Saturday, February 25, 2017


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.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me”.

This old English language children’s rhyme soothes kids that get yelled at, bullied or called names and implicitly advises kids not to retaliate if the pain inflicted is merely coming from insults, slights or demeaning words. But our adult world is different. Strong, vulgar and hurtful words matter a great deal and, paradoxically, are likely to harm the utterer of the words more than the recipient.

In our political world, it has become common practice that you will say just about anything to get elected, including disparagement of your opponents. And our current President is a world champion in this game of thrones. Listening to him, and his most ardent followers, there is no middle ground. Opponents are never ‘misguided, ‘ill-informed’ or ‘on the wrong side of an issue’, but either ‘crooked’, ‘terrible’ or ‘a disaster’.
The speech pattern of our commander in chief is by now utterly predictable and has not really changed from his campaign rhetoric. Even at a high profile, solemn occasion like the inaugural address or the talk at the national prayer breakfast, the President adhered to this pattern: first you describe how badly others have failed and then you assert that there is no need to despair because you elected me and I will solve all your problems. “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. O.K?”

If we follow the 45th President in all of his antics and utterances by tweet and verbally, we will find ourselves living in a bipolar world. In Trump’s world, people, nations, institutions and policies are either ‘terrible, ‘huge mistakes’, ‘disastrous’ or ‘strong’, ‘terrific’, ‘the great(est)’. This sounded bad, but made some sense, during the election campaign by painting a shrill contrast between candidate Trump and all the others. But now that he is in office and speaks for all Americans it is no longer acceptable. Is our President so ill-informed and uneducated that he does not know that most of what confronts us is not black or white, not good or bad, but almost always a shade of grey, a mixture of good and bad, the result of some give and take?   He should look in the mirror and see the perfect example. His constituents either adore him, willing to follow him blindly, or vilify him, looking everywhere for an opportunity to disgrace and oust him, if that were possible. But any unbiased observer would come to the conclusion that the 45th President and his program have severe flaws and solid merits in near equal measure. As a people, collectively, we are just no longer capable of occupying the high, middle, ground.

Words do matter. Just ask president Obama what he would give for being able to rescind his infamous “red line” words when he spoke of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. To have uttered these words, and then not find it opportune to follow through on them when Assad called his bluff, has irreparably harmed the credibility of the USA in the eyes of the world. As Robert Jervis, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview with The Atlantic: “If you make a threat and then appear to have backed away from it, there’s a price to be paid. Your threat is less likely to be believed the next time.”

Words, sharp words that express everything in terms of black or white, good or bad, are a two-edged sword. They can cut both ways and they cause self-inflicted wounds particularly for those who use such words carelessly, impulsively and abundantly. In the case of our 45th President they are used deliberately, and to his advantage, to keep his followers, the people who got him elected, engaged and motivated. He knows full well that rhetoric is very effective with these folks. They love to be riled up and they want to hear confirmation, all the time, of how bad the people, ideas and institutions are that don’t jive with the populist view of the world. For the red baseball cap wearing crowd, tough, aggressive and politically incorrect language is almost enough to feel vindicated. If it does not gets followed by action or does not achieve the intended purpose, the blame can conveniently be put on adversaries like the media, the establishment, ‘so-called judges’ or the democrats.
But the same sword can as easily turn against you. This danger increases when the words are spoken by someone who righteously will refuse to back down if his words are misinterpreted, refuted or met with disdain. If the statement is ‘I will not allow the Iranians (or the North Koreans) to test-fire any long-distance missiles’ or ‘I will keep the Chinese from placing any missile installations on the artificial islands in the South China Sea’ and the other side fails to comply, you will find yourself backed into the corner from where there is no escape: leaving only two bad choices, to either back down or go to war. The sword will have cut the wrong way.

Yes, words can kill. If words are not used sparingly, diplomatically and wisely, but in a way to provoke war, the killing can reach a scale not seen since World War II and there will be no winners, only losers. Can we trust our 45th President to use his words not in a manner that appeases his nationalistic populist constituency, but sparingly, diplomatically and wisely?