$2 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Opens the Door for Boondoggles by David Montgomery

If reports that President Trump will recommend $2 trillion in infrastructure spending are true, he is once again putting himself in very bad company. The nation does not need and cannot afford that $2 trillion.

The robust growth and high employment the economy is now experiencing is largely due, in my opinion and that of many economists, the aggressive regulatory reform agenda pursued by the Administration and tax reductions designed and pushed through by the Republican leadership of the House and Senate. Neither of these would have happened if Donald Trump had not been elected President. But that is where I part company with him on economic policy.

Though it has caused pockets of hurt, it is hard to see that the President’s hard line on trade with China, redo of NAFTA, and trade pressure on Europe have done anything to slow the U.S. economy.  According to most accounts, it is growing about as fast as possible. The last report on wage growth showed substantial increases, supporting growing consumer spending, and business investment remains high. Labor productivity is growing, but the supply of labor with the needed skills and willingness to work is likely the binding current constraint on growth.

In this environment, the last thing the economy needs is an additional $2 Trillion of deficit spending.  The President, as I discussed last week, would like to see this paid for by the Federal Reserve System, and many Democrats also subscribe to the newly fashionable theory on the left that monetary expansion is harmless and a free source of cash for government to spend.  That, as Chairman Powell is well aware, is a recipe for inflation, crowding out of private investment, pressure on the dollar, and another serious economic downturn.

There is no credible evidence that deferred maintenance on highways, railroads, and bridges requires anything near that sum to correct. Many of the inflated claims about the disastrous state of U.S. infrastructure are based on comparison to current federal standards for new construction, not assessments of its physical condition or analysis of the costs and benefits of bringing existing, usable structures up to standards for new bridges and highways.

Even if there were a substantial need for corrective investment and additions that pass a cost-benefit test, the enthusiasm with which the proposed $2 Trillion is greeted by both Republicans and Democrats should be a warning about what it is likely to produce. Current highway spending is allocated to states based on their gasoline and road tax collections, not their need. Regional scale projects, such as improved rail systems, go unfunded while lucky jurisdictions repave and replace structures far more frequently than needed.  Unlucky jurisdictions jump at the idea of a massive infrastructure program funded from general revenues, because no one wants to suffer the pain of trying again to fix the current irrational funding rules.

A $2 Trillion infrastructure program would open the door for boondoggles on a massive scale. Every member of Congress gets a vote, and members of the leadership and appropriations committees get several.  In the current every politician for him/herself environment, that means that at least half the states and half the Congressional districts must receive their share of $2 Trillion no matter how wastefully it has to be spent.

When I was Assistant Director of the Congressional Budget Office, one of my areas of responsibility was transportation programs.  We concluded that in the late 1980s all economically justifiable transportation projects could be funded by the existing transportation budget if the boondoggles could be eliminated – but that to fund them with the current mix of useful and wasteful projects would require doubling the budget.  That experience shaped my attitude toward infrastructure spending.

On a national scale, the Trump Administration and the California governor have wisely cracked down on the immensely costly and technologically challenged high speed rail system for California, but the proponents of high-speed rail have convinced many politicians on both sides that it is just around the corner if we would only spend enough money.  That will be money down the drain, because there is no way that the value of time saved by pushing rail speeds toward 200 mph can be sufficiently large to justify the orders of magnitude higher cost compared to well-run conventional systems or simpler new systems that can provide speeds in the low 100s. The more we spend on HSR, the more we lose, and a $2 Trillion push for infrastructure spending almost guarantees that some with go down that hole.

It is frustrating to see a Republican President promote an arbitrary spending target of $2 Trillion, rather than ask where additional infrastructure investment would have the highest payoff and how much we can afford.  In the last analysis, every dollar spent on an infrastructure project that does not pass an economic test comes out of our pockets, in the form of displaced private investment that would have provided a higher return or higher taxes to support unnecessary projects.  Republicans should remember that, rather than jumping on the bandwagon to get government spending for their favored vote and contribution-generating projects.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

President Trump is Once Again Worrying his Supporters and Feeding his Critics by David Montgomery

President Trump is once again worrying his supporters and feeding his critics. This time it is about the Federal Reserve Board. The President reportedly wants the Fed to push interest rates back down, which he seems to believe will stimulate even faster economic growth. To accomplish this, he has been criticizing the Fed Chairman with his usual grace and tact and threatening to appoint new members to the Board of Governors who support this policy.

There are two aspects to this latest flap.  One is economic, and on this I think the President is on shaky ground. The other is political, and though his critics are appalled by the President’s attempts to manipulate the Fed, he is not the first President to make the attempt.

On the economic side, the Fed under Chairman Powell’s leadership has pursued a thoughtful and moderate course.   The actions taken by the Fed in the past to shore up the financial system and help recovery from the recession created a huge imbalance in the Fed’s balance sheet.  What few realize – including some Presidents – is that the Fed influences the money supply not by printing money but by buying bonds issued by the Federal government. These bonds then become assets for its member banks, allowing them to extend more credit to borrowers. When the financial crisis hit, the Fed bought up not only Treasury bonds but the mortgage backed securities whose value was plummeting.  This was a critical step in maintaining liquidity and making credit available to businesses and consumers, because otherwise the drop in the value of bank assets – in particular mortgage backed securities – would have forced them to stop making new loans.

This action also meant that the debt held by the Fed increased from $950 billion in 2008 crisis to $4.5 Trillion in 2017. This increase in debt has several undesirable consequences, as described by my friend Mickey Levy in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee: by continuing to hold mortgage backed securities, the Fed is in practice allocation credit to the housing sector over manufacturing and other sectors that contribute more to economic growth; it potentially slowed recovery by distorting lending; and the abnormal balance sheet poses risks to the Fed’s credibility and independence.  

Thus since last year under Chairman Powell the Fed has been “normalizing its balance sheet” by selling more Treasury bonds than it buys. This increased supply of bonds drives down their price, and since interest equals the specified payment on a bond divided by its price, it drives up interest rates.  At the same time, the Fed has made carefully timed statements about its outlook for growth and inflation and its resulting decisions about whether and how much to raise its target range for interest rates.

President Trump does not like this.  Despite the careful and measured way in which the Fed is acting, and its flexibility in accommodating short term shocks like fears of trade wars, the President is blaming the Fed for slowing growth during the second half of his term. The robust growth and historically low levels of unemployment we now see are clear indicators that the economy is growing about as fast as possible. If anything, it is the availability of qualified workers that is preventing faster growth, not the Fed, and getting immigration reform of a kind that will allow greater numbers of qualified workers would be most likely to stimulate more growth.

If the Fed does not take this opportunity to shed the debt it acquired as an emergency measure, the risks to economic growth in the longer term will be much greater, as Levy and other experts emphasize. In this light, I think that Trump’s promised nominees, Herman Cain (whose name was withdrawn last week) and Stephen Moore, are potential wreckers if appointed to the Board of Governors. In addition to their advocacy of unwise policies, neither has any appreciation of the subtlety required for the Fed to maintain stable expectations about monetary policy.  The President should get back to work on the kind of immigration reform he has advocated in the past, which will aid faster growth, and leave the Fed alone.

But he is not the first President to attempt to bully the Fed into providing easier money. Lyndon Johnson went much further than Trump has gone in butting heads with the legendary William McChesney Martin, appointed by President Truman to be Chairman of the Fed. Johnson had dug himself into a deep hole in his attempts to hide the cost of the Vietnam War and the Great Society through deficit spending, and he wanted Martin to help him out by printing more money for him to spend on those signature initiatives.

In late 1965, the Fed raised short-term rates because of its fear that the rising deficits would accelerate and lead to inflation.  Johnson flew into a typical rage, summoned Martin to his ranch and bullied him in an attempt to change the Fed’s policies. He is quoted as saying “Martin, my boys are dying in Vietnam, and you won’t print the money I need.”  Johnson was advised by his Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, that he could not legally remove Martin from office because disagreeing with administration policies did not constitute “termination for cause.” Martin went ahead with raising rates, but as later events proved his actions were too little and too late to prevent the rampant inflation and stagnation that appeared during the Nixon administration and continued through President Carter’s term.

Economist Bill Nordhaus at Yale University noticed that less public manipulation of the Fed by sitting Presidents has been frequent. In his article “The Political Business Cycle,” Nordhaus noted how often an easy money policy had been chosen in advance of elections in which an incumbent President was running for re-election.  With the open dust-ups between Presidents and Fed chairmen being relatively rare, the explanation for how this works has to be more informal communication and pressure. This was documented clearly in the case of the Nixon Administration.

As others have noted, the Trump Administration does not go in for back channel communications, and his disagreements with the Fed started out and remained public.  Fortunately, after an initial hiccup markets appear to be discounting anything real coming out of this fracas, as the lessons of history imply. More disturbing is that President Trump has put himself in the company of deficit spenders like Johnson, putting short-term stimulus for political gain ahead of policies conducive to sustained growth. That is a sin far too many Republicans, anxious to keep on doling out favors like the ethanol subsidy and spending on unnecessary infrastructure to their constituents, are willing to ignore.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

 

Howard Schultz’s Special American Latte by David Montgomery

Never did I imagine having a good feeling toward the founder of Starbucks, that symbol of the corruption of the American palette and character.  Yet I am encouraged and impressed by his comments on politics and economics, and intrigued by the idea of Howard Schultz as President.

He strikes me, first off, as having the gravitas and character to pull off a Presidential campaign.  His speech is literate, composed and clear. He looks the part and was an extremely successful businessman.  

The economic philosophy that Schultz has described combines conservatism on the deficit with concern about inequality.   He has, thus far, unambiguously rejected “socialism”, stating clearly his opinion that capitalism alone has achieved sustained income growth for all, and that someone must pay for socialism’s trillion dollar promises.  This is a salutary point, considering that the youth who endorse socialism seem to have no idea how it would control work, income and business: to them socialism just means getting more free goodies from government.

Schultz is the only potentially important candidate willing to state clearly that entitlement reform is necessary to slow the growth of the deficit.  He is telling Democrats that means less spending and Republicans that it means more progressive taxes. What is attractive about his presentation of these points is that so far he has done so without rancor, slogans or class warfare.

Yet there is the fact that he was CEO of that icon of political correctness Starbucks.   Will he remain a centrist of the old-fashioned sort on issues of abortion and euthanasia, freedom to practice religious beliefs, judicial restraint, and rights of the majority to resist being tyrannized by social justice warriors?  Or will he go along with the progressives in their campaign to make intolerance for any views but their own the new center?

At this point I know nothing of his views on or ability to deal with national security and foreign policy issues.   This is not much of a deficiency relative to the rest of the challengers to President Trump, most of whom are ignorant, extreme or both.   If he can articulate a reasoned and realistic middle ground that avoids isolationism, kowtowing to Europeans and the UN, military adventurism, and pacifism, he would indeed have a chance.

A serious centrist third party presidential candidate would provide a critically important insight into the causes of political polarization.  The competing theories are that the parties have found ways to polarize a basically centrist America and that American electorate no longer has a middle.  If a third party candidate were to win, it would be clear evidence that the first theory is correct. And if a serious, well-financed centrist, third party contender came in far behind in third place, it would not really matter which candidate was helped by his presence.   That outcome would validate the second theory and signal a future of wide swings back and forth between Presidents and Congresses at opposite ends of the political spectrum, until one party or the other assumes dictatorial powers.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,  David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Never Interrupt When They are Making a Mistake by David Montgomery

President Trump needs to start following the rule: “Never interrupt your enemies when they are making a mistake.” So many lost opportunities to be the winner by just being silent.

That is one of the reasons I have not been writing about the antics of Democrats trying to elbow their way into the crowd at the far left of their party. It is why this column will be short, depending on how many amusing examples I encounter. I sympathize with the President, because I cannot resist listing some of the larger holes into which I hope the Democrats will continue digging themselves.

Beto forgetting to tell Nancy Pelosi’s 16-year-old voters, who I think he believes have never had a civics lesson with content beyond “white privilege,” that the electoral college is mandated in the Constitution. They might just think he was wasting their time if they ever realize that the chances of an amendment abolishing the electoral college being approved by the same states that benefit from it are, well, nil.

Somehow the publicity that Beto gets for this and other ridiculous promises is biting him where it hurts. The more publicity Beto gets, the more we are also learning about his children’s books advocating mass murder and his history of drunk driving and hacking. Keep it up.

Joe Biden announcing that he is the most progressive candidate, when everyone else knows that the only appeal he ever had was as a bumbling, sometimes amusing, good old Irish boy.

AOC for every word that has come out of her mouth, not to mention chicanery about her actual residence and campaign finance. And a shout-out for the media who are promoting her as the leader of the new Democratic party and making sure everyone gets the idea that voting Democrat is voting AOC.

Her media admirers seem unconcerned that their constant coverage is allowing just about everyone to observe how young, pretty and utterly uninformed about any matter of substance she is.

The others are much less amusing. Ms. Omar’s outspoken and gratuitous anti-Semitism is even putting off her own Somali constituency in Minnesota, with the high point being her “all about the Benjamins” tweet concerning AIPAC and donations. Ms. Tlaib accused Senate supporters of Israel of having “dual loyalties.” The two are working hard to reveal the underlying anti-Semitism of the entire “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions” movement.

It is almost as if some Islamophobes got together to invent the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, so as to imprint a caricature on the minds of voters the next time a Moslem runs for office.

The governor of Virginia, whose endorsement of the idea that parents and doctors can decide whether to kill a living baby after its birth turned into the best boost the pro-Life cause has had since the Planned Parenthood videos.

But he is second to Governor Cuomo in the sheer outrageousness of his glee at making it legal to kill babies born alive, and in provoking some Catholic bishops to point out that he has excommunicated himself under canon law.

We must not forget packing the Supreme Court. Beto and his imitators want to appoint 6 more Justices when one of them is elected President. Short of a ruling by that Court that the Constitution confers a previously unrecognized right on the sitting Democrat to occupy the White House forever, the next Republican will realize that appointing 12 new justices will restore the textualist majority. After a few years there will be more Supreme Court justices than basketball playoff games and we will have “Washington Madness” all year.

The Democrat party is living in Dreamland. If they spend the next two years trying to prove that Mueller missed something in his investigation, promoting the ridiculous Green New Deal and promising the wishful Medicare for All, voters are going to start recognizing that all they are hearing is a beep-beep-beep from outer space.

I know you don’t read my column, so keep it up Democrats. I would hate to interrupt your self-destruction.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

White Nationalism by David Montgomery

“White nationalism” is now the catchphrase of the day for the Left to use in maligning President Trump. In response to a question about the New Zealand killings, the President gave the perfectly reasonable reply that he did not see white nationalism as a rising threat. For this, he was immediately attacked by the self-appointed censors of political discourse. As the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, learned a number of years ago, questioning the dogmas of the left will bring down wrath but not constructive debate.

There are four reasons why skepticism about the threat of white nationalism is justified: numbers, vagueness, motivation and organization.

By the numbers, white nationalism clearly does not compare to Islamic terrorism. In 2017 alone, Islamic terrorists murdered 18,753 innocent men, women and children who would not submit to one form of radical Islam or another, and 236,000 in the past decade. The names of the organizations are a litany of terror: Al Quaeda, ISIS, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, the Moslem Brotherhood, the Taliban. In comparison, there were just 158 deaths from attacks by far right extremists in Europe and North America between 2002 and 2017. The left tries hard to conceal this simple fact by talking about increasing trends and percentages while obscuring the huge disproportion in actual attacks.

The label “white nationalist” has been applied to so many different people that it has become virtually meaningless except as a signifier of dislike. The label used to be “alt-right,” a term whose lack of specificity was obvious, but “white nationalist” sounds so much scarier. Most of those who are now labelled white nationalists by the social justice warriors abhor physical violence. Publicly opposing illegal entry by Hispanics crossing the southern border frequently earns the label. Opposing admission of economic refugees from Middle Eastern countries does the same. Even comparing the accomplishments of Western Civilization with failed states in Africa will earn the label, and wearing a MAGA hat will certainly do so. None of these actions have any connection to murderous attacks. With this vague and expansive use of the term “white nationalist,” any question about the topic is an invitation to be misinterpreted.

The murderers who have been labeled white nationalists were all loners and nuts. None were found to have any direct encouragement to act from a white nationalist organization. Their actions stemmed from a deep psychopathology, and while racist leanings may have affected their choice of targets, the violence came from within.

This should be obvious to those who apply the label “white nationalists” to such a large percentage of the American population. If most Trump supporters are white nationalists, then the likelihood of a white nationalist becoming a deranged killer cannot be significantly greater than the likelihood of a member of any other group, or the general population, becoming one. Normal people have not been made into killers by the political propaganda of extreme white nationalists, any more than they have become mass murderers of other types.

There does seem to be some evidence that the number of incidents in which sociopaths have murdered Jews or people of color has increased. Incidents in which disturbed students attacked a school or angry individuals shot up a workplace have also increased. But these incidents of deranged behavior are very different from the motivation of Islamic terrorists and Jihadis. There is an entire belief system behind Islamic jihad, dating back to Mohammed’s decision to convert Jews to Islam by force when they rejected his incoherent preaching in Mecca. This makes the pool of potential murderers much larger than the pool of racist sociopaths.

Granted that many perpetrators of suicide attacks have been forced to wear their suicide vests. Yet the core and leadership of jihad appear to be following the very clear precepts and instructions of the Koran. Even the lone wolf terrorists of recent years were converts to this belief, and not the deranged loners who carried out “white nationalist” attacks. Pope Benedict ignited a firestorm of criticism when he repeated the question that a Christian king asked a Moslem cleric about how Islam could justify use of violence to further religious ends. But Pope Benedict received no reasoned answer, just threats of bodily harm for insulting Islam. Point made.

The threat to Christians in Africa, to Moslems of different sects in Southeast Asia, and increasingly to Europeans from Islamic jihad is not only derived from the teaching of a religion that aspires to be universal. It reveals itself in well-organized terror attacks, establishment of territorial domination under Islamic rule, and continuing disruption of civil society. In Egypt, for example, the Moslem brotherhood has wiped out a large part of the Coptic Church, and ISIS has virtually driven Christianity out of Iraq. Boko Haram maintains control over large areas of Africa where it terrorizes the Christian population.

When I try to see the world through the eyes of a leader whose first responsibility is to safeguard the wellbeing of his country’s citizens, I see that in comparison to the threat of Islamic jihad on a global scale, the threat of attacks by deranged killers who espouse racist beliefs is “not that large.” Based on the numbers, specificity, motivation and organization, the threat of white nationalism pales in significance compared to Islamic jihad.

Every taking of an innocent human life is gravely immoral, whether it be in the form of abortion, euthanasia, gang violence, drug wars, Islamic terrorism or racist ideology. Traditional moral teaching does not measure evil by comparing how many are killed – each intentional killing of an innocent is as evil as the total of such murders. President Trump never questioned this moral principle, and no matter what CNN says, he condemned the killings in New Zealand explicitly and forcefully.

The President has different responsibilities as the Commander-in Chief, at least in the eyes of those with a realist view of international affairs. He is responsible for the security and domestic tranquility of the United States, and must rank threats not morally but in order of the damage they are likely to do if left unchecked. Constructive thinking and disagreement with his priorities is legitimate and useful but knee-jerk condemnation of his every statement is not. When the President states priorities that have a legitimate factual basis, he deserves a logical and reasoned response from those who disagree, not the shrieks of offended children who had their safe spaces violated.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Green New Deal: An Economist’s Perspective by David Montgomery

One of the newest and one of the oldest radicals in the U.S. Congress, Alexandra Octavio-Cortez and Ed Markey, unveiled a so-called “Green New Deal (GND)” in resolutions they filed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The rhetoric and expansiveness of the revolution they propose makes their proposal more of a manifesto that a resolution. The areas of public policy that they address include climate change, workplace regulation, universal healthcare, and guaranteed income. More troubling, the manifesto also envisions radical changes in governance, elevating the politics of identity and victimization to the guiding principle of American government.

Since I am an economist and have tried to quantify the impacts of most major energy and environmental policies over the past 40 years, friends have asked how I would go about trying to assess the potential costs and economic impacts of the GND, in particular its determination to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years.

Despite the ability of creative analysts to put a number on almost anything, I think that it is impossible to make a reasonable estimate of the cost of the Green New Deal in its envisioned time frame of 10 years using any kind of existing economic model. There are three reasons why this is so:

Having excluded nuclear power, it is impossible to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years without drastic reductions in the availability and reliability of energy

The commitment of the GND to government planning and regulation guarantees that existing economic models will grossly underestimate the cost of achieving its goals

The vision of using climate and other policies to achieve radical redistribution of income and political power will cause changes far outside the data and experience on which models are based.

Economic models are systems of equations and constraints. If one of them is used to estimate the cost of an internally contradictory program, it will simply report that the equations cannot be solved.

What GND calls renewable energy (which excludes nuclear and large scale hydro) now comprises under 10% of U.S. energy supply. Replacing 90% of electric generating capacity, gasoline and diesel fuel, and all natural gas with wind and solar, which are all that is left, is literally impossible. There is no way to store enough energy to maintain supply when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, and diverting enough land to produce biofuels would drastically reduce food supply.

Even if it were possible, diverting enough resources to replacing the existing energy capital stock with renewable assets would reduce our ability to produce consumption goods. This is exactly what happened in the investment-driven 5-year plans of Chairman Mao and Stalin, starving their people along the way. Thus achieving, rather than just imagining, zero emissions would require a combination of starvation, blackouts, and rationing.

The costs of starvation, blackouts and rationing are literally impossible for economic models to capture. Some models, which impose realistic constraints on how rapidly new technologies can be introduced, would simply report that there is no solution to their equations. Others, that allow for extreme changes in consumption of energy and other goods, would give misleadingly optimistic answers about how consumers will substitute purchases of clothing and bicycles for energy. Rationing would be indistinguishable from an extremely high carbon tax, and mortality from lack of energy or food would be ignored except for the effect of a smaller labor force on GDP.

The commitment to central planning and government regulation that pervades the GND would make matters even worse. Case studies that compare specific regulatory approaches to market incentives like carbon taxes, studies have found that assuming that optimal market-based policies are used leads to gross underestimates of costs. For example, studies published in leading journals find that fuel economy standards cost 6 to 10 times more than a carbon tax designed to achieve the same reductions in CO2 emissions.

Since economic models are basically computer programs, they require a very precise description of the policies being modeled. Just like typing an email address, a small error in that specification can be fatal. The GND is vague about specific policies, and achieving its climate goals alone would require a regulatory net covering every decision about energy use and supply. We have collected mountains of data on energy since the 1970s, but still fall far short of the ability to calculate the total cost of retrofits to improve energy efficiency in every building in the country or modifications of all manufacturing processes to reduce emissions.

In the absence of specific details of the policies to be implemented and extensive data on affected economic sectors, models default to assuming that government is omniscient and adopts policies that achieve the same result as a perfect market. That leads inevitably to gross underestimation of the cost of universal government planning envisioned by the GND.

And energy policy is the subject on which we probably have the most information. Other areas of life that the GND would affect include intrusive workplace regulations, free health care, guaranteed income regardless of effort or ability and other proposals that radically change incentives for consumption, investment and labor supply. Modeling the cost of these changes is orders of magnitude harder than energy.

The vision of governance found in the GND compounds the problem. The GND resolutions introduced in Congress establish that the primary goal of GND is income redistribution and transfer of power to what it labels “frontline and vulnerable communities.’’ The beneficiaries of this enshrinement of the politics of identity and victimization as a new form of governance are to include “indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” In other words, if you are a healthy white male between 18 and 65 earning a decent living, do not apply.

Not only are policies to be designed to redistribute income toward these groups: they are to be designed by “democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization.” Sounds like the Great Cultural Revolution to me.

What this implies is not just that the GND would implement regulatory approaches with costs far higher than economic models can capture. It implies that climate, health care, labor and other regulations will be designed not just to correct specific concerns, but to achieve income redistribution and empowerment of favored constituencies.

The empirical evidence that the result cannot be modeled adequately is overwhelming. Environmental justice movements have multiplied the cost of achieving California’s climate goals, by demanding inefficient choices and compensation payments in every new initiative. Developing countries demands for compensation and environmentalists objections to cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions have hamstrung global climate negotiations.

Economic models are neither designed for nor capable of being modified to capture the effects of changes in underlying political institutions and property rights. Historical examples can give some idea of the magnitude of harm that might be brought about: Venezuela under Chavez, Argentina under Peron, or Zimbabwe under Mugabe come to mind. Only in retrospect has it been possible to calculate the cost of socialism to the people of those countries.

One particular form of redistribution that would be likely under any policies designed to drive greenhouse gas emissions to zero over a single decade is the bankruptcy of most businesses that now own the capital equipment used to generate and distribute electricity, produce and refine petroleum, or deliver natural gas.

Getting to zero emissions in just 10 years would require shutting down all fossil-fueled power plants, oil refineries, and oil and gas production, and emptying natural gas pipelines and distribution systems. These assets would become valueless, bankruptcies would spread the loss to lenders as well as shareholders, and the financial system would suffer a major shock.

Those bankruptcies would certainly achieve some of the leveling goals of the GND, by destroying the savings and assets of every lender and equity investor in non-renewable energy. Based on the ratio of energy to total domestic investment, that would be destruction of at least 6% of the wealth of the country. The shock would likely be comparable to the recent financial crisis, as financial institutions revised their balance sheets and restricted credit, individual investors retrenched due to their reduced assets, and courts were swamped with bankruptcy filings.

Someone once said that some arguments are best refuted by a good laugh. That was my first reaction on reading descriptions of the GND. Any effort to quantify its costs would have to invent concrete programs to achieve the largely ideological goals of the GND. The harm likely to be done by the GND would greatly exceed any estimates that might be made of the cost of sensible programs. Making those estimates would only give credibility to a program that is at best a flight of fancy and more likely subversive of every institution that has supported the unprecedented prosperity of the United States.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Trump, Mattis and Syria by David Montgomery

President Trump’s apparently spur-of-the-moment decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and its aftermath have stirred up a storm of criticism from all political directions. Whether U.S. troops belong in Syria is debatable, but the manner in which President Trump made and announced his decision to withdraw is very troubling. His subsequent order to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is even more worrisome, because there U.S. forces are clearly accomplishing important objectives.

Our friends in the Middle East, including the Kurds and Israel, were directly affected and taken by surprise. Our commitment to contain Iranian and Russian influence in the region – and other foes in other regions — was made questionable. The Secretary of Defense resigned in protest. And, for good or ill, in recent days the President’s intentions have become even less clear.

Secretary Mattis’s resignation in protest of President Trump’s surprise announcement followed the departures of General Kelly as chief of staff and Nikki Haley as UN ambassador. Respect for those three (plus Ambassador Bolton who remains) was the main reason that Republicans like me had confidence in the national security policy of the Trump Administration.

My first reaction was that President Trump’s gullibility in dealing with the Turkish dictator left our national security policy in shambles. Not, to repeat, because withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is necessarily a bad decision, but because of the way President Trump appeared to ignore our allies’ interests, strategic consequences and his own advisors’ recommendations.

For a number of reasons, some relevant and some irrelevant, I took time to reflect before expressing that opinion. I am now somewhat hopeful about how our allies will be affected, as announcements of an extended schedule and conditions for withdrawal have appeared. The strategic implications of what many characterized as repeating President Obama’s pusillanimous retreat from confrontation will likely depend on how the ongoing discussions turn out.

To me, the greatest tragedy is the continuing attrition of the President’s once outstanding national security team. I am not only troubled by Trump’s apparent ability to alienate his best people. I am even more disappointed by those resigned.

I see four key questions in assessing where things stand today:

What could a continued U.S. military involvement in Syria accomplish?
In what other ways will we support Israel and the Kurds?
How can Iranian influence in Syria be countered?
How competent a national security team will the President assemble?

There is no certainty about what will happen in Syria whether the U.S. leaves or stays. In the short run, an unconditional and immediate pullout would leave the Kurds vulnerable to a Turkish attack. The Kurds have, like Poland, retained a national identity despite having their territory taken over by larger countries. They stood up against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and have been our only unambiguous allies in the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Turkey has always wanted their oil-rich territory. U.S. troops in Syria have interposed themselves between the Kurds and Turkish forces and protected the Kurds from Turkey.

I consulted friends with national security backgrounds to understand the risks of a continued presence in Syria, such as Turkish attacks on U.S. forces embedded with Kurdish forces or trip-wire confrontations with Russia that would escalate U.S. involvement, There are serious uncertainties about whether the aid that U.S. troops give to non-Islamic democratic forces opposing Assad can make any difference in the long run to how Syria is governed, and whether that U.S. aid is simply lengthening the humanitarian crisis by delaying the inevitable victory of Assad’s regime.

Our only unambiguous national interest seems to be to prevent Iran from expanding its influence or taking over territory in Syria. That, it appears, might be accomplished at least as well by supporting Israel’s less constrained operations against Iranian assets in Syria and preparing U.S. forces remaining in the region to counter Iran.

Israel’s reaction to President Trump’s announcement has been interesting. Initial headlines in Israel lamented “Israel left with false Russian promises, volatile U.S. president.” Then within a week, Israel mounted an extensive aerial attack on Iranian weapons depots in Syria. According to Haaretz, “The alleged Israeli strike may have been in pursuit of some specific military goal … but it has a broader political context. Israel is signaling that Israel sees itself as free to continue attacking targets in Syria, when necessary.”

There does appear to be more to the story. Ambassador Bolton, the National Security Advisor, has been visiting Israel. It was reported over the weekend that he said “U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected.” Israeli sources reported that Netanyahu had spoken to Trump and asked that any withdrawal be gradual, and Bolton confirmed “that there is no timetable for the pull-out of American forces, but insisted it’s not an unlimited commitment.” Sources also reported that the U.S. has promised continued intelligence and operational support to Israel in confronting Iran in Syria.

In all this, Bolton appears to be walking back the immediate and unconditional withdrawal implied by the first reports on the call between Trump and Erdogan. That did not please Turkey, which claims that the Erdogan never promised to protect the Kurds in Syria and that Bolton was not speaking for the Administration. On Tuesday January 8th Bolton met with his Turkish counterpart and they “identified further issues for dialogue.”

Other reports suggest that Erdogan may also have committed to more than he wants to do. According to Reuters, President Trump asked “If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'” When Erdogan stated that he could, Trump took him up on the offer saying “Then you do it.”

To do more than push back our allies the Kurds, Turkey will have to expand its operations over a far larger territory than it expected to attack, and runs the risk of engaging with the Damascus government’s troops and even Russians in order to get to the pocket that ISIS still controls. It is not clear that Erdogan’s staff are any happier than Trump’s. Diplomats often cringe when heads of state talk to each other about anything but the weather, and this seems to be a case in point.

More is at stake here than just the fate of the Kurds and Iran’s prospects in Syria. Trump’s initial announcement of immediate withdrawal seems to have led some adversaries to believe that he is returning to the isolationist populism that appeared at times during his presidential campaign. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that statements from the Chinese military have become more provocative in the weeks since he announced withdrawal from Syria.

All of this points to how important it is that the President rely on his national security team. Until now, the Trump Administration demonstrated a welcome reversal of President Obama’s policy of vacillation, weakness and unwillingness to lead. As I discussed in previous columns, the Trump Administration continually and consistently ratcheted up sanctions against Russia and took direct military action against Russian troops and contractors in Syria. It also restarted joint military exercises with the Eastern European countries facing Putin’s expansionist ambitions, confronted North Korea with threats of force, and revised the ludicrously restrictive rules of engagement that had frustrated and endangered U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It gave regional commanders freedom to design and execute their own battle plans and put the Pentagon under the management of tested military leaders.

It would tragic if the President’s snap decision about U.S. troops in Syria undid this progress and tempted adversaries to believe he would back off from confrontation as his predecessor did.

National Security Advisor Bolton appears to be getting somewhere in mitigating the damage from Trump’s off-the-cuff decision, but it remains unclear what authority he has been given to set new terms for withdrawal. This is the point at which the President needs to listen to and stand behind his national security team.

For the future, it is critically important that Pompeo, Bolton and the new Secretary of Defense find ways both to give advice and to be informed of decisions. The White House Chief of Staff should have the job of making sure that such two-way communication takes place. This should not be an impossible task. And the new Secretary of Defense has to partner with Pompeo and Bolton, not be someone who will pursue an independent agenda.

In this context, Secretary Mattis’s resignation puzzles me. There is no suggestion that the President requested his resignation. He still had an important job to do in shaping national security policy, no matter how great the immediate frustrations of dealing with this President. The changing signals being sent from the Administration about timing and conditions for withdrawal suggest that even now policy is moving in the direction he preferred.

One other aspect of the President’s sudden announcement might have been intolerable to a Marine general. Many of the U.S. fighters in Syria are special operations forces working closely the Kurds and other democratic forces against ISIS. Military men and women compete to get into special operations units, train intensively, and are motivated by a desire to do exactly what they doing in Syria. They are winning at this time, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory infuriates every professional.

Though I am sure that Secretary Mattis did not want to be seen as sending that message to people he had sent downrange, Marines don’t just quit. He had to feel an obligation to his men and women in uniform and to his country to keep on trying to point the President in the right direction. What could override that duty remains a troubling mystery.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

 

Winner Take All or Service to Others in Talbot County by David Montgomery

On Saturday Army beat Navy, which was disappointing but had little to do with the meaning of the traditional game. I think its spirit was captured when the Chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy began his invocation “Some wonder why we pray over a football game. So I tell them in this game, every player on the field is willing to die for every person watching. And there is no greater love than to lay down your life for what is truly good.  So I pray for the players on this field … and all those others who lay down their lives daily in our defense.”

After that, Navy’s loss did not trouble me anywhere near as much as my realization of how rarely we find that willingness to make even the smallest sacrifice for the common good among those we count on to lead us. Every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, police officer or first responder mentioned by the chaplain knows that he or she may be called on to make that sacrifice as part of his or her profession.

The Game is not the only part of this season providing such a reminder. Last week Chanukah celebrated how Israel was freed from foreign rule by the self-sacrifice of the Maccabees.  The Advent season prepares us for the birth of One who would sacrifice His life for the salvation of the world.

Yet now we find politics at every level in the nation dedicated to advancing the interests of an individual or a group that has divided itself from the rest of society. Racists of any color want that which belongs to those of a different race, and socialists want that for which others worked. LGBTQ activists want their wishes to determine how the other 95% of the population can speak, work, use public spaces, and raise their children.  Atheists want to prevent Christians from public affirmations of their faith. Most elderly want government benefits that will be paid for by their children to many generations. Many oppose immigration reform because they believe they will get better jobs and pay if borders are closed.

In this age of big data, political parties have found ways to craft their messages in two ways: 1. to encourage self-identification into groups whose members share a fear of some common threat and 2. to present the other party as the source of the threat.  Creating bogeymen is not a new political strategy. What is new is the ability to sort voters by the threat they can be convinced to fear, and to keep them focused on those individual grievances to the extent that they do not realize their party also recruits groups with diametrically opposite agendas.

Once this happens, politics becomes a win or lose proposition, with neither motivation or process to work with the other side.  Thus each election becomes a winner take all contest, and the winner feels free to impose whatever policies and programs its winning makes possible.

This is not just a characterization of the behavior of Republicans and Democrats when they win majorities of a House of Congress or the Presidency.  We now see it polluting the political process and threatening the civility of Talbot County. Due to the oddities of a County Council election in which the top 5 vote-getters in the general election are seated, the three with the lowest vote totals have been enabled to form a triumvirate with the intention of running Talbot County their way.

The election was hotly contested. A Bipartisan Coalition explained its opposition to policies adopted by the majority of the previous County Council, and those whose policies it opposed responded with more traditional political tactics.  Even more disturbing than personal attacks and dirty tricks, supporters of the Council’s policies adopted the “us versus them” tactics of national politicians, trying to convince the long-term residents of the County whom they wanted to recruit that some wealthy, retired interlopers were trying to destroy their livelihoods.  

As an aside, they did not seem to care about the absurdity of these claims.  The Bipartisan Coalition was created because the previous Council majority seemed to be giving in to all sorts of interlopers. Resort owners from out of state who want to provide the loudest entertainment they can get away with. Absentee landlords who do not care how disruptive their tenants might be to neighbors. Wealthy developers who want a simple way to bypass zoning regulations and and previous planned development decisions.

Nevertheless, the risk that excessive regulation will deter development in Talbot County needs to be faced.  Many residents who were born here and have deep roots depend on building and construction to supplement their income as farmers or watermen, either directly as construction workers or indirectly in businesses that supply building trades.  Their interest in opportunities for themselves and their children is as important as preserving the natural amenities of the County.

Until the past four years, Talbot County seems to have managed a balance among these concerns that was more or less acceptable to all sides, based largely on a Planning Commission and planning process that voters trusted and the Council respected.  It was the disregard for that process by the previous Council President that led to the campaign to defeat her.

To reiterate what everyone knows, the Council President dropped from second in the primary to eight in the general election, the lowest of the serious contenders. But three of those who had been following her lead come in third, fourth and fifth.

Now we return to the notion of sacrifice for the good of others.  Those three now form a majority of the County Council and appear to be perpetuating the winner takes all approach to politics.  They have elected two of their number to be Council President and Vice-President, freezing out the two who beat all of them in the popular vote, Laura Price and Pete Lesher.  Soon the Council will decide whether to return Ms Price to her position on a state-wide board of county officials, where she has served for a number of years as an effective and respected advocate for Talbot County. In January it will select members for the Planning Commission and Short Term Rental Board.

There are always winners and losers in decisions about local zoning, sumptuary ordinances, and development. The common good requires both principles and balance in making such decision. Messrs. DeVilio, Callahan and Pack seem poised to make their supporters winners in every case and those who opposed them losers, no matter what the longer-term consequences.

Politicians do not need to work this way, and they will not if the community refuses to let itself be divided.  Although the winner-take-all strategy may give the winners short term benefits, it is not a successful strategy for either political careers and long-term investments.  For a politician, serving only those who provide finances and votes only works if those supporters are a stable majority. That clearly was not the case in Talbot County, since a few hundred more votes for Keasha Haythe would have put the current majority out of business.

Nor is it sensible for those investing in Talbot County to create a divisive political atmosphere, in which rules and regulations affecting their business are changed with every election. Our stable and civil politics as well as our bond rating are critical matters for investors seeking location.

This suggests that the current Council majority would do well to be more inclusive of Ms Price and Mr Lesher, choose qualified, objective and independent members for the Commissions, and negotiate in good faith among all 5 of the Council members before taking votes. Anything else is shortsighted, suitable only for Council members who do not expect to run again.

If the Council majority is not willing to make this small concession to the common good, then it is incumbent for businesses, developers and residents to do it for them. The County Council majority may make general rules, but it is hard to believe they do not have input from those whom they appear ready to reward for their support.

The best outcome would be for those who have supported Messrs. Pack, Callahan and Divilio to start meeting themselves with the various community organizations and individuals who made up the Bipartisan Coalition. It is certainly more work than calling up a politician who is in your pocket to tell them what you want. But it is the right thing to do for the common good of the county and for the riskiness of your investments.

Likewise, those who opposed Ms Williams could follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead, and spend the next four years mounting a campaign to “Resist” the new Council majority and to harass them with investigations and lawsuits with every concrete action.

Neither of these sides, who now look like the French and German armies on the eve of World War I, should have any difficulty identifying the counterparts with whom they need to work.  If constituents decide to make some sacrifices for each other, politicians will have to follow. This is the right season to start.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Clean House in the Republican Leadership in Talbot County by David Montgomery

Laura Price has earned the position of President of the Talbot County Council, and the Republican Central Committee must clean house after its shameful behavior in the election. I write this as a firm believer in Republican principles who is concerned about the future of our party in Talbot County. The Central Committee and leading Republicans disgraced themselves during the election, and the top two vote-getters in the election were candidates they opposed. They must make amends if voters of Talbot County are to regain any respect for the local Republican Party leadership.

The Republican Central Committee and its proxies made what should have been a nonpartisan election into a test of party loyalty AND LOST. With this kind of disaster on a local level, cleaning house is the order of the day. Those members of the Central Committee who led the underhanded and unsuccessful attacks on the Coalition and Ms. Price should resign or be removed. That is not only what they deserve, it is something they should do for the good of the party.

The other Republican members of the County Council now have a duty: to elect Laura Price to be Council President and restore a unified party. Her election demonstrates voters’ opposition to policies those other Republicans have supported as well as the failure of their tactics. Messrs. Callahan, Divilio and Pack should immediately renounce any intention of continuing to push measures through with a 3 – 2 majority as was done under ex-President Williams. If nothing changes, I and many others predict that this will be the last “Republican” majority on the County Council for a long time.

A little background: the 2018 election for the County Council produced bitter divisions among Republicans. A bipartisan coalition of neighborhood, environmental, and other organizations mounted what was essentially a recall campaign against the President of the Council, Ms. Jennifer Williams. They produced a lengthy dossier of actions taken under her leadership that weakened noise ordinances, encouraged short-term rentals and subverted both the legally required planning process and the will of the people.

The initial thrust of the bipartisan coalition was to remove all three of the Council members who supported these actions – Williams, Pack and Callahan – but it later and later focused entirely on Council President Williams.

From the first hint of such opposition, Councilwoman Laura Price, a longtime Republican, was made a scapegoat, even though she had nothing to do with the formation or conduct of the “recall” campaign. The attacks on Ms. Price included dirty tricks, character assassination, false claims about her behavior, and letters to the editor under false names. Council President Williams and Connie Sheer, a member of the Republican Central Committee, hid behind vicious and personal attacks on Price written by their husbands. The Republican Central Committee unfairly and inaccurately condemned Price as “disloyal” and made the preposterous claim that opposition to one candidate “makes a mockery out of our local political process.”

It is hard to criticize Democrats for their treatment of Justice Kavanaugh when Republicans treat one of our own in the same way.

The voters ignored the attacks on Price and the position of the Republican Central Committee. The outcome was that Ms. Price came in first, a Democrat Pete Lesher came in second, then Chuck Callahan and Corey Pack. Republican Frank Divilio, who had linked himself to Williams, fell in the standings and barely beat out Democrat Keasha Haythe for the last seat. Jennifer Williams moved down from third in the primary to eighth out of ten in the general election, and Pete Lesher moved up from eighth to second.

No personal attacks on Ms. Williams were made by the Coalition, in stark contrast to the behavior of her supporters and the Republican Central Committee. The Coalition’s signs and advertisements pointed voters to the documentary evidence of how actions taken under her leadership would harm the quality of life in Talbot County.

As I mentioned in my column reflecting on the election, Talbot County voters showed that they do respond to facts and care about County more than party. Where Andy Harris, Johnny Mautz, Addie Eckardt, and Larry Hogan won with huge majorities, the candidate for County Council pushed by the Republican leadership went down in flames.

It is clear that the strategy of the Republican Central Committee to attack one of its own candidates and politicize the election failed, and spectacularly. But the threat posed by the previous majority to the quality of life in Talbot County has not entirely passed.

At its meeting on December 3, the County Council will elect a new President. Ms. Williams and Mr. Pack passed the position back and forth between themselves, excluding Ms. Price. Although two members of Ms. Williams’ majority, Pack and Callahan, were re-elected along with her protégé Divilio, there is now no valid excuse for passing over Ms. Price again. She had the most votes, and except for Mr. Pack has the most seniority in the Council.

The Council will also pick new members for the Planning Commission and the Short Term Rental Board.

Whether Divilio, Pack and Callahan will try to continue the damaging course on which they were led by the defeated Council President will be revealed by their choices in electing the Council President and filling those Planning Commission vacancies. Electing Laura Price to be Council President and filling the Planning Commission and STR Board with members who want to preserve the character and quality of life in Talbot County will show that they got the message. Any other action will constitute defiance of the clear preference of the voters with consequences for the local Republican Party in general and the local Republican Central Committee in particular.

It is my hope, and the hope of many other Republicans, that at least one of the other three Republicans will realize that not only their political future but the good of the County and the future of the Republican Party in Talbot County depend on their making choices consistent with the obvious will of the voters who “recalled” Ms. Williams and elected Mr. Lesher. They have no mandate to continue the disruptive policies they voted for under President Williams’ leadership – she was thrown out.

If Messrs. Callahan, Divilio and Pack decide to hunker down to push decisions through by a 3 – 2 vote and are supported in these actions by the Republican Central Committee, I predict that this will be their last term on the Council. Such perverse failure to perceive the policy preferences of the majority of voters is also likely to harm statewide and national candidates in the County, as it changes the entire Republican brand into one of old-fashioned machine politics.

The next Congressional election is likely to be much tighter than the last. Recent Court decisions require a re-do of the gerrymandering that made the 1st District a safe Republican seat and the 6th a safe Democrat seat, in order to create two competitive districts. The last thing Andy Harris needs is a fractured and disgraced Republican party in Talbot County. Thus I hope that our elected representatives Johnny Mautz, Addie Eckardt, and Andy Harris will also let the Central Committee know of their displeasure and push for visible change.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Reflection on the Election by David Montgomery

It is an honor and a pleasure to be a resident and voter in Talbot County. The outcome of the County Council election, as reported on Tuesday night, is a credit to the common sense of Talbot County voters and to their willingness to pay attention to the substance of what their elected leaders do. Though I supported it, I did not expect the Coalition to be able to communicate the facts about actions of the previous Council majority so successfully.

With Laura Price and Pete Lesher coming in one and two in the voting, and the fifth seat a dead heat between a neophyte Republican and a frequent Democratic candidate, the message from the voters should be very clear: we do not want unrestricted development that changes the character and quality of life in our County, but we do want to continue the sensible policies of previous Councils. That is what I wanted, and it is exhilarating to see how many share that sentiment. I hope all five members elected to the new Council take that to heart.

National news is not so congenial. I was sorry to see good political leaders like Paul Ryan decide to leave the Congress, and the loss of the House of Representatives is painful even though not a surprise. That may make it difficult to pass any new legislation for the next two years, but as a died-in-the-wool conservative I have seen much worse. The Trump agenda was well-established with tax reform, rollback under the Congressional Review Act of midnight Obama-era regulations, and elimination of some of the key fiscal props of Obamacare. I am not particularly enamored of the President’s aggressive trade policy, though I do see fewer downsides than many of his critics. China’s aggressive claims over the South China Sea, attacks on Catholic shrines and congregations that the Vatican surrendered to their control and persistent theft of intellectual property need to be countered as President Trump has done.

The Senate remains securely under Republican control, and that means that any currently sitting Justice who leaves the Supreme Court in the next two years will be replaced by a Justice who respects and interprets the Constitution and laws passed by Congress as they are written. It may not be too much to hope that the dissipation of the “Blue Wave” will convince Democrats that the unprincipled efforts to derail the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh were self-defeating.

Winning the Senate also means that no matter what antics the House of Representatives might engage in under Democratic control, the President and his appointees will be immune to impeachment.

Since I adhere to the maxim that Congress governs best when it governs least, I am not unduly worried about the likely impasse we will face over the next two years. It would be very good for the country if enough moderates are returned to the Congress by both parties that reform of basic immigration laws could take place and Obamacare could be revised into a less costly and more voluntary system. The numbers are not yet in to see whether the Democratic majority will include more ignorant socialists like Ocasio-Ortiz or more centrists like those supported by WithHonor.

My greatest concern is that the Democratic majority in the House will still be dominated by the nuts on the far Left, the inciters of violence like Maxine Walters and leaders like Pelosi who put their hatred of the President above the good of the country. We may well be in for two years of unending investigations of the President, encouragement of mob rule, and motions for impeachment. I console myself that those gestures will be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Actually, I have a more optimistic reaction, that such behavior, if it occurs, will ensure a second term for President Trump and a restored majority for Republicans in the House and the Senate.

Once again, the ability of Talbot County voters to see through the mud-slinging, character assassination and false accusations directed at Laura Price encourages me. She drew the most votes as of 0045 on Wednesday. If our example is a guide, voters can see through slogans and personal attacks and are willing to spend time thinking about serious questions about the policies that different candidates will pursue.

The outcome of the election also leads me to reflect on values and the loss of the House of Representatives. The Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas detested President Trump and Hillary Clinton almost equally. He argued in a recent article that it is never necessary to choose the lesser of two evils, and that the pursuit of justice and honor should not be abandoned just because we expect to lose. Good thoughts.

Hauerwas voted for a third, solidly conservative candidate who had not the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell (that I do believe exists) of winning. This is very different from the tendency of Catholic social thought since Pope Leo XIII to look for ways to be politically effective in advancing the common good, not to mention the role that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken in American politics, taking positions on everything from abortion and immigration to regulation of electric powerplants.

Hauerwas’s is a very appealing point of view, though I have argued (effectively, at least to myself) that in a fallen world it is necessary to be a political realist. Thus I can support a President of questionable character with whom I disagree on major issues as long as I am convinced that the common good is better served by his policies than those of his opponent. Inter alia, I think that most supporters of Bill Clinton made the same decision.

Where Hauerwas challenges my thinking is by reminding me that we cannot and should not expect government to solve the really big crises we face. His example is abortion: sure, we should vote against politicians who promote abortion. But might we not spend our time and money better by “serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resourced families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood…”

That is, it is possible to act directly and personally, admittedly at a greater cost of our own time and treasure, to introduce into the lives of specific individuals in our communities the kinds of grace that we mistakenly believe can be achieved through laws and government programs.

If this is the case, and the results of this election lead me to believe that Hauerwas has more insight than I like to admit, then it is necessary to work politically to ensure that we retain the freedom and ability to do these works of charity and express our fundamental beliefs publicly. That is why Supreme Court appointments are so important to me, to ensure that we retain not only freedom of worship but freedom to state our beliefs about public and private morality without fear or restriction and to assist our neighbors in the best way we know how.

But it also suggests that I do not care deep in my heart about the fine-tuning of tax policy or regulation of health insurance. The real crisis we face are not economic but rather are matters of faith and virtue: supporting our neighbors who are needy, preventing abortions one at time, being with the sick and dying, educating the young about the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing, bringing an understanding of virtue back into national consciousness, restoring a common heritage as a Christian nation.

We must be vigilant to preserve the space in which we do these things. That requires political involvement, to prevent laws from being passed that would allow bureaucrats to tell us who can be adoptive parents, how we can communicate the value of life from conception to its natural end, and what we may say about the morally acceptable forms of sexual activity.

I also believe it is important to resist accumulation of power and diversion of resources into national and even state programs when we could do better at the local and individual level.

We have wonderful examples of this in Talbot County. Our health department may not be in the most attractive of buildings, but we have many voluntary organizations and charities providing for needs of our neighbors. We have wealthy donors who fund capital improvements for public facilities and programs that serve community needs. This is called subsidiarity. But it requires limiting both taxation and spending by higher-level organizations, in order to have the resources and opportunity to act voluntarily and charitably to fill these needs.

To bring all this back to Tuesday’s election results. The triumphalism of the first two years of the Trump presidency, if any of us fell into that trap, are over. His policies were not repudiated, and what has been done will stand, but the temptation to expect Congress and the Presidency to correct the ills of our society is gone.

It is not a bad thing to be reminded of Jesus’s words that “my kingdom is not of this world.” We must care for each other, but not be seduced by the illusion of continuing progress and the attainability of perfection here on earth. That is the starting point of Hauerwas’s social thought. We are sojourners here, destined for somewhere else. We should follow Christ’s commandments in dealing with our neighbors, but not be deceived into believing that elections are somehow critical to bringing about the Kingdom of God.

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