It wasn’t one of President Trump’s most controversial appointments. Far from it. Last week, when he nominated Jerome Powell to lead the Federal Reserve, many on the left breathed a sigh of relief. Powell is seen as a mostly qualified and moderate choice. Compare that to Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions or Betsy DeVos.
But Trump also broke with decades of tradition by canning the person who had previously held the position. Janet Yellen, the first female Federal Reserve chair ever, will also become the first in modern history denied a second term after completing a first.
It would be one thing if she was doing a terrible job or implementing policies Trump disagrees with. But she oversaw a steady fall in the unemployment rate and no big upswings in inflation, fulfilling the two mandates of the Federal Reserve. She also began the process of unwinding some of the Fed’s actions during the financial crisis without causing another one. She’s kept interest rates relatively low, something Trump says he wants to see continued. In fact, Powell is widely thought to have been picked because he offers so much continuity with Yellen.
Instead, the abrupt end to Yellen’s tenure is one piece of a much larger pattern in Trump’s government. Trump, who never held elected office before becoming commander in chief, yet beat the most qualified candidate ever who would have also been the first woman in the Oval Office, has stacked his cabinet and most rungs of the government with white men just like himself.
Out of Trump’s 24 top cabinet positions, white men hold 17. As Emily Peck pointed out at HuffPost, the four women who do surround him “hold what are arguably second-tier positions.” More broadly speaking, he’s nominated 282 men to cabinet-level positions, versus 77 women.
Among the more than 1,000 mid-level appointees Trump has named so far, 88 percent are white and 62 percent are men. These are the aides, policy experts and managers who act as go-betweens for leadership and the civil servants further down the food chain. More than 80 percent of his judicial nominees are men. He’s nominated 41 men and one woman to be a U.S. attorney.
Trump’s predecessors didn’t achieve full equality either. But they certainly did a whole lot better. By his last year in office, President Obama had 10 women in his cabinet, and his appointees to mid-level positions were 67 percent white and 47 percent male. Women made up 42 percent of his judicial nominees. Trump’s cabinet, on the other hand, is the most male-heavy we’ve seen since President George H.W. Bush. After recent presidents tip-toed toward parity, Trump has moved decisively and swiftly backward.
Powell isn’t just another white male. He’s also very wealthy, the richest member of the Fed’s Board of Governors while serving there. While Yellen had investments worth $4.8 million back when she began her term, Powell’s assets are worth somewhere between $21.3 million and $72.2 million. That too follows a pattern: Trump assembled what is considered the wealthiest administration in our country’s history (although some of the originals, such as Steve Bannon, Tom Price and Sean Spicer, are no longer there).
The government Trump has put together, then, is inordinately white, male and rich. More so than the ones that came before, and far more so than the American population, where demographics are such that about 18 percent of us are Hispanic, 13 percent are black, a hair’s breadth over half are female, and the median income is about $59,000 a year.
This is important for matters of symbolism and representation. It matters, for example, when a young black girl looks at the people who run the country and finds few who look like her. It matters when people who are padded by their uncommon wealth make decisions affecting the rest of us. It matters when leadership fails to reflect the diversity of those being led.
But it also matters for policymaking itself. There’s good evidence that someone’s own experiences shape the way he makes policy decisions. None of us is free of bias, after all; we each come with a unique set of life experiences that shape our perspective, many of them related to our race, gender and class. One paper found, for example, that if someone in monetary policy started their career in times of high inflation, they tend to be more focused on inflation. Male and female economists tend to hold different views on things like the gender wage gap, gender equality in the economy and even the minimum wage and health insurance.
There’s also the question of qualifications and quality. Our economy is 15 to 20 percent bigger because at least some barriers to the economy were knocked down for women and people of color. That enabled employers to pick the top candidates from a much broader pool. In science, for example, gender-diverse teams produce better work than those that are mostly male. If you restrict yourself to choosing from a pot of people who are white and male, you miss the best of the best in all other groups. A rich, white, male government cheats itself out of the talent found in all other demographics, while necessarily promoting the mediocre because the available options are constrained.
Powell getting Yellen’s job is once again a parable. Yellen is a trained economist who, before serving as Fed chair, spent more than a decade either at the Fed itself or on the Council of Economic Advisers. Powell, on the other hand, is the first Fed chair without a Ph.D. in economics since 1987 and has never led a large organization. When he was appointed to the Fed’s Board of Governors in 2012, “he basically did not know much about macroeconomics or monetary policy,” according to Seth Carpenter, who overlapped with Powell on the board.
None of that means that Powell will perform poorly. But is he the very best candidate for the job? Or is he a wealthy white man who gets to leapfrog over everyone else?
This is common to what happens in the workplace, too. Men are judged on their potential and given leadership roles based on their over-confidence and hubris; women are judged on their previous records and penalized for being overly confident. Thus mediocre men continue to climb to the highest and most powerful ranks.
Perhaps it’s not shocking that a man who campaigned on building a wall on the Mexican border and blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and who has been accused by 17 women of harassing and abusing them, would show a preference for men who look like him. But just because it doesn’t surprise doesn’t mean it shouldn’t outrage. It weakens our government. It moves progress backward. And it sends a clear message about who this administration values and who it doesn’t.