November 2018 Archives

            Well, here it is the season again for one of the Ol' Bloviator's bi-annual, unsolicited, coarsely crafted, and thoroughly opinionated post-election rant.  Despite the O.B.'s expectations that, as is so often their wont, the Dems would find a way to blow the 2018 mid-terms, their Great Orange Antagonist seemed hellbent on seeing that didn't happen. Accordingly, he focused on the imminent threat to our fundamental institutions, values and very way of life posed by a sinister caravan of hideously diseased, gang-banging assassins and dope smugglers, many of them cleverly disguised as small children and all of them concealing their subversive intent by posing as asylum-seekers. With this vicious, menacing horde scarcely 1,000 miles from overrunning the sovereign state of Texas and closing in at the rate of several thousand yards a day, the Exaggerator-in-Chief blew up the holidays of several thousand U.S. troops--"Happy Thanksgiving from Mar a Lago and Thanks for your Service!"--by dispatching them to our critically imperiled border, where they set up camp and gazed longingly on nearby What-A-Burgers while munching forlornly on their M.R.E.s.

            Following the orange One's lead, Arizona Senate hopeful Martha McSally dismissed all the Democratic yammering about healthcare and insisted on talking about the things that "really matter" to voters in her state, specifically, the blood-curdling menace posed by the caravan. When it became clear that nearly a decade's worth of polls had been correct in showing that Americans liked Obama Care a lot more than ol' Mitch McConnell and them wanted to admit, McSally became one of a number of Trump Party representatives who, despite voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, claimed belatedly to have supported protections for those with pre-existing conditions all along. In the end, it appears that many voters found these death-bed conversion tales unpersuasive.

            Of course, it didn't look that way at first blush, before the real countin' was by any means done. Early on, with the Dems clinging to a scant House majority and apparently down three seats in the Senate, the eponymous leader of the Trump Party took to the air to mock a selective list of those who ostensibly lost their seats on his side of the aisleby showing insufficient ardor for the one-and-only Him. When the fog finally cleared around the courthouse, however, and the Dems claimed thirty-nine new House seats, it appeared that a great many more "Trump or Bust!" congressional aspirants had, well, . . . busted. If the implications of the final accounting would be officially written off as "fake news" by the Trump White House, they were all too real for the vanquished Trump troops.

            Meanwhile, their hard-partying partisan conquerors, might have tempered their gaiety over the outcome by acknowledging that in many cases, the opposition took much of the challenge out of coming across as the lesser of two evils. It is one thing to win an election by scoring lower on the rascality scale than one's opponents and quite another to actually govern and lead on that basis. Although House Dems seemed to have lucked out by being matched up against an antagonist whose disapproval rating just hit 60 percent, we might note that their own presumed leader stands in comparable public disfavor. How much of the scorn directed at Nancy Pelosi is her own doing and how much is the result of damn near a decade of relentless demonizing by the opposition is anybody's guess, but on the face of it, she seems to set up as the near-perfect foil for the master mocker and taunter on the other side. On the other hand, there is no contemporary politician less likely to wither in the face of DT's bluster and bullying, and while she also is seen as more than mildly polarizing, she is, and always will be, much smarter than he is, and certainly much savvier about mustering and managing congressional power.

        Not all Pelosi's challengers stand to stand to emerge from enemy ranks, however. Her newly swollen House ranks include a number of fire-breathing lefties (probably scorching the kale between their teeth in the process) consumed with a lust for revenge and thoroughly disdainful of the wussiness of compromise. It might seem that ol' Mitch of Many Chins managed to establish sheer obstructionism as a legitimate political end in itself, but obstructing simply for the pure-tee hell of it doesn't seem as comfortable a tactical fit for the Dems. In this circumstance, however, rather than mere political posturing, making the case that blocking practically any initiative coming out of the White House is simply safeguarding the national interest is more likely to come across as a simple statement of fact.

            It wouldn't do to abandon this harangue without a word or two about what to make of the much-publicized and tenaciously contested Georgia gubernatorial race. By single-mindedly dedicating his tenure as Secretary of State to keeping the electorate as white and native-born as possible, Brian "How do I disfranchise thee? Let me count the ways!" Kemp not only paved the way for his own run for governor, but left Georgia standing unrivalled as the nation's most voter-unfriendly state in 2018. We could argue all day about how many thousands of legitimate voters Ol' Briney took down, but the bigger point here is that, after doing his utterly audacious damnedest, he still escaped a runoff with a liberal black woman by some 17-18,000 votes in a state, that not long ago, looked to be a GOP lock for generations to come. For example, where Republican Nathan Deal carried Gwinnett County in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote, Stacey Abrams claimed precisely the same share of the Gwinnett vote this time around. Ditto for Cobb County, where Deal and Abrams each garnered 54 percent support just eight years apart.

            Without discounting the importance of Abrams's strong campaign in the least, the essence of the tale lies in the rapidly shifting demographics of population diversity, which, in a nutshell, suggest why, in state-wide elections and presidential contests as well, the Republican numerical advantage over Democrats in Georgia has not only passed it peak but narrowed dramatically. Consider that Deal's 258,000 vote victory margin statewide in 2010 had slipped to 200,000 four years later, before shriveling this year to an emaciated 55,000 for the voter-erasing Kemp.

            To be sure, Kemp's shotgun-totin', pickup-drivin', Gomer guise served him well in 139 rural counties, where his victory margin of 38 percent actually bested Deal's in 2014 by 10 points. To be just as sure, however, the growth rate in these sparsely populated outposts is but one-third that in the bigger suburban counties, where nearly 60 percent of Georgia's voters now reside, and the Democrats 4 percent victory margin in 2014 swelled to 17 percent this year. With rural Georgia looking even redder, the Dems ain't flipping the legislature anytime soon. Still, if Briney and his ilk mean to keep claiming statewide offices by playing on the same prejudices and fears that Gene Talmadge once manipulated so expertly, considering that the county-unit system (which gave no more than 5,000 voters from any three tiny rural counties the same electoral clout as the city slickers in Fulton) went out well over half a century ago, they'd best get themselves to schemin' up some better ways to keep more city and metro folks, black and white, away from the polls.

TARIFFS, ANYONE? ....ANYONE?

(With the mid-term melodrama grabbing all the headlines recently, the Orange One's tariff antics have garnered less attention, even in the Twitterverse.  Rest un-reassured, however, that while they have been relegated to the back burner, they are still very much on the stove, and no less likely to boil over into a full-blown global trade war. This piece is an updated version of one that ran a while back at zocalopublicsquare.org.) 

 

In a truly iconic scene from the 1980s comedy "Ferris Bueller's Day Off,"  a high school economics teacher played by Ben Stein fails to elicit even a muscle twitch from his seemingly catatonic pupils as he queries them --"Anyone...Anyone?" -- about the Hawley Smoot Tariff of 1930.

 

Hilarious as this scene may be in the film, it recurs frequently in real life, not simply in classrooms but in many other settings, whenever the subject of tariffs comes up. It is both ironic and unfortunate that many Americans find tariffs too boring to care about when, as our history shows, their most critical consequences--nationally and globally--are often wholly unanticipated.

 One of the first major pieces of legislation enacted by Congress after the ratification of the Constitution, was the Tariff of 1789, which, with import duties averaging about 8 percent, was meant to raise revenue for the new republic while safeguarding New England's nascent manufacturing economy. But even then, rumblings in the southern states about protecting one regional economy to the detriment of another showed that tariffs could become a serious source of sectional friction, and so they did, as overall tariff rates shot up to roughly 25 percent by 1820.

 

At that point, northern manufacturers were clearly benefiting from protections against competition with foreign imports, while the southern cotton, rice, and tobacco planters who accounted for more than two-thirds of the value of all American exports were doubly disadvantaged by the tariffs. Not only were they paying tariff-inflated prices for the implements and supplies needed to produce their crops, but they were also forced to sell them in foreign markets depressed or rendered hostile by American import duties.

 

The controversy came to a head after the Tariff of 1828 jacked up rates to 50 percent on certain goods likely to compete with New England manufacturers. Though he was then serving as Vice- President of the United States, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun was so outraged by federal laws that blatantly protected the interests of a single region at the expense of his own that he moved to have both the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 declared "null and void" within his state. There were even threats of secession if federal authorities sought to enforce the tariffs. But when President Andrew Jackson secured congressional authorization to take military action, if need be, to insure collection of the import duties, South Carolina backed down.

 

At that point, sectional clashes over tariff policies seemed more of a direct threat to the Union than disagreements over slavery. This had changed by the election of 1860, when Republican opposition to  further expansion of slavery was the critically polarizing issue but the party's platform also promised formidable tariff protections for industry and trade that were likely to benefit the North more than the South  The Republican commitment to tariffs did not falter during the Civil War and became a staple of GOP politics well into the 20th century.

Though proponents lauded tariffs as forces for prosperity and stability, rising rates helped to spark third-party insurgencies by American farmers in the 1880s and 90s. U.S. tariff policy also sowed the seeds of revolution abroad.

When the McKinley Tariff of 1890 removed duties on imported raw sugar and granted subsidies to domestic producers, it destroyed the advantages enjoyed by Hawaii's sugar planters under previous preferential trade agreements. In response, the powerful American owners and investors who dominated this industry began to agitate for U.S. annexation of Hawaii, which would automatically qualify their sugar for the subsidy and immunize it from future tariffs. Formal annexation would not come until 1898,  by which time American-led insurgents had succeeded in overthrowing the indigenous Hawaiian monarchy.

Meanwhile, the stage had been set for the Spanish American War by Spain's attempts to quash a popular uprising in Cuba. That uprising had been fueled in no small part by the economic hardships imposed by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894, which cut sharply into American purchases of Cuban sugar by abruptly restoring import duties of 40 percent.

            The Democratic resurgence under Woodrow Wilson between 1912 and 1920 brought lower tariffs and an income tax that made tariff duties less critical to federal revenue. When Republicans regained power after World War I, however, protectionism was again the order of the day.

The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 was supposed to stimulate recovery from a postwar economic downturn. In reality, its extended duties on agricultural imports actually cost American farmers dearly in already depressed European markets. At the same time, its higher duties on many other imports denied war-ravaged European nations precious income from trade that they needed to boost their economies and repay the U.S. for loans and credits issued during World War I.

The new tariff law made recovery doubly difficult for Germany, which bore the additional burden of making punitively high reparation payments to its former adversaries. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff was hardly responsible for all of Germany's woes, but it exacerbated the sustained economic distress and public discord that paved the way for the ascension of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party a decade later.

             Things got no better at home or abroad when Congress reacted to the onset of the Great Depression with the record-high rates of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, which confronted already struggling American farmers and manufacturers with yet another round of retaliatory tariffs and depressed overseas markets. Meanwhile, as the value of American exports to Europe fell by 67 percent between 1929 and 1932, a proportional drop in the value of European exports to the U.S deepened the economic uncertainty that made Fascism seem less threatening than Communism to many, and heightened the political risk of diverting scarce government funds from welfare programs to national defense.

            If it was difficult to foresee all the potential ramifications of tariffs nearly 90 years ago, it's even harder in today's more complex and intertwined global economy. The increasing mobility of industrial capital and technology and the segmentation of production have substantially reduced the significance of national boundaries or affiliations for major manufacturers. President Donald Trump now proposes to reverse this trend--or at least shake his fist at it--by espousing an aggressive economic nationalism that has already left some corporations pinned down in a tariff crossfire.

The nation's leading automotive exporter by value is a BMW manufacturing facility that opened in 1994 near Spartanburg, South Carolina, where it now accounts for 10,000 jobs and 1,400 vehicles (primarily SUV's) per day, roughly 70 percent of them destined for foreign markets.

After flourishing for a quarter-century, BMW's South Carolina operations now seems to face cloudy future. Trump's threatened tariff on imported auto parts, which account for roughly 70 percent of what goes into BMW's SUVs, would inflate production costs. Also,  roughly one-third of the BMW vehicles assembled in Spartanburg go to China, which has boosted tariffs on American-made vehicles to 40 percent in retaliation for Trump's increased duties on Chinese imports, forcing the company to announce 4-7 percent price increases on some of  its China-bound SUV's and prompting talk of shifting some production out of South Carolina to China to avoid retaliatory tariffs As of early November, BMW estimated that the trade war had already cost it some $337 million.

 China has long maintained a trading advantage over the U.S. by strategically devaluing its currency in order to hold down the prices of its exported goods. Ironically, since Trump announced tariffs on Chinese imports, the yuan has fallen to an 11-year low against the dollar, helping to keep those imports cheaper for American consumers and, temporarily at least, blunting some of the effects of Trump's tariffs. The yuan cannot be allowed to fall forever, of course, especially with China's massive debt bubble threatening to burst. Beyond that, a sustained trade war featuring higher U.S. tariffs on more Chinese goods would take a much bigger bite out of China's GDP and dampen its growth rate significantly.

What is bad for China isn't necessarily good for the U.S. or the rest of the world, however. As the largest national consumer of foreign-made products, China has been projected to account for nearly one-third of all economic expansion between 2016 and 2021; so if it should sink into a major recession, the effect on the global economy may be more toxic than salutary.  Already, Germany is reporting that, for the first time in three years, its economy shrank by. 2 % in the third quarter of 2018, due in part to a falloff in exports to China, whose economy is experiencing a slowdown in response to U.S. tariffs.

Smaller  "emerging market" economies around the world can be affected more critically by tariffs imposed by major trading nations.   President Trump's ostensible effort to force the release of an American  hostage by doubling tariffs on steel imported from Turkey has dramatically accelerated the decline in value of the Turkish lira. This has rattled many emerging market investors, including the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System for public employees, which is the largest institutional shareholder in a Turkey Exchange-Traded Fund that has lost half its value since the year began.

 If Trump's tariffs (and the threats thereof) are more than a temporary ploy, a depressed market for exports and higher prices for U.S. consumers are the least of the devils we know we can expect. But, as our history with tariffs makes abundantly clear, it is the potentially even more devilish devils we don't expect that might do the most damage, both at home and abroad. 

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