The Dog Catches the Car

The dog chases the car, but what will the dog do if the dog catches the car? That’s the joke. The dog has no idea. The dog has a tiny brain. The dog simply chases the car, because it’s great fun. It’s a thrill to feel powerful and threatening – assuming dogs have egos. Dogs, however, cannot reason out consequences. That requires a bit of abstract thought, beyond the punishment and reward dynamic involved in house training. Humans do complex what-if thinking. Dogs don’t.

Republicans don’t do complex what-if thinking either. For eight years Obama was wrong about everything. If he proposed it, they opposed it, even if they thought of it first, like the “individual mandate” that would force everyone to buy health insurance. That would create a massive pool of people, most of whom were pretty healthy, paying in, to cover the massive costs incurred by the unlucky few. There would be no freeloaders. Freeloaders are despicable, and that mandate would keep things solvent. The Heritage Foundation came up with that, but when that became the key element that would make Obamacare work, that was the one thing that Republicans fought tooth and nail. That was what they took to the Supreme Court, and lost. Antonin Scalia fumed – this was like the government telling everyone that they had to eat broccoli – the metaphor at the time, thanks to Fox News. Scalia lost that argument. The “individual mandate” wasn’t broccoli. It was just a tax. Congress can raise taxes, for the common good. That seemed to be the case here. Obamacare was constitutional. It stood.

Republicans fumed, and then the Republican House passed about fifty bills repealing Obamacare, all of which died in the Senate. The Republicans didn’t have the necessary sixty votes over there to stop debate and bring even one of those repeal bills to the floor for an up-and-down vote, which wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Obama would have vetoed any repeal that finally made it through the Senate. They certainly didn’t have the votes to override a veto – but it’s a thrill to feel powerful and threatening, and it’s best not to catch the car. They never had an alternative to Obamacare. They didn’t even try. Fixing the healthcare system is hard. They’d come up with something better when they caught the car. Until then, they’d bark, loudly.

That became habitual, and it wasn’t just Obamacare. It was the Iran deal that actually took care of a serious problem for at least ten years. It was the Paris Accords that most nations agreed to in a worldwide effort to slow climate change. That’s real. The science is indisputable – but science must be bunk, and everyone else must be wrong. Obama’s opening to Cuba was bunk too, but Republicans couldn’t argue that fifty years of sanctions and a total embargo had accomplished anything at all. They barked anyway. It’s a thrill to feel powerful and threatening. The nation yawned. Tourists booked flights to Cuba.

The Republicans also knew that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. All the polls showed that, so Donald Trump would be just fine as their candidate. He was powerful. He was threatening. And he would lose. They could keep barking and feel good.

And then he won. They caught the car. Hillary Clinton got more than two and a half million more votes, but they caught the car.

Garrison Keillor is a bit bitter about that:

A minority of the electorate goes for the loosest and least knowledgeable candidate, certain that he will lose and their votes will be only harmless protest, a middle finger to Washington, and then – whoa. The joke comes true. You put a whoopee-cushion on your father’s chair and he sits down and it barks and he has a massive coronary. You wanted to get a rise out of him and instead he falls down dead. Very funny.

Thank you, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for this wonderful joke. Voters in high dudgeon against Wall Street manipulators and the Washington aristocracy vote for the billionaire populist who puts tycoons in power and the Republican hierarchy who owned the logjam that the voters voted against.

They’ve done it now:

He is a showman, and oddity has paid off for him, as it did for Lady Gaga and Gorgeous George and Liberace. But the public demands new tricks. Today, railing at the journalists who slavishly cover him is, like bear-baiting or lion-taming, entertainment enough, but by next fall he will need to pull canaries out of his ears, and by 2018 he’ll be diving on horseback from a high tower into a pool of water while playing “Malagueña” on a trumpet.

That may be only a slight exaggeration. No one was more surprised at Donald Trump winning than Donald Trump. The transition is not going well. He caught the car and has no idea what to do with it, although he’s been putting on a brave face, even if no one knows what he stands for now. What he was against he’s kind of for now. What he was for, like torture or maybe something worse, because “they” deserve it, he’s kind of against now. He said he’d never touch Medicare, but now he seems okay with Paul Ryan’s plan to phase that out in eighteen months. This is painful to watch. What have we done?

And then there’s Obamacare. It must go. They said so, but they never did the complex what-if thinking about that, and now they’re in a bit of a fix. Margot Sanger-Katz explains that:

Just a few weeks ago, Donald J. Trump and Republicans in Congress were talking about how Obamacare’s insurance markets were floundering, and how insurance companies were fleeing while prices were spiraling out of control.

The failure of those markets, they argued, was the reason Obamacare should be repealed.

Now, Republican leaders are considering a legislative effort to roll back major provisions of the health law, but the plan they’re considering would keep the current system in place for at least two and possibly three more years.

They simply never expected this:

The nickname for the plan is repeal and delay, and the assumption underlying it is that the current system will be sustainable for as long as it takes Congress to pass and the White House to install a new health plan.

The plan might be better described as “zombification.” It is not at all clear that Republicans can easily time the expiration date of the Obamacare markets. Insurance experts say the resulting zombie market – not dead, but not alive either – would suffer from many of the maladies of the existing system, and quite a few more. The result on the books might look like the status quo, but millions of Americans could lose their insurance and others could pay much higher prices to keep their coverage.

Perhaps they should have looked into what Obamacare actually is:

Obamacare was devised as a market system rather than a government program like Medicare. Private insurers compete to offer health plans to customers who don’t get insurance from their jobs or the government. It sets up rules and establishes federal subsidies to help encourage people to buy insurance. But it relies on the voluntary participation of insurance companies to function.

There’s nothing in the health law that forces insurance companies to sell insurance if they don’t want to – as we learned this year, when several major carriers exited the market. And there’s good reason to think that, with the death of Obamacare looming, many more companies would rethink their decision to sell Obamacare policies in the zombie interval.

That’s the free market at work, but free markets can be a bitch:

In an interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week, Speaker Paul Ryan promised that the transition would ensure that “no one is worse off.” That promise could be as hard to keep as President Obama’s statement that, under Obamacare, “if you like your health plan, you can keep it.”

Well, the problem really is structural:

Even the law’s defenders acknowledged that the markets were rickety and vulnerable. President Obama, in an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association this summer, suggested major policy changes to backstop the markets. Hillary Clinton’s campaign included a laundry list of new programs meant to address Obamacare’s recent troubles.

Those changes, which would have involved extensive new spending on the existing system and the entrance of a government-run backup insurer, sometimes called the public option, are now off the table.

More modest fixes might have a better chance of passing. As The Hill reported last week, some Republicans in Congress are discussing a package of smaller short-term changes that would make the Obamacare markets more appealing to insurance companies during the zombie period.

Christopher Condeluci, who was a GOP finance committee council when Obamacare passed and now runs a policy consulting business, said he had spoken with current staffers considering such options. Over the last few years, Republicans have resisted changes that would make Obamacare work better, but Mr. Condeluci said that the election had shifted the outlook.

“If there’s disruption, even in a wait for repeal and replace, Republicans are going to look terrible,” he said. “And the Democrats are going to rightly blame them.”

That’s because things will fall apart:

For insurers that are losing money now as the market finds its legs and that are well-established in other lines of business, there is less incentive to stick around. The motivation for health plans, particularly large, national for-profit companies, had always been that Obamacare was a long-term growth opportunity, worth some headaches and losses early on. With the program’s end in sight, that hope would be gone, and insurers might balk at the effort required to change products and comply with new, more generous rules.

Marilyn Tavenner, the president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a large insurer trade group, told my colleague Reed Abelson this week that the current law “needed to be improved.” Her group has not come out against a repeal and delay plan, but it has not guaranteed that insurers would stay put if one passed.

Things will probably stay stable through the end of next year. Insurance companies have signed contracts to offer health plans, and people have already signed up for them.

After that, the future may be less certain than the GOP plan’s nickname suggests. Exits might not happen everywhere, but just as the Obama administration has struggled to keep reluctant insurers in the market, there would be little the Trump administration could do to prevent further insurer flight.

Get rid of Obamacare. There’s nothing. That’s that. All alternatives fail, although the health insurance industry is outlining what it wants to keep when Republicans repeal Obamacare:

The insurers, some who have already started leaving the marketplaces because they are losing money there, say they need a clear commitment from the Trump administration and congressional leaders that the government will continue offsetting some costs for low-income people. They also want to keep in place rules that encourage young and healthy people to sign up, which the insurers say are crucial to a stable market for individual buyers…

Marilyn Tavenner acknowledged that the current law “needed to be improved.” But she emphasized that there was widespread agreement among Republicans about the need for some the law’s provisions, including covering people with expensive medical conditions. President-elect Donald J. Trump has also signaled his support of this popular provision. “There are common starting platforms,” she said…

Ms. Tavenner said the industry wanted to know more about what the Republicans were planning, including information on the fate of the Medicaid expansion under the law. “We still have more questions than answers,” she said. “We don’t want to disrupt individuals who are relying on our coverage,” she said.

Kevin Drum wonders about these demands:

Here’s the case for laughing: the insurance industry says it’s OK with repealing Obamacare, but we should maintain the pre-existing conditions ban, the individual mandate, the subsidies for low-income families, and the Medicaid expansion. Needless to say, that is Obamacare.

Here’s the case for crying: “The market has already been a little wobbly this year,” Tavenner said. If it looks like any of these four provisions are going to be repealed with nothing to replace them, insurers will simply pull out of the market at the “next logical opportunity.” That would be about six months from now…

There’s a good chance this doesn’t just mean pulling out of the Obamacare exchanges. If the mandate and the subsidies go away, but the pre-existing conditions ban stays in place, insurers might very well pull out of the individual market entirely. Republicans are playing with fire here, and it’s not clear if they even know it.

Josh Marshall quantifies that:

Depending on how they go about it, we are talking about tens of millions of Americans who are about to lose their health insurance coverage. Some people might think that’s a big deal. For the moment the main policy debate within the GOP is how to accomplish this and evade as much blame as possible…

The total number set to lose their coverage is a bit over 23 million Americans (23,134,000). Of those, 12,311,000 lose their Medicaid expansion-based coverage; 8,963,000 are exchange purchasers who benefit from significant federal subsidies; 1,390,000 are young adults under the age of 26 who are allowed to remain on their parents plans; a final 470,000 are basic health care plan enrollees in Minnesota and New York…

And here’s something even more interesting, partial repeal turns out to be worse than full repeal. The Urban Institute has a new study showing something that seems paradoxical, but actually makes sense if you know the way the health insurance industry has integrated with and remade itself to operate with the ACA. Urban Institute’s numbers of people who lose insurance is slightly lower… but if repeal is partial, they project an additional 7.3 million would lose their coverage. That brings the total to 29.8 million, close to 10 percent of the people in the entire country.

It seems that the Heritage Foundation was right all along:

Why would partial repeal hurt more people than full repeal? Well, in this case partial repeal means repealing the money (the incentives) without the regulatory structure. In the words of the Urban Institute study “the additional 7.3 million people become uninsured because of the near collapse of the non-group insurance market.” Basically you’re leaving the regulations intact but removing the money that makes them possible. So everything goes haywire and you get a lot of collateral damage. Why would you do that? Simple. The rules of the Senate allow you to do that with 50 votes. It’s politically easier to destroy care for an additional 7 million people.

One more thing to consider as these people are losing their health insurance – a bit part of the equation that very few people are talking about is that repealing the money part of the bill is a massive tax cut for the wealthy. That’s the part that Ryan wants to get his hands on first. That’s the real prize.

Yes, Obamacare included a small jump in taxes for those earning over two hundred grand a year, and a much larger increase on investment income – and those folks want their money back. Paul Ryan will give it back to them, but at a cost:

The nation’s hospital industry warned President-elect Donald Trump and congressional leaders on Tuesday that repealing the Affordable Care Act could cost hospitals $165 billion by the middle of the next decade and trigger “an unprecedented public health crisis.”

The two main trade groups for U.S. hospitals dispatched a letter to the incoming president and Capitol Hill’s top four leaders, saying that the government should help hospitals avoid massive financial losses if the law is rescinded in a way that causes a surge of uninsured patients.

Yes, hospitals will close, particularly those in rural areas and in big cities that have any kind of underclass, as all big cities do, so this might be necessary:

The hospital groups say that if Trump and Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act without replacing it right away, they should also restore government payments for hospital care of Medicare and Medicaid patients to what they were before the 2010 law. When it was enacted, the premise was that hospitals could absorb lower payments if more people were insured.

The Republicans didn’t think of that. Like the dog chasing the car, they were incapable of complex what-if thinking. After eight years, they were out of the habit, but that might be just too bad, as Greg Sargent reports this:

The emerging GOP plan to repeal Obamacare on a delayed schedule – and then maybe kinda sorta replace it later – has raised a big question: Will Democrats help Republicans pass a replacement that is far less generous and comprehensive than the health law is, allowing Republicans an escape from the political fallout from repeal?

In an interview with me, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer answered this question with a resounding no. Under no circumstances, he vowed, would Democrats throw Republicans such a political lifeline.

“We’re not going to do a replacement,” Schumer said of the Senate Democratic caucus. “If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it. Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”

That may seem petulant – sore loser stuff – but it may save the day:

Whenever repeal does kick in, Republicans have insisted, they will have some kind of replacement ready. And here’s where Democrats come in. Republicans appear to be calculating that the looming prospect of millions losing insurance will force Dems to cooperate with them to pass a replacement that covers far fewer people and offers less in consumer protection than the ACA does. (They may need Dems to pass a replacement, because some conservatives may not vote for anything that spends and regulates to expand coverage.) But if Democrats do hold the line against anything far short of the ACA, they may be able to leverage Republicans into replacing it with something that is not nearly as regressive as the GOP replacement might otherwise have been.

This is what Schumer is now vowing to do. Asked directly if Democrats would refuse to support anything that falls significantly short of the ACA – in terms of expanding social welfare – Schumer said: “The odds, after they repeal without any replacement, of us sitting at the table to do something that will chop one arm off instead of two is very small.”

“They’re giving us tremendous leverage,” Schumer insisted.

That’s another thing the Republicans didn’t expect when, to their surprise, they actually won the presidency, along with the House and Senate. The yapping little dog actually caught they car, and now they have to drive the car, and dogs can’t drive. They won’t get what they want – but then they never knew what they wanted. Dogs have tiny brains.

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High Anxiety

Mel Brooks has made a lot of funny movies but High Anxiety isn’t one of them. Being constantly on edge, even when played for laughs, just isn’t funny. It’s painful, and it’s painful to watch. Even Woody Allen’s ironic self-depreciating anxiety gets really irritating over time. He realized that. He stopped making movies about himself, starring himself. His alter ego had been the devastatingly witty little guy with monumental existential anxiety about everything. That little guy had become a pain in the ass. No one wanted to be reminded of their own existential anxieties, and the witty lines that had seemed charming early on soon seemed no more than pathetic whining. He was nervous. He made everyone else nervous. Who needs that?

This should have been fairly simple for Brooks and Allen. Thrill your audience. Scare the wits out of them. Delight them. Make them feel happy, or sad, or anything else – but don’t make them feel nervous. People hate that, but of course, in the political world, we’re about to get four years of that. Donald Trump makes people feel nervous. He delights in it. We’re about to get four years of high anxiety.

After all, it was just another day of what no one expected:

The turbulence began Tuesday morning with one of President-elect Donald Trump’s signature tweets of wrath: a public jab at Boeing alleging that the cost of building Air Force One had spiraled out of control.

That came an hour after Boeing’s chief executive was quoted questioning Trump’s stance on trade.

In the afternoon, Trump directed his attention elsewhere, taking credit in a surprise announcement for a Japanese conglomerate’s months-old pledge to invest $50 billion in the United States.

In the raucous hours in between, a top Trump aide announced offhandedly that, months before, Trump had sold his entire stock portfolio, which some ethics advisers had worried could raise questions about conflicts of interest during his presidency.

It was a day of big pronouncements and few details, leaving many wondering whether this would be the unusual and unpredictable way that Trump will govern when he takes office next month.

Boeing’s chief executive questioned his trade policy, so Trump made Boeing’s stock drop like a rock for a few hours – a bit of personal vengeance. The Japanese deal was not new. He just said it was new. Everyone had to look that up. The stock thing came out of the blue, and it took a few hours to figure out it meant nothing – his wealth is in real estate, not securities. He had the news folks jumping around and nervous for a few hours, but that’s his style, for better or worse, and mostly worse:

That style, including his opaque personal financial dealings and his sudden shots at certain companies, has helped unnerve a corporate America that traditionally craves stability. Some business leaders and economists have worried whether executives can speak their minds about the president-elect or his policies without fear of facing Trump’s rage.

“Twisting people’s arms is inherently problematic” for a president, said N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.

“The president has so much power, you always wonder if there’s some implicit threat to individuals, and that goes beyond what I think a limited government should do,” Mankiw said.

There are two issues here. Trump goes after people personally, and he’s using government to distort the free market – even Sarah Palin called the Carrier deal crony capitalism. Many did, on the right and the left, all of which makes folks nervous:

Trump’s announcements followed his assertion last week that he had saved 1,100 jobs in Indiana through a deal with air-conditioning company Carrier. The agreement, which includes $7 million in state incentives for the company, will actually keep 800 workers in the state, while 600 jobs will still go to Mexico.

In an interview Monday with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, the chief executive of Carrier’s parent company confirmed that it had made the deal in part out of fear.

“There was a cost as we thought about keeping the Indiana plant open,” United Technologies chief executive Greg Hayes said. “At the same time I was born at night but not last night. I also know that about 10 percent of our revenue comes from the U.S. government.”

Greg Hayes knows a real threat when he sees one. A vindictive president with a personal agenda will make the next four years scary. Watch what you say.

Dana Milbank put that a different way:

Is America becoming a rogue state?

The State Department stopped using the term years ago to describe the likes of Iran and North Korea, figuring it was needlessly provocative. But it would seem the incoming Trump administration plans to handle its affairs – domestic and foreign – in a manner that meets the dictionary definition of a “rogue state” as one “that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way.”

That seems to be what is going on:

Even before Donald Trump threw Sino-American relations into a new round of turmoil by speaking with the Taiwanese leader and by trolling a nation of 1.4 billion people on Twitter, Trump and his team set off new chaos between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, with Trump praising the repressive regime of the latter and pledging to visit, while a member of his transition team told the former that Trump supports designating Pakistan a terrorist haven.

Trump snubbed our closest ally, Britain, by having post-election calls with nine foreign leaders before granting British Prime Minister Theresa May the honor. He shattered protocol by suggesting Britain name Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader, ambassador to the United States. Meanwhile, NATO leaders meeting in Brussels this week were on edge about Trump’s coziness with Russia and his dismissive words about the alliance.

According to foreign government accounts, Trump praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drug users and dealers, which has killed at least 4,500 people in five months. And he hailed Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev for his “fantastic success” that can be called a “miracle.”

Jittery world leaders are unlikely to be reassured to learn that the man Trump tapped to run the Pentagon goes by the nickname “Mad Dog.”

The worldwide high anxiety has begun, and predictably, Trump surrogates have fanned out to explain that this is intentional – it’s time to shake things up – but Milbank isn’t buying it:

Some suggest that there is a method to Trump’s madness, that he is trying to make would-be adversaries think he is irrational and capricious, thereby making foes and rivals wary of pushing him too far. This is why North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gets a wide berth. On a lesser scale, this also underpinned Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” during the Vietnam War: If he appeared to be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, the theory went, North Vietnam and the Soviet Union might back down.

But in Trump’s application of the Madman Theory there seems to be less theory than madman. There may be advantages to keeping foes and opponents off guard, but Trump is baffling friends and allies, too. In foreign affairs, unpredictability spooks allies and spreads instability. And unpredictable policy at home has long been seen as toxic for business.

That’s why Milbank waxes nostalgic:

George W. Bush made predictable leadership a matter of pride. When I covered his White House 16 years ago, I found that the best way to predict Bush’s actions was to listen to his words: He did exactly what he said he would do. Many didn’t like the result, but Bush made it easy for Republicans in Congress to follow his lead.

Now, Trump’s uncertain trumpet is having the opposite effect. The corporate welfare offered to Carrier’s parent company to keep jobs in the United States has some previously supportive conservatives complaining about crony capitalism. His revived talk of high tariffs on imports has GOP congressional leaders worried about a trade war. On his decision to speak with the Taiwanese leader, Trump’s would-be defenders were split: Was it a meaningless courtesy, as some Trump advisers said? Or a well-thought-out shift in U.S. policy, as others claimed?

The widespread chaos suggests Trump isn’t signaling new policies as much as he’s winging it. His unpredictability is not a theory. It’s the absence of one.

That may be so, but this runs deeper. Steven Benen notes this:

Before the election, Donald Trump and his team made a deliberate decision to avoid substance and policy details. One of the Republican candidate’s top policy advisers said after the conventions that the typical American voter would be “bored to tears” if the campaign focused on substance – a sentiment Trump himself endorsed in June when he said “the public doesn’t care” about public policy.

In May, Politico quoted a campaign insider saying Trump didn’t want to “waste time on policy.” The Trump source added at the time, “It won’t be until after he is elected that he will figure out exactly what he is going to do.”

Okay, high anxiety levels will soon drop – the man has been elected – but Benen points to what Politico is reporting now:

While Donald Trump dines on frog legs with Mitt Romney and meets with a parade of lawmakers and governors in his gold-plated Midtown skyscraper, most of his transition staff are hunkered down in Washington, D.C., writing detailed governing plans for his first 100 days.

But so far, Trump and his inner circle have largely ignored those plans as they focus on top appointments and lean on the advice of politicians, CEOs and donors, rather than on their transition staff, say sources close to the transition.

The president-elect, meanwhile, has been more likely to set policy on Twitter than through consultation with his D.C. advisers.

“The senior people are all focused on Cabinet appointments,” said a Republican official involved in past transitions. “I wonder how much time, attention and decision-making is being allocated to the rest of the government. … It is not a recipe for smooth governance.”

It isn’t, but Trump is Trump:

The New York-D.C. transition divide reflects Trump’s tendency to focus on personnel and, especially, personality, over policy. Experts say that bent, combined with his improvisational style and the divisions between the teams will complicate his transition to the White House, making it less likely he’ll have a cohesive roadmap for governing on Day One.

He gets irritated and he tweets. That’s it, but that may not do:

On the Obama transition team, for instance, John Podesta ran interference between the president-elect and the massive D.C. transition operation and kept a tight rein over it. While Vice President-elect Mike Pence is technically doing this job, he’s also the governor of Indiana and vice president-elect, responsible for advising on Cabinet picks and reaching out to Capitol Hill.

That official noted that if they had, say, a well-defined tax plan, parts of it would already have been shared with the Joint Tax Committee or Congressional Budget Office to see how much revenue would really be lost. “For this gang, I don’t think this stuff matters very much,” he said.

People close to Trump say they expect him to rely heavily on Pence and other policy staffers once he enters the White House, freeing up Trump to stake out a broader strategic and political vision.

Expect a “casual” new government. Someone will do the work, or someone won’t – whatever – it’s all good – but the signs aren’t good:

One D.C.-based transition staffer said he gets most of his information about what’s happening with the transition from watching the comings and goings at Trump Tower on the news. “It’s pretty secretive,” the person said. “What you all know is about what I know. All the work that’s being done on personnel is literally being done out of New York, not here.”

And that’s the problem:

Multiple people close to the transition said the best way to influence Trump’s policies is to talk to his core advisers in New York. “New York is the fun and the TV cameras, and D.C. is the people who are going into the Pentagon and Labor and Interior. It is not the glamorous end of the stick,” a GOP strategist added.

The glamorous end of things seems to be everything to Trump – he’s that kind of guy – and Steve Benen assesses that:

In theory, one can imagine a team of seasoned veterans, who bring vast experience in government and management of massive institutions, investing less time in governing plans during the transition phase because they’re confident in their expertise.

But with Trump, it’s largely the opposite. The president-elect has no governing experience, and neither does his chief of staff. The same is true of his chief strategist. And his Treasury secretary. And his HUD secretary. And his Education secretary. And his Commerce secretary. And some of his deputy cabinet officials.

In other words, Trump and many of those he’s surrounded himself with have no idea what they’re doing, and about a month from now, they’ll be running the executive branch of a global superpower. These are the same folks, however, who’ve decided to “largely ignore” detailed governing plans.

They’re led by a president-elect who seems deeply interested in “Saturday Night Live” and self-indulgent, self-congratulatory victory-tour rallies, but who tends to tweet more than he attends policy briefings.

High anxiety might be entirely appropriate at the moment:

What could possibly go wrong when the most inexperienced and unprepared presidential amateur takes office in six weeks?

That’s a worry, and Joshua Keating reports on how, later in the day, President Obama addressed that:

From George Washington and foreign entanglements to Dwight Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex, there’s a tradition of presidents on their way out the door warning the American public about threats they failed to prevent. But few presidents have ever handed the country over to as uncertain a situation as Barack Obama will soon do. This uncertainty and unease was reflected in his speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Tuesday, which he described to the audience of troops as “my final words as your commander in chief.”

Those final words were actually about getting Trump to get serious:

Obama never referred to Trump directly, but much of the speech seemed aimed at him. Referring to torture, specifically waterboarding, which Trump promised to bring back during the campaign but is perhaps now wavering on after conversations with Mattis, Obama said that “at no point has anyone who worked with me told me that [prohibiting torture] has cost us good intelligence.” Perhaps prompted by Trump’s completely illegal suggestion that the U.S. should “take the oil” from the countries in the Middle East where it sends troops, Obama said, “We are a nation that won world wars without grabbing the resources of those we defeated.” Responding to any number of Trump statements about Muslim Americans, Obama said, “The United States is not a country that imposes religious tests as a price for freedom. We’re a country that was founded so that people could practice their faith as they chose. The United States is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny or carry a special ID card or prove that they’re not an enemy from within.”

And don’t get trapped into thinking about only ISIS:

A sustainable counterterrorism strategy requires keeping the threat in perspective. The terrorist threat is real and is dangerous. But these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs and they are murderers and they should be treated that way. They don’t pose an existential threat to our nation and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do. That does their job for them. It makes them more important and helps them with recruitment.

Well, Obama had to do something:

At times Obama seemed to be casting his arguments in terms that might appeal to Trump. He made appeals to the bottom line, noting that, thanks to his light-footprint counterterrorism approach, which relies more on drones and special forces than large troop deployments, “We’ve accomplished all this at a cost of 10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq war.” His argument against continuing to keep the detention center at Guantánamo Bay open was financial as well as moral, saying we’re “wasting hundreds of millions of dollars to keep fewer than 60 people in a detention center in Cuba. That’s not strength.”

Trump understands money, so that might work, or not. No one knows. The man tweets. That’s about it, but Dahlia Lithwick and Robert Tsai are pretty fed up with that:

The defenses of President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter feed are all pretty horrible. But of the many baffling and dangerous premises being used to defend Trump’s use of Twitter as a bully pulpit for spreading pernicious lies, perhaps the most baffling and dangerous is this one: It’s just words.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did a version of this on 60 Minutes on Sunday when he said that the veracity of Trump’s tweets doesn’t matter. All that matters is he won. “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election,” Ryan told Scott Pelley. “The way I see the tweets you’re talking about, he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. He’s communicating with people in this country who’ve felt like they have not been listened to. He’s going to be an unconventional president.”

An even blunter version of the president-elect’s words don’t matter idea came from his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “This is the problem with the media,” Lewandowski told a post-election panel at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government last week. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence added his cheerful gloss on Trump’s false vote fraud claims on the Sunday shows as well: They’re “refreshing.”

That may be a nonsense argument:

The argument seems to be that Trump’s false statements don’t matter because everyone knows that his false statements are not necessarily meant to be true. His advisers contend that his actual words are just impressionistic communications – thought experiments that do not have any lasting force or meaning. This is not about “post-fact” America, or “reality-based communities,” or even “fake news.” This is a much deeper problem that goes to the nature of language in general – and a president’s words in particular. It’s certainly one thing to argue that Donald Trump’s words had no legal consequences during a political campaign, when he was scratching and clawing for advantage as an insurgent candidate. It’s quite another to suggest, as some increasingly do, that his words, or his tweets, or his off-the-cuff remarks carry no real force once he becomes the president. That is preposterous.

And that’s even more preposterous now that he has won the election:

Trump no longer speaks as a private citizen when he howls at the moon. Instead, his statements carry sovereign meaning and will be treated that way, regardless of the medium and regardless of what his followers choose to believe. It’s not just the media that cares: Litigants, activists, and government officials will almost certainly quote his utterances as evidence of his true intentions, plans, and views about the law. Foreign leaders will hear his threats and promises, and take them as pronouncements of intent. People who admire him will strive to act in his name and joyfully pursue his perceived agenda, pressed on by his words. That is terrifying. And those who fear his words will seek to obstruct what they understand to be the half-baked and dangerous ideas reflected in these comments. This should not be a complicated concept. It is something we teach our kindergartners: Words are signifiers of a person’s purposes and beliefs, and words have consequences.

This is not simply about technology or trust. This is precisely what happened to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose garbled syntax and extemporaneous speaking style earned him a reputation for being indecisive, confused, and out of touch during a crucial period of the Cold War and the struggle over racial equality. After he left office, revisionists tried to salvage his historical standing by claiming that he had governed with a “hidden hand.” Perhaps, but tremendous damage was done to his ability to lead and effectively govern. For example, asked about widespread local defiance of Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower repeatedly denied knowing what was going on. He compounded his verbal errors in July 1957, by musing at a press conference, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops into any area to enforce the orders of a federal court, because I believe that common sense of America will never require it.” Such statements were taken by Gov. Orval Faubus as license to whip up racist defiance of desegregation efforts in Arkansas and instruct the National Guard to turn away black students seeking to integrate Central High School. Trump runs similar risks with his undisciplined rhetoric.

Those are, of course, just as real:

Even if we could believe that Trump’s Twitter feed is merely a jumbled stream of consciousness, what do we do when his followers are stirred up to vilify Muslims or attack journalists? The problem isn’t just in distinguishing which of Trump’s words have meaning and which are mere performance art. The problem is that as president, all of his words will have meaning to somebody, and thus consequences. You don’t get to traffic in racially inflammatory discourse or advocate lawbreaking, and then escape responsibility by saying, “Just Kidding” as Trump did after imploring Russia to spy on his political opponent Hillary Clinton. Loose talk of this sort makes Trump morally compromised when bad stuff starts to hit the fans based on his “meaningless words.”

That leaves this:

We will no longer be able to believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Some of us will choose to consult Pence for guidance as to what words count and what words don’t. Others will seek refuge in Trump’s press secretary. Trump will be in charge, but in name only.

That’s what happens when the most inexperienced and unprepared presidential amateur takes office in six weeks. The president will tweet. No one will quite know what’s going on. Was he serious? Was he just fooling around? Was he venting? Then various parties, foreign and domestic, with agendas of their own, will explain what’s really going on, and then no one will know anything. Donald Trump will make people very nervous. He delights in it. Others will exploit that nervousness. We’re about to get four years of high anxiety – but we can’t walk out of this movie.

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At the Pizza Shop

A lot of fake news is going around, and some of it is fun, like all the stories about Donald Trump considering the CEO of ExxonMobil for secretary of state – perhaps because, even if he knows nothing about all the current hotspots in the world, and what is in dispute, this guy does know that there’s no such thing as global warming and that the climate isn’t changing at all. Of course that’s absurd. The job is about far more than pulling out of the Paris Accords, even if every other nation in the world won’t. This is fake news, except it happens to be true – even though ExxonMobil is currently under investigation in a number of states for misleading investors and the public about climate change over the past four decades, a matter of securities fraud, common law fraud, and violations of racketeering, consumer protection, and truth in advertising, public health, and shareholder protection laws. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Like Trump, the guy thinks the whole climate change thing is a hoax. What he will suggest to Trump when Russia inevitably moves to take back the Baltic States, that are now part of NATO, is anyone’s guess. Will he negotiate a truce in Syria for Trump, or some sort of cool-down between Israel and the Palestinians? What about North Korea? This man knows the oil markets. That’s it. This really ought to be a fake news story, but it isn’t. Oh well – this is Trump’s call – but any news stories that Trump is considering Dennis Rodman for secretary of state really are fake news – for now. The fake can become real at any moment. No one can rely on their sense of the absurd any longer. You’re on your own.

There are also those odd stories that Trump has named Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon, to head Housing and Urban Development, the giant agency that handles everything from Section 8 vouchers to mortgage regulations to the actual design of cities through zoning and easements and whatnot. Carson knows nothing about such things, even if he grew up in Detroit at its nastiest. He got out, fast. Trump also called Carson a psychopath during the campaign. Carson also thinks evolution is a hoax. Carson has also argued, for no particular reason, that the Egyptian pyramids were actually grain silos. His spokesman has said Carson would never accept a cabinet position – Carson has never worked in government, he’s never run a large organization, or any organisation at all, and that Carson wouldn’t want to embarrass the Trump administration by trying to fake it. That had to be fake news, but it wasn’t – Carson accepted the position.

What was Trump thinking? Well, the guy is black and the word “urban” is in the job title – close enough. Trump’s cabinet suddenly becomes diverse, and Carson thinks the government shouldn’t mess with such things. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Everyone should. Keep the government out of housing and urban development. That must be the thinking, unless all the news stories about this are fake news, which they’re not.

This gets confusing, but the fake and the real are confusing. Early each Sunday morning, just after midnight, Donald Trump goes on a Twitter-rant about what he just saw on Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t fair. Alec Baldwin, playing Trump, gets everything wrong. This has to stop – this is fake news of the worst sort – except the writers at Saturday Night Live have taken to often doing no more than quoting Trump verbatim. That works just fine, but is that fake news or real news? Trump says it’s fake. The rest of America has decided it isn’t. It’s not really news, but it seems real enough. It’ll do.

Who do you trust? Much has been written about all the fake news stories that may have swayed the election – Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s Disease, Obama was going to declare martial law and cancel the election – story after story that popped up on the newsfeed on Facebook, shared and reposted endlessly. Rudy Giuliani recommended the stories about Hillary Clinton’s health – he told folks to do a Google search on Clinton Heath, and these fake news stories got a bit more play than actual news stories. Facebook is still trying to figure out how that happened to their newsfeed and what they can do about it. Probably nothing, actually – paid crews in the Balkans and in American suburbs churned these out. Some did that for fun, or for political purposes, without pay. Each story had to seem only somewhat likely. That was good enough. Those who wanted to believe this story or that did – and passed that story on endlessly. Soon no one knew what was going on – or people felt they finally knew exactly what was going on. They didn’t, but they were convinced they did. It was a mess.

And it wasn’t very important. People will believe what they want to believe. They were just given a bit of reinforcement this time, and the election is over, except that nothing is over:

Edgar M. Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, N.C., recently read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.

The articles making those allegations were widespread across the web, appearing on sites including Facebook and Twitter. Apparently concerned, Mr. Welch drove about six hours on Sunday from his home to Comet Ping Pong to see the situation for himself, according to court documents. Not long after arriving at the pizzeria, the police said, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. The police arrested him. They found a rifle and a handgun in the restaurant. No one was hurt.

In an arraignment on Monday, a heavily tattooed Mr. Welch, wearing a white jumpsuit and shackles, was ordered held. According to the criminal complaint, he told the authorities that he was armed to help rescue children but that he surrendered peacefully after finding no evidence that “children were being harbored in the restaurant.” He was charged with four counts, including felony assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a gun without a license outside a home or business.

What had happened was obvious:

The false articles against the pizzeria began appearing on social networks and websites in late October, not long before the presidential election, with the restaurant identified as being the headquarters for a child-trafficking ring.

The articles were soon exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about Comet Ping Pong – instead, it led to the opposite.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been flooded with more attacks against the pizzeria as believers in the child-trafficking conspiracy became more zealous. Within hours of the publication of one of the debunking articles, a post on Twitter by Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia – not a real lawmaker and not a real district – warned that what was fake was the information being peddled by the mainstream media. It was retweeted dozens of times.

People will believe what they want to believe, and there’s “evidence” out there for their beliefs, and evidence for that evidence – and none of it is evidence at all. It just seems so now, and it has been weaponized:

A surge of new fake articles amplified the original pieces, now linking the child-abuse ring – known as Pizzagate – to a global pedophilia ring reaching Britain.

“We should all condemn the efforts of certain people to spread malicious and utterly false accusations about Comet Ping Pong,” James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, said in a statement on Sunday. Mr. Alefantis, who has repeatedly refuted the fake news articles, has closed the pizzeria for a few days. He has prominent Democratic friends and previously communicated with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, which he has said may have made him a target.

It’s unclear what he can do about that:

“The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,” said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies. When users are caught abusing the terms of one media platform, they simply go to another, she said.

The viral nature of the misinformation was illustrated again late Sunday, not long after the police arrested Mr. Welch and called Pizzagate a “fictitious online conspiracy theory” in their report. Some individuals on Twitter said Mr. Welch was an actor used by the mainstream media to divert attention from the alleged crimes at Comet Ping Pong.

There’s always an explanation, and this stuff spreads:

The storm of fake news has swept up not only Comet Ping Pong, but its neighboring businesses. Conspiracy theorists have linked symbols that some local businesses on the same street as Comet Ping Pong used in their logos to symbols of pedophilia code.

At Terasol, a French restaurant across the street from Comet Ping Pong, the owner, Sabrina Ousmaal, said she received daily phone threats and her business’s Facebook page had been filled with false accusations, including, “You guys mind explaining the pedophilia symbol removed from your website then?” She added that the symbol was not on her restaurant but on the store of a nearby shop and was a swirl within a triangle.

Ms. Ousmaal said she and her husband had called the police and the FBI but had received little guidance.

What could the FBI say, that people are stupid? Perhaps they are, and they are certainly persistent:

For purveyors of fake news who have continued pushing the Pizzagate theory even after the facts have been debunked, whether Comet Ping Pong is even engaged in a pedophilia ring is beyond the point. Jeffrey Marty, a lawyer from Florida, said in a phone interview that he was the man posing as Representative Steven Smith from Georgia’s fictional 15th District. He said that he was frustrated with the way the mainstream media covered the election and that he believes that most of his 24,000 followers know that his account is a parody.

Mr. Marty, who has tweeted links to fake news stories and repeatedly said the mainstream media needs to investigate Pizzagate, declined to say whether he actually believed the Comet Ping Pong allegations. “I just think you need to investigate. There are clues everywhere,” he said.

There always are, and this doesn’t help:

The son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton on Sunday after a man who claimed to be investigating the hoax fired a rifle inside a pizza parlor in Northwest Washington, D.C., on Sunday…

On Sunday, Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., tweeted, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”

The younger Flynn, who has served as his father’s adviser, linked to the account of Jack Posobiec, whose Twitter account describes him as the special projects director of a group called Citizens4Trump.

Posobiec said Welch’s actions were a “false flag,” and claimed he was an actor carrying out an elaborate conspiracy to discredit sites that spread the fabricated #Pizzagate accusations.

“Planted Comet Pizza Gunman will be used to push for censorship of independent news sources that are not corporate owned,” he tweeted.

And it’s not just the son:

After Welch’s arrest, Twitter users pointed to a Nov. 2 tweet by Flynn, in which he tied Clinton to “sex crimes with minors.”

“U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc… MUST READ!” Flynn tweeted just days before the Nov. 8 election, linking to an article on the website “True Pundit.”

The article, which does not mention Comet Ping Pong, alleges that sources in the New York City Police Department had found new evidence linking “Clinton herself and associates” to a series of crimes, including: “money laundering, child exploitation, sex crimes with minors (children), perjury, pay to play through Clinton Foundation, obstruction of justice” and other unspecified “felony crimes.”

No such evidence ever surfaced, and the FBI said that its review of the emails found nothing to alter its recommendation that Clinton not be prosecuted.

Days later, on Nov. 4, the retired lieutenant general tweeted the hashtag #spiritcooking, referring to a conspiracy theory tying Podesta to satanic rituals.

This is Trump’s national security advisor, and his son, now his chief of staff – Foreign Policy reports that the son “has assisted in personnel vetting, managing his father’s schedule, and fielding transition-related emails for the general, according to a person close to the Trump transition team.” The unnamed source told Foreign Policy that the kid also “accompanies his dad to a ton of meetings.”

There’s also this background from Politico:

As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn will have to advise the president of the veracity of foreign and domestic threats, separating those that require immediate policy action from propaganda or misinformation.

But Flynn himself has used social media to promote a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and their inner circles in recent months — pushing dubious factoids at least 16 times since Aug. 9, according to a POLITICO review of his Twitter posts. Flynn, who has 106,000 Twitter followers, has used the platform to retweet accusations that Clinton is involved with child sex trafficking and has “secretly waged war” on the Catholic Church, as well as charges that Obama is a “jihadi” who “laundered” money for Muslim terrorists…

Those were far from isolated tweets for Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In the vast majority of instances in the past four months, he was passing along other people’s conspiratorial tweets instead of casting them in his own voice. In one example, he retweeted a post about a Fox News story claiming that the Army had identified Clinton as an “insider threat.” Another time, he reposted a tweet by someone named “Eagle Wings” about an alleged United Nations one-world-government plot called Agenda 21.

It’s time for some red flags:

This kind of rumor-mongering is especially beyond the pale for someone who will have the next president’s ear, said former State Department policy adviser Peter Singer, one of many people who publicly lambasted Flynn after Sunday’s shooting.

“We are not talking about policy toward China or Russia,” Singer, now a national security strategist at the think tank New America, said in an interview Monday. “We are talking about some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories out there. We are down the rabbit hole. How can you take him seriously when he is discussing people in D.C. drinking human blood? It is exasperating.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said late Monday that while nobody was injured in the shooting, the conspiracy theories spread on social media had “come close to having deadly results.”

“It is incumbent on Trump, his nominee for national security adviser, Gen. Flynn, and his entire team to disavow these falsehoods and conspiracy theories,” Schiff said in a statement. “They will soon have a country to run, and God help us if they conduct the nation’s affairs like their transition – without the willingness or ability to separate fact from fiction.”

Down the rabbit hole – no ability to separate fact from fiction – it’s going to be a long four or eight years, with a strange man:

Even one of Flynn’s former military colleagues expressed puzzlement Monday at the dark turn his pronouncements on social media have taken.

“That is not typically the behavior of someone who needs the necessary sobriety to advise the president on the most critical matters facing the nation,” said the former military official, who worked with Flynn every day for more than a year in Afghanistan.

“This is not the Mike Flynn I once knew,” added the former military official, who asked not to be identified because he currently holds a government position. “While he was given to reacting on a gut, rather than fact, this represents a departure from the intellectual rigor he demanded of those around him.”

To that, there was only this:

Flynn did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story. The Trump transition office also did not respond to requests for comment.

But Graham Plaster, a retired navy officer and one of Flynn’s acolytes in military intelligence, defended the general’s social media habits, contending that sharing false information doesn’t necessarily mean he believes it.

That hardly helps. We have fake news, everywhere, even from the White House now, and David Graham sees this:

The gullibility involved in the case is disheartening, and the recourse to weapons is scary. But the more frightening problem is that there’s no promising solution to the causes that produced the showdown in Chevy Chase [Maryland] on Sunday. Most suggestions for fighting back boil down to some form of censorship, which is an unacceptable path.

Nor is the traditional press in a position to make much difference. There’s a long list of overlapping theories, some valid and some not, for the weakened position of the traditional press, but whatever the truth, it’s not structurally prepared to fight this sort of thing. The barriers to entry for media outlets, including the bogus ones that spread the Pizzagate story, are extremely low, while traditional outlets can no longer maintain any sort of oligopoly on distributing news, so that the emergence of fake news stories is unstoppable. The press can debunk them, of course, and in fact it has done an admirable job – but this makes little difference. The audiences that are receptive to those debunkers are the ones who would have missed the original fake story anyway, and the ones who believe the fake story are inclined to dismiss mainstream reports out of hand, so the debunkers won’t influence them either.

There’s no winning, and expect more of this:

The technique of raising a completely bogus idea and then demanding that its critics debunk it – by proving a negative – is a favorite technique of conspiracy theorists, and more recently it’s become a favorite technique of the Trump team.

Here’s how the post-truth sausage gets made. The president-elect, for example, will moot the idea that there were millions of illegal votes cast in the election, despite overwhelming evidence that the claim is false and no evidence it is true. His defenders will nonetheless then demand that the people who think vote fraud is false prove it is false. By the end of the week, Reince Priebus – the chairman of the GOP, Trump’s chief of staff-designee, and one of the mainstream, establishment members of his team – can go on national network television and say he doesn’t know for sure whether millions of illegal voters cast ballots, and that “it’s possible.”

So, no one knows anything anymore, right? That may be so, now, and to Graham it seems familiar:

The allegations against Welch are interesting because they follow the archetypal narrative of Islamist terrorism self-radicalization. A young man begins reading on the Internet; over time, he comes to believe mainstream sources that are questionable, misleading, or downright false; eventually, he decides to arm himself and take matters into his own hands on behalf of a political cause.

It’s American jihad:

Already, at least one fake-news site is positing that the whole episode was a false-flag operation designed to facilitate a crackdown on purveyors of fake news. Across the country, some number of people are reading the story and nodding in agreement. Some of them might even decide to pick up a gun and do something about it.

That’s what it has come to. There’s so much “evidence” out there. Pick and choose that which “feels” true – because there are no other criteria now – and do something about it, with a gun. As for the rest of us, skeptical of odd news articles, there’s only one thing to do. Don’t go out for pizza. You could get shot. Have it delivered. Otherwise, hide.

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No Gold Watch

There are some cultural references that don’t work anymore – the scene in some sentimental old black-and-white movie – the retirement party. The beaming boss presents the pleasant old fellow, retiring after a lifetime of good work in the company – the guy started as a teenager in the mail room – with a gold watch. That’s for loyalty. That’s also a matter of thanks and respect, and that’s mutual. The pleasant old fellow had been treated well, and fairly, and prospered – he’d been respected and loved, and of course he’d never been laid off. This and that had been automated over the years, but there was always a place for him – doing something new and even better. Some of the work, over the years had been subcontracted – outsourced as we say now – but they had always found something even more useful for that pleasant old fellow to do. They stuck by him. He stuck by them. And the watch was real gold. And it wasn’t made in China. It’s a wonderful life. Fade to black. Roll the credits.

This is a bit quaint now, like a Norman Rockwell painting of an America long ago. Something changed, perhaps in the seventies. Many of us lived through it. There were the seventeen years at the aerospace corporation out here, much of it spent in Human Resources Systems, but there was no gold watch. After seventeen years we were all outsourced to Computer Sciences Corporation – the job was the same but we were now outsiders – and sooner or later we were sent to other accounts, to get things humming somewhere else. We were fungible.

The two years at the locomotive factory in Canada was interesting in its way – learning manufacturing systems on the fly. NAFTA made that possible, but there were hints at what was to come. The expert who knew everything there was to know about the Manufacturing Resources Planning system running on the mainframe was even more of an outsider. He was a freelancer, an independent contractor from India. He was in business for himself – a hired gun. And then it was stay in Canada or resign, and California called. It was good to get back home, and the new job at the hospital chain in Pasadena was cool – but a year later we were all outsourced to Perot Systems. The hospital chain wasn’t in the systems business after all, and Perot System ended up running a lot of the work from Texas. They simply let a lot of folks go and sent the rest of us to other accounts – a few months here, a few months there, a lot of frequent-flyer miles, and no gold watch. And of course Perot Systems soon discovered that much of their work could be done cheaper in India or some such place – systems analysis and coding don’t have to be done on site, nor does managing that stuff, and the quality of the work isn’t all that bad – so the rest of us were just cut loose. Even Texas wasn’t safe. The answer was to become an independent contractor yourself, or get out. Many of us just got out. Everyone in systems has lived through this sort of thing.

Everyone else has lived through something like that too. It’s depressing, but maybe Donald Trump will fix it. Steven Pearlstein suggests that:

Determined not to let any Trump action go unchallenged, the media has been full of comments from economists (including Larry Summers and Justin Wolfers) that Donald Trump’s intervention to save jobs at Carrier’s Indiana facility is just a showman’s one-off – that it can’t be easily replicated and will be ultimately ineffective in changing the job prospects in a country that creates and destroys a couple of million jobs every month. This is simply not the way things are done in a country that values free markets and the rule of law.

Pearlstein doesn’t buy it:

One of the blind spots economists have is around norms of behavior – the unwritten rules that are the guiderails for how people act. There was a time in America when there was an unwritten pact in the business world – workers were loyal to their companies and successful companies returned that loyalty by sharing some of their profits with their workers in the form of higher wages, job security and support for the local community. In some cases, this social contract was reinforced by a union contract, but it was also embraced even in non-union situations because there was a broad public consensus that it was the right thing to do. Business leaders conformed to the norm not only because it helped them attract good workers and customers and have clout in dealing with governmental leaders, but also because it made them feel good about themselves.

Pearlstein has seen that old movie, but he also knows what happened in the late sixties:

American industry began to falter because of foreign competition. Consumers decide they cared more about cheaper products than socially conscious corporate behavior. And just as significantly, investors, after years of lousy returns, decided they cared more about maximizing shareholder value than they did about maximizing the social value of the enterprise they owned.

So the social norm changed. A new breed of corporate executive, incented with boatloads of stock options, decided that the right thing to do was to cut costs at any price, including the economic health of their workers or their communities. Indeed, for a while, if a corporate executive didn’t have an aggressive plan to shift production overseas, they were criticized by Wall Street and the business press and threatened with takeovers by what we now call “activist investors.” Although the public never much liked the idea of closing plants and shipping jobs overseas, it no longer was socially unacceptable.

Ah, but that could change:

Now comes Donald Trump – in the public mind, a successful businessman – who as the new president, suddenly declares that the new norm is no longer acceptable, and he intends to do whatever he can to shame and punish companies that abandon their workers. It’s one thing for a company to sustain a few days of bad headlines in the local newspaper when it decides to close a facility. It’s quite another when the president of the United States is not only willing, but from a political point eager, to make a federal case out of it. Suddenly, maximizing shareholder value no longer provides the political and social inoculation that it used to…

Donald Trump understands better. He knows that he and his new commerce secretary will have to engage in a few more bouts of well-publicized arm twisting before the message finally sinks in in the C-Suite. He may even have to make an example of a runaway company by sending in the tax auditors or the OSHA inspectors or cancelling a big government contract. It won’t matter that, two years later, these highly publicized retaliations are thrown out by a federal judge somewhere. Most companies won’t want to risk such threats to their “brands.” They will find a way to conform to the new norm, somewhat comforted by the fact that their American competitors have been forced to do the same.

And it will be 1953 again, as everyone knows it should be:

Privately, many of the executives will welcome the change. They chafe under the tyranny of maximizing shareholder value and they don’t like being widely viewed as ruthless and selfish. In his bombastic, narcissistic, self-serving way, Donald Trump may have actually done them a favor.

Those guys will hand out gold watches again! All it takes is the proper use of public shaming, but Kevin Drum doesn’t think so:

I think the “norm” Pearlstein is talking about here is actually just ordinary economic reality. During the postwar economic boom, American companies didn’t need to offshore jobs, so they didn’t. Nor did they need to lay off workers or downsize their companies frequently. America was the most efficient manufacturer around and there was plenty of money sloshing around for everybody. So why invite trouble?

When the postwar boom came to an end, businesses changed. We learned that what we thought had been a permanent new norm, was no such thing. It was just a temporary, three-decade blip. Starting in the 80s, as economic growth leveled off, the business community returned to operating the same way businesses had operated ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Trump may not be able to restore that anomaly:

He’ll engage in some naming and shaming, and on a few occasions he’ll try to set an example by going after companies in semi-legal or outright illegal ways. It might even work a little bit, and it will almost certainly work in a PR sense. But more generally, Trump can’t keep the tide from coming in any more than any other president. It’s not as if the offshoring phenomenon is peculiar to America, after all.

That’s a losing battle, but there’s a second factor here:

Within a decade or so, most manufacturing work will be so highly automated that it won’t matter much where it’s made. We’re already starting to see signs of this. That will put an end to large-scale offshoring, but unfortunately, it will be even worse for blue-collar workers. We’re on the cusp of an era when tens of millions of workers will be put out of jobs by automation, and we’d better figure out what we’re going to do about that. But one thing is certain: whatever the answer is, it’s not naming and shaming.

Actually it is about more than naming and shaming, as Trump just tweeted this:

The U.S. is going to substantialy [sic] reduce taxes and regulations on businesses, but any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. without retribution or consequence, is WRONG! There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35% for these companies wanting to sell their product, cars, AC units etc., back across the border. This tax will make leaving financially difficult, but these companies are able to move between all 50 states, with no tax or tariff being charged. Please be forewarned prior to making a very expensive mistake! THE UNITED STATES IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS.

Drum is not impressed:

At the risk of taking Trump literally, rather than seriously, I wonder if he actually thinks he can do this. It’s not as if the president is allowed to unilaterally slap a 35 percent tariff on Carrier air conditioners or Ford Fiestas, after all. If Trump invokes the appropriate “national emergency” authority, he could impose a tariff on all air conditioners or all cars. Or he could impose a tariff on all goods from Mexico or all goods from China. But I think that’s as far as his authority goes. He can’t simply decide to punish one particular company.

In the case of Mexico, of course, he can’t do even this much unless he persuades Congress to exit NAFTA – and that has a snowball’s chance of happening. He could, in theory, impose a 35 percent tariff on, say, telecom equipment made in China, but that would send up howls of protest from American businesses and almost certain retribution from China.

Naming and shaming might have been a better idea, and this fire-no-one-ever tariff thing may be just hot air:

The American business community, which would go ballistic over something like this, has been pretty quiet, which suggests they think it’s just blather. That’s my guess too. But I guess you never know. We overeducated elites like to say that stuff like this is just affinity politics – aka red meat for the rubes – but perhaps eventually we’ll learn that we should have taken Trump literally after all.

So, if Trump means this, we’re in trouble, but probably not. The Trump presidency will be an adventure, and it really won’t address the problem, as David Atkins explains here:

There is a growing consensus among futurists and visionaries of various backgrounds that the challenges of an automated economy will require implementing a universal basic income. These thinkers range from former SEIU president Andy Stern to Robert Reich to a wide range of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for it, as did conservative Milton Friedman.

For all the hoopla over china, trade and immigration, 85% of the manufacturing losses in the United States were due to automation, not trade. And it’s not just manufacturing. Automation imperils huge swaths of employment, from the medical profession to the finance industry. Drivers of all kinds, from truckers to cabbies to worksite drivers, are all on the chopping block. Big data threatens to slash middle level managers and analysts of all kinds. Something will have to be done.

But most people aren’t ready for a universal basic income.

Of course they’re not:

People aren’t comfortable with the idea yet – they worry about creating a class of layabouts, and about removing the dignity that comes with a job, and about losing the leverage workers have had against capital since the dawn of the labor movement. Most of these are cultural fears that will dissipate over time, but they are very real.

Because of that, reducing structural underemployment and unemployment due to automation is going to require a large push for government sector employment first.

Sure, get people building roads and bridges and whatnot, but then realize something else:

To get even that far will require an acknowledgment that retraining for the “jobs of the future” is not a satisfactory answer. Former factory workers in places like Muncie, IN, either cannot or will not learn to code and develop apps. Job retraining programs have not been very successful in part because of cultural challenges, and in part because there isn’t actually a skills gap between American workers and unfilled jobs. The “jobs of the future” are rapidly changing as well. Ten to fifteen years ago the “cool” job was web design, and everyone was supposed to learn HTML. Now those skills are nearly useless, as automated tools make it easy to create a website without any coding knowledge whatsoever. Today’s hot job is making apps, but that labor market is already saturated and globalized, with ever more democratized tools. Tomorrow’s hot job will be in 3-D printers with their own language and requirements, but then that too will be rapidly simplified on the front end. The back ends of all these technologies will require fewer and fewer back-end creators, even as machine learning for back end applications improves.

The free market won’t solve this problem on its own – not even with retraining and intervention. It wouldn’t be able to do it even if human beings were movable automatons themselves, willing to sit behind a desk in a city when they would rather be working in the sun in the towns they grew up in. Culture gets in the way, as do basic human needs. As well they should. People don’t exist to do jobs; jobs exist to serve people.

Politicians will need to acknowledge that the modern late-stage capitalist economy is fundamentally broken. America isn’t great now. It cannot be made great again.

Atkins sees only one solution to this, government guarantees of employment and well-being:

It must begin with a pledge to make it affordable to attain the education to get what few good-paying jobs will remain. It must continue with a commitment by the government to employ those who have been left behind in doing the much-needed work that the free market will not pay for. And it must ultimately include a commitment to use the dividends of increased productivity via automation and globalization that have been going to line the pockets of shareholders in the top .1% of income, to make the citizens who produced that wealth whole again with a guaranteed income productivity dividend.

That might be better than a gold watch, although Trump, and all Republicans, would never consider such a thing. Still, at CNBC – America’s business channel – Catherine Clifford explores why universal basic income may be necessary:

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will potentially be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Those individuals working in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to lose their jobs to robots, according to the report.

In less developed countries, the potential for job loss is more severe. A 2016 analysis from the World Bank estimated that roughly two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations around the globe are susceptible to replacement by automation.

The writing is on the wall:

As the global workforce modernizes and low-skilled workers lose their jobs, momentum builds around the idea of a universal basic income, or a fixed, regular payment that all residents, no matter their employment status or wealth, would receive from the government…

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX, recently declared that a universal basic income was a reasonable next step for the U.S. “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” Musk told CNBC. “Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”

He’s not alone in thinking that:

While no country has fully implemented a universal basic income yet, individuals are experimenting with a version of the idea, as are several Scandinavian nations.

Finland is preparing to test out a universal basic income. Currently, the country is soliciting feedback, and the actual test is expected to be carried out in 2017 and 2018 with results available by 2019, according to a written statement from the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. As part of the study, 2,000 individuals will receive a payment of 560 euros ($598) per month, according to a press release.

Activists in the Netherlands collected 60,000 signatures requesting that the government consider a referendum on a universal basic income. The Dutch group, which calls itself Basisinkomen 2018, promotes the idea of a basic income of 1000 euros ($1067) per adult and 200 euros ($213) per child.

“We are in favor of a basic income because everybody has enough security to feel free and to make own choices. To care or to have an own business. To work or to volunteer,” writes Johan Luijendijk, the leader of the Basisinkomen 2018 movement, in an email with CNBC. “When someone can live starting from own talents and callings, it’s better for everyone. With basic income we can cut social security and huge bureaucracy.”

Meanwhile, Switzerland considered instituting a universal basic income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2578) a month this summer. Voters ultimately rejected the plan.

The next time they may not, but we’re not Swiss:

In the United States, universal basic income remains a long shot.

“Obviously, it’s politically not feasible. It’s not something that is going to happen in the near future here in the United States,” says Martin Ford, the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, in a phone conversation with CNBC.

“When it comes to building social safety net programs we are not on the forefront – that is for sure. We are the worst of any industrialized country. I am pretty sure we are not going to lead the way,” says Ford. While President Obama was able to push through a version of universal health care, it is likely to be repealed under President-elect Trump.

Countries like Finland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are more likely to see a universal basic income before the United States, the author says, because they are smaller and more homogeneous. They are also already more supportive of government services.

“When you have more racial divisions and so forth, politically it will be harder to pass strong safety net measures,” says Ford.

Still, we may have no choice:

“What we are seeing is that technology is driving inequality. A few people, very wealthy people, especially people who own lots of capital will do extraordinarily well because robots and technology are capital, right? A few people are going to own most of that. We are going to have to tax those people more,” says Ford. Other potential sources of tax revenue could be tax on capital wealth, consumption, or carbon, he suggests.

Regardless, says Ford, “At some point we will get to a point where the cost of not doing this is greater than the cost of doing it. And at that point maybe it becomes easier.”

What would be the cost of not don’t this? Stop. Do NOT think of Marie Antoinette at the guillotine. Oh hell, go right ahead. What else would anyone expect? Steven Pearlstein is happy that Donald Trump, though naming and shaming one company after another, every day or so, will bring back the cultural norms of some Frank Capra movie and we’ll all live in some Norman Rockwell painting – perhaps featuring some pleasant old man receiving his gold watch. Trump promises retribution. Fire folks and you’ll pay – big time – the new tariffs will ruin you.

Neither is going to happen. Businesses around the world seek the lowest costs, for the highest profits. That’s what they do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. They outsource. They automate everything they can for the same reason. There might have been a time when that wasn’t so, but that time was brief and a structural anomaly. This is here and now. There will be no gold watches. But there could be something else.

Posted in Saving Jobs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Broken China

Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” – don’t say too much, don’t say too little. Let the opposing party think that things are going their way, but also let your allies know you’re not selling them out – somehow. This is difficult. Creating effective ambiguity is an art, and perfecting that art takes practice. Years of experience help. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, helps too. It also helps to know exactly what you want, as long as you never blurt that out. Provide the illusion of flexibility – otherwise the opposing party will have no reason to talk to you at all. Or be flexible as a last resort. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, if you try real hard, you get what you need. Yes, hum that Rolling Stones tune. That might help too.

Otherwise it’s war – diplomacy carried out by other means, as Clausewitz put it. That won’t do. People die. Countries are ruined, on both sides, or on all sides. Years and years of uncomfortable ambiguity are preferable to even one week of war. The United States and the Soviet Union decided that in the fifties. We could blow them up. They could blow us up. Which would it be? Only fools wanted to resolve the uncomfortable ambiguity of “mutually assured destruction” – Stanley Kubrick made a move about that of course.

The closest we came to a resolution of that ambiguity was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – but that was resolved diplomatically. The Soviets pulled their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. We pulled ours out of Turkey. Only Curtis LeMay was unhappy – as Chief of Staff of the Air Force he had told Kennedy to just nuke the Soviet Union and be done with it. Kennedy ignored him. Everyone ignored him, except for Stanley Kubrick – “Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks…”

Everyone laughed at that line, and then in 1989 the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight, resolving all outstanding ambiguity. That would do. Diplomacy won. Purposeful ambiguity, extended over time, saved the world – but it was hard work, and it wasn’t pleasant work. Humans seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity. It’s not bold. It’s not decisive. It’s uncomfortable. It must be wrong. Politicians will not advocate it, which is why presidents have secretaries of state. Let the secretary of state look like a wavering wimp. The president will be the bold leader.

Donald Trump will be the bold leader. That’s what he says, and he does seem to be hardwired to hate ambiguity, but he has yet to name a secretary of state, and more than three weeks after the election no one on his team has spoken to the State Department at all, where all the deep knowledge of what is in dispute here and there, and the history of those disputes and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, resides. He’ll be bold all on his own.

This has not been going well:

President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month. And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.

In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump – dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.

Those unnerved diplomats at home and abroad don’t know what to make of all this. For example, India and Pakistan both have nukes. They have threatened to nuke each other for decades. He told the prime minister of Pakistan that he was a fine fellow, in a casual way, and that the United States would do anything he wanted to help out over there. Trump was just being nice, but do we now help Pakistan nuke India over Kashmir? Isn’t India our ally? A chat with the State Department before that call might have helped. A little purposeful ambiguity might have helped.

A day later it was this:

Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines who has drawn widespread comparisons to Donald Trump, may soon be headed to the White House.

During a Friday phone call that a Duterte aide described as “animated,” Donald Trump extended an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House next year. Reuters reports that the conversation between the two leaders lasted about seven minutes.

Of course this may have been just business:

News of the invitation comes days after Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a Trump business partner, to serve as a special envoy to the United States – raising yet another potential conflict of interest for the president-elect. Last month, he called for a “separation” of relations between the two countries, but later retreated from the statement.

Yeah, this is the guy who said the United States should get the hell out of the Philippines, the military, all American corporations – they’d align themselves with China now. He rethought that, but didn’t rethink this:

The Philippines leader, who once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, has drawn international condemnation for the thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users that have taken place since he became president, and for similar killings when he was mayor of a city in the southern Philippines. He has also ranted against the United States and President Barack Obama, whom he once referred to as a “son of a whore.”

Our position, like the position of pretty much every other country on earth, is that a policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen they think might be a drug dealer is absurd and immoral and assures anarchy. It’s a human rights thing. Our ambassador conveyed that to him. That was the United States’ position – and that’s why he hates Obama and America. He was personally insulted, but he likes the new guy:

Duterte has spoken favorably of Trump. After Trump’s presidential victory, Duterte said, “Long live Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest reason. We are alike.”

This guy is a bit odd, but Rodrigo Duterte has his White House invitation. Perhaps Trump didn’t know about that policy of allowing any citizen to kill any other citizen, and the world’s condemnation of that. The State Department might have explained that to Trump, but Trump has yet to speak to them about anything – or maybe Trump heard about Rodrigo Duterte calling Obama a “son of a whore” and liked that – or maybe Trump doesn’t know this guy from Adam. No one knows. A deep knowledge of what is in dispute, and the history of the dispute and what agreements have already been made and which should be taken seriously, and which not, might have been helpful here.

That might have been helpful considering what happened later in the day, as Doyle McManus explains here:

On Friday, Trump spoke on the telephone with Taiwan’s president, something no U.S. president or president-elect has done since 1979.

That’s a big problem, because ever since the Jimmy Carter administration the United States has officially recognized the People’s Republic of China – the very large country with its capital in Beijing – as the only fully legal government of China.

Not only that, the Trump transition issued a cheerful official statement about the phone call, lauding “the close economic, political, and security ties between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”

Oops:

All of that was taboo under normal U.S. diplomatic practice – and virtually certain to enrage China. (Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that he wasn’t even allowed to refer to the government “of” Taiwan; he had to call it the government “on” Taiwan.) And China is, of course, a considerably more important country to the United States – economically, politically and militarily – than Taiwan.

This is a bit of a mess:

It wasn’t clear how the telephone call came about. It’s possible that President Tsai Ing-wen just got lucky, and that Trump and his staff made a rookie mistake.

But the Taipei Times reported that the call was “arranged by [Trump’s] Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan.”

And on Friday evening, Trump fired off a defensive tweet: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

Did Trump deliberately touch off a diplomatic tiff with China, the biggest power in Asia, even before settling on a secretary of State?

The answer might be yes:

The call to Taiwan is a serious problem. China’s communist government is sensitive about its recognition as a major regional power – and hypersensitive about anything regarding Taiwan. Don’t expect this one to go away easily.

It won’t, but is it time to reverse Nixon’s “Opening to China” and the “One China” policy we’ve had since 1979 and declare Taiwan the only “real” China? It seems so. China will not accept a “two China” policy from us. They could shut us out. Do we really need the mainland China market over there? Do we need their goods and services? Why not just deal with the little island? This is curious. Did America want this? Boeing and GM and KFC and many others won’t like this. Mainland China is the largest foreign market in the world. Oh well. They’ll have to do without. Trump won.

But perhaps Trump was just calling to ask for a business favor:

The mayor of Taoyuan confirmed rumors on Wednesday that US president-elect Donald Trump was considering constructing a series of luxury hotels and resorts in the northwest Taiwanese city. A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September… Other reports indicate that Eric Trump, the president-elect’s second son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, will be coming to Taoyuan later this year to discuss the potential business opportunity.

Kevin Drum adds this:

Who knows? But foreign policy wonks are blowing a gasket over this, and the question of the hour is: Did Trump set off this diplomatic shit-storm accidentally or deliberately? I have to believe it was deliberate. Even Trump’s team isn’t so pig-ignorant that they’re unaware of our policy toward China and Taiwan.

But if that’s the case, it means that Trump is dead set on pursuing a hostile policy against China from the get-go. Perhaps, thanks to his decades of steely negotiating victories, he believes the Chinese will eventually back down once they realize they can’t mess with him.

That’s possible, and there’s this:

It’s worth noting that Trump has an odd kind of advantage here. For a little while longer, anyway, he can do this kind of stuff just to see what happens – and then, if it blows up, he can pretend he wasn’t up to speed what with all the staffing work etc. etc. Then he calls someone in China and declares that everything is fine, China is a fantastic place, he has nothing but the highest respect for them…

Will this work? I suppose it might, but not for much longer.

And there is the background that Trump missed, as David Graham notes here:

It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.

That’s worth remembering:

Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.

That would be the odd history here:

Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.

That’s purposeful ambiguity at work:

The roots of this particular fiction date to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was routed by Mao Zedong and the Communists, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. The U.S., in Cold War mode, continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan as China’s rightful government, and so did the United Nations. But in 1971, the UN changed course, recognizing the People’s Republic of China – or as it was often called then, Red China – as the legitimate government. In 1979, the United States followed suit. Crucially, the communiqué proclaiming that recognition noted, “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”

Officially, this has also been the policy of Taiwan for almost a quarter century. Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.

So we kept things ambiguous, until now:

Despite recognizing the PRC, the U.S. has kept close ties with Taiwan since 1979. The State Department notes that “Taiwan is the United States’ ninth largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner.” More importantly, the U.S. has sold some $46 billion in arms to Taiwan since 1990, which are intended as defensive. Last December, the Obama administration sold $1.8 billion in anti-tank missiles, warships, and other materiel to Taipei. Of course, the “defensive” purpose to all of this is against China, the most plausible aggressor against Taiwan. Naturally, the arms sales have consistently annoyed the Chinese. (Recently, China has been on a campaign of land-grabbing and saber-rattling across the South China Sea, trying to assert greater control and influence.)

Though the triangle between the U.S., China, and Taiwan sometimes flares up, the general goal of all three has been to maintain the fragile status quo. By speaking to President Tsai, and praising U.S. relations with Taiwan, Trump threatens to upset that delicate balance.

Oops:

Reaction to the call was immediate and, for the most part, aghast.

“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the Financial Times. “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”

Well, that might be the idea:

There are various reasons Trump might be intentionally poking China. Trump spoke harshly about China throughout his presidential campaign, accusing Beijing of currency manipulation, land-grabbing, and taking advantage of the United States. He also showed willingness, if not an eagerness, to slaughter nearly every sacred cow of American foreign policy.

Some Trump confidants have suggested existing policy on Taiwan should become one of them. John Bolton, who served as Bush’s ambassador to the UN, has been advising Trump, and Bolton has been a very public advocate of the U.S. cozying up to Taiwan in order to show strength against China.

That could be, or maybe not:

It’s also possible that Trump just stumbled into the matter, Being There-style. Trump tweeted Friday evening that Tsai had called him, presenting himself as just the guy who picked up the handset. It is unclear how studied the decision to take it was, or whether it was studied at all…

It’s also hard to know how big a deal Trump’s call is. China did not immediately comment. A White House official told The New York Times that the administration was only informed of the call after the fact, and said the fallout could be significant. There were other questions. Wouldn’t Beijing see that what Trump did was a blunder, but not a major shift in policy? Isn’t the Chinese government sophisticated enough not to take Trump at face value?

That’s possible:

China is perhaps a more sophisticated foreign-policy player than Pakistan; it’s certainly a more important one. But a China that sees Trump as buffoon probably isn’t good for American interests either.

They may be grinning over there now. This guy is going to be a breeze to deal with. They sent him a dare:

On Saturday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in his government’s first official reaction, played down the call.

Stressing the good relationship between the United States and China, he said, “I also believe this will not change the One China policy upheld by the American government for many years.”

Mr. Wang, speaking to reporters in Beijing, characterized the call as initiated by the Taiwanese government. “We believe it’s a petty action by the Taiwan side.”

Okay, Donald Trump, work your way out of that one! The One China policy will stand. You’ll find that out soon enough. You have no choice. You really don’t want to pay the massive cost of ending that. You’ll just have to learn to live with uncomfortable ambiguity, and by the way, you’re being used by your little friends on that little island. Enjoy your little hotels in our province. Get richer. Knock yourself out. It makes no difference.

This diplomacy stuff is hard. Donald Trump needs to get himself a secretary of state, fast. And he might want to consider the virtues of ambiguity. That can save the world.

Posted in Donald Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Transition to a New World

Americans wanted a change, and they got it – they elected Donald Trump, although what most people wanted is unclear, as Jeremy Stahl notes here:

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has now topped 2.5 million, the New York Times reported on Thursday. That 1.9 percent margin over President-elect Donald Trump is larger than that of nine previous presidents.

This doesn’t mean anything for the election results, obviously, as the presidency is decided by the Electoral College, which was clearly won by Donald Trump.

Trump has made it matter for this reason, though: He is publicly contesting that he lost the popular vote, a challenge that could have far-reaching consequences in terms of mandates, popular legitimacy, and a potential future assault on voting rights.

Those are the questions. Does he have a mandate? Is he really all that popular, given far more than half of all voters did not vote for him? And if he is right about the “real” vote for him, should America start a massive crackdown, to make it extremely demanding for anyone who wants to vote to prove that they have the right to vote? That would be a change – discourage voting – discourage participating – prove that you have a right to participate in this democracy, or else sit down and shut up.

That would be a new world for us all, but Stahl notes that CNN aired a segment that demonstrates how Trump’s claim is leading there, with what Stahl calls the “the elaborate feedback loop through which conservative media and the Trump campaign invented elaborate myths of voter fraud” – which somehow became proof of voter fraud. That’s what was on display:

In the CNN segment, a Trump supporter argues that 3 million people voted illegally. “Voting is a privilege in this country and you need to be legal not like California where three million illegals voted,” a Trump supporter told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.

When Camerota challenged the voter, she cited the “media” for her claims and argued that “California allows” illegal voting.

And there’s the problem:

The apparent origin of the three-million figure and that false claim that Trump would have won the popular vote had it not been for illegal voters – cited by both the Trump supporter and the candidate himself – is the conspiracy theory website Infowars. Trump, by the way, called Infowars founder Alex Jones to thank him for his support after the election and has appeared on his show…

Politifact thoroughly debunked that Infowars article, which was based entirely on a pair of tweets by a former Republican official. The former official offered zero evidence for his claim that he had analyzed “180 million voter registrations” and that the “number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million.” Only about 127 million people voted in this election, well short of the number purportedly “analyzed.”

Still, Trump’s claim – apparently based on this false report – was enough to have it repeated by Kansas Secretary of State and potential Trump Homeland Security secretary Kris Kobach. “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point,” Kobach said on Wednesday, further spreading the lie. Kobach cited a 2014 report claiming that a large percentage of votes were coming from illegal citizens.

“If we apply that number to the current presidential election … you’d have 3.2 million aliens voted in the presidential election, and that far exceeds the current popular vote margin between President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton,” Kobach, who could soon have a cabinet-level position, argued.

The problem is that this study was repeatedly debunked by researchers who demonstrated that the actual “rate of non-citizen voting in the United States is likely zero.”

It seems that doesn’t matter, and one thing leads to another:

The Trump supporter on CNN repeated another piece of misinformation to back up her contention that mass numbers of illegal immigrants voted.

“I think there was a good amount because the president told people they could vote,” she said.

This claim was based on an out-of-context quote from President Barack Obama that was interpreted in right-wing media circles to have shown him encouraging illegal immigrants to vote when in actuality he did no such thing.

The source of that mangled quote: Fox Business News.

Stahl has all the links for those who wish to watch all that, but Jack Holmes links to Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes saying this:

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s – on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, “‘No, it’s true.” And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way – it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd – a large part of the population – are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some – amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

Holmes is not happy with this:

This is an astounding claim.

It’s an attack not on Trump’s detractors, but on the idea of objective reality. Modern society is built on the idea we can observe things in the world, use the scientific method to verify them and form a consensus that a certain set of things are true. This set of things constitutes the reality in which we live. Hughes, Trump, and his campaign have set out to undermine all of that in order to claim that the truth is anything they want it to be right now – as long as enough of the people who support them believe it.

(No, this idea did not begin with Trump, but he seems to have perfected it.)

Take a look at the line about Trump’s supporters believing there are facts – which are never provided – that prove Trump’s claims, whatever they may be.

Scottie Nell Hughes simply explained the new world we’ve transitioned to – there’s no such thing anymore as facts – but Holmes notes that everyone should have seen this coming:

Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway once claimed it didn’t matter that Fox News’ allegation that Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted wasn’t true, because “voters are putting it in this large cauldron of impressions and images and individuals and issues from which they eventually make a choice.” She also claimed her boss couldn’t have lied about debate moderator Lester Holt being a Democrat because he didn’t actually know what Holt’s party affiliation was.

If this Catch-22 un-splaining is any indication of how the incoming White House will operate, then the conversation will be about more than any specific claim. It’ll be about whether there’s still such a thing as truth – and lies – in America.

This is a brave new world that has such people in it, as Miranda said to Prospero in The Tempest. Aldous Huxley borrowed those words for the title of a book about hypothetical “developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that combine profoundly to change society” – and it wasn’t pretty. This is like that.

And the arguments about what’s truth have begun:

The raw, lingering emotion of the 2016 presidential campaign erupted into a shouting match here Thursday as top strategists of Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused their Republican counterparts of fueling and legitimizing racism to elect Donald Trump.

The extraordinary exchange came at a postmortem session sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where top operatives from both campaigns sat across a conference table from each other.

This wasn’t pretty:

As Trump’s team basked in the glow of its victory and singled out for praise its campaign’s chief executive, Stephen K. Bannon, who was absent, the row of grim-faced Clinton aides who sat opposite them bristled.

Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri condemned Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a news site popular with the alt-right, a small movement known for espousing racist views.

“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” she said. “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, fumed: “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?”

“You did, Kellyanne. You did,” interjected Palmieri, who choked up at various points of the session.

She did. They did give white supremacists a platform. Enough has been said about Steve Bannon. It’s all on record including this:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,'” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?'” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.'”

Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, Bannon wasn’t supposed to be the issue:

“Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?” Conway asked. “How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?”

Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, piled on: “There were dog whistles sent out to people. … Look at your rallies. He delivered it.”

At which point, Conway accused Clinton’s team of being sore losers. “Guys, I can tell you are angry, but wow,” she said.

Bannon is a fine fellow, who loves everybody, like the Pope or Jesus, and if Trump ever hinted at anything racist, that just didn’t count:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” [former Trump campaign manager Cory] Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes – when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar – you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

There’s much more of this. It was nasty. There was shouting, but the argument the Trump crew was making was clear. Trump says things. No one takes him literally. Only a fool would do that. Of course that means that now, as president, someone will have to explain to all world leaders, allies and adversaries alike, that the American president just says things. What he just said may or may not be the position of the United Sates government. Sometimes you just say things, right? Of course they’ll understand that.

This is a brave new world of diplomacy:

President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month. And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.

In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump – dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.

He’ll wing it. He’ll just say things. Only fools take him literally, but that may not cut it:

On Thursday, the White House weighed in with an offer of professional help. The press secretary, Josh Earnest, urged the president-elect to make use of the State Department’s policy makers and diplomats in planning and conducting his encounters with foreign leaders…

Mr. Trump’s conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has generated the most angst, because, as Mr. Earnest put it, the relationship between Mr. Sharif’s country and the United States is “quite complicated,” with disputes over issues ranging from counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation.

In a remarkably candid readout of the phone call, the Pakistani government said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Mr. Sharif invited him to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”

That was nice. Butter-up the guy, no harm in that, but for this:

The breezy tone of the readout left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody. In particular, they zeroed in on Mr. Trump’s offer to Mr. Sharif “to play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the country’s problems.”

That was interpreted by some in India as an offer by the United States to mediate Pakistan’s border dispute with India in Kashmir, something that the Pakistanis have long sought and that India has long resisted.

“By taking such a cavalier attitude to these calls, he’s encouraging people not to take him seriously,” said Daniel F. Feldman, a former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “He’s made himself not only a bull in a china shop, but a bull in a nuclear china shop.”

Yes, India and Pakistan both have nukes. They have threatened to nuke each other for decades. What is our position on that now, that we’ll help? No one knows, and there’s that other matter:

Mr. Trump’s call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan raised similar questions.

Mr. Nazarbayev has ruled his country with an iron hand since 1989, first as head of the Communist Party and later as president after Kazakhstan won its independence from the Soviet Union. In April 2015, he won a fifth term, winning 97.7 percent of the vote and raising suspicions of fraud.

The Kazakh government, in its account of Mr. Trump’s conversation, said he had lavished praise on the president for his leadership of the country over the last 25 years. “D. Trump stressed that under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, our country over the years of independence had achieved fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle,'” it said.

Is that true? Who knows? Donald Trump just says things, but the New York Times lists some other problem areas like North Korea:

An early test may be North Korea, which could soon have enough nuclear fuel for 20 bombs and could deploy warheads on missiles capable of hitting South Korea, Japan and American assets in the Pacific. Experts say the North’s production of more and better bombs has increased the chance of a military confrontation. Mr. Trump has threatened to slap tariffs on China’s exports, in part to force Beijing to exert more pressure on Pyongyang. As the North’s main supplier, China is vital to resolving the nuclear issue. But raising tariffs on the Chinese would risk a trade war and make cooperation less likely.

Someone should mention that to Trump, and then there’s the Islamic State and Syria:

American forces are engaged in major battles to liberate Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria from the Islamic State and are fighting extremists elsewhere, including Mali. Mr. Trump, who has said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals,” has not offered any plan beyond “I would bomb the [expletive] out of ’em.”

On Syria, he has talked of abandoning American support for rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad and joining the alliance between Mr. Assad and Russia, Mr. Assad’s partner in bombing Syrian civilians. After 500,000 deaths, there’s no end to the five-year civil war, which has created chaos, allowing ISIS to thrive and claim large parts of Syrian territory. A united effort to fight ISIS would require a peace deal between Mr. Assad and the opposition forces. But Secretary of State John Kerry has not been able to get Russia to push Mr. Assad in that direction. Mr. Trump seems confident he can work with Mr. Putin, but it’s unclear that Russia would accept any deal unless Mr. Assad is allowed to remain in power indefinitely, which the Syrians he has brutalized are unlikely to accept.

Someone should mention that to Trump too, and then there’s Iran:

Mr. Trump has vowed to tear up the 2015 deal under which Iran halted its most dangerous nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions. The agreement is working, as many of its critics in Congress and the Middle East acknowledge. Mr. Trump, however, has chosen a national security adviser and a CIA director who are both adamantly opposed to the deal, regardless of the consequences of ending it. If it is jettisoned, Iran would almost certainly resume its nuclear program. America’s partners in the agreement – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – will not re-impose sanctions as part of Mr. Trump’s quixotic quest for some “better deal,” and American businesses will be further disadvantaged in the competition for Iranian markets.

This is the kind of self-made crisis a new president cannot afford. Iranian moderates open to engagement with the West are battling for power against anti-Western hard-liners. The hard-liners hope to exploit Mr. Trump’s hostility to ensure that President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal, is defeated for re-election next year. It should matter to America which side prevails.

Someone should mention that to Trump too, and those are only three items from a much longer list. Some nasty things are just true. There actually are facts. Surprise!

Oh, and Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, by a wide margin, not that it matters. We’re in the middle of a swift transition to a brave new world where there’s no such thing anymore as facts. We’ve been told that, explicitly and repeatedly. No, we just have to live with that, and live through that, if we can.

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American Populism in Action

“Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, manages to convey the aspect of intelligence.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith understood America’s unique form of populism. Here, the little guy never wanted to take control of things and stick it to the rich. He himself was an incipient millionaire – that would happen one day – maybe he’d win the lottery. He was a rich man, temporarily sidetracked, somehow or other. He was not the scum of the earth, and he closely followed the rich. That was on televisions all the time, and in the movies. They know how to live. Their stuff is cool stuff, and they obviously know what’s what.

This is not some sort of Marxists populism where the workers arise and take things over from the capitalists. Here, the little guy wants to be that capitalist. Our populism is envy, or sadness, sadness that what should have happened, and what would happen, hadn’t happened yet – the bigs bucks rolling in. It wasn’t fair. They should be the one hanging around with Donald Trump, swapping manly stories. He was the populist hero this time around. He knew things. He’d fix things. He may have won the presidency not because he was like the little guy and understood the little guy but because the little guy understood him. He was so damned rich he could do or day anything he wanted, and he could sneer his way to the presidency. That was so damned cool.

Still, life was hard for the little guy, and the answer to that was to elect a surprisingly vulgar and vindictive billionaire who would appoint other billionaires to all key cabinet posts, which would somehow “drain the swamp” – whatever that meant – because they would know nothing about how the government runs, or even what it does. They’d bring “fresh eyes” to everything, and they were “winners” – they would make America “win” again. The little guy would win too. That might be why we’re about to begin a Trump presidency.

That’s an odd sort of populism, and maybe that’s not populism at all. Paul Waldman argues that’s the wrong term:

Donald Trump has named Steve Mnuchin – a Goldman Sachs alum and hedge fund manager – to be his secretary of the treasury, in keeping with his repeated promise to take on Wall Street and the powers-that-be on behalf of the little guy.

So can we stop pretending that Trump’s campaign “populism” was anything other than just one more con?

Envy aside, the little guy is about to get screwed:

It isn’t just the next Treasury secretary. This morning on CNBC, Mnuchin outlined his people-centered plan for the country’s economy.

“Our number one priority is tax reform,” he said. “We think by cutting corporate taxes we’ll create huge economic growth and we’ll have huge personal income so the revenues will be offset on the other side.”

At last, a Republican administration that believes in the wonder-working power of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy! If only George W. Bush had known about that, we would have had spectacular growth through the 2000s and the Great Recession never would have happened. Oh wait – this is exactly the economic program Bush pursued, to such disastrous effect.

In fact, Mnuchin has a direct connection to the recession: While it was unfolding, he and other investors bought IndyMac, a purveyor of the kind of shaky mortgages that fed the crisis. After foreclosing on thousands of homeowners, Mnuchin and his partners sold the company and made billions.

And millions lost their homes, but there’s more:

Mnuchin is just one appointment, though, right? Well, Trump also just announced that his secretary of commerce will be Wilbur Ross, a billionaire private equity investor. And his secretary of education will be Betsy DeVos, a billionaire opponent of public schools. And his transportation secretary will be Elaine Chao, who served in the administrations of both George Bushes and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Before entering politics she was a banker, and according to Politico, “She made at least $1,074,826 from serving on boards of directors in 2015, according to public records.” Trump is also reportedly considering Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn to be his budget director. “It’s the most conservative [Cabinet] since Reagan,” says one supply-sider, and that may be an understatement.

This is not the people’s government:

You may remember Trump’s closing ad of the campaign, in which he said, “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people” over images of Wall Street, piles of money, financiers like George Soros and other symbols of established power and wealth. “It’s a global power structure,” he went on, “that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

So in order to take on that global power structure, Trump is hiring a bunch of billionaires and Wall Street tycoons, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, scaling back regulatory oversight of Wall Street and offering an infrastructure plan that consists mostly of tax breaks to corporations to encourage them to build projects that they’ll then charge the public tolls in order to use.

No, those cool billionaires are never going to save the little guy, even if “the myth of Trump the populist” persists:

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Trump and perhaps the party’s foremost advocate of trickle-down economics, recently proclaimed, “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.” His trips to the Rust Belt with Trump, Moore testified, made him realize just how much help the working class needs. And he intends to help Trump deliver that help – in the form, of course, of tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. What a heartwarming tale.

It’s also an odd tale:

Republicans have always struggled with a quandary presented by their economic ideology, which is that it’s difficult to get majority support for a set of policies intended to shower benefits on a small portion of the population. When they argue about it explicitly they use a kind of rhetorical redirection, claiming that cutting rich people’s taxes isn’t really about rich people at all, but is actually intended to help the middle class and even the poor. The rich themselves are merely a vehicle to accomplish this noble end, unselfishly accepting the government’s largesse on behalf of their lessers.

Needless to say, there are only so many people you can persuade with that argument. So in order to compensate, Republicans have complemented their economic case with a menu of social issues with which they can demonize their opponents. Those Democrats hate America, Republicans would say, they’re weak, they don’t love God the way you do, they want to take your guns, they want to force your kids to get gay abortions. Often enough, it worked.

It worked for Trump, but Waldman still calls it a con:

Trump said most of those things in the 2016 campaign, but you could tell that he was just going through the motions, ticking off the boxes to reassure ideological conservatives that they didn’t have anything to worry about. The true beating heart of his appeal was a slightly different kind of culture war, one based on rage and resentment at cultural change and the declining status of working-class white men. With his attacks on immigrants, racial minorities, and an “establishment” of Washington politicians and economic powers-that-be, Trump convinced them that it was finally their turn: their turn to say whatever they want, their turn to have their interests put first, their turn to see their communities revived and their pride restored.

But now, Trump is filling up his administration with, guess what, Washington politicians and representatives of the economic powers-that-be, whose top priorities are tax cuts, deregulation and destroying the safety net, including the privatization of Medicare. The idea that they’ll be laboring to serve the interests of the working class is a joke. Yet it’s a joke people somehow keep telling with a straight face.

That’s because the joke works – “You’d be a billionaire, just like us, if it wasn’t for those ‘other’ awful people.” The working class folks are just billionaires in waiting, after all.

They’ll have to wait a long time, because Trump’s new “populist” cabinet looks like this:

When George W. Bush assembled his first Cabinet in 2001, news reports dubbed them a team of millionaires, and government watchdogs questioned whether they were out of touch with most Americans’ problems. Combined, that group had an inflation-adjusted net worth of about $250 million – which is roughly one-tenth the wealth of Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary alone.

Trump is putting together what will be the wealthiest administration in modern American history. His announced nominees for top positions include several multimillionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires, one of whose family is worth as much as industrial tycoon Andrew Mellon was when he served as treasury secretary nearly a century ago. Rumored candidates for other positions suggest Trump could add more ultra-rich appointees soon.

Now add this:

Many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.

They aren’t going to fix anything in the little guy’s life:

“It fits into Trump’s message that he’s trying to do business in an unusual way, by bringing in these outsiders,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. But Trump and his team, she added, won’t be able to draw on the same sort of life struggles that President Obama did, in crafting policy to lift poor and middle-class Americans.

“They’re just not going to have any access to that” life experience, she said. “I guess it will be a test – does empathy actually matter? If you’re able to echo back what people are telling you, is that enough?”

So far that’s enough, but maybe not for long:

“This isn’t a criticism or a conspiracy, but it’s important to recognize that everyone’s perspective and policy and government is shaped by the kind of life you’ve lived,” said Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke University. “The research really says that when you put a bunch of millionaires in charge, you can expect public policy that helps millionaires at the expense of everybody else.”

No kidding! Who would have guessed? And Kevin Drum flags the other issue of the day:

Donald Trump tweeted this morning that it is “visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.” As a result “legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.”

Despite this, the New York Times says that “skeptics” aren’t satisfied. There’s a good reason for this. Two good reasons, actually. First, we live in a new era. As a matter of fact, not of cynicism or partisan griping, Trump tweets should be treated as lies until proven otherwise. That’s just the way it is. Second, removing himself from business operations doesn’t accomplish a thing. Trump still has massive conflicts of interest. The only way to resolve this is to sell the Trump Organization, which he will never do. In the meantime, every two-bit autocrat in the world knows that the quickest way to Trump’s heart is to do something nice for Trump’s business: approve his permits, hook up his kids with connected financiers, move government offices into his buildings, whatever. It’s just a way of showing respect, you know?

Our new “populist” president is a fabulously rich man who will get even richer because he’s president, but that’s just the way it is:

I suppose there are worse things than having the United States run along the lines of a Mafia family. Nuclear war. An economic crash. Miami settling into the sea. Unfortunately, the odds are at least nontrivial that we’re going to get all of those things too.

Still, as the New York Time’s transition commentary notes, Trump’s new crew will have some relatively poor folks running things:

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ massive network of hospitals and clinics has been under a microscope since scandalously long waiting lists and allegations of cover-ups burst into public. The management morass seemed so intractable that in 2014, President Obama pushed out a decorated former general, Eric Shinseki, and hired a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, Robert A. McDonald, to sort it out.

Now, according to people close to the transition, Mr. Trump is thinking of taking Veterans Affairs in a new direction, handing its reins to former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Given Mr. Trump’s passionate campaign pledges to the nation’s veterans, the response – if she is chosen – would be … interesting.

Ed Kilgore’s response is interesting:

Palin has no obvious qualifications for the Veterans Affairs job. If appointed and confirmed, she would be the first non-veteran to head VA. Yes, she is the mother of a veteran: Her son Track did a tour of duty in Iraq. But it’s unlikely that would be cited very often as a credential, since Track has had a troubled life since returning to Alaska; indeed, he was arrested on assault and possession of firearms while intoxicated charges subsequent to an alleged domestic-violence incident the very day his mom went to Iowa to endorse Trump.

Perhaps this would not matter to Team Trump, but since she would at VA supervise a large and complicated health-care system, it is probably worth noting that her principal career contribution to health-care policy was the heinous “death panels” lie about the Affordable Care Act. As for her administrative capacities and stamina for hard work (an important criterion to Trump, we know, given his constant expressions of concern for Hillary Clinton’s fitness for the presidency), it is hard to forget her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska just over halfway through her one term in office.

Such concerns might be no more than problematic for many jobs in the Trump administration. But you’d think they’d be deal-killers at VA, given the very high priority Trump himself has so often placed on giving vets the best possible treatment (in both the medical and general sense). I’d say consigning the nation’s former service members and their families to the perpetual sideshow sure to be generated by La Pasionaria of the Permafrost would be a broken promise of the highest order.

Perhaps Trump should have found another billionaire for the job, but the New York Times notes this too:

Spotted at Trump Tower on Wednesday afternoon: Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, an outfit the president-elect has some experience with…

“The meeting went great,” she told reporters. “It was really nice to be up, and I was honored to be asked to come in. Anytime I think the president-elect of the United States asks you to come in for a conversation, you’re happy to do that. We talked about business and entrepreneurs and creating jobs, and we talked about the Small Business Administration.”

She’d head that. That’s the position, but she might fit right in:

Her connections to Mr. Trump go beyond their mutual love of bloated men in spandex suits. Her net worth, estimated at around $855 million, would put her in the same income brackets as the candidates tapped to be the secretaries of Commerce, Treasury and Education, as well as the deputy Commerce secretary.

Does that make her a populist too, like the rest of them? That word has an odd meaning these days, and as CNN reports, it also has a dark side:

In the days following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, students in Kansas chanted, “Trump won, you’re going back to Mexico,” to students from other countries, according to a high school teacher in a suburban community within the state.

In Oregon, a high school teacher photographed vandalism in the boys’ bathroom, which mentioned the KKK and used the n-word.

In Tennessee, a black student was blocked from entering his classroom by two white students chanting, “Trump, Trump,” according to a high school teacher at the school where this happened…

Those are just a few of the examples given by more than 10,000 educators, 90% of whom are teachers, who responded to an online survey sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to reducing prejudice and improving relations among school children across the country. The organization has been critical of Donald Trump following comments from the candidate it characterized as fueling racism and bigotry. The educators were asked to answer a series of questions about the climate at their schools following the presidential election.

In the first national snapshot of what teachers are observing, nine out of 10 educators who responded to the survey said the election has negatively impacted students’ behavior and mood. Forty percent said they have heard derogatory language used against students of color, Muslims, immigrants and other students based on gender or sexual orientation.

“We are still daily experiencing the effects of the outcome,” said Lindsey Polkl, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnesota. “My students have begun playing a game called ‘Trump’s Coming,’ in which one non-Hispanic student yells ‘Trump’s Coming’ and all of the Hispanic students need to hide.”

Someone has to be to blame for not everyone being a billionaire yet, and the source is that notion is obvious:

Nationwide, there have been more than 867 incidents of “hateful harassment” in the first days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center says. In a press conference Tuesday, Richard Cohen, the center’s president, said he fears those incidents are underreported.

“These incidents of hate occurred in schools, on public streets and parks and in retail establishments. People were even targeted in their homes,” said Cohen. “These incidents have been ugly. And time after time the perpetrator has invoked Mr. Trump’s name. The level of hate that has been unleashed is unprecedented.”

That’s not surprising, but this is:

One of the teachers who responded to the survey, who didn’t want to share her name publicly or the name of her school for fear of retaliation, told CNN that incidents of harassment and vandalism were left unpunished at her school.

“There was no investigation as it was determined it would be impossible to know who committed these acts,” she said via email. “Many incidences are unreported or under reported, as there is a fear of retaliation. This is an area of the country where most adults voted for, and avidly support, Trump.”

Another teacher who responded to the survey, a high school teacher in Kansas who reported that students were chanting to the English language learners that they would be sent back to Mexico, believes the total number of negative incidents across the country is probably much larger than has been publicly reported so far. She says teachers are not able to report incidents directly to the press meaning many of them are never revealed to the public.

“We’re supposed to keep everything in house,” said the teacher who also didn’t want to use to use her name, saying school policy forbids her from independently talking to the press. “That’s pretty standard for most districts and most schools. If there’s a problem, you take care of it internally but you don’t go out to the press with it.”

Okay, this is more widespread than the initial reporting, which was depressing enough, but Trump is the populist hero of our times. There are millions who want to be like him. If you’re not rich, and you know, really, that you never will be, and least you can be as mean as a rich man who can do or say anything he wants. That’s populism too.

Alexander Burns then adds another factor:

In a period of just over 24 hours, stretching from the early hours of Tuesday into Wednesday morning, President-elect Donald J. Trump raced through perhaps the most frenetic day of activity since the election. With a series of surprise announcements and impulsive public gestures, he brought into sharp focus the freewheeling and compulsively theatrical style he will bring to the Oval Office.

There was the incendiary pronouncement about the flag: After Fox News aired a segment about protests that included flag-burning, Mr. Trump suggested stripping people who burned the flag of their citizenship, even though the act is constitutionally protected free speech.

There were hazy but headline-grabbing statements of policy: Mr. Trump announced a tentative pact with the air-conditioning company Carrier to protect some jobs at an Indiana factory, and pledged again to sever ties with his real estate empire, without offering specifics.

There was a new and indiscreet round of tryouts for secretary of state, featuring reviews from the president-elect in something like real time. Having paraded David H. Petraeus, the former military commander and CIA director, past a throng of reporters for a meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump dined on Tuesday with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and another candidate for the job.

That’s what was telling:

While Mr. Trump’s focus appeared to careen unpredictably from hour to hour, the larger pattern he followed was a familiar one. As a candidate, Mr. Trump operated largely on gut instinct, with publicity-seeking provocation as his chief tactic. Trusting few people outside a circle of intimates, Mr. Trump thrived in a daily cycle of controversy and cultivated an atmosphere of often-public drama and division within his campaign.

That’s just who he is:

Mr. Trump’s method, friends and allies say, matches the reputation he built first in New York and then on reality television – less as a traditional corporate executive, like Mr. Romney, than as an eager impresario who experimented freely, welcomed conflict and flopped repeatedly.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House who has advised Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump’s transition process “very much resembles the way he operated in ‘The Apprentice,'” the NBC show in which Mr. Trump functioned as an imposing protagonist subjecting aspiring entrepreneurs to contests of business acumen.

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Trump plainly relished personal contact with possible appointees and favored a free-form leadership style. Mr. Trump did not emerge, Mr. Gingrich said, from a “corporate, staffed background,” but from a more personality-driven, improvisational environment.

Of course, that might be a populist thing:

It would be difficult to overstate the extremity of Mr. Trump’s departure from recent presidential practice. His immediate predecessors prided themselves on orderly, fastidious deliberations: George W. Bush as the first president with a business degree, Mr. Obama as a candidate branded by aides as “no drama Obama.”

Even Republicans concede that it is not clear how Mr. Trump’s roller-coaster approach to the transition will carry over to governing. Mr. Gingrich predicted during the Republican primary contests that a Trump administration would function as a kind of daily adventure. “If Trump does end up winning, you will have no idea each morning what’s going to happen,” he said in a January interview, “because HE will have no idea.”

Ah! That makes him just like the rest of us – scattered and boldly faking it. Of course, unlike us, he can get away with that. He’s a billionaire. Wealth, in even the most improbable cases, does manage to convey the aspect of intelligence, and may even make you a populist hero, at least in an America filled with envy and sadness, and anger. He’s one of us, but that’s actually the problem. It will be a rough four years.

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