Yesterday President Obama launched a six-minute “rant” on Donald Trump and the meaning of “populism.” (More)

“That’s not the measure of populism”

CBS News’ Rebecca Shabad reports:

After reporters asked a series of questions of Mr. Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mr. Obama decided he had something else to say in Ottawa – he addressed the common theme of populism raised during the event.

“I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Trump.

The president cited his own reasons for entering public service – to ensure that more of today’s children had the same opportunities he enjoyed, to help workers have a voice in the workplace, to help families have better access to health care – and said “I guess that makes me a populist.”

President Obama then contrasted his record with Donald Trump’s rhetoric:

Somebody … who has never shown any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues or making sure poor kids are getting a decent shot at life, or have health care – in fact, has worked against economic opportunities for workers and ordinary people. They don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism, or xenophobia. Or worse. Or it’s just cynicism.

The president noted that Bernie Sanders has been “working the vineyard” on behalf of working families, and is indeed a “populist.” He implied that Hillary Clinton is as well, noting that Clinton and Sanders agree on values and goals but differ on how to get there. He concluded:

Somebody who labels us versus them or engages in rhetoric about how we’re going to look after ourselves and take it to the other guy … that’s not the definition of populism.

The president apologized for extending the press conference, saying “this is one of the prerogatives of when you’re at the end of your term. You just kinda … you go on these occasional rants.”

Thank you for ‘ranting,’ Mr. President.

“Raising prices for imported steel hurts all of these American workers”

Trump’s “look after ourselves and take it to the other guy” attitude, as President Obama aptly summarized it, isn’t merely nativist and xenophobic. It’s also bad for American workers, as Stanford University lecturer Keith Hennessey explains:

In Pennsylvania today Donald Trump said, “When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.”

This is false. President Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel in 2002. A month ago the Obama Administration imposed duties on Chinese steel of more than 200 percent and up to 92 percent on steel imported from South Korea, Italy, India, and Taiwan.

Steel is an intermediate good. When you raise protectionist barriers against imported steel as Mr. Trump threatens, you temporarily help U.S. steelworkers. You also raise input prices for American firms that use steel to build bridges and buildings and make cars, and trucks, trains and train tracks, appliances, ships, farm equipment, drilling rigs and power plants, and tools and packaging. Higher input costs hurt American workers in those factories and on those construction sites.

Mr. Trump should ask the workers who make dishwashers at Whirlpool’s plant in Findlay, Ohio whether they’re in favor of more expensive steel. Or he can ask the John Deere workers who use steel at their factories in Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Or the auto workers at almost any U.S. car and truck assembly line. Raising prices for imported steel hurts all of these American workers.

Hennessey also debunked Trump’s plan to use only U.S.-made steel for infrastructure:

Trump: “A Trump Administration will also ensure that that we start using American steel for American infrastructure. … We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country. This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.”

No, it won’t, and the downside is it would cost taxpayers more. Put another way, any given amount of tax dollars will build less infrastructure. We’ll repair fewer bridges but, by golly, the fixed ones will have ‘MERICAN steel. I’d rather get the best value for every tax dollar we spend on infrastructure, thus ensuring we fix as many bridges as possible.

But Trump’s plan isn’t really about economics.

“The economics of nostalgia”

Instead, Trump promises a return to an irretrievable past, as the New York Times’ Neil Irwin explains:

[Trump is] right that the number of steel industry jobs – more precisely “iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing,” in government data-speak – is down by 44 percent in the Pittsburgh area since 1990, a span in which the United States entered the North American Free Trade Agreement and engaged in much more extensive trade with China.

But two things are worth knowing. Before Nafta was even a gleam in a trade negotiator’s eye, Pittsburgh had already lost the biggest chunk of its steelworking jobs. The culprit in that era was both international competition and the introduction of mini-mills, which allowed the production of steel with far fewer man-hours. Because of that and other technological innovations that improved productivity, total American steel output is about the same now as it was in 1990, even with far fewer workers.

Irwin notes that, while Pittsburg has lost 5100 steelworking jobs since 1990, the city has gained 66,000 health care jobs. Those 66,000 health care workers would pay more for cars and other products made with steel, and pay higher taxes for infrastructure projects or see fewer projects begun, if Trump imposed huge tariffs to restore the 5100 steelworkers’ jobs, even if we assume those jobs would indeed be restored.

And those jobs probably wouldn’t return, Irwin explains:

But in making the utter rejection of Nafta and normalized trade relations with China central to his campaign, Mr. Trump is evoking a different United States. Since peaking in World War II at 38 percent of all jobs, manufacturing employment has been on a steady downward trajectory almost continuously ever since.

Currently 8.5 percent of American jobs are in manufacturing. Anyone younger than 35 has never lived in a world where more than one in five jobs were in factories.

Some of that is surely because of more open trade with places where wages are lower. But it is also because of remarkable advances in technology that mean a huge, gleaming factory making airplane parts or industrial fasteners might need only a dozen workers to keep it running rather than a hundred. America’s economy has kept growing because factory output has risen even as manufacturing employment has fallen.

There aren’t hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, Chinese, and Koreans working in steel mill jobs that ‘should’ be here in the U.S. Instead, the worldwide steelmaking industry employs fewer people than ever to make more steel than ever.

It’s cheaper to make steel in China, but that has as much to do with environmental standards as with labor costs. Conservatives and libertarians would cite that as a reason to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and roll back the Clean Air Act. But consider that last September China closed hundreds of factories and banned 2.5 million cars in Beijing for two weeks … to get clear skies for a World War II victory parade.

The day after the parade, Beijing was once again enveloped in the kind of smog that kills 1.6 million Chinese per year – 1/6th of China’s annual mortality – according to a 2015 Berkeley Earth study.

So yes, let’s poison our air and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans to bring back 5100 steelworkers’ jobs. Gotta keep those 66,000 new health care workers busy, right?

“Love the United States the way it was”

Trump’s appeal to nostalgia is evident in a Washington Post column by retired financial advisor Jim Ruth:

No Trump campaign buttons or bumper stickers for me. I’m part of the new silent majority: those who don’t like Donald Trump but might vote for him anyway. For many of us, Trump has only one redeeming quality: He isn’t Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t want to turn the United States into a politically correct, free-milk-and-cookies, European-style social democracy where every kid (and adult, too) gets a trophy just for showing up.

Members of this new silent majority, many of us front-wave baby boomers, value hard work and love the United States the way it was. We long for a bygone era when you didn’t need “safe spaces” on college campuses to shelter students from the atrocity of dissenting opinions, lest their sensibilities be offended. We have the reckless notion that college is the one place where sensibilities are supposed to be challenged and debated. Silly us.

Yes, silly you.

Ruth is yet another white male whining that white men now face pushback when they voice their contempt for women and people of color … and yet another rich guy whining that our economy should coddle rich people even more than it already does.

His “new silent majority” are mostly old, white men who dominate the media – and especially the political dialogue – yet have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

In other words, Ruth’s “new silent majority” are neither “new” … nor “silent” … nor a “majority.”

“What criminals they are”

Small surprise, then, that someone who packs three lies into three words – two of those words cadged from Richard Nixon in 1969 – should support a candidate whose real estate “Institute” was built on lies and plagiarism:

He poured his own money into Trump University, which began as a distance-learning business advising customers on how to make money in real estate, but left a long trail of customers alleging they were defrauded. Their lawsuits have cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

But Mr. Trump also lent his name, and his credibility, to a seminar business he did not own, which was branded the Trump Institute. Its operators rented out hotel ballrooms across the country and invited people to pay up to $2,000 to come hear Mr. Trump’s “wealth-creating secrets and strategies.”
[…]
Reality fell far short. In fact, the institute was run by a couple who had run afoul of regulators in dozens of states and had been dogged by accusations of deceptive business practices and fraud for decades. Similar complaints soon emerged about the Trump Institute.

Yet there was an even more fundamental deceit to the business, unreported until now: Extensive portions of the materials that students received after paying their seminar fees, supposedly containing Mr. Trump’s special wisdom, had been plagiarized from an obscure real estate manual published a decade earlier.
[…]
“That Trump Institute, what criminals they are,” said Carol Minto of West Haven, Conn., a retired court reporter who attended one seminar in 2009 and agreed to spend $1,997.94 to attend another before having second thoughts. She wound up requiring the help of two states’ attorneys general in getting a refund. “They wanted to steal my money,” she said.

Jim Ruth would probably dismiss Minto as one of those “free-milk-and-cookies” people who wants “a trophy just for showing up.”

The rest of us recognize Ruth – and Trump – as pampered prats who think they should get all the milk, all the cookies, and all the trophies.

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Photo Credit: Saul Loeb (AFP); Michael Vadon (Flickr)

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Good day and good nuts