Small Thoughts

Dan Pfeffer. Kevin Sullivan. Jen Psaki. Ellen Moran. Jennifer Palmeri. Anita Dunn. Nicole Wallace. Dan Bartlett. Karen Hughes.

Recognize any of those names? I don’t. If you do, you’re probably a White House wonk. But my guess is that you don’t either. Those are the ten White House Communications Directors that held the position before Donald Trump came to office. There’s been 33 of them in all since the role was founded in 1960. I’ve heard of two of them. Continue reading

The Trump Trilemma

Dani Rodrik, the Turkish born Harvard Economist states that a nation may have two of the following three things: national sovereignty, democracy, or deep, global economic integration. It can have any combination of two. But it cannot have all three.

This is “Rodrik’s Trilemma.”

The logic behind why is somewhat complicated but can be reasonably explained as three forces pulling on one rope. Only two can pull at once to balance it. The third has nothing to grab on to.

One force, economic integration or, globalization as it’s called in the political world, is created when we reduce the barriers for trade of goods and flow of capital between nations. In order to have it, we reduce transaction costs; tariffs, import/export quotas, etc. When we do this, we inherently weaken some aspects of the control of the nation state and strengthen the input of global regulatory bodies in the sovereign affairs of the participating nations. The two sides pulling on the rope in this scenario are globalization and the sovereignty of a state.

If a nation desires globalization, it has to give up some power in determining its trade policy. If it wants more control over trade policy, it should be prepared to lose bargaining power in a globally integrated economy. The ebb and flow can be rationally managed and balanced to meet the best outcomes of the nation.

The trilemma comes in to play when that nation tries to do this while maintaining the accountability of democracy. In a deeply integrated global trade environment, an electorate has to have a focus beyond the nation’s own borders to ensure that it governs and makes policy in a way that effectively facilitates the global flow of goods and capital. In order to do this, the electorate must be willing to surrender, through democratic process, some sovereign power to global regulatory entities. They need to be able to do this in all circumstances even when, or especially when, the near-term outcomes of trade policy negatively impact the outcomes of the electorate.

Rodrik maintains that electorates don’t do this.

As a result, a nation wishing to maintain global trade integration and democracy must give up sovereign power to the global regulating entity lest the unwashed masses of democracy break the global economy with a tariff to protect their jobs. The tug of war then transitions between global trade outcomes and democracy. The more power the democracy has, the less integration we’ll receive. Sovereign control sits it out, surrendered to the electorate or the global regulatory entity.

We could continue the analogy through all the potential combinations but the one material to the Trump-ism discussion is where we’ve insisted that global economic integration sit out the contest and let democracy and sovereign control of trade policy have a go at it.

Let the people pick the leader. Let the leader pick the economy that delivers for the people. Everyone else get in line behind America.

America First.

This path is sold easily after hard times like the Great Recession. Trump and Brexit are textbook Rodrik’s Trilemma occurrences. Globalism is the casualty.

Most economists agree, if not in magnitude at least in direction, globalism is a net economic positive. It increases GDP, decreases the cost of goods, and makes the world an “overall” more stable place. The global margin increases.

People don’t vote on the global margin. In America today, they don’t vote much on their individual outcomes either. They vote on their culture. And that makes globalism an easy target.

Much of the Trump-ism message is about transitioning the economics of globalism into a cultural message of nationalism. One of the great tricks of Trump-ism has been to align the negative economic outcomes for its political base with the culture of toleration.

About halfway through the first quarter of the 2017 Super Bowl, I began to get the feeling that the American consumer, or at least the corporations that sell to the American consumer, were not big fans of the inward anti-globalism focus voted into office with the Trump administration.

The global cultural mindset was everywhere.

Coca-Cola ran an ad with people from all over the world singing America the Beautiful in their native tongues. Budweiser told the story of Adolphus Busch’s immigration. 84 Lumber showed the first half of a story that had to be cut off and shown on the internet because it actually showed Trump’s dubious great wall of America.

The message was loud and clear. Americans associate positive sentiment with a modern, compassionate, global perspective. We feel warm and fuzzy about the idea of diverse cultures all longing for and participating in the American dream. That message was market tested and executed by multi-national corporations who spent $160K a second on airtime to deliver it. It was not an unintentional endeavor.

The commercials we were fed were about people and culture and diversity. And tolerance. They filled Americans with the positive sentiment ad companies love to attach to the brands they represent. Inclusion sells. The sentiment, though, is a classic example of a problematic progressive globalism trap.

The progressive globalism trap pushes the notion that globalism is about people and tolerance. And if you’re about people and tolerance (I am), then you are a fan of globalism. In reality, globalism as we know it, the globalism that’s actually materially impacting Americans, has almost nothing to do with people and cultures and everything to do with trade and money. The standards enforced by the World Trade Organization and the outcomes that reducing barriers to free trade have coincided with an era of tremendous global growth. It’s drastically reduced economic inequality across nations.

But at a cost.

That cost has been the re-distribution of wealth and the increase of income inequality within already wealthy nations like America. It’s a firm reality of economics. We grow other place’s middle class at some difficult to quantify expense to our own.

Additionally, the opening up of the international flow of capital allows money to move seamlessly from country to country. But that’s come at a cost too. That cost has been a financial interdependence that fuels global recessions without alleviating the need for sovereign nations to bail out institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The global community didn’t bail out the American financial sector or our automakers. America did.

At the same time, the open flow of capital has also allowed open competition for corporate earnings to drive the corporate tax rate down globally almost 50% in just a few decades in a way that makes America less competitive for internal investment.

The fair point that Trump-ism makes is that global growth and stability hasn’t come without a cost to America. And the cost has fallen heavily on an American working class that hasn’t realized that we transitioned from a manufacturing and production economy to a services economy two generations ago. While the benefits of that global growth of the second half the 20th century exist, the costs are easier to point to in the wake of the recession.

By aligning the economics of anti-globalism with the cultural phenomenon of nativist nationalism, Trump-ism trapped their opposition in a reality where one is either for diversity, or one is for America. One can’t be for both and have the economic interests of Americans as a priority. The only counter Democrats found in 2016 was a departure from capitalism all together of Bernie Sanders.

And we know how that went.

Crisis of Faith

When you say the word Christian, do you mean your faith? Or do you mean your tribe?

Let me ask that question in a different way. When you hear the word Christian, do you see a person? Or do you see a way of life?  Is it a noun? Or, an adjective?

It’s an exercise in semantics right? Well, in as much as the teachings of the Christian Bible are semantics, I guess it is.

Our world is full of semantics. “Our country is great” can mean a lot of things. Great means powerful. It means rich and full of opportunity. Great could mean familiar and sustained. Great can mean free from tyranny and overburdensome rule. Great could mean a place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness win out. Or, it could just mean a decent place to live in peace and quiet with the space to live with your own thoughts.

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For me, great means the place that every living human soul in the world wishes they were born, but even more, wishes they could die in. Or die for. That’s what great means. And once, not too long ago, maybe even last week, that’s what America was.

The dreams of the world happen in American. My first ancestor came here as an indentured servant, to Brooklyn before it was even a British colony.  My last came here over two hundred years later, from Ireland, working in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. For centuries, people came because of the promise of great. Because greatness meant one simple thing. All were welcome.

We wrote it down and it changed the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We screwed it up from the start. We didn’t include everyone. And we paid the price. We fought like hell over the last 240 years to get us to equal. And welcome. And we’re damn close. At least we were. It’s changed though.

Why?

About that first question I asked. When you hear the word Christian, what do you hear? I’ve heard the wasteful debate over whether or not we are a Christian nation with Christian values. We are. But we are more than that too. At our very core, we are a nation built on the fundamental value that all are equal. It is not at odds with my faith. My faith tells me all are loved. All are forgiven. All are welcome.

We are every bit in the middle of a great crisis of our faith and culture. But for a different reason than perhaps they’ve led you to believe. Our way of life isn’t at risk because more people want to come and live it. Our way of life is at risk because we’ve answered that first question wrong. Christian isn’t a thing. It’s not a tribe or a people to be protected. It’s a beautiful word that describes a bold fearless way to live. And the crisis isn’t that the knock on the door came and keeps coming from those in search of our shelter. The crisis is what we’ve decided to do when we heard it.

The teachings of my faith are clear and unambiguous. Matthew 25:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’

In my faith, my God doesn’t ask. He commands. And he does not qualify my safety as a condition to obey. You can fool yourself into thinking that closing the door is protecting us. Maybe for a little while. And maybe from outsiders. But it can’t protect our way of life from the only enemy who could ever take it away for good.

Us.

This is not our way.

American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

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Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.