Friday, January 27, 2017

Trump, Democrats look backwards -- that won't help economy

Both President Donald Trump and the Democrats are looking backwards.

Trump offers a return to the past in government action on trade with other countries and in a far more limited government. That last word in his slogan “Make America Great Again” may be its key word.

Democrats and progressives lament Trump's arrival and what they regard as his rejection of fundamental truths of the American political tradition. Shocked, they wait in anguish for Americans to come to their senses and return to their party's traditional policies, ultimately rejecting and expelling Trump.

Trump's election was not simply a matter of making Americans feel better about their country. It was not only another version of Custer's last stand, the battle of a country traditionally run by white men against the soon-to-arrive majority of non-white Americans. And it was not simply because the Democrats had lost their focus.

Trump's winning support came from voters worried about what might be called a second Industrial Revolution. The first had introduced machinery that would replace working people. The second is introducing machinery replacing both machinery and many manufacturing jobs.

When the Industrial Revolution came, some French workers were said to have removed their wooden clogs, called sabots, and thrown them into the machines to cause them to break down. From this may have come the word sabotage.

In England, the same movement was sparked by Ned Ludd, who supposedly destroyed a couple of knitting machines. Those who followed him came to be known as Luddites. Like the French workers, they were eventually defeated by the forces of industrialization. The resulting growth in the new economy created even more jobs.

The changing economy is now rapidly and drastically reducing jobs that are done by rote. If a worker on an assembly line can be replaced by a robot that can do the same job, he or she will be replaced. Manufacturing can increasingly be done by machines that need no pay, no benefits, no vacation, and no labor union.

To this must be added Americans' ever expanding ability to purchase manufactured goods from other countries with lower labor costs and weaker environmental standards.

People who lose their jobs, because of technological change or imports, are disoriented. How do they earn a living? If we can go back to the way work used to be, people may believe they will again work in coal mines or auto factories.

Trump wants to change the rules of the game to make possible a return to an earlier economy (“the old days”). Rules controlling the mining and use of coal will be relaxed. Pipelines will be built. Outright protectionism will impose higher tariffs on goods from China, Mexico and the rest of the world (“America First”).

With jobs as the paramount goal, Trump ignores the fact that burning more coal will harm the air Americans breath. He does not recognize that cutting American imports will also lead to reduced American exports as other countries retaliate. Blocking lower cost imports will raise consumer costs.

What Trump wants to do to create jobs will come at great cost, especially if the U.S. falls behind the rest of the world as the second Industrial Revolution advances elsewhere, and China takes America's place as the dominant economic power.

In short, Donald Trump is a Luddite. He is trying to reverse the course of economic history. By focusing on resistance to change, he sacrifices consumers, the environment and ultimately the workers themselves.

Do the Democrats offer an alternative, answers to dealing with change? They now to focus their attention on Trump's abandonment of traditional values, failing to recognize that may not be where the debate is.

The Democrats need to stop wringing their hands and clinging to retread leadership. They need to renew their historic alliance with working people by coming up with reasonable and positive proposals for coping with the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.

Republicans, too, should avoid giving Trump a free hand simply because he seized the GOP banner and won. The proposal by Sen. Susan Collins and her Louisiana colleague on reforming the Affordable Care Act opens discussion of the kind of positive alternative both Trump and the Democrats should have had in their back pockets.

Looking backwards and giving in to the dangerous and outmoded policies promoted by the undisciplined new president cannot restore the economy and promote progress.

And even while disagreeing, both parties need to insist on civil discourse against Trump's petulant and ultimately destructive outbursts. Congress must assert itself – now.

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.