Posts tagged ‘President Trump’

Politics, Peer Virtue-Signalling, And the Agency Problem

The other day Megan McArdle wrote an article entitled "The CFPB Fight Is Completely Pointless...Why is either side spending political capital for brief control over this agency?"  In short, the the folks on the Left who mostly populate the Elizabeth Warren / Barrack Obama created agency argue that deputy director Leandra English should become acting director after the current director stepped down.  President Trump argues he should be able to appoint the acting director (as the President would for any other agency) and appointed CFPB critic Mick Mulvaney.

My heart thrills as readily as anyone’s to the sight of a doomed soldier playing Horatius at the Bridge. But at least Horatius Cocles had a purpose: He secured an orderly retreat, allowing the army to live to fight another day. What, exactly, do [Leandra] English and her supporters hope to achieve, other than a spectacle for wonky Washingtonians?

The most they can get is a brief period of business as usual, during which it will be hard to enact binding decisions because the legitimacy of her leadership will be in doubt. At worst, they get a humiliating smackdown from the courts, cementing their place in history as elitists who thought they were above petty restraints like elections or the Constitution.

And in the broader political picture, if you think Mulvaney is a bad, dangerous man who will privilege the interests of rich bankers over those of ordinary Americans, you’d probably rather have him running the CFPB than in his current job -- overseeing the entire federal budget. Even if English wins and sends him back to OMB, this seems like a Pyrrhic victory for the left.

While most everyone else on the Internet seems to be able to automatically intuit everyone else's internal motivations, I don't claim to have that ability.  So I will offer one possible motive why Leandra English might see personal benefit from this otherwise pointless struggle.

It is no news to say that the US has arrayed itself into multiple tribes that hate each other.  The election of President Trump has only accelerated this.  Trump is so disliked by those on the Left that folks on the Left can score major points with their tribe by publicly opposing him, even when their effort is doomed and ultimately pointless.   Wendy Davis is a good example of a politician who greatly increased her status in the Left-tribe with an ultimately doomed filibuster of an abortion bill in Texas (so much so that a hagiographic movie is being made about her).  I have wondered whether several of the judges who have temporarily halted controversial but probably legal executive actions by Trump were not motivated as much by playing to the audience in their tribe as they were by making a thoughtful legal decision.

Which brings me to the agency problem, which Wikipedia defines thus:

The principal–agent problem, in political science and economics, (also known as agency dilemma or the agency problem) occurs when one person or entity (the "agent") is able to make decisions on behalf of, or that impact, another person or entity: the "principal".[1] This dilemma exists in circumstances where agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are contrary to those of their principals, and is an example of moral hazard.

Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent) and shareholders (principal), politicians (agent) and voters (principal), or brokers (agent) and markets (buyers and sellers, principals).[2] Consider a legal client (the principal) wondering whether their lawyer (the agent) is recommending protracted legal proceedings because it is truly necessary for the client's well being, or because it will generate income for the lawyer. In fact the problem can arise in almost any context where one party is being paid by another to do something where the agent has a small or nonexistent share in the outcome, whether in formal employment or a negotiated deal such as paying for household jobs or car repairs

I think too often people define the agency problem only about economic incentives, e.g. my broker only recommends the stocks that pay him the highest commission.  But most of us are motivated by many things in addition to money.

Consider the example of a media conglomerate with multiple cable channels.  The managers of this media conglomerate are mostly of the Left.  One of their channels is called the shooting channel and focuses on gun reviews and the shooting sports.  The channel needs a new president, and it hires Hannah Progressive, either internally or from another successful media company.  Hannah is a talented media person with a proven track record of building cable channels and a perfect fit in every way except that she is disdainful of the shooting sports and groups like the NRA.  But let's say that Hannah is a true professional and can put that aside.  But what may be harder to put aside is the reaction of her peers.  She is going to get teased, maybe even bullied, by folks in her social circles.  Her peers are going to look down on her, even if she is successful (maybe especially if she is successful).  There is going to be tremendous pressure on her, both from her social circle as well as well as when she thinks about future job prospects an the industry dominated by the Left, to virtue-signal to others on the Left.  She could be tempted to shift content, alliances, advertisers,etc. in ways that signal virtue to her tribe but might alienate her current viewers and actually hurt the financial results of her company.

I frequently think about this in the context of how university presidents respond to protests, or how the NFL does so, or when seeing ESPN programming changes.  I have even seen it with programmers, working harder to impress their peers with the elegance of their code than to try to actually write things that serve the company and the customer.

Evergreen Campaign Promises that are Always Broken

Some Conservatives are miffed that Trump is apparently not going to move the US Embassy in Israel to Tel Aviv

In March 2016, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Donald Trump said that, as president, he would move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump called that city “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Now, however, President Trump has decided to keep our embassy in Tel Aviv. A senior White House official explained: “We don’t think it would be wise to [move] it at this time” because “we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”

This promise to move the US Embassy in Israel is evergreen, and is always broken.  A similar promise by candidates such as Barack Obama to declare the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians to be genocide is another promise of symbolic action that is never actually implemented in office.  These mostly symbolic gestures are really powerful in campaigns, because they will tend to energize certain groups and make them more likely to vote for you.  But it turns out that each of these actions would tend to tick off unpredictable, scary, violent parties, the negative consequences of which might well outweigh the benefits of the gesture.  Even ignoring violence and irrationality, these actions impose an opportunity cost, likely limiting progress on other diplomatic fronts with these same parties.

This is why the vast majority of actual government actions reside in the lower left square in the framework below -- don't believe me?  Look at the legislative output from any particular session of Congress.  The vast majority of the actions taken are to declare some special day, a low-cost symbolic action meant to make some group feel warm towards some politician.

 

Why Aren't The Chinese Ticked Off About Subsidizing American Consumers? And Why Aren't We Happy About It?

Ten years ago, we published an editorial from our Chinese sister publication Panda Blog.  Though some of the details of their government's financial actions have changed since then, the gist of it is still correct -- the Chinese government still engages in actions that they call "export promotion" and President Trump calls "currency manipulation".  So I think this editorial from the perspective of the Chinese consumer is still relevant:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.  Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

American Tribal Warfare: Red Tribe v. Blue Tribe

I often observe that American politics have become tribal.  It is an unfortunate human tendency to divide up into groups and then decide that some other group over there is really, really awful and an existential threat to your own group.  This is where I see politics today.  Sure, there are still real policy disagreements, but these can shift so much one has to wonder if people are taking a position based on real, rational evaluation or simply because the rival tribe has taken the opposite position.  Just look at shifting red/blue attitudes on Russia.  The Left hated drone strikes under GWB but have gone silent on them with Obama, despite Obama actually ordering more of them.   Republicans denounce Obama's executive orders on immigration as unconstitutional but welcome them from Trump.  Policy issues are no longer things to be solved, but are merely props to generate outrage and over which to score points in the left-right tribal warfare.

This post from Warden at Ace of Spades, which is  being greeted with cheers on the Right, is the best example I have seen in a while of political tribal warfare:

This same indifference that helped Trump carry the election has continued into the early days of his administration. With it comes a refreshingly freeing state of mind. Personally, I don't feel in any way responsible for Trump, nor do I feel compelled to defend him against attack.

Why? Because I voted for retribution.

"He's think-skinned and petty!" shrieks the left. "He takes everything personally!"

Good, I say. I want him to take attacks personally and deal out payback. I know I won't be the target, you will be.

"He's unpresidential! He'll destroy the integrity of the office!"

No, that's already happened. Remember, you elected a shit-talking jackass who takes selfies at state funerals when he's not giving stealth middle fingers to his opponents during debates. There is no dignity of the office, not after Clinton and Obama.

"He's a narcissist! He's got totalitarian impulses!"

Yes, he's basically a mirror version of Obama. Except now, he'll be working for what I want. The end justifies the means. You taught me that

....

I literally don't care what Donald Trump does because nothing he can do is worse than what they've already done.

Donald Trump isn't the bully; he only insults and abuses people in power who have attacked him. They're the fucking bullies. The left, with their smears, their witch hunts, their slanders, their insults, their riots, their violence, and their weaponizing of the federal bureaucracy.

There aren't any rules anymore because the left only applies them one way. And in doing so, they've left what once was a civil compact between the two parties in smoldering ruins.

I have no personal investment in Donald Trump. He is a tool to punish the left and roll back their ill-gotten gains, no more and no less. If he succeeds even partially in those two things, then I'll consider his election a win.

Further, I no longer have any investment in any particular political values, save one: The rules created by the left will be applied to the left as equally and punitively as they have applied them to the right. And when they beg for mercy, I'll begin to reconsider. Or maybe not. Because fuck these people.

Here is an example of the approving reception for this on the Right

We personally hope, as we’re sure that Warden does, that President Trump goes on to accomplish much greater things. All of our futures depend on it, after all. But even if all he does is to make the Prozis feel the pain that normal Americans have had shoved in their faces for 8 damnable years, if all he does is finally wake the limp wrists on our side up to the simple fact that it’s not wrong if you’re just turning the tables on the swine, using their own methods against them until they come crawling on their bellies, begging for peace, then we’ll take it as a solid win.

It’s wrong to kick somebody in the nuts, we’ve taught our Heirs that ever since they got old enough to potentially get in a fight, but it’s NOT wrong to do so if the dishonorable piece of shit facing you tries to do it to you first. And if he tries and succeeds, then you need to work on your technique and reflexes.

It’s never, ever wrong to use the enemy’s rule book against himself. He wrote it, not you, he made the choice when he deemed it acceptable to use his methods against you, when he showed up to a debate armed with a rifle, he made it OK to shoot him in the face with your own, and if you insist on resorting to limp notes of disapproval, then you’re the idiot, not him.

The other element I see in both statements is a strong flavor of the playground justification "the other guy started it!"  This is self-serving crap.   There is no good justification for violating the norms of rational civil discourse, or worse, for violating the rule of law.  None.  Every tyrant in all of history has justified their actions based on "the other guy started it".  Up to and including Hitler, who justified brownshirt tactics on the violence of communist groups who "started it".

I read blogs from the Left and Right in equal measure.  I have friends from both the far Left and far Right.  Hell, I have family from the far Left and far Right.  And I can tell you something -- every member of the Left and Right absolutely believe, without possibility of contradiction, that:

  • Their side loses too often because the other side use bare knuckle tactics and their side is too polite.
  • Their side does bad things only because the other side started it.

Republicans & Democrats Applauded When Their Guy (Bush and Obama) Grabbed for More Presidential Power; Now, They Are Terrified to Give it to Trump

I had this argument the other day with my mother-in-law -- you can't allow a President more power just because he is "your guy" and you trust him.  No matter how well you think that person will use the power (and I trust no one), you are setting a precedent for the next guy whom you may very well not like.   I wrote this way back in 2005:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

For years I have asked liberals -- who have cheered President Obama's power grabs as righteous on the basis that "Congress won't don anything, so Obama has to" -- how comfortable they will we with a President Lindsey Graham using the same powers.

I was frequently dismissed, but not any more -- as folks on the Left begin to wake up and imagine President Trump using the same powers wielded by Obama.  To this end, the New York Times has a good article on Obama's drone war and the precedent set for the next President:

President Bush started the drone wars, but Mr. Obama vastly expanded them. Almost entirely on his watch, United States strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, possibly 1,000 of them civilians. The president approved strikes in places far from combat zones. He authorized the C.I.A. to carry out “signature strikes” aimed at people whose identities the agency did not know but whose activities supposedly suggested militancy. He approved the deliberate killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The president also oversaw an aggressive effort to control the public narrative about drone strikes. Even as senior officials selectively disclosed information to the news media, his administration resisted Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, arguing that national security would be harmed if the government confirmed drone strikes were taking place.

The administration also argued in court that federal judges lacked the authority to say whether drone strikes were lawful. It refused to release the evidence that it claimed made Mr. Awlaki a lawful target. In lieu of information, the administration offered assurances that the president and his aides were deeply moral people who agonized over authorizing lethal force.

That last line is perhaps the most dangerous single argument in all of democracy, that it is somehow OK to give an individual enormous extra-Constitutional powers because you trust that individual.  Only now, at the end, do they understand:

But as this election season has underscored, powers this far-reaching should not rest solely on the character of the president and his advisers. In a democracy, the ability to use lethal force must be subject to clear and narrow limits, and the public must be able to evaluate whether those limits are being respected.

When discussing Trump, I see a lot of writers referring to 20th century precedents of populist autocrats.  But if you want to be worried about American democracy, a better example is perhaps the Roman Republic.  The Republic was not killed by one man, even Julius Caesar.    The Republic fell through the slow accretion of autocratic precedents over nearly a hundred years, many of which were set by folks like Gracchus (who seems to have been a well-intentioned reformer) and Sula (who was a hero in Rome).