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Doubling Down on a Dumb Trade War

Way back when we were proud to be Republicans, it was largely because of the Grand Old Party’s principled stand for red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. When Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama during a campaign debate of picking the economic winners and losers, and mostly picking the losers, we stood up and cheered. Now the Republicans are obliged to defend President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade war against the rest of the world, and to ignore the fact that he’s picking the economic winners and losers and mostly picking the losers.
On Monday Trump escalated the trade war with China by threatening $200 billion of tariffs on that country’s exports to the United States, his earlier threat of a mere $50 billion of tariffs having failed to force China’s capitulation to his trade demands, and of course China immediately responded with threats of retaliatory tariffs. Of course the stock markets hated the news, and so did everyone else with a basic understanding of the global economy. It’s bad economic policy, has warped America’s foreign policy to the point that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is a an honorable leader much beloved by his starving people and Canada’s democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a weak and dishonest leader who awaits a special place in hell and all of our longtime allies are suspect, and in the long run it will prove bad politics.
Trump’s tariffs on steel and coal imports will surely be popular with people employed in those industries, but it will just as surely be unpopular with people who work in steel- and coal-buying industries, and anyone who buys anything made of steel or powered by coal, and the latter categories are by far a bigger voting bloc. There are also a lot of wheat farmers and airplane-makers who do a brisk trade with China and will surely be chagrined if China decides to buy from Argentina or Airbus, and a large chunk of Trump’s die-hard defenders will eventually notice that their shopping trips to Wal-Mart are suddenly far more expensive. The worst case scenario for a global trade war is the same as the last time a cocky and unprincipled Republican president tried it, which resulted in the Great Depression and eventually World War II, and even Trump will be hard-pressed to spin that outcome to even his most die-hard defenders.
The best-case scenario is harder to imagine. Red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism has always resulted in the creative destruction of longstanding industries, such as buggy-making and Blockbuster video stores, but it has reliably replaced them with something the public has always found better. China isn’t the reason that coal-mining now employs a mere 50,000 workers in America, which is mainly because of mechanization and nuclear plants and fracking of natural gas and all those windmills along I-35 and other more healthy ways to generate the nation’s energy. We sympathize with those last remaining coal miners, but red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism might well replace their jobs with something that doesn’t cause black-lung disease and an early death, and in any case they’re a small voting bloc.
Trump seems to believe the best-case scenario is back to the good old days when America mined coal and made all the world’s steel, and that his die hard defenders will prefer that to this high-tech age and what might come next. What might come next might well be far better, though, and we’ll bet on that rather Trump’s global trade war.

— Bud Norman

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The Pros and Cohns of Protectionism

Even on a Tuesday day when a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the departure of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn was the biggest news out of the White House. The frequent comings and goings of Trump administration officials are usually newsworthy only because of the colorful characters involved and the chaotic situation they represent, but in Cohn’s case it could have serious consequences.
Cohn was one of economic advisers who tried to talk Trump out of imposing the steep steel and aluminum tariffs that were announced last week, as well as the rest of the protectionist agenda Trump has proposed, and his resignation suggests that talking Trump out of such cockamamie ideas is beyond his ability. The congressional Republican leadership also tried persuade Trump to reconsider, and although Trump is invoking national security reasons for imposing the tariffs so did his Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, as well as some of most stalwart defenders in the conservative media, so it appears that no one’s up to the task.
Cohn’s continued role in the White House gave faint hope to the free-traders, though, and his exit suggests the fight is over. His resignation wasn’t announced until the stock markets had closed for the day, but we expect the news will be met glumly when they open again today. Except for the aluminum and steel makers and a few other unionized industries hoping for similar protection from foreign competition, pretty much everyone is planning to pay more for aluminum and steel and try to pass the hit along the supply chain and down to the end consumer, steeling themselves for the inevitable retaliatory tariffs on American exports by friends and foes alike, and worrying what comes after that.
Cohn and the other sensible administration officials and the congressional Republican leadership and the conservative media defenders should have seen it coming all along, though, as well as all those steel-and-aluminum buying companies and export industries and other critics. Trump made quite clear during his seemingly quixotic campaign that he intended on waging a global trade war, and although he spouted off a lot of crazy talk that no one took seriously he was quite clearly sincere in about this particular threat. He’d been publicly critical of America’s trade with the rest of the world since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, claimed that America had been taken advantage of in every foreign relation since the Marshall Plan of President Harry Truman, and offered himself as the artful dealmaker who alone could set things right. Over the years Trump has been all over the place on abortion and immigration and “transgender rights” and almost anything else in the news — we like to joke that he’s taken more positions than Stormy Daniels — but he has never once wavered from a core conviction that he alone could renegotiate the entire world economy to America’s rightful advantage.
Although an estimable fellow, Cohn was never going to talk Trump out of this delusion. Cohn was always a controversial pick, with critics to both the left and right, and ill-suited to any role in Trump’s reality show. His only previous employer was at the too-big-to-fail Goldman-Sachs investment bank, where he rose through the ranks to a top spot, and the conspiracy theorizing sorts of liberals and conservatives have long noticed that Goldman Sachs has landed a noticeable number of former executives in both Democratic and Republican administrations for an noticeably long time, so that left him vulnerable. The stock markets and other centrist types were slightly reassured that at least Trump honored some of the time-honored presidential traditions, and held out hope Con would restrain Trump’s populist impulses, but a buttoned-down riser-through-the-corporate ranks has never prevailed in any reality show ever aired.
Cohn lasted on the reality show island longer than most of us expected, given all the anti-globalist conspiracy theorists who got a vote in each week’s cliff-hanging exile. He outlasted the defiantly nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon, oh-so loyal and kinda cute communications director Hope Hicks, onetime establishment whipping boy and later chief of staff Reince Priebus, currently under-indictment former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, that Omarosa woman who held some job or another before returning to a lesser-rated reality, along with countless others can’t quite recall. We think he did some good along the way, too.
As an observant Jew with universal human values, Cohn reportedly considered resigning after Trump insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis at a deadly rally in Virginia, and although he stayed on he helped fuel the public’s indignation. By sticking around he helped he shape and shepherd trough the Congress a tax bill that so far seems one the best things the Trump administration has done, and he’s also played a role in all the deregulation that has so far worked out well enough. He couldn’t talk Trump out of his crazy trade war, but at least his resignation might spook the stock markets and fuel the public’s indignation and give those congressional Republican leaders and other critics some chance of restraining the president’s populist impulses.
We’ll hope for the best for Cohn and all the rest of us, including that unfortunate visiting Swedish Prime Minister who wound up standing next to Trump during a joint news conference where both the American and Swedish press were asking all sorts of pointed questions about potential trade wars and the ongoing “Russia thing.” The video would have fed all the snarky late comics’ monologues if not for the lawsuit by the porn star, but even those easy and smutty jokes were among the first casualties of the trade war.

— Bud Norman

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

A Good Time to be in Switzerland

President Donald Trump is in Davos, Switzerland to hobnob with all the globalist elites who gather there every year, while back in the states all his nationalist and more working-class fans are fuming about his latest position on illegal immigration. This isn’t likely to last long, but it is a moment worth noting.
On Wednesday night Trump told an impromptu news conference that the “dreamers” who had been illegally brought here as children “had nothing to worry about,” as he jetted off for Switzerland on Thursday morning his staff was announcing a proposal to not only keep some 1.8 million of them here but also offer a path to citizenship, and by Thursday afternoon his usual apologists on right wing talk radio were quite literally screaming their objections. The proposal also included a demand for a $25 billion “trust fund” to to build a big, beautiful wall along the southern border, along with several far more reasonable proposals to curtail illegal immigration, but talk radio talkers and their callers were clearly unimpressed. A mere 25 billion won’t build the kind of sea-to-shining-sea 50-foot-tall and translucent and solar-power-generating wall that Trump vividly described during the campaign, and even the die-hard supporters who never took all that wall stuff literally did believe Trump’s oft-stated campaign assurances that he was going to kick out even the most unwitting and sympathetic illegal immigrants.
That $25 billion for a border if for now  too much ask of the Democrats, who even objected some of the far more reasonable border enforcement measures Trump was demanding, and the negotiations will be tricky. The Democrats are obliged by political reality to protect all those “dreamers” from deportation, and will eventually be obliged to give up something in return to the Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and the Republican president, but they still hold a strong hand. All the opinion polls show that a vast majority of the country has no stomach for kicking law-abiding and military-serving and college-going semi-citizens out of the country they grew up in, several Republican congresspeople from the soft-hearted Chamber of Commerce wing of the party, and by now even Trump is in full retreat from his hard-hearted campaign trail talk and even talking about his love for the “dreamers.”
Some of those more reasonable border enforcement proposals Trump is proposing also poll well with a populace that is rightly alarmed by the country’s still-high levels of illegal immigration, and we expect the Democrats will eventually relent to most of them, but we doubt they’re quite dumb enough to up cough $25 billion for a border wall. Most of the non-talk-radio media are going to explain the negotiations as the cruel Republicans threatening to kick out a bunch of telegenically sympathetic “dreamers” to build some small portion of a wall that even the president’s chief of staff now admits was oversold on the campaign trail, Trump will be hard-pressed to argue that’s all “fake news,” there are a lot of soft-hearted Chamber of Commerce types of Republicans and all those congressional Republicans whose states and districts abut the southern border who also realize how silly the border wall ideal was all along, and as dumb as those Democrats undeniably are they’re not quite stupid enough to lose this fight.
Meanwhile, Trump was faring better at that fancy-schmantzy gathering of globalist elites in Switzerland. He had an awkward moment sharing a stage with British Prime Minister Theresa, gushing about all the rumors of tension in Anglo-American relations were “fake news” and insisting he and his British counterpart had a mutual admiration society, while she responded with classically British quietude and an apparent relief that Trump has backed out of a visit of her to country, but otherwise it went well. You don’t get to be a globalist elite without being shrewd enough to notice that Trump is highly susceptible to flattery, so most of his fellow hoity-toity hob-nobbers lavished it on, and Trump didn’t shove any prime ministers out of the way or otherwise embarrass himself as he’s done on past on international occasions.
The globalist elitists seem to genuinely like Trump’s tax-cutting and de-regulating agenda, as we generally do, yet they object to all that anti-free trade campaign trail talk he still claims to believe, as we more enthusiastically do, and we expect they’ll gain more concessions from Trump with their flattery than we have with our snarky criticisms. Trump has recently imposed tariffs on washing machines that have had the effect of making American-made washing machines more expensive, but he’s largely abandoned all that campaign trail talk about 45 percent tariffs on anything Chinese, and unless the talk radio-talkers get annoyed about that we’re hopeful that all of Trump’s promised trade wars can be averted.
When he gets back to states Trump will have to answer to all those talk-radio talkers and all those hard-line anti-illegal immigration and nationalist and protectionist Trump voters they speak for, though, and we’ll be interested to see where he winds up. If Trump’s not going to build that wall just to let a bunch of “dreamers” avoid the deportations he promised he’ll lose that 25 percent of the the country that comprises about 50 percent of his support, if he holds firm he’ll further annoy the other 75 percent, and on the whole we guess he’d rather be hobnobbing with all those billionaires in Switzerland.

— Bud Norman

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Back when he started to woo evangelical Christian voters President Donald Trump liked to boast that the pastor at the Presbyterian Church he had attended as a child was Norman Vincent Peale, saying “You could listen to him all day long,” but it never seemed clear what lessons he had learned from the sermons. Peale was better known as the author of the famously best-selling self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking,,” and it does seem clear from Trump’s recent battles with his own party’s congressional leadership that he learned all the wrong lessons from that tome.
Trump escalated his ongoing war of words with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday with another series of “tweets.” He criticized both for rejecting his advice to attach a controversial debt ceiling increase to a popular Veterans’ Administration reform bill that recently passed with bipartisan support, claiming “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” A short time later he once again “tweeted” that McConnell was solely to blame for the Senate’s failure to pass an unpopular bill to repeal and replace the formerly unpopular Obamacare law. That came shortly after Trump had quite clearly criticized both Senators from Arizona in front of a raucous campaign rally crowd, even as he complimented himself for being so presidential as to not mention either man’s name, which followed several insulting “tweets” aimed at various other Republican congressmen who had criticized Trump’s response to the deadly violence that followed a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
No matter how much Trump positively thinks nones  of which seems likely to win him any new friends or influence anyone who isn’t already a die-hard supporter.
The idea that something as controversial as a debt ceiling increase could be easily snuck into a VA bill without anyone noticing, or everyone in both parties raising a fuss that would sink even such a popular and important piece of legislation, suggests to anyone at least vaguely familiar with the legislative process that the Senate majority leader and the House Speaker know a lot more about it than does the relatively neophyte president. McConnell does indeed bear much of the blame for the Republicans’ failure to get that unpopular health care reform bill passed, but there’s enough blame to spread around that fiasco that some of it surely falls on a Republican president who had run on a campaign promise that on the first day he’d repeal Obamacare and replace it with his beautiful but not very specific plan that would cover everyone and lower costs and it would be easy for your head will spin, and Trump would do well not to give his many critics another chance to mention that. Trump’s attempts to spread around the blame for the deadly violence that occurred at a white supremacist rally have not played well with the general public thus far, and he’d be wise not to drag that out any longer.
All of which seems to complicate some already darned complicated negotiations regarding that debt ceiling increase, along with a continuing spending resolution and various other matters that must be dealt with prior to some very hard deadlines looming in the near future in order to avert all sorts of political and economic disasters. Many congressional Republicans won their seats on the promise of ending the federal government’s endless borrowing and doing so without tax increases by drastically cutting spending, others ran on the same basic principles but with a begrudging acknowledgement that it would take some time and a lot of compromises on continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases all the rest of that nonsense, and Trump exponentially complicates that internecine Republican complicatedness.
Trump became the Republican president with the usual Republican promises of low taxes and balanced budgets, but also some proudly anti-Republican promises of not touching the big entitlement programs that are driving the debt and adding at least a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending, as well as his assurances that he’d done enough big real estate deals that it would be easily achieved. We’ve never been in on any big real estate deals, but we’ve been watching how Congress works a lot longer than Trump seems to have done, so we’re skeptical that can keep all those promises and won’t further complicate things.
He added even more complications during that raucous rally in Phoenix, where he hinted he’d rather force a partial government shutdown than sign any continuing spending resolution that doesn’t include full funding for his campaign promise of a tall and formidable border wall stretching across the entire border with Mexico, which he now promises will also be translucent so you can see what those wily Mexicans are up to. During the campaign Trump routing led his die-hard supporters in a chant that Mexico will pay for the wall, as president he’s threatening that he’d cause a partial government shutdown and perhaps even a federal default if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t pay for it with taxpayer funds, and we can’t imagine of the Democratic minority wanting to help him out.
From our Republican perspective out here on the prairie it seems that Trump is less interested in averting political and economic catastrophes than in making sure he once again doesn’t get blamed for them by his most die-hard supporters. McConnell and Ryan and the rest of the Republican party are easy enough targets, we must admit, so there’s a certain self-interested reason for those insulting “tweets.” As pillars of the Republican establishment they’re already reviled by the entirety of the Democratic party, and they do indeed shoulder a share of the blame for the Grand Old Party’s recent failures to make good on the opportunity of its recent political dominance, and the talk radio talkers and most of their grassroots listeners have bitched and moaned out long enough that Trump got nominated and even more improbably elected on the promise to burn the down the establishment.
At the time we wondered how Trump’s mostly-reluctant 46 percent share of the popular presidential vote was going to prevail against the combined might of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as all the economic and civic and academic and religious institutions that comprise the much-maligned establishment, and thought that “burn it down” was a peculiar rallying cry for conservatism, and at this point we’re hoping that some semblance of the pragmatic Republicanism we always voted for will somehow prevail. At this point that means rooting for the likes of McConnell and Ryan and against Trump and his and ridiculous border wall idea, and hoping there are still enough sensible Democrats to join with averting the looming political and economic disasters, but so be it.
For all their failures both McConnell and Ryan still strike us as more serious men than Trump, and we’re heartened they don’t seem at all influenced by Trump’s “tweets.” Ryan did his best to ignore Trump’s “tweeting” on Thursday, and instead had an impressive “town hall” appearance at a Boeing factory in the Seattle area, where he made a clear case for the Boeing-friendly corporate tax reforms that both he and Trump are working for. Some of the questioners questioned Ryan’s support for de-funding the Export-Import Bank that Boeing has taken generous advantage of, and he gave a very detailed explanation about how other reforms he’s pursuing would leave the company just as well advantaged, and we can’t imagine Trump giving a better answer. One Boeing employee asked a rather frank question about how he was dealing with Trump’s latest public pronouncements, which she seemed to find troubling, and Ryan deftly replied “It’s a day-by-day deal,” adding “I am kind of joking.”
We can’t find any press reports of questions about Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which aren’t likely to benefit Boeing’s largely export-driven business, and although Ryan is far more a traditional Republican free-trader than we suspect they were both glad of that. At this point we’re liking the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to burn down than we’re liking Trump, but we can’t say that give us a hopeful feeling.
Even a partial government shutdown would be a political disaster that can’t plausibly be blamed on that darned Democratic minority, a federal default would be a catastrophic global economic disaster that makes everyone in the American body politic culpable, so surely some sort of desultory-to-all-sides deal will eventually be struck, We’d feel a whole lot more hopeful, though, if any of the players seemed more interested in averting the looming catastrophe than avoiding any blame for it.

— Bud Norman

Made in America in a Global Age

You might not have noticed, what with all the news about Russia and health care, but this is “Made in America Week.” The week was so proclaimed by President Donald Trump to draw public attention to his plans to increase employment in the American manufacturing sector, and he kicked it off on Monday with a White House display of products from all 50 states and a nostalgic and dire speech warning that they’re all threatened by competition from those darned foreigners.
“Buy American” is always a crowd-pleasing slogan, and we can well understand why Trump would prefer to talk about something other than Russia and health care, and there were no doubt some good points somewhere in the typically hard-to-parse speech, but it was a nonetheless a risky public relations move. Pretty much everyone who covered the event mentioned Trump’s long history of building his properties with foreign steel and foreign labor and stocking his luxury hotels with foreign-made goods and having almost all of his Trump-branded products made in low-wage foreign countries, and that his daughter’s clothing and jewelry lines are entirely made far offshore, with the mentions ranging from begrudging on the right to downright gleeful on the left.
Everyone who voted for Trump knew all that when they voted for him, though, and either begrudgingly or gleefully accepted his explanation that he was just playing by the rigged rules the globalist establishment had imposed on the country. Many of those voters believed Trump’s constant promises he would re-write those rules to the benefit of the American workers he had previously declined to hire, and that he could do so without running afoul of either the Constitution or the far more iron-clad laws of economics, but keeping them happy until the next election cycle will probably prove tricky. Re-writing the rules of a multi-trillion dollar American economy is always tricky, and predicting its effects on a even more-multi-trillion dollar global economy is trickier yet.
Over the past three decades the manufacturing sector of the economy has dwindled to less than 8 percent of the American workforce, and that’s largely due to companies moving factories out of the country, but American manufacturing output has doubled over the same time period, which is entirely attributable to a technological revolution in productivity. When our parents were born the agricultural sector employed about half of the American workforce, now it’s less than 3 percent, yet Americans are fatter than ever, and the days of slopping hogs and plowing behind mules are no more appealing to the average American than any assembly line job of the ’50s. All the other technological revolutions wrought by the largely laissez-faire rules the globalist establishment has imposed have also delivered telephones that answer your trivia questions and Uber drivers who deliver you safely home from a drunken evening and drugs that keep you libidinous well into senility, along with the cheap t-shirts and countless other life-enhancing products available for everyday low prices at Wal-Mart, but life is also increasingly tough for the kinds of people who are willing and able to do an honest days work in a factory but can’t come up with those ideas.
Mitigating the harm done over the past three decades without impeding the progress that has been made is tricky indeed.
There truly are a lot of ridiculous workplace regulations in America that make foreign workforces appealing to American companies, and we begrudgingly credit Trump with a thus-far effective effort to undo many of them, but he’s going to have to go a lot further than that to make the American workforce economically competitive with the sweatshops that the Ivanka Trumps and Triangle Shirt Factories of corporate America are currently flocking to. Once Trump reaches that degree of de-regulation he’ll have reached the point of diminishing political returns, even with his staunchest supporters on the factory floor.
Trump would have to go even further to offset the economic benefits of all the robots and computer kiosks all the other newfangled efficiencies of the modern age, and if he did he’d threaten the highly-taxed livelihoods of all the people who are able to come up with such bright ideas, as well as the people they still have to man the reception desk and clean up the offices and ensure they’re in compliance with all those federal regulations. Those highly-taxed people with the bright ideas could easily relocate to more welcoming economies with lower tax rates and similarly fine restaurants, but it would be hard to explain to the rest of the workforce how that made America great again.
Still, listening to Trump’s speech we can’t help sharing some of his nostalgia. “Remember in the old days?,” the president said, “We used to have made in America, made in the USA.” He touted such iconic American products as Tennessee’s Gibson electronic guitars, Texas’ Stetson hats, and Oklahoma’s Ditch Witch excavators, and although he touted some baseball bat from Louisiana rather than the classic Louisville Slugger out of Kentucky he was admirably all-American in his choice of props. He also touted the Sikorsky Helicopters from Connecticut, boasting to his working class fans that “I own three of ’em,” and we thought he looked rather ridiculous pretending to be a fireman in a Wisconsin-built firetruck or a cowboy in a Stetson hat, which his more snarky critics had lots of fun with, but all in all “Buy American” was nonetheless a pretty crowd-pleasing slogan.
The conversation about what to do about it will quickly become very complicated, though, so the talk will probably soon get back to Russia and health care and all the rest of the stuff Trump would rather not talk about.

— Bud Norman

Happy Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day in France, and it’s a big deal over there. The holiday celebrates the date in 1789 when French revolutionaries stormed the notorious Bastille prison where political dissidents were being held, which proved a turning point in the civil war that toppled the despotic monarchy of Louis XVI, and July 14 still stirs a feeling of liberte, egalite and fraternite in French hearts in much the same way the Fourth of July makes Americans feel proud of their revolution.
The French Revolution didn’t work out quite so well as the American one, however, what with the Reign of Terror that shortly followed and the dictatorial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte that quickly ensued and all the wars that inevitably resulted. We can well understand why the French are still relieved to be rid that Louis XVI fellow, who really was a particularly despotic monarch, but we’re harder pressed to see how they think it all worked out well enough to celebrate. The French eventually settled into a reasonably peaceable and productive democracy, with scientists who pasteurized milk and painters who created that awesome Impressionist stuff and a military that maintained a profitable empire in Africa and Asia, but they had a bad 20th century. At this point in the 21st century they’ve arrived at a Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron sharing the stage with American President Donald Trump.
Trump was ostensibly given the seat of honor because this Bastille Day coincides with the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, one of the two times in the 20th century when America’s military might came to France’s rescue, but we assume there were other reasons as well. Franco-American relations have been complicated as far back as the XYZ Affair, and in the age of Macron and Trump it’s all the more complicated. At first glance the two leaders seem polar opposites of one another, but on closer inspection bear some unsettling similarities.
Trump ran on a nationalist and isolationist and protectionist platform, Macron on a platform of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation and free trade. On the campaign trail Trump frequently cited France as an example of what America shouldn’t be doing with its immigration policy, usually citing a friend “Jim” who had ceased his annual vacations to the country because “Paris isn’t Paris anymore,” and Macron has been one of the European leaders frankly talking about the need for a post-American world order. During Macron’s race Trump “tweeted” some friendly words about Macron’s opponent, who was from a Vichy-derived nationalist and isolationist and protectionist party that was also backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and we’re sure Macron would have preferred Trump’s opponent, whose myriad flaws are surely well known to our American readership. They’ve also clashed over the Paris Climate Accord, with Trump ending America’s support because “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and Macron quickly exploiting the European backlash by promising to “Make the planet great again.”
Trump’s a 71-year-old political neophyte with a 47-year-old photography model wife, Macron’s a 39-year-old career civil service technocrat with a 64-year-old school teacher wife, the former is more quintessentially American than we’d like to admit, and the latter is Frenchier than any self-respecting Frenchman would want to admit, so it does seem an unlikely pairing on a Bastille Day stage. Still, as the dined together with their spouses at a reputedly swank restaurant beneath the Eiffel Tower the two leaders probably found they had much in common.
Macron won election as the leader of his own newly-created and defiantly disruptive party, much as Trump did, and he prides himself on a pragmatism unmoored from any coherent political ideology, much as Trump does. Both are friendly to business interests and averse to needless government regulations, except for some disagreements on immigration policy they both take the same tough-on-terrorism stands, and we guess they’re both equally eager to make sort of deal about something or another. Macron shares Trump’s tastes for fancy dinners and big military parades, too, as well as the same distaste for all the constitutional restraints and constant press criticisms that stand in their way of getting things done. Macron has recently proposed doing away with a third of the French Parliament’s deputies, which is bold even by Trump’s standards, and the French press has likened him to “Sun King” Louis XVI by calling him the “Sun President,” which is about as harsh as anything the American press has yet come up with against Trump.
The two leaders agreed to disagree about the Paris Climate Accord, which will probably help both with their domestic political audiences, but didn’t announce any noteworthy agreements. Nothing was expected for the old Franco-American relationship celebrating Bastille Day and the centennial of America’s entry into World War I and world leadership, though, and the two leaders got along well enough that something good might come of it. Our guess is that Macron is pragmatic and unprincipled enough that he’s trying to find a sweet spot between an increasingly isolated but still significant America and the post-American European alliance he’ll be talking up again tomorrow, and our faint hope is that the savvy real estate developer Trump will hold his own in the negotiations.
The trip obliged Trump to take a couple of questions from the American press, and naturally one of them was about those e-mails his son released about a meeting he and Trump’s son-in-law and campaign manager had with someone they understood to be a Russian lawyer offering help in the election from the Russian government. Trump’s rambling reply described his son as a “good boy” and “young man” who didn’t do anything that wasn’t usual in American politics, but Trump’s son is the same age as the French President, whose leadership Trump had just effusively praised, so it was a bad setting for the argument. Macron declined the opportunity to gripe Russia’s meddling in his country’s past election, and although that was a characteristically shrewd French diplomatic move we’ll leave it to our Francophile friends to guess how that plays with his domestic political audience.
Both Trump and Macron will be back at the mercy of their domestic political audiences by Monday, if not sooner, and we expect the mobs of both countries will eventually grab the metaphorical pitchforks and storm the metaphorical Bastille against the both of them. Although we admit that both of them were arguably preferable to the people they ran against, we still don’t have much regard for either of them, and at this point we’re only rooting for France and America.

— Bud Norman

A Bad Weekend in Europe

All the president’s men and women took to the Sunday news shows to talk up his dramatic trip to Europe, with breathless accounts of triumphs we very much wanted to believe, but from our perspective it seemed as slapstick a comedy as Chevy Chase taking the Griswold family on “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
The trip began promisingly enough in Poland, where President Donald Trump delivered an uncharacteristically coherent speech before a large and adoring crowd. In his address Trump robustly urged Poland to defend western civilization’s unique values against its enemies, specifically cited the revanchist Russian government’s recent intrusions into Ukraine and other parts of its former Soviet Union empire as an example, and explicitly reiterated America’s Article Five commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to back it up, which had been conspicuously omitted from his last speech in Europe. Even the most Trump-wary conservative commentators effusively praised the speech, which they found a welcome change from the apologetically morally-relativistic and multi-culturalist pablum that President Barack Obama had spewed to foreign audiences over his eight years.
We probably typed as many column inches of annoyance as any of those commentators during Obama’s interminable time in office, and are still as annoyed as any Pole or Czech about him canceling the missile defense deal his predecessor had negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic as part of his ridiculous “re-set” effort with the Russkies, so we’ll concede that Trump’s speech was a marked improvement. Still, we found ourselves short of being effusive about it. The crowd was large and unanimously adoring because Poland’s government has lately taken an authoritarian turn that does not tolerate dissent any more willingly than did its communist predecessors, so a truly robust defense of Western values should have made mention of that, and it pains us to admit that even Obama’s apologetic and morally-relativistic and multi-cultural speech in Poland at the end of his interminable term did so.
Whatever points Trump might have have scored for western civilization in that speech, he promptly threw them all away in an ensuing joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. The Polish government has lately been restricting press freedom in ways that Trump can only envy, and Trump expressed his sympathy for the cause by damning most American media as “fake news” before a worldwide media audience. He was particularly irked by the unfavorable coverage of the National Broadcasting Company, explaining it was because he once had a hit reality show on the network, and although capitalism is indeed a western value we don’t think that Trump strike quite the right balance with a free press.
Worse yet, Trump also advised his international audience that it can’t necessarily believe it anything it hears from America’s intelligence agencies. In response to a question from one of those darned NBC reporters if Trump accepted the conclusion of America’s intelligence community that Russia had meddled in America’s past presidential election, the winner of that election said that he thought they might have but so had other countries he wouldn’t name and other people he wouldn’t speculate about, and he recalled how they had been wrong about all sorts of things including an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program prior to the Iraqi war, and “nobody really knows for sure” what is true. During his winning Republican primary campaign Trump had alleged that Republican President George W. Bush knew from intelligence reports that there was no such program but lied the country into a disastrous war over it anyway, but the current story is that the intelligence agencies had knowingly misled him, and in any of the tellings of the story the Republican Party and America and its intelligence community and the rest of western civilization don’t look good.
All of this complicated the next day’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, but naturally there was an attention-diverting “tweet” from the president early that morning. “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the (Democratic National Committee’s) server to the (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the (Central Intelligence Agency), Trump “tweeted” from Hamburg, Germany, adding “Disgraceful.” In case you don’t follow the news diligently, Podesta was the campaign chairman for vanquished Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, there was some fuss about her e-mails during that long-ago campaign, and even such Trump-wary Republicans as us are still annoyed about it. Not even such an eager-to-believe sycophant as Sean Hannity will buy that’s what everyone in Hamburg was talking about on the opening of a G-20 summit of the world’s 20 largest economies, though, and Podesta was not the head of the DNC and had no authority over it’s e-mail server, so he was thus was able to plausibly “tweet” back about a “whack job president,” and all the president’s men and women seemed relieved it was overshadowed by Trump’s much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Before they got around to that, though, the European Union and the Japanese government had announced negotiations on a free-trade agreement that was clearly a preemptive measure against the protectionist trade policies that Trump had run on in his winning presidential campaign. Trump had treated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a round of golf at his high-priced Mar-a-Lago resort, and boasted of their personal relationship, but Abe explained his participation in a treaty that will leave the United States automotive industry disadvantaged in the European and Asian markets by saying it demonstrates “a strong political will to fly the flag for free trade against a shift toward protectionism.” A few days earlier German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who now seems to speak for 18 or so — minus Russia — of the countries in the G-20, had stated that “whoever thinks that the problems of this world can be solved by protectionism and isolation lives under a huge misconception,” and Trump is clearly negotiating his art of the deal to make America great again from an isolated position.
Even that disaster was overshadowed by the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin, however, so all the president’s men and women did their best to spin that on on all the Sunday morning talk shows. They all noted that by all accounts Trump did bring up Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election, but Trump had already said that it was based on unreliable American intelligence and that everybody does it, and there was some discrepancy in the American and Russian accounts about whether Trump accepted Putin’s claim that Russia was entirely innocent in the affair. One of the only Russians in the meeting claim that Trump agreed, the American Secretary of State who was one of only three Americans in the meeting quite believably admit that Trump agreed the American media had overstated the extent of Russian meddling, and we assume that at least 19 of the G-20 reached their own conclusions.
We also assume that most of Trump’s die-hard supporters here in the USA don’t much care what a bunch of Eurotrash and Latin and Asiatic globalist opponents think, and take their opprobrium as a badge of honor, but in the long run it probably does matter. Negotiating all those great trade deals to make America great again with a now-unified front of 18 of the world’s strong economies seems trickier than ever, and here in the domestic politics of the USA Trump didn’t do much to quash all that press talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Over the same weekend The New York Times had Donald Trump Jr. admitting that he and the Trump campaign chairman attended a meeting with a Kremlin-tied lawyer in anticipation of possible dirt on the soon-to-be vanquished Clinton campaign, whose chairman had been undeniably hacked, even if that was Obama’s fault and not Putin’s, and any triumphs from Trump’s visit seem likely to get lost in the next news cycle.
Trump predictably skipped the traditional post-G-20 news conference but “tweeted” his own clarification of his meeting with Putin, unhelpfully explaining that he had already made his position on Russian meddling in the election clear, and added that he was working with Putin to create an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to prevent the sort of hacking that he may or not believe Russia perpetrated. Such Republicans as Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham and John McCain were showing up on the Sunday shows and “tweeting” their skepticism about such a proposal, with Rubio likening it to having Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad partnering in an anti-chemical weapons coalition,  a short time later Trump was “tweeting” his assurance that it wasn’t going to happen, and all in all it didn’t seem a very triumphant end to Trump’s European trip.

— Bud Norman

A Not-So-Innocent Abroad

President Donald Trump’s second official foreign tour hasn’t yet gotten to the juicy part, which will be today’s long-awaited face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it’s already generating plenty of news.
The trip shrewdly began in Poland, where Trump could expect a much-needed welcoming reception. Poles have been favorably inclined to Republican American presidents since at least the days of Ronald Reagan, whose staunch cold warrior stance did much to liberate Poland from the the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union, and these days their government has a nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration bent and is waging a war on the local media that make it all the more inclined to embrace such a Republican as Trump. With fans bused in from the Polish hinterlands, Trump delivered a scripted oration denouncing Russian meddling in Ukraine and elsewhere that revved up a huge Polish crowd and confounded the American media.
There was a brief news conference with the American media, though, and of course there were questions about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia that has been a bigger story here than it’s probably been in Poland. Standing next to the Polish head of state, Trump reiterated his view that no matter what his intelligence agencies say Russia might or might not have meddled in the past election to Trump’s benefit, and that if they did it was all the fault of President Barack Obama for letting it happen, and besides everyone does it, and we’re not sure how that will play. There’s no telling what the Poles will make of it, especially when you take into account the press crackdowns on fake news we’ve been reading about, but here in the states all of the putatively fake but still-free press was highlighting that Trump seemed more concerned about Putin’s meddling in Ukraine than his meddling in America’s past election.
All of which makes today’s face-to-face and officially bi-lateral meeting with Putin all the juicier, of course, and it was already juicy enough. That robustly anti-Russian speech Trump gave to the adoring Polish crowd included a robust and widely applauded affirmation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual defense clause, which was conspicuously absent from his big oration on his first European and clearly annoyed all our western European NATO allies, but the following press conference probably exacerbated their more general annoyance. Most of those NATO allies have lately survived challenges by the same nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration impulses that have lately prevailed in Poland in America, and have come up with some proposed globalist free trade arrangements that leave America out and rival the economic clout of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump has threatened to dissolve, so the geo-political and global economic implications of that Putin meeting are pretty darned complicated.
If you’ve been following the fake-or-not coverage of that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, it’s exponentially more complicated yet. Russia has lately been joining with China to propose that America abandon a longstanding alliance against with South Korea against the North Korean government that just launched a missile test that might deliver a nuclear strike against Alaska, and Trump had plenty of things to say about both regimes during his campaign, all of which have been changed since, so todays big meeting will be damned juicy.
The meeting with Putin will take place in Germany as part of the G-20 summit of the world’s twenty biggest economies, and Trump can’t expect such a friendly reception. There are already angry and violent protests against the globalist world order, which are too angry and stupid to realize that Trump is a sort-of ally, and of course all the establishment types of western Europe have a lingering disdain for Trump since his last foreign trip. There’s little chance that Trump will charm or bully Putin into abandoning North Korea, less chance that he’ll take a firm stand with Putin to defuse all that domestic talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and no chance at all he’ll come home to the heroic welcome he found in Poland.
The best-case scenario is the least juicy, with Trump and Putin having a boring feeling-out meeting that is full of sound and fury yet signifying nothing, but given the personalities involved that seems unlikely.

— Bud Norman

And So It Begins

The presidency of Donald Trump got off to a predictably contentious start on Friday, and we expect that will continue for a while.
Trump commenced his administration with a characteristically pugnacious inauguration speech, and pretty much everything in it promised a lot of fussing and fighting and back-and-forth-“tweeting” over the next few years. He did give the obligatory shout out to the past presidents in attendance, and thanked President Barack Obama and his wife for their “gracious” and “magnificent” help during the transition, but he seemed to have all of them in mind when he immediately launched into the part about “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the costs,” and “The establishment protected itself, but not the people.” He assured the country “That all changes — starting right here, and right now,” and although he explained that is because “this moment is your moment, it belongs to you” he seemed as always to regard the moment as being all about him. He described his election as “part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before,” and painted a very dark picture of what America was like before it came to the rescue.
America’s infrastructure “has fallen into disrepair and decay,” “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the world,” “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and an education system “which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” He summed it all with the phrase “American Carnage,” which sounds like the title of a graphic novel soon to be made into a major motion picture, but again promised that it “stops right here and right now.”
We’ve been peddling our gloomy accounts of American decline since Trump was busy firing people on “The Apprentice,” and we’re not about to stop now, but even we thought Trump’s diagnosis a bit overwrought, and to the extent we glean them his prescriptions seemed likely to do more harm than good.
America’s infrastructure is always in need of repair, but that usually happens at the state and local level, and judging by all the orange cones and ditches being dug around here the country seems as busy with the task as always, and our old-fashioned Republican principles as just opposed to a pork-laden trillion dollar spending program as we were Obama was proposing one. The part about the prosperity of the American middle class being redistributed to the rest of the world suggests that Trump regards the global economy as a zero-sum game, with any gain in another country’s standard of living somehow being directly billed to the home of some Rust Belt opioid addict in a “Make America Great Again” ball cap, and Trump’s promise to “protect” us from such looting smacks of the protectionism that has always left all the world poorer. Some of those tombstone factories used to manufacture Kodak film and Betamax videocassette recorders and celluloid collars and other products that are no longer in demand, others were simply no longer any more viable than Trump Steaks or Trump University or Trump Mortgage or the Trump Taj Mahal casino and strip club or any of the other countless businesses that come and go in a competitive and creatively destructive economy, and we fear that any attempts to revive them will not prove fruitful. We’re more convinced than ever than America’s educational system is awful, but have an American president who writes a sentence about “our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge” does not make us any less pessimistic about it.
The foreign policy portion was all about “America First,” another pithy and movie-title phrase that sounds good, unless you were educated early enough to know about the last “America First” movement, which argued in the years leading up to World War II that an isolationist America would do just fine in world otherwise dominated by the worst sorts of totalitarianism. Ever since that proved tragically untenable there’s a bi-partisan consensus that international military alliances and economic cooperation between the more democratic and humane countries is needed to sustain peace and prosperity and ward off the ever present bad guys, but apparently that also ends right here and right now.
To our old-fashioned Republican and conservative ears it was probably the worst inaugural address ever, and we can only imagine how harsh it must have sounded to a Democrat and any other sort liberal. Some of them were literally rioting in the streets even as Trump delivered it, with the Starbucks shops seeming to get the usual worst of it, and many thousands more were already in the streets protesting more peacefully. By the next day the Washington Mall and its surrounding streets were filled with anti-Trump protestors, hundreds of thousands more took to the streets of many other American cities, and when you throw in a fair guesstimate of the turn-out in cities from Europe to South America to Australia there were more than a million of them. That’s a lot of angry opposition, far more than the usual newly-inaugurated president provokes, and it’s hard to imagine Trump either overwhelming them with his popularity or charming them into submission, so we expect that should last a while.
Trump had a pretty good turnout of his own, by the standards of the usual newly-inaugurated president, but of course he felt obliged to overstate that. His press secretary had a press conference that allowed no questions but instead merely castigated the assembled media for broadcasting their footing and publishing their photographs that sure did seem to suggest a smaller crowd than the one that assembled for Obama’s ’09 inauguration, and he huffily noted that there were no official numbers, as the Interior Department wisely bowed out out of the crowd-estimating business decades ago, and he went on to boast that Trump of course had the biggest numbers ever, and he flat-out lied about the ridership numbers on the District of Columbia’s subway and the security precautions that might have kept out some the people he insisted were there. When Trump spoke before a group of Central Intelligence Agency employees on Saturday he also groused about the media, and insisted that he could clearly see up to a million and a half people hanging on his every word, and we doubt that a group of CIA analysts bought a single word of it. Inauguration audiences are mostly drawn from D.C. and its surrounding counties, where Trump got tiny percentages of the vote and Obama was a landslide winner, and Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters surely had more pressing chores than traveling a long distance and coughing up the $800 a night for a stay at Trump’s hotel, and despite Trump’s apparent insecurities about such things size doesn’t really mean all that much in any case, so with all the fights yet to come it seemed hardly worth fighting.
Trump also took the occasion of his visit to the CIA to reiterate his belief in wars of pillage, wistfully remark that we might yet get another chance to appropriate Iraq’s oil reserves, and promised the spooks that “you’re gonna get so much backing, maybe you’re gonna say, ‘Please, don’t give us so much backing, Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.” After “tweeting” that the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s meddling in the past election made him feel that he was living in Nazi Germany, Trump assured the audience that any impression he was not a big fan of the intelligence community was entirely due to that lying media, which allowed him to segue into the longer rant about the huge turnout for his inauguration.
All in all, we did not find it an encouraging start.

— Bud Norman