Gravity Sucks

“I have a strong disrespect for authority and for rules. Including gravity. Gravity sucks.” ~ Sebastian Thrun

That would be this guy:

Sebastian Thrun (born May 14, 1967) is an innovator, entrepreneur educator, and computer scientist from Germany. He is CEO of the Kitty Hawk Corporation, chairman and co-founder of Udacity. Before that, he was a Google VP and Fellow, a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, and before that at Carnegie Mellon University. At Google, he founded Google X and Google’s self-driving car team. He is currently also an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University and at Georgia Tech.

And he was making a joke. Gravity may suck, but there it is. There’s not much anyone can do about it. But one can defy gravity – that’s what airplanes are all about. Still, defying gravity is hard work, something for only the best and brightest minds. And gravity always wins, eventually. His defiance was meant to be both heroic and ironic. Gravity will catch up with you.

No one told Donald Trump. He has been defying “political gravity” since the day he floated down that golden escalator in his own personal gold-plated Fifth Avenue skyscraper and, with his third trophy wife by his side, declared that all those Mexicans out there were drug dealers and rapists and murderers – and he’d win all of the Hispanic vote – because he was going build a big wall, and Mexico was going to pay for it. He was running for president. Later, he said no Muslims would be allowed in here anymore. And blacks were lazy and ungrateful and all of them loved him, and John McCain wasn’t a war hero at all. McCain was a total loser and HE was the hero. He knew more about ISIS than the generals after all. And then there was the Access Hollywood tape – he could have his way with any woman he wanted, because he was famous, and that’s what he had done – and the Christian evangelicals absolutely loved him for that, and for mocking the handicapped reporter too – because he promised to fill the courts with judges who would ban abortion and birth control and make the nation purely Christian again. He defied gravity. He said the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville were fine people and the Christian evangelicals loved him even more. Early on he had said he could shoot someone dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose even one supporter – and he was right. Christian evangelicals would love him even more for that. This wasn’t some wimpy metrosexual loser like Obama. This was a real man.

Nothing brought Trump down. It seems that real men defy gravity, but gravity always wins, eventually. The New York Times’ Jim Tankersley and Ana Swanson cover that story:

America’s trade deficit in goods with the rest of the world rose to its highest level in history last year as the United States imported a record number of products, including from China, widening the deficit to $891.3 billion and delivering a setback to President Trump’s goal of narrowing that gap.

The increase was driven by some factors outside Mr. Trump’s control, like a global economic slowdown and the relative strength of the United States dollar, both of which weakened overseas demand for American goods. But the widening gap was also exacerbated by Mr. Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, which has been largely financed by government borrowing, and the trade war he escalated last year.

Gravity caught up with him:

It is a case of textbook economics catching up with some of Mr. Trump’s unorthodox economic policies. Economists have long warned that Mr. Trump’s tax cuts would ultimately exacerbate a trade deficit he has vowed to reduce, as Americans, flush with extra cash, bought more imported goods.

His trade war with Beijing also widened the gap: Stiff tariffs on Chinese goods helped slow China’s economy, crimping American exports, which declined nearly 50 percent in December from the same month a year before.

Oops. This is more complicated than Trump thought:

The trade deficit is the difference between how much a country sells to its trading partners and how much it buys. It generally includes both goods and services, though Mr. Trump has focused almost exclusively on the deficit in goods. He has long boasted that his trade policies would reduce that gap, which he views as a measure of whether partners like China and the European Union are taking advantage of the United States, a diagnosis few economists share… While Mr. Trump sees the trade deficit as a sort of economic scorecard for which country is on top, most economists disagree with this perspective, viewing trade deficits not as a sign of economic strength or weakness, but as a function of macroeconomic factors like investment flows, fluctuations in the value of currency and relative growth rates.

And as the trade deficit widens, Mr. Trump’s focus on it has resulted in a particular irony: By his own metric, the president is failing to right America’s global trading relationships.

Trump said he could fix it all, and only he could fix the mess. Only he could defy gravity, but gravity always wins. That’s what Slate’s Jordan Weissmann argues here:

Donald Trump has waged a trade war unlike any the United States has seen since the 1930s, upsetting our global allies and panicking markets as he’s gleefully slapped tariffs on steel and Chinese products. And by just about any measure you pick, his effort appears to have been an absolute flop.

That’s the thesis and here are the supporting arguments for that thesis:

Consider the trade deficit, which Trump has promised to shrink. On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that it actually grew by $68.8 billion in 2018, reaching $621 billion, as imports continued to outpace exports. In December, the monthly gap hit a 10-year high. The timing of the announcement was almost poetic: It came just over a year after Trump tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” As he is learning, they are not.

And there’s this:

Because the president is obsessed with manufacturing jobs, the White House likes to focus on the trade deficit in goods alone – ignoring the contributions of services like finance and education. But on that score, its performance looks even worse. The goods gap soared to an all-time high of $891.3 billion last year. It grew with China. It grew with Mexico. It grew with Canada. Like Wile E. Coyote with a box of ACME dynamite, Trump tried to blow up the global trade order, and instead came out looking like a used matchstick.

And there’s this:

Why is the trade deficit widening? Part of the story likely has to do with the federal budget deficit, which has surged thanks to the tax cut Republicans passed in 2017. As the old saying goes, trade deficits occur when countries spend more than they produce. So all else equal, when the government borrows money from overseas to finance its red ink, you can expect Americans to buy more imports. Higher deficits can also lead to higher interest rates, which push up the value of the dollar and hurt the competitiveness of American exports. When the tax bill passed, many economists predicted that it would exacerbate the trade gap and undermine Trump’s central economic promise to blue-collar voters.

In other words, we’re witnessing an entirely foreseeable own goal.

And there’s this:

The more you drill down into the stats, the more embarrassing they seem for Trump. Take the results of our tit-for-tat tariff skirmish with China, which the White House has hoped would force Beijing to negotiate better trade terms. The White House placed levies on $250 billion of Chinese goods. China responded with tariffs on $110 billion of American goods – including politically sensitive commodities like soybeans.

The result? Our imports from the People’s Republic rose last year and our exports to it fell. This happened, in part, because China allowed its currency to depreciate against the dollar, which canceled out some of the impact of Trump’s tariffs – another entirely predictable outcome. Meanwhile, the administration has been forced to spend billions bailing out farmers.

As the data have streamed in, economists have begun to conclude that the trade war is also weighing on the broader U.S. economy. The harm is not large, but it is noticeable. One study, by researchers at the Federal Reserve and Columbia University, concluded that each month the tariffs cost Americans $3 billion in extra taxes and $1.4 billion in lost economic efficiency. The other, by a team including World Bank Chief Economist Pinelopi Goldberg, estimates that the U.S. economy took a $7.8 billion loss in 2018…

So everyone pays, because there are no spectacular new trade deals Trump promised during his campaign, because gravity is still gravity:

The administration hoped that threatening our trade partners with tariffs would force them to negotiate new pacts that gave the U.S. a leg up in global commerce. But the results have been underwhelming. The new-and-sort-of-improved NAFTA makes some important changes around the edges of the agreement, including key ones to international dispute settlement, but is widely regarded as little more than a rebranding effort. The agreement shaping up between China and the U.S. is looking like even more of a disappointment. In return for lowering tariffs, China would buy more U.S. agricultural goods and lower some barriers that keep U.S. companies from operating there. It would do nothing regarding issues like intellectual property theft that are of much greater concern to U.S. corporations.

Trump started an unprecedented trade war, and all we’re gonna get are some lousy soybean sales.

But there’s more to this than soybeans. The Washington Post extends the problem:

President Trump proclaimed in a freewheeling speech to a conference of conservatives last weekend that “America is winning again.” But his administration has been on a pronounced losing streak over the past week.

Trump is losing ground on top priorities to curb illegal immigration, cut the trade deficit and blunt North Korea’s nuclear threat – setbacks that complicate his planned reelection message as a can-do president who is making historic progress.

Nothing is working out for the guy:

Late last week, Trump flew home empty-handed from a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi – and, within days, new satellite images appeared to show that the North was secretly rebuilding a rocket-launching site.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that unauthorized border crossings have spiked to the highest pace in 12 years – despite Trump’s hardline rhetoric and new policies aimed at deterring migrants.

Nothing is working:

“The president hasn’t shown much of an ability to cut good deals with Congress or anyone else,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who is mulling a Senate run in 2020. “Almost the only time he has been successful at one of his goals is when he can set the terms unilaterally. That’s why he’s done a lot of executive orders, executive actions, like the travel ban, deregulations, and emergency declaration. Those are things that don’t require any negotiation at all.”

But it’s not his fault:

As he has struggled to fulfill some of his signature campaign promises, Trump has consistently blamed others for his woes.

He has criticized the administrations of President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush for not reforming the immigration system or reining in North Korea. He has railed at Democrats for failing to support his proposed border wall and implored them to ratify new trade deals. And he has even attacked fellow Republicans, obliquely slamming former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) during a Rose Garden news conference last month for not having pushed faster to get a deal on the wall.

That’s not going to work:

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said Trump is “very frustrated right now with all of us. He wants to get results and we’re looking at a two-year period where it’s pretty obvious the other side doesn’t want to do anything.”

But Trump’s critics said his policies have made things worse.

On immigration, the administration has sought to block asylum seekers at legal ports of entry along the border, prompting them to try to find alternative pathways into the country. The president shut down parts of the federal government for 35 days – the longest such closure in U.S. history – in an ill-fated fight for border wall funding, even though experts said the surge of migrant families is not a threat to national security and that a wall would do little to curb it.

On trade, Trump’s tariff war with China has harmed U.S. farmers as Beijing slashed agricultural imports. Although the president has signaled that a trade deal is close, analysts said an accord would not fundamentally alter the U.S. trade relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.

And on North Korea, officials have said, the president’s decision to rush forward with bilateral summits with Kim have led to difficulties for U.S. negotiators engaging with their counterparts over technical and complicated nuclear matters, as Kim has preferred to deal directly with Trump.

In short, gravity, sometimes called reality, pulled him back to earth:

Trump at times also appears determined to prove that he is making progress. He publicly contradicted his own intelligence chiefs, who testified to Congress in January that there is no evidence that North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear program.

Asked by a reporter Wednesday about the satellite images that showed construction work at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, Trump said he would be “very disappointed” if the news is confirmed, but he added that it was “a very early report.”

Senior White House aides have sought to cast the Hanoi summit as a sign of Trump’s negotiating fortitude and unwillingness to settle for a bad deal. Yet Trump has grown frustrated by the largely negative coverage of the summit, a senior White House official said, and his aides briefed lawmakers this week to explain his goals.

He too is angry with gravity, and the Los Angeles Times’ Eli Stokols covers Trump’s battle with gravity and reality:

President Trump, now in the third year of his term, is struggling to maintain the illusion of accomplishment as some of his biggest promises remain unfulfilled.

Though his showy summit diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed in Vietnam last week, dashing Trump’s prediction of “fantastic success,” the president continues to insist that he’s made unprecedented progress toward getting that nation to relinquish its nuclear arms program – even as his intelligence advisors say otherwise.

Over the weekend, Trump yet again boasted to supporters that his border wall is under construction, as if it were nearly finished. In fact, no new miles of any barrier have been built during his presidency and a Republican-controlled Senate is poised to join the Democratic-controlled House in rejecting his declaration of a national emergency to pay for an installment.

Also, Trump is lately hailing progress in trade talks with China as if a landmark deal were imminent. Yet he’s said so for months, and this week his secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, traveled to politically influential Iowa to persuade farmers hurt by China’s retaliatory tariffs that the president’s trade war ultimately will push Beijing into an agreement benefiting them. Even if a deal takes shape this month in time for Trump’s planned meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, it’s not expected to include the long-sought concessions he’s talked of.

So, nothing is working, or everything is working just fine:

His misses, exaggerations and outright untruths carry a political risk. It’s just not clear Trump will pay any price.

“The more tenuous his rhetoric’s connection to reality becomes, it’s harder to sustain the illusion,” said Michael Steel, a Republican consultant in Washington who served as press secretary to former House Speaker John A. Boehner.

“He has big accomplishments: tax cuts, conservative judges, regulatory reforms, a strong economy. But on the big things he’s most focused on – the wall, talks with North Korea – he has not been able to get the results that he’s promised over and over again.”

Yet for the president’s most ardent supporters, the lack of results on his most prominent promises, and his hyperbole, may not matter given the cult of personality Trump has created around himself.

That was evident in the warm embrace he received Saturday from attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump spoke for more than two hours in the longest address of his presidency, veering wildly off script, basking in the crowd’s applause and cheers, vastly overstating his achievements and explaining away his failures.

But he was soaring above it all, defying gravity one last time:

Trump wrote in his book “The Art of the Deal” that he “plays to people’s fantasies.” He still does.

“You know I’m building the wall,” he said to supporters at CPAC, who immediately broke into familiar chants of “Build the wall!” He went on: “We’re finishing the wall. We got a lot of money. It’s in the thing.”

By “thing” the president apparently was alluding to a spending bill that he’d reluctantly signed, to end a 35-day partial government shutdown he’d provoked by his standoff with Democrats over wall money. Yet the bill included just $1.375 billion to construct new bollard fencing on 55 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border – far short of the $5.7 billion he demanded. So far, the only construction underway has been repairs to existing stretches of wall, built under his predecessors.

Damn. Defying gravity is hard work, something for only the best and brightest minds. And gravity always wins, eventually. Gravity will catch up with you. It finally caught up with Donald Trump.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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