Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Literary Corner: I Have Seen Numbers

Man Ray, Endgame, 1946, via Washington Post.

So the Emperor had a cabinet meeting yesterday morning, opened with a grace, though it wasn't a meal, from Secretary Carson, and a remarkable rant—somebody clocked it at 13,000 words, including the grace and the press questions—from his imperial loquacity, duly published online by the faithful whitehouse.gov. What you've mainly heard is how he revealed that he doesn't know what an "emoluments clause" is (it's one of article I, section 9, paragraph 8, or article II, section I, clause 7, of the United States Constitution) but suspects it's "phony", but the whole thing was really in top form from the bard-in-chief.

This bit, with its florid repetitions, almost like an abstract arabesque pattern, and its fantastical segue from the poet's TV contemplation of pundits talking about the Middle East to a rhapsodic view of the median household income dissolving into a kind of arithmetical plasma, is extraordinary:

Nobody Has Ever Seen Numbers
by Donald J. Trump

But I sort of have to smile to myself. I was telling
a couple of people — I’m watching these people
that I’ve been watching for 20 years. I’ve been
watching the same faces; they’re just a little bit
older and a little bit grayer. I’ve been watching them
for 20 years, saying about the Middle East. And they’ve
been wrong on everything they’ve ever said. 
And now, all of a sudden, people are starting to say,
“You know, what Trump is doing is great.” And we have
tremendous — a tremendous power. Because since the
election of 2016, November — since that beautiful day,
our country has picked up in value trillions and trillions
of dollars of worth. Trillions and trillions of dollars. 
Numbers that nobody would believe. Numbers, if I
would have said it on the campaign trail, I would’ve
been — I would’ve been excoriated by the fake media.
Excoriated. The numbers are far greater than anything
that even I predicted. You hear that with the household
median income. Four hundred dollars for eight years.
Nine hundred and seventy-five dollars for eight years.
Seven thousand dollars for two and half years — up.
Nobody has ever seen numbers.

For what it's worth, the US median household income in constant 2018 dollars fell $2,526 from 2000 ($59,938) to 2008 ($57,412) and rose $2,897 between 2008 ($57,412) and 2016 ($60,309). It was $62,318 in 2018, which looks like a rise of $2,009 over two years, for what it's worth (Census Department figures for 2019 aren't yet available, so I can't get comparable numbers into this year), along with the highest inequality levels in 50 years, thanks to the Trump tax cuts, which clearly explains some of the household income data. But the main point is that I just can't imagine what Trump is talking about, or it really doesn't prove anything about Trump's Middle East policy anyway, or...

But other Presidents, if you look — other Presidents were wealthy.  Not huge wealth.  George Washington was actually considered a very, very rich man at the time.  But they ran their businesses.  George Washington, they say, had two desks: He had a presidential desk and a business desk.  I don’t think you people, with this phony emoluments clause —
And, by the way, I would say that it’s cost me anywhere from $2 [billion] to $5 billion to be President — and that’s okay — between what I lose and what I could have made.  I would have made a fortune if I just ran my business.  I was doing it really well.  I have a great business.  I have the best properties.

In fact Washington's wealth was pretty extreme, calculated by somebody at anywhere from $429 million in 2010 dollars to $29.5 billion as a percentage of GDP, and he did decline his salary as an army officer, but felt the Constitution required him to accept the presidential salary, according to Abbey Marshall at Politico. The two presidents who did not take their pay were Herbert Hoover and John Fitzgerald Kennedy (who donated theirs to charity, unlike Trump, who picks out a government agency every quarter, as if to apologize for cheating on his taxes).

Josh Blackman and Seth Tillman of the Volokh Conspiracy have suggested that Trump's behavior with respect to the article II clause is no different from Washington's in 1793 when he bought some land from the government:
In its opening brief [in the case of Maryland v. Trump in 2018], DOJ explained that President Washington bought four lots of land (lots nos. 5, 12, 13, and 14 in square 667) at an auction in the new federal capital. That land was purchased on September 18, 1793. According to the Plaintiffs' definition of "emolument," President Washington received something of value from the federal government, beyond his salary–that is, he received the land. Therefore, he would have violated the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
This is the silliest thing I've ever heard. The court noted that Washington announced his readiness to give the property up if necessary, and nobody took him up on it. There is no suggestion that he was in a position to do a quid pro quo favor for the commissioners who conducted the auction, for allowing him to bid, or that they gave him some kind of special deal. And it's the only example Trump's lawyers could find in Washington's two terms as president.

And Washington was the buyer where Trump is a seller, selling his "hospitality" to officials in the State and Defense Departments or the vice president's office who pay him out of taxpayer funds, and he is clearly in a position to help them to return the kindness or punish them if they don't.

Washington also accepted two paintings from French government officers who had served under him during the Revolutionary War (one was Lafayette) without asking Congress for permission, but subsequent presidents have not done so, in view of the Article I clause. Trump, again, sells meals, drinks, and bedrooms to foreign governments who may want something in return for their custom, like weapons systems or other military support (when he posted 2000 US troops to Saudi Arabia in the middle of talking about how the US was withdrawing forever from "endless wars" in the Middle East, he explained, "They pay cash," and I couldn't help thinking, OMG he's confessing again—).

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