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Trump’s Strategy: Possible Short-Term Gains, Definite Long-Term Pains

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There is always a lag between when a policy is enacted and when its true long-term consequences are felt. This reality often works against societal wellbeing, as politicians pursue policies that are damaging in the long-run if they make them more popular here and now.

This shortsighted behavior is reinforced by the electorate. The combination of more pressing issues in their own lives, imperfect memory, and a lack of technical knowledge result in the voters not holding politicians accountable for the long-term consequences of their policies. When things come crashing down on someone else’s watch they are considered the fault of the person currently in charge, regardless of the root cause. One does not have to look far back to find two prime examples–President Obama inheriting the Great Recession and the turmoil in the Middle East.

The most obvious example of President-elect Trump’s shortsightedness is his stance on Climate Change. Trump has called Climate Change a hoax. He has stated he wants to overturn Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is also central to meeting America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord (the 194 nation pact covering all major emitters, which Trump has vowed to drop out of). His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic–the fox is guarding the hen house.

Leasing public lands to private companies seems cartoonishly short-sighted. In the most extreme scenario, imagine a National Park being turned into a natural gas field, depriving future generations of its beauty. Unfortunately, this may be what the G.O.P is planning.

Trump’s War on Climate Change toolkit also features intimidation. His Department of Energy transition team asked the DoE for a list of employees who work on climate change related issues, to which one employee (who declined to comment for fear of reprisal) remarked “This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list.” The DoE, for it’s part, has rebuffed the request, but who knows what will happen once Rick Perry is running the show. As a self-proclaimed “jobs President”, Trump should not do anything that could compromise America’s position as a leader in the emerging clean energy economy (a position coveted by a country Trump has promised to be tough on–China).

While environmental considerations are the most obvious example, they are far from the only shortsighted policies Trump has embraced. If he does not change his campaign promises, his fiscal and national security policies will prove equally as shortsighted.

Trumped-Up Trickle-Down Economics

While damaging in the long-run, Trump’s policies will not necessarily lead to an immediate recession, a point made in a recent article by Paul Krugman. As Krugman points out, even poorly designed fiscal stimulus has a positive impact on short-run growth.

Even if Trump’s policies do result in short-run growth, this does not mean the average American will benefit. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, Trump’s reliance on trickle-down economics to improve the lives of average Americans is all but sure to fail. If wages continue to stagnate (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor has opposed anything resembling a livable minimum wage or expanding overtime pay), or if consumer prices rise dramatically due to Trump’s inflationary fiscal and protectionist trade policies, people may well feel the pain sooner rather than later.

Perhaps Trump, in all his deal-making brilliance, can buck the lessons of recent history and somehow make trickle-down economics work–I am highly skeptical. Even if he can, there are still the long-term ramifications of his economic agenda, which would outweigh any immediate benefits.

By greatly increasing the deficit—a certainty if his economic vision is implemented–Trump is pursuing the tried and failed “starve the beast” strategy. “Starve the beast” is a political strategy to cut taxes to deprive the federal government of revenue, in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce future spending.

Starving the beast is very dangerous; reducing “fiscal space” compromises the Government’s ability to respond to future economic downturns with stimulus spending to offset lower private sector demand. It also does not work–critical, broadly popular programs end up being financed through increased deficit spending. When push comes to shove, politicians will not risk losing support and widespread social instability in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But starving the beast can lead to underinvestment in certain areas by artificially creating a budgetary squeeze. Public R&D and investments in human capital development / productivity improvement are generally not considered “critical”, in that there are no immediate consequences for cutting them. Therefore, when budgets are tight, these are often the first programs on the chopping block. Such cuts erode America’s innovative capacity, compromising long-term economic growth.

National Security: Syria, the Islamic State and Beyond

No one knows exactly what course of action Trump will ultimately take with Syria, but we can make an educated guess based on his past comments. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein for being “good at killing terrorists“. He looks to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest backer. Most tellingly, Trump has said he will prioritize fighting the IS over fighting Assad. Taken together, these factors strongly suggest Trump will stop opposing Assad, if not directly support him in the fight against the IS.

In the short-run, backing Assad could make America safer by bringing stability to Syria, allowing the international community to focus on defeating the IS. Of course this strategy could also backfire by giving more fuel to anti-American parties in region, attracting more international terrorist attacks and inspiring domestic lone-wolf attackers.

But let’s just say, for arguments sake, that the IS already considers the U.S. its primary enemy, and is already doing all it can to attack America. Even if this is true, Trump’s strategy is still flawed. By failing to consider the root causes of the current instability of the Middle East—poor, unaccountable governance—Trump’s strategy will exacerbate the regions problems and create new ones.

In the long-run, not opposing Assad will embolden others to follow his playbook for staying in power at any cost. Rollbacks in human rights and governance will create future civil wars, resulting in power vacuums. From these power vacuums new terrorists groups will emerge, threatening America’s safety (with even more fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda). The only people this strategy will ultimately benefit are those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Humanitarian spending will also continue to rise from already historic levels if Trump abandons preventative peacebuilding through trade, development aid, and democratic capacity building in favor of aligning with dictators.

To be fair, when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, there are no good options. There are, however, worse options. Based on what he has said, and who he has nominated to be his national security adviser, Trump seems primed to pursue these worse options.

The Marks of a True Leader

All politicians must balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations. Focus too much on the long-run, and people will suffer in the short-run–to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run, we’re all dead”. But when it comes to Donald Trump, who has shown himself to be especially thin-skinned (constantly alleging media bias, demanding apologies from Broadway actors, attacking comedic parodies on SNL), whose main consideration has seemingly always been status and popularity, one can only imagine how greatly he will discount any future damage his policies might cause in order to look good now.

It is one thing to have policies not meet their intended long-term goals due to unanticipated consequences or unforeseeable changes in the world. But in the case of Trump’s proposed policies, the writing is right there on the wall. It is not that the Obama administration did not consider these “fixes”, it is that their negative consequences were deemed to be too great.

The other shoe will drop–it is a question of when, not if. Trump is counting on the negative consequences occurring on someone else’s watch, when they will be someone else’s problem. But what if they occur sooner than expected, while he is still in power? Well, there’s a scapegoat for that, and Trump has already proven himself to be a master scapegoater.

True leadership requires finding the right balance between short-term needs and longer-term considerations. It requires thick-skin, and the willingness to do what is right even when it is not popular. A good leader owns up to their failures and learns from their mistakes–there is not an ounce of accountability or introspection in Donald Trump.

Leaders can also benefit from a strong team with diverse opinions—people who challenge their views in order to create more robust, sustainable solutions. Throughout his campaign, Trump said he would appoint the best team possible to make up for his lack of governing experience. Looking at Trump’s current Cabinet nominees, I see mostly self-serving yes-men.

Based on these (and most other) definitions of leadership, President-elect Trump seems to be the furthest thing from a true leader imaginable.

It is important to identify and call out Trump’s shortsighted strategy now. People will point to immediate successes, should they come to pass, as vindication of his policy choices and governing style. Such celebrations would be premature.