On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
May 22, 2019

What Is the Stock Market Trying to Tell Us? Every day, the news stories keep telling us that a deal with China is farther away than ever. Yet the stock market has been going up since the stalemate was announced. (It was down trivially today after being up this week and last.)

What gives? A trade war with China keeps being described as an economic catastrophe. What do the wise guys on Wall Street know that orthodox economists don’t know?

Herewith, four conjectures:

First, the tariffs and the blockage of some Chinese tech companies are just not that big a deal for the economy as a whole, and they have some offsetting benefits to U.S. industries such as steel and possibly to Silicon Valley and the future of U.S.-based supply chains in general.

Second, many Trump watchers suspect that sooner or later Trump will cut some kind of a deal with China, but closer to the election when he really needs it.

Third, there is more to the stock market than China. Thanks to the 2018 $1.6 trillion dollar tax cut, corporate profits are astronomical.

Finally, the low-inflation, low-interest rate, and low-unemployment environment is a sweet spot that economists expect to continue. How can very low unemployment rates coexist with low inflation? Because labor’s bargaining power has been savaged, even in an economy where jobs are plentiful and idle workers are scarce.

Wages are up, but not very much.

In other words, the Trump economy is great for Wall Street, mostly lousy for Main Street. We kinda knew that.

Kuttner
May 20, 2019

Impunity: Understanding Trump's Coup d'État. Trump’s categorical denial of any wrongdoing and his wall-to-wall efforts to block all investigations, whether by Congress or in other investigations such as the Deutsche Bank case, adds up to a blanket claim of impunity. As Richard Nixon claimed, if the president does it, it’s legal.

Nixon’s contention, of course, was ridiculed and not allowed to stand. But that was in a different era—with independent courts, a Democratic majority in Congress, and even some principled Republicans. None of those obtain today.

If the president, as Trump claims, is literally above the law, and by definition cannot be investigated in any legal venue, then this has ceased to be a democracy. We are not quite there yet, but we are close.

Congress, as Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland has proposed, could impeach Trump on the narrow ground of contempt of Congress, one of the counts in the Nixon impeachment. If ever there were an open and shut case, it’s this one. Trump has made it all too clear that he and his associates will resist any congressional demand, no matter how legitimate.

It’s also possible that highly damaging information, against Trump, his enterprises, or his family, will emerge from one of the other investigations, such as the Deutsche Bank case, where both Congress and the New York state attorney general have ongoing investigations of possible corruption in the bank’s extensive financing of the Trump organization. Trump has sued Deutsche Bank in an effort to block the bank’s cooperation with prosecutors’ demands for documents. The bank’s loyalty to customer Trump is at odds with its health as a government-regulated institution.

At bottom, there is a race between several investigations and the Republican takeover of the courts, which is not yet quite complete. There is still some judicial independence. But if we lose this race, and Trump manages to place himself above the law by definition, then his coup is complete.

The idea that we must choose tactically between going forward with impeachment and winning the 2020 election is preposterous. If Trump is above the law, then he can steal the election in several key states. 

Those of us who want American democracy to survive and thrive need to be waging this battle on every available front. 

Kuttner
May 17, 2019

Trump’s Itchy Trigger Finger. Earlier in the week, we were hearing from unnamed administration sources about small patrol boats of the Iranian Navy armed with missiles preparing to attack American warships. 

Are you kidding? Why in the world would Iran pull such a stunt and bring the U.S. into a war? This Trumped-up provocation has all the credibility of the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, which Trump is probably too illiterate to know anything about. For that matter, it has all the credibility of George W. Bush’s faked pretext for war with Iraq.

But wait, that was in the last news cycle, 48 hours ago—an eternity ago. In today’s news cycle, Trump is walking it all back. He doesn’t want war with Iran after all.

This is also reminiscent of Trump’s two-year folie a deux with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who went from being Little Rocket Man to being a great statesman and back again without so much as a by-your-leave, and without any change in North Korea’s actual policies.

It’s bad enough that Trump is promoting lunatic and contradictory policies on everything else from immigration to infrastructure to tariffs. But on the foreign policy front, his ignorant trifling, short attention span, pirouettes, and double reverses could end with all of us getting blown to bits.

And if Trump imagines that he might lose the 2020 election, the risk of an entirely fake national security crisis only grows. But hey, let’s exhale and take it one day at a time. We’ve averted a war for this news cycle. Grateful for small favors.

Meyerson
May 16, 2019

Our Already Meritorious Immigrants. According to numerous press accounts, President Trump is set to present a semi-new immigration policy in the next few days. It’s only semi-new because it still contains funding for Trump’s wall and makes no mention of the undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, leaving them vulnerable to eventual deportation. 

What is new—supposedly the result of a compromise between the neo-fascism of White House Svengali Stephen Miller and the general doltishness of White House Son-in-Law Jared Kushner—is a proposal to base admission on “merit.” No more of that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” business.

Ironically, even without the “merit” criterion, the actual pool of newly arrived immigrants is increasingly credentialed. A new study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California reveals that in 2017 in California—home to more immigrants than any other state—the share of working-age immigrants who’d moved to the United States during the past five years with bachelor’s or graduate degrees was 52 percent. By contrast, the share of U.S.-born Californians with bachelor’s or graduate degrees in 2017 was 36 percent.   

Like the rest of the U.S., only more so, California has a two-tier economy, disproportionately employing higher-paid professionals on one end and low-paid service, retail, and construction workers on the other. Most of the immigrants with no advanced degrees end up in that low-end sector. It wouldn’t be so low-end if California hadn’t gone through two massive waves of deindustrialization in the 1980s and ‘90s, losing both its auto factories and then its aerospace plants, at the time the largest private-sector employers in the state. Those factories had just begun to provide an economic ladder to the new wave of immigrants when they were unceremoniously shuttered. Thus were meritorious immigrants ghettoized in meritorious but un-remunerative jobs, their “value,” as measured by income, called into question. 

All of which raises questions of their own. Among them: Why is Trump demonizing immigrants when so many of them, even by his administration’s own narrow criteria, pass the “merit” test. And who’s to say what’s really meritorious? If America still had the levels of economic and social mobility it had half-a-century ago, then poor immigrant, and native-born, parents would be raising children who’d grow up to surpass them economically, many of them becoming middle-class in the process. Moral and social merit, of course, has nothing to do with economic merit, but if we should narrow our definition to the one the Trumpians are using, then the shrinking of the middle class—for the native born no less than for immigrants—is the problem we need to address.

Kuttner
May 15, 2019

Over to You, John Roberts. The future of American democracy may literally come down to the decisions of one man, Chief Justice John Roberts. That’s because all of Trump’s efforts to place himself above the law—stonewalling subpoenas, telling his people to defy contempt citations, making dictatorial claims about executive power—will eventually end up in court. The Supreme Court.

And as we all know, the current court is divided 5-4, with five far-right toadies and four beleaguered liberals. Though one of the five, Roberts, occasionally seems to have second thoughts about the Constitution, the democracy, and the reputation of the high court.

This sure as hell needs to be one of those times.

The signs are far from auspicious. Roberts has been utterly promiscuous in overturning settled law when it served Republican partisan and ideological purposes. He has had a view of executive power almost as extreme as Trump’s.

But occasionally, he gives defenders of democracy some hope. In NFIB v. Sebelius, where the court’s conservatives hoped to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Roberts voted with the liberals—sort of. He held that the ACA was not legal under Constitution’s Commerce Clause, but was OK under Congress’s power to tax. 

However, Roberts opined, both the individual mandate and the required state expansion of Medicaid were illegal. Now, however, in a new pending case backed by the administration, conservatives argue that with the mandate gone, the ACA is no longer an example of Congress’s power to tax and should be tossed out in its entirety. So Roberts may either have outfoxed himself, or maybe was foxier than we thought.

Last November, Roberts professed to be offended at Trump’s characterization of an “Obama judge.” He declared:

We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.

But that was posturing. The high court is ideologically split, the five conservatives are shills for Trump, and Roberts himself is Exhibit A.

On the other hand, in three recent cases, Roberts voted with the liberals to deny high court review of lower court rulings that went against the right, but taking care to note that these were procedural decisions, not substantive ones.

In short, unless Roberts gets an attack of conscience, he is a slender reed on which to place the survival of American democracy. That said, he is a much classier act than Trump, and he’s what we have.

Meyerson
May 14, 2019

With Uber’s Stock Tanking, Trump’s NLRB Rides to Its Rescue. “Uber Has Poisoned an IPO Market That Was Sick Anyway,” a Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed this morning. When the market closed Monday, two days after the company had first listed its stock, Uber’s shares had declined by 18 percent from its IPO listing of $45. 

To deter Uber’s owners from hurling themselves off of Airbnb high-rises, however, the Trumpified National Labor Relations Board endeavored to come to their rescue today. With stories like the Journal’s declaring that Uber ownership was a fool’s errand, the Board chose today to release an April 16 “Advice Memorandum” from the office of its general counsel which emphatically concluded that Uber drivers were independent contractors with no right to form a union or bargain collectively. For a company like Uber, which has never yet shown a profit, a guarantee that it will never need to give its drivers a raise is as close as the company can get to something resembling good news.

To reach the conclusions it reached, the general counsel drew on a Board ruling from earlier this year which found that Super Shuttle drivers were independent contractors, too. As Moshe Marvit pointed out in a Prospect article he wrote on that decision, the basis for Board’s ruling came down to the fact that if Super Shuttle drivers incurred losses while working for the company, they had to cover those losses themselves—a situation the Board’s ruling creatively characterized as “an entrepreneurial opportunity.” 

That the Board’s general counsel has now consigned Uber drivers to worker hell, then, is hardly surprising. What does raise eyebrows is the timing of the release of the counsel’s memo—a timing so egregious that it almost makes you wonder if Trump’s appointees to the NLRB have shares in Uber that they’re frantically trying to unload. In the Anything-Goes presidential administration of Donald Trump, the egregious has become so normalized and so stupidity commonplace that the Board’s action not only stinks to high heaven but should be investigated by House Democrats.

Kuttner
May 13, 2019

Citizen Mueller. The other day, I suggested that Special Counsel Robert Mueller commit an act of civil disobedience and testify before Congress despite the objections of the Trump Justice Department, of which he is an employee.

I’ve checked with a number of legal scholars, and it’s even simpler than that. He need only resign and he is free to testify. 

As long as he doesn’t divulge confidential grand jury matters, he can expand on the sometimes Delphic hair-splitting in his report, and make clear that Trump could be indicted but for a ruling of the Office of Legal Counsel, which has no constitutional basis.

He could also associate himself with the nearly 700 former federal prosecutors, Republican as well as Democrat, organized by the group Protect Democracy, who made clear that in their view Trump could be indicted were it not for that ruling. The letter is worth reading in its entirety. 

We need a citizens movement urging Mueller to testify. How about it, counselor?

Kuttner
May 10, 2019

Trump Got That Right. When The New York Times unearthed ten years of Trump’s tax returns showing losses in excess of $1 billion, Trump indignantly tweeted that this is simply how the real-estate game is played—pile up those paper losses while you make real money.

Trump is right about that. The developer scam allows you to take deductions for depreciation while the property is actually appreciating, and find some other way to offset the capital gain when the building is sold. Not to mention deductions for interest, the “loss” of paying yourself management fees, and a lot more.

It’s a racket, and Trump is the biggest real-estate racketeer of all.

Speaking of which, did you see what Zillow is up to? Zillow has more information on property sales and values than anyone else. Until now, Zillow has profited by using click-bait to generate ads and other digital income.

Now, however, Zillow is in the business of buying and selling properties, on the premise that it knows more about real-estate markets and flipping properties than any of the locals. It’s exactly the same conflict of interest that Amazon engages in when it both provides the platform for other companies’ sales, and markets wares itself, armed with superior knowledge of consumer buying habits.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a common carrier rules where you either provide the platform or sell products on the platform, but not both. Zillow is the latest example of this abuse.

Earth to the Federal Trade Commission ... anybody home?

Meyerson
May 9, 2019

What Decent Joe Biden and Indecent Donald Trump Have in Common. My friend Ron Brownstein, who may be the sharpest political analyst plying the journalist’s trade, wrote some years back (in 2012, in fact) that the Republicans had become “the coalition of restoration” while the Democrats had become “the coalition of transformation.” In the Age of Trump, that assessment is even more on point.

The Trumpified Republican Party looks back to a time when white men had no need to pay heed to anyone but themselves and when America’s industrial might faced no challenges from other nations or from environmental concerns. Today’s Democrats, by contrast, champion the rights and power of the historically disadvantaged groups whom Republicans see as a threat to their vision of a white male-dominated nation, and to their own political power. 

This year’s flock of Democratic presidential candidates largely reflects their party’s commitment to transformation, in greater or lesser degree putting forth proposals that would create—or even themselves personifying—a more egalitarian America.

One of those candidates, however, has taken a different course, kicking off his campaign by evoking themes of restoration even more than transformation. That candidate, of course, is the current frontrunner: former Vice President Joe Biden. To be sure, Biden is committed to minority rights, greater worker power, environmental safeguards—the fundamentals of contemporary Democrats’ creed. But in his stump speeches, he looks backward more than forward, to a pre-Trump time of bipartisan decency which in fact began to erode with the 1960s’ shift of Dixiecrats into the Republican Party, and which completely ceased to exist in the mid-1990s with the rise of Newt Gingrich to the speakership and the coming of Fox News.  

Nor has Biden yet embraced many of the more egalitarian proposals his fellow candidates have put forth, such as free college tuition, universal Medicare, or dividing corporate boards between worker and shareholder representatives. So far, the raison d’etre of his candidacy has been his supposed ability to win back white workers who drifted into Trump’s column in 2016. And while his fundamental decency and basic center-left liberalism immediately differentiates him from our indecent neo-fascist president, he nonetheless resembles Trump in that both appeal to mythic pasts that they believe will cement their support among swing white voters: in Biden’s case, a past of cross-class, cross-racial harmony; in Trump’s, a past of unchallenged white male hegemony (which isn’t all that mythic) in which white workers flourished (which is partly true and partly false), which he alone can restore (which is horseshit). 

It’s the looking backward that sets Biden apart from the Democratic field, and that at minimum calls into question his ability to mobilize young voters. If he doesn’t course-correct, he may become the boat against the Democratic current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  

Kuttner
May 8, 2019

The True Constitutional Crisis Is Upon Us. Trump has now defined himself as simply above the law. Congress can issue all the subpoenas it wants, but if Trump stonewalls, it all ends up in courts. And the federal courts are increasingly as independent as, say, Poland’s, Hungary’s, Venezuela’s, or China’s.

Robert Mueller must be kicking himself. He tried to play it straight and this is his reward. 

Suppose, instead of hinting at it, he had simply written: 

Were it not for the Justice Department guidelines (which are not part of the Constitution), I would have requested indictments of Trump. Since the Justice Department would not permit me to do that, I recommend that Congress follow the constitutional remedy, and impeach him.

That would have shut up Trump’s claims of vindication.

Mueller should now defy Trump, and testify. As a citizen. It would be the most noble act of civil disobedience since King, Gandhi, or Thoreau.

 

At Least We Can Always Count on Tom Friedman. To get it 180-degrees wrong, that is. Friedman writes in today’s Times: “I don’t want him impeached. He has to be voted out. Only that will restore the faith of the world that America has not lost its mind.” 

Does Friedman perhaps remember ... Watergate? In case he was on an extended junket to Riyadh at the time, here’s what happened: Nixon was forced to resign thanks to an extensive impeachment proceeding. The Democrats won a massive victory in the midterm elections three months later, and took back the presidency two years after that. This trifecta did the job very nicely.

 

The China Feint. Crystal ball time. Trump’s last-minute get-tough posture and threat to raise tariffs is of course a bargaining ploy. The negotiators will burn the midnight oil and come back with some nominal but hollow Chinese concessions on intellectual property and industrial espionage that will be easily evaded when it comes to enforcement. Trump will claim that his hard line and threatened tariffs saved the day. The world will be spared the tariffs, Trump will get his signing ceremony, and the Dow will go up 700 points.

Consumer Warning: I am not a licensed investment adviser, so do not base your stock market strategy on this prediction. 

Trump’s cynicism knows no bounds, and he needs this deal, even if the U.S. gets sold out in the fine print. Of course, I could be wrong. A tariff war would make him look even tougher. But in terms of rehabilitating his image, at least for one news cycle, he needs to look statesmanlike.

Whadda world.

Pages