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What Goes Unbuilt to Build a Wall

As every civic-minded American newsreader already knows by now, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to re-appropriate a few billion dollars from the defense budget to build a big beautiful wall along America’s southern border. By now you should also know that majorities in both chambers of Congress voted to block the action, but Trump vetoed it, and it seems unlikely that a super-majority in the Senate will be able to override it, and despite some court challenges Trump seems likely to eventually get some wall money.
We commend you for having followed it that closely, but if you’re as obsessively civic-minded a newsreader as we are you might want to know from where those few billions of dollars will likely be re-appropriated.
A couple of intrepid reporters at The Washington Post were curious enough to look into it, and although we’re supposed dismiss their findings as “fake news” from “enemies of the people” their conclusions sound plausible enough to us, and better sourced than what Trump usually has to say about what some people are saying. Much of the report is based on a list that the Defense Department reluctantly released under pressure from Congress that identifies $12.9 billion of military construction projects that been funded but not yet contracted, which according to the convoluted theories of the vaguely written law that Trump is invoking are fair game for presidential re-appropriation. The Pentagon has ruled out defunding the projects they expect to finalize contracts for within the year, which leaves only $4.35 billion available, and Trump has announced he expects to spend $3.6 billion of it on his wall, an a civic-minded newsreader can make an educated guess about which projects are most vulnerable.
There are 10 projects with a combined cost of $403 million slated for Puerto Rico, which has no electoral votes and has long seemed of little concern to Trump, so they seem likely to be slashed. The projects include a school for military children on former Air Force base and improved training for the Puerto Rican National Guard, which previous Defense Departments and congresses had considered important to the national security, but Trump will easily able to explain to the die-hard fans that $403 million worth of wall along a few miles of the southern border is more important than anything that might happen in Puerto Rico.
There’s another $745 million to be had from the European Deterrence Initiative, which includes 23 projects spread throughout Europe and was launched by President Barack Obama back in 2014 after Russia’s assaults on the sovereignty of Ukraine and Crimea, that’s surely a tempting slice of the budget to Trump. He can still tell the die-hard fans that no president has ever been tougher on Russia, and that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a nice guy who’d never do anything to hinder American democracy, anything Obama did had to be wrong, and all those supposedly allied countries where the money was being spent are all taking advantage of us and laughing behind our backs. What’s more, none of those countries have any electoral college votes.
Another $258 is slated to be spent in Guam, which is mostly a strategically crucial military base but has no electoral votes, and the rest is spread out over eight states. The Washington Post generously provides a graph showing how much spending had been slated for each state, and without bothering to dig into what the projects are we assume the cuts will be made according to how many votes each state is expected to deliver in the next electoral college. That’s bad news for Washington and Maryland, good news for Texas, and probably the best news of all for states the Republicans hope they can possibly flip and suddenly have to worry they might lose. The math might require that some Republican district or another will take a hit, but Trump can still count on its Representative’s support.
Which is no way to appropriate money for the national defense, of course, but we suppose it’s always been so. The smart defense contractors always spread their work around the country just enough to sway congressional and electoral college majorities, the smart politicians always defend their home turf’s share, and we notice that a significant portion of Obama’s spending went to such reliably Democratic states as Washington and Maryland, even if we also notice that Boeing is still big in Washington and has always gotten its share based on merit. Even so, the politics of this particular moment seem especially peculiar.
For one thing, we’re not at all persuaded that a big beautiful wall along the entire southern border is a pressing national security need, much less the stuff of a state of national emergency. Our assessment of the worldwide threats to national security finds far more pressing needs, and the very official-souning “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the National Intelligence Community” seems to agree with us. According to all the polls everybody but the die-hard Trump fans are similarly unimpressed, and so are majorities of the people’s representatives in both chambers of Congress also disagree, even if they can’t muster a super-majority in the Senate to override a veto.
For another thing, the few measly billions of dollars that Trump intends re-appropriate will only pay for a relatively few miles of it, and much of that will be tied in legal fees fighting the landowners who have been happily living along an unwalled border objecting to the government’s eminent domain seizure of their private property. An affinity for private property and an aversion to government seizures used to be a defining characteristic of American conversation, which is yet another thing we don’t like about the politics of the moment.
Conservatives also used to believe in the Constitution, which gives the legislative branch the power to appropriate funds and doesn’t mention the executive branch doing any re-appropriating, and that’s even one more thing we don’t like about the politics of moment.

— Bud Norman

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America’s Annual Attention Deficit About the Annual Budget Deficit

Not so very long ago, American conservatives used to fret about the swelling federal debt. Back when the debt was swelling at the rate of a trillion dollars a year under President Barack Obama it was conservatism’s most pressing issue, and led to the Republican party regaining control of both chambers of Congress, which successfully cut the annual budget deficits to a mere half-trlllion or so. With the annual budget deficits back up to a trillion bucks under President Donald Trump, however, only the most old-fashioned sorts of conservative are worried about it.
Back during his improbable presidential campaign Trump made some wildly extravagant promises about paying off the entire national debt in four years, but he also made some similarly wild and extravagant promises about huge tax cuts and increased military spending and an expensive infrastructure bill and a big beautiful wall along the entire southern border and allowing no changes to such popular programs as Medicare. At other times the self-proclaimed “King of Debt” also talked about racking up even more debt because of the temporarily low interest rates, and rattled international markets by openly speculating on the sort of defaults and haircuts that he’d relied on during his failed career as a casino mogul, but for some reason a plurality of Rebublican primary voters trusted Trump’s assurances it would all somehow work out.
Now Trump is once again talking about cutting deficits, but he’s finding it hard to do given all the other promises he’s made. The sizable tax cut Trump signed into law might yet fuel enough economic growth to cut into the deficits, but for now and the foreseeable future it’s lowering federal revenues as spending go up. Trump got the record defense spending that he wanted, and although he’s now reportedly open to cutting it slightly he seems to have some ill-informed ideas about military technology and still wants an expensive military parade and has troops idly awaiting an epic clash with a few thousand unarmed asylum-seekers at the southern border.
So far as we can tell from Trump’s vague explanations his infrastructure plan relies largely on private investment that the private investors surely expect to be compensated for one way or another, but it’s still expensive, and unless he can get it passed during the lame duck sessions it’s unlikely the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will make it happen. The outgoing Republican majority in the House was only willing to cough up a measly couple of billion dollars for Trump’s big beautiful border wall, and the incoming Democratic majority is unlikely to be as generous as that, and Trump is threatening a government shutdown over it even as he resumes talking about cutting the deficit.
Trump is still holding to his campaign promises about allowing no changes to Medicare or Social Security, too, which makes it pretty much impossible to put a noticeable dent in the budget deficits. Everything in the federal budget other than the military and servicing the existing federal debt is relatively paltry compared to those programs, and even if Trump somehow were able to eliminate all the undeniable waste and fraud it wouldn’t compare to a month’s spending on what Trump has declared sacrosanct, and even the stingiest conservative must concede that there are certain expensive services a government can only provide.
The expert and apolitical trustees of the Medicare and Social Security funds are predicting both programs will go belly up right around the time we’re eligible for their benefits, but for now they’re both so popular that it would take a pretty courageous politician to dare suggest even the mild reforms that might forestall the disaster. Once upon a time such Republican politicians as House Speaker Paul Ryan dared suggest paying current beneficiaries according to the deal they’d signed on to, and a deal to those currently paying in that the government could realistically hope to make good on, but Ryan’s leaving public life after two years of signing off on trillion dollar deficits, and we don’t expect presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suggest such essential reforms.
Nobody likes taxes and everyone likes their government checks and services, and most Americans are misinformed about the relatively paltry sums America is spending on foreign aid and abortion advice and subsidies for the arts and other resented-by-Republicans programs, and the administration of justice and maintenance of federal highways and other popular projects are more expensive than most Americans realize, so solving the political problem of deficits and debts is far more complicated than Trump made it sound back during the campaign. Despite his very stable genius and unaccountable knowledge of military technology Trump still doesn’t seem to have the answer, even though it’s long been apparent to the more old-fashioned sorts of conservatives, and he’s not the sort to tell his supporters anything they don’t want to hear.
Obama still deserves blame for the trillion dollar deficits that he needlessly racked up even during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and we’re sure Trump will continue to blame him, but Trump will also surely find someone to blame for the trillion dollar deficits he’s racked up in what he boasts is the greatest American economy ever, so we’re not hopeful the problem will be solved in time to pay for our golden years. In the meantime the government will be paying a few trifling millions of dollars a month to Trump’s golf resorts, but the Democrats in the House will probably tell Trump to keep his extravagant campaign promise to have Mexico pay for that big beautiful border wall and let him take the hit in the polls if he follows through on his threat of a government shutdown, that slender Republican majority in the Senate and Trump’s veto power will probably forestall the Democrats most expensive ambitions, so there’s a chance that at least America will head to the inevitable fiscal cliff at a slightly slower speed.

— Bud Norman

If It’s Doomsday, This Must be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s die-hard fans probably loved his performance Wednesday at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, as he gave all those freeloading Euro-trash leaders the tough talk that always goes over so well at the endless campaign rallies, and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin probably enjoyed it as well. Most of the rest of the world, though, shuddered.
All but two Republican Senators and every single Republican in the House of Representatives preemptively voted for resolutions that affirmed America’s commitment to the NATO alliance Trump was once again criticizing on the way to the summit. When Trump started the meetings off with a rambling breakfast rant about Germany being “captive to Russia” because of a natural gas pipeline project, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NATO ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson and chief of staff John Kelly sat next to him with the same embarrassed look and awkward posture of the wife of a drunken husband spoiling an otherwise cordial  cocktail party. Unless you really relished the video of Trump socking it to the Euro-trash, it’s hard to see what America got out of it.
Trump did get the rest of the NATO members to reaffirm their commitment to increase defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product in the coming years, which they’d all be working toward since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine long before Trump was elected, and the NATO general secretary generously gave Trump all the credit, but then Trump insisted they immediately start spending 4 percent, which is even more than the 3.58 percent that America spends on defense. Trump is probably right that the pipeline deal between Germany and Russia was a bad idea, but of course he vastly overstated Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, and it’s unlikely he’ll convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was a literal captive of Russia when she grew up in East Germany, to back out during the NATO summit. We figure it’s even more unlikely that he’ll press the issue with Putin during an upcoming summit with the Russian dictator that he never seems to criticize.
All of the NATO members except for Turkey are bona fide democracies, except for Turkey, whose autocratic leader Trump never criticizes, and we doubt those country’s leaders will persuade their voters to accept the tax hikes or cuts in other government services to pay for an immediate quadrupling of defense to mollify Trump, who is widely reviled around the world as a bully and the very embodiment of an ugly American. Trump has some legitimate grievances with the the NATO arrangement, but every sane observer in the western world still acknowledge its existential importance, and his tactless style of diplomacy makes it harder for the essential alliance to reach a satisfactory resolution of these longstanding squabbles.
The die-hard fans and the Russian dictator love it, though, and we’re not sure which explains Trump’s rants. Despite the fissures in an alliance that won the Cold War and has mostly resisted Russia’s revanchist ambitions Trump’s rhetoric somehow delights those Americans who resent those smarty-pants Euro-trash countries, and we don’t doubt that figures in his calculations. There’s an ongoing special counsel investigation into the Russian meddling in America’s past presidential election that pretty much only Trump and his most die-hard fans and the Russian dictator accept as an actual fact, and we’d hate to think that past shady dealings with the Russkies is why Trump seems intent on undoing a post-war world order of trade relations and diplomatic alliances.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Americans tend not to notice such things, what with the college basketball championship tournament looming and the economy continuing to sputter along and all the other domestic distractions hogging the news pages, but the rest of the world is rapidly spinning out of control.
It has not gone entirely unnoticed that Russia has effectively seized control of a good chunk of Ukraine, which involves Europeans and a villain reminiscent of the Cold War and is therefore the sort of international news that American media feel obliged to report, but the story has effectively stolen all the attention from equally unsettling developments elsewhere. China has taken the opportunity to engage in some old-fashioned land-grabbing of its own, taking an increasingly belligerent stance toward Japan over some obscure islands in the East China Sea and using warships to blockade the Filipino soldiers defending some other obscure islands nearby. South America’s salsa-dancing version of Marxism continues to implode in Venezuela, where the government continues to crack down on the popular uprising with a murderous brutality, and the lack of coverage conveniently spares it any international opprobrium and all the radical chic Chavezistas in Hollywood any embarrassment. The apocalyptic suicide cult that rules Iran continues its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and even the ever-optimistic weenies of the European Union are no longer hopeful that diplomacy will stop them. Iran’s allies in Syria continue to massacre their people with wild abandon, the Syrian chemical weapons that the aforementioned Russian villain promised to take care of after the American president weaseled out of his “red line” declaration are still stockpiled, and even the ever-optimistic weenie Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly judged our policy there a failure. Kerry has still found time to pursue his fool’s errand of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, but the only sign of progress to be found there is Israel’s reluctant release of some Palestinian terrorists.
This litany no doubt omits numerous other disasters currently occurring around the world, but it should suffice to suggest a world rapidly spinning out of control. It should also suffice to prompt a serious public discussion of America’s foreign policy, but this is probably too much to hope for until the basketball tournament is completed. For now all of these stories are but a quarrel in a far away country by people of which know little, to borrow British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s description of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and until the effects of conflagration are felt here take little interest. That might happen sooner rather than later, however, and it’s not too early to start thinking about what America might be doing wrong. The stock market’s already taken a dive on the bankruptcies of a few Chinese firms, the American motorist’s next fill-up will be pricier because of the anxieties on the international oil market, and Chamberlain was not the first western idealist to be reminded of the historical lesson that land-grabbing dictatorships have always ended badly.
A serious public discussion might lead to the conclusion that America’s foreign policy is doing something seriously wrong, which is another reason so many of the media are reluctant to give these stories due prominence. Russia’s brazen disregard for its previous recognition of Ukraine’s borders began with an American effort to “re-set” relations on an apologetic basis by reneging on missile defense agreements with the former Russian puppets Poland the Czech Republic. China’s encroachments followed similar blandishments toward that expansionist dictatorship. Iran’s march toward nuclear Armageddon has been a response to the offer of an “open hand” and the administration’s embrace of the equally apocalyptic suicide cult of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is yet another one of those disasters omitted from our litany. Syria’s brutality is being carried out with the certainty that it has nothing to fear from an administration that had out-sourced its “red line” to the same Russian villain now ruling much of Ukraine, and Venezuela’s is carried out with confidence that the radical chic Chavezistas in the administration won’t raise too much of a fuss.
The conclusion is so obvious that even the administration is lately taking a tougher line, with Kerry warning Russia that it has until Monday to begin leaving Ukraine or face serious consequences. Kerry isn’t clear on what those consequences might be, however, and it is even more unclear how they might counter the Russian troops being amassed on the Ukrainian border. Back in the domestic news we note that the administration’s Defense Secretary wants to cut the military to pre-World War II levels and the president’s proposed budget would have America spending less on national defense than on debt service payments that would fund the lion’s share of China’s military build-up, and we expect that the Russians and Chinese and Iranians and Syrians and the rest of the world’s troublesome countries have also noticed. Our erstwhile allies have probably noticed, too, and one can only hope that Americans eventually will as well.

— Bud Norman

A Presidential Wish List

One of the non-stories we most look forward to every year is the ceremonial unveiling of President Barack Obama’s annual budget proposal. None of Obama’s budget proposals have ever won even a single vote in Congress, and this one also isn’t likely to do any damage, but it’s always instructive to see what’s on the president’s wish list.
This year’s yearnings were trotted out Tuesday at a Washington elementary school, presumably because the tykes there would be more likely to take them seriously than any adult, and they are predictably expensive. The plan calls for spending $3.9 trillion next year, adds an extra $791 billion of spending over the next ten years, and winds up ballooning the national debt from the current $17 trillion-something to a nice round $25 trillion by 2024. Just the interest payments on all that debt would amount to $812 billion a year, making the hopelessly optimistic assumption that rates don’t rise, as well as assuming Obama’s less-than-rosy prediction of 2.6 percent annual growth in the economy, and the sum far exceeds planned defense spending but will pay for the lion’s share of China’s military.
Such profligacy “enables us to meet our obligations to future generations without a mountain of debt,” the president said with a straight face. Even the most innumerate urchin at an elementary school in the District of Columbia will immediately wonder how high debt has to be pile before it is considered mountainous, but the wizened reporters at the event were mostly unfazed by the statement. The Washington Post gave the proposal a more respectful hearing, noting approvingly that it “also aims to tame the national debt by raising taxes on the rich, squeezing payments to health-care providers and overhauling immigration laws.” Politely setting aside the sorry history of soaking the rich, the unsettling likelihood that squeezing payments to health-care providers will result in less health care being provided, and the inevitable economic and social costs of overhauling immigration laws along the lines Obama would prefer, the Post preferred to spend several paragraphs on the proposal’s supposed benefits to pre-school programs and the National Institutes of Health and climate research, “much of it aimed at providing support to a struggling middle class.”
There is reason to hope that the Congress won’t be so gullible. The most weak-kneed of the Republicans won’t dare go along with such nonsense, and even the safely-seated Democrats have yet to cast for such fiscal insanity. The recent budget agreements have been disagreeable to conservative tastes, to the point that they’ve provoked a much-needed insurgency within the Republican party, but at least they’re a darned sight better than what the president is wishing for.

— Bud Norman