Trump is even worse than Scott Alexander assumes, but will do far less harm than he expects

My mailman is great.  But suppose he were horrible.  And suppose I went on a one hour rant about his miserable service at a cocktail party.  And suppose my listener said “You must have mailman derangement syndrome, given how well the stock market has done there’s no way he could be that bad.”  I’d probably roll my eyes.

When Bernanke retired I thanked him for his service, and pointed out that he tried to nudge the Fed in the right direction.  Commenters were incredulous; “How can you praise him when you trashed Fed policy?”  They don’t know how hard it is to move a big bureaucracy.

Most people think Bush got us into the Iraq War.  I blame the US government.  I think the government decided to go to war, and if Al Gore had been elected then his proposed foreign policy czar Richard Holbrooke would have pushed Gore into the war.  (Holbrooke was very hawkish on the Iraq War.)

Although the Iraq War was a disaster, the US stock market did very well after 2003.  Ditto for stocks during 2009-13, despite inadequate Fed stimulus. Now people sometimes ask me how Trump can be so bad, given that the stock market is rising, the sky is not falling, and the 7 plagues of Egypt have not hit us.  The answer is simple–the power of Presidents is vastly overrated.  It’s tempting for humans to try to personify deep, powerful historical forces, but it’s usually wrong.  (As usual, Hitler may be an exception.)

I agreed with Tyler Cowen when he suggested that Scott Alexander was too easy on Trump regarding the racism charge.  In my view, Trump really is a racist, or at least acts like one.  So I have a much lower opinion of Trump that Alexander does. At the same time, I don’t think Trump will have anywhere near the negative impact that Scott expects:

Now that Trump has started enacting his terrible policies, a bunch of people on Twitter are saying that my past posts on Trump “haven’t aged well” or that I must be feeling really bad about them right now.

I’ve never been the slightest bit of a Trump supporter. Since he came onto the national stage, I have called Trump “a bad president”, “randomly and bizarrely terrible”, “an emotionally incontinent reality TV show host”, and “an incompetent thin-skinned ignorant boorish fraudulent omnihypocritical demagogue”. I’ve accused him of “bizarre, divisive, ill-advised, and revolting” rhetoric, worried that his election might “lead directly to the apocalypse [or] the fall of American democracy”, and called his administration “a disaster”. I’ve urged blog readers to vote for literally anyone except him and to donate money to the ACLU to stop him. If you want to accuse me of being pro-Trump, or even lukewarm on disliking Trump, I don’t know what else to tell you.

But I really sympathize with this from Alexander:

Apparently saying it a million times is not enough for some people. I’m afraid there’s a mood affiliation effect going on here – that if I say Trump didn’t cause 9-11, then people can only hear “SCOTT SAYS TRUMP ISN’T THAT BAD!”. Arguments aren’t soldiers, and Trump can both not cause 9-11 and be bad for lots of other reasons.

The vast majority of my commenters do not know how to read for content; they indulge in mood affiliation.  “Sumner said Trump was horrible, so if Trump does something good, or if stocks rise, then Sumner was wrong.”  What’s so pathetic about these people is that they are mostly right-wingers who hate Obama.  They’d never in a million years assume that Obama had anything to do with the massive increase in stock prices during the 8 years he was in office.  But Trump gets full credit for the relatively small increase in stock prices since the election.  Okaaay. . . .

People need to grow up, on both sides of the spectrum.  Liberals need to understand that the country will be fine.  Trump will be followed by his opposite, just as Nixon was followed by Jimmy Carter.  That’s the way American politics always works.  And conservatives need to realize that a president can be horrible, even if the stock market is going up.  There is no contradiction.

After all, the President is just a federal employee, like my mailman.

PS.  Just to be clear, I’ve always said there is a small chance that Trump does something horrible, like get us into a nuclear war through his unstable personality and unpredictable foreign policy.  A slightly higher chance than if someone else were president.  So don’t take this as saying we shouldn’t worry at all.  But the odds are that life will go on.  Something like a 10% tariff on all imports would knock a couple tenths of a percent off GDP growth, but that’s hardly more than a rounding error.  And yet it’s still a very bad idea!  Worth getting “deranged” about.

PPS.  Yes, the recent travel ban is a horrible policy, but 400,000 in prison for drug crimes is two orders of magnitude more horrible.

PPPS.  I’ll bet almost all bloggers sympathize with Scott’s complaint at some level.  We’ve all been misunderstood by commenters in a similar fashion.  (In fairness, I often misunderstand commenters, partly because I read too quickly.)



48 Responses to “Trump is even worse than Scott Alexander assumes, but will do far less harm than he expects”

  1. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    29. January 2017 at 20:34

    Sumner, who do you think was the best President in history? The worst? Just so I understand your definition of “horrible”.

    I think Trump has been doing an O.K. job as President. The main problem with his ban is that it’s not broad enough -where’s Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt? Also, he has not repealed DACA.

    “Yes, the recent travel ban is a horrible policy, but 400,000 in prison for drug crimes is two orders of magnitude more horrible.”

    -Pretty much.

    “slightly higher chance than if someone else were president.”

    -Nope. Much lower:

    “And yet it’s still a very bad idea! Worth getting “deranged” about.”

    -I don’t think so. Much bigger fish to attack in govt than some trade barriers.

  2. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    29. January 2017 at 21:00

    I think I agree with this post, in general.

    The question is whether Trump will make smallish mistakes along with some good ideas like Presidents Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, or big bad mistakes, like W or LBJ.

    The big bad mistakes usually involve foreign entanglements, and my guess is that Trump will avoid those. He is our Celebrity President, so who knows. On the other hand, Reagan consulted astrologers.

    I do wonder if Gore goes to war in Iraq or Afghanistan. First-person accounts of the Bush Team suggest neo-cons were very influential (Cheney would not have been part of the Gore team, and Bushies today blame Cheney), along with CIA Director Tenet’s blunt assessment that it was a “slam dunk” Iraq has WMD.

    On the other hand, it is only GOP’ers who can extend olive branches without being branded sissy-lefties.

    Reagan did the huggy-scene with Gorbachev, scaled down nuke fleets.

    “In 2001, President George Bush issued a truly astounding appraisal of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent who has run Russia since replacing Boris Yeltsin in 1999. ‘I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.'”


    We will see on Trump. If he avoids a Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, then his foreign policy will be better than some not-so-distant predecessors, almost on the face of it.

  3. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    29. January 2017 at 21:08

    Holbrooke was hawkish on the Iraq War, but he wouldn’t have pushed for it to happen. His primary concern was counter-terrorism, and that meant Afghanistan.

  4. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    29. January 2017 at 21:09

    EDIT: Never mind, I have him mixed up with someone else. Still, same point applies I think – Holbrooke wouldn’t have pushed President Gore into a full-blown invasion of Iraq.

  5. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    29. January 2017 at 22:14

    Scott, So true. Thank-you for being rational.

  6. Gravatar of Roger Roger
    29. January 2017 at 22:39

    For those of you who think free trade is so great, you might want to read that article.

  7. Gravatar of Mattias Mattias
    30. January 2017 at 01:07

    I don’t worry about a trade war, even if it’s with China. I think we should be happy if it’s only a trade war with China. Things can easily get out of hand, and it’s not exactly like you can trust the Chinese regime to be the grownup in the room either.

    I’m surprised by the confidence even sensible Americans have about their democracy and it’s checks and balances. It seems to me foreign policy is now run by Trump and his closest advisor Steve Bannon. The idea of Miller, Flynn and Navarro whispering crazy things in Trump’s ears isn’t very comforting either.

    Honestly, in what shape do you think you will find USA and the rest of the world when Trump’s era one day is finally over?

  8. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    30. January 2017 at 02:16

    “The vast majority of my commenters do not know how to read for content; they indulge in mood affiliation.”

    You mean like how you did not read the content of the order of the immigration ban in your previous post?

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    30. January 2017 at 04:20

    interesting article

  10. Gravatar of John Samples John Samples
    30. January 2017 at 04:57

    Here’s how I would describe the S&P500 from Feb. 1, 2016, to the end of 2016. It rises until August or so, plateaus, and then returns to trend quickly after election day. There are many ways to interpret this, of course, but not all of them indicate that the president does not matter. For example, many people came to believe Hillary was certain to win during the period the S&P500 plateaued. The wisdom of the S&P500 crowd might have been that her presidency would have been bad enough to knock stock prices off of the previous trend. Of course, the return to trend might just reflect her defeat rather than Trump’s victory; the two are the same variable and it is hard to distinguish their effects. Also, the S&P returns to trend after election day. The Obama administration was part of the prior trend, and Trump is not above trend. So Trump looks like a continuation of the status quo, and Hillary seems to have been a disrupter, both of which contravene common sense. Finally, all of this depends on putting an (imaginary) ruler on a computer monitor. Good enough for the comments section? Maybe. But as Scott Alexander would say: level of confidence, medium.

  11. Gravatar of flow5 flow5
    30. January 2017 at 05:46

    “They don’t know how hard it is to move a big bureaucracy”

    Good ideas sell themselves.

  12. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    30. January 2017 at 05:52

    “I read too quickly.” It’s marvelous that you read, and respond, at all. Bravo!

  13. Gravatar of Cameron Cameron
    30. January 2017 at 06:02

    Uniting the country, or at least not further dividing it, is the most important task the president needs to accomplish right now. You can’t just ram through all the policies you want, you actually need to build a winning coalition (ie Reagan). Trump has further divided the country and has a >50 disapproval rating without even being particularly conservative. He is the absolute worst president I can imagine for conservatives.

    I just hope democrats nominate Biden and not Warren in 2020.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. January 2017 at 06:47

    Brett, Check out this book and you might change your mind:

  15. Gravatar of Acebojangles Acebojangles
    30. January 2017 at 06:50

    I don’t think the worry with Trump should be moving toward Hitler; we should be worrying about moving toward Putin. I think Trump would be happy being able to spread whatever disinformation he likes, enrich himself and his friends, and project masculine foreign policy.

    I worry about our ability to move to the opposite of Trump for a few reasons:

    1. Will any President be as willing to disclose and ameliorate financial conflicts now that Trump has shown it’s unnecessary?
    2. Will any Republican engage with media in anything approaching honesty going forward?
    3. Ability and willingness to shape voting outcomes have increased recently.
    4. People and politicians are much more ideologically sorted now than in decades past. I think Trump might be able to shrug off a Watergate-type scandal as partisan politics.

    Maybe I’m unaware of how bad politics has been in years past.

  16. Gravatar of flow5 flow5
    30. January 2017 at 07:11

    Trump doesn’t have a chance. Obama’s $10t addition to the Federal Debt has sealed Trumps’ fate. The bond bubble bursts in the last half of 2017.

  17. Gravatar of flow5 flow5
    30. January 2017 at 07:13

    The only way out is to raise reserve ratios, eliminate the remuneration of IBDDs, and then cap the DFI’s depositors rates and gradually lower them until the CBs are out of the savings business.

    – Michel de Nostredame

  18. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    30. January 2017 at 07:24

    I wish I could share the optimism that the damage Trump can do is do limited. I don’t have the same faith in the ability of the bureaucracy or system of checks and balances to slow Trump down enough.

    I do have some hope that Trump’s cruelty, incompetence, and apparent mental illness could continue to mean he loses popularity, in which case even Republicans may join the media free-for-all and bring him down, or at least paralyze him. If Trump continues his spiral down popularity-wise, I think he’s doomed. We should not miss this opportunity to contact our representatives and make sure we let them know we think he’s totally unfit to serve.

    Continuing to ignore federal court stay orders is obviously grounds for impeachment.

  19. Gravatar of Matthew Waters Matthew Waters
    30. January 2017 at 07:35

    It’s hard for me to feel as sanguine about how American neoliberal democracy fares. The drug war was mentioned, but the drug war generally shows how awful local police departments and DA offices can become.

    Should Trump capture the some domestic agencies such as ICE and FBI, Republcians have also shown absolutely no spine. If a Muslim Ban, now partially in effect, doesn’t lose Republicans, what will? If FBI is put on media companies, will Republicans still stand behind Trump? What if civil service protections are ended? The GOP could maybe end civil service protections through reconciliation, by giving Trump power to reduce any servants salary to $1.

    Nothing in the past year makes me hopeful. The median scenario probably is Trump is contained, but I think the worst scenarios are not far-fetched. Maybe 10-20℅ probability.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. January 2017 at 07:38

    Roger, That article provides no support to the sort of policies that Trump is proposing. And I also think the article is simply wrong, as I have pointed out in numerous posts. Even if correct, it only applies at the zero bound, which is not the current US position.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. January 2017 at 07:41

    Everyone, Just to be clear, I think Trump will do harm. Nixon did an great deal of harm, but the country survived and moved on. Indeed safeguards were installed after Nixon (which were later watered down in the War on Terror, so I suppose this stuff is cyclical.)

  22. Gravatar of Rick G Rick G
    30. January 2017 at 08:41

    If I had to make a Mount Scottmore of important and insightful bloggers, it would be:
    Scott Sumner
    Scott Alexander
    Scott Aaronson
    Scott Adams

  23. Gravatar of bill bill
    30. January 2017 at 09:10

    Sometimes the reason we don’t have to worry is because we worried, reacted, resisted and reduced the “success” of potentially damaging policies.

  24. Gravatar of rtd rtd
    30. January 2017 at 09:45

    Great post but I can’t agree with the following:

    “Yes, the recent travel ban is a horrible policy, but 400,000 in prison for drug crimes is two orders of magnitude more horrible.”

    I’m not a fan of having those 400k in jail for drug crimes, but bigoted, unjust, and non-legislated EO is far worse than nonsensical legislation. The message it sends alone makes it worse. Intent does matter.

  25. Gravatar of gogojiayou gogojiayou
    30. January 2017 at 09:59

    In defense of commenters who indulge in mood affiliation, many writers use “arguments” precisely for the purpose of expressing a mood. So when Scott says “[t]he vast majority of my commenters do not know how to read for content,” what he should really say is “the vast majority of my commenters do not realize I am a more disciplined thinker than most writers.” Of course, Scott really is a more disciplined thinker than most writers, but it’s not absurd to pay attention to the “mood” of a blog post. Besides, even disciplined thinkers are human.

  26. Gravatar of flow5 flow5
    30. January 2017 at 10:34

    The Drug war was incentivized by various political lollipops (e.g., asset forfeiture). If the police made as much money out of catching violent criminals, then murder rates, etc. would not have risen.

    The prison system is perverse. It places violent criminals with non-violent criminals (and puts “lifers” in with those who are parolable). Thus it forces non-violent offenders to become violent (something they carry back with them to the streets).

  27. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    30. January 2017 at 11:15

    The American government and economy are massive and the powers of the president to move them meaningfully are limited.

    But the president has quite a bit of ability to make things very bad for individual people.

  28. Gravatar of d d
    30. January 2017 at 15:41

    well i am not very positive, but very negative. the checks balances are suppose to be the Congress and courts slowing down the executive. but with the same party controlling the executive and Congress (even if in one case by a small majority) I dont seem them slowing him down (and thinking back to the last time the GOP controlled Congress we ended up with a minor depression o a major recession) i dont see any reason they will be different this time around. will we get into a new war? maybe, with China o Mexico or both. or maybe just a trade war. tough to do when one of those countries is one of our major oil suppliers. just dont piss off Canada, they are the biggest supplier. or the price of gas will blow past the last high price, it a few days or weeks, and not look back. so if we can survive T (and thats a big IF) I am not sure what the next president will be like. a worse megalomaniac than T?

  29. Gravatar of d d
    30. January 2017 at 15:45

    i hope we survive, but not all positive we will

  30. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    30. January 2017 at 16:33

    from Marginal Revolution:

    The recent fall of labor’s share of GDP in numerous countries is well-documented, but its causes are poorly understood. We sketch a “superstar firm” model where industries are increasingly characterized by “winner take most” competition, leading a small number of highly profitable (and low labor share) firms to command growing market share. Building on Autor et al. (2017), we evaluate and confirm two core claims of the superstar firm hypothesis: the concentration of sales among firms within industries has risen across much of the private sector; and industries with larger increases in concentration exhibit a larger decline in labor’s share….


  31. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    30. January 2017 at 16:55

    Even if one wants to do catastrophism, ask oneself whether Lincoln caused the Civil War? Or was he (at most) a manifestation of much deeper divides?

    The level of polarisation in US society seems a much bigger issue than The Donald himself.

  32. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    30. January 2017 at 18:16

    For those interested, here’s another article about how to deal with a populist leader who agrees Trumpistas shouldn’t be shamed:

    The author is an economist who opposes Chavismo.

  33. Gravatar of Joe Joe
    30. January 2017 at 18:22

    Maybe trump s trying to pull a fast one on us. Start with noisy b.s. Poloicies and stories that distract us (the crowd size, immigration ban), all while creating a structure and environment (and begging for a terrorist attack) so he and ban on can consolidate power and have a quiet coup. Crazy. Far fetched. Keeps me up some nights…

  34. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    31. January 2017 at 00:11

    Lorenzo from Oz:

    According to this article by a couple of UC professors,, the US congress has become more polarized but the electorate has stayed pretty steady. Which is an interesting puzzle in itself, but a less worrisome problem (I think).

  35. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    31. January 2017 at 00:44

    ” A slightly off-center perspective on monetary problems.
    Trump is even worse than Scott Alexander assumes, but will do far less harm than he expects ”

    Let’s hope so.

    ‘Trump and the Saudi King Engage in a Major Pact to Confront Iran
    The two agreed to address Iran’s supposed “destabilizing regional activities.” ‘

  36. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    31. January 2017 at 03:19

    You know, Trump is a celebrity President.

    American orthodox macroeconomists are VSPs (as Krugman says).

    From Japan today:

    “In other news, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported the effective ratio of job-openings to job-seekers hit the highest level since 1991. The unemployment rate also fell to a 22-year low, reported the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.”


    As readers probably know, Japan has deflation. And is building lots of housing. In fact, they are building so much housing that rents are falling in Tokyo, one of their few growing cities.

    American macroeconomists say we must unemploy Americans so we do not tread close to the 2% inflation target.

    Trump says he wants more jobs in America.

    So, who is right, the celebrity President or the U.S. orthodox macroeconomist establishment?

    And why are not economists talking about building lots more housing?

  37. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    31. January 2017 at 09:57

    So, who is right, the celebrity President or the U.S. orthodox macroeconomist establishment? And why are not economists talking about building lots more housing?

    If you want more housing you eliminate the zoning laws and regulations that prevent it from being built (to the huge benefit of incumbent housing owners, like me) then let the market build the housing. Then you watch the rents and housing prices fall (at the cost of incumbent voting housing owners, like me) and enjoy the surge in jobs and growth of GDP that results.

    OTOH, as to a government policy of “building housing”, literally nobody in the USA has done anywhere near as much of that as has the NYC government, right here, to make up for the supply shortages caused by decades of regulations on rents and new building. And after it all today the NYC rents are at an all time high, the NYC government is the nation’s biggest slumlord by far, and the city government is talking about the need for it to build more housing.

    Maybe that’s why?

    But OTOH, personally, I’m with you. Preserve my neighborhood by keeping the regulations in place, have the city government build more housing, pay for it by upping the income tax bills of “the rich” who live on the Upper East Side, like Trump.

  38. Gravatar of d d
    31. January 2017 at 10:00

    if we are lucky, he wont destroy every thing. but consider a repeat of 9/11, with MR T in charge, while GWB wasnt the best president we ever had, he is light yeas better than MR T will ever be.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. January 2017 at 14:03

    Rick, I’d be third on that list, at best.

    Carl, I strongly disagree with that.

    Ben, I thought that you thought that inflation brought prosperity. Are you a new convert to the natural rate hypothesis? And I thought orthodox US economists favored looser zoning laws.

  40. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    31. January 2017 at 14:52

    Why do you strongly disagree with their conclusion about polarization?

  41. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    31. January 2017 at 21:11

    Scott Sumner:

    I think some inflation, in general, is good for reasons you have taught, such as sticky wages. I toss in inflation helps give Dutch courage in investors. Inflation in the 2%-4% range is probably okay.

    I don’t know about the natural-rate hypothesis.

    Do orthodox macroeconomists favor looser zoning laws? Where are there breathless editorials, the op-eds?

    When inflation nears 2%, are the first words from orthodox macroeconomists, “Time to loosen property zoning”?

    In fact, the orthodox model in use by the Fed is “We are near 5% unemployment, so time to tighten up.”

    To this date, the Fed has never said, “We need an aggressive round of un-zoning property, as we are near 2% inflation.”

    Try googling “inflation and property zoning”.

    It ranks up there with “Los Angeles Rams Win the Super Bowl.”

  42. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    31. January 2017 at 21:14

    Jim Glass-

    I favor the complete and total de-zoning all all private property in the US.

    The propertied and financial classes in the U.S do not.

    Guess who is going to prevail on this one?

  43. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    1. February 2017 at 15:44

    Gen. Flynn: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

  44. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. February 2017 at 15:51

    Carl, Back in the 1970s and 1980s people never cared about the politics of others. Now you find people who won’t even date people of the opposite party. America’s so much more polarized it’s ridiculous. Only an academic could believe otherwise.

    Ben, They don’t talk about zoning when they discuss inflation because zoning has nothing to do with inflation.

  45. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    2. February 2017 at 02:39

    Donald J. Trump ‏@realDonaldTrump 7h7 hours ago

    “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the U.S. has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!”

  46. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    3. February 2017 at 00:33

    Donald J. Trump ‏@realDonaldTrump 21h21 hours ago

    “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

  47. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. February 2017 at 19:21

    They’d never in a million years assume that Obama had anything to do with the massive increase in stock prices during the 8 years he was in office. But Trump gets full credit for the relatively small increase in stock prices since the election. Okaaay. . . .

    Aren’t you reasoning from a price change here?

    I assume Obama does not get credit because he wasn’t really committed to pro-growth policies. Or which huge pro-growth reforms by Obama do you remember? The minimum wage raise? Obamacare? What do you have in mind?

    Trump does get credit because he got at least some pro-growth policies like tax cuts, deregulation and so on. Not much so far but I assume it’s more than Obama did in 8 years.

  48. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    5. February 2017 at 01:56

    “Royal Navy leads military drills off Iranian coast as tensions mount between Washington and Tehran”

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