The Winds of Trade War and Impeachment

President Donald Trump will spend today at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, and it will likely be an comfortable affair for all involved.
The summit is in London, where Trump has not been a welcome guest during his past two visits, and he’s expected to further publicly and bluntly harangue the allies about how much they’re spending on defense, and many of the allies will more privately and politely but forcefully express their differences with his policies regarding Turkey and Syria and Russia and Ukraine and other matters. One of those matters will surely be Trump’s ongoing trade wars with pretty much everybody.
Before jetting off Trump announced punitive tariffs on industrial metals from Brazil and Argentina for their alleged currency manipulations, and issued a threat of up to 100 percent tariffs on NATO member France’s wine and cheese and cosmetics and other fancy French product, apparently in retaliation for passing an internet tax law Trump thinks unfair to American businesses. This comes as Trump continues his brinksmanship with the ruthless dictator running the very importantly enormous Chinese economy, and Trump will probably spend part of his trip publicly grousing about how the European automobile industries are cheating America’s workers.
Trump will continue to boast about how America is once again respected around the world, as the country at long last has a wised-up leader and we’re no longer anybody’s sucker, but it clearly hasn’t helped America’s reputation as a good global neighbor. The military and trade political alliances that have a fairly good job of sustaining peace and prosperity in the post-World War II epoch are strained, and Trump and everyone else seem to be planning for a post-Pax Americana world.
Nor does it seem to have yielded any tangible economic results. The brinksmanship with the ruthless dictator in control of China’s very consequentially huge economy hurtles toward an inevitable brink, none of those greatest trade deals ever have yet been sealed, and so far even the rather minor revisions to the re-branded North American Free Trade Agreement haven’t been ratified by any of the three governments involved. The economy continues to grow at the same 2 percent or so it did back in the bad old days of President Barack Obama, and the stock markets were hitting record highs not so very long ago, but that seems to be in spite of rather than because of Trump’s policies.
The smart money on the stock markets seems to agree, here and around the world, as all the indexes dipped precipitously after his latest trade war escalations, as they always do whenever he does that. This time around the dip was also driven by yet another report on Trump’s beloved manufacturing, which continues for yet another quarter at negative growth. The markets usually recover when Trump announces light at the end of the tunnel and peace with honor, and Trump’s fans stick with him through thick and thin, and even if the allies have no respect for Trump they’re fearful of and dependent on America and usually only object ever so politely, but we worry that it can’t go on forever.
The smart money on Wall Street and all those funny-sounding foreign exchanges is hedging its bets, all those Euro-weenie leaders will be ganging on up on Trump in London, where he’ll need extra security just to get back to the fancy hotel, and those wily Chinese seem unfazed by Trump’s mastery of the deal. They all follow American politics, and know that there’s an impeachment and it’s going badly enough that polls show half the country wants Trump out of office now, and that will likely complicate all his dealings with foreign leaders, no matter how that turns out.
Trump fans love it when he feuds with those Euro-weenies and wily Chinese and the smart money on Wall Street and the “fake news” media and the damned Democrats and all of the rest of the rascals in the globalist “deep state” conspiracy, but we doubt they’re tired of winning yet. The farmers are getting welfare checks that don’t quite make up for the honest money they used to make on the global market, the factory workers are losing jobs in a sinking sector hard-hit by Trump’s steel tariffs, and we worry some damned Democrat and self-proclaimed socialist such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders might convince them they’ve played for the world’s biggest suckers.
Although it’s hard to imagine a happy outcome, we’ll hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

That Darned Inverted Yield Curve

The bond market has an inverted yield curve, a fancy term which means that the returns on two-year bonds exceed the returns on ten-year bonds, which means that the smart money is seeking safe haven from a coming storm. In plainer terms, an inverted yield curve has always been a reliable predictor of a looming recession.
Combined with some other distressing data about business investment and manufacturing hiring and economic downturns in such important countries as Great Britain and Germany and China, the news spooked Wall Street so bad that all the stock markets dropped by more than 3 precent with Dow Jones Industrial average having it’s worst day in decade. The three major American stock indexes have dropped a full 7 percent over the past three weeks, the Asian and European and South American markets are similarly panicked, and you can only imagine the anxiety its causing President Donald Trump.
Trump can and surely will still brag about the unusually low unemployment rate and how economic growth has been chugging along at a slightly better rate than the previous six years of the Obama administration, but for now he can’t brag that despite all his faults he’s delivered the greatest economy ever. For now he’s on “twitter” blaming Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell for not more aggressively cutting interest rates, but Trump appointed Powell, whose policies have been in the long term interest of the country rather than the short-term political advantage of Trump, and the smart money isn’t buying it even the rubes in the red MAGA ball caps do.
The smart money seems to think that Trump’s trade wars and deficit spending and petty feuds with longtime allies and trading partners is largely responsible for the mess. When Trump retreated from his threatened increase on tariffs with China on Tuesday the stock market had a good day, which was quickly erased by Wednesday’s carnage, and it’s increasingly clear that the trade wars have taken a toll on the global economy. The Chinese economy has slowed, but given that it’s either the biggest or second biggest in the world that hasn’t helped global economic growth, and given that Trump’s good buddy and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about a recession during a reelection, So Trump’s not likely to win the greatest deal in the history of the world by election day. The British economy seems in recession due to its “Brexit” from the European Union, which Trump heartily and needlessly endorsed, the German government is blaming a recent economic downturn on Britain’s “Brexit” and a global economic downturn due to frayed trade relations, so the silver lining in the looming storm clouds is hard to find.
We’re not panicked, at least not yet, as the unemployment rate is still low,  but there are reasons to worry. During the last recession, the worst since the Great Depression, a Republican president and a Democratic Congress agreed on a controversial bail-out bill that was hated by both the far left and the far right, but won the endorsement of both major party presidential nominees. In retrospect we begrudgingly admit it might have averted a catastrophic economic meltdown, and note a couple of years later a Democratic president and Republican Congress didn’t get in the way in the longest economic expansion in America’s history, but we worry that such bipartisan solutions aren’t at all possible in the current political climate.
America carefully coordinated its monetary and other economic policies with our allies and trading partners during the last global recession, which might well have averted the worst of it, but that’s harder to envision happening these days. Trump has been antagonistic toward allies, obsequious toward enemies, and is not going to save the day with the greatest deal ever made.
Trump is not entirely to blame, of course. Adding to the world’s economic anxiety is an eye-popping 50 percent drop in the Argentine stock market after one of those Latin American socialist crazies got elected president, and Trump is right to argue that several of the Democratic contenders for his job are just as bad. If the economic excrement hits the fan between now and election day, the Democrats will happily place blame where blame is due but won’t do anything to bale out the country to the political benefit of Trump. None of our longtime allies seem interested in helping Trump, either, except for a few fellow populist and authoritarian nationalists.
Still, we’ll hold out hope for the best and leave it to Trump to worry about the worst. If he can’t run for reelection on the argument that for all his faults he’s wrought the greatest economy ever he’s in bad shape, as he he’s not very popular and has a lot of faults to overlook. We’ll also hold out hope that the damned Democrats don’t nominate some Latin American socialist crazy who would make things even worse, and for all our short-term worries we’ll place our long-term faith in the resiliency of the America’s still more or less free market economy and the eventual genius of the American people.

— Bud Norman

The State of the State of Kansas, as Well as the Rest of the Union

President Donald Trump belatedly got to give his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but here in the state of Kansas there were more pressing matters. We had another writers’ meeting for the local media’s annual Gridiron, and the muted television was of course tuned to the big basketball game between the University of Kansas Jayhawks and the Kansas State University Wildcats.
Being patriotic Americans and the geeky sort of political junkies, we did later read the transcript and catch snippets of it on YouTube. All in all we’d have to say Trump had his moments, and that it could have been far worse, but to borrow a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln we expect the world will little note nor long remember what was said.
Trump’s spokespeople had promised a message of bipartisanship and unity and even comity, he started on that note. He got bipartisan applause when he praised America’s victory over the Axis in World War II, and introduced a couple of D-Day veterans and heroic astronaut Buzz Aldrin, was they all got a big hand from both sides of the aisle. Trump then declared that “we must reject the politics to revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” and that “We must choose between greatness and gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” All that alliteration added an uncharacteristic poeticism to Trump’s typically un-parsable prose, we must admit, but there was no way he could keep up through entire one-hour-and-20-minutes oration.
Trump quickly moved on to his more characteristic bragging about great America has become since he took office, implying as usual that the country had previously been a hellhole of American American carnage, and argued that “the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.” Which had an uncharacteristically nice ring to it, but put in context it was Trump’s unusually subtle way of hitting back ten times as hard and extracting retribution and and threatening destruction. There was also some hopeful talk of farm bills and Veterans Administration reforms and infrastructure spending and other issues where some bill or another might become law, but on the matters of war and politics and partisan investigations Trump seemed to hold out hope that the country would unite around his unpopular positions.
Presumably the “foolish wars” that Trump referred to were America’s longstanding but limited roles in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, but he’s lately been losing that argument. Respected-on-both-sides-of-the-aisle Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria, a majority of the Senate’s Republicans voted for a resolution rebuking the decision, his Secretary of State and top national security advisor have talked him into partial and gradual withdrawal, and only the most dovish sorts of Democrats are on his side. Pretty much everyone in the know is trying to talk Trump into staying the course in Afghanistan, and he’s recently been talked into keeping the decades-old deployment of 30,000 troops in South Korea, and Trump seems unlikely to go down in history as America’s most peacenik president.
It’s easy to understand why Trump regards politics as a problem, as it constantly interferes with his efforts to do things his way. Trump also talked at length about border security, which all reasonable people agree is important, but he continued to insist the only solution was a big beautiful barrier wall, which is one of those things people can reasonably disagree about. The politics of the moment clearly favor the Democrats, who forced Trump to end a government-shutdown without any funding for the wall Trump had promised the Mexicans would pay for, and most the Republicans in Trump’s audience seem to have little taste for another shutdown. Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency so he can spend government on his wall, but few of the Republicans and none of the Democrats giving him slight applause will go along with that.
As for those “partisan investigations,” we expect they’ll continue apace, despite his rhetoric, and eventually come to no good end for Trump. The House has a Democratic majority in the investigative committees that plan to reveal Trump’s tax records and scrutinize his businesses relationships with foreign governments, and an independent judiciary is looking into Trump’s inaugural committee and a special counsel investigation is racking up indictments against Trump’s closest associates, and the Republican majority in the Senate has thus far declined to try stopping any of it, and has little reason to do so given how many seats they’ll be defending in blue states come next year.
By the time you read this Trump will probably be back to “tweeting” schoolyard taunts about those damned Democrats and lily-livered establishment sorts of Republicans, and everyone will be back at the messy business of politics, with all the resistance and revenge and retribution that necessarily entails.
Meanwhile, here in the state of Kansas, the plucky blue-collar Wildcats of KSU beat the snooty blue-blooded Jayhawks of KU, and the ‘Cats currently hold a half-game lead over their rivals  in the Big XII standings, so at least things are as they should be around here.

— Bud Norman

What’s Good for General Motors …

Being the hard-nosed and hard-hearted sorts of old-fashioned conservatives who embrace Adam Smith and Milton Friedman and their red-in-tooth-and-claw school of laissez faire capitalism, we’ve always voted against those damned Democrats for fear they’d arrogantly think they could run our incomprehensibly multi-trillion dollar economy better than the free markets comprised of the free men and women  who actually make it happen. Now we’ve got a Republican president who arrogantly thinks he better knows how to run both big and small corporations better than the executives who have made them successful, however, and at the risk of being called Republicans in Name Only we can’t say we like that any better.
The constantly feuding President Donald Trump’s latest feud is with the iconic and still-formidable General Motors Company, where the brains behind the operation have decided that their long-term fortunes require them to shut down five plants and lay off 14,000 workers in the United States, which Trump would prefer they not do, and he’s threatening whatever punishments he has at hand if they go ahead and do it. Most of those plants and workers are in some of the industrial midwest states that provided Trump his improbable electoral victory based on his promises he would protect manufacturing jobs, so we can well understand his political calculations, but Trump’s underlying economic theory is not so obvious.
General Motors’ explanation is that by shutting down those five plants and laying off those 14,000 workers they can reinvest the money they’re currently losing in more efficient plants with workers building more profitable products in the scarily looming days of self-driving cars and other high-tech automotive gizmos, and that if they don’t the whole company and all of its workers might eventually be out of business. We don’t know any more about the automotive industry than Trump seems to, but given General Motors’ long tradition of existence to its workers and customers we’re inclined to believe its executives have a better grasp of the company’s situation than we or Trump have. We’ve long observed that success of capitalism involves some creative destruction, and this looks like one of those situations.
We have sincere sympathy for those 14,000 thousand workers and everyone in those five communities that will see a major segment of their economy shut down, even if they don’t affect our non-existent political careers, but we’d hate even more to see the rest of General Motors’ hard-working employees eventually be put out of work in a futile effort to sustain an unsustainable status quo. We’ll always remember how our beloved Boeing executive Dad used to agonize over the layoffs he was sometimes forced to make to keep that company the world-beating entity it is today, Life is undeniably tough in the red-in-tooth-and-claw free market world, yet it does seem to get better over the long run, and so far we haven’t found any damned Democrats or damned Republicans who can credibly claim to make it better yet.
So far this Trump fellow’s meddling in the economy strike us as arrogantly intrusive as anything that even a self-proclaimed socialist such as Sen. Bernie Sanders or any damn Democrat might have done if they’d had the chance. Republicans used to complain that Democrats wanted to choose the winners and losers, but Trump’s trade wars have provoked retaliatory tariffs and thus chosen the steel-making sector of the economy over the steel-using sector that includes General Motors, the coal-mining industry over the many industries that would prefer to use less expensive and more environmentally-friendly sources of energy, and he also prefers the mom and pop Main Street retailers over an e-commerce giant offering better prices whose owner also happens to own that troublesome Washington Post. So far it’s worked out well enough, but recent trends and ancient history suggest it won’t last forever.
Trump is still feuding with the iconic and steel-buying Harley-Davidson motorcycle company, which shifted some work to Europe to get around Trump’s trade war with that entire continent, and now he’s threatening tariffs that would raise the cost of the Apple Computer Company’s hugely popular designed-in-America but made-in-China I-Phones by a hundred bucks or so, which probably won’t play well with young voters.  Apple dominates the huge high-tech sector of the American economy that has lately been taking a beating on the stock markets, which was helped wipe out all of the last year’s overall stock market gains, so the threat strikes us as both economics and bad politics.
Trump is currently blaming the stock market’s recent swoon on the guy he appointed to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which has recently nudged interest rates up slightly to a point that’s still far lower than historic norms in response to what Trump boasts is the great American economy ever, but we trust that the Fed knows more about monetary than Trump or we do. The inflation rate is a full 11 points or so lower than the worst we’ve seen since way back in the ’70s, but it is outpacing the modest gains in wages that Trump likes to brag about, and the Fed seems to be acting according to the time-honored economic principles that the free market has mostly thrived on. Lower or at least steady interest rates would be a short-term gain for the president, especially after two trillion dollars of debt that’s been racked up by his administration despite the best American economy ever, but in the long run we’ll better trust better than Trump the time-honored economic principles and the creative destruction of the free markets.
Nowadays that makes us Republicans in Name Only, and we have no faith any damned Democrat would do any better than Trump has, so for now we don’t have much say in the matter. Those immutable laws of economics and their awesome market enforcements are more powerful than  anything n the universe anything but God, however, and General Motors and Harley-Davidson and the Federal Reserve Board still hold some significant sway, and we expect they will eventually prevail over such puny forces as Trump or those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Happy New Year, All Things Considered

This is our last essay of 2017, and the way things have gone this year we’re glad of it. Journalistic tradition and the traditional slowness of the news cycle dictates that end-of-the-year essays be a look back at the past 12 months, a prognostication about the next 12, or a top ten list of the past 12 month’s something or another, but traditions don’t matter lately and we’re taking the news one day at a time.
The big story of the year’s last days, appropriately enough, is that it’s cold out there. Here in Kansas the daytime highs are lately struggling to get past freezing and rapidly dropping into single digit lows after the early sundowns, and when you add in the Kansas winds that are blowing down from the North Pole it feels far worse than that. To the northwest and the northeast it looks even worse on the weather maps, and it looks like a very long drive to the southwest or the southeast to get warm enough for our tastes.
Which kept us inside most of the day, and reading the rest of the desultory news. We noted that President Donald Trump “tweeted” about all the cold weather from the fabulous Florida resort where he was playing some holiday golf while a shifting truck block the news crews from filming, and he gloated about being vindicated for his controversial decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Being climate change skeptics ourselves we’ve also taken advantage of these annual cold snaps to kid our global warming alarmist friends, but we mean it as a joke rather than a serious scientific argument, and the “tweet” struck us as unpersuasive and un-presidential.
He also “tweeted” about a very minor flap between Vanity Fair magazine and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, with the former standing accused of making a slightly sexist joke about the latter in a little-seen video, and of course Trump ridiculed the magazine — “which looks like it’s on it’s last legs” — for “apologizing for the minor hit they took at Crooked H.” We’re skeptical about Vanity Fair and Clinton, as well, but that also struck us as something a president with some sense of dignity should be far too busy to do.
Meanwhile, down in Alabama, which still looks too cold for our tastes on those weather maps, the Republican Secretary of State of certified the upset election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, which was another big story of the day despite its inevitably since last month’s election night. Republican candidate Roy Moore was contesting the election results right up to the last minute, filing a court challenge alleging just enough voter fraud to reverse the outcome, but but after a Republican judge dismissed the suit the fait accompli was at long accomplished. It was a fitting end for one of the sorrier stories of the year.
Moore was arguably the worst nominee the Republican party ever nominated, the present competition notwithstanding. His inglorious career of public service and private enrichment and antebellum views about slavery and women’s rendered him upset prone even before several middle-aged women came forward to describe how he had pursued them when they were teenaged girls and he was a 30-something prosecutor. He was so awful he lost in Alabama, off all places, to a Democrat, of all people, and he never did concede that fact. His last-minute filing had a statistical analysis proving massive voter fraud in one particular mostly-black county, but one of the experts had also previously proved by statistical analysis that were was a massive conspiracy to kill President John Kennedy, and in the end the Republican Secretary of State and the Republican judge and the Republican sheriffs who had checked out some other claims included in the lawsuit all signed off on a Democratic senator.
Former Moore supporter Trump didn’t “tweet” anything about it, so far as we can tell, so Moore’s confederate cause seems at long last truly lost. What with that Vanity Fair versus Clinton flap and the ongoing “Russia thing” and another round of golf he had more important things to worry about, we suppose. The stock market was slightly up, the unemployment rate is still low, and the economy seems to be generally progressing along its pre-Trump trajectory, so Trump did find time to “tweet” about that.
All the meteorologists are telling us this dying year will come to a frigid end and the next year will start off just as bad, and all the political prognosticators are sounding just as dispiriting, but we’ll just take it day by day with a reasonable exception for better days. By late June the temperatures will be comfortably in the mid-90s around here, we’ll not gripe about the 100s of July and August, and the springs and autumns are always delightful except for the occasional severe storms. The economy has a good chance of surviving all the politics, and we hold out hope that rest of us will also survive the politics.
Our Wichita State University Wheatshockers head into their inaugural basketball season in the American Athletic Conference as the eight-ranked team in the country, by the time they finish what we hope will be a long run in the national championship tournament the pitchers and catchers will be reporting for spring training, with our New York Yankees looking very promising after some hot-stove season acquisitions for an already potent team, and that’s something far better to worry about that some flap involving Vanity Fair and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
All things considered, we can wish all our readers a very Happy New Year.

— Bud Norman

Trump Gets Fed

Way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, before this crazy election year, much of the media would always devote a great deal of ink and internet pixels to the latest oracular pronouncements of the Federal Reserve Board. These days it takes a lot to knock president-elect Donald Trump off the front pages, but the almighty Fed was still able to elbow its way to a column just above the fold on Wednesday with a mere slight upward tweak in the interest rate, and we expect plenty of further commentary about it as the commentariat figures out the hard-to-figure Trump angle.
The Fed’s quarterly-or-so oracular pronouncements were damned hard enough to decipher even way back when politics and economics and all that made some sort of sense, and even the smart guys on Wall Street always seemed to have a hard time figuring it out, but in the age of Trump it’s exponentially more complicated. All of the inviolable laws of economics will ultimately be enforced, which does not bode well, but all of the inviolable laws of politics have been so brutally violated in this crazy election year that there’s no reliable guide to what comes next. What’s come before has been worrisome enough
For the past eight years or so the Fed has been “quantitative easing” enough money at pretty-much-zero-percent rates into the economy to sustain a a doubling of the national debt and two percent-or-so growth rate in the gross domestic product and a stock market boom that has outrun that pace like a hare past a tortoise. The past eight years or so have also seen the unemployment rate go from a depth-of-recession rate over 10 percent to a relatively robust 4.6 percent, with household wages and a few other economic indices also showing recent improvement, and given the latest enthusiasm of the stock markets the Fed has apparently decided that now is the time to put an ever so slight foot of the economic brake.
History shows that recessions have always come to an end, though, and always with a more robust and v-shaped recovery than the last eight years or so have seen. That 4.6 percent unemployment rate is not bad, but the numbers of the underemployed and those of working age but out of the work are horrible by modern standards. As for the ongoing stock market boom, we place more faith in Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. That long awaited uptick in household income is welcome, but doesn’t seem to have placated the most recent electorate. For the past eight years or so we’ve groused that President Barack Obama’s penchant for government-run health care and similarly disruptive regulatory schemes have had something to do with this, and enough people in a few key states were just as eager to put the brakes on Obamanomics, and thus Trump won, so at this point it becomes murky.
Since Trump’s victory the stock markets have been exuberant, perhaps irrationally so, as Alan Greenspan might have said, at the prospect of all that quantitatively eased money flowing at pretty much zero interest rates through an already recovering economy suddenly disencumbered of all those Obama-imposed layers of regulations and taxations and rhetorical scoldings, along with all the cheap oil that’s going to come gushing through the Environmental Protection Agency’s weakened barriers. As much as we dispute the Fed’s self-congratulatory reasons for its slight touch on the economic brakes, we’re the self-doubting sorts who can’t really fault their decision as we head with one headlight into the economy’s dark and twisting road. Even before taking office Trump has intervened in the affairs of businesses ranging from aerospace to air conditioning, and is proposing a bigger-than-Obama-sized infrastructure plan to revive an economy that isn’t in recession but isn’t all that great, none of it bodes well for the national debt, and so far Trumponomics looks to be just as disruptive as its predecessor but in all in sorts of unpredictable ways. so perhaps some pat on the brakes is indicated.
Way back when Trump when merely a long shot candidate for the presidency he was “tweeting” his outrage that the Fed was keeping interest rates artificially low for the political benefit of Obama, which we didn’t argue, and so far as we can tell at this moment he hasn’t “tweeted” anything to the contrary since the Fed’s announcement. Perhaps he’s trying to figure out the political and economic implications himself, and finding it damned complicated, and maybe he’s cocky enough to think that he can make his deregulation of this and regulation of that work well enough even with slightly higher than zero percent interest rates, and in such a crazy election year as this he might even be right. This is a complicated matter, though, even for such a savvy businessman as Trump.
Trump has always come out ahead of his creditors, through six bankruptcies and two divorces and untold lawsuits by everyone from stiffed busboys to disgruntled real estate students, but now he’s up against the biggest bank of them all. The Fed is by law entirely independent of any branch of the federal government, and that law is likely to be backed by all the Democrats and a bigly number of Republicans in the legislative branch and a majority of the judicial branch, so we expect that Trump will sooner or later pick a fight with them. In the past the Fed has usually won these these confrontations, most famously when the aforementioned Greenspan agreed to open the monetary spigots in exchange for President Bill Clinton’s more business friendly policies, which wound up winning Clinton reelection in ’96 but couldn’t win his re-relection in ’16, but in this crazy election year everything seems up for negotiation.

— Bud Norman

Hope and Change and Motor Homes

Oh, how well we still remember that heady late spring of ’08, when all of our liberal friends were somehow entranced by the media-amplified celebrity of a youthful and fashionably swarthy young Senator who was standing in front of faux-Greek columns promising hope and change and a fundamental transformation and a lowering of the sea levels. A mere eight years or so later the grayer and more pallid President Barack Obama was in Elkhart, Indiana, “The Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World,” bragging to the locals about the modest comeback of the motor home industry during his administration, and clearly annoyed that he’s already been eclipsed from the spotlight and is now in danger of being replaced by the media-amplified celebrity of an aging and orange-skinned reality show star who’s promising to make America great again and somehow has most of our conservative friends warily going along with it.
The speech was little noted and will soon be long forgotten, to borrow a line from a better day of political oratory, but we think it worth some brief ridicule. Obama attempted to defend his economic record, refute the arguments of his would-be Republican successor, and imply some further annoyance that his would-be Democratic successors aren’t exactly running on his record, and we found it embarrassingly unconvincing in every attempt.
We concede the unemployment rate and the stock market indices and other usually reliable economic indicators are better than when Obama took office at the tail end of a steep recession, and that there’s always an argument to be made that we could have done worse, yet we remain quite unimpressed. We’re a bit older than the president, and started paying attention to these things long before he did, and by now we’ve been through enough recessions to have noticed that whatever’s left of the free market system always pulls out of those slumps no matter what cockamamie solutions the government of the moment might provide. We judge just how harmful those policies are by how quick and broad and persistent the ensuing recovery is, and how much debt was racked up to keep it going, and by those standards the Obama record has been abysmal. The decline in the unemployment rate is largely explained by the unusually high number of potential workers who have dropped out of the labor force, the stock markets are high mainly because capital has nowhere else to go in a time of zero and even negative interest rates, and whatever good news you find in the rest of those leading economic indicators is probably a result of all that fracking and the resulting lower energy costs that the heady campaign of ’08 promised to prevent, and of course we also have all those trillions of debt that will eventually have to be dealt with.
This is also the first time in American history that a two-term president didn’t preside over a full year of at least 3 percent of national economic growth, but he can claim that it has averaged around 2 percent, which inarguably could be worse, and is a full percentage point within 3 percent, and his still-loyal and his mostly economically illiterate and innumerate supporters won’t notice that it’s actually a full 50 percent off the previous historic low benchmark. All in in all Obama needs a better case than that rebound in the motor home market, which was probably already doomed to low-growth no matter how much fracking occurs with the demise of road-loving bohunk seniors who used to show up at the annual local Polkatennial across town at the Cotillion Ballroom on their tours of the polka festivals, and he didn’t seem to have it.
His refutation of the would-be Republican successor’s policies was even more unconvincing, as he seems to have been paying no attention to what his orange-skinned fellow reality star has been saying. Without mentioning the presumptive Republican nominee by name, which we appreciated, the President ascribed to him all sorts of stereotypical Republican positions. He noted that “economic anxiety” had caused an “unusual election year,” which is truthful enough, and argued that “provocative ‘Tweets'” are not enough to support a candidate, which would be truthful enough coming from anyone but Obama, but he went on to add that the Republican would “lower wages, eliminate worker protections, cut investments in things like education, weaken the safety net, kick people off health insurance, and let China write the rules for the global economy.” He further ridiculed the notion that the many billions of dollars of regulatory compliance costs have somehow hampered the economy, and fondly recalled all those Nixon-era regulations that have kept us from doom. The president must have had such old-fashioned and cruel-hearted Republicans as ourselves in mind, because the party’s current presumptive presidential nominee is open to giving a yuuge raise even to the most inept minimum wage workers, promises no changes whatsoever to those debt-driving entitlement programs, likes the single payer system of Canada and the outright nationalized British style of health care and promises “we’ll take care of everybody,” seems intent on a disastrous trade war with China, and promises that he’ll regulate the entire economy right for a change.
No wonder the president seemed to annoyed that neither of his would-be Democratic successors aren’t enthusiastically running on his record. One is a self-described socialist who talks down the Obama economy more derisively than the Republican, and we don’t doubt that Obama would be annoyed to be succeeded by the first president who was at least blunt enough to be a self-described socialist, and the other is a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State who was so awful in every capacity that she makes the presumptive Republican nominee look respectable. It’s not the hope and change and fundamental transformation that was promised back in those heady days of ’08, and the sea levels continue their centuries-old rise, but here we all are in the “Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World.”

— Bud Norman

The State of the Dis-Union

President Barack Obama gave his annual State of the Union address Thursday night, and barring the remote possibility that those quadrennial conspiracy theories about a presidential coup at long last prove true it will be his last. The speech marks a point in history when just a few weeks more than a year a left until the end of the Obama error, there is still some faint hope left that at least the next four years after that will be at least somewhat better, and we are glad of such small favors. Everything else about the speech, alas, did little to hearten to us about the true state of the Union.
The speech began with a promise to be brief, which of course was not kept, and went downhill from there. Without any major policy initiatives or other big ideas to announce, and with no hope of getting anything that he might have thought of past the Republican-dominated Congress he has brought into being, Obama mostly used the occasion of his last prime-time network special to make the case that he truly is the Messiah that his post-religious mania of a campaign in ’08 promised. He cited the seemingly healthy unemployment rate of 5 percent but neglected to mention that the number of working age Americans actually working is at a 38-year-low and getting lower, or that the thousand points the Dow Jones averages have already shed in this still-new year has everybody spooked that it’s going to get worse yet, and we doubt he convinced any of his scant viewership here in flyover country that happy days are here again.
There was talk of how deficits have been cut in half since the record-setting first years of his administration under a compliant Democrat-controlled Congress, but not talk of the $8 trillion in debt that has been racked up in his seven years. He mentioned the supposed millions of Americans who now have health insurance under Obamacare, but he didn’t mention how many of them are getting better health care under the Medicaid program they’ve wound up with, or how much more the rest of the country is paying for their premiums, or that randy younger hipsters are forbidden to purchase the catastrophic plans that would have been their best bet in a free market system and that celibate nuns are being forced to purchase contraceptive coverage to subsidize those young hipsters’ appalling sex lives, and that it all seems destined for the long-predicted death spiral of fiscal insolvency, and that at this point relatively few Americans are any longer sold on Obamacare.

There were the Reagan-esque uses of specially invited heroes, with this the honorific chair being filled by one of those pitiable Syrian refugees, presumably a more a savory character than the Syrian refugees who have been implicated in a number of gang rapes in western cities in past weeks, and an empty chair for the victims of National Rifle Association-inspired gun violence, but none for those killed in Benghazi or the Chicago’s gang districts, and we doubt anyone will be persuaded by that.

There’s that breakthrough deal with Iran to allow it regional hegemony and apocalyptic nuclear status anytime it wishes, along with a $150 billion signing bonus, but that went unmentioned because of Obama’s usual bad timing. His embarrassing dismissal of the Islamic State as the “jayvee team” of terrorism just before it gained control of an Indiana-sized territory, and his premature declaration that the terror group was “contained” just before it launched deadly attacks against Russian airliners and Parisian rock ‘n’ roll fans and the social services workers of San Bernardino, apparently kept him from touting his touting his peace breakthrough with Iran just hours after that country took 10 American sailors hostage. He did blather on about those crazy Republicans who seem to think that Islam might have something to do with the 1,400-year-old clash between Islam and the once Judeo-Christian West, but we sense that even Obama realizes that nobody out there in flyover country is still buying that. There was also something about Vice President Joe Biden curing cancer with another moonshot, but we’ll skeptically await the results.
The most striking part of the speech by far was Obama’s uncharacteristically humble concern about the political rhetoric that has resulted from his seven years in office and the year of campaigning that preceded it. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he shockingly said, “that the rancor and suspicions between the parties has gotten worse than better. There’s no doubt that a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying better so long as I hold this office.” There’s some uncertainty as to whether he was referring to the Republican or Democratic Roosevelt, but in either case it’s a touching use of the old humble bit. It certainly represents an improvement over telling his loyal opposition that they can still be involved in government so long as they “sit in the back of bus,” or advising his Latino supporters to “punish their enemies,” or charging that his opponents want dirty air and water and what’s worst for everybody, or any of the similar rhetoric that has characterized the last eight years of Obama’s national prominence, but we’ll have to await the results of that promise as well. We don’t doubt that our president regrets that his “get in their faces” and “bring a gun to a knife fight” style of rhetoric that has suddenly allowed a bumptious billionaire and sudden Republican to employ equally harsh and ad hominem rhetoric against the status quo that Obama insists is so comfortable. Obama might have been grousing at least in part about the more honest self-described Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is currently gaining ground in the Democratic Party’s presidential race by admitting those dire work force participation rates and other glum economic realities and proposing even kookier solutions, but in any case he at least forced to concede that is legendary oratorical gifts have not proved adequate to the moment.
There’s another year and a few weeks left of America’s enemies seizing on the mont to advance the evil plans, and so far it doesn’t look like a roaring year for the economy, and even Obama is meekly conceding that the public discussion he has dominated over the past eight years about what to do about it it is likely to yield any solutions, and we are left with a less sanguine assessment of the state of the Union than our president can offer.

— Bud Norman

Another Annus Horribilis

Years always seem to end in the dead of winter, when the trees are bare and the skies are gray and the prairie winds blow bitterly cold, and thus far 2015 is proving no exception to that desultory rule. In this case it seems altogether apt, as 2015 has been a desultory year. Even the most determined optimist would find it hard to identify much good news from the past six months of headlines, in any section of the paper.
The economy sputtered along steadily enough that the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates a teensy-weensy bit, and the unemployment rate didn’t seem so bad if you just excluded all the underemployed and the huge number of people who’d given up on finding any sort of work, but the working stiff’s wages were still stagnant and even the investor class was having the hardest time making a profit since the legendarily hard times of the Great Depression. The global state of affairs further deteriorated, with the Middle East exploding in an even greater than usual hatred and the deadly repercussions being felt as far away as Paris and San Bernardino, refugees from that troubled region and Central America and elsewhere in the Third World pouring into the west in such numbers that they overwhelmed the resources and generosity of the First World, and elite western opinion blaming it all on capitalism. Academia went utterly mad in 2015, government regulations proliferated at an unprecedented rate, the popular culture offered no compensatory movies or songs or novels or dance crazes that we noticed, and our favorite sports teams suffered frustrating seasons.
The new year that starts tomorrow promises an extra Leap Year day, an inevitable spring, and a long and leafy summer that will lead to an autumnal Election Day that could possibly put some of this right, but the past year doesn’t make us hopeful. So far the Democrats seem more riled up about impoverishing the rich than enriching the poor, and the polls predicts that they’ll nominate a woman who has parlayed political influence into extraordinary wealth to make the point, so there’s little chance for progress there. Meanwhile the Republicans, until recently infuriated by crony capitalism and Russian arrogance and a shallow popular culture, are threatening to nominate a man who brags about buying off politicians and revels in the praise of Vladimir Putin and was the star of a long-running reality television show to make their point. The infuriation of 2015 will make level-headed decision-making difficult in 2016, although we can hope the warmer weather will help.

— Bud Norman

Giving Thanks for the Holiday Pause

Our heartfelt thanks have been duly given, and we’re slowly coming out of our annual tryptophan coma, so it’s back to our usual business of going on about the sorry state of the world. There’s usually not much in the news during the long Thanksgiving weekend except the easily avoidable fisticuffs over Black Friday bargains, which is another thing to be thankful for, but we expect that by Monday the news will be back in force and we want to be braced.
Several intriguing stories have been temporarily replaced with holiday programming but are bound to be back on the air before all the Christmas specials start up. There’s that 13-month-old video of a fatal and highly suspicious shooting of a black man by police in Chicago, and the shootings at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, and the spreading epidemic of protests at American universities over far less macro-aggressive racial matters, and a gnawing suspicion that it’s going to be a long, hot winter. Such unanticipated problems of the post-racial era will likely complicate the on-going debates about the refugees from the Syrian war and the broader issue of unfettered immigration, which will be going on through New Year’s and into the coming primaries.
There’s always a chance those obligatory annual Black Friday estimates will be disappointing, and that the Chinese economy will further suffer as a result, and that the long-feared rate hikes by the Federal Reserve will spook the markets that have so long relied on the intoxicating sweetness of quantitative easing, and that the economy will once again be a pressing issue. The Syrian civil war that’s fueling the aforementioned refugee crisis, as well as a recent spate of terror attacks around the world, will surely not go unnoticed even in a holiday news season. There’s also the big climate change conference coming up in Paris, which the President is touting as a huge blow against the terrorists, unless they manage to blow it up, in which case they would still be a less urgent threat than climate change, but barring any such mishaps we can’t see that story having any legs.
All of which will continue to affect those primaries, which are another thing to grouse about. In almost every cast those suspicious police shootings of black men seem to happen in Democrat-controlled cities, and in the case of that-suppressed-for-13-months-video it happened in a community that was once personally organized by the President himself and is now run by his former Chief of Staff, but we expect that all the Democratic candidates will try to out-do one another in their indignation about the Republicans and their weird insistence on the need for law enforcement and a right to self-defense. The Syrian stuff will make the Democrats all the more insistent in their belief that climate change really is the biggest threat America faces, which polls about as well as the gun-grabbing rhetoric, and the ramped-up share-the-wealth talk isn’t likely to sway a public that can’t help noticing how the wealth seems to be shrinking. Meanwhile the Republicans seem intent on picking whichever candidate can muster the greatest bluster about it all, and it’s hard to hold on to tryptophan-induced sense of serene gratitude.
There’s something to that Thanksgiving insight, though, and we’ll try our best to bitterly cling to it through the coming news. We hope you’ll let that holiday happiness linger at least through the weekend, too, although we can’t promise we’ll have any good news come in the inevitable Monday.

— Bud Norman