Donald Trump

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The recent Washington Post editorial which excoriated Bernie Sanders for stating the obvious in calling our new President a “liar” stands as the most thick-headed thing I’ve read this year. 

The pathological liar in the White House assaults truth on a daily basis, threatening our very democracy, but others are supposed to bite their tongues and pretend they hear nothing out of some misplaced nobility, which is tantamount to strictly observing the Marquess of Queensberry Rules while fighting a chainsaw-wielding maniac. To not point out the lies is to essentially be complicit with this full-blown realization of the Dubya Era truthiness.

Despots thrive on the excessive decency of others. Pursuing facts and objective truth are of paramount importance, as is vigorously underlining the lies of a wannabe tyrant.

Two excerpts follow.


From “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” David Roberts’ excellent Vox piece about the “limits of journalistic neutrality”:

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

Trump and his team represent an assault on almost every American institution — they make no secret of their desire to “deconstruct the administrative state” — but their hostility toward the media is unique in its intensity.

It is Trump’s obsession and favorite target. He sees himself as waging a “running war” on the mainstream press, which his consigliere Steve Bannon calls “the opposition party.” 

For the media, Trump represents a great challenge but also a great opportunity. He will make the work of journalism more difficult (calling only on sycophantic outlets during press conferences is likely just the beginning). But by putting the integrity of the press in the spotlight, he might just force a long-overdue reckoning with the role of media in democratic politics.

The US political media underestimated Trump’s potential for many reasons. Prominent among them was its longstanding refusal to grapple with the deepening asymmetry in American politics — the rejection, by a large swathe of the right, of the core institutions and norms that shape US public life.

Under Trump, that asymmetry has become glaring and inescapable. And it is bumping up against the foundations upon which all independent journalism stands.

It is time for journalism to take a side — to fight, not for any political party, but for the conditions that make its own existence possible.•


From a deeply disturbing, just-published Time magazine interview:

Question:

So you don’t worry that your credibility, that if you’ve cited things that later turn out to be wrong, based on anonymous sources that that hurts you.

Donald Trump:

Name what’s wrong! I mean, honestly.

Question:

Fox News said… 

Donald Trump:

Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit. What I said about NATO was true, people aren’t paying their bills. And everyone said it was a horrible thing to say. And then they found out. And when Germany was over here I said, we are going to have a great relationship with Germany but you have to pay your NATO bills, and they don’t even dispute it, ok. So what have I said that is wrong? Everyone, I got attacked on NATO and now they are all saying I was right. I got attacked on Brexit, when I was saying, I said long before the day before, I said the day before the opening, but I was saying Brexit was going to pass, and everybody was laughing, and I turned out to be right on that. I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that U.K. will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.

Question:

But even in that Sweden quote, you said look at what happened on Friday in Sweden. But you are now saying you were referring to something that happened the following day.

Donald Trump:

No I am saying I was right. I am talking about Sweden. I’m talking about what Sweden has done to themselves is very sad, that is what I am talking about. That is what I am talking about. You can phrase it any way you want. A day later they had a horrible, horrible riot in Sweden and you saw what happened. I talked about Brussels. I was on the front page of the New York Times for my quote. I said Brussels is not what it used to be, very sad what has happened to Brussels. I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels. One year ago today. Exactly one year ago today. And then people said you know Trump was right. What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works. I said I was going to win the election, I won the election, in fact I was number one the entire route, in the primaries, from the day I announced, I was number one. And the New York Times and CNN and all of them, they did these polls, which were extremely bad and they turned out to be totally wrong, and my polls showed I was going to win. We thought we were going to win the night of the election.

Question:

So when you…

Donald Trump:

And then TIME magazine, which treats me horribly, but obviously I sell, I assume this is going to be a cover too, have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers, nobody’s had more covers.

I think Richard Nixon still has you beat. But he was in office for longer, so give yourself time.

Donald Trump:

Ok good. I’m sure I’ll win.•

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Better governance was not the goal of the most recent American Presidential election.

Pundits on the Left (and many on the Right) have been excoriated as “out-of-touch” for not believing Trump could win the election, though the candidate himself was said to have thought he had little chance on Election Day. The two main reasons why so many high-information voters and members of the punditry felt he had little chance for victory: 1) Basically sane and decent people didn’t want to believe their fellow citizens would stoop to supporting a bigoted demagogue who was wholly unsuited for the position, and 2) Many traditionally astute observers judged the campaign based on who had better policies when anger was really all that counted this time. It was a populist revolt, which is always based more on emotion than rational thought.

Personally, I believed Clinton would win by five or six points nationally, taking the popular vote and electoral college, until James Comey insinuated himself, at which point it seemed it would be a dead heat. When the FBI concludes investigating Trump and his associates for possible treason, the department itself needs to be examined for its outrageous actions and how outsiders to the organization, like Rudy Giuliani, seemed to know ahead of time about its coming October surprise.

From Simon Kuper’s Financial Times piece on the perils of populism:

All populist movements now offer some version of “Lock her up!”. Pim Siegers, a village councillor for the far-left Dutch Socialist Party, told me that when he tried to convince people that the populist Geert Wilders wouldn’t solve their problems, they often replied: “We know. But ‘they’ — the elite — don’t like him.” Voting populist is often simply a way to punish elites. One campaign poster during last year’s Brexit referendum urged, beneath a picture of the grinning politicians David Cameron and George Osborne: “Wipe the smile off their faces. Vote Leave.” No matter that voting Leave might make you worse off; at least it would hurt the elite too. Similarly, many poor Americans wanted to abolish Obamacare chiefly to punish Barack Obama.

Liberals still often delude themselves that today’s political battle is about which side has better solutions. When Trump proposes killing off the National Endowment for the Arts, liberals counter that the NEA costs taxpayers a pittance (less, for instance, than Trump’s weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort). But smart policymaking isn’t the point. Trashing the NEA punishes liberals.

Populist leaders act out revenge fantasies for people who feel slighted. Hence that quintessential populist persona (which Trump incarnates): the troll. Trump being Trump, he sometimes turns the dial up to 11 and goes from punishment to sadism, as in his odes to waterboarding.

The joy of punishment goes back to the Old Testament, but Randy Newman captured it beautifully in his 1988 satirical song “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” (“One thing we all have in common/ And it’s something everyone can understand/ All over the world sing along… ”). Newman wrote the song as a counter to “We Are the World”, the liberal-solutions anthem. American conservatives understand the joy of punishment. •

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The Credibility Gap of the Nixon era can’t begin to speak to what America now endures, a post-truth Presidency that lies directly into cameras, not in the hopes of fooling anyone, but in an attempt to fashion it’s own alternative reality. 

There are many problems with that disgraceful approach, chiefly that it precludes an enlightened democracy, but one other small but meaningful danger is that such an Administration would likely be disbelieved should it in fact acquire intelligence of a genuine risk to society. A President who lies pathologically cannot be believed, a White House that enacts Bannon-playbook Muslim travel bans on false pretenses can’t be trusted, an Oval Office which seems to be in the thrall of an adversarial foreign power must be questioned at every turn. You can’t believe such a pack of liars because it’s dangerous to do so, and it might occasionally be perilous to not trust them. But how would we know the difference?

From Thomas Joscelyn’s Politico report about the laptop ban on certain Muslim countries, which may be a response to a legitimate threat or maybe not:

Initial press reports, including by the New York Times, cited anonymous officials as saying that the restrictions were not a response to new intelligence. But the DHS announcement implies otherwise. One question on the DHS web site reads, “Did new intelligence drive a decision to modify security procedures?” The answer: “Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision.” The British government’s quick decision to follow suit also suggests that something new is afoot here.

Subsequent reports from CNN and The Daily Beast indicate that intelligence collected during a U.S. Special Forces raid in Yemen in January led to the restrictions. That is possible. The raid was highly controversial, but the Trump administration argues the costs were worth it because the U.S. learned key details about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plotting. A Navy SEAL perished during the operation, as did a number of women and children. Within hours, jihadists began circulating a photo of an adorable little girl who died in the crossfire. The girl was the daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue killed in a September 2011 drone strike. Al Qaeda immediately called for revenge in her name.

Whether new intelligence led to the decision or not, we already know for certain that al Qaeda has continued to think up ways to terrorize the skies. For years, Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be smuggled onto planes.

DHS points to the “attempted airliner downing in Somalia” in February 2016 as one reason for ongoing concerns. That bombing was carried out by al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia. Al Shabaab attempted to justify the failed attack by claiming “Western intelligence officials” were on board the flight, but that excuse may be a cover for something more sinister.

Some U.S. officials suspect that al Qaeda’s elite bomb makers wanted to test one of their newest inventions, a lightweight explosive disguised as a laptop that is difficult to detect with normal security procedures. At the very least, Shabaab’s attack demonstrated that al Qaeda has gotten closer to deploying a laptop-sized explosive that can blow a hole in jetliners. While no one other than the terrorist who detonated the bomb was killed, the plane was left with a gaping hole in its side.•

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Trump poses many existential threats but let’s focus on two in particular that are linked: His autocratic impulses are a threat to liberal governance and America’s ethos of an immigrant nation, and his cultivation of a culture of complaint is a bankrupt brand of populism, a nauseating nostalgia for yesterday which places us in risk today and tomorrow.

The upshot is a federal government contemptible of the Constitution, one that’s willfully trying to block the steady flow of genius into the country and one that’s more enthusiastic for steel and coal than semiconductors. The Trump promise to America is that we can live like the 1950s and win the 21st century, that we don’t have to compete with the whole world because we can build a wall to keep out the future. He’s a new manner of aspiring autocrat concerned not with ideology by with its destruction. In Holly Case’s Aeon essay about contemporary strongmen who are divorced from governing principles beyond promising to make difficult challenges vanish, she concluded this way:

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change. In this respect, he has tapped a gusher in the Zeitgeist that reaches well beyond the domain of state socialism, an attitude that the writer Marilynne Robinson disparages as ‘nonfailure’, and that the writer Walter Mosley elevates to a virtue: ‘We need to raise our imperfections to a political platform that says: “My flaws need attention too.” This is what I call the “untopia”.’ Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

In 2017, China is a notable exception to this definition, an autocracy aiming to win the race in supercomputers, semiconductors and solar, which is particularly perilous when paired with America’s retreat. We picked an awful time to stop looking forward, and the ramifications will be felt long after Trump is gone.

From Michael Schuman in Bloomberg View:

China is marshaling massive resources to march into high-tech industries, from robotics to medical devices. In the case of semiconductors alone, the state has amassed $150 billion to build a homegrown industry. In a report in March, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China pressed the point that the Chinese government is employing a wide range of tools to pursue these ambitions, from lavishing subsidies on favored sectors to squeezing technology out of foreign firms.

The only way for the U.S. to compete with those efforts is to “run faster.” Yet Trump’s ideas to boost competitiveness mainly amount to cutting taxes and regulation. Although reduced taxes might leave companies with more money to spend on research and development, that’s not enough. The U.S. needs to do much more to help businesses achieve bigger and better breakthroughs.

Trump is doing the opposite. One reason U.S. companies are so innovative is that they attract talented workers from everywhere else. But Trump’s recent suspension of fast-track H-1B visas could curtail this infusion of scientists and researchers. If his intention is to ensure jobs go to Americans first, he need not bother. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the skilled workers that H-1B holders would compete with — is a mere 2.5 percent. 

This policy isn’t just a threat to Silicon Valley, but across industries. Michael McGarry, the chief executive officer of PPG Industries Inc., worries about the effect visa restrictions would have on his paint-making business. “We create a lot of innovation because of the diversity that we have,” he recently told CNBC. “We think people with PhDs that are educated here should stay here and work for us and not work for the competition.”

China will likely try to capitalize on this mistake. Robin Li, CEO of the internet giant Baidu Inc., recently advocated that China ease its visa requirements to attract talented workers to help develop new technologies for Chinese industry, just the opposite of Trump’s approach.

Trump’s budget proposals are similarly a setback. He wants to boost defense spending by slashing funding for just about everything else, notably education. By one estimate, some $20 billion would have to get cut from the departments of education, labor, and health and human services to accommodate his plan. If Trump wants to contend with Chinese power, he’d be better off reversing those priorities — to create more graduates and fewer guns. He could offer proposals to make higher education more affordable for the poor, for instance, or to bolster vocational training. So far, there’s little evidence he’s making such spending a priority.

China, by contrast, is expanding access to education on a huge scale.

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Fidel Castro attempted to hide his extravagances, but he was an outlier among recent dictators, most of whom have taken pains to cultivate conspicuous displays of wealth, which they believe projects unassailable power. It’s a sort of autocratic architecture, a weaponized interior design. Big, shiny hotel-esque hideousness was the preference of Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, all of whom seemed to have uniformly possessed a child’s comprehension of what affluence should look like: a Vegas casino in which the house always wins.

The new millennia has continued with much of the same, though more zeros have been added at the end of the number with the rampant kleptocracies in Russia and Dubai, among other tyrannical regions of the globe. With the election of Trump, a tin-pot dictator painted gold, the White House now has a figure given to ridiculous gaudiness, and his use of the Oval Office as a cash register for himself and his family is an unsurprising extension of this greed motif. It’s the prosperity gospel of a President who doesn’t like to read.

From “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” Peter York’s excellent Politico article:

Then, in late 2015, I came across a set of pictures with no identifying text. They appeared to show a gigantic apartment in what looked, from the windows, very much like New York. But I know Manhattan and its sophisticated style pretty well, and at first glance, you would think the place didn’t belong to an American but to a Russian oligarch, or possibly a Saudi prince with a second home in the United States. There were overscaled rooms, and obviously incorrect-looking historical detailing and proportions. The home had lots of gilded French furniture and the strange impersonal look of a hotel lobby, with chairs and sofas placed uncomfortably far from one another. There were masses of gold; there were the usual huge chandeliers, branded relics of famous sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, and mushroom-colored marble floors. There was relatively little in the way of paintings, but otherwise, the place reeked of dictator chic.

As it turned out, this familiar yet unfamiliar apartment—a familiar style to me by then, but in an unlikely location—belonged to Donald Trump, who by then was running for president. This was the penthouse of the potential leader of the free world. The design work, I have since learned, was started by the late Angelo Donghia, a decorator better known for a chic Manhattan look. But the substantive current design had been done by one Henry Conversano, who designed extensively—and perhaps unsurprisingly—for casinos. No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, “I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.” This was the visual language of public, not private, space. It was the language of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern nouveau riche.

Why does all of this matter? Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people. With its marble-inlaid dining table, painted ceilings and gold flourishes quite literally everywhere, Trump’s aesthetic puts him more in the visual tradition of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, who erected a massive rotating golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, than the self-effacing gray-suited conventions of Western democratic leaders. Atop Trump Tower, Trump’s apartment projects a kind of power that bypasses all the boring checks and balances of collaboration and mutual responsibility and first-among-equals. It is about a single dominant personality.

This, of course, is a startlingly un-American idea.

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What should we do if the President is a demagogue, a fascist, and a vicious bigot who surrounds himself with more of the same? What if he tramples on the Constitution, slanders other public figures and makes up bullshit incessantly? What about if it’s becoming increasingly clear that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to corrupt our election process? What if he’s using his office to greatly enrich himself and his family? What if he’s trying to delegitimize the free press and the judiciary branch so that he won’t have any checks on his worst impulses? What if he’s already committed several impeachable acts and nothing has happened?

What then?

In a Medium essay, Bernie Sanders asks “What Should We Do If the President Is a Liar?” The piece was written in response to ridiculous charges made by Amber Phillips of the Washington Post, who derided the Vermont Senator for “lowering the state of our political discourse” by pointing out that the President frequently lies, which he does.

This kind of knuckle-rapping is exactly what a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini depends on–it’s what all fascists rely upon. They behave as disgracefully as possible, accepting no basic rules or laws, while decent people are pinioned by polite norms, too afraid to say what’s blindingly apparent. Her comparison of Sanders’ rebuke to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “you lie!” during an Obama State of the Union address is foolishly disingenuous and false moral equivalency of the highest order for many reasons, the biggest one being Obama wasn’t a serial liar and conspiracy-theory peddler while Trump is. Phillips’ description of Trump’s assertion of widespread voter fraud, which is a complete lie, as an “eyebrow-raising claim,” is one way to put it, just not the honest way.

· · ·

You know what would be good? If the Twitter brain trust announced they were revoking Trump’s account because he slandered President Obama with serious, baseless claims of wiretapping. They could point out that no one has an absolute right to tweet, that it’s a privilege. It’s a very, very easy privilege to earn, but there have to be some rules. If Trump can produce proof his tweets weren’t slanders, he can have his account reactivated. Until then, farewell.

· · ·

In “How Trump Became an Accidental Totalitarian,” Nick Bilton’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer theorizes the new President’s outrageous and unhinged behavior isn’t the product of a Machiavellian mastermind but the acts of an unintelligent person who “doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing in the White House.” The opening:

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about Donald Trump and his infamous Twitter meltdowns—trying to deduce exactly what he’s up to regarding his constant, and seemingly never-ending, attacks on the press. The more that Trump has pushed the narrative that all unfavorable reportage of his regime is “fake news,” the more I’ve noticed a leitmotif. Trump, it seems, is using Twitter the way despotic politicians have manipulated the media throughout the past century when they needed a comfortable vessel for their lies.

Just travel back to Weimar Germany, where during his ascent to power in 1920, Adolf Hitler purchased outright a newspaper called The Volkischer Beobachter, which would grow its circulation to more than 1 million readers in the 40s as it became the organ of the National Socialist regime. The Beobachter, as it was often called, facilitated the Nazis’ revolting propaganda and culture of genocidal hatred. It allowed Hitler and Goebbels the opportunity to publish countless fake news stories about adversarial countries, about Jews, and, indeed, the press.

In some ways, Hitler set an early precedent for how to propagate fake news (or call real news “fake”) at the dawn of the information age. Kim Jong Il would control state media to his advantage much the same way. Saddam Hussein and his sons “owned” a dozen newspapers in Iraq, controlling virtually everything that was printed, and what was not. Vladimir Putinmanipulates the press in Russia. (He also allegedly has journalists killed.)

Freedom of the press is a sacrosanct right of Western democracies. But Trump, who has upended so much of what we believe in, has proved that the First Amendment is no longer enough to keep honest reporting unmolested. Indeed, were Hitler or Saddam to operate in our modern times, God forbid, they wouldn’t need to go through the hassle of running a state organ or Beobachter news outlet. They could simply open up their smartphones, sign up for a Twitter account, and start tweeting lies 140 characters at a time, both pushing their own agenda and decrying as false anything that they disagreed with.•

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Masha Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece just published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why the Russian espionage is a more important lie to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.

From Gessen:

The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.

More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.

The unrelenting focus on Russia has yielded an unexpected positive result, however. Following Flynn’s resignation, Trump designated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a thoughtful and highly respected military strategist, as his national security adviser. And Fiona Hill, probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of Putin’s Russia, is expected to take charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council. Hill has been a consistent and perceptive critic of Putin, and a proponent of maintaining sanctions imposed by the United States following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both of these appointments—and the fact that sanctions remain in place six weeks into Trump’s fast-moving presidency—contradict the “Putin’s puppet” narrative (as does the fact that Russian domestic propaganda has already turned against Trump). But such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.

Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.•

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Late to Industrialization, China entered the process knowing what much of the Western world had to learn the hard way in the 1970s: Urbanizing and modernizing an entire nation brings with it tremendous economic growth, but it can’t be sustained by the same methods–or perhaps at all–when the mission is complete. It’s a one-time-only bargain.

A richer nation can’t grow endlessly on the production of cheap exports, so the newly minted superpower is pivoting more to domestic demand, a nuance no doubt lost in the Trump Administration’s ham-handed appreciation of global politics. In “Trump’s Most Chilling Economic Lie,” a Joseph Stiglitz Vanity Fair “Hive” article, the economist highlights the insanity of America engaging in a trade war with China and expecting to emerge the richer. An excerpt:

Trump’s team may be tempted to conclude, naively, that because China exports so much more to the U.S. than the U.S. exports to China, the loss of a huge export market would hurt them more than it would hurt us. This reasoning is too simplistic by half. China’s government has far more control over the country’s economy than our government has over ours; and it is moving from export dependence to a model of growth driven by domestic demand. Any restriction on exports to the U.S. would simply accelerate a process already underway. Moreover, China’s government has the resources (it’s still sitting on some $3 trillion of reserves) and instruments to help any sector that has been shut out—and in this respect, too, China is better placed than the U.S.

China has already shown how it is likely to respond if Trump should launch a trade war. At Davos, President Xi Jinping came out as the great supporter of globalization and the international rule of law—as well China should. China, with its large emerging middle class, is among the big beneficiaries of globalization. Critics have said that China does not always play fair. They complain that as China has grown, it has taken away some of the privileges, some of the tax preferences, that it gave to foreigners in earlier stages of development. They are unhappy, too, that some Chinese firms have learned quickly how to compete—some of them even appropriating ideas from others, just as we appropriated intellectual property from Europe more than a century ago.

It is worth noting that, although large multinationals complain, they are not leaving. And we tend to forget the extensive restrictions we impose on Chinese firms when they seek to invest in the U.S. or buy high-tech products. Indeed, the Chinese frequently point out that if the U.S. lifted those restrictions, America’s trade deficit with China would be smaller.

China’s first response will be to try to find areas of cooperation. They are experts in construction. They know how to build high-speed trains. They might even provide some financing for these projects. Given Trump’s rhetoric, though, I suspect that such cooperation is just a dream.

If Trump insists on an adversarial stance, China is likely to respond within the framework of international law even if Trump puts little weight on such agreements—and thus is not likely to retaliate in a naive, tit-for-tat way. But China has made it clear that it will respond. And if history is any guide, it will respond both forcefully and intelligently, hitting us where it hurts economically and politically—where, for instance, cutbacks in purchases by China will lead to more unemployment in congressional districts that are vulnerable, influential, or both. If Boeing’s order book is thin, it might, for instance, cancel its purchases of Boeing planes.•

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The recent Presidential election revealed that U.S. citizens either have a terrible understanding of economics or they’re willing to surrender their security in the name of identity politics. Both are likely true to a significant extent.

Immigrants were blamed for the downgrading of the American worker on the trail while automation was never discussed, and Michigan voters swung to Trump, largely because Washington had supposedly forgotten about them, after the Obama Administration wagered $79 billion on bailing out the Detroit auto industry. Not too long after that salvage job by the federal branch, the state’s populace voted in an anti-union governor in Rick Snyder. The locals may have forgotten about themselves more than D.C. ever did.

Another vital topic of discussion that was never broached during the campaign was the role that contracted work has played in shrinking middle class. For several decades, American companies have been outsourcing mail-room work, maintenance, security and other “non-core” tasks to subcontractors who would save them some money by lowering salaries and reducing benefits to laborers. This shift created a separate class. Executive pay ballooned while those with more modest pay stubs took the elevator downward, further exacerbating wealth inequality.

I’ve written before about this destabilizing phenomenon. More from Eduardo Porter of the New York Times:

…Mr. Trump is missing a more critical workplace transformation: the vast outsourcing of many tasks — including running the cafeteria, building maintenance and security — to low-margin, low-wage subcontractors within the United States.

This reorganization of employment is playing a big role in keeping a lid on wages — and in driving income inequality — across a much broader swath of the economy than globalization can account for.

David Weil, who headed the Labor Department’s wage and hour division at the end of the Obama administration, calls this process the “fissuring” of the workplace. He traces it to the 1980s, when corporations under pressure to raise quarterly profits started shedding “noncore” tasks.

The trend grew as the spread of information technology made it easier for companies to standardize and monitor the quality of outsourced work. Many employers took to outsourcing to avoid the messy consequences — like unions and workplace regulations — of employing workers directly.

“It’s an incredibly important part of the story that we haven’t paid attention to,” Mr. Weil told me.

“Lead businesses — the firms that continue to directly employ workers who provide the goods and services in the economy recognized by consumers — remain highly profitable and may continue to provide generous pay for their work force,” he noted. “The workers whose jobs have been shed to other, subordinate businesses face far more competitive market conditions.”

The trend is hard to measure, since subcontracting can take many forms. But it is big.•

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Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other evils have been ushered into the mainstream by the opportunists and hatemongers who helped enable Donald Trump into the Oval Office, and it makes no difference that some of them fall into the very groups now being targeted (Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Stephen Miller, namely). 

In the early days of the GOP nomination process, when it seemed done deal that Donald Trump would soon fall from the race after disgracefully gaining attention for his idiotic “brand,” Edward Luce of the Financial Times warned that even if the Mussolini-Lampanelli madman fell from the sky, the dark clouds that had formed would not go away. They would spread, becoming more ominous.

Then the worst of all possible outcomes occurred when Trump won the Electoral College, with the aid of Putin, Comey, neo-Nazis and so-called geniuses like Peter Thiel and David Gelernter. Now we have Indian people shot in Kansas, bigoted domestic terrorists arrested for murderous plots and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. Meanwhile, international scholars are interrogated at airports and undocumented workers flee for the Canadian border, willing to sacrifice fingers and toes to frostbite. That’s the nightmare version of America–the un-America.

So far, citizens, journalists, judges and the Intelligence Community have stood tall against the threat of tyranny, while the opportunists and regressive minds in the legislature have performed as poorly as has been expected. Trump has targeted news organizations with the zeal of Putin and Erdogan because his type of hatred exists like a barnacle on the back of a created enemy and because the truth is not his friend.

From Klaus Brinkbäumer in Spiegel:

In Trump’s America, meanwhile, the press has been declared an “enemy of the people.” “You are fake news,” the president says when he sees a CNN reporter. A colleague at The Washington Post recently shared how the White House no longer answers any of his questions, only to then start blasting insults every time a story is published. It isn’t until that point that the president’s spokesman actually bothers to return his call, but only to say, “Fuck you, asshole. We’re going to make your life hell.” The effect of all of this is that truth and lies are getting blurred, the public is growing disoriented and, exhausted, it is tuning out.

This, in turn, aids the wrong people. Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It’s their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn’t reverent enough to them and is therefore useless. They believe, after all, that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That’s autocratic thinking — and it is how you sustain a dictatorship. 

The idea of freedom of speech first came into being hundreds of years ago. The poet John Milton issued a plea for the “liberty of unlicensed printing” in 1644. “The destruction of a good book ends not in the slaying of an elemental life,” he wrote, “but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself.” The seed had been planted and England moved to eliminate censorship in 1695. In 1776, the state of Virginia in the United States established the freedom of the press in America. The move was bold, enlightened and precious, making it that much more astonishing that some Turks and Americans now allow themselves to be lied to or have simply become too lazy to think critically.•

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The main reason I preferred Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders was simple math. 

In addition to his impossible pledge of America no longer having the highest incarceration rate of Western nations by the end of his first term, Sanders based his extraordinary spending plans on fanciful economic growth numbers (5.3%) that he couldn’t possibly deliver. That promise made Sanders policies seem less debt-heavy than they were, a dishonest way of doing business.

Although Donald Trump is promising a smaller if still out-of-reach 3.0-3.5%, he’s doing something the Vermont Senator would have never done: Ordering the Council of Economic Advisers to backfill all of its projections at his unrealistic rate. That intellectually deceptive gaming, he hopes, will be the smoke and mirrors he needs to cover the exorbitant cost of the tax cuts he plans for the nation’s highest earners. 

From Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post:

Astonishingly, the White House still hasn’t released details for any of the major economic initiatives Trump promised during the campaign (a “terrific” Obamacare replacement, a top-to-bottom tax overhaul, massive infrastructure investment). But thanks to recent leaks about the administration’s economic book-cooking, we at least know that whatever Trump ultimately proposes will be very, very expensive.

After the election, the Trump transition team began the long, arduous process of putting together the presidential budget. As is always the case, it worked with the (non-political) career staffers at the Council of Economic Advisers.

Normally this process starts by asking the CEA staff to estimate baseline economic growth under current policies. These professionals then build on this baseline to forecast how the president’s proposals will affect the overall economy, as well as budget deficits.

The end results are often more optimistic than what independent forecasters predict — the White House is factoring in new policies it believes are pro-growth, after all — but not wildly so. The numbers still need to be credible.

Like I said, that’s how things normally work. Not this time around.

As the Wall Street Journal first reported (and as I’ve independently confirmed through my own sources), the Trump transition team instead ordered CEA staffers to predict sustained economic growth of 3 to 3.5 percent. The staffers were then directed to backfill all the other numbers in their models to produce these growth rates.•

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Another repercussion of having a Constitution-shredding sociopath in the Oval Office is the possibility that a foundation will be laid for a long-term bifurcated government, with the executive branch and the intelligence community constantly angling to undermine one another. 

The concern of a “Deep State” in Washington or worries of the White House operating a shadow National Security Agency speak to the fathomless rift orchestrated by a deeply polarizing President. Intel leaks about the Administration’s involvement in Russia have become a deluge, spies are reportedly withholding information from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for fear they’ll be shared with the Kremlin and Trump has threatened a review of the intelligence community to be spearheaded by one of his billionaire buddies.

Agents anonymously leaking the truth may be the best bet to prevent the end of American democracy, but in the long term (should there be one) the intelligence community being put in a position where it has to go rogue could have serious ramifications. As Karl Rove said: Elections have consequences.

From “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America,” by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times:

Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.

In Egypt, for instance, the military and security services actively undermined Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, contributing to the upheaval that culminated in his ouster in a 2013 coup.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has battled the deep state by consolidating power for himself and, after a failed coup attempt last year, conducting vast purges.

Though American democracy is resilient enough to resist such clashes, early hints of a conflict can be tricky to spot because some push and pull between a president and his or her agencies is normal.

In 2009, for instance, military officials used leaks to pressure the White House over what it saw as the minimal number of troops necessary to send to Afghanistan.

Leaks can also be an emergency brake on policies that officials believe could be ill-advised or unlawful, such as George W. Bush-era programs on warrantless wiretapping and the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

“You want these people to be fighting like cats and dogs over what the best policy is, airing their views, making their case and then, when it’s over, accepting the decision and implementing it,” said Elizabeth N. Saunders, a George Washington University political scientist. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“Leaking is not new,” she said, “but this level of leaking is pretty unprecedented.”•

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The problem with pointing out that the Trump Administration wants to severely shift focus on Muslims involved in terrorism to the point of ignoring domestic radical right-wing and anti-government groups is that it’s not an oversight.

These are some of the very people, often white nationalists, who most ardently supported Trump’s bigoted campaign, and it’s not likely that the self-avowed tough-on-crime politician will turn on these militias. That will put law enforcement officers, government officials and non-white folks in general in harm’s way. Perhaps an outcry from police groups can bring greater light on what could be a lethal decision?

From an article by Emily Tamkin, Robbie Gramer and Molly O’Toole of Foreign Policy:

Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. There are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.

And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.

“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.

According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.•

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In handicapping what kind of President Trump would be just before he was inaugurated, Brad DeLong did not consider “Russian traitor,” which now might be the most obvious choice.

The economic historian did write these chilling words about the Silvio-style kleptocracy that seemed poised to unfold: “Italy lost a decade of economic growth, I think, because of Berlusconi.” If Trump survives the corrupt and perhaps treasonous morass he’s engulfed in, America could be headed down the same sinkhole, which would be awful for us and wonderful for China and other autocracies.

Already have written that in addition to various high-tech fields, America should invest in creating positions that focus on maintenance of many kinds: health, environment, infrastructure. The demand is certainly evident. In the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu argues the new Administration’s manufacturing fetish is regressive, especially in a society heading deeper into automation, while the “caring industry” is the future.

An excerpt:

The economic nationalism of President Trump and Messrs Navarro and Bannon can be described as Germany-envy. In those manufacturing powers, they see countries that have fought to hold on to the good, manly jobs that validate the status of the native working class. Like so often with machismo, the envy is rooted in insecurity — a feeling of inadequacy compared with the perceived strength sported by these economies. Since export surpluses cannot be enjoyed by all countries (unlike broader gains from trade), manufacturing fetishism leads logically to a zero-sum view of trade policy. It entails an attempt to displace the current surplus of manufacturing producers. Thus, in the context of a Germany-envying inferiority complex, the desire to repatriate global supply chains, limit imports and boost manufacturing makes sense.

But, outside the fetishists’ fantasies, it will not produce the desired effect. First, manufacturing machismo itself is a handicap when it comes to grasping the opportunities for a thriving economy. By far the largest number of jobs to be created in the US over the next decade will be in services, in particular the caring professions. 

Factory fetishists might retort that it is this development they want to oppose by resurrecting factory employment. But this runs headlong into a second obstacle. Regardless of trade, automation is reducing the need for manufacturing jobs everywhere.•

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While the headline of Emily Jane Fox’s Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Jared Kushner Emerges as Trump’s True Believer” is misleading because he always was just that, it goes a good way toward being a corrective for an earlier piece she wrote which perplexingly distanced Ivanka Trump and her spouse from the chaos and bigotry they supported into the White House. 

It may be difficult for some to accept that Kushner, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish background, would be so simpatico with the white nationalists and anti-Semites central to the campaign’s success (and now the Administration), but that’s exactly who Kushner is. He isn’t a mitigator but a co-conspirator, not especially bright and seriously lacking in decency.

An excerpt:

Both Bannon and Kushner have tried to articulate their improbable mutual affection. In explaining the unlikely relationship between himself (an orthodox Jew whose grandparents survived the Holocaust), and Bannon (who ran the alt-right Web site Breitbart News, which has published anti-Semitic comments), Kushner defended his colleague’s character in an interview with Forbes. “What I’ve seen from working together with him was somebody who did not fit the description that people are pushing on him. I choose to judge him based on my experience and seeing the job he’s done, as opposed to what other people are saying about him.” Bannon had a similar take. “If you’re in a foxhole with him, and fighting with him, you’re a brother, and he will defend you nonstop,” Bannon told New York Magazine.

Nevertheless, a perception existed during the campaign and transition that Kushner was a moderating voice to Bannon’s nationalistic agenda. Kushner, after all, came from a major Democratic family. He hosted fundraisers for Corey Booker. He privately reassured his friends and business leaders in his orbit that his father-in-law and Trump’s team would pull back from some of the extreme rhetoric that they peddled on the trail once they got into the West Wing. As one source close to Kushner described to me last month, Kushner was thought of as the “secure line” as a result—someone whom moderates could call in order to be heard by the president and to hear what the president really planned to do behind all that political bombast.

But now, a month into his new job in the West Wing, Kushner appears to have become a true believer in Bannon’s agenda. Several sources told me that Kushner was defensive about the executive order that temporarily barred Muslim immigrants and refugees. The longtime friend said that when he pointed out that refugees had not, in fact, been responsible for any of the terror attacks on U.S. soil, Kushner, he said, answered by saying that that was not true.

The source close to the Trump administration explained that Kushner has “always been far more defensive of Donald and their policies than the general public has believed.•

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It’s appalling that basically sane and intelligent people like James Baker still can’t discern the grave danger American democracy is now facing. Not even the removal of the word “Jewish” from the Holocaust Remembrance Day announcement, an attempt at a Muslim ban and repeated attacks on the judicial branch and press have awakened them to this reality.

In an interview in the international edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung that is required reading, Matthias Kolb questions Yale historian Timothy Snyder about the fascist threat to the U.S. that is the Trump Administration, which doesn’t want only to rule but to also destroy the rule of law. History, decency and liberty are also on the chopping block.

While Snyder’s spirits have been buoyed by the early resistance, he believes we don’t have much time to save the Republic, especially with a non-responsive legislative branch. “What happens in the next few weeks is very important,” he warns.

An excerpt:

Question:

When [Steve] Bannon calls the press the main “opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.

Timothy Snyder:

When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.

Question:

Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors”. This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.

Timothy Snyder:

That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: „We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“  When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent internet lying and way from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “yes, they are thugs” instead of “it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change. …

Question:

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

Timothy Snyder:

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue.  The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions.  You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.•

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John Cassidy of the New Yorker, who’s been stellar during this dark period in America, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. In one exchange, he asserts that “some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances,” which is certainly true, though it doesn’t nearly add up to 63 million voters. Early in 2016, the Economist debunked the received wisdom of the Trump supporter as the struggling worker ignored by the “elites.” His voters, in the aggregate, had a higher household income than average. Those disrupted by manufacturing’s decline, positioned just so, may have put the GOP candidate over the top, but it was other factors that carried him to the tipping point. 

Cassidy also looks at the tinderbox that is U.S.-China relations, which could be the most dangerous international development since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese people are far more nationalistic than most Americans probably realize, and the White House Chief Strategist guaranteeing war in the near future in the South China Sea couldn’t have gone down smoothly. Both sides have a tremendous amount to lose, but that doesn’t ensure restraint. Wars aren’t always rational decisions about money.

A few excerpts follow.


Question:

The obvious ludicrousness aside, just how different is this administration from earlier administrations? In what way has the paradigm for administration and governance truly changed?

John Cassidy:

That’s an excellent question, which I haven’t thought about the way you formulated it. I’ve thought quite a bit about how different Trump is from previous presidents, and I don’t there is any doubt that he represents something new. In terms of experience, outlook, and temperament, there has never been a president like him before. In terms of the administration as a whole, it’s a bit different. If you take away Trump and some of the people immediately surrounding him, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, this administration could pass for a normal Republican administration. A very conservative one, certainly–Pence, Price, Pruitt, and DeVos are all right wing even by the standards of today’s GOP. But you also have generals and business leaders playing a big role, which we’ve seen in the past. The question is how the two parallel administrations gets along–or, equivalently, how Trump deals with his cabinet. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.


Question:

Does the threat of being called “fake news” ever run through your head while writing an article, or affect the style of writing? And in your opinion, how should the media be handling the President’s war on these, so-called, fake news organizations (like CNN)?

John Cassidy:

Being a columnist, I don’t worry much about fake news. I just write what I think, read it through, and put it out there. If there is a fact I am not sure of, I do try to check it, or, at least, point out its source. Obviously, news organizations have to take the whole fake news thing more seriously, but the main thing is not to let Trump intimidate them. So far, I don’t think they have. To the contrary, probably. Which explains why he seems to be getting more and more irate.


Question:

What is the biggest short term risk to global stability? What holds the best chance to improve people’s lives in the short term?

John Cassidy:

I think the two biggest short term risks are China and Trump–or, make that three risks: China, Trump, and China and Trump. The China risk is the same one that has been out there for years: a debt-driven financial blow-up that spills over into other markets. The Trump risk is that he does something that really spooks people and investors. So far, the markets have reacted favorably to his election, because they like tax cuts and deregulation. But I think there’s quite a bit of political risk that isn’t priced in, especially when it comes to the survival of an open trading system. And of course, there’s a danger he could do something nutty, such as spark a military confrontation in the South China Sea. In the interests of maintaining global stability and getting past Trump to another president, the Chinese government might be willing to give a bit of ground. But if Trump backs them into a corner, and brings Chinese nationalism into play, there could be a disaster.


Question:

Do you have any thoughts on how to explain to certain groups of voters that Trump, his administration, his policies and executive orders, etc. are opposite of their interests? How do you reach people who have their fingers in their ears?

John Cassidy:

I’m not sure there are many Trump voters reading the New Yorker, but your question is a serious one, especially for the Democratic Party. I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that although many of Trump’s policies–tax cuts for the rich, rollback of financial regulations etc–will hurt working class and middle class people, he did, during the campaign, tap into some legitimate concerns about globalization and trade. I keep going back to the fact that the average hourly wage of non-supervisory workers is lower today, in real terms, than it was in 1973. On top of that, there is now a good deal of empirical evidence that trade with China has taken a pretty heavy toll on manufacturing jobs. So, Trump knew what he was doing when he played the nationalist/protectionist card. The problem, of course, is explaining why his cures won’t work, and may well end up harming the victims. If I could do that, I’d give up journalism and run for office! Just joking. But I think the first step is acknowledging that some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances and trying to speak to them in their language: they aren’t all just racist deplorables.


Question:

What would you recommend for individuals to do to improve their knowledge of economics – even for people with degrees in economics? Any advice for people wanting to make a living studying economics/policy?

John Cassidy:

Ah, a bit of respite from Trump and politics! Thanks. When I was a student, I studied history and economics, and as a graduate I specialized in economics, so I read a lot of pretty technical stuff. I do have some interest in economic theory, but the books and articles that really stayed with me were the ones that went beyond individual theories and looked at the big picture. An obvious one is Keynes’s General Theory. On the left, Paul Sweezey’s Theory of Capitalist Development, which was an effort to combine Keynesian short run theory with Marx’s long run analysis, is a tour de force that I still go back to. On the right, Milton’s Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, is seminal and still central. All of these books are pretty old. If you want something newer and more up to date, the best textbook I’ve seen is by my old tutor, David Soskice and his longtime collaborator Wendy Carlin. It’s called Macroeconomics, I think. And if you want a history that covers a lot of ground and also includes the financial crisis and its aftermath, I would immodestly recommend my own book, How Markets Fail. Hope that’s helpful. As for advice, I would just plunge in and take some courses. There are some good online ones now, which are a good way of testing whether you really have a taste for a subject.•

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Funny to see an old McCarthy apologist like Pat Buchannan or recent Putin-puncher like Newt Gingrich embrace the tool of the Kremlin that now occupies the Oval Office. Political expediency can reveal who actually has a moral center and who’s always been playing games.

From early in the campaign, when Trump mocked our POWs and praised Russia’s autocrat, it was clear where he stood. The question is why this behavior wasn’t disqualifying to the nearly 63 million citizens who voted for him. Certainly the pockets of the country still hurting from the financial collapse had an effect as did the machinations of Julian Assange and James Comey, but it seems fairly clear that the barely veiled promise of making America white again activated a lot of racist feelings that had always been there. People are clearly willing to sacrifice an awful lot for a feeling of superiority. 

Over the weekend, when Trump defended Putin by pointing out that the U.S also has a lot of murderers–even saying “You think our country’s so innocent?”–he elided the fact that unlike Putin, American Presidents never kill political adversaries or journalists, let alone do so routinely. If the orange supremacist lasts four years, though, we may become much more like the Russia thugocracy than even the most mouth-foaming McCarthy-ite could have ever imagined.

The opening of “A Poisoning in Moscow” in the Wall Street Journal:

In 2015 a prominent Russian opposition activist named Vladimir Kara-Murza inexplicably suffered multiple organ failure and barely survived after falling into a coma for nearly a week. On Thursday it happened to him again, in much the same way. Since this happened in Moscow, we assume the explanation isn’t innocent.

Mr. Kara-Murza, 35, is a former journalist who worked for a Russian TV station in Washington until he was fired from his job in 2012. That year he testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of the Magnitsky Act, which places financial sanctions and travel bans on corrupt Russian officials. Mr. Kara-Murza described the law as a “pro-Russian bill which provides a much-needed measure of accountability for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.”

That could not have endeared him to the Kremlin. Nor could his close association with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015. Three months later Mr. Kara-Murza became ill after eating lunch at a restaurant. He told CNN that “there is no other possible reason” than politics for his poisoning.•

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“The next four years are the critical inflection point,” writes Robert Kagan in largely dire Brookings report, “The Twilight of the Liberal Order,” offering a contention that should scare the hell out of Americans and allies who depend on us, while cheering the Chinese and Russians. 

Since the piece was published just about a week ago, the new President, an unhinged person whose policy seems mostly the handiwork of his white-supremacist sidekick, issued a hastily written, racist ban on certain immigrants and has made it even more clear he doesn’t care about the plight of any country beyond our borders. (That his governance will also likely have devastating consequences domestically is a parallel concern.)

America’s raison d’être as a shelter for refugees, beacon for the world and defender of liberal democracy, has no place in nationalistic Trumplandia, which will lead to other countries filling the power gap. But you can’t build a wall to keep out the future, and Kagan believes that absent America’s guiding hand, a large-scale war becomes much more likely, something Steve Bannon wouldn’t mind, given his stated desire to take military action against China. The Chief Strategist’s bloody dreams combine the worst of the United States’ inclination for adventuring with a newly narrowed self-interest.

It seems as if the Administration believes it can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens, with endless bluster and shakedowns. Whether or not it ends in world war, it will not end well. 

An excerpt:

In recent years, however, the liberal order has begun to weaken and fracture at the core. As a result of many related factors—difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism—there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project tended to elevate universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism; an increasing focus on the “other” in all societies; and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We have been witnessing something like the opposite of the “end of history” but have returned to history with a vengeance, rediscovering all the darker aspects of the human soul. That includes, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of seeming breakdown and incoherence.

This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable. It may indeed have been cyclical, due to inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy, which periodically have been exposed and have raised doubts about both—as happened, for instance, throughout the West in the 1930s. Now, as then, moreover, this crisis of confidence in liberalism coincides with a breakdown of the strategic order. In this case, however, the key variable has not been the United States as the outside power and its willingness, or not, to step in and save or remake an order lost by other powers. Rather it is the United States’ own willingness to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power.

That willingness has been in doubt for some time. Increasingly in the quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, Americans have been wondering why they bear such an unusual and outsized responsibility for preserving global order when their own interests are not always apparently served and when, indeed, the United States seems to be making sacrifices while others benefit. The reasons why the United States took on this abnormal role after the calamitous two world wars of the 20th century have been largely forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing such a role has worn thin. Thus, whereas previous unsuccessful wars, in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and previous economic downturns, such as in the mid- to late 1970s, did not have the effect of turning Americans against global involvement, the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2007–09 have had that effect. President Obama pursued an ambivalent approach to global involvement, but the main thrust of his approach was retrenchment. His actions and statements were a critique of previous American strategy and reinforced a national mood favoring a much less active role in the world and much narrower definition of American interests.

With the election of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans have signaled their unwillingness to continue upholding the world order. Trump was not the only candidate in 2016 to run on a platform suggesting a much narrower definition of American interests and a lessening of the burdens of American global leadership. “America First” is not just an empty phrase but a fairly coherent philosophy with a long lineage and many adherents in the American academy. It calls for viewing American interests through a narrow lens. It suggests no longer supporting an international alliance structure, no longer seeking to deny great powers their spheres of influence and regional hegemony, no longer attempting to uphold liberal norms in the international system, and no longer sacrificing short-term interests—in trade for instance—in the longer-term interest of preserving an open economic order.

Coming as it does at a time of growing great power competition, this new approach in American foreign policy is likely to hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras.•

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As I’ve posted before, China stands poised to gain the most from America’s sharp turn toward anti-science and isolationism. Winning the race in renewables, supercomputers and robotics would make our strongest competitor preeminent financially. Furthermore, soft power follows cold, hard cash, so our withdrawal from globalism will oddly allow China, an autocratic state, to step into the breach and gain influence as the “civilized” leader of the free world. 

Along with reconfiguring the U.S. to teach civics and the Constitution, we should probably also stress basic economics.

From “Trump’s Trade War May Have Already Begun,” by Peter S. Goodman of the New York Times:

LONDON — America’s traditional allies are on the lookout for new friends.

They have heard the mantra “America First” from the new president, divining a Trump doctrine: global cooperation last. Europeans have taken note of Mr. Trump’s denigration of the European Union and his apparent esteem for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. In Asia and Latin America, leaders have absorbed the deepening possibility that Mr. Trump will deliver on threats to impose punitive tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports, provoking a trade war that will damage economic growth and eliminate jobs around the world.

Some allies are shifting focus to other potential partners for new sources of trade and investment, relationships that could influence political, diplomatic and military ties. Many are looking to China, which has adroitly capitalized on a leadership vacuum in world affairs by offering itself — ironies notwithstanding — as a champion for global engagement.

“We’ve always said that America is our best friend,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup — comprising finance ministers from countries sharing the euro currency — said in an interview with The New York Times on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month. “If that’s no longer the case, if that’s what we need to understand from Donald Trump, then of course Europe will look for new friends.”

“China is a very strong candidate for that,” he added.•

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Here’s a question: If the election was held again today, would Donald Trump still win the Electoral College?

Despite the hypothetical nature of the query, it’s actually an all-important one. While a huge number of Americans, likely the majority, refuse the un-American Executive Orders of the new Administration as well as his appointment of a white nationalist as White House Chief Strategist, a large minority approved of promises of such on Election Day? Do they still? 

In Pennsylvania–as well as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin–harsh Rust Belt economics played a role in swinging just enough votes a clearly unqualified, unwell candidate, but it wasn’t just about the money, stupid. There as well as in more affluent parts of the country, Trump’s racism and xenophobia resonated. If these voters get the whiter America they hoped for, would they be okay with a dictator as President?

From Josh Paul’s Newsweek piece about approval for the immigrant ban among citizens in Northeastern PA:

“Our first priority should be the safety of Americans,” says Tino Altavilla, a freshman at King’s College in northeast Pennsylvania. Asked his opinion of the executive order Trump signed Friday afternoon, the physics major said he doesn’t believe every Muslim is a terrorist but that the vetting system needs to be improved before any more people from Middle Eastern countries are allowed into the U.S. “Imagine Syria. There are very few records on some of the people because it’s a war zone.”

Altavilla voted for Trump in November, just like almost 60 percent of voters in Luzerne County, which flipped from supporting Obama by 5 points in 2012 to a 20-point victory for Trump. A third-generation Italian-American, Altavilla tells Newsweek that he thinks Trump should have presented the executive order as a “hold” instead of a “ban,” but that he agrees with Trump’s order. “I’m not sure if his handling was correct, but what he did was correct.”

Most Trump voters from this mountainous county, a two-hour drive west of New York City, were quick to voice their support for the executive order that blocks citizens of seven mostly-Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for at least three months, bans all refugees for four months and bars Syrian refugees indefinitely. They saw the ban as a smart way to protect the country from terrorist attacks, and they dismissed arguments that the order amounted to a religious ban or comparisons between the order and America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.•

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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It seldom ends well for a tyrant, but how about the people?

Rare are there moments of such extreme clarity as the one we’re now experiencing in America. Either you stand against the bigoted madness of a bullying sociopath, or you push the nation into the abyss with it. Millions of citizens are fighting back, trying in their own way to keep us from descending into fascism, from becoming a racist state. Unfortunately–and perhaps unsurprisingly–many elected officials and business leaders have proven feckless and opportunistic. We know where they stand.

In Eliot A. Cohen’s scorching Atlantic essay about new Administration in the wake of a disastrous first week, he writes, “the biggest split will be between those who draw a line and the power-sick.” We’ve already witnessed both sides of the divide, with Washington lifers bolting the State Department en masse to loudly register protest, and with Sean Spicer willing to speak outrageous lies as ordered and Paul Ryan and Mike Pence now supporting a Muslim ban they previously deemed un-American.

Cohen’s certain those who stand by this unscrupulous monster will be forever tarnished by the association, and while I wish I could agree, even a genuine German Nazi like Wernher von Braun was able to reinvent himself as an American hero. Historical moments can present a clear line, but the long arc of history is a fuzzier thing.

An excerpt:

Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.

The question is, what should Americans do about it? To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.

For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.•

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It would be funny watching Theresa May and and the brokers of Brexit bowing before a U.S. President they clearly disdain, except that as an American I can hardly afford to laugh, not with the Constitution and nuclear codes in the breast pocket of a bigoted, unbalanced ignoramus.

The urge on both sides of the Atlantic to retreat to an earlier age, one before globalization, may be understandable but it’s also self-defeating. There’s no returning. The world is overrun with symbiotic relationships and to deny the Other is to starve yourself. The UK and U.S. will now both learn the hard way that in this age isolation is impossible and closed doors costly.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal brokered by President Obama was an imperfect one, as any pact among numerous nations would be, but it allowed the U.S. an abiding and significant soft power in the region of our fiercest competitor, China, which will now likely benefit from our withdrawal. The ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations, probably illegal, is similarly shortsighted, sacrificing our greatest historical resource–diverse human capital–in a misguided attempt to prevent terrorism, a much smaller threat to Americans than guns or even cars.

Going forward, the United States and United Kingdom won’t be most challenged by connections to other countries but competition from them. Walls and exits will not preserve us.

From a smart Economist analysis written just prior to May’s D.C. visit:

So why is Mrs May hurrying to Washington? Because Brexit compels Britain’s leaders to show that the country has powerful allies. And “my Maggie” (as the president calls Mrs May) is desperate to line up a Britain-America trade deal that can be closed as soon as Brexit takes place, probably in 2019.

Whether this will end happily is uncertain. In trade negotiations, size matters. Larger economies can stipulate terms that suit them. Britain, an economy of 60m people, has much less leverage in trade talks than the EU, a market of 500m, or the United States, one of 300m. Mr Trump may promise an agreement “very quickly” and to show other countries that it is safe to leave the EU by giving Britain generous treatment. But more than anything else he is an America First deal-wrangler who knows he has the upper hand. A rushed agreement could see the National Health Service opened up to American firms and environmental and food standards diluted (think hormone-treated beef). Such concessions could upset British voters, who backed Brexit partly because Leavers said it would help the country’s health-care system. They would also frustrate a trade deal with the EU, a much more important export destination.

The curious thing is that Brexit was supposed to be about “taking back control”: immunising the country from foreign whim and interest, while asserting national dignity and independence. Increasingly that looks like a bad joke. The British elite feels it has no choice but to prostrate itself before an American president it clearly finds odious. To keep businesses from moving elsewhere, Britain may have to shadow EU regulations and pay into EU programmes without the chance to shape either. Its trade deals will be forged with a fraction of the negotiating force that has long promoted its interests. That means more concessions to the tariff and regulatory preferences of foreigners. Its application to become a full member of the World Trade Organisation is yet another opportunity for others to impose conditions and costs.•

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When President Trump occasionally fields follow-up questions, it might be good if someone queries him about automation. It’s possible he’s familiar with the term.

The White House’s capo with nuclear capabilities has skated through the campaign and post-election periods being allowed to pretend we’re living in the 1950s. Presently and going forward, outsourcing will not largely mean jobs moving out of country but out of species. From what I know about the Carrier deal, there’s nothing impeding the company from automating the positions saved and still pocketing the tax incentives. The new Administration’s plans for tax breaks and tariffs, admittedly still vaguely drawn, would go large with that same gaping loophole. 

One unintended consequence, then, of the new abnormal may be large-scale investment in robotics, with a rapid installation of such machinery at every plant and factory possible. That could actually prompt jobs for Americans to disappear faster. If Trump somehow tries to artificially limit positions that can be automated, that will prevent companies in America from competing with their counterparts in China and other nations aiming to win the Digital Age. These are discussions that should have been had on the trail.

President Trump summoned the titans of American business to the White House on Monday for what was billed as a “listening session,” but it was the new president who delivered the loudest message: Bring back domestic manufacturing jobs, or face punishing tariffs and other penalties.

The contrast between Mr. Trump’s talk and the actual behavior of corporate America, however, underscored the tectonic forces he was fighting in trying to put his blue-collar base back to work in a sector that has been shedding jobs for decades.

Many of the chief executives Mr. Trump met with have slashed domestic employment in recent years. What is more, their companies have frequently shut factories in the United States even as they have opened new ones overseas.

Mr. Trump said he would use tax policy, among other means, to deter companies from shifting work abroad. “A company that wants to fire all of its people in the United States and build some factory someplace else, then thinks that product is going to just flow across the border into the United States,” he said, “that’s just not going to happen.” …

During the meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump also made the case that building in the United States would soon become a more cost-effective proposition because of his plans to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 or 20 percent and to reduce regulations.

He pointed to onerous environmental regulations as one area where changes could be on the way, and he insisted that, despite the more lax regulatory environment, protections would improve under his administration.

“There will be advantages to companies that do indeed make their products here,” Mr. Trump said.

Of course, financial considerations like taxes and regulations alone do not guide corporate decision making.•

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