100 Words Before Bed

January 29

Can Democrats take advantage of the opportunity Republicans have given them? It depends on whether they can unite behind policies that help a broad portion of the electorate. What message could compete with the Republican unity behind MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN? Of course, Republican unity is more a mirage than a reality. The critical fact is that Republicans are in trouble because they used their majorities to push a narrow, ideological agenda instead of trying to negotiate policies that command broad support. A successful response might try to convince as broad a majority as possible that Democrats believe YOU MATTER.

January 25

Credit where credit is due. Despite his poor management skills, self-centered moral system and immaturity, Trump sometimes gets things right. Regulatory reform have been the clearest sign of this. The Administration’s efforts on financial reform, permitting of infrastructure projects and undoing of several overreaching Obama rules are good policy. The same might be true of putting America First. Our allies need to carry a larger share of the common burden, China needs to adopt fairer trading rules, and the world needs to weaken North Korea. If Trump’s blustering accomplishes these goals, he’ll deserve begrudging praise. It depends on the outcome.

January 24

I’m back. It took me a while to figure out the Democrats strategy during the government shutdown over the Dreamers. After seemingly having the upper hand, they suddenly reversed course and accepted a weak deal. But perhaps Democrats are settling on a strategy designed to appeal to as broad an electorate as possible, especially in the states where they are weak. If so, it is likely to make it even harder for Republicans to maintain control of Congress. Besides having few accomplishments that matter to voters, they now have to take the minority position on finding a solution for Dreamers.

January 19

Can Republicans avoid disaster in 2018? Not unless they begin to govern in ways that invite success rather than defeat. To date their leadership has consistently followed a strategy of partisan efforts to enact policies that the majority of Americans oppose. Current polling should come as no surprise. Instead they should concentrate on the issues that matter most to people and worked in a bipartisan way to move solutions through committees with as much support as possible. Although they would have to compromise on many issues, voters would then see what each party truly stood for and could vote accordingly.

January 18

Someone needs to make a stronger case for American global leadership. It starts with American Exceptionalism. America was created as an initial experiment in personal freedom and democracy. Despite its many flaws, it has steadily advanced those values, usually leading other nations in their practice rather than following. It has done more than any other nation to support international institutions and alleviate poverty abroad. To be successful now, it needs to articulate a message of hope directly to citizens in other countries and then help them achieve their own freedom and prosperity. Such a policy is in our own interest.

January 16

Could Trump win reelection? Despite the narrowness of his win against a flawed candidate, there is a clear path toward another term. Should 4-5 candidates challenge him in the primary without eroding his base, Trump would most likely will pluralities in enough states to eliminate them one-by-one and secure renomination. Should Democrats then nominate a candidate from the left who fails to connect with moderate voters of both sides, Trump could win another narrow victory. Despite the need for a moderate candidate capable of uniting the anti-Trump vote, I have difficulty identifying a likely Republican challenger. It is not Cruz.

January 15

Republicans are worried about keeping control of Congress. They have a funny way of showing it. After six years of lecturing on why Democrats deserve to be in the minority, Republicans copied their playbook. Rather than representing the interests of a broad section of Americans, they are playing to their base. Rather than applying the same standards to Trump that they applied to Obama and Clinton, they waffle as Trump sets new standards in baseness. Rather than returning the nation to the rule of law, they build on the excesses of the Democrats. Why should the electoral verdict be different?

January 14

The Trump presidency is reducing the huge benefits America derives from global leadership. The absence of leadership usually brings stagnation and discord, not prosperity. The benefits include the ability to borrow cheaply, less unrest and resistance abroad, and, most important, an international regime that reflects our interests more than it reflects those of other nations. But leadership requires sacrifice. One must lead others to a place that they want to go. This requires a compelling vision of what the future could be. It also requires an ability to put others ahead of ourselves. Bullying and selfishness are not leadership traits.

January 13

GM’s announcement that its self-driving cars will lack steering wheels acknowledges that automation will eventually eliminate the need for any human intervention. This also applies to automation efforts in other forms of transportation including railroads, planes, and freight trucks. The fact is that, as automation becomes safer, drivers are called on less. This degrades driver skills. More importantly, it dramatically increases the probability that drivers will use their freedom to read, sleep, lie down in the back seat, whatever. Despite any laws, warnings, or technical requirements, they will not be available when an emergency happens. Regulators should recognize this reality.

January 12

The strength of our political process is that when followed it generally produces the wisest and most enduring political compromises. It never produces perfect legislation, but it does produce solutions that have strong political support and successfully address social problems. But this process requires active political bipartisanship. Whenever one party imposes its will over the other it creates its own failure. This is not only because it weakens the institutional constraints that fetter the other side, but also because, acting alone, it can neither envision nor implement good policy. The failure of Obamacare predicts the failure of recent tax reform.

January 11

Historically, automation has not replaced as many jobs as people feared. Rather, its main effect is to let people produce more with less, thereby increasing the wealth of society and allowing for the creation of new jobs with higher incomes. One reason is that much of what automation does would not be done otherwise, because it is too low value to justify paying someone to do it. For example, automation will let you monitor your house cheaply. It may put a few guards out of business, but for most people it replaces no monitoring with cheap monitoring. This creates value.

January 10

Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? If everything we do or say fades into the abyss of time, what gives us meaning? Perhaps we are here to express ourselves: to assert that out of the infinity of DNA combinations, ours improbably existed, recognized itself, and acted purposefully. I believe the best means of that assertion is to create an ephemeral work of art containing actions and thoughts that signify something profound and beautiful. To me that increasingly requires the demonstration of ethical values, including love, giving, and responsibility. Sometimes the greatest act of self-assertion is self-sacrifice.

January 9

They can’t help themselves. The White House seems determined to fuel speculation about Trump’s mental capacity. The chief protagonist is the President himself, who seems addicted to sending out tweets that no other politician would think wise. But supporters of Trump also contribute to it. A prime example is the frenzied attack of advisor Stephen Miller. Less dramatic but equally telling are the comments from Trump’s inauguration chairman: “It’s not mental instability. It’s management by controlled and orchestrated chaos.” Would other presidents have even dignified such a charge with a response? Does anyone think this is a sound management practice?

January 8

Politico asked political commentators whether Oprah should run for president, given the favorable reaction to her speech at the Golden Globe awards. The only truly wise (and brave) response was by Sophia Nelson who pointed out Oprah’s total lack of political experience. One would think that, given the performance of Barak Obama and Donald Trump, the nation would have its fill with novices. It is useless to hope that someone untainted with politics will reform our system. The system largely reflects the voters that elect it. Reform will come when voters change. Until and after then, experienced leadership is vital.

January 7

I missed yesterday because my wife threw a wonderful surprise birthday party for me, the second in two weeks. You might wonder how I could be surprised twice when birthdays are pretty predicable things. Let’s not go there. But turning 60 helps me think more about the transience of our lives. In the end, we only have the legacy that we build. That raises the question of whether a large number of Americans would be willing to work harder and sacrifice more if they felt confident that they were building a better society for their children. I think they would.

January 5

I am currently working on a paper regarding the degree to which a carbon tax would shift the type of technology that is discovered. To the extent that taxes not only deter the use of existing technology but actually induce the faster discovery of clean technology, the cost of dealing with climate change would be reduced. It appears that the answer to this question depends to some extent on how new technologies are developed and on how the proceeds of the tax are used. It also seems clear that technology is path dependent so that earlier action may reduce costs.

January 4

If people want to cooperate but refuse to give up anything until they are assured that others will, then the job of policy is to negotiate and then impose this agreement. This often calls for a larger deal involving more issues. The most prominent of these is the budget plan that combines tax increases with significant entitlement reform. Everyone seems to agree that this needs to happen but so far no one has made a serious effort to enact it. This failure is not for want of good ideas or, I think, public support. It is a failure of leadership.

January 3

Is it possible for our society to collectively choose a long-term goal of how life should be? If we look out 30 years, can we agree on enough things about the basic structure of the economy and society to form a common vision? And can we reach enough agreement on the effects of policy to form a consensus about the policies needed to get us there?
I believe the right policies can assure everyone a comfortable living standard and greater personal freedom. But this achievement depends on a collective decision to pursue it in a coordinated way. Something we lack.

January 2

I was surprised Republicans managed to pass the tax bill. The pressure on holdouts can be intense, even for those who plan to retire. While passage averts a major political embarrassment, Republicans will likely pay a significant political price for passing it.
The corporate reform is good, with a much lower rate and movement toward a territorial system. But few voters understand the need for it. Conversely, the individual changes give too much to the wealthy and introduce a major distortion that favors pass-through businesses. The overall result will raise growth only marginally, especially if revenues are lower than estimated.

January 1

As we greet another New Year, I felt the need to resurrect my blog. It was started at a time of new beginnings, when I hoped to start a successful consulting career. That hope was started largely from a lack of good alternatives. Since then my fortunes have been worse than I hoped but better than I deserve.
I sense our country is in a similar state. My purpose will be to add brief comments to the news as the nation struggles to confront its fears; a necessary hurdle if we are to reach our potential. All in 100 words.