As 2019 and the decade of the 20 teens comes to a close, the impeachment of Donald Trump, only the third President impeached in the history of the United States, dominates the headlines. My hope (I am a crazy optimist) and wish for my country’s sake is for Trump’s trial in the US Senate to adopt rules that most everyone will see as fair. That means giving Trump every opportunity to state and defend his case and the opposition every opportunity to state theirs. Some Republicans have denied the evidence presented in the House investigation that Trump offered favors (White House visit and military aid) to Ukraine President Zelensky if he would investigate the activities of Trump’s political opponent’s son in Ukraine. Other Republicans, such as Congressman Will Hurd, accepted the evidence but argued that the offence was not sufficiently serious to justify impeachment. Congressman Hurd’s judgement reflects the fact, I suppose, that political standards have sunk so low that we now accept that every President lies to us and abuses his authority (see the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/documents-database/). I think it would be a mistake to accept and normalize such behavior.
Here are some of the key issues of this year (at least those I wrote about) and a few of my blogs/articles about them:
Health care insurance
Given medical costs must be paid by someone (the recipient of the care, the tax payers, insurance premiums, etc.). Insurance shares the cost (the lucky who are well help pay for the unlucky who are sick). But how services are paid for (what and how much is covered by insurance, etc.) will also influence the services provided and their cost.
Trade war and protectionism
President Trump has torn up the rule book for negotiating freer and freer trade. The result so far has left us worse off. Fed economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce found “that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices.” https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/feds/files/2019086pap.pdf
Trump pulled out of the progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated a “new” North American Free Trade Agreement (whatever he calls it) that is worse than the existing NAFTA except for the new parts taken from the TPP, worsened trade with China (so far–see Federal Reserve report above), alienated potential partners who would have happily joined us in negotiating with China, and angered the EU with whom he wants a new trade agreement. His potentially illegal uses of tariffs have introduced government protection of favored industries increasing crony capitalism. He continues to weaken the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has provided the bases of increasingly free rule-based trade since WWII. The growth in trade over the last 70 years has helped lift most peoples of the world out of dire poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 2.2 million in 1970 to 0.7 million in 2015.
Foreign wars and policy
President Trump rightly condemned our forever wars and promised retrenchment. I agree with his assessment of our excessive military aggressions and deployments abroad, but for one reason or another he has failed to deliver. The New York Times reports that: “Under President Trump, there are now more troops in the Middle East than when he took office.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/world/middleeast/us-troops-deployments.html
Trump seems to act on impulse without serious consultation with his National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon, decimating our diplomacy. His periodic insults to our foreign allies haven’t helped either. Nor have his love affairs with Putin, Kim Jon-un, and Xi Jinping (do you see a pattern here?). Diplomacy is the alternative to military adventures for serving our national interests abroad. Trump has failed to fill important State Department positions and seems to pay little attention to his NSC and State Department briefings. Having removed two ambassadors to Ukraine in one year (this year) because his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, thought they were insufficiently loyal to Trump, the U.S. currently has no ambassador in Ukraine. Trump’s stewardship of our international relations has been a disaster.
Then there was Trump’s intervention in Military justice: From the Military Times: “President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency in the cases of three military members tangled in war crimes cases raises questions about whether troops are being given a green light to disobey the rules of law…
Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses. Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes while being convicted of posing with a dead Taliban member, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.” “We-shouldnt-forget-what-whistleblower-seals-told-us-about-eddie-gallagher” What is Trump thinking? What does he have in mind?
Monetary policy and the international monetary system
While monetary policy has been relatively good for a floating exchange rate system, asset price bubbles and international currency flow imbalances persist and, in my view, are unavoidable. We need to adopt a hard anchor for the value of the dollar. The shockingly large fiscal deficits (over one trillion dollars per annum in 2019) with a fully employed economy, when we should be running a budget surplus to provide room for deficits during the next downturn, are building serious risks for the not so distant future. Trump’s attacks on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy will make managing those risks more difficult.
Information and the Internet
The Internet has had a profound impact on how we live and do business. It is hard to imagine a day without our mobile phones. But like all new tools and technology it opens the door to new ways of doing harm as well. This is currently most conspicuous with the spreading of fake news and learning anew what news sources to trust and not trust.
Domestic politics and Trump
In my discussions of the Trump administration I have tried to focus on policies, some of which I like and some I don’t, rather than on Donald Trump himself, about whom I like nothing. The following focuses on Trump.
My friend Jonathan Rauch explains the limitations of my efforts to focus on policies in an article well worth reading. “Believing is belonging,” https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/rethinking-polarization
Modern Society and its challenges
If we move away from personalities and dig deeper into our human motivations that inform policy design and choices, we can’t escape the role of incentives at the center of much of the analysis of my profession–economics. I have and will continue to explore my thoughts on human nature and the role of incentives, institutions, and customs in our search for how best to live free with others seeking their own goals in our society.
Happy New Year