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

29 January 2017


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
    “Lord Ronald . . . . flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” Stephen Leacock, Canadian humorist
The American people elected Donald Trump because they wanted a decisive leader. At least the most dissatisfied parts of the American people did. They were tired of temporizing, prevaricating leaders like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, who never seemed to speak plainly or to do anything.

They wanted the proverbial “man on horseback.” What they got, instead, was the man described by Stephen Leacock. Trump’s first full week in office shows the trend.

Take the Wall, for example. Please. The Donald is ready to build it, trowel in hand. But how is he going to pay for it? He’s going to charge a 20% tariff on goods imported from Mexico.

At first listen, that sounds fine. But if you’ve taken a course in economics, even in high school, you know the law of supply and demand. If you raise the price of goods imported from Mexico by 20%—which Trump’s tariff or “border tax” would do—the American people will buy fewer of them.

How much fewer depends on what the economists call “the elasticity of demand.” It could be 20% fewer. Or it could be a lot fewer. Take cars, for example. A lower-price advantage of about 10% let the Japanese get a big foothold in our American car market in the seventies and eighties. So a 20% increase in the prices of cars coming from Mexico would probably slow their flow big time, much more than 20%.

Now if the flow of products slows, what will happen to Mexican workers who make them? They’ll be laid off, more than 20%. What will the laid-off workers do? They’ll try harder to scale or breach the Wall, big time, in order to go where the jobs are. El Chapo’s mile-long drug tunnel will become a whole subway system under the American Southwest.

And if the law of supply and demand hurts your head, how about this? Mexicans can’t eat, drink, smoke, or sell the Wall. Paying for it will only make them poorer. And if Mexicans get poorer, will more or fewer of them try to come here? You decide.

So the two parts of Trump’s “Wall” project—building it and paying for it—are at odds with each other. The proposed method of paying for it increases the pressure to scale or breach the Wall. You can ride off in all directions in Canadian humor, but you can’t do it in real life.

Torture is another illustrative case. In a much publicized press conference, Trump said he would heed the views of his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who wants torture outlawed in America and for our armed forces everywhere. But then Trump proceeded to air his own view, namely, that torture works and could be useful.

Why did Trump undermine his own explicit delegation of authority to Mattis? Probably because he wanted our enemies, terrorists especially, to fear torture if caught.

But ask John McCain about that. He spent half a decade in the North Vietnamese war prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” There he was mistreated and tortured routinely, almost every day. So like most people with military experience (of which Trump has none) McCain knows the most basic rule of war: “if we do it to them, they will do it to us, or at least they’ll try.”

Maybe Trump intended to scare our enemies. But what he really did, according to all the military experts, is make it more likely that our enemies will do it to us, notwithstanding what our military manuals say. (And if you’re worried about Muslims in particular, just read the news reports from places like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey (after the coup). In those places, they torture prisoners just for fear and spite; they don’t even need the pretext of gathering intelligence.)

So again with torture, the two parts of Trump’s “plan” are at war with themselves.

Trump’s executive orders halting all immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations is a bit different. Those orders are not at war with themselves, and Trump appears to have the power as president to issue them.

But they are at war with our Statue of Liberty and its famous inscription (“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses . . .”). They are also at war with our history as a nation of immigrants (except for our much-abused slaves and Native Americans).

Finally, Trump’s orders are at war with our need to replenish and renew ourselves with good immigrants. The best and the brightest refugees from war-torn hell holes get out first. They’re the ones who can see the disaster coming and have the intelligence, initiative and resources to get out. By the time we decide to take Syria’s best and brightest, they will all be settled in Germany, Australia or Canada. Maybe even China will take some.

Don’t get me wrong. In some ways, Trump’s penchant for letting his minions speak out is a good thing. Contrary to the craving of his voters for simplicity, the president doesn’t get the easy ones. Issues that reach a president’s desk are inherently complex and hard to resolve.

So it helps democracy for us plebes to know that people in high places have differing views, just like us. It informs us to hear them state those views, as simply and cogently as they can. However scarce it may have been in our last election, detailed debate on the substance of policy is the essence of democracy.

In a real democracy, debate shouldn’t stop at the Cabinet’s walls, except when national security requires secrecy. It should spill over. Cabinet members should not be penalized or dismissed for contributing to the public’s debate unless their dissent rises to the level of insubordination.

Yet eventually someone has to decide. That’s the president’s job. His decision should include reasons, but it cannot be at war with itself. When the buck stops at the president’s desk, he must make a decision, and it must make sense. He must ride his horse in a single direction and be accountable for doing so.

Judged on that basis, Trump’s first week was an unmitigated disaster. If he keeps this up, not only will his administration produce a windfall for late-night comics. His so-called “honeymoon” will be even shorter than Obama’s, and for reasons of incompetence, not racism.

Footnote 1: Already there appears to be a trend among Trumpets to call what looks like a tariff a “tax.” Apparently one reason for this verbal legerdemain is Chief Justice Roberts’ decisive opinion upholding Obamacare’s penalties for not buying health insurance as a “tax.” Our Constitution gives Congress (but not the president by himself) pretty broad power to tax.

Whether this ploy will work with tariffs—which depend on treaties and international law more than on our Constitution—is another matter. In most areas of law, the deciders look at what the levy does and how it works, not just its label, before deciding what it is. And anyway, in international trade the most basic rule is much like that for torture: if we do it to them, they’ll do it to us. So in the long run, what you call a mandatory payment probably doesn’t matter much, other than helping it fit more comfortably into one simplistic ideology or another.

Footnote 2: I don’t mean to say that Trump will necessarily be a good “decider.” He might be like Dubya, who gave us two unnecessary wars, an economic collapse, and lots of unintentional jokes about our English language. With the Democrats confused and in disarray, and the whole world scratching its head, our checks and balances might not suffice to stave off some really bad decisions. But our huge federal bureaucracy might.

GOP Pundit David Brooks—no fan of Trump—has referred to the collective impact of thousands of recalcitrant civil servants as our bureaucracy’s “passive-aggressive” behavior. Even Ike once complained about it: he found it a lot harder to get things done as president than he did as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. By dragging their heels, delaying and thwarting, our loyal and hardy bureaucrats just might save us Yanks from jumping on Leacock’s magical horse. Godspeed.

Competence: Details, Details, Details!

Trump won the election, and elections have consequences. So no one should be surprised at his Exclusion Order barring entry to people from seven Muslim-majority nations that he has blacklisted for ninety days. That’s precisely what he promised (after some dithering on details) during his campaign.

Within the broad limits of our Constitution and our laws, a president has the authority to impose his personal ideology and ideas on the nation. That’s what winning a presidential election means.

But incompetence is neither an ideology nor an idea. It’s, well, incompetence.

Americans have a right to expect that, whatever his ideology or ideas, our president will at least execute them competently. With his entry-barring Order of last week, President Trump and his team failed to do that.

Apparently his Order was based on three simple ideas. First, if we exclude everyone from the biggest terrorist-ridden war-torn hell holes on Earth, we’ll cut our risk of inadvertently admitting members of terrorist sleeper cells. Second, if we base the exclusion Order on nationality, not religion, we can’t be excused of bashing all Muslims. Third, if we don’t announce the Order publicly before it goes into effect, terrorists can’t “get a jump” on its enforcement.

You can argue about whether these ideas are right and important, and whether they will have unintended consequences. But they are not on their faces irrational or crazy.

The problem of execution was not with these basic ideas, but all the other things Trump and his team failed to think of. How do you tell when someone is “from” one of the blacklisted countries? It can’t be which flight they’re on, which is easily changed. And it can’t be whether they have a visa, because the whole idea of the Order is not to grant a visa. So exclusion must depend on passports.

But if so, what about people coming, directly or indirectly, from the seven blacklisted countries with a US passport, i.e., US citizens? What about dual citizens with, say, a US and a Syrian passport? What about US permanent residents, with green cards? If one of more of these categories of people can enter, can they also leave the US—for example, to visit their families in blacklisted countries—and come back?

And what about the Iraqi translator for our troops, who had risked his life continuously for ten years by helping us and had all his bags packed to immigrate with his family, including an eldest son with Downs’ Syndrome who, he hoped, would get better care in the US?

If this translator is a terrorist, so is Trump. Is there someone in our government empowered to make an exception for people like him? Oughtn’t there be? And shouldn’t someone in our government have contacted high-level officials of every blacklisted nation and informed them about the Order, at least immediately after it went into effect?

As far as I know from news reports, none of these questions was answered, and none of these actions was taken in time. So the Order didn’t produce order. It produced chaos.

This is incompetence. It could only have been prevented by someone on Trump’s team who is a detail person. That description doesn’t include Trump himself.

After working in three careers (science, law, and law teaching), I’ve learned that you’re either a detail person or you’re not. At 71, Trump is not going to become one, let alone under the pressure of the most difficult job in the world. So if he wants to have a competent presidency, he’s going to have to delegate execution to, and rely on, people on his team who are.

There are precious few on his team who fit that description. The only ones who come easily to mind, and who have had experience managing large organizations, are Generals Mattis and Kelly, Elaine Chao, and Rex Tillerson. (General Flynn was fired from a leadership position at the Defense Intelligence Agency, apparently because he was a bad manager; and Treasury-Secretary-designate Mnuchin has as much of a job-hopping resume as anyone in finance.)

That’s a thin crew of four members, but at least it exists. If Trump wants to act competently, as the citizens of a nation of 320 million people have a right to expect, he’s going to have to involve these key people—or others equally competent—in every important decision, including its public announcement.

That’s why I’ve recommended speedy confirmation of Rex Tillerson at State. As CEO of what (before Apple took over) was the most valuable corporation on Earth, he probably knows how to handle detail. And he probably would have figured out that a public announcement of the Order, directly from the White House, with details of its application, would have helped ICE, our numerous US Airports, and everyone traveling from the blacklisted countries to the US over the weekend. It might even have prevented some protests, not all of which were based on accurate understanding of the Order.

Imagine this sort of chaos prevailing not just for a weekend, but for four years. That is precisely what will happen if Trump does not learn to delegate to the competent members on his team. More than likely, he would be impeached and removed from office long before that.

Impeachment is entirely a political process. It’s not subject to Supreme Court review. What constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is entirely up to Congress to decide.

Even now, Trump’s wide range of business conflicts of interest could serve as ground for impeachment and removal under the Emoluments Clause, as long as more than half of the House and two-thirds of the Senate see them that way. And even now, many Republicans might prefer a predictable “establishment” Republican president (Mike Pence) to the loose cannon that is Donald Trump.

Americans can tolerate variations in ideology and ideas. We thrive on experimentation: we are not a nation of nay-sayers. But we find it hard to tolerate gross incompetence. We like to think of ourselves, or at least our leaders, as being able to master details and carry out a plan competently.

So Trump had better clean up his act, and soon. Otherwise we Yanks may discover whether incompetence or racism is more effective in bringing a president down. I’m betting on incompetence.



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