Trump the Intimidator Fails Again

Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.

International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.

Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.

In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.

From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.

But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.

Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.

Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?

One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.

Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?

Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.

Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.

Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.

Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.

That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.

Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.

Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly

  • abandon allies like the Kurds;
  • we honor war criminals; we
  • slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
  • after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.

Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.

Tyler Cowen: On Being Conversation Partner that Draws out the Best

76:48
oh just interesting first of all how do
you manage to to have discussions with
both jordan peterson and at the same
time people like automated which are
totally of the different size of the map
and still be a look of the interview or
a discussion that partner by both sides
of the equation with some alienating one
of the sites you know a lot of people in
your position just like enough being
either clone of the right totally
election they can’t have discussions
that’s a very good question I’m not sure
I know the answer I mean my audience
probably has a better sense of that than
I do but you know I’ve had like
published dialogues with Paul Krugman
Jeffrey Sachs Dani Rodrik Larry Summers
there is basically all like the leading
left-leaning
economists and I just asked them like
would you do it and they all said yes
and none of them have been paid yet
either it’s not like oh we had to shell
out you know the box to get Paul Krugman
just asked him I guess I think he
thought he would get a fair treatment
and then when you do a bunch of these if
people feel the others have gotten a
fair treatment they’re willing to do it
too
but I’m genuinely mystified because you
know I never thought any of those people
would say yes so like through some way
in which I’m still miss perceiving the
world people
meet printed in the same newspaper as
some of the other people that you like I
think a lot of them see Jordan Pearson
is a really yeah you know I think I
approach those conversations trying to
learn from those people and not trying
to refute them so I try to refute myself
in a sense and that changes the demeanor
and the tone and I guess it’s working
for attracting the people like sometimes
readers will write to me and they’ll say
Oh Krugman said this Jeff Sachs said
that like how could you just let that
slide they want me to like fight combat
with them on every point but somehow
that’s not what I think it should be
like if their arguments have weaknesses
maybe those weaknesses will come out
more if I’m encouraging and drawing out
the argument rather than in just
refuting it and that’s been like part of
what my podcast series has been about
but again it’s still a mystery to me I
think sometimes just like if you do
things that other people think can’t be
done like they can be done so just do
them that’s a very naive answer but I
don’t think it’s totally off-base either
so we’re all like under investing in
just doing things because I didn’t
approach this with any kind of plan or
strategy whatsoever I just like asked
them and then did it and it’s gone
pretty well and it’s a very popular
podcast and it’s like famous writers
we’ve had in it like Margaret Atwood all
sorts of different people I didn’t think
would be possible Martina Navratilova
the tennis star Kareem abdul-jabbar the
basketball player sorry yeah so for them
it’s like a platform where they can
reach a quality audience so I’m like
giving them access to my audience they
value that and it’s kind of like a
challenge I sometimes say I approach the
podcast I try to make every person look
as smart as possible and
that’s actually a lot more intimidating
than when someone tries to make you look
as stupid as possible because you’re
used to that people trying to refute you
like you always have your comebacks but
80:54
the pressure on you and someone’s trying
80:55
to make you look really smart like
80:57
that’s a real challenge for people and I
81:00
think they somehow respect that or they
81:02
don’t get enough of it elsewhere and
81:04
they’re sort of keen to sign up and take
81:06
on the challenge like if I ask you the
81:08
hardest but sympathetic questions like
81:11
how well will you do and people like
81:13
that anyway I thank you all for coming
81:18
if you have been like any follow-up
81:19
questions ever you can just feel free to
81:21
email me my email is online and I’d like
81:24
to thank my hosts also for having me
81:27
here in Israel it’s been a great
81:28
privilege and I do hope to come back and
81:30
again thank you all for the evening
81:33
[Applause]

The Debt-Peonage Society

Today the Senate is expected to vote to limit debate on a bill that toughens the existing bankruptcy law, probably ensuring the bill’s passage. A solid bloc of Republican senators, assisted by some Democrats, has already voted down a series of amendments that would either have closed loopholes for the rich or provided protection for some poor and middle-class families.

The bankruptcy bill was written by and for credit card companies, and the industry’s political muscle is the reason it seems unstoppable. But the bill also fits into the broader context of what Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, calls “risk privatization“: a steady erosion of the protection the government provides against personal misfortune, even as ordinary families face ever-growing economic insecurity.

The bill would make it much harder for families in distress to write off their debts and make a fresh start. Instead, many debtors would find themselves on an endless treadmill of payments.

The credit card companies say this is needed because people have been abusing the bankruptcy law, borrowing irresponsibly and walking away from debts. The facts say otherwise.

A vast majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are the result of severe misfortune. One recent study found that more than half of bankruptcies are the result of medical emergencies. The rest are overwhelmingly the result either of job loss or of divorce.

To the extent that there is significant abuse of the system, it’s concentrated among the wealthy — including corporate executives found guilty of misleading investors — who can exploit loopholes in the law to protect their wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.

One increasingly popular loophole is the creation of an “asset protection trust,” which is worth doing only for the wealthy. Senator Charles Schumer introduced an amendment that would have limited the exemption on such trusts, but apparently it’s O.K. to game the system if you’re rich: 54 Republicans and 2 Democrats voted against the Schumer amendment.

Other amendments were aimed at protecting families and individuals who have clearly been forced into bankruptcy by events, or who would face extreme hardship in repaying debts. Ted Kennedy introduced an exemption for cases of medical bankruptcy. Russ Feingold introduced an amendment protecting the homes of the elderly. Dick Durbin asked for protection for armed services members and veterans. All were rejected.

None of this should come as a surprise: it’s all part of the pattern.

As Mr. Hacker and others have documented, over the past three decades the lives of ordinary Americans have become steadily less secure, and their chances of plunging from the middle class into acute poverty ever larger. Job stability has declined; spells of unemployment, when they happen, last longer; fewer workers receive health insurance from their employers; fewer workers have guaranteed pensions.

Some of these changes are the result of a changing economy. But the underlying economic trends have been reinforced by an ideologically driven effort to strip away the protections the government used to provide. For example, long-term unemployment has become much more common, but unemployment benefits expire sooner. Health insurance coverage is declining, but new initiatives like health savings accounts (introduced in the 2003 Medicare bill), rather than discouraging that trend, further undermine the incentives of employers to provide coverage.

Above all, of course, at a time when ever-fewer workers can count on pensions from their employers, the current administration wants to phase out Social Security.

The bankruptcy bill fits right into this picture. When everything else goes wrong, Americans can still get a measure of relief by filing for bankruptcy — and rising insecurity means that they are forced to do this more often than in the past. But Congress is now poised to make the bankruptcy law harsher, too.

Warren Buffett recently made headlines by saying America is more likely to turn into a “sharecroppers’ society” than an “ownership society.” But I think the right term is a “debt peonage” society — after the system, prevalent in the post-Civil War South, in which debtors were forced to work for their creditors. The bankruptcy bill won’t get us back to those bad old days all by itself, but it’s a significant step in that direction.

And any senator who votes for the bill should be ashamed.

Why Is Trump a Tariff Man?

It’s all about the power — and the cronyism.

Almost exactly one year has passed since Donald Trump declared, “I am a Tariff Man.” Uncharacteristically, he was telling the truth.

At this point I’ve lost count of how many times markets have rallied in the belief that Trump was winding down his trade war, only to face announcements that a much-anticipated deal wasn’t happening or that tariffs were being slapped on a new set of products or countries. Over the past week it happened again: Markets bet on an outbreak of trade peace between the U.S. and China, only to get body slammed by Trump’s declaration that there might be no deal before the election and by his new tariffs on Brazil and Argentina.

So Trump really is a Tariff Man. But why? After all, the results of his trade war have been consistently bad, both economically and politically.

I’ll offer an answer shortly. First, however, let’s talk about what the Trump trade war has actually accomplished.

A peculiar aspect of the Trump economy is that while overall growth has been solid, the areas of weakness have come precisely in those things Trump tried to stimulate.

Remember, Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment was a huge tax cut for corporations that was supposed to lead to a surge in investment. Instead, corporations pocketed the money, and business investment has been falling.

At the same time, his trade war was supposed to shrink the trade deficit and revive U.S. manufacturing. But the trade deficit has widened, and manufacturing output is shrinking.

The truth is that even economists who opposed Trump’s tax cuts and tariffs are surprised by how badly they’re working out. The most commonly given explanation for these bad results is that Trumpian tariff policy is creating a lot of uncertainty, which is giving businesses a strong incentive to postpone any plans they might have for building new factories and adding jobs.

It’s important to realize that Trumpian protectionism wasn’t a response to a groundswell of public opinion. As best as I can tell from the endless series of interviews with white guys in diners — who are, we all know, the only Americans who matter — these voters are driven more by animosity toward immigrants and the sense that snooty liberals look down on them than by trade policy.

And public opinion seems to have become far less protectionist even as Trump has raised tariffs, with the percentage of Americans saying that free trade agreements are a good thing as high as it’s ever been.

So Trump’s trade war is losing, not gaining, support. And one recent analysis finds that it was a factor hurting Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, accounting for a significant number of lost congressional seats.

Nevertheless, Trump persists. Why?

One answer is that Trump has long had a fixation on the idea that tariffs are the answer to America’s problems, and he’s not the kind of man who reconsiders his prejudices in the light of evidence. But there’s also something else: U.S. trade law offers Trump more freedom of action — more ability to do whatever he wants — than any other policy area.

The basic story is that long ago — in fact, in the aftermath of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 — Congress deliberately limited its own role in trade policy. Instead, it gave the president the power to negotiate trade deals with other countries, which would then face up-or-down votes without amendments.

It was always clear, however, that this system needed some flexibility to respond to events. So the executive branch was given the power to impose temporary tariffs under certain conditions: import surges, threats to national security, unfair practices by foreign governments. The idea was that nonpartisan experts would determine whether and when these conditions existed, and the president would then decide whether to act.

This system worked well for many years. It turned out, however, to be extremely vulnerable to someone like Trump, for whom everything is partisan and expertise is a four-letter word. Trump’s tariff justifications have often been self-evidently absurd — seriously, who imagines that imports of Canadian steel threaten U.S. national security? But there’s no obvious way to stop him from imposing tariffs whenever he feels like it.

And there’s also no obvious way to stop his officials from granting individual businesses tariff exemptions, supposedly based on economic criteria but in fact as a reward for political support. Tariff policy isn’t the only arena in which Trump can practice crony capitalism — federal contracting is looking increasingly scandalous — but tariffs are especially ripe for exploitation.

So that’s why Trump is a Tariff Man: Tariffs let him exercise unconstrained power, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. Anyone imagining that he’s going to change his ways and start behaving responsibly is living in a fantasy world.