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

26 November 2016

Fidel: Lord Acton’s Ultimate Proof


[For an updated analysis of Trump’s Team, as of November 30, click here. For comment on the real meaning of Trump’s conflicts of interest, click here.]

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, aka Lord Acton

Let’s begin Fidel Castro’s obituary with a comparison to another populist Latin American leader, Hugo Chavez.

A former paratrooper, Chavez was a blustery and authoritarian leader. He first took power in a coup. Then he was jailed. After he emerged from jail, he seemed to understand, however dimly, that power comes from the people. So he spent the rest of his political career gaining power through elections.

Sure, he gamed the system. He re-engineered the Venezuelan constitution to scrap term limits and to give himself greater power. He stacked the army with his cronies like any two-bit dictator. But like Vladimir Putin, he never lost sight of the need to win elections, however slanted they might have been.

In that respect, Chavez was worlds apart from Fidel, who never stood for a real (i.e., contested) election in Cuba, not even once. (Fidel was elected twice, during the Cold War, to lead the international Non-Aligned Movement. [click on “Special Period”]) Even Stalin had run for office, against General Kirov, although he stuffed the ballot box and had Kirov shot the next day.

Fidel was aptly named. His name means “faithful.” It comes from the same Latin root as the English word “fidelity.”

He was faithful, all right. In all things, he was faithful to himself and his own inner vision, which only he could see. His rule was much like a religious order’s: mysterious, obscure, secretive, and unquestionable.

But before we recount that sordid tale, let’s give the devil his due. When Fidel took Cuba by force, a two-bit tyrant named Fulgencio Batista ruled it.

While quite young, I had a small personal insight into what Batista was like. Just before Fidel’s takeover, my family was in Cuba visiting an Havana hotel that my paternal uncle had helped finance. We got lost in the slums on the way to a nightclub. As our taxi backed out of a cul-de-sac, we saw a sign, high on a bleak brick wall: “Batista es la paz.”

“Batista is peace.” Surrender your life and dignity to the dictator, ye poor, and ye shall have peace. George Orwell couldn’t have said it better.

Few inside or outside Cuba mourned Batista’s passing. When Fidel took over, he had widespread support from Yanks who knew Cuba. They hoped he would usher in a better regime to replace Batista’s two-bit tyranny.

Castro’s US supporters were both right and wrong. He did usher in a new regime for Cuba. But it wasn’t what US supporters had hoped for. Doubt quickly emerged that it would stay better.

Fidel did some good things. Over decades, he took a largely illiterate and ignorant plantation population and gave it near-universal schooling and literacy. He also gave it free medical care, subsidizing the education, practice and eventually the international loan of tens of thousands of doctors.

Some of those doctors treated Hugo Chavez. They are reasons why Cuba’s pathological regime still enjoys widespread respect in Latin America and throughout the third world. And their presence in Venezuela and treatment of Chavez paid for the highly subsidized Venezuelan oil that kept Cuba’s economy running long after Soviet energy subsidies lapsed. Maybe Fidel got the idea of using doctors as cultural ambassadors from Che Guevara, who had been trained as a doctor before becoming a revolutionary.

Fidel did one other good thing, although the credit due him is unclear. He ruled while Cuba—always a multiracial nation—became a tolerant, classless society. Earlier than most nations, including ours, Cuba was and is a place where race doesn’t matter much.

Life in Cuba is hard. But it’s equally hard for everyone, regardless of race. That’s progress of a sort. Yet the ultimate power in Cuba was always in white hands of European descent. Fidel and his crew didn’t change that. It took our own imperfect, noisy Yankee democracy to put a “black” man on top.

And so begins the heaviness of Cuba’s tragic tale. Faithful to his own internal vision, Fidel presaged and may have inspired the Kims, earning a place among human history’s most ruthless dictators.

After Fidel took over, he held a bunch of show trials and executed thousands. He had won the civil war decisively, and most Yanks saw no need for all the killing. Exile might have been simpler, quicker and more humane. Fidel’s Cuban enemies had close Yankee ties and little desire to stay, especially after Fidel had confiscated their property.

But with those trials Fidel gave notice of his Stalinist bent. At the height of the Cold War, he publicly avowed Communism. Only his closest friends knew whether that avowal came from real conviction, a lust for personal power, or a desire to put a thumb in our Yankee eyes.

Like Hugo Chavez much later, Fidel defined himself and his government in opposition to us Yanks. But unlike Chavez’, Fidel’s opposition was inflexibly adamant and extreme. Chavez called our president (Dubya) the devil but compromised with us on oil. Fidel built his government and policies on the belief that all of us Yanks—and our businesses—come straight from Hell. The result has been six decades of extreme economic isolation and the most mindless enmity that ever existed between a major power and a tiny independent nation not far away.

Fidel didn’t seem to care. A self-centered and verbose man, he offered justifications for all his beliefs and actions (some quite bizarre!) in hours-long harangues, which he forced his cadres to listen to respectfully. In his view, he could justify anything for his “people,” whose wants and needs he knew best.

Fidel did many things for “his” people. But giving them a choice was not among them. He decided all.

Not only that. At some level deep in his psyche, he believed that the United States, which had once owned Cuba as a colony and had let it go free, was Cuba’s eternal, mortal enemy. He refused to cooperate in simple humanitarian measures to east the plight of families divided by Cuba’s economic and cultural isolation.

For many years he refused even to let his people go. And so we had the sorry boat brigades, landing soggy and half-drowned on Florida’s shores. (Neither Marco Rubio nor his parents were among them. His parents came here years before Castro’s takeover, for “economic opportunity.” They were prescient economic migrants, not refugees.)

The apex of Fidel’s faith in himself came in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A few Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles were assembled in Cuba and ready to fire. Fidel’s underlings wanted to use them against targets like Washington, D.C. and New York, to head off a feared US invasion of Cuba. Better to have the whole world perish in nuclear fire than to let Cuba’s Fidel-proclaimed rival—an infinitely larger, more advanced and more powerful nation—survive and threaten attack.

What saved the world then were three people: our president JFK, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, and a Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasiliy Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who refused to let Soviet nuclear torpedoes fly. Without these three men’s coolness and restraint under fire, we humans might be an extinct species, extinguished by our own hands.

Fidel and his crew didn’t much care. They would have let the nuclear missiles fly, just to beat the “Yankee imperialists.” Fortunately, only Russians had the keys.

Absolute power, Lord Acton said, corrupts absolutely. What could be more absolute than species self-extinction? And what could be more corrupt than risking it to prolong one’s personal rule and tyrannical vision? If you want a reductio ad absurdum of the evils of tyranny, you need look no further than Fidel. He and his crew personified the Communist credo: only ends matter; means don’t. With that philosophy, he almost caused our species’ end.

Fidel ruled Cuba absolutely since 1959. By the time he ceded power to his brother Raul in 2008, he had ruled for nearly half a century, more than any leader of a major power in the twentieth or twenty-first century save Queen Elizabeth II, who “reigns” in name only.

Fidel survived ten US presidents, some literally, all in office. His ghost will continue to influence, if not rule, Cuba for a long time to come.

As part of the deal to avoid Armageddon, Fidel managed to secure a US guarantee against invading Cuba—and thereby perpetuation of his own power—despite our perpetual “lease” on Guantánamo. That guarantee, given to the Soviets in 1962, stands to this day. For a small island nation so close to the “Colossus of the North,” that may seem like a major achievement.

But would we Yanks ever have had any interest in invading and occupying Cuba if not for Fidel’s implacable enmity and his conspiring with our then worst enemy against us? After all, didn’t we once own Cuba as a colony and set it free? Did Fidel really think we Yanks had seller’s remorse?

Fidel won his place in history at the risk of species self-extinction. He and his policies kept a small, pleasant, sunny island in a time warp for nearly six decades. Patched-up Yankee cars of 1950s vintage still prowl Cuba’s streets.

So, no, his obit doesn’t rate a black border. His passing is nothing for good people anywhere to mourn.

But it’s nothing to celebrate, either. It’s much like the end of World War II, as described by pundit David Brooks in one of his best columns. It’s cause for relief, humility, thanking God, sober reflection, and solemn resolution to do better.

Fidel’s absolute self-assurance, absolute enmity, and absolute arrogance nearly destroyed our species. And the abysmal relations that he and his refugees fostered between our two nations is an absolute model for how not to manage diplomacy and foreign affairs. (For this Fidel had—and still has—plenty of co-conspirators from the Cuban-American community and the right wing here at home.)

Both ordinary Cubans and ordinary Yankees overwhelmingly want better relations. Our current President, whose biracial genetic makeup (not to mention the Tea Party) has taught him something about intransigent enmity, has made a good start. So has his inveterate humility. But both sides have a long, long way to go to get back to some semblance of human normalcy.

Now that Fidel is finally gone, some will hug, sing and dance in the streets. Surely Cuban-Americans will do that here. Maybe some Cubans will also do so (secretly!) inside Cuba.

But people and leaders everywhere should ponder Cuba’s tragic history. They should recall how a tiny island nation, a freed colony, dragged its people into absolute tyranny and the entire world to the brink of destruction.

Next they should ponder how most leaders age like eggs, not wine. They should mull how—from Rome and Carthage to the Cold War—absolute enmity between two nations, let alone neighbors, has never done anyone but arms suppliers any good. Then, finally, they might begin to ken the central lesson of Fidel’s anomalously long and anomalously tragic rule: the transcendent value of term limits.

Trump and Conflicts of Interest

Today (Sunday, November 27, at A1, A-20-22 ), the New York Times published a massive report on the potential for conflicts of interest between Donald Trump’s global business empire and his presidency. In whole, the report confirmed my view that Trump cannot and will not banish such conflicts. It did so by enumerating, in excruciating detail, how many projects he has in how many foreign countries, and how—even since his election—he and his offspring who help run his business empire already have met with foreign political leaders to discuss political issues that might affect his business interests.

Among the countries detailed were the Philippines and Turkey, now in the State Department’s crosshairs for repressive acts by strong-arm leaders. Also detailed was India, which is in the throes of a drastic, seemingly failing experiment to get business people to pay their taxes by extinguishing its most-used paper currency. Might State-Department criticism of increasingly restive “friendly” governments on these measures affect Trump’s business interests, or vice versa?

The simple fact is that much of Trump’s worldwide business empire is a riff in glass and steel on his name. Some of his projects are simply name-licensing deals with, as the Times put it, “no equity.” The local desirability of that symbol in business surely will change with politics and criticism of the government that Trump leads.

Trump himself doesn’t see a problem. To some extent, he’s on solid legal ground. Specific conflict-of-interest statutes don’t apply to the president. The Constitution’s Emoluments Clause is couched in vague eighteenth-century language and is virtually devoid of useful precedent. Very likely, the courts, if asked to rule on a specific conflict, would simply punt, calling it a “political question.”

And rightly so. Ultimately the main check on any president, as it was on Richard Nixon, is Congress’ impeachment power, over which our courts have no authority. If the House indicts Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause (or any other legal norm) and the Senate convicts him by a two-thirds vote, he will be out. Period. Like Nixon, who resigned before certain conviction, he will have no appeal.

About a generation ago, the House indicted Bill Clinton for receiving fellatio from a White House intern and lying about it. But the Senate did not convict. Presumably, a messy conflict of interest affecting our relations with the Philippines, Turkey or India, let alone China or Russia, would be a far more serious matter.

The simple fact is that Trump has few friends in Congress, even among Republicans. Most of the leading members hate him because he made fools of them and their useless certitudes on his scorched-earth march to the White House. Many of them—even those whom expediency has moved to hitch their wagons to his star—still consider him unfit and unqualified and a disaster in the making. He will have an uphill battle to make enough friends quickly enough to avoid quick ouster in the event of any serious error in decision or policy. Whether conflicts of interest will be just a pretext or part of the error doesn’t really matter.

Perhaps Trump might avoid all this by totally divesting his business interests, as some have recommended. But he won’t do that because that’s not who he is. He is his business empire, every part of which bears his name. Anyway, the law doesn’t clearly require total divestiture, at least before any serious conflicts arise. And it’s hard to see how even total divestiture would avoid all conflicts involving a business empire in which everything bears his name and that name is often an important asset.

Of course the media should keep score. Of course the Democrats should, too, especially after the years and millions the GOP spent to tar Hillary with “scandals” on far flimsier evidence for far less serious and widespread conflicts.

But the reason is not a quixotic push to avoid conflicts involving a man who is his business empire and has shown no capacity for the kind of persistent attention to detail that might avoid them. The reason is to have a good and ready cause—or prextext—to get rid of Trump as president if the worst occurs and, as many rightly fear, he makes a ghastly mistake.

That’s precisely what our Founders intended when they used the unique and undefined term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” as cause for impeachment. They wanted us to be able to get rid of a president who has proved himself, by action, unfit to govern. We can only hope that the cause will not be something irremediable, like impulsively launching one or more of our nukes.

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25 November 2016

Trump’s Team


[This post is updated to December 13. To jump to the updated table of team members, click here. For comment on Trump’s family as advisors, click here.]

Comment as of Black Friday (November 25, 2016)
Comment as of end of November
Comment as of December 2, regarding the proposal of James Mattis for Defense
Comment on December 9, covering Ross at Commerce, Carson at HUD, and Pruitt at EPA
Comment on December 13, covering Tillerson at State, Perry at Energy, and Puzder at Labor
General Overview

Today many forget that Abraham Lincoln’s first presidential campaign was a four-way race. The Republican Party that he represented was a then-recent creation, a strange combination of Abolitionists and federalists. When the votes were counted, he had won a bare plurality of 40%, far from a popular majority, but a majority of electoral votes. The Southern states seceded, provoking our Civil War, even before his inauguration.

Lincoln, of course, could foresee the agony that lay ahead. So what did he do? He picked for his team his chief rivals—including some whom he had just barely bested in the election. When questioned on his choices, he said they were the most experienced and “able” men available. In the runup to our bloodiest war ever—the one against ourselves—he wanted raw talent—party, ideology and label be damned.

Is Donald Trump doing anything similar? He’s talking to a lot of people, including Mitt Romney, who excoriated and refused to support him in the election just past. He’s even talking to a few Democrats, although he hasn’t appointed any yet. But is he picking his most talented rivals for his top spots, as Lincoln did?

It doesn’t seem so. If he wanted to follow Lincoln, Trump would be talking to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, and maybe even John Kasich and Ted Cruz. So far as we know, none of them has even visited Trump Tower, although Trump has allowed that he might not throw Hillary into the slammer after all.

To evaluate Trump’s nascent administration, we must begin with Trump himself. His two most visible and unusual characteristics are: (a) zero political or governmental experience and (b) extreme views. During the campaign, he expressed extreme views on, among other things: (1) undocumented Mexican immigrants (deport them), (2) Muslims (exclude them), (3) global warming (a Chinese hoax), (4) international trade (break all the rules of postwar economics by imposing big tariffs on good from China and Mexico), (5) NATO (let it pay for itself), (6) Vladimir Putin (an admirable man and friend), and (7) women (pigs, fat, sex objects, assault targets, etc.).

In the normal course of events, one would expect a rational leader with these deficiencies to compensate for them by picking team members who don’t share them. That means that Trump should pick people with lots of experience and less extreme, if not moderate, views.

Is he doing that? The following table, to be updated periodically, shows the experience and extreme views (if any) of the people he has appointed to or (if the Senate must confirm) nominated for his team. Notes following the table explain the entries in more detail, if needed. [Note: this table reports only Cabinet and Cabinet-level West Wing positions, i.e., major policy-making positions. While lesser positions can be important situationally, or even in general, there are too many of them to report coherently and in nearly real time. The order of positions in the table is rough chronological order of their announcement by the Trump transition team, not speculation.]

Here is the talley so far:

Experience and Extreme Views (if any) of Trump Team Members

PositionNameExperience
in Government
Extreme Views
Strategic AdvisorSteve BannonNoneWhite grievance,
white supremacy
US Attorney
General
Jeff SessionsAss’t US Att’y, Ala. 2 years
US Att’y, Ala. 12 years
Ala. AG 2 years
US Senator, Ala. 19 years
Race, civil rights,
voting rights
National-Security
Advisor
Michael FlynnMilitary intelligence,
33 years
Muslims and Islam
CIA DirectorMike PompeoUS House, Kan.
5 years
None
UN AmbassadorNikki HaleyNC State Rep. 6 years
NC Governor 5 years
None
Secretary of EducationBetsy DeVosNoneUnaccountable charter schools,
School vouchers that
undermine public schools
Secretary of TreasurySteven MnuchinNoneNone
Secretary of TransportationElaine L. ChaoWhite House Fellow,
2 years
Federal Maritime Administration,
3 years
Deputy Secretary of Transportation, 2 years
Peace Corp Director, one year
Secretary of Labor,
8 years
None
Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS)Tom PriceGeorgia Senate,
7 years
US House, 11 years
Adamant opposition
to Obamacare
Secretary of CommerceWilbur RossNoneNone
Secretary of DefenseJames MattisUS Marines, 41 years“Political Islam” and Iran
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)Ben CarsonNoneOpposes safety-net
and fair housing programs
EPA AdministratorScott PruitOK State Senate, 8 years,
OK AG 6 years
Global warming denier,
Opposes federal env’l reg’n
Secretary of LaborAndrew PuzderNoneNone, but
opposes worker protections
Secretary of EnergyRick PerryTexas Rep., 6 years,
Texas Ag. Comm’r, 8 years,
Lt. Gov., 2 years,
Texas Gov., 14 years
Global warming denier
Secretary of StateRex TillersonNoneNone


Erratum: An earlier version of this table listed Tom Price as picked for Secretary of “Housing and Human Services,” rather than of Health and Human Services, where he will be in a position to administer the gutting of Obamacare. I regret the error.

Comment as of Black Friday (November 25, 2016):

As of today, this overview of Trump’s Team is not particularly auspicious. Like Trump himself, one-third of his team has no experience in government at all. Two-thirds have six or fewer years of experience, and two-thirds have expressed extreme views that match Trump’s campaign rhetoric. If Trump is trying to use his appointment power to fill gaps in his own resume, he’s not doing a very good job.

The two possible bright spots in the picture so far are the youngest, Gov. Haley and Rep. Pompeo. Haley turned a lemon into a bit of lemonade when she used the horror of Dylan Roof’s in-church massacre of innocent, praying black people to remove the Stars and Bars from the North Carolina capital. Pompeo trained as a mechanical engineer, was first in his class at West Point, and went to Harvard Law School, where he served on the Harvard Law Review. Sometimes smart people who make the transition from science or engineering to law can bring fresh perspectives to old problems. So he may be a good choice, if he can drink from a fire hose and learn quickly to deal with our vast intelligence bureaucracy. But as compared with a grizzled spook, Pompeo, too, is unavoidably a gamble.

Thus so far, there’s nothing in Trump’s picks to calm voters who want continuity and seasoned leadership. Of course that’s part of the point: many of the people who put him in the White House just wanted to shake things up. Yet even a revolution needs steady hands so as not to become a catastrophe. The French and Russian Revolutions come to mind.

Trump and I are about the same age. It’s an age at which, once in a while, a surgeon has to cut into your body to set things right. The first thing you ask, on interviewing prospective surgeons for a particular operation, is “How many have you done?” Experience matters.

Similar questions seem proper when thinking of war or peace. For a leader of generals, “How many wars have you fought or helped win, and how?” For a leading diplomat, “How many wars have you avoided, and how?"

It would be hard, if not impossible, for either Giuliani or Romney to answer these questions satisfactorily. Until Trump finds someone who can, he ought to keep looking.

If Trump can’t settle on someone with more heft, he could do a lot worse than ask Kerry to stay on until he can find a Republican with similar knowledge of the world, experience, energy and work ethic. The world would heave a huge sigh of relief and take the international pressure off Trump, for a while, letting him focus on the domestic changes that will make or break his presidency.

Comment as of End of November:

Giuliani remains unqualified for State by both experience and temperament. While qualified by temperament and good looks, Romney is unqualified for his minuscule experience in government: four years as governor of Massachusetts. That’s two years less than Dubya’s experience before he became president, and we all know what a terrible job he did.

So it’s a good sign that Trump is looking at, and apparently liking, David Petraeus. In contrast to his civilian rivals, Petraeus has eleven years of relevant international experience. Ten were as a general officer in the Army, including two in command of the US surge in Iraq, two as Chief of Central Command, and one as chief of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He also spent over a year as CIA Director, before his indiscretion with classified information provoked his removal.

Some may quail at a military man at State. But one of our best ever, George Marshall (of the Marshall Plan) was a former general. John Foster Dulles, a lawyer, civilian and intransigent cold warrior, was one of our worst. In the era when low-level wars seem interminable and intractable, it’s entirely appropriate to hire a diplomat charged with preventing them who actually knows what it feels like to fight them. That’s one qualification Petraeus shares with John Kerry.

In addition to his military experience, which was generally more successful than his predecessors’, Petraeus has an extraordinary academic record, including a Princeton Ph.D. in International Relations. He’s a first-rate strategic thinker, who literally wrote the book on insurgencies (in Vietnam) and then handled the two in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we didn’t live in media-dominated nation, and if Trump himself were not a reality “star,” he would understand the neither Giuliani nor Romney is remotely in the same class as Petraeus. One hopes that common sense prevails and Petraeus, notwithstanding his indiscretion, ends up at State.

Trump’s late November announcements—Mnuchin, Chao and Price—say much about his new respect for experience. The also reveal his intentions vis-a-vis his campaign promises.

Like most chiefs at Treasury for the past decade at least, Mnuchin is a Goldman Sachs alum. But after making partner there, he went out on his own and made a fortune financing movies. In so doing, he showed some imagination: he arranged financing for two of the most original science-fiction productions of recent years, “X-Men” and “Avatar.”

Nominating a Goldman-Sachs alum suggests that Trump is not serious about his campaign promise to bring big rogue bankers to heel. But it also suggests that Trump recognizes banking and monetary policy as economic specialties, which they are.

We the people will just have to wait and see whether Mnuchin’s Wall Street past dominates his creative thinking or vice versa. Breaking up the big banks, with which Trump flirted on the campaign trail, would be one of the best and most creative ways to keep them from drowning us in unbearable systematic speculative risk and to push them back into honest capital formation.

Chao is the most interesting late-November appointment. She has a decade and a half of civilian government experience. She has worked on both sides of the aisle. She is widely respected as a “no-nonsense” doer with plentiful contacts on the Hill.

While Secretary of Labor under Dubya, she was not sympathetic to workers. But now her chief task at Commerce will be shaping and pushing through Trump’s ambitions infrastructure (re)building plan, which could bring good jobs to millions of skilled workers.

In this regard, Chao’s most important qualification may be her marriage to Darth McConnell, who seems to like delaying and blocking things just to show he can. Maybe with his wife whispering in his ear, he and our dysfunctional Senate will pass the best bipartisan idea for good jobs in years. Maybe it will even do so quickly. Don’t hold your breath.

Like that of arch-racist Jeff Sessions, Tom Price’s nomination is a thumb in the eye of Obama’s supporters and our lower middle class. Price is an ex-orthopedist turned pol. He apparently drafted the only extant alternative to Obamacare that ever actually ended up in writing. It drastically cuts government subsidies, makes payments to doctors more generous, and basically throws people who now rely on Obamacare onto the tender mercies of unregulated (or less-regulated) private-insurance markets.

On the off-chance that Trump and his team have actually thought this through, it's an über-cynical political ploy. Trump will fight Ryan to maintain Medicare in roughly its present form. In so doing, he will retain the support of most seniors, who vote. By casting the rest of the middle class onto private markets, he will rely on private employers to pick up the slack for them, as employers have ever done in America’s broken health-insurance system.

The ones left out on the street, so to speak, will be the lower middle class—those with no, marginal, part-time, or no-benefits employment—and the poor. These workers now rely on Obamacare, to the tune of 20 million of them. But they don’t usually vote, and even the Dems often ignore them.

So if Price gets his way as HHS Secretary, a big fraction—maybe most—of the 20 million now on Obamacare will become “self-insured” again. Doctors and private insurers will make more than they do now, and so will continue to donate to the GOP. The unfortunate workers thrown out on the street won’t make much difference to Trump’s and the GOP’s political support because they don’t vote much anyway.

The only risk to the people in Trump Tower will come in the event of a pandemic. The newly self-insured won’t have doctors to go to. So they will bring the pandemic right into the homes of the 1% and 0.1%, as nannies, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, and “personal assistants.” But never fear. Trump and his 0.1% are not cowards; they are risk-takers.

Comment as of December 2, regarding the proposal of James Mattis for Defense:

On December 1, at a rally in Cincinnati, President-Elect Trump announced his pick of former Marine-Corps General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. While Mattis enjoys great respect from his fellow soldiers and some civilian military strategists, there are a least half a dozen reasons why his appointment would be problematic at best.

Two important reasons relate to the possible nomination of former Army General David Petraeus for State. Having former generals heading both State and Defense is a bad idea on general principles, including civilian control of the military and military-related diplomacy. It’s especially bad for two generals who collaborated on revising the Army’s counter-insurgency manual, as these two did, and who therefore would be unlikely to give the president contradictory or even differing views.

The biggest problem is that Trump has revealed no credible choice for State but Petraeus. So if Mattis comes in at Defense, and general principles exclude Petraeus at State, Trump’s choice for State goes back to square one. Or at least it should: Giuliani is unfit in both temperament and experience, and Romney in experience.

If Trump as president is going to be an international dealmaker, as he claims, he’s going to need Cabinet members who know all the foreign leaders that he’ll be dealing with personally and well. That means people like Petraeus, who met and grew to know foreign leaders in his many high-level military roles, or people like John Kerry, who met them at State. People utterly lacking this vital experience, like Giliani or Romney, would be a disaster in either position. So if Mattis at Defense excludes Petraeus at State, that leaves keeping Kerry on at State, or finding someone entirely new.

Beyond this, Mattis himself is problematic at Defense for three reasons. First, he has extreme views on “political Islam” much the same as Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor. Having both men in the Cabinet would create an echo chamber to amplify Trump’s own extreme views on Islam and Muslims expressed in his campaign.

If Trump wants to avoid creating a “clash of civilizations” all by himself, he needs people on his team who understand that Islam is a religion practiced by 1.6 billion people, not all of whom are terrorists, and that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful. If he creates an echo chamber crying for war on Islam, he will ipso facto destroy any credibility for his campaign promises to introduce a less bellicose foreign policy and treat every nation fairly.

Second, Mattis is known for making light of the rigors and misery of combat. In a conference in San Diego in 2005, he said, “it’s fun to shoot some people” and “I like brawling.” While that sort or remark may jibe with Trump’s desire for his adversaries to consider him crazy, it will not inspire confidence in a people and a military already weary of two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) vying to be the longest in our history.

Finally, Mattis’ appointment would require a waiver from Congress of the statutory rule that precludes military personnel from serving as Defense Secretary within seven years (formerly ten) of active duty. The purpose of this rule is to preserve civilian control of the military. The last time Congress waived this rule was for General George Marshall of the Marshall Plan, and that waiver expressed the “sense of Congress” that no further such waivers be granted. Absent evidence that Mattis has the strategic vision to avoid war and the diplomatic skill of Marshall, Congress ought to refuse the waiver, and Trump ought to keep looking.

Comment on December 9, covering Ross at Commerce, Carson at HUD, and Pruitt at EPA

A week has elapsed since President-Elect Trump nominated Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce and Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Before commenting on their nominations, I waited to see if they marked a trend. With yesterday’s announcement of Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator, they do just that.

The first two men have no experience in government whatsoever. None. Zip. Wilbur Ross, a billionaire, has been an investment banker and a successful turnaround specialist. Ben Carson gained fame as a highly successful and innovative orthopedic surgeon and medical administrator, who made a highly unsuccessful run for president. He has never held any public office at all.

Scott Pruitt does have government experience, as a state senator and the attorney general of Oklahoma. In those roles he gained fame for fighting the federal government tooth and nail and for leading nationwide opposition to environmental and climate regulation, all for the sake of the fossil-fuel industries that drive his state’s economy. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, he reportedly acted jointly with fossil-fuel industries in challenging federal regulations. Sometimes he rubber-stamped material prepared by the fossil-fuel industry and its lobbyists, submitting it on Oklahoma’s letterhead.

As befits an accomplished lawyer, Pruitt tries to avoid appearing extreme. Instead of directly playing the part of a climate-change denier, he tries to play the agnostic. He has said that dissent on climate change is not a crime, thereby indirectly lending credibility to the tiny minority of people who call themselves “scientists” but still dispute global warming or its human origins. His main goal seems not to discredit science, but simply to protect his state’s important fossil-fuel industries regardless of consequences to its citizens, not to mention those of other states and nations. Pruitt reportedly shares Trump’s goal of eliminating the EPA entirely, or stripping it of most of its power and authority.

More than any other picks by Trump so far, these three portend a radical attempt to realize the dreams of extreme business “conservatives”: to erode or eliminate regulations and our safety net and let big business—especially the fossil-fuel industries—rip. They will do their best to dismantle the regulatory and welfare state as completely as they can. And (except for Pruitt) having no governmental or legal experience, they will try to do so in unorthodox, radical and probably often illegal ways.

The general approach is nothing terribly new. Almost a century ago, in January 1925, President Calvin Coolidge opined that “[t]he chief business of the American people is business.” That sort of arrogance helped create the atmosphere of excess on Wall Street and elsewhere that caused the Great Depression and, 79 years later, the Crash of 2008.

Will Trump be as bad a president as “Silent Cal,” generally recognized as one of our worst? Will his business-can-do-anything regime usher in a second Great Depression?

Four factors suggest not. First, we are just coming out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression (the Crash of 2008), caused by the avarice and stupidity of Wall Street. In that atmosphere, it will be hard to convince people and pols that big business can do no wrong. Second, Trump himself has recognized that Wall Street was largely to blame for the Crash of 2008 and that no one there got penalized for causing it. (Whether he plans to do anything real about this view is still unknown.) Third, since the Great Depression, we have built a gigantic edifice of federal regulation, including the Fed. Even Trump doesn’t appear to want to dump all of it, just environmental and fair housing rules.

Finally, we have innumerably more statutes, rules and regulations already in place that we did when the Crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression. We have innumerably more lawyers and are vastly more sensitive to proper legal procedure, much of which has been constitutionalized. No mere Cabinet member—not even the president—can erase or even bend all those rules simply by fiat.

So it looks as if the reign of Trump’s radical business-friendly Cabinet will usher in an epoch of litigation not yet seen in our nation’s history. Much of what is important will be disputed. Lawyers will file suits, and our courts will decide. And since Trump will not have had time to change the composition of our courts for several years, judges imbued with all the rules and restrictions of our existing regulatory/welfare state will decide those cases.

So the pace and extent of dismantling regulations (and welfare) will likely disappoint Trump, his Cabinet, and his most rabidly “conservative” supporters. (How can people who want to destroy useful and proven structures of government, that have kept our workers safe and our air and water clean for the better part of a century, call themselves “conservative”? A more accurate description would be zealous advocates of big business and its profits regardless of consequences. How is that “conservative”?)

As this litigation Armageddon rolls on, a durable issue will be the role of the states. Pruitt and the numerous “conservative” organizations that he heads, represents or advises are already trying to kill Obama’s environmental and climate rules, including the Paris Accord and the EPA rules designed to phase out coal, which is the dirtiest fuel known to our species and, so far, has proven impossible to clean up. Among their legal challenges to federal rules are the perennial cry of the South and Red States for “state’s rights.” Pruitt and his ilk argue that unnecessary regulation is killing business in their states, raising the prices of energy, putting people out of work, and harming their states’ economies.

There are enormous factual issues in these claims: whether they are actually true. There is plenty of evidence that renewable energy is cheaper than its fossil-fueled counterparts, even without subsidies (1, 2, 3, and 4). There is also plenty of evidence that renewable energy is the next phase of the perennial “gale of creative destruction,” which will change the face of energy production worldwide and create millions of good, skilled and above-ground jobs. Finally, there is the basic truth that rules to reduce pollution and the acceleration of global warming won’t work unless everyone participates. (Economists know this truth as “the tragedy of the commons”: common areas can’t be clean unless everyone agrees to stop dumping manure on them.) These practical points will make litigation over environmental rules exceedingly lengthy and complex.

Other disputes will arise out of federalism and will require a fateful choice. For years, much federal environmental legislation has allowed more crowded, advanced states like California to adopt stricter rules than the federal ones for the nation as a whole. As and if Trump and his Cabinet dismantle the federal regulatory framework for fossil fuels, carbon, other pollution and global warming, will they dismantle this principle and kill state-by-state experimentation, too?

In another recent essay, I explore the risk of these United States (or the EU) breaking up under the pressure of white-hot current issues like immigration, deportation, energy transformation, and global warming. My conclusion is that the best way to keep divergent states together as one nation is to bend, but not break, the bonds of federalism by giving rabid locals a bit more leeway to make their own rules. In practice, that might mean allowing Pruitt’s Oklahoma and similarly-minded smaller states to keep their fossil fuels a bit longer and phase them out more slowly than the rest of the nation.

From a political standpoint, such an approach might make everyone happy. States like Oklahoma could pollute with abandon in the relatively empty lower Midwest. They would contribute only modestly to global warming because they have relatively small populations and are not heavily industrial themselves. Meanwhile, big industrial states like California, Illinois and New York could restrict their own use of fossil fuels, reduce both pollution and the acceleration of global warming and benefit from the new jobs of the coming clean-energy era.

That might be a practical way of accommodating the radical zeal of people like Pruitt, most of whom come from small states like Oklahoma, whose big neighbor, Texas, is a global leader in wind energy. But if Pruitt and his ilk insist on abandoning the rules and careful plans for the whole nation, including states much bigger, wealthier and more advanced than his, the coming fight in Congress and the courts will be a battle royal unlike anything since the Civil War or Vietnam. Trump never promised us a rose garden or a placid administration, did he?

Comment on December 13, covering Tillerson at State, Perry at Energy, and Puzder at Labor

Well, it took him long enough. But Trump finally made a nomination that will help him “shake things up” in a good, not destructive, way.

Rex Tillerson is a superb choice for Secretary of State. When you think he could have been Romney or even Giuliani, he’s celestial. Here are eleven reasons why:

1. Tillerson was trained as an engineer. That makes him a problem solver and pragmatist who knows numbers, is a realist and can make rational tradeoffs that compute. Unlike most of Trump’s picks, he’s not driven by abstract verbal ideologies, which are necessarily simplistic and inaccurate.

2. Tillerson is not a lawyer. He can do more than argue, posture and make lists: he knows how to design and build systems that run and to run things that work.

3. Tillerson respects science. On becoming CEO of Exxon Mobil, he weaned it from his predecessor’s tobacco-company-like denial of science. He recognizes global warming and takes it into account in planning Exxon Mobil’s future. He has spoken in favor of a carbon tax.

4. Tillerson thinks long term. He recognizes a fact about fossil fuels even more important than their heating our planet: they are running out. When he bought the natural-gas-fracking company TXO in 2009, he was honest about the reason: oil was getting harder and more expensive to find and extract, and fracked natural gas was much cheaper on an energy-equivalent basis. As leader of our planet’s leading private producer of fossil fuels, he knows better than anyone how quickly they will run out, leaving our species with enormous stranded assets.

5. War is untenable as a solution to international problems. If we didn’t know that before Iraq and Syria, we do now. Today’s moral equivalent of war is economic sanctions, and most of them involve oil or other fossil fuels. Tillerson will know when they will work and for how long, and when they won’t.

6. In his capacity as fossil-fuel czar, Tillerson has traveled widely and met leaders from all corners of the globe. He’s a skilled negotiator who already has met and knows the major players. He knows what they want and how they think.

7. In additional to being a skilled negotiator, by all accounts Tillerson is a good listener. That quality will serve him well with Trump, who likes to talk, often without thinking first.

8. Tillerson worked at Exxon Mobil and its predecessors for forty years, rising from the bottom to CEO. He’s not a quitter or a dilettante.

9. Those forty years give Tillerson massive experience, at all levels, in running a large organization. With 75,300 employees, Exxon Mobil has more employees than the State Department, even considering local foreign service employees. He will know how and when to delegate and when to jump in.

10. Besides territory, most international conflicts and wars since the discovery of oil have involved energy. Who better to help resolve them than Tillerson?

11. Tillerson will be a good influence on his fellow Texan, Rick Perry at Energy. If Perry is smart, he will pick Tillerson’s brains as much as time allows.

It’s fun to be enthusiastic about a Trump pick for a change. Tillerson will be a new kind of Secretary of State, whose long experience has focused him like a laser on the thing that matters most to our species today, and that most often drives conflict: energy. The Senate should question him on his approach to promoting human rights and democracy, just to make sure he’s not a closet troglodyte. But barring that, it should confirm him quickly and unanimously.

Rick Perry at energy. Readers of this blog know my assessment of Rick Perry’s intelligence and problem-solving ability. Perhaps the best idea he’s ever had is to let Texas secede.

But there are some signs that Perry might do a good job as Energy Secretary. First, he had an education in science; he has a bachelor’s degrees in “animal science.” At least he’s not just another lawyer/ideologue. If he remembers what he learned in college, he might just understand that energy is all about science. Second, Perry has ample political experience to serve in the Cabinet: over thirty years. Third, he has governed our state with the greatest experience in producing energy, including wind and solar energy. So if he can stop playing the ideologue and pandering to Tea-Party types (something the Trump Administration will not require), and if he calls up Tillerson whenever in doubt about facts and figures, he might do a creditable job as Energy Secretary.

Andrew Puzder at Labor. It’s a lot harder to be impressed with, or even optimistic about, Andrew Puzder at Labor. He is no friend of workers. He has opposed minimum-wage increases and supports (and massively has exploited) exempting low-level supervisors from overtime pay on the ground they are “managers.”

But there’s more. Puzder is CEO of the holding company for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants. While these chains are evidently successful, they are hardly exemplars of imaginative or leading businesses. They seem to have missed the “locavore,” “organic” and “healthy” trends in the restaurant field entirely. Thus they make money simply by offering low prices, which means squeezing suppliers and employees. They may be the Wal Marts of the restaurant business.

Puzder justifies his squeezing with tendentious and hotly disputed think-tank research purporting to show that squeezing employees individually creates more jobs. Even if true, that approach is not what skilled workers elected Trump to do. They elected Trump because they were tired of moving down the job chain and having pols and employers tell them they were lucky to have a job at all.

The best we can hope is that, just as Rockefeller became a noted philanthropist after enriching himself as a Robber Baron, Puzder will take his new mandate seriously and use his considerable knowledge of how to squeeze workers to keep others from doing so and make workers’ lives better. Don’t hold your breath.

General Overview

All in all, as the table shows, Trump’s picks for his Cabinet and West Wing are light on experience, heavy on ideology, and salted with extremists. Apart from Tillerson, most have questionable credentials for the posts they may fill. (The Senate still must confirm most.) But at least it’s encouraging that Trump made a good pick for the most important Cabinet position, the one fourth in the line of succession: Secretary of State.

Besides Tillerson, only two of Trump’s picks seem “ready on day one,” to borrow a phrase from Hillary. They are Chao at Transportation and Mattis at Defense. Both have ample experience and have worked in or with the departments they will now lead. While having a general run the Pentagon may trouble some, it will, for reasons I have explained at length, serve us well now. At least it will inspire our voluntary troops asked to sacrifice in deployment after deployment while the rest of us shop at the mall.

A few of Trump’s picks can best be described as “experimental.” Their chief claims to fame are radical approaches that Trump seems to want to try. These include: (1) Mike Pompeo at CIA, who seems to have been picked for his education, brains and fresh ideas alone; (2) Nikki Haley at the UN, who has no diplomatic experience but represents “diversity;” (3) Betsy DeVos at Education, with her radical ideas about unsupervised private charter schools and vouchers; (4) Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, who has bounced around in finance but whose only relevant experience seems to have been at Goldman Sachs; (5) Ben Carson at HUD, who wants to solve our housing problems without worrying about whether access to housing is equitable or fair; (6) Tom Price at HHS, who yearns to dismantle Obamacare but will have to replace it with something; and (7) Scott Pruitt at EPA, who wants to disassemble the agency he will head in order to save Oklahoma’s fossil-fuel industries and jobs, but who will have to worry about turning our big cities into mini-Beijings filled with smog and about protecting massive investments in sustainability already made in other states.

If Trump wants to avoid disaster after disaster, he and his senior staff are going to have to keep these experiments under constant scrutiny, demand early results, and pull the plugs quickly if things go awry. Experiments are fine. But if and when they destroy a whole government department, undermine nationwide private and public initiatives, and/or fail to produce results, they need to be terminated. This is especially true for Scott Pruitt, a local boy who has adopted an extreme energy ideology in order to benefit the economy of a single state: his own. If he can’t accept a vision broader than that, he should go before he does a whole sector of our national economy great damage.

As for the rest, there’s not much to say. They will succeed or fail according to whether they get along with the others and get the job done. Getting along is especially important for National Security Advisor Flynn and strategic advisor Michael Bannon, who both have reputations as loose cannons.

There is only one nominee who requires Senate confirmation and self-evidently should not get it. Jeff Sessions is not an American. He’s a Southern/Confederate rebel still fighting a rear-guard action in our Civil War. He’s been doing that, at times covertly and at times openly, all his professional life.

Likely he still maintains views of racial supremacy and inferiority that his colleagues, most of his fellow Southerners, and the vast majority of Americans have long abandoned. He’s a throwback who would turn the clock back for civil and voting rights to Jim Crow and poll taxes. He would require all Americans to refight battles they long thought concluded. He should be rejected as decisively as he was when nominated for the federal bench in 1986, and for precisely the same reasons. The man has not changed, but the nation has: he is even further out of step today.

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23 November 2016

Trump’s Reality Show


[For a brief, belated Thanksgiving message, click here. For analysis of how anti-nepotism rules should apply to Trump and his family, click here.]

It’s no accident that our president-elect got his fame from a TV show whose very description is an oxymoron. “Reality” means what’s real, maybe the sum of all that’s real. A “show” is something a single individual or group of people make up and put on—a spectacle or play.

It’s hard to square the one with the other. You might try if you believe there are people, like Dubya or like Merlin (the mythical wizard from medieval times), who can “make their own reality.” But so far, no one has done that for very long. Not Caesar. Not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Mao. Certainly not Dubya, who already stands discredited and despised, ostracized by his own party, as the worst US president in a century, maybe ever.

Starting with Caesar’s “bread and circuses,” what each of these men really did was not make his own reality, but make people believe his own fictitious vision. Eventually, the real reality caught up with him and overwhelmed his vision and his people, and both suffered mightily. It’s not just Nature that bats last; it’s that whole nasty thing called “reality”—not the “cool” show on TV, but the real one.

So now comes Donald Trump. He’s a master of media manipulation. He beat the GOP establishmment—hands down—at it using its own formula to win elections: distraction, demagoguery, and delusion. He’s even doing it now.

How many people noticed the recent news that Trump has settled students’ multiple suits for his “Trump University’s” alleged fraud for $25 million? As has become routine in settlements by the big boys (including Wall Street), there was no admission of liability or guilt, just payment. But would a penny-pincher and employee-and-customer stiffer like Trump have paid out that kind of money over a weak case? The settlement came just ten days before trial, which presumably would have shown evidence about Trump that he wouldn’t want made public. He might even have been called to testify.

Remember the evil Marquis in A Tale of Two Cities? the one whose carriage ran over and killed an urban peon’s child in the streets of Paris? The Marquis sneers, lobs a gold coin at the peon’s feet, gets back in his guided carriage, and rushes off. How is Trump’s belated settlement with all the “students” whose lives he ruined fundamentally different?

Maybe it’s that Trump has more than just gold and fast horses. Why did so few notice or comment on his settlement? Because of his Tweets. He made a cause celebre of the post-show “petition” of a singe actor in the musical “Hamilton.” After the show, the actor called on Vice-President-Elect-Pence, who was in the audience, to give a care for the rest of us, who didn’t vote for the ticket.

The petition was short, sweet, and respectful. It was almost obsequious. But it took far more than 140 characters to express. Trump demanded an apology, in less than 140 characters. Guess who caught the public’s attention?

Say what you want about Trump. He gets us. He gets our culture. He knows how much we have become a nation of hustlers and onlookers. He knows how few of us have the patience to read, let alone think through, any thought that requires more than 140 characters to express.

And he knows how few have the patience and skill to follow the consequences of his actions. Most of his reality shows ended with his declaring to some hapless apprentice, “You’re fired!” For the apprentice, it was the modern equivalent of “Off with his head!” without the blood. Did anyone ever wonder what happened to the fired afterward? They were, after all, people like the rest of us. Without the blood of Elizabethan England, they still are.

Pence later said he didn’t mind the gentle petition and thought it had been done politely. He called it “what freedom sounds like.” But Trump blew it up into a Tempest in the Twittersphere. His $25 million settlement simply vanished in the smokescreen, as did the possibility of his testifying in the case, thereby perhaps giving voters a severe case of buyer’s remorse.

Last month, the New York Times ran a feature on the “retirement” of one of the last three-card-monte artists in Manhattan. He had worked the streets for decades, gently separating the rubes from their money using sleight of hand, in a shell game done with cards. Maybe he retired because he was old and getting tired. More likely, he retired to watch a master far more skilled at sleight of hand than he.

Even before ascending to our highest office, Trump has changed all the rules by which we, the people, might presume to watch and judge him. According to PBS, his last press conference was in July. Instead, the focus of “breaking news” is now Trump’s own Twitter account, plus a few reporters standing outside his castle, Trump Tower, watching the comings and goings that Trump himself carefully stages.

Sometimes Trump’s end runs around the media so far have been facile and well-deserved. I’ve always wondered what real purpose a White House press conference has. You take few dozen presumably skilled reporters, who could be doing honest work plying their confidential sources outside in the cold. Instead, they spend hours in a nice, warm press room listening to (and questioning) someone exquisitely trained to give them only the information that the president wants to give, and with the president’s approved “spin.” Wouldn’t written press releases accomplish nearly as much without such a patent waste of reportorial time and talent?

No rational person will cry if Trump, as president, abolishes the daily West Wing press conference. That act would only make reporters go back to doing what real reporters are supposed to do: constantly ply their sources for hints and leaks, dig deep in musty documents (or modern databases), and then begin to connect the dots.

What will change our Forth Estate, likely beyond recognition, is Trump becoming successful in his grand design. Apparently he would like to change reporters’ playing field to Twitter and the like, and their depth of their nuance to the scope of 140 characters.

Right now we the people aren’t paying much attention to all this. We’re entranced by the spectacle. It’s almost like the eighteenth century again. You’ve got the Royal Castle, Trump Tower. You’ve got the press standing outside in the cold of winter, trying to get a glimpse of, and comment from, the important, glittering nobles who come and go. And you’ve got the future king, Donald the First himself, controlling the whole process like a puppet master.

We Yanks can watch this sort of stuff for a long, long time. We have an appetite for spectacle and fiction that would make any other society blanch. We generate the world’s best fantasies, and we are constantly devising better media for them. So-called “virtual reality” is next.

But sooner or later, reality shows and “virtual” reality must meet the real thing. In the short term, that would be China, Russia, Iran, Israel and Syria, not to mention all the refugees the latter generates. In the longer term, that would be a warming world that, in less than a century, will be far warmer than it was at any time during our species’ evolution on this planet.

Sooner or later, the foreign hordes or our own native mobs bearing torches and pitchforks will crash into the theater and stop the show. The results will not be pretty, any more than was the fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or World War II.

Maybe Donald Trump dimly senses that. Although of far lower character, he seems to surpass Dubya in intelligence by a considerable margin. Maybe he dimly perceives that the sycophants he has nominated so far—Steve Bannon and the sniveling racist Jeff Sessions—will be no help whatsoever when reality breaks through the door.

Maybe that’s why Trump is self-evidently slowing the transition process down, taking more time, and speaking to a wide range of people. Maybe that’s why folks as diverse as Michelle Rhee (the D.C. Democratic school chancellor who was fired for cleaning things up too fast), Mitt Romney (among the first people to notice that Trump was and is unqualified and unprepared), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D. Haw.), and Henry Kissinger have very publicly crossed his threshold.

Maybe Trump is finally coming to know what he doesn’t know—the first and perhaps most important sign of real intelligence. If not, his big show will be fun to watch for a while. Then will come the Axe, in the strong hands of the Grim Reaper. And the ghosts of Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao will be laughing hysterically at the audacity and the lunacy of the man who has bested them all at showmanship but will meet the same inevitable fate: every one of them destroyed his country while trying to make it great.

Footnote. Here, in its entirety, is the actor’s appeal to Pence:
“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”
“Very rude,” as Trump’s Tweet claimed? I don’t think so. But at 805 characters, it’s more than five Tweets. Therefore it will quickly disappear into the modern oubliette for real information that Trump and our tech sphere have made for us.

Footnote 2. For details on this comparison of intelligence, see this post, Comments 2-4.

Anti-Nepotism Laws and the Trump Family

Let’s face it. President-Elect Donald J. Trump has a trust problem. The clear popular majority that voted for Hillary or fringe candidates doesn’t trust him at all. Many of those for voted for him don’t trust him either. They only voted for him because they trust Hillary less. With abysmal candidates from both “mainstream” parties running, they voted for Trump to roll the dice and “shake things up.” Some Trump voters even told reporters that they’ll vote him out quickly if he doesn’t deliver.

This trust problem runs both ways. Trump doesn’t seem to trust anyone outside his family. Furthermore, he has a thin skin and apparently low self-esteem, despite his bluster. Every time he thinks someone has criticized or insulted him, he goes crazy on Twitter, no matter how minor the incident or how insignificant the person. The spectacle of Trump firing a 3:00 am Twitter blast at an unknown former beauty queen (as too fat) has got to be one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of our species’ top-level government.

Does Trump trust his appointees and nominees so far? In particular, does he trust General Michael J. Flynn, blogger and advisor Steve Bannon, or Senator Jeff Sessions? By virtue of a distinguished military career, the general knows things that Trump doesn’t know. Maybe Trump trusts that. He might trust Bannon a bit for teaching him about digital media. Ditto Sessions for the law.

But all this trust is less than skin deep. When Trump says he’s known these men for a “long time,” he probably means since early in his bizarre campaign for president. With the possible exception of Flynn, all three men are political grifters. They glommed onto Trump when everyone else despised him, when no one thought he had a chance of winning, and when the electorate and media all seemed to recoil from his brass.

So their “friendship” with Trump is as deep as slime on a pond. To the extent they have recognizable policies —Flynn’s “class-of-civilizations” ideology, Bannon’s white nationalism, and Sessions’ longstanding racism—they glommed onto Trump because nothing and no one else came as close to their own lunacy as Trump’s brilliant demagoguery. They had and have nowhere else to go. But that makes them, at best, sycophants and yes-men, not advisers to be trusted.

In a crisis their “advice” will be as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, and likely wrong. Trump is probably smart enough to know this, if he thinks about it for a minute.

So whom, pray tell, does Trump have now: (1) whom he trusts implicitly; (2) who has his own best interests, as well as the country’s, at heart; and (3) who knows him well enough to help him stifle his worst instincts? No one except his family.

Long before I dreamed (is “nightmared” a verb?) that Trump might become president, Donald Jr. and Ivanka struck me as the best speakers at the Trump Convention. They are good kids, sensible, balanced, well spoken and pragmatic. They have known Trump from their birth. So I want them in the White House, near the Oval Office, where they can walk in while Trump is fuming, make him laugh, and say, “Hey, Dad, have you thought of this?”

The same reasoning applies to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and apparent confidant. I don’t want him off in the Middle East, trying to do what every president since Jimmy Carter has failed to do—bring peace to Israel and Palestine. I want him steps from the Oval Office where he can moderate the new president’s explosive and erratic personality and give him sense.

Of course none of the family belongs in the Cabinet. None has the training, experience or contacts. Like Trump for the presidency, they are unqualified by training and experience for any Cabinet job. But unlike everyone else, they are uniquely qualified for keeping the new president on a even keel and focused on the nation’s business, not his own stinging ego.

In his recent New York Times interview (NYT 11/23/16 at A15), Trump moderated his expressed desire to weaken libel laws so as to make it easier to sue news media. Here’s what he said:
“Somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’”
If that “somebody” weren’t one of Trump’s family, it certainly could have been.

Our current anti-nepotism statutes stem from the time when JFK, as president, appointed his brother Robert Kennedy as attorney general. In retrospect, that appointment sounds dangerous, but how quickly they forget. In the aftermath of our failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy was the only member of the Cabinet who advised JFK against a much bigger invasion that might have started World War III.

As we know now, the smaller confrontation with the Soviet Union that then existed came within minutes of igniting a Nuclear Armageddon that would have extinguished our species, or most of it. Three men avoided self-extinction: JFK himself, then Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev, and an obscure Soviet Submarine Flotilla Commander, Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, who decided not to fire his nuclear torpedoes.

Might JFK have been on that list without the cool counsel and emotional support of his younger brother? No one can answer that question today. But if his brother Robert’s presence in the Cabinet moved the needle even just a smidge toward human survival, the nepotism was well worth the political risk.

So here’s what Congress should do. It should waive the anti-nepotism rules for any non-Cabinet West Wing post not in the direct line of command. Let Donald Senior have his family with him, as much as he wants. They will make him a better person and a better president.

As for conflicts of interest, they’re going to be an inevitable part of Trump’s presidency. Unless he divests totally, which he so far adamantly has refused to do, overlaps of policy with his global business empire will inevitably crop up.

That may not be a bad thing. Congress will always have ammunition to impeach and remove him. In the final analysis, what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a political question, not a legal one. Our Founders gave our courts no role in reviewing impeachment by the House or removal by the Senate.

With a volatile, erratic and unpredictable man like Trump sitting in the White House and holding the nuclear codes, having perpetual cause or pretext for impeachment is an essential precaution. So let the conflicts rip, as long as none rises to the level of fatal errors of policy. But at the same time, let Trump have his family close at hand, so that people he trusts and knows can help keep him sane. His family is as vital to Trump’s mental balance and clear thinking as meds to a manic-depressive’s.

Belated Thanksgiving Message

Thanksgiving messages are a tradition on this blog, so I’ve prepared the following, just in time (11:40 pm EST):

Sometimes it seems as if there’s not much to be thankful for this year. Progressives are not happy to see Trump as president-elect. People who like certainty—most of us—are not pleased to see him making it up (literally!) as he goes along, or nominating people with little experience and/or extreme ideologies. And if you look at the world, especially Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, Syria and Turkey, not to mention Russia and China, a reversion to cruel strongmen seems to be gripping our species hard.

But there are silver linings in every cloud. Trump’s indecision suggests that he might actually wait until he knows something before acting. His military picks suggest that we will not be fighting World War III with Russia anytime soon, and we may leave Syria’s destruction for the Russians and Assad to complete. If Trump can get his infrastructure plan through a Congress bent on using tax cuts and deficits to cut the safety net and undo the Civil War, we may actually put some skilled people to work and soon have new trains, roads and airports to admire.

But Thanksgiving’s not just about today. It’s about a timeless memory of our national beginnings. It’s about some religious extremists called Puritans who came, undocumented and unasked, to the shores of this continent. The natives didn’t ask for papers. They didn’t jail, kill or deport the newcomers. Instead, they taught them how to grow corn and what plants to eat, and helped them throw a huge feast.

That’s what we celebrate today, and every year at this time. It’s a marvelous story of inter-tribal friendship. It shows the chief evolutionary advantages of our species—empathy and cooperation—at their best. And it shows how the natives, misnamed “Indians,” enjoyed those virtues even though they were not Christians.

If we can all keep that first feast and its meaning in mind, we just might muddle through. Happy Thanksgiving!



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19 November 2016

Jeff Sessions: Trump’s First Big Mistake


As we all know, Donald Trump is the least experienced pol ever to become president-elect. The first controversial action of his transition team—nominating Senator Jeff Sessions as our attorney general—confirms and underlines his inexperience. More important, it puts in jeopardy his “honeymoon” and his chance for a successful presidency before it even starts. Let’s analyze how.

We should make one thing clear at the outset. Sessions is no great legal scholar. Trump’s claim that he is is one of Trump’s biggest whoppers.

I was trained as a lawyer and legal scholar at Harvard. I have taught law in Berkeley, Hawaii, New Mexico and (on a Fulbright) at Russia’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Not once in the 42 years since I went to to law school have I heard Jeff Sessions’ name mentioned in the context of legal scholarship. He is a regional pol and an extremist, not a legal mind. He is as different from John Roberts, for example, as Trump himself is from Antonin Scalia.

In his youth, Sessions was a classic Southern cracker. He reportedly called a white lawyer who represented blacks a “disgrace to his race.” And he reportedly called a black prosecutor “boy.”

For these reasons and others, Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986, after his tolerance and/or sympathy for racist causes and organizations became public. His extreme views have not changed over the years, even if his language has become more guarded. He has been a consistent, if not rabid, supporter of diluting civil rights, advancing “states’s rights” to discriminate and disadvantage, and promoting the bellicose foreign policy for which our South is noted. If Sessions had his way, his native Alabama and all the South would return to their “exalted” state before our Civil War. The deaths of some 700,000 Americans in our most violent war ever—against ourselves—would ultimately come to naught.

We all know how inexperienced and unschooled in politics Donald Trump is. Now, in his second big appointment as president-elect, he has proved the point by nominating Sessions.

Trump’s new political coalition rests on the strong backs of millions of skilled workers whom globalization and our rigged economy have left behind. They are the force behind his victory. They are the ones with whom our nation and our elite must reckon, at best with a huge infrastructure-building plan that will put them back to self-respecting work.

The racists and white supremacists were behind Trump, too. But they were, and are, free riders. They are the extremist fringe, who, in much smaller numbers, hitched a ride on Trump’s wagon when it seemed to be going nowhere.

Sessions, whose career had been rightly mired in Alabama with little chance of moving beyond, hitched a ride on that wagon, too. Like the white supremacists, he got lucky.

But these free riders are not the ones behind Trump’s win. Nor are they the ones who could bring Trump’s presidency back into the mainstream and make it a success. They are the ones who will ultimately make it fail.

After eight years of scorched-earth opposition to a president who ran on hope and change, the public is tired of obstructionism. It’s tired of perpetually getting nothing done. It’s tired of division and discord.

But there are limits. The public is not ready to go to Hell to provoke some action. It’s one thing to support Trump in rebuilding our broken and dilapidated infrastructure by putting the skilled workers who build our postwar prosperity back to work. It’s quite another to put renegade Southerners in charge and take us back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education, before desegregation, and in some respects before our Civil War.

Darth McConnell may want that, in his heart of hearts. Maybe that’s why recent pictures show him smiling. Maybe that’s why he appears to be lukewarm, at best, to the infrastructure-(re)building plan that might make Trump’s presidency and that everyone knows we need.

Nominating Sessions is gross overreaching for a president-elect who lost the national popular vote by a substantial margin. But it’s worst than than. It plainly contradicts his conciliatory victory speech, in which he promised to bring us all together after the lowest, most vulgar, most disgusting campaign for supreme leader in American history. By nominating Sessions, Trump has thrown down a gauntlet at the feet of all the millions who voted for Hillary, or for anyone but him. He has broken the olive branch of his victory speech in the strongest way, by deeds, not words.

Make no mistake about it. Sessions will be “Borked.” He should be. On any rational basis, he’s far worse than Bork, who at least was a credible legal scholar and has a good mind.

Trump’s opponents must “go to the mattresses” on this nomination. They have no other choice. They cannot abandon, after 151 years, the North’s and the Union’s victory in our Civil War. They cannot abandon civility, equality and the idea that we are all Americans, regardless of our race, origin and religion. They must fight Sessions with all they’ve got.

If they do so, Sessions cannot become AG unless Republicans abandon the filibuster, something their instinct for self-preservation, long term, makes them unlikely to do. And Trump’s beneficial program of infrastructure (re)building cannot begin with such a challenge to history and decency.

If Trump does not withdraw this ill-advised nomination, his “honeymoon”—and the chances of success of his presidency—will end when public hearings on Sessions’ nomination begin. It would be a shame if a man in whom so many placed their last hope of beneficial change betrayed their hopes in a futile attempt to refight the Civil War and undo history. And it would be a shame if an inexperienced, overconfident man poisoned his presidency early on by pandering to the extreme fringes of his supporters.

It’s also ironic to the point of laughter. A businessman who has been so clever and ruthless in using his investors, customers, employees and “students” is letting himself be used by political grifters to further goals that neither he nor anyone else from New York shares.

If Trump can figure this out before his transition period ends, perhaps he can jettison Sessions and the other grifters. Then, since anti-nepotism laws don’t clearly apply during a transition, perhaps he can rely on his smart offspring and family to find and vet savvy pols he can trust to “make American great again.” The only people who think that means helping the South rise again are Darth McConnell and the likes of Sessions, who drifted toward Trump’s campaign for lack of any other place to go.

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17 November 2016

Working with Trump


1. Marginalizing Bannon
2. Attracting skilled workers
3. Theory versus practice
4. Maintaining perspective
5. Specific programs
Conclusion

Donald Trump may have a foul mouth and some hard-right tendencies. His attitude toward women is adolescent and unacceptable. But notwithstanding analogies made by me and others, he differs from Adolf Hitler in two critical ways.

First and foremost, he’s not a warmonger. “America First!” (meaning, “let’s get our own house in order”) is quite different from “Deutschland über Alles” (meaning “let’s go out and take the Lebensraum we need”). Trump believes that our invasion and occupation of Iraq was a catastrophic blunder, whose terrible consequences are still reverberating and will continue for decades. So do I, nearly every Democrat, and most thinking Republicans.

Trump doesn’t want to double down on such blunders or make new ones. If anything, he leans too much the other way: he wants to withdraw from the responsibilities of world leadership.

In the long run, that may not be a bad idea, at least if it means giving up the onus of being the beat (and beat-up) cop in every fight anywhere on the globe. But getting there from where we are today will take finesse, subtlety, cleverness and lots of patience.

Second, Trump has none of the (justified) international grievance that Hitler had. Although he thinks that China has taken advantage of us, he doesn’t blame the Chinese, or anyone else. He thinks we’ve done it all to ourselves by being too starry-eyed about trade and not good enough at negotiating in our own interest.

There’s at least some truth in that view, and you can argue how right he is. But even at its most extreme, his view is nothing like the international resentment that Germany had, and that Hitler expressed, for the utter destruction of Germany’s economy, including the Weimar Hyperinflation, that the Allies’ collective punishment for World War I caused, and that our own president (Woodrow Wilson) warned against.

So let’s stop thinking of Donald Trump as a Second Coming of Adolf Hitler, shall we?

Once we do that, it becomes possible to think of Trump as our President. That’s not a bad thing, because in two months and three days he will be. According to news reports, our new Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been recognizing this reality and trying to work with Trump and his transition team for the last several days.

More power to Schumer. But he and others like him had better work fast. What is now happening in this country is the greatest political realignment since Teddy Roosevelt became a Bull Moose, or since Ronald Reagan stole skilled workers from the Dems. Just about everything, including the next big political coalition, is up for grabs.

In the immortal words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.” If we are clever, progressives have a good chance to come out winners when the spinning stops.

But we won’t do it by marching in the streets or declaring rear-guard political guerrilla warfare. We’ll do it by persuading and infiltrating the Trump team while it’s still in formation, and by allying with it those cases—which are few but important—where Trump agrees with us. Here’s how:

1. Marginalizing Bannon. Every thinking person is aghast at Steven Bannon’s anointment as a “senior advisor” to Trump. Bannon is an over-the-top racist, nationalist and xenophobe, with clear ties to white supremacists. He’s also Trump’s chief propagandist, playing a role much like Josef Goebbels in the Third Reich.

Before you can deal with Bannon effectively, you have to understand why he’s there. There are three reasons. First, he taught Trump modern, digital media and its power. In so doing he prepared Trump to build the no-holds-barred, all-rules-broken propaganda war machine that gave him the presidency. Like or not, that machine has been effective: it rolled over sixteen GOP rivals and Hillary Clinton as if they didn’t exist. (Whether it could have rolled over Bernie as easily is debatable, but we have no proof that it couldn’t.)

Second, Trump won by bringing two previously marginalized groups into the political process as actual voters. One was the racist, xenophobic, white nationalists that Bannon represents. The other was the millions of skilled workers whom globalization has made unemployed or underemployed. It’s vital to understand that these two groups overlap, and that the skilled workers are a much bigger group and therefore much more important (because they have more economic clout and, in general, are more likely to vote). Get the skilled workers good, solid jobs, and you pretty much take the wind out of the tribalists’ sails.

The third thing to see is that Trump does understand a thing or two about running a working organization. He likes to put opposites in roughly comparable positions, pit them against each other, and watch them fight. That’s not a bad management style; it goes back to FDR and Lincoln’s “team of rivals.”

Yes, Bannon is a personal abomination. But, having helped Trump win, he’s now a bit like nuclear weapons. They have awesome power but work best if never used.

Trump knows the power of cooperation. His short victory sppech was conciliatory. He will not likely trot out Bannon’s tribalism again unless he begins to lose the skilled workers who let him win in Ohio and Wisconsin. Otherwise, he will keep Bannon on a short leash—or he will if his advisors point out the benefits of this strategy.

2. Attracting skilled workers. Stripped to its essence, this big political realignment was much like the last one. Just as Reagan stole the skilled workers that used to be known as Reagan Democrats, Trump stole the skilled workers that have been unemployed or underemployed as a result of globalization, the exodus of American manufacturing, and the Great Recession.

How did Trump do it? He did a little demagoguery, promising to deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were ostensibly taking their jobs. But mostly he just did the most straightforward thing possible: he promised to bring back their jobs.

The methods Trump proposed ranged from fanciful to fantastic. He promised to deport eleven million people, leaving gaping holes in the American economy. He promised to face down China, which owns $ 1.3 trillion of our Treasury bonds (about 7%), and to put big tariffs on goods from China and Mexico, which together sell a big fraction of stuff our skilled workers buy. None of this is likely to work, and it would probably be counterproductive. Likewise renegotiating NAFTA will take years, will have uncertain results (including stopping exports), and will not bring back already-lost jobs.

The only plan that Trump has proposed that almost certainly will work is (re)building our national infrastructure. Our own American Society of Civil Engineers tells us we desperately need to do that, to the tune of $3.6 trillion by 2020. That work will employ skilled workers all over the country, and it will do so soon, not years down the road. Borrowing the money also will raise interest rates and normalize the economy, almost a decade after the Crash of 2008.

This plan is a no-brainer. President Obama and Nobel-laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz have been pushing something like it for eight years. Dems should support it and push it now. When it passes, they should loudly and repeatedly remind the public who opposed it during Obama’s two terms (especially Darth McConnell) and why it took so long.

3. Theory versus practice. On the battleground of theory, progressives have been mostly AWOL or incompetent. Early on, they let their opponents tar them as “socialist” or even “Communist,” which the ones who can win elections most definitely are not.

I have no idea why progressives let this happen. Maybe some have nostalgia or theoretical proclivities for some of the ideas underlying socialism. Maybe some, like Bernie, let the names be applied to them and now can’t shuck them.

The simple fact is that we Yanks don’t have a socialist country and never will. But progressives don’t have to tout socialism. Single-payer health insurance, for example, is not “socialism.” It’s just a system required by the nature of insurance (the larger the pool of insureds, the lower the premiums) and by the ballooning administrative expenses that multiple differing sets of rules, forms, computer systems, and administrators cause, not to mention private profit. That’s why virtually every advanced country but ours has it, and why we ourselves have it for people over 65.

So single-payer is just the most efficient and effective system of health insurance. It will make free enterprise and capitalism work better. It will do so, among other things, by lowering premiums, insuring everyone, taking the social burden of health insurance off the backs of private enterprise, and giving private doctors and hospitals more paying patients.

Another battle in theory that progressives have lost is allowing the GOP to tout lower taxes (especially on the rich), less regulation, and smaller government for a generation. Not only do these things mean nothing (“lower” than what? “smaller” than what?). They inevitably weaken legal protection for workers, consumers, and citizens, not to mention our environment.

Insofar as taxes are concerned, lowering top individual rates allows the rich to avoid paying their fair share and makes them richer, while the middle class and poor hope their added wealth will “trickle down.” This never works for the middle class, but progressives have never found a quick and simple way to describe what it does and why doesn’t work. Only hard experience has done that.

Perhaps as an antidote to all this fanciful and counterproductive GOP theory, progressives have come up with the theory of “inclusion” and “diversity.” Every time a new minority group comes to the table for rights—gays, Lesbians, transgender folk, etc.—progressives don’t just let them sit down. They celebrate and exalt them.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this. In theory, it’s acceptable and moral to admit all new diners.

But in practice, celebrating the more oddball contributors to diversity has three unintended consequences. First, it makes the “normal” majority begin to feel neglected and under-appreciated. Second, as it encompasses smaller and smaller minorities, it loses perspective, sometimes almost completely (see below).

Finally, and most importantly, focusing obsessively on minorities and their rights emphasizes tribes and their differences, rather than working together. This factor recently reached the stage where millions of skilled workers, who build this country, thought their “tribe” was being neglected and so elected Trump. In the process, they put a tribalist like Bannon in a position of great power, thereby setting the cause of diversity back decades.

In his vehement dissent in Obergefell (the gay-marriage rights case), Chief Justice John Roberts warned us all about this. But no one listened.

I think he was wrong about gay marriage rights; I think we as a nation were ready. But we need to be aware of and sympathetic toward contrary views. If Southwest Airlines refuses to fly gay couples, or HCA refuses to let gay spouses visit in hospital, we need to force them, because these huge corporations are part of the fabric of daily life and (in effect, if not in law) public utilities. But if one of three small, family-owned bakeries in a small town doesn’t want to serve gay weddings, while the other two will, we ought not to force the reluctant one to ignore its conscience or its religion. “Live and let live” works both ways.

In all these cases, the point is simple. Abstractions simply don’t work well in politics. They become generalizations, and the generalizations sweep too far and oversimplify. Rather than talk incessantly about abstractions like “freedom” or “diversity,” pols should talk about specific plans and programs and explain, in the most concrete way possible, how they would make people’s lives better.

For example, pols could explain that single-payer health care would insure everyone, lower everyone’s premiums, cut the Gordian knot of inefficient health-insurance administration, give the single insurer no profit incentive to deny claims, avoid pandemics spreading by giving everyone a doctor to go to, and keep poor people out of expensive emergency rooms for routine and preventative treatment. Similarly, breaking up the big banks would decrease their risky behavior, reduce huge accumulations of capital that encourage speculation and other high-risk taking, and force banks to compete for profits by financing local home ownership, developing real estate (something dear to Trump’s heart) and financing start-up businesses (so-called “capital formation”).

4. Maintaining perspective. Quite apart from the atrocious level of insults and muck throwing, the presidential campaign just ended was notable for its lack of perspective. Not once during the debates did any moderator mention global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, although long term it is the single issue that most threatens our entire species’ happiness and survival, even more than nuclear proliferation.

Yet for several months during the too-long eighteen-month campaign, both left and right obsessed about whether to let transgender students use the bathrooms they prefer. How many such students are there? Probably less than 10,000 in the entire country. That’s 0.003%.

Sure, it’s probably just and right to let students use the bathroom they prefer, at least with a doctor’s note saying they have or aspire to having that gender. And sure, it was good for us progressives to see the GOP governor of North Carolina embarrassed by his hard-line response. But was this worth missing a chance to attract those millions of skilled workers who ended up voting for Trump?

I fault the thousands of political operatives and pollsters who make a career out of researching the needs and voting patterns of the tiniest and most marginal groups. They are the ones (with their useless polls) who so badly misjudged this electorate and this election. If we really want to “get even” with China, we should ship China all our many pollsters, political operatives and consultants for an extended “sabbatical,” say twenty years.

5. Specific programs. So what specific programs ought the Dems work with Trump on? Here are a few suggestions, including the infrastrure-building programs and bank breakups already mentioned, along with a brief outline of reasons and expected outcomes:

    a. Borrowing money for a $3.6 trillion infrastructure-building plan. This will attract the skilled-worker constituency that Trump won and put it to work. It would do so by standard Keynesian borrowing, which economists know will work. The borrowing (at low interest rates now) will help raise interest rates back to “normal” levels and erase the last pernicious effect of the Crash of 2008.

    b. Breaking up the big banks. Let’s get one thing clear. Today’s big bankers are not anything like our Robber Barons. The Robber Barons built this nation: the steel mills, the railroads, and the oil infrastructure that powers most of our transportation today. Today’s bankers gave us nothing; they enriched themselves obscenely and tanked the global economy. We are still recovering from the gratuitous and useless economic devastation they caused and our indignation at bailing them out.

    For reasons I have explained at length, regulation and criminal sanctions don’t work well to control bankers and never will. So the only recourse is to watch them like hawks—the Fed’s current approach—or break the big banks up. Pols as diverse as Republicans Jon Huntsman and Donald Trump, and Democrats Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and (belatedly and tentatively) Hillary have suggested breaking the big banks up.

    Detailed oversight of world-spanning banks is a tricky business. One slip by the regulators—one set of signs missed—and we would have another Crash of 2008. This time, neither our own citizens nor the world would soon forgive us; we would probably lose our economic leadership forever. And don’t rely on legislators’ detailed rules to save us: they never see the need for extra regulation until after a crash, but that’s precisely when the lobbying to dilute the regulations begins again.

    The breakups needn’t involve anything as drastic as nationalization. They can be private, on private markets, through private deals. But the resulting smaller banks will compete better, pose less systemic risk to our national and the global economy, be less likely to create financial houses of cards like the present $700 trillion of unregulated derivatives, and be more likely to serve the needs of local homeowners, local businesses and start-ups (i.e., real capital formation).

    Finally, pols of all stripes should recognize the still-simmering rage of ordinary Americans, including Trump’s millions of newly-voting skilled workers, that bankers caused so much hardship, never paid a dime, never went to jail, and got bailed out by hard-working taxpayers. The political party or coalition that first recognizes and assuages this anger will have loyal followers and good talking points for a generation.

    c. Family-oriented programs: family leave, higher minimum wages, and equal pay. Every one of these long-proposed family-oriented programs has been discussed, debated and analyzed incessantly. Each side, pro or con, has volumes of studies on its economic effect.

    But just like polls and predictions on the election just ended, these studies are useless. The notion that you can predict the economic effect of changes like these precisely, as if you were analyzing an electrical circuit on a desk, is simply bogus. There are too many variables and too much uncertainty. That’s why each side in the debate has its pet studies to cite.

    What you have to do is try these things, see how they work and, if necessary, fix them. We know all these programs work well in other countries. They haven’t destroyed capitalism or free enterprise there, and they won’t here. And if they have unintended consequences that need fixing, we can fix them then. What we do know is that each of these programs will make workers’ lives happier, less stressful and better. What’s wrong with that?

* * *
Conclusion. Trump is scatterbrained, egotistical and narcissistic. Few, if any, of us would choose him for our president for his character. But he is a practical man. He is responsible for various real-estate developments that, while perhaps not the world’s most elegant or sophisticated, are still standing and still in use.

As a practical man, he has the potential to distract us from abstract debates about government and taxes and direct our attention to real, concrete things that need doing and, once done, can make life better for all of us. The first party that recognizes these facts and takes advantage of them will have a head start in building a new coalition in the gigantic realignment now under way.

Doing that will take patience, forbearance and cleverness. Donald Trump is not an easy man. But he is also not committed to the Republican Party or its abstract dogma of ever-fewer taxes and regulations and ever-smaller government. He was once a Democrat.

So working with him, not against him, may bear strange fruit. We have all just experienced a much more competent and emphatetic president working under scorched-earth oppostiion for eight years. We all know how that turned out. Let’s try to do better this time.

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