What I think of Trump

This article is purely FWIW. I’m only 1 of some 330 million people in this country, which makes me just another person with an opinion, in a country with hundreds of millions of opinions. With respect to the coming election, most people already know who they’re going to vote for, and you can’t change minds anyway. So I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who might be interested in what I have to say.

Why would you be? Well, I’m a thinker (and, being retired, have the luxury of time to do that); I’m well-educated (college degree, graduate school, law school); know a lot about government (it was my career); I’m well-informed (I read a lot); I’m a pragmatist, not an ideologue, and go for what works; and I care about my country, community, neighbors, and humanity in general.

Trump fails the character, compassion, and empathy tests, but let’s skip that, because everybody already knows this. When Trump took office, he tackled two big issues his predecessors neglected: immigration and China. I’ll also talk about the economy.

Let’s start with immigration. This is complicated. Illegals have no right to be here, period; and under our laws, our government can deport them at will, with no due process. The previous administration (Obama’s) actually had a vigorous deportation policy, and the number of illegals in America had been falling (in part due to the Great Recession). But under Trump, it’s not being handled humanely, and that’s a problem. Where it all gets complicated is that our immigration system is broken, and fails to address our nation’s real needs. Let’s say you care about economic growth, which was Trump’s calling card in the 2016 election, and why a lot of people voted for him. A growing economy comes partly from population growth, and the U.S. doesn’t have any, except from immigration; our native birth rate fell below replacement some time ago (i.e., more dying than being born). Without immigration, our population will shrink; and it’s getting older, on average, which means fewer workers and more retirees to support. Also fewer consumers, and less consumption (one reason being older people spend less). We have work needing to be done that Americans won’t or can’t do, such as low-paying, physically arduous farm labor. America needs immigrants to fill these jobs, also high-tech jobs, and for population and economic growth. Our immigration laws are outdated and need reforming, but the Trump administration hasn’t addressed this. While he’s done something about illegal immigration, it’s not the problem he makes it out to be, and he’s done it in a way that’s giving our country a black eye, while not addressing the immigration issues we should be prioritizing. He simply wants to keep foreigners out, which is not only wrongheaded, but counterproductive for the reasons above. If you want a better economy, you should support an intelligent immigration policy and immigration reform, but you won’t get that from Trump.

Trump has begun disengaging with China, and I agree with that. His successors should continue that policy. I have nothing against the Chinese people, but their authoritarian government pushes around other countries, commits human rights abuses, and denies freedom to its own people (see, e.g., Hong Kong). There are lots of bad governments, and we do business with some of them, for practical reasons. The reasons for distancing ourselves from China go deeper than just the cruelty of their leaders. They’re increasingly aggressive, modernizing and expanding their military, and are developing threatening (including nuclear, cyber, and space) capabilities. This militarization is aimed at us, not Russia or Europe; for example, they’re designing missiles to knock out our aircraft carriers. They don’t want World War 3, but they’re not afraid of a Cold War, and we’re in one. So the “China problem” is much more than taking jobs from us, sending back shoddy goods, and using our money to become militarily stronger. The Democrats haven’t coddled China, but they haven’t been strategic enough in their thinking, or tough enough on Chinese excesses such as technology theft, which is also true of previous Republican presidents; and Trump too, who is too narrowly focused on retrieving blue-collar jobs (a Quixotic mission). We can’t put ourselves in a position of dependency on China for vital goods and supplies, because of the leverage that will give them over our foreign policy (for example, with respect to defending Taiwan and our other allies in the Far East). Not only should be block them from technology with military applications, but also stop giving their students STEM educations in our colleges, so they then can go back to China and use that knowledge against us. I want a peaceful world as much as anyone, but the post-Soviet recess is over, Great Power rivalry is back, and we’d better watch our asses.

Right now it’s difficult to compare Trump’s economic policies with Obama’s or any other president’s because Covid-19 is distorting the picture, but even before nasty germs showed up there was plenty of evidence his touted economic policies weren’t moving the needle. Where he’s achieved above-trendline growth, it’s been in short-lived spurts. For example, with his tax cuts wearing off, growth was falling back to the post-2009 trendline of +2.1%, the starting point of 4 years ago. These spurts are entirely attributable to borrowing growth from the future, or what economists call “pulling growth forward,” which doesn’t enlarge the economy. It’s like handing out paychecks on Wednesday instead of Friday. Politicians love to play this game, because they appear to be boosting growth when they’re not; but there’s no public benefit in the long run. That only comes from enlarging the economy. The fact is, no president can improve the trendline growth rate, which is below the postwar average, because it’s locked in due to forces beyond their control. The two major ones are demographics and slower productivity growth. The latter is due to the fact an information economy doesn’t produce the same growth as a manufacturing economy. That’s why growth was higher in the 1950s. Back then, people made things; an information economy simply isn’t as productive. This won’t change under Biden or anybody else. The early 20th century saw the invention of cars, airplanes, radio and TV, and household appliances, all of which created huge industries with vast numbers of manufacturing jobs. Breaking out of our current slow growth rate would require a similar cycle of inventing and making new things people flock to. But what’s left to be invented, what industries remain to be created? Well, the shift from fossil to alternative energy, for one, but Trump hasn’t supported that. And we shouldn’t sacrifice the environment or ignore future problems bearing down on us (climate change) to trying to squeeze out another 0.1% of growth; it’s not worth the non-economic costs.

We can’t return to the pre-Trump world. It has changed. He got the ball rolling on two big neglected issues, immigration and China, and those balls will keep rolling; but those issues must be handled differently. The economy likely is stuck at ~2% growth for years to come, and everyone in the investing community recognizes that. True immigration reform to prevent future labor shortages and maintain a reasonable level of population growth will help our economy. This includes legitimizing some illegals, and keeping our doors open. Disengaging with China may bring back some factory jobs, but not a flood of them; and factory work won’t be what it was, because of automation, and the factory jobs that remain or come back will require technology skills. They days when a high school diploma were enough to thrive in our economy are over. So we’ve got to keep investing, and invest more, in education — both college and vocational — to ensure our economy has the skilled workers it needs, and our workers have the skills they need.

So, I don’t disagree in broad principle with a couple of Trump’s major policy turns, but the execution isn’t there, and there’s much to criticize.

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