Battlefields And Budgets

You may have forgotten that, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised that if he became President he would donate his presidential salary — currently, gross income of $400,000 a year — to a worthy cause.    It was a promise that kind of got lost among all of the other promises and pronouncements and insults and boasting that we heard during the awful 2016 presidential campaign.

Yesterday, though, President Trump followed through on that one promise:  he is contributing his after-tax presidential salary income from the first quarter of 2017 — $78,333.32 — to the Interior Department, where it will be used to fund restoration projects at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

thirteenth-amendment-passes1_Antietam was a pivotal battle in the eastern theater of the Civil War.  Like other Civil War battles, it was unbelievably bloody, with thousands of casualties, but after a series of losses to Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army, Antietam was one of the few battles where the North could plausibly claim a victory.  And that is where the true significance of the Battle of Antietam lies:  President Lincoln had resolved not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after a military victory by the North, because he didn’t want the Proclamation to look like a desperate act in a losing cause.  Antietam gave him the ability to issue the Proclamation, which forever changed the focus and nature of the Civil War and American history as well.  President Trump’s contribution will be used to help restore the exterior of a house where injured soldiers were treated during the battle.

Some groups seized upon the announcement to contrast the President’s contribution with the budget cuts he is proposing for the Interior Department and the National Parks Service.  The Sierra Club stated that “America’s parks, and the people and economies they support, need real funding, not a giant fake check.”   An official with the Center for Western Priorities commented:  “Honoring military sacrifice and conserving battlefields are things that all Americans can get behind. But this publicity stunt must be taken in context: President Trump and Secretary Zinke are proposing a crippling $1.6 billion budget cut to our national parks, battlefields, and other public lands.”

It’s a sign, perhaps, of the state of our modern political world that President Trump’s contribution can’t simply be graciously accepted as a generous act.  I’ve been a critic of the President in the past, and no doubt will be again, but this is an instance where he deserves credit for doing something that is all too rare in American politics — satisfying a campaign promise.  And if, like me, you believe that it’s well past time to bring our federal budget, and federal spending, under control, you can’t simply treat every proposed budget cut as an unmitigated disaster.  That’s how we got into our current federal debt predicament in the first place.

The Big Disconnect

At some point in the future, perhaps, we’ll look back at the Trump presidency with some sense of perspective.  For now, though, as we’re in the midst of it, it’s just one weird thing after another.  And with each new, unseemly tweet or attempted put down, it becomes more and more apparent that there is a significant disconnect between the President and his supporters and at least some of the rest of us.

wrestlemania-23-donald-trump-vince-mcmahon-battle-of-billionaires-670x433The President’s various petty feuds with members of the news media are the best example of this phenomenon.  Every day, the President seems to become locked into some bitter dispute with a TV show host or a network.  His crude, mean tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC are strange because you’d expect the President to be able to remain above the fray.  Surely the President has bigger things to deal with, right?  And, even if he did feel the need to respond to the comments of a particular broadcaster, couldn’t he do so in a fashion that doesn’t involve referring to somebody’s purported plastic surgery?  Wouldn’t most Presidents conclude that very few people out in the country watch, or are even aware of, Morning Joe and therefore responding to its hosts can only call attention to what they are saying?

The President’s recent video tweet, showing a tinkered version of footage of Donald Trump at a Wrestlemania broadcast, body-slamming somebody with the CNN logo superimposed on his head, is the latest example of the disconnect.  Trump evidently thinks that the footage shows, in graphic form, that he’s not afraid to take on CNN and other members of the “mainstream media,” and that his supporters will cheer because they think the press is biased and deserves its comeuppance.  But many of the rest of us shake our heads, and not just because it seems bizarre and childish that the President would tweet out doctored footage of himself engaging in an act of physical violence.

No, the President’s latest tweet also manages to remind some of us:  Oh my god, we’ve actually elected a President of the United States who once voluntarily agreed to appear on Wrestlemania!

Fact-Checking Porcupine Sex

The days of speeches by the likes of Daniel Webster are long gone, and for some time now the United States Senate — which once seriously was described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” —  seemingly has been filled with unremarkable politicos who don’t exactly set new standards for eloquence.  So when Kansas Senator Pat Roberts made a curious argument during the ongoing Senate debate about health care reform, the Associated Press decided to take a closer look.

In trying to describe the difficulties in resolving health care issues, Roberts said:  “Once in Glacier National Park I saw two porcupines making love. I’m assuming they produced smaller porcupines. They produced something. It has to be done carefully. That’s what we’re doing now.”

8068693778_38e62ec1de_bSo the current atmosphere in the U.S. Congress is like two porcupines having sex?  That’s not only not reassuring — which presumably is what Roberts was trying to communicate — it’s a distinctly disturbing image, isn’t it?

But the AP decided to have a deeper look at the whole porcupine sex issue.  It didn’t look at whether Roberts has ever been to Glacier or actually saw two porcupines in an intimate situation, but it did ask exactly how porcupines engage in the act.  The AP fact check cites a Duke University biologist who says that porcupine spines may be intimidating to predators, but when mating occurs porcupines can let down their guard.  The AP adds:  “Courtship rituals can be aggressive but when the animals have negotiated the art of the deal, the females relax and reposition their quills.”

So we’ve got Senators talking about porcupine sex and Associated Press reporters fact-checking them?  Apparently this is what passes for useful interaction of the political class and the fourth estate in these days of President Twitter and “fake news” and obvious political agendas on all sides.  It makes me think that those of us out in the country should be careful not to relax and reposition our quills.

Restaurant Closing Time

Sometimes, notwithstanding our wishes and hopes, we just can’t change or escape the basic laws of economics.  California restaurants are learning this lesson — one that so many other businesses have learned in so many other settings for so many years.

A number of California communities, including San Francisco, have decided that they should legislate substantial increases to the minimum wage, so that the minimum wage will reach $15 — a number that was picked not through the guidance of the invisible hand of supply and demand, but because it sounds goods when politicians promise it.  Basic laws of economics will tell you that if you increase the costs for a business, the business has only a few options:  either absorb the increase by cutting costs in other areas (or accepting lower profits), or increase their prices to make up for the extra costs, or recognize that you just can’t make the economics of the business work and close your doors.  In California, a number of restaurants have decided that the latter route is the only viable option.

o-restaurant-worker-facebookIn the Bay Area, at least 60 restaurants have closed since September, and as a result a number of line cooks, car valets, dishwashers, table bussers, and waiters — the people who were supposed to be helped by the $15 minimum wage initiatives, incidentally — have lost their jobs.  These results in the San Francisco area, where wages for starting workers are higher than in less affluent parts of the state, are leaving some Californians who aren’t living in economic dreamland wondering what the effects will be when a statewide minimum wage takes effect and inland areas, which already have higher unemployment numbers and where starting pay is correspondingly lower, are affected.

This restaurant closing effect shouldn’t be a surprise.  Many restaurants run on very thin margins as it is, trying to find that magic balance between quality food and reasonable prices and cool ambiance that diners are looking for.  They don’t have big profit margins that can simply absorb higher wages.  If minimum-wage legislation substantially increases their costs, most restaurants just don’t have the option of jacking up their prices because they know they are going to lose their more cost-sensitive patrons.  And there really aren’t many other areas in which restaurants can make up for increased labor costs.  Tinker with the quality of the food, or the ingredients, or the portion size, and you’ll likely end up losing your more discriminating patrons — and many restauranteurs who are passionate about food probably wouldn’t want to change how they prepare dishes, anyway.  So the logical option, unfortunately, is closing.

In short, the five-star joints, where there is less price sensitivity and where the wages may already be higher, will survive, but many of the more basic restaurants will struggle and close.  The cause-and-effect relationship is so predictable that a recent academic study found that every $1 hike in the minimum wage brings a 14 percent increase in the likelihood that a 3.5-star restaurant on Yelp! will close its doors.

The people who are advocating for large increases in the minimum wage no doubt are well-intentioned, but their efforts ultimately are misguided because you simply cannot ignore, or legislate away, the laws of economics.   How many times do we have to see this play before people start getting the plot?

When Not Even Early-Morning Baseball Practice Is Safe

Yesterday members of the Republican congressional baseball team met early in the morning for a practice session in advance of an upcoming game against a team of Democrats.  The annual game, which gets played in the stadium where the Nationals play and typically produces lots of money for charity, is one of the handful of remaining vestiges of civility and across-the-aisle cooperation that can still be found in our increasingly polarized national politics.

2017-06-14t131000z1lynxmped5d12artroptp4virginia-shootingBut the world being what it is these days, even an early-morning baseball practice is no longer safe.  A heavily armed gunman, who has been identified as James Hodgkinson, showed up and began firing — apparently with the intention of killing Republicans.  He shot  Congressman Steve Scalise, who remains in critical condition, and others as well before engaging in a firefight with authorities and sustaining fatal injuries.  In view of the fact that the gunman got off dozens of rounds, and the players practicing on the field were described as “sitting ducks,” it’s almost miraculous that more people weren’t killed or seriously injured.  Those who were present say that the heroism and prompt actions of police saved many lives.

The shooter is described as a Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans — but in reality you could just call him a nut, based on what he’s written and posted to social media.  Senator Sanders immediately disavowed what the shooter did, because of course Sanders’ political positions don’t call for his supporters to engage in murderous violence.  And yet there are people out there on the fringes, at both ends of the political spectrum, who can’t simply content themselves with political opposition and have to take the next step, and the next, first into more vitriolic speech and imagery and ultimately into some kind of twisted mindset where going to a baseball practice and shooting whoever is out of the field seems like the right thing to do.

There have always been nuts out there.  What’s discouraging about the modern world is that there seem to be more of them ready to act out their disturbed impulses, heedless of who might get hurt.  And now we’ve reached the point where even a simple baseball practice isn’t safe.

The baseball game is going to be played, by the way.  That’s a good thing, I think, but it’s the only good thing about this whole ugly episode.  And you inevitably wonder:  how many more nuts are lurking out there, thinking the answer to what troubles them is a lot of indiscriminate killing?

 

Politicized Diets

Recently I ran across an interesting article dealing with governmental diet instructions.  It noted that much of the nutrition advice that Americans have received from their government over recent decades has turned out to be dead wrong — and in fact may have contributed to the obesity epidemic that you see whenever you go out in public.

The article focuses on the national dietary guidelines released in 1980 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the forerunner to the current Department of Health and Human Services.  The guidelines targeted fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol as villainous substances to be avoided and drummed into American heads that low-cholesterol, low-fat foods were better for your heart and your health generally.  As a result, the article posits, food manufacturers started churning out “low-fat” and low-calorie offerings that Americans bought, thinking they were eating healthy.

dfe6c7a7569e69d9568a402ff1a01e74But the government’s conclusions about our eating habits and their effect on health turned out to be erroneous. Research has determined that fat and cholesterol are not, in fact, harmful, and the “low-fat,” high in carbohydrates foods that Americans have been munching on may instead have helped to produce vast problems with obesity and diabetes — problems that did not exist in 1980, when the government report that triggered it all was released.  One British cardiologist contends:  “The change in dietary advice to promote low-fat foods is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history.”  And other results have indicated that diets that go in the opposite direction from the government’s instruction, with dieters looking to eat meats and eggs and limit carbs instead, are effective in reducing weight.

How did the government turn out to be so wrong?  Some researchers believe that it was because, back in the ’60s, sugar industry lobbyists funded dubious research that linked fat and cholesterol to heart disease and downplayed the adverse health effects of sugar and carbohydrates.  With the nudging from the lobbyists, the government bought the sketchy results, issued its report, and started the country on the road to flabbiness.  In short, politics helped to put us on the wrong dietary road.

If you’ve lived long enough, you begin to reach a critical mass of alarming governmental declarations that have turned out to be wrong.  It’s one of the reasons why the credibility of our governmental institutions among the American public has dropped to an all-time low.  The conclusion that modern America’s obesity epidemic is a self-inflicted problem caused in part by really bad governmental advice isn’t going to help.

When Taxpayers Hit The Road

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on Connecticut — the state which for some time has had the highest per capita income of any state in the union.  Now Connecticut is running into problems with its budget.  The problem?  It has jacked up taxes to the point that its biggest taxpayers, both corporations and individuals, have decided that it just makes sense to move.

leaving-connecticut-1170x514Aetna, a Connecticut institution since 1853 and one of the state’s largest employers, announced this week that it is moving.  General Electric has fled to Boston.  In May the state reduced its two-year revenue forecast by nearly $1.5 billion and has projected a 6 percent drop in income-tax revenue for 2017 and 2018.  Income-tax collections declined this year due to lower earnings at the top, as many high earners have moved to lower tax states.  Sales-tax revenue is forecast to fall by 9 percent, corporate-tax revenue is estimated to drop by 7 percent, and state pension contributions, which have doubled since 2010, will increase by a third over the next two years.  This confluence of bad news leaves Connecticut with a $5.1 billion deficit and three recent credit downgrades.

Is it a coincidence that all of that has happened after Connecticut raised its top individual income tax rate, payable by those who earn more than $500,000 a year, from 5% to 6.99%?  Is it a coincidence that, in the last five years, 27,400 residents have moved to no-income-tax Florida?  Their departures have depressed economic growth in Connecticut and, since high earners also tend to be high spenders, has also depressed home values and sales-tax revenues.

And here’s the kicker:  Connecticut is talking about issuing “revenue bonds,” backed by its shrinking income tax revenues, to try to reduce its borrowing costs and close its budget deficit.  In case you’re interested, that’s something Puerto Rico tried, too — and look where Puerto Rico ended up.

It’s a pretty simple lesson:  while people may not always be rational economic actors, if states keep raising taxes and taking large chunks of your income year after year, at some point taxpayers are going to go to a place where they get to hold on to more of what they earn.  Connecticut is now learning that lesson the hard way, and no-tax states, like Florida, are reaping the benefits.