Putting the Government Shutdown in Context

If you want to understand why our partial government shutdown is now the longest in history, all you have to do is read this one article in The New York Times. Its title is “In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos”.

Throughout his career, the supposed master of negotiation has followed the same pattern over and over again. Make demands, ignore advice, refuse to compromise and don’t worry about any damage done. All that matters is being “the winner”:

Quote:

Three decades ago, [Trump] waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become [Trump’s] third Atlantic City casino. Executives at [his] company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil [Trump] fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, [he] has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, [he] has insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos….

“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for [him] in the 1980s …

[The president] briefly seemed to follow a more conventional approach for a president seeking consensus: encouraging his party leaders in Congress to negotiate a deal. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, shepherded a compromise in December that would have kept the government open and put off negotiations over a wall and other border security measures.

[Trump] was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception [he] could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business …

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed [Trump’s] business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning…

“I think he was always a terrible negotiator,” said Tony Schwartz, co-author … of The Art of the Deal.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be [Trump’s autobiography]. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of [Trump] as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched [Trump] seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, [Trump’s] “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used a hammer, deceit, relentlessness and an absence of conscience as a formula for getting what he wanted”…

In recent weeks, … his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney … pursued a rather standard tactic in ending the impasse over border security and a wall: He tried to find middle ground between the $1.3 billion to which Democrats had once agreed, and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion. But upon learning of Mr. Mulvaney’s efforts, [Trump] snarled in front of a crowded room that Mr. Mulvaney had [“fucked it all up”] …

During his years in business, [Trump] earned a reputation as someone whose word meant very little. When a commitment he made no longer made sense, he walked away, often blaming the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning.

To win financing from Deutsche Bank to build a Trump Hotel in Chicago, for example, [he] personally guaranteed $40 million of the debt. When he could not make his payments during the 2008 financial crisis, Deutsche Bank executives were open to granting him more time to repay the loan, a person briefed on negotiations later recalled.

But before a compromise could be reached, [Trump] flipped the script. He filed a lawsuit and argued that the bank had helped cause the worldwide financial meltdown that essentially rendered [him] unable to make his debt payments. At the time, Deutsche Bank called the lawsuit “classic Trump.”

The bank eventually settled…. [Trump] expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill….

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, [Trump] left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued him for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. [Trump] recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

[Trump] has claimed [absurdly] that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them…

During his years in business, [Trump] rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But [Trump] blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, [he] has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

End quote.

Our president has taken 800,000 federal workers and thousands of contractors and private businesses hostage. The Democrats in Congress have done what they can to reopen the government. They have also told the president that they will negotiate border security once everyone is back at work and being paid. Either the president or Congressional Republicans (without the president’s involvement) can end the shutdown. But they have to be willing to see reason and give up their hostages first.

A Different View of “Peace For Our Time”

The recent deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program evoked lots of references to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiating with Hitler in 1938. Chamberlain infamously came back from Munich, waved a “scrap of paper” and promised “peace for [not “in”] our time”. Germany immediately absorbed part of Czechoslovakia and eleven months later invaded Poland.

How could Chamberlain have been such a fool? If only he had stood up to Hitler! Was he a coward? What happened in Munich was appeasement at its worst.

chamberlain-plane-ticket-pic-collect-178249005

As is often the case with famous or infamous historical events, the common view isn’t necessarily correct. Historians who suggest a new interpretation of the past are called “revisionists”. Sometimes they’re right, especially when their revisions are based on new evidence.

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the standard view of the Munich Agreement, but, according to this article at Salon:

… among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular,” explains David Dutton, a British historian who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “The evidence was so overwhelming,” he says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain “couldn’t do anything other than what he did” at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, “the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of Chamberlain.

The author suggests several reasons why, in his opinion, Chamberlain made the right decision: (1) most historians believe the British military wasn’t prepared for war with Germany in 1938; (2) Chamberlain’s military advisors told him that British forces couldn’t stop Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, but could eventually defeat Germany given time to prepare; (3) by 1938, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were no longer required to participate in a British war; (4) the Soviet Union was considered a potential enemy, not an ally; (5) America’s neutrality laws made it unlikely that America would join the fight; (6) although France was a likely major ally, British authorities had a very low opinion of France’s unstable government and the French military; (7) the British public, still traumatized by World War I, was strongly in favor of negotiation; (8) preserving the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia wasn’t seen as justification for war, partly because Czechoslovakia had only existed for 20 years and many ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia wanted to be part of a Germany; (9) the British generally believed that Hitler was similar to Mussolini, a fascist leader they knew, who was “more bravado than substance”.

The Munich agreement between the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy was greeted in Britain as a success: “cheering crowds filled the streets and the press rejoiced”. The French reaction was similar. When Germany took more of Czechoslovakia six months later, however, Chamberlain realized that war was inevitable, increased the pace of British rearmament and instituted Britain’s first peacetime draft.

Maybe Chamberlain and his supporters should have known better. After all, some of the British, as well as observers in other countries, correctly predicted that Hitler’s ultimate goal was the subjugation of Europe. We know the rest.

Still, it’s impossible to say whether Hitler would have been stopped sooner or more easily if Chamberlain (and the French president Daladier) had never made a deal in Munich. Nick Baumann, the author of the Salon article, concludes:

The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his people didn’t support?

At any rate, removing some economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the same as letting Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. 

By the way, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, the book I’ve been writing about recently, argues that we can learn nothing from history, since circumstances are always changing. In other words, history is bunk. But that’s consistent with his view that science is the only true path to knowledge. A more reasonable view is that there are recurring patterns in history, even if history doesn’t repeat itself. Looking back, it’s reasonable to conclude that negotiation is generally better than war.