Back in February, I did an Econlog post predicting that not much would change. Let’s look at some recent events: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.
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.
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?