The Art of the Flail

Whenever investors suspect that Donald Trump will really go through with his threats of big tariff increases, provoking retaliation abroad, stocks plunge. Every time they decide it’s just theater, stocks recover.

.. while trade is one of Trump’s two signature issues — animus toward dark-skinned people being the other — when it comes to making actual demands on other countries, the tweeter in chief and his aides either don’t know what they want or they want things that our trading partners can’t deliver. Not won’t — can’t.

.. In some ways, China really is a bad actor in the global economy. In particular, it has pretty much thumbed its nose at international rules on intellectual property rights, grabbing foreign technology without proper payment

But if getting China to pay what it owes for technology were the goal, you’d expect the U.S. both to make specific demands on that front and to adopt a strategy aimed at inducing China to meet those demands.

.. In fact, the U.S. has given little indication of what China should do about intellectual property. Meanwhile, if getting better protection of patent rights and so on were the goal, America should be trying to build a coalition with other advanced countries to pressure the Chinese; instead, we’ve been alienating everyone in sight.

.. Anyway, what seems to really bother Trump aren’t China’s genuine policy sins, but its trade surplus with the United States

.. Over all, the U.S. trade deficit is just the flip side of the fact that America attracts more inward investment from foreigners than the amount Americans invest abroad.

.. A decade ago, China’s current account surplus — a broad measure that includes trade in services and income from investments abroad — was more than 9 percent of G.D.P., a very big number. In 2017, however, its surplus was only 1.4 percent of G.D.P., which isn’t much.

.. But in that case, why is “bilateral” trade between the U.S. and China so unbalanced? The answer is that it’s largely a kind of statistical illusion. China is the Great Assembler: it’s where components from other countries, like Japan and South Korea, are put together into consumer products for the U.S. market. So a lot of what we import from China is really produced elsewhere.

.. It’s not clear why we should demand that China stop playing that role.

.. it’s not clear that China could even do much to reduce its bilateral surplus with the U.S.: To do so, it would basically have to have a completely different economy. And this just isn’t going to happen unless we have a full-blown trade war that shuts down much of the global economy as we know it.

.. Oh, and a trade war would also devastate much of pro-Trump rural America, since a large share of our agricultural production — including almost two-thirds of food grains — is exported.

 

The Two Things That Will Determine Netanyahu’s Fate

With the Israeli police recommending that he be indicted, the prime minister is entering a major battle for political survival.

.. Twenty-one years ago, in early 1997, the Israeli police announced its recommendation that Benjamin Netanyahu, then a 47-year-old first-term prime minister, be criminally indicted for breach of public trust.

.. The attorney general in 1997—a well respected jurist beyond suspicion—decided that the case was too weak for trial. Nor did the police recommendation alone cause Netanyahu’s coalition partners to leave the government or go to new elections. And so, the 1997 police recommendation notwithstanding, Netanyahu survived politically and continued to serve until 1999, when he was defeated in the ballot box.

 .. he is entering a major, perhaps final battle for political survival.
.. Case 1000, involves a longstanding Netanyahu household practice of receiving regular gifts from a small set of multi-millionaires, some with business interests in Israel.
.. “Receiving gifts from friends is not forbidden” is the Netanyahu public defense.
.. the case reflects the widespread perception that the Netanyahu family enjoys the good life just a little too much for public servants, and often disregards norms and perhaps even the law in pursuit of perks. Netanyahu, in this regard, ushered in an age of leaders who didn’t espouse the modest, even austere image of the early-day Israeli leaders.  

.. Case 2000, involves the media, and it is in many ways far more troubling. Netanyahu has been media-focused and media-savvy, more than any other Israeli leader.
.. he Madrid peace conference of 1991. He was armed with perfect English, a baritone voice, and an American style of speaking, replete with well-crafted sound-bites, visual gimmicks, and—a novelty in 1990s Israel—an interest in the minutiae of interviews: how to apply makeup and which camera angle to choose for best effect.
.. He seemed then to be part of a wave of young, attractive American-style politicians around the democratic world, such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroder, even if ideologically he was much closer to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl.
.. Over the decades, he has paid a great deal of attention to message management, and, increasingly, to management of the media itself.
.. In 2007, however, something dramatic changed. The main newspapers in Israel suddenly found themselves outmatched in their own game: a new publication, Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”) appeared on Israeli streets. Rather than a hostile tone toward Netanyahu, Israel Hayom (also known as the Bibi-paper) propagated an adoring tone toward Netanyahu and his family, and a hostile one toward Olmert, the center, and the left. Israel Hayom’s cover price was unbeatable: 0.00 shekels.
.. No one suffered more from the entry of Israel Hayom than the old papers, chief among them Yediot Ahronot. The Israeli public took up the free publication; when Netanyahu became prime minister Israel Hayom also adopted a positive, optimistic tone about the direction of the country, and all this at no financial cost to the reader. It became the mostly widely read publication, dethroning Yediot Ahronot after many years, and causing havoc throughout the press scene.
.. Case 2000 surrounds a shocking revelation: a tape recording unearthed in a separate investigation of apparent negotiations between Netanyahu and the publisher of Yediot Ahronot. The purported deal was a detente between the two warring factions: the publisher, Noni Mozes, would provide more favorable coverage for Netanyahu in his paper, and Netanyahu would limit the circulation of the competitor Israel Hayom to weekdays, leaving the lucrative weekend editions to Yediot Ahronot.
.. Netanyahu has claimed that he was just bluffing; there was no real quid-pro-quo, merely a proof of precisely what Netanyahu had been saying all these years: The media moguls were out to get him
.. the deal never came to fruition
.. the police claim, Netanyahu was not bluffing; he convened parliamentarians to see what legislation might be promoted to limit his own ally publication and looked into implementing the deal. He was, they claim, conspiring to use his official position to the benefit of a commercial entity in exchange for a political favor. If a correct interpretation of the facts, that is bribery.

.. Netanyahu has now publicly acknowledged that the “Israel Hayom bill” (not Iran, or the Palestinians, or economic affairs) was the reason for calling the elections
.. Some members of his own party would hope that he resign without an election, meaning that one of them
would replace him temporarily.
.. He may point to the letter of Israeli law, which does not require a prime minister’s resignation until conviction (despite precedent to the contrary
.. Israelis are correct, however, that the string of corruption cases in the past two decades have brought a new a level of shamelessness to Israeli political life.
.. If his term ends in the coming year it will be because he is forced to: most likely his partners eventually force him to resign, or the voting public opts for someone holding a broom.

Victor Cha: Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans

North Korea, if not stopped, will build an arsenal with multiple nuclear missiles meant to threaten the U.S. homeland and blackmail us into abandoning our allies in Asia. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will sell these weapons to state and nonstate actors, and he will inspire other rogue actors who want to undermine the U.S.-backed postwar order. These are real and unprecedented threats. But the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike. Instead, there is a forceful military option available that can address the threat without escalating into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.

.. Some may argue that U.S. casualties and even a wider war on the Korean Peninsula are risks worth taking, given what is at stake.

.. A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, turning what might be a North Korean moneymaking endeavor into a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.

.. I also hope that if North Korea did retaliate militarily, the United States could control the escalation ladder to minimize collateral damage and prevent a collapse of financial markets.

.. the rationale is that a strike that demonstrates U.S. resolve to pursue “all options” is necessary to give the mercurial Kim a “bloody nose.”

.. If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? 

And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?

.. Some have argued the risks are still worth taking because it’s better that people die “over there” than “over here.” On any given day, there are 230,000 Americans in South Korea and 90,000 or so in Japan. Given that an evacuation of so many citizens would be virtually impossible ..

.. these Americans would most likely have to hunker down until the war was over.

.. To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.

.. An alternative coercive strategy involves enhanced and sustained U.S., regional and global pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize. This strategy is likely to deliver the same potential benefits as a limited strike, along with other advantages, without the self-destructive costs.

  1. .. First, the Trump administration must continue to strengthen the coalition of U.N. member states
  2. Second, the United States must significantly up-gun its alliances with Japan and South Korea with integrated missile defense, intelligence-sharing and anti-submarine warfare and strike capabilities to convey to North Korea that an attack on one is an attack on all.
  3. Third, the United States must build a maritime coalition around North Korea involving rings of South Korean, Japanese and broader U.S. assets to intercept any nuclear missiles or technologies leaving the country. China and Russia should be prepared to face the consequences if they allow North Korean proliferation across their borders.
  4. Lastly, the United States must continue to prepare military options. Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.

.. This strategy gets us out of crisis-management mode. It constitutes decisive action, not previously attempted, by President Trump. And it demonstrates resolve to other bad actors that threats to the United States will be countered.

Donald Trump’s secret political weapon is his mastery of reality TV

He’s aware of the storylines, and he reacts to various challenges to his authority as if they’re just weird turns the producers came up with behind the scenes. This should come as no surprise. This is how you win in reality TV, a format Trump is eminently comfortable in.

Donald Trump’s true antecedent isn’t Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, or even Mitt Romney. It’s Richard Hatch, the guy who won the first season of Survivor.

.. Hatch gleefully styled himself as the contestant you loved to hate and invented reality TV as we know it. The producers were only too happy to follow along.

.. Hatch invented the alliance — the voting bloc that would carry a contestant to the finals. He double-crossed others with impunity. And he generally seemed to get a huge kick out of behaving like a total asshole on TV. Hatch understood, on some intuitive level, that we wanted to see people give in to their own worst, most amoral impulses on our TV sets, and where he went, reality TV followed. Reality TV wasn’t for the nice or pure of heart. It was for the nasty, and in that first season, Hatch alone seemed to grasp this.

.. What’s also notable here is the way Hatch drew to himself a coalition of people who wouldn’t necessarily have kept company with him in other situations, simply because he rarely blinked and seemed like he knew what he was doing in a most unusual situation.
.. Richard was the one guy who seemed like he could see the whole picture, simply because he didn’t let things throw him, and that caused others to gravitate toward him, even as they were fairly certain he would stab them in the back eventually.
.. Watch again, if you can, Trump’s confrontation with Megyn Kelly over his previous misogynistic statements. Try to ignore, if possible, how horrible those statements are. Instead, focus entirely on how Trump carries himself.
.. For starters, Trump doesn’t shrink from Kelly’s challenge. He stays ramrod straight at the podium, and he doesn’t shift or move around. That’s pretty basic stuff, but you’d be surprised how many politicians who are under the gun forget all about it.Now notice how he uses his hands. His gestures are kept close to his body, so they don’t fly out too far from the audience’s attention or distract from the speaker at hand. He’s essentially keeping the center of the screen focused entirely on him, even when the Fox News chyron pushes him into the left half of the screen. This is, again, something politicians know to do (keeping your gestures small and forceful conveys control over your own emotions),

.. But also look at how good Trump is at sliding what he wants to say in between what Kelly is saying. He holds up a single finger, the universal symbol of “My turn.” He waits for just the right pause to jump in. And he doesn’t let Kelly continuing to speak deter him. He knows exactly how to do this, because, in so many ways, Trump is just back on reality television at this moment. If anything, he makes Kelly seem like she’s out of control of the situation, on a night when Kelly’s performance was generally very good. And that’s to say nothing of how quickly he comes up with this little quip to turn the audience to his side.

Donald Trump knows exactly how to play to the camera. (Fox News)

Yes, some of what makes Trump good at this sort of thing is that he’s got ample business experience. But even more than that, he’s got ample reality TV experience, and he learned from Burnett, who learned from Hatch, that someone who seemed a little imperious, aloof, and utterly unconcerned with what others were doing around him could make for riveting television.

NBC actually promoted The Apprentice in this way for years. You won’t believe what Trump does next! But despite his frequently strange decisions, he rarely was ridden down as out of touch. Part of that is the simple suspicion most of us have that reality TV is heavily controlled by the producers (and thus Trump was as well). But just as much is due to the fact that Trump held court in the boardroom in a way that made everything he did, no matter how out there, seem like a perfectly logical decision.

Indeed, watch this famous firing of (as the YouTube description says) not one, not two, not three, but four people, and you’ll see glimpses of the Trump who took the debate by storm.

Reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV

We have a tendency to write off reality TV in America as lowest-common-denominator entertainment, because a lot of it is. But the specific storytelling forms and cinematic tricks of reality have more or less become central parts of our current cultural vernacular. Is it any wonder they’ve entered politics as well?

When people talk about Trump as a reality TV personality, then, they’re trying to ride him down, to suggest he’s unserious or simply there for entertainment value. And all of that may well be true.

But this ignores that reality TV is really popular, and Trump is really good at being on reality TV. And, more specifically, the skills he learned on reality TV make him better equipped to handle tough challenges and big pushback than other candidates who’ve gotten in similar hot water. The usual way to deal with something like what Kelly accuses Trump of is quick contrition, followed by a pivot to a talking point or two.

But Trump is, as Ezra Klein has noted, without shame, because he’s a reality TV character who’s escaped into a presidential race. He avoids the contrition and jumps straight to whatever he wants to talk about. It’s the debate equivalent of the reality TV confessional, where the contestant tells us what he’s really thinking.

That’s what makes him more dangerous than many political observers will allow. As we saw with Richard Hatch, unflappability plays beautifully on television, and it makes for wildly entertaining viewing. The contents of Trump’s message are loathsome to many, including many Republicans, but the package Trump is selling them in is market-tested and ready to ship. Compared with many of his competitors, especially, Trump seems to be playing at a whole other level when it comes to live television.

The smart money is still on Trump eventually self-combusting, crumbling under the weight of his own hubris. But, then, the smart money in that first season of Survivor was on the fellow members of Richard’s alliance realizing he didn’t have their best interests at heart and tossing him overboard — and that simply never happened.

On television, never look for the person who’s playing the game best. Look for the person who’s realized the rules are only a suggestion. That’s the person the audience wants to watch — and that’s the person who just might win.

 ..  he learned from Burnett, who learned from Hatch, that someone who seemed a little imperious, aloof, and utterly unconcerned with what others were doing around him could make for riveting television.
.. NBC actually promoted The Apprentice in this way for years. You won’t believe what Trump does next! But despite his frequently strange decisions, he rarely was ridden down as out of touch. Part of that is the simple suspicion most of us have that reality TV is heavily controlled by the producers (and thus Trump was as well). But just as much is due to the fact that Trump held court in the boardroom in a way that made everything he did, no matter how out there, seem like a perfectly logical decision.
.. We have a tendency to write off reality TV in America as lowest-common-denominator entertainment, because a lot of it is. But the specific storytelling forms and cinematic tricks of reality have more or less become central parts of our current cultural vernacular. Is it any wonder they’ve entered politics as well?
.. The usual way to deal with something like what Kelly accuses Trump of is quick contrition, followed by a pivot to a talking point or two.
.. But Trump is, as Ezra Klein has noted, without shame, because he’s a reality TV character who’s escaped into a presidential race. He avoids the contrition and jumps straight to whatever he wants to talk about.
.. As we saw with Richard Hatch, unflappability plays beautifully on television, and it makes for wildly entertaining viewing. The contents of Trump’s message are loathsome to many, including many Republicans, but the package Trump is selling them in is market-tested and ready to ship. Compared with many of his competitors, especially, Trump seems to be playing at a whole other level when it comes to live television.
.. But, then, the smart money in that first season of Survivor was on the fellow members of Richard’s alliance realizing he didn’t have their best interests at heart and tossing him overboard — and that simply never happened.
.. On television, never look for the person who’s playing the game best. Look for the person who’s realized the rules are only a suggestion. That’s the person the audience wants to watch — and that’s the person who just might win.