Saturday, April 8, 2017

Trump and the Limits of Power

How much difference has Trump made? Scott Sumner considers the question:
Back in February, I did an Econlog post predicting that not much would change. Let’s look at some recent events:

1. Healthcare reform failed—we are sticking with Obamacare.

2. Early (conservative) enthusiasm about the economy has faded, as job growth for the first three months has been slower than under Obama’s last few years in office. The Great Stagnation will continue.

3. Alt-right enthusiasm for a US exit from the Middle East and a bromance with Putin seems to be fading.

4. There has been some deregulation of coal, but most utilities are not expected to go back to coal (with natural gas prices so low.)

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of grief for my claim that Gore would have gotten us into Iraq, because that’s what the establishment wanted after 9/11. He foreign policy czar was expected to be (the pro-Iraq War) Richard Holbrooke. I’ve always believed that Presidents are less influential than most people assume–they mostly do what they are told, and today I believe that more strongly than ever.

One thing that I did not anticipate was just how incompetent Trump would be, and that this incompetence would turn out to have silver lining. Trump is not even capable of doing the bare minimum, staffing an administration. His ignorance is so deep that he must almost entirely rely on experts. (Today he tweeted that discouraged workers who have given up looking for work are counted as “employed”. So why do people complain when I call him an idiot?) Trump is like one of those kings/sultans/emperors in the history books who assumed power as a child and had various ministers conduct governance while they spent time in their harem or engaged in falconry.
Since the first George Bush, Washington has settled into a system that makes any sort of major change very difficult. The parties are closely balanced in power, with neither ever getting more than 54% of the vote, and also internally divided between radical and moderate wings in a way that makes concerted action difficult. This has amplified the power of the permanent bureaucracy. Really, who sets the priorities for big agencies like the Navy or the National Park Service? Certainly not the president, or Congress.

The two counter-examples I can think of are Bush's invasion of Iraq and the accompanying shift toward policies of torture, preventative war, and so on, and the passing of Obamacare. Both were brought about by major outside shocks: 9-11, which unleashed the brutish side of the whole nation, and the 2008 Wall Street collapse, which gave the Democrats a brief window of power. But even with unified control and 60 senate seats the Democrats could not enact some of their priorities and chose to focus on health care, bringing to fruition ideas they had been working on since the 70s.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Trump fails to accomplish anything of note, unless it is something like tax cuts or FDA reform that has been part of the Republican program for a generation. What then? For a mild-mannered centrist like me it is reassuring to think that things will go on much as they have been. After all, my life is pretty nice.

But – and I think this is the key question in American politics for the next generation – is the status quo good enough? Can the same old same old deliver real improvement for communities devastated by industrial decline and drugs? Or does it mean accepting big pockets of white society will just be like some Indian reservations and certain black ghettos, places where the "American dream" is a bitter joke? Or that the threat of ongoing stagnation across much of the country will eventually build up into a real political explosion? Could the no-compromise blocs on the left and right get powerful enough to block all compromise, making it impossible to pass a budget?

I think Obamacare, for all the good it has done, is both a symbol and an example of all that is wrong with our politics. Nobody really likes it, and it maintains the horrible inefficiencies that make our health care system so expensive and mediocre. But it's the best our divided system, hemmed in on every side by entrenched interests, can do. Real change in some areas requires radicalism that our system seems incapable of delivering, whether we're talking about single-payer health care, a serious attack on offshoring and dark money, or a major change in our foreign policy. It seems inevitable to me that ongoing progress in artificial intelligence and robots is going to eliminate millions of jobs over the next twenty years; is our system capable of dealing with that challenge?

In other words, if the most radical shakeup our system can deliver is Donald Trump, can we change enough to keep up with the changing world?


G. Verloren said...

There's a lot missing here regarding vulnerable minorities.

What about the stripped federal protections for LGBT individuals? What about the ICE raids that are still ongoing? What about all the deportations of non-violent, non-criminal, undocumented immigrants that have torn apart families? What about all the refugees that have been denied asylum? What about the gutted budgets of government offices like the National Parks Service? What about all the myriad regulations and restrictions he's revoked? What about his restarting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipeline projects? What about all the hate crimes his supporters have been embolded to carry out?

What difference has all this made to the nation so far? To the white, privileged, comfortably well off segment of society, perhaps it doesn't seem like much. But to all the people whose lives are being torn apart by the actions this farce of a president has undertaken in just the short time he's been in office, the difference in massive.

People are dead because Trump got elected. Let that sink in.

Children have had their parents stolen from them at gunpoint, tied up, hooded, and carted off in black vans and shipped like cattle to holding pens, and then expelled from the country forever. People who arrived undocumented as children have been taken from their loved ones and stranded in countries they haven't been to since before they could speak, where they have no relatives, no legal status, no money or resources, where they can't even speak the native language. People whose only crimes were legal technicalities have had their lives destroyed for no sane reason.

Idiots and billionaires have been put in charge of managing our education and our security for at least the forseeable future. Regulations meant to protect the poor and the vulnerable, and to hinder the wicked and the predatory, have been stripped away. Perhaps they'll be reinstated at some point - but that's like saying perhaps you'll get around to repairing that fence which keeps the wolves away from the sheep at some point. And maybe eventually you'll find the money to buy a watchdog to replace the perfectly good one that used to protect the flock until the new owner decided to put down to save money not having to feed it.

More and more people are actively being harmed with every passing day - many of them permanently. If your only concern is whether the nation "as a whole" will weather the storm of Trump, it's probably because your own life hasn't been caught in the crossfire yet. It's not enough for us to just muddle through this mess. We have a moral obligation to stop the senseless destruction and suffering as soon as possible.

pootrsox said...

BRAVO, G. Verloren!

John said...

I would point out that Obama deported millions of people, including thousands of children. Trump has a long way to go to catch up to his record-setting deportation total.

It might be moral for all immigrants to be allowed to stay here regardless of status, and all applicants for refugee status allowed in, but that is not and has never been American policy. Immigrant families are torn apart by US law every day and this has been happening for as long as I have been alive. Immigration officers (and every other sort of American law enforcement) kill people all the time, and they did under Obama. I have seen no indication that these numbers have increased. If you don't want our government to jail and deport immigrants and break up their families you will have to do something much more radical than just elect a Democratic president.

I am on record saying that that the controversial pipeline projects are of no real consequence to climate change. I stand by that. I was a fan of the clean power initiative but it is not yet clear that Trump's actions will lead to any meaningful shift from clean energy to fossil fuels.

It remains to be seen how much the budget of any federal agency will actually be cut; so far not a dollar has been cut, since no budget laws have passed. It is a major hassle for agencies that the budget is so late, but after all that happened under Obama, too. I would expect some budget cutting, because (as I said) Trump is acting like a normal Republican and that is what they have long tried to do. I doubt the cuts will be anything like what Trump proposed.

I worry that Jeff Sessions will try to keep the Department of Justice from reigning in police departments, but so far he has only tried to undo one consent decree and he was blocked by a judge.

It is certainly true that I am a privileged person compared to undocumented immigrants and many others. But that hardly started with Trump.

G. Verloren said...

You're missing the point. The issue isn't that these problems exist, period. It's that they've gotten worse, and the stage is set for them to continue to get worse.

Hitler didn't invent war, genocide, and authoritarian brutality, but he certainly added a whole lot more of it all to the world.

Voting in a Democrat might not have stopped inhumane deportations, ended our environmental problems, eliminated all injustice and inequality, et cetera, but it certainly would have resulted in less of those sorts of problems. Obama wasn't a saint, but he at least tried to do fewer abominable things overall compared to his predecessors, not more of them.

You tend to view the world in terms of historical trends, which is pretty normal and understandable for a historian. I myself engage in this kind of thinking frequently. It serves a use, it has a purpose, and there's no real intrinsic fault in viewing the world with such a lens.

And yes, the thought that so long as we end up with a net trend toward progress does make it easier to accept the occasional and inevitable backslide. After all, it can't all be smooth sailing - there will always be times when things have to get worse before they get better. It can be comforting in times of trouble to remember that, overall, things are slowly improving.

But this viewpoint is only one tool in a selection of many - only one way of examining the world, and gauging the impacts of what is happening in our society and our government. The danger is in complacency and rationalization - in being closed minded, and not taking note of what is happening from other angles.

If you only evaluate the situation of Trump being in power from a single perspective, your conclusions about the health of the nation are quite naturally going to be stilted and flawed. You can't really tell if a house is structurally sound if you only look at it from the front lawn. You have to also schlep around to the back side for another view, get down and inspect the foundation, poke around in the attic, and squeeze into the crawl spaces to find potential problems. That nice fresh coat of white wash on the street side might be distracting you from less noticeable rot and weakness to be found inside.

Is this American house of ours about to collapse outright? No, it doesn't seem like it. But that's no excuse to not start rooting out all the hidden termites and creeping molds and other longterm issues that will only get worse if we leave them to fester.

And while leaving a house to decay simply means making more work and cost for yourself later to restore it, in a society you have to also factor in human misery and suffering. Putting off dealing with a termite infestation only destroys unliving wood, which can be replaced. But putting off dealing with a white supremacist infestation destroys living, breathing people, and causes a kind of damage that can never be fixed or undone.