Archive for January 2018

Over His Head, Or Lying In The Weeds

January 29, 2018

International trade is a complicated subject.

  • There is always the issue of currency (what currency is a particular good offered in).
  • And of course there is timing (when would the goods or service be available, and where, and in what currency, at value when translated into the buyers currency.
  • One must not forget the issue of what recourse exists should the buyer have paid in full or in part and the seller has not delivered the good to the specified location, in the right amount and right specification.

Listening, however, to President Trump, trade is easy. Worse existing trade agreements are disasters, our Trader in Chief says.

Is he in over his head, or laying in wait in the weeds? Hmmm.

The President has said he does not like trade deals involving multiple countries, like the US trading with European Union, NAFTA, or groups of South Asian States. The President prefers one on one deals. One must assume the President prefers one on one because he thinks a contract more favorable to the US can be bargained. Anything wrong with that thinking?

Maybe. Let’s start with the recognition that nations should not be making unilateral trade agreements in the first place if you believe that free enterprise and entrepreneurship are the products of individuals, not countries.

To the contrary, nations ought to busy themselves negotiating the elimination of trade restrictions, or any other barriers which other countries erect “to protect” their own cottage industries. Protecting local industries should be a last resort used only when another country persists in dumping goods and services or sets up barriers for free and fair trade.

“Protectionism” stifles innovation and creativity, and leads eventually to making a nation’s protected industries second class. In addition, protectionism tends to reinforce similar behavior in other trading partners neutralizing any sort after trading advantage “protection appears to offer.

In theory, however, why should not a collection of bi-lateral agreements, if cleverly constructed serve the US well?

The primary reason is that global commerce is too complicated to predict future impacts. World commerce is tied to changing global conditions (currency shifts, droughts, wars, technology obsolescence, innovation, changing demand, etc), this very nature of global trade can make what is in high demand today, unwanted tomorrow.

For this primary reason, trade negotiations and agreements are most productive if they are focused upon “free trade”, that is, to the extent possible, the absence of quotas, duties, tariffs or other secondary methods of limiting trade such as inspections, vague safety standards, special packaging etc.

Trade restrictions, of course, are also political favorite. “I will contribute to your campaign or party if you help me limit competition from Country X”. This is true for the US, and it is probably even truer for most trading partners. Accordingly, were the US to strike a bi-lateral trade agreement which was favorable to the US, Trump experience would suggest that our advantage would come at the expense of the trading partner.

Why does anyone think that the trading partner’s government could survive if the foreign government was perceived to have negotiated a “bad” deal?

President Trump’s Administration has put its toe into global market manipulations with placing duties on imported solar panels (as opposed to filing a complaint with the WTO). This unilateral action, aimed squarely at China and South Korea claims exporters from these two countries are being helped unfairly by their Governments. While this is an important charge to question, the US solar panel industry comprises both making solar panels and installing them.

The new duties will flow, almost certainly, to consumers’ pockets as installers are forced to pass the duties surcharge onto their customers. The consequence is likely to be higher costs for Americans who install solar panels, or translate into job losses in the solar panel installation businesses as demand drops due to increased costs. Without significant increased productivity, the US solar panel making industry will not see increased sales for the same reasons.

This outcome seems ironic and points to President Trump possibly being in over his head in world trade dealings… On the other hand, a shrinking solar panel industry would take a lot of pressure off the legacy fossil fuel energy concerns… who were large supporters of Candidate Trump. Hmmm.
So the question remains, is President Trump in over his head, or just laying in the weeds waiting to held his friends?

Regaining The Center, Again

January 24, 2018

The Trump Presidency along with the 115th Congress have given renewed meaning to “Regaining The Center”. Beginning with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, an extreme conservative jurist, to the failed attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, to the “trickle down” theory tax cuts, and now to the food fight over immigration, Republicans have pushed the center point of American ship of State and it is now listing dangerously to the right. Will the mid-terms in November provide urgently needed relief?

In any healthy democracy, everyone should recognize that there is not just one way to do things. Most initiatives have a certain momentum and often produces results beyond the stated goal. Over reach, unintended impact, and sometimes simply not achieving the promised results justify a course correction. Variations around some center point, should be expected, if not sought.

In this regard, Democrat Administration followed by a Republican one should be seen as a positive rather than a negative just as the inevitable, a Democrat Administration will replace the Republican one. Unfortunately, extreme conservative or progressive views have little regard or appreciation of the center’s value. For these ideologues, politics is a zero sum game and their personal roles are to drive our country as far to their ideological extreme as possible.

This one dimensional view of politics, Democrat versus Republican or Progressive versus Conservative, however, fails to capture another dimension. Specially, the political world can also be viewed along an axis with poles called authoritarian and anarchist.  There are way points called strict law and order at the authoritarian side, and libertarianism along the anarchy path. Family values, religious themes lie on the authoritarian axis side while women’s and human rights (LGBT included) lie in the libertarian direction.

So, how do these propositions relate to “Regaining The Center”?

The “Center” is safer, like a safe harbor.

What is meant by safer is that the probability of damaging or irrevocably changing the character of the Country is much less. The American democracy experiment is premised upon a healthy dynamic between Federal and States rights. The founding fathers feared both the authoritarian leader (my way or the highway) and the rabble of the common man (short term gains without regard to the future).

The King-like leader or the self interest needs of common, uneducated men.

A strong Federal Government with three equal branches, our founders thought, should provide broad protection and security while individual States should provided a fertile base for individual growth and entrepreneurship. Hmmm.

As the public discussion strays from the center, greater room is provided for public discussion to be hijacked towards extremes such as theocracy, dictatorship, class division in one direction to full libertarianism (anything goes), masses driven wealth redistribution, incompetence through constant change in other direction.

The risks the current Trump and Republican Administration present is the likelihood that their underlying ideological proclivities are fundamentally about wealth accumulation and retention.


Their zero sum thinking drives their policies to, by necessity, taking from the poor/average person and shifting wealth to those already wealthy.


Their tactics utilize “smoke” such as immigration fears, foreign trade competition, and “us/them” labeling some Americans as preferred and others as unworthy to blind voters’ eyes from what is really taking place.

Only by “Regaining The Center” can we hope to provide room for data based, respectful discussions over which policies, laws, and regulations can raise all boats, not just those of the privileged.

Trapped By Words

January 22, 2018

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump joined other Republicans who heaped criticism upon former President Obama for the existence of ISIS. Joining people like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Trump stressed that the Obama strategic decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq was a sign of weakness and in a Trump Administration, there would be no weakness.

ISIS, Trump said, was a direct result of Obama’s foreign policy.

After one year as President, I wonder what President Trump thinks? I am not concerned about what he tweets but rather what he really thinks.

ISIS is just another name for al Qaeda or Taliban or Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah or Hamas. These radical Islamic groups have existed for many years and represent Muslim factions that seek power and find strict Muslim fundamentalism backed by guns as an effective technique to seize power and hold it.

History has shown that these groups can be held in check only through authoritarian measures.

Had Republicans owned up to George W Bush’s doomed decision to invade and occupy Iraq (and to a lesser extent, President Bush’s decision to allow the morphing of US Afghan foreign policy to nation building), in other words owning up to having opened Pandora’s box in the first place, a far more comprehensive foreign policy might have been found. Alas that did not happen.

So, today the Government finds itself surreptitiously increasing American military presence in Afghanistan and doing the same in Syria and Iraq. The current American posture is ready made for an unforeseen event (like a full scale ambush of US soldiers or an intra-region squabble between Middle East neighbors trapping American forces).

One might cut President Trump a break on this since Pandora’s box is open regardless if Republicans won’t own up. But the President is not going to get any break because he has chosen to side publicly with Israel when common sense would dictate the role of “honest broker”.

What could possibly motivate President Trump to announce moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem?

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is now woven into the modern Middle East history. For the time being, radical Muslim fundamentalism has access to money and weapons.  There is also plenty of “ugly American” examples which appeal to poor, less educated Arabs and provide the necessary support military units need.

President Trump was, from day 1 of his Administration, trapped by the words of denial by his and other leading Republicans. During President Trump’s first year in office, he has managed to increasingly trap himself (and all of us too).   In a Middle East world where no exit can be seen, cautious words speak louder than foolish ones.

When Small Hands Hold The Reins

January 21, 2018

In 2016, Republicans won enough districts and States that US Government control rested with the Republican party. President Trump would run the Executive branch, Mitch McConnell the Senate, and Paul Ryan the House. And behind them stood big money interests along with far right zealots who passed out bags of money and sheets of carefully crafted ideological words. This combo was “taking back the country”.

The 2016 election was a free and open event for the most part. There has been grumbling, especially from Democrats, that there had been Russian intervention in support of Donald Trump. Even if that is true, Russian intervention was de minimis.

Americans must wake up and realize what a democratic process has produced.
Congressional Republicans and the indescribable President Trump hold power because too many Americans

  • did not ask questions for clarity,
  • did not consider what too much power in the hands of public servants whose souls were mortgaged to the wealthy or the extreme views would do,
  • and did not consider that collectively this Republican horde would use democracy against the majority.

In essence, voters could not distinguish between two poor choices and instead preferred the party which offered the best mimicry of the Pied Piper.

Small Hands often drive an inferiority complex which can in turn lead to Napoleonic behavior. President Small Hands, while physically bigger in height than Napoleon, acts as if he is subject to no bounds, be they historic precedents, common decency, or the best interest of future generations.

Rather than pulling in government reins to limit a greedy Congressional majority, President Trump eggs them on. Small Hands urges Congress to change long standing rules design to protect minority interests simply because the GOP holds the majority and (he thinks) should have its way.

There seems to be no thought given to what happens when Democrats regain the majority, or what either today’s actions or future Democrat’s actions might do to the country.

Weak thinkers, hubris driven, can see nothing but their goal, and continuously seek an opening, at any cost, to achieve it. Great thinkers are, on the other hand, able to ask the question, is this objective worth more than what it might destroy?

President Trump is urging Mitch McConnell to change Senate rules again. The President wants McConnell to eliminate the right to filibuster by requiring a simple majority to end debate. Should McConnell submit to the President’s wishes, Congress could in the future flip flop on any legislation by simple majority votes. Sound fair?

Think about it, Tax cuts this year, reversal next term. How could businesses plan?

In short order, our economy would be in taters and our foreign policy a valueless commodity on the global stage.

President Small Hands does not see this (or simply does not care) but Senate Leader McConnell should.

The question is will he?

HHS New Vision

January 18, 2018

The Department of Health and Human Services has just announced it is creating a new division. The home of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which is under new management and listening to President Trump’s religious supporters, will add a division.  This new division’s duties will be to protect “religious freedoms” for those in the healthcare delivery fields who hold “deeply held religious views”.  Regardless of what medical authorities say are necessary procedures and patients have requested, the intent is that healthcare workers can refuse service based upon their “deeply held religious views”. Hmmm.

This thinly disguised administrative move (a favorite with the evangelical community) would allow healthcare workers to refuse contraceptive dispensing, family planning services, and pregnancy termination procedures, including counseling from patients seeking them. Even more preposterous is the notion that healthcare workers could refuse to serve the LGBT community (at all) simply by claiming LGBT life style is against the teachings in the Bible. Hmmm.

One must wonder how a sensible bureaucrat could put forward such a misunderstanding of the first Amendment.

Supporters of such a directive point to the first Amendment language “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”. Proponents lean on the words “free exercise thereof” and say that regulations requiring them to deal with contraception, abortion, AIDS, and the LGBT community are keeping them from “free exercise” of their religious views.

Think about this.

  • Could an ambulance driver elect not to collect someone gravely injured in an automobile accident because they thought the injured person was gay or transgender?
  • Could a doctor elect to not operate on a gay or transgender person who needed an emergency appendectomy?
  • Could any medical care worker refuse service to anyone not of their faith?

Undoubtably this administrative move will be met with legal action. Currently the Supreme Court is mulling a similar “deeply held” religious views case pitting a Denver boutique cake maker against a gay couple for whom he refused to make a wedding cake.

The HHS action, however, raises the stakes. While both situations involves discrimination, denial of service based upon some prejudice, the HHS proposal could have life threatening connotations.

All in the name of “deeply held religious views”. Hmmm.

What Type Of Hole?

January 12, 2018

President Trump once again thanked his supporters with vulgar and boorish behavior. In doing so, the President underscored what a colossal mistake in judgement so many Americans made in the 2016 Presidential election.

Maybe no one could have reasonable foreseen any US President referring to any other country, especially any African country as a “shit hole”.

What is clear and evident, however, is that there was ample indications that Donal Trump felt no limitations on his emotions or no respect for accepted bounds of tasteful and reasonable behavior. With Candidate Trump, there were only winners or losers, and he was sure, in his case, everyone else would be a loser.

From startling news reports and public statements from Congress members who were present, a picture of a deeply mean-spirited chief executive emerged again from an oval office.  The meeting was held to review a Senate bi-partisan “DACA” compromise proposal. Apparently the President was outraged when presented the proposal which continued the practice of issuing some Visas to residents of Haiti and certain African countries. Trump conflated the perception that these countries were to some degree “failed states” with the notion that all the residents of these countries were failed people. Hmmm.

I remember using the term “shit hole” in a family setting when discussing the mess my children made (and left) in their bedrooms. It is not difficult to see how “shit hole” can be used to label any dysfunctional place in colloquial language. But in the wealthiest country in the world and from the lips of its President, colloquial language has no place.

Diplomatic language and associated signs of respect is the most fundamental expectation of world leaders. Hmmm.

Many Americans voted for Candidate Trump (even though 3 million less than Hillary Clinton). Through the “electoral college” vote,  the nod went to Donald Trump. President Trump is our President whether we voted for him or not. That is our system and that is how democracy is supposed to work. Hmmm

I wonder whether (and would expect that) the number of disappointed Trump voters is growing? I wonder wether these disappointed voters are concluding they elected another type of “hole”, (colloquially), a flaming “ass hole”.

The Oprah Wake Up Call

January 10, 2018

Oprah Winfrey woke up the Golden Globe audience a few nights ago. She spoke with passion and offered a striking contrast to the Trump doomsday speeches even though she was talking about sexual and work place harassment. She offered hope, preached resolve, and in her own way projected confidence.

Oprah is a uniquely successful person who has inspired so many others. It is little wonder that many others immediately wondered whether another television star might think about running for President and made little mystery that Oprah would be a far better TV star President than the one we have now. Hmmm.

IMO, there is little question that Oprah would be a hands down superior pick to Donald J Trump. Unfortunately, comparing anyone to President Trump is the wrong comparison. Would one seriously take Oprah in place of Barack Obama? Or, even George W Bush or Bill Clinton?

President Trump is a boorish excuse for a grownup.  President Trump has willingly followed the policies which the top 1/10th of 1 percent wealthiest Americans and their fully bought out Republican Congress members have put forward. President Trump has reversed one Obama era policy after another in what appears to be an attempt to return to isolationism and the “gilded age”. In a world which has changed, there is no realistic bridge back to time that was not that good for most.

But Americans can (and must) do better than Oprah. Doing better is

  • about surrounding oneself with a diverse, first class team of cabinet leaders and senior officials who seek to raise all ships while protecting America for our children and their children.
  • picking experienced political leaders who can pick up the pieces (which an irresponsible President Trump has, like a spoiled child, strewn around like broken play toys) and put them back together.
  • taking the day in and day out heat from crude, cruel, and deceitful opposition.

To beat President Trump, Democrats will need to offer a “complete” candidate. Simply not being vulgar, rude, and hateful, while wonderful qualities and a sharp contrast to President Trump, the next President must be able to withstand lies, slander, and falsehoods while competently rebuilding America.

Oprah is good, but in 2020, America will need more.

Defense Spending

January 5, 2018

Increasing the Defense Departments budget, long a staple for Republican politicians, is in the news again. President Trump made increased defense spending a corner stone of his campaign, of course, without specifying what the spending would be on or why.

This week, in an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Halpern (who recently stepped back from his MSNBC relationship over sexual harassment allegations) wrote a clear and persuasive column on the urgency surrounding increasing defense spending. Halpern’s comments, however, did not provide any ideas on what would not be funded if defense spending was increased.

Halpern’s thesis builds from the assumption that nuclear deterrence is critical to America’s defense. Halpern claims that the core “nuclear triad”, that is the US ability to deliver nuclear weapons by land, sea, and air have gotten old and have questionable reliability. This could leave the US open to a first strike nuclear attack and questionable ability to respond if attacked. Halpern points to aging aircraft, outdated submarines, and stationary, silo based missiles.

Since WWII, the US has been the undisputed world leader and most experts lay this reality to our nuclear deterrence and a large deployable military. US defense spending, of course, far exceeds that of any other country.   The US spends as much as all other countries combined. Hmmm.

Halpern’s column makes a strong case for urgently placing high priority along with increased dollars on restoring the superiority of our nuclear deterrence. Here are some thoughts about what he might add to his plea.

  • Where does “guns or butter” fit? Is nuclear deterrence an expense which mandates a decrease in social and entitlement spending?
  • Who does “nuclear deterrence” actually benefit? If Americans were willing to become isolationists and bring its armies, ships and planes home, would our banks, financial institutions, and global businesses thrive as they do today?
  • And, how does a $1.5 trillion tax cut fit into national defense

Mark Halpern makes a persuasive case for why the US needs to update its nuclear deterrence. What is missing is the obvious connection between increased defense spending and how it should be paid for.

So, What About Marijuana?

January 4, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was reversing an Obama era policy that said the Justice Department would not enforce Federal rules over the possession and use of marijuana. Sessions’s announcement comes just days after California implemented “recreational marijuana use”. Why now?

  • First, the Justice Department statement was not a surprise on one level because Sessions has been on record as being against medical and recreational use of marijuana. Why? Who knows but conservatives have generally been against drugs and most see marijuana as a dangerous substance (marijuana is still listed as a class 1 drug which puts it in the company of LSD, morphine, and opium).
  • Second, the Justice Department position serves to underscore the incompetence of Congress. Medical and recreational use are not new and the projected State adoption of recreational use suggests most States will legalize marijuana use even though the Federal Government has shown not interest in following. Congress could eliminate the States/Federal conflict in a heartbeat but for various reasons has chosen to sit and watch.
  • Third, to most thinking persons, marijuana is more similar to alcohol than to opium. Further, the are growing mounds of data pointing to marijuana’s positive medical effects. Sensible legislators would at a minimum make this a State issue and worry about other problems.
  • Fourth, like many conservative issues, no one needs to consumer/smoke marijuana. This is an individual choice. Unlike guns which kill 30,000+ Americans each year, or 33,000 opioid overdose deaths, marijuana is not associated with senseless deaths.

IMO, the Justice Department position change will more likely run into a buzzsaw from all the States who see marijuana use differently. What a hoot to think Americans may end up thanking Attorney General Sessions for his change of policy.

Unpaid Tax Cuts

January 3, 2018

Just before Christmas, America awoke to a promised Christmas present. President Trump had promised the gift would be “huge” and in time for Christmas. I guess he made this happen because he so loved his fellow country men. (Well at least some of them.)

It will be some time, at least until tax season in 2019, before Americans know just how “huge” and how wonderful the tax cut each individual receives will actually be. For many it will be real but like President Trump’s hands, small.

For some, however, especially those who do not need a tax cut, President Trump will indeed have been generous. Since more than half of Americans do not pay any individual income tax, for them it will be a non-event. Hmmm.

But President “Grinch” has not told his “fellow Americans” that the tax cut will usher in huge deficits too. Republican Congress members, like Speaker Paul Ryan, have almost in a giddy voice, called for entitlement reform in order to counter the massive hole the Christmas tax cut gift has made. Hmmm.

Republicans give with one hand and take with the other?

Republicans are actually saying Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are too generous and many Americans are taking advantage of these programs. Republicans want entitlement “reform”. Hmmm.

Question, if tax reform is really about tax cuts, then is entitlement reform really about entitlement cuts?

Republicans have argued for some time that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are projected to go broke and unless “reformed”, these programs will bankrupt America. These are alarming words and should get the average Americans attention. So, tell me why there should be tax cuts first?

How can America afford a $1.7 trillion tax cut with the benefits going to the wealthy and corporations, and then proceed to pay for it with cuts in entitlements which go to the elderly and needy?

There is a theme emerging from the Republican Administration. Basic Healthcare is not a right for all Americans. Instead, Americans are entitled to the best healthcare they can afford. When translated into the real world, less coverage and access to basic healthcare is all many Americans can afford (and in GOP minds) deserve. Interestingly Robert Mercer, Betsy DeVoss, and the Koch Brothers will experience no hardship from “reform” of healthcare or taxes. Hmmm.

The Golden Goose which bequeathed such generous tax cuts upon corporations and the very wealthy is running out of golden eggs. Income inequality is strangling the purchasing power of many (maybe as much as 80% of) Americans. The American consumer will shortly not have enough discretionary money to buy the products all the new jobs President Trump has promised will produce. Hmmm.

The most laughable idea marketed during the run up to passing the tax cuts was the notion that corporations would share with consumers and their employees the windfall bonanza tax cuts brought. Under capitalism and especially a global economy, wages and salaries chase the lowest global level existing. Capitalism indeeds drives productivity and innovation but income inequality cuts the other way. Accordingly, Americans actually need higher progressive individual taxes, not lower, and corporate taxes which are based upon an “effective” (after deductions, exemptions, and loopholes) tax rate, which is competitive with other like global trading partners.

This does not seem to be Republican thinking. Hmmm.