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Lawrence Glazer

Lawrence M. Glazer

Impossible Promises: One Way to Judge Campaign Pledges

July 20, 2017

Every candidate for public office makes promises about what they will do once in office. Nothing new there.  And it always turns out that once the candidate is in office, some of the promises that he or she made  cannot be kept.  Nothing new there, either.  But here is a question we might ask: When the candidate made that promise, did he or she KNOW it could not be kept?

Of course we cannot read a candidate’s mind, but we can utilize a slightly different question – one that has proved useful in negligence litigation – to get a pretty good idea of the answer.  That question is: Would a reasonable person in the candidate’s position know, at the time the candidate made the promise, that it would be impossible to keep?

With that pertinent question in mind, let’s look at some of the major promises made by candidate Donald Trump:

Bring back coal industry jobs

The coal industry is shrinking, from causes that the neither the President nor the Congress can control. The industry’s attempts to create “clean coal”  have failed. Its major customers, the electric utilities, are abandoning coal for natural gas and renewables.

Several ironies are operating here. Coal mining is a fairly labor-intensive business, but electric power generation is capital-intensive, which requires the managers of electric companies to make major decisions far in advance of need. Many of these decisions involve the planning and building of new generating plants.

The upshot is that as of 2016 electric utilities had ALREADY made the decisions about what kinds of generating plants they will build into the foreseeable future, and those plants will not be burning coal.

The reasons for these decisions also contain an irony. Many of the new generating plants will burn natural gas, which serves two purposes: (1) Gas burns a lot cleaner than coal or oil, and  (2) Gas has become the most affordable fuel out there. The irony is that gas has become affordable because of huge increases in the supply (in contrast to the demand), brought about by the technology of high-pressure fracking, a technology which often poisons huge quantities of one natural resource – water – to obtain another – natural gas.

A major presidential candidate  has plenty of experts at his or her command. The candidate just has to ask them the right questions.  A  reasonable person in Donald Trump’s position during the 2016 campaign should have known all of these facts.

Bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States

Anna Swanson, who covers trade and the econmy for the Washington Post, wrote:

“Over the past 35 years, the United States shed about 7 million manufacturing jobs. And some industries, such as textiles and apparel, have disappeared almost entirely.  Yet American factories actually make more stuff than they ever have, and at a lower cost. Manufacturing accounts for more than a third of U.S. economic output — making it the largest sector of the economy.”

Much like the coal situation, the principal causes of movement of manufacturing jobs to and from the U.S. are largely beyond the control of government.  The first is that manufacturing is becoming increasingly roboticized.  Robots can perform many manufacturing jobs quicker, more reliably and increasingly more cheaply than humans.And robots  don’t file for unemployment benefits, take unexpected sick days, or demand longer lunch breaks. Nor do they join unions.

Of course, not every job can be roboticized (yet). Humans retain a major role in manufacturing, which takes us to the second principal factor: labor costs.  Everyone knows that labor costs are lower in China (where iphones are assembled), Mexico (where some American cars are assembled) and Southeast Asia (where virtually all U.S. apparel is made).

But there is a counter-movement; for several years a growing number of U.S. Companies have been “re-shoring” some of their manufacturing (i.e., bringing it back to the U.S.).  These firms have encountered rising wages in China and increasing costs of shipping their goods to America. They have also discovered that foreign manufacturing handicaps their ability to rapidly adjust products to meet changes in consumer tastes.

Walmart has begun a program to help re-shoring, promising to buy $250 million of American-made goods by 2023.

So some manufacturing jobs will return to the U.S., with or without federal government help. But no credible economist believes that all the vanished manufacturing employment will return. And many, perhaps most, of the jobs that do return will require higher skills than the assembly line positions of the past. (See my article “The Critical Question: How Many Will Succeed in the New Economy?” in the March 17 DomeMagazine.com)

All of these facts have been well-known for years; a reasonable person in Donald Trump’s position, if advised by competent economists, would have known them.

Repeal and Replace the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)

From day one the possibility of replacing Obamacare has been mainly a political question, encompassing Republicans only. Over seven years the House passed numerous repeal bills, some of which were joined by the Senate and then vetoed by President Obama. So most observers thought that once the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, this would be a quick no-brainer.

But once the Republicans had the power,  many of them actually studied the details of health insurance for the first time. They found out it wasn’t so simple. As of the date this is written, they have not been able to come up with a plan that attracts enough Republican votes to achieve Senate passage. The plans created by the Tea Partiers are non-starters to the relative moderates, and to Senators representing states with a lot of Obamacare and/or Medicaid participants. And vice versa.

You have only to look to West Virginia to understand why.  Donald Trump won West Virginia by 42 points, but the state’s Republican junior senator, Shelley Moore Capito, opposes Majority Leader McConnell’s Senate Bill, particularly over the bill’s enabling cutbacks on Medicaid.  West Virginia has the nation’s highest opioid abuse death numbers, and without Medicaid addicts would have little hope of help.

But I think Donald Trump gets a pass on this promise, because very few realized how hard it would be, politically, to replace Obamacare. Thus a reasonable person in Donald Trump’s position probably would not have seen this coming.

Deregulate businesses

I throw this one in for fairness; unlike the others, this is a keepable promise, because the amount of federal regulation is mainly within the control of the executive branch. In fact the Trump administration has already begun to roll back existing federal regulations, and  appointed Naomi Rao, a law professor  and founder of the Center for Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University, to take charge.

However, the President’s authority to deregulate is not unlimited.

State governments also regulate businesses, and the President has little authority to affect them. So, for example, federal agencies may weaken standards for automobile emissions and fuel economy, but the State of California maintains its own tough standards, set by a Democratic legislature and  Governor.  If you manufacture vehicles and want to sell them in California (the world’s sixth largest economy, just ahead of Brazil), you still  have to meet California’s standards.

A second potential limit on the President’s regulatory power is Congress, which retains the authority  to veto any executive branch reguation with which it disagrees. Though little used heretofore, this authority could become important if the 2018 elections were to result in a Democratic majority in either House.

Lawrence M. Glazer is the author of Wounded Warrior, a recently published biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard.

July 20, 2017 · Filed under Glazer



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