Inaugural Address Sells America Short

January 23, 2017

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The first inaugural address I remember listening to was Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1957. My parents took me to see his first inauguration in 1953, but I was too small to get much out of it. I can only remember seeing the tips of the flags going by in the inaugural parade. Over the years, I have liked some of the speeches more than others, but I can honestly say that President Trump’s was the worst inaugural address I have ever heard. For future historians, it should mark a low point in American politics from which I only hope we recover.

The address presented a grim view of America, a country of unemployment, poverty, ignorance and crime. “Rusted out factories scattered like tombstones,” families “trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” and an educational system that leaves students “deprived of all knowledge.” None of these things is actually as bad as it was in the fairly recent past (remember 10% unemployment?), but Trump is not one to let inconvenient facts get in the way of the story he wants to tell.

Why is the country in such terrible shape? Well, for two reasons, in Trump’s view. First, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore [shouldn’t that be “borne”?] the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” And second, “we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.” We’ve given too much in military and non-military aid to other countries, while allowing our own military power and infrastructure to deteriorate. American has gotten poorer and weaker, while Washington politicians and foreigners have gotten rich and powerful.

The solution is as simple as the problem: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.” Trump’s vision of a great America is a country with the strongest military (which he doesn’t admit we already have), a good transportation system (lots of room for improvement there), and strong borders to protect against foreign labor and goods. “Buy American and hire American….Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

I have read the speech over and over, asking myself if I’ve missed anything. But that’s really about it. There’s nothing else there besides this simplistic view of our problems and economic nationalism as the solution.

No lofty vision here

Other presidents have identified American problems, and many have criticized specific domestic or foreign policies. But they have generally framed their issues within some overarching positive vision, a vision of democratic government, the free-enterprise economy, and/or international cooperation. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was one in which government worked to abolish poverty and racial injustice. Ronald Reagan’s more conservative vision was based on a faith in free markets to create prosperity for all. And every president since Franklin Roosevelt has accepted America’s leading role in promoting global democracy, peace and prosperity.

Such lofty goals are conspicuous by their absence in Trump’s address. He ascends to the presidency at a time when much of the public has lost confidence not only in government, but in free markets and global democratic progress as well. Trump and his hard-core supporters seem to want to throw in the towel on building a better world, and just revert to a nineteenth-century nationalism in which each country just looks out for itself. That nineteenth-century nationalism ended badly, by the way, in the world wars of the twentieth century. American global leadership in the postwar era was supposed to prevent that from happening again. Trump’s neo-nationalism appeals to the most reactionary elements in Europe, especially to autocratic leaders like Putin, who  prefers old-fashioned nationalism to international cooperation led by the world’s strongest democracy. Similarly, Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” in the 1930s suited Hitler just fine.

What Trump leaves out of his short address is as revealing as what he includes. He does not mention human rights, social justice, environmental protection, or racial and gender equality. For a man preoccupied with economic problems, he has surprisingly little to say about economic inequality. In his simplistic story, the enemies of working families are Washington politicians and foreigners. He fails to mention that we have the greatest class inequality since the Gilded Age. I guess he has no problem with that, which is why he can staff his administration with billionaires and Wall Street bankers. His extraordinary hostility to the political establishment coexists comfortably with an extraordinary complacency about the corporate establishment.

Building up, or just tearing down?

If we are to move forward in solving our problems, we need a new vision for the global, postindustrial era. We will need to find the right balance between government and markets, between nation states and emerging global institutions, between new technologies and human labor. Reactionary economic nationalism cannot provide that vision.

Without a positive but realistic vision of the future, this administration is likely to accomplish little besides undoing what governments have been trying to do. President Trump can tear up trade agreements, weaken NATO, encourage the breakup of the European Union, halt Obama’s clean energy initiative, repeal the Affordable Care Act, abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and so forth. He can select administrators with little respect for the agencies they are appointed to lead, such as an EPA head who opposes most environmental regulation, a Secretary of Education who doesn’t support public education, a Secretary of Labor who places a low value on working-class labor, or an Attorney General with a narrow view of justice. All of this has the potential to aggravate rather than alleviate social problems.

Attacking government is easy. What is much harder is getting it to work better for the ordinary people Trump claims as his constituents. He says, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” That would be wonderful if it turned out to be true, but just trashing the federal government won’t be enough to make it so. On their first day in office, Trump and his spokespersons demonstrated their willingness to use “alternative facts” (formerly known as falsehoods) to portray the inauguration as a more successful event than it was. Whatever Trump does, he will probably assure us that it’s the greatest, assert some “alternative facts” to support that, and attack anyone who says otherwise.

America is better than this, and deserves more in a president.

 


Trump’s Peculiar Populism

January 17, 2017

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A headline in today’s Washington Post says, “Trump will take office as least popular president in at least four decades.” And yet Trump is widely characterized as the leader of a new “populist” movement. How unpopular can someone be before we have to question his populist credentials? I guess the answer depends on what we think a populist is.

Two brands of populism

In our democratic system, we select presidents by popular election, so every winning candidate is supposed to represent “the people,” broadly defined. Beyond that, a populist leader is one who supposedly represents “ordinary people” in their struggle against some sort of “elite”.

Bernie Sanders is a leader of a populist movement directed against the economic elite, the wealthiest 1% who have received most of the increases in national income since the Great Recession. He calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and government measures to create middle class opportunity, such as free college tuition. I would call this “progressive populism.” It is in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, who had a similar dim view of economic elites:

Concentration of wealth and power has been built upon other people’s money, other people’s business, other people’s labor. Under this concentration, independent business…has been a menace to…American society.

…and a similar concern for creating economic opportunity:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Donald Trump has attacked Wall Street from time to time, but judging from his cabinet selections, he is very comfortable with giving power to Wall Street bankers and millionaires. Wall Street seems to like him in return. Stocks are up since the election, as investors salivate at the prospect of corporate tax cuts and financial deregulation. So what “ordinary people” does Trump serve, and what “elite” does he attack?

Trump proposes to save people from an elite defined mainly as Washington insiders, the political establishment, and especially Big Government liberals. They are people who derive power and sometimes wealth from government positions. The Clintons fit the bill perfectly, since they have been Washington insiders for so long, and have also made a lot of money giving speeches since leaving office. (Conservatives like Ronald Reagan did too, but their anti-government philosophy seems to protect them from being tarred with the same brush.) In this view, the elites include government bureaucrats, regulators and the Washington press corps, as well as liberal intellectuals and policy wonks who give them their ideas.

“The people” Trump represents have to be defined more narrowly than the great majority of Americans who are not wealthy. The Trump constituency does not really include the people who welcome progressive government initiatives like Obamacare to level the economic playing field. Instead, it includes many people who blame government for their economic problems. The ones who get the most attention are those who attribute job losses to government polices: immigration policies, bad trade deals, excessive taxation and environmental regulations. I would call this “reactionary populism.”  There is some overlap between the two brands of populism on trade policy, since Sanders also opposes trade deals that hurt workers. But in general, progressive populism emphasizes what government can do for ordinary people, while reactionary populism emphasizes what government should stop doing to people.

Reactionary populism raises an interesting question in a democratic society: How much can you claim to love the people, if you hate the democratic government that is supposed to represent them?

Not the underprivileged

While Trump does represent some struggling working-class families, and may owe his margin in a few key states to their support, he is not in general the leader of the underprivileged. The most disadvantaged groups tend to be more progressive. According to the exit polls, voters with incomes under $30,000 went for Clinton, 53% to 40%. On the average, Trump’s supporters were somewhat better off than Clinton’s currently, although more of them said they were worse off than they had been four years ago. A large part of Trump’s support came from political conservatives who are doing okay themselves, but oppose using tax dollars to help people who are worse off than they are.

The reactionary nature of Trump’s populism goes a long way to explain the racial divide in the voting. I do not charge his supporters with racism, at least not in any obvious sense of the term. But the country remains seriously divided between people who want government to help the racially and economically disadvantaged, and people who are more complacent about the situation. The latter are more likely to deny that racial discrimination is still a problem, and less likely to see the racial implications of voter ID laws or stop-and-frisk policies.

Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt about his own actions, such as his attempt to cast doubt on Barack Obama’s American citizenship, his reactionary populism leaves him unlikely to confront racism. By default, he becomes the candidate who will protect white privilege, if not by racist actions, then by his indifference to the need for any action at all. His pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is well suited to implement this policy of racial indifference.

The Russian connection

Progressive populists despise the Putin regime and the economic oligarchy it supports. Trump’s approval of Putin indicates that he has little problem with either authoritarian rule or monopolization of wealth by the well-connected rich. His wrath is directed almost exclusively at liberal leaders. His ability to portray Hillary Clinton as a corrupt elite while overlooking Putin’s far more obvious corruption and elitism is astounding and deeply disturbing for the leader of a democracy. If the Trump campaign did collaborate with the Putin regime to destroy its opponent by illegal or unethical means, that does cast doubt on the legitimacy of his presidency.

In the end, the American people will have to determine if Trump’s brand of populism makes sense to them at all. Is he a true man of the people, or an enemy of too many of the people?


Why Trump Won: Economic and Racial Interpretations

December 5, 2016

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Following an annual tradition, strategists from the Trump and Clinton campaigns met at Harvard’s Institute of Politics to analyze the election campaign and its results. This year, the discussion quickly degenerated into a shouting match, as each campaign promoted its preferred account of how Trump won.

A particular bone of contention was the role of Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News in the Trump campaign. When David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, called Bannon a “brilliant strategist,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications, replied, “If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am more proud to have lost.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, rejected the suggestion that the campaign had appealed to white supremacy and shifted the discussion to Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?”

As Clinton herself charged during the campaign, Clinton’s team felt that Trump won by appealing to such ignoble sentiments as racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Not surprisingly, Trump supporters preferred a narrative emphasizing Trump’s economic appeal to struggling working-class families. Each narrative contains an element of truth, but they leave us with an explanation that is both incomplete and misleading.

Win, lose or draw?

First, a note of caution. Because this election was so close, commentators need to resist the urge to over-interpret it. Sweeping statements about what the American people are saying or assertions of popular mandates to take the country in a particular direction are likely to overstate the facts. Does the election of Donald Trump mean that most Americans want to build a wall on the Mexican border? Well no; exit polling found 41% for that, but 54% against it. Does it mean that they want to deport immigrants working illegally in the U.S.? No, only 25% are for deportation, and 70% are for offering some form of legal status. And in spite of the fact that both candidates expressed concerns about job losses due to trade deals, voters are quite split on the issue, with almost as many saying that international trade creates U.S. jobs as saying it takes away jobs.

This election even tells us less than usual about what people think of the winner. According to the exit polls, fewer voters had a favorable view of Trump than Clinton (38% vs. 43%); fewer viewed him as honest and trustworthy (33% vs. 36%); fewer regarded him as qualified to be president (38% vs. 52%); and fewer felt he had the temperament to be president (35% vs. 55%). With regard to Kellyanne Conway’s contention that Clinton doesn’t connect with people, Clinton beat Trump by a margin of 23 points among voters who said that the quality mattering most to them was that the candidate “cares about me.” She won by even bigger margins with voters who placed the highest value on having good judgment or the right experience.

All this makes one wonder how Donald Trump could win the election at all. A flippant answer is that he didn’t, at least not the popular vote, which Clinton won by 2.8 million votes and about 2 percentage points. Another answer is that voters overlooked Trump’s deficiencies because of something else they liked about him. He won by a 68-point margin among voters who were looking most for a candidate who could “bring change.” Among voters who regarded Trump as unqualified to be president, 17% voted for him anyway! That probably means they were more interested in rocking the boat than steering it in a sensible direction.

A few other findings from the exit polls indicate why the election was so close. Trump won white voters by a 20-point margin, men by 9 points, voters 45 and over by 8 points, non-college graduates by 7, Evangelical Christians by 64, veterans by 36, rural voters by 27 and suburban voters by 4. Clinton won black voters by an 81-point margin, Latinos by 38, Asians by 38, women by 13, voters under 45 by 14, Jews by 48, voters professing no religion by 42, union households by 9, gay lesbian bisexual or transgender voters by 63, and urban voters by 26. Demographically speaking, Trump represented more of what the country used to be, and Clinton represented more of what it is becoming.

The economic interpretation

Trump’s narrow victory in the so-called “rust-belt” states has led many commentators to imagine the typical Trump voter as a downwardly mobile worker, especially someone who has lost a manufacturing job. Trump beat Clinton by a wide margin (56 points) among voters who described their financial situation as worse than it was four years ago, but only 27% of voters were in that category. Slightly more voters felt that their situation had gotten better, and Clinton won by a 49-point margin there. I do think that Clinton could have done a better job addressing the concerns of the downwardly mobile. But I also respect her refusal to lie to the people of West Virginia by claiming she could bring back their lost coal mining jobs. Her opponent had no such inhibitions. (Coal jobs are being lost to automation and competition from cheap natural gas, not just Obama energy policy.)

Income data do not support the generalization that Trump supporters were especially economically distressed. Based on a crude classification by current income, they were not worse off than Clinton voters. The median income category for both Trump and Clinton voters was $50,000 to $99,000, although less than a third of voters were in that range. A higher percentage of Clinton voters than Trump voters had incomes below $50,000 (39% vs. 32%), while a slightly higher percentage of Trump voters than Clinton voters had incomes of $100,000 and up (36% vs. 33%).

Other data call into question the idea that Clinton lost by failing to address economic distress. Clinton led Trump by 11 points among voters who cited the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Trump led among those who cited immigration as the most important issue (by 31 points) or terrorism (by 17 points). Trump’s tough talk on immigration and terrorism may have done him more good than his promise to save manufacturing jobs. Without denying that certain voters supported him for purely economic reasons, there are other elephants in the room, especially Republican ones.

The racial interpretation

A very disturbing development in this election was the embrace of Donald Trump by white supremacist groups. However, focusing too much on overt racism can distract attention from the much subtler role that race plays in today’s politics. In particular, I want to call attention to the racial implications of the small-government conservatism that motivated so many of Trump’s supporters.

Trump did not only win the white vote by a 20-point margin. He won even more handily among voters who described themselves as conservatives (a 65-point margin), who disapproved of President Obama (83 points), who believed that Obamacare “went too far” (69 points) and who said that in general, government is “doing too much” (50 points). These views are very widely held, and they account for a larger share of the Trump vote than the specifically economic factors. They are especially widespread in the South. Yes, Trump won Michigan, but by less than one percentage point. He won Alabama by 28 points.

I had a good reminder last week of the connection between race and small-government conservatism, when I attended a lecture by Nancy MacLean, Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She pointed out that the first manifesto in favor of school privatization and vouchers was published by economist Milton Friedman in 1955. Instead of running a public school system, the government should just give each family a certain amount of money and let them buy education in the marketplace. Coming just one year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Friedman’s proposal found its most enthusiastic audience among Southerners who wanted to close public schools rather than desegregate them. Friedman defended himself against charges of racism by saying that he personally regarded integrated schools as preferable, but that the government couldn’t impose them without infringing on freedom of choice. This kind of opposition to “Big Government” has become a key argument in defense of traditional privileges and injustices that only government may have the power to fight.

As the Democratic Party gained support among minorities and women by advocating strong government measures to combat discrimination, Republicans discovered that they could gain the allegiance of white males, especially Southern white males, by placing limits on those efforts. In the name of freedom and limited government, Republicans became the party of resistance to such measures as affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, and most recently, key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the latter case, racism and political gamesmanship are hard to distinguish, since Republicans in states like North Carolina have so much to gain by putting obstacles in the way of black voting.

Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton among white men by a 62% to 31% margin. True, many white men, especially the less educated, have suffered losses of jobs and income, and a few even crossed party lines to vote for Trump. But white men as a group remain the country’s top earners, although women and minorities have been gaining on them. And as a group, they have been reliably Republican for some time. Only 8% of Democrats or Republicans crossed party lines in their vote for president. The core of Trump’s support came from the white men who usually vote Republican, not because they are worse off than minorities or women, but because the Republican Party is more respectful of existing privileges. It is less likely to upset existing race/gender hierarchies. Trump won college-educated white men by a 14-point margin, and non-college-educated white men by a 48-point margin. The economic distress interpretation has some validity, especially in the less educated group. However, sociologists have long argued that status as a white man may be especially important to a man who lacks other sources of status, such as education. He may vote for the party that appeals to him as a white man, overlooking that party’s failure to address his needs as a working man.

When Democrats try to address issues of racial or gender discrimination, conservatives can accuse them of ignoring economic issues to pursue “identity politics.” Critics like Kellyanne Conway can claim that Democrats lose because they don’t have “a decent message for the white working-class voters.” Without denying that Democrats need to strengthen their economic message, this does not have to be an either-or. Democrats shouldn’t have to abandon their commitment to racial and gender equality in order to support a stronger economy. Many Democratic proposals, such as universal health insurance and affordable college education, are intended to help people of all races and genders. Yes, Democrats need to appeal to working-class white men, but those men must be willing to reach across racial lines to make common cause with minorities and women in similar circumstances. The mentality that forces politicians to choose between “us” and “them” just perpetuates racism and sexism.

Reconciling conservatism and change

How do Trump voters reconcile their conservative belief that government is “doing too much” already, with their desire for a president who will “bring change”? How can any president strengthen the economy, if government isn’t supposed to do very much? Voters may be managing this in several ways, either within Republican orthodoxy or outside of it.

Within Republican orthodoxy, they can fall back on the classic Reagan position that government is the problem, and not having government do certain things is the needed change. If government will just stop taxing and regulating so much, the economy will thrive. Whether that’s what most of the voters want or not, that will probably be the guiding philosophy of the Republican Congress, supported in most respects by the new president.

Beyond Republican orthodoxy, voters can make an exception to their anti-government position in the case of jobs programs. Government spending is okay as long as it puts people to work rather than helping people who aren’t working. Similarly, obtaining health insurance through your job is okay, but having to obtain it through a government exchange is socialism. However, public works programs are hard to pay for if you exempt too much of the country’s wealth from taxation.

For other conservatives calling for change, change can mean changing things back to the way they used to be. This is one way that economic nationalism fits in. Government can try to reverse the trend of manufacturing jobs flowing out or immigrants flowing in. That appeals especially to people who have lost faith in the economy’s ability to create new jobs. I suggest that economic nationalism is a form of conservatism that flourishes when more mainstream conservatism has failed to produce the promised growth in jobs and incomes, and when economic progressives have not yet come up with a convincing alternative.

In many respects, the Trump coalition is just a familiar Republican coalition, with enough extra votes in a few key states to win the election. To the extent that the Trump phenomenon is different, it may be an expression of a conservatism gone sour, a hostility not only to Big Government but to global forces that threaten the economic supremacy of the United States and other wealthy nations. It thrives among the downwardly mobile, but appeals to enough other people to fuel a revival of right-wing nationalism.

Why Trump won

The simplest generalizations about Trump voters–that they were downwardly mobile blue-collar workers or deplorable racists–do not stand up very well. Here are a few statements about why Trump won that I think the evidence will support:

  • Although Trump lost the popular vote, he won the electoral college vote by winning battleground states by small margins. Clinton won the most urbanized states by unnecessarily big margins.
  • Although Trump voters were not as a group economically worse off than Clinton voters, he did especially well among voters who said they were worse off than they were four years ago. That may have made the difference in states with big losses of manufacturing jobs. Overall, however, voters who cited the economy as their #1 issue favored Clinton.
  • Most of Trump’s support came from the groups that usually vote Republican, especially white males. This has little to do with any Republican policies favoring the working class, and much more to do with the party’s resistance to government activism, especially activism on behalf of women and minorities.
  • In addition to standard Republican hostility to Big Government, Trump appealed to voters who blame America’s problems on immigrants or foreign trade. This is not a majority view, but an increasingly popular one in troubled Western economies.

President Trump will have his hands full trying to meet the expectations of his various constituencies: traditional small-government Republicans who are interested primarily in tax cuts, deregulation and privatization; economic nationalists who want to deport immigrants and erect trade barriers; and unemployed or underemployed workers who want jobs programs.

 

 

 


Can Trump Boost Middle-Class Incomes?

December 2, 2016

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The state of the economy loomed large in the minds of voters as they went to the polls. According to CNN exit polling, 62% of the voters characterized the economy as “not good” or “poor,” and a majority of those who felt that way voted for Donald Trump. The 27% of voters who said they were worse off than four years ago voted for him by a 77% to 19% margin.

Although the economy has been growing steadily since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the rate of growth has been fairly slow, and the income gains from that growth have gone mostly to the very wealthy.

What does President-Elect Trump propose to do for the middle class? He would give them a modest tax cut, create good jobs by spending on infrastructure and negotiating more favorable trade deals, and stimulate the economy to increase the rate of economic growth. (I won’t discuss new trade deals here, since they are such an unknown at this time, and they require the cooperation of our trading partners.)

Taxes and spending

As I described in more detail in an earlier post, Trump would like to reduce personal income taxes and corporate taxes, as well as completely eliminate estate taxes. The income tax cut would provide a small benefit for the middle class. For example, a married couple with a $50,000 taxable income would have their taxes reduced from $6,572 to $6,000.

This might not be a free lunch, however. Like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him, Trump would like to cut taxes and increase military spending at the same time. If past experience is any guide, that would increase the deficit and make it hard to fund any job-creating domestic initiatives. If Congressional Republicans run true to form, they will rush to cut taxes and then clamor for spending cuts to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Trump’s fiscal problem is likely to be especially acute, since he wants infrastructure spending as well as military spending increases. He also wants particularly drastic tax cuts, including complete elimination of estate taxes (a huge financial windfall for his own family and those of his billionaire friends) and a reduction in corporate rates from 35% to 15%.

Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin, has created some uncertainty about tax cuts for the wealthy. He has said, “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” That would be good news for the rest of us, since it would make the tax cuts fairer and also preserve revenue that could be better spent on job creation. However, Mnuchin’s promise goes against strong Republican inclinations, as well as being in opposition to the plan previously announced by Trump himself. According to the New York Times:

In that plan, middle-class families would see a 0.8 percent increase in their after-tax income, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation, while the top 1 percent of taxpayers would see a 10.2 to 16 percent gain. Another group, the Tax Policy Center, calculated middle-class families would get a 1.8 percent boost in after-tax income, while the top 0.1 percent of earners would see a 14 percent gain and a tax cut worth an average of $1.1 million.

I will be surprised of Congress can agree on enough changes in tax deductions to offset the large reductions in tax rates that Trump has proposed for the wealthy.

Economic growth

Ever since the Reagan Revolution, “supply-side” economists have dreamed of cutting tax rates without actually reducing government revenues, so as not to increase the federal deficit. In theory, that could be accomplished if tax cuts stimulated economic growth and increased the income base from which taxes are collected. In practice, Republican tax cuts since Reagan have not paid for themselves, and the annual deficit has risen under Republican administrations while falling under Democratic administrations. (The total national debt, however, has risen under both parties’ administrations, since only rarely has the government run a surplus. Bill Clinton did toward the end of his presidency, but then George W. Bush used the surplus as an excuse for another round of tax cuts and deficits.)

Since middle-class tax rates are already fairly low, the middle-class tax cut is probably too small to produce much stimulus. Those who believe in top-down economic growth are pinning their hopes more on the corporate tax cut. That could translate into widespread income gains, but only if corporations actually invest the money in expansions of output (as opposed to just distributing it in dividends to mostly wealthy shareholders or buying up existing assets), and spend a lot of it on labor, not just on labor-saving machinery.

What the country needs is a virtuous cycle of higher productivity and higher wages. Higher productivity justifies wage increases, and higher wages create the consumer demand that justifies investment in the expansion of supply. What is missing from the Trump economic policy, and from Republican policy in general, is much support for higher wages. That would mean federal support for workers in their efforts to bargain for a fairer share of the income gains the economy is capable of generating. For a man who presents himself as a friend of the working class, Trump has remarkably little to say on this subject. In a way, he is the personification of trickle-down economics, the billionaire who just asks people to trust rich folks like him to create wealth for the masses.

We get occasional hints that President-Elect Trump might depart from the standard Republican playbook of tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for everyone else. His interest in infrastructure spending and his Treasury secretary’s support for concentrating tax cuts on the middle class are hopeful signs. But overall, I remain skeptical that much that is good for working families will survive Trump’s embrace of Wall Street and the Republican establishment.


A Post-Truth Presidency?

November 30, 2016

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The term “post-truth” has entered our national vocabulary recently. The Oxford Dictionaries declared it the 2016 Word of the Year. We hear about “post-truth politics” and “post-truth election.” What’s going on here?

“In war, truth is the first casualty” is a familiar saying attributed to the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. One would expect political polarization to generate many falsehoods, as each side tries to bolster its own position and tear down that of its adversary. The fragmentation of media creates a new kind of provincialism, as people have the option to rely on sources that tell them only what they want to hear, true or not. Some websites have been deliberately putting out fake news stories, sometimes just to profit from the market for partisan messages.

Politifact has been rating the truthfulness of political candidates for several election cycles, and they report an increase in false statements from 2008 to 2016. The statements they fact-checked in 2016 earned the largest proportion of either “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings. Even more troubling is that the biggest offender was the candidate who won the election! Donald Trump had four times as many negative ratings as Hillary Clinton. Will President Trump be more careful to speak the truth when he is in office? So far, the evidence is not encouraging.

Who won the popular vote?

A case in point is Trump’s claim that Clinton won the popular vote only because of fraudulent voting. According to CNN, the official account shows Clinton with about a 2 million vote lead, with over 134 million votes recorded. The percentage breakdown is 48.1% Clinton, 46.5% Trump, and 5.4% other candidate. (That means, by the way, that the pre-election national polls were not as far off as they first appeared to be.) What would it take for fraudulent voting to produce a 2 million vote margin for the wrong candidate? If the illegal voters split evenly between the two major candidates, they would have zero impact on the outcome. If they split 60/40 in favor of Clinton, Clinton would pick up 20 extra votes for every 100 illegal voters, so it would take 10 million illegals to provide her 2 million vote margin. That’s about one out of every 13 people who voted. When you stood in line to vote, do you really believe that one out of every 13 people around you was voting illegally? We can cut that number down by assuming that the alleged illegals were a very pro-Clinton group, such as the Latinos who split 66/28 between Clinton and Trump in exit polling. Then Clinton would net 38 votes for every 100 illegal votes cast, and it would take only 5.26 million illegal votes or one out of every 25 voters to create the 2 million vote gap. Even that is an astounding amount of fraud by American election standards.

Trump’s story gets even more implausible, however. He has claimed that the voter fraud was concentrated in the states of California, New Hampshire and Virginia. Let’s assume that the vote counts in the other states are roughly correct, with a few too many Clinton votes here and a few too many Trump votes there, but an accurate result overall. Certainly Trump has adamantly defended the counts in the states that he won! Then Clinton’s 2 million vote margin would have to come from three states that recorded only about 17 million votes combined. Using the voting splits in the previous example, with at least 5 to 10 million votes having to be fraudulent to generate a 2 million vote margin, that would require a big chunk of the 17 million voters in those states! It would be election rigging to rival the most corrupt regimes in history. There is absolutely no evidence of illegal voting on such a scale.

[Addendum: The day after I wrote this, the New York Times reported the following: “Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead over Mr. Trump reached 2,526,184–five times Al Gore’s lead over George W. Bush in 2000. At 1.9 percentage points, her lead is now larger than those of 10 presidents, and it is approaching Jimmy Carter’s margin over Gerald Ford in 1976.” That news didn’t stop Donald Trump from claiming at his post-campaign campaign rally that he had won in a “landslide”. Eventually Clinton’s lead in the popular vote reached 2.8 million.]

Why leaders lie

In one way, the popular vote does not matter, since it doesn’t change the outcome in the electoral college.  What does matter is having a president who has a reckless disregard for truth, along with ardent followers who are willing to believe just about anything he says. This got me thinking about falsehoods by previous presidents and the reasons for them. I thought of a simple typology of falsehoods, those involving ignorance, preconception, and just plain deceit.

Sometimes, presidents tell falsehoods because they are themselves ignorant of the facts. During the Vietnam War, the Johnson and Nixon administrations suffered from what was called the “credibility gap.” They kept presenting an overly optimistic prognosis for the war, based partly on inflated estimates of enemy casualties produced by the Pentagon. When CBS aired an expose about the deception, General Westmoreland sued the network for libel, although he later dropped the suit. We may never know for sure, but Presidents Johnson and Nixon may well have believed that the war was going better than it was.

A more subtle reason for falsehood is that leaders take the facts they have and make them tell a preconceived story based on their personal prejudices or ideology. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney very much wanted to invade Iraq for various reasons, not the least of which was access to Iraqi oil. But they needed a convincing rationale to muster support from the American people for a largely unprovoked attack, since Iraq had no obvious role in 911. Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction fit the bill, but the evidence for them was shaky. The administration exerted a lot of pressure on the CIA to interpret the evidence as convincingly as possible, even though the agency’s own analysts were skeptical. Bush and Cheney themselves probably believed what they were claiming, but that was largely because they wanted to believe it.

Sometimes leaders lie in order to protect themselves or denigrate their opponents. Richard Nixon obviously knew he was lying when he tried to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate break-in and other illegal activities. That’s just plain deceit.

Is one of these reasons for misleading the American people any better than another? Does it matter whether a leader tells a falsehood out of ignorance, preconception or deceit? Most people probably regard deceit as a the greater vice. If Donald Trump habitually says things that he knows are not true, then he should be ashamed of himself, and voters should be ashamed of themselves for electing him.

But I think we should also hold leaders to a higher standard, an attentiveness to truth that goes beyond just saying whatever one believes to be true at the moment, without investigation or reflection. As Trump himself has come to believe (although he lied when he said he always believed it), the pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a very costly tragedy for this country. How many other tragedies will we endure if the President bases decisions on inadequate information or extreme ideology? The stakes are too high to follow a egotistical leader who constructs his own reality and believes whatever he chooses to believe.