Archive

February 8th, 2017

Canada, Leading the Free World

    President Donald Trump’s harsh travel ban reflects a global pattern: All around the world, countries are slamming the doors shut.

    One great exception: Canada. It may now be the finest example of the values of the Statue of Liberty.

    This isn’t just because Canadian leaders are particularly enlightened, although there’s some of that. It’s mostly because the Canadian people themselves remain astonishingly hospitable, with many groups clamoring for more Syrian refugees.

    “Thank you, Canada,” Omar al-Omar, a Syrian who was shot at age 15 as the war started, said to me at a center here where refugees are getting lessons in English and in Canadian habits, such as excruciating politeness. “I’m very happy. I feel welcome.”

    “I’m sad Arab countries aren’t doing enough for refugees,” Omar added. “I’m really happy Canada does what others don’t.”

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You won't believe what's driving the economy

    Do humans act largely rationally, or can stories and rumors throw an entire economy off course? Lately, economists are increasingly recognizing that narratives matter.

    In the early 1920s, the U.S. suffered a brutally sharp economic contraction, in which inflation turned rapidly to deflation and stock price-to-earnings ratios dropped to 50-year lows. The economists Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in their book "Monetary History of the United States," blamed an inexperienced Federal Reserve, which had abruptly increased its discount rate by 1 percentage point.

    In a recent speech, Yale University economist Robert Shiller offered a different explanation. Rumors were circulating that the Communist revolution in Russia would soon spread to America, and newspapers were warning that the profiteering associated with World War I would soon give way to a decline in prices. It's thus plausible, Shiller argues, that these and other narratives spread economic uncertainty, discouraging consumer spending and business investment.

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Wisdom of the crowd and madness of the masses

    Social scientists have always been fascinated by crowds. From guessing the weight of a cow to identifying which company built the faulty part in the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the many have often been able to outguess the expert few. Crowd wisdom is often cited as the justification for the idea of efficient asset markets -- many investors, each weighing in with their buying and selling decisions, should combine to produce the optimal forecast of what a stock or a bond is really worth. Or so the story goes.

    But there's danger in relying on crowds to make decisions. Under certain circumstances, group wisdom can break down and become madness. A classic example of this is when Reddit users tried to identify the Boston Marathon bomber, and ended up accusing the wrong guy. Many believe that asset-market bubbles are also examples of crowds gone mad.

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Why do so many Americans believe that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion?

    For many Americans, last week's executive order on immigration was a clear case of religious discrimination since it singles out Muslim-majority countries and gives preferential treatment to non-Muslim refugees from those countries.

    The implication seems to be that, in keeping with President Donald Trump's campaign promises, the United States will sort people at the border based on faith.

    For other Americans, the executive order might not seem like a case of religious discrimination - not because the policy doesn't differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims, but because they are skeptical that Islam is actually a religion at all.

    Google Islam, religion and politics, and it's easy to find websites like PoliticalIslam.com, which claims to use "statistical methods" to prove that "Islam is far more of a political system than a religion."

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We're about to find out if businesses are waking up to the dangers of Trump

    I did an interview with Adi Ignatius, the editor of the Harvard Business Review, where I got a chance to spell out my views on the role of business leaders in influencing public policy. It is a complex issue given CEO's obligations to their shareholders, desires to be effective, fears of retaliation and much else.

    Just before the inauguration I expressed strongly the fear that American business leaders in Davos were legitimating the excessively problematic policy approaches of the new president.

    Events since the inauguration have confirmed my fears. Policy has gone further in threatening an open global system and provoking key partners than I expected. It has undercut Statue of Liberty values and the rule of law more than I anticipated. Especially in foreign policy, words are deeds. It takes decades for a nation to build credibility and trust that can be sacrificed in a matter of hours.

    There are signs that quite a few business leaders are waking up to the dangers to their companies inherent in current trends. So maybe the business community, whose approval the administration craves, will start to pressure the administration rather than simply cheering on tax cuts and deregulation.

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Trump's illusion of unusually swift action

    Everyone seems to agree that, for better or worse, Donald Trump's presidency is off to a fast start. But it's not. Trump has done an excellent job of kicking up a ton of dirt. But two weeks in, there's a lot less than may seem.

    To be sure: The travel ban executive action is really happening, although it's been reined in already, and may still be in judicial and political danger going forward. That's one major item on the side of "fast start." And while it's very low hanging fruit, selecting a Supreme Court nominee is also a solid, substantive action.

    Beyond that? He's off to a very normal start in terms of real action.

 

- Personnel

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Trump wants you, the taxpayer, to pay for campaigning from the pulpit

    At Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump renewed his campaign pledge to repeal -- in his words, "totally destroy" -- the Johnson Amendment, a provision of our tax code that prohibits charitable entities, including churches, mosques and synagogues, from intervening in campaigns for elected office, at the risk of losing of their tax-exempt status.

    Bad idea, Mr. President.

    Current law already permits religious leaders and religious organizations to express their views about candidates without undermining our campaign finance laws. What they can't do is express those views on the taxpayer's dime. Doing away with the Johnson Amendment would undermine the principle that all campaign finances are taxed at least once, placing taxpayers in the unreasonable position of subsidizing the partisan agendas of religious entities.

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The Trump administration is showing white nationalists it won't fight them at all

    The Trump administration is reportedly planning to rebrand a government effort to combat violent extremism into one that focuses only on terrorists acting in the name of Islam.

    The program, launched by the Obama administration in 2011, is counterterrorism by other means. It seeks nonkinetic ways to prevent terrorism through various kinds of "soft power" initiatives, from messaging campaigns and community intervention to jobs and education programs. Theoretically, up to now, it's been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

    But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism.

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February 7th

Trump's sad 'thank you' to African-Americans

    "They didn't come out to vote for Hillary. They didn't come out. And that was a big - so thank you to the African-American community," taunted Donald Trump at a mostly white post-election rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in December.

    Trump's celebration of lower black election turnout came to mind as I watched him on television kicking off Black History Month at the White House this week with his top black supporters and campaign workers. The assembled were all grins as they listened to Trump pay tribute to himself and past black civil rights heroes. Don't know what they made of his off-the-wall reference to abolitionist, orator and writer Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895. "Frederick Douglass," Trump said, "is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice." Say what?

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News that's above reproach? It's all in the terminal

    Democrats trust only Democratic-approved media sources, and Republicans trust only Republican-approved media sources. Perhaps the only medium that both Democrats and Republicans will accept as a valid source of information is … the stock market.

    With the stock market, there is a price at which one can buy or sell. And that's that. No alleging that Fox News peddles "alternative facts," or MSNBC spins.

    Additionally, for anyone with their wealth in financial assets, movement in the stock market affects their net worth and retirement prospects. Even for conspiracy theorists who might believe the stock market is rigged by the Fed or the powers that be or whomever, at the end of the day you can log into your account or check your quarterly statement and see your account balance in dollars. No one can convince you that the Trump era has been good for your finances if you're looking at your decimated portfolio, and no amount of harsh news coverage of the president will change how you feel about a rising balance.

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