What’s at stake

Roger Cohen opines on the implications of Donald Trump, and they’re not pretty.

Trump is telling people something is rotten in the state of America. The message resonates because the rot is there.

Is the American democracy on the verge of collapse? Cohen:

This disoriented America just might want Trump — and that possibility should be taken very seriously, before it is too late, by every believer in American government of the people, by the people, for the people. The power of the Oval Office and the temperament of a bully make for an explosive combination, especially when he has shown contempt for the press, a taste for violence, a consistent inhumanity, a devouring ego and an above-the-law swagger.

As Europe knows, democracies do die. Often, they are the midwives of their own demise. Once lost, the cost of recovery is high.

In his column today, Paul Krugman argues that the very fate of the planet is at stake in November’s election. He’s writing about climate change and his belief that we’re close to a solution, though many scientists say that it’s already too late. Krugman:

And this is by far the most important issue there is; it, er, trumps even such things as health care, financial reform, and inequality.

So I’m going to be hanging on by my fingernails all through this election. No doubt there will be plenty of entertainment along the way, given the freak show taking place on one side of the aisle. But I won’t forget that the stakes this time around are deadly serious. And neither should you.

Will enough people show up at the polls to make a difference? We could just be too busy with other matters, all trivial, of course.

Politics and the bully

David Brooks reaches the obvious point about the state of American politics. It’s either dead or very close.

There are the usual suspects. Certainly, cable news and the evident need to fill the airwaves with something all the time and round the clock contributes. Rising inequality, as mentioned often on these pages, tends to sunder society; how could the plutocrat sympathize with the peon? Some have suggested that the Republican Party produced its own Frankenstein monster, which it can no longer control.  If you’ve read Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money, you’ll appreciate another, and perhaps most important culprit: the Koch brothers and the rise of the angry billionaire.

It is the Kochs, with their staunch libertarianism and obscene bank accounts, that did their best to orchestrate America’s demise, or at least its political culture. After all, they do not want government to begin with, but are surely content to have one that doesn’t work. Dysfunction is clearly a second-best result. Brooks:

Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

Yet, Brooks doesn’t mention the Koch brothers or Jane Mayers’s book. The Kochs have systematically unravelled the political economy, pouring millions, if not billions, of dollars into “a vast, right-wing conspiracy” that has succeeded in reddening most states, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and, they hope, the White House. Mayers writes:

…the influence of the Kochs and their fellow “radicals for capitalism” extended well beyond just zeitgeist. They still might not have been able to take credit for many positive legislative accomplishments, but they had proven instrumental in obstructing those of their opponents. Despite the radicalism of their ideas, which had developed in a direct line from the John Birch Society, the Kochs had fulfilled Charles’s 1981 ambition not just to support elected politicians, whom he regarded as mere “actors playing out a script,” but to “supply the themes and words for the scripts.”

By 2015, their antigovernment lead was followed by much of Congress. Addressing global warming was out of the question. Although economic inequality had reached record levels, raising taxes on the runaway rich and closing special loopholes that advantaged only them were also nonstarters. Funding basic public services like the repair of America’s crumbling infrastructure was also seemingly beyond reach. A majority of the public supported an expansion of the social safety net. But leaders in both parties nevertheless embraced austerity measures popular with the affluent. Even though Americans overwhelmingly opposed cuts in Social Security, for instance, the Beltway consensus was that to save the program, it needed to be shrunk.

Where Brooks is headed is right to Donald Trump. It is the reality-TV host of utter bombast and sleaze that now stands a very good chance of claiming the Republican nomination. The so-called “establishment” regulars appear to be helpless in stopping this fractious fake.

What I find interesting, aside from The Donald himself, is the law of unintended consequences. The Koch brothers succeeded in supplanting the Republican Party, as Mayers chronicles. In so doing, the erstwhile leaders of the GOP, the ones who wanted Romney and the Bushes, have no levers to pull. They have lost control. But neither the Kochs nor the party operatives envisioned the crown going to a clown. Trump is not part of the Koch program. He’s an anomaly who, he says, answers to no one. He cannot be bought, or so he says, not even by the Kochtopus.

Nevertheless, there he is, with all his blustering blather, stoking the nativist fears of a dwindling white majority, promising oblivion to those who dare speak ill of the U.S., while guaranteeing that he, and he alone, will make America “great again.” Brooks:

And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

It’s quite possible, ladies and gentlemen, that we are in the midst of the end times. Forget Washington. Forget Lincoln. Forget the Roosevelts. Heck, even forget Reagan, who at least understood that half a loaf was better than none. We may now give ourselves The Donald, along with completely corrupt political and economic systems. Hey, we’re all just a  bunch of losers, anyways.

SPENDING

Paul Krugman tells us that there’s never been a better time for the federal government to invest in public goods and services. First, the economy and Americans could surely use the work. Second, borrowing costs for the government are at bargain levels.

Right now, federal spending represents just six percent of GDP, with only 1.6 percent of GDP going to public construction, including transportation. Total government spending, including state and local, brings us to about 33 percent of GDP.

How does that last figure compare with our European counterparts?

total government spending:gdp select countries

As you might imagine, there are people in the U.S. who resist government spending. They are essentially all Republicans. But the opposition is quite pronounced among the Koch brothers and their circle of rich, white, angry men. This oligarchy, which has managed to largely supplant the Republican Party in both size and effect, makes sure that we Americans lack the public resources enjoyed by the citizens of Scandinavia and North-central Europe.

Those who dare call attention to the inadequacies are called “socialists.” Therefore, they have absolutely no place in America, a country built on the backs of slaves and a history of bullshit.

Trump!

Trump found the flaw in the American Death Star. It doesn’t know how to turn the cameras off, even when it’s filming its own demise.

That’s the inestimable Matt Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone magazine. I could fill this entire post with similar bon mots from the article. Just read it. You’ll be entertained, certainly. But you’ll also be scared to death. Just consider the essay’s title:

How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable

He’s no ordinary con man. He’s way above average — and the American political system is his easiest mark ever

 

If it were so…

There has been much discussion about an economist’s projections of Bernie Sanders’s economic policies, should they be enacted. Gary Friedman, a University of Massachusetts economics professor, posted this paper, which he marks “draft.” Here’s his executive summary:

The economic proposals of Senator Sanders can be grouped under three headings. First, he proposes spending programs for infrastructure, education, retirement security, health care, and to address the threat of climate change. Second, there are progressive tax increases to pay for these programs, and lastly there are regulatory changes to raise wages and to reduce discrimination against women. In sum, these programs will increase economic growth and employment, reduce poverty and inequality, and balance the federal budget.

Other economists, those who would be sympathetic with Sanders’s progressive ideals, have sharply criticized the paper’s conclusions. Paul Krugman, for one, has devoted considerable ink to challenging Friedman’s assertions, especially as regards economic growth, which Friedman believes would reach 5.3 percent per year—under Sanders’s economic programs. Jeb! Bush promised over four percent growth by slashing taxes and cutting government spending. No way, said Krugman. So, Friedman’s projections undermine his own candidate’s reputation for seriousness, Krugman suggests.

Berkeley’s Brad DeLong also questions Friedman. He writes:

It’s fine to propose aspirational policies based on a hope that the world is such that things will break your way. It’s not so good to put the world breaking your way forward as a central-case forecast of what your policies will do. And it’s distressing that I cannot figure out how to make Friedman’s analysis hold together quantitatively even if I do allow the assumption that the entire output relative to the pre-2007 potential-output trend can be closed easily…

In particular, wonders DeLong, how can $1.4 trillion in additional government spending produce over $14 trillion in added economic output. That’s a multiplier of 10, even though Friedman himself assumes a multiplier of less than three.

That said, other studies (e.g., here) suggest that inequality retards growth. Certainly, Sanders wants to make the rich poorer and the poor richer, through taxes, transfers, and public investments. And there’s no question that as the incomes of the top one percent grow, economic growth sputters.

real gdp gini index to 2015

Politics and global warming

According to a recent study, the strongest predictor of whether or not you believe that climate change is real and mostly human-caused, as most scientists believe, is your political preference. Essentially, if you’re liberal and vote Democratic, you are more likely to think that the globe is warming and will only get hotter, with potentially disastrous consequences—again, as most scientists conclude. However, if you’re a Republican, you also dismiss the fact and science of climate change.

Two broad conclusions emerged. First, many intuitively appealing variables (such as education, sex, subjective knowledge, and experience of extreme weather events) were overshadowed in predictive power by values, ideologies, worldviews and political orientation. Second, climate change beliefs have only a small to moderate effect on the extent to which people are willing to act in climate-friendly ways.

That second conclusion is almost as depressing as the first. Most of us hold fast to our political beliefs, more so if we are conservative, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to convince a Republican that climate change poses a threat to the planet and its species. Yet, as the study’s authors found, even if we accept the reality of climate change and the underlying science, we’re hesitant to do anything about it.

Trump is us (?) [u]

Heaven forbid, of course. What was once deemed laughable has suddenly emerged as a distinct possibility: The Donald wins the Republican nomination. He cannot achieve this without enough support from America’s lunatic fringe, which seems to grow larger with each Trump tweet. A journalist braved the anti-media throng gathered to witness their man Donald in Las Vegas, an appropriate venue for the bombastic reality-TV star. He writes:

I spot a man wearing an American revolution uniform, an off-duty Elvis impersonator, and Robert S Ensler, a working Donald Trump impersonator. Ensler was once a Dean Martin impersonator, but got too old for it and eventually hopped on to the Trump gravy train. I ask him if he has ever met Trump. “Four years ago, I saw him at a women’s Republican event. This is when he first was thinking about running for president. And he was very unpolitically correct, swore, gutter mouth. It was great. I loved it. Everyone went nuts for it. He saw me. He said: ‘I know you. You’re a good-looking guy.’”

Perhaps this is what we deserve.

_________________

UPDATE (Feb. 24, 2016):

Sean Illing, writing for Salon:

All of that is true, but still we’re left with a demand-side problem: The people are getting what they want, and what they want is to have their idiocies and their discontent beamed back at them. Trump is clearly more than a media construction. He’s everything dumb and regressive about our political culture distilled into a single candidate. And he exists only because a sufficient number of Americans want him to – that’s the problem.