Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Promise them the Moon

The Donald Trump we saw during his address to Congress on February 28th was remarkably different. Gone was the foul-mouthed street-brawler of the campaign and his first six weeks in office. For a while, at least, he eschewed his usual browbeating of the Media, intelligence agencies, judges, and anyone else who might disagree with him. The new Trump was more "presidential," uncharacteristically optimistic, painting a positive image of the future he wants America to become, appealing to patriotism and other emotions, even trying to build a bridge here or there. There can be no doubt that many Americans were taken in.

Those less susceptible to being hypnotized could not help but notice that the President's address left us with the same contradictions we saw months ago. Mr. Trump promised to cut taxes for businesses and the Middle Class. At the same time, he promised to begin building a "great, great wall on our southern border," expand the military, initiate a trillion-dollar infrastructure rebuilding program, and magically provide healthcare to all Americans through health insurance that is affordable and governed by free-market principles, yet covers pre-existing conditions. It is, of course, impossible to balance a budget while increasing spending and decreasing revenues.

The President's address did not cover some of the other budget changes implied by such a scheme, although these are slowly being clarified through other White House communications. We can reasonably anticipate major cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, departments of Justice and State, Department of Education, and funding for the arts and scientific research, at a minimum. Much of this will be supported by Republicans in Congress, so there is no reason to doubt these outcomes, even if the more combative Donald Trump resurfaces. It is difficult to imagine, though, that such cuts in government spending and services will be enough to make up the difference between reduced taxes and increased spending.

Less easily evaluated, but equally dubious, are Trump's promises about industry and jobs. The mechanisms of cause and effect remain to be explained, but the assumption seems to be that a combination of deregulation and protectionist trade policies will bring long-lost industries "roaring back" to America. Handled artfully, one could imagine some modest, short-term successes along these lines. That this administration has such artfulness seems unlikely. Expecting larger successes over a longer term strains credulity, however. Do such jobs exist in vast numbers somewhere beyond our borders? Have they really been driven away by regulations and a lack of import tariffs? And assuming free-market principles still apply, would deregulation and punitive tariffs really bring those jobs back here?

Supporters of the Trump Agenda believe such policies will produce a better America. More pragmatic thinkers are justified in doubting their likely efficacy and in fearing the upheavals they are likely to cause. The Trump Agenda seems destined to increase American isolationism, destabilize international trade, throw America's health insurance and healthcare markets into disarray, upend the economic balance in the many states that depend on federal aid, increase water and air pollution, and eliminate protections for consumers and workers.