My father was a small business owner. Actually, when he took over my grandfather’s business, there were over 50 employees. Over the next 30 years, he pared it down to fewer than 10. He would often tell me, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” I came to understand that he couldn’t have been more wrong. Every book I have read about highly successful executives is that they were great at delegating authority.
One of the great lessons I have learned from jazz is to trust my bandmates. If we all are skilled on our instruments and conversant in the language of jazz, have a good understanding of the objectives of the piece of music at hand, and trust and respect each other, the musical outcome has the potential to be far greater than if one person pulls all the strings, and everyone else is subservient. This works best in a small group. As we add more players, we depend on arrangers to assign roles to keep order. Ideally, even in a big band, each player should have as much freedom as possible in playing his/her role.
When Duke Ellington wrote a new chart, the copyist would hand each player his part. From this point forward, those parts were no longer Duke’s—they belonged to each and every one of those musicians. It was their music. Ellington said that it was his responsibility to inspire the musicians to be great, not to tell them how or what to play. He occasionally would referee, but he never was a dictator.
I recently re-watched a favorite movie of mine from my high school days—Scaramouche. When Moreau goes to study fencing, his teacher tells him that holding the sword is like holding a bird in your hand. If you grip it too loosely, the bird will fly away, but if you grip it too tightly, you will crush the bird to death. The same is true in tennis, as I continue to learn every week.
Many years ago, I was in several love relationships that were falling apart. The worse things got, the more controlling I became. I thought that I could impose reason and control, and my partner would change her behavior, and go back to loving me the way she used to. Like the bird in the hand, this approach destroyed what was left of the relationship. When I look back on it, it seems so obvious that I was desperate to hold onto something that wasn’t being reciprocated.
On the grand scale of national and international politics, the left and the right are in deadly combat over this same issue of freedom and trust versus insecurity and the imposition of control. Granted there are times when it is necessary to assert one’s power to prevent a catastrophe or to check another’s aggression, but the idea of the United States being the world’s policeman has not worked well in the past. It is draining our economy, costing us friends, and if we don’t change our attitude, will lead us into a devastating financial depression.
Contrary to the Reagan myth, the USSR collapsed, not because Ronald Reagan scared them to death, but because they gradually went bankrupt trying to keep up the arms race with the US. We should have learned this lesson, but obviously, we haven’t. We keep spending more and more on our military and arms industry while the middle and lower classes earn less money and are deprived of more and more services.
Bernie Sanders often asks why European countries can afford universal healthcare, and we Americans don’t have the money for it. It’s simple. They spend their money on healthcare, education, infrastructure and other things that improve their citizens’ lives, while we devote our money to an ever-increasing military budget. Whose quality of life benefits from this allocation of our tax dollars?
My friends on the right say that if we don’t spend a trillion dollars per year policing and threatening the rest of the world, the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, ISIS, the Taliban, and God knows who else will invade every other country and take over the world. Really? How about, we cut our military budget in half every year and tell our allies that they will need to fill the void if they want to protect themselves? Would they fill the void or would they step up to the plate? I’d like to take the jazz approach and trust that they aren’t idiots.
The purpose of the United Nations is to get worldwide cooperation, not for the US to bully the rest of the world to do what is in our interests or what we think is right. Maybe it’s time that we stop squeezing the bird to death, and give our allies the responsibility they deserve. I’m not suggesting that we let the bird fly away, but there is a lot of distance between these two extremes. Besides, as the budget hawks keep telling us, we can’t continue to run up the national debt. Do we want to take care of the well being of American citizens or try to control the rest of the world? We can’t afford to do both.
We used to have a senator from New York named Al D’Amato. I didn’t agree with him on many issues, but his nickname was Senator Pothole because his priority was to get federal money for projects that helped his constituents. How about we fix the potholes in our streets before we fix the rest of the world’s problems? I know it’s not as simple as that, but a gradual shift of policy will help America (economically and morally) and make our allies feel more like self-sufficient adults. I’ll just leave you with one statistic: the US has about 800 military bases in over 70 countries. How many foreign military bases are there on US soil? Zero! How about we deploy half our military personnel and budget to rebuilding our infrastructure? We could start with the pothole on my street.