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

25 March 2017

Government by Showmanship, Bumper Stickers, Tweets and Blame


[For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Imagine that you’re taking your seat on an A380 airliner, the biggest and most complex passenger plane now in regular service. While you’re buckling in, the captain makes an announcement. He says he just graduated from flight school that very same day but won’t know whether he passed his final exams until next week.

What would you do? Would you unbuckle and walk out? Would you stay on board and say a silent prayer? And if you learned this crucial bit of information before boarding, would you book another flight?

That’s pretty much how we Yanks now feel with Donald Trump at the helm. The problem is that voters behind a majority of electoral votes failed to make another booking. They even reacted with euphoria upon Trump’s taking office. Remember the “Trump Bump”—the extraordinary, unexplained rise in the stock markets, which now may be starting a secular retreat?

So now comes the fall. Depression follows a manic state as night the day. This week we learned that our duly elected President: can’t or won’t tell the truth reliably and doesn’t know what he’s doing in the White House. His own FBI head denied his “wiretap” accusation against his predecessor; and despite his incurious and hasty support, his party’s ginned-up “replacement” for Obamacare went down in flames.

Trump’s showmanship, which got him so many votes, just can’t seem to get anything real done. As he himself might say, “Sad.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower—“Ike”—reportedly felt somewhat the same way. Unlike Trump, who never ran anything bigger than his thirty-person family business, Ike had been the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. As such, he had won the Western Allies’ part of World War II. He had been responsible for leading millions of troops in one of the greatest war machines the world has ever seen.

Yet on becoming president, Ike said he felt humbled. Accustomed to military obedience, he found it hard to ken how much he had to persuade others, even as president, and even his supposed “underlings.”

When faced with one of the most dangerous demagogues in American history, Senator Joe McCarthy, Ike did the wrong thing. He chewed McCarthy out privately, as if he had been a military officer, rather than make Ike’s own distaste public and break the demagogue’s hold on the nation. So McCarthy continued to destroy people, institutions and lives until he finally imploded on his own. (If you’re too young to remember, just search for Joe’s name.)

If Ike were only a marginally effective president, after successfully running a mammoth war machine and winning the West’s side of the greatest war in history, what can we expect of Trump?

But it gets worse. If the truth be told, Trump is not some unprecedented anomaly, some diablo ex machina who crept up on the American people unawares. On the contrary, he’s the culmination of a trend in American politics going back nearly two generations. (At least we can hope that he’s the culmination, and that the American people will now wise up.)

Of course politics has always involved a bit of showmanship. But the current degradation of American politics into showmanship at the presidential level began with Ronald Reagan. Not only did he have a soothing, gravelly voice to match John Boehner’s. He also had world-class charm. But he had been trained as a Grade-B Hollywood actor, and that’s pretty much what he remained.

Abroad, Reagan’s showmanship actually worked. He jumped into the Cold War with all the enthusiasm of George C. Scott playing a rogue general in the movie Doctor Strangelove. Though his “Star Wars” anti-ballistic-missile shield was (and largely still is) fiction, it scared the Hell out of the Soviets. They couldn’t keep up with our rate of innovation, let alone our defense spending, and Mikhail Gorbachev the moderate rose to Soviet power.

At about the same time, Reagan himself had an epiphany. At first he had been totally ignorant of nukes and nuclear war. Then he learned from his generals that a real nuclear war between us Yanks and the Soviets would likely kill several hundred million people and destroy both civilizations irrevocably. So Reagan became a fan of disarmament, turned his charm on Gorbachev, and made huge breakthroughs in disarming by treaty. Those breakthroughs and the brief era of mutual trust they brought ended the Cold War.

Economics proved more complex and resistant to showmanship. On a back of a napkin in a bar, Reagan learned so-called “supply-side” economics from an obscure professor called Laffer. This unproven theory holds that you can jump-start an economy by massive public spending at the same time as you reduce taxes. The only thing you need to know about this theory is that Reagan’s own vice president, Daddy Bush, called it “Voodoo Economics,” and the name stuck. So today’s massive deficits and the bogus economics that supports them date back to Reagan.

The next step in showmanship came with Daddy Bush’s own son, Dubya (George W. Bush). Dubya has well-known trouble speaking English. So he compensated by expressing his thoughts in bumper stickers and frat-boy one-liners. When That Idiot Rumsfeld sent far too few troops and horribly mismanaged the unnecessary war in Iraq that Dubya had started, Dubya fended off criticism with bumper stickers. He called Dems “Defeatocrats,” refused to “cut and run,” and opined that it was better to fight them over there than over here—as if every Iraqi jihadi’s fondest dream was to attack us Yanks sleeping in our bedrooms.

Dubya’s two unnecessary wars are now the longest in our history. They are still ongoing, just with less direct combat participation on our part and consequently fewer casualties. The clock in Afghanistan now reads fifteen years and in Iraq fourteen. In comparison, our Civil War and our parts in the each of two world wars lasted less than four years, and our Revolutionary War lasted six. And President Obama achieved the primary goals of Dubya’s two wars—bringing bin Laden to justice and achieving some sort of closure for 9/11—with two helicopters and a team of Navy Seals.

The fallout from Dubya’s two unnecessary wars just keeps growing. You think IS could have gotten as firm a foothold in Raqqa and Mosul without the support of all the disgruntled Sunni Arabs in Anbar, displaced by That Idiot Rumsfeld’s summary dispersal of Saddam’s Army and chafing under the now-ruling Shiites, whom we put in charge? The rise of IS and the improving fortunes of Iran and Russia in that region followed from our unnecessary invasion and (temporary) occupation of Iraq as night the day. So did the wave of hapless Muslim refugees now pouring into Turkey and Europe.

Sometimes showmanship and bumper-sticker policies don’t work out quite so well as detailed expert assessment of risks and probable consequences. You would think we might have learned that lesson from Lyndon Johnson’s Greek tragedy in Vietnam.

So Trump’s Tweets have firm precedents in the showmanship of Reagan and in Dubya’s bumper-sticker policies. The only difference was that Twitter was not yet in business during Dubya’s presidency. Had it been, he and Karl Rove no doubt would have learned to use it, though not perhaps with quite such patent mendacity as Trump.

This week’s greatest disaster for Trump and the GOP—the flameout of the effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare—also has earlier origins. Sad to say, in this particular train wreck President Trump was something of an innocent and clueless victim.

It all started eight years ago, on the day after Barack Obama took office as president. As Obama’s immediate predecessor, Dubya had started two unnecessary wars and had presided over the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. By my own calculation, Dubya and his Cabinet had already requested, spent or committed $3.5 trillion in bailouts and stimulus by the day of Obama’s inauguration.

To add insult to injury, Obama’s GOP rival, John McCain, had admitted he knew little about economics and had a well-deserved reputation as a military hothead. So the outcome of the election was pretty much foreordained, except for Obama’s race. As it happened, if you weight electoral votes by states’ GPD, Obama won not just by a clear yet small margin, but by a landslide.

Think about that. The GOP’s last guy had started two unnecessary wars, had seen a great economic crash on his watch, and had responded by bailing out the bankers responsible for it. The Dems’ guy was relatively new but had a solid record of moderation, impressive brains and academic credentials, and impeccable character.

So what could the GOP do? The only thing possible. It could try to blame all of Dubya’s bad deeds on Obama and hope the racism still raging through the country would make the blame stick.

Of course the GOP couldn’t blame it all on Obama’s “black” half directly. But it could, and did, make absolutely absurd claims that only racism could inflate with persuasiveness. And it could stonewall all of Obama’s initiatives and blame him for the consequences. That, too, it did, begrudging only the barest stimulus that could ward off total economic collapse, and opposing every other initiative, including Obamacare.

I called this the “Chutzpah campaign.” You take the predecessor’s record—one of the worst in American history—and you blame it and its consequences on the successor, even though he hasn’t yet taken office.

On its face, this ploy was illogical and outrageous—one of the greatest Hail Mary passes in the history of democratic politics. But it worked. It worked not only with the Crash of 2008, which was history by the time Obama took office in 2009. It also worked with Obamacare.

By opposing Obama adamantly from the beginning, the GOP pretended that Obama was trying to put something over on the American people, rather than to give our lower economic strata fair access to the “miracle” medicine that the rest of us enjoy. As I said in an earlier essay, Fox and the other GOP propaganda organs tried to make kids hate ice cream, and they succeeded.

Of course the GOP never had any alternative to Obamacare and never wanted one. Of course they weren’t willing to sit down with Dems and fix or improve it. They didn’t want a policy. They didn’t want to expand access to health care or to pay for it. They didn’t want to solve a problem. They wanted blame—blame that would stick. And the blame they got worked for them for two election cycles.

But as Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

With Barack Obama out of office, unconscious racial fear has subsided, except among extremists. More important, the kids have tasted the ice cream and found it good.

Even more important, enough GOP pols understand the forces that put Trump in the White House and that, without Hillary, might have put Bernie there. So the so-called “American Health Care Act” died a well-deserved and early death, quite fittingly for a bill with no raison d’etre but blame, no policy, no hearings, and no serious purpose except a Hail Mary pass to reward rich GOP donors with massive tax cuts at the expense of the health of the poor.

What remains now is a question and a hope. The question is simple: whither Trump? Will he continue to play the rotten GOP game of showmanship, bumper stickers, Tweets and blame? Or will he decide to get things done, using Democratic votes and bipartisan cooperation? Will he break the polarized stalemate that has ruined our politics for a generation and threatens to ruin our nation? Only time will tell.

The hope arises not only from that possibility, but from something more abstract. There are signs that our era of showmanship may be coming to an end, and that our traditional Yankee pragmatism and expertise may be returning.

During Obama’s first campaign, I wrote an essay entitled “Revolt of the Experts.” In it, I lamented the rise of political propaganda and the fall of expertise. I praised Obama as an expert himself—former President of the Harvard Law Review and professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Experts spend long years acquiring their education and training. They understand the price and value of skill and specialized knowledge. So they tend to heed other experts, on things like medicine, health insurance, economics, and global warming. And so Obama did and does.

With the last generation of abysmal GOP politics as a negative example, and with the GOP’s epic fail in repealing and replacing Obamacare still ringing in our ears, we can hope for a revival of the traditional respect for specialized education and expertise that once made this nation great. There are signs all over, especially among the relatively young.

There is this op-ed by crack New York Times reporter David Leonhardt, explaining the nuances and consequences of Trump’s casual lies. There is this op-ed by former National Security Adviser Susan Rice explaining their consequences for national security.

But most of all there is the most recent half-hour of Washington Week, featuring young, dynamic reporters, some of whom appeared to have gained Trump’s confidence. To a man—and woman—they all presented themselves as neutral and objective. But all exuded a palpable aura of suppressed rage at the sheer loose and cavalier attitude of Trump and his supposed GOP “allies.” You could almost hear them thinking:
“We all went to good universities, and some of us went to graduate school in journalism. We work hard, and we work by a strict professional code. We have to make sure what we say or write is accurate and truthful. If it’s not, we have to retract and redo it. If that happens too often we lose our jobs.”

“We can’t stand to see a person or a party trying to run this whole country by shooting from the hip. It’s ridiculous for the GOP to expect anyone to vote for a bill ginned up from nothing in three weeks, when Obama took a year, building on Hillary’s 1993 failure and attemps by presidents and Congresses for over a century. It’s time for policy based on bumper-stickers, Tweets and Hail Mary passes to end!”
That same anger rages in me at age 71. It will be hard for Trump or anyone else my age to ken how much stronger it rages in young folk. They are our nation’s hope in this regard, for expertise and facts are the way we maintain contact with reality, and the young are the closest to them because they learn them in school. Without them, we lose contact with reality and become what we used to call “insane.”

Whether or not Trump survives “Russiagate,” he must still leap this hurdle in order to become an effective president. If he fails, he might well be impeached on another pretext. Today the odds of that happening by his third year in office are, in my view, up to 55%.

Footnote 1: Because of us Yanks’ continuous self-congratulation on “our” victory in World War II, I feel obliged constantly to remind myself and others that Soviet Russia, not the West, bore by far the greater share of the suffering and sacrifice in bringing about victory over Nazism.

Footnote 2: Those unfamiliar with real economics might be excused for confusing Reagan’s Voodoo Economics with Keynesian economics. Keynesian stimulus actually works and has been used by both parties over decades. It’s most salient example was our huge deficit spending on World War II, which finally brought us out of the Great Depression and insured our postwar boom.

In both cases, the government goes into deficit spending to stimulate the real economy. But only in Voodoo Economics does it also lower taxes.

Lowering taxes just makes it harder for the government to recover from deficit spending after the stimulus. It delays the return to fiscal normalcy and impairs the nation’s macroeconomic resilience meanwhile.

More important, lowering taxes is illogical. It’s supposed to stimulate the private sector. But Keynesian stimulus is needed only (and only works) when the private sector for its own good reasons is torpid and can’t get the economy going on its own.

For example, consider the Crash of 2008. Nobody in the private sector was investing in business because everyone feared a freeze of credit and a financial collapse that no new business might survive. You think a few percentage points of tax reduction could have assuaged that primal fear?

In theory, lowering the tax on capital gains might stimulate private investment in new business and therefore job creation. But it would take at least a year (the present capital gains holding period) even to start. And extending that holding period even longer—for example, to five years, as I have recommended to stimulate long-term thinking and suppress speculation, would extend the delay even further.

In contrast, lowering the tax rates on ordinary income—i.e., that which produces personal wealth—only encourages financial speculation and excessive personal spending on things like yachts, multiple mansions and private planes. It’s a corollary of the bogus “trickle down” theory, which has been proved ineffective over and over again, because it increases economic inequality, impairs social cohesion, and benefits no one but the already rich.

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