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Disasters and Normality

Nature has gone on a destructive rage lately in our hemisphere, and now the entirety of Puerto Rico is without power, the same hurricane caused it is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands that had already been largely wiped out by last week’s hurricane, and at least 250 people died in the second major earthquake in Mexico City in the past two weeks. After the devastation wrought on Texas and Florida from two other unusually large and intense hurricanes this month, catastrophe is starting seem commonplace.
The media are still all over it, complete with scary radar images, heartbreaking footage of downed buildings and bandaged people, and heroic stories of rescue and sacrifice, but by now they’re making more room for yet another Republican attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the numerous noteworthy developments in the “Russia” story, and whatever else President Donald Trump might be up to. All sorts of historic disasters, both natural and man-made, are quickly becoming normalized.
One reason the latest natural catastrophes have been somewhat downplayed is that they happened in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which are part of America but not among the 50 states, and in Mexico, which is not part of America at all. Americans have always tended to take scant interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, and in the age of “America First” and a clamor for building a giant wall along the southern border that tendency is stronger than ever. The country is still obliged to pay its share of the costly recovery efforts in its territories, though, and would do itself a much needed public relations favor by chipping in something to help out the Mexicans, so some attention should be paid.
Eventually nature will settle down for a while, although probably not for so long as those 12 blissful years North America enjoyed without any hurricanes at all until lately, and at that point all the man-made disasters will retake their rightful places on the front page and the top of the hour. We’ll hope that the recent disasters are not forgotten, that a few of the reporters will stay on the long enough to scrutinize both the recovery efforts and the preparations for the inevitable next time, and that no one regards it as normal for two of America’s most populous cities to be underwater and two its territories wiped out altogether. Here’s hoping, too, that people don’t start to regard all those man-made disasters as at all normal.

— Bud Norman

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A Hard-Earned Vacation

Today President Donald Trump starts a planned 17-day vacation at his swank private New Jersey golf club, and we can hardly blame him for wanting to get away from the swamps of Washington, D.C., for a while. Thursday brought fresh leaks of some embarrassing phone calls Trump had with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia, as well as the news that the special counsel investigating the matter of what Trump now calls “Russia” has convened a grand jury, and that’s despite the best efforts of tough new chief of staff who was installed after a major administration shake-up and another week of rebukes by everyone from the Boy Scouts to America’s police chiefs to the Republicans in Congress.
The ostensible reason for the time away is that the White House is replacing its 27-year-old air-conditioning and heating system, and after the couple of sultry summers we’ve spent in Washington that seems plausible enough, although we’re not sure if President Andrew Jackson would have though so, and the timing does seem suspiciously fortuitous. Trump had long criticized his predecessor for spending too much time on golf courses, just as his predecessor had even more hypocritically criticized his predecessor for the same thing, and with his own private golf course being reimbursed by the government Trump will probably take an even worse public relations hit than either of them, but by now it could be a lot worse. If Trump can keep his thumbs gripped to a golf club rather than tapping out a “tweet” on his telephone, and stay away from interviews and otherwise avoid compounding his problems while his lawyers and remaining staff do their best to sort things out, that would probably be 17 days well spent.
The leaks about those embarrassing phone calls with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia had already been partially leaked way back in Trump’s second week of the job, but despite the momentary embarrassment Trump was able to dismiss them as “fake news” with with the politely oblique help of the other countries involved, and it was quickly forgotten in all the other news that kept coming. This time around there are full transcripts of the conversations, which are even more embarrassing in full context, and the White House is neither confirming nor denying their veracity, and neither are the other two governments involved, and by now the guy embarrassing himself on those transcripts sure does sound an awful lot like Trump.
The phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull reveals Trump trying to weasel out of a deal the United States had during struck his predecessor’s administration to take in 1,250 refugees, getting the numbers involved and other basic facts of the deal wrong along the way, frankly worrying how it would “It would make me look terrible,” and abruptly ending the conversation after saying that he’d had a much more pleasant telephone call that day with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Worse yet, as far as Trump’s most loyal supporters might be concerned, in the phone call with Mexican President Pena Nieto he seemed to concede that he’d never really meant all that campaign rhetoric about making Mexico pay for a wall across the entire southern border, but expected the Mexican government to play along with it for the ruse for a while. Nieto bluntly said Spanish equivalent of “nyet,” so far the Republican majorities in Congress have been similarly reluctant to cough up the funding for a border wall, and this is not a good time for people to be reminded about it along with all the further “fake news” leaks that can neither be denied by confirmed by the White House.
The leaks about the special counsel convening a grand jury to issue all sorts of subpoenas in that “Russia” investigation have also been neither confirmed nor denied by the White House, so they’re also looking pretty credible, and although you can spin it so it’s not such a bad thing there’s no way of making it out to be a good thing. That special counsel has a formidable reputation as a dogged but by-the-book investigator, and according to the book the paneling of a grand jury implies some pretty darned prima facie evidence that something fishy’s going on, and for now all questions about it are being referred to the president’s and his family’s and staff’s outside legal counsel.
Given all the other leaks about “Russia” that have neither been confirmed nor denied over the past eight months or so, and instead been to referred to all the various outside counsels that are now involved, we can easily understand why Trump is wanting some rest and relaxation on a familiar golf course. Someone pretty high up in Trump’s administration  is leaking the latest leaks, too, so all the more reason to take some time off from whomever that might be. We’re sure he’ll still be in constant communication with the rest of the executive branch while he’s contemplating a chip shot, just as his predecessors claimed to do, and we hope he at least breaks par.
According to some rather embarrassing leaks to Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated, though, Trump is also  a notorious golf cheat who routinely claims to have broken par, and so far the White House neither confirms nor denies this.

— Bud Norman

Viva Mexico, and Us, and Both of Us

Unsurprisingly enough, America’s diplomatic relationship with Mexico is currently rather contentious. A planned meeting between American President Donald Trump and Mexican President Pena Nieto has been called off, angry “tweets” have been exchanged, populist pressures are being brought to bear on both leaders, and it’s the sort of thing you hate to have going with a neighbor.
Relationships with neighbors can go sour from time to time no matter how hard one tries, and we have a few stories of our own you could empathize with, but for the most part we and the rest of America have been rather lucky. The United States of America only has two abutting neighbors, which is a good start, and compared to what Israel or Finland or Jerry Seinfeld had to put up with they’ve not been very troublesome. Except for the War of 1812 and all that fuss about “fifty-four forty or fight” back in 1818 Canada has been a good neighbor, even if they are rather snooty about their single payer health care system and have a strange tendency to punt on third downs, and even if we did delay that XL Pipeline all through the Obama years and our relatively low income tax system allows us to consistently beat up on their sports teams.
The relationship with Mexico has been more complicated, what with that Mexican-American War and the Marines marching into the Halls of Montezuma back in the 1840s, and the resulting re-drawing of the maps of both countries, and that other time in the early 20th century that the American military went into Mexican territory in hot pursuit of Pancho Villa’s marauding bands, not to mention their disputes with American oil companies and the many decades or argument about the large numbers of Mexicans seeking and finding employment in America and countless other quarrels. Despite it all there have been diplomatic protocols and trade agreements peso bailouts and other arrangements, and no outright wars between the two countries for the past 169 years, which is not bad by historical international standards.
In the current dispute we think that America can make a convincing case for itself. Whatever the still-disputed causes of that long-ago Mexican-American War we think the the re-drawing of the map it wrought turned out best for the people who found themselves on the north side of it, and we doubt that many of them of any ethnicity would want to revisit the matter, and in any case we think that America should resist such revanchism there just as it should in the Ukraine and the islands of the South China Seas. In the unlikely event that rebels intent on overthrowing the American are wreaking havoc in northern Mexico we wouldn’t mind the Mexicans the chasing them into American territory, and the nationalization of American-financed and American-made and duly negotiated oil industries still strikes us as outright theft, and the very significant influx of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants that has occurred since does include a certain number of rapists and other criminals and seems a decidedly mixed blessing for both countries, and the idea of enforcing borders seems altogether reasonable, and some of those trade deals probably could have turned out better for America.
We’re still hoping for an amicable resolution to the latest quarrels, but only with faint hope. Trump’s constantly repeated campaign promise to build a literal wall between the countries is now an executive action, threats of making Mexico pay for it through a 20 percent import tax and other measures have been expounded by his press secretary and “tweeted” on his almighty account and will soon be taken up by Congress, and after that imbroglio with the American judge of Mexican ancestry who was presiding over the Trump University lawsuit that Trump wound up settling for $25 million and the rest of the campaign rhetoric it’s hard to argue that Trump has a certain animosity toward Mexicans. Mexicans are no more amicable to Trump, judging by the red hot market for Trump pinatas and mass protests on both sides of the border, and although Nieto offered an ill-advised helping hand by inviting candidate to a presidential-looking Trump to a state visit back when things were still up for grabs he’s now forced by overwhelming public to take a more adversarial stance against his self-proclaimed adversary.
Our experience of dealing with neighbors has taught us to well consider their positions, and in the current matter we can well understand why they’re miffed about being asked to pay for a wall to separate them from us and all the implicit and explicit anti-Mexican rhetoric that has gone along with it. Perhaps it’s another of Trump’s brilliant negotiation ploys to start from such an antagonistic position, but all of Trump’s past negotiations were with other businessmen who weren’t accountable to millions of Mexicans who felt their pride had been impugned by such tactics, and even then he still occasionally wound up in bankruptcy. If the currently unpopular yet relatively sane Nieto does succumb to Trump’s art of the deal he’ll likely be replaced in an upcoming election by one of those Latin American socialist demagogues who wins election by fanning the flames of resentment against the damned Yanquis, just as Trump won in part by fanning the flames of resentment against Latin Americans, and the next round of negotiations will be even more contentious.
Even in the worst case scenario it probably won’t come to another outright war, given that Mexican national pride lags far further behind its military prowess than it did even back in the 1840s, and despite the havoc it would wreak on America the Mexicans would would be advised to avoid a trade war, given that the past century and a half of Mexican socialism hasn’t improved its economic standing relative to the Americans, even if Trump and his more nationalistic supporters think that a huge portion of the American middle class wealth has been redistributed down there, but by now it should obvious even in America what people will endure as a matter of national pride. A mutually beneficial situation with Mexico could be worked out, just as we’ve managed mostly successful relationships with the many Mexican and Mexican-Americans we daily encounter here in the heartland, such as that comely Mexican-American woman who sells the best-deal-in-town donuts at the nearby Juarez Bakery with a mellifluous “buenos dias” and the guys who make the Carne Asada at the Lopex drive-thru late at night and the Esteban Jordan y Rio Jordan conjunto that we sometimes play on the cassette player,  but we can’t see it ending well if either side insists on winning.

— Bud Norman

What’s Seen on the Front Page, and the Unseen Consequences

Some eleven hundred people are going to keep their jobs at the Carrier heating and air conditioning plants in Indiana, an early Christmas gift from president-elect Donald Trump, and we’re happy for them. We can’t help worry, though, how it will work out for the rest of us.
Trump can rightly boast that he hasn’t even taken office yet but has already saved those eleven hundred jobs from being shipped off to Mexico, having negotiated the deal that offered Carrier a compelling mix of tax incentives and veiled threats to only cut 300 to 600 jobs at the plant and 700 at another facility, so naturally he boasted at length Thursday during his “Thank You Tour” of ongoing campaign rallies and photo opportunities in the heartland. Even The New York Times and The Washington Post and all the alphabet television networks were obliged to run shots of Trump beaming in the company of grateful workers, and to quote his bold claim that “Companies are not going to leave the United States any more without consequences. Not gonna happen. It’s not gonna happen.” For the moment, at least, Trump’s populist economics seems triumphant.
As the great Frederic Bastiat observed about economic policies, however, “it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse.” One would have to be very hard-hearted not to feel good for those presumably hard-working Hoosiers whose jobs were spared, yet one would also have to be very soft-headed not to wonder what happens when every American company in search of tax incentives starts making veiled threats of their own.
Perhaps they can all be tax incentivized and otherwise bullied into unprofitable arrangements with their employees, but it’s hard to see how that works out for anybody over the long run. Perhaps the co-author of “The Art of the Deal” will make such great deals, such beautiful, huge deals that everyone winds up getting rich, but that’s not the way it worked out with Trump Mortgage or Trump Network or Trump University or Trump Steaks or the Trump Taj Mahal casino-and-strip-club or numerous other Trump-branded businesses, not to mention the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, although we hear that the made-in-China Trump ties are still selling briskly, so we’re skeptical that Trump can run every other business in the country any better. Perhaps all those foreign markets that Trump has promised to protect America from won’t decide to protect themselves from Trump and all his business partners in the American economy with retaliatory measures, too, but we think you’d find a better bet and at least a pair of bare breasts at a Trump casino if there were any left.
For the moment, though, Trump is indeed triumphant. It’s hard to argue with a front page picture of smiling Indiana furnace-makers, and corporate big-wigs in fancy offices shipping jobs off to Mexico are such central-casting villains that even Ayn Rand would have a hard time rising to their defense, and old quotes from long-dead French economists, no matter how time-tested, are now easily shouted down. The Democrats have been peddling protectionism and central planning for as long as we can remember, and although the self-described socialist and almost-Democratic-nominee Sen. Bernie Sanders is grousing about the tax breaks involved in the Carrier deal we expect that most of his congressional colleagues will be happy to make similar deals on behalf of certain of their constituents. We also expect that most of the Republicans who once stood steadfast against such nonsense back when President Barack Obama was picking the winners and losers will now be incentivized and bullied into going along as well, and those hardy few who resist will be angrily “tweeted” about and face difficult re-election races. For now most of America seems quite happy about having someone in the government run the entire American economy, even if they’re rather angrily divided about who that person should be, and Bastiat’s wise warnings about the unseen consequences of well-intentioned economic policies will go unheard, and for that matter the consequences will be mostly unseen.
You’ll be seeing lots of pictures of Trump posing next to grateful workers whose villainous boss has been incentivized and bullied into letting them keep their jobs, but none of the workers who would have been employed if free people and free markets had been allowed to continue along the circuitous and often bumpy route that has led to the past many years of rising global prosperity and relative peace and rapid technological and scientific advancement and widened scope of glorious liberty. The progress has been slowed by the past eight years of Obama’s meddling, indeed the past 90 or so years of varying degrees of government meddling, and Trump might slow it further yet. He’s also promising deregulation and tax cuts and all the other free market notions that Republicans have traditionally peddled, and he might incentivize and bully enough Democrats to make that happen, but we do hope he’ll refrain from trying running every business in America with American workers and American materials, the way he didn’t run his, no matter how tempting the photo opportunity might be.

— Bud Norman

A Buenos Dias for Trump

Much of our Wednesday was spent waiting in line to get another one of those expensive little stickers that affix annually to the license plate of our rapidly aging vehicle from the Department of Motor Vehicle’s tag office, which turns out to have been relocated in the past year or so  far west of the location we’d been long accustomed to, and which was our own damn fault for waiting until the last minute of the final day of the month rather than handling it by mail a month ago, but things seem to have gone better on Wednesday for Republican nominee Donald J. Trump.
The day began with some fresh polling showing that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is now about as widely reviled as Trump, following another round of stories about the e-mail scandal that was supposed to have been done with when she wasn’t indicted, and yet more polling showing Trump was chipping away at Clinton’s persistent lead and into margin-of-error territory, after a week that didn’t quite include enough of his characteristic craziness. Then he had a meeting in Mexico City with Mexican President Pena Nieto that included all the pomp and circumstance and press conferences and photo ops that usually attend the visit of somebody to be taken seriously, and Trump didn’t mention Mexican rapists or enthuse about “Operation WetbacK” or tout the Trump Tower’s best-in-he-world taco bowls or break into Bill Dana’s old “Jose Jimenez” comedy routine or otherwise embarrass himself. Even the most polite press seemed to glumly acknowledge that he’d done pretty well with the old diplomatic shtick, and then he gave a big speech in Phoenix that plausibly positioned him as the voice of reason on the illegal immigration issue.
Clinton’s suddenly sliding campaign couldn’t come up with any pithy riposte worth linking to, even her friends in the more polite press seemed equally unready for these developments, and more objective sorts such as our pox-on-both-their-houses selves have to score it as a good day for Trump. There are a lot of days left in this crazy election year, though, that there have already been a lot of them that can’t be undone, so it remains to be seen how even this day plays out.BuB
For more than a year now, and for what surely seems an eternity to most of the country by now, Trump has been running as the proudly politically incorrect scourge of illegal Mexican immigrants and lopsided trade deals with the wilier-than-us Mexican government and all other manner of Mexican perfidy, who was going to round up all the illegals already here and send them back home and build a huge Gulf-of-Mexico-to-the-Pacific-Ocean wall to keep the rest out and then make them pay for it. Even a relatively gaffe-free day in Mexico City is unlikely to undo that public perception, and there was plenty for the Democrat and her friends in the more polite media to work with after they regain composure. Trump insisted that there was no discussion of who would pay for his still-planned wall, while Nieto “tweeted” that he’d made clear Mexico wouldn’t be paying for it. The anti-Trump demonstrations were more restrained than at recent rallies in the southwestern United States, but the reaction in both the Mexican and American press suggests that Nieto did not help his own perilous political fortunes by acting so politely to an American presidential candidate that is by all accounts widely despited in Mexico. The impolitely pro-Trump press is making much of Nieto’s apparent concession that America can build a wall, but that was never in dispute, and if Canada were to now decide that it wanted one of its own along the norther border we could hardly blame it, and their glee that Nieto had said that the North American Free Trade Agreement is up for negotiation ignores the Trumpian axiom that everything is always up for negotiation.
That unfortunate fact of life has been demonstrated by Trump’s straight-talking but ever-shifting stands on almost all of the issues. Even on his signature issue of illegal immigrants he’s gone from “they’ve all gotta go” and horror stories about the open borders of the Bush and Obama years to “we’ll work with them” and talk of doing the criminal deportations that Bush and Obama had apparently been doing but “perhaps with more energy,” so Wednesday night’s big speech in Phoenix was the long-awaited and oft-delayed clarification of whatever it was he’d been talking about all along. So far as can tell there was nothing in it about deportation forces rounding up however many millions of illegal immigrants reside in the country, nor immediately letting the “good ones” right back in, which had so long been the stated policy, and there was the usual talk about the wall but none of the usual talk about making Mexico pay for it, and the rest of it seemed sensible enough. He would end the “catch and release policy” for illegal immigrants, have zero tolerance for illegal immigrants with a criminal record, repeal several of President Barack Obama’s more inane executive actions on the matter, restrict visas from the more terrorism-prone parts of the world, for deported illegal immigrants even to the countries most reluctant to take them back, and a plain opposition to a “path to citizenship” via illegal entry to the country.
Except for that stupid but ever-popular wall it all seems sensible enough to us, but we can’t help recalling several more qualified Republican candidates who had reached the same general conclusions without wandering through all that crazy talk about rounding rounding ’em up and letting the good ones back in and all that blather about rapists and taco bowls, and we can’t help thinking that almost any of them would be polling better against such an understandably unpopular candidate as Hillary Clinton. The latest iteration of the Trump illegal immigration stand is so mainstream that except for that “path to citizenship” and some number of refugees from those terrorism-prone parts of the world that  Clinton could easily co-opt it, or perhaps “Triangulate” it, as they used to say back in the first Clinton era, and she’ll have Trump’s videotaped admission that even Obama has indeed been deporting illegal aliens with criminal records at her disposal. We expect she’ll wind up with the lion’s share of the Latino vote in any case, and Trump won’t lose any of his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters by abandoning that “round ’em pledge,” and by election day the economy might be so crummy that there aren’t illegal immigrants trying to get in anyway.
We’ll see how this day works out in the long run, and in the meantime at least our license plates are up to date.

— Bud Norman