The first week of the Trump administration has already produced some striking shifts in policy. In more normal times, you would expect an incoming administration that only won the electoral college via 100,000 votes across three states, and lost the popular vote by millions, would proceed more slowly and with more care. The administration is acting as if they had overwhelming support for their positions. To the extent that any politician can claim a mandate for action, and I am very skeptical that there are ever legitimate claims to a mandate, this is far from such a situation. This is even more remarkable given the historical unpopularity of this President.
George W. Bush entered office under similarly contentious circumstances, but remained generally popular throughout his first 100 days. The most contentious of his initial actions was probably the reversal of Clinton-era environmental protections and the abandonment of the Kyoto protocols. His other major accomplishments in the first 100 days were a 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut and No Child Left Behind, both of which were passed through legislative means.
In contrast, even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the Trump administration seems prepared to govern through executive actions from the start. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:
First there is the order to ‘build the wall’ (more on that in a second). There is also an order that limits agents’ responses to catching people at the border, basically limiting them to detention or deportation.
Some perspective. This all seems very odd, given that 1) the number of people crossing the border is at historic lows, 2) the majority of which are no longer Mexicans, but asylum seekers from Central and South America, and 3) the fence that was built during the Bush administration seems to have done a pretty good job already of reducing flow of people.
Along these lines, as of this writing four additional executive orders have leaked to the press. Among these is a travel ban that bars anyone from several countries from entering the US as well as a suspension of refugee admission and reduction of total refugee allowance per year from 110,00 to 50,000. Notably, the list of countries on the travel ban excludes countries where the Trump Organization has business and where actual terrorists who actually killed people on 9/11 were from, and includes countries (like Iraq) that the US is responsible for creating the conditions people are trying to escape from.
Apparently the administration will also be publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants; whether the list would include legal immigrants as well was left unclear. I find this truly disturbing. As far as the best evidence shows, immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, do not commit a disproportionate share of crime. I think the potential for abuse of such a precedent is clear.
If we were in the midst of some sort of crisis, I could understand taking immediate action. If there were millions of people coming across the border every year, committing huge amounts of crime, yes, this would be a problem, and an administration would be justified in upping the ante. But as the facts stand, this whole line of action seems very strange.
‘The wall’ was one of Trump’s signature campaign themes, along with a promise to have Mexico pay for it. As noted above, border crossings from Mexico are at an all time low. The existing fence seems to be doing its job well enough:
Putting that to the side, the method for Mexico paying for the wall was floated at this: a 20% tax on imports from Mexico, which was quickly walked back as merely one possibility (Trump himself seemed to have no understanding of the matter). To an economist, this is patently absurd: a tax on imports is paid by the importers, i.e. US consumers and businesses. In fact, since much of what is imported from Mexico is intermediate and investment goods, this would also end up hurting American exporters.
The 2017 ACA enrollment period ends January 31st, and the last week typically has had the most sign ups (since we all tend to put things off until the last minute). As such, the government had a program of TV ad buys, as well as emails, reminding people to sign up before the deadline. Yet, the White House has suddenly cancelled all advertising, including ads that were already paid for. Given that insurance companies depend upon the young and healthy (who tend to be the last minute purchasers) to turn a profit, this action seems like a deliberate attempt to sabotage the marketplace.
Federal Hiring Freeze:
Another odd action was an order freezing the size of the federal work force. The number of federal workers, as a share of total employment, is at historic lows, and in terms of sheer numbers has been fairly stable for quite some time. I understand that many people feel the federal government is too large, but the number of government workers is not a problem.
This is a graph total number of government employees (federal, state, local) in blue, and share of government workers as a fraction of all employees. There is no trend of ‘out of control’ growth in the size of government. If you solely look at federal workers, that number has been hovering around two million and change for several decades.
As this piece convincingly argues, freezing federal hiring just means more money will go into the hands of unaccountable contractors. I share a belief in limited government, but flashy actions like this hiring freeze this do far more harm than good.
Inauguration/ VOTER FRAUD:
So far, most of the actions taken have been what probably any Republican would have done in the presidency (excepting the wall). But the bizarre dust up over the size of the inauguration over the past week, as well as unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud, has been truly beyond the pale. In his first morning in office, Trump insisted that the National Park Service Director provide photos that proving that there were, “a million, million and a half” people at his inauguration. Apparently Trump doesn’t understand how visual perspective works, or rather, his ego won’t allow him. I have been to all three inaugurations since 2009, and this was definitely smaller than both of Obama’s. The photos circulating of the Trump crowd size accurately reflect what I saw.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Trump hadn’t had his press secretary convene a special press conference, with prop photos from the inauguration dais, to declare that this was the biggest inauguration ever, period. At the next press meeting, the press secretary tried to walk this back by insisting they were including television and online views, but 1) that is not the impression you get from watching the initial conference and 2) there is no good evidence this is true, either.
Then there is the ‘voter fraud’. Apparently, the President, who won, truly believes the only reason he lost the popular vote is because of widespread voter fraud. Of course, there is no evidence of this, and I find the voter fraud talking point to be one of the strangest of the last several years. Many people fervently believe it though, despite having no empirical basis; I suspect this is because a select few media outlets have been pushing the meme incessantly.
It may be easy to dismiss these last two incidents as minor personality hang ups, but in a real crisis this is a very frightening disposition to have: an inability to weight the veracity of competing narratives, an inability to consider that you may be wrong, an inability to set ego to the side.
I haven’t even gotten into the unresolved conflicts of interest and the continued refusal to release his tax returns, but that will have to wait until another time. Overall, this first week was both aggressive and chaotic, and showed little sign of the supposed business acumen that many believed Trump would bring to the office. Instead, the White House spent its first week operating like a very badly run business; should we expect anything more?