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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

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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

The Doomsayers Have Their Day

The doomsayers have a lot to say these days, and most of it is all too plausible. There’s also been a lot of happy talk from the White House lately, especially about the economy and that 5.1 unemployment rate, but it’s not nearly as convincing.
Even the suddenly front-running Democratic candidate and self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders is getting big cheers from his far-left fans by scoffing at that 5.1 percent figure, which conservatives already know is severely understated by excluding the record numbers of those who aren’t even bothering to find work or those working part-time jobs or taking jobs for which they are obviously over-qualified. Even the usually uninformed folks of no political persuasion who occupy the middle have noticed their stagnant wages, and that most of those news jobs are going to legal and illegal immigrants, so they might have also noticed the latest trends are not positive.
Sanders probably won’t mention it in his otherwise frankly gloomy and doomy stump speeches, but what anemic economic growth  has occurred over the past six years of “recovery” was largely financed by extraordinary amounts of debt, not just here but in Europe and China and almost everywhere in the less consequential parts of the world economy, and not just among the countries’ governments but also their private sectors. The Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements, considered “the world’s top financial watchdog,” now notes that since 2006 the combined public and private debt of the world’s developed economies has jumped 36 points to a daunting 265 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile the Federal Reserve Board of the United States, which is either the first or second biggest economy in the world depending on what accounting systems you prefer, is contemplating at long last allowing interest rates to soar beyond zero, which those Swiss bankers reasonably worry would might reconfigure the global ledgers in all sorts of troublesome ways. Much of the United States’ debt is owed to China, which is either the first or second biggest economy in the world, depending on what accounting system you prefer, but they’ve also managed to rack up a mountain of debt on building uninhabited cities and other make-work extravagances, and there’s no telling what measures that country’s communist leadership might resort to. The European Union, which includes most of those “developed economies,” is currently preoccupied with one of those occasional invasions by the Muslim world that they’ve had to put up with for the past several centuries. Perhaps debt can be perpetually incurred, but otherwise nowhere in the world does there seem to be any happy endings on offer.
All that debt did by one hell of a stock market run, here and elsewhere, with all the freshly-printed money having nowhere to go in a zero-interest world, but here and elsewhere that seems to be at long last coming to the same sorry end as all Ponzi schemes. The Chinese are resorting to the old Maoist adage about all power growing out of the barrel of a gun to deal with the situation, with stockholders being threatened with severe retaliation if they sell any shares in tanking companies, and the unlikelihood that even President Barack Obama and newly-anointed Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn or any other EU official would dare to employ such methods makes the situation all the more uncertain.
Robert Schiller is a professor of economics at Yale University and a Nobel laureate in his science, and we are neither, but our gloomy and doomy temperament inclines us to agree with his worried assessment that “It looks to me a bit like a bubble again with essentially a tripling of stock prices since 2009 in just six years, and at the same time people losing confidence in the valuation of the market.” One needn’t be a Yale professor or Nobel laureate to have noticed that the American economy has not tripled in strength and size over the past six years, or kept apace of the growing debt and surge of legal and illegal immigration, and that the rest of the world hasn’t been managing its affairs any better, nor to draw the obvious conclusions. Every roller coaster ride we’ve ever taken has eventually ended at ground level, and we can’t shake a bad feeling that the world’s stock markets will prove true to this rule.
We read that the stock markets are further spooked by the sudden realization that Donald Trump might actually be the Republican nominee for President of the United States, and that the equally embarrassing fact of self-described socialist Sanders as the front runner makes it possible that he might actually win the office, and this causes us even further gloominess and doominess. There’s little hope to be found in Europe, where the self-described Hollande is still running and some English guy with no discernible identity is Prime Minister of Great Britain and Germany’s Angela Merkel is talking crazy-talk about immigration one day and her usual common sense the next, with no time to talk about debt or stock markets or other economic issues. The Chinese communists are both Chinese and communists, and at the risk of sounding stereotypical we found them quite inscrutable. In any case, we find little reason for optimism.
On the other hand, the local QuikTrip convenience stores are now selling their lowest-octane gasoline for $1.99 a gallon, an economic stimulus the administration hasn’t been able to thwart despite its best efforts, the earthquakes that have occasionally troubled our fracked region might not have anything to do with that, and Americans have proved a shrewd people in other uncertain times, and one can still hold out hope that neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders will ever be this country’s president. This doesn’t guarantee a hopeful outcome, especially with Hillary Clinton as a the next-most plausible alternative, but at least it allows for the possibility or the best and precludes the worst.

— Bud Norman

The Chinese Model and Its Flaws

Not so long ago, before the shakiness of the Chinese economy started shaking the rest of the world’s stock markets, some reputedly smart people were insisting that China was a model to be emulated. The New York Times’ star columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman, for instance, once wrote “Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved.”

div style=”text-indent:20px;”>It was a damned fool thing to say even at the time, even by the standards of The New York Times’ editorial page, and has since been revealed as such by the full percentage points or more that the Chinese catastrophe seems to be yanking away from the the the DJIA and S&P and the STOXX and Footsie and the NIKKEI and the rest of the acronyms and nicknames of all those panic markets in every nook and cranny of the world. Still, it’s easy to understand the appeal that a system where the reputedly smart people “can, and do, just order than problems be solved” would have to those who think they possess such wisdom and information and elite status that they could and would do exactly that if only the great unwashed masses of the body politic would allow them the power. China was reporting extraordinary growth in its gross national product, which according to some accountings had already overtaken America’s as the world’s largest, and the country was blissfully unbothered by anything resembling the fiscally sober and free-market-loving elements of America’s Republican Party, so a cause-and-effect relationship of course seemed obvious to a certain sort of so-called liberal, and the example of authoritarian rule that momentarily seemed to be working was simply too much for the more authoritarian-inclined yet so-called liberals to resist.

Now that it has become so quantifiably apparent on the stock market boards that the people running the Chinese economy can’t and haven’t solved all its very serious problems, the argument for letting a few reputedly smart people run a country is harder to sustain. The Chinese invested borrowed billions in a variety of bridges and infrastructure projects and entire new gigantic cities, just as the reputedly smart people on the American left would do, but the bridges mostly led to nowhere and the infrastructure projects were largely pointless and the cities remain uninhabited, and there’s nothing resembling the fiscally sober and free market-loving portion of the Republican Party around to be blamed for the obvious mess.
The worst possible outcome for America’s economy might yet be blamed on that same portion of the Republican Party, and some self-described or barely-disguised socialist might persuasively make the argument for letting a few reputedly smart people run the whole economy and the rest of your life, but at least the fiscally sober and free market-loving portion of the Republican Party will be able to make a plausible argument. We’re as alarmed as anyone else about this stock market dive, and well understand where it might lead, but we’re clinging to a faint hope that at least it won’t lead to a Chinese-style authoritarianism.

— Bud Norman

Today’s Geography Lesson

We began the day with every intention of writing about illegal immigration, and how it’s suddenly an issue that seems to bolster the Republican party’s electoral prospects rather than portend its doom, but our research on the topic led us to a recent Washington Post story that tried but failed to make presidential contender Gov. Scott Walker look bad after a recent encounter with an illegal immigrant, and off to the side of the article was a suggested link to a story headlined “Which of the 11 American Nations Do You Live In?” The click bait was irresistible, given our longstanding fascination with America’s regional divisions, so we decided to fulminate about that instead.
The Post’s map of the north and western hemisphere of the world makes as little sense to us at its attempt to make Walker look bad for insisting on the enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and reflects the Washington press’s same provincial viewpoint of the country, but at least it doesn’t put us in the “midwest,” as so many people are wont to do. Here in Kansas the country is easily divided into four main parts, those being Up North and Down South and Out West and Back East, with our beloved state being in the very heart of a fifth and most essential region known as the “Heartland,” and no true Kansan can abide being called “midwestern.” We admit that Kansas taxonomy admittedly doesn’t really make much sense in geographic or political or economic or cultural terms, as Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, don’t truly make belong in the same “Up North” category, and that Palm Springs, California, and Palm Beach, Florida, don’t have much in common except that they’re both “Down South,” and “Back East” and “Out West” only make sense in the context of America’s westward-looking history toward its manifest destiny, but at least it doesn’t pretend we’re part of any “midwest.”
By almost any definition the “midwest” includes Minnesota and Wisconsin and Illinois and Ohio and Indiana and other states that would seem both Up North and Back East to us, and we find that our geography and ethnography and politics and culture and economy and other defining regional traits have little in common with them. We prefer the company of the “prairie states” or “plains states” or “heartland” that stretches up from Oklahoma Ciy or so through the harsh Dakotas into the pugnaciously conservative Prairie Provinces of Canada, and is bordered from west to east by the Rocky Mountains and approximately Kansas City through the western portions of Minnesota. The Washington Post has us in a “midlands” region that somehow stretches clear to the Atlantic Ocean, with western Kansas somehow aligned with a “far west” region that stretches into Trudeaupian parts of Canada, and we have to wonder if the authors have ever visited our very remote part of the country.
We found a more reasonable division of the northern and western hemispheres of the world way back in the ’80s in a book titled “The Nine Nations of North America,” which was recommended to us a city editor at the newspaper we worked at who had come from Back East and was trying to make sense of his baffling new residence, and which dubbed Miami as the capital of the Caribbean and the Pacific Coast as a specific region and Quebec as a distinct nation and the mostly Spanish-speaking southwest and all of Mexico as a distinct political entity, and Kansas as part of a prairie region stretching well into Anglophone Canada as a political and cultural and economic bloc, but we also had our quibbles with that. We think the best definition of the country’s regional divisions used to be defined by the old college athletic conferences, before the days when greed and re-alignment altered the landscape.
The Big Ten used to have have ten teams that quite logically defined the “midwest,” and the Big Twelve, which once had twelve teams, and was once the perfectly appropriate Big Eight, was a fair map of the “heartland,” and the old Southeastern Conference reasonably defined the “deep south” while the Atlantic Coast Conference was a reliable indicator of Duke University and the rest of the respectable south, while the Pac-Ten mean the hippie-dippy West Coast and the Big East represented the pinko East Coast and everything more or less made sense. Now the Big Twelve has ten teams and the Big Ten has twelve teams and the Big Eight’s old University Colorado has somehow relocated to the Pacific Coast and the University of Missouri is in the Southeastern Conference and no longer playing the University of Kansas, and Tulsa University was briefly in the Big East, which is now mainly Catholic schools such as former Missouri Valley Conference member Creighton University of Omaha, Nebraska, so we can see why The Washington Post is so easily confused.
The cultural and economic part of it is confusing, as well. Kansas has always been part of the southwest as far as country music is concerned, with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys being the guide, but the rock ‘n’ roll scene has always been connected to the midwest, with Detroit Rock City as the starting point and such Big Ten acts as Head East and John “Cougar” Mellencamp drawing reliable crowds, and the ingrained right-to-work laws are more in line with the southeast until and the oil and agriculture and leave-me-the-hell-alone politics are more in line with the economy Out West, and the abolitionist strain harkens Back East, and the bluegrass that fills the pecan orchards in Winfield every fall coming from the southeast, and a reporter for The Washington Post can easily be forgiven for failing to understand where Kansas fits into the big hemispheric picture.
In any case we’re not the “midwest,” as even The Washington Post has noticed. We’re not the something called “the midlands,” however, and have little in common with the Eastern Seaboard states the paper has lumped us in with. “Prairie states” is a better description, and “heartland” is better yet, and we suggest The Washington Post should keep that in mind when trying to disparage a politician for suggesting that the immigration laws should be strictly enforced.

— Bud Norman

Oh Yeah, the Economy

Perhaps it’s just because we’re not hanging out with a high-rolling crowd, or because baseball season is underway and the National Basketball Association’s playoffs just concluded, but nobody seems to be talking about the economy these days. All of the non-business news media seem equally uninterested, to the point that it takes another announcement from the Federal Reserve Board to get any front-page play for those poor newspaper scribes stuck on the economy beat.
We suspect this has something to do with the diocletian nature of all that boring data that the Fed went on about Wednesday. The economy isn’t quite bad enough for the Republicans to make an issue of it, and not nearly good enough for the Democrats to do any bragging, and apparently not so bad that the Fed feels obliged to again ramp up the money-printing that fueled that newsworthy stock market boom, but not so good that it intends to raise interest rates above 0 percent any time soon, and only the economics geeks understand what any of that means and none of them seem agree about it. Better to talk about baseball and basketball and whatever else might be going on, we suppose, but we can’t shake a nervous feeling that something important is going unremarked.
Perhaps it’s also because no one seems to know what to do about it. President Barack Obama’s only big economic initiative since that pork-laden “stimulus” bill and all the other debt-increasing “investments” he and his Democratic majorities in Congress foisted on the country back in the bad old days has been his Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal with most of Asia, and the Republican congressional majorities that resulted from those earlier fiascos have been largely supportive, and it’s suddenly the remaining Democrats who are balking, and by now it’s more a story about our troubling politics than our troubled economy. David Brooks, The New York Times’ token “conservative” who fell in love with the perfectly pressed crease in Obama’s pants way back in ’08 and has never quite gotten over it, blames it all on what he calls the “Tea Party” faction of the Democratic party, which is wedded to labor unions and their protectionist preferences, and although he admits that Obama’s characteristic secretiveness prevents anyone without top-secret security clearance from knowing what the free-trade deal is he rightly notes that those same Democrats don’t seem to mind they have no idea about the wacky deal he’s making with the even wackier mullahs of Iran about their nuclear weapon ambitions. Our conservatism requires no quotation marks, and we’re staunchly Republican, and will grouse that the “Tea Party” analogy belies Brooks’ putative conservatism because the “Tea Party” was pretty much right about the growing debt and all the regulatory red-tape resulting from all those expensive “investments” and everything else, and we’re free-traders to our Adam Smith core, but even we are so spooked about Obama’s negotiating record and what might be hidden in that Trans-Pacific partnership that we’re willing to wait another two years or more for a better and more transparent agreement. There’s some fun in watching all the presidential hopefuls in both parties try to finesse this mess, even if the smart ones seem to understand they can simply ignore it, but otherwise we can well understand why people are following the divisional races in major league baseball and The Golden State Warrior’s long-awaited basketball championship.
Eventually everyone will be forced to pay some attention to the economy, certainly by November of ’16, and at that point it will be all about politics. The Republicans will argue that the numbers regarding jobs and household wealth and Gross Domestic Produce could have and should have been been much better, the Democrats will reply that those admittedly unimpressive numbers would have been so much worse without the president’s “investments” and resultant regulations and trillions of dollars of debt that everyone would have stopped going to work and buying groceries and falling for the latest advertised seductions and we’d all be rubbing sticks together in some cave, and that the same president’s secretiveness and lack of meaningful relationships with anyone else in government sank that Trans-Pacific Partnership that might have helped, and there’s no way way of knowing who the public will blame.
They’ll blame somebody, though, because there’s no getting around the end-of-the-month fact that economy isn’t that good. Even through the rose-colored glasses of the Federal Reserve Board the economy is expected to grow at at only 1.8 to 2 percent this year, barely enough to sustain those much-touted jobs number that haven’t quite kept up the arrival of new legal and illegal immigrants, another issue proving problematic for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, and on those rare occasions when people talk about the economy nobody seems to singing that happy days are here again. Whatever the economic numbers might be deep inside the business section around the next election day, we expect the Democratic nominee will be griping about the inequality of it all, which will resonate with a large resentful population of the country, and the Republican nominee will be talking about tax-cutting and de-regulating and unleashing the potential of the economy, which will resonate with the more hopeful portion of the electorate, nd the electoral numbers will decide the matter.
Until then, we’re as confused as anybody else. Zero percent interest rates don’t seem to provide any incentive for making the loans that could fuel an economic boom, and it isn’t any good for those poor old folks counting on interest-bearing retirement plans, but anything higher is likely to scare away investors in such uncertain and debt-laden and over-regulated times such as these, and that free-trade deal with a crucial foreign might or might not be a good idea, as only those with a top-secret security clearance would know, so we’ll anxiously await whatever happens. In the meantime we note that The Kansas City Royals are back on top of the American League’s Central Division and that The New York Yankees are within striking distance of the lead in the Eastern, and we’ve had a certain sympathy for The Golden State Warriors ever since they won their last title 40 years ago with that arrogant white boy Rick Barry as the star, so we’ll hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

The Perfect Scandal

Dennis Hastert was such a forgettable Speaker of the House that we had completely forgotten about him, but we have lately been reminded of his existence by all the gleeful news reports about his indictment by a federal grand jury. He’s charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a series of relatively small bank withdrawals, which is not particularly scandalous by Washington standards and raises the question of why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals in the first place, but the inevitable unlawful leaks about the case have claimed the withdrawals were used to hush a sexual relationship with a young male who had been a student of Hastert’s during his days as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, which explains all the gleefulness of the press.
Hastert is a Republican, and a self-proclaimed “traditional family values” Republican with his name on a building at a Christian college at that, so the irony is far too delicious for the press to resist. The hypocrisy of Democrats who rail against income inequality while enriching themselves through government service to the one percentile, or decry the Republican “war on women” while rallying around the enabling wife of a serial sexual harasser, is more easily ignored when there’s a story like this afoot. There are still scores to be settled from the impeachment charges that were filed during Hastert’s speakership against President Bill Clinton after he lied under oath about his heterosexual sex scandals, too, and with Hastert having acquired the job after two Republican predecessors were found to have cheated on their wives there’s yet more ammunition for the old argument that there’s no longer any sense in expecting our leaders to hew to a higher standard of sexual conduct and that we should all just go ahead and do it in the road. Given the facts as they have been established thus far, and their usefulness for a variety of Democratic narratives, we expect the Hastert story should push the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton’s slush fund foundation, the recently shrinking economy, and everything else of greater public importance off the front pages for weeks to come.
Still, there’s no denying it does seem a very tawdry affair. Aside from the decades-old but still-sickening allegations of sexual exploitation of a student, which are bad enough, there’s also the matter of how a former high school teacher turned public servant had enough money on hand to pay the $1.7 million in blackmail that Hastert is alleged to have paid. Much of Hastert’s wealth is said to have come from real estate deals, including properties whose value was increased by laws passed during his speakership, and the rest has come from a lucrative lobbying career commenced shortly after he left Congress. Even those questions about why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals are answered by the Patriot Act that Hastert helped to enact. If the facts as they have been established thus far prove true, Hastert will richly deserve the ignominy that is currently being heaped on him.
Nor is there much that even a die-hard Republican can muster in his defense. We were surprised to re-learn that Hastert was the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history, but one can liken that to the record-setting yet forgettable reign of Larry Holmes as world heavyweight champion, who remains overshadowed by his flamboyant predecessor Muhammad Ali and memorably thuggish successor Mike Tyson, just as Hastert is less well-remembered than his pugnacious and effective predecessor Newt Gingrich and his “first woman” and downright awful successor Nancy Pelosi. Chosen for his dull personality and happy talk of bipartisanship and presumably scandal-free past, Hastert spent his time in power going along with Clinton and then helping George W. Bush push through that Medicare drug plan and the rest of his big government heresies, and was otherwise so good at avoiding controversy that even such news junkies as ourselves had completely forgotten him.
One might note that a recent rash of underplayed stories about sexual exploitation of students by teachers mostly involve women educators in public schools, and that by up-to-date standards an emphasis on cases such as Hastert’s alleged behavior should be considered heteronormative, and that tawdry tales of lucrative careers in public service are quite bipartisan, with the presumptive Democratic nominee being a prime example, and that Republican presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul is currently being pilloried in the press for opposing repeal of the Patriot Act in defiance of a Democratic president who now likes all of the governmental powers it endows, and that the Patriot Act was intended to target terrorists rather people with other reasons for making relatively small bank withdrawals, and that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s husband has been a frequent flyer on the private jet of a known pedophile,  and that everyone isn’t cheating on a spouse and higher standards of conduct should still be expected from public officials regardless of their party affiliation, but it will be of no use. Unless new exculpatory facts unexpectedly emerge, Hastert has handed the Democrats’ media allies an extraordinary gift, and Republicans can only hope that readers will notice the other sickening facts that somehow make it onto the inside pages of your local newspaper.

— Bud Norman