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?

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.

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.

Rethinking Prison

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention — at least, not compared to Twitter wars and Russian collusion claims — but Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be working hard, and making progress, on a tough topic:  prison reform.

The House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill in the spring, and the Senate is now working on its version of the legislation.  President Trump has weighed in by hosting meetings of governors and federal officials and pointing to the issue in some of his tweets.  And, in an era where it seems like Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything, the prison reform bill seems to be attracting bipartisan support.

prisonerjaildeathpenalty2The House legislation, called the First Step Act, seeks to reduce recidivism by funding education, drug treatment, and job training programs, and allowing inmates who complete programs to earn credits that would permit them to leave prison early and complete their sentences through home confinement or a stay at a halfway house.  The Senate bill would add to the House legislation by tacking mandatory minimum sentence measures.  Among the topics being addressed are changing the “three-strikes-and-you’re out” mandatory sentence for drug offenses from life in prison to 25 years, reducing the disparity in sentences given for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and reducing the mandatory sentences imposed when a firearm is used in an offense.  Still other provisions would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory penalties when sentencing offenders for less serious offenses.

I’m glad Congress and the President are focused on prison reform.  Studies indicate that there are significant racial disparities in sentencing, and although the gap is closing, black men are still much more likely than white men to be imprisoned.  It seems that prison often makes inmates more violent and irredeemable.  And if you speak to a federal judge about their job, one topic they’re likely to mention is their frustration at the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion they currently have in recognizing special circumstances that would allow them to shape more appropriate sentences that are tailored to the individual defendant and his or her specific conduct.  All of these are important, substantive topics that need to be addressed.

One other thing:  prison and sentencing reform is politically thankless.  It’s easy for politicians to rail about crime and boast about tossing people into prison and throwing away the key; it’s a lot harder to look thoughtfully at a broken system and try to figure out how to fix it in a sensible way.  A vote for prison reform today might produce campaign ads about a Senator or Representative being “soft on crime” when the next election rolls around.  We’ll have to see whether these kinds of political considerations derail the prison and sentencing reform effort.

For now, though, I’ll give President Trump and Congress credit for stopping the name-calling, rolling up their sleeves, and actually working on a challenging issue.  If only other important issues could be addressed that way!

Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.

The President And The King

President Donald Trump has a particular, head-scratching talent for creating controversies that are both unnecessary and divisive.  The President’s recent insulting tweet about the intelligence of LeBron James is a classic example of a problematic character trait that just won’t go away.

lebron-james-donald-trump-jamilIn case you missed it, CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed LeBron James about a school James established for underprivileged children in Akron, Ohio at which every student receives free tuition, food, a uniform, and a bicycle.  It’s a classic example of James’ continuing focus on his old home town and using his celebrity platform, and his own money, to help those in need.  Even Cleveland sports fans who are disappointed that James has decided to play in Los Angeles respect his commitment to his roots in northern Ohio.

So where does the President come in?  Apparently he was miffed that James, who was an outspoken supporter of Hilary Clinton during the last campaign, responded to a silly question from Lemon by saying he might have to run if there was no one else to oppose President Trump.  That evidently was too much for our thin-skinned President, who then tweeted:  “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”

The silly question and answer provides no basis for insulting the intelligence of either LeBron James — whose public statements, whether about sports or other topics, are typically careful and thoughtful — or Don Lemon.  And the President’s ad hominem attack provoked many athletes, as well as First Lady Melania Trump, to make statements supporting James.  It’s just the latest example of how our touchy President’s inability to restrain himself produces another gratuitous, divisive controversy.

I’m not sure President Trump really takes advice from anyone, but you’d think someone could convince him to put down the Twitter feed for once and just let the economy do the talking.