Trump’s Claimed Strengths Are Empty Boasts

June 25, 2018

Trump’s behavior offends liberals’ deepest values. They are aghast at his having babies ripped from their mothers’ hands and sometimes even their breasts so their mothers can be hauled away to immigrant detention centers without their infants and children. Liberals were distraught by Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and they attack the Trump Administration for systematically unleashing corporate abuse of workers, consumers and those of us downwind or downstream the poisons they unload. Liberals condemn Trump’s preference for trade wars over respectful treatment of long-time allies like Canada and the E.U., with which the U.S. had fruitful trade relations. And they deeply resent his attack on the fundamental values on which American democracy was formed: his encouragement of racism, and his preference for dictators, among many others.

I think Trump is also vulnerable to a very different criticism, that his so-called strengths are empty boasts revealing a naked emperor beneath. Trump claims great negotiating skills. He told us that his real estate experience demonstrated the negotiating skills that he would use in office. But it’s an empty boast.

In office he hasn’t even been able to work with his own party. Their only significant legislation was the tax bill at the very end of the year, and his other legislative success has been getting some of the most embarrassing nominees confirmed. Otherwise he hasn’t been able to reach agreement with his own party on immigrants, and on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In many areas he has had to act by executive order because he can’t agree with Congress despite Republican control of both houses. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Just back from a meeting with Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, Trump boasts of a record breaking agreement to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula. There is however no language of agreement to parse, no details, no schedule, no promise that wasn’t made to prior American presidents, no agreement on inspection or verification. What he got instead was a photo-op. In other words, he has produced much less than President Obama got from Iran in an agreement Trump has repeatedly denounced. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Obama’s pivot to Asia produced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national agreement among countries ringing the Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Canada, and United States. When president Trump pulled us out, the others continued to work together. There were objectionable pro-business provisions in the agreement but Trump made no effort to improve them. Instead, he removed the U.S. from the negotiations and the agreement, and facilitated China’s increasing dominance in the pacific region. Still, Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Mexico has not agreed to build a wall, as he promised. Trump unilaterally imposed tariffs on some imports saying they would protect American business and that there would be no trade war, but there already is.  The international response to Trump’s tariff increases has been retaliation both from former allies, like Canada, Mexico and Europe, and from adversaries like China. There are no countries left to join us to bring pressure on countries causing problems. The last time this kind of tariff contest roiled international waters was in the late 1920s, giving way to the Great Depression and to World War II. But Trump says he is a great negotiator. Thank you, Mr. Trump.

Trump’s claim of negotiating skills is an empty boast intended to conceal his weakness, his unwillingness to negotiate and complete incompetence at it. His lack of skill is a scandal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 19, 2018.


The Economy and Those Left Behind

March 15, 2018

President Obama brought the economy back since the 2008 crash, and it grows steadily. But the rising tide didn’t lift all boats. Places like West Virginia, heavily dependent on coal mining, were left behind. I’ve taught there, knew coal mining families, shared a hospital room with one and a lovely boy in elementary school who obviously had very good taste took a shine to our daughter. I have very warm feelings about the state and am quite sympathetic.

But everything moves on. Since we lived there, coal has been reeling from competition with new forms of energy, competition from China, conversions from coal fired furnaces, and competing objectives that couldn’t be wished away, like cleaner air. China sells coal rather than burn it. So there’s little left for coal other than pandering to people with impossible dreams about irreversible changes.

Steel has become very specialized. We still produce but not all needed varieties. And production is much more automated, needing fewer, and different workers from the historical steelworker. Some steel producing communities, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, have revived. But many capable people haven’t found comparable work in new and different industries.

They deserve consideration. Capitalism throws people away in the name of progress like so much garbage when their jobs disappear. People talk about risk as if it’s what entrepreneurs have. Actually, capitalism puts as much risk on workers, consumers and home buyers as legally possible, on those who had no responsibility for corporate failures, or the catastrophe of 2008, while it protects the financiers and CEOs. People we sometimes call average Americans or little people (regardless of their physical size) take it on the chin so that we can protect the people with the money, lawyers and control to protect themselves. American workers deserve our support.

But how? Many ideas are capable of relieving some of the distress but few will solve the problem. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will make former factory families feel taken care of. But as many economists have been pointing out, tariffs can do a lot of harm.

Education and retraining help some but it’s particularly hard for older workers to take advantage of the opportunities, often in distant places. Internet access connects some workers to distant jobs. Efforts to bring jobs to people are often based on wishful thinking – the casinos already seem to be turning into boondoggles. Some people come home for weekends from distant jobs but that’s hard to scale up without much better mass transit. Government sometimes puts programs or office buildings where they will strengthen the local economy like New York did some years ago in Harlem. Meanwhile infrastructure remains talked about and unfunded.

There are ways we can help share the wealth and should. We have to expect some good ideas to fail and some bad ones to succeed. I suspect that Trump’s tariffs will sound much better to the unemployed than what they will produce, and I think there are better solutions that a sympathetic government could develop. But yes, we should be helping.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 13, 2018.


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