenty of those views out there to read) nor part of the MAGA-hat-wearing, Trump-Rambo-flag-waving crowd (with its own small but vocal minority that breaks laws and assaults).

No, objectively here means from the lens of middle-class Americans in fly-over country. Places like my corner of the world, western Pennsylvania. You know, the people and regions the government and its elected leaders are supposed to work for.

So, how would one grade Trump looking back on the past four years?

Although assessing the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth in the complex modern era can be a daunting task, Trump’s legacy comes down to performance in three crucial categories: domestic/foreign policy, fiscal/monetary policy, and the intangibles/leadership. Trump’s performance across these three categories has been quite the mixed bag.

Domestic/Foreign Policy Grade: A

Trump clearly excelled in the category of domestic/foreign policy.
Countless Americans benefitted from deregulation across numerous industries and activities; working families along with free enterprise doers had the shackles of the administrative state loosened for the first time in a decade.

Those that carry society’s water as taxpayers were able to retain more of their hard-earned value with tax reform. Parents and their children benefitted from policies that favored school choice. Criminal justice reform became a reality. A record number of federal judges, including over 50 appellate judges, were confirmed to the bench. America maintained its global energy leadership, keeping domestic energy costs affordable while sharing cleaner-burning natural gas with others abroad.

Historic accords were inked between Israel and wide swaths of Arab and Muslim nations. An oppressive, aggressive, and menacing China was finally taken head on. NAFTA was replaced with the superior USMCA. The nice sounding but flawed concept of free trade was replaced with the practical reality of fair trade between the US and trade partners.

Trump wasn’t perfect on the policy front. Not getting major immigration reform across the finish line was a missed opportunity. Operation Warp Speed successfully rolled out vaccines in less than a year, but the pandemic still claimed a heavy toll in lost lives.

Love him or despise him, but Trump posted a policy record that bested his predecessors all the way back to Reagan. The scoreboard of pre-pandemic GDP growth, unemployment, and market valuations proves it. All of it achieved while reducing our involvements in endless wars in faraway lands.

Fiscal/Monetary Policy Grade: F

This category is the biggest failure of Trump and no one across the political spectrum seems interested in talking about it. The US national debt sits at nearly $28 trillion dollars, which is roughly $7 trillion more than our annual GDP. The US government now posts a debt level that is over eight-times its revenue. To put that egregious metric in perspective, consider the S&P index of public corporations posts an average debt-to-revenue ratio of less than 0.5.

Multi-trillion-dollar annual federal deficits are now the accepted and welcomed norm. The Trump era only solidified the comfort with these egregious fiscal levels. Entitlement reform never materialized, and the past four years only stoked the dumpster fire that consists of the federal budget, deficit, and debt. Trump and the Fed had a love-hate relationship over four years. Unfortunately for us, the love part of that relationship was their joint rapture in zero interest rates and a Fed balance sheet that only knows one direction.

Trump, Congress, and the Fed collaborated to have government drive capital allocation to the point where massive bubbles have inflated over equities, debt, real estate, and a host of exotic assets (art, wine, rare coins, etc.).

Saving went from a virtue in our culture (frugality was one of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues) to a punished behavior. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Our nation is about to experience that axiom the hard way as it relates to free money and continual outspend.

Intangibles/Leadership: C (the average of an A and F, as explained below)

Presidents should be judged not just on their policies and the numbers, but also on leadership qualities and intangibles. When it comes to that last component, this country has not seen a president like Trump since FDR. And there is massive positive and massive negative that goes along with that statement.

First, the positive. Trump was a trailblazer and disruptor when it came to communication methods.

Trump single-handedly rendered the mainstream media obsolete with his use of social media, much like FDR did with his fireside chats via radio. Worse yet for the media, he exposed for all to see blatant bias on a range of issues lying underneath the faux veneer of objectivity. And he accomplished all that without the support of (one might argue despite) traditional political party infrastructure. Politicians for generations will be looking to mimic his strategy when it comes to communication.

But there were negatives, some of them massive.

The content of his tweets represents a cumulative failure of leadership. Often it was not what he said, but how he said it. And sometimes it was what he said. But the best way to summarize his body of work on social media and at press conferences over four years is: good grief! Regardless of the fanatical views and violent tendencies of segments of both the Right and Left, as president, equivocating and rationalizing such behavior with a “the other side does it, too” mentality falls woefully short of the obligations of the office. A little discipline or a measure of rising above the fray would’ve done wonders. Alas, neither were apparent.

The other big negative in this category was how Trump acted after the election. High achieving individuals with track records of success don’t suffer loss well. And objective observers understand Trump had a lot working against him, including the Washington establishment and proponents of the status quo in both political parties, the media, a global public health crisis, untested mail-in voting, and so on. But when you’re the leader of the free world, there will be times where the nation comes first. Trump’s lame duck period was one of those times. He did not rise to the occasion, no matter what his role was with the lawlessness that ensued at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump was a force that burned down and rewrote the political playbook on communication and leadership. But he blew it with a poorly executed game plan, lack of judgement, and dangerous penchant for stoking the flames of discontent.

Overall Final Grade: C

We enjoyed better and suffered worse presidents than Trump. What is frustrating with Trump’s performance is that he did so many things right. But stoking fiscal and monetary flames higher and unbecoming behavior that covered up the substance with the form leaves many wondering what might have been.

The Unlikeliest of Doppelgangers: Dylan and Trump

A doppelganger in German folklore is a biologically unrelated look-alike of another; what some call a twin stranger. I wonder if Donald Trump and Bob Dylan ever met. Because, as odd as it seems on its face, these two icons share more than a few uncanny similarities in career and public perception.

I know, I know. Scores of burnt-out ex-beatnik/hippie seniors living in gentrified urban neighborhoods who can quote Dylan lyrics verbatim despise Donald Trump. And many MAGA hat-wearing ardent Trump supporters consider Dylan an incoherent mumbler of dubious talent. One would not be caught dead with the other, and both groups pride themselves on their disdain for the opposing icon. Yet the parallels between the career trajectories of Trump and Dylan run many and deep.

A key commonality between the two is that there is, well, much not to like. Dylan’s early career of acoustic folk protest songs I find tinny and much too romanticized by an accommodating rock press. His penchant for discarding those around him who no longer furthered his career ambitions was less than admirable. Trump’s insatiable ego and hunger for the spotlight drives an introvert like myself seeking a dark, quiet place.

Yet both men enjoyed a condensed period where they left a permanent, undeniable, and positive mark upon society.

In ten short years, from 1965 to 1975, Dylan created perhaps the greatest trio of albums ever with Highway 61 Revisited (’65), Blonde on Blonde (’66) and Blood on the Tracks (’75). Trump was the first president in a generation who had the audacity to break the oppressive shackles of bureaucracy, regulation, and government to liberate society’s doers, free enterprise, the middle class, employment, and economic growth. The legacy of both men will live on.

Dylan and Trump presented existential threats to the established interests where they first took root.

Dylan turned the folk music community inside out when he went electric, causing a freaked-out Pete Seeger to attempt to cut (allegedly with a hatchet) Dylan’s power during his live performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Trump roiled the traditional Republican platform when he railed against globalism and multinationalism, causing old guard stalwarts like McCain, Romney, and Bush to become the most strident members of the resist movement. Ironically, Dylan and Trump grew the brand and reach of folk music and the Republican party, respectively, yet were subjected to public attack from each group’s old guard beneficiaries.

Both men defied being pigeon-holed into convenient labels to suit the simple constructs of others. Trump is not a populist, traditional Republican, or conservative. Dylan is not a poet, protest singer, or rock star. Both are more complex than easy definitions and tags, as is the case for most individuals who leave indelible marks on history.

“Fake news” was not a foreign phenomenon to either trailblazer. Of course, Trump turned the tables on the biased media and made fake news one of the most effective planks of his campaign platform. But not many realize Dylan was subjected to similar media shenanigans; the British press would report a mass exodus of audience from concert halls during his early, controversial electric performances when the reality was only a small handful of narcissists wishing to make a scene staged a walkout. With media, some things never seem to change.

There’s a sense both icons are torn between obsessively bolstering their public personas and being willing to completely disappear from the limelight.

Dylan meticulously tailored earlier artistic moves to grow his aura; but then would disappear from the public eye for years on end. Although Trump is the embodiment of obsession of publicity, he has hinted from time to time a desire to sail off into the sunset to enjoy a life beyond the lens and Twitter. Perhaps both experience a hunger for, and subsequent exhaustion from, such global profiles.
Ultimately, Trump and Dylan are forces of individualistic creative destruction. Both tore down establishments that initially elevated them, refusing to yield to a tide of conformity. Both replaced the ruins with new edifices that evolved the status quo into their own visions. Although their critics will never accept their greatness, the rest of us would be well served to appreciate the lasting legacies of both.

COVID-19 copies climate as elites squash science

If you’ve been noticing an eerie similarity between the elite rhetoric surrounding the pandemic and that of climate change, you are on to something. Both issues, technically complex, have seen science and fact superseded by the politics and religion of the Left.

The parallels are evident. Both issues are utilized by the Left as convenient opportunity for excessive government action and intrusive intervention. The consequences, intended or not, often worsen both situations.