Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

20 March 2017

Trump Two Months Out


[For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Introduction
1. Energy/Global warming
2. Health insurance
3. Good jobs onshore
4. Immigration
5. Economic stability
4. Geopolitical stability
Conclusion
Erratum

Introduction

It’s now been two months, precisely, since Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Already it seems like two years, doesn’t it? Part of the reason is that we’ve all been talking about things we never dreamed we’d ever talk about.

We’re talking about how many innocent immigrants and American citizens are getting caught in a web Trump wove to show how tough he is on Muslims. We’re talking about how not to destroy private health-insurance markets that have just stabilized eight years after the enactment of “Obamacare.” We’re taking about how many bombs, missiles and drones we can make from the money we save by cutting all EPA climate science and much medical research, plus PBS, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, Meals on Wheels, and heating subsidies to keep the old and poor from freezing in winter.

Last but not least, we’re talking about Donald J. Trump’s casual lies. We’re especially focused on his latest: that Obama wiretapped him during the transition. We’re not just talking about the lies themselves: we’re talking about whether any rational foreign government will ever again believe any American president after this one.

Isn’t that exactly what we should have expected from the Great Showman? Trump won the presidency by getting the entire nation to take its eyes off the ball. Now he’s working hard on getting us all to forget that there is a ball—or anything, for that matter, more important than he.

But that’s why I wrote my “benchmarks” post a week before his inauguration. I didn’t want anyone accusing me of moving the goalposts during his term. Some of the benchmarks were things that any rational president would want to do. But most of them were things that Trump himself had promised during the campaign. So I wrote that post to make a record of things he promised—and a few he should have promised—the folks who voted for him.

How’s he doing on those benchmarks two months out? You may think it unfair to ask so soon. But the body goes where the head goes, and (in Trump’s case) the head goes where the mouth goes. So the first two months of his mouth and Tweets ought to tell us something about how serious he is about his promises. Let’s take a look.

1. Energy/Global warming.

I put these twins first in my “benchmarks” post because they are by far the most important issues facing our nation and our species. How are we doing in making the transformation in energy sources that we know we must make, at least within the average lifetime of a child born today? And how are we doing in slowing (forget about arresting!) the global warming that every recent measurement suggests is beginning a runaway acceleration phase?

To be fair to Trump, these questions figured in his promises to voters only in a negative way. He promised he would ignore them and get on with the process of finding, extracting and burning fossil fuels. That, he said, was how to Make America Great Again.

So far, Trump has handled these intertwined issues exactly as he handles everything he doesn’t want to think about. He has ignored them.

Actually, he has gone beyond ignoring them. He has taken steps to relax the latest required fuel-efficiency benchmarks for cars. And, with his approval, his party in its budget has zeroed out all the EPA’s climate-science programs. So he has worked to lower the bar for fuel-efficiency of internal-combustion engines, and he has helped make it harder to know how much we are heating our planet.

Putting one’s head in the sand is the metaphor that comes to mind. In so doing Trump has made clear that he doesn’t care about the threat of global warming or the industrial opportunities inherent in energy transformation. He wants the tycoons of the past to remain the tycoons of the present and future, even though he made his own money in places far afield from cars and energy.

“Doesn’t care” is his precise state of mind. For Trump has allowed Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, to preserve the Paris Agreement, which has some climate goals but no teeth. Let China, Germany and others worry about global warming and get a head start on the clean-energy jobs that fighting it might bring. In the meantime, we’ll get rich fracking oil and making less-efficient but powerful and sexy cars.

Is this plan short-term and short-sighted? Sure. But it’s what Trump impliedly promised when he declared global warming a Chinese hoax. It might even work in the short term, which for Trump ought to be no more than four years. (If he’s this erratic, self-obsessed and punchy at 71, can you imagine how he’ll be at 75?).

2. Health insurance.

True to his campaign promise, Trump is working with the rest of his party to repeal and replace “Obamacare.” True to his word, he got his party to propose a replacement at the same time as repeal. So far, so good.

But if anything like the GOP’s current replacement bill passes into law, it will remind Trump voters of a basic cautionary tale. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Twenty-four million people—no doubt including millions of Trump voters—will lose their health insurance. They will have “access” to health insurance and a “choice” of plans. The plans will not be sham insurance; they will cover pre-existing conditions and avoid annual and overall monetary caps, following the rules for real insurance laid down by Obamacare.

But millions of Trump voters won’t be able to afford any of these plans. So many of them will suffer and die or go bankrupt trying to stay alive and healthy. The money saved by pushing them under will go primarily toward big tax cuts for the wealthy, which (in GOP orthodoxy) will “trickle down” to jobs for workers.

I’ve often expressed awe at the power of GOP propaganda, especially Fox. Nowhere in human history, insofar as I’m aware, has any propaganda machine been better able than the GOP and its apologists to get ordinary workers to vote against their own economic interests. They work by inflating and twisting fuzzy abstractions—“freedom,” “enterprise,” “self-reliance,” “markets” and “choice”—and belittling “dependency” (aka “freeloading”) while ascribing it to despised minorities and “socialism.”

As I’ve written, GOP propagandists and showmen have gotten kids to hate ice cream, in the form of real access to modern medicine when they need it. But will all the razzle-dazzle still work when people start to get sick and die? When they fill the emergency rooms of teaching hospitals and taste the general despair?

No one knows. The subject of health-insurance is complex. It’s not so obviously a daily necessity for everyone as a job. So Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are confident (or so they say) that Fox and their operatives can pull the wool over the working class’ eyes again. They think the workers who trashed Hillary and elected a raw newbie will be happy with the notion that they could afford to get well if only they were rich.

More vulnerable Republicans in Congress worry lest this particular hand of three-card monte will be their last. As one savvy pol said, it’s easy to delude voters about a benefit they don’t yet have, but it’s harder to take one they have away.

Only time will tell. But all of us should take notice. If the GOP and Trump the Showman can pull this off, they can pull off almost anything. They can, in theory, complete the transition of our American government from democracy to oligarchy to full corporate rule. After that, nearly everything important in individuals’ lives—except some of what goes on in their bedrooms—corporate boardrooms will decide.

So watch this one closely. It’s a test case, if not for drowning government in a bathtub, at least for making it practically irrelevant to most voters’ lives.

And don’t forget the nasty feedback loop. The less voters see positive changes in their lives, the less they vote, and the more Fox sways the few rabid voters who remain. If anything like the so-called “American Health Care Act” becomes law, the end of American democracy won’t be far behind. The bosses will have won decisively, down to life and death.

3. Good jobs onshore.

Climate and health insurance are life-and-death issues, but they are complex, abstract and contingent. Health insurance, for example, doesn’t matter unless and until you get injured or sick.

In contrast, jobs are how people live from day to day. Trump won the presidency by recognizing this fundamental fact of life, by condemning the steady drip, drip, drip of good jobs out of America, and by promising to fix it. (Bernie did the latter, too, but he lost to Hillary.)

During the campaign, Trump made a lot of promises about jobs. But only one of his promises made any sense. Imposing out-of-the-blue 35% tariffs on Chinese imports wouldn’t bring any lost manufacturing jobs back, but it might re-create the economic conditions that led to World War II. Imposing tariffs on products from factories that American plutocrats built abroad after fair warning might work to keep future jobs at home, but it won’t bring any already-lost jobs back. The only promise that Trump made in his campaign that would create real jobs soon involved building our infrastructure.

The non-partisan American Society of Civil Engineers says that by 2025 we need to invest $ 4.59 trillion in our infrastructure, which is outdated and falling apart. Well-established economic theory, called Keynesian economics, says that when private markets don’t create enough good jobs or do enough good work, government can by borrowing money; the resulting economic boost will pay the debt off in the medium term. So Trump could create many good, high-paying jobs simply by using government to borrow money and build, improve, repair or maintain public infrastructure—things like roads, bridges, water-and-sewer systems, the Internet and air traffic control.

It’s not as if this theory is untested. It worked before and during World War II, when unprecedented debt brought us out of the Great Depression and the resulting wartime prosperity paid off the debt in the postwar decade. It worked in several postwar recessions and has been used by both parties. It worked in the Great Recession just receding, albeit barely, because the GOP limited the debt to the minimum needed to avoid economic collapse.

Apparently aware of this well-tested theory, Candidate Trump promised to put a trillion dollars into infrastructure building. He said it was a good time to borrow money for that purpose, taking advantage of extraordinarily low post-Crash-of-2008 interest rates.

But President Trump’s promise of infrastructure building has run into a big Wall. No, it’s not the one on Mexico’s border. It’s another one built by Trump’s own party, his fellow Republicans.

We got a big hint about this Wall when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, even before Trump’s inauguration, that job creation by infrastructure-building was “not a priority.” That’s catatonic Mitch-speak for “when Hell freezes over.”

Why has the Republican Congress put the kibosh on Trump’s best chance for creating millions of real, good jobs? Only two answers make any sense at all. First, letting government borrow money to build infrastructure and create jobs will make government more important and prestigious. That would violate the GOP’s primary ideology for over a generation, which is to downsize and even destroy government so that the bosses in their boardrooms can rule.

Second, if GOP ideology did not itself curse the plan, the 1% and 0.1% who finance the GOP’s campaigns would. They want money out of government and into their own hands, by means of reducing taxes on the wealthiest earners. The last thing they want is deficit spending—no matter how important or helpful to workers—because it might require raising their taxes later. Did I mention that selfishness has been the GOP mantra ever since Reagan?

GOP members of Congress have made some noise about getting the private sector to build infrastructure. But our dilapidated infrastructure has been there for decades, and our private sector has not risen up to rebuild or improve it. Do Mitch and his ilk think that a little jawboning will open the corporate coffers?

No, the profits available from roads, bridges, water-and-sewer systems and the like are too small for today’s corporate bosses. And if government allows them to squeeze supranormal profits out of this boring infrastructure, that will only hurt working men and women who must pay the tolls and water-and-sewage fees.

So this is where the rubber meets the road for Trump. He’s done everything he can to cultivate a reputation as a “tough guy” and a “winner.” But insulting women and journalists and telling bald lies doesn’t make you tough.

What makes you tough is winning an important fight with people who oppose you, when winning will help the millions who voted for you win, too. For Trump, that means fighting, and winning, the battle to create good jobs for members of the middle class who’ve lost them.

If that’s what tough means, Trump hasn’t even begun to qualify. Building the Wall won’t bring voters good jobs. Even making Mexico pay for it won’t. Denying and defunding climate science won’t bring good jobs; that will only let China and Germany get further ahead of us in the jobs that will come from energy conversion.

The sole, single and solitary thing that Trump promised and still could do would be to borrow money, before interest rates rise further, and put millions to work building, improving, repairing and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. To do that, he would have to fight members of his own party and ally with Democrats, who would be happy to see (belatedly) the proper use of Keynesian economics that those selfsame members denied President Obama.

In other words, to keep his jobs promise to middle-class workers, Trump would have to fight a segment of his own party and actually become a real, nonpartisan leader.

That is his chief test, and that is the trial he must overcome to “Make America Great Again.” All else is noise in comparison: the rich can’t make America great by themselves.

4. Immigration.

Insofar as concerns immigration, Trump has acted much like a gypsy fortune teller. His “crystal ball” is his Wall, which he has tried to instill with the aura of magical powers. But no one—not even leaders of his own party—believes the Wall will appreciably stem illegal immigration from Mexico.

Sure, it will kill a few more hapless border-crossers in the Sonora Desert. But the vast majority of illegal immigrants will come in the same way they always have: by overstaying their lawful visas, by hiding out in vehicles that “La Migra” doesn’t search, or by crossing the border by tunnel, by air, or in other places where the Wall doesn’t reach. The Wall is simply a bit of razzle-dazzle to impress the rubes.

The rest of Trump’s immigration plan is also out of the fortune-teller’s playbook. Just like an ambiguous fortune, it all depends on how you interpret it. Will Trump deport all eleven million illegal immigrants, including those working peacefully and paying taxes here at home? Or will he deport only those who have criminal records? And if the latter, will he include even people caught driving with a broken taillight, or just serious felons such as murderers, armed robbers and rapists?

The simple answer is that no one knows. Candidate Trump has endorsed, explicitly or impliedly, every one of these options. His personal “fortune cookie” can cover them all. Maybe it depends on how well he slept or what he ate the night before.

But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Trump can declare “victory” no matter what he does and what happens, just like the gypsy fortune teller whose ambiguous “prediction” covers a whole range of possible outcomes.

The fact is that immigration in general is no problem. It’s the means by which our society replenishes and rejuvenates itself, and the means by which we get people to do our worst and dirtiest jobs.

Trump’s party, the Republicans, understand this point well. They allow enough “off-the-books” immigration to man our slaughterhouses, clean our toilets, cut our restaurants’ vegetables (and our lawns), take care of rich people’s kids, and make the beds in our hotels and mansions. They even allow enough to wait for day jobs around the corner from Lowe’s and Home Depot hardware stores.

But by keeping undocumented immigrants “illegal,” afraid and in the shadows, they keep these workers docile, free from unions, and submissive. They keep them like a class of serfs as surely as the lords of yore kept their vassals.

I’m no mind reader, let alone of anyone as inconsistent and erratic as Trump. But I would be astonished if he has the slightest intention of changing this horrible system. Even if he did, his fellow plutocrats would dissuade him in the strongest possible terms, for they depend upon this cheap, submissive labor for their profits. (Trump’s Silicon Valley co-plutocrats are already beating on him to allow more immigration of people who take the hard college courses that our native-born students won’t.)

So Trump may indeed build that Wall, or as much of it as his penny-pinching co-Republicans will finance. He may indeed deport as many as a few million “illegals.” But at the end of the day, the system will remain unchanged, and immigration will remain a political issue for Republicans to demagogue far into the future.

If you think this is a “win,” then you are probably already a Trump supporter. Those of us who prefer real solutions to more than non-problems will continue to differ.

5. Economic stability

Why is our country more unstable now than at any time in my 71-year life? I can think of only three clear reasons. First, our economy is now more lopsided, with more wealth concentrated at the top, than at any time since our last Guilded Age. That Age, you may recall, ended with the Great Depression and the world’s most horrible war.

Second, our economy has far too many financial institutions operating under far too loose rules. The Dodd-Frank legislation, which Trump is disposed to let banks dismantle, does little or nothing to fix the primary causes of the Crash of 2008. To give just one example, there are still hundreds of trillions in face value of the same kinds of derivatives that precipitated the Crash, many of them in secret “dark pools” unknown to regulators, including the Fed.

Finally, none of the many bankers who caused the Crash of 2008 went to jail. None was punished personally (although some corporations were), and none really lost money, just a bit of future expectation. When people do bad things and are not punished, they tend to repeat those bad acts. Maybe they don’t right away; some wait a while. But a repetition under these circumstances is psychologically inevitable.

So if someone somehow emails me after my death, recounting the Second Great Depression as more global, more horrible and more punishing than the first, I would hope to have some way to respond, “I told you so.”

Fending off such an awful outcome would not be rocket science. First, it would involved winding down our astronomical inequality and reviving our middle class. Second, it would require reversing the over-financialization of our economy, principally by breaking up the big banks and beefing up Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Finally, although the horse has already bolted the barn since 2008, it would involve enacting some serious penalties so that perpetrators of another such financial collapse could expect to see some serious jail time and lose most, if not all, of their ill-gotten gains.

This is what economic stabilization means to me. It means changing the rules to make our economy less rigged and more equal and to deter obvious wrongdoing.

Has Trump done anything like this? Has he even talked about doing so? No, of course not. He has appointed foxes to man the chicken coops in his Cabinet, and he has treated every business man (they are nearly all men!), no matter how socially, technologically and morally bankrupt, as a privileged member of his elite social class.

Anyone who expects economic stability to emerge from this is delusional. This kind of behavior and this same laissez faire attitude led to the First Gilded Age at the dawn of the last century, and then the inevitable Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, our Second Gilded Age, and the Great Recession now agonizingly winding down. Without serious and substantial change, can a Second Great Depression be far behind?

6. Geopolitical stability.

Of all the problems and fields of politics discussed in this essay, geopolitical stability is the one in which Trump, in theory, has the greatest advantage. Why? Because Dubya, his penultimate predecessor, left him and our nation with a godawful mess abroad. If Trump can just continue Obama’s work cleaning up that mess, and not make any new messes or new wars, he can come out like a hero.

Dubya’s mess was so great that President Obama, despite Herculean effort and laudable restraint, was unable to clean it up entirely. And so we still have a broken and bleeding Syria spilling Islamic refugees all over Europe and the Balkans—a direct result of Dubya’s misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq. And so we have a China so puffed up with economic power as to ignore the treaties that it itself has made and push its own, ancient imperial “rights” in the South China Sea. And so we have a Russia so emboldened, and so concerned with invasive threats near its border (in Afghanistan and Iraq), as to revert to imperial ambitions in Syria and Ukraine and even to menace the Baltics.

Many of these ugly consequences flowed, in relatively straight lines, from our mindless invasions and occupations of two sovereign foreign nations, whose primary objective (bringing bin Laden to justice) Obama met with two helicopters and a team of Seals. The rest flowed from obsequious treatment of China, for the benefit of our plutocrats, which vastly exaggerated China’s economic power and sense of imperium.

Obama rightly wound down, but did not finish, the two needless wars. He avoided the tragic blunder of starting a new one with Iran—a nation with more than twice the population and many times the political, economic and military power of Afghanistan and Iraq combined. But much remains to be done, in Syria, with the Islamic State, in Ukraine, in the South China Sea, and in North Korea.

So Trump has a lot of work to do, and a lot of good he could do, in the international arena.

Is he off to a good start? Stability breeds stability. Instability breeds instability. So far, Trump has invariably made the wrong choices. Demeaning NATO, complaining of its cost, and impliedly threatening to pull out were destabilizing acts, best pressed in strict private, if at all. Whether or not based on an unlawful (and impeachable) quid pro quo, Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia risks encouraging further bestiality in Syria, further encroachments into Ukraine, and further imperial ambitions on Putin’s part, even in the Baltics.

These are not good starts. Nor is pressing Mexico to pay for Trump’s all-for-show Wall, when what Mexico most needs (as usual) is our help in restructuring its economy and fighting its narco wars.

Yet there are signs of possible progress. Unlike Showman Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson seems to be working well into his job. He speaks little and listens much—characteristics for which he was noted as an oil executive. Those traits will serve him well in diplomacy.

As a result, when he speaks his words resound. His threat of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea got the notice it deserved. It was long overdue.

What do voters and the world expect? After a generation of efforts by both parties, North Korea is still the world’s most dangerous rogue state. Unlike Saddam, it indisputably has nuclear weapons, and it’s developing missiles to deliver them. Unlike every other nuclear power, it continually threatens to use them. And its leader, a boy-man much like Trump himself, has absolutely no checks or balances and (having executed his uncle and murdered his half-brother) apparently no family or personal restraints.

So what are we to do with this monster? Wait until nuclear-armed missiles are in the air bound for Honolulu, San Franciso and Los Angeles and exclaim, “Gee! We thought he was bluffing!”

This is exactly what our nuclear-weapons modernization program, which Obama initiated as president, is for. Accurately targetable weapons, with “dialable” force of yield, could, if needed, destroy Kim’s weapons silos and (if it came to that) Kim and his sycophants in their bunkers. And, being able to apply only the necessary force, they could minimize loss of innocent life. Kim and China ought to know that we intend to use such weapons if Kim remains unrestrained and the risk of a nuclear strike against us becomes too great. There are only so many credible threats that a civilized major power should be required to take.

So there are times—rare times—when credible and rational threats can maintain stability. But not with Russia or China. Our basic dispute with both nations arises from a difference in world view. In both the South China Sea and Ukraine, we see disputes resolved by law and treaty, and Russia and China breaking them. Russia and China, for their parts, see their core national interests under threat and the law as small impediment to protecting them.

As the most battered nation in recent history, Russia has ample historical reason for the paranoia that leads to its perceived imperialism. China may have less; but it suffered the pangs of Western Imperialism for two centuries, rising only from the ashes of World War II.

Empathy and pragmatism both bid us deal cautiously with these two great powers. Avoiding, not provoking, war should be our foremost goal. Preserving geopolitical stability vis-à-vis them will be a difficult task, requiring flexibility in some cases and strength and determination in others. There is no field in which getting it wrong could have greater potential consequences.

Here Trump’s basic approach of fair dealmaking is, in theory, a good start. But a far better start is his pick of Tillerson as Secretary of State. In my view, Tillerson from the outset was and remains the among the very few Trump’s Cabinet who deserves to be there. The chance for stability will rise, and the risk of instability will fall, as Tillerson’s star rises with Trump. So Tillerson will have the unenviable task of dealing with an erratic and unstable leader at the same time as he deals with an unstable world. Godspeed.

Conclusion

A good showman can be like a good fortune teller: fun to watch. The crystal ball glistens. The words flow. Their meaning is ambiguous, so the teller can always say the fortune was fulfilled.

But ambiguous fortunes are not much good in predicting a real future, let alone avoiding the consequences of real events. Some day, reality will strike back.

That is the key challenge for a candidacy and a presidency so far built on little more than showmanship.

What happens when the ambiguous prediction or prescription meets the real world? Will Trump deport all the “illegals,” or just the worst? Will he get real jobs for his millions of voters? Or will he just “jawbone” a few thousand by getting big corporations not to close their US factories immediately, and call it quits? Will he let Russia and China run roughshod over their neighbors—our allies—on the pretext of dealmaking, or will he avoid war with deals that make sense, heal old wounds, and weave a fabric of rule by law?

At this point, two months out, no one can tell for sure. All we can say is that the prospects for Trump’s meeting his benchmarks are not particularly bright.

If he continues to get all his news from Fox, Tweet his instantaneous personal reactions, and ignore important detail, he will likely be impeached and removed for some key transgression that even the GOP cannot stomach. Or he will slowly be pushed upstairs as a figurehead, like a crazy uncle, while the real job of governing falls to members of the Cabinet, his own secret advisers, and perhaps even to members of Congress.

At this point, I put the odds of his impeachment and removal before his third year in office at about 45%. The times are too perilous and the pace of life too fast to tolerate another “Silent Cal” today. And Trump, with his preposterous claims, outright lies and near-daily tweets, is by no means silent.

The saddest thing is what Trump has done, or has not done, for his voters. He won the presidency primarily on the strength of promises to bring them good jobs. So far, he has done nothing to fulfill that promise but his usual mostly empty showmanship.

The only thing on his plate that might fulfill that promise is building infrastructure with real money, borrowed, the old fashioned way. But Trump now seems to have forgotten about that plan, with his characteristic loss of interest in anything that does not lead to his own immediate personal gratification.

If Trump could find within himself a reserve of leadership and perseverance sufficient to put that plan in effect, he could probably enact it, with the help of Democratic votes. He has no reason not to do so, for his GOP antagonists never wanted him as president and don’t really like him. They remain ready and willing to impeach and remove him whenever the pretext is sufficient. Most of them would vastly prefer Mike Pence, who unlike Trump is a known quantity and one of them.

But fighting for principle or for something real (besides his own profit) is not a big part of Trump’s resume. So his voters, like the rest of the nation, likely will be disappointed.

It’s a shame, when a little perseverance and strategy could go a long way toward Making America Great Again. At least it could do so in the eyes of the many workers who would have good jobs that pay good money, thanks to Trump, improving our second-world infrastructure.

Erratum:An earlier version of this post stated as my view that Secretary Tillerson is the only one in Trump’s Cabinet who deserves to be there. As my own earlier analysis shows, that’s not really my view. The three generals left after Michael Flynn’s well-deserved firing (Mattis, Kelly and McMaster) are, by all accounts, well qualified. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has relevant government experience, as do Purdue at Agriculture, Acosta at Labor, and possibly Zinke at Interior and Haley at the UN. Too many of the rest appear to be charged with dismantling the offices they are supposed to govern and to have experience (or the lack thereof) to match that task.

Over-generalization is a pitfall of every thinker and writer, and I regret falling into it here.

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