When the Goal Is to Win, We All Lose

Congressman Trey Gowdy has conducted himself in a highly partisan manner (although I assume some rabid Republicans might have approved of his unnecessarily divisive and highly offensive conduct). Indeed, based on the standards of conduct any parent would try to instill in their children, it’s fair to say Mr. Gowdy’s conduct has been cringeworthy. Shameful. Despicable.

But no matter what you might think of him and the damage he’s done to America, it’s worth your time watching this interview of Congressman Gowdy. It’s a reminder of what our political parties are all about and the kind of government the good people of the Unites States are willing to accept.

In Gowdy’s own words, “the goal is to win.” The best interests of the country be damned.

This is where we are today. It does not bode well for the future of our country.

Why Does Bombing and Killing Make Us Feel So Good?

Once again, our president bombed another country. And once again, so many of my fellow citizens take delight in such actions. I’ll never understand.

Here’s what our president tweeted this morning:

So just what has America accomplished in Syria?

Well, we (or our surrogates) killed a lot of people. And destroyed a lot of homes and property.

We’ve caused untold suffering. And helped create millions of refugees.

In short, we’ve been an agent of death and destruction.

Mission accomplished, America. To some we “could not have had a better result.”

To others, we lack the good sense to feel shame.

The Shifting Landscape of America

Power will be shifting, if the Xers and millennials aren’t timid about elbowing the boomers out of the way. But don’t expect the boomers to relinquish it willingly.

My biggest concern about the passing of the baton from the so-called silent and boomer generations is the loss of memory. A recent survey revealed that two-thirds of millennials can’t say what Auschwitz was, and 52 percent of Americans wrongly believe Hitler came to power through force.

Democracy is a fragile institution, and the threat from autocrats is more potent than many people believe. I’m hoping the millennials acquire a deeper understanding of the way power works and of the importance of maintaining institutions critical to our independence. If not, the baton may be dropped — with dire consequences.

Former F.B.I. Director Comey Reminds America of Its Recklessness

From the former director of the F.B.I.:

I had never seen anything like it in the Oval Office. As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob.

The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview.

The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and the truth.

Describing a different meeting with Trump in January 2017, where he was asked for his personal loyalty:

To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony – with Trump in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man’.

Here’s how he described a meeting about Russian election interference:

Holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an ‘amica nostra’ – a friend of ours. To draw us in.

As crazy as it sounds, I suddenly had the feeling that, in the blink of an eye, the president-elect was trying to make us all part of the same family.

The election of Donald J. Trump was the most reckless act I’ve witnessed in national politics in my lifetime. Mr. Comey is making sure we don’t forget.

Ready or Not, China Is Becoming the Big Boy on the Block

My fav British economist-journalist Martin Wolf sums it up well in his most recent Financial Times op-ed titled “US-China rivalry will shape the 21st century.” I recommend you take the time to read it, especially if you want to understand the Trump-China tussle better.

I wish Wolf wasn’t right about this but fear he is. He opines:

The threat is the decadence of the west, very much including the US — the prevalence of rent extraction as a way of economic life, the indifference to the fate of much of its citizenry, the corrupting role of money in politics, the indifference to the truth, and the sacrifice of long-term investment to private and public consumption.

History tells us that the odds are high that the U.S. and China will find themselves in armed conflict before this power shift is complete. It’s not inevitable though.

My hope is that America’s attention will be focused on many of the problems alluded to by Mr. Wolf: the out-of-control rent extraction economy, the indifference to quality of life issues, the corruption (particularly in our deeply flawed system for financing political campaigns), the lack of honesty and virtue, our short-term mindset, our excessive leverage, etc.

China is on the rise. By quite a few measures, America is on the wane. But China’s rise does not require America’s decline. Both can rise together, albeit at different rates (since China has far to go to catch up). But that’s not necessarily what will happen. The choice is ours. And, right now, there’s not a whole lot of reason for optimism.

Are You One of Those People Who Don’t Stay Put?

The above graphic is interesting if you’re the least bit interested in the immigration issue. Not that all the people living outside of their country-of-origin have emigrated. Some are living abroad merely on a temporary basis — perhaps for a job or education. Nonetheless, the differences among countries tell us something about the cultural and economic variances at work.

Spain and France stand out as being the most homebound nations. Their citizens tend to stay put. Few live outside the country.

Ireland isn’t surprising, at least from an American perspective. Many of us know someone who was born and raised in Ireland but now lives in the U.S. But Portugal surprised me a tad. I suspect it has to do with limited economic opportunities there, but that’s only a guess.

Greece surprised me, too. Given its economy and plight of their people, I’d have thought the percentage would have been higher.

What the map overall shows, however, is that there are quite a few people in the world who feel free to leave their country-of-origin, whatever the reason. In my opinion, that’s not a bad thing. Languages and cultural differences need not constitute a fence or wall.

For Many People, the Tariff Debate Is a Distraction with Potentially Dire Consequences

If you’re confused about President Trump’s trade policies, I suggest you revisit the transcript of a March 2011 interview, where Mr. Trump put forth his views clearly and succintly. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, most economists don’t like this reasoning, not one bit. They think it’s ludicrous for people to pay more for products and services than they’d have to pay if the market was allowed to find an equilibrium unencumbered by tariffs and other trade barriers. In other words, why pay $2,000 for a sofa made in North Carolina when you can purchase an equivalent one made in China for half that price?

Understandably, though, people who’ve lost they jobs to foreign producers see it differently. Being unemployed, or severely underemployed, tends to frame most issues in a deeply personal way. Their concern is jobs, plain and simple. They don’t much care whether shoppers at Walmart will have to pay more.

This is a gross oversimplification of the issues, of course. Economists could and have written entire books on the subject. But people tend to see issues in pretty simplistic and stark terms. Nuances and complexity don’t count for much when your job is at stake, whether you’re a domestic worker or a foreign one who’s making products for the U.S. market.

The one thing most people can agree on is the need for fair trade. And, admittedly, many of the trade rules aren’t fair by any reasonable standards. It’s not that some people and companies, including Americans (including most consumers who have good jobs), haven’t benefited from the rules as they are. They have. But that’s merely an acknowledgement that, no matter what the rules are, there are always winners and losers.

From my perspective as someone who may be retiring soon, the tariffs aren’t a welcome thing. My income will be relatively fixed (depending on my investment returns) while the costs of goods will increase due to these new taxes and the inevitable upward pressure on prices, and downward pressure on quality, caused by less competition and imbedded structural inefficiencies.

But, of course, the tariffs may be welcome to some people, namely, those who may secure jobs that are supplanting imports. However, the number may not be significant, and they may be dwarfed by the number of people who lose jobs due to retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries. Even without the offset of lost jobs, the number added may not be as significant as some people believe.

The reason is simple: technology. Robots and computer-assisted machines and processes already have displaced many workers, including many of the workers who mistakenly think they’ve lost their jobs to foreign workers. And this phenomenon is just getting started. It’s likely to spread farther through the ranks of both blue and white-collar workers no matter what happens with tariffs.

Which brings me to my main point: young people shouldn’t be distracted by the tariff debate. Rather, they should focus on that which they can control and influence, namely, their own learning, knowledge, and skills in the context of a world in which more and more human activity will be taken over by computers and computer-assisted machinery, no matter what tariffs are in place.

This transformation has huge implications for people. No one can be sure how it will all play out; however, it’s likely it will result in a further stratification of workers and even less equal distribution of income and wealth.

When I was teaching, I tried to challenge my students to address this question when choosing a major and potential career path: What will you be able to do that computers won’t be able to do better? Not only today, but in the decade ahead.

American workers’ stiffest competition in the years ahead won’t come from China: it will come from digital technology. Mr. Trump’s mindset is stuck in the 1950s. When you’re a 71-year-old billionaire, there is little risk in that. If you’re in your 20s and aren’t a billionaire, there is a whole lot of risk.

The aging Baby Boomers who are hostage to mindsets formed in the 20th century will be consumed by debating the president’s policies. The smart young people of the 21st-century will focus on the things they can control. And will be preparing for a future than will look very different from the past.

When Can You Hide Behind the Attorney-Client Privilege?

According to President Trump this morning:

Hardly the reaction of an innocent man.

But is he right nonetheless?

Of course not. It’s just another of his many lies. And of his repeated attempts to obstruct justice and derail investigations that could implicate him or his minions.

As I’m sure Mr. Trump’s lawyers can tell him, clients cannot hide behind the attorney-client privilege to perpetuate a crime involving the lawyer. The crime-fraud exception to the privilege is well established.

Justice Cardozo of the U.S. Supreme Court put it well in 1933:

“He must let the truth be told.” What a novel concept this must be to someone like our president.

If You’re on Facebook but Care about Privacy

Don’t delude yourself: if you really cared about your privacy, you wouldn’t be on Facebook.

Or you’d be on it but:

  • would not enter any bio info;
  • would never post anything; and
  • would never click a Like or emoji.

But if you’re on Facebook and sharing fully, while clinging to a belief that your information is somehow protected from whatever disclosures, sharing, and use Facebook deems to be in its best interest, then you’re pretty naïve.

Moreover, if you’re using Facebook as your primary source of news, then you’re probably worse off than not being informed at all. There are worse things than ignorance.

And if you believe whatever propaganda comes your way, whether it’s delivered via Facebook, Fox, MSNBC, the pulpit, the classroom, or any other outlet, without subjecting the claims to scrutiny and skepticism, then you’re a tool. You really shouldn’t vote or participate in public discourse of policy issues. Leave the decisions to the skeptics and people who at least try to discern what’s really going on in the world (as opposed to the twisted views of ideologues or devious people who are trying to manipulate public opinion merely to serve their own selfish interests).

Personally, I’m not all that concerned about privacy. But I’m very concerned about humans’ susceptibility to propaganda. And our capacity to fool ourselves.

How’s It Feel To Be Leaving a Fiscal Mess for Your Children and Grandchildren?

Earlier today the Congressional Budget Office released its long awaited report on the economic outlook for the country, including the impact of the recent tax cuts. If you want to see where your country is headed from a fiscal standpoint, follow this link to the CBO’s report: The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2018 to 2028. Read it and weep.

Two factors are driving the fiscal cliff we’ve decided to live on:

  1. unfunded wars; and
  2. tax cuts.

As a result, America is mortgaging its future. Big time. Growth will be lower than it need be. And our children and grandchildren will be left to clean up the mess.

The mess could be bad. Really bad. The potential for a fiscal crisis increases as the nation increases its leverage. And the next crisis could be worse than the last one, which was bad enough.

Rational people wouldn’t take these risks. Or leave a mountain of debt for their kids. Selfish, short-sighted people would.

Oh, well, it is what it is. Plan accordingly.