Monday, November 20, 2017

THE NEW NORMAL?

For my regular readers it is no secret that I am not particularly fond of our 45th President, not of his style, his substance (or lack thereof) or his character. But, as I wrote a year ago in my column ‘The Next Four Years’, the voters chose in November of 2016 to give him a chance and we should respect that. The good thing is that Presidents in the United States are term limited to a maximum of eight years and that they have to go back to the voters to ask for an extended mandate after the first four years. In addition, they (their actions and policies) will be assessed in mid-term elections which have the capacity to deny them support in Congress and thus clip their wings before they become a lame duck.

I have to believe, but I have been proven wrong about just about every prediction I have made about # 45, that this President will pay a price in the court of public opinion every time his presidency is subjected to the democratic process of free and fair elections. The sketchy results from the 2017 State and Local elections cannot really be interpreted as a verdict on the current federal administration, but they hint at a repudiation of conservative-republican candidates and policies. The mid-term elections of 2018 will be the first true test of whether we will have entered an era of nationalistic populism or are just going through a period of aberration.

Yes, there are people who don’t care about the federal government or what it does at all and just want to hear the man in the White House use the same rhetoric they like to use when confronted with opinions that differ from their own or when contemplating the lack of respect and dominance America commands abroad. These people cherish the satisfaction of ‘telling them like it is’ and despise political correctness, diplomacy and compromise. But rational people will be results oriented. They will want to judge politicians on how well or poorly they deliver on their campaign promises. Their chance to do that comes at the voting booth. I surely hope that the percentage of voters willing to live by promises, kept or not, and slogans, is not high enough to keep delivering electoral victories. We will have to wait, until November 2018, and see.

In the meantime, we will keep wondering where America will be heading. Will it revert to picking up its century long role of a global pathfinder, a living representation of the values expressed and enshrined in its declaration of independence and constitution, or establish a new normal in which a narrowly defined self interest becomes the norm not only for federal policy but also a model for personal conduct.

The fundamental difference that sets the new normal apart from the old is the axiomatic belief in the zero-point game: ‘There can only be winners and losers, not winners and winners’. In the new normal, the United States would have left Japan and Germany to fend for themselves after World War II had ended. The Allies had won and the Axis lost, as simple as that. Recovery from the Allied inflicted war damage would not have been an American responsibility. The new normal despises losers and idolizes winners. Winning means that you were right all along. The concept that a treaty or a multinational agreement, like NAFTA, the Paris Climate Accord, or the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement, can advance the interest of all parties is alien to the subscribers to the new normal. If America does not get it exactly its way, the deal can simply be no good, it must have been poorly negotiated. From this rationale, the new normal had every reason to reject the TPP framework even before it had been fully negotiated.

The new normal is pessimistic and cynical. In the new normal there is no ‘give and take’ and – in political terms – there is no reaching across the aisle. It looks at every challenge as a zero-point game: ‘We can’t all be winners, settlers and immigrants, protectionists and free-traders, Christians and Muslims, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, white and black and Latino’.

If, God forbid, the 2018 and 2020 elections were to establish the new normal as the lay of the land, it will signal a complete abandonment of traditional American values, beliefs, and aspirations. There is no denying that America has always harbored self-centered, cynical, and confrontational elements, but most of the time and over the long run they have been kept at bay by a moderate, rational, optimistic, and forward looking public opinion.

Will the regular order prevail and bring America, by means of the voting booth, back on the course of leading the world by example and in a collaborative mode with other peace-loving nations, or will it require a life altering shock to the system, like a nuclear conflict, a cyber war, an economic collapse or a popular revolt? That is the existential question.

Monday, October 23, 2017

THE VOID AT THE CENTER

Did George W. Bush read my book?

On October 19, at the ‘Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World’ event in NYC he delivered an ill-disguised rebuke of Trumpism in which he said: “At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.” That resonates with me. In my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’, I wrote: “The core of my disenchantment with America, as it functions today, is in the fact that the forces that pull America apart seem to have overwhelmed the forces that bind America together.” It was more than three years ago that I wrote these words, well before the surprising rise and coronation of Donald Trump, and it only has gotten worse. At the time of writing my book, I was hopeful that dissatisfaction with gridlock in Washington DC would open up an avenue for moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats to take control of the agenda of the Congress, if not by the creation of a centrist third party, then by an informal coalition for legislative action on the most pressing issues of our time: the increasing inequality, healthcare reform, immigration reform, tax reform, debt reduction and infrastructure renewal. That hope seems to have dissipated, turned into a pipe-dream, for now.

We are witnessing a period of the quickly disappearing middle of the road. Not only in the United States, but also in Europe. The question is if this is a temporary phenomenon or a precursor of things to come. In the United States, we may get some clarity with the mid-term election in November of 2018, which almost certainly will turn into a referendum on Trumpism versus the establishment. Of course, that election will be a traditional battle between Republicans and Democrats and a battle for control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, but more tellingly it will shed light on what brand of Republican and what brand of Democrat will prevail. Establishment candidates for re-election will find themselves confronted with unprecedented primary challenges, mainstream Democrats from the far left, mainstream Republicans from the far right and from populist candidates in the vein of our current President. After this primary tussle for the soul of republicanism and democratism has been decided, and assuming that it will result in a defeat for the establishment, the voters will then have to signal if they think this movement to the extremes is going to have their support or rejection. The mid-term election will be the first clash in this battle. The 2020 Presidential race will, two years later, either confirm a trend that started with the 2016 surprise, or become the turning point back to traditionalism or normalcy. After all, changes in the political arena of our country are still only forged at the ballot box. We have no choice but to go through the contest of finding out if the middle road, the center, is or is not where America is at this juncture.

It is evident that not all Americans see the disappearing center in politics as a threat and a loss. Particularly the populist faction of the Republican Party (and populists outside of the party) led by Steve Bannon are tirelessly working on the demise of whatever remains of the center. They see compromise in politics as treason and strive for unmitigated hegemony. American leadership, for them, equates to imposing its will and its narrow view on the rest of the world rather than sharing our values and ideals with the world by leading by example.

John McCain, a rare remaining representative of the political center willing to speak up against the populist tide, in the speech with which he accepted the Liberty Medal Award, reminded us of what is at stake with the abandonment of the Western liberal order, created by the United States in the aftermath of the second world war: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to”.

Some divisions require dialogue, reaching across the great divide, and, ultimately, compromise. But outright repudiation of America’s ageless ideals and values deserves only resistance, an uncompromising stand against the corruption of everything this nation has stood for from its inception. We are beginning to see a movement in that direction developing. But only slowly, late and hesitantly. And the voice of alarm appears to come nearly exclusively from the media, the political opposition, and, on the Republican side, the departed or the departing. George Bush speaks out, but is a voice from the past. John McCain speaks out, but he knows that his days are numbered as he has just started serving his last term in the Senate. Bob Corker speaks out, but only after deciding not to run for re-election in 2018. Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, we need to hear this voice of resistance and for the soul of the Republican Party develop into a chorus, a crescendo that invites Americans to join in, like they join in when asked to sing the national anthem, God Bless America or America the beautiful.

America needs an unapologetic return to the center, the middle of the road. It will only get there by an unambiguous repudiation of Trumpism, Bannonism and populism in general at the voting booth. It will require charismatic and principled new leadership on both sides of the aisle willing to put the country ahead of its political ambitions. Only after the void at the center has been recaptured can Congress begin to seriously address the causes of the current discontent that has split America apart. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE LONG VIEW

We are a great country and we should be governed as a great country (Olympia Snow).

With all the tweeted one-liners and on the spot reactions to the ‘breaking news’ of the day grabbing attention, how refreshing is it to hear a new generation politician speak for over an hour, impromptu, in a coherent, erudite, never faltering, fashion about the real issues of our time. This happened on June 2017 when Tyler Cowen, author and Economics Professor at George Mason University, interviewed Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska in front of a public audience. Senator Sasse has been attracting attention recently because of his book “the Vanishing American adult” and the publicity that comes with it. Also, because of a range of provocativein a positive sensemind challenging speeches on and off the floor of the US Senate. This interview was not the run of the mill, morning show, three-minute segment, squeezed between two commercials, but a probing, wide ranging, inquest into Ben Sasse’s views on what ails this nation and what to do about it. Senator Sasse’s answers did not come in the form of a carefully scripted speech read from a teleprompter. He gave real-time, unrehearsed, response to tough questions from a highly competent interlocutor. Absent in this interview is any gratuitous commentary on the current political reality. It is all forward looking, representing ‘the long view’. You can find the interview here https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/ben-sasse-tyler-cowen-book-twitter-trump-cb5b4a435323 If you missed it, it is worth retrieving. It represents a rareand hope givingevent in our current dispiriting political scene.

If you have the interest of the nation at heart, nothing can be gained by remaining pre-occupied by the daily theatrics of the main players on the political stage, as attention grabbing and addictive that may be. We need to do what Senator Sasse does so well in this interview: focus on the future and start looking for solutions to the serious problems that beset the nation. That is what I set out to do in my book “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE” written three years ago, but today even more relevant than it was when it was published. In it, I pleaded for a constitutional amendment, requiring from the President and the leadership in Congress to establish a national strategy. Without a long-term plan, there is no expected outcome and it is, therefore, not surprising that, for decades now, all that comes out of Washington DC is regulation and short-term policy. Note that recent administrations have declared “war” on a number of national challenges—like the war on poverty, the war on drugs and the war on terror—but they have not bothered to rally the nation behind any particular national objective. And thus, these wars fester on without ever achieving a strategic objective.

Without a doubt, the growing inequality between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in today’s American society is at the root of all the discontent and dysfunction we encounter and are confronted with daily, courtesy of our social media and cable TV. It has also produced the current White House and ‘leadership’ in Congress. Inequality manifests itself everywhere it matters: in income, in wealth, in the workplace, in education, in healthcare, in housing, in criminal justice, in sports and recreation. The best in all of these areas is reserved for an ever-shrinking proportion of our population. And the worst is never experienced by these happy few, but is the daily reality of the ever-growing lower tier Americans. Yet, where is the first serious attempt, in the White House or the Congress, to acknowledge the problem, declare this injustice as un-American, and come up with a strategy to turn it around?

Our political system, as it operates today, is no longer capable of coming up with broad initiatives that can remediate the problems we encounter. It is not even coming up for discussion, in large part because there is no open policy debate between the parties. And, even if there was such debate, there would be no money to fund broad initiatives, as the political reality only permits tax cuts, ruling out tax increases of any kind for any purpose. We may not be a failing state but we certainly experience governance failure.

The best hope we can have is that this too will pass and that we will survive this epoch of mismanagement. That is not a given. Our adversaries sense our weakness and may pounce on us at any time, or, more likely trap us into reckless reaction to their provocations so that we may defeat ourselves.

The long view does not develop overnight. It needs to be debated by the best minds in the public and private domain. It needs to be incubated, challenged, nurtured, articulated and communicated. That is what people like Senator Ben Sasse are good at. This work needs, by necessity, now be done outside of the realm of the federal government at any available public forum and in a bi-partisan fashion. And, if and when a national strategy emerges from this long, arduous work, then it is time for politicians like Senator Sasse to stand up and run for office on that platform.

This country deserves better governance than it has been settling for over the last decades. It will only get the governance it deserves, if it accepts the discipline of taking a serious, long, view of where the nation should be heading and crafts a plan on how to get there.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

EXIT STRATEGY. A business white paper

I learned from Dave Sullivan, the business consultant who for years taught the Course for Presidents at Aileron, that in business one should never start an enterprise without at the same time designing an exit strategy. Dave Sullivan wants you to ask yourself: ‘How do I extract myself when it does not pan out, when I find that I have more important things to do, when it is time for me to retire, or when calamity strikes? More precisely, how do I extract myself without doing harm to the business, its stakeholders and my estate?’

The typical small business owner has a large part of his/her net worth tied up in the business and is relying on the value of that investment to fund his/her retirement.

The exit planning, we are dealing with in this white paper, has to do with the exit from control over the management and operation of the business, not necessarily from the ownership of the business. These two may, but not always do, coincide.

As Dave Sullivan points out, exit planning should not wait until you begin to feel ready for retirement. In fact, business owners would do well to separate exit planning from retirement planning. Otherwise the presumption is built in that the business owner will not, voluntarily or involuntarily, exit from the business until retirement. The exit planning Dave Sullivan is talking about is having a plan for what to do with the business when the owner falls away or when the business no longer meets the owner’s goals, whether these goals are of a business nature or a personal nature. This can happen at any time in the owner’s life cycle and in the business life cycle.

Such exit plan should look at all alternatives for the business, including liquidation, retaining ownership but leaving the day to day operations to others, becoming a silent owner, selling, transitioning to the next generation, turning it into an employee owned business, merging it with another business, you name it.

Not all of these options may be valid at every stage of the business development or under all circumstances. Therefore, the exit plan should be written as a “what if” scenario:
·       What if I find that, in the foreseeable future, I cannot achieve my return on assets goal?
·       What if the Lord takes me away?
·       What if my health fails me and I no longer have the stamina to lead the show?
·       What if I come across another business opportunity with higher earnings potential?
·       What if I want to go back to school or change careers?
·       What if a family member needs my full time attention and care?
·       What if I discover that others are better equipped to run the show than I am?
·       What if I want to retire?

A carefully considered exit plan is an indispensable business and personal planning tool. It will stimulate the business owner to maximize the value of the business independent of his/her level of participation in the business.

It is also an expression of good governance, as it protects the value and continuity of the business for other stakeholders, particularly heirs, employees, customers, suppliers and –if applicable – minority shareholders.

A good exit plan is a direct reflection of how the owner sees his/her role in the business. If he/she is a veritable entrepreneur, the plan will focus on scenarios that will call for an early exit or distancing from management as other opportunities arise. If he/she is a business owner for the purpose of having job security and making a decent living, the plan will focus on retirement. If he/she wants to be the Chairman of the Board but not the CEO, the plan will focus on separation of powers.

For small business owners wanting to create an exit plan there is plenty of professional counsel available. The first source to go to is The Exit Planning Institute (E.P.I) www.exit-planning-institute.org . The institute is responsible for the certification of “Certified Exit Planning Advisors”. Its web-site is a treasure trove of information on the topic of business exit planning.

E.P.I. points to the damage owners can do to themselves, their heirs and the business when failing to have a well designed and implemented exit plan:
·       Undervalue your company leaving hard-earned wealth on the table
·       Pay too much in capital gains and estate taxes
·       Lose control over the exit process
·       Fail to realize your personal, financial, or business goals during the exit process.

A good exit plan is written with the input of professional counsel. My experience with small business owners is that too many are living dangerously without a good exit plan. They do so at their own peril but they need to be aware that, in the process, they are also exposing all stakeholders in the business, particularly their employees, suppliers and customers, to unnecessary risk and harm.

As stated above, the content of the exit plan will, in large part, be determined by the owner’s vision for the purpose of his business. In the world of small, privately owned business, I have met all sorts of entrepreneurs with all sorts of motives for being in business:
1.       Quite a few owners, when they are honest with themselves, will see their business simply as a tool to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. They would probably have great difficulty working for others and are driven by the desire to be their own boss. When they have had enough and can afford to retire they may simply wind down the business, close the doors and be done with it.
2.       Many owners will see their business not merely as a tool to provide income, but also as a tool to accumulate wealth for themselves and later generations. They will work to maximize value in the business and – when it is time to retire – sell it or transition it to the next generation.
3.       Others see their business in the first place as a societal tool offering useful products or services to the public and employing a large number of people. They will not exit without making sure that the business survives them and that continuity is guaranteed for the employees and the consumers.
4.       Yet others, entrepreneurs included amongst them, have a desire to create something immortal that will last for the ages and will be a monument to their creativity. These are the brand builders who will only let go if their legacy has been secured and their brand has become unassailable.

A good exit plan should be able to withstand the litmus test of leaving no gap between what the owner wants to see happen with and in the business upon his departure and what actually happens if, by an act of God, the owner is unexpectedly removed from the business. Only owners who meet the description of 1) above can live happily without an exit plan. Without them, there is no business and that is exactly how these owners want it. All other owners fail the litmus test, if the reality of the business after their departure is different from the design. All of them should do some hard introspection and ask themselves if they have properly planned for the business to survive them, regardless of timing and circumstances. If the answer is ‘no’, exit planning should be moved to the top of the agenda of strategic steps to take for the business. Dying in the saddle is sad; dying in the saddle without an exit plan for the business is criminal.

Human nature keeps many of us from planning for our exit, whether it is our exit from life or our exit from business. ‘I am not ready for it’ or ‘it is way too early for me to think about retirement’ is what I hear a great deal of in my conversations with business owners. But these arguments ignore the difference between (voluntary) retirement and (involuntary) exit from the business. Exit planning is intrinsically different from retirement planning. Exit planning is a business process with personal consequences, retirement planning is a personal process with business consequences. Exit planning should be done regardless of the owner’s intent or lack of intent to relinquish control of the management and operation of the business. Retirement planning should include a plan for the future: What will I retire to? What am I going to do with my time, my energy and my expertise?

I have seen too many people being lost, miserable, without a place to go to every day, issue the orders, and direct people and operations. Most small business owners realize this and that is exactly why they drag their heels, when it comes to retirement planning. My counsel to them is to first plan for the next phase of their life before exiting the business by way of retirement. Retirement will only be good for you as a business owner if you retire ‘to’ something new, rather than ‘from’ something old. Retirement from your business will be a happy, fulfilling, time only if you have first determined what you want to do with the rest of your life and what you still want to achieve. Then go for it!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

TIME TO ADMIT WE PICKED THE WRONG GUY

I know that we are only four months into the Trump Presidency, but I also know that I have seen enough in that short period of time to categorically state that it is time to admit that we have picked the wrong guy.

I detested the way he ran his election campaign and I cringed, louder than I had ever done during the worst moments of ‘W’ rambling utterances, every time he went on his rants to whip up the emotion of the crowds attending his rallies. But, after he got elected in spite of all of that, I felt that we all had to give him a chance to prove himself in his Presidency. After all, he was legitimately elected under the rules of our constitution and I have always felt that, in our governance system, enough checks and balances are built in to keep a President from doing any irreparable harm. But now I know that, unthinkingly or subconsciously, I have always presumed that any President who has taken the oath of office will act maturely, rationally, and always with the best interest of the nation, and not his huge persona or his business empire, in mind.

I now believe that I was wrong making that presumption.

This is not a matter of political preference. I have no qualm with major elements of the Trump agenda:
·       I do agree that Obamacare did not cure the ills of our healthcare system and needed a major overhaul, if not a repeal. It was ill fated from the day President Obama decided that he could push a bill through Congress without support of a single Republican.
·       I do agree that a tax overhaul is long overdue (so is entitlement reform).
·       I do agree that immigration reform should be high on the nation’s priority list.
·       I do agree that, after 25 years, it is time to reevaluate NAFTA and try to bring it up to speed with the changed global environment and the altered needs and realities of the American labor force.
·       I do agree that over-regulation is stifling our economic growth and putting up unacceptable hurdles to the renovation of our infrastructure.
·       Nothing wrong with waking up NATO to the new threats to our liberal order and making sure that the burden of preserving freedom is proportionally shared.

I do think that the solutions the Trump administration is proposing for addressing these issues are not necessarily the best choices, but if they can withstand the scrutiny of Congress, the media and the judicial system, they deserve to be taken seriously. It is true that elections have consequences and it should be that way.

But, just like it happens that the Browns pick the wrong guy with their first draft pick, so can it happen that the voting public of the United States of America picks the wrong guy as well. And when that is the case, we may as well admit it and face up to it. Because, just like the failing draft pick gets his shortcomings unmercifully displayed on TV for all to see, so do we get confronted with a failing spokesman for and leader of the nation every day and every time we turn on our TV.

How long can capable and responsible Americans like Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster or John Kelly stand at the podium to clarify or rectify the utterances of the commander in chief, only to be undercut and contradicted by their President? How long can Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell keep their troops from turning their backs on disaster and run for safety?

With every word he utters, if it isn’t written for him by some competent staff writer, he opens our great nation and system up for ridicule or worse. The transcripts of his recent interviews with Associated Press https://www.apnews.com/c810d7de280a47e88848b0ac74690c83 and The Economist http://www.economist.com/Trumptranscript show a picture of a man, so incoherent, so self-aggrandizing and so rudderless, that it is hard to understand that the White House allowed these transcripts to be released to the media. A picture that is brought in sharper focus by the barrage of, mostly bizarre, tweets coming daily from his uncensored communication devices. A loose cannon for sure, as Representative Sandy Levin characterized our President in response to Trump’s sharing of classified information with his Russian visitors in the Oval Office.

His fumbling of the ball when it was time to admit that he had made a mistake picking Mike Flynn as NSA, his maneuvering of Steve Bannon in and out of the National Security Council, and his unceremonious dismissal of James Comey, who was investigating him and/or his team for crimes potentially committed against the national security, are all signs of flawed judgment and boundless overestimation of his own capabilities and authority.

Most worrisome of all is his complete disregard for the sanctity of his office, demonstrated by his refusal to build an unbreachable wall between the White House and Trump Tower (as the seat of his business empire). It is evident that Trump sees the Presidency as a tool in the toolkit for the marketing of the Trump name and organization and as a place where he can deploy his usual antics of bluster and intimidation. But he and his entourage conveniently ignore that the conflict of interest is undeniable and undermining the integrity of the Presidency. Bringing his daughter and son-in-law into the White House has further exacerbated this blatant disrespect for his professed ‘America First’ motivation.

This is the man we have entrusted with the awesome responsibility to lead and defend our nation and its people.

It is time we fess up to the fact that we have made the wrong choice and that we do everything within our power and our legal means to correct our error. The mid-term elections of 2018 will provide us the tools to remove the political shield he currently enjoys and abuses. Hopefully we can bring up the patience to let the democratic process play itself out. The longer rope we give this President the better chance we have that he will hang himself (if he hasn’t roped up himself yet by his interference with the Russia investigation and his dealings with James Comey). He is likely to give us further cause as we go along. Let’s hope no irreparable damage gets done before we have a chance to execute the only ‘repeal and replace’ that matters. If everything else fails, we always have the tools of impeachment and the 25th amendment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

IMPULSIVENESS

As I follow, with trepidation, the words and actions of the 45th President of the United States, I keep returning to what Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman wrote in his seminal book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’:
“As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.”

I am only a few years older than the current occupant of the White House, but I have learned to mistrust my ‘gut’, because it has lead me astray more often than not. At best, it is unpredictable (exactly what our 45th President aspires to be). Sometimes I get it right, as I was just this week when I put my money on Sergio Garcia to win the Masters, but normally I get it wrong as when I picked Duke to win the NCAA Tournament this year. My ‘gut’ has really lead me astray when it comes to picking stocks or making  investment timing decisions, so I don’t do that anymore.

The ‘gut’ is being fed by impressions, impulses and messages involuntarily, or subconsciously, received from one’s environment, including exposure to social media. It gives people who are too impatient or lazy to do the hard work of planning, researching, and analysis, an alternative method of coming up with a solution for a problem or with a course of action. The ‘gut’ supplants a decision-making process that is supported by a carefully crafted strategy. The results are, more often than not, not pretty and the reason for that is that, as Kahneman states, ‘we are often confident, even when we are wrong’.

One major problem with acting upon a ‘gut’ feeling is that it is, by definition, a ‘one step at a time’ process that does not consider the implications and consequences of the action taken, while finding answers to real life situations requires us to think more like a chess master, several steps ahead. This makes impulsive, gut based, decisions the favorite tool of action oriented, type A, personalities. It allows for a ‘shoot, ready, aim’ pattern that satisfies the need for always being seen doing something.

Three months into his presidency, POTUS 45 shows all the hallmarks of a person who is supremely confident, even when he is wrong. His solution for dealing with error is brazen denial of facts, including his own words and actions. ‘Mea Culpa’ does not exist in his dictionary.

Impulsiveness at the White House is traditionally mitigated by an entrenched, professional and experienced bureaucracy that supplies the policy makers with position papers, fact sheets and scenario analyses prepared with the input of data analysis, historic perspective and the presentation of strategic options. But the present executive branch has been gutted by dismissal of adherents to the ‘ancien regime’ and by the slow pace of filling positions that require confirmation by the Senate. People in this administration have spoken openly about its intent to deconstruct the ‘administrative state’. And thus, there are few, if any, restraints on impulsive, gut based, decision making at this White House. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than by the flawed initial executive order on immigration and by the recent firing of 50 tomahawk missiles into Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. It is the typical behavior of the person who can’t stand to be seen doing nothing, even when doing nothing, or further analysis, may be exactly what the situation requires. As others have pointed out, more than 400,000 people have already died in the Syrian civil war and more fireworks does not do anything to bring this tragedy, which is a threat to America’s security interest, to an end.

Some have said or written that the tomahawks fired on Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria were really directed at Pyongyang as a warning signal that the US will not stand idly by while Kim Jong-Un further develops his nuclear capability. And that it was no coincidence that this action was taken while the Chinese President was visiting Mar-a-Lago. Right or wrong, it is a dangerous signal to send. Our 45th President should go to the Korean Peninsula and acquaint himself with the geography, particularly the short distance between Seoul, a metropolis of 10 million people, and the North Korean military installations. Speaking about being ‘under the gun’! That is no place to be impulsive or trigger happy.

The bottom line is that no nation, much less a world leading nation, can rely on intuition of its head of State when it comes to dealing with policy matters, least of all foreign policy matters. The United States needs a carefully crafted, coherent, strategy to deal with the multiple threats presented to the world order that has been painstakingly built out of the ruins of two world wars and has preserved the peace for more than a half century. The biggest challenge for the free world, and the United States as its lead-representative, is the avoidance of a third world war. History has shown that global wars can be triggered by miscalculation and hubris. Only Congress can declare war, but, as we have learned the hard way, a lot of shooting can happen before Congress gets a chance (or gathers the will) to act. A presidential miscalculation, based on a misguided ‘gut’ judgment, can trigger a nuclear conflict with one or more of the bad actors who pose the largest security threat to world peace in our age.

Impulsiveness and a lack of strategy are a dangerous combination. Under current conditions and with this 45th President, the absence of a functioning administrative state threatens our security and prosperity more than the inertia inherent in a bureaucracy ever could.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

MIRACLES DON'T HAPPEN

You may, or may not, like Trump’s agenda, but it hardly matters, because it is doomed to fail even before it gets out of the starting blocks. And the reason is not so much that part of the program is seriously flawed, but there simply is no national consensus on what to achieve, much less how to achieve it. In fact, we live in an era, created by the two-party system, where the party out of power will see it as its main mission to make the administration of the other party fail. McConnell did that to Obama and, now that the roles are reversed, Schumer will return the favor. In this atmosphere, failure of the Trump agenda is ‘baked in’ for two reasons:

In the first place, even though the Republican Party has near complete control of all the levers of power, the Trump identity is so divisive that there are a lot more people who will reject his agenda and rather see him fail than succeed, than there are people who endorse his ‘solutions’. Second, expectations have been set unrealistically high:
·       We will put the coal miners back to work
·       We will bring manufacturing jobs back to America from abroad
·       We will keep Americans safe from terrorism
·       We will produce economic growth like you have never seen before
·       We will give all Americans better and cheaper healthcare
·       We will rebuild American infrastructure

Laudable goals, but who would set himself up for failure like this? Only a populist demagogue whose defense is already in place: If it does not happen, it will be because of a ‘do nothing Congress’, because of the ‘entrenched establishment’ and because of the ‘lying media’. The failure of the Trump agenda will only deepen the hysteria in the partisan media and the polarization of the American people. In other words, it will pour oil on the populist fire and keep the campaign fury going, exactly the way the mastermind intends.

The real shame is that the populist bent of the Trump agenda tends to obscure and negate the positive impulses behind the plan. Clearly, increased economic growth is very desirable given the many legitimate demands put on the output of the American economy, but it is highly questionable if doubling the rate of growth, as the administration has said it wants to do, is even remotely feasible even if the nation and the Congress were united on how to achieve it and the administration had a comprehensive and cohesive growth strategy.

Better healthcare, education, national security, infrastructure and income security does not come cheap and is mostly a pipedream unless we can either significantly improve productivity or are willing to pay for it by much higher taxes (which, in turn, will risk stymieing economic growth). Economic growth can certainly get a boost from smarter business regulation of the kind Common Good and Philip K. Howard have been advocating. And it could use a more reliable, up to date and secure infrastructure, particularly in the transportation systems, the water supply, the electric grid and the cyber systems. But the Trump agenda risks negating these positive steps by its proposed protectionist trade policies, its stance on immigration and border protection and the lack of concern about the budgetary consequences of its populist wish list.

In addition to these self-inflicted hurdles to economic growth, the Trump agenda is doomed by his rhetoric, the tone of his conversation with the nation by twitter or TV, and his own election success. The democrats have been so humiliated in the 2016 election that they will be forced to rile up their base of support and the best way to do that is by taking a page out of the Trump playbook and go populist themselves (much like Bernie Sanders did in his election campaign). Fight Trump every step of the way and show the American people that the defense of the working class and the middle class, by right, belongs to the Democratic Party.

The Democrats’ focus for the next two years will only be on making Trump fail and making a spectacular comeback in the 2018 midterm elections.

There simply is no way to pull off an economic miracle under these conditions. Miracles don’t just happen, circumstances must be just right to make them happen and they are far from right at this time.