The right has made irresponsible behavior a key principle.
America’s response to the coronavirus has been a lose-lose proposition.
The Trump administration and governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis insisted that there was no trade-off between economic growth and controlling the disease, and they were right — but not in the way they expected.
Premature reopening led to a surge in infections: Adjusted for population, Americans are currently dying from Covid-19 at around 15 times the rate in the European Union or Canada. Yet the “rocket ship” recovery Donald Trump promised has crashed and burned: Job growth appears to have stalled or reversed, especially in states that were most aggressive about lifting social distancing mandates, and early indications are that the U.S. economy is lagging behind the economies of major European nations.
So we’re failing dismally on both the epidemiological and the economic fronts. But why?
On the face of it, the answer is that Trump and allies were so eager to see big jobs numbers that they ignored both infection risks and the way a resurgent pandemic would undermine the economy. As I and others have said, they failed the marshmallow test, sacrificing the future because they weren’t willing to show a little patience.
And there’s surely a lot to that explanation. But it isn’t the whole story.
For one thing, people truly focused on restarting the economy should have been big supporters of measures to limit infections without hurting business — above all, getting Americans to wear face masks. Instead, Trump ridiculed those in masks as “politically correct,” while Republican governors not only refused to mandate mask-wearing, but they prevented mayors from imposing local mask rules.
Also, politicians eager to see the economy bounce back should have wanted to sustain consumer purchasing power until wages recovered. Instead, Senate Republicans ignored the looming July 31 expiration of special unemployment benefits, which means that tens of millions of workers are about to see a huge hit to their incomes, damaging the economy as a whole.
So what was going on? Were our leaders just stupid? Well, maybe. But there’s a deeper explanation of the profoundly self-destructive behavior of Trump and his allies: They were all members of America’s cult of selfishness.
You see, the modern U.S. right is committed to the proposition that greed is good, that we’re all better off when individuals engage in the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. In their vision, unrestricted profit maximization by businesses and unregulated consumer choice is the recipe for a good society.
Support for this proposition is, if anything, more emotional than intellectual. I’ve long been struck by the intensity of right-wing anger against relatively trivial regulations, like bans on phosphates in detergent and efficiency standards for light bulbs. It’s the principle of the thing: Many on the right are enraged at any suggestion that their actions should take other people’s welfare into account.
This rage is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom. But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call “freedom” is actually absence of responsibility.
Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.
Indeed, it sometimes seems as if right-wingers actually make a point of behaving irresponsibly. Remember how Senator Rand Paul, who was worried that he might have Covid-19 (he did), wandered around the Senate and even used the gym while waiting for his test results?
Anger at any suggestion of social responsibility also helps explain the looming fiscal catastrophe. It’s striking how emotional many Republicans get in their opposition to the temporary rise in unemployment benefits; for example, Senator Lindsey Graham declared that these benefits would be extended “over our dead bodies.” Why such hatred?
It’s not because the benefits are making workers unwilling to take jobs. There’s no evidence that this is happening — it’s just something Republicans want to believe. And in any case, economic arguments can’t explain the rage.
Again, it’s the principle. Aiding the unemployed, even if their joblessness isn’t their own fault, is a tacit admission that lucky Americans should help their less-fortunate fellow citizens. And that’s an admission the right doesn’t want to make.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Republicans are selfish. We’d be doing much better if that were all there were to it. The point, instead, is that they’ve sacralized selfishness, hurting their own political prospects by insisting on the right to act selfishly even when it hurts others.
What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness. And this cult is killing us.
WASHINGTON — A former top Federal Reserve official implied that the central bank should consider allowing President Trump’s trade war to hurt his 2020 election chances, an assertion that drew a firestorm of criticism and a rare pushback from the Fed itself.
William Dudley, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now a research scholar at Princeton University, said in a Bloomberg Opinion piece that “Trump’s re-election arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy.” Mr. Dudley added that “if the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”
It is a controversial statement, particularly coming from an official who ranked among the Fed’s most powerful policymakers as recently as 2018. It also comes at a sensitive moment for the Fed, which has been under attack from Mr. Trump and trying to assert its independence from the White House and politics in general.
“The Federal Reserve’s policy decisions are guided solely by its congressional mandate to maintain price stability and maximum employment,” Michelle Smith, a Fed spokeswoman, said when asked about the column. “Political considerations play absolutely no role.”
Mr. Trump has waged a yearlong campaign to pressure the Fed to cut rates, accusing the central bank of hurting the economy by keeping rates too high and putting the United States at a disadvantage to other nations, like China and Germany.
“The Federal Reserve loves watching our manufacturers struggle with their exports to the benefit of other parts of the world,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet on Tuesday. “Has anyone looked at what almost all other countries are doing to take advantage of the good old USA? Our Fed has been calling it wrong for too long!”
The attacks have put the Fed on the defensive, prompting top officials including Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, to insist that the central bank sets policy to achieve economic goals without taking politics into account.
The Fed cut rates for the first time in more than a decade in July and has kept the door open to future cuts, with Mr. Powell saying the central bank is prepared to act to protect the economy against slowing global growth and as Mr. Trump’s trade fights stoke uncertainty.
Mr. Dudley essentially said the Fed should wade into politics, arguing that the central bank should consider the political ramifications of the policy decisions it makes. By lowering interest rates to offset economic harm caused by Mr. Trump’s trade war with China, Mr. Dudley said the central bank could give the White House room to ramp up trade tensions.
“The central bank’s efforts to cushion the blow might not be merely ineffectual,” he wrote. “They might actually make things worse.”
Fed watchers responded to Mr. Dudley’s piece with widespread concern, asserting that it could feed conspiracy theories that the central bank is trying to influence political outcomes.
“The Fed for decades has scrupulously avoided doing that, and has tried to avoid giving that perception,” said Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “And this isn’t some ‘deep state’ fake: They genuinely don’t want to get into it, because ultimately they are accountable to Congress.”
Mr. Trump announced an escalation of the trade war with China just a day after the Fed cut rates in July, and the concern that Fed policy is enabling the tariffs is often repeated by analysts. Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute said it was a valid point to raise and consider.
But Mr. Strain pushed back against the idea that the Fed’s policymakers should try to guide political outcomes.
“It’s wildly irresponsible,” he said. “The Fed is not elected; it is appointed. It has a responsibility to adhere to a narrow reading of its mandate.”
The central bank’s leadership consists of 12 regional presidents, who are selected by businesspeople and community leaders from their districts and who share four annually rotating votes on interest rates. The New York Fed president is the most powerful regional leader and has a constant vote on policy.
The rate-setting committee also includes seven governors who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only five of those positions are currently filled, although Mr. Trump has said he intends to nominate another two members to the Fed.
The Fed does not answer to the White House by design: It is removed from politics so that it will make better long-term decisions for the economy, rather than trying to goose the economy going into election years. It is, however, responsible to Congress, which can change the rules that govern it.
That insulation has, historically, helped to fuel criticism that the Fed is removed from the public and in the pocket of bankers. The central bank has long been the target of conspiracy theories, and popular books about it have borne titles like “Secrets of the Temple.”
More recently, the president has placed the central bank firmly in political cross hairs. In a Twitter post last week, he asked whether Mr. Powell or President Xi Jinping of China was a “bigger enemy” of the United States. Mr. Trump has reportedly considered firing or demoting Mr. Powell in the past, and he recently told reporters that he would accept Mr. Powell’s resignation if it were offered.
Despite that pressure campaign, Fed officials have repeatedly pushed back against the idea that they would in any way take the White House’s comments or potential actions into account when setting policy.
“We’re never going to take political considerations into account or discuss them as part of our work,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference in January. “We’re human. We make mistakes. But we’re not going to make mistakes of character or integrity.”
They took the best growth picture in a decade and put us in danger of recession.
Why are so many key global leaders pursuing so many stupid economic policies?
As recently as January 2018, the International Monetary Fund issued one of its most upbeat economic forecasts in recent years, extolling “broad based” growth, with “notable upside surprises.”
By last month, the fund had sliced its forecast for expansion this year to 3.2 percent — a significant falloff from the 3.9 percent projection reiterated just six months earlier — and had pronounced the economic picture “sluggish.” American investors are more concerned; the bond market is sounding its loudest recessionary alarm since April 2007.
The deterioration in the economic picture is not the consequence of irresponsible behavior by banks or a natural disaster or an unanticipated economic shock; it’s completely self-inflicted by major world leaders who have delivered almost universally poor economic stewardship.
The trade war initiated by President Trump sits firmly atop the list of bad policies. But Brexit has tipped Britain into economic contraction. With European governments unwilling to pursue structural reforms, the continent is barely growing. President Xi Jinping of China has focused on standing up to Mr. Trump and solidifying his own power. After a promising start reforming the economy, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has turned instead to oppressing his country’s Muslim minority.
None of this was necessary. As the January 2018 I.M.F. report indicated, the world economy was firing on all cylinders — “the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010” — as jobs were being added and inflation remained subdued.
Yes, Mr. Trump’s trade war and Brexit loomed, but amid hope that the former would prove empty and the latter would be softened.
Not so today.
Often against the recommendations of his more sensible advisers, Mr. Trump has implemented the country’s most protectionist actions since the 1930s. As a result, world trade has begun to fall for the first time in a decade, with noticeable economic impact. Last week, Goldman Sachs cut its already modest projections for fourth-quarter growth to 1.8 percent from 2 percent.
That’s a far cry from the “4, 5, 6” percent that Mr. Trump talked about just before his tax cut passed.Nor has that been Mr. Trump’s only misstep in economic policy. Instead of nurturing growth with important investments like a robust infrastructure program, Mr. Trump deployed his political capital to secure tax cuts that disproportionately favored business and the wealthy.
The “sugar high” they produced quickly wore off. And now, instead of developing better policies, the president has chosen to attack the Federal Reserve, whose independence is cherished by investors, business people and economists.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, abandoned his predecessor’s notion of a “soft Brexit” that would have maintained some ties with the European Union. Instead, he reaffirmed his promise that his country would leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 with or without a deal. The pound quickly fell to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. (It has since recovered slightly.)
Then there’s China. By virtue of both its remarkably fast industrialization and its protectionist policies, the nation has long been a trade threat. But four years ago, the government issued its “Made in China 2025” economic manifesto, which put in writing China’s plans to attain a leadership position in key new sectors, including robotics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
The notion of China using its state power to take on important American and European industries instead of pursuing market reforms set off alarm bells across the political spectrum and provided a concrete underpinning for Mr. Trump’s trade confrontation.
Mr. Xi, rather than acknowledging China’s protectionist practices, has proved unwilling to accept a new trade agreement with effective enforcement provisions. That has raised doubts about whether China is seriously interested in reforming its unfair trade practices — keeping key markets fully or partially closed, using state subsidies to favor its companies, forcing American companies to transfer technology to China and the like.
Of course, at least in the world’s democracies, voters bear substantial responsibility for electing these inadequate leaders. The rise of populism as a reaction to disaffection about economic and social conditions has been well documented as a principal driving force.
Occasionally, good choices have been made, such as the election of President Emmanuel Macron of France. But even that has not led to progress; public support for Mr. Macron turned to opposition when he instituted the much needed policy changes that he promised.
Any chief executive officer who botched his or her job as badly as most of these leaders have would be fired. Let’s hope that voters come to that realization when given the chance.
But Mr. Trump is president of the United States, and if prudent, disciplined leadership was ever required, it is now. Rhetorically stomping his feet, as he did on Tuesday, is not just irresponsible; it is dangerous. He is no longer a businessman trying to browbeat someone into a deal. He commands the most powerful nuclear and conventional arsenal in the world, and any miscalculation could be catastrophic.
.. This is a president with no prior government or military experience who has shown no clear grasp of complex strategic issues.
.. his inflammatory words were entirely improvised and took his closest associates by surprise. Intentionally or not, they echoed President Harry Truman’s 1945 pledgeto inflict a “rain of ruin from the air” if Japan did not surrender after the first atomic bomb was dropped at Hiroshima, which made them seem even more ominous.
It is hard to believe that they would condone Mr. Trump’s risky approach, and on Wednesday, the damage control began.
- While Mr. Mattis reinforced his boss’s belligerent tone and expressed confidence that North Korea would “lose any arms race or conflict it initiates,” he more prudently focused on the North’s concrete “actions” rather than on vague threats and voiced support for a diplomatic solution.
- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent.
- Meanwhile, some White House aides reportedly urged reporters not to read too much into the president’s remarks.
.. Since Truman, presidents have largely avoided the kind of militaristic threats issued by Mr. Trump because they feared such language could escalate a crisis.
.. Mr. Trump has again made himself the focus of attention, when it should be Kim Jong-un, the ruthless North Korean leader, and his accelerating nuclear
.. Engaging in a war of words with North Korea only makes it harder for both sides to de-escalate.