Our Ever-Ignored Deficit

The Trump Administration has announced that, in fiscal year 2018, the federal budget deficit was a staggering $779 billion.  That’s a 17 percent increase over fiscal year 2017, and the largest budget deficit in six years.

In short, we’re running enormous, historically disproportionate budget deficits — even though the economy is humming, jobs are being created, unemployment has reached the lowest levels in years, and the federal government is collecting record amounts of income tax revenue.  At a time when we should be balancing our budget, or even running a surplus, we’re farther underwater than ever.

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Nobody seems to really care about this — except a handful of old deficit hawks like me.  The Republicans who used to claim to be the party of fiscal discipline cut tax rates, but they just haven’t gotten around to making the necessary cuts to federal spending that are needed to bring the budget into balance.  No surprise there — cutting taxes and raising defense spending is the easy, champagne-cork-popping part of their agenda; actually digging into the details and deciding which federal programs to cut, and by how much, is the harder, painful part that every Republican running for reelection will happily defer.  And the Democrats, who have never cared too much about balanced budgets anyway, are too busy reacting with outrage to everything President Trump does or says to focus on the deficit.

Some people argue that times are good right now, so what’s the big deal?  Maybe the deficit really doesn’t make that much of a difference, they suggest.  But if the U.S. government can’t live within its means when the economy is strong and record tax revenues are rolling in to the federal treasury, what is the deficit going to look like when the economy turns sour, payrolls get cut, and tax revenues fall?  Just how big is this deficit going to get, anyway?

It all seems pretty ironic to me.  President Trump boasts of being tough with foreign governments on trade and international relations, and putting America’s interests first in all things — but the need to sell bonds to finance the growing deficit does exactly the opposite.  The Chinese, the Saudis, and everybody else who is buying the U.S. bonds we are selling are thereby acquiring enormous leverage, and if they start demanding higher interest payments before they make their purchases we’re in a world of hurt.

So pay no attention, folks!  It’s all boring numbers, anyway!  Let’s forget about the serious, long-term aspects of running a government, and go back to talking about the latest outrages that will dominate the news cycle for a day or two until some new and exciting outrage comes along.

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Presidential Debates, Just Around The Corner

In case you haven’t had your fill of politics already, with an important election only a few weeks away and political stories of one kind or another dominating every newscast, here’s some encouraging news — the first Democratic presidential candidate debates for the 2020 election are just around the corner.

t1larg-debate-stage-empty-t1largPolitico is reporting that the first debates will probably occur in the spring of 2019, months before the first primaries and caucuses, and a full year and a half before the 2020 election.  And even though that seems ridiculously early to non-political types like me, it’s apparently causing all of the would-be candidates to ramp up their activities now.  It’s expected that there will be a lot of people who will be vying for the chance to square off against President Trump in 2020 — more people, in fact, that can reasonably fit on one debate stage.  And if sheet numbers mean there will be two debate stages and two sets of debaters, all of the candidates want to be sure that they appear on the stage that includes all of the perceived “real contenders,” and are not relegated to the “everybody else” stage.  So everybody who is contemplating throwing their hat in the ring is out there raising money, hiring staff, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to make news and start showing up in the polls.

Who are the “real contenders” for the Democrats?  According to the Politico article, only one person — a Congressman named John Delaney, who I’ve never even heard of — has formally declared his candidacy at this point.  Among the people who reportedly are considering a bid are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.  Some people think Hillary Clinton might run, or Michael Bloomberg, and no doubt there are mayors, governors, other senators and representatives, and corporate figures who may launch campaigns.  If only a few of these folks actually run, you’ve already got a pretty crowded stage.

It’s hard to believe that we’re at the point of gearing up for another presidential election already, but politics being what it is, I am sure that there are a lot of Democrats out there thinking very seriously about running for President.  Why not?  After all, if Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination and actually get elected, just about anything is possible.  So why not take a shot — and do whatever you can to make sure that you get onto the coveted “contenders” stage?

Condemned To Repetition

George Santayana famously observed:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I thought of old George when I read this article reporting that some banks, amazingly, have decided to once again offer zero down payment subprime mortgages.  Apparently it’s only taken ten years for banks to forget the lessons they purportedly learned during the last subprime mortgage lending bubble, when the collapse of countless numbers of bad loans brought the economy to the brink of total disaster.

tips-for-buying-foreclosed-homes-mstAccording to the article quoted above; “Borrowers can have low credit scores, but have to go through an education session about the program and submit all necessary documents, from income statements to phone bills. Then they go through counseling to understand their monthly budget and ensure they can afford the mortgage payment. The loans are 15- or 30-year fixed with interest rates below market, about 4.5 percent.”  In addition to the “education session” and documentation and counseling requirements, recipients of the loans have to live in the houses with the mortgages.

The lending agencies think that residency requirement will keep out the investors looking to flip houses, which is one of the conditions that contributed to the prior housing bubble and subprime mortgage debacle.  Another purported protection against disaster is that the housing market is strong, there’s a shortage of homes for sale at entry-level prices, and therefore homeowners who can’t make their payments supposedly will be able to sell their houses and repay their mortgage loans.  And proponents of the lending program say it helps poor people and working families to buy houses and build personal wealth.

I’m all for people becoming homeowners if that’s their dream, but if banks think that things like education sessions and counseling are going to allow them to avoid problems when the economy turns — as it inevitably will — they are dreaming.  It’s not hard to forecast that some aggressive loan officers will push the rules, some house-flippers will figure out a way to take advantage of the programs, some bad apples will take out the mortgages and then abandon the houses when times get tough, and then we may well be back in the same perilous situation that existed in 2007 and 2008.

I hope not everyone has forgotten what happened to bring on the Great Recession.  And I hope some political leader makes it clear that banks are welcome to follow whatever practices they think are appropriate for their businesses, but this time, if it all goes to hell, taxpayers won’t be bailing them out — again.

The Times’ Anonymous Op-Ed

In case you’ve missed it, the New York Times decided to publish an anonymous op-ed piece from a “senior official” within the Trump Administration.  Basically, the anonymous writer wants us to know that although he — and, according to him, others working in the executive branch — consider President Trump to be incredibly impulsive, erratic, unprincipled, uncivil, unwise, and prone to rants, the “senior official” and others who share his views are working behind the scenes to thwart the parts of the President’s agenda that they think are ill-advised and not in the country’s best interests.

person-place-thing-episode-31-melissa-harris-perry0The “senior official” says he’s not part of the so-called “deep state,” but is instead part of the “steady state.”  He says he and other like-minded members of the Trump Administration “will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”  I suppose the “senior official” thinks such statements are supposed to be reassuring to those of us who didn’t vote for the President and oppose his policies, but I wonder:  is it really better that unelected individuals, clad in anonymity, are making important, behind-the-scenes decisions based on their own personal views of what they think is best?  President Trump — or for that matter, President Obama, President Bush, and any other President — clearly is answerable to voters, his political opponents, and the news media for his decisions, actions, and policies; anonymous “senior officials” who are supposedly steering policy aren’t.  When you think about it, the hubris of the “senior official” is pretty breathtaking, and his anonymity and lack of accountability aren’t reassuring, they’re alarming.

The Times explained its decision to publish the op-ed as follows:  “The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”  The key part of that description, from my perspective, is that the senior official’s job would be jeopardized if he were identified as the anonymous op-ed writer.  No kidding!  And, if it were any other President we were talking about, wouldn’t everyone recognize that of course the President should have the ability to fire someone who confesses to being part of an organized resistance and acting to routinely undermine his decisions?

The Times introduction, quoted above, says publishing an anonymous op-ed is a “rare step.”  I’d be interested in knowing whether it has ever been done before.  Allowing people to express their opinions anonymously in the pages of the New York Times is like allowing internet commentators with screen names to take over the op-ed page itself.  As a journalistic matter, wouldn’t it be better to make the “senior official” an anonymous source and take any newsworthy information he provided and work it into a news story, as has been done for decades, rather than giving him a platform to voice his opinions because the Times thinks they “deliver an important perspective”?

I hope we are not setting a dangerous precedent here.

Not Just An Also-Ran

Senator John McCain died yesterday, at age 81, after a long battle with brain cancer.  He was an American hero for his fierce resistance to his North Vietnamese captors after he became a prisoner during the Vietnam War, and after he was released from captivity he forged a long and equally independent record in Congress.  He was a proponent of campaign finance reform, a steadfast supporter of veterans, and a strong advocate for the military.  McCain was one of those members of Congress who was willing to buck party leadership and reach across the aisle if he felt it was the right thing to do — a reputation that was confirmed when he voted against a repeal of Obamacare — and if I didn’t always agree with his positions, I always felt that he was largely motivated by a sincere belief in what would be best for the country.

john-mccainIt’s an impressive legacy — but for many people, McCain will be remembered primarily as the man who was beaten by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

McCain’s death got me to thinking about the people who have run for President on a major party ticket in a general election and lost, and how many of them are still living.  Two of the oldest members of that group, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, actually won the presidency before losing their bids for re-election.  The other living members of the club of people who were unsuccessful in their run for the presidency include Mike Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.  All of them have had successful careers in politics and have made different contributions to the country — and all of them will be remembered, at least in part, for the time they lost.

America is a tough place for a politician.  The higher they rise, the higher the stakes, and when a person raises the money and makes the speeches and personal appearances and survives the primary system and becomes the nominee of a major political party, the stakes are the highest of all.  We routinely honor the winners — at least, most of them, if only for a short period of time — and second-guess and chastise the losers, dissecting their campaigns and pointing out every flaw and flub.

John McCain shows how unfair that perception is.  Sure, he never became POTUS, but that fact doesn’t detract from who he was or what he accomplished.  He was a lot more than an also-ran.

Cleaning The Air We Breathe

In the mood for some good news — perhaps, good news that hasn’t gotten much attention?  How about this: the most recent United States Environmental Protection Agency report on the quality of our air shows that the America has made remarkable progress in reducing air pollution.

downtownThe EPA report is called “Our Nation’s Air 2018,” and it’s an eye-opener.  It shows large — in some cases, huge — decreases in the concentrations of air pollutants just since 1990.  Since then, carbon monoxide is down 77 percent, sulfur dioxide is down 88 percent, lead is down 80 percent, and various types of particulate matter are down between 34 percent and 41 percent.  Ozone emissions are down 22 percent, and nitrogen dioxide is down 50 percent.   The report notes that since 1970 — when the federal Clean Air Act took effect –“the combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) dropped by 73 percent.”  The total number of “unhealthy air quality” days as measured by the EPA also has fallen dramatically.

And what’s really amazing is that these significant overall declines in air pollutants have occurred at the same time that both America’s population, and its economy, have grown substantially.  It’s a classic example of how real environmental progress can be made in a way that doesn’t cause total economic disruption.

To be sure, there is still work to be done, and I’ve been to places in America — like southern California — where from time to time you can sometimes still see smog and visible air pollution.  But that shouldn’t detract from the success the country has achieved in getting to cleaner air.

Remember that the next time you take a deep breath of sweet, clean air.

Getting Carried Away

President Trump is easily the most deeply, passionately hated American political figure in my lifetime.  No other nationally known politico — not Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, not Sarah Palin, not President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — really even comes close.  Among some people, at least, the wellspring of absolute loathing for Donald Trump is off the charts, and it’s causing them to say and do things that are amazing.

hqdefaultConsider, for example, this op-ed piece published last Friday in USA Today.  One of their “opinion contributors” argues that President Trump has “broken the presidency” and that the office needs to be abolished.  It’s not exactly a reasoned essay about constitutional principles and structural reforms in the government of our republic.  Instead, the article says things like “[t]here is a bloated authoritarian lounging in his bathrobe in a 200-year-old mansion that used to symbolize the principal republic of the world” and “[i]f you’re stunned that President Donald Trump is still in office because he’s so horrible and so unpopular and so obviously corrupt — you are not alone — the overwhelming majority agrees with you.”

Clearly, the author thinks that President Trump is a very bad person . . . but what about the office of the presidency?  Well, the writer argues that impeachment won’t solve the problem, because “[i]t’s never lived up to its promise” and has never removed a bad president from office.  And her concern now that Trump holds the office is that the presidency has become so powerful that it is beyond repair:  “My fear isn’t Trump; it’s that the next autocrat is most likely smarter and savvier than Trump. Every partisan from every niche of American politics should be alarmed. We have a branch of government that stinks so bad it’s wafted over the entire nation and its outer territories. The entire world sees it. We’re in trouble. The presidency is broken. Our little democratic experiment is in peril.”  The answer, she suggests, is to follow the Swiss model, and replace the executive with a “council of boring bureaucrats.”

This alarmist piece in a national publication isn’t alone, it’s just one symptom of much bigger, deeper issue:  how their disgust with everything President Trump does and stands for is causing some people to seriously advocate for actions that could affect the foundations of our republic.  I’m not sure how serious the USA Today op-ed writer really is, but after more than 200 years and more than 40 Presidents, good and bad, I’d say the Office of the President can withstand the election of Donald Trump.  And I wouldn’t like to even think about how a “council of boring bureaucrats” would have dealt with guiding the Union through the horrors of the Civil War, or leading the country forward to victory during World War II.

The people who hate President Trump are entitled to their views and have the right to express them vigorously.  I just hope that everybody recognizes that there is a difference between a man and an office.  We shouldn’t let our feelings for the current occupant cause us to make changes to how our government works that could have serious repercussions down the road.