A Curate’s Egg (Part One)

The English use our shared language better than we do.  They have had more practice.  This includes their expressions, one of which is the title of this post.  It means “something that is good in parts.”  Now, why the breakfast of a low-level cleric should be especially prone to inconsistency is unclear.  But this is part of the phrase’s wondrous beauty.

Trump’s nominees for cabinet and other high positions are definitely a curate’s egg.  Although, in this case, the expression should probably mean “something that is better than your worst fears.”  By floating names like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, Trump has managed my expectations very well.

So, without further ado, here is the first part of my short thoughts on Trump’s egg.

Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State)

Tillerson’s nomination has been the most unexpected one that Trump has made.  In modern times, there has never been a Secretary of State with no governmental, not to mention diplomatic, experience.  This makes his very positive review in The Economist (“Oily Diplomacy: Give Rex a chance”) even more surprising.

With the very large caveat that Tillerson’s views on foreign policy issues are almost completely unknown, the article gives him high marks for his character.[1]  His dependability and cool-headedness are repeatedly cited, as well as his personal integrity and professionalism.  The article credits his engineering background for making him a “stickler for evidence-based decision-making.”  He is also considered to be “patient and unemotional.”

Put all of this together and The Economist concludes that Tillerson has been able to “stand up to, and win respect from, some notoriously slippery world leaders,” such as Vladimir Putin.  Just as importantly, Tillerson’s “traits would make him very different from his boss, who lives by the gut” and he “will also have the integrity to talk sense into his boss.”

Critics will point to Tillerson’s closeness to Putin, including his stand against sanctions and his Order of Friendship, as disqualifiers.  Nonsense.  At Exxon, Tillerson had a job and he had shareholders.  If he hadn’t done the former and fought for the interests of the latter, it would be a far blacker mark.

Although Tillerson is largely an unknown, there is one very positive thing that can already be said about him: he is not Rudy Giuliani and he is not John Bolton,[2] two of the other contenders for the position.

Giuliani seems to have only one mode: hyperventilation.  This, combined with his complete lack of experience and diplomatic skills, make him singularly unsuited for the office to which he hubristically aspired.  Although “zero tolerance policing” may have worked in a New York City brought low by Mayors Koch and Dinkins, it is not exactly the foreign policy that the US needs.

Bolton would have been even worse.  He has a ton of experience, all of it horrible.  Bolton must be the only person on the planet who still thinks that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a good idea. It is impossible to imagine someone less in tune with the hopeful side of Trump’s “America First” message, which he repeated in a recent speech with his “commitment to only engage the use of military forces when it’s in the vital national security interest of the United States.”  Trump also said “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes…that we know nothing about,” promised that his administration will instead be “guided by the lessons of history and a desire to promote stability,” and declared that “the destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally…come to an end.”

If this strand of the chaotic and inconsistent foreign policy pronouncements of the candidacy becomes the “Trump Doctrine,” this will be an unexpected blessing.  We certainly don’t need an incorrigible warmonger like Bolton pushing in the opposite direction.

Much to his credit, Senator Rand Paul has said that he will oppose Bolton for any office, including the lesser post of Deputy Secretary of State.  Given the thin Republican majority in the Senate, this may go a long way to keeping Bolton far away from the levers of power.  Good riddance.

Tom Price (Heath and Human Services)

 I have briefly commented before about Price (see Nature Abhors a Vacuum here).  This is probably the Trump appointee that has raised the fewest eyebrows.  A completely conventional choice with strong links to Congress and a highly relevant background in one of the most complicated and important fields of policy.  His biggest challenge will be living up to Trump’s promises to replace Obamacare with “something great,” while still having to operate within the bounds of the feasible.  He certainly cannot look to his boss for any policy inspiration.

Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff)

If there is going to be any adult supervision in Trump’s White House, Priebus and Vice President Mike Pence will be the likely providers.

After doing a remarkably good job of steering the Republican Party through the wreckage of the 2016 nomination and campaign, certainly by comparison to the DNC’s mismanagement of a far simpler task, Priebus seems to have established a position of influence over the President-elect that is unusually strong for someone whose last name isn’t “Trump” (or who hasn’t at least married someone with that moniker).  There even appear to be glimmers of hope that the combination of Priebus, Pence and Congressman Paul Ryan, all hailing from the Midwest and sharing similar values and personalities, could actually form the core of a conventionally effective Republican domestic agenda.  I don’t expect any small-government breakthroughs from these three, but they will also produce no calamities and they will certainly be an improvement on Obama’s trajectory or Clinton’s intentions.

Steven Mnuchin (Treasury)

As I have commented before, my ex-boss from Goldman Sachs is not high on my favorite’s list.  This, of course, is no comment on his qualifications for office.

Mnuchin is smart enough and diligent.  He has absolutely no government experience but then neither did Bob Rubin or Hank Paulson, two former Goldman partners who held the same office.  Unless he has materially changed, Mnuchin is not as intelligent, worldly or politically aware as Rubin, who used to have politicians trooping in and out of his office while Mnuchin was staring at screens and trading mortgage backed securities.[3]  Paulson, who was on the banking and not the trading side of the business, was much less known to me.  As a general rule, however, the DNA of the bankers, who were rewarded primarily for their “relationships[4]” and who played with other people’s money and not Goldman’s, was typically lighter on smart genes.  I suspect that Mnuchin is at least as capable as Paulson, for what that is worth.

As far as Mnuchin’s economic views, I think that we can assume that these are conventionally Keynesian.  I doubt that he has ever thought deeply about economic policy.  He has simply absorbed the zeitgeist.

One definite comment about Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury: this is not really the man you want in the case of a repeat of 2008.  As the world will shortly see during his confirmation hearings, Mnuchin does not score high in gravitas or charisma.  I can’t imagine anyone being heartened by the sight of Steve Mnuchin on television in the middle of a crisis of confidence.

Jeff Sessions (Attorney General)

Liberals have signalled that they are going into the trenches over accusations of racism against Sessions.  There is no doubt that this will be one of the most hotly contested nominations.

I, of course, have absolutely no ability to look into Jeff Session’s soul.  However, it strikes me as utterly ridiculous that accusations from before 1986, that were never substantiated and sometimes contradicted, are the basis on which this nomination will be judged.  As of January 2017, Sessions will have been in the US Senate for 20 years.  Is the nation really going to be treated to the farce of nomination hearings during which Democratic Senators will pretend that 30-year old accusations are more relevant for judging Session’s character than their last 20 years of working with him?

On policy matters, I disagree with almost every position that Sessions holds, from abortion to gay marriage and from the War on Drugs to immigration policy.  However, I also think that almost anyone would be an immense improvement on Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, Obama’s two Attorney Generals who, along with their boss, have almost completely politicized the office and have been smacked down by the Supreme Court a record number of times.

Nikki Haley (United Nations)

Trump has named the standing Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, to be Ambassador to the United Nations.

Haley is young (44 years), photogenic and diverse (she is the daughter of Indian immigrants).  A rising star in the Republican Party after she was elected governor in 2010 at the age of 38, the only real question is why she is giving up a position with real responsibilities and authority[5] to accept one of the most meaningless jobs in the administration.[6]  And the only plausible answer is that she has aspirations for national office and wants to tick the “international experience” box on her career CV.

Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development)

Doctor Carson appears to be a nice man.

The Sleazeman Cometh

One of the amazing things about Trump is that he manages to be even sleazier than the Clintons.  The fraudulent Trump University.  Lying about the fraudulent Trump University.  Not releasing his tax returns.  Lying about not releasing his tax returns.  Stiffing contractors in his business.  Lying about stiffing contractors.  Encouraging thuggery among his supporters.  Lying about….You get the picture.  The examples are virtually endless.

His administration will be no different.  Many of his senior advisors and flunkies are, frankly, a basket of deplorables.  They won’t be able to help themselves.  The sleaze-a-thon has begun.  Jason Miller, who was in line to be the communications director in the White House, has withdrawn his candidacy after accusations of an extra-marital affair surfaced from a very credible source: the woman with whom he has been having the affair, who outed it on Twitter.

Class.  Pure class.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom

 

[1] In addition to his “central casting” appearance, which appears to be a major factor in Trump’s decision making.

[2] Of course, he is not Mitt Romney either, but after Romney’s scathing comments about Trump, it is impossible to see this flirtation as anything but an attempt of overcome Trump’s reputation for being thin-skinned and vindictive.  Or, as some have suggested, a malicious practical joke.

[3] One of my favorite GS anecdotes was goofing around on the trading floor one day when our computers were down, only to look up and see Walter Mondale staring at us from outside Rubin’s office.  I can only imagine what he was thinking.

[4] This is investment-banker speak for the ability to profitably manipulate clients.

[5] The GDP of South Carolina would put it at the rank of about 55 on the global scale.

[6] The proof of this is that the post has been occupied by Samantha Powers since 2013, who is an utterly useless academic and one of the leading proponents of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that has left only human and fiscal destruction in its wake.

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4 Responses to A Curate’s Egg (Part One)

  1. David says:

    I think Jeff Sessions will be fought because he uses faulty logic to reduce civil rights. Look at his comments on the Civil Rights Act and how Alabama has not infringed on voting rights under the law, possibly because they knew it would fail preclearance. – http://www.sessions.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/floor-statements?ID=D59CA513-7E9C-9AF9-7606-A9D4FC36DA64. Alabama immediately restricts voter’s rights after the Supreme Court decision and it leads to much lower voter turnout. http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2014/11/alabamas_new_photo_voter_id_la.html

    • Roger says:

      Hi David. I hope you are doing well. Thanks for the comments, but I completely disagree.

      Sessions was objecting to the “pre-clearance” requirements of the Voting Rights Act which held a certain number of states to a different legal standard because of historical attempts to deny voting rights for African Americans. In the absence of any evidence of continuation of these practices, then I am not at all surprised that the Senator of a state that is being unfairly stigmatised for past wrongs would object to this.

      As to the claim that the voter ID laws led “to much lower voter turnout,” can you say post hoc ergo procter hoc? As you know, turnout among members of the “Obama coalition” was dramatically lower in 2016 than when he was running. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why Clinton lost. Because of the large African American vote in Alabama, this probably had a major impact. To blame this on voter ID laws with no evidence of causation, and to attach an article in which members of the NAACP deny receiving many complaints about the new law, is really quite a reach.

      I have recently written about voter ID laws in the section craftily named Voter ID Laws here: http://www.economicmanblog.com/2016/11/16/reflection-on-an-election/. This cites a recent statistical analysis which seems to be pretty thorough and which concludes that there is no material impact. Have you seen any rigorous evidence to the contrary? (Remember: the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”)

      Also, you comment is timely because just yesterday I was wondering what other countries do. And, not surprisingly, a great many other advanced democracies require voter IDs, including such hotbeds of fraud as Sweden and Switzerland. Also, as you know, many European countries have national identification cards which are intimately linked to the voting process, which makes it inherently less likely that fraud will be committed. Europeans are also notoriously less mobile than Americans, which makes voting fraud less likely.

      (My Slovak girlfriend has just confirmed that, in the small village whence she hails, you don’t really have to show an ID because everyone knows each other. In the bigger cities, however, national identification cards are required, which must correspond to the name and address on the voting rolls.)

      More generally, as I asked in my article, why do liberals have no problem accepting that massive mortgage fraud took place in the run up to the financial crisis, but they think that voter fraud is a figment of the racist right-wing imagination?

      Another question: Let’s assume that this is a draw and that there is minimal impact on voter turnout due to voter ID laws and
      minimal actual voting fraud. In this case, I claim that the case for voter ID laws wins for two reasons. First, it proves the integrity of the voting process, which is beneficial for society in general. Second, as a general matter, I think that it is beneficial to the quality of the vote to require that voters do some work in order to exercise the franchise. Voters who cannot be bothered to produce ID are signalling, I would claim, that they are statistically less likely to be informed. (Unlike most liberals, I view democracy as a means, not an end. For those afflicted with an opposing view, I strongly recommend The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan.)

      For a more humorous take on this subject, I hope that you saw this video that I posted earlier: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrBxZGWCdgs.

      David, you need to get out of California liberal echo chamber while there is still hope. Time is getting short.

  2. David says:

    Roger,

    I hope you are well and thanks for the reply.

    1) I don’t think they were unfairly stigmatized. A majority of the preclearance states rushed into behaviors that were promptly overturned by the courts for being discriminatory and unconstitutional showing that they were rightfully targeted for preclearance.

    2) Enrico’s work cuts both ways and he calls it inconclusive. He finds that voter ID increase turnout (by attention and effort to respond and/or belief in the validity of the election) and that strict voter ID rules decrease turnout to offset that impact. In addition, he has a more recent paper showing that increasing voting costs reduces turnout. Voter ID laws increase costs, especially when they accept only driver’s licenses and not other forms of state-issued identification, like North Carolina. If an ID is acceptable for receipt of state benefits, why wouldn’t it be acceptable for voting? http://economics.mit.edu/files/11936

    3) The European example is great, because that ID wouldn’t have been permitted in North Carolina. They refused to accept benefit cards (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/appeals-court-strikes-down-north-carolinas-voter-id-law/2016/07/29/810b5844-4f72-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?utm_term=.ef9d066833dc). Also, in Sen Sessions state, the Governor decided to shut down DMV’s in rural counties to save budget and I doubt that he will be sending people to voter’s houses to give people identification. http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/10/gov_bentley_says_decision_to_c.html. Also, the comment about how in rural areas you don’t need IDs meshes well with the idea that we don’t need these rules. Lastly, it seems ridiculous to me that our country with a history of notable voter suppression in our lifetimes is passing laws to disenfranchise African Americans.

    4) Voter Fraud vs. Mortgage Fraud – Mortgage fraud is self-interested and certain and immediate in the behavioral economics lingo. You lie on the paperwork and you receive a commission or other direct financial benefits. The idea that thousands/hundreds of thousands of people are voting a few times to sway an election of probabilistic future outcomes seems less plausible and behavioral economics support. Mortgage fraud and the Wells Fargo credit card fraud seem much more likely.

    5) Also, as a bit of fun, I enjoyed this interview with Ray Dalio about his voting methods at Bridgewater – http://www.businessinsider.com/ray-dalio-interview-henry-blodget-1-2017. It sounds like an interesting place.

    Hope you are having a fun start to 2017!

    • Roger says:

      Hey, David, let me respond to these one-by-one:

      1. Two problems with this as evidence that they were fairly stigmatized. First, the courts overturned the voter ID laws of a number of states, many of which were not subject to pre-clearance. The courts’ actions would only be evidence of “fair stigmatization” if the tendency for pre-clearance states to (1) pass voter ID laws and (2) have those laws overturned were significantly different than the experience of states not subject to pre-clearance. EVEN IF this evidence existed, you would still have the problem of different standards applied by different courts. I believe that these are the US Courts of Appeal. There are 11 of these. I suspect that there are significant differences in their standards.

      2. I would hardly call the results of the study I cite “inconclusive.” Although he used that word, I think that the title says it all: “Got ID? The Zero Effects of Voter ID Laws on County-Level Turnout, Vote Shares, and Uncounted Ballots, 1992-2014.” I think that if you asked him whether his study supported the hypothesis that voter ID laws hurt turnout, etc., he would unquestionably answer “no.” Yet, given the clearly non-zero costs of potential voter fraud, including the impact on legitimacy, I think that those who argue against voter ID laws should bear the burden of proof. I will take a look at the additional study you have sent. Thanks.

      3. I don’t know what the appropriate ID is and obviously, given the structural differences between Europe and the US (and between the different states in the US), it is very hard to generalize. The point I was making with the European examples is not about the specific type of ID, but with the general rule of requiring some kind of ID. My understanding of the position of those who argue against voter ID laws is that they are against the very principle of it or at least against any manifestation that could have any kind of differential impact on certain types of minorities. Since some minority groups are generally less endowed with resources, then almost any kind of voter ID — assuming that it requires any type of resource to obtain — could be ruled out on these grounds.

      As to “it seems ridiculous to me that our country with a history of notable voter suppression in our lifetimes is passing laws to disenfranchise African Americans,” this is just assuming the answer to the question under debate, isn’t it?

      4. If you believe this, then why do people vote at all? You are quoting the rational voter hypothesis, the logical conclusion of which is never vote. But people do vote. They vote for psychological reasons, to adhere to their beliefs and values, and “signalling” to others. Are you saying that these psychological reasons could never provide sufficient motivation to commit fraud? I think that you would have a hard time proving that.

      5. I will look at the Ray Dalio video. He is a weird dude. Not sure if he is genius weird, or just weird. Although, he certainly has made a lot of money.

      Finally, there are plenty of reasons to oppose Sessions as the AG. His stands on civil forfeiture laws, criminal justice reform, decriminalizing marijuana and personal privacy are all horrendous. Yet, the default argument of the left is, as always, racism. Why is that? And don’t you think that it is becoming counter-productive?

      2017 starts well. Hope the same to you.

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