Same old same old

Back in February, I did an Econlog post predicting that not much would change. Let’s look at some recent events:

1.  Healthcare reform failed—we are sticking with Obamacare.

2.  Early (conservative) enthusiasm about the economy has faded, as job growth for the first three months has been slower than under Obama’s last few years in office.  The Great Stagnation will continue.

3.  Alt-right enthusiasm for a US exit from the Middle East and a bromance with Putin seems to be fading.

4.  There has been some deregulation of coal, but most utilities are not expected to go back to coal (with natural gas prices so low.)

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of grief for my claim that Gore would have gotten us into Iraq, because that’s what the establishment wanted after 9/11.  He foreign policy czar was expected to be (the pro-Iraq War) Richard Holbrooke.  I’ve always believed that Presidents are less influential than most people assume–they mostly do what they are told, and today I believe that more strongly than ever.

One thing that I did not anticipate was just how incompetent Trump would be, and that this incompetence would turn out to have silver lining.  Trump is not even capable of doing the bare minimum, staffing an administration.  His ignorance is so deep that he must almost entirely rely on experts.  (Today he tweeted that discouraged workers who have given up looking for work are counted as “employed”.  So why do people complain when I call him an idiot?)  Trump is like one of those kings/sultans/emperors in the history books who assumed power as a child and had various ministers conduct governance while they spent time in their harem or engaged in falconry.

Because there are so few alt-righters with enough competence to staff top government positions, the staff will eventually be dominated by establishment types and the Steve Bannons of the administration will become increasingly marginalized.

My takeaways:

1.  When someone like Trump becomes President, it’s actually good to be living in the age of complacency.  A Trump elected in 1932 would have been a much scarier proposition.

2.  The establishment (now called the deep state) is a good thing, as it reduces the risk of a dangerous demagogue causing major problems.

3.  I still think that Trump will eventually get a few things enacted, such as corporate tax reform.  But it will be the sort of stuff that would have occurred under any GOP president.  Matt Yglesias pointed out that Trump does not even have a tax proposal. (Wait, didn’t he campaign on a big tax cut?)  Presidents usually lead Congress on those sorts of major policy issues—it’s a really good thing that Trump is not capable of leading.

4.  Trump is still a net negative, as in his opposition to TPP and his new H1-b policy.  He’s done very little, but what he has done is mostly bad (and anti-growth.)

4.  While Trump himself is a paper tiger, Trumpism is still a very worrisome problem.  Throughout the developed world, conservative parties are gradually moving from libertarian conservatism towards racist, xenophobic, nationalistic, big government spending conservatism.  Trump is a symbol of that change, and thus remains a very evil figure.  My worry is that eventually there will be a lot of alt-righters who are qualified to fill a government.  My worry is that the GOP will eventually become the party that is opposed to trade, opposed to immigration and in favor of Obamacare.  An American version of Le Pen.

PS.  I have a pretty open commenting policy, even allowing most personal insults directed at me (I figure they actually help me and hurt the attacker.)  But I do ban terms like ‘n****r’ and ‘c**t’ and ‘k***servative’.   One other point.  Just because I don’t ban a comment doesn’t imply I think it’s OK.  I find huge numbers of comments to be morally disgusting, but that doesn’t make me ban them.  So don’t play the game of “Why do you ban X but not Y.”  I’ve chosen to ban just the very worst stuff, so deal with it.  I have a very polite comment section at Econlog, where I put my better posts.  Go over there if you don’t like it here.



46 Responses to “Same old same old”

  1. Gravatar of Britonomist Britonomist
    7. April 2017 at 06:14

    “It’s different when Trump does it”

  2. Gravatar of bill bill
    7. April 2017 at 06:22

    I agree here but have one caveat. Based on the very quick turnaround on the Syria bombing, it’s clear that Trump gave the matter almost no thought. While the probability of a nuclear attack somewhere is still small, I think it keeps inching up.

  3. Gravatar of Peter Boysen Peter Boysen
    7. April 2017 at 06:41

    I’m seeing a lot of comments to the effect of the risk of nuclear war increasing because of strikes in Syria, but I still don’t really see it… For the same reason that extending NATO into the Baltic states risks credibility for the US (since, does anyone expect the US to risk nuclear war to save some small countries most Americans can’t find), the same basically applies to Russia with Syria. Yeah, Russia prefers Assad, but it’s not at all obvious they would accept open war, nuclear or otherwise, off such a minor country beyond their own borders.

  4. Gravatar of Luka Luka
    7. April 2017 at 06:46

    >The establishment (now called the deep state) is a good thing, as it reduces the risk of a dangerous demagogue causing major problems.

    At first I read this and immediately rejected it. I gave it a second thought and actually see your point. America’s deep state is actually pretty competent, isn’t particularly corrupt, and keeps things pretty stable. Unlike, say, Russia, where the entire “deep state” is dominated by KGB and FSA agents. Come to think of it, most of its “surface state” is also dominated by people from the old and new security agencies.

  5. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:03

    @bill: But Sumner’s point is that it’s not Trump making these calls. He goes to Tillerson and Kushner and Priebus and Pence and Bannon and whomever and asks ‘what do I do?’ and they tell him fire some missiles. Not all that different from most presidents, the difference being he’s got nothing to contribute to the discussion or decision. He doesn’t give any matter much thought.

  6. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:04

    @E. Harding: it’s fascinating to see how 97 IQ anti-semites think. Keep posting.

  7. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    7. April 2017 at 08:06

    Scott, you are brilliant and irritating as hell at the same time.

    It really bothers me that you praise the deep state (for nullifying Trump) without clearly acknowledging the same deep state wanted warmageddon in the mideast. You acknowledge Gore would have been as bad as Bush, but can’t seem to admit that implies the deep state is a coin flip of crazy at best…

    Back in the day you also pointed out the consensus of economists wanted tight money, and the only solution was to persuade them otherwise. One rogue lunatic market monetarist couldn’t hijack the deep state deflationists who wanted a crash (and now want free universities)..that’s your brilliance.

    It just seems to me, the deep state is really a consensus of so-called experts, nowadays neocons (plus corporate health lobbyists, budget austerians, global utilitarians, and other trendy ideas). It seems your criticism of mindless tight money consensus, could apply to mindless consensus on other issues, too.

    What if Trump turns out to be a Sumner of sorts…a visionary who had zero institutional policy support because of…inertia and groupthink?

  8. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:16

    “What if Trump turns out to be a Sumner of sorts…a visionary who had zero institutional policy support because of…inertia and groupthink?”

    This has as much chance of being true as Mila Kunis turning out to be my girlfriend. Come on, Steve. Sometimes it’s very hard to see something obvious.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. April 2017 at 08:16

    Steve, The US is a 97 on a scale of 0 to 100. A good president might be better than the deep state, and get us up to 98 or 99. A bad one could drop us down to zero. It’s good they don’t have much power.

    Especially Trump, who’s much more likely to be a really bad one.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    7. April 2017 at 08:17

    My apologies for any insensitive language I might have used yesterday. I’ve now gone #NeverTrump.

  11. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:19

    @Harding: You should issue a press release. Man you love Russia that much, eh?

  12. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    7. April 2017 at 08:20

    ssumner, why are you so anti-democratic? Isn’t the unaccountable and unalterable Deep State much more prone to launching the U.S. on the road to disaster than any man popular enough to win the electoral college?

    Again, the only times Trump has failed are when he has listened to the establishment.

  13. Gravatar of y81 y81
    7. April 2017 at 08:21

    I agree totally with this post, but one point could be explored further. To the extent that there is a distinct alt-right foreign policy, it is isolationist. Trump made noises of that nature during the campaign, but obviously he can’t find enough isolationists to staff an administration. However, if there ever were enough alt-righters for that purpose, as the author suggests, wouldn’t that lead to an isolationist foreign policy? Which (i) would make libertarians happy, I should think, and (ii) would definitely be something new in our lifetimes.

  14. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    7. April 2017 at 08:21

    msgkings, see my Twitter account @Enopoletus. I have deleted the Marginal Counterrevolution.

  15. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    7. April 2017 at 08:25

    LOL, People who are part of the groupthink have trouble seeing their groupthink. That’s why I said “institutional policy support”. It’s too much to ask for one person to be a genius and solve all problems with articulate policy all on their own.

    Trump has correctly recognized that the US is profoundly incompetent in health policy…yet the clown shows in both parties are nullifying him. Is that Trump’s fault?

    Trade and immigration are more complex. Trump likely is correct that unskilled immigration has little benefit today, unlike generations ago. He can’t articulate that intelligently. So what? Trade is complex too, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Ricardian comparative advantage has morphed into global policy arbitrage, where workers are the rump because they aren’t as mobile as capital.

    Maybe you disagree with the above, but it *could* be true that Trump is visionary in terms of identifying problems, but instead of Trump inspiring rational problem solving, the deep state (including various “intellectual” professions) is engaged in delegitimizing the problems rather than solving them. Kind of how they delegitimized tight money as a problem…

  16. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:42

    Steve, groupthink is a thing, but that doesn’t make Trump anything more than the obvious buffoon he appears to be.

  17. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    7. April 2017 at 08:42

    A very thoughtful piece by our host. One of his better political analyses.

    Let me add that Trump did what needed to be done and what his phony predecessor didn’t do for years. It was long overdue. And don’t forget all the funny people and “experts” and “political analysts” who were telling you that Trump is a puppet of Putin. I mean how stupid can you be? My predictions on the other hand look pretty good so far.

  18. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 08:48

    @Christian: if Obama had launched missiles at Syria and antagonized Russia, you and the rest of his opposition would be mercilessly attacking him for being a warmonger and getting us into another Iraq. But it’s your guy so it’s all good. Same as it ever was.

    The Middle East is a shitshow, and always will be no matter what the US does or doesn’t do.

  19. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    7. April 2017 at 08:55

    ” Trump anything more than the obvious buffoon ”

    I’m not even contesting that Trump is a buffoon. I’m saying he’s a folksy buffoon who has correctly identified *some* problems.

    I mean this week NRO was attacking Trump for failing to lead on health policy. But lead where? You’ve got “libertarians” who want no regs, benefits or mandates, and you’ve got austerians who want no spending. What can Trump do with that? You can’t build policy on a foundation of flunkies. But they blame Trump anyway, because they hate his personality.

    It’s like that in every policy arena right now. Assad is an asshole because Trump. The filibuster is gone because Trump. Tax reform is gonna fail because Trump. Terrorists attack because Trump. The sun is gonna go supernova in a billion years because Trump.

  20. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    7. April 2017 at 09:24

    Don’t project your own character onto others. From the posts I’ve read from you I have to draw the conclusion that you are pretty much a partisan hack. I am not a partisan hack. I attack Trump when he does something wrong and I did the same with Obama. I don’t care for party affiliations or personal feelings.

    Obama must be one of the nicest persons on this planet, the best neighbor you could imagine, but that never stopped me from attacking him when I thought he did something wrong. I wanted him very badly to be way more aggressive against Assad and Putin for years. I always criticized him for not attacking Assad. So no, you are deadly wrong. Don’t let your mind imagine things that are completely untrue.

  21. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    7. April 2017 at 09:36

    @Christian: you are not very good at reading comprehension, as Sumner has also noted about you.

    I’m obsessively anti-partisan, a radical centrist, so I’m glad to hear you are not in fact just Team Red. You have some integrity saying you’ve always advocated aggressiveness in Syria. I just figured you were like most Trump supporters, who are ginormous hypocrites that would be totally against Trump if he ran as a Democrat, which he easily could have.

  22. Gravatar of bill bill
    7. April 2017 at 09:40

    @msgkings. My point is that sometimes Trump may lash out without someone restraining him. This move doesn’t seem well thought out at all, so it could be that Trump lashed out. Or it could be that those advisors are less restrained or informed or rational than we thought/hoped. Or some combination. Thus, higher probabilities of bad outcomes or mistakes. Russia just changed some procedures designed to reduce the likelihood of accidents between our countries in Syria. Risk is increasing.

  23. Gravatar of Steve F Steve F
    7. April 2017 at 09:47

    Setting up Ryancare for the purpose of failing and putting a pin under Xi Jinping’s butt are among the smartest things Trump has done.

  24. Gravatar of Paul Paul
    7. April 2017 at 09:48

    Neil Gorsuch just got confirmed to the Supreme Court. I’d call that a pretty big win for Team Red. And Trump chose a good candidate, so on the one decision he made that actually counted he got it right. Who would have expected that?

  25. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    7. April 2017 at 10:31

    Good Sumner v. Bad Sumner

    There’s a tendency to think, “Surely the experts cannot be that clueless, there must be some special interest group that benefits from this policy”. I think just the opposite. Most policy errors reflect simple incompetence—thinking that a liquidity trap means that actual interest rates are zero, or thinking that Keynes’s worry about the limits of expansionary monetary policy under a gold standard also apply to the modern fiat money economy.

    Fortunately, American presidents have far less power than most people believe, we have a “deep state.” But let’s not push our luck—they still have some power.

    I prefer Good Sumner (the one who comments truthfully on economic policy, as opposed to untruthfully in other areas).

  26. Gravatar of Michael Byrnes Michael Byrnes
    7. April 2017 at 11:17

    Uh, oh.

  27. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    7. April 2017 at 11:37

    It saddens me to see you throw in your lot with the “deep state”. I would distinguish the “administrative state” of career bureaucrats from the true “deep state” emanating largely from Langley and the Pentagon.

    The former are maybe not so competent, but they do provide ballast and ensure a slow-moving state, which I think has some stabilizing features.

    But the CIA, the true “deep state”, is a horrible idea in a free society. Ask any libertarian.

  28. Gravatar of Matthew Waters Matthew Waters
    7. April 2017 at 11:49

    On the Fed, Syria has made me no longer worried that Trump will get a puppet to increase inflation like Nixon did.

    I am worried that he will get someone on the hawkish right, such as Taylor. If the Wicksellian interest rate goes below the zero-bound, then truly a Great Depression is a possibility under a Taylor Fed.

  29. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    7. April 2017 at 11:56

    What is the theory behind why the Deep State is good?

    Is the theory that experts who are mostly insulated from public scrutiny will act more for the common good than will those who face public scrutiny? That wouldn’t be a radical idea. Most people believe justice is best served when judges can insulate themselves from popular opinion.

    Is the Deep State good because inertia is generally good in a successful country and the Deep State is inherently conservative?

    How does belief in the virtue of a Deep State translate to belief in how the Federal Reserve should act? Can we rely on the virtue of the Federal Reserve “Deep State” to guide monetary policy wisely or would the system run better if they were held publicly accountable to a market driven target such as, say, NGDPLT?

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. April 2017 at 12:03

    Steve, You said:

    “Trump has correctly recognized that the US is profoundly incompetent in health policy…yet the clown shows in both parties are nullifying him. Is that Trump’s fault?”

    Is this a joke? You do realize that Trump is the clown, don’t you? He’s the guy who says he never realized health care was such a complicated issue.

  31. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    7. April 2017 at 13:47

    “You do realize that Trump is the clown, don’t you?”

    Did you even pay attention to the AHCA debacle? Pulling like half the funding from the ACA in order to use for tax cuts, while removing the mandate but keeping guaranteed issue? It would’ve been an even faster death spiral and a political disaster.

    Trump recognized two political realities during the campaign: the base (or at least the swing portion of the base) wants everyone covered, and they want drug prices not to be insane. Then Trump discovered that the Republican party would never support any of the issues that enabled him to win which does complicate things, doesn’t it?

    I realize that Trump didn’t have a concrete plan, but neither did any of the other candidates in the field. All of DC is a clown show.

  32. Gravatar of John John
    7. April 2017 at 15:47

    I can’t tell if I should be thankful or frightened that Trump himself is so incompetent. On the bright side, the experts are basically running the entire government now and ignoring our president. A competent alt-right personality would have actually something radical and awful by now, but I assume we wouldn’t have to risk a silly misunderstanding escalating into a war (instead I assume it would be a purposeful war). Overall it’s a wash for me.

  33. Gravatar of Don Don
    7. April 2017 at 20:59

    I agree that coal energy is not likely to see much growth in the USA. There is just too much natural gas and frac’ing has the green light under Trump. Energy providers see too much risk of re-regulation of coal for a 30-year investment.

    However, the future of coal is good. The developing world needs a lot of it, because it is the most efficient way to generate electricity. I predict the subsidized renewable industry has seen their zenith. The market forces are just too strong.

    We may enjoy a supply-side boost for the next decade thanks to cheap energy and less regulation. Oil could drop to the $30’s, if Venezuela can throw off their socialist yoke.

    I also agree with the comment about Trump eventually hiring good people after he has gone through the few loyalists that were on board early. That means he is likely to have a successful 4 years and that means 4 more. Winning is a skill.

  34. Gravatar of eneas ez eneas ez
    7. April 2017 at 21:46

    Im in favor of trade and a libertarian. But i dont understand why to much reasonable people are not against immigration (and speaking as a mexican). We are not talking about immigration from Germany to the UK, or from the US to Canada; we are talking about third world immigration to the first world. I mean sure, if the first worldd needs blue collar workers lets open up the borders. But why should you let your gates open to a country that not only has the worst policies and the most blatant government control. But also, the quality of life is so low and worthless that population reproduces more to have more chances of surviving. In abstract, I think countries have to earn their right to have the doors open abroad.

  35. Gravatar of woofighter woofighter
    8. April 2017 at 01:38

    As long as he builds the border wall all is forgiven.

  36. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    8. April 2017 at 01:46


    “I have a pretty open commenting policy, even allowing most personal insults directed at me (I figure they actually help me and hurt the attacker.)”

    I think you are doing everyone a huge service by quietly enduring the abuse. Some of the recent outbursts in the comments section so much speak for themselves, no sociological analysis could better that. The nutcases eventually show their true colors and do themselves in.

  37. Gravatar of The Original CC The Original CC
    8. April 2017 at 03:25

    “Today he tweeted that discouraged workers who have given up looking for work are counted as “employed”. ”

    Scott, I’m not doubting you; I just wanted to see that tweet myself and I couldn’t find it. Do you have a link?

  38. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. April 2017 at 05:20

    Steve, There is no evidence that Trump understood any of that. He supported the GOP plan, which was written to cover the issues that Trump said needed to be covered.

    Don, I don’t agree—Trump will be a failed president, and developing countries like China are rapidly moving away from coal.

    CC, Sorry, it was not a tweet. Here it is:

    “Appearing to reference the number of Americans out of work, Trump said, “We have 100 million people if you look.”

    He said a “good percentage” of them would like to have jobs.

    “When you look for a job, you can’t find it and you give up,” Trump said. “You are now considered statistically employed. But I don’t consider those people employed.””

  39. Gravatar of The Original CC The Original CC
    8. April 2017 at 05:28

    Aha, thanks for the link Scott!

  40. Gravatar of Lawrence D’Anna Lawrence D'Anna
    8. April 2017 at 06:48

    I was surprised too at how incompetent he turned our to be. I mean we all thought he’d be somewhat incompetent but the reality is he’s almost totally incompetent. I think a random citizen would be more competent by far.

  41. Gravatar of J Mann J Mann
    8. April 2017 at 12:09

    I can’t find the tweet, but I’m guessing Trump meant that once you give up looking for work, you’re no longer counted as unemployed.

    I wouldn’t call that an idiotic mistake, just that he’s not very precise in his everyday speech and that he should stop tweeting.

  42. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    8. April 2017 at 13:49

    I’ve been saying for months that DNC staffer Seth Rich was the one who leaked the DNC emails, for which he was murdered on his driveway to make it seem like a robbery

    Just yesterday this was posted by wikileaks:

    WikiLeaks tweeted a link to this super detailed report assessing the identity of alleged DNC hacker Guccifer2. This report suggests that Guccifer2 was constructed by Clinton Campaign or DNC to discredit the leaked emails published by WikiLeaks.

    They go through tons of metadata linking the Guccifer2 leaks to someone named Warren Flood. Flood’s name appeared in the “Created by” metadata of the Guccifer2 DNC documents. The “Modified by” metadata however, is written in Cyrillic. So it seems someone intentionally implanted Russian fingerprints in the “modified” metadata; but weren’t able to modify the “created by” data.


    SO, who is Warren Flood? Apparently he worked for the DNC.

    The timeframe during which Guccifer2 allegedly published these docs is also significant. Guccifer2 apparently acquired and edited the documents in 30 minutes of them apparently being created by Flood AND at a time that G2 would later claim was AFTER he had been kicked out of the DNC’s network.

    They also do extensive linguistic analysis of Guccifer2 posts, tweets, etc. and conclude through his proper use of articles and prepositions, etc. that he is like 97% NOT Russian.

    Then they evaluate motives and means of Clinton Campaign and conclude that they would’ve had the most to gain from Guccifer2 (he didn’t expose anything particularly damaging). This was really the birth of THE Russian narrative.

    It was misdirection from the real WikiLeaks AND laid the foundation for the Russia narrative they’ve quadrupled down on today.

  43. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    8. April 2017 at 13:50

  44. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    8. April 2017 at 13:53

    Towards the end of the correspondence is an interesting part. He says:

    “…i’d like to find a journalist who can do an investigation and tell the real story of his life and death […] his name is seth, he was my whistleblower […] i suppose u know who i’m talking about […] i’m eager to find fact about seth, i’m sure it wasn’t just a robbery […] i’d be greatful to u if there’s any chance u can help me find the person who can find the evidence that seth was assassinated…”

  45. Gravatar of Potato Potato
    8. April 2017 at 14:44


    I’m cautiously optimistic with Trump as president. He’s a buffoon, an idiot, and wrong about almost everything. He’s literally the worst (best!) standard bearer for wrong headed ideas we could possibly hope for.

    He is going to singlehandedly make Democrats pro free-trade. And this matters, a lot. To borrow from the usually wrong Conservative media, liberal values really do have more cultural cachet. They rise in status. And there’s a lot of memeticism going on. Trump is perfect for this, everything he is for, people will turn against. And he’s for almost uniformly idiotic things !!

    Celebrities latch on to things that seem high in status. Media figures latch onto things high in status. He’s so terrible I think he may end up a net positive. He literally may make America “great” by discrediting awful ideas!

    The most dangerous ideology to the US, as it always has been, is nativism “know nothing” idiocy. He’s now the poster child for it. It could have been a brilliant Hispanic combat veteran president leading the charge against Muslim immigration. Instead, it’s a 70 year old white obese moron who can’t string two sentences together.

  46. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. April 2017 at 05:26

    J. Mann, No, he said that once you stop looking for work you are counted as EMPLOYED. Sorry, but that’s just stupid. (See my reply to CC)

    Potato, You said, “He is going to singlehandedly make Democrats pro free-trade.”

    He’s already done so, I did a post on that a while back. Also check out yesterday’s Econlog post.

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