Someone like Donald Trump is almost incomprehensible to the polished Washingtonian marble buildings and cliquish button down power structure that governs the Beltway. Of course, his indefatigable Tweeting, inarticulate speechifying, obnoxious high school bravado and cheerleading are jarring for all but his most ardent supporters. But the real problem is he challenges the orthodoxy of a town that has become so ossified by the legal profession that process has become far more important than any outcome — the exact opposite of Americans’ self-image of can-do rugged individualism.
In Washington, lawyers oppressively rule and any measurable outcomes are merely an inconsequential byproduct of a vast bureaucratic infrastructure, which has been built to perpetually churn out mountains of the most arcane analysis; justify, write, and then re-write mind numbing rules and regulations; as well as establish, codify and argue legal positions, all with no urgency or concern of cost, not to mention whether or not these exercises have any demonstrable effectiveness. Clearly the legal profession, by design, is risk averse and set up to protecting us; therefor Washington immediately dismisses any departure from well-established legalistic processes and procedures, as Trump is prone to do.
Most citizens wrongly assume the president’s political appointees run the federal government agencies. However, anybody who has worked in these organizations or with these organizations knows the real power always resides with their general counsel’s offices. Meaningful change must come through the numerous law firms/lobbyists whose well-paid ranks — mostly attorneys — effortlessly move in and out of the government’s constantly revolving door. This system admirably perpetuates a status quo that handsomely benefits the legal power structure as is demonstrated by the fact that some of the most affluent zip codes in the country now are in the leafy suburbs of our nation’s capital.
Enter Donald Trump, a man who annoyingly and incessantly reminds us that he gets things done — the Grand Hyatt at the heart of a decaying late 20th century New York City, the infamous ice rink in Central Park, Trump Tower, etc. He likes to boast, “America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?” As a builder he well understands that frequently difficult and timely decisions have to be made based on limited information and calculated risks since there may not be enough time to explore all possible eventualities before the cement dries. Contrast this to Washington, D.C. where time and cost have no meaning, except of course billable hours, and where bureaucrats would rather pursue every conceivable argument and indulge in every possible outcome while the cement sets. And if it sets before they’ve finished their “important work” it doesn’t really matter because it can be torn out and replaced at the government’s expense and nobody cares.
Business is usually about completing tasks in a timely manner and building things. The law is all about bridling these instincts and limiting the possibilities. Obviously, from the days of our Founding Fathers attorneys who rightfully created checks and balances to control the government and society have dominated the Washington landscape. But since the mid-20th century when government has morphed into directly impacting every aspect of our lives, the legal framework that served a limited government well has bogged us down as a nation in a morass of inaction and decline. When Trump talks about draining the swamp he is fighting the tyranny of a legal profession that has filled it with slimy opaque putrefied mud that has gummed up the system for decades.
This is no more apparent than how the United States has built and evolved its trade policies and the governing organizations that have absorbed legions of identically thinking attorneys – both temporarily inside and later more lucratively outside the government. When Trump attacks this antiquated architecture, much of which has arguably outlasted its original design and usefulness to the detriment of America, Washington bureaucrats immediately circle the wagons and with the megaphone of their sympathetic and superficial journalistic cheerleaders tell us the status quo is sacrosanct and cannot be altered without doing irreparable damage. Avoiding addressing the undeniable decline in American economic might (total U.S. GDP as a percentage of the world GDP is half what it was in the 1960s) and its symptoms of closed factories and a decaying industrial base, this army of risk averse advisors assure us that trying something different is foolish and won’t work. Pay no attention to the ineffectual World Trade Organization they proudly established under American leadership and the insurmountable trade barriers U.S. companies face when trying to compete in overseas markets we’re told, because perennial massive trade deficits don’t really matter. To whom? Certainly not the legions of Washington attorneys that created these built in inequities with decades of asymmetrical trade agreements! While they’re happily driving their new BMWs and Mercedes to work from affluent McLean, Virginia and Potomac, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio will just have to adjust to the new world order they have proudly created. If there are problems with these admittedly imperfect arrangements we have plenty of time to work them out until their retirements or their next temporary move back into the government.
- Why should the United States not expect reciprocal and fair trade with friend or foe? Why can’t we use tariffs and other non-trade barriers as one of many tools our enlightened European and Asian rivals demonstrably do?
- Why can’t we mix military and economic matters? Why does the United States still shoulder the security burden for Western Europe when they economically take advantage of our low barriers to entry and at the same time refuse to meaningfully support NATO, which most directly benefits them?
- Why do we allow mercantilist Asia — from Japan to South Korea to China — to limit U.S. economic cooperation to providing them commodities like a third world country while at the same time we transfer our high technology to joint-ventures they control and develop in their markets? (Lest we believe the rouse that Asia buys a lot of Boeing aircraft thereby proving the economic arrangement must be fair, it should be noted increasingly more and more of the aircraft parts are manufactured there. And does anyone really believe once the Chinese finish development of their own commercial airliner they will remain one of Boeings most important customers? How did that work out in Western Europe with Airbus?)
- Why have we transferred significant wealth to the Middle East buying their oil without requiring them to pony up resources to support security in the region? Why shouldn’t that policy now change?
- When will America provide economic security to its own labor force by slowing or preventing the mass importation of cheap foreign labor thereby putting downward pressure on wages?
These and other similar common-sense, kitchen-table concerns of the middle class in fly over country were finally addressed by Donald Trump, as imperfectly as his attempts may be. Yet the ruling class of Washington tells us he is irrational, uninformed and rash. Patronizingly they tell us that while these issues are important and need addressing, there is a proper time and order as dictated by bureaucracies who will study the problems thoroughly and endlessly and then craft a more reasoned response. Oh, and if that takes another two or six years that is okay because we will then have somebody new they can truly work with, like an attorney, who will address these important issues in a more measured and methodical manner. If the current cement has already set by then and we need to tear it out, don’t worry, we can throw more money and time at it to get it right, all the time making sure the attorneys can bill their hourly rate and enjoy the benefits of watching our country become “a more perfect union.”
Alan Beard is managing director of Interlink Capital Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based financial advisory firm and fund manager focused on exporting and foreign direct investment in emerging markets. He has written several books and articles on international finance, been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and advised various government agencies on international finance issues.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.