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On the Night After Christmas

Here’s hoping you all had a merry Christmas, or at least a merrier one that President Donald Trump seems to have had. For Trump, who was forced by public relations reasons to forestall a planned golfing vacation at his ritzy Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny south Florida, it wasn’t so much a Christmas as it was a “Festivus.”
Fans of the classic “Seinfeld” sit-com will recall that “Festivus” was a holiday the George Costanza character’s cranky father invented as an alternative to Christmas, and was devoted to the “airing of grievances” and “feats of strength.” Our cranky president spent most of Christmas Eve and Christmas airing a wide variety grievances via “Twitter” and a rare Christmas news conference, about everything from the damned Democrats to the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” to the alleged idiot that Trump appointed to chair the Federal Reserve, and trying his best to convince the public the he’s far stronger than any of them.
Although we try our best to ignore the news on Christmas Eve and Christmas, we read and watched enough that we were not convinced.
The third partial government shutdown of Trump’s first two years in office looks bad enough that Trump felt compelled to remain in frigid Washington rather than enjoy the sunny climes and opulent golf course at Mar-a-Lago, and the Democratic majority that’s soon to be installed in the House of Representatives has no apparent incentive to cave to the unpopular president’s demand for five billion dollars of funding for his unpopular campaign promise of a big and beautiful wall along the entirety of America’s border with Mexico. Partial government shutdowns are also unpopular, and although Trump is now blaming this one on the Democrats the “fake news” networks can gleefully replay the very real video of Trump recently bragging to the Democratic leaders in Congress that he’ll take all the credit for this one. Trump is already saying that he doesn’t need a wall across the entire Mexican border, and is talking about “steel slats” rather than the 30-foot-tall concrete and rebar structure he once envisions, and concedes that the Democrats can call it a mere fence if they want, and he’s pretty much given up on the campaign promise that Mexico will happily pay for it,
The former Federal Bureau of Investigation director and decorated Marine combat veteran in charge of the “Russia thing” probably isn’t much intimidated by Trump’s “tweets,” either, so we expect that will continue to vex Trump well into the next year. Trump’s remaining Republican allies in Congress are increasingly disinclined to protect Trump from that, too, and have increasingly little incentive to do so.
Our best guess is that the stock markets will continue their recent swoon when the reopen today, and that the Fed chairman Trump appointed and can’t fire without causing a political and economic crisis probably won’t be budged by any presidential “tweets.” The Fed has recently nudged the prime interest rate toward historical norms, but the markets are also spooked by the Trump trade wars that have raised the cost of a steel-slat border barrier by 25 percent, and the inevitable cyclical slowing of the global economy that won’t be helped if the central bank of the all-important American economy is perceived as acting in the short term political interests of an unpopular president, so once again Trump doesn’t seem to be negotiating or “tweeting” from a position of strength.
Starting today Trump will be dealing with all this with an acting Attorney General, an acting defense secretary, an acting secretary of the interior, an acting chief of staff who’s moonlighting on the job while running the Office of Management and Budget that’s overseeing the partial shutdown of the government, no ambassador to the the United Nations or South Korea at all, and an understaffed White House legal team responding to all the subpoenas that the “Russia thing” investigation and the incoming Democratic House majority will surely be serving in the coming weeks.. This isn’t likely to reassure the markets or Trump’s already skeptical international and domestic allies, but Trump’s die-hard fans can still reassure themselves that at least he fights.

— Bud Norman

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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

Last Friday’s Awful Spending Bill

Here at the Central Standard Times we write our Friday posts on Thursday and then take a couple days off from the news, but since then the Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed a $400 billion spending bill that suspended the national debt limit for two whole years and Republican President Donald Trump quickly signed it. Being the grumpy old-fashioned Republican sorts that we are, we spent much of the weekend grousing about it.
The deal includes a couple of hundred billion bucks to bolster America’s military, and while we’re generally in favor of that we have our worries about what the failed casino mogul who is currently Commander in Chief might do with it. The other couple of hundred billion bucks goes to various and usually counterproductive Democratic bleeding-heart programs, and although we’re generally opposed to such nonsense we’ll hold out hope it at least temporarily placates them. The deal at least keeps the government running for another couple of years, which our old-fashioned Republicans sensibilities suppose has some benefit, and it puts off that messy illegal immigration for another few days, which gives us a few days off from worry about that, but it does so with an enormous swelling of the federal deficit, which we cannot abide without becoming craven hypocrites.
The big Republican tax-cut bill that was all the big news a few news cycles ago might yet bolster economic growth enough to result in a net increase in tax revenues — and that corporate tax cut seems especially promising — but in the meantime it’s going to add a few hundred billion of decreased revenues to the added $400 billion in spending and result in one of those trillion dollar deficits last seen in the darkest days of the early administration of President Barack Obama. Those eye-popping digits inspired the Tea Party revolt in the Republican party, which wound up wresting control of the House and then the Senate and ultimately resorting the fiscal sanity of the mere half-trillion dollar deficits of the President George W. Bush year, but since then the party has changed.
Trump ran on on extravagant promises that with his managerial genius he could wipe out America’s $20 national debt within eight years, and offered his own several successful business bankruptcies as proof, but he also promised not to touch the entitlement programs that are mostly driving America’s debt, and far more than all that cold-hearted military spending or bleeding-heart domestic programs. Somehow most of the Tea Party types who hated those establishment Republicans who’d tolerated Bush’s half-trillion dollar deficits bought into Trump’s anti-establishmentarian rhetoric, after that even such stalwart establishment types as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the once-redoubtable House Speaker Paul Ryan willingly went along with the next trillion dollar deficit, and at this point we figure were among the very last of those old-fashioned Republicans who are dismayed by it all.
Our own Republicanism goes back to good ol’ President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his obsessively budget-balancing ways, and oh how we still like our fellow Kansan Ike, but we also remember when the wage-and-price-controlling President Richard Nixon proclaimed that “we’re all Keynesians now,” and even after such long experience none of the current Republican policies make any sense. It seems clearer than ever that America’s finances should be on more solid ground than a Trump casino and strip club, and the latest budget deal doesn’t make any sense even according to the convoluted but occasionally useful thinking of John Maynard Keynes. Trump continually boasts of the low unemployment rate and high growth of the overall economy he has wrought in a mere year, yet insists on a double amphetamine injection of tax cuts and a trillion dollars of stimulative tax spending, which has lately legitimate inflation concerns that have scared the Federal Reserve Board into threatening interest hikes that have lately spooked the stock markets that Trump was recently bragging about. When the next inevitable recession comes around, and we hope it’s later rather than sooner, it will be a more indebted federal treasury that is called on to bail it out.
Kentucky’s Republican Sen. Rand Paul called his party out on its hypocrisy, and even managed to shut the government partially down for a few inconvenient moments while doing so, and there’s somewhere between 20 and 30 Republican House members in the “Freedom Caucus” that sprang from the “Tea Party” movement who also resisted, so God bless ’em for their stupid and futile gesture. The putative Republican yet anti-establishment president and the rest of the party, including such erstwhile establishment types as McConnell and Ryan, were all on board. The Republican party also seems wavering from long held positions on wife-beating and cheating with porn stars and and dissing the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which also bodes ill to our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities.
Of course those darned Democrats and their profligate bleeding-heart ways aren’t helping the fiscal and general economic things at all. Say what you want about that budget-busting deal to avert another so-what government shutdown, we’ll wager you’ll get more bang for your buck out of that couple hundred billion spent on defense than you will out of that couple hundred billion spent on social programs. The current Democratic indignation about Republican deficit spending is at least as hypocritical as the past Republican indignation about Democratic profligacy, and offers no solution to the problem.
Ah, well. We had a heartening church service on Sunday, and hold out hope that despite all those newfangled Republicans and forever darned Democrats the rest of us will somehow work this out.

— Bud Norman

When Winter Lingers into Summer

You might not have noticed, what with all the political scandals and foreign crises and invasions of unaccompanied minors and soccer games vying for your attention, but the American economy remains very, very lousy. According to the ultimately official numbers that were released with little fanfare this week, the American economy is lousier than it’s been since the bad old days of the ’08 meltdown.
The first and most ballyhooed estimate of the first quarter’s Gross Domestic Product was for 0.1 percent growth, which was horrible enough but at least kept alive a streak of anemic growth and could plausibly be blamed on the miserably cold winter that had afflicted much of the nation. That was more quietly followed by a revised estimate of a 1.1 percent decline, and the administration’s apologists arguing that the winter was even worse than they’d realized and it would have been more dire if not for the miracle of Obamacare causing an uptick in health care spending. Only the most nervous sorts of investors and the hard-core news junkies would have heard about the final report of a 2.9 percent decrease in GDP, which is even harsher than the past winter and includes the unsettling news that Americans actually spent less money on their health. Upon closer examination the numbers become even more dismal, with declines in private inventory investment, exports, state and local government spending, and residential and non-residential fixed investment that cannot be explained by snowy roads and falling temperatures.
Still, those ever-bullish proponents of Obamanomics in the popular press are reassuring their readers that the lazy, hazy days of summer will correct the situation. Presumably this is the time of year when a young executive’s fancy turns to thoughts of private inventory investment, and everyone will be herding the kids into the car and hitting the road to a relaxing yet economically stimulative vacation despite the gas prices rising from all those foreign crises that have nudged the economy off the front pages. Those of us less enamored of the high-tax, high-regulation, high-minded anti-caplitalist scheme that has been imposed on the American economy the past six or so years remain bearish.
The smart fellows over at zerohedge.com note that after the miserable winter even if spring and summer and fall bring the rosy 3 percent growth rates that the government has been promising it will average out to a meager 1.5 percent growth for the year. They don’t seem at all confident of that, either, noting that the past 50 years of economic history have never found two years with growth of less than 2.6 percent that weren’t followed by a recession. After a long stretch below that economic Mendoza line another quarter of contraction would force the headline writers to use that dreaded “R word,” and the economy would be once again jostling with the latest scandals at home and catastrophes abroad for news space.
Such dire news should make the stock markets happy, as it will likely force the Federal Reserve Board to keep printing up money and pushing down interest rates at least through the mid-term elections next fall, but it will have an unsettling effect on those portions of economy that make their money honestly. All those scandals and crises don’t inspire much confidence in the nation’s leadership, either, nor do they bode well for the price of energy. Perhaps that invasion of unaccompanied minors from will rescue the economy, but even in the midst of a wet and warm summer we’re still feeling those wintertime blues.

— Bud Norman