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Richard Nixon

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Donald Trump and Groucho Marx

“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them…Well, I have others.”
Groucho Marx

The odds have lengthened against a Donald Trump presidency after his Wisconsin defeat, and they were probably already ten-to-one against. If he wins the Republican nomination, which is still very likely, he will almost certainly face Hillary Clinton in the November election, and lose badly.

Or at least that is the orthodox calculation, for Trump is far behind Clinton with key voter groups like women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people who bother to vote. But she is an uninspiring campaigner, she is the ultimate Washington insider in a season where insiders are out, and there are a few skeletons that might come rattling out of her closet during the campaign. A big terrorist attack could also change the odds.

So President Donald Trump is still a small but real possibility. You wouldn’t be a fool to put a dollar down if somebody offered you twelve-to-one odds. That frightens a lot of people quite badly, especially when it comes to foreign policy, for he is the loosest of loose cannons – or so it seems.

There he goes, starting a trade war with China, pushing Japan and South Korea to get their own nuclear weapons, trashing NATO, building a wall to keep Mexicans out, and closing the US border to all Muslims. He’s even in favour of torturing suspected terrorists. But would he really be as rash and ignorant in the White House as he is while in campaign mode?

All of his present positions are calculated to appeal to the group whose support he must win to get the Republican nomination: “angry white men” who feel that they have been cheated of their right to a good job and a central role in American politics by unseen economic and demographic forces and clever, wicked foreigners. The internal politics of the Republican Party is now largely dominated by their concerns.

Trump is so focussed on getting their support that he even opposes the traditional Republican policies that have contributed to their marginalisation and impoverishment: free trade, low taxes for the rich, deep cuts in welfare programmes. And he gets away with it, although no other Republican candidate would.

Once Trump wins the nomination, however, he must appeal to a broader audience to win the election, and he is a past master at changing his tune. Five years ago his publicly declared principles would have qualified him to run for the Democratic presidential nomination – but, like Groucho Marx, he can come up with other principles in a flash when it serves his interests.

Take abortion rights: five years ago he defended women’s right to choose, last week he wanted to jail women if they chose abortion – and in the face of a public outcry, he rapidly retreated and said he just wanted to punish the doctors who did the abortions. Whatever the audience wants, it gets.

Once the Republican nomination is in the bag and the audience Trunp must address a broader audience to win the election, he will have to shift his ground, and he will do it. (The angry white men will just have to tag along, because they have nowhere else to go.) Then, if he should win the election, he might change his policies again. Who is the real Donald Trump?

The answer is that there is no real Donald Trump, in terms of policies and principles. He will do anything and say anything to get what he wants – but beyond being elected president, it isn’t clear that he wants anything in particular. If ideologues frighten you, then you needn’t worry about the Donald.

What does legitimately frighten people about Donald Trump is his ignorance (which is not just a show to appeal to his current audience) and his impulsiveness. On the other hand, he is actually quite intelligent, and as president he would have to rely on military officers and civil servants who really do not want to uproot and overturn everything. Moreover, they can generally block or sabotage truly stupid decisions, if that becomes necessary.

The result might be a presidency with a foreign policy like Richard Nixon’s: paranoid, unscrupulous, but not ideological at all and not given to needless provocations on the international scene. The trickiest bit would be Trump’s first few months in office, because he has definitely frightened the horses internationally and they are getting ready to bolt.

It is hard to overstate just how frightened other governments are about Trump in the White House. The word “fascist” gets used a lot in private even by national leaders, and of course it used publicly every day by the mass media in most other countries. Perhaps the biggest danger is that America’s allies and enemies would react preemptively to his rhetoric without waiting to see what he actually does in office.

So, on mature reflection, it really would be a very bad idea for Trump to become the president of the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Trump…would”; and “Take…gets”)

Oil: $100 a Barrel — or $200?

29 July 2007

Oil: $100 a Barrel — or $200?

By Gwynne Dyer

Nine of the last ten serious downturns in the world economy followed a spike in the price of oil, and we are heading for another spike, with oil back up near the peak of $78..40 a gallon that it reached almost exactly a year ago. A record number of options contracts are now being sold that entitle customers to buy oil in the future at $100 a barrel. That tells you where the inside players think the price of oil is heading, since those options will only be of value if the price were actually above $100 a barrel.

That is the price that Goldman Sachs, the world’s biggest brokerage house, predicted oil would reach by 2009. However, one big negative headline — further disruption of supplies from Nigeria or Iraq, say — and oil could be trading at over $100 a barrel by next month. But the concern is not really about oil prices. It’s about what more expensive oil will do to the world economy, and the professional optimists are still optimistic.

The spike at $78.40 in July, 2006 didn’t cause a recession, so why should this one? Indeed, why would even $100 a barrel cause a global economic crisis, given that one hundred US dollars today is only worth about the same in most other currencies as $78.40 was a year ago?

Oil sales are almost all denominated in US dollars, which are worth almost a third less in euros, pounds or yen than they were two years ago, so the countries of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), are not rolling in sudden wealth. The oil exporters spend most of their income in other currencies, so from their point of view the recent surge in the oil price only restores the purchasing power that they lost over the past two years due to the US dollar’s slide.

More importantly, most of the big importers of oil in the industrialised world are not really paying much more for oil than they were two years ago. The rising dollar price has been largely cancelled out by the fall in the value of the dollar, so it’s not really busting their budgets.

American consumers are feeling victimised, but they get little sympathy in the Middle Eastern countries that dominate OPEC, as most of these governments believe that President Bush’s invasion of Iraq has made their neighbourhood a far more dangerous place. OPEC is not going to pump more oil out of gratitude for Mr Bush’s policies.

As for the steep fall in the value of the US dollar, that’s what happens to your currency when you try to fight an expensive foreign war without raising taxes at home (as Richard Nixon found out over Vietnam in 1971.) Seventy-six dollars a barrel will not cause world economic growth to stall — and even $100 a barrel might not do so. But will it stop there?

What is really significant about the current surge in the price of oil is that it has NOT been driven by some apparently apocalyptic crisis like the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 or the Iranian revolution. (Neither event was actually all that apocalyptic, in retrospect, but the markets don’t do long-term perspective.) We have got three-quarters of the way to $100 a barrel without a crisis, driven simply by stagnant production and soaring demand in the big Asian economies. We could get the rest of the way on a rumour, and the price rise would not necessarily stop there.

The truly significant change in the situation is the stagnation of supply, not the rise in demand. New oil-fields are much smaller than discoveries in the previous generation (the last really big oil domain to be developed was the North Sea in the 1970s), and they tend to be in much more remote places.

The number of new deep-sea drilling rigs now under construction is almost equal to the total number that currently exist in the world (seventy). When you have to look for new oil at depths of over 1,500 metres (5,000 ft.) under the sea, or coax it out of the tar-sands of northern Alberta by equally expensive techniques, the era of plentiful cheap oil is definitely over.

OPEC is squeezing supply a bit to keep the price high, but its members are pumping close to capacity and only Saudi Arabia is putting in major new production capability. Non-OPEC oil output is predicted to stay flat for the next five years. It may not really be “peak oil” yet, but at the least we are seeing a lot of phenomena that mimic that time.

If the American mortgage crisis does not tumble the global economy into a recession, Asian demand will go on growing until the oil price does it. At $100 a barrel if we’re lucky — or via a detour through $200 a barrel if Dick Cheney decides to attack Iran.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“That is…optimistic”;and “As for…there.”)