The Amateur Hour

transformer

Amateur – 3. A person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity

The United States is conducting an experiment. An experiment that affects each and every person inside of the country, and many others around the world. This experiment involves turning over the operation of the executive branch of government to a group of amateurs, and observing what happens when amateurs are turned loose upon the gears of diplomacy, economics, and the military.

So far, the results have not been catastrophic. Taking the issue of the economy for example, the trends established since the economy bottomed in 2009 are continuing to result in gains in employment, and in measured economic growth. Despite claims of exceptional performance under the current administration, GDP growth averaged 2.2% from 2010 through 2016, while GDP growth during the current administration has been 2.6%. Using the statistical t-test, the two sets of data (past administration vs. current administration) are equivalent. There is not a statistically significant difference between 2.2% and 2.6% growth. But the one knob that this administration has turned, the tax cut, has yet to factor into the performance of the economy. The tax cut does have the potential to increase the rate of GDP growth significantly. However, the tax cut comes with a cost that has yet to be reckoned. The estimated deficits will increase greatly due to reduced tax revenues, and if there is an economic downturn in the next few years, the normal response of loosening fiscal policy to boost the economy will likely not be available. So we are at the mercy of the amateurs in the administration who believe it to be prudent fiscal policy to significantly cut taxes at a late stage in an economic recovery that has entered its ninth year. But what do experts know, anyway?

If you consider diplomacy, there is certainly a mixed bag to date. It does appear that twitter tirades and brazen bluster did result in at least enabling an initial meeting between North Korea and the US, with a generic agreement being signed. If this is indeed a first step towards a ratcheting down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, then this administration will have accomplished a worthwhile and noteworthy goal. But if the North Koreans continue playing Lucy with the football to the US’s Charley Brown, then relations may end up worse off than if there was no meeting.

That is the good news on the diplomacy front. Elsewhere, it is evident that this administration has zero respect for, and zero admitted need for diplomatic experience and expertise. Witness the exodus of State Department veterans over the first year of this administration. As of last November, 60% of the top management of the State Department had left government service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A hiring freeze instituted under Rex Tillerson has been lifted by his successor, but nothing will replace the institutional memory and experience of those who were driven out by the bias of the current administration against subject matter expertise. The supporters of this President would say that this reduction in long-time employees is “draining the swamp”. What they do not realize is that this world is complex, and the diplomats at the front line in embassies around the world are essential in preventing US interests from being damaged. There will be costs, some of them severe, in the years to come due to the sabotaging of the diplomatic corps.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic style of this President was fully on display at the recent meeting of the G-7. The petty nature of the response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference, replete with the denunciation of Trudeau as having “stabbed the US in the back” by declaring that Canada would not be bullied by the US, shows how much of this President’s actions are guided by his personal perception of slights. The threats unfurled against the strongest allies and trading partners of the US show that he has a vanishingly small knowledge of international trade and the risks to the economy of the world, by insisting on retreating to an era when America may have been great, but by imposing tariffs, we helped to drag the world into depression shortly thereafter.

Militarily, we are repeating the follies that have bedeviled military planners ever since military technology began changing year by year. That is, we are fighting the last war, not the next war. Thus the huge increase in the military budget over the coming years is earmarked for more ships, more fighters, more bombers, more in-air refueling capabilities, and keeping older hardware systems running. Meanwhile, the funding for cyber security ends up with a scant 4% increase when all of the ups and downs of spending by department are added up. Undoubtedly, there is a need for building ships to replace those that are near the end of their useful life. Likewise, replacement aircraft are needed. But the budget funds multiple generations of new weapons systems with no apparent overall strategy on what the military force of the future should look like.

The wars of the future will increasingly be economic or cyber in nature, and seeing funds spent on hardening the electric grid, purchasing large numbers of replacement transformers that could quickly be put in service should a grid disruption occur, these funds would be well invested for our economic and physical security. In fact, just as we used to have strategic metals reserves in case our supply got cut off, we should have a strategic transformer reserve, where these substation-level transformers that will be fried in an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) event can be quickly replaced. The best way to provide such a reserve was investigated by the Department of Energy and the report was issued to Congress in March of 2017. It does not call for a Federally owned reserve, but calls instead for increased coordination across utility companies. It does call for an increased reserve but one that is maintained and controlled by utility companies. Will such a program work when it is called upon? No one knows. But we do know that the huge increase in military spending is not going for what can happen in the present or future. No, it is going to the weaponry of the past.

Once again, the amateurs determining the strategy for national defense are insistent upon spending large to procure the weapons of the past, while ignoring the needs for the defense of our nation and our lifestyle from the real threats that we face.

The concept of amateurism is good. In athletics, we maintained the fa├žade of amateurism for many decades, but eventually it was broken down. In tennis, in the Olympics, in all sports, it is recognized that if you wish to have excellence in performance, it is necessary to have people who can dedicate their lives to the sport by being paid for their efforts. We followed the same principles in our government. Those who were willing to sacrifice much larger private sector paychecks for the limited compensation of government positions were recognized and honored for their expertise and their service. But in this misguided administration, we have sacrificed those who developed their expertise over decades, in order to promote the agendas of the amateurs who struggle against the current of events in their fields. The problem is that there are real consequences that come from having amateurs deal with issues that can cost real money, and real damage to international relations, and cost lives when dealing with the military.

 

Ghosting, or Sloth? You Decide

Targets

We are in the midst of a target-rich environment. There are so many manifestations of incompetence and evil in the current administration that it is difficult to single out one as representative of the whole. So let’s bore in on a single area that most reasonable people feel is important. Let’s look at the number of roles in the Department of Defense that require Senate confirmation, where a nominee has been confirmed and is serving. The Department of Defense has 55 such roles. As of April 24 (last date I could find easily through search engine), guess how many people had been confirmed.

Give up? Exactly 1, Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis.

How many of the 55 roles have had people nominated? Again, as of April 24, exactly 4, and two of those failed confirmation. How many more have been announced, but the nomination has not been transmitted to the Senate? Exactly 7, and one of those nominations for Secretary of the Army (replacing one of the failed nominations) has been withdrawn since April 24.

How many positions remain to be announced, nominated and confirmed? Forty-three positions are in Trump-limbo, awaiting any action to be taken. Now, this is the Department of Defense. Few people would argue that this is one of the governmental functions that should be staffed expeditiously in order to ensure that the department is able to perform its prime directive of keeping the nation safe. And yet here we are, 3 1/2 months after the inauguration and nearly 80% of the roles needing Senate confirmation have not even had an announcement of a candidate for the role.

It appears that one of the guiding principles of this administration is that they consider governmental agencies to be grossly overstaffed, and therefore substantial savings can be made by refusing to fill roles within the government. But to this outside observer, failure to staff essential roles will soon lead to paralysis within governmental agencies, leaving them unable to fulfill their duties. Many small-government champions may view this as a victory in the case of departments like Labor, or Education, or other similar agencies viewed as hotbeds of excess regulatory activity. But the Department of Defense?

If the act of leaving roles requiring Senate confirmation vacant is a deliberate decision being made as part of a strategic process to force administrative shrinkage, then let that be announced and we can debate the merits of the strategy. But if what we have is the Trump administration simply ghosting the agency positions, deliberately ignoring the need to fill them so as to hope that they go away, then we have yet another glaring example of the incompetence of the Trump administration.

There is one other possibility that comes to mind. What if there have been attempts to identify candidates for these roles, but either those candidates refused to be considered, or they were considered and then failed their background and security clearance process? Given the nature of this administration to be an information black hole, we may never know the full story.

So this is one simple example of how this administration has hit the ground and immediately assumed the prone position. An administration led by a caricature of a leader, who only knew how to drive his businesses into bankruptcy. An administration which found an eager legislative partner, looking for ways to implement Randian philosophy and effect a total reversal in government direction. This is where the discussion of evil comes into play. There are undoubtedly sincere conservatives who still believe that the country ran off the rails of Constitutional intent when the New Deal was adopted. That is a valid perspective, and it could be debated through the electoral process.

But this election offered a bait and switch. Campaign promises to drain the swamp of undue influence by banks like Goldman Sachs, only to reverse that pledge and fill the swamp with hordes of Goldman Sachs employees and alumni. Campaign promises to get this great new improved health care system that will cost less and provide better services. These promises were co-opted by the Ayn Rand wing of the Republican party into the AHCA, and once the bill passed the first step in the legislative process, they celebrated with Bud Light as they had designated bus drivers take them down the mall towards the White House. You know, that last bit may be the worst of all of this. To think that Republicans believe Bud Light is actually beer says more about them than all of their pronouncements of the moral inferiority of those who develop pre-existing conditions.

We now have a massive tax cut for the truly wealthy disguised as a revamp of health care legislation. If failure to staff the government is one of the manifestations of incompetence of this administration, then allowing this reversion to the bad old days of insurance company death panels represents the evil side of the administration. And still, the true believers do not realize that they have been trolled by experts as they pledge undying support for their supreme leader. If this legislation actually does pass, then their undying support will likely turn into dying support as states requesting waivers to the mandated treatment standards remove drug abuse treatment from insurance. The waivers will reinstitute lifetime caps on payments. But for those who are fortunate enough to remain healthy, they will save a pittance, and the Republicans will say, “See! We came through for you!”