Running Government Like a Badly-Run Business

One of our least favorite political cliches is the one about running government like a business, which always made as much sense to us as flying a plane like a helicopter or  riding a motorcycle like driving a car. President Donald Trump won election on the argument that his unerring business expertise would result in all sorts of great government, but a few things we’ve noticed in the latest news don’t seem to be proving the claim.
The Trumpian boasts always struck as especially suspicious, given that his private sector record included the New Jersey Generals and Taj Mahal Casino-and-strip-club and Trump University and Trump Mortgage and Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka and numerous other failed eponymous businesses, but his failure to quickly deliver on his campaign promises to provide health insurance for everyone and at much lower cost and be so wonderful it would make your head spin raises further suspicions.
Fox News host “Judge” Jeanine Pirro placed all the blame on House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a diatribe that Trump claims he wasn’t aware she would be shouting when he “tweeted” for all his followers to watch the show, and she exonerated Trump by stating that “No one expected a businessman to understand the nuances, the complicated ins and outs of Washington,” but that is exactly what Trump had led his supporters to expect throughout the campaign. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump  boasted during his Republican nomination acceptance speech, “which is why only I can fix it.” He was never clear about the specifics of how it would be so great, which is probably why he left that stuff up to Ryan, who didn’t have anything nearly so grandiose to offer, but Trump had boasted that his legendary deal-making prowess could get it done.
Trump also intends to bring his business genius to bear on the rest of the government with all sorts of innovative down-sizing, and he’s launched this effort by creating yet another redundant agency in the federal government called The White House Office of American Innovation. Apparently nepotism is one of those time-honored business practices that is needed in government, as the agency will be headed by Trump’s son-in-law, whose own business experience derives from the family real estate company that he inherited when his father went to prison on charges of tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. Trump himself frequently boasted during the campaign about the many politicians he’d bought off, and although he never copped to witness tampering he also boasted that if he didn’t pay any incomes tax certain that made him smart, so we’re expecting all sorts of free-market solutions for government to come from this new redundant federal agency of his.
Perhaps we should write this up in a grant proposal and try to make some money off of it, but we’ll go ahead and a offer this pro bono suggestion to the poorly acronym-ized WHOOAI. In recent years Trump’s most money-making business has been licensing his name to anyone who’s will to pay big money for it, and we think the United States of America should start doing the same. The USA is an even bigger global brand name, after all, and there’s no reason a country nearly $20 trillion in debt shouldn’t be cashing in on that. If Lee Greenwood wants to sing “God Bless the USA” or Bruce Springsteen wants to lament that he was “Born in the USA” they should be passing some of those royalties along to the general revenue funds for use of a trademarked name, and all those American flags be waved or worn as jackets at Trump rallies should cost an extra few pennies to pay for the logo rights, which should also bring a fortune from all those flags that the hippies and third-world types are always burning, and with apple pies being the exemplar of Americanness there should be some extra revenue from those.
But what do we know about that stuff? We’ve worked in low levels of government and kept on a watch on government working for newspapers that were just-as-badly run businesses, and we could have warned Trump that one of those nuances of difference between the public and private sectors is that he couldn’t fire congressmen and so-called judges the way he did the B-list celebrities on his game show, but we’re clearly not the businessmen Trump is.
Despite his past numerous business failings at least he’s been on a private sector roll lately, with the vast empire he remains invested in being run by his two older sons, his daughter splitting time between her semi-official role in the White House and running her own lucrative and touted-on-TV-by-White-House-officials line of high dollar clothes and accessories, her husband running a brand-new federal agency of his own while someone else runs what’s still his family business, and such Trump businesses as Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and the well-used Trump golf courses are profiting from federal and state and local funds spent to protect to the Trump family. The two older Trump sons are also being expensively protected on business trips to far-flung locales where the locals are surely aware they’re dealing with the sons of the President of the United States and the owner of the company they represent, and we expect the younger Trumps have learned enough of their father’s much boasted-about influence-buying expertise to leverage that into a few extra bucks.
We must admit that even after so many years of government work and government-watching we didn’t understand the nuances and the ins-and-outs of the system well enough to ever imagine that anyone would even dare much less actually get away with all that. Perhaps such undeniable savvy will eventually make America great again, just as it’s lately been doing for the Trump brand, but in the meantime we do think that the USA brand that’s being so blatantly extorted still deserves some of the profits.



Health Care Remains, For Now, in the Waiting Room

President Donald Trump might yet grow bored with winning, but it probably won’t happen today. On Thursday the House of Representatives delayed a vote on the health care legislation Trump is backing, lest it go down to certain defeat, and even if they are swayed by his threat to drop the matter altogether if they don’t pass it by the end of this work day it won’t likely count as a win.
The vote was scheduled for Thursday because that was the seventh anniversary of the signing of the hated Obamacare law that the current legislation is intended to repeal and replace, as Republicans have been promising to do for the past seven years, and apparently the irony of the date was too much for the bill’s backers to resist. It came too soon for Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to round up all the Republican votes needed to overcome the predictably unanimous Democratic opposition, though, and so far it is not apparent why Trump has decided that the matter must be resolved today or not at all. Nor is it apparent that Trump’s threats will sway any reluctant Republican votes, or that it would be a good thing if they did.
Although Trump is careful not to call the proposed plan “Trumpcare,” despite his usual penchant for putting his name on everything, he has fully invested his rapidly diminishing political capital into the project, and he’s threatened any dissenting Republicans with political consequences if they defy him. He’s a president who’s polling in the high 30s and low 40s, however, and the bill he’s pushing was at 17 percent approval in the latest poll, and the Republican dissenters have plenty of perfectly Republican reasons to offer their constituents, and the Democrats in their districts surely won’t mind the nay vote, so the threats rang rather hollow on Thursday and might again today. If even the reluctant House Republicans are cowed by the prospects of presidential “tweets” there’s still a big fight ahead in the Senate, and even if Trump can win over all the Republicans he has slandered in that body the bill he signs won’t necessarily be scored a victory.
As it stands now, the bill has something for everyone but a diehard 17 percent or so of the country to hate. The Democrats can’t stand any alteration to their beloved Obamacare, no matter how obvious its many shortcomings have become over the last seven years, and all us Republicans who were Republicans long before Trump joined the party are disappointed that the repeal isn’t root-and-branch and the replacement retains too many of its most infuriating assaults on individual liberty and economic logic. Obamacare’s promise of coverage for pre-existing conditions makes as much sense as letting people buy fire insurance after their house has burned down, but it polls through the roof and is therefore protected by the bill. The new bill would end subsidies to millions of Americans who rely on them for health care coverage, many of whom who will have undeniably tear-jerking stories to tell the newspapers and broadcast networks, and although most of them are now inadequately covered and driving up costs for others and would happily opt out of a system that’s hurtling toward insolvency Trump and Ryan and the rest of the Republicans have done a poor job of making that case.
There’s bound to something in even the worst legislation to like, and we find favor with the fact that the proposal would eliminate a number of Obamacare’s more ridiculous requirements. For the past seven years we’ve been arguing that the Little Sisters of the Poor shouldn’t be forced to pay for contraception coverage, monogamous married couples shouldn’t be forced to pay for potential sexually-transmitted diseases, and healthy young people earning starting salaries shouldn’t be stuck with anything more than catastrophic coverage, but somehow the Republicans are mangling even that argument for the bill. Our own snarly Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts tried to make the point by sarcastically telling a female reporter that “I’d hate to lose my mammogram coverage,” which was quickly construed to mean that Republicans were against mammograms and their bill would eliminate that coverage for those who might choose it, even though that wasn’t the case at all, and not being a reality star he wound up apologizing via “tweet,” which is pretty typical of how the Republicans’ public relations campaign has been going thus far.
Although Trump is the leader of the Republican that has majorities in both chambers of Congress, he’s not had much luck lining them up behind the bill he’s careful not to call “Trumpcare.” Any concessions he makes to the hard-liners only makes it harder to woo the squishy moderates in purple districts who dread all those inevitable tear-jerking stories about people who lost their healthcare, his threats of political retribution for anyone who defies his will grow more ridiculous with each passing ridiculous pronouncement and every public opinion poll, and Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to overthrow are looking equally inept. Now seems a good time for the party for stop and think through what it’s doing, but Trump has decided that it has to be done today, which is symbolic of nothing in particular, or that we’ll just have to put up with another four years of Obamacare.
Call us old-fashioned, but we don’t see why Trump and Congress and the rest of us can’t take a few more weeks or even a few more months to come up with something that both makes sense and scores more than 17 percent approval in the public opinion polls and might even get a Democratic vote or two from some purplish district. Back when Obamacare was passed we and everyone else who was a Republican at the time argued that the Democrats were hasty and reckless and obviously over-promising, and thanks to the anniversary-date vote that was planned for Thursday we’re reminded they took a full year to enact that stupid law, which passed without a single Republican vote and has haunted the Democratic Party ever since. We can’t help thinking that if the Republicans take just as much time, and come up with a sales pitch that avoids needless snark and doesn’t promise the coverage for everyone at much lower prices that Trump promised during their campaign, we might wind up with something that’s at least somewhat better.  If that’s not a next-news-cycle victory for Trump and his real estate negotiation style, so be it.

— Bud Norman

Who Knew Health Care Was Hard?

President Donald Trump was speaking to a meeting of the National Governors Association about health care reform a couple of weeks ago, and he offered up yet another one of those occasional quotes of his that cause us slap to our foreheads. “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he said. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Every sentient American already knew that health care is darned tricky, and certainly each of those governors hearing the speech were especially well aware of it, so it’s a sobering thought that pretty much the only person in the country who thought it was easy is the president. Even the minimal amount of regulation that a free-market purist would agree to for the ever-evolving and increasingly high-tech medical sector that comprises a full sixth of the nation’s $17.4 trillion economy is bound to be tricky, managing every aspect of it is beyond the ambitions of even the most arrogant Democrats, and any compromise you might find somewhere in between is bound to be exponentially more complicated. The policy questions are daunting enough, but as Trump as surely figured out by now, the politics involved are even more convoluted.
Trump and the Republicans running the two chambers Congress rolled out the first of three promised phases of their plan to repeal and replace the current Obamacare system earlier this week, and if they thought that getting it passed into law was going to be easy they should now be wised up. There are still enough Democrats left in Congress to make trouble for for any changes in Obamacare, although the law is unpopular enough throughout the districts and states that it’s largely responsible for a Republican White House and an electoral victory for a Republican president, and there are still enough pre-Trump sorts of Republicans left in both chambers who won’t stand for any aspect of Obamacare, even those several provisions that poll extremely well with the general public, and what with politics making strange bedfellows they can cause all sorts of complications together.
Unless you’ve been too busy with your reality television show or branding negotiations to have been paying attention, for the past seven years or so the repeal and replacement of the hated Obamacare has been the metaphorical Moby Dick to the Republican’s Captain Ahab. Not one single Republican, even though squishy ones that you still find up way up northeast, voted for the damn thing, everyone last one of them has cast meaningless votes for its repeals on a regular basis ever since. From the most staid conservative publications to the most shrieking talk radio shows the entirety of the party was opposed to Obamacare, which was forced on a resistant public with some procedural legerdemain and a variety of lies about lowered costs and keeping your plan and your doctor that were eventually exposed, and conferred unprecedented powers on the federal government, and had monogamous couples paying for sexually-transmitted disease coverage and Catholic nuns paying for contraception and otherwise permanently altered its social contract with citizens, and generally offended every old-fashion Republican principle. As the false promises about lower costs and freedom of choice were exposed the Republican majorities in Congress grew, and with a Republican president who wouldn’t have gotten his party’s nomination without an unequivocal promise to repeal and replace Obamacare it should have been easily accomplished.
Politics is always complicated, though, and Trump’s apparent belief that it’s actually all quite simple adds another layer of complexity. The parts of Obamacare that allow young people to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26 and let people sign up for insurance at the usual rate after a pre-existing condition have been discovered poll well with the public, the subsidies that are being provided to a reported 20 million or so people are even more more popular with that reported 20 million or so people, and among them are some folks who will have tear-jerking stories to tell on the nightly news, and at this point it’s hard to tell how the unpopular Trump will fare against the unpopular Obamacare. All the Republicans are taking care not to call the new policies Trumpcare, even Trump, who usually loves to put his name on things, because at the moment both Trump and Obamacare seem equally unpopular.
As the pre-Trump sorts of Republicans, we were hoping for that most minimal sort of regulation no matter how complicated that might prove. If the insurance wants to sell policies that allow include children to any old age we’d be happy to let them, and expect that many would find it profitable to do so, but we wouldn’t force them do so no matter what the polls have to say about it. The preexisting conditions thing about Obamacare comes with all those heartbreaking stories, but you could just as easily interview people who couldn’t get flood insurance after their house was underwater, and no matter how heartbreaking it just doesn’t make economic sense. We have some red-in-tooth-and-claw solutions to the whole matter of rising health care costs, too, but we acknowledge they won’t poll well, and admit that the ever-changing high-tech world of medical marvels makes it very complicated.
Interstate health insurance plans and no mandated coverage of unnecessary producers and much of what else we were hoping for wasn’t included in the latest proposal but is promised to come in phases two and three of the great Republican health care reform roll-out, and for now we’ll take their word for it. Still, we can’t help wondering why they’re dishing it out like that. Something in phase one might make sense if it were done in conjunction with something in phase two or three, but not otherwise, these things being very interrelated, and the uncertainty of what’s to come only complicates matters further. Coming up with something better than the undeniably disastrous Obamacare system should have been a relatively simple matter, but of course Trump complicated matters by promising something “wonderful,” which of course is a whole lot harder to achieve.
Trump was all over the place on the issue during his improbably victorious campaign, wowing the Republicans with the usual repeal and replace rhetoric, but also promising the broader public some spectacular but unspecified plan where everyone would be covered and the government would pay for it and the costs would go down and quality of care would go up, and he really should have expected that would prove complicated. He’s already abandoned a campaign position in favor of that stupid individual mandate that requires poor people to pay a penalty for not having insurance, but endorsed a plan that would allow insurance companies to charge a 30 percent fee on people whose insurance have lapsed, and he’s no longer talking about the government paying to insure everybody, but he has abandoned enough longstanding Republican positions about the proper role of free markets and individual liberty and meddling bureaucracies in the nation’s health care to lose some Republican support. On the other hand he’s still retreating from the Democrats’ positions on those very vital questions, and won’t likely get any support from a single one of them.
We’re hopeful that at the end of all this complicated fuss that’s going to consume the next several months we’ll wind up with something that’s at least better than that dreadful Obamacare, but we don’t expect that it’s going to wind up being something as wonderful as what was promised. Obamacare wasn’t altogether bad, otherwise its repeal and replacement wouldn’t be so thorny, but it’s dreadfulness was made all the more apparent in contrast to the sales pitch, and what’s likely to known as Trumpcare surely won’t be altogether good, so its promises should be made accordingly. That’s not the Trump style, of course, and some painful but necessary procedures will probably be left out of the care, and we expect the fuss over it will outlast us all.
One of the few old-fashioned Republicans who has somehow enthusiastically embraced this newfangled Trumpist party is Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been surprisingly outspoken in his opposition to what’s thus-far been rolled out. He “tweeted” that the Democrats were too hasty in passing that darned Obamacare when they enjoyed a Democratic White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress, and urged that his own party not repeat the mistake. We like Cotton’s old-fashioned Republicanism, and despite our disappointment with his enthusiasm for Trump’s newfangled party we think his advice to slow down and get it right is sound. The Republicans should take at least enough time to hear all three phases of what they’re doing, gauge just how free-market the party can get away given the current political climate, do what’s doable, and be satisfied if the results are somewhat better than Obamacare even if it so wonderful that nobody dies.

— Bud Norman

The Penultimate Day of a Dreary Eight Years

Today is President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, and it’s been a long wait. We were loudly grousing about the man back when he was first elected on a waft of hope that he was some sort of messiah, we groused again when he ran re-election on the argument that his opponent was some sort of devil, we’ve been grousing ever since, and we feel obliged to grouse once again as he leaves office with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Obama’s more die-hard admirers have already unleashed newspaper serials and hour-long video tributes and full-length hardcover books explaining how great he was, almost as great as promised back in the days when he was talking about how sea levels would fall and the national debt would decline and all that unpleasantness with Islam and the rest of the world would surely be worked out, but the case is hard to make at the moment when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president.
All the testimonials point out how very bad the economy was when Obama took office, and how not -so-bad it is upon his departure, but we’ve paid enough attention that we’re not impressed. The economy was indeed in a deep recession starting some four or five months before Obama was inaugurated, but recessions always end and this was officially over before Obama could get his literally more-than-a-trillion-dollar “stimulus package” passed, and despite all the spending that had been added on top of the literally-more-than-a-trillion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program that Obama and pretty much everyone else from both parties voted for the recovery has been the weakest on post-war record, and although the headline unemployment rate looks pretty good the broader measure that includes part-timers and the unemployed and those out of the workforce and is buried deep in story hasn’t fully yet fully recovered. Massive new regulations for the financial industry and a major government power grab of the health care sector almost certainly had something to do with the sluggishness, and what growth did occur can largely be attributed to an oil boom that Obama tried to thwart. There was also a stock market boom, but that was because the Federal Reserve kept pumping money that had nowhere to go but the stock market, where it naturally wound up exacerbating all that economic inequality that Obama had vowed to end with his tax hikes, and although he has Bill Clinton’s luck that the bubble won’t burst until the next administration we’re not counting it as a major accomplishment.
Accomplishments are even harder to find in Obama’s foreign policy, although that doesn’t stop his admirers from trying. No one dares say that Obama’s Libyan adventure or that “red line” he in drew in the Syrian sand have worked out at all, and his past “reset” appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is suddenly unfashionable in liberal circles, but they do try to cast the deal with Iran where we give them billions of dollars and they sort of pretend not to be building a nuclear bomb as a breakthrough victory. The decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq helped win Obama re-election, and after four years it gets occasional mention, although even his most ardent admirers must admit there have been unhappy consequences. Obama’s efforts on behalf of the European Union and Israel’s more liberal political parties and Latin America’s more Marxist types have not proved fruitful, China and Russia and Iran and all the usual troublemakers are more troublesome than they were eight years, and we can’t think of any of international relationships that have been improved. His most ardent admirers point to his good intentions, which we’ll conceded for the sake of argument, but the only thing that good intentions wins is a Nobel Peace Prize.
All the promises of a post-racial and post-partisan and altogether more tolerant society have also proved hollow. The past eight years of attempts to impose racial quotas on law enforcement and school discipline have made life more dangerous for many black Americans and understandably annoyed a lot of the white ones, Obama’s declared belief that politics is a knife fight and the Democrats should bring a gun and the Republicans can come along for the ride so long as they sit in the back of the bus because “I won” has heightened partisan acrimony, and although we’ve got the same sex marriages that Obama claimed to oppose in both of his runs he’s fueling the intolerance for anyone who doesn’t want to bake a cake for the ceremonies.
Although it’s good to at long last see it all come to an end after today, we expect the effects to linger for a while. The next president has already promised a more-than-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package, plenty more market interventions, health insurance for everybody that’s going to be cheaper and better than what was promised in Obamacare, and no messing around with those Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid entitlements that are the main drivers of the national debt. So far Trump’s Russian policies make Obama’s seem downright Truman-esque, and our erstwhile allies in Europe are as alarmed as ourselves, and although Trump also seems a friend of Israel we have no idea what he has in mind for the rest of the Middle East. As far as that hyper-partisan atmosphere of guns and knives and relegating enemies to the back of the bus and the might of an electoral victory making right, we see little improvement ahead.
We’ve already been grousing about Trump for more than a year now, and expect to do so for another four years or more, but we’ll always attribute some share of the blame to Obama. Those who cheered on Obama’s racialist and partisan and intolerant rhetoric should have known what they were bound to provoke, and those who cheered on the executive actions and bureaucratic harassment of political enemies are about to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and despite all promises about making America great again none of us are likely to find out it works out any better than the Obama administration’s blather about hope and change.

— Bud Norman

Overselling Obamacare and Trumpcare

From our birth up until the Indiana primary of last year or so we were as steadfastly Republican a soul as you’re likely to find even here in deep-red Kansas, so of course we’ve been anxiously awaiting the repeal of Obamacare for coming up on eight long years now, but president-elect Donald Trump’s latest statements to The Washington Post on the subject are not reassuring. He’s long promised repeal, and by now we don’t doubt him a bit about that, but he’s also promising a replacement that would provide “lower numbers, much lower deductibles” and “insurance for everybody.” Which sounds great, especially when he insists we believe him, because that he can tell us, OK?, but we can’t help suspecting it sounds a bit too great.
Being street-savvy and wised-up sorts of erstwhile Republicans we were never fooled by President Barack Obama’s assurances that his eponymous Obamacare would save the average American family $2,500 a year and insure everybody and not add a single dime to the national debt, or any of that blather about how if you like your plan you can keep your plan and if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, and along with every last Republican Senator and Representative in Congress, even the ones from those wimpy northeastern states and districts, we were against it all along. It sounded so convincing, what with those well-crafted phrases delivered in that smooth baritone voice, but the numbers never did add up. Given all the same ongoing laws of probability and supply and demand and the rest of darned reality, we’re doubtful that Trump will be any more able to deliver on a promise of both lower deductibles and universal coverage. Liberals more honest than Obama have always acknowledged that universal coverage will entail greater universal costs, more honest conservatives than Trump have always countered that leaving free people to pursue their self-interests will results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people even if there are some costs entailed, but the more demagogic types on both ends of the spectrum will always promise that no such hard choices need be made.
Feel free to disagree, as there are arguments aplenty to be made, but our prairie Republican instincts incline us to side with free people pursuing their own self-interests and the government having as little to do with it as possible. We don’t want people dying in the street, and are quite willing to limp along with a health care system that pays for indigent emergency care through whatever convoluted and no doubt costly means the pre- and post-Obamacare systems provided, bit if you’re claiming to have come up with something so ingenious that it can simultaneously cover everyone and lower everyone’s costs we’re going to be skeptical no matter what party you’re claiming to represent.
As usual with Trump’s triumphant claims, there was a follow-up interview with a more well-spoken spokesman who reassured all us conservatives, as the term was formerly defined, that Trump was actually talking about such free-market reforms as eliminating interstate competition in the insurance market. That does seem a good idea to us, as do some other of those free-market reforms he mentioned, but even that more well-spoken spokesman didn’t attempt to explain how they’d wind up with both lower deductibles and universal coverage. Presumably he meant to imply that such free-market reforms would lower health insurance premiums and other costs to point there was “universal access,” which is what the the Republicans have always called their best effort at the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but we wish he’d just gone with that persuasively honest term, which at least won’t wind up seeming so ridiculous as all that nonsense about Obamacare’s big savings and debt-neutrality and keeping your plan and doctor.
Hating Obamacare is such a longstanding habit by now that almost any other national health care policy will seem a welcome relief, however, and we’ll hold out hope that the mostly pre-Trumpian Republicans in Congress will continue hating it for the some doctrinaire reasons and be suspicious of any newly peddled snake oil claims about everything working out well for everyone.

— 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

A Chance of Thunderstorms, Politics, and Other Passing Problems

A chance of thunderstorms is in the forecast for our portion of the Kansas plains today, but despite all that global warming hysteria the weather around here hasn’t been anything like that “Wizard of Oz” kind of scary for the past several early falls, and we’re holding out hope the coming weekend will also be free of any extraordinary political turbulence. Our Thursday afternoon was mostly devoted to sitting around the lobby of one of those free market medical facilities that have lately proliferated on the east side of our humble prairie hometown, anxiously awaiting the results of our beloved Pop’s eyelid surgery, and as anxious at it was at least we weren’t paying any attention to that awful presidential race, so we hold out hope that blessing lasts through the weekend.
Our beloved Pop at long, long last emerged from his surgery in seemingly fine shape, still a bit loopy from the happy pills they’d given him to keep his spirit up and his eyes open during the grueling hours-long procedure but cognizant enough to order a Sprite and ask some pertinent questions about the doctor’s post-op orders, so at that point we were inclined to call it a good day. During that long wait we also had a nice chat with our beloved Mom, despite her own apparent anxieties, although even that heart-to-heart conversation couldn’t avoid the rest of the world. Our beloved Mom is a refined and cultured woman who long ago slapped a proper respect for the English language and other highfalutin ideas about western civilization into our stubborn heads, but she’s also an Okie by birth and upbringing, so of course she led the conversation to the latest football results, which in turn led to a mutually desultory talk about those National Football League players who won’t stand for the national anthem and how the National Collegiate Athletic Association is boycotting North Carolina because it insists on the very same sex-segregated locker room arrangements as the NCAA.
With nothing to distract us but weeks old copies of People Magazine and Sports Illustrated and other waiting room fare full of people we’d never heard of, that inevitably led us to the point when our beloved Mom confessed that both she and our beloved Pop had quite reluctantly decided to vote for Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, as much as they loathed him, but only because the only alternative was Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and at that point we were in no mood to dissuade either of them. They wheeled our Pop out of the surgery room a seemingly long while later, and we and our beloved Mom then wheel-chaired him into the comfort of his easy chair on the third floor of a rather swank east-side old folks’ home, and after we were convinced they could take it from there we headed on home.
Conveniently located on the way home was the notorious local dive bar called Kirby’s Beer Store, so of course we stopped in there along the way. The relatively young bartender with the National Geographic earrings was on the job, which we were glad to see because he’s such a great guy, and the only other customer was a fine fellow of our long acquaintance with a Roy Acuff tattoo on his forearm and who plays a mean rockabilly guitar, and with “Goodfellas” playing on the bar’s television we had a fine talk about our favorite gangster movies. This naturally led to talk of the presidential elections, and after some sincere sympathy from them about our beloved Pop’s plight, and despite our usual disagreements about politics, we all wound up agreeing we wouldn’t vote for any of the major party candidates. Oddly enough, and comfortingly enough, we find ourselves in agreement with all sorts of people on this point lately.
No matter how all that political stuff turns out, we cling to some hope that it won’t be “Wizard of Oz” scary, and that those free market medical joints on the east side will continue to provide due care to such deserving folks as our beloved Pops, and that our beloved and high-cultured Mom will continue to regale us with the latest reviews from her book club and the latest football results, and that our friends in low places will share with us both a beer and a disdain for the rest of it.

— Bud Norman

Lies For the Greater Good, or Something

One problem with practicing deception, aside from the obvious moral hazards, is that a perpetrator can never claim credit for having successfully pulled it off. The temptation to boast about one’s cleverness in fooling the gullible was too great for Jonathan Gruber to resist, however, and he’s been caught on tape proudly explaining all the lies that were told get Obamacare passed.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is widely known as the “architect” of Obamacare, having served as a technical advisor to the eponymous Obama administration during the law’s drafting, and with a surprising bluntness he admits that it was built on a foundation of lies. Speaking at a 2013 panel discussion during the University of Pennsylvania’s annual Health Economics Forum he said “The bill was written in a tortured way to make sure (Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scores the mandate as taxes, the bill dies.” That lie was also made necessary by the lie President Barack Obama told during the ’08 campaign that he would not allow any tax increases on anyone making less than $250,000 a year, and was acknowledged as a lie when the administration’s lawyers insisted the president always called a “mandate” was indeed a “tax” in order to win the Supreme Court’s approval for the law, but Gruber did not stop there. He also told his admiring audience that “If you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in, you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed,” which is basically an admission that the sales pitch about people keeping their plans if they liked their plans and the average American family seeing a $2,500 reduction in their annual health care costs and not adding a dime to the deficit and all the rest of it was a lie intended to obscure the redistributionist nature of the law. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” Gruber added, “and basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really critical for the thing to pass.”
Lest one think that Gruber enjoyed bamboozling his stupid fellow Americans as much as he seems to relish the re-telling, he insists that “I wish … we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.” Despite his admissions of dishonesty we’re inclined to believe this disclaimer. We don’t doubt that he’s quite disappointed to live in a constitutional republic with so many stupid people who must be lied to in order for his policy preferences to be imposed on them, or that he truly believes he knows better than 300 million people he has never met what is in their best interests, and would much prefer some system that allowed him dictatorial powers without resort to such unpleasant obfuscations. The attitude is infuriatingly widespread these days, and enjoys such intellectual respectability that the likes of Gruber are not at all embarrassed to express it in a public forum, so we’ll regard such heartfelt regret as sincere.
So long as he was unburdening himself, we wish Gruber had further conceded that pretty much the entirety of the modern liberal project is also based on lies being told to the people that modern liberalism claims to champion. Modern liberalism is basically a plan to rob Peter to pay Paul, but Peter is presumed to be an idiot who will fall for promises of some payoff down the road at some richer fellow’s expense, and Paul’s support can be counted on no matter how the plan is presented, and it’s all in the name of social justice, and those Republicans Peter might be tempted to vote for if the plan were more frankly stated are such awful people, so the liberal conscience is untroubled by any liberties that might be taken with the truth. The theory that the best policies derive from a democratic process of public deliberation based on honest arguments by opposing sides is quaintly old-fashioned, given a population too stupid to appreciate the obvious brilliance that is Obamacare, and cannot assail the modern liberal’s religious faith that he knows best.
Honesty and a decent respect for the democratic rights of their fellow citizens would be nice, but they’d rather have the law.

— Bud Norman

In Memoriam, Clyde Suckfinger

Today is Memorial Day, and we plan to charcoal some meat, drink a beer, and fly our Kansas flag from the front porch. In keeping with our holiday custom, we will also spend the day missing Jerry Clark.
Clark, who was also known as Clyde Suckfinger and Chief Two Toes, was a good friend from way back in our newspaper days. When we broke into the newly computerized newspaper racket at 19-years-old as glorified copy boys he was an aging photographer who’d been shooting since the days of those massive accordion-lens cameras with the searchlight-sized flash bulbs, but we hit if off immediately. He liked that we had been born in Manila in the Philippines while our father flew single-engine prop planes there to play of his AF-ROTC debt, for same reason, and that we were the last-ever hires for the old Wichita Beacon where he had started. The twenty-something college grads who then dominated the reporting ranks were often embarrassed to have him along on assignments, with his rumpled suits and conspicuously ugly shoes and his ties marked with holes from the chemicals that splattered around in the dark room, not to mention his ribald sense of humor and uncomfortable candor and unabashed Kansasness, so we naturally regarded him as the coolest cat at the paper. At every opportunity we’d hang out with him in the darkroom or the smokers’ lounge and swap jokes, the dirtier the better, and he’d tell stories of the old days when the reporters wore fedoras and shouted “get me re-write” into candlestick phones and everything was in glorious black-and-white. Most of the stories were funny, often risqué, and always infused with a necessary cynicism about the business he was in, but he’d still get choked up at the recollection of a murder or some other grisly crime scene he’d rushed to, or the sorry state of the slums he covered, or the tornado that wiped out the tiny town of Udall just south of Wichita.
The photographs Jerry took of the aftermath of that tornado were reproduced around the world and won him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, but you had to get to know him a while before he’d tell you about that, or anything else he’d done that was worth bragging on. Eventually we got to know him well enough to hear about his Great Depression boyhood in an Atchison orphanage, where all the kids rooted for the Detroit Tigers because the team was rough and ugly and all the town kids with parents rooted for the more respectable St. Louis Cardinals, and how he spent his sixteenth year in a sort of indentured servitude to a bakery in Hutchinson. When he turned 17 years old Jerry Clark was inducted into the Army and shipped off to the Pacific to fight a war, and after a while he even talked about that.
One hot summer day Jerry seemed less than his usual ebullient self, and we assumed it was because the young fools from out of town who were running the paper had pulled him off the street and relegated him to darkroom duty, but he scoffed at the idea and explained it was the anniversary of the worst day of his war. He told how a landing craft had stopped too far ashore of one of the Pacific Islands he was obliged to invade, and that he had gone charging out that deployed door and started sinking deep into the ocan under the weight of his helmet and boots and gun and pack. He managed to jettison all the gear and make his way to the beach, but found himself in the middle of battle without helmet or boots or gun or pack, and had to lie still in a shallow hole for a full day as bullets whizzed overhead and mortar fire landed close enough to spray sand on to his back. He had re-lived that experience on the same day every year since, he said, and nothing the young fools from out of town who were running the paper could do would be quite so bad. On another occasion he told of us his regular assignment to leap into enemy foxholes and personally dispatch the soldiers there to prevent explosive charges from being magnetized to the bottoms of the tanks that passed over. He preferred to talk about the time he got to see a zoot-suited Cab Calloway play swing music during a leave, or the time he was in the boxing ring with Joe Louis, who served as a referee during a morale-boosting tour of the training camp where he boxed in a lightweight tournament, or the friend and fellow soldier who contracted a particularly amusing case of testicular elephantiasis from a Singapore prostitute, but it was clear that he had a lot of bad days in the war.
We’ve forgotten how Jerry Clark came to be known as Clyde Suckfinger, although we vaguely recall that it couldn’t be recounted in such a respectable publication as this in any case, but we clearly remember how he came to be known as Chief Two Toes. One day in the early ’90s Jerry took ill and was taken to the Veterans Administration, where we found him lying in bed with his feet sticking out of the blankets. One foot had only the big toe and the pinkie toe, and when he caught us looking he told how the missing digits had been blown off by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Battle of Manila. He gave us the full story, which is still troubling to remember and far too gruesome to recount here, but suffice to say that it ended with him spending two years in a Honolulu hospital recovering from his wounds. He told us that one of the poor fellows in the next bed hadn’t been so lucky, and when he passed away Jerry was given possession of the man’s camera and spent the rest of recuperation figuring out how to use the thing, so when he was eventually shipped back to Kansas he got off the train at Wichita’s downtown Union Station and walked a few blocks to the Wichita Beacon where he swore to the dubious editors that he knew how to use a camera. That’s how he came to be a newspaperman, and Jerry regarded it as one of the lucky breaks he’d had in life. Those Honolulu doctors never did get all the Japanese shrapnel out of his legs, though, which was why he was back in the hospital all those years later. The war was still trying to kill him, he said, and he was still determined that it wouldn’t.
Jerry spent the rest of his career in the dark room, where he always said he was doing “the three and the five,” which alludes to an old Army joke that cannot be told in polite company such as this, and was forced out before he wanted by the young fools from out of town who were running the paper. At his retirement party the Vietnam vet who was then the photography editor made sure everyone got a look at Jerry’s Purple Heart, along many of the remarkably good shots Jerry had taken over the years, and even the most callow twenty-something reporters were unsettled by how shabbily he’d been treated. We like think he got his revenge with a few good years of retirement, savoring the company of his longtime wife and a son who’d gone off to sea with the Navy, indulging in a variety of hobbies that did not involve photography or newspapers, and we are happy to say he was always in high spirits and low-brow humor when we’d see him.
Jerry died several years back in a seizure-induced automobile accident, and from what we heard that Japanese shrapnel and its ongoing effect on his bloodstream might have had something to do with it. The war finally killed him, but it’s a testament to the toughness and stubbornness and Kansasness of our friend that it took about 50 years. That it never stopped the hearty laughs he’d get from a dirty joke or the pride he took in his son’s military service or the pain he felt from the ordinary sufferings of his fellow human beings was all the more remarkable. He’d be annoyed to hearing us saying so, and quick to insist that he was no different from any of those other hard luck sons of bitches who had the historical misfortune to be called on to don the uniform at a time of war, so we’ll take a moment to day the miss the rest of them as well. We still miss Jerry, and the America he exemplified for us, and Memorial Day is an annual reminder.
This year the holiday is accompanied by newspaper accounts of gross mismanagement and substandard care at Veterans Administration hospitals such as the one where we visited our friend and discovered his missing toes. The same VA used to send Jerry two pars of those conspicuously ugly shoes every years, with one featuring a personalized padding to fill the space of those missing toes, which he also regarded as a lucky break, and it is infuriating to hear that they’ve failed so many of the men and women who made the same sorts of sacrifices and suffered the same lingering effects of war as our friend. We read that the President of the United States was 13 minutes late to a press conference to announced that he’s awaiting some bureaucrat’s report before being “madder than hell” about it, and that’s standing by the Secretary who has presided over the past five and a half years of this outrage, and the decline from the days of Jerry Clark seems depressingly apparent.
By all means enjoy some charcoaled meat and a beer today, and fly a flag from your front porch, if the weather perm is, but come tomorrow be resolved to inset that we do better by the likes of Jerry Clark. Not just in the VA hospitals, but everywhere in America where that hard luck son of a bitch toughness and unabashed Kansansness is lacking.

— Bud Norman