December 2, 2016

America’s Second Choice for President

Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has grown to over 2½ million and is slowly climbing. Donald Trump was clearly favored by (and assisted by) Vladimir Putin, but American voters preferred Clinton. Isn’t it time to do away with the Electoral College?

Trump: Second Choice of American Voters
Click above for larger image.

December 1, 2016

Further Thoughts on Conflicts of Interest

Yesterday, I wrote about reasonable ways that a President Trump might avoid outrageous conflicts of interest. (See “Conflicts of Interest.”) I’d like to offer two other possibilities, though either of these leave Trump’s enterprises in the hands of his children, whom he might be inclined to favor in his acts and policies, possibly to the detriment of the country generally.

Scheme 1: Donald Trump could give his holdings to his children. There would normally be a large tax liability involved in such a transaction, but a law forgiving such liability to avoid conflicts of interest might be construed in Trump’s favor. (This is not a sure thing, however.) Such a gift would have to be made with the explicit agreement that the beneficiaries were under no obligation ever to compensate Trump for the gift. Ideally, the president should be enjoined from discussing the affairs of The Trump Organization while in office.

Scheme 2: Donald Trump could sell his stake in The Trump Organization to his children and put the proceeds into a true blind trust. Finding a reasonable price that his children could actually afford might be difficult. Again, the president should be enjoined from discussing the affairs of The Trump Organization while in office.

If Donald Trump does not devise some mechanism to avoid egregious conflicts of interest, his presidency will be handling one conflict-of-interest scandal after another for four years. It is doubtful that whatever plan he unveils on December 15 will quiet the press or the ethics watchdogs.

November 30, 2016

Conflicts of Interest

The New York Times reported this today:
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump announced on Wednesday that he would hold a news conference with his children on Dec. 15 to announce that he would be “leaving” his “great business in total,” but details were scant
This is good news to a point. Every day, however, there are new reports of how a President Trump will have an unavoidable conflict of interest in this or that country or with this or that domestic issue. Stepping away from The Trump Organization and leaving it in the hands of his children does not constitute putting his assets in a blind trust.

A blind trust, which has been the conventional mechanism used by presidents to avoid conflicts of interest, is intended to hide (“blind,” get it?) from the office holder any personal interest that might be affected by a presidential action or policy. The only way that Trump could implement a blind trust would be to liquidate all holdings of The Trump Organization and entrust the proceeds to a neutral caretaker.

Clearly, creating a conventional blind trust for the president-elect is virtually impossible. Real estate is not fungible, and it would take years to liquidate Trump’s holdings. Even if Trump’s children are running The Trump Organization, they cannot hide such facts as that there are two Trump Towers in Istambul, where the United States has complex interests.

Undoubtedly, Trump will attempt to mute criticism concerning his ethical conflicts through some less-than-satisfactory financial arrangement. Americans should demand more. Given that putting his assets in a true blind trust is impractical, I suggest the following policies:

  1. The government can have no financial dealings with The Trump Organization (other than the collection of taxes, of course), and
  2. The President can have no communication whatever with his wife, children, or other parties regarding The Trump Organization.
To begin with, the General Services Administration must break the lease on Trump’s D.C. hotel, as it has generally been acknowledged that continuing the relationship of Trump and the government in this case is an impeachable offense. The government should not buy so much as a paper clip from The Trump Organization.

Trump’s family is more problematic. My second suggestion would be difficult to enforce. As an alternative, both Donald and Melania Trump should be prohibited from having any contact with Trump’s children, their spouses, or any person associated with The Trump Organization.

Are these suggestions draconian?  Probably. Are they necessary? Probably.

Postscript: One other arrangement comes to mind, and it might be possible to pull off, though probably not before January 20. Sell off The Trump Organization in a public stock offering, with the proviso that no Trump relative is allowed to hold shares as long as Donald Trump is President. Trump would likely lose money on this deal—this isn’t clear, given the substantial liabilities of The Trump Organization—but, hey, he decided to run for president.

November 29, 2016

TPP

All indications are that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is, as far as the United States is concerned, dead. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not. It concerns me that President-elect Trump never met a trade agreement he didn’t hate. He doesn’t seem fundamentally to be a protectionist, but his arrogant faith in his skills as a negotiator could easily lead to a trade war, which would be in no one’s interest.

I am a believer in free trade because it increases productivity globally and, at least in principle, lifts standards of living. That said, unconstrained free trade, like unconstrained capitalism generally, has pernicious effects if governments do not establish reasonable rules to avoid the evils of monopoly, labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and the like. Such constraints should be part of trade agreements.

In the recent presidential campaign, no candidate came to the defense of the TPP. Trump was against it; he thinks all existing trade agreements are bad because they were negotiated by people less skilled than himself. Bernie Sanders, for whatever reason, was against it, and Hillary Clinton was against it because Bernie Sanders was. The other Republicans had little to say on the subject.

What is remarkable is that virtually no presidential candidate made a coherent case against the TPP; candidates merely asserted their opposition. The effect of this was that voters—especially those who cast their ballots for Trump—were left with the impression that trade agreements cost American jobs. It is true that trade agreements tend to cause the loss of some jobs in some sectors of the economy, but jobs are also created elsewhere. Further, the reduction of trade barriers should result in lower consumer prices. The average voter tends not to see the advantages gained through trade pacts, as they are unrelated to agreements in any perspicuous way. Even those getting new jobs may not attribute their good fortune to a trade agreement. Anyone who loses a job, however, even if it is not directly caused by the adoption of a new trade agreement, will look for someone or something to blame, and trade agreements are as good a candidate for blame as any.

Why did no candidate explain the advantages of free trade—advantages widely acknowledged in economic theory and traditionally believed by Republicans—and explain why the TTP is defective. During the campaign, I heard all the major candidates trash the TPP, but I don’t remember anyone saying why the TPP is bad or discussing even one of its provisions. Citizens were offered no insight into the desirable or undesirable features of trade agreements.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership may indeed be a move in the wrong direction, but it is a legitimate concern that our stepping away from it may lead to China’s writing the trade rules for Pacific Rim countries. This is not a comforting concept, whatever the  demerits of the TPP.

What would President Trump have us do about the TPP? Clearly, he does not want it approved, and it appears it will not be. Does he want to replace it with something, or is he willing to give the lead in Pacific trade to China? If he wants a different sort of pact, how does he propose to craft it given current circumstances?

Trump thinks he is a great negotiator. All he knows how to do, however, is to get a good deal for himself and to crush the little guy with whom he is “negotiating.” This is not helpful experience for developing trade deals. First, as president, Trump cannot afford to concern himself with the minutia of trade talks. Moreover, his my-way-or-the-highway approach to negotiation will get him nowhere. He knows nothing of the win-win deal and has yet to learn that other countries are not going to give America something without getting something in return.

I don’t doubt that the TPP has its faults. It may be a terrible agreement, in fact. But will Trump’s ego result in a trade war that raises the prices by 40% of the products that Americans have come to regard as necessities of the good life? I hope not, but I am not optimistic.

November 14, 2016

Breitbart News and CBS News

I was distressed this evening when Scott Pelley, on CBS Evening News, described Breitbart News as “conservative.” This inspired me to send the following e-mail message to the program:
Dear CBS News:

On the evening news tonight, Breibart News was described as “conservative.” It is time for journalists to abandon the hopeless goal of offending no one in the name of “objectivity.” In no way is Breibart conservative. Call it “far right-wing” or “radical right” or “alt-right.” (One can imagine less charitable yet nonetheless appropriate characterizations.)

The freedom of every America is endangered by the fact that Steve Bannon, late of Breibart, now has a prominent role in the Trump administration. Journalists should be more alarmed than Americans generally. That Breitbard calls itself “Breitbart News” is an affront to journalism.

The media helped elect Trump. I pray that they do not act as if the period we are entering is, in any way, normal.

Very truly yours,
Lionel E. Deimel
It is past time for media to be committed to truth, not the usual he-said-she-said sort of “objectivity.” The nation is counting on it, and progressives (liberals, or whatever) need to do everything we can to encourage that commitment.

More on My November 9

In my last post, I described my mood upon awaking on November 9, the day after Donald J. Trump won the presidential election. For the record, I would like to say a bit more about that terrible day, the first day of terrible years to come.

After my pre-dawn walk, I assume I had breakfast, though I don’t actually recall having done so. As is my wont, I listened to Morning Edition on NPR, but the first time I heard the phrase “president-elect Trump” sent me into a yet deeper depression.

I was in a fog for much of the morning, having gotten so little sleep on election night. I sought to mitigate my dejection with music. I put on a CD of Prokofiev’s ninth piano sonata and followed along with the score as I listened to the music. This not only made me feel marginally better—perhaps I was only distracted—but also provided insight into one of my favorite Prokofiev piano compositions.

I thought that talking to someone might help, but the person I decided to call had been busy pricing Canadian real estate before answering the phone. She didn’t provide much solace.

I didn’t much feel like making my own lunch, so I headed out for lunch. I had planned to go to a Mexican restaurant, but, by the time I arrived there, I realized that Mexican food is not exactly comfort food. Instead, I went to Perkins, where, after a long study of the menu, I order meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and—I needed to stay awake—coffee.

While awaiting my food, I heard snatches of conversations from nearby tables. Who of these diners, I thought, had betrayed the Republic?

The meatloaf was a good choice, though the potatoes were barely warm, and the gravy insufficiently generous. I made good use of the ketchup that was on the table, however, and the corn was unexpectedly tasty. Food can indeed be comforting. I lingered over coffee before heading home.

The afternoon news coverage was replete with interviews of ignorant Trump voters, with their mean-spirited hopes and unrealistic expectations. I finally heard excerpts of Trump’s victory speech, which I had retired too early to hear live.

Trump declared that “it is time to come together as one united people,” by which he meant that the majority of voters who voted against him should drop their opposition to his presidency and programs. This was the equivalent of saying that, if you’re going to be raped anyway, you may as well lay back, relax, and enjoy it. I didn’t think so.

Wednesday evening, I had tickets to a concert at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The program seemed too interesting to skip, so, despite being in a blue funk, I decided to attend. Music might cheer me up, as indeed it had earlier in the day.

The artists were the Akropolis Reed Quintet, not to be confused with a more conventional wind quintet. All the instruments used vibrating reeds—clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, saxophone(s), and oboe/English horn. The music, which spanned the period from 1724 to 1984, turned out to be both marvelous and unexpected. The encore was “Mack the Knife,” from The Threepenny Opera. The instrumentation seemed ideal for Bertold Brecht’s music.

Before Akropolis was introduced, the manager of the concert series addressed the audience. Without any explicit reference to politics, he acknowledged that audience members might be unusually despondent. He suggested that people lose themselves in the music that was to follow. This was good advice, at least for a couple of hours.

When I returned home, I watched the post-election edition of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The program provided commiseration but not much comfort. Bee’s conclusion was that “white people ruined America.”I’m afraid she’s right.

I retired as early as I could—Full Frontal airs late—in hopes of catching up a bit on my sleep. Thursday was another day.

Postscript: I’m not sure when I realized it—it probably was not Wednesday—but the reaction to this election is strikingly different from previous ones. Whereas supporters of the losing candidate are always disappointed and searching for explanations of the unfavorable outcome, they are usually ready to pick up the pieces and move on, making the best of the situation. This time, however, Democrats (and probably some Republicans, as well as third-party voters and non-voters) are stunned and profoundly depressed over Trump’s victory. Many are anxious or just plain scared Just when it seemed that the Democrats were about to lock in the gains of the Obama years and enter an exciting period of progressive development, we are instead facing an uncertain future and a generation of regressive government.

In the end, of course, we must pick ourselves up and move on, opposing the reactionary policies of Trump and the Republicans—not one and the same—with all the political and rhetorical vigor we can muster. The fate of our Republic hangs in the balance. Victory is not assured.

Save the Republic. Stop Donald Trump.

November 9, 2016

Post-Election Depression

I slept less than three hours last night and took a pre-dawn walk trying to wrap my mind around the tragedy that befell our nation last night. I had hoped to write something insightful this morning, but I am overwhelmed with dispair.

For now, I want to call your attention to an essay by New Yorker editor David Remnick. It is called "An American Tragedy." This is all I can offer this Wednesday morning.

November 6, 2016

Thoughts on the Poorly Educated

I was dumbfounded when Donald J. Trump declared at a campaign rally, “I love the poorly educated.” Of course he does. The con man earns his bread and butter off the ignorant and the naïve. A person unused to engaging in critical thinking takes statements at face value. Assertions advanced with an air of authority are especially likely to be believed—even more so if they play into longstanding prejudices or grievances, whether real or imagined.

One should be sympathetic to Trump’s most vulnerable marks—did we fail to educate them properly?—but those who easily fall victim to the candidate’s mendacious rhetoric threaten the Republic if they vote for their Republican deceiver.

It is too late to educate the poorly educated. All we can do now is vote, and vote to put someone who is not a charlatan or a narcissistic autocrat into the White House. Whether or not you think she is the perfect candidate—who is, after all?—Hillary Clinton is a compassionate, thoughtful, and competent politician. A vote for a third party is merely a declaration that you, too, are among the poorly educated.


One should have compassion for but fear the poorly educated.