Is 3% GDP growth feasible?

One aspect of Trump’s economic plan has evoked doubt and consternation. The plan depends upon achieving 3% annual GDP growth by 2021 in order to offset its cost. Most academics believe that this simply can’t happen. But here’s a relevant statistic. In the 70 years since the end of WWII, average GDP growth rate was about 2.9%. So why the skepticism?

The argument given, mostly by progressive economists, is twofold. First,  population growth was a major factor in the historical GDP trend, but this growth is now slowing significantly. And second, there are new impediments to growth resulting from government policy over the last few decades.

My thoughts are as follows. The population growth slowdown may be offset by gains from automation, robotics and AI. As I have argued before, we simply don’t need “busy hands” as much anymore, and this trend is increasing rapidly. Since I wrote, quite unexpectedly, there have even been inroads in some labor-intensive segments of the industrial farming economy. Even picking delicate fruit evidently can be effectively automated. Of course, whether this technological impact will be sufficient by 2021 is unclear, but no one can say it is impossible.

Secondly, the structural impediments in our economy are a self-imposed constraint. We could release some of them, and in fact that is a major part of the Trump agenda. These include undoing many regulations on business activity, freeing resource exploitation from some environmental protections, removing some constraints on the flow of capital, and so on. However, this entails significant risk because these impediments have benefits through engendering a safer and more stable economy. So it isn’t clear to me that this is a sensible course of action. Nevertheless, I am not so sure that following this path couldn’t restore the historical growth that built us into the dominant world power after WWII.

Thus, dismissing Trump’s plan in this way is a mistake. It is quite possible that we could achieve this ambitious goal if we are willing to accept concomitant risks. What the skeptics really mean is that it can’t be achieved safely. That isn’t the same thing as feasibility, and not speaking clearly on this topic is a serious rhetorical mistake. The real question is not whether 3% GDP growth is feasible but rather whether it is desirable, given what we must do to achieve it.

Trump and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Donald Trump is driving almost everyone crazy, even some of his supporters. The media are rife with pop psychology purporting to explain his odd behavior, outrageous tweets, and conflicting statements. It varies from deep conspiracy theories to pure psychobabble, even by observers who one might expect to know better.

But now I believe that some academics have hit on the real answer. Trump’s actions and thoughts are clearly a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This describes a syndrome in which people who are the least competent at a task rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it means to have the skill.

Not only do sufferers of this disability fail, they don’t even learn from their mistakes. Their misplaced confidence causes them to attribute all failures to others. It is always either incompetent associates or a vast array of enemies who are responsible. Think about it. Listen to Trump the next time he stumbles or misjudges the problems every President faces.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed it succinctly and devastatingly. He wrote that Trump suffers a dangerous disorder not only because he is ignorant and is unaware of his ignorance, but also because “he doesn’t even know what it means to know something.

Trump has very little understanding of the real job of President of the United States, and he is blissfully unaware of this deficiency. He thinks that this is a management position where someone leads the country toward greater prosperity and happiness. This isn’t wrong but it is startlingly superficial. In truth, this is a highly complex job requiring specialized knowledge and skills, in many respects like the job of a physician.

Like a doctor, a President must accurately diagnose problems and prescribe cures. He must recognize when an issue exceeds his expertise and training, seeking appropriate experts to bring about a resolution. He must establish rapport to guide those he serves toward accepting and implementing his remedies. Often he must work effectively as a team member. Most importantly, he must study intensively to acquire constantly evolving knowledge.

Does any of this make you think of Donald Trump and his approach to the crucial office he holds? Face it, Trump is not a real President. As the saying goes, “He just plays one on TV.

Comey’s Firing: The Real Story

The media are in a frenzy over President Trump’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey. The original reason provided to the press was that new Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose job includes supervision of the FBI, had decided that Comey had lost his way and no longer could properly fulfill his job. Specifically, Comey’s several public announcements concerning Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign and his disobeying then Attorney General Lynch were cited as prime causes. This didn’t pass the laugh test for so many reasons that the very next day the White House simply announced that Trump had fired Comey because “he wasn’t doing a good job.

A more plausible story now making the rounds is that Trump wanted Comey gone because his loyalty was in question and because the FBI’s Russia probe was intensifying rather than winding up as the White House desired. The whole issue of Russian interference with our election has long been a sore point with Trump because it places a question mark around Trump’s entire presidency.

But in my opinion all of this misses a fairly obvious point. Comey was summarily fired shortly after his recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. During this hearing, Comey commented, “It makes me mildly nauseous to think I may have affected the election.” This astonishing remark by a careful bureaucrat has been widely interpreted as a process criticism. In other words, so it is believed, Comey was distraught that his public announcements may have skewed the election process in some way, even though he believed that he had no choice in the matter.

However, think how this statement surely must have impacted our notoriously thin-skinned President. Another quite plausible interpretation, and one that I believe is dispositive in the firing, is that Comey was making a criticism of the election result itself, that this was what was making him “mildly nauseous”. If I am right, Trump would have turned white-hot in anger. An employee, for that is how Trump views executive branch members, was not merely showing disloyalty but also contempt. Moreover, he is a key employee directly involved in the investigation that bedevils Trump at every turn.

That is why Comey was fired and also why it was done without notice either to Comey or to any key White House aides. Characteristically, Trump didn’t consult anyone in lashing out at Comey and thus his staff was left foundering when they attempted to deal with the quite predictable backlash.

Ig Nobel Prize for Inane Questions

I keep hearing a specific type of question in congressional hearings, television interviews, town hall meetings and news conferences. It grates on me like fingernails scratching a blackboard. Typically the question begins, “Can you guarantee that not a single … ?” This is so stupid that there should be a free pass to smack the questioner sharply on the head with a large stick.

Essentially nothing in human affairs is 100% certain, even with the best of intentions. No one should be asked any question that precludes an Act of God or even any unpredictable circumstances. It is certainly fair to inquire what specific actions someone is taking to avoid negative outcomes, or at least those that are at all likely. And the answer can be reasonably challenged on the basis of verified facts or even plausible predictions based on experience. But going beyond that is unfair, wrong and – worst of all – it annoys the hell out of me!

Of course the standard reply could be, “No. I cannot make a 100% guarantee.” But you know as well as I that this will be misinterpreted as callous disregard or even evil intent. In fact, that is often the entire purpose of such questions in the first place.

Take any bill offered before Congress. Can anyone be absolutely sure that it will work exactly as intended when implemented by fallible human beings? Can anyone be confident that it will not cause harm to even a single individual – ever, under any circumstances, and even if the individual is complicit in the damage? These are unreasonable standards and a recipe for inaction, which itself can be very harmful. Moreover every Congressional action or Presidential initiative involves a balancing of competing priorities. A sensible standard for ethical action was proscribed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham two centuries ago: the greatest good for the greatest number. But we must always be mindful that there are limits to what burden anyone can be asked to accept for the general welfare.

I have heard such questions aggressively tossed at the Director of the CDC on the topic of inoculations, at congressmen relating to some bill they support or oppose, and recently at an airline executive discussing overbooking and the FBI Director with respect to telephone eavesdropping. The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, regularly gets such questions from a press corps that surely must know better. I am grudgingly beginning to sympathize a bit with his lot in life.

Thoughts on the Syrian Conflict

Perhaps you have wondered why we don’t just clean up the mess in Syria once and for all? If we can’t handle this, what does that say about our real power and our military might? From a humanitarian viewpoint its civil war is a growing tragedy, and the nasty consequences are spilling over into neighboring states and even our distant European allies. While we have no vital interest in Syria, its conflict destabilizes the entire Middle East. The current situation is definitely against our national interest.

One answer is that we really haven’t been trying very hard to impose our will. Doing so would be costly in every sense of the word, and we have the very discouraging example of our Iraqi adventures in mind. The Trump administration is characteristically confused about what to do. We want to crush ISIS, which maintains its shrinking caliphate in Syria, and there is widespread sentiment among our sometimes compassionate people that evil dictators like Bashar al-Assad are intolerable. The more hard-hearted and skeptical among us think that all of this is really none of our business and that we have more pressing problems at home.

But regardless of these mixed feelings, there is a purely practical consideration. This has been neatly encapsulated in the following diagram by Anastasia Beltyukova of CNN.

This illustrates the current free-for-all mess that would confound the most thoughtful and informed who might seek a way to resolve it. Look at the number of participants. The size of the circles roughly indicates their relative activity and effectiveness. But this is a snapshot in time. Some participants, in particular Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have significant capacity to increase their efforts, with unpredictable consequences. There are no clear-cut allies or even enemies, and the conflict has no boundaries in any conventional sense.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, and I certainly have no prescription in mind for a happy conclusion. My gut instinct is that we should cut our losses and withdraw from direct participation. We can provide material and financial aid to allies who wish to continue productive efforts and we can also help ameliorate the consequences for displaced persons. But not even fighting ISIS in this morass is likely to be effective unless we are willing to fully unleash our power and unless we are willing to stomach the certain collateral damage.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this issue is that I see no achievable endgame that would satisfy our interests. If Assad goes, what then? And squashing ISIS in Syria will simply cause it to metastasize everywhere. This is already underway in Yemen, Libya, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Nigeria just to mention a few of the eighteen identified infections.

“I thought it would be easier!”

Last Thursday, Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview, “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.

Easier? Is it really surprising that being President of the preeminent world power, with the lives of millions or billions at stake, is a bit harder than being the host of “The Apprentice”? True, he is evidently a successful businessman by the usual standard of amassing wealth, but what exactly has this to do with making hard political decisions? So far the connection seems tenuous. In terms of results, the first hundred days of his Presidency are hardly promising. And listening to him bloviate, cast aspersions hither and yon, and invent facts that align with his untutored understanding is beginning to get old.

His supporters seem to be holding fast to their man, but I can’t help thinking that this is due in part to the fact the confessing their mistake would be just too embarrassing. No one likes to be seen as a dupe. One fallback for some is that it was better than the alternative. And I confess a little sympathy for this excuse. I didn’t vote for this fool, but I also couldn’t stomach “crooked Hillary”. And having voted for neither – a first in my entire life – I grant that I have weak grounds to complain one way or the other.

President Trump – can this actually be true? – is a shallow man. By his own statement, he rarely reads books, and it is evident that the few he manages don’t include American history. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but this only confirms what my fellow students at a real Ivy League school on the Charles River suspected about Ben Franklin’s academic offspring.

We will survive all this. Hard as it may be to believe, we have had Presidents before who were even worse, though none as ill-prepared by my calculation. One glimmer of hope is that he sometimes seems to learn from mistakes, and a few in his political entourage are adults.

This is really all I have to say at this point. I am just venting.

Trump’s Term of Office

I have long believed that there is a real possibility that President Trump won’t complete his current term of office. My thought is that he will leave of his own accord, although there are clearly wild-card events that might cause this to happen involuntarily. Regardless of these hypotheticals, he almost certainly won’t run again in 2020.

The President just gave some very revealing interviews as part of his 100-day status review. In particular he told two separate interviewers that he really misses his old life, that he loved it and that it was far easier than his current job. Possibly other Presidents had similar thoughts from time to time, but few had such a different life to recall. For most of them, unlike Trump, being President was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort. Only Eisenhower comes to mind for whom this clearly wasn’t so, although a few Vice-Presidents who assumed office unexpectedly also were ambivalent about their new circumstances. Andrew Johnson and Harry Truman are good examples.

Trump is clearly not an introspective person but it will slowly seep in that this might be how he spends the rest of his life. And increasingly, he won’t like that prospect. He appears to be vigorous and active but he will shortly be 71 years old, an age when most of us look toward a life of more leisure than hard work. That is not how anyone would describe the Presidency even in the best of times.

His problem will be how to extricate himself without dishonor. Reportedly, the consequential pain and dismay of associates who have tied their future to his would not be much of a deterrent. On occasion, he has been ruthless in severing professional relationships that no longer serve his purpose. Governor Christie is a prime example. Moreover his family would no doubt be delighted, assuming that he doesn’t come across as weak or cowardly on leaving office voluntarily. The trick will be to find a plausible excuse. A medical reason would be the obvious one, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards unless a pure subterfuge is undertaken.

Of course I am not alone in this speculation about the President’s future. Odds makers in the United Kingdom have long had a betting proposition on this topic that has attracted many punters. Actually their hard-headed assessment of the likelihood of Trump completing his current term has slightly improved in recent weeks, but the odds are still only a bit over 50%. And the improvement relates mostly to receding chances of impeachment rather than other personal or programmatic factors.