The Doctor Versus the Denier

Anthony Fauci’s at the pool, but Donald Trump’s in deep.

Never mind Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

You want to see a real can’t-look-away train wreck of a relationship? Look to the nation’s capital, where a messy falling out is chronicled everywhere from the tabloids to a glossy fashion magazine, replete with a photo shoot by a swimming pool.

The saga has enough betrayal, backstabbing, recrimination, indignation and ostracization to impress Edith Wharton.

The press breathlessly covers how much time has passed since the pair last spoke, whether they’re headed for splitsville, and if they can ever agree on what’s best for the children.

It was always bound to be tempestuous because they are the ultimate odd couple, the doctor and the president.

  • One is a champion of truth and facts. The other is a master of deceit and denial.
  • One is highly disciplined, working 18-hour days. The other can’t be bothered to do his homework and golfs instead.
  • One is driven by science and the public good. The other is a public menace, driven by greed and ego.
  • One is a Washington institution. The other was sent here to destroy Washington institutions.
  • One is incorruptible. The other corrupts.
  • One is apolitical. The other politicizes everything he touches — toilets, windows, beans and, most fatally, masks.

After a fractious week, when the former reality-show star in the White House retweeted a former game-show host saying that we shouldn’t trust doctors about Covid-19, Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci are gritting their teeth.

What’s so scary is that the bumpy course of their relationship has life-or-death consequences for Americans.

Who could even dream up a scenario where a president and a White House drop oppo research on the esteemed scientist charged with keeping us safe in a worsening pandemic?

The administration acted like Peter Navarro, Trump’s wacko-bird trade adviser, had gone rogue when he assailed Dr. Fauci for being Dr. Wrong, in a USA Today op-ed. But does anyone believe that? And if he did, would he still have his job?

No doubt it was a case of Trump murmuring: Will no one rid me of this meddlesome infectious disease specialist?

Republicans on Capitol Hill privately confessed they were baffled by the whole thing, saying they couldn’t understand why Trump would undermine Fauci, especially now with the virus resurgent. They think it’s not only hurting Trump’s re-election chances, but theirs, too.

As though it couldn’t get more absurd, Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Friday that she thinks it would help Trump’s poll numbers for him to start giving public briefings on the virus again — even though that exercise went off the rails when the president began suggesting people inject themselves with bleach.

How did we get to a situation in our country where the public health official most known for honesty and hard work is most vilified for it?” marvels Michael Specter, a science writer for The New Yorker who began covering Fauci during the AIDs crisis. “And as Team Trump trashes him, the numbers keep horrifyingly proving him right.”

When Dr. Fauci began treating AIDs patients, nearly every one of them died. “It was the darkest time of my life,” he told Specter. In an open letter, Larry Kramer called Fauci a “murderer.”

Then, as Specter writes, he started listening to activists and made a rare admission: His approach wasn’t working. He threw his caution to the winds and became a public-health activist. Through rigorous research and commitment to clinical studies, the death rate from AIDs has plummeted over the years.

Now Fauci struggles to drive the data bus as the White House throws nails under his tires. It seems emblematic of a deeper, existential problem: America has lost its can-do spirit. We were always Bugs Bunny, faster, smarter, more wily than everybody else. Now we’re Slugs Bunny.

Can our country be any more pathetic than this: The Georgia governor suing the Atlanta mayor and City Council to block their mandate for city residents to wear masks?

Trump promised the A team, but he has surrounded himself with losers and kiss-ups and second-raters. Just your basic Ayn Rand nightmare.

Certainly, Dr. Fauci has had to adjust some of his early positions as he learned about this confounding virus. (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” John Maynard Keynes wisely observed.)

Medicine is not an exact art,” Jerome Groopman, the best-selling author and professor at Harvard Medical School, put it. “There’s lots of uncertainty, always evolving information, much room for doubt. The most dangerous people are the ones who speak with total authority and no room for error.”

Sound like someone you know?

Medical schools,” Dr. Groopman continued, “have curricula now to teach students the imperative of admitting when something went wrong, taking responsibility, and committing to righting it.”

Some are saying the 79-year-old Dr. Fauci should say to hell with it and quit. But we need his voice of reason in this nuthouse of a White House.

Despite Dr. Fauci’s best efforts to stay apolitical, he has been sucked into the demented political kaleidoscope through which we view everything now. Consider the shoot by his pool, photographed by Frankie Alduino, for a digital cover story by Norah O’Donnell for InStyle magazine.

From the left, the picture represented an unflappable hero, exhausted and desperately in need of some R & R, chilling poolside, not letting the White House’s slime campaign get him down or silence him. And on the right, some saw a liberal media darling, high on his own supply in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “While America burns, Fauci does fashion mag photo shoots,” tweeted Sean Davis, co-founder of the right-wing website The Federalist.

It’s no coincidence that the QAnon-adjacent cultists on the right began circulating a new conspiracy theory in the fever swamps of Facebook that Dr. Fauci’s wife of three and a half decades, a bioethicist, is Ghislane Maxwell’s sister. (Do I need to tell you she isn’t?)

Worryingly, new polls show that the smear from Trumpworld may be starting to stick; fewer Republicans trust the doctor now than in the spring.

Forget Mueller, Sessions, Comey, Canada, his niece, Mika Brzezinski. Of the many quarrels, scrapes and scraps Trump has instigated in his time in office, surely this will be remembered not only as the most needless and perverse, but as the most dangerous.

As Dr. Fauci told The Atlantic, it’s “a bit bizarre.”

More than a bit, actually.

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.

Why Was Trumponomics a Flop?

Neither tax cuts nor tariffs are working.

Donald Trump has pursued two main economic policies. On taxes, he has been an orthodox Republican, pushing through big tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, which his administration promised would lead to a huge surge in business investment. On trade, he has broken with his party’s free(ish) trade policies, imposing large tariffs that he promised would lead to a revival of U.S. manufacturing.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates, even though the unemployment rate is low and overall economic growth remains decent, though not great. According to Jay Powell, the Fed’s chairman, the goal was to take out some insurance against worrying hints of a future slowdown — in particular, weakness in business investment, which fell in the most recent quarter, and manufacturing, which has been declining since the beginning of the year.

Obviously Powell couldn’t say in so many words that Trumponomics has been a big flop, but that was the subtext of his remarks. And Trump’s frantic efforts to bully the Fed into bigger cuts are an implicit admission of the same thing.

To be fair, the economy remains pretty strong, which isn’t really a surprise given the G.O.P.’s willingness to run huge budget deficits as long as Democrats don’t hold the White House. As I wrote three days after the 2016 election — after the shock had worn off — “It’s at least possible that bigger budget deficits will, if anything, strengthen the economy briefly.” And that’s pretty much what happened: There was a bit of a bump in 2018, but at this point we’ve basically returned to pre-Trump rates of growth.

Republican faith in the magic of tax cuts — and, correspondingly, belief that tax increases will doom the economy — is the ultimate policy zombie, a view that should have been killed by evidence decades ago but keeps shambling along, eating G.O.P. brains.

The record is actually awesomely consistent.

  • Bill Clinton’s tax hike didn’t cause a depression,
  • George W. Bush’s tax cuts didn’t deliver a boom,
  • Jerry Brown’s California tax increase wasn’t “economic suicide,”
  • Sam Brownback’s Kansas tax-cut “experiment” (his term) was a failure.

Nevertheless, Republicans persist. This time around, the centerpiece of the tax cut was a huge break for corporations, which was supposed to induce companies to bring back the money they’ve invested overseas and put the money to work here. Instead, they basically used the tax savings to buy back their own stock.

What went wrong? Business investment depends on many factors, with tax rates way down the list. While a casual look at the facts might suggest that corporations invest a lot in countries with low taxes, like Ireland, this is mainly an illusion: Companies use accounting tricks to report huge profits and hence big investments in tax havens, but these don’t correspond to anything real.

What about the trade war? The evidence is overwhelming: Tariffs don’t have much effect on the overall trade balance. At most they just shift the deficit around: We’re importing less from China, but we’re importing more from other places, like Vietnam.

And there’s a good case to be made that Trump’s tariffs have actually hurt U.S. manufacturing. For one thing, many of them have hit “intermediate goods,” that is, stuff American companies use in their production processes, so the tariffs have raised costs.

Beyond that, the uncertainty created by Trump’s policy by whim — nobody knows what he’ll hit next — has surely deterred investment. Why build a manufacturing plant when, for all you know, next week a tweet will destroy your market, your supply chain, or both?

Now, none of this has led to economic catastrophe. As Adam Smith once wrote, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Except in times of crisis, presidents matter much less for the economy than most people think, and while Trumponomics has utterly failed to deliver on its promises, it’s not bad enough to do enormous damage.

On the other hand, think of the missed opportunities. Imagine how much better shape we’d be in if the hundreds of billions squandered on tax cuts for corporations had been used to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Imagine what we could have done with policies promoting jobs of the future in things like renewable energy, instead of trade wars that vainly attempt to recreate the manufacturing economy of the past.

And since everything is political these days, let me say that pundits who think that Trump will be able to win by touting a strong economy are almost surely wrong. He most likely won’t face a recession (although who knows?), but he definitely hasn’t made the economy great again.

So he’s probably going to have to do what he’s already doing, and clearly wants to do: run on racism instead.

Shane Claiborne (Onbeing)

And then there comes a point, as Dr. Martin Luther King said so well, where we’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch. But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, “Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.

Ms. Tippett: There’s something not just in the way you see your Christianity, but in the way you look at the world. It’s a very holistic vision. So, for example, you’ve taken the old adage that if you give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. But you say, “We also need to ask who owns the pond and who polluted it.

 

.. And I’m convinced that if the Christian church loses this generation, it will be not because we didn’t entertain them, but because we didn’t dare them with the truth of the world. It won’t be because we’d made the Gospel too hard, but because we made it too easy, and we just played games with kids and didn’t actually challenge them to think about how they live.

 There’s something magnetic about a group of people that say, “Hey, we don’t have it all figured out, and we need each other.” We’re broken people and in the middle of that brokenness I feel like the spirit is able to connect.

From Greg Ip: In Davos, Nobody Knows Anything, and That’s the Problem

The raison d’être of Davos is intelligence gathering. Hedge funds go to chat up CEOs, CEOs go to chat up politicians, politicians go to chat up donors, and journalists go to chat up everyone.

This year, all that chatting is yielding distressingly little intelligence, and that helps to explain why the mood here, and indeed over the world economy, seems so dark.

Here are the questions people here most want answered: How will Brexit be resolved? No one knows, certainly not British parliamentarians or cabinet ministers. When will the federal government shutdown ends? Nobody knows. Will the U.S. and China reach a deal to avoid all-out trade war by March 2? Nobody knows. This isn’t because no one from the Trump administration is here; if they were, they wouldn’t know, either (or so the people here who have dealt with Trump have concluded).

In the economy uncertainty is, of course, a constant. Businesses, markets and investors are used to working with probabilities rather than certainties, whether it’s the outlook for profits or interest rates. But with today’s problems you can’t even assign probabilities. Since Mr. Trump himself does not seem to know what he wants out of the China trade talks, how can you judge the odds and provisions of a deal?

How do you assign a probability to Mr. Trump or Democrats breaking a promise to their bases, as would be necessary to end the partial federal shutdown? Shutdowns used to treated as localized natural disasters, Harvard economist Ken Rogoff noted on a panel moderated by Journal editor Matt Murray: painful for those involved but without national repercussions. This shutdown, he said, is like one local disaster after another, each worse than the one before. In such a situation, “We don’t know what happens.”

As for Brexit, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, asked about reopening the European Union’s deal with Britain, shrugged: “It’s up to the British people and British politicians to decide what they want.”

“Nobody knows anything,” screenwriter William Goldman once said of making hit movies. Too bad he died last year; he could have taught Davos a thing or two.

Trump has always been erratic and impulsive. Why is Wall Street surprised now?

Was the president trying to shore up his support with a base grown tired of foreign interventions? Did he cave when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him over the phone that he was going to carry his operations against the Kurds into Syrian territory? Was Trump’s decision a momentary whim now incredibly become indelible history? Who can say? Just in time for Christmas, Trump has finally brought us the peace that passeth all understanding.

Even by Trumpian standards, the troop-withdrawal announcement looked haphazard. And it wasn’t the Trump administration’s only holiday surprise. On Saturday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced (on Twitter, naturally) that the president had no intention of firing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell. Which of course raised the possibility that he might. On Sunday, Mnuchin returned with a stunning encore: He said he had spoken with the heads of the United States’ six largest banks to confirm that they had “ample liquidity available for lending” and haven’t had “any clearance or margin issues . . . the markets continue to function properly.”

.. Mnuchin’s actions are both more and less mysterious than the president’s. Less, because it seems clear why his Twitter feed developed a sudden nervous tic: He was trying to appease his boss. More, because neither Mnuchin nor anyone else understands how to calm the impetuous, irascible occupant of the Oval Office.

Presumably, the president is displeased by the recent decline in financial markets. It’s less clear whether he, or anyone else, actually believed that investors would perk right up if the treasury secretary, for no apparent reason, started shouting, “Guys, everything’s fine! We’re not going to have another financial crisis, okay?”

To be fair, it’s not clear what would cheer them up. Which brings us to the deepest mystery of all: Why were investors so optimistic in the first place?

I asked a number of financial professionals that question back when the bull market was still charging ahead. After all, Trump had promised tariffs, which large, publicly traded corporations tend not to like; he had promised immigration restrictions, which such companies really don’t like; and finally, he had promised lots of uncertainty, which those firms hate with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns.

The boom could be viewed as a collective sigh of relief that Democrats wouldn’t be finding new and creative ways to regulate the private sector. But given the protectionist drawbacks of a Trump administration, this didn’t really justify a 35 percent increase in the value of the S&P 500 from November 2016 to September 2018.

The best answer I got was that investors and chief executives assumed that Trump was planning to do the stuff they wanted — the tax cuts, the deregulation — and that the rest of his campaign promises were just base-pandering rhetoric that would be quickly abandoned. Their belief seemed touchingly naive, even quaint. But also sincere and strongly held.

.. Which may solve the twin mysteries of boom and the bust: Wall Street believed that Trump was just playing erratic and impulsive for the cameras, but that behind the policy scenes, what they’d be getting was a normal Republican presidency, only maybe a bit more so. The current correction may simply reflect Wall Street’s belated realization that investors would be getting exactly what they’d seen on the stump: a man who substitutes reaction for planning, and angry tweets for policy.

One thing, of course, is totally unsurprising: that when those on Wall Street finally figured out who they were really dealing with, and prices slumped, the guy from the campaign stump was going to find a way to make it all worse.