Monday, October 2, 2017

Trump in a Crisis

From the start, my biggest worry about Trump was how he would perform in a crisis, of the kind that invariably strikes, regardless of who is in the White House.  Well now we know – sort of.  My assessment over this unfolding crisis has been, well, mixed.

I never for one minute believed that Trump would be any good in a crisis.  I suspected that the best way to deal with him in a crisis would be to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet till it blew over.  Then I started to wonder about the rally-round-the-chief effect and to fear that the worse he blew it, the more this effect would work in his favor.  (Shudder!).  But watching him a little more, it because clear that there was one thing he could be counted on to do in a crisis that would not rally public opinion in his favor – act like a petulant, whiny narcissist whose only response was to whimper that it wasn't his fault.  Because that certainly appeared to be Trump's response to any reversal of fortune, so it seemed reasonable to assume that that was how he would behave in a crisis.  Sure enough.

So now he has had to deal with a cascading series of crises – a severe hurricane and flooding in Houston, a bad hurricane and flooding in Florida, a catastrophic hurricane in Puerto Rico, failure of his Obamacare repeal, expiration of S-CHIP, and an escalating war of words with the leaders of North Korea.  Oh, yes, and his Cabinet being exposed as the swampiest in memory and the candidate he endorsed for Jeff Sessions’ seat losing the primary.  And he has responded to all that by – waging a feud with the NLF.  Sigh.

Look, it has been said that Trump sends out his deranged tweets to distract people for the real issues going on.  But I am beginning to think the exact opposite – that tweeting distracts Trump from addressing real issues.  To the extent that it keeps him from starting a war with North Korea or pushing for disastrous legislation, so much the better.  It didn’t seem to interfere with a perfectly good disaster response in Houston and Florida, so I was starting to think that giving Trump a Twitter account to distract him from creating any serious trouble was looking like a good idea.  He could feud with the NFL while everyone else rolled their eyes and got on with business. 

And then the full horror of the hurricane in Puerto Rico started coming out.  And the extent to which Trump’s Twitter feud with the NFL was taking his eyes of his real duties.  And reliable as clockwork,  he started whining that none of this was his fault, lashing out at anyone criticizing his actions, blaming the Puerto Ricans for their problems and even urging them not to believe their lying eyes the FAKE NEWS media.  He tweeted out to undermine his own Secretary of State in his negotiations with North Korea and even to threaten, "we'll do what has to be done!"  And just for good measure, when his candidate for Senate in Alabama lost the primary, he whined, "In analyzing the Alabama Primary race,FAKE NEWS always fails to mention that the candidate I endorsed went up MANY points after endorsement!"

The man has no concept that not everything is about him!

Look, I was hoping that it might turn out not to be necessary to handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in a closet during a crisis.  If we were lucky, it might be good enough to confiscate his phone, cancel his Twitter account, and spike his food with heavy doses of Thorazine.  But now I am starting to think that even handcuffing him, stuffing something in his mouth, and locking him in the closet is not enough. 

Can someone please just chop off this man’s fingers off?  I can’t think of any less drastic means of shutting him up!

Puerto Rico

Damage in the wake of Maria
Even as I post pictures of the damage Hurricane Maria has left in Puerto Rico, I can’t imagine what conditions must be like.  I can only go by what I have personally experienced. 

I was in Honduras about a year after Hurricane Mitch.  Mitch was a Category 5 hurricane with 180 mph winds.  I had assumed that those winds devastated Honduras, but I was apparently wrong.  The winds hit only an island offshore.  By the time Mitch landed, it had downgraded to a tropical storm.  The rain, not the wind, was what caused the damage.  By all accounts it was horrific, flooding everywhere, mudslide on the mountains, buildings shoulder deep in mud and so forth.  But there was no sign of it by the time I got there.  There were markings of how high the mud got, but it was all cleared off.  The bananas that had drowned were all replanted.  The buildings were still standing.  People had horror stories to tell, and there were many subtle signs that below the surface all was not well, but no signs to the casual observer that anything had happened.  Only the coconut trees were dying, of some disease spread by the hurricane.

More damage
I was in New Orleans about six months after Katrina, and it was obvious to even the most casual observer that there was a problem.  The airport looked normal enough, and so did the French Quarter and certain shopping malls.  There were places where the levies had breached on one side of the river but not the other.  On one side the lights would be on and all would be functioning; on the other all ruin.  Again, the damage was not the wind, but the flooding.  There were areas along the waterways and further down the river where everything was wiped out.  Houses in the Ninth Ward had obvious structural damage and were not salvageable. 

But where I was working the houses were still standing, soaked, but structures intact.  The people were (mostly) evacuated and the houses (mostly) empty.  But they were standing.  They looked OK from the outside.  Once we got in, they were soaked and dried out.   Items in closets, linen cupboards and the like were not dried out and stank.  Kitchens had water pooling in pots and pans and were growing black mold that smelled of sulfur.  They reeked of rotting food.  Drywall that had been soaked and dried was easy to pull off.  Throwing away the belongings gave a painfully intimate view of people’s private lives.  Occasionally a synthetic stuffed animal or oil painting survived surprisingly well.  But for the most part only the china was salvageable.  There was no electricity or running water.   When we worked in a neighborhood, FEMA management would leave a Port-a-Potty somewhere on the block.   

The trash service picking up all the debris we removed from the houses had run out its contract just before we arrived.  Huge piles of trash built up alongside the houses.  The owners who came back were not in their houses anymore, but in FEMA trailers parked in the driveway.  I can only assume the used batteries and tank water.  Their refrigerators were too small to hold any extended supply of food.  This meant having to shop every day, when the nearest grocery store might be miles and miles away, so many people ate in cafeterias set up by local churches and disaster relief agencies.  There was no running water, so people picked up bottled water daily from FEMA.

In commercial districts, stores were boarded up for block after block.  Churches were open, serving as relief centers.  I also saw a veterinary clinic that was open.   Home Depot was open, and doing a lot of business for people making repairs.  One of the cashiers commented that she went from home to work and work to home, trying not to look around and see what had become of her city.  We saw a Walgreen’s and a gas station open in the time we were there.   Each opening was greeted with great rejoicing.  The gas station had an ATM on the premises, the only one available for miles around because all the banks were closed.  It also used a Port-a-Potty because it had no running water.  There were shopping malls were everything was working.   They were extremely bustling, partly (I assume) because there weren’t many places to shop and partly (I assume) as part of the desperate attempt by people to distract themselves from the conditions all around.  Fire stations had re-opened.  Schools had not.

And recall that about 80% of the people had been evacuated and missed the worst.  The 20% who stayed were a manageable number to rescue.  But in the relatively short time that it took, with the lack of food, water, medicine and sanitation, social discipline started breaking down.

I have not been to Houston, but presumably conditions are similar, except that people are still living there.  I like to think that this means recovery will be quicker because there will be a large work force at hand to clean up.  And certainly it will not be all that far a drive to unflooded parts of Texas with plenty of resources at hand.

Now compare Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico did get the full force of Category 4 winds.  Numerous buildings are not just flooded, but destroyed.  Staying warm will not be an issue, since Puerto Rico is hot and muggy.  But how will people stay dry?  The power is out over 90% of the island.  This is a worse disaster than, say, loss of power in Haiti where many people never had electricity in the first place and society operated without it.  Loss of electricity where people depend on it is a formula for disaster.  Less than half the people have access to clean water.  Food supplies must be running out fast.  The roads and entire infrastructure is destroyed, preventing supplies from being shipped in.  People in the mountains can presumably at least come down to the cities looking for relief supplies.  But how does a city, itself in ruins, cope with such an influx?  Puerto Rico is an island, making overland evacuation impossible; everyone leaving must go by ship.  It has 3.5 million inhabitants.  Evacuation is impossible. 

This is what it looks like when a whole society is truly destroyed all at once.

What if Cassidy Graham Had Passed?

At least it pissed off liberals
The Cassidy-Graham monstrosity has now gone down to defeat, but let us take some time to consider what would have happened if it had passed.  Others have considered the policy effects, I am talking mostly about the political effects.

The policy effects for 2018 would be essentially none.  Insurance companies have put in their bids, proposals are up on the exchanges, and 2018 is locked in place.  That being said, there would be at least some damage, not from the bill, but from the Trump Administration’s attempts at sabotage.  Premiums on Oklahoma have gone up by 30% due to Administration neglect, and other states have seen premiums spike from deliberate uncertainty.  Enrollment times have fallen from three month to six weeks, and the Trump Administration has gone out of its way not to warn anyone.  As things stand now, with Republican legislation having conspicuously failed, Republicans can blame all these things on Obamacare and claim that if their legislation had passed these things would not be happening.  If Cassidy-Graham had passed, no doubt with great ceremony, people would automatically blame it for these problems.* 

I am not clear what would happen in 2019.

But it would be in 2020 that disaster would truly strike.  That would be the year that management of health insurance would be turned over to the states.  It is also, all experts agree, not time enough for states to get a system up and running.  And they would be required to do so at much reduced funding, that would continue to shrink over time.  Think of the mess that accompanied the opening of the exchanges in 2014 and raise it by a factor of many.  And just in time for the 2020 election!  I think it safe to say that the general explosion/implosion of the health insurance system during an election year would be a short-term disaster for Republicans.

The bad news is, I see no reason to believe that it would be a long-term disaster.  After all, one would think that a prolonged, highly unpopular war and the biggest economic crisis since 1929 would be a long-term disaster for Republicans, but it ultimately turned out to be a short-term lost, followed by an roaring comeback and unprecedented domination at all levels of government.  Why not turn disaster into victory once again?

The Republican course of action would be simple.  The minute Democrats won, any concern for the public good or attempt to save the healthcare system would be over.  The Trump Administration would spend the interregnum doing everything in its power to wreck the healthcare system beyond what it was already wrecked. 

The sabotage would continue once the Democratic President was inaugurated.  If Republicans retained enough votes in the Senate to mount a filibuster, they would block every attempt to save the healthcare system.  Republic interest groups everywhere would mount litigation to wreck the system in every way possible, and Trump-appointed federal judges would agree with them on every point.  Since many states time their gubernatorial elections to be in opposite years from Presidential elections, Republican governors would largely be protected from the 2020 wave election and would spend the next two years doing everything short of physically blowing up hospitals to wreck the healthcare system so they could blame the Democratic President.

Approximately two days after the Democrat was inaugurated, Republicans would start angrily demanding to know why he hadn’t fixed the healthcare system yet.  Approximately two weeks later, they would be taking out ads laying problems that clearly began before the election at his feet.  Approximately two months later, they would be angrily denouncing Democrats for introducing the disastrous Cassidy-Graham Act that caused that caused this mess.  And in 2022 they would win an unprecedented wave election by running against the healthcare mess that they had created.

And here is the scary thought.  It appears that every time Republicans lose, they respond by getting crazier.  It has proved a highly effective electoral technique.  When Clinton won in 1992, Republican responded by going crazy and won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.  Although they lost the Presidential election in 1996, in 2000 they won with a candidate of dubious qualification who led this country into a serious mess.  When the country responded by electing a Democrat in 2008, Republican responded by going even crazier and electing a bunch of Tea Party candidates determined to blow everything up.  It proved highly effective in 2010.  When it failed to swing the Presidency to Republicans in 2012, they responded by shutting down the government and nearly causing a debt ceiling breach and were rewarded by a massive sweep in 2014.  And in 2016 they went for the craziest candidate possible and elected Donald Trump, of all people. 

So if patterns hold true and Republicans had gone down to historic defeat in 2020, they would have responded by coming back in 2024 with winning with someone even crazier than Trump!

*And they would be only half-wrong.  The legislation not have any affect that year, but the same ideological forces driving the legislation would be behind all the problems in the exchanges, so wrong in the details, but right in the generalities.

Congressional Republicans' First Legislative Achievement

At least it pissed off liberals
Congratulations to the Republicans in Congress!   They finally have a legislative achievement!  Not that they actually passed anything, you understand, but they have made a significant achievement without passing any legislation at all!   

Although their repeated efforts to strip 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance have failed, by putting all their energy into the attempt they have managed to avoid funding the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) program and thereby at least strip 9 million children of their health insurance.  Furthermore, Trump’s effort at sabotage of the exchanges continues apace.  Granted, he has not managed to crash them altogether, but give him time. Already neglect has managed to raise premiums by 30% in many states.  Any by shortening the enrollment period by half, cutting off all public announcement about it, and cutting off all federal attempts at enrollment, he should manage to significantly reduce the number of people enrolled.  Even if he only manages to cut enrollment in the exchanges by one million, that will raise the total number of uninsured by 10 million, and you will be halfway home in the first year of his administration.  Not bad, when you consider that it took Obama a full eight years to lower the number of uninsured by 20 million!  And if he does manage to crash the exchanges by the end of this term, then without passing any legislation whatever, you will have succeeded in stripping 19 million people of their health insurance, which is just one million short of the minimum goal.  Close enough for government work!

And if any Republicans object that they are not seeking to raise the number of uninsured, I can only answer that by their fruits ye shall know them.  Having universal health coverage has been a longstanding Democratic goal since Truman’s day.   Regardless of what form it has taken, Republicans have inevitably denounced it as an intolerable threat to liberty.  Ronald Reagan crusaded against Medicare as the end of all freedom.  Under the Clinton Administration, Republican strategist Bill Kristol warned Republicans not to agree to any form of universal coverage for fear of making is seem acceptable.  When Democrats finally got their opportunity under the Obama Administration, the moderate Republican Chuck Grassley made clear that Republicans would not vote for the proposal no matter what was in it.  Once Obamacare passed, Republicans made destroying this atrocity their top priority for seven years.  They filed suit to block it.  They voted countless times to repeal it, even though doing so would strip 20 million people of their health insurance.  They refused to set up exchanges.  They took down exchanges Democratic governors had set up.  They did their utmost to interfere with enrollment in the exchanges.  They rejected the Medicaid expansion.  They filed suit to prevent people in states with federally run exchanges from receiving subsidies.  And now that Republicans control all branches of the federal government, they have made repeated attempts to introduced repeal legislation that will strip 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance, while the Trump Administration does everything in its power to crash the exchanges and take insurance from at least 10 million.

After all this, only one conclusion is possible.  Republicans consider having a large uninsured population to be an important matter of moral principle.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Anti-Trump Paradox

At least it pissed off liberals
Trump's supporters like him because he shares their values, because he makes all the right enemies, and because they equate his style with "strength" and "toughness."  No complaint about his antics and offensive behavior will affect them because it is precisely his antics and offensive behavior that they like.  As for warnings about how dangerous he is, Trump supporters have an obvious retort.  He hasn't harmed them any.  Trump has been President for nine months now and, for all his opponents' warnings, nothing disastrous has happened.*

Of course, the reason Trump hasn't managed to hurt his supporters any is strong resistance to his harmful actions.  Three times now intense protests have beaten back Obamacare repeals that would strip 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance and disproportionately impact older voter, rural voters, and lower-middle income but not truly poor voters -- in other words, groups that are particularly strong Trump supporters.**  Members of his cabinet have dissuaded him rash or hasty protectionist measures that would disrupt supply chains and harm supporters in agriculture or manufacturing.  The support of Democrats will be essential to avoid a debt ceiling breach with untold damage to the world economy.  And if Trump really does cancel DACA his followers will not be harmed, but the harm to many highly sympathetic people with stir a backlash, perhaps even among his supporters.

Democrats and other Trump opponents have fought him mightily on all these things, and rightly so.  Republican actions, not limited to Trump, threaten to harm numerous innocent people, and we are absolutely right to fight to keep it from happening. 

And yet in the end, the only that will ever crack his support among the hard core is if he is actually allowed to harm them.  Such is the Anti-Trump paradox.

*I mean, except for the hurricanes, of course.  But the hurricanes strike with utter indifference to who is in the White House, and FEMA seems to have done a good job in responding.  In fact, Republicans may have learned after Katrina that, much as they may want to destroy the federal government (at least in its mommy functions), extending that to FEMA is really bad politics.
**The latest bill is an exception, going out of its way to target states that have accepted the Medicaid expansion and benefit states that have not.  But many Trump supporting states have accepted the Medicaid expansion.

Is Trump a Conservative?

Plenty of Never Trump Republicans are quick to assure us that Trump is no conservative.  So it is fair to ask, is Donald Trump a conservative?  I suppose that depends on how you define conservative, and I, as a liberal, am not in the best position to do so.  Certainly he is not a conservative if you define conservative to mean cautious, prudent, looking before you leap, or taking an attitude of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  If it is broke, proceed with extreme caution.”  Nor is he conservative if you define that term as traditionalist, promoting moral restraint, favoring the rule of law, or relying on institutions rather than individuals for security.  And certainly he is no conservative if by that you mean conscious of the dangers of appeals to people’s worst instincts.

If you define conservatism as upholding the status quo of power, the answer is rather more complex.  Famously, he has boasted that he wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but what does that mean?  To a liberal, it means getting rid of the big money influence, and addressing the issue of regulatory capture, i.e., regulation operating to the benefit of the industries they are supposed to be regulating.  But that does not appear to be how Republicans understand the phrase.  To Trump supporters, it means getting Washington insiders all upset and disrupting the city’s ability to function at all.  And to the Republican donor class, draining the swamp means ending economic regulation altogether.  After all, they reason, if regulators just end up being captured by the industries they regulate then the only sure way to end the problem of regulatory capture is to end  economic regulation altogether.

And that is where things become awkward.  Because if you define conservatism as the priorities of the Republican donor class – wanting to massively cut taxes with a focus on the top and on corporate taxes, and to gut regulations – then Trump is very conservative indeed.  Most famously, he has required all regulatory agencies to eliminate two major regulations for every one enacted, and requiring the two repealed regulations to have a greater cost than the one enacted.  The result has been to bring new regulations to a virtual halt, with only fifteen (15) major regulations issued, all in areas exempt from the order, as opposed to 93 in a comparable time by Obama and 114 by the Junior Bush.  Many Obama era regulations passed in the last six months of his administration have been repealed as well.*  The Trump Administration has been skeptical of Obama-era workplace protections, rolling back restrictions on exposure to beryllium and silica and requirement for employers to keep records of workplace injuries.  It has thrown open public lands to coal mining.  

 It is true that he differs from the Republican donor class in on immigration, and plenty of the rank-and-file see this as a major break with traditional conservatism and a major victory over the donor class, which wants to bring in cheap labor.  But the Republican Party has a longstanding nativist tradition.  The anti-immigration faction of the party has been dominant ever since it beat back Bush, Junior’s proposed immigration reform.  The donor class might prefer more immigration, but ultimately the issue is not so important to them that they are prepared to split the party over it.  So long as fighting immigration does not mean imposing burdensome regulations on employers, they are willing to accept an anti-immigration party in exchange for tax cuts and regulatory rollback. 

It is also true that he differs from the Republican donor class on free trade.  This is a more complex issue.  On the one hand, conservatives (as generally understood), the Republican Party, and industrial capitalists (closely aligned since the 1870’s) have a traditional of protectionism to promote U.S. industry dating back to before the existence of the Republican Party and ending only after WWII, when protectionism was seen as contributing to the war by deepening the Depression.  But times have changed since then.  Since then industrial capitalists have become much more internationalist, building plants the world over and creating complex, highly integrated supply chains spanning national borders.  The Republican donor class may be willing to yield ground on the free flow of people across national borders.  They are unlikely to be so accommodating on the free flow of goods or capital.  But then again, thus far Trump has not undertaken any serious protectionist actions, at least in part because cabinet members from the Republican donor class have managed to talk him down by convincing him of the damage that disrupting supply chains would cause.

It is also true that Trump has not yet delivered any kind of tax cut, and that he does not favor mass cuts in entitlement spending, other than Obamacare.  But the Republican establishment is capitulating with unseemly haste on the matter of spending, rapidly discovering that their real opposition is not so much to government spending as to a Democrat doing it, and that so long as they get their tax cuts, deficits and spending aren’t really important.  Besides, tax cuts will either unleash such growth as to make cuts in spending unnecessary or else precipitate a future fiscal crisis and force future spending cuts (hopefully with a Democrat in office), so who cares. 

But what Trump has been able to deliver on appears to be what the Republican donor class really cares most about – massive regulatory rollback.  Even Steve Bannon, the least establishment of Trump’s appointees, has boasted about the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  In short, if you define conservatism as economic royalism, then Trump is as conservative as you can get.**

The real difference is that Trump is the first Republican to make a populist case for economic royalism.  During the 2012 election, with Mitt Romney as the candidate, Republicans argued that business owners – “job creators” – were the only truly productive members of society, and that anyone willing to let someone else sign their paycheck were simply losers and failures who never worked a day in their lives and contributed nothing to the economy.  Unsurprisingly, that was not a winning argument.   Trump’s argument, famously, has been to blame the loss of good-paying blue collar jobs on foreigners – both immigrants stealing jobs from the native-born, and from plants that flee overseas to take advantage of cheap foreign labor.  The danger in this argument, from an economic royalist perspective, is that it might draw attention to who is hiring all those illegal immigrants and sending all those plants overseas.  But here Trump has the answer.  He doesn’t focus so much on immigrants lowering wages as on immigrants committing crimes.  And as for those plants fleeing overseas, it isn’t the employers’ fault.  It is the evil government, strangling our noble and honorable job creators with unconscionable taxes and regulations.  Repeal the taxes and regulations, and job creators will bring back all those good-paying jobs of old, just as they have always wanted if only the evil regulators had not interfered.  And to all appearances Trump has been successful at selling economic royalism as a populist philosophy.

*Complex rules forbid simple legislative repeal of regulations more than six months old.
**And it should be noted that the economic royalist assumption that rolling back regulations "drains the swamp" by removing opportunities for regulatory capture ignores the potential for corruption and conflict of interest in the process of deregulation -- call it deregulatory capture.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trump, Obnoxiousness, and Principle

At least it pissed off liberals
I want to briefly revisit a comment I made about Donald Trump after his brief, birther-themed 2012 run for President has lapsed:
To many of the Republican base, obnoxiousness is the most important quality in a leader. They equate obnoxiousness with firm and unyielding principle. So I guess is that if you regard obnoxiousness as the prime qualification in a leader, then Trump is perfect. Otherwise, I can't think of a single good thing to say about him.
 Looking back on it, that was a mistake.

Ted Cruz is the sort of candidate you support if you equate principle with obnoxiousness and therefore assume that the more obnoxious the politician, the more principled.  Ted Cruz is not as principled as his admirers believe, but he has genuine principles.  His method is to stake out a maximal position that is not politically feasible in the real world, reject any realistic compromise as selling out, be defeated, and then denounce his colleagues as sellouts for accepting the best that was realistic.  Naturally his colleagues hate him.  Nonetheless, the maximal positions that he takes presumably match his actual beliefs and what he would ideally like to pass.  In other words, Ted Cruz is really obnoxious and has genuine principles.  His supporters make the mistake of equating his obnoxiousness with principle when it is more a cynical ploy to manipulate supporters.

Trump, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.  He appeals to people who don't care about principle at all.  They just favor obnoxiousness for its own sake.