3 key problems with Trump’s style of functioning

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision:

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:

Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.

It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.

What would I ask the president in an interview?

My favorite podcast really hit the Big Time this week. Marc Maron interviewed President Obama last week and released the episode today. Marc Maron does a great job interviewing his guests but this episode is (naturally) pretty different. Obama mostly gives a lot of fluff, but he did make some interesting points on the role of political institutions in polarizing politics, as well as the role of [implicit] property rights in shaping political outcomes.

While I was waiting for this episode to be released I wondered what I would have done in Maron’s position. It’s tempting to say “just scream non-stop for an hour until the president agrees to be better.” But of course, that wouldn’t do anyone any good (although I think it would sell advertising on cable news). The question is then “how do I avoid throwing softballs, maintain a good conversation, and still nudge in the direction of change I’d like to see?”

One thing I think would be important were I in that position is to restrict the number of issues I bring up. The limits of human attention mean that we simply can’t handle more than a handful of things at once. Piling on all the issues and complexities of the world would only serve to reduce anyone’s ability to do anything positive. Another thing I think would be important is focusing on areas where we already mostly agree. Nobody over the age of 25 is likely to change their opinion on just about anything, so why waste your energy. That’s sunk ideology. And besides, even if you’re talking to a real piece of work, you have some obligation to do a good job of being a conversationalist, and focusing on differences is less likely to lead to a good conversation.

So what would I ask Obama in an interview?

  • What do you see as the path forward to immigration liberalization?
  • Will you please push for a bill that allows any law-abiding person to work in the United States without giving them access to the Welfare state? (I would word that differently if I were actually interviewing the president, but you get my drift…)
  • Would you please let Nassim Taleb explain his risk-management argument for climate change interventions? And can he please also be required to comment on his argument’s relationship to the Law of Unintended Consequences?
  • What is your favorite episode of South Park?

That third point should be at least a little bit controversial. I’m agnostic on whether there’s anything to be done about climate change (although I’m all for using it as an excuse to liberalize immigration for the world’s poor). I’m seriously skeptical of governments’ ability to do any good in that arena. I’d really rather not add fuel to the fire, but I think it’s important to raise the standards of debate, and I think Taleb’s argument* is the most sensible one. Not only that, it has wide applications that should push (benevolent/benign) politicians to support simpler rules and fewer interventions.

Oh yeah, and I’d ask him if he’s a secret gay muslim. (“Does your mom know you’re a secret gay muslim?” Anyone else remember playing that game?)

* Taleb’s argument goes roughly as follows: We face uncertainty, but there is a non-zero probability of a catastrophically bad outcome. Maximizing expected utility is not the appropriate risk-management strategy in this case. Our most urgent need (our highest marginal benefit course of action) is to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic outcomes–and perhaps after that start thinking about maximizing expected utility. Essentially the argument is “don’t play Russian Roulette!” But an essential underpinning is that a probability distribution describing outcomes in complex systems often exhibits “wild randomness”. In contrast to the “mild randomness” of the normal distribution, in wildly random situations it’s difficult or impossible to even have an expected utility. The conclusion I would hope they would draw is that intervening in complex systems (and particularly creating new complexity through increased regulation and more tax loopholes) is best avoided, and particularly at the national level.

David Friedman on Judging Outside Your Expertise

David Friedman writes:

Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say.

He goes on to give examples of inconsistent claims made by global warming alarmists. His (short) post is worth the read. Here are my 2 cents:

First, (in response to the block quote) deferring to experts is sensible but requires a certain degree of expertise in picking out who they are which is a difficult task. We’re all human, and it’s hard to hold something in your head without thinking it’s true. That makes it hard to not be arrogant. We need to emphasize strongly that interpreting information is hard, and the outcomes are not at all obvious. Those concerned with anthropogenic climate change (myself included) are better served by stressing the uncertainty involved and making arguments centered on appropriate risk management.*

Second, The issue of climate change boils down to a series of sub-issues that need to be considered carefully:

We need to think about costs and benefits. A warmer world would be a boon for many people. If we could set the average world temperature, we would want it to be higher than 0 Kelvin. We might even want it to be warmer than it is today.

We need to think about the uncertainty surrounding what’s happening, as well as what we can do about it. We should be particularly skeptical about cost estimates for any effort to try to control the environment.

(This one’s a bit of a non sequitur.) We should use this as an excuse to do things that would help reduce the costs of climate change that we should be doing anyways. Specifically, we need to liberalize immigration policy in wealthy nations. Let’s say there’s a 0.00001% chance that climate change has a bad outcome, and that specifically that outcome is that the entire country of Bangladesh will catch fire and kill everyone. That’s a good excuse to let Bangladeshi’s come to America, but we should be doing that anyways. It’s a low cost (actually a negative net-cost) solution to a potential problem of climate change.

Here’s one that I think the smarter alarmists/deniers already recognize: this is a political discussion. Politics and the truth don’t mix. But recognizing this point and making it widely known may allow people to tone down and argue something closer to the truth.

Global warming will lead to catastrophic… life?

Both sides like to think of themselves as skeptical (as demonstrated by that masthead which warns that we might have to suffer through the addition of a habitable continent (?)), and good for them. We should value skepticism in this. But that skepticism shouldn’t lead us to make bold claims on one side or the other. It should lead us to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. This is a risk management issue, not a social engineering one.

* I like Taleb but I’m not as worried by GMO’s as he apparently is, but I haven’t read that paper either.

The Fog of Foreign Policy

The Fog of Foreign Policy: Why only ‘least bad’ options are available in Syria, Iraq and other global hotspots


Sound libertarian analysis, highly recommended!