Our Colonial Empire

It may seem anachronistic, and it should be a source of some embarrassment, but the United States is one of the few remaining colonial powers. We have colonies, which we euphemise as territories, in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Actually there are sixteen territories in total but these five are the only ones permanently inhabited. Those born in these territories, with the exception of American Samoa, are automatically American citizens, though they have very limited voting rights. For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, American Samoans are citizens of the U.S. only if one of their parents is a citizen, and even then they are accorded similarly restricted voting rights.

By and large these colonies are treated kindly, have substantial local rule and have warm relationships with us. Nevertheless, from time to time, there are efforts to alter their status, one way or another. Today marks one such effort.

For the fifth time our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico are voting on a status change. The options as usual are no change, independence or statehood. Any change requires Congressional approval. The odds this time, and for the first time ever, are that statehood will prevail because the opposition is mostly boycotting the plebiscite.

I don’t think its current status makes sense, is fair or is sustainable in the long-term. It was imposed by force. The residents are pseudo-citizens, i.e. they don’t participate in the election of our President and they pay no federal income taxes. The island’s economy is moribund. And from our viewpoint, we don’t get much out of this arrangement.

I would argue for independence, with a significant transition period to work out the details. Everyone benefits, but only after a fairly tricky adjustment period. Puerto Ricans now living in the U.S. have all the privileges and responsibilities of any citizen. Thus any change in status shouldn’t affect them, though I suppose they might be accorded the option of which country to join.

The problem is that there is no way Congress would approve either change of status for Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear why independence seems to be off the table, but statehood would be anathema for Republicans. That is because the residents are deemed “people of color”, which most Republicans view as synonymous with Democrat. Two new Democratic Senators? Not a chance! Polls have shown that mainland citizens favor statehood for Puerto Rico over statehood for the District of Columbia, which tells you a lot about both of their prospects.

When this issue does get serious consideration, and I believe that is inevitable, the status of the other territories should also be regularized. There is a precedent for independence. The Philippines were acquired as a territory in the same way that Puerto Rico was, as the spoils of the Spanish-American War, and they now flourish as an independent country. If statehood becomes feasible, one option that has been suggested is for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to combine as a Caribbean state. And it has already been proposed that the Pacific territories become a part of Hawaii. Larger states are more economically viable although geographical separation presents unique problems.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice

During the widely viewed Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Thursday, James Comey made what appeared at the time to be an off-hand remark. Amid the various blockbusters, it received little attention at first. But now, some commentators are beginning to rethink their evaluation.

Before discussing this remark, a little background is needed. It is now fairly well established that Russian hackers attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, mostly in a fairly effective effort to derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign. There remains dispute about whether Putin’s fingerprints are on these intrusions, although glimmers of fire among all the smoke are evident. He certainly has the motivation, given his known fury at Hillary for what he saw as interference in his last election. Moreover there is a well-documented history of similar activities by the Russian intelligence services groups known as APT 28 and APT 29. Hopefully the investigations by newly appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller will uncover the truth one way or the other.

Putin has been characteristically enigmatic when questioned about this matter. He has alternatively denied it outright, suggested that patriotic private Russian citizens might be involved, and most recently alluded to possible involvement of U.S. hackers. His implication was that poor old innocent Vladimir is being framed! All of this smacks of typical Russian disinformation, though it shouldn’t be construed as a confession.

And now to Comey’s remark. He said that it was vital for Robert Mueller to look into possible U.S. involvement in the Russian interference, but he added that he couldn’t say more in an unclassified setting. Most listeners took that to be a reference to members of the Trump campaign team, but perhaps it also included possible collusion by U.S. hackers too. What motivation they might have to assist Putin is unclear, other than just generally spreading havoc.

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaimed “Curiouser and Curiouser!”, she was remarking upon her strange changes in height. I think the slowly unfolding circumstances around the last election has some similar aspects. Now if we can only find the cookies and, more importantly, who brought them to the party.

Limitations of Presidential Power

Yesterday, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz appeared in a panel on CNN arguing a point that caused other participants to turn red with anger. I think I saw smoke coming out of their ears. His argument was that no President can be legally accused of obstructing justice as long as he is exercising his constitutional authority. And remember, the breadth of that authority is immense. But pay attention to the modifier “legally”. There is a big difference between what is legal and defensible in a court of law and what is morally right and defensible in the court of public opinion.

 

According to Prof. Dershowitz, Trump can summarily fire anyone in the executive branch, except the Vice President and employees protected by civil service regulations. He can do this for any reason or indeed for no particular reason. He can order the Justice Department or the FBI to terminate any investigation, criminal or not, regardless of who is the subject. The so-called independence of the Justice Department is custom, not law. He can pardon anyone, before or after their conviction. He can even pardon himself, though not where an impeachment is involved. No one can gainsay any of these decisions. They are not reviewable by any court or by Congress. Moreover, the President is totally immune from civil liability for any of his official acts, though impeachment can remove this protection.

This pokes a gaping hole in most of the overheated rhetoric by his Democratic opponents. There is nothing currently in the public domain that would indicate legal jeopardy for President Trump. But these are early days and the establishment of a special counsel is ominous. And of course there are limits to Presidential immunity. The President cannot commit criminal acts, destroy evidence in a case under investigation, lie under oath or suborn perjury. He must submit materials demanded under subpoena by a legal authority. But he can quite legally halt any federal case in its tracks and raise his middle finger to his opponents.

This may appear to transform the President into a virtual dictator, but there are two resources available to restrain him. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution provides for involuntary removal by impeachment. The legal basis for impeachment is whatever Congress says it is. So it can consist of ordinary criminal activity or such indefinable offenses as “failure to execute authority” or “unbecoming conduct.” Essentially Congress can simply use this authority to say, “Begone, scoundrel! We have no further use for you.” This isn’t easy, requiring a two-thirds super-majority of the Senate. There have been four serious attempts to remove a President in this manner and all failed, though Nixon did leave voluntarily when the outcome was inevitable.

The second resource arises from the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The President can exercise rights under this amendment to relinquish his office voluntarily whenever he feels unable to fulfill his responsibilities. This is a temporary measure until such time as he issues a revocation. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush employed this mechanism when they required temporary hospitalization. No President under assault by political opponents would be likely to use it. But there is another part of this amendment that permits either a majority of his cabinet or even some ad hoc group established by Congress to force a President to give up his powers, presumably though not necessarily due to disability. This might be called the Fruitcake Provision, and it seems germane to at least some of Trump’s more imaginative opponents. It has never been tried and it is unclear whether any such attempt would survive judicial review.

This is our system, as explained by one of the country’s foremost constitutional scholars. So, TV commentators, self-appointed legal experts and the like can fuss and fume but that changes reality not one whit. I don’t much like this aspect myself but I can’t conceive an alternative that wouldn’t be subject to its own serious drawbacks.

An Economic Mystery

Something has been going on for years in the economic realm that is unexpected and unexplained. It is really important and no one – and I mean absolutely no one – has a clue why it is happening. This mystery is a surprisingly subdued consumer price inflation. It is a world-wide phenomenon, except of course in countries like Venezuela that have sadly mismanaged their economies. One sometimes reads purported explanations by economists but they always fail one crucial test. What they predict will happen next never does, and indeed often the exact opposite occurs.

Even now, when producer prices are generally rising and developing economies are prospering, this condition remains essentially unchanged. It is always about to change “tomorrow”, but tomorrow comes and either nothing changes or the gap becomes even more pronounced. Take the euro zone for example. In May, the year-over-year producer prices rose 4.3%. But simultaneously in May the year-over-year consumer prices actually dropped from the April level of 1.9% to 1.4%.

The Fed is perplexed. The financial community is unable to predict future conditions so it is constantly having to defer long-term commitments. The bond market is becoming schizophrenic.

No one like inflation. It can ravage assets. But when inflation appears to have miraculously disconnected from the supply/demand cycle, all the classic economic rules of thumb go overboard. This leads to the worst possible condition: uncertainty.

Personally, I think that some as-yet undiscovered factor or confluence of factors is acting like a dam, holding back the normal flow of economic consequences. This will eventually burst and we will get a sudden spike in inflation just as we did in the 70s. Whatever is the case, this situation is clearly unstable.

The Democrats in 2020

I make no secret of the fact that I am no fan of either major political party. But every now and again I like to put on one of their hats and offer my perspective about what they should do to achieve success. This time the Democratic Party is the honoree.

There is much discussion about who will assume leadership of the party, which – let’s be honest – is in shambles across the country. People keep mentioning the old standards, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Jerry Brown. There are even whispers of a Hillary Clinton reemergence. “Old” is the operative term.

Meanwhile there are occasional boomlets for young leaders who have yet to make a national impact, like Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Garcetti, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The common belief that the party has a weak bench is wrong. There is no dearth of young talent, but no one has exhibited that special essence that makes a viable national candidate.

However, one aspect of this search seems to have been mostly ignored. By far the largest identifiable segment of the Democratic base is black women. This group is large, influential and reliable. It seems to me that it makes sense either to choose someone from that group or, if no qualified candidates stand out, then at least someone who particularly appeals to it on a gut level. That should be the first criterion.

So, here’s my suggestion: Sen. Kamala Harris. Yes, I know, she is just a first-term senator but I have a one-word response to that criticism: Obama. She is smart, accomplished, and a great public speaker. In California she has demonstrated that she can draw votes from a broad spectrum of voters. I say go for the touchdown, don’t just try to squeak out small gains.

Trying to bridge the broadest range of voter support with a candidate beloved by no one has been tried and it failed. Trump showed the path. Find your core and stick to it with vim and vigor. Don’t worry about fringe supporters. They have nowhere else to go and just the horror of the Republican opponent will drive them to the polls. Going for a geriatric standby is comfortable but that road has a dead end [pun intended]. Moreover, forget about that unicorn, the uncommitted centrist. Most people who claim to be in that group are either self-deluded or outright liars.

One counter argument, largely presented by the Biden wing, is that Democrats must return to their roots and appeal to disgruntled white working-class voters who deserted them in droves in 2016. But think about it. If an elite NY billionaire with funny hair can achieve this rapport, why can’t an attractive young California legislator, even if she is a black woman? In this case, the key is the message, not the messenger.

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.