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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Honoring the worthy

On Nov. 15, Peace House will hold its annual Peacemaker Awards Dinner. These dinners began in 2012, when Peace House celebrated its 30th anniversary.

For several reasons, the board thought that such an event would be a fitting culmination of the numerous activities we had planned. A major reason was our belief in the importance of honoring people. It’s a far better way to develop a virtuous society than punishment. As Aristotle said in the “Poetics,” “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation.” Children yearn to be like those they most admire, so society does well to shine spotlights on its finest members.

Our federal government has two principal awards — the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The former is given for military service of exceptional valor. The qualifying criteria are clear — they are written into law. And the nominating process is formal — usually recipients are brought forward by the service branches, but occasionally by a Member of Congress. There is little room for caprice.

Not so with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President John Kennedy established the award in 1963 by executive order. Its criteria are understandably broad: “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” and the sitting president may choose its recipients without consultation. Nonetheless, while there has been some variation from one president to another, the range and quality of the selections have been impressively high — until now.

The most striking aspects of Donald Trump’s honorees are how few of them there are and how narrow their range. Three years into his term, he has awarded only 12 medals; he’s on pace to award one-third the number that Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. H. Bush each gave out during their four years in office. Further, seven of Trump’s 12 are sports figures. The other five are retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, Justice Antonin Scalia (posthumously), Elvis Presley, Arthur Laffer, and Edwin Meese, Reagan’s attorney general who had to resign because of his involvement in corrupt government contracting.

It was Trump’s choice of Arthur Laffer this June that manifested, not just the poverty of our president’s mind and character, but also the moral bankruptcy of his party.

Laffer was a member of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors. He gained party favor and public notoriety by misreading the graphing of tax rates against government revenue and concluding that lowering tax rates would generate more revenue (the graph itself wrongly became known as the Laffer Curve). Reagan and George W. Bush used Laffer’s work to justify their drastic lowering of tax rates on corporations and the very wealthy. The results were deficits far larger than any incurred during post-World War II Democratic administrations.

So, by the time Trump and his Republican Congress passed their huge tax cuts for the rich in 2017, the predictable result was the very opposite of Laffer’s old prediction — huge deficits, the largest ever during economic good times. Those Republicans who, in the name of fiscal responsibility, frustrated Democratic efforts in 2009 to use government spending to stimulate an economy that Bush had ruined, have said nothing as Trump’s deficits and the national debt skyrocket.

Truth and merit are linked. Their valuation rises and falls in tandem.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.