Ajit Pai, Barack Obama, Bill Weld, Donald Trump, Drug War, eminent domain, Entitlement Reform, Executive Authority, FCC, FDA, Fourth Amendment, Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Industrial Policy, Jim O'Neil, Keystone Pipeline, Legal Immigration, Limited government, Paris Climate Accord, Protectionism, Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex, Standing Rock Sioux, State's Rights, Trade Partnerships, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump's Great Wall, USA Freedom Act, Wilbur Ross
This guy I voted for… Hoo boy! I’m tellin’ ya’, this guy’s a real beaut! But now, it’s time for me to make an accounting of the good and the bad I see in a Donald Trump presidency. I’ll cover a number of policy areas and how well I think, at this point, the Trump Administration will match my preferences, which are generally libertarian. In posting this list, I’m reminded of a wonderful quote of the late guitarist Jerry Garcia on his ideas for a new project: “I’m shopping around for something to do that no one will like.” I certainly don’t expect many to agree with the entirety of my “scorecard”, but here it is. But before getting to it, a few preliminaries:
First, I’ve had mixed feelings about Trump since he first announced that he’d seek the republican nomination. A basic concern was the difficulty of knowing his real philosophy about the role of government and fundamental constitutional rights. Trump has a history of contradictory positions on big issues like taxes, health care, and gun rights. It was a gamble to count on him to follow any particular idealogical course, and some of it remains unclear even now. My misgivings about Trump’s inclinations as a whirligig were discussed on Sacred Cow Chips in “Trump Flaunts Shape-Shifting Powers” in 2015. Uncertainty still colors my views, though his cabinet picks and other alliances have served to clarify the direction of policy. My discussion below reflects this uncertainty. Also, Trump shows every intention of moving fast on a number of fronts, so I hope the relevance of this post isn’t too perishable.
Second, it’s worth noting that Trump’s policy statements and predilection to “keep-’em-guessing” are probably a by-product of his instincts as a negotiator. His bellicosity may be something of a ploy to negotiate more favorable compromises in international affairs, trade and domestic issues. Still, I can’t know that. Should I evaluate all those statements at face value as policy positions? I have to make some allowance for the reasonability of a bargaining position, but I’ll try to be consistent in my approach.
Third, revelations during the campaign of Trump’s past remarks about women, and some in-campaign remarks like his attack on Megyn Kelly, were highly offensive. I’ve heard plenty of “locker-room talk” over my years, but some of Trump’s statements were made well outside the locker room and well beyond the age at which “youthful indiscretion” could be taken as a mitigating factor. Trump has plenty of female defenders, however, and he has a record of placing women in key roles within the Trump organization and for paying them well. While I do not condone the remarks, and I doubt that complete reform is possible, he cannot change his history and he is now the president. Evaluating his policy positions is now an entirely separate matter. I only hope the exposure has taught him to be more respectful.
Finally, I do not buy the narrative that Trump is a racist. This “Crying Wolf” essay on Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex blog demonstrates that Trump’s rhetoric and behavior during his campaign was not racist when viewed in the broader context of his record of denigrating anyone who opposes him. He seems to be an equal opportunity offender! In fact, Trump made strong attempts to appeal to minority voters and succeeded to some extent. His positions on border security and immigration were boisterous, but they were not truly about race or ethnicity. Instead, they were rooted in concerns about illegal immigration and public safety. Efforts by the left to characterize those points as de facto evidence of racism are simply not credible. Nor are claims that he practiced racial discrimination at his apartment buildings early in his career. Today, I would call those cases garden-variety disparate impact actions, as when a business is challenged on the use of screening criteria that might be correlated with race, such as credit rating. A legitimate business purpose is generally a valid defense, though Trump did agree to settle out of court.
So what about Trump from a policy perspective? Here is what I expect of his administration thus far:
I’m Pretty Sure of the Following, Which I Rate As Bad
Trump is a protectionist. He is extremely ignorant of trade principles and favors import duties to punish those who wish to purchase goods from abroad. This would raise both domestic and import prices and directly harm employment in import-dependent industries. It would also discourage innovation by domestic producers, who would face less competition. I cover these protectionist tendencies here as an unqualified negative, but I have a more mixed view on his opposition to certain government-negotiated trade agreements (e.g., the Trans-Pacific Partnership ), which are covered below.
Trump is likely to be a drug warrior. He could do much to restore order in inner cities by ending the drug war, but he will not. He will thereby encourage activity in the black market for drugs, which produces both violence and more dangerous varieties of drugs. He might well interfere with the rights of states to determine their own policies toward relatively benign substances like marijuana, including medical marijuana, by choosing to enforce destructive federal drug laws. The possible appointment of marijuana legalization advocate Jim O’Neil to head the FDA looks decreasingly likely. That might be a game changer, but I doubt it will happen.
Big public infrastructure outlays. This is distinct from private infrastructure, to be discussed below. The latter is motivated by private willingness-to-pay. Rushing into a large public construction program with questionable economic justification will bring waste, and it will probably be sold as an economic stimulus package, which is unnecessary and dangerous at a time when the economy is finally operating near capacity. The decrepitude of American infrastructure is greatly exaggerated by those with a private interest in such projects, and the media eats it up. The breathless promotion of massive but noneconomic projects like high-speed rail is also greeted with enthusiasm by the media. And politicians love to boast to constituents of their efforts to secure federal funds for big local projects. We also know that Trump wants to build a massive border wall, but I’m convinced that border security could be achieved at lower cost by leveraging surveillance technology and other, less costly barriers.
Deficits: Increased defense outlays, a big infrastructure package, a “great” wall, tax credits and lower tax rates will almost certainly add up to ballooning federal deficits in the years ahead. That fiscal combination will be unsustainable if accompanied by higher interest rates and could very well have inflationary consequences.
Trump favors public and private eminent domain and believes it should be treated as a hallowed institution. He truly thinks that a “higher-valued use” is a superior claim to existing ownership of property. This is perverse. I have trouble accepting eminent domain action even for a public purpose, let alone a private purpose; it should only be motivated by the most compelling public interest, as a last resort, and with handsome compensation to the existing property owner. We can only hope that Trump’s public and private infrastructure programs do not lead to many takings of this kind.
Industrial policy. This is the essence of government central planning, picking winners and losers by granting tax and loan subsidies, lenient reviews, and other advantages. The most obvious example of Trump’s amenability to industrial policy is his penchant for trade protectionism, but I fear it will go much deeper. For some reason, Trump believes that manufacturing activity creates private and public benefits far beyond its market value. Moreover, manufacturers require far fewer workers now than they did in his youth, so the sector is not the job engine it once was. His appointee for Commerce Secretary is Wilbur Ross, an investor with a history of trading on prospects for government assistance. This article provides disturbing background on Ross, along with this quote: “We ought, as a country, to decide which industries are we going to really promote — the so-called industries of the future.” Trump’s plan to meet regularly with leaders of giant corporations is a sure sign that corporatism will be alive and well for at least the next four years… as long as they tow The Donald’s line.
Restricting Legal Immigration. I’m all for securing the border, but legal immigration is a major driver of economic growth. Many industries rely on a flow of skilled and unskilled workers from abroad, a need that will be more intense given Trump’s plan to tax outsourcing. Moreover, the country will face a low ratio of workers to retirees over the next few decades; short of massive entitlement reform, immigration is perhaps the only real chance of meeting public obligations to retirees.
Endangered Privacy Rights: As a “law and order” guy, Donald Trump might not be a reliable defender of the privacy protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. He has expressed a willingness to repeal the USA Freedom Act, which restricts the bulk collection of metadata and provides other privacy protections. Trump also has expressed an interest in forcing technology companies to enable “back doors” into the devices and programs they sell to the public. I’m concerned that we’ll see the creation of security databases with an excessively broad scope. As a likely drug warrior, Trump will support the sort of privacy violations in law enforcement that have become all too common.
I’m Pretty Sure of the Following, Which I Rate As Good
He’s not Hillary Clinton, and he is not a statist in the mold of Clinton and Barack Obama, though he does embody some statist tendencies as described above. I thought I would vote for Gary Johnson, but he made crucial mistakes, such as choosing Bill Weld as his running mate and fumbling at attempts to explain libertarian philosophy. At some point, my distaste for Clinton’s criminality and her advocacy of big government in so many aspects of life convinced me she had to be defeated, and that Trump was the only real possibility. But whether he can actually reduce the resources that the federal government absorbs is hard to say, as he has his own spending priorities.
Trump favors deregulation generally, as it places an enormous burden on society’s ability to improve well being. This covers aspects of the Affordable Care Act and reducing the role of the federal government in education. He opposes the costly Paris Climate Accord and other intrusive federal environmental measures, such as wetlands regulation.
Obamacare repeal and replacement with market-oriented delivery of health care, insurance with broad choices, and equalized tax treatment across the employer and individual market segments via refundable tax credits. There is a chance that Trump’s preferred alternative will assign excessive responsibility to the federal government rather than markets, but I’m optimistic on this point.
Entitlement reform is a possibility. Social Security and Medicare are insolvent. Ideas about how future retirees might take advantage of market opportunities should be explored. This includes private retirement accounts with choices of investment direction and greater emphasis on alternatives like Medicare Advantage.
Tax reform of some kind is on Trump’s agenda. This is likely to involve lower corporate and individual tax rates and some tax simplification. It is likely to stimulate economic growth from both the demand and the supply sides. In the short-run, traditional demand-side macroeconomic analysis would suggest that upward price pressures could arise. However, by encouraging saving and investment, the economy’s production capacity would increase, mitigating price pressure in the longer run.
Trump favors border security. No mystery here. My enthusiasm for this is not based on a physical wall at the border. That might come and it might be very costly. I favor a liberalized but controlled flow of immigration and vetting of all immigrants. The recent order of a temporary hold on refugees from a short list of countries will be of concern if it is not short-lived, and it remains to be seen what “extreme vetting” will entail. Nevertheless, I support enhanced integrity of our borders and our right as a nation to be cautious about who enters.
Education reform and school choice. Increased spending on public education, especially at the federal level, has made no contribution to educational productivity, and the country is burdened with too many failing schools.
Encouraging private infrastructure. This relies on private incentives to build and finance infrastructure based on users’ willingness to pay, thereby avoiding stress on public funding capacity.
Deregulating energy: This includes encouraging zero-carbon nuclear power, deregulation of fossil fuels, and lower energy costs.
Deregulating financial institutions. Repeal of the burdensome Dodd-Frank Act, which has imposed costs on both banks and consumers with little promise of a benefit in terms of financial stability.
Unabashed support for Israel. I strongly favor repairing our damaged ties with Israel and the proposed move of our embassy to West Jerusalem, which has been a part of Israel proper since its founding. Israel is the only real democracy in the middle east and a strong ally in an extremely dangerous part of the globe.
Trump supports Second Amendment rights. This is fundamental. Private gun ownership is the single-best line of self-defense, especially for those with the misfortune to live in areas rife with black market drug activity.
States’ rights and federalism. On a range of issues, Trump seems amenable to transferring more responsibility to states, rather than asserting federal supremacy on issues that are unsettled from region-to-region.
Ending federal funding for abortion. Tax dollars should not be used for a purpose that is morally abhorrent to a large segment of the population. This is not the same as the “right” to abort a child, as settled by Roe vs. Wade.
Putting the screws to the UN. This organization is not aligned with U.S. interests, yet the U.S. foots a large part of the bill for its activities. Sharp reductions in funding would be a powerful message.
Reduced federal funding for the arts. I’ve never been comfortable with allowing the federal government to disburse funds in support of the arts. Lower levels of government are less objectionable, where there is greater accountability to local voters. Dependence on federal purse strings creates a powerful line of influence that usurps authority and may conflict with the desires of local taxpayers. Individuals pay for art voluntarily if they find it of value, and people give privately to support the arts for the same reason. Federal taxpayers certainly have other valued uses for the funds. Art is not a “public good” in a strict sense, and its external benefits, to the extent they exist, do not justify a federal role.
Reversing the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Trump has appointed Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the FCC. Pai is no fan of net neutrality, a policy that rewards heavy users of network capacity and is likely to discourage the growth of network infrastructure.
I’m Not Sure How To Rate the Following
Foreign policy reset. I welcome several likely foreign policy initiatives from the Trump Administration, such as deemphasizing our role in the UN, restoring our relationship with Israel, and taking a harder line on nuclear development by Iran. I also favor greater scrutiny of outlays for foreign aid, much of which is subject to graft by recipient governments. However, I would not welcome a continuation of foreign policy designed around U.S. strategic interests that are, in fact, private investments.
Defense build-up. Our armed forces have suffered a decline in their ability to defend the country during the Obama years. I favor some restoration of the defense budget, but I am concerned that Trump will go on a defense binge. I’m also concerned about how aggressively he’ll wish to project American power overseas. Let’s not go to war!
Upending Trade Partnerships. I am a free-trader, and I abhor Trump’s belligerent talk about erecting trade barriers. So how could I be “unsure” about anything that promotes trade? Formal trade partnerships between nations are an aggravation to me because governments don’t trade… people do! And they do because they reap unambiguous benefits from trade. I’d much rather the U.S. simply eliminated all trade barriers unilaterally than get entangled in complicated trade agreements. These agreements are rats nests. They stipulate all sorts of conditions that are not trade related, such as environmental rules and labor policy. I therefore view them as a compromise to sovereignty and a potential impediment to economic growth. To the extent that trade agreements can be renegotiated in our favor, I should not complain. And to the extent that we’ll never see a government allow completely free and open trade, I should probably hope for agreements that at least reduce trade barriers.
The Keystone pipeline. I am happy with Trump’s decision to approve completion of the pipeline on its merits for energy delivery, and also because it is environmentally less risky than rail, barge and container ships. And yes, it is private infrastructure. But I am unhappy about the heavy application of eminent domain against landowners in the path of the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition is suspect because the path does not cross its tribal land, and the tribe originally gave its consent to the project. The tribe’s recent position could be an effort to extract rents from the process.
Executive authority. I am somewhat wary of Trump’s aggressiveness thus far. He seems eager to take actions that are questionable under existing law, such as seizing wire-transfer remittances by undocumented immigrants. Granted, he is busy “undoing” some of Obama’s actions, but let’s hope he doesn’t get carried away.
What we have here is a very mixed bag of policies. On the whole, I’m still pleased that Trump was elected. I believe he favors a smaller role for government in most affairs. But while the balance of considerations listed above seems to be in Trump’s favor, the negatives have the potential to be disastrous. He certainly wants to spend. My biggest fears, however, are that Trump will not respect the Constitution, that he will govern as a cronyist, and that he will succumb to the notion that he can actively manage the economy like a casino build.