Saturday, November 12, 2016

Trump: First President To...

Election-night pundits talked a lot about how this presidential election was unique, and it certainly was surprising in many ways.  But Trump, the candidate, was as different from previous presidential candidates as the election itself was from previous elections; not just in his demeanour, but in a host of measurable ways.  (All of the following assume he actually takes office in 2 1/2 months, which seems likely but I feel like I need to cover myself in case some unlikely event prevents him from doing so.)

Trump will not be the oldest president to take the inaugural oath, but he will be the oldest to take it for the first time (he is 70, Reagan was 69).  Reagan also beat Trump to become the first divorcĂ© to be president, but Trump has two divorces to Reagan's one.  He is the first billionaire to be elected.  Ironically, however, Hillary Clinton raised twice as much money as Trump did.  This makes him the first person to win an election in spite of raising less than his opponent since...Bill Clinton did it in 1996.  (I was not aware of this history, but the fact that Trump had raised so little money made me think he had little chance, I guess in part because I assumed that meant little enthusiasm for his candidacy.)

Trump scored basically no major newspaper endorsements, which is truly remarkable in some respects.  A list at wikipedia shows that, among the few papers to endorse him, the best known was the National Enquirer.  He was also endorsed by papers in Jacksonville, Las Vegas, and Hillsboro (OH).  This is probably the first time a president has been elected without being endorsed by a major newspaper, although if you define a newspaper by its circulation, the Enquirer is probably bigger than almost any of the regular dailies.

I think the biggest thing that makes Trump different from his predecessors, certainly one that stands out, is that he has no previous political or military experience.  Every previous president has had at least one of the two, often both.  Relatively few military leaders have been elected without previous political office, among them Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.  Prior to Trump, the president with the least experience was almost certainly Barack Obama, who had been a U.S. Senator for only 4 years, although he had been in the Illinois legislature for 7 years prior to that.  I have wondered before (and I thought I wrote about it, although I can't find it right now) how Trump's candidacy would affect future elections.  If he lost, of course, odds are that we would not see another outsider like him for many years.  I suspect that the machinery of the Republican Party has been moving since the primary season started to prevent the possibility of its recurrence, and I doubt they will want to change just because he won.

But since he has won...what then?  Are we going to enter into an era of outsider presidents?  Will well-known actors, singers, and athletes compete for the highest office, and will major parties welcome them because they have huge name recognition, loyal fans, and the virtue of not being part of the Washington establishment?  I have heard sportswriters joke about how such-and-such an athlete could win the governorship of his home state.  This was not really such a stretch, as Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger showed, and Al Franken won a Senate seat with no political background outside of political humour.  But that seems like a small thing to aim for now.  Could Stephon Marbury or Cam Newton run for president now that Donald Trump has paved the way?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump's First Year

Everyone wants to know what a president Trump would actually do.  I think the only surprise would be if Trump governed mundanely for four years, not surprising the whole country -- supporters and opponents -- several times.  However, there are some issues that have more urgency than others, so they will be the ones we are most likely to see action on relatively soon.

(a) Supreme Court vacancy:  Highly placed Republicans have decided that Trump will safely nominate a conservative to replace Scalia.  If he doesn't, I expect Republicans to begin looking for ways to impeach him soon thereafter.  This is absolutely the main thing that got the support of many Republicans, and it would be a surprise if he changed directions immediately.  (It also makes me sad that the most important thing about the president is that he gets to appoint Supreme Court justices, but that's another matter.)

(b) Appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton:  I had forgotten that Trump said he was going to do this until I read about it today.  You can add this concern to Clinton's already deep frustration about losing the election.  I am one of those who thinks that she clearly broke the law (as well as going against the advice of her own people) in setting up a private email server.  I strongly believe that justice should be applied equally to the wealthy and powerful as well as to the weak.  Nevertheless, I really hope Trump does not take this step.  It reminds me too much of the late Roman Republic.  Those in public office were immune from prosecution, but as soon as their positions expired, they were likely to be brought up on some charge or other.  The predictable result was that no one wanted to give up office for fear of facing endless court cases, so they held office longer and eventually destroyed the Republic.  We're a long way from ancient Rome, and I do feel that in this case a prosecution would be entirely justified.  The long-term precedent, however, is just too troubling for me.  (Consider that, of the last three presidents, Clinton was impeached, and there were serious discussions in Congress for impeaching both Bush and Obama.)  If the prosecutor is appointed (as I fear he will be), I hope he will pusue minimal penalties, such as loss of her security clearance and maybe her pension.  (Does she even get a pension?  I don't know, I assume so but I could be wrong.)  Jail time would be a serious mistake.  (Here's a brilliant idea I just read about:  Trump should pardon Clinton.  It keeps alive the idea that she did something that at least deserves investigation, while showing him to be more magnanimous than most people would expect.  I almost wonder if Clinton would decline the pardon on the grounds that she doesn't need it, and whether Trump would then appoint a special prosecutor...)

(c) Repealing ObamaCare:  This law, and Trump's promise to get rid of it, are undoubtedly important reasons for his electoral victory.  Republicans have voted several times for repeal in the last 6 years, only to be vetoed repeatedly.  Since they have control of Congress now, it should be a simple matter, right?  Actually, I doubt it.  What could be simpler than closing Guantanamo Bay, something that Obama could have done without even a new law?  And yet, 8 years later, it is still open and his promise is unfulfilled.  The PPACA is a huge law with a vast bureaucracy already.  It has taken years for it to get ramped up to full implementation, and trying to get rid of it all at once would cause serious dislocation.  I hope they vote to get rid of it, but I hope they don't do so in such a way as to cause a lot of issues for insurers and insureds.  (I'm sure in the long run, it will be easier on all of them, I just want to make sure the repeal makes it to the long run.)  Apparently alone in the world of political commentary, I value continuity strongly.  People count on it to make decisions.  Ripping a tumour out of a patient's body too quickly can be as harmful as the tumour itself, so I hope Congress and the president take their time with this operation.  I should also point out that Republicans are not close to a veto-proof majority in the Senate, so they may still have serious difficulties enacting repeal.

(d) Erecting The Wall:  This is Trump's signature campaign promise, and it will be substantially more difficult to implement than removing ObamaCare, and maybe even than implementing ObamaCare.  That's a huge border, folks.  I don't think the Mexicans are going to pay for it willingly, and even if Trump can get money for it, there are still enormous obstacles to overcome.  I would be amazed if there were much more than a plan to build a wall at the end of Trump's first term.  Maybe a few sections of the wall in especially vulnerable areas (or areas where building it would be technically feasible and not too expensive).

(e) Repealing international trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP:  Compared to some of the other items, these would be relatively simple.  The TPP does not even need Congress's assent.  The interesting thing to me is that much of the opposition to the TPP has come from the left, so they may actually agree with him on that one.  I'm sure there are large segments of the electorate that are still opposed to NAFTA and would be happy to get rid of it.  I don't see any good that could come out of these retrenchments, but if Trump's attacks on foreign trade are limited to these two items, I will consider us lucky.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump's Success

I heard several analysts on Tuesday night saying that Trump was the only one who saw the wave of populism and figured out how to get on it.  I think this is giving Trump way too much credit for being in the right place and time.  I certainly won't say that he deserves no credit for winning the election, but let's think about the populist wave and resentment against Washington.

There is always a lot of resentment against the government.  If you don't think so, you probably live in a wealthy section of a big city, because I am sure it is there and I hear it all the time.  In many ways, Reagan's election was the same theme, and there have been many would-be populist candidates in the meantime.  Think about Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Hermann Cain, Bernie Sanders...They all lacked something.  One thing they lacked is that they never got a major party nomination.  Perot didn't even try.  If he had (and I don't know which party that would have been), I'm sure he could have won.  It would have been difficult to defeat Bush for the Republican nomination in 1992, but he might have had a chance in the crowded Democratic field.  (I have no idea if he would have gotten any support for his policies, but he does seem to have crossed party lines with his support.)

The other candidates tried but failed.  Maybe the presumptive candidate was too powerful to lose to an outsider.  Sanders had a hard battle against Hillary Clinton, and came close to winning -- may have won, had it not been for superdelegates, if I understand correctly.  In a different year, such as 1992 or 2004, he might have gotten the nomination.  Other candidates may have been less appealling for other reasons.  Cain gathered a certain amount of support in 2012, but got derailed by accusations of sexual assault.  Maybe he wouldn't have won anyway.  Buchanan was the closest to Trump in one way:  he was willing to say what he thought, no matter how many people he offended.  But he wasn't a millionaire who had been in the public spotlight for 30+ years.  That is a powerful advantage which none of the other would-be populists have had.  (Perot was plenty rich, but he was not in the public eye nearly as much as Trump has been, for the amount of time he has been.)

So Trump came along at the right time, when the Republican field was open, no obvious candidate having a lot of support right away.  This would not have worked so well in 2012; he might have won the nomination, but it would have been much more difficult against Romney.  He might have won in 2008, but the Republicans were at such a disadvantage in that election that he would have had little chance of winning the election.  In 2004, he would have stood no chance against an incumbent president.  Looking back a little further, there was obviously a large populist element in the 1992 election, where Perot got nearly 20%.  But Trump would not have won the nomination against a sitting president.  In 1996, Perot was a much weaker candidate and still won 8% of the vote.  Trump would have stood a good chance for the Republican nomination that year, as hardly anyone was excited about Bob Dole.  However, Clinton had the advantage of incumbency, and sitting presidents have lost re-election bids only 5 times since 1900, most of them under extraordinary circumstances (strong third-party runs in 1912 and 1992; the Great Depression in 1932; Gerald Ford had never run on a national ticket prior to becoming president and running in 1976).  (Comparatively, 13 sitting presidents did win re-election, mostly by large margins, including some of the largest in history -- 1936, 1964, and 1984 -- and several times when they appeared to have little chance, notably 1940, 1948, and 2004.)  It would certainly not have been as favourable a chance for a populist Republican as it would have been this year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In Hillary's Shoes

I hear that Hillary Clinton gave a magnanimous concession speech.  Nevertheless, I suspect she is still bitterly disappointed at the moment.  I know I would be.  She might be directing her anger at a lot of people:  Trump, of course; Jim Comey; Julian Assange; maybe Anthony Weiner; maybe a little for Bernie Sanders as well.  But I'll bet that, in the long run, the person she is most angry at is Barack Obama.

The 2008 election was hers to lose.  Everybody knew.  Everybody knew that the Republican candidate would face very difficult odds with such an unpopular sitting president.  Hillary Clinton seemed set to be nominated.  There was hardly any opposition.  I'll bet that Obama himself didn't expect to win when he started his candidacy; he was probably laying the groundwork for the future.  And then this thing happened, and he got all this support, and suddenly Hillary was sitting on the sidelines watching him sweep to victory for the nomination and the presidency.

Eight years later, Hillary is the one trying to run with a long-time president from her own party.  Obama is not nearly as unpopular as Bush was, but he has made people angry about a number of things, above all the PPACA (a/k/a ObamaCare).  Premiums are going up, insurers are dropping out of the state markets, the ones who are still in are losing money.  It is not necessary to debate the merits of the law; the point is that many people disliked it (it has always had high unfavourable ratings) and the premium hikes this year have made even more people angry.

Then Bernie Sanders, a guy who has done nothing, by most standards, to deserve to win a nomination.  Much like Obama, but without Obama's racial background or his presidential demeanour.  Not again!  But Hillary pulled out all the stops, and she managed to turn this challenge back.  And the Republicans nominated Donald Trump, a man with tremendous negatives, whom hardly anyone but his core supporters thought had a chance to win the election.  Hillary ran a good campaign, I thought.  She had a good slogan, a good logo, and she appeared both presidential and well-informed in the debates.  The video with Billy Bush seemed to sink what little chance Trump might have had.

And then...the FBI investigation, Wikileaks, the FBI investigation closes but then re-opens just days before the election.  (Actually, that's not true, since apparently a good portion of people voted well before November 8th, but it has some validity.)  Still, she was confident.  Nate Silver gave her over a 70% chance of winning.  Clearly she and her supporters expected to win.  During election coverage, I kept hearing how shocked her supporters seemed, just stunned that she could be losing.  A lot of people were shocked, of course, but imagine how she must have felt.  All those years of planning and dreaming.  Twice when she seemed virtually guaranteed to win.  And then, to lose in a surprise like that without any real warning.  I'll bet she's really bitter, and I'd bet that, when it all sinks in, the person she most resents is the outgoing president.

Postscript:  Ted Cruz could end up in a comparable position depending on how Trump's presidency goes.  He was very well organized and seemed likely to get the nomination but for Trump.  He's still young enough that he will have other chances, but what if Trump's presidency tarnishes the Republican image so much that we don't see another Republican president for 30 years?  I'm not saying it's likely, I'm just imagining scenarios, and it could happen that Ted Cruz was "thisclose" to becoming president and instead goes down in history as an unknown.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Results and Consequences

The presidential election still isn't over, but I can make one prediction that I feel confident about:  at least 30% of the electorate will think it is the end of our country, and another 15% will be depressed until the first scandal hits the next administration.

My suggestion for solving this problem:  Think about your most cherished social issue that is currently under dispute, such as same-sex marriage or abortion.  First, ask yourself how far your views need to prevail in order for you to feel morally reconciled to the result.  Your town?  County?  State?  Or do you have to see your views enforced on the entire country (or world, for that matter) before you can sleep in peace at night?

Now ask yourself the converse.  Presumably people on the opposite side of the issue feel as strongly as you do.  How far are you willing to let them extend their interpretation if they are successful?  Remember that the answer will be symmetric with the same answer that you gave above.  If you will not rest until the whole country shares your views, you have to be prepared for the other side to insist on going equally far to enforce its views.

Now that you have thought about it from both perspectives, give your final answer.  If you live in a state where 70% of the citizens share your views, can you live with not enforcing it on other states where 40% or fewer of the citizens agree with you?  That is the principle of federalism, and the only way that national elections will cease to be such heart-rending issues is if we allow smaller, more homogeneous units to set their own policies.  Yes, we are a single nation in many respects, but we are also deeply divided on many issues.  Having a national defense policy makes a lot of sense; having a national policy on same-sex marriages or abortion makes a lot less sense.  Until people come to accept that, they will have to live with the fact that there are going to be many angry people on one side or the other.  And if the election doesn't go your way, it could be your side next week.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Shopping carts

While waiting in line to pay for my groceries today, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the shopping cart is.  It's not a technological marvel, admittedly, but it is really, really convenient for buying groceries.  Imagine if you had to put all your groceries in a hand basket.  You would probably be more inclined to make more frequent, smaller shopping trips, as is still common in Europe, especially where people use public transportation rather than driving to the store.  I only go once a week unless I forget something, and even weekly shopping is more than I want to do.  I would go once a month if I had a big enough refrigerator and freezer, making only small trips to get produce and milk that don't last that long.

I was looking down through the bars on a shopping cart.  Not making the cart's bottom and sides solid is an obvious benefit for the store.  If they were, the corners would be impossible to keep clean of bacteria and mold, and anything that spilled or leaked would be a bother to clean.  As it is, they only have to spray the carts down to clean them.

The metal frame seems virtually indestructible, and there is no paint to chip off.  Only the handle, the children's seat, and sometimes plastic covering for the corners are vulnerable to chipping off.  The weakest point is definitely at the wheels, which always seem to be getting stuck.  I think that is more a consequence of the environment where they operate than the wheels themselves, however:  grocery stores inevitably have things on them that can get up in the wheels, and the carts also go outside.  If someone could come up with an inexpensive solution for a wheel that somehow won't get jammed easily by dirt and debris, it would be a great invention.

A quick visit to Wikipedia tells me that shopping carts were invented in 1937 by Sylvan Goodman.  That's about what I expected, since there would need to be a sizeable number of customers with cars to make the extra amount of goods worth carrying.  I also learn that the only major change was patented in 1949 by Orla Watson, who came up with the idea for a hinged back wall so the carts could be pushed into one another in a "telescoping" fashion to save space.  The success of this design is evident from the fact that shopping carts at almost every store use it.  You don't see a lot of innovation in shopping carts.  The one different kind I have seen is a short one with two small baskets, one on top and one below.  I personally avoid these because I don't like having to bend down to access to bottom cart (bad back), and if I only need the top basket, I just carry a hand basket.  Although, now that I think of it, I have started shopping with a hand basket and ended up with a gallon of milk or a 12-pack of sodas that made me regret my choice.

In America, it is common for stores to place stalls or "corrals" in the parking lot for customers to leave their carts.  In other countries, it seems to be common to force customers to return their carts next to the store into order to get their small deposit back.  I have only seen this system in the U.S. at Aldi.  It is sad for me to go to stores and see carts left all over the place:  pushed up on an island curb, or randomly stacked together in the middle of a few parking spaces, with a corral only a few feet away.  I am glad that this is not more common where I live now, but I have lived in places where it is the norm.  I feel like I can see the shredding of society's fabric by the number of shopping carts not put away.  Obviously, this is not a major issue facing the country, but it does seem to be a symptom of growing numbers of people deciding that it is not worth their trouble to perform even this common courtesy at such minimal effort on their own part.  (I vaguely seem to recall a time without corrals in the parking lot, but I'm not sure if it's a real memory or not.  They had to be created at some point, I guess, so I wonder whether they were a response to loose carts or whether they were added as a convenience for customers.)

Like so many common items in America, shopping carts go by different names in different regions.  I'm pretty sure I grew up in Virginia calling them "shopping baskets," but I have been saying "shopping carts" for so long now that I'm not positive.  I remember moving to Illinois -- my first time out of my home town -- and finding it quaint how everyone there called them buggies.  "Buggies" to me meant the things pulled by horses or else dune buggies, and neither seemed especially close to what a cart was.  Apparently they get called "carriages" or "wagons" in some places in the Northeast, which seems close to buggy, and "trolleys" in the U.K. and some former colonies.  Whatever you call them, you have to admit that grocery shopping would be a bother without them.