The no-brainer chronicles

The Trump plan to Make America Great Again consists of some wonderfully simple ideas. One revenue-neutral plank is, for instance, to take taxes off exports, and put them on imports instead. (NB, there is no such thing as “revenue-neutral” in politics.) This will have a positive effect on the trade balance, while usefully smashing up a generation or more of international trade agreements. I selected it for this morning’s smile because, I’m neither for nor against. Better than that, I probably don’t have the right to an opinion, beyond: he got elected, let’s just watch. Perhaps thirty-seven years ago, I might have had the patience and current knowledge to analyse the proposed measures in detail, and guess at consequences ignored and unforeseen.

On the face of it, today, I can only say there are advantages and disadvantages to having a crass businessman in charge of your country, as opposed to, say, a malicious idiot from the political Left. On the other hand, it must be conceded that both my Iron Law of Paradox, and my Paradoxical Law of Irony, come bigly into play, and I recall the historical fields of carnage that followed from “no-brainers” of the past.

Put it this way. There are unexpected, and often devastating consequences to tampering with the market in any given way. And the same is true of tampering in the opposite way. It should not be the function of the government to play favourites, and the more it insists on playing “us versus them,” the more complicated our lives become in the subsequent fallout. Which is not to say that Trump started it. Indeed, he appears to be trying to match the existing nationalist policies of China, Mexico, &c, tit-for-tat.

Here is where I always disagreed, with pretty much everybody. A nation state is, with certain exceptions such as Kiribati, a very large entity. A modern “nanny state” is conducted on a scale beyond anyone’s comprehension. The single measure that might be good for a given town in, say, West Virginia, cannot possibly be good for another in Idaho, and adds debilitating paperwork at both ends. Meanwhile, the scale of the regulation is so great, that small family operators right across the country, lacking huge resources for lobbying and propaganda, will inevitably be scrood. For the truth is big guvmint and big bidnis interface only with each other.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I scrapped into one of these “no-brainer” political deals. The remains of the locomotive manufacturing business in Kingston, Ontario — whose century-old products I had glimpsed, still on the rails in India — were now on the block. A monster German corporation was offering to buy them, for the very purpose of competing, in Canada, with a (hugely subsidized, monopolist) Canadian corporation. The government stepped in, to “save” a Canadian industry, retroactively change the ground rules, and kick in more subsidies so that the Canadian monopolists, based in Montreal, could take over instead. This was accompanied by nationalist rhetoric, and Kingston was thrilled. Critics like me were unofficially deflected with bigoted anti-German blather held over from the last World War.

But I knew exactly what was going to happen. The local works, which would have been expanded by the foreign owner, were soon closed by the new Canadian owner, after studies had been commissioned to “prove” it was uneconomic. The latter’s last possible domestic competitor was thus snuffed out. The locals, whose lives had been for generations part of a proud Kingston enterprise, had been suckered. The politicians had told them it was little Canada versus big Germany. In reality, it was pretty little Kingston versus big ugly Montreal.

That is how the world works, with politics, so that whenever I hear of a big new national no-brainer scheme, my first thought is, which innocents are getting mooshed today?