Last week's essay, Amateur Hour, generated quite a few comments and responses. Many were both positive and helpful; they tended to agree that President-elect Trump's early staff appointments and Cabinet nominations take one's breath away . . . and certainly not in a positive sense. At the same time, a lot of the comments were - to put it mildly - cranky and laced with ad hominem attacks. Most of these carried the same message: how dare I criticize our next POTUS before he's even taken the oath of office? "You're just a sore loser and can't stand it that now we have a real leader," one person wrote. "Lay off; let the man do the job he was elected to do," another chimed. "He's already done more for the U.S. economy in his first couple of weeks as President-elect than your guy Obama did in 8 years," yet another chortled. This last comment was, of course, referring to Mr. Trump's recent announcement that he had convinced Carrier Air Conditioning to keep 1,000 jobs in the United States, rather than shipping them off to Mexico. We'll return to this below.
The past week has also seen our next POTUS announcing that he is nominating retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, recently retired Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Seema Verma as Director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This means that out of 652 key appointments the next POTUS must make, its' now 12 down, a mere 650 to go.
A word about Mr. Trump's three newest nominees:
- Dr. Carson, brilliant neurosurgeon though he may have been, has virtually no experience in government or running an immense bureaucracy. He will oversee an agency with a $47 billion budget, bringing to the job a philosophical opposition to government programs that encourage what he calls “dependency” and engage in “social engineering.” "He has no expertise in housing policy, but he did spend part of his childhood in public housing," said a close friend, Armstrong Williams. Sorry, but a compelling life story cannot make up for a lack of experience.
- General James N. "Mad Dog" Mattis, Trump's nominee for Sec. of Defense, is a 41-year veteran of the United States Marines. "He's the closest thing we have to General Patton," Mr. Trump said the other day in announcing his nomination of the 66 year old combat veteran. Maybe yes, and maybe no. Although he was so hawkish on Iran as head of United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013 that the Obama administration cut short his tour, General Mattis has since said that tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement - as Mr. Trump has vowed to do - would hurt the United States. General Mattis now favors working closely with allies to strictly enforce the treaty.One possible stumbling block in the path of confirmation is a 1947 national security law that says a general must wait 10 years from leaving active duty before becoming defense secretary. (n.b. An exception was granted on a one-time basis for General George C. Marshall, with lawmakers saying in special legislation at the time that it was the “sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”)
- Seema Verma, MPH, Mr. Trump's nominee for Director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is described as "a conservative darling who has introduced work requirements and lockout periods for impoverished recipients into the medical safety net in three states." A close adviser to vice-president-elect Mike Pence, Ms. Verma made her bones devising Indiana’s Medicaid plan, one of the most punitive in the country. The unique requirements Verma designed for Indiana require that the destitute in that state have “skin in the game” by paying “premiums,” even if they were just $1. In Kentucky, her consultancy firm SVC Inc developed a plan to require the poor to perform “work activity," which could include unpaid community service, in order to receive health insurance.
Before we get to the issue of Carrier, it should be noted that Mr. Trump's recent telephone chat with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen represented a distinct break with American's longstanding "One China" policy. Many opined that in speaking with the leader of a country with whom we have no formal diplomatic relations, Trump was revealing an appalling lack of knowledge or understanding. "Not so," said his amen chorus; " . . . far from being a mistake or an affront to China, it was a long-planned, deliberate move . . . and a brilliant one at that." Sorry, but I'm rather inclined to go along with the former, not the latter. Remember, when the press first queried the Trump p.r. machine about the conversation, they were speechless, claiming they knew nothing about it. And, circling the wagons around his pontificator-in-chief, former Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore made crystal clear what he thought about the telephone call: "If China doesn't like it, screw 'em . . ." As Rachel Maddow would say, "Watch this space . . ."
Let's get back to the Carrier Air Conditioning situation. So far as the optics, all's great; the President elect managed to save upwards of 1,000 jobs from being shipped down to Mexico. Kudos and mazal tov. However, as with many things in politics, "optics" exist only on the surface; what lurks beneath is frequently hazy, cloudy or occasionally downright scum-ridden. Plunging beneath the surface, one discovers that Trump & Co. convinced Carrier to retain those 1,000 (some say 800) workers by first offering them $7 million in tax incentives. That was the carrot. Then came the stick: Trump and his economic team promised to wield an economic cudgel, promising to impose punishing tariffs on companies that move American jobs overseas. This drew the ire of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who refused to endorse the plan. Even Sarah Palin (!) was against the move, calling the Carrier deal "crony capitalism." Then too, there is every reason to suspect that Carrier's parent company, United Technologies gave a thumbs-up to the proposal for the simple reason that U.T. a leading defense contractor benefits from billions of dollars in federal spending. It needs to maintain good relations with the incoming Trump administration. For the incoming POTUS to make such threats - either implicitly or explicitly - is both dangerous and counter to the very message he presented during his presidential campaign . . . remember all that malarkey about "draining the swamp?"
Does this mean that we can expect a President Trump to become personally involved every time a company seeks to outsource jobs? Besides being a textbook example of micro-managing - the worst thing a corporate executive . . . or POTUS - can do, it truly does smack of crony capitalism. And for those who inanely proclaim that Donald Trump has already done more for peace and economic security in three weeks than President Obama has done in eight years, I have a suggestion: head for your local E.R. and take a saliva test. For the fact is, during the past eight years, the Obama Administration has created upwards of 15 million jobs; as of this week, the unemployment figure is at a nine-year low of 4.6%; last week the Commerce Department boosted its estimate of 3rd quarter growth to a 3.2% annual rate . . . up from the previous estimate of 2.9%. That's a mere .8% (eight-tenths-of-a-percent) less than the figure promised by Donald Trump during the campaign. Mr. Trump should thank Barack Obama; he's left his successor a pretty healthy economy.
Oh yes, there are plenty of people who have not benefited from job growth or are underemployed. And, yes, there is tremendous job disparity associated with our slow recovery: jobs at the upper end - (mainly high tech) - and the lower end (mainly service and minimum-wage positions) have grown quite nicely; it's of course impossible to outsource fast-food servers, hotel maids and the like. Jobs in the middle - largely manufacturing positions and so-called "repetitive motion jobs" have either been replaced by robots or exported to countries where workers are paid a fraction of what they would receive in the U.S. Then too, an awful lot of the new jobs created in the last seven or eight years do not come with benefits . . . just ask any adjunct professor. Which is to say that although far, far more people are employed in 2016 than in 2008, many are working for far less . . .
Now, when things go well via-à-vis jobs and the economy, the president takes a victory lap while the opposition proclaims the White House has nothing whatsoever to do with economic growth. However, when the economy is on a downward trajectory, you had better believe that the story is precisely the opposite: the White House plays down its involvement in the doldrums while the opposition declares the administration in question to be guilty of historic ineptitude. That's just the nature of the game.
Well, Mr. Trump, better get used to it. That's the way things work in Washington, D.C. It's you who's going to be on the hot seat, receiving the catcalls and withering criticism you and the party you lead have so blithely handed out over the past eight years. It's not going to be easy . . . or particularly comfortable. And for all you Trump fans out there who never found a single thing good or redeeming about Barack Obama, remember this: what goes around comes around. But this time, what "comes around" is going to be based on fact, not fiction, and on matter, not myth.
Copyright ©2016 Kurt F. Stone