Friday, January 20, 2017

Candidate Trump, meet President Trump

On the day Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, he made dealing with Mexico the keystone of his speech. From then on, he continually advocated keeping Mexicans out of the U.S. and American jobs out of Mexico.

Candidates promise what voters want to hear, although they may well know that keeping their promises will be impossible. That makes them look like liars, inevitably disappointing some of their supporters.

President Trump is about to discover that the most he can do with any certainty is build a wall and even that won't produce the desired result. He cannot make good on the central promises on which he launched his campaign.
Some of Trump's backers feared the country is being swamped by Latino immigrants. They were enthusiastic about his proposal to build a wall, paid for by Mexico, as a way of stopping the flow. He also promised massive deportations of Mexicans.

Not that it matters. It's too late. Even if another Latino never enters the country, there are now more than 56.6 million Hispanics here – 17.6% of the population, growing at a faster rate than the population as a whole. The goal of the wall in keeping down their their numbers cannot be achieved.

What about deportation? Obama oversaw the removal of 2.5 million illegal immigrants, the record for any president. G.W. Bush had previously expelled more than 2 million. Many deported were not even Mexican, who are only a part of the pool of undocumented immigrants.

Continuing Bush-Obama policies can't change the overall demographics much. And nobody can simply be tossed out. Everybody, including illegal aliens, are entitled to due process of law.

He may get the wall built, but Mexico won't write a check to pay for it. Trump knows that and is thinking of a tax. One possibility is a levy on funds transferred to Mexico, targeting remittances by immigrants, legal or not.

A tax on funds leaving the country for Mexico would have to apply to everyone, not only undocumented Mexicans. That would amount to a tax increase on anybody doing business with Mexico. Opposition to a higher tax could leave the U.S. with a wall that it has paid for.

Of course, few people favor unlimited illegal immigration. To really limit it, more border patrol guards could be more effective than a wall, also cheaper and faster. But that's not what was promised.

What about more protectionism by ending the North American Free Trade Agreement, setting higher tariffs on imports from Mexico and discouraging job growth by pressing American firms not to invest there? The goal: keep jobs in the U.S. and bring some home.

More jobs in Mexico cut down on the incentive for Mexicans to move to the U.S. looking for work. And a prosperous economy there helps provide a more solid and stable neighbor.

Protectionism is the hallmark of weakness. Can America no longer compete in the world? Trump promises to “make America great again,” but boosting tariffs could make the U.S. look weak, leading to a loss of respect and influence. It's already happening.

Increasing U.S. protection against imports from Mexico without any legitimate reason would allow Mexico to raise its own tariffs on imports from the U.S. That would cost American jobs, just the opposite of what Trump intends.

Without lower cost imports, prices will increase in the U.S. In effect, a policy to increase American jobs by displacing lower cost imports would amount to saying American consumers have agreed to pay the added cost of keeping jobs here. Is that what voters wanted last November?

Suppose an American automobile manufacturer closes a plant there and shifts production to the U.S. Mexico might use the abandoned plant to produce cars for Mexicans and the rest of Latin America, costing the American manufacturer a market.

Meanwhile, technology, a major cause of lost manufacturing jobs, will be a factor in the car production brought back home. The car company will automate, trying to keep labor costs down.

Because of Trump's inevitable inability to keep his campaign promises on dealing with Mexico, some of his supporters are sure to be disappointed, even disaffected. That, too, is inevitable, and it could happen again and again.

Instead of confrontation with Mexico that sounds better than it is, and is sure to fail, how about “The Art of the Deal,” in which Trump claims to excel?

Otherwise, the passage from Trump Tower to Trump power may prove to be a great disappointment to many of the people who put him in office.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trump, LePage personal style undermines good government

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican moderate, supports Sen. Jeff Sessions, a GOP conservative, for appointment as U.S. Attorney-General, even though she and Sessions disagree on some key issues.

Some Democratic senators, who would not vote to confirm him, say Sessions is a decent and courteous man who keeps his word. That’s praise from the opposition and indicates he will take office without great difficulty.

The Sessions situation reveals one of the most basic truths of American politics today. Voters want their governments, at all levels, to work and produce positive results. They give Congress extremely negative ratings, because it is tied up in partisan wrangling and fails to make needed decisions.

When elected officials adopt a cooperative attitude, the likelihood increases of government acting for the public good. By refraining from a outright hostility to Sessions, Democrats improve their chances of at least getting him to listen to their concerns on issues that come along during his term.

Politicians are people. Insulting them makes it more difficult to get them to consider your views or make concessions to you later. They may hold a grudge or simply ignore you. Your original insult and your current concern might deal with entirely different issues, but you may pay for having been offensive.

Trump should learn from Obama’s Affordable Care Act experience. That landmark legislation, was passed without a single Republican vote and by using a parliamentary gimmick. The GOP will now use the same gimmick in their attempt to gut the ACA.

Obama did not need GOP support, just as Trump will not need Democratic support. But, by spurning any accommodation with Republicans, Obama lost the possibility of their future help in improving the ACA. If fact, he handed the Republicans a campaign issue, forcing him to defend a flawed law.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell had made a statement suggesting his Republicans would do everything to bring about Obama’s re-election defeat, which may be what undermined any chance of bipartisan cooperation on the ACA.

If Obama had stepped back and allowed some Republicans to amend the original legislation, the ACA might have been open to bipartisan efforts to fix its problems. Now we can see if Trump and the GOP do better.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the U.S. Senate, recently said his party would cooperate with President Trump, provided the president adopted the Democrats’ proposals. That is hardly the path to producing positive results.

Trump, who clearly marches to his own drummer, has the opportunity to bypass partisan posturing that prevents compromise. But he needs to stop launching personal attacks, be consistent and stick to the facts, and start dealing with Democrats.

Much the same is true for Gov. LePage. Like Trump, who resorts reflexively to Twitter to vent, LePage does not always keep a lid on his feelings toward his political opposition. Like the incoming president, he may resort to name calling or attacks on what he believes to be the motives of others, especially Democratic leaders.

Not only do his words make it less likely the opposition will cooperate with him, but it drives such a deep wedge between him and others that the government itself may sputter along rather than functioning well. He denies himself the chance for true leadership, when his bludgeon doesn’t work.

While Trump remains to be tested, it is quite possible to see the disadvantages for LePage. He makes some serious proposals meriting consideration, but gets in his own way if he attacks the views and motives of others. Governing is not an I-win-you-lose game; it is serving the people by good public policy.

LePage, governor of the poorest New England state, understandably wants to keep electric rates down by limiting their use to subsidize renewables. That’s reasonable and deserves consideration by both the governor, concerned about rates, and politicians protective of the environment.

Some of his tax reform proposals are in line with serious thinking about tax policy. Increase the items covered by the sales tax, because there's no proof that would lower sales. Reduce top income tax rates that discourage investment in Maine.

The governor throws issues to the Legislature and then resorts to something like open warfare to get his proposals adopted. To their credit, both parties struggle to find solutions, often inspired by his proposals, but yielding less than he wants. He needs to be involved in the negotiations and to compromise.

Success in the political process, so desperately desired by voters, can only be achieved if leaders' attitudes change.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Internet as weapon of war ending secrecy, privacy

At Burlington Electric, a Vermont utility, a computer has been hacked by a Russian organization whose footprint is well known because it has messed with so many foreign systems.
The Clinton campaign was hacked by a Russian group, presumably trying to influence the election by exposing embarrassing, insider emails.
A Chinese Army operation tapped into Google and other American corporations to gain confidential business information, which will help competing Chinese enterprises.
The U.S. government gained secret access to phone and email data of Americans who have done nothing illegal but may have aroused suspicions.
You receive an email that looks like it is from a friend and click on a link in the message, later to discover you have suffered from phishing.
Using your smart phone, you turn on lights in your house a hundred miles away, unknowingly enabling a hacker to gain access to your computer by accessing the light switch password.
Every one of these cases reveals the effects of a lack of effective computer security. All of it can prove to be dangerous and harmful. Is this the brave, new world in which there is no privacy, no secrets?
Because of our enthusiasm for electronic communication, we and our institutions are exposed to harm. As the Internet developed, many believed that anonymity was assured by the sheer number of people using it. How could anyone find a Burlington Electric computer or tap into a person’s checking account when there were so many users?
The anonymity we may have imagined failed to take into account the power of technology. The FBI could request data on millions of phone calls and readily sift through them in minutes for calls made by a person it was seeking. Along the way, it might accidently find out about your private communications.
And would nobody read your Facebook page except your friends? In fact, social media transformed privacy as many people easily shed it without considering the consequences.
Most, if not all, of this could have been avoided. The electric grid operated reasonably well before the Internet. Hands-on operators used written manuals and their own knowledge of the system to make it function.
Of course, the Internet has opened more opportunities for greater efficiency and the participation of more suppliers. But the lights could stay on under the old system.
The problem is that the operators have thrown away the manuals, and a new generation does not know how to work without electronic links. We seemed to be enthralled by the idea of creating larger grids, so that more customers are linked, though a catastrophic event may fan out more widely.
Bring back the manuals, train operators to carry out manual operation and avoid interlinking too many systems to prevent the spread of problems. The grid would be a lot less vulnerable to foreign hackers.
You may be urged to go paperless. Have your bills sent directly to the bank, which can pay them for you. You may never again see a bill, supposedly an advantage to you. The big gain goes to the vendor, which saves on postage and printing without passing any savings on to you.
The paperless world may seem easier, but you can lose the ability to spot mistakes or track spending. Gaining convenience, you may have made yourself more vulnerable to theft. With paper, you get records that could turn out to be essential after they disappear on line.
Experts say we cause many of our own problems. If hackers can decipher one of our passwords, they can probably gain access to a number of our supposedly protected links. People tend to pick easy-to-guess passwords and use them repeatedly without changing them periodically. We can fix this ourselves.
Companies and the government need not link all of their computers to the Internet. Some can be reserved for internal use only or, like the Burlington Electric computer, can remain unconnected to critical operations.
As for government itself or the political parties, the Democratic National Party hacking teaches helpful lessons.
Just because email and messaging is easy, it makes a record of every conversation. If government and party officials talked with one another, that might increase the security of the communication. Having to make the effort to talk could cut down on useless chatting.
More communications should be in writing on paper. That produces an incentive for more limited distribution and a less vulnerable record.
Internet communication is easy, but it is becoming too easy. Using countermeasures and exercising care are essential, but they require our effort.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Tax policy: all about the wealthy

Paul LePage and Hillary Clinton see one thing the same when it comes to taxes. For the Maine governor and the defeated Democratic presidential candidate, it’s about the wealthy.
How you treat people with lots of income is essential to tax reform.
For all the politicians’ talk about corporate taxes being too high, they only account for about 11 percent of federal government revenues. Individual taxes, the largest source, contribute almost half.
In Maine, property taxes are the biggest contributor, followed by the sales tax. Individual taxes are important, coming in third and accounting for almost a quarter of government revenues. Corporate taxes matter relatively little.
Where this gets interesting is who pays the individual income tax. More than half of federal income tax is paid by people with taxable incomes of $250,000 and higher. These people file less than three percent of all returns.
Willie Sutton, the charming criminal, was famously, if incorrectly, quoted as explaining why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” The same philosophy is true for taxation.
If you want to cut income taxes, as Gov. LePage does, the wealthy are the people to help. Their average tax rate is much higher than everybody else’s. In Clinton’s view, the way to raise more revenue to support her proposals for new spending was to raise the tax rates on the rich.
Going for where the money is makes sense. It’s also where the politics are. With the majority of income earners paying less than two percent of federal taxes, they contribute little and have little to complain about. They say their biggest concern is that other people are not paying their “fair share.”
This attitude is probably driven by the belief that the growing income gap between the top and bottom results from the use of tax breaks available only to the wealthy. In theory, if the tax code treated everybody the same, the rich would then be forced to pay their “fair share.”
Tax policy, at least as it relates to the income tax, is really about what constitutes a “fair share” of taxes to be paid by the wealthy.
Here is where LePage and Clinton part company. The governor, like many other Republicans, believes that if taxes are reduced on the wealthy, they will invest the untaxed money in new and existing enterprises, creating more jobs to be filled by new taxpayers.
Perhaps the wealthy will make more money and pay more taxes, even at their lower rate. There’s no question that when the stock market is booming, tax revenues climb thanks to the increased income that mostly goes to wealthy investors.
But given the lower rates on average working people, even if more of them found good jobs, the amount of the new taxes from them might fall short of the revenues lost from lower rates for the wealthy. If the rich pay less, there’s no certainty that everybody else can make up the lost revenue.
The loss of government income may be part of the plan. Not only will the rich get lower taxes, but government could take in less revenue and have to be cut back. If you think government has grown too large, cutting levies on the major tax contributors may force spending reductions.
Clinton’s view was the mirror image of this conservative approach. Not only would government revenues increase if taxes on the wealthy went up, but the income gap could be reduced. And there would be more money for more government action, including basic spending on roads and hospitals.
In talking about the wealthy paying their “fair share,” she used the notion of fairness to respond to the income gap issue. Her approach would have been to hit the gap squarely, while the tax cutting approach would depend on the benefits of lower taxes filtering through the economy.
Of course, not all federal government revenues come from taxes. It borrows every year it has a budget deficit – meaning just about every year. Debt repayment becomes an increasing part of the cost of the federal government.
Donald Trump seems to favor increased spending for public works financed by added public debt, an approach more closely associated with Democrats than Republicans. If he goes that direction, it will be difficult to cut taxes. Will the Republican Congress support him?
In Maine, income tax cuts almost certainly require state spending cuts, boosting the already overburdened property tax, especially for schools. Can LePage induce the Legislature to accept more tax cuts?
It should be an interesting year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

America at yearend: the best of times or the worst?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

So began “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens.  And so it is today.

The presidential and congressional elections left a still sharply divided American electorate.

For Republican conservatives, the federal elections meant a GOP president could allow the Republican Congress an almost unfettered chance to adopt their long-cherished policy proposals.  President Trump himself would be free from the limits of traditional policies.

For Democratic progressives, the Trump victory brought deep worries about the fate of a political system that had moved toward accepting greater diversity.  Not only must the Democrats fight to preserve their legacy, but also they must provide bold alternatives showing they are ready to govern.

Many are concerned that the Trump campaign gave racists the license to act out their prejudices.  For the objects of their threats and attacks, this is truly the worst of times.

If conservatism, now triumphant, succeeds, it may tip the political balance for the foreseeable future.  Popular success could mean a return to the limited government days before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.  Its failure could mean voters would respond to a renewed Democratic Party and a larger role for government.

One obvious positive is the recovery from the Great Recession, already fading from memory.  A leading Washington Post economic analyst recently wrote, “There is no mystery about Barack Obama’s greatest presidential achievement: He stopped the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression.”

He calculated that while Obama is given credit for a $787 billion stimulus, the federal boost to the economy was really $2.6 trillion over four years.  Though about 8.7 million jobs were lost, the recovery added 15.6 million new jobs.  College enrollment has even declined as some jobless who had taken refuge in enhancing their educations, have found employment.

Prosperity has returned.  Housing prices have recovered.  Interest rates are beginning to return to normal levels, a boon to the retired.
Still, many people feel “disappointed … insecure and shortchanged,” he writes.  Perhaps their new jobs pay less.  Perhaps long-term opportunities are less clear.  Perhaps they have simply given up looking.  An estimated seven million prime-age men no longer want to work.

Less clear is Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  For people who could not afford health insurance coverage, it was a major breakthrough.  But it was flawed, thanks to a poorly conceived marriage of government and private sector insurance.  Immune from being repaired, it may now be killed.

In world affairs, the bad news seems to swamp the good news.  Much of the blame goes back to the ill-conceived Iraq war, launched in 2003.  Just as in Afghanistan, the U.S. had no clear objective.  Even worse, it tried to sponsor nation building without having a good understanding of the nations in question.

Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history.  Iraq has led most people to oppose the use of U.S. forces on the ground in the Middle East or perhaps anywhere.  The muddled American goals in both places have not yet been met.

In Syria, where American policy came to be seen as weak and indecisive, Russia seized the opportunity to assert the leading role in the world that it had lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Will Trump do better than Obama or will he be enthralled with Putin?

On the plus side to most people, Obama ended more than a half-century of failed policy toward Cuba.  The real significance of that move was strengthened U.S. relations with many other countries in Latin America, which opposed America’s Cuba policy.

China’s poor domestic air quality led it to cooperate with Obama on climate issues.  But it managed to enhance its power in Asia.  Not only did it build new, well-armed islands in international waters, but also it induced the Philippine leader, whose country was an American ally, to cozy up to it.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, designed to enforce America’s leadership in the face of China’s moves, seems doomed because it is badly drafted and detracts from the powers of U.S. courts.

For many Americans, accustomed to feeling proud of their country’s dominant role in the world, these developments are unfamiliar and even humiliating.  When Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” his message is meant to respond to this post-Iraq uneasiness.

The country will now try a new approach to governing.  Whether this is the best or worst of times will depend heavily on how much leaders place country above party.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Democrats should stem post election panic, find new leaders

The Democrats are in trouble. Next year, they won’t control either the presidency or the Congress. Only six states will have both a Democratic governor and legislature. In eighteen more, they will hold at least one house of the legislature.
In Maine, the Democrats control the House with a GOP governor and Senate.
The message is not difficult. What the Democrats have been doing doesn’t work. The party needs to renew its appeal to voters. They have taken for granted historic constituencies: workers, minorities, and youth.
Democratic voters are usually willing to support equal rights for all. But each group in the coalition has its core issues, which may only get lip service while a few current issues are pushed.
An Ohio Democratic leader said, “people in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job.”
Because the recession, technology and trade have deprived so many workers of their job security, the rote recital of traditional Democratic promises has lost its appeal. The party’s proposals have not insulated people from unemployment and worry.
Voters could easily find the Democrats too closely aligned with the Wall Street interests that they associated with the greed and excesses that brought on the recession.
Bernie Sanders responded to this concern, but the party’s establishment believed its candidate, a woman with ties to minority groups and committed to traditional policies would beat the dangerous and irresponsible Donald Trump. That was a mistake.
The Democrats will survive just as both parties have recovered after calamitous defeats. But it will not govern if it does not break with its recent past.
That starts with the party itself. Unlike this year, the organization must remain neutral among its leaders. Now it must identify and support new faces to head its federal and state election tickets. Preparing for the 2018 mid-term elections, when the party should pick up seats in Congress, begins now.
The Democratic National Committee chair should be a full-time job. Tacking it onto being a member of Congress implies the Democratic Party is a part-time organization. It needs an articulate and hard worker to serve as its spokesperson while the party is in the wilderness.
The House Democrats have again selected Nancy Pelosi as their leader, more out of sentiment than common sense. She did not provide the spark for major House gains this year and is obviously ill at ease behind a microphone. She represents a wealthy California district, perhaps putting her out of touch with average people.
In the Senate, Democrats picked New York’s Chuck Schumer. Wall Street is his constituency, and he takes care of it.
Pelosi and Schumer hail from the two coasts. Meanwhile, the GOP carried Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, once thought to be solidly Democratic states. Party leadership candidates from mid-America were turned aside in both houses.
In contrast, the GOP leaders, now in charge of both houses, come from Kentucky and Wisconsin.
These days, Democrats despair over their losses, but cling to business as usual. Given their wipeout, the elections should have forced the party into a complete renewal.
It is easy to gain the impression that Democratic office holders want to keep their seats more than take the risks and offer the bold initiatives necessary to regain at least some political leadership.
Being a leader means being willing to take risks. In seeking to recover and renew their agenda, Democrats should focus more on making their renewed case rather than clinging to their seats.
Loretta Lynch, the departing Attorney-General, summed it up: “We have to work for what we want and we have to be committed and we have to keep our voices raised to make sure that people who are in power know that these are important issues.”
Oddly, it’s Donald Trump who ran a risky campaign. He took highly controversial and unconventional positions, not seeming to care about their electoral effect. His obvious willingness to say what many thought was outrageous might have convinced many voters that he really would bring change.
Their defeat has led Democrats and other progressives to wring their hands or even panic about the coming GOP regime. Instead of dithering and complaining about Trump, they should get to work and start rebuilding the alternative for the coming elections.
Where are the new leaders – the innovative, bold and risk-taking Democratic candidates needed for the 2018 election?
In Maine, aspirants for the Democratic nomination for governor should start speaking out now.

Friday, December 9, 2016

“Presidential facts” replace plain facts

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

This bit of wisdom has been attributed to Daniel Moynihan, a college professor turned U.S. senator. But it may now be all wrong.

Defending statements made by President-elect Trump, a campaign loyalist said the  American people “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.” 

Does that mean Americans should not take everything Trump says as fact, but rather as casual chat? If so, people could find themselves getting upset over nothing.

When asked about Trump spreading misinformation, Kellyanne Conway, his final campaign manager, replied, “He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior.”  If Trump says, believes and acts on false information, it becomes fact or at least “presidential” fact. 

By this interpretation, a president gains power over truth and error simply by virtue of winning an election.  Perhaps that reflects the current lack of confidence among many people about what constitutes fact or even if facts exist. 

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palen persistently attacks the “lame-stream media,” her attempt to blame  principal print and electronic news sources, the mainstream media, for liberal bias in their reporting.  But the mainstream media surely includes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, neither of which could be called liberal.

Fox has reported as fact matters that suit its right-wing slant, but which are not supported by proof.  But, to be fair, the New York Times and the Washington Post let their coverage be shaded by their editorial bias.  Their facts may be supported, but their tone tilts.

The media is supposed to report objectively and to provide facts needed by readers and viewers to understand and evaluate what their leaders are asserting.  Often, efforts at objectivity have amounted  to simply providing comments from both sides of an issue and giving them equal weight. 

Whether assertions are correct are dealt with “after the fact.”  So-called fact-checkers on some newspapers provide evidence, pro or con, about political statements, but after the statements have been reported.  That's useful, but inadequate.

Palen and others have succeeded in causing some people to dispute any fact that is offered by the media.  Having lost faith in the news, they may believe there is probably enough evidence either way on most issues.

Take the claim  by Trump and the suggestion by Maine Gov. LePage that this year's elections were subject to massive fraud.  Without being able to show any cases of fraud, let alone massive numbers, such assertions do not stand up.  But many of their supporters may accept them as fact.

Trump might simply regard such a claim as mere campaign talk, not meant to be taken seriously.  We readily accept loose talk by candidates, but presidents have to be more careful, because so much rides on their statements as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

The media must step up to doing a better job of prompt reporting of facts, especially in their historical context.  Blogs, not subject to editorial review, won't suffice. And the media needs to be even more mindful of the need to screen out as much bias in reporting as possible.

Trump can get his facts right and act on them.  Recently, the media, eager too show him up, at first missed his having done that, because he had upset established policy.

He had taken a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, which is claimed  by China but remains independent.  He pointed out that the U.S. does a lot of business with Taiwan, so it made sense for him to accept the call. 

The media went out of its way to stress that American leaders do not talk with Taiwanese leaders because it would anger China.  But didn't Trump promise change?  Might this be an example of it?  The media gradually began to catch on.

The Chinese have taken over a big swath of the high seas by building artificial islands.  They seem unconcerned by apparently tepid U.S. opposition.  The fact of that counterbalancing issue might have been given prominence equal to coverage of the State Department's elitist displeasure with Trump's phone manners.

Facts are real.  No president should be allowed to manufacture them.  It's up to people to demand evidence and more attention to the context of the news and the media to provide it promptly.