Wednesday, March 16, 2016

P.T. Barnum, the Grifter and the Crazy Guy Next Door

It is hard to find a parallel in any US election cycle to this one.   And that got me to wonder why.   Between both parties we now have five candidates who could potentially be elected President.   They are an odd assemblage for a country like ours.

There is Donald Trump, a modern embodiment of PT Barnum, who is quoted (although there is a lot of research that suggests one of his contemporaries was describing him) as saying "There's a sucker born every minute."  Supposedly he will bring "business sense" to the presidency.   What utter nonsense.   Many of his business ventures have been failures or frauds; although to be fair Forbes estimates his net worth as $4.5 billion.  One of his campaign events was like the Home Shopping Network touting all of his supposed  business ventures.  Soon after the infomercial WSJ writer Joe Rago wrote an analysis of these supposed products.  Seems like most turned out to be simply branded with the Trump name and of lower quality (according to their reviews).  His properties tend to be concentrated in NY Real Estate, Golf Properties and some resorts.  But what would you expect from a huckster who once participated in a World Wrestling Event; I cannot imagine any of his potential predecessors participating in such a spectacle.   But then there is his role on one beauty pageant and his role in The Apprentice a "reality" show designed at first to give some young person a job with the Trump organization but which devolved into something the Kardashians would have been proud to participate in.

Even if he were not a vulgarian his campaign has been a sequence of intensely planned media gotcha plays.   He seems to have purposely debased the initial series of presidential debates.  He talks like a tough guy who says he knows how to negotiate - but if his performances are a demonstration that skill I find it hard to be true.  Among all of the candidates who ran this year his proportion of "earned" media has been exceptional.   But just because the media got suckered does not mean we should be.  He is good copy for trashy TV.   His proposals are, quite frankly, a bunch of nonsense.   Building the wall to border Mexico is just plain silly.   About a decade ago our problem with illegal immigration shifted dramatically to the west (Asia) - mostly because our Immigration Service has been inept at following up on expired visas.   At least in California, Mexican immigration turned negative more than a decade ago.   But like most of what passes for television news these days - a wall along the Mexican border is harder to imagine than one stretching across the Pacific.  So his proposal is a symbol tied together with harsh rhetoric toward our third largest trading partner.   Like at least one of this fellow candidates he seems to have missed the last two decades of numbers on the benefits of all the trade pacts we have negotiated.  NAFTA and its successors have been dramatically positive for the US.  If companies have chosen to move their operations abroad, they have done so because of the incredibly complex tax system that we have constructed.   While other developed countries have lowered their corporate tax rates, we have stubbornly stuck to high rates and incredible complexity.

For all of her supposed experience in government the second candidate, Hillary Clinton, is simply a first class grifter. There is very little in her record as Senator or Secretary of State to recommend a promotion.   Think back to the thrilling days of her role in developing the monstrosity that was the Clinton Health Care plan.   Fortunately, the Congress rejected her plan, of which Rube Goldberg would have been proud.   But two things have followed her through her public career, a well demonstrated contempt for the American people and scandals.   Commodity trades which no one could have done;Whitewater - for which no one was responsible; the failure to react in Benghazi and then the attempt to cover it up; and then the private email server - where she seems allowed almost any country with an 18 year old hacker to have access to the top secrets of the US - all are bound together with her at the center.  (And those are only the high points) Each time one of these things bops it head up she has two defenses that would make Bart Simpson proud - "I did not do it" and "That is old history."  And then of course there is the old shibboleth of the "right wing conspiracy."

I wonder whether anyone in the media has bothered to follow the path of the Clinton Foundation which links some pretty shady deals with the employment function for Clinton cronies.   Does it not make you at least wonder how a couple who claimed they were broke when they left the White House are now multi-millionaires?   There are too many instances where there seems to have been a quid quo pro for a donation to the foundation that either helped to employ a Clinton supporter or resulted in outrageous speaking fees.   Then there are the raft of Clinton cronies who have double dipped between a federal salary and a Clinton Foundation sinecure.  Then there are the hangers on like Sid Blumenthal, that even the Obama Administration rejected, who have been hired and seem to have benefited from their ties to the Clintons.   It is not hard to imagine that at some point in the future a Wikipedia article on Mercantilism will have a reference to the Clinton Foundation.    Secretary Clinton clearly seems to think it is just fine to tie government and business, as long as she or her friends are getting a piece of the action.

Third comes the Crazy Man Next Door, Bernie Sanders.   Up to his first public employment as Mayor of a town of fewer than 50,000 (albeit the largest town in Vermont) he seems to have had a hard time keeping a job.  Although he graduated from the University of Chicago he seems to have missed any coursework in Economics.   Running a small university town is a bit different from running a country of 300 million.   He lack of study in Economics does not seem to have prevented him from delving into a lot of economic proposals.  If you added all his wish list up the cost would be more than the entire US national debt.  Sanders comes from a non-industrialized and homogeneous state. (1.2% of the population in the state is Black).  So much of what he suggests might actually work in a place like Vermont.   But most of it would not work there.   He professes to oppose "big banks"yet he voted for Dodd-Frank which imposed a new level of complex regulation on all financial institutions that seems to have virtually stopped the formation of small community banks.   He is for taxing the "rich" (whatever that means) but he seems to not understand that broadening the base of the income tax and lowering rates would help small businesses grow.

I would find it impossible to vote for any of these three.   I realize that each has some supporters although the first two come close to having more negative than positive supporters.   None-of-the-Above would probably beat out either candidate in a head to head contest.

Two other candidates in the race are not given much chance.   Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas seems to have not made many friends while he has served in the Senate.  While he seems to have been a pretty talented lawyer he seems to lack a basic understanding in how to work nicely in the political system.   I must admit, that on one level the bombast from Cruz and Trump should attract me as a voter - Washington is an oligarchy which seems to prosper despite who is in power.   But neither offer much attraction for me.

What bothers me most about these first four candidates is that even with the polished outsider image that Cruz has tried to create, all are part of what former President Carter called the permanent Washington Oligarchy.  It should bother all of us that Washington seems to be the only recession proof city in the US.   Perhaps that is because of the increasingly complex regulatory schemes put forward by the administrative state in both GOP and Democrat administrations helps to make recovery in the rest of the country that much harder.

Finally, we come to one candidate who might actually be ready for the job.  John Kasich, was a very talented chair of the House Budget Committee and served 9 terms in the House.   He is in his second term as Governor of a complex state - where he seems to have cleaned up the mess left by his predecessor.  He has a set of clear consistently thought out values which all but Mr. Sanders seem to lack.  But he also seems to have an ability in this generation of lilliputian political figures to be able to talk (and listen) across the aisle.

In an earlier post I suggested that this year I would be looking for someone who has legitimate executive experience.  Cruz has had a little in the role of AG of Texas.   Clinton should have gained some in her role as Secretary of State (although that is questionable).  Kasich has real experience in this area and what's more he seems to have tried to work well with both sides of the aisle, without sacrificing his principles.   But as I said above, neither Cruz nor Kasich seem to have a way to break through, absent a brokered GOP convention.   With that condition, it seems unlikely that either would be able to make it through.

This started out as a description of a dilemma I face with the first three candidates - I cannot vote for any of them.   If the current trends continue I suspect a lot of Americans will take the same choice I will - which is to follow Dick Tuck's (and Nixon adversary) admonition - "The lesser of two evils, is still evil." 

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