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Taxes and Texas and Other Disasters

The news was largely swept away by the flood waters that continue to wreak havoc on Texas and Louisiana, but the Republican party has officially commenced the tax reform part of its legislative agenda to make America great again. President Donald Trump kicked it off with a little-heard speech in Missouri, and it’s probably for the best that such an inauspicious start was largely swept away the flood waters.
We’re the old-fashioned conservative Republican types who like our taxes low and government lean, and we’ve shared to a certain wary extent in the stock market’s giddy expectation that Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a more-or-less Republican president might nudge the economy in that direction, but for now we’re warier than ever. The speech sounded all the same populist soak-the-rich themes that Trump expounded during his burn-down-the-establishment campaign, yet seemed to promise all the usual old-fashioned conservative promises about tax cuts for the rich along with everyone else, but didn’t explain with any specificity about how they’re going to pull that off, much less while keeping all those newfangled and old-fashioned campaign promises about reducing the budget deficit and eventually even the national debt.
We doubt that any of those darned newfangled Democratic liberals with their tax-and-spend ways were swayed, even that long-established Democratic Senator from Missouri that Trump threatened by name during a strikingly partisan oration, and we are not assured that even the needed entirety of those of Congressional Republicans will be on board. It largely depends on the details that have not yet been revealed, of course, but whatever they might prove to be they’re bound to offend either the populist of or traditional wings of the Republican party, and in any case won’t please of those darned tax-and-spend Democrats.
Even in a best-case scenario a massive tax cut to whoever without similar cuts in the entitlement programs that are driving the annual deficits and mounting national debt would lead a a temporary budget shortfall, especially with all the increased defense spending that every corner of the Republican party is proposing, and the debate is lately even more complicated than that. The short term budget shortfalls the as-yet unspecified Republican proposals presumably propose assume they’d be offset by the savings they’d realized from repealing and replacing the hated Obamacare law, which somehow didn’t happen despite Republican majorities in Congress and a more-or-less Republican president, and the cost is likely to swell after the fourth-most-populous metropolitan area in the United States finds itself under even more literal water than the president’s approval ratings.
The cost of gasoline is already up by about 25 percent around here after the city that provides a fourth of America’s energy was flooded, the extra five bucks that motorists are paying per fill-up won’t be going to any of the other businesses around here, and the national economy hasn’t yet started to feel the effects of its fourth-most-populous city being underwater. Though we wish them the best all those Republicans are wading into this debate with strong headwinds and few few victories to bolster them, and we expect their allies on the stock markets will be hedging their bets on the promises that had been made to them, which also won’t help. That’s not to mention all the already complicated talk about continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases and funding for crazy campaign promise about building a tall wall across the entire Mexican border, along with the rest of the bipartisan craziness of late.
There’s also all that drip-drip-drip flooding about “Russia,” the latest nuclear saber-rattling from the nutcase North Korean regime, and a general sense that we’re all in the midst of one of those one-thousand year floods. A severe cut in America’s steepest-in-the-world corporate tax rates really is a good idea, even if they do pay an effective rate that’s more-or-less competitive after all the tax exemptions that might or might not be retained under the as-yet-undisclosed Republican proposals, but that’s a pretty dry subject given all the recent floods. There’s an old-fashioned conservative Republican case to be made that cuts in the top rates that will benefit the poor folks those rich folks will wind up hiring, but Trump promised that he and his fellow billionaires would take a hit without revealing the tax returns that would prove his claim, and he’s still a poor advocate for low taxes and lean government and old-fashioned conservative Republicanism.
Those darned Democrats and their tax-and-spend ways don’t seem to have any better ideas, so for now we’re bracing for one of those occasional thousand-year disasters.

— Bud Norman

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About That Ballyhooed Speech

President Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed address to a joint session of Congress wasn’t awful, at least by his usual standards. There was none of the “that I can tell you” and “believe me” and “OK?” or other tics that usually pepper his speeches, the characteristic boastful hyperbole was toned down a more typical political level, his sentences were parseable and occasionally almost oratorical, and he didn’t give the late night comics anything obvious to ridicule.
That was sufficient that even the media Trump has identified as enemies of the American people were offering begrudging praise, and although his most ardent supporters might have found it a bit boring and been disappointed that there it offered nothing to chant they probably liked it as well. Still, by the standard of what was needed it wasn’t a very good speech. Once people start to recover from the shock of a presidential-sounding Trump, pretty much everyone will find something in it to grouse about.
Trump shrewdly disarmed his most hysterical critics by opening with a condemnatory few words about a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, of two immigrants from India by a man who shouted “Get out of my country” as he opened fire, as well a recent uptick in anti-semitic incidents and other crimes apparently motivated by racial or ethnic animus, but it won’t stop complaints that his previous nativist rhetoric has contributed to the problems. His critics will also note that later spoke at greater length about the crimes committed by immigrants, and had a couple of widows on hand to illustrate the point, and emphasized how big the problem was by creating a new agency in the government to deal with its victims. Although we were advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws way back when Trump was calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “cruel” for his relatively modest proposals, we’re also leery of new agencies and can’t help wondering why the country can’t better serve victims of crime no matter who perpetrated it.
Trump also made clear he was steadfast against all crime no matter who perpetrates it, and he wasn’t quite so extravagant about overstating the extent of it as he has been in the recent past, but he didn’t offer any specific solutions, He spoke of supporting “the men and women of law enforcement,” which we take to mean to that his Justice Department won’t be harassing local police departments into retreat from their more aggressive tactics, as the administration President Barack Obama did, which almost certainly has to do with that undeniable if overstated recent uptick in crime driven largely a few cities where the Obama administration was particularly tough on the cops and crimes rates have indeed been soaring, but we would have liked to have seen that argument more fully developed.

The same lack of specificity permeated the rest of the speech. Trump swore his fidelity to “free trade,” but he sounded so perfunctory about it and so impassioned when he went on at much greater length about “fair trade” we would have appreciated a clearer description of what he wants the international commerce to look like. There is still an influential number of Republicans who still hew to the party’s erstwhile free market principles in Congress, and all the Democrats there who still aren’t so far left as self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were all for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals that Obama negotiated, and we expect they’re also wanting some further clarity about the matter. Anyone employed by or invested in one of America’s many export-dependent industries, such as the agricultural and aviation sectors that make up the biggest chunk of the economy around here, are also bound to be anxious for further details. He spoke of how America’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a 100 percent tariff slapped on them by some unnamed countries, which so far as we tell are India and the Maldives, which is indeed unfortunate for any aspiring Indian and Maldivian biker gangs, but we like to hear more about a trade war might affect the wheat and airplane markets. He’s for getting rid of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires people without health insurance to pay for the privilege, which is fine by us and a great relief after his campaign statements to the contrary, and he’s for interstate insurance markets, as is every sentient being on the planet, but he’s for that preexisting conditions part of Obamacare and was conspicuously vague about how he’s going to make all that work.

Speaking of the Republican party’s erstwhile free market principles, Trump also took some largely unearned credit for strong-arming and bribing some recognizable brand names into keeping some of their American workers on the job, and he promised more of the same. There were no flow charts or graphs to exactly how Trump intends to personally manage a $17.4 billion economy with all of these great deals, and we couldn’t help recalling how he’d run his casinos and airline and real estate university and various other namesake ventures, but we were reassured that at least he didn’t say “believe me, OK?” He promised to do a lot of de-regulating, which warmed our principled free market Republican hearts, and even announced a policy of only allowing one new regulation for every two repealed, which struck us as rather arbitrary but nonetheless reasonable, but all that talk about intervening in every corporate re-location suggests that the one new regulation will be more far-reaching that those few forgettable lines from section two A part IV of the This Thing or the Other Thing Act of 1936 and that bit about proper wattage of lighting in federal buildings from the Affordable This or That Act of the dying days of the Obama Administration that are tossed out.
Trump read the usual Republican boilerplate about the national debt, and rightly noted how it had nearly doubled during the Obama administration, but he also proposed enough infrastructure spending to re-build the entire country, and suggested we could do it maybe twice or even three times if we don’t get it just right, and surely we’re not the only ones left hoping for a more explicit explanation of how he plans to pull that off without the debt. He’s talking big tax cuts and promising that along with all de-regulating they’ll speed up the sluggish pace of economic growth, which we our free market sensibilities regard as good bet, but we’re not such risk-takers that we wager it will be enough to rebuild an entire country of this size a couple of times over. Trump said we’d already spent that much in fighting the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is only true if you very much want to believe Trump because that he can tell you, OK?, and he seemed to promise there’d no more such foolish spendthriftiness for at least the next four years, but he also promised to eradicate the Islamic State terror gang and radical Islamic extremism in general, so we’re still unclear how those numbers will work out.
The only other mention of foreign policy was some talk about new alliances with old enemies, which Trump likened to our post-World War II arrangements with Germany and Japan, which we took to mean that he’s going full steam ahead on selling both of them and number of other countries out to the Russian dictator that he has frequently praises. It got short mention in the speech and the immediate stories about it, but given all the allegations of Russian meddling in the election and the recent leaks about the Trump campaign’s contacts and the past officials with undeniable ties to the Russkies who have been kicked off team Trump and whatever might or might not be in those still-undisclosed tax returns, as well as all that gushing praise Trump keeps heaping on Putin, the story is likely to linger.
All those Democrats who laughed at Romney’s Cold War-era foreign policy are suddenly sounding like John Birchers, and there is still a significant number of Republicans left who hold to the party’s erstwhile stern position about the Russkies, and we expect they’re eagerly awaiting more details about the matter. The same coalition is likely to take a look at the fine print in all that infrastructure spending, too, as every last pre-Trump Republican stood firm-fast against such spendthrifty tomfoolery back when Obama was proposing it, and all those Democrats who used to think it was a great idea will hate it because it’s now Trump’s idea, and we have to admit that they’ll have an argument that the private investment part of the spending is an invitation to outright corruption, and even the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will probably oppose Trump-branded protectionism. The Democrats were mostly well-behaved during the address, but they couldn’t suppress a laugh when President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, and given that Trump retains full ownership of business interests that don’t necessarily align with the national interest we expect the late night comics will provide plenty more laughs about it in the coming months and years.
For now, though, Trump will probably enjoy a few days of relatively good press. That shtick of reading parseable sentences without provoking any “Twitter” feuds worked well enough for Trump that even the enemies of the American people are glumly admitting a certain presidential tone, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with it.

— 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

Trudging to the Polls on a Chilly Election Day

At some point this afternoon we’ll take that familiar stroll through our picturesque old neighborhood to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran Church on the scenic west bank of the Little Arkansas River, where we’ll stand in line and flash our photo identification to a friendly volunteer poll worker and exercise our constitutional right to cast our votes for a variety of offices. It’s a longstanding Election Day ritual we’ve always found quite cathartic, no matter how things turned out at the end of the day, but in this crazy election year it will seem a desultory chore.
There’s an old-fashioned Republican congressman in our district who we’ll be mostly pleased to support, and a slightly less rock-ribbed Republican senator we don’t mind voting for, and we’ll also cast a hopeful vote for whatever Republican is running against that left-wing Democrat who represents our anomalously liberal district in the Kansas House of Representatives. We’ll unenthusiastically vote the conservative “no” position on those five controversial state Supreme Court justices who are up for review, and a straight GOP line down to those little-known offices at the bottom of the ballot, but for the first time in our lives we won’t be voting for the Republican at the top of the ticket.
In this crazy election year the Grand Old Party’s nominee is a thrice-married and six-times bankrupt real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-club-and-beauty-pageant-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show-and-scam-university mogul, who boasts about the married women he’s slept with and the politicians he’s bribed, mocks the handicapped and disparages prisoners of war and impugns the motives of anyone with a contrary opinion, routinely pays his creditors less than promised and leaves his investors and employees short while somehow making money off his numerous failed businesses, and brags that he can grab women by the wherever and get away with it because he’s a “star.” Throughout a long, long campaign he’s proved himself thin-skinned and easily provoked, every bit as petty and vindictive as he claimed to be in his stupid but best-selling books, as exclusively self-interested as he’d always been in the 69 years before he entered politics, completely unable to restrain whatever idiotic thought pops into his head and then inclined to lie that he never said any such thing even though it’s on tape, and he’s crude and vulgar and ridiculously coiffed to boot.
His ever-shifting positions on the issues are perhaps even worse, at least from our old-fashioned Republican perspective. He’s peddling a protectionist trade policy that won’t protect his gullible supporters from the inevitable changes in a technological economy and will more likely provoke a trade war that is ruinous to the entire world. His promises to erase the nation’s debt by negotiating better trade deals is preposterous, his previous suggestions that he’d simply pay less than promised just as his he’s always done in his oft-bankrupt business life would be catastrophic, his Obama-style infrastructure spending certainly won’t reduce the debt, and his claims that he can micromanage the entire American economy the way he does his oft-bankrupt businesses does not reassure our free market selves. He takes a harsh rhetorical line against the recently decline rate of illegal immigration, but that pointless wall he’s building won’t prevent visa overstays, he’s all over the place about deporting those who are already here, as recently as the last presidential election he was criticizing the Republican nominee’s more sensible enforcement plans, and Mexico won’t be paying for that wall and the harshness of the nominee’s rhetoric has only made border enforcement more widely unpopular. His talk about turning the alliances that won the Cold War into protection rackets and allowing nuclear arms races in east Asia and the Middle East is what the diplomats call “crazy talk,” and we have no reason to trust his secret plan to crush the Islamic State and don’t like the way he’s criticized the recent and largely successful efforts to do just that.
None of our Republican friends can persuasively refute any of this, and few even try, but many have nonetheless urged us to vote for the party’s nominee rather than let a Democratic president pick any of the Supreme Court justices. It’s a plausible argument, given how very bad any Democrat’s appointees would inarguably be, but the Republican nominee has effusively praised the Kelo decision that allows governments to seize other people’s property on behalf of real estate moguls such as himself, seems to have no problem with that Obergefell decision that re-defined a millennia-old definition of marriage, agrees with the individual mandate that was the key matter in the Obamacare decision, disregards the rulings against the stop-and-search policies he advocates, has vowed to jail political opponents that he’s already found guilty, and promises to overturn the more longstanding Sullivan decision that allows the press to freely criticize him, so we hardly look to him as a protector of the Constitution. His frequent praise for dictators who have similarly punished their opponents, along all the extra-constitutional steps he’s vowed to take and the rest of his strongman posturing, only adds to our unease.
Of course there’s no way that we could bring ourselves to vote that Democratic nominee, either. She’s the Democratic nominee, for one thing, and thus portends all the collectivist and modernist and post-modernist tax-and-spend craziness that necessarily entails. The self-described socialist who almost won the Democratic nomination pushed the eventual nominee into a protectionist stance that is only better than the Republican nominee’s to the extent that she probably doesn’t really mean it, she’s just as determined as the Republican to ignore the looming debt crisis, her claims to be able to micromanage the economy are no more plausible than her opponent’s, and her y’all-come-in immigration policies make that pointless border wall seem a sound idea. Her foreign policy record has already undermined our allies’ faith in America, and effectively acquiesced to an Iranian bomb that will set off a Middle East nuclear arms anyway, and her own extra-Constitutional and authoritarian tendencies are also apparent.
The Democratic nominee’s much-touted resume reveals her own disqualifying character issues, too. As First Lady of Arkansas and then The United States she spent most of her time enriching herself with highly improbable cattle futures deals and firing honest White House employees to replace them with her Hollywood friends’ businesses and impugning the reputations of the women that her husband had voluntary and involuntary tawdry sex scandals with, her short time in the Senate proved profitable to herself but produced nothing for the public, and her disastrous four years of ill-thought interventions and even-more-ill-thought non-interventions as Secretary of State left every part of the world worse off but added many millions to her family’s phony-baloney foundation. She also habitually tells outrageous lies even about things that she should know can be easily refuted with a few keystrokes and a couple of mouse clicks, and of course there’s that whole e-mail thing that probably should have resulted in charges of mishandling classified information and a proper trial.
Which makes that walk to the polling place a desultory chore, no matter how pleasant the fall weather on a short stroll though such a picturesque neighborhood to such a lovely church and temporary altar of a hopefully durable democracy. Once we get there we’ll write-in a vote for that quixotic Mormon fellow who’s done hazardous duty in the Central Intelligence Agency and the financial sector and even on Capitol Hill, and has become a favorite of some of the erstwhile Republican intelligentsia who prefer the austere old-time GOP religion to the Republican nominee’s new prosperity gospel version, mainly because we can’t bring ourselves not to vote in a presidential election. As we trade along the sidewalks of Riverside toward our destination we’ll console ourselves that the gesture might do some infinitesimal good, as it keeps both of those awful major party nominees at least one vote short of that 51 percent they could call a mandate, and signals at least one more vote for that stubborn segment of the erstwhile Republican party that still stands athwart history shouting “stop,” as the late and great William F. Buckley would surely have put it. At least the record will reflect that someone took a stand at scenic spot on the Little River Arkansas against this crazy election year, and we’ll hold out faint hope that will do some good.

— Bud Norman

On What Was Thankfully the Final Debate

We tuned into the final presidential debate of this crazy election year loathing both participants, and by the end of it we were loathing both even more, so we’re inclined to call it a draw. The target audience was whatever slight portion of the country is still holding out hope that one of these two awful people is at least somewhat less awful than the other, however, and with that in mind we’d have to say that awful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton probably got the better of awful Republican nominee Donald Trump.
All the pundits in the traditional press seemed to agree that for the first 30 minutes or so Trump sounded like the sort of politely boring old-fashioned Republican who would probably be 20 points ahead of Clinton in all the polls, and that for the remainder of the debate he started acting like the proudly impolite and you-have-to-admit-at-least-he’s-not-boring candidate that overwhelmed all those politely boring but vastly more accomplished primary challengers and is currently six points or so behind in a general election race. Being politely boring old-fashioned Republicans ourselves we’d like to think we could have done better on the policy stuff, and would have come off far less awful during the rest of the debate, but we bitterly admit that this time the conventional wisdom is probably correct. Both candidates were at last forced to confront the fact of America’s crippling national debt, with the Democrat ludicrously asserting that the rich folks who currently pay an inordinate share of the nation’s taxes can pay off a mere $20 trillion or so of debt and the Republican ludicrously asserting that he’ll somehow create a 5 percent annual increase in the gross domestic product that will make it all go away, and both pretending that reforms to the entitlement programs that comprise some 60 percent of government spending aren’t needed, but we have to admit that the frank talk we believe in probably wouldn’t have done either any good. They were also asked about abortion, with the Democrat sticking to her long-held extremist abortion-rights-even-unto-the-ninth-month stand and the Republican sticking to his newly-found and also extremist punish-the-mother positions on the matter, but we doubt that anybody with strong opinions on the matter was dissuaded by either of their soundbites.
Clinton was the Secretary of State who presided over that awful deal that betrayed the Czechs and Poles on a deal to provide nuclear against the Russians, and who offered that ridiculously apologetic “reset” button that encouraged Russia to proceed with its revanchist policies in Georgia and the Ukraine and the rest of its former Soviet empire, but Trump once again bragged about how Russian dictator Vladimir Putin had said nice things about him and defended his admirer against the now undeniable charge that Putin has been hacking the Democratic party’s e-mails to help the Trump campaign. A boringly polite Republican candidate would have such taken to the opportunity to note that Clinton had also made her e-mails as Secretary of State vulnerable to foreign espionage by using an unsecured server that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has called “grossly careless,” but the you-have-to-admit-at-least-he’s-not-boring Trump took the opportunity to defend the Russian dictator against the charges leveled by every single civilian and military intelligence agency and declined a golden opportunity to say he didn’t approve of such foreign interference in an American election. This allowed Clinton to assert that Trump would be Putin’s “puppet,” causing to Trump to respond that “you’re the puppet,” and at that point we were only slightly reassured he didn’t mimic PeeWee Herman by saying “I know you are, but what am I?”
Clinton was stuck with the Democrats’ weak-kneed response to the Islamic State’s rise, Trump overstated its international influence and was reduced to arguing that a recent multi-national offensive against that terror gang was politically-timed and that Putin wasn’t propping up the Syrian and Iranian resistance. Some brief long awaited talk about the undeniable failure of the Obamacare health system would have helped a boringly traditional Republican candidate, but Trump’s past talk in support of an individual mandate and praise of single payer systems and blather about the government paying for universal coverage resulted in yet another desultory draw.
For those who stuck around for the good part where the candidates sparred over which one was more awful, it was probably another draw. Even the well-reviewed-by-the-mainstream-press Fox News moderator was obliged to ask Trump about his caught-on-tape and widely-publicized comments about grabbing women by the whatever, and an audience warned against any reactions had a good laugh when he claimed that nobody respects women more than he does, so although Trump was at least shrewd enough not to raise his usual accusations about Clinton’s husband that was probably a draw at the very best. By the end of the debate he was frequently interrupting Clinton, which probably doesn’t play well with the distaff 53 percent of the electorate that seems to loathe him even more than Clinton, and his interjection that she’s “such a nasty woman,” although accurate enough, probably didn’t win him any undecided votes.
Nor did Trump do himself any good, near the end, when he said that he’d keep the country “in suspense” about whether he’d accept the outcome of the election even if he lost. A boringly traditional Republican would have answered the question by saying that once the votes had all been counted, and absent any compelling evidence of fraud, that of course he would accede to the will of the people, but you have to admit that Trump at least isn’t so boring as that. The response will probably dominate the post-debate headlines, and the resulting debate probably won’t do him much good, but at least it will give his more die-hard supporters something to grouse about for another four years.
For those of us who can’t stand either of these two awful people or their awful for-the-moment policies, there will be plenty of grousing no matter how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

Those Post-Labor Day Blues

One of the quadrennial cliches of presidential election years is that the American public doesn’t start paying attention to any of that political stuff until after Labor Day. We’ve always wondered if that were really so, given the usual ubiquity of politics, and in this crazy election year we can’t believe that anybody has been able to avert his gaze from the spectacle. If you are so lucky as to be just now tuning in the presidential race, though, suffice to say that it’s been dreadful.
Believe it or not, the two major party nominees are Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Donald J. Trump, the worst choices that America’s longstanding and once-venerable two-party system has ever puked up. We are slightly heartened that enough of the public has been paying attention that a vast majority regards both as dishonest and corrupt and utterly unfit for the office, but it looks as if one or the other will wind up president nonetheless. As we enter the supposedly crucial post-Labor Day stretch of the race Clinton is still clinging to a slight lead in the average of polls, but the unprecedented unpopularity of both candidates makes it daunting for even the most daring pundits to offer a prediction.
Those civic-minded sorts who take a post-Labor Day interest in the issues needn’t both boning up on the candidates’ stands, as they tend to shift from day to day. The Democrat can be counted on to take the typical Democratic positions, but not to an extent that would upset her Wall Street backers, which is why she had such trouble beating a full-blown nutcase and self-described socialist as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries. The Republican takes all sorts of un-Republican stands on issues ranging from free trade to the Iraq War to socialized medicine, which partially explains how his pluralities more easily defeated a large field of far more qualified challengers, and he’ll routinely switch sides and insist that he’d been on the same side all along.
Neither candidate seems at all concerned about the nation’s unaffordable debt, much less expressed a willingness to address the entitlement programs that is driving it, and both seem to have the disastrous belief they can expand the economy enough to solve that problem their own brilliant micro-management. The Democrat has a long foreign record in public that includes four years as Secretary of State, which were disastrous in countless ways, the Republican has no public service record at all but routinely lies about his past pronouncements and spouts all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and has openly mused about not fulfilling America’s treaty obligations. Both are protectionist, although the Democrat was sort of forced into that by her full-blown nutcase of a self-describes socialist challenger and probably won’t go so far with it as to upset her Wall Street backers, while the Republican seems to have arrived at this very un-Republican position on his own and has consistently stuck with his belief that any trade deal in the history of the country he didn’t negotiate is a loser. The Democrat is more friendly to illegal immigration than the Republican, but by the time she gets done “triangulating” and he gets done “softening” that might prove a wash, and in any case it doesn’t seem the all-important issue it was back during the Republican primaries.
Our guess is that it comes down to which nominee the public finds more personally loathsome, and we can’t blame any pundit who declines to guess how that comes out. Which is basically where we find our country on this day after Labor Day, when the public supposedly starts paying serious attention to the such matters. There are also the Libertarian Gary Johnson and The Green Party’s Jill Stein in the mix, and although neither of them will be the next president they do make the race even tighter, and somehow even weirder, which is saying something, but that just makes a pundit’s job all the harder.
We’ll probably wind up writing in some pointless protest vote, and leaving it to the rest of you to decide which candidate is more loathsome, but at least you’re caught up to this point, more or less.

— Bud Norman

Progress Towards Party Unity, For Whatever That’s Worth

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee met with the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives on Thursday, and we would have loved to have been there. In ordinary circumstances it would have been a predictable discussion of how to best stick it to the very vulnerable Democratic and thoroughly awful nominee, and both coming out with unabashed statements of party, but in this extraordinary election cycle the big news is that both sides came out with no schoolyard taunts and even some talk of “progress.”
In this extraordinary election cycle the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is Donald J. Trump, the self-described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show-and-scam-university mogul who won the party’s nomination mostly with the support of anti-establishment party members who flood the internet comment sections with talking of burning it all down, and the Speaker of the House is Ohio Rep. Paul Ryan, the former right-wing Tea Party darling who now represents the dread if ill-defined Establishment. It is therefore not at all surprising that Ryan has previously expressed less than the ordinary enthusiasm for his party’s presumptive nominee, and that Trump has been boasting he can win without such Republican establishment losers, and that the very vulnerable presumptive Democratic nominee still has a chance of extending her party’s disastrous seven-and-a-half-year presidential reign, and that it’s all a very messy business for both the Republicans and the Republic at large.
As we’ve been interns to the once-notorious right-wing villain Sen. Bob Dole, the once quintessentially establishment Republican who’s now on board with the Trump nomination, and often opposed him during a newspaper career that brought us into conflict with his deal-making ways and earned us a reputation as anti-establishment radicals, and have always advocated both for and against the “establishment positions” of any given movement, and at any rate are far too penurious to be considered part of that “donor class” that seems to currently afflict both parties, we would consider ourselves quite objective observers of that extraordinary meeting.
We won’t be voting for Trump in any case, nor his admittedly at least as equally awful major party opposition, being the Burkean yet anti-establishment types we are, and  matter how far such a lone hold-out on national solvency such as Ryan progresses in getting Trump on board with real capitalism  we’ll hold out hope the country least doesn’t go bankrupt. Call us establishment types, which is apparently quite the slur at the moment, but that’s what we’re grasping at. Despite his frequent over-judiciousness and sobriety, we hope that a Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will somehow prevail in this extraordinary election cycle.

— Bud Norman

Trump at Long Last Considers a New Haircut

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has long been notorious for paying his creditors less than promised and threatening  lawsuits more costly than the remainder if they objected, and while bragging about his untold and undocumented wealth has on four occasions resorted to bankruptcy filings to pay out mere pennies on the dollars owed for his failed casinos and strip joints. We’re told by his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters that such ruthlessly unscrupulous business practices are precisely what’s needed to deal with those duplicitous Democrats and “establishment” Republicans and wily Chinamen and assorted other foreigners to make America great again, but even as we contemplate the horrible alternative of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton becoming president we do not find the argument at all persuasive.
With our government already $19 trillion in debt and the shortfalls on all its grandiose entitlement promises rapidly approaching all-the-money-in-the-world levels, Trump has already proposed several you-can-believe-him-they’re-great solutions. He told The Washington Post that he could entirely eliminate the national debt within eight years with no tax increases just by renegotiating all of the country’s trade deals in a really great way, believe him, and then a couple days later he told Fortune Magazine that he’d never said he could eliminate all the debt within 10 years and only expected to reduce the debt a “percentage,” because of all the other great things he plans to do about infrastructure and such, and when asked what percentage he replied “It depends on how aggressive you want to be,” and that “I’d rather not be so aggressive.” More worrisomely yet, he also told the CNBC cable news network that he’d handle the debt of the casino and strip joint that America has lately become by the same means that have worked out so well for himself in the past, by asking the country’s creditors to accept less than what was promised.
Asked by his stunned interlocutor if he was really talking about renegotiating sovereign bonds already issued by the government of the United States of America, Trump replied in typically un-parsable English that “I don’t want to renegotiate the bonds, but I think you can do discounting, I think, you know, depending on where the interest rates are, I think you can buy back — you can — I’m not talking about with a renegotiation, but you can buy back at discounts.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s typically un-parsable English allowed him much wiggle room as he inevitably walked back his comments, as the notoriously straight-talking truth-teller so often does, so the very next day he was on CNN assuring another national television audience that “People said I want to go and buy and default debt, and I mean these people are crazy. This is the United States government. First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, OK?” None of which is at all reassuring.
Call us crazy, but our best reading of Trump’s earlier comment suggests that at least in one particular moment in time Trump was actually talking on national television about paying the country’s creditors less than was promised but somehow achieving this feat without a renegotiation. This is what’s known in economics as “crazy talk.” Any debt that is paid at less than what had been contractually promised has most certainly been renegotiated, whether acknowledged or not, the entirety of the financial and political world would surely regard it as a default by the world’s biggest-or-second-biggest-economy-depending-on-the-accounting-methods, and although this method has previously worked out to the benefit of Donald J. Trump there is simply no explaining how it might work out to the benefit of America or the rest of the world. Given the chance to print his own money, just as President Barack Obama has done during the past seven-and-a-half years or so while doubling the national debt, we aren’t at all certain that the failed casino-and-strip-joint owner would avail himself of the opportunity. It didn’t work out well for the Weimar Republic or Zimbabwe or any of the other casino and strip joint countries that tried to inflate their way out of debt, but we’re assured by his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters that the oft-bankrupt Trump is such an exceptionally shrewd businessman that this time will surely be different.

Which is not to say, alas, that the most likely alternative is any better. The presumptive Democratic nominee has also pledged to keep her hands off those entitlement programs that are driving the country toward inevitable bankruptcy, which would involve a fight that neither of these self-described fighters have the stomach for, and unlike her most likely rival she’s not only ambiguously open to negotiations on taxing the public to keep the economy limping along even if those tax increases hinder economic growth and wind up reducing public revenues but is enthusiastically for them, so we take care not to endorse either of them. We’re still  looking around for some third  or fourth option that might be more appealing, and although haven’t settled on any yet,  and although we admittedly don’t hold out much hope that there is one, be assured we’ll keep trying.

— Bud Norman

The Greeks and the Rest of Us

The situation in Greece seems hopeless, no matter how its citizens vote on an emergency referendum Sunday, and the rest of the world seems in pretty sorry shape as well.
Apparently nobody in Greece can understand the 72-word question being put to the voters, assuming that the government is able to print up enough ballots and get them distributed to all the polling places on time, and it’s certainly Greek to us. So far as we can gather, however, a “yes” vote is for accepting the European Union’s seemingly generous offer to continue the loans that have been keeping the Greek economy barely afloat, although in exchange for draconian budget cuts and other austerity measures that will almost certainly be painful to the already pained average Greek, and a “no” vote likely means a Greek exit — or “Grexit,” as it’s become known — from the EU and its onerous demands as well as extravagant promises of continued government largesse, although in reality it will more likely cause the complete collapse of the Greek economy and start causing all those ample government checks to bounce right out of the last of the country’s failing banks.
The very young and stupid Greek Prime Minister and his socialist party are backing the “no” vote, on the argument that it will allow him to negotiate an even more generous deal with his EU creditors, but only the most rash would predict how that might turn out. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and that the rest of the EU elite would obviously prefer not to lose a charter member of their club, which might bolster the growing number of Eurosceptics in Britain and other important countries as well, and make it embarrassingly clear that their essential organizing policy of a one-size-fits-all currency for a fissiparous coalition of 28 countries that still stubbornly cling to some sense of national interest and have very differently-sized economies was unworkable all along. On the other hand, Greece has become so unproductive and such a pain in the EU’s economic posterior that the club might well decide it is best rid of it, and that if Greece instead becomes a client of Moscow that it would be a small victory for what remains of the West in the renewed Cold War.
In any event, the Greeks will still wind up broke and rioting in the streets against the reality that they can’t forever keep on sending out retirement checks to 50-year-olds and unemployment checks to the more than 50 percent of the 20-somethings who are without jobs and taxing the in-betweens to such an extent that they’ve all stopped paying taxes and produce children and future taxpayers at a dwindling rate and have it all total up to about half the country’s gross domestic product, even if has seemed to work just fine up to now. These schemes always work out for while, and it’s so great when they do that the mean-spirited fuddy-duddies who warned that it would all come to a bad end are thoroughly discredited, but eventually reality intrudes and it does come to bad end and there’s nothing for the idealistic and generous to do but riot in the streets. One is tempted to shake his head in pity and disgust at the Greeks, who once upon a long-ago time gave the world Plato and Aristotle and Euripides and Aristophanes and Sappho and all sorts of intriguing ideas about human nature, but those same long-ago Greeks have taught us to notice that such weakness to temptation is by no means a uniquely Greek thing.
While the Eurocentric American media has mostly paid attention to Greek’s travails, a few stories have leaked out that Puerto Rico is also on the verge of default and bankruptcy. The same sort of extravagant promises made by politicians, and eagerly believed a majority of the country’s voters, have led a large portion of the island’s residents to take advantage of its immigration relationship with the United States and move mainland, which of course has contracted the economy and increased the need for government relief and raised the debt and further hindered the economy and forced more people to flee. Greeks and Puerto Ricans are relatively minor players in the world economy, but Chicago, the third-largest city of the first or second largest economy depending on your accounting methods, whose municipal bonds are now rated as junk, is finding that the promises made to and believed by its vast number of its public servants were a few billion dollars more extravagant than its dwindling number of taxpayers could keep. Similar situations prevail in numerous other American cities and counties and states, as well, and of course the the debt of the federal government is keeping a relative pace with that of Greece. Unlike Greece in its post-Drachma days the United States can keep printing greenbacks to service that debt, and unlike the Euro or the Drachma the greenback is the world’s reserve currency, which seems to be working up to now, but only the rash would predict how that’s likely to turn out.
Lest we sound unduly pessimistic about America so soon before the Fourth of July, we would also note that China, which is the first or second largest economy in the world depending on which accounting method you believe, also has its debt woes. Even in the still more-or-less Communist country felt obliged to make extravagant promises to the people, the people were eager to believe, and now they’re stuck with the gargantuan tab for giant ghost cities and other ambitious make-work projects. Similar examples of human beings succumbing to human nature be found all over the globe, and probably in at least one of the countless tax jurisdictions where you live, and at various points throughout human history.
In between those various points of human history when the clash extravagant promises and economic reality turned out very badly, there were periods of prosperity and the self-sufficiency of citizens and the resultant improvement in human achievement that resulted from the lessons that had been so painfully learned. They all ended when enough time had past that the lessons were forgotten and the extravagant promises became all the more enticing, but the process tends to repeat itself.
There’s some faint hope, we suppose, that here in America these lessons will be re-learned from the examples of Greece and Puerto Rico and China and Chicago and the rest of the bankrupt parts of the world, and that perhaps the inevitable crisis can be forestalled until the next presidential election when the people will choose correct course. Only the most rash would predict how that might turn out, though. Our guess is that the next presidential election will more likely be about homosexual marriage and the latest celebrity’s sex-change operation and subsidized condoms the Confederate battle flag and whatever shiny objects the media might find, and of course the extravagant promises that politicians always make the people are always eager to believe. For now, at least, it all seems to be working out, or at least well enough to make those further extravagant promises sound plausible.

— Bud Norman

Oh Yeah, the Economy

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

— Bud Norman