What is a White House policy council and what does it do?
- The President needs someone physically close to him whom he trusts to answer policy questions as they arise.
- When he has to make a policy decision someone has to get him all the information he needs to make a good decision, and he needs someone to sift through and mediate the oft-conflicting views of his advisors. This is an honest broker role.
- He may need someone with policy expertise to advise him on such decisions, someone who can see the big picture rather than just one part of it. This is an advisor role.
- When he makes a policy decision that spans Cabinet agencies he needs someone to ensure the different parts of his government are coordinated, implementing his policy decision rather than their own preferences.
- When problems crop up he needs someone to make sure they get solved, especially when the problems and/or solutions cross jurisdictional lines within the executive branch.
- Finally, he needs policy experts to work with his other advisors to explain and sell his policies to Congress, the public, the press, and the world.
The staffs of the White House policy councils do all these things for the president.
President Trump will inherit from President Obama three White House policy councils:
- the National Security Council (NSC);
- the National Economic Council (NEC); and
- the Domestic Policy Council (DPC).
Each council has two components: the council itself and the policy council staff. There is a National Economic Council, which formally consists of eighteen people: the president, vice president, 12 cabinet-level officials and four senior White House staff. Then there’s an NEC staff within the White House, comprised of 15-25 people. Usually when people refer to the NEC they actually mean the NEC staff. The most senior of these has the title of Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. President-elect Trump has named Gary Cohn to that position. Mike Flynn will run the NSC with the title National Security Advisor, and they still need someone to run DPC.
I know most about the NEC so I’ll use that for illustration. DPC is a parallel to NEC. NSC, the granddaddy of the three, is more than 15X the staff size (~350) and runs a bit differently, but the basic approach is quite similar.
The hypothetical examples in the first three bullets here are drawn from today’s Wall Street Journal.
- Information: President Trump calls NEC Director Gary Cohn, “Why are the Chinese halting trading in bond futures?” (Organizationally the President should probably call SecTreas on this, but Cohn was #2 at Goldman and started as a trader.) “Also,” says the President, “find out what Facebook is now doing about fake news and what Yahoo is doing about that huge privacy breach.”
- Advice: President Trump continues: “Should we be doing anything about either of these? Should I tweet something about Facebook or Yahoo, either to praise either firm or to scold them? Do we need to do something from a policy standpoint?”
- Policy development & decision support: More: “I see the Journal editorial page thinks we should fast-track approvals for liquified natural gas exports. That sounds like a good idea, as long as we don’t shortchange Americans. Get whoever we need together and present me with some options. Also, now that Harry Reid’s gone I think we should get Yucca Mountain restarted. Figure it out.”
- Implementation: Imagine President Trump has decided to implement his outsourcing tariff using authorities under current law. (Can he?) Doing so will require coordinating implementation work by Treasury (if it’s a tax), USTR (if it’s a tariff) and Commerce because of the trade and business implications, and State to work on the anticipated blowback from foreign governments whose exports to the U.S. will decline. Part of this would be coordination, part of it internal management to ensure that those within the various departments who recommended against the policy nevertheless work toward implementing the President’s decision.
- Sales and marketing support: Mr. Cohn may need to visit Capitol Hill to explain this outsourcing tariff and its implementation to Congress, or do press interviews, or meet with business and labor leaders. His staff may also help educate other senior White House advisors and Cabinet secretaries who need to help push this element of the President’s economic policy agenda.
The White House policy council staffs each run a manufacturing shop and a service operation. They help the president manufacture policy decisions and they provide policy services to promote those decisions and coordinate their implementation.
Gary Cohn, Mike Flynn, and an as yet unnamed DPC head will have their hands full.
Imagine five American firms, each of which lays off New York workers.
Firms 1, 2, and 3 close their New York widget factories.
- Firm 1 builds a new widget factory in Mexico.
- Firm 2 builds a new widget factory in South Carolina.
- Firm 3 does not set up a new factory anywhere. Instead, it buys widgets from a separate company which built a widget factory in Mexico and imported them into the U.S. This separate company never had a U.S. factory.
- Firm 4 closes its New York call center and lays off all its employees. The firm opens a new call center in the Philippines.
- Firm 5 keeps its New York widget factory open but replaces half its employees with robots.
In all five cases New York workers lose their jobs. Firms 1 and 4 move New York jobs to foreign countries while Firm 2 moves New York jobs to South Carolina.
President-elect Trump’s proposed new 35 percent tariff would apply to Firm 1, and specifically to goods imported into the U.S. from the new Mexican factory that replaced Firm 1’s now closed New York factory.
It appears his policy would not apply to Firms 2-5. Based largely on his recent interview on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, here is my best read of Mr. Trump’s intent.
- The policy clearly does not apply to Firm 2, which “moves jobs” within the U.S.
- He said the policy would apply to a company that “wants to move to Mexico or another country.” Firm 3 isn’t moving anything. Firm 3 shuts down a U.S. factory, while a separate firm makes the replacement goods and imports them.
- Firm 4 is outsourcing services, not goods. (I think) his policy would apply only to manufactured goods.
- The tariff also doesn’t apply to Firm 5, since while jobs are lost, no jobs are moving.
Over the next few months Team Trump will have to address the following four questions about his proposed tariff.
Question 1: Will it work? Will the threat of an import tariff prevent the case of Firm 1? In the short run, yes. A punitive tariff can be set high enough that it outweighs the cost advantages of cheaper foreign labor and a less burdensome foreign regulatory environment. The tariff would in effect trap domestic manufacturing capacity and prevent it from moving outside the U.S., and that’s the intent.
At some point, however, another firm without existing U.S. manufacturing workers can set up a factory in Mexico and start making similar goods at lower cost than Firm 1’s trapped U.S. manufacturing capacity. Those goods would not face the import tariff since this separate firm didn’t move jobs out of the U.S. Firm 1 will struggle to compete with these less expensive imports and may eventually shut down its New York factory despite the policy designed to help those workers. In the long run Firm 3 can probably beat Firm 1.
Question 2: Is the Firm 1 case the result of unfair trade? Chris Wallace described Firm 1 as making a free market decision. The president-elect replied “No, that’s the dumb market… I’m a big free trader, but it has to be fair.” Mr. Trump seems to be conflating two things:
- a foreign government’s trade policy or a negotiated trade agreement (“bad trade deal”) that disadvantages U.S. producers relative to foreign producers; and
- a competitive market advantage to producing goods overseas unrelated to trade policy: things like cheaper labor or resource inputs, or lower tax and regulatory burdens.
The president-elect and his advisors now need to explain why, in the absence of the first, the second is not a free market, why they think it’s unfair trade. If there is something in NAFTA that tilts the playing field away from the U.S. and toward Mexico, I’ve never heard Team Trump explain it. In the case of Mexico, Mr. Trump’s “dumb market” is also a free market, just one in which he doesn’t like the outcome of competition.
Question 3: What share of laid off manufacturing workers see their jobs outsourced to foreign countries? New Yorkers in all five of the above cases are laid off. How many of them are in the first case relative to the others? To answer this you’d need to measure automation vs. outsourcing, domestic vs. foreign outsourcing, and services vs. manufacturing, as well as make a guess about how many firms would choose the Firm 3 path when confronted by a tariff that applies only to Firm 1.
If laid off Firm 1 New Yorkers are only a small portion of all laid off New Yorkers in Firms 1-5, by itself that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help those in Firm 1. It does mean you’ll need to explain why you’re trying to help some laid off workers and not others. That brings us to the political and communications challenge…
Question 4: Is the policy fair and will it be perceived as fair? What do you tell the laid off workers of Firms 2-5 when they ask why you’re not helping them as well? The affected workers, their families, and the local economy, probably care less why New York jobs disappeared than how many did. Team Trump could argue their policy is narrowly tailored to solve only a specific problem, that of manufacturing jobs outsourced overseas because of unfair trade policies or bad trade deals. The laid off New Yorkers probably don’t care whether their jobs were shipped to Mexico, shipped to South Carolina, or taken by robots. If Team Trump can’t answer question 2 convincingly and explain why Firm 1’s workers were harmed by unfair trade policies or agreements, rather than by the harsh realities of the free market on a level playing field, then their justification for helping some workers but not others could fail. And if Firm 1’s laid off New Yorkers are only a small portion of those laid off in all five firms, then Team Trump will face an even greater political and communications challenge.
Rather than an import tariff that may not work in the long run, is unfair to other laid off workers, and undermines free market competition, I’d like to see President-elect Trump dedicate his energy to pushing the other policies he referenced on Sunday: those that make it less costly for firms to employ American workers by lowering tax and regulatory burdens. Make America a great place to invest, expand, and create new jobs. A flexible and rapidly growing U.S. economy is also the best way to help Americans who lose their jobs (for any reason) find new ones quickly.
Yesterday I explained why presidents don’t delegate more policy decision-making power to their cabinet. Instead the president makes the big decisions, supported by his White House staff. This makes the White House staff powerful. Now let’s peek inside the White House.
What are the most powerful policy jobs in the White House?
First, a few caveats.
- In this post we’ll look only at the top tier of White House staff, each of whom has the rank of Assistant to the President. That’s an oversimplification but a useful starting point.
- My answer is based on my experience in the George W. Bush (43) White House. Your mileage may vary.
- The various senior roles have different forms and tools of policy power. I may write about that in a separate post later but won’t do so here.
- Here I’m focusing on the power that derives from the position and the operating patterns of the White House. Some particularly effective advisors “punch above their weight” and have a policy impact larger than their role might suggest here.
- I’m using White House a bit loosely. Technically a few of these advisors (OMB, CEA, CEQ, OSTP) are part of the broader Executive Office of the President and aren’t formally in the White House. In practical terms there’s little difference.
- I’m excluding “policy czars” that existed in the Obama White House but not in Bush 43.
OK, let’s dive in. I’ll divide the senior White House advisor jobs into three buckets:
- five policy advisors who run the policy processes within the White House;
- six non-policy advisors who have a different principal function but nevertheless play a major role in advising the president on big policy decisions; and
- four policy advisors that are the leads for specific areas of expertise.
In terms of total policy impact I rank the buckets 1-2-3. Those in bucket 2, however, often are more powerful than the policy council directors in bucket 1 if we’re thinking about more than just policy impact, and also when we’re talking about tradeoffs among issues.
I’m going to leave the Vice President and the White House Chief of Staff out of the following. Both play at a level above all of what follows.
Bucket 1: The most powerful policy-only jobs in the White House are:
- Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy
- Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor
- Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director, National Economic Council (aka “NEC Director”)
- Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Director, Domestic Policy Council (aka “DPC Director”)
- Director, Office of Management and Budget (aka “OMB Director”)
Within the White House these policy positions have the greatest impact on policy because (a) that’s their job and responsibility, (b) they run the policy decision-making and implementation coordination processes, (c) they work with agencies on policy on a daily basis; and (d) part of their job is to “own” the policy issues within the White House, acting as the keeper of the answer to every question of the form “What is the president’s policy on ________?” In the Bush 43 White House the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy had an oversight role over the NEC, DPC, and OMB, so you should think of that slot as a notch above those three.
Bucket 2: The non-policy White House jobs that have the biggest policy impact are:
- Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs (aka “Leg Affairs”)
- Senior Advisor or Counselor or Strategic Advisor (the political advisor, e.g., Karl Rove, Valerie Jarrett, and soon Steve Bannon)
- Assistant to the President for Communication (aka “Communications Director”)
- Assistant to the President and Press Secretary
- Chief of Staff to the Vice President
- Staff Secretary
These six roles each have a non-policy principal function within the White House. They are major players in all the big presidential policy decisions because (a) they are close to the president, (b) they are each the principal advisor on a key element of a president’s policy decision (Congress, politics, communications, press), and (c) they do that for every single policy decision (i.e., maximum breadth). The first five of these six advisors were in every NEC Principals meeting we had, and, more importantly, were in every economic policy decision meeting we had with the president. Bucket 2 advisors often play a smaller role in national security issues because some presidents are reluctant to politicize national security decisions.
The Staff Secretary is a special case with enormous potential to influence policy almost invisibly. I may write about that separately but won’t spend time on it here.
I have excluded the Chief Speechwriter because the role comes with little formal policy power. This, however, is one of those roles where a particularly influential chief speechwriter can occasionally have significant influence on certain policies.
Bucket 3: The White House policy specialists are:
- White House Counsel (the president’s lawyer)
- Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers (aka “CEA”, the economist)
- Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality (aka “CEQ”, the environmental expert)
- Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy (aka “OSTP”, the scientist)
Each of these is a subject matter expert. Each plays in a wide range of policy issues and has a seat at every policy table where his or her expertise is relevant. These slots are different from the first bucket in two ways. First, these jobs are best held by true experts (e.g., a brilliant legal mind, an accomplished economist and scientist, etc.), where the Bucket 1 policy process management jobs can be held by generalists. The head of CEA has to be a terrific economist, the NEC Director can but doesn’t have to be. Second, these specialist advisors have somewhat narrower subject matter scopes than the policy process managers. For our purpose here we’re looking at the White House Counsel as the legal expert. He or she also has a separate role as the president’s lawyer.
I’ll end by reinforcing yesterday’s post about the policy importance of White House advisors relative to the Cabinet. On national security issues SecState and SecDef are often heavy hitters relative to the White House staff, but on other issues the White House staff’s policy impact often significantly outweighs that of the relevant cabinet secretaries.
Take a straightforward issue like pension reform that involves three cabinet departments: Treasury, Labor, and Commerce. In the Bush White House a policy meeting with the president to get decisions on pension reform would have the following principal-level attendees:
- Vice President
- Chief of Staff
- Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy
- NEC Director (runs the meeting)
- Leg Affairs
- Senior Advisor
- Communications Director
- Press Secretary
- VP’s Chief of Staff
- CEA Chairman
- White House Counsel or Deputy Counsel
- OMB Director
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
Excluding the president and VP, count ‘em up: three cabinet secretaries and eleven senior White House aides (counting OMB as White House). That partly demonstrates the policy power of White House staff.
Why don’t presidents delegate more policy decision-making power to their cabinet secretaries? Why does White House staff have so much power over big policy decisions relative to the much more visible Cabinet?
- Most big policy issues cross multiple jurisdictions within the government, especially outside the national security realm. This makes it hard and at times illogical to entrust one cabinet secretary to make decisions that so directly affect parts of the government for which he is not responsible and does not have expertise.
- It is quite difficult to get one cabinet Secretary to take orders from another. Cabinet and especially sub-cabinet officials will take and follow orders from White House staff that they will not take from their peers in other departments, because they perceive those White House staff as speaking for the president. Cabinet secretaries are successful people who when hired were told they’d report to the president, not to another cabinet secretary. Not a lot of small-ego type-B personalities here.
- While you could delegate a certain amount of money to a cabinet secretary, it’s hard to delegate amorphous resources like “political capital” or “legislative priority.” To make these tradeoffs the president looks to those with responsibility for his entire agenda and all of his interests, not just a subset. His White House staff are the only ones with responsibility for that breadth.
- Cabinet secretaries and their staff have institutional interests that overlap with but differ from the president’s. Treasury staff of course ultimately work for the president and they try to advance his agenda. They also have narrower, more local and self-interested priorities. This leads them to think about the Treasury Department’s issues, problems, responsibilities, powers, and points of view; the same goes for other agencies. White House staff think first, second, and third about what the president needs to succeed.
- Time and place matter. The senior White House staff sit in the West Wing with the president while the cabinet secretaries are in other buildings, some more than a mile from the White House. The president naturally relies on people close to him. Cabinet secretaries spend little time with the president. White House staff are with / near him every day and have a better sense of what he wants and needs. They are closer when he needs information or to make decisions, and they are better aware of his mindset and perspective.
- Early in an Administration the senior White House staff slots are filled by campaign aides who are close to the president and are deeply committed to him and his agenda. The president knows, trusts, and relies on them. Cabinet picks are often new hires, and even the best of them take time to earn the trust and respect of their new boss.
- Some cabinet secretaries are newbies to government, and some just aren’t great decision-makers. Some are chosen for reasons other than their policy expertise or judgment: some are good managers, others are great communicators, and still others are chosen to check political boxes.
- While there are plenty of cases of White House staff seizing/holding power for their own reasons, in most cases the centralization comes from the president’s desire to make decisions for himself rather than to rely on others, including the Cabinet. It’s the president who centralizes power; his White House staff help him do that. People who run for president tend to like to make the big decisions themselves. They have the ultimate responsibility when things go wrong, so they choose to keep the authority to match that. The buck really does stop at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.
Update: I struck the opening line about my view of the President-elect’s initial Cabinet picks. It was distracting readers from the main point of the piece.
- publicly attacked another firm, Rexnord, for considering outsourcing jobs to Mexico;
- made clear his approach to Carrier and Rexnord is the beginning of a broader policy;
- threatened all American firms with “retribution” if they outsource jobs; and
- proposed a 35% import tariff against U.S. firms that do so.
- It is unfair to other Americans.
- It weakens American firms relative to their foreign competitors.
- It does long run economic harm to the U.S.
- It abandons any pretense of free trade on a level playing field.
- It is easily abused.
- Forcing Carrier to pay higher labor costs than they could pay in Mexico will make Carrier gas furnaces more expensive. Some American Carrier employees win, while everyone in the market to buy a gas furnace loses. Many of those losers are American consumers. Mr. Trump is helping a few American workers a lot and hurting many more American consumers a little. These consumer losses increase the more one replicates this policy.
- Some Americans (Hoosiers in this case) will pay higher taxes to subsidize the wages of others. Why should the employees of Eli Lilly (10,000 Indiana employees), Rolls-Royce and Roche (~4,500 each), and countless other Indiana employers subsidize the wages of Carrier employees because the President singled out this particular firm? That is unfair to those taxpayers.
- A one-off beating with a government stick is unfair to that firm, while a one-off taxpayer-financed carrot for one firm is unfair to others.
- Mr. Trump’s threatened import tariff applies only to firms that (a) shut down U.S. manufacturing capacity and (b) set up a foreign plant to replace the closed U.S. facility. He would punish movement. Setting aside the difficulty of monitoring this, this disadvantages firms that today employ U.S. workers, since movement is measured relative to your starting point.
- Any firm that does not now make gas furnaces in the U.S. could set up shop in Mexico, pay lower labor costs than Carrier, avoid an import tariff, and therefore have a significant cost advantage over Carrier. This firm could be U.S-based or foreign. The Trump import tariff would not apply to gas furnaces manufactured by these low cost competitors set up anew in Mexico, only to Carrier if they move capacity there from the U.S.
- More generally, any manufacturing firm that today employs Americans may now be at a competitive disadvantage, relative both to new firms and firms now employing cheaper foreign labor. If threatened by the Trump Administration, firms employing American workers must either pay higher labor costs than their competitors or face an import tariff their competitors will not face. In the hope of protecting American workers the President-elect is handicapping the firms that employ them.
- In attempting to protect the status quo, the President-elect’s threats (tariffs, jawboning, and unspecified other policy sticks) tell business leaders in the U.S. and around the world not to invest in new U.S. manufacturing capacity and not to expand their existing American plants. Why would any firm hire American workers, knowing that they would be penalized if they try to move out of the U.S. at any future time?
- We can see similar problems in Western Europe. There government policies make it harder for businesses to fire workers. As a result, managers hire fewer workers since they can’t correct their hiring mistakes or lay people off when times are tight. In the short run this looks compassionate but in the long run Europe has much higher unemployment than the U.S. Let’s not replicate the slow growth policy failures of Western Europe.
- Similarly, if you penalize American firms when they try to lay off employees and shut down manufacturing plants, you will help those employees in the short run but you will get less new investment and create fewer American manufacturing jobs in the long run. That’s bad, and the long-term losses to America are not worth the short-term gains. We should want to expand and attract new investment to the U.S., not just prevent what’s here from leaving.
- During the campaign, candidate Trump said he opposed (a) bad trade agreements negotiated by the U.S. government and (b) cheating by foreign governments and foreign firms. Neither is in play here. There is no claim that NAFTA disadvantages Carrier, nor that Carrier’s foreign competitors or Mexico are somehow cheating. Instead Mr. Trump is opposing free and fair competition. The playing field is level, the rules are fair and fairly enforced. Mexican workers are simply less expensive than American workers. By threatening retribution (his word) against firms that outsource American jobs without any mention of bad trade deals or cheating, the President-elect is now embracing straight-up protectionism.
- Abuse #1 (policy slippery slope) — After successfully pressuring firms not to outsource American workers, why not pressure them not to fire workers for any reason? Why not pressure them to meet other “legitimate” policy goals? This already happens with the force of law through fuel economy requirements, health insurance mandates, and affordable housing goals. The novelty here would be a President pressuring individual firms to meet his own arbitrary policy goals without any democratic process. When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.
- Abuse #2 (political selection criteria) — There are too many firms to pressure them all, so how will the new President choose? Over time he or his advisors will be increasingly tempted to pressure firms that employ workers in politically important regions before elections.
- Abuse #3 (others join the game) — Even if the President does this completely above board, he makes it easier for other elected officials to do the same but with less noble goals. Elected officials already do this with varying degrees of success. When the President does it he signals to other elected officials that this is appropriate and can be effective.
- Abuse #4 (crony capitalism) — Business leaders will try to curry favor with the President and his advisors so they can nibble on carrots and avoid sticks. Those who like the President and whom he likes will benefit, and vice versa. When a politician rewards his business friends and punishes his business enemies it’s called crony capitalism. It is corrupt and it creates incentives for other business leaders to spend their time and money trying to get similar political access with elected officials. And a firm leader now knows it can initiate a negotiation with the Trump Administration simply by threatening to outsource jobs.
In March I wrote:
I will not vote for Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. If he wins the nomination I will not vote for him for President.
This is not a tough call.
Donald Trump is an ignorant, unprincipled, amoral policy lightweight opposed to free market capitalism and limited government.
… Donald Trump is dangerous.
… Donald Trump acts like an eighth grade bully.
… Donald Trump lacks the character, the values, and the sound judgment essential to fulfill this awesome responsibility. He is unqualified and unfit to be President of the United States.
Over the past seven months Mr. Trump has repeatedly reaffirmed my March viewpoint. I continue to oppose Donald Trump and I will not vote for him for President. For me it’s a matter of conscience — I simply cannot vote for him no matter what the alternative or consequence. As I did in March, I again conclude that a President Trump would be a disaster for America, a danger to the world, and destructive of those values and ideas most important to me.
I find that this year I am not thinking of my vote as a choice between two bad alternatives. Maybe I should be; maybe I should vote for whichever major party candidate is less worse for America.
But I cannot. My mindset is more selfish: no one “deserves” my vote, especially if their principal case is a negative one. My vote is mine and you have to earn it by convincing me to vote for you, not just against your opponent. Has Mr. Trump earned my vote? No. OK, then has Secretary Clinton earned it?
Also no. Given my starting point it wouldn’t have taken much. I was gettable. She could have tacked back to the center in the general election rather than continuing to pander to her progressive base. She could have said something positive about free trade, or slowing entitlement spending growth, or keeping taxes low, or reducing the burdens on the private sector of an ever-expanding administrative state. She could have accepted responsibility for her past poor judgment and ethical lapses. She could have taken steps to show that she had learned from these mistakes and that she would not make similar ones in the future. She could have signaled that a Clinton presidency would sometimes be bipartisan, would occasionally be centrist, would always respect the rule of law and behave ethically.
Since she has done none of those things she has not earned my vote.
This means I’m stuck. Donald Trump must not become president but I cannot justify voting for Hillary Clinton. So a write-in it is for me—tomorrow I will write in Jeb Bush as I did in the California primary. I would vote for Clinton if she had tried just a little, so great is the threat that Trump poses. I comfort myself somewhat with this unsatisfying middle ground by remembering that my vote here in California is purely symbolic, and for once I am happy that I don’t live in a swing state.
I am not trying to tell you how to vote, and I respect others who are making different choices. I write this today simply because I want once again to be on record opposing Donald Trump while it still counts.
In Monday’s debate Secretary Clinton said:
We had the worst financial crisis, the Great Recession, the worst since the 1930s. That was in large part because of tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy, failed to invest in the middle class, took their eyes off of Wall Street, and created a perfect storm.
Supplementing Glenn Kessler’s excellent analysis in today’s Washington Post, let’s examine Secretary Clinton’s argument that the Bush tax cuts “in large part” caused the 2008 financial crisis.
The Kessler column cites Alan Kreuger and Simon Johnson, offered by the Clinton campaign to back up her argument. Neither does. Each defends his own reinterpretations of what she might have meant or could have said.
Folks on the left often have other reasons to oppose (or to have opposed) the Bush tax cuts, and I am happy to debate those points. Similarly, the argument that President Bush and Congressional Republicans “failed to invest in the middle class” is a common refrain. But those arguments are separable from whether these policies caused or contributed to the financial crisis. To me linking tax policy to the crisis is nonsensical, as is the “failed to invest in the middle class” causal linkage to the crisis. The “in large part” further amplifies her error.
Some (e.g., Simon Johnson) argue that higher debt levels restricted fiscal flexibility in responding to the crisis. I was enmeshed in the design, proposal, enactment, and initial implementation of all financial crisis rescue actions. With debt then at 38% of GDP, fiscal flexibility did not constrain our financial rescue efforts in the last months of the Bush Administration.
As Kessler points out, the same appears to be true for Team Obama’s big initial macroeconomic recovery effort, the early 2009 fiscal stimulus. Larry Summers’ December 15, 2008 transition memo to then president-elect Obama says their fiscal stimulus recommendation was constrained by their inability to figure out how to spend money any faster, not by debt levels.
More importantly, whether higher debt resulting from the Bush tax cuts (and other spending policies) constrained the response to the crisis is irrelevant, because Secretary Clinton claimed these policies caused the crisis, not that they made it harder for policymakers to respond once the crisis had occurred. “Tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy,” she argued, “created a perfect storm.”
Others argue: The Bush tax cuts increased high-end income, and increased income inequality —> increased purchase of mortgage-related lending by the rich –> credit/mortgage bubble –> over-leverage –> financial crisis.
There are at least two problems here.
- Income inequality has been increasing for more than three decades, and the housing bubble began in the late 90s, a few years before the initial round of Bush tax cuts. Her timing doesn’t work.
- The most prominent explanations for the 00s’ credit bubble point instead to some combination of increased global capital flows (mostly from China and oil-producing nations to the U.S. and Western Europe) and U.S. monetary policy. I have not seen anyone argue that in an open economy like ours the 2001 or 2003 tax cuts and resulting higher incomes for the rich caused either the credit bubble or the bubble in housing-related financial assets.
Many on the policy and political left argue the 2008 crisis was “Wall Street’s fault, stemming from greed, arrogance, stupidity, and misaligned incentives, especially in compensation structures.” Had she stuck with this argument Secretary Clinton would have been able to point to others who make similar arguments and she would have had a more defensible position (albeit one with which I still disagree). Senators Sanders and Warren, Brooksley Born, and Phil Angelides all fall into this camp.
Instead, her argument that fiscal policy “in large part … caused a perfect storm” broke new ground. I think this argument was politically driven and this new ground is intellectual quicksand.
U.S. fiscal policy, including the Bush tax cuts, did not cause or contribute to the 2008 financial crisis. Secretary Clinton was incorrect in arguing that it did.
In Pennsylvania today Donald Trump said, “When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.”
This is false. President Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel in 2002. A month ago the Obama Administration imposed duties on Chinese steel of more than 200 percent and up to 92 percent on steel imported from South Korea, Italy, India, and Taiwan.
Steel is an intermediate good. When you raise protectionist barriers against imported steel as Mr. Trump threatens, you temporarily help U.S. steelworkers. You also raise input prices for American firms that use steel to build bridges and buildings and make cars, and trucks, trains and train tracks, appliances, ships, farm equipment, drilling rigs and power plants, and tools and packaging. Higher input costs hurt American workers in those factories and on those construction sites.
Mr. Trump should ask the workers who make dishwashers at Whirlpool’s plant in Findlay, Ohio whether they’re in favor of more expensive steel. Or he can ask the John Deere workers who use steel at their factories in Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Or the auto workers at almost any U.S. car and truck assembly line. Raising prices for imported steel hurts all of these American workers.
Yes, the Chinese are selling steel in the U.S. at a low price, called “dumping.” Yes, this hurts the owners and employees of U.S. steel manufacturers. It also helps many other American workers and even more American consumers. And the Obama Administration is using the tools in current law to respond to the Chinese actions.
Trump: “A Trump Administration will also ensure that that we start using American steel for American infrastructure. … We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country. This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.”
No, it won’t, and the downside is it would cost taxpayers more. Put another way, any given amount of tax dollars will build less infrastructure. We’ll repair fewer bridges but, by golly, the fixed ones will have American steel. I’d rather get the best value for every tax dollar we spend on infrastructure, thus ensuring we fix as many bridges as possible.
Mr. Trump’s lines may sound good in steel country, but his policies would harm other American workers, drivers, and taxpayers. On the whole Donald Trump’s steel policy would be bad for America.
I will not vote for Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. If he wins the nomination I will not vote for him for President.
This is not a tough call.
Donald Trump is an ignorant, unprincipled, amoral policy lightweight opposed to free market capitalism and limited government.
- His ignorance of economic and national security issues is breathtaking. He makes up most of his policy views on the fly in interviews. He knows far less about policy than does a regular Wall Street Journal reader, and he cannot hold a coherent in-depth conversation about the economy or America’s role in the world. I don’t expect him to be a national security expert but it would be nice if a future commander-in-chief understood the strategic importance of NATO rather than thinking of it as a potential revenue source. In transcripts of two recent interviews he reminds me of students who try to answer questions in class when they have not done the reading. He is faking it on policy, and not that well.
- He is not doing his homework. I don’t blame him (much) for starting his campaign as a policy novice. Yet he appears to be no better informed today than when his campaign began. Policy is serious, hard work. He shows no interest and no effort in learning anything about the issues and decisions he might face as President. As a result he babbles in interviews, avoids Q&A sessions with voters, and changes the subject whenever he is stumped (several times per interview on average). He should be improving over time and he’s not. Even if he intends to reject the advice of experts and be an outside-the-box thinker, he should at a minimum understand what he is rejecting and where that will lead him.
- His policy views are cartoon-like when not entirely absent. Shouting STRENGTH is not a policy. His views seem to be unmoored by any intellectual structure or philosophical approach. He is unprincipled: he appears to view the world through dual lenses of transactions and of people he likes and dislikes. He treats other nations as competing firms and acts as if America’s only overseas interest is in maximizing revenue streams paid by foreign governments. His fiscal solutions are to cut waste, fraud, and abuse and to get other nations to pay America for military protection. He wants to disengage from the Middle East, destroy ISIS, and take Iraqi oil. America faces far more important questions than who will pay for a wall, and economic policy is more than renegotiating trade agreements.
- He promises strong but amoral leadership. He promises to make America great again, but great alone is insufficient. America must also be good. A President’s job is in part to make value choices and he cannot explain his values. I know what the other nominees think a good America looks like. All I know about Mr. Trump’s America is that it will have a huge wall and new trade deals.
- To the extent he has expressed views on economic policy I strongly disagree with them. I want to like his tax cuts but at some magnitude you also have to propose accompanying spending cuts. He threatens a global trade war while I am a free trader. By ruling out changes to Social Security and Medicare he would guarantee massive future tax increases. He has supported single payer health care reform. He boasts that he would order firm leaders to build their factories in the U.S. and then threatens to punish them if they do not. Business leaders, not politicians, should be deciding where to invest their firm’s capital. He seems to think of the federal government as a big firm; it’s not. I have yet to see an instance of a policy view from him consistent with free market capitalism and limited government intervention in the economy.
Donald Trump is dangerous.
- He has created conditions at his rallies that led to violence, then winked after it occurred, encouraging even more. He is not solely responsible for this outcome. Left-wing provocateurs are the flint while he provides the tinder. Together they spark violent outbursts. Part of being a political leader is taking responsibility to tamp this down whether or not you caused it. Instead he escalates.
- He seeks out and provokes conflict. So far he has alienated 1.6 billion Muslims and he got into an argument with the leader of 1.25 billion Catholics. He claims to be a counterpuncher but kicked off his campaign by labeling most Mexicans as rapists. That was not a counterpunch. Every day he is in a new fight. In a political campaign this is dispiriting. In the Oval Office this behavior would place American lives at risk.
- He sounds like a tyrant. I worry he could (try to) become one. His instincts and rhetoric lean authoritarian. He praises foreign despots and characterizes their repression of dissent as strength. I question his commitment to freedom and the rule of law.
- His poor judgment and lack of self discipline are astonishing. He could start a war by acci-tweet. I will not vote to give control of nuclear weapons and the world’s most powerful military to a man who trolls on Twitter after midnight.
Donald Trump acts like a eighth grade bully.
- He is vulgar.
- He mistakes bullying for strength.
- He is bigoted—against women, against certain religions and nationalities. This is not political incorrectness. Mel Brooks movies and George Carlin skits are politically incorrect. Donald Trump’s insults are just crude and self-serving. Whether he is actually bigoted or just playing to the crowd is irrelevant. The effect is the same and some people will follow his repulsive lead.
- He lies frequently and apparently without compunction. To support his views he cites as evidence “I read it on the internet.”
- He personalizes every professional disagreement, smears his opponents with innuendo, and facilitates others who do the same. No matter who is the counter party, public arguments with him invariably finish at a lower level than they began. He drags all of us down into the muck.
I had no idea how difficult the job of president was until I saw it up close. For more than six years and through hundreds of briefings I helped advise a president and coordinate the implementation of his economic policy decisions. A successful president must be smart, disciplined, and tireless. He or she has to use expertise effectively and to make sound decisions based on core principles and values. At the same time being president is not just about effectiveness and efficiency, it’s also about moral leadership and character.
Donald Trump lacks the character, the values, and the sound judgment essential to fulfill this awesome responsibility. He is unqualified and unfit to be President of the United States.
I have not written publicly in a year. I guess it’s time.
Last night on the CNN debate in Flint, Michigan, Secretary Clinton said of Senator Sanders,
I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.
The Michigan primary is tomorrow so this is a big deal. I have no dog in a primary fight between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders.
During the time in question I was serving as Director of the White House National Economic Council staff for President Bush and was heavily involved in this issue.
Here is the full Clinton quote:
CLINTON: Well — well, I’ll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. He was against the auto bailout. In January of 2009, President-Elect Obama asked everybody in the Congress to vote for the bailout.
The money was there, and had to be released in order to save the American auto industry and four million jobs, and to begin the restructuring. We had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry.
He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.
Now let me get back to what happened in January of 2009. The Bush administration negotiated the deal. Were there things in it that I didn’t like? Would I have done it differently? Absolutely.
But was the auto bailout money in it — the $350 billion that was needed to begin the restructuring of the auto industry? Yes, it was. So when I talk about Senator Sanders being a one-issue candidate, I mean very clearly — you have to make hard choices when you’re in positions of responsibility. The two senators from Michigan stood on the floor and said, “we have to get this money released.” I went with them, and I went with Barack Obama. You did not. If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking four million jobs with it.
While she gets a few details wrong, Secretary Clinton’s story is roughly correct right up until you get to her punchline. Then she blows it. In addition she ignores a more important vote from six weeks earlier in which she and Senator Sanders voted the same way, in favor of helping the auto industry.
Secretary Clinton’s attack misleads Michigan voters and others who supported the auto loans. She is playing semantic games in an attempt to create a policy difference where none exists.
As with all things Clinton, you have to parse her phrasing carefully. The sleight-of-hand is quite clever.
Three votes matter:
- On October 1, 2008, Senator Clinton voted for TARP while Senator Sanders voted against it. TARP became law.
- On December 11, 2008, Senators Clinton and Sanders both voted for cloture on the motion to proceed to a bill to provide loans to the auto industry, a Senate attempt to marry up legislation with a bill passed by the House the previous day. That cloture vote failed and the bill died.
- On January 15, 2009, Senator Clinton voted against a resolution of disapproval to release the second $350 B of TARP funds while Senator Sanders voted for this resolution. The vote failed and the resolution died, thus allowing the full TARP funding to be used by President Obama and his team when they took over. This is the vote she highlighted last night.
There are two key legislative realities to understand about these three votes.
- The first and third votes were principally about TARP and not about auto loans. The second vote, the December vote on which Clinton and Sanders agreed, was clearly about the auto industry.
- The January vote was substantively meaningless since everyone knew that President Bush would have vetoed the resolution had it passed, and that he could have easily sustained his veto. This vote was symbolic, not substantive.
From a Michigan perspective Senator Sanders cast one “wrong” vote that in hindsight was essential to helping the auto industry: he voted against TARP in September 2008 while she voted for it. Had TARP not become law there would not have been funds available for the initial Bush auto loans in late December or for the Obama auto loans the following spring. The logic Secretary Clinton used last night applies well to her September 2008 vote, which differed from that of her primary opponent.
But the logic applies to that vote only when we look at its practical effect in hindsight. At the time no one anticipated using TARP funds for the auto industry so she cannot argue that Senator Sanders chose in September not to help Detroit. Since she did not mention the September vote last night, she did not make this mistake, but we’ll see that she did make a variant of it when characterizing the January vote.
On the vote most directly applicable to the auto industry, the one in December, Senators Clinton and Sanders voted the same way: aye. They can both legitimately argue that with these votes they explicitly chose to try to help Michigan. Despite their votes that legislation failed, leading to President Bush’s decision shortly thereafter to use TARP funds for auto loans.
By mid January the initial round of TARP loans to GM, Chrysler, and their finance companies was underway. We (the Bush team) coordinated with the Obama team to have President Bush trigger release of the second $350 B of TARP funds in his last few days, a mechanism in the TARP law enacted three months prior. We did this before January 20th so President Obama would have the additional funds available on day one if a crisis struck, and so that he didn’t have to take the political hit for vetoing a resolution of disapproval if necessary.
That release triggered the resolution of disapproval mechanism we created in the TARP law. In theory this process would allow the Congress to stop release of the second $350 B by enacting a resolution of disapproval. In practice everyone knew this was impossible. Even if the House and Senate had passed the resolution (and we were confident they would not), President Bush would have quickly vetoed it and we let people know that. To override that veto would have required more than two-thirds of the House and more than two-thirds of the Senate. That scenario wasn’t just infeasible, it was legislatively impossible. Every Senator voting on the resolution of disapproval knew, with certainty, that their vote would not have any practical effect on the release of the second $350 B or the funds available for banks, President Obama’s subsequent mortgage relief, or a second round of auto loans.
This is the key to understanding Secretary Clinton’s sleight-of-hand last night. She is technically correct when she said, “If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking four million jobs with it.” If every House and Senate member had voted to disapprove the release of these funds, then a Bush veto would have been overridden and there would have been no funds available for a second round of auto loans.
But in practice these votes were symbolic rather than substantive, and they were symbolically about TARP, not auto loans. Only now, in hindsight, can she frame them as having been about the auto industry. I am glad she voted symbolically the way she did, in support of and defense of TARP, and I disapprove of Senator Sanders’ no vote. But it is absurd for her to claim both that with this vote Senators Sanders chose not to help the auto industry, and that this January no vote could have had any practical negative effect on Michigan.
Upon careful examination her quote is quite carefully constructed. “I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”
A fair reading instead would be:
- She voted in September 2008 for legislation to rescue the global financial system while he voted against it. Although no one knew it at the time, they later learned this vote provided the funds essential to save GM and Chrysler from collapse.
- In December 2008 they both voted for legislation specifically aimed at helping the auto industry. That legislation failed.
- In January 2009 she cast a substantively meaningless but symbolically important vote supporting TARP while he cast a parallel vote opposing TARP. That vote had no practical effect on the auto industry, and at the time was not framed as a choice to help or not help autos. She is now misleadingly reinterpreting it as a substantively important vote against the auto industry and the State of Michigan.
I hope this clarifies things a bit.