Looking Back, Looking Forward

It’s been quite a year. Here I take a quick look back at a few of the stories I wrote about last year and expect to follow next year.

Like everyone else, I was surprised and shaken by the election result. It seemed clear enough to EP – if not to the editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker – that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton fair and square, winning the supposedly safe states of the Old Northwest – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio – as well as Pennsylvania and Florida. The Russian cyber-mischief that was gradually revealed to have taken place throughout the year was interesting mainly as a gauge of Vladimir Putin’s mood and expectations. He, too, was expecting Clinton, whom he loathed, to win. Not even Trump, I suspected, seriously expected to emerge victorious.

That Russian interference tipped the scale didn’t seem plausible.  Neither did the proposition that James Comey altered the election outcome with his last-minute disclosure that a few more Clinton emails had been discovered, his hand having been forced by rebellious FBI agents. Nor was I especially worried about the clumsy attempts at collusion that had been made by various actors before the election, except as an index of their intentions (though the possibility of obstruction of justice charges against the president now seem very real).  It was the opportunities for mischief going forward that gave me pause, given the myriad conflicts that existed with the president’s business dealings: the emoluments clause writ large.

For that reason, I was especially interested in the FBI, especially after President Trump fired Comey, and the now former director reported the president’s repeated requests that he discontinue the investigation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The dissension that clearly existed within the ranks of the law enforcement agency at the time of the election still hasn’t come to the fore, but that is a tribute to the leadership under directors Comey and successor Christopher Wray. Their determination to prevent the president from rewarding his allies in the Bureau helps explain their swift transfer of agent Peter Strzok out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office over the summer, after text messages he wrote criticizing then-candidate Donald Trump came to light. The pursuit of even-handedness requires being equally tough on both factions.

The principle of banding together to stabilize governmental affairs is apparent on a broader front.  John Hudson, star diplomatic reporter for BuzzFeed, in October surfaced a report of a so-called “suicide pact” among Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whereby each agreed to leave in the event that the president moves against one of them. Add the nomination of Jerome Powell to a four-year term as chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and Trump is, at least in certain respects his administration, so far, an ordinary Republican president.

Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency? If you believe the science underlying the concern about climate change, as I do, then the Trump-Bannon wing of the Republican Party is doomed to extinction as the ill effects of global warming become inarguable and, alas, in many instances, irreversible.  Health care?  The next Congress will begin the arduous task of remedying the effects of a decade of GOP sabotage. Monetary policy once again will soon be at center stage. Of the two candidates for nomination as Fed vice-chair whose interviews have been announced, both are moderate: Richard Clarida, of Columbia University, studied under Benjamin Friedman at Harvard; Lawrence Lindsey, of the Lindsey Group, was a Martin Feldstein protégé there two years later.

Meanwhile, foreign policy, at least toward Russia, remains gripped by a kind of paralysis, as symbolized by the President’s inability to establish a joint cyber- security unit with Russia, as reported last summer by Reuters. BuzzFeed’s Hudson reported earlier this month on the collapse of broader secret talks with Russia. Thus both nations face important elections with no explicit common ground. That is all the more reason for both parties to rethink their foreign policy premises as they prepare for the US 2020 presidential election campaign. That’s where EP plans to spend some time when not writing about the economics profession. Onward and upward to 2018!

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