There have been many articles celebrating Trump’s lack of progress despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. There are two problems with that:
- We should not be confusing tactical victories with permanent success, as there are still years ahead. (If you want to be pessimistic, you could even say that Trump doesn’t concern himself much with Congress, because if he gets another Supreme Court judge he won’t have to.)
- We are doing Trump a favor by focusing criticism on his tactical failures. What’s bad about Trump is his program, and if he hasn’t been very successful at getting it done, so much the better.
With that as introduction, the major takeaway from Trump’s first 100 days is not what didn’t happen but what we now know about what is to come. This post hits a few particularly painful points on that list.
This is an issue where orthodoxy has thus far taken precedence over any kind of rational decision-making. As things stand Trump is blocking all climate change research or even discussion, thereby not only impeding progress on a critical international issue but also effectively handcuffing US businesses in competing for the monumental work that will need to be done.
The only glimmer of light is that Trump has not yet decided what to do about the Paris agreements. With that there may be some chance for reason. No business could ever run this way—head in the sand on an issue critical for its future. Given the level of support among scientists, climate change cannot seriously be dismissed as a hoax. And given the huge threats and business opportunities it poses, we should be after all the data we can get. You’d think there was some rational business person in the White House?
It seems strange that with a President elected for his business background, we have a clear potential for economic disaster. The problem is that Trump acts with the same impulses built up over the years of running his own business: taxes and regulation are bad, stimulus is good, research is irrelevant. The fact of being President has not changed his point of view.
Trump’s new tax plan looks like a classic case of bad management: huge unbudgeted stimulation of an economy already moving toward full employment, producing unsustainable deficits, leading to a shutdown of government spending, and then a crash. On the Congressional Republican side, despite all the balanced budget hawkishness of the past, it seems no one is watching the store.
There are of course other problems as well. Trump’s fixation on traditional businesses discounts the real sources of the country’s economic strength. Non-competitive, non-unionized businesses selling only domestically at artificially high prices will not make this country great—there’s nothing keeping that boat afloat. The US has maintained dominance by staying ahead of the innovation curve—based in significant measure on government-supported research. In that respect cutting the NIH budget is incredible given the importance of biotech. Energy research is equally important and fares even worse.
Trump-promoted xenophobia counts here also. For many years the US has attracted the best and brightest from all over the world, as the perceived best place to realize their dreams. As has been much discussed, more than half of Silicon Valley companies have non-native CEO’s. As a telling symbol, we should remember that Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant. Trump has torn up the welcome mat, and we will pay. This is already not just theory.
Trump presents himself as the jobs President, and astonishingly many people still believe him. However there seems to be only one kind of job he is interested in—low skill, low wage jobs in price sensitive industries. Those are the “stolen” jobs that he has convinced people he can bring back. Trump made a big show of supposedly reviving coal mining, but had no time for the three times as many jobs in alternative energy. Even more to the point are his proposed budget cuts for successful Appalachian job training programs.
Trump’s fixation on reviving old-time factory jobs makes him the bad jobs President. Manufacturing has changed since the “stolen” jobs went away—they are now high-tech (and the immigrants didn’t steal them). The fewer low-tech versions—most certainly in non-union states—are not what anyone has in mind. There’s nothing that prevents economic revival in Appalachia and elsewhere, but there’s an essential role for government in making that happen: education, retraining, and incentive to locate. Trump’s much-discussed solutions–tariffs, relaxed regulation, expulsion of immigrants—don’t even address the problem. Trumps proposed tax cuts are a windfall for the richest of the rich, but no salvation for the blue-collar types claims to represent.
On jobs Trump has been selling a particularly insidious message: that jobs are gifts from business, and for that reason any regulation or taxation immediately translates to a loss of jobs. Therefore government has no power to do good and must just stay out of the way.
That is an easy story to sell–and particularly to people worried about their jobs—but history has shown it is manifestly false. Government action, including regulation, is necessary for prosperity. Business by itself will not deliver a high standard of living, an educated work force, an unpolluted environment, a research base for continued economic power. Jobs come from providing all conditions for economic growth, and good jobs need both good government and good business. States with strong economies work that way.
Trump is inviting us to a race to the bottom: Let’s stake our future on competing with China, Korea, Mexico to make the same products everyone else does. And if we have to throw away environment, education, healthcare, unions—heck that’s what it takes to make America great! (The much-discussed book Strangers in Their Own Land gives a telling picture of where that argument leads.)
Education is as crucial as anything you can think of for the standard of living in this country and for anyone’s definition of making America great. The Department of Education, however, has been sold to a rich ideologue. As has been pointed out, Betsy DeVos is the first Education Secretary to be opposed to public education–her stated aim is to put as many children as possible in religious schools. Her program–as she shoved it down the throats of several midwestern states–has not produced results (including in her own state of Michigan). Further, her objective–a fully privatized school system with vouchers but no regulation of schools–is characterized by:
– No standards for schools
– No constraints on student selection by schools
– No constraints on tuition cost—the voucher just pays what it pays
Incredibly this is complete segmentation of opportunity based on ability to pay, with no one responsible for the quality of what is delivered for the voucher fee.
Since all of this is well-known, one can wonder why she had only token opposition from Republicans at confirmation. That question unfortunately has a clear answer: this was a matter of party principle—the office was paid-for and delivered.
(Since confirmation DeVos has also rolled back efforts to deal with student college debt without an alternative proposal. This is a real problem for the country, as even state universities have become much more expensive in the last decade.)
We now see the alarming spectacle of healthcare being deliberately sacrificed to a program of tax cuts for the rich.
Protecting the environment
The EPA is now put at the service of the people it is supposed to regulate. All academics have been removed from its Scientific Review Board to be replaced by business people.
Equality and equality of opportunity
Trump is proposing three different tax cuts explicitly for the rich:
- Repeal of the Obamacare-financing surcharges.
- Reduction of the business income tax with proceeds passed through to investors
- Reduction of high-end tax rates together with a new loophole for private companies
Trump gleefully predicts all of this will be revenue neutral, because of the huge growth that will follow. No one else thinks that’s true, so what it will mean is a reduction of government services (note that the Republican Healthcare plan is not self-financing like Obamacare—it is just another vulnerable budget item) and ultimately more taxes for the middle class.
Democracy in America
Trump’s congratulations to Erdogan in Turkey and praise for Duterte in the Philippines tell you everything there is to say about Trump’s respect for democracy. With one more Supreme Court appointment we may find that we are in a war on terror, where the President as Commander in Chief can do as he sees fit.
We just have to hope that Ruth Bader Ginsburg can hang around for the duration.