Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 29, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

  • This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 22, 2018.

Trump’s Tax Returns

October 4, 2016

Let’s talk about Trump’s secrets, what he doesn’t want us to know about. Not secrets that may not exist – like his secret plans to deal with ISIS, North Korea or unemployment. Those might be secret as he claims because there’s a problem in revealing them. Or they might be secret because there’s nothing to reveal, they don’t really exist – but calling them secret makes it sound OK. No I mean secrets we can be quite sure really do exist – his tax returns.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure suggest what we can infer from his absent tax returns – returns filed by many honest presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton included. Federal Rule 37 (b) is titled “Failure to Comply with a Court Order.” When a litigant doesn’t comply with an order to produce records, a federal court can effectively decide the case against the recalcitrant party, or, among other options [quote]:

(i) direct[] that the matters embraced in the order or other designated facts be taken as established for purposes of the action, as the prevailing party claims;

(ii) prohibit[] the disobedient party from supporting or opposing designated claims or defenses, or from introducing designated matters in evidence

Let’s put that in English. A Court may order that failure to produce evidence is an admission that the facts are what the other party says they are.

So by this standard what can we assume that the failure to release his returns means?

The New York Times noted that: “He is running for the White House partly as a business wizard,” and asked “is he really as rich and talented as he boasts?” Mr. Trump’s tax returns might disclose that he is bankrupt, far from the billionaire he claims to be, that, contrary to his chest pounding assertions, Mr. Trump is a financial fool with little to show for his shenanigans. Is it fair to take that as proven by the standards courts use for undisclosed evidence?

The New York Times asked: “Has he truly no conflicts of interest in Russia, whose computer hackers he has bizarrely invited to spy on Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival?” And Media Matters adds that Mr. Trump’s tax returns “could show Trump’s ties to Russia.” They could show that Russia is bankrolling his campaign, that Trump has an enormous conflict of interest in his dealings with a foreign adversary. Indeed, would they show that Trump is disloyal, a Russian agent? Is it fair to take that as proven by the standards courts use for undisclosed evidence?

They might disclose that Mr. Trump has defrauded many other people by misrepresenting his assets. Is it fair to take that as proven by the standards courts use for undisclosed evidence?

They might disclose that Mr. Trump has failed to pay his taxes, engaged in tax fraud, pays less than Hillary does or that he has parked his money abroad. Is it fair to take that as proven by the standards courts use for undisclosed evidence?

They almost surely will disclose that he has a secret he doesn’t want us to know because it will destroy his public image and his claim to people’s votes in November.

Trump’s failure to produce his tax returns is not the minor side-show he tries to make it. It gets to the fundamental fact that he is all sound and fury, a loudmouth, with nothing to offer, nothing to sell but empty boasts.

Or should we use his language and start talking about “crooked” Donald?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 4, 2016.


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