Almost halfway

Two years…really?  Is that an eternity, or does it seem like no time at all?  It seems like…it seems like I’ve been on a merry-go-round that not only hasn’t slowed down in almost two years but occasionally cranks up to “dizzying,” and it feels like we all could use a rest.

Let’s see how smart I was two years ago (“Eyes Open, moving ahead” Nov. 11, 2016): I said, we owe it to the new president to give him a chance to perform in office, to get up to speed and be the best he can be and live up to the responsibilities of the office, blah blah blah…something like that.  I still think that was the only right attitude to take at the time; so, where are we now?

Well, the only real “important legislation” I can think of that this president has passed was the ill-considered December 2017 tax cut, and last month it was reported that it has contributed to the fact that today we have a $779 billion federal budget deficit, exactly the thing Republicans used to cry about—when Democrats were in power. (Now, not so much?  Nope; now, not at all.  E.J. Dionne likens today’s GOP “tax policy” to an artful scam pulled by some high-end grifters.)  Anything more recent?

BFD Trump (big freakin’ dealmaker), who campaigned on stopping the bleeding in the American car industry and promised to save the steel industry, has pretty much watched dumbfounded as there’s been no resurrection in steel and, this week, General Motors announced plans for plant closings and more than 14,000 layoffs to prepare for the future in sight of a present in which Trump tariffs have raised its costs.  (Yours and mine, too.)  And when he talked to the Wall Street Journal, long-time friend to Republican presidents, Trump demonstrated he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

(That extends beyond economics: he displayed the breadth of his ignorance warped view of the world when he talked to the Washington Post on several topics, including his pals in Russia and Saudi Arabia and his own Fed chairman.)

Thirteen federal government agencies released the latest report on the on-going investigation into climate change, in which they find many previously-predicted negative results of the climate changes that have already resulted from human activity are coming true and warn of “a profound threat to Americans’ well being.”  But Trump says he doesn’t believe the report, so, that’s that—nothing to worry about here, everybody, go about your business.

(Not so fast, conservatives: S.E. Cupp writes that it’s “both willfully ignorant and negligent not to acknowledge that there is in fact a scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and man is responsible for much of it” and suggests we get about doing something.)

Of course, there’s endless amusement in watching Trump twist helplessly in the wind waiting for another shoe to drop in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has been moving along pretty briskly, thank you very much.  It just secured a second guilty plea from Trump’s former personal and business attorney, Michael Cohen, who now admits he lied to Congress about the ongoing effort of the Trump Organization to arrange a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow, an effort (he now concedes) that was still active even during the latter stages of the 2016 presidential campaign—a time during which the candidate himself repeatedly denied he had any business dealings with the Russian government or Russian businessmen, because, you know, people would have frowned at that.

(The Mueller investigation is not a witch hunt, unless you count as witches all the people on the list of “Trump people who have admitted criminal activity.”  Also, I read an interesting piece in Wired that argues the Mueller investigation could be close to an end, and has been leaving its conclusions strewn along the way in various court filings that no hack political appointee acting attorney general can ever hide from us even if he succeeds in firing Mueller himself.)

Wow.  And all of that…all of that is just some of what has happened in the past week.  Doesn’t even touch on the constant and inveterate lying from Trump and his press secretary and other subordinates and acolytes.  Gotta tell you, I know that what he says matters since he’s the president of the USA and all, but I don’t understand why anyone ever believes anything that comes out of his mouth.  He says what he wants to be true, or needs to be true, at the time he’s saying it; there’s seems to be no positive correlation between any statement made and discernible factual truth, nor any need even for niggling and inconvenient consistency between what he said today and anything he said before.  Ever.

I look forward to a beginning of some checks and balances of the Executive branch from the House of Representatives in the new year, and I will say that I hope the Republicans who serve in the current Congress are ashamed of the way they have blown off their constitutional responsibility and rolled over for this guy.  I have no doubt that Trump is deserving of being removed from office, but I don’t know that in the current circumstance that an impeachment effort would be worthwhile, what with Republicans still controlling the Senate and the alternate-facts-Fox-universe unlikely to see the light.  But Democrats could take a lesson from history:

The president of the United States was both a racist and a very difficult man to get along with.

He routinely called blacks inferior. He bluntly stated that no matter how much progress they made, they must remain so. He openly called critics disloyal, even treasonous. He liberally threw insults like candy during public speeches. He rudely ignored answers he didn’t like. He regularly put other people into positions they didn’t want to be in, then blamed them when things went sour. His own bodyguard later called him “destined to conflict,” a man who “found it impossible to conciliate or temporize.”

But the nation’s politicians simply had to interact with Andrew Johnson, for he had become the legitimate, constitutionally ordained chief executive upon Abraham Lincoln’s death by assassination.

Their path for managing this choleric man reveals that a president need not be kicked out of office to be removed from holding a firm grip on the reins of power. It also shows that people around the president, from Congress to the Cabinet, have many more tools at their disposal than, say, writing an anonymous New York Times op-ed to stop a leader they consider reckless or dangerous.

Read how they did it in this terrific piece by David Priess in Politico.  And get ready for the second half.

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Diagnosing Baby Donald

Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression eager to try out potential remedies for the economic crisis, so he set an arbitrary mark of the first 100 days in office as a goal for measuring progress.  Ever since, journalists looking for a ready-made story have used the excuse of a new president’s first 100 days to issue a report card on his or her progress in enacting campaign promises into law.  This week President Bannon and his team started off downplaying the significance of the silly benchmark, calling it “an artificial barrier” and a “ridiculous standard” that’s “not very meaningful.”  And then spent the rest of the week in “a flurry of action on health care, taxes and the border wall to show just how much he has done in the first 100 days—amplified by a White House program of first-100-days briefings, first-100-days receptions, a first-100-days website and a first-100-days rally.”

“As with so much else, [Donald] Trump is a study in inconsistency,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. “One minute he says his 100 days have been the best of any president, and the next minute he decries the idea of measuring a president by the 100 days.”

What do others say?  While some think this president has done some good things, I haven’t found anyone outside of the White House who would completely agree with the administration’s estimate of its own effectiveness.

The president stated flatly to an audience in Kenosha that “No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days;” PolitiFact responds: “Trump has had some achievements in office, but at the very least, they are much less numerous and far-reaching than those of Roosevelt, the standard against whom all presidents are measured. In more recent years, other presidents, including Obama, have accomplished more in their first 100 days than Trump has, historians say. We rate the claim False.”

Vox.com is willing to give the new president credit for his success—at making money for himself, his family, and his businesses while “serving” the American people.

“Trump isn’t failing. He and his family appear to be making money hand over fist. It’s a spectacle the likes of which we’ve never seen in the United States, and while it may end in disaster for the Trumps someday, for now it shows no real sign of failure,” reports Vox, reminding the reader that Trump is still able to personally access profits from his businesses and that his actions as president are actually leading to government expenditures that go straight into his own pocket; for example:

Like many previous presidents, he golfs. And like all presidents who golf, when he hits the green, he is accompanied by Secret Service agents. The agents use golf carts to get around the courses. And to get their hands on the golf carts, they need to rent them from the golf courses at which the president plays. All of this is fundamentally normal — except for the fact that Trump golfs at courses he owns. So when the Secret Service spends $35,000 on Mar-a-Lago golf cart rentals, it’s not just a normal security expense — Trump is personally profiting from his own protection.

Grading a president on how many of his policies have been enacted into law puts his 100-days rating at the mercy of the Congress which must pass those bills.  Although his ability to work with the legislative branch, rather than to try to dictate to it, is a valuable guide to a president’s effectiveness, maybe that isn’t the most straightforward way to tell if he’s doing a good job.

And let’s not indulge the argument here that all of the things Trump said that he wanted to do are bad things; William Saletan argues in Slate that the better way to judge is to consider if he’s done what he said he would do:

You can be sick of low wages and lost jobs, disgusted with the Clintons, angry about Obamacare, and wary of open borders without being a monster. My argument to you isn’t that Trump is bad because he addresses these concerns. My argument is that he addresses them badly. If you want better jobs, better health care, better border security, a stronger America, less corruption, and less debt, Trump is taking you in the wrong direction. And he’ll keep making things worse until you stop him.

Saletan finds that in Trump’s first 100 days  he has failed in his promises to fight for the working man, to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better, to strengthen our borders, to reduce the national debt (he’s increased it!), to drain the swamp, or to honor the military.

What we’ve learned in Trump’s first 100 days, in short, is that he’s bad at the job. Maybe last fall you decided to give him a chance. Or maybe you felt you had to choose between two bad candidates, and you could only stop one of them. So you voted against Hillary, and you got this instead.

You don’t have to stand for it. Call your senators and your member of Congress. Demand better health care and a fairer tax system. Go to their town halls. Tell them to oppose Trump when he doesn’t do what’s right for the country. If they don’t listen to you, organize and vote them out next year. Trump’s first 100 days have been bad. We don’t need another four years like them.

(Even Trump is surprised at how he’s done so far: “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”)

There’s little reason for us to believe things are going to get better, or normal-er, more like what we’ve been used to with every previous president, all on their own.  Not when you consider that the erratic, impulsive, self-promoting behavior we’ve all been witness to is at such a degree that a group of mental health professionals has felt the need to ignore a portion of the American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics to issue a warning about the president’s mental health and to offer suggestions for how we all deal with the fallout.

Let us stipulate that it is not known for a fact that Trump has any kind of psychiatric diagnosis. Let us also stipulate that, to many observers, the most powerful man in the world displays many of the definitional traits of one disorder in particular: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, characterized by behavior that is impulsive, dramatic and erratic. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with NPD “come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious,” require “constant admiration” and belittle people they “perceive as inferior.” This grandiose, bullying shell hides profound insecurity, so “anything that may be perceived as criticism” can provoke “rage or contempt.”

Baby Donald is a child of privilege who’s always been able to buy whatever he wanted, whether a new toy or a new person in his orbit (or a new wife) or a way out of trouble.  He’s been surrounded by yes-men-and-women who rely on him for their livelihoods, so he has precious little experience of having to deal with a differing opinion.  When he opens his mouth his instinct is to educate the listener about his own extraordinary self, and to state as incontrovertible that which he wishes in that moment to be true, without regard for whether the statement is consistent with previous ones or with any known facts.

In reality, it’s not just Congress or world leaders or White House staffers who are in Trump’s orbit and at the whim of his personality traits. We all are. [New Jersey therapist and author] Wendy Behary says that when dealing with such a person, the best defense is to read deeply about psychopathology. Ultimately, she says, understanding the dynamics of personality disorders will help make what seems unpredictable predictable. The more people know, the less they will wonder, “How could he do that?” and come to understand, “How could he not?”

Why we should care about income inequality

I don’t want to get into the argument of the 1% versus the 99% because I think the issue, unaddressed, will hurt 100% of us. The issue is income inequality in the United States, and the good news is I’m not asking anyone to trust my economic arguments. I’m a dope, after all—a journalism major from a state university in the South who never focused on economic theory much beyond the law of supply and demand. But I know what makes sense, and Timothy Noah’s series in Slate does.

The 10-part series on income inequality published in September 2010 has helped me understand the issues, and understand why they matter. It’s not a question of the vast majority of Americans being jealous of the terrific success of others, or of them trying to take away anything the rich have earned. In a current discussion of this subject on Slate, Noah says “Let me start by conceding a point that conservatives often make: Yes, a certain amount of income inequality is necessary in a capitalist system. You have to let the market reward effort and skill. But a system in which inequality of incomes constantly increases over time is worrisome.”

That’s what’s happening in America today: the inequality of incomes is constantly increasing (the series drills down deep into the numbers to prove that it’s more dramatic now than ever), and Noah argues that “creates alienation.”

Income earners at the median have not shared in America’s prosperity. They’ve actually seen their incomes go down (after inflation) during the past decade, and over the past three decades their increases seem pitiful compared both with people earning top incomes (and here I mean not just the top 1 percent but the top 10 and even 20 percent) and with people at the median during the postwar era. For a long time economists said: Wait until productivity rebounds. Then working families will get their share. But when productivity rebounded like crazy in the aughts, working families saw no reward.

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear—if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside.

I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together—Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.

Read the series: Noah digs through the numbers that show the historical trends of income inequality, and explores the theories for what’s responsible for today’s situation–and he doesn’t just end up blaming Congress or presidents, or Republicans or Democrats, or Wall Street or the educational system, or trade policy or labor unions or immigrants.

Income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.

Noah’s current book “The Great Divergence” grew out of the research done for the 2010 Slate series, which you can read here for free.