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 July 2017

President Trump’s Six-Month Report Card

[Note to readers: Several reader comments have been neglected by oversight, not design, since early May. They are now up, with replies where appropriate. For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:

1. Energy/global warming
2. Health insurance
3. Good jobs onshore
4. Immigration
5. Economic stability
6. Geopolitical stability
7. “Comportment” and conclusion
[To jump to summary, click here.]


It’s now exactly six months since Donald J. Trump took the oath of office as president. That’s one-eighth of his presidential term—enough time to distinguish his governance from his candidacy.

A week before he took the oath, I published a set of benchmarks for grading him. I did so to be fair. I didn’t want to move, or to be seen as moving, the goalposts after he got into office.

Like almost everyone else, I hadn’t thought he could ever be elected. Although I had acknowledged some of Hillary’s many flaws, I had thought that Trump’s execrable character and complete inexperience, by themselves, would preclude his election. Like almost everyone else, I was wrong.

Our nation’s investigatory apparatus is now slowly exploring the extent to which deliberate Russian interference made so many of us wrong. In the meantime, we have a nation to govern. That nation was in decline when Trump took office, as he himself implicitly acknowledged with his slogan “Make America Great Again.” (emphasis added)

So what, if anything, has Trump done to arrest or reverse that decline and make us great again? How has he done in the first one-eighth of his term? Let’s take a look. This essay begins with my benchmarks from January 13, in the same order, and concludes with some general remarks about tone, approach and personality.

1. Energy/global warming: Grade F.

Besides the ever-present risk of nuclear war, nothing threatens the happiness and survival of our human species as much as global warming. The facts that Trump doesn’t believe it, and that Fox and so many corporate propaganda organs have made many voters disbelieve it, don’t make it less threatening. In fact, science has given us substantial new evidence of heightened menace in the mere six months since Trump took the oath of office.

Over four years ago, I published an outline of positive feedback in global warming. Positive feedback is a well-understood phenomenon in science and engineering. It’s familiar to most non-scientists in the form of “amplifier screech”—the sudden, ear-splitting blast of sound that comes when you put an electronically amplified microphone too close to the speakers that amplify its sounds. Positive feedback is nonlinear, so it can make a system—any system!—go unstable in a surprisingly short time.

In global heating there are four known sources of positive feedback. First, as our planet warms, its ice melts, reducing our planet’s reflectivity. With reduced reflectivity, our planet absorbs the Sun’s radiation more rapidly and heats up more quickly. Second, as the ice melts our Earth loses a vast heat sink: the poorly named “latent heat of melting” familiar to every good student of high-school chemistry or physics.

The third and fourth sources of positive feedback have to do with methane—a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as dangerous as carbon dioxide. As the planet warms, melting permafrost in its once-frigid regions releases methane into the atmosphere. Similarly, the warming of oceans may cause methane hydrates in the deep sea to dissociate, releasing methane into our oceans and eventually into our atmosphere. Human sources of methane, particularly unintended releases from drilling for oil and gas, add to the overall burden of this dangerous greenhouse gas.

We have pretty good scientific models for the first two kinds of positive feedback, which derive from melting ice. Our models for the last two, involving methane, are utterly inadequate. All we know is that both types of feedback are operating now and increasing in magnitude. We simply don’t know how much permafrost there is, how deep it is, or how fast it’s melting, because we haven’t taken measurements. We know even less about methane hydrates because they exist at the bottom of the world’s oceans, which cover 70% of our planet. But most of our oceans, let alone their deepest bottoms, have never been explored.

What we do know is that releases of methane from permafrost—even explosive releases—are already occurring in more places, with more frequency, and with more power than scientists expected. This video, prepared by Yale University scientists, outlines the magnitude of the threat.

There are credible scientific estimates that the end of the last ice age 15,000 years ago took only decades, not centuries. The main reason for the speed of that climate change was positive feedback due to methane release. If these estimates have any validity, there is a high likelihood that positive feedback caused by our human-derived climate change will cause warming to exceed the so-called “safe” 2°C global increase that is policy-makers’ target within the lifetimes of children living today, let alone by the next century.

In other words, knowledge gained since Trump took office points to increasing likelihood that our own children—not some anonymous future generation—will suffer all the terrible consequences of global warming beyond the limit pols are now seeking to set. They will endure all of the following: rising seas, inundation of coastal cities and plains, more frequent and damaging storms and droughts, advancing tropical diseases like zika, West Nile, dengue and chikungunya, the massive extinction of non-human species, climate- and weather-caused crop failures, and unprecedented human migration as coastal areas disappear and weather drives our fellow humans to seek better habitats.

In the face of this growing menace, what has President Trump done? He has set off resolutely marching in the wrong direction. He has just announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate pact, thereby setting our nation apart from the nineteen other nations in the G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

Not only that. He has set our nation against the 153 nations that have already ratified the Paris accord. In so doing, he has abdicated the role of global leader in science and engineering that the United States played throughout most of the twentieth century.

But that’s still not all. In small ways as well as big ones, Trump has set the US on the path toward increasing its contribution to global warming. His administration has repealed a rule requiring oil and gas drillers to take care to avoid accidental release of methane into the atmosphere. It has taken the first steps toward repealing the Obama-era rule phasing out coal, the dirtiest fuel know to mankind. And his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has decimated the EPA’s ability even to keep track of current scientific knowledge by firing or laying off most of the EPA’s scientists working on climate change and removing related information from the EPA’s public Website.

Six months ago, there was reason for hope about the US’ position on climate change. Although Trump had called it a Chinese “hoax” during his campaign, he had also selected Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had changed the world’s leading fossil-fuel company’s stance on global warming from agnostic apostasy to grudging recognition of the menace.

But Tillerson is not president. Trump is. And Tillerson’s portfolio is international affairs, not energy or the environment. Trump’s over-the-top EPA head Pruitt has made clear his intention to convert the US into a reactionary force to science, energy conversion, and the good jobs that come with it.

The irony is that private industry, which generally supports the GOP, is just as resolutely working on electric cars, solar arrays, windmills and other forms of clean energy for the economic opportunities and good jobs that they afford. The Republican Party’s elite “base,” worldwide industry, and the rest of the world are all marching in the opposite direction to our President. There is little hope now that Trump will change his mind, as he has done so often, for he has committed himself. Therefore a grade of “F” is entirely appropriate.

2. Health Insurance: Grade F.

The story of the Trump Administration’s purported “fix” to health insurance under “Obamacare” is a tale of failure.

The Senate’s latest bill, which would have deprived 22 million people of health insurance, has failed. Along with it, the House bill has failed. It would have deprived 23 million. Now the effort to repeal Obamacare without replacement, which Trump himself had warned against, has also failed. With a delayed start, that would have deprived upwards of 20 million of health insurance (the number Obamacare added), albeit with some unspecified hope for a fix in the great bye and bye.

The only hope left is a small chance that Mitch McConnell and the GOP will negotiate a fix with Dems, as our Founders no doubt would have intended. But Trump himself appears to have scotched that, advising his GOP colleagues to “let Obamacare explode,” rather than even try to fix it.

How can Trump and the GOP walk away so easily from a promise that has been central to their party’s campaigning for over seven years? They can because they never planned to do anything real for the American people.

The GOP under Mitch McConnell had absolutely no idea what they were doing in promising to “repeal” and “replace” Obamacare. Their primary and most obvious goal was to exploit political opposition to Obama (mostly generated by their own propaganda), and the increases in health-insurance premiums that some patients have experienced under Obamacare. The plain goal was not to make people’s lives better, but to consolidate the GOP’s own political power using obvious propaganda (“death panels”) and the nation’s resilient racism.

Even now, when the GOP owns both Congress and the presidency, it has no idea what to do with the political power it has attained. The entire health-insurance “project” was an act of delusion and campaigning, not an act of governing.

At best, any of the four plans (two Senate bills, the House bill, or repeal without replacement) would have made it impossible for upwards of 20 million US citizens who now can afford to see a doctor to do so. That’s a lot of angry voters, many of whom are in deep red states. Now wonder a key handful of GOP senators rebelled!

Health insurance can be complicated. But two basic principles are simple. First, if you want real “insurance,” you must get as many people as possible in the pool of insureds, the so-called “risk pool.”

That’s the purpose of Obamacare’s subsidies and mandates—to deepen the pool. The mandates are awkward and politically explosive, as I predicted in 2007 (see 1 and 2), but they do the job. Apparently Barack Obama—one of the smartest and politically savviest presidents in our history—concluded (after some time as president) that they were the only practical way to get the job done. Politics is the art of the possible.

The second simple thing about health insurance is the goal: to ensure more, not fewer, people. It’s irrational and “mean,” as President Trump himself said in a lucid moment, to leave tens of millions of people without practical access to medical care in the wealthiest nation on Earth. That’s essentially what the GOP wants to do.

And the purpose of this self-evident meanness? To give the rich big tax cuts they don’t need and many of them don’t want, and to capitalize on the GOP campaign ploy of crushing the poor, many of whom are people of color viewed by some partisans as “undeserving” of assistance. In this way, the GOP hoped to maintain its political edge among the non-college-educated white working class. Now those hopes are dashed: no bill signed into law, no glory.

How much of this is Trump’s fault? He’s not entirely responsible for what his presumed party does, because he didn’t lead it until July 2016. He was and still is an insurgent.

But he is responsible for what comes out of this unprecedentedly politicized legislative “process.” He could have shaped the process and put it on the right track simply by stating his intention to veto anything that the CBO didn’t score as increasing, not decreasing, the number of insureds. Isn’t that where we want to go?

But Trump is neither a detail person nor much concerned with justice, policy, or the welfare of the people who elected him. All he wants to do is mark up something he can call a “win”: some bill—any bill—that passes and that he can sign, regardless of what it says.

Now his endorsement of the GOP’s propaganda push has failed utterly. Nothing has come of it. And nothing is likely to come of it, because allowing the Democrats to participate in fixing Obamacare would show the nation how misguided and mean the GOP has been for nearly eight years. Mitch McConnell will let that happen, in my view, when Hell freezes over.

McConnell has spent his whole political career in a quest for power without the faintest idea what to do with it. In terms of the “general welfare,” he’s a zero or a negative. (I’m not aware of any significant piece of federal legislation that has his name in its title.)

On the issue of health insurance, Trump followed McConnell’s so-called “leadership,” rather than leading himself, so now Trump himself is a zero. Hence the grade of “F”.

3. Good jobs onshore: Grade I (incomplete).

In my original “benchmark” essay, I noted the greatest hope of Trump’s presidency. He might actually fulfill his promise to get good jobs for the people who elected him, especially unemployed or underemployed skilled workers in the battleground states. There was even a more-than-plausible mechanism for doing so, namely, investing in refurbishing and improving our crumbling national infrastructure.

Our American Association of Civil Engineers is not a political body. It’s a group of engineers dedicated to building better and more advanced civil infrastructure: roads, bridges, highways, clean-water systems, sewer systems, harbors, air traffic control, and the like. It estimates in its current (2017) report card that our D+ grade national infrastructure is chopping $3.9 trillion off of our GDP—the equivalent of the entire GDP of Germany [set timer at 0:49].

Investing the money to fix it is a proverbial “no brainer.” It has to be done, unless we want to see our infrastructure decay, our health and safety degrade, and the cost of doing business domestically rise. And investing the money would create millions of good, well-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.

But there are two ways to get the money to invest. One is Keynesian “pump priming.” We could have the government borrow the money and invest it, knowing (from past experience, including World War II) that investing in public infrastructure, including education and even the military, generally grows the economy, allowing government later to pay off the debt. Or we could privatize our infrastructure by selling it off, bit by bit, to private investors who would put up the money and own the results. Then our mostly-free infrastructure would fall into private hands and operate mostly for profit.

Trump doesn’t really know which way to go. He’s an hotel, condo and branding guy. He doesn’t know squat about bridges, highways, sewers or the lot, let alone how they’ve traditionally been financed and maintained. But he has a lot of friends and advisers from old-fashioned “industries” who think anything government can do private business can do better.

Guess which way the GOP under McConnell and Ryan wants to go? If it exists, they want to privatize it, so the rich can own more and get richer. That’s what pleases the rich who fund Fox and other incessant GOP propaganda. And that incessant propaganda lets GOP pols get elected and floats their boats. So that’s what today’s GOP is all about: taking our country private and, coincidentally, making most of our non-rich serfs. “Back to feudalism!” is the current GOP mantra.

If Trump were a real leader, he might push public funding of infrastructure program through. Democrats, of course, would help. Some GOP members of Congress might, too. It would be an easy enough sell for all the non-college-educated white workers who voted for Trump and crave better jobs, as in the old days. It would realize Trump’s most important promise to his voters and his “base” and revive their rapidly declining support.

But will Trump do it? All he would have to do is court Democratic support, which would be forthcoming, and threaten to veto anything contrary coming out of Congress. He would become a hero to his base overnight. He would also convert his adopted Republican Party, overnight, from the party of plutocrats to the party of skilled workers and an instrument of industrial and commercial advancement. He could out-Reagan Reagan.

Unfortunately, Trump’s acts of “leadership” so far have been hasty and ill-advised or in precisely the wrong direction. His ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations was so hastily prepared it didn’t even consider permanent residents. It was blocked by the courts until thought through and modified. His decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, although opposed by Tillerson and others within his administration, was an act of “leadership” in precisely the wrong direction. And by putting all his legislative eggs in the baskets of complete health-insurance repeal, which now has failed, and tax reform, which offers maximal contention, he has abandoned the one thing that has a realistic chance to help those who voted for him.

So the chances for success in that thing are not good. As Trump depletes his rapidly falling political capital on things that will likely fail or hurt his own voters, his chances of doing something significant with infrastructure decline. The only hopeful thing is that Trump might learn and get wiser as time goes on.

So the appropriate, fair grade on infrastructure and on jobs is in “I” grade, for incomplete. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. Trump’s campaign suggestions of a tariff or “border tax” on goods made in offshored factories doesn’t seem to be going anyhwere. Certainly the likes of McConnell and Ryan, let alone the plutocrats who fund the GOP, have no interest in it.

4. Immigration: Grade C+.

While Trump’s incomplete work on infrastructure jobs offers his best chance for improving Americans’ lives and the economy, he gets his best current grade on immigration.

He hasn’t yet built his promised Wall, and he might never. There’s a lot of resistance, even among his own party, because the Wall wouldn’t work, and the money for it could be put to far better use. The experts all say that investing in a “virtual wall” of electronic surveillance and rapid detention would be more cost effective, efficient and workable.

Trump’s incompetent, unprofessional, and temporary ban on immigration from six (once seven!) small and economically marginal majority-Muslim nations has done little but provoke litigation leading to revisions to make the ban legal. He has, as yet, done little to deport the beneficiaries of Obama’s “Dream Act”—a policy designed to let children of undocumented immigrants who were not born here but know no other home or life stay here, at least for the time being. That outcome is a good one, both for the immigrants concerned and the rest of us. Why deport immigrants raised as Americans just when their American upbringing—and their mostly-free American education—is coming to fruition and they are reaching working age?

But Trump’s over-the-top bad-mouthing of undocumented immigrants has had two practical effects. First, it has caused illegal immigration to drop precipitously by tarnishing the US’ reputation as a good place to come without papers. The lurid stories of ICE raids on workplaces, people being held in weeks-long and sometimes months-long “temporary” detention, and occasional unexplained deaths of detainees have all served to slow the flow of immigrants from south of the border.

Second, Trump’s forceful denunciation of terrorists, showing his determination to keep them out or do them in, has also had a real-world effect. It’s hard to know whether all his ranting has kept the serious terrorists out or just made them more cautious and careful. But it may be that fewer marginal Muslims from marginal places, who might immigrate innocently and be recruited as terrorists later, are immigrating here, rather than into more hospitable places like Germany and Sweden.

The rate of deportation is not much larger under Trump than it was under President Obama. Nor has Trump done anything to increase the risk to employers of hiring undocumented immigrants. (That is logically the simplest, least draconian and most effective way to decrease illegal immigration, but it contravenes the GOP religion of doing nothing to impede business owners making money.) Yet Trump’s potty mouth and incessant immigrant bashing has had a visible effect. Fewer immigrants are coming here illegally, and fewer yet who don’t have a job offer before they come.

Of course this is all vintage Trump. With him, it’s all show, all of the time. He’s our very first “reality” president, with “reality” in quotes.

But in this case the show has had some practical consequences. Fewer people are trying to come here illegally, and fewer are planning to do so.

The “show” also has some disastrous negative consequences. They include: validation of racism and xenophobia at the highest level of our government, a consequent rapid increase in hate crimes (including murder), a higher rate of breaking up families, the deportation of children already educated in America at our expense, the long and possibly unconstitutional detentions of deportees, and occasional deaths on the way to proposed deportation.

So I don’t mean in any way to classify Trump’s anti-immigrant tirades as moral. They are not, profoundly not. But they have had the practical effect of decreasing illegal immigration without much expense, and therefore they should comfort Trump’s many supporters who want to see immigration laws enforced strictly, no matter the social or moral consequences.

That’s the reason for the C+ grade. Trump is partially delivering on his promise to slow illegal immigration.

Yet he has also failed on three points. First, he has done nothing to reduce the strength of the magnet that has drawn immigrants here for decades: the promise of steady, useful work that pays better than anything where the immigrants come from. For that, he would have to disadvantage employers who exploit undocumented immigrants, thereby contravening GOP dogma.

Second, Trump has produced no immigration legislation in Congress. Not even a bill. He has done everything by executive order or “jawboning,” just as President Obama had done, but in the opposite direction.

Thus Trump, like every president since Reagan, has done nothing to regularize the undocumented, bring them out of the shadows, and reduce this large class of serfs living and working among us. Apparently he, like President Obama, considers the country just too divided on immigration for any permanent solution. That view is by no means irrational, but Trump himself is responsible for some of the division.

Finally, in failing even to try to find a permanent, stable solution, Trump has left our domestic labor markets in a state of uncertainty. Will the stanched flow of undocumented workers, especially in the harvest season, raise the price and lower the availability of farm labor, thereby raising food prices? Will US citizens rise up to take up the slack, with their unions that raise wages further? (Here a recently-announced and surprising increase in the H2B visa quotas—visas for workers at the low end—marks some Trump genuflection toward practicality.) And what will Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers do when they have qualified foreign candidates for important jobs for which Americans aren’t as qualified or in which Americans are not willing to work under the same conditions? (Here the H1B visa program is vital.)

Any comprehensive immigration policy of course would address all these issues. But ad-hoc regulatory patches, guidelines and “show” won’t. Not only has Trump not solved all these issues outstanding now for 31 years, since Reagan’s attempt at a legislative solution. He may have set back their solution by further polarizing the nation.

Hence the C+. Trump gets a passing grade for two things. First, he partially delivered on his promise to slow illegal immigration, and he did so mostly with his mouth, which costs nothing. Second, with his recent changes in the H1B and H2B visa programs, he has begun to recognize an essential truth: not every job can be filled by American citizens, or filled well at the right price. Immigration makes American stronger and more efficient.

But neither Trump nor anyone else can reach for a higher grade without solving at least some of the serious and longstanding problems cost effectively. That would require real leadership at a level that Trump so far has failed to muster. And to be fair to Trump, such a feat might well be impossible, in part due to the extreme polarization that Trump and his presidential campaign have rocket-boosted.

5. Economic stability: Grade D.

Achieving economic stability is not an easy thing. It’s not easy even for China, which probably has the most effective and tightly run authoritarian government in the entire world. Far less is it easy for us, with our many ideological factions (which sometimes operate in complete remove from facts and reality), our dysfunctional governmental structure, and our famous checks and balances.

No nation’s economy is reliably stable today because our entire species is undergoing a great transition. We’re in the midst of a great transfer of wealth from rich people to poor people, mediated by a second industrial age in which ideas (in the form of information, software, and human organization) are as important as machines, raw materials, and factories.

No one is standing still—not the previously “poor” countries like China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and, yes, Iran—that are rapidly industrializing and moving from countryside to cities. Not the “middle” countries like most in Europe; they are caught between the industrial powerhouses like us, China and Germany and the rising poor consumers. And certainly not the industrialized “peak” countries, principally China, Germany, Japan and the United States, with Brazil, Britain and India in hot pursuit.

We Yanks have about 4% of the world’s population. Besides monopolizing natural resources by force and the threat of force, the only thing that has kept us on top for so long has been innovation. The US has been a global powerhouse of innovation for about a century, creating or rapidly adopting world-changing inventions like (in rough chronological order): electricity, sound recordings, radio, movies, nuclear power and weapons, television, space travel, and lately electric cars, electronic medicine, genomic medicine, and renewable energy.

As Trump himself admitted during his campaign, maintaining economic dominance by military might is a losing proposition. Keeping armed forces more expensively equipped than the next six nations’ combined is too expensive for too little return. So are the wars that we have waged—more than any other society since the Third Reich—to keep ourselves and our values on top.

Beating others up, or threatening to do so, is not a viable long-term strategy to stay ahead economically. Look at China. Its nuclear force is a pale shadow of ours, and of Russia’s. So are its navy and air force. Only in its number of active army troops does China excel. Yet which nation has rocketed ahead the most, over the last generation, in wealth, general prosperity, and general standard of living? China. To verify this point, you have only to ask makers of luxury goods where their greatest markets are, or are soon expected to be.

So to borrow a phrase from the sixties, innovation is where it’s at. Innovation is not just the way to keep your economy on top, but your military, too.

Without innovation, you fall behind in everything: goods, services, infrastructure and defense. With it, you can stay ahead even if your financial and governmental structure is not ideal. So economic stability in a rapidly changing and unstable world requires constant and continuous innovation. Yesterday’s innovation is never good enough.

Here Trump has failed miserably. He has denied global warming, one of the chief motivators for innovation in energy and cars. He has promised to reduce the subsidies for electric cars that have given them a good start. Even more important, he has panned the next generation of energy sources—renewable sources like solar arrays and windmills and the advanced storage devices they need. Instead, he proposes we spend more effort and money on energy sources from the nineteenth century that are becoming exhausted and obsolete: coal, natural gas, and oil.

Trump’s administration also has undermined the foundations of innovation. It has pledged to starve our government innovation funders—the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, among others. It has reduced government oversight of universities and schools and government funding of their research. And it has reduced the legal immigration of smart people and pledges to reduce it more. Where is innovation going to come from if we don’t have money for basic research, money for public education, control of for-profit education to make sure it’s not a scam, and robust programs to bring smart, creative people here from all over the world?

The only reason for not giving Trump an “F” is the incompleteness of his proposed infrastructure program. Investing big money in infrastructure—whether the money is public or private—will inevitably require and produce innovation. So if Trump’s infrastructure program ever materializes, it will advance innovation almost inevitably.

But since nothing has come of it so far, and since Trump has worked first on stopping immigration from marginal mostly-Muslim nations, on depriving millions of health insurance, and on cutting taxes on the rich, he gets a “D,” with some hope (perhaps forlorn) for the future. Going back to nineteenth-century energy industries is not innovation, and it’s not going to help us stay ahead or keep good jobs onshore.

6. Geopolitical stability: Grade C-.

Foreign policy is the hardest subject on which to grade President Trump. In the long run, a less aggressive, less militaristic US foreign policy—relying less on arms and more on diplomacy and so-called “soft” power—will be better for the US, its allies and the world. China seems to be far more interested, now and in history, in making money than in subduing of conquering the world; if we Yanks were more like that, the world would be a better and more stable place. Trump seems to lean in that direction, but his frequent indecision and vacillation on specifics sow doubt.

In the short run, Trump’s indecision and vacillation have sowed shock and turmoil. Early in his tenure, he failed to acknowledge the “one China” policy and the deliberately ambiguous status of Taiwan. Although temporary, that failure caused such a shock as almost to rupture our bilateral relationship with China—the world’s most important today.

Similarly, Trump’s feint toward recognizing climate change, no doubt under Secretary Tillerson’s influence, was obliterated by his pledging to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord. Both that outcome and the “bait-and-switch” approach poisoned international relations in the energy sphere. As a result, the United States, ostracized at the G-20, will be an international pariah on energy and climate issues for years to come.

The crowning glory was Trump’s failure to mention Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (the mutual-defense clause) at Brussels, followed by his rectifying that error in the G-20 summit in Hamburg. That policy whiplash, all by itself, strengthened Russia’s worst impulses, demeaned and split NATO, and, in doing so, made conflict in Russia’s “near abroad” more likely.

We humans all know where we must go. We must move toward a more peaceful, cooperative world, and we must get there as quickly as possible. If we don’t, our children or grandchildren will have lives shorter and more miserable than we can possibly imagine.

But how we get there matters as much as our destination. In a world of multiple enmities and vast distrust, consistency and stability are important. If you have a world-destroying nuclear arsenal, and if you spend more on armament and weapons than the next six nations combined, no one will trust your mere statement of the desire to change toward a more peaceful policy. Others will think, quite naturally, that you can switch back to belligerence as quickly as you feinted toward peace. They will only trust you as you demonstrate continuity and reliability over decades.

It took us over seven decades, since the most horrible war in human history, to reach this point. Today the major powers are in rough equilibrium and roughly at peace, although Russia is twitching visibly in its imperial dreams. But the major powers are also armed to the teeth, with both conventional and nuclear weapons. They are even dreaming of new weapons for use in outer space, in cyberspace and beneath our oceans as they enrich themselves by selling the weapons they already have to minor powers bearing irrational, millennial grudges.

Disarmament, if at all possible, will take decades. It will be a slow process of building trust, mutually verifying, agreeing on other things (like trade), and taking one step at a time. Regardless of any collusion with Russia (which is a totally separate issue), Trump should get credit for dreaming of a less tense and war-driven world, in which the Cold War between the US and Russia eventually not only ends, but is buried for good.

Yet Trump also gets major demerits for his indecision and vacillation and their adverse practical effects. They have emboldened adversaries, especially Russia, and frightened allies, especially in Europe. Thus they have badly destabilized the geopolitics of today. So far have they done so that Germany, having disavowed nuclear weapons since their development, is now considering becoming a nuclear power, if only to have a reliable deterrent against the Russian Bear.

It’s good to have long-term goals. More peace, less war, fewer arms and less arming are good ones. But they are long-term goals and therefore weigh less. Even complete disarmament is not a good long-term goal if we have a general or even regional nuclear war on the way to it. So when we weigh Trump’s good long-term goals against his awkward, erratic and destabilizing short- and medium-term policy, a C- seems the appropriate grade.

7. “Comportment” and conclusion.

It seems both unwise and unfair to prolong this essay by discussing additional issues that did not appear in my original pre-Trump benchmarks essay. But one small exception is worth making.

Many report cards, especially in grammar school, have a “miscellaneous” category often called “comportment.” It ranks the student’s level and progress on a number of miscellaneous personal traits, including readiness to learn, respect for teachers, getting along with other students, social skills, etc. You might sum up the “comportment” category with the term “people skills” or, more generally, character. When grading a president, this category must include such essential traits as diplomacy, patience, graciousness, tolerance, cooperation, empathy, sympathy, humility, caution, thoughtfulness, prudence, and persistence.

Unfortunately, a mere glance at this list and the President’s conduct in office suggests that he has very few of these characteristics or, if he has them, exhibits them rarely.

It would unduly prolong this essay to prove this point by citing the numerous instances in which his conduct in office contradicted one or more of these traits. Suffice it to say that many pundits, including me, thought Trump would never reach the White House due solely to his character, or lack thereof. And we thought so with full knowledge and consideration of the lesser, but still significant, character defects of Hillary Clinton.

Donald J. Trump would have big trouble getting a good grade on character as compared to the average person of his wealth and social class. Compared to US presidents, he fails miserably: an “F” grade is ineluctable.

So how does Trump’s six-month report card sum up? We could give each issue a different rank and weight them all accordingly. But that might seem unfair to his supporters or his detractors. So the best thing to do is give each grade equal weight, to average the five grades together (besides the “incomplete” on onshore jobs). The average is arithmetic, on a fourteen-point scale with each grade, its plus and its minus having a different number (three numbers per grade, except for F, from A+=14 to F=0); we leave the “F” for comportment as a separate mark.

If we do that, Trump’s report card for his first six months is a D+ overall, and an F for comportment, as follows:

President Trump’s Six-Month Report Card
Energy/Global WarmingFBold march in wrong direction
Health InsuranceFNoisy failure
Good jobs onshoreI (incomplete)Could change
Economic stabilityDCould change
Geopolitical stabilityC-Good goals, bad execution
Overall gradeDExcludes comportment
ComportmentFUnlikely to change

Would you be happy if your kid came home from school with this card?

Footnote 1 As every attentive high-school student knows, ice’s latent heat of melting is about 80 calories per gram (more precisely, 79.7). That means it takes about 80 calories of heat energy to melt a single gram of ice, keeping the resulting water at the same temperature as the ice melts, i.e, 0°C (32°F). Once the gram of ice melts, each additional calorie of heat energy will raise its temperature exactly 1°C; that’s in fact how a “calorie” was defined.

So after that little gram melts, the same energy that caused it to melt, namely, about 80 calories, if applied again, will raise the gram’s temperature to 80°C, or 176°F. That temperature, if ambient, would be far too high for humans and other mammals to survive.

Fortunately for our species’ future, the amount of water on our planet in the form of ice is tiny compared to the amount in liquid form. If that were not so, at the current rate of ice melting, our species’ extinction—by heat alone, not secondary consequences—would be virtually assured within a century. A century is far too short a time for biological evolution to help us adapt.



  • At Thursday, July 20, 2017 at 4:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You forgot a few grades:

    "In 6 months, Pres. Trump has tweeted 991 times, spent 40 days at Trump golf properties, and passed 0 pieces of major legislation," CNN's news alert reads.

    I'd grade this A+, A+, A+ because he knows how to relax at golf resorts! And he has passed no major legislation which is an excellent thing! Do we really want him to pass major legislation? No. Thus, A+.


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