Diatribes of Jay

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

20 January 2017

Trump’s Inauguration


[For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Margaritas in one hand, our hearts in the other, we watched Trump’s inauguration on TV today. Our mood was a far cry from eight years ago, when we sat on a blanket near the Reflecting Pool at the far end of the National Mall. There we watched on a “Jumbotron” while Barack Obama took the oath of office for the first time.

Hope was a tangible thing that day. Strangers of all races hugged each other after Obama’s speech. Then, as we watched a helicopter take Dubya back into private life, we pondered his two unnecessary wars and the economic collapse he had left us as his legacy.

The nation that Trump inherits from Obama is in far better shape. At long last, the Crash of 2008 that our bankers caused is over. Unemployment, on average, is back to “normal.” Our American auto makers are thriving, with record sales. Interest rates are at records lows. The stock markets are at record highs. Our dollar, having pounded the Yuan and the Euro into submission, is king again. Even the two forever wars that Dubya started are winding down, with much more sacrifice by locals and much less by our hard-pressed all-volunteer troops.

So you would think that Hillary—Obama’s designated successor and co-policy-wonk—would be giving the speech today. But no. There was Donald Trump at the podium, uncharacteristically speaking in flowing, complete sentences, undoubtedly written by others.

That central anomaly—unprecedented, unpredicted and maybe unpredictable—was the 800 pound gorilla sitting unseen on the dais today. It was and is, by far, the thing that most cries out for thought and explanation.

How did the least experienced candidate, with the most repulsive public personality (though, apparently, a sweeter private one), end up knocking off sixteen Republican rivals and the first serious (and overqualified) female candidate for president? The best answer is that all those candidates—every one!—plus a large fraction of our global intelligentsia have been part of the most egregious group-think in human history.

The object of that group-think is something that the The Economist, which styles itself a “newspaper,” calls the “liberal economic order.” We used to call it “laissez faire capitalism,” before FDR gave that ideology a bad name for helping cause the Great Depression.

In essence, the “liberal economic order” is a global system that lets economic actors do what they will, with as few rules and restrictions as possible. It’s our own GOP’s basic philosophy, made respectable and almost divine by the Brits.

Among many other things, it means cutting tariffs and other trade barriers to the bone and making the whole world a single market. The fewer rules, barriers and restrictions we have to hinder the free run of businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide, it holds, the better off we’ll all be.

This simplistic theory has bent a bit in the past few decades. It now accommodates rules that try to keep factories from burning down or blowing up, workers from being poisoned or injured, vessels and aircraft from sinking or crashing, food from causing disease, water from being made undrinkable (as in Flint recently), and air from being made unbreathable. The group thinkers have made these begrudging concessions in order to lessen clear threats to life, health and limb. A man named Ronald Coase even got a Nobel Prize, in 1991, for laying the theoretical groundwork for some of these rules.

But these effects are all dramatic and visible consequences: physical destruction of property or clear threats to human health, safety and life. Group thinkers are still chewing on how best to retard global warming while giving business free reign. And no group thinker ever dreamed that the group-think would, over decades, have serious social and economic consequences in the world’s most stable democracies.

So Nigel Farage (the British Brexit guy) and Donald Trump had to show us. Donald got elected president when no one dreamed a man of his experience, temperament and personality could.

And then, in his inauguration speech, he told us how he had done it. He had acted and spoken for the “forgotten” workers. You know the ones: those who had lost their factories and consequently their good jobs, their towns, their kids and sometimes their homes and (through addiction and substance abuse) their health and their lives.

No, if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t know them. You’re probably a college-educated person who will never have to make a living with your hands. You probably don’t know too many people who do, at least not intimately.

But if you want to know them, you have only to visit a union hall or any of the thousands of small towns in the upper Midwest where Trump won overwhelmingly. There the factory that made the town is closed and locked; the roads are broken and cracked because there is no tax money to repair them; the kids are all gone to college, to big cities or to fight our endless wars; and the mostly-over-fifty residents all live on scut work, the safety net, memories, broken dreams and (more than occasionally now) dangerous drugs. And they are the ones who still have homes.

Pundit Mark Shields’ reaction to Trump’s speech was both touching and revealing. Shields seemed at last to get it: so many people, so many broken lives. The “liberal international order” hasn’t done very well by them. They are its “collateral damage.”

Shields balked at Trump using the word “carnage” to describe the damage. But isn’t “carnage” apt, at least metaphorically? Isn’t it well within Donald Trump’s usual scope of exaggeration? Isn’t what’s happening in South Central Chicago “carnage,” even literally? Isn’t the epidemic of drug abuse among the so-called “middle-class” pretty close? And aren’t the dusty winds blowing over broken pavement and abandoned homes in so many one-company towns with no company left anymore reminiscent of a long-ago war zone?

The sins of the group thinkers are three. First, they have a propensity to fit facts to theory, rather than vice versa. That is the sin of Alan Greenspan, who failed to take measures to stop the Crash of 2008 for faith that broken markets fix themselves (a faith he later publicly recanted).

The second sin is worse and more fundamental: a lack of empathy. How could the stewards of American society, its pols, fail to see and feel the pain of all those millions left behind?

Business executives at least have a plausible excuse. In our increasingly stratified and unequal society, they simply don’t have much contact, any more, with people who work with their hands. They go to (and send their kids to) different schools. They take different entertainment. They eat and drink at different places. And they live in gated communities, different towns or different parts of cities.

But isn’t it pols’ job to cross these barriers and find out how the other half lives? The mere fact that so many missed what Trump-the-property-plutocrat managed to discover is an indictment of our entire political system.

The oddest thing in this regard was Trump himself. On our TV screen, we could see his face over a foot wide. In speaking of these “forgotten” Americans, his passion was palpable. Whatever else this guy may or may not have, he does have some genuine sympathy for forgotten Americans. Evidently they, feeling a rare ray of hope, responded in kind.

Even going back to Nixon, I can’t remember seeing any Republican showing such passion for the plight of the ordinary worker. Whenever McConnell, Ryan or Boehner spoke of “jobs,” all I heard was someone trying to sell me something: the idea that taxes and regulation kill jobs. But they don’t. Taxes support government and defense jobs or (if spent for things like infrastructure) private-sector jobs. Regulation makes jobs safer. And if you believe in that purpose (or any other legitimate purpose of regulation), isn’t what the regulators themselves do a “job”? It’s about time people began to recognize this GOP cant for the utter garbage that it is.

The third sin is simply hubris. The “liberal international order” has raised standards of living worldwide. In the last generation, it has lifted almost a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty, mostly by transferring factories and good jobs from advanced nations to developing nations like China. But in the process, it has hollowed out industry in advanced countries, deprived millions of equal treatment and their [insert country] dream, created obscene economic inequality, and in the process fostered vast social instability.

Looking at a machine like this, an honest engineer (or economist) would say the system does some things well but in some respects needs fixing. Then he would roll up his sleeves and get to work fixing it. He wouldn’t, as our group thinkers so often do, say “the theory’s right, so damn the suffering, full speed ahead.” A system that destabilizes what makes it work (advanced democracies) is not a sustainable system.

And so we have our latest Andrew Jackson in the White House. He’s rude. He’s crude. He’s uncivil and undiplomatic. He’s unpredictable and a loose cannon. But somehow he managed to connect with millions of Americans (and Brits across the Pond) whose lives have been ripped apart by an abstract theory that, to put it mildly, doesn’t comprehend all the facts or all its consequences.

The next thing I think I learned from watching Trump speak is how far his tribalism really goes. He didn’t apologize for his misogyny, racism, and bashing of immigrants and Muslims during the campaign. But he didn’t repeat them, either. You might say he was utterly silent on the subject except to mention control of immigration generally and in passing.

It’s a sad fact of our society and political system that tribalism works. At least virtually all our pols but Barack Obama think it works. Virtually every Republican since Nixon (with his vile “Southern Strategy”) has used it. Avuncular Daddy Bush did so with his “Willie Horton” ad. Even Democrats did so: Hillary and Bill resorted to implied, second-hand racism during their knock-down, drag-out 2007 campaign against Obama.

The big question is: does Trump really mean this stuff? Or is it all just a way to gin up solid anger to bring folks who’ve despaired of electoral politics to the polls?

I can’t believe that anyone from Queens raised in New York City is a racist anything like Jeff Sessions. Trump’s failure to blow any dog whistle during his speech—except the general one of “law and order”—suggests that his resemblance to Adolf has been greatly exaggerated, including by me.

Another hint at Trump’s real views was what he reportedly said about the Clintons at lunch after his inauguration. He said he was “very honored” to have them present and that he has “a lot of respect for those two people.” This, you may recall, was the same guy who made the chant “Lock her up!” a staple of his late-campaign rallies.

All American pols seem to do this sort of thing. Trump just took it to extremes, which we can all hope are the high-water-mark of gratuitous nastiness in American politics. We can also hope that foreign democracies eschew this particular “made in America” product.

This brings me to the last and by far the most important point of this post. Once Trump was a Democrat. He switched to the GOP during Barack Obama’s first term, perhaps after seeing how successful Mitch, Rush and John were in demonizing Obama on racial and ideological ground.

But some of his expressed policies would sit well in the Democratic party. They include: (1) fairer trade deals, (2) more attention to people who work with their hands (the Dems’ traditional base), (3) keeping jobs onshore, (4) building infrastructure (and our economy) with deficit spending, (5) waiting to repeal Obamacare until there is a working replacement, beyond a fig leaf, and (6) trying to avoid starting a new war for at least a year or two.

Donald Trump is still figuring out what he wants to do when he grows up and becomes president. His latest on immigration was not deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants, just the criminals. Although he hasn’t disclaimed his lie that global warming is a Chinese hoax, every one of his Cabinet nominees who was asked about it has. There are also some examples of Trump knowing what he doesn’t know, especially in military matters.

Trump will say or Tweet whatever comes into his mind at the moment. He’s an unusual president who thinks out loud and in public. We’re all going to have to get used to that. The best way to do so is to wait until he acts before judging him or reacting.

If that’s the right approach, then three things are clear. First, the “total opposition - fight him on everything” attitude of some progressives would be massively self-defeating, at least at present. The real enemies of the people, progressives and Democrats are Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, whose only interests in politics appear to be cutting taxes, spending and regulation, thereby making their donor-bosses richer and freer. If they have any constructive, non-ideology-driven plans to make ordinary people’s lives better, I haven’t heard of them.

Second, if McConnell and Ryan continue to oppose and thwart Trump on key issues, the Dems will have an historic opportunity. They could form winning coalitions by attracting like-minded legislators away from the GOP, perhaps even from the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. If enough common ground appears, they might even form a new dominant party and leave the “serve the rich” GOP in the dust.

Quixotic? Maybe. But grand forces are at work in American politics today as never since the Vietnam War. A noted pundit (Mark Shields) called Trump a president without a party, and most of those present, including right-leaning pundit David Brooks, appeared to agree.

This is not your father’s Washington. All the new, fired-up Congresspeople, not to mention the jaded old timers, are going to get pretty tired and disgusted doing nothing but posturing and bickering for yet another Congress. An unconventional newcomer like Trump has the power to shake things up and make things happen, if nowise else but blasting old, tired, and counterproductive habits. Any Democrat who doesn’t strategize to make those things come out the people’s way is not doing his or her job.

The third and final point is tactical. Key Dems (perhaps one for each key issue) should make secret overtures to key Republicans under the radar of Congressional leadership. As long as secrecy is maintained, no harm can come of this. Even if there are leaks, they can be denied.

During the knock-down, drag-out campaign, Trump showed himself to be flexible and willing to change course. If Dems adopt the treasonous “make him fail” policy that Mitch and other Republicans adopted toward Obama—microseconds after his first inauguration—they may be missing an opportunity that comes along only every other generation.

Donald Trump is a new animal in the White House. He won virtually on his own, with little or no “establishment” support, monetary or otherwise. He proved himself better at attracting votes (at least in battleground states) than anyone in either party. His rudeness, crudeness and tribalism probably hurt him as much as it helped him, but he won.

Under these circumstances, our traditional two-party system may be up for grabs. The Dems would be fools not to probe for possible advantage, issue by issue and member by member. Trump, who styles himself a deal maker above all, would not avoid discussions. On the contrary, the man who has won by breaking every rule and custom of American politics might well listen and deal. In so doing, he and the Dems might advance the people’s agenda, for a change, as Obama and Trump both promised.

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