Saturday, June 15, 2019

Editorial: Trump’s Twitter Trade Wars

Donald Trump has brought attention to trade issues, but, as we feared, he has given tariffs a bad name by waging trade wars via Twitter, mainly to distract from his problems elsewhere.

The trouble goes back to his March 2, 2018, tweet, a day after he announced steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, when he blithely stated, “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore — we win big. It’s easy!”

In announcing the tariffs of 25% for foreign-made steel and 10% for aluminum, Trump didn’t distinguish between American allies among industrialized nations, such as Canada, Mexico and the European Union, and nations that are known to dump steel into the US market, such as China, Brazil, South Korea, Russia and Vietnam. Many of the nations subjected to Trump’s tariffs responded by putting tariffs on American goods, including agricultural products.

In May, Trump raised an existing 10% tax on many Chinese imports to 25% when talks that were supposed to de-escalate the trade war collapsed. China responded by raising its own tariffs on many American imports, including agricultural products. That has pushed many farmers into financial peril who have come to depend on the Chinese market. Then Trump started talking about taxing an even wider range of Chinese products (and insisting China would pay the tariffs, ignoring the fact that American consumers would pay the tariffs).

Global finance leaders meeting in Japan in early June said they were increasingly worried that the trade dispute between the US and China, which shows no signs of abating, could propel the world economy into a crisis, the New York Times reported June 9.

It doesn’t help that Trump is known to act impulsively, he exaggerates and lies, and he has a reputation for reneging on deals. For example, on May 30 he threatened to place tariffs on Mexican products if Mexico didn’t agree to stop Central American migrants from getting to the US southern border. Never mind that those arbitrary tariffs would violate the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement rewrite that Trump’s negotiators had reached with Mexico and Canada last year.

Trump appeared to back down on the Mexico tariffs June 7, after Republican officials and business leaders in border and battleground states that do business with Mexican industry complained that imposing tariffs on Mexican goods — taxes that would be paid by American businesses and consumers — would harm them. Trump abruptly announced that Mexico agreed to “deployment of its National Guard throughout Mexico, giving priority to its southern border.” But the Mexican government had already pledged to do that in March during secret talks in Miami between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, and Olga Sanchez, the Mexican secretary of the interior, officials told the Times.

The centerpiece of Trump’s deal with Mexico was an expansion of a program to allow asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal cases proceed. But that arrangement was reached in December in a pair of painstakingly negotiated diplomatic notes that the two countries exchanged, the Times noted. Nielsen announced the Migrant Protection Protocols during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee five days before Christmas.

Trump hailed the supposed “new deal” anyway on June 8, writing on Twitter: “Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!” He thanked the president of Mexico for “working so long and hard” on a plan to reduce the surge of migration into the United States.

As Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman wrote in the Times (June 8), with a touch of journalistic diplomacy, “It was unclear whether Mr. Trump believed that the agreement truly represented new and broader concessions, or whether the president understood the limits of the deal but accepted it as a face-saving way to escape from the political and economic consequences of imposing tariffs on Mexico, which he began threatening less than two weeks ago.”

Trump also tweeted (all caps), “MEXICO HAS AGREED TO IMMEDIATELY BEGIN BUYING LARGE QUANTITIES OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCT FROM OUR GREAT PATRIOT FARMERS!” There apparently is no such deal, but the New York Times’ Paul Krugman noted, “For what it’s worth, my guess is that Trump vaguely remembered the terms of an abortive trade deal with China, which he claimed included a commitment by China to buy five million tons of US soybeans. If my guess is right, Trump is confusing Mexico with China, and has forgotten that talks with China have broken down. Not a good look for the man with his finger on the nuclear button, but whatever.”
On June 10, stung by reports over the weekend that his “deal” with Mexico contained nothing new, Trump said the US is working on a second deal with Mexico to curb migration to the US. If the Mexican government fails to sign on, Trump warned, new tariffs will be imposed on Mexico. But according to Mexico, this second deal doesn’t exist either.

Trump’s reckless behavior on trade policy isn’t good for American workers, businesses or farmers, but Democrats would be unwise to return to a “free trade” attitude, whose excesses made Trump’s con sound appealing to Rust Belt workers who were concerned by the constant flow of manufacturing jobs out of the United States.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which has been promoting a progressive rewrite of NAFTA, said the replacement pact that Trump sent to Congress falls short. The revised text in the fall of 2018 revealed some improvements that progressives have long demanded, such as a rollback of Investor-State Dispute Settlement. “But NAFTA 2.0 also includes unacceptable new powers for pharmaceutical firms to keep medicine prices high. And critically, more work is needed to strengthen labor and environmental standards and ensure their swift and certain enforcement.”

The AFL-CIO labor federation was more blunt: “The new NAFTA is another corporate handout. It won’t stem the outsourcing of good jobs or protect the rights of working people. Tell Congress the new NAFTA isn’t good enough and to refuse to vote on it.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on June 4 unveiled a progressive Plan for Economic Patriotism that would put national resources, such as government spending on research and development, tax subsidies and export incentives behind emerging industries, while making sure the nation’s workers get the resulting jobs.

Warren said American wages have remained flat and jobs have moved overseas since the 1980s, in part, because “America chose to prioritize the interests of capital over the interests of American workers.”

“The truth is that Washington policies  —  not unstoppable market forces  —  are a key driver of the problems American workers face. From our trade agreements to our tax code, we have encouraged companies to invest abroad, ship jobs overseas, and keep wages low. All in the interest of serving multinational companies and international capital with no particular loyalty to the United States.

“In my administration, we will stop making excuses. We will pursue aggressive new government policies to support American workers.”

Tariffs would remain an option for Warren, but she said, “our principal goal should be investing in American workers rather than diminishing our competitors.” — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2019

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Selections from the July 1-15, 2019 issue

COVER/Art Cullen
Anxious farmers search for rainbow amid floods and trade war

Trump’s Twitter trade wars


Eating as an act of protest

HEALTH CARE/Margot McMillen
Hog confinements change neighborhoods

Support for impeachment rises with GOP Rep. Justin Amash;
Trump lags in battleground states;
Iowa Poll points to Dem top tier;
Supreme Court will hear attack on anti-discrimination law;
Kushner co. got $90M from anonymous offshore investors;
Trump pushes 20 years in prison for pipeline protesters;
Texas keeps low ranking in maternal health:
Arctic death spiral speeds up sixfold, driving coastal permafrost collapse;
ICE has no idea how many veterans it has deported, watchdog report finds;
Abortion ban poised to take effect in Alabama, where rapists can sue for custody;
Trump-voting truckers turn on prez after their taxes jump $8,000 ...

Taking farmers for a ride

If we want antibiotics to work, consumers have to put pressure on factory farms

Celebrating Pride, mindfully

Crime of the century and its beneficiary

Democrats need to reclaim immigration narrative

Trump’s road to Armageddon

Negative nationalism sells guns

When will politicians start exercising their constitutional authority to rein in large corporations like Amazon?

Look, mom, we built a border wall!

A Father’s Day gift for myself: activism

Do not ask for whom the road tolls

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Micro points of light: distracted driving in the states

We need a scale on ‘soft sciences’

Business and Medicare for All

Getting Bernie

Neoliberalism and privatization are driving our crises, from Guatemala to Moscow

National service and college loans

Sam Cooke’s wonderful voice survives

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson
Meet your new leaders: FATGM

Terry Gilliam’s quixotic quest: Mancha ado about...?

and more ...

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Trump decision to cancel refugee children’s soccer & school follows the centuries-old American tradition of cruelty to non-Europeans in the frontier & at the border

By Marc Jampole

Under the leadership of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has graduated from pursuing Ronald Reagan’s politics of selfishness to pursuing the politics of cruelty.

How else to explain this week’s decision by the administration to cancel English classes, recreational programs and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters?
The excuse for not educating or providing recreation to these innocent victims of violence and environmental upheaval—to which the United States had made a major contribution—is that the influx of immigrants at our southern border has created critical budget pressures. According to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) PR flack Mark Weber, to save money the Office of Refugee Resettlement has stopped funding programs “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation.” Sounds as if Trump is using these innocent victims as a bargaining chip with Congress. I wonder if he ever thought of torturing his own children as part of a negotiation?
So what are these kids going to do all day except hang around being hungry and bored? A recipe for getting into trouble, to be sure. And how can they ever hope to navigate our complicated immigration laws and system and reunite with their parents without any legal help?

Nothing short of an audit by Bernie Sanders supporters would convince me that the HHS is so broke that it has to deprive children of recreation, education and hope.  I think it’s not a bargaining chip, just an excuse for ratcheting up the meanness. Those of us who have followed the revelation about Trump’s personal finances understand that he and his cronies are masters of changing what budget numbers say. Remember Trump’s the guy who told the IRS that his assets were worth little to avoid paying taxes at the same time he was pumping up their value to get bank loans.

There are no doubt other places in the border budget that Trump could save money; for example, spending no more than the amount that most experts recommend is appropriate for walls or wall prototypes. That number, BTW, happens to be zero, since most immigration and security professionals have concluded the wall is a stupid idea.

Based on an analysis of other moves that the Trump Administration and the GOP have made recently, I think we can safely assume that the prime motivating factor in ending soccer and school for refugee children is cruelty. It is purposely cruel, as if Trump and his crew want not just to win, but to make it hurt the “enemy” so badly that everyone knows who is boss. They haven’t stopped to think that 12- and 15-year olds are never the enemy and never deserve purposely cruel treatment.

Separating children from their families is an act of cruelty. Criminalizing abortion and making a woman carry a rapist’s baby to full term is cruel. Putting the “Dreamers” into a legal limbo is cruel. Ending special programs to protect refugees from Haiti and El Salvador is cruel. Cutting humanitarian aid to Central American countries is cruel. Proposing cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security is cruel. Then there’s the especially twisted notion of assessing tariffs on Mexican and Chinese products, which will end up hurting the poor and middle class, as prices for virtually everything will go up when companies pass the cost of the tariffs to consumers. The twist of course is that the tariff money collected will make up some of the enormous deficit the GOP created by giving the ultra-wealthy one of the largest tax breaks in history at a time when their taxes were already historically low.

It’s easy to say that when Trump is frustrated, the first thing he does is look for someone to take it out on, and that the more pain he manages to cause, the happier this sick pup becomes.

But blaming the character of Trump alone would ignore the long U.S. history of cruel treatment of people whom white males considered to be inferior to Europeans and of those they encountered at their ever west-moving frontier. British army commander Jeffrey Amherst knowingly gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native American tribes during the Seven Years War, hoping an epidemic of the disease would wipe out whole communities. Cruelty to blacks characterizes the entire history of slavery and post-Reconstruction in the United States. Whether dealing with Native Americans or with supporters of democracy in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, American soldiers (and pioneers) employed rape, pillage, mass murder and displacement as their main tactics. It was if Europeans could only demonstrate their inherent superiority to other ethnic groups by treating these lesser beings as animals.

Historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth provides an easy-to-read if hard-to-stomach spectacle of U.S. official and unofficial cruelty to non-Europeans at America’s borders over the past 250 years. Grandin’s two premises are shaky: He avers that the U.S. is the only nation defined by its relationship to its frontier, which ignores the histories of China and Russia (and if one studies the medieval Ottonian dynasty, Germany, too). He also asserts that Trump was able to emerge because of societal anxiety now that the frontier is gone and our borders are closed, which fails to take into account Grandin’s own discussion of Andrew Johnson, the prototype of Trumpism; the strain of Jacksonian racism that still infects U.S. foreign policy; or Grandin’s mini-history of border vigilantism. No matter, the book’s detail makes it worth reading. Two other great books on American frontier cruelty—but  heavy reading slogs—are Richard Slotkin’s seminal Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (1973) and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (1985).

The important takeaway from these books for this conversation is the detailed accounts of how, when faced with both humanistic and cruel ways to deal with the peoples encountered on its frontiers, the American way was virtually always to select cruelty. Blaming victims, of course, is always easier and less expensive than trying to help them. For example, the contemporary GOP program—from Reagan onwards—uses victim blaming as a justification for cutting programs that help our poor, elderly and disadvantaged. A supposed inferiority justified the cruel treatment of slaves. It justified Bush II’s creation of our torture program. And it’s instrumental in justifying the inhumane and illegal treatment of refugees and other immigrants at our borders.

Trump’s views resonate with the 20-25% of the population that is white and feels threatened by the demographic shifts in this country that favor groups they deem inferior. We don’t know, but we can assume that many ICE employees and government officials agree with Trump’s cruel approach, something that Grandin suggests. Trump’s administration is not the first time America has pursued an overtly racist program—Andrew Jackson and most of the presidents between him and Lincoln pursued racist domestic and foreign policies; Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government and let the Klu Klux Klan run wild.

No, Trump does not represent an inflection point. Yes, Trump is a monster, but not an especially original one. He continues a long American tradition of racism and racial cruelty, especially to non-European immigrants, refugees and combatants.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Mathematical models for everything from marketing to perusing resumes are making inequality & discrimination against the poor & minorities worse

By Marc Jampole

Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction doesn’t break new ground in its discussion of how computer algorithms discriminate against the poor, minorities and women, making them pay more for loans, shutting them out of jobs, and disrupting their work schedules. Just about everything she writes about we’ve seen in the pages of major newspapers and serious magazines.   

But O’Neil puts it all together in language we can understand and with the rigor of a mathematician who has actually delved into the various assumptions and computations hidden within the digital black boxes that companies use to sort resumes, banks use to give loans, employers use to schedule employees and virtually every consumer company uses to target customers with products and services.

O’Neil does not advocate doing away with all the mathematical models that permeate contemporary American society, only those that threaten our social fabric because of hidden prejudices built into the algorithm or those that purposely exploit or deceive people.

Take the development of U.S. News Report’s top college rankings, which over the past thirty years has engendered a “keep up with the Joneses” competition among status seeking parents, while dramatically changing how universities approach their own development and improvement, pandering to the rating instead of the educational mission of the institution. It has also created a new industry of college selection advisors to help rich and middle class parents get their children into the highest-ranking schools. O’Neil reports that the original mathematical model used as its measures of success those variables in which the schools thought to be traditionally the best had excelled, such as contributions by alumni. Their selection of what to measure not only favored Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the other universities already entrenched at the top of the pecking order, it also led to such obvious distortions as small liberal arts colleges for the wealthy achieving a higher rating than state universities with far-ranging research capabilities and an economically diverse student base such as Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and the University of California Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.

It’s amazing that one misshapen computer model could do so much damage. But O’Neil analyses a number of such monstrosities, such as the biased models by which school districts evaluate teachers, banks decide which financial services to offer and how to price them, employers analyze resumes without looking at them to decide whom to hire and political campaigns select which messages to send to individual voters. O’Neil calls these models “Weapons of Math Destruction,” or WMD, both clever and accurate.

Many of the problems caused by WMD stem from substituting a simple measurement for a complicated situation, for example when teacher evaluation models substitute test scores for in-class performance to measure teachers’ competence or employment models use credit scores to determine a potential employee’s stability. Another major problem is that many of the models have as their sole purpose the maximizing of profit, regardless of what that means to customers or employees, such as job scheduling models that make employees work split shifts, add or cancel their work hours before the shift begins, and prevent their total hours from exceeding the minimums for receiving benefits. The employer makes more money, while financially strapped employees have to deal with juggling childcare, medical appointments and other aspects of daily life. Then there are the models that instantaneously analyze your Internet browsing history as soon as you get on the website of a financial institution, telling the institution whether to offer you a high or low rate on loans and insurance, based on your “risk.” High risk in this case serves as a euphemism for poor and often, minority.
An anecdote O’Neil tells near the end of the book is particularly scary because it reflects the anti-science, anti-fact bias shared by many corporations and politicians. Despite years of work as a successful mathematician in the private sector, in 2013 O’Neil took an unpaid internship in New York City’s Departments of Housing and Human Service. She was interested in building mathematical models that help, not hurt society. The issue was homelessness. Her team looked over masses of data to figure out what factors led people into homeless shelters and what factors led them to leave and stay out for good.  One of her colleagues discovered that one group of homeless families left shelters never to return—those who obtained vouchers for housing under a federal housing program called Section 8.

Ooopsy! As it turns out, then NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the data king who had made billions of dollars supplying the financial industry with information, didn’t like Section 8 vouchers and had instituted a highly publicized new program called Advantage, which limited Section 8 subsidies to three years. As O’Neil writes, “The ideas was that the looming expiration of benefits would push poor people to make more money and pay their own way.” Yeah, right—they’d finally stop working as a fast food cashier and take a job as a Wall Street lawyer! Of course with rents booming in the Big Apple, the opposite was happening: people lost their vouchers after three years and ended up in homeless shelters.

The Bloomberg administration did not welcome the researcher’s finding and evidently ignored it in future planning. What the Bloomberg Administration wanted to believe literally trumped (pun intended!) what the facts were suggesting: that the cure for homelessness was not unfettered capitalism but providing a helping hand. Ignoring what the research proved corrupted Bloomberg’s approach to reducing homelessness as much as the current Trump administration’s approach to the environment, government regulation, taxation and education is corrupted by its failure to follow the facts.  Corruption and manipulation lie at the heart of what caused institutions to create and apply WMDs.

I vividly remember an example of the corruption of ignoring facts I experienced when I worked for a large public relations agency in 1987. I returned from a Conference Board seminar with a study about the way corporations would employ agencies in the 1990s. The new approach to agency use would make it harder for agencies to make money and force them to engage in more competitions with not just other large agencies, but small boutique firms that specialized in one kind of PR. As soon as I completed my presentation to the staff of our office, our general manager got up and said I was wrong and outlined a rosy view based on no research whatsoever. Of course, the predictions presented at the Conference Board seminar turned out to be right on the money.

Thus, while we must beware weapons of math destruction and devise industry standards for both developing mathematical models and regulating their use, the greater problem is the age-old one best expressed in a quote often attributed to Mark Twain that Figures never lie, but liars figure.