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Steeling Ourselves for a Trade War

The smart money on Wall Street didn’t much like President Donald Trump’s announcement he would be imposing steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, with the Dow dropping 500 points before recovering to end the day with a mere 400 point plunge.  Our own dumb money here on Perry Street in Wichita, Kansas, also didn’t much like it.
Neither did we like it when Trump was running for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States on an aggressively protectionist platform, but you know how that turned out. The protectionist racket is always tempting to the populist demagogues of both parties, and although we always prided our Republican selves on the the historical fact that our Grand Old Party has usually been less susceptible to such nonsense we must admit it does succumb from time to time. This time around we think that Trump triumphed in the primaries despite his protectionist policies, not because of them, which makes for some damned complicated politics, and as always we think it’s bad policy.
Which is damned complicated to explain, which makes it all the easier for a populist demagogue from either party to exploit. One can easily see how a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum will bolster the fortunes of American steel and aluminum companies, not to mention their employees, and such a prodigiously glib populist demagogue as Trump can rightly note to his xenophobic followers that all that foreign steel and aluminum is made by foreigners, and that all that domestic steel and aluminum is made is made by Americans. Aluminum-makers don’t have quite the iconic status in American mythology as as those square-jawed and hard-hatted steelmakers in countless folk songs and Works Progress Administration murals, but you throw in wily foreigners and the feckless government negotiators who allowed them steal America’s wealth, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.
For now it’s harder to convince someone of the objective fact that to whatever extent the proposed tariffs benefit the steel-and-aluminum-selling industries they’re going to be just as costly to all the steel-and-aluminum-buying industries. All the official statistics show that domestic steel-and-aluminum-buying industries employ more Americans and make up a bigger share of the economy than steel-and-aluminum-selling ones, as one might expect, and eventually all the final consumers of the suddenly more expensive steel-and-aluminum products will also figure that out, as the smart money on Wall Street seems to have already done.
Not to mention that the rest of the world isn’t going to take Trump’s blustery threats lying down, as all his supine Republican primary opponents eventually did, so of course this mean trade war. All of the countries that Trump is slapping tariffs on can and have already announced that they will impose retaliatory tariffs on the stuff we sell them, as one might expect, and that’s also a bigger chunk of the American economy than steelmaking and aluminum-making. Trump is simultaneously threatening withdrawal from the North American Free Trade agreement, demanding a severe renegotiation our trade treaties with the European Union, has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without offering any alternative but “America First,” and Wall Street isn’t the only stock-exchanging avenue in the world where they’re feeling jitters about the end of the post-World War II global economic order.
The post-World War II global economic order has worked out pretty good from our Republican perspective here on Perry Street, and even the smart money seems to agree. The global economy has expanded at an unprecedented rate,  all the predicted mass famines and global conflicts and nuclear holocaust have been largely averted, life expectancy rates have soared, and technological and cultural revolutions have provided plenty to do with the spare time. The Yankee dollar is still the word’s reserve currency, which sustains the otherwise unsustainable debt the Republicans are currently racking up, and America retains an economic might that Trump likes to boast about. Countless countries have joined the modern economic and Democratic and middle class world, and it’s hard to see a downside unless you think those wily foreigners stole all that money from us, and are the reason you don’t own a bigger boat of broader-screened television.
A lot of Republicans and Democrats apparently believe that, as they always have, but in the end bad policy is always bad politics. The self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s leftward wing of the Democratic fully agrees with Trump’s protectionist policies, but probably by the mid-terms and certainly the next presidential election they’ll be moving toward the center. For now those hated establishment types who crafted the post-World War II economic are reviled by the Trumpian Republican Party, but that also might not last long.
The protectionist racket is only popular so long as  it works, after all, and isn’t really a matter of political ideology or party affiliation. If you’re in an industry that’s vulnerable to foreign competition, you’re for it, and if you do a lot of export business with those wily foreigners you’re against it. Here in the reliably Republican state of Kansas the two biggest chunks of the economy are agriculture and aviation, respectively, which happen to be America’s biggest export industries, respectfully, and although Trump beat the likes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton handily in the general election he came in a distant third in the state’s Republican caucus.
Despite his popular vote thumping Trump’s protectionist promises put him over the Electoral College top in such rust-belt states as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are saddled with industries more in need of protection from foreign competition, but in the end that won’t do him much good. Even in the protectionist states there are more steel-and-aluminum-buyers than steel-and-aluminum sellers, however, and the Democrats there aren’t going to vote for Trump even if he defies the National Rifle Association and brings about a single-payer national health insurance policy. With the smart money on Wall Street abandoning him, and the rest of the post-World War II global economic order retaliating, and economic logic holdings its usual sway, we think he’s already lost this fight.
At least he fights, as we’re sure the die-hard Trump defenders will say.

— Bud Norman

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The Good Neighbor Policy

The United States has long benefited from its location, with vast oceans between us and all the troubles that are always brewing in Asia and Europe, and only two abutting countries to deal with. Except for that unpleasantness back in 1812 and some fuss over “fifty-four forty or fight” a few years later we’ve generally gotten along well enough with Canada, and although our relationship with Mexico has occasionally been more contentious we haven’t fought a full-fledged with war with it for 170 years.
Maintaining such friendly relationships with the neighbors has been a longstanding tradition of America’s foreign policy, but President Donald Trump is that newfangled sort of conservative who doesn’t care much about longstanding traditions. He’s threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement if it’s not re-negotiated to his satisfaction, pressed various trade disputes with Canada, and his dealings with Mexico started with a campaign announcement that accused the country of sending rapists and drug dealers into America as a national policy, and things have not since become any friendlier.
Trump’s most recent diplomatic outreach toward our neighbors to the south, a telephone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, reportedly ended with a “testy” Trump still demanding that Mexico pay for the massive wall he wants along the entirety of the border and Nieto canceling a tentatively planned state visit to the White House rather than talk about it further. This is at least the second time Nieto has declined a visit rather consider Trump’s demands, and given how absurd the demands seem to pretty much every single Mexican voter and how important making Mexico pay for a wall is to Trump and a significant chunk of his supporters it probably won’t be the last time.
Which further complicates an already complicated relationship with the folks next door, which in turn further complicates all sorts of other problems that could easily be amicably settled by more cautious stewards of America’s longstanding foreign policy traditions. Trump is opening his planned renegotiation of the NAFTA treaty with a promise to his most loyal supporters that it will ultimately put America first, which puts the governments both of our neighbors in the awkward position of explaining to their voters why they agreed to second or third place, and we don’t see the as-nationalist-as-the-next-guy people in either country to the north or south being cowed by Trump’s bullying tactics. Neither is Trump’s international reputation as a blustering bully boy likely to yield any successful negotiations with the dangerous and lucrative Asian and European nations that lie just a few days shipping or a few hours of intercontinental ballistic missile travel across those once-vast oceans.
Meanwhile, here at home, Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for his big, beautiful wall is also complicated several domestic disputes. There’s an increasingly pressing question, for instance, of what to do with all those illegal immigrants — mostly from Mexico — who were brought here through no fault of their own as children and are provably not rapists or drug dealers. Their presence was tolerated under an executive order of questionable constitutional provence by President Barack Obama, and although that order was rescinded by Trump even he has since expressed sympathy for their plight and doesn’t seem to have the heart to kick them out, which has disappointed many of his loyal supporters. Trump is currently taking the position that the so-called “dreamers” can stay so long as the Democrats cough up $25 billion in funding for his promised big and beautiful border wall, but he’s also still promising that the Mexicans are going to pay for it, so that’s pretty darned complicated.
Our own long personal history with neighbors to the south and north and east and west has from time to time been complicated, but we’re pleased to say it’s mostly been amicable, and very rarely come to blows. The longstanding traditions that have guided us through it all are never being bullied but never being a bully, striving for solutions where everyone wins, and working the messier matters through the existing legal institutions, and don’t insist that the neighbor to south pay for the big and expensive wall you want block his view. We recommend this approach to the country at large.

— Bud Norman

A Brief 100 Days Passes By

Tempus fugit, as the Romans used to say, and these days tempus seems to fugit faster than ever. All the papers are noting that this weekend will mark 100 days of the President Donald Trump, but to us it seems just yesterday that he was taking the oath of office and delivering his inauguration speech about how all the “American carnage” was ending “right here, right now.”
So far as we can tell there is still some American carnage going on out there, but it quite arguably would have been a whole lot worse after 100 days of President Hillary Clinton, and in all honesty we can’t boast that we’ve gotten much done in that suddenly very short time span. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt’s momentous first 100 days that point in every presidency has been marked by retrospective columns, however, and although we’d rather be writing about this week’s centennial of the birth of the late, great songstress Ella Fitzgerald there’s no getting around the obligation.
Trump has already preemptively “tweeted” that “No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!,” and he certainly has a point somewhere in that hard-to-parse word salad of a sentence. The first 100 days is indeed a ridiculous standard to judge a presidency, as the first 100 days of the depth-of-the-Depression Roosevelt administration isn’t analogous to any point since, no matter how bleak you or Trump might think things are now, and if you judge it less by the number of bills passed and orders signed than by the damage that orgy of governmental expansion did over the long run and is still doing today even FDR’s first hundred days doesn’t look all that great. Trump was also correct, of course, in presuming that much of the mainstream media would be availing themselves of a news peg to hang another round of Trump-bashing on.
Trump did make a lot of campaign promises to be kept within that ridiculous 100 day standard, though, and there’s no denying that so few of them have kept he’d rather you didn’t notice. He made some last minute threats to build a border wall with Mexico and end the North American Free Trade Agreement, then flinched on both after a the Republican Congress objected and the stock markets started to tank, and retreated to establishment Republican positions on China’s currency manipulation and the relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the usefulness of the Export-Import Bank, all of which is encouraging to establishment Republicans such as ourselves but not in keeping with any of the 100-day promises to the more populist sorts of voters. We quite like the Supreme Court pick, which is what Trump meant by “S.C.,” in case you thought he’d done something great for South Carolina, but we mostly credit that to establishment Republicans who kept the seat open during the last of the President Barack Obama administration, and of course much of the mainstream press will criticize Trump and the Republican establishment and us for the pick.
Trump’s critics on both the left and right will have plenty more to criticize, too, and so will many of his disappointed supporters. They’ll all have plenty of arguments that can’t be reputed in the compressed characters of a “tweet,” and we expect that weekend’s news cycle will be brutal. After that it should be just the unusual unfavorable press, though, with people either believing it or disbelieving it according to their preferences, and Trump will have hundreds of hundreds day left to make America so great again that your head will spin.
He might even pull it off, or convince another electoral majority that he did, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed. These past 100 days quite arguably would have been worse with a President Clinton, after all. In the meantime, we’ll try to accomplish more with our own next 100 days.

— Bud Norman

Debating to a Desultory Draw

Two of America’s most widely reviled people had a 90-minute nationally televised argument Monday night about which one of them is the worst, and expectations are that the audience was bigger than anything since the series finale of Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing. Even our happily apolitical brother in Colorado called shortly beforehand to say he was skipping the evening’s National Football League contest to watch the first presidential debate, which is saying something, but we expect that the massive audience was as disappointed as we were.
The so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters of Republican nominee Donald Trump were no doubt disappointed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t keel over or drop dead or at least require an extended bathroom break during the ordeal, as all their latest health rumors had predicted, and at the end of the 90 minutes she was even able to riposte Trump’s question’s about her stamina with a plausible boast about all the miles she’d logged and the hours of congressional inquiries about her various scandals she’d survived. Clinton was feisty enough for the hour-and-a-half to get in a few digs that had Trump on the defensive, make a disarmingly apologetic answer about that ongoing e-mail scandal, spin some heartwarming yarns about her small businessman pop and her toddler granddaughter, and generally strike that middle note between presidential and shrill.
Although we doubt that any of Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters were swayed by Clinton’s performance, we expect that anyone still undecided about about which of these two widely reviled people is worst considered it the abject humiliation that Trump promised as he taunted his way through debates with a wide field of vastly more qualified Republican opponents. Clinton’s more reluctant supporters will probably concede, meanwhile, will have to concede that she also didn’t score any knock-outs.
Trump didn’t go on any racist tirades or mock anyone’s handicaps or boast about his penis size, as he did during his successful run through those vastly more qualified candidates on his way to the Republican nomination, and he even made a show of addressing his opponent as “Secretary.” He got in a few digs of his own, and even if none of them will be widely-looped soundbites today neither will be any of his already-familiar gaffes. After a half-hour or so When he finished with a boast about his superior presidential temperament it got a laugh from the studio audience, which had mostly been as quiet as instructed, but we doubt many were tuned in by that point.
Anyone paying any attention to the more substantive parts of the so-called debate were likely the most disappointed. The boring part started off with Trump asserting that since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed American manufacturing employment had declined, Clinton failing to note that American manufacturing output has also increased since then due to the technological innovations that have actually had more to do with that employment decline, and neither candidate sounding at all like the understood the economic realities of the moment. Clinton blasted the “Trumped-up trickle down economics” of her opponents tax plan, he failed to defend the Reagan economic record or make the arguments about her soak-the-rich nonsense, and it all devolved into a shouting match about how much money his rich dad had loaned him to start his much bragged-about business. Trump denied having “tweeted” that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese, which he actually did, and although we think it is a hoax we doubt it invented by the Chinese and have to score that a desultory draw. He criticized her awful decision to topple the Libyan dictatorship of the undeniably awful yet largely defanged Moammar Gaddafi, which led to all the lies she told about the lives lost in the aftermath in Benghazi, but she rightly pointed out that he had advocated the same policy, and we have no doubt he would have told the same sort of lies about the aftermath, so we now have to score even that deplorable and disqualifying episode in her career as a draw.
Clinton actually struck our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities as far more sane than Trump when she talked about the importance of honoring America’s treaty commitments and credit obligations, and we doubt that Trump’s “America First” isolation will have any appeal to her reluctant leftist supporters. Trump seemed more reasonable on the slightly-less-old-fashioned “law and order” theme, but we doubt that his appeals to America’s minorities will prove persuasive. Both caught the other on a couple of outright falsehoods, such as Trump’s oft-repeated lie that he was against taking out Gaddafi and Clinton’s newly-minted claim that crime rates haven’t been rising in New York City, but we expect that few people will bother to look any of it up. Clinton seemed to score a point when the conversation got around to Trump’s year’s long efforts to prove that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and his recent admission that “Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” and after Trump spent several moments trying to claim that Clinton was responsible and that he deserved credit for proving Obama’s native birth Clinton got another laugh from the generally well-behaved crowd by simply responding “Just listen to what you heard.”
The next round of polling will deliver the final score, and in this crazy year we hesitate to offer any predictions, but we’ll be so bold as to call it a draw. Our brother called us before the big event because we used to be involved in high school and collegiate debate and we wanted our insights how it might work out, but we told this wasn’t any sort of debate we were used to but rather a reality television show that both of the participants knew better than we ever wanted to know. Our scant familiarity with the format suggests that the women Trump is doing poorly with didn’t like how he kept interrupting her, based on our experiences with women, and that the men Trump is leading with didn’t like the way she kept talking, based on our experiences with men, and that this is how presidential elections are elections now decided, based on our observations of how very awful things are these days.

— 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