The San Diego Union-Tribune Chris Reed column

2018-01-11 | The San Diego Union-Tribune

Jan. 10--I've been a firm believer in free-market capitalism since reading the essays of economists Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell as a teenager and have always admired business success stories -- people who pursued their bold ideas and hunches and brought new or improved products and services to the public. I groan every time I hear versions of former President Barack Obama's obtuse argument that government plays a central role in promoting innovation. No, no, it doesn't. I also think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are far more important historical figures than the great majority of U.S. presidents.

But after a chaotic year with Donald Trump as president -- his election possible only because of his reputation as a can-do billionaire businessman -- I admit this regularly occurs to me: Maybe Trump's business success suggests free-market capitalism is overrated. Maybe it isn't a meritocracy in which the most talented people rise to the top. Maybe bluster and help from your rich father are enough, and Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman and Adam Smith are full of it.

Michael Wolff's new book detailing the doubts many in Trump's inner circle had about his intelligence and fitness for office has drawn plenty of criticism for its sloppiness and seeming reliance on third-hand accounts of the president's behavior. But contrary to the book's critics, Trump's history offers plenty of confirmation for Wolff's thesis that the president is impulsive, uninformed and ignorant. (No, I'm not a liberal. I'm a libertarian lite who can't stand either party and wrote in former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld for president in 1996 and in 2016.)

Many people will recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to deny that he had called the president a "moron" after a summer meeting, as NBC News reported in October. But few people remember the circumstances that caused Tillerson's contempt. Trump had been receiving briefings on the status of the U.S. military at least since becoming president-elect, but on July 20, the president made it crystal-clear that he knew as much about national security as a lamppost. A subsequent NBC story gave the details:

President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nation's highest-ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.

Trump's comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.

According to the officials present, Trump's advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the buildup.

NBC reported that it was unclear what actually prompted Tillerson to share his brutally harsh assessment of the commander-in-chief with the remaining officials but noted that the meeting was a "lengthy and sometimes tense review of worldwide U.S. forces and operations." You know, an important meeting.

Then there are all the different ways that Trump severely undercuts his own agenda. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued a decision blocking the president's plan to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in March. Alsup concluded that the plan was based on a dubious premise -- the notion that DACA was unconstitutional and illegal -- and cited Trump's Twitter remarks praising DACA and urging Congress to save it. As recently as Sept. 14, Trump tweeted, "Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!"

The Washington Post elaborated on Wednesday:

Trump's Twitter habits have dogged the administration in court since his early days in the White House. In litigation over Trump's executive actions, no ruling seems to be complete without a section explaining how Trump's tweets and public statements undercut the administration's legal arguments.

The problem has come up in cases challenging Trump's travel bans, transgender military ban and sanctuary cities ban. Some judges have gone so far as to include images of @realDonaldTrump's activity, an unusual sight in a federal court ruling.

The immigration-restrictions case in particular defies belief. Trump's legal team likely can only win judicial approval for it if it can make a case the restrictions are driven by national security concerns, not a generalized animus toward Muslims. Yet after one adverse court ruling Trump wrote, "People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!" As he made clear while campaigning, the ban was aimed at Muslims, period -- a point judges keep bringing up.

These are not the actions of a "like, really smart" person or a "stable genius." So if Trump could thrive in the business world, that may not be a good reflection on the business world.

Thankfully, a colleague who heard me express this sentiment suggest I take a harder look at Trump's actual record as a businessman, suggesting the narrative of his success was a facade. It wasn't just the well-known fact that he repeatedly had to place his companies in Chapter 11 bankruptcy to slough off debt or his casino and USFL debacles. My colleague said that if Trump had merely invested the money he was given at the start of his real estate career by his tycoon father Fred Trump in the stock market, he'd have the same $3 billion or so net worth that he now enjoys.

Vox made this point in 2015:

So he's worth about as much as he would've been if he had taken $40 million from his dad [in 1974] and thrown it into an index fund.

That's based on the assumption that $40 million is all he got from his father. Investopedia, a financial website, and Timothy L. O'Brien, one of Trump's biographers, believe he got far more -- in the $150 million range.

Yes, Trump fans, I know you'll say a journalist questioning the business acumen of a 1 percenter is laughable. Yes, the $1 billion-plus value of Trump's New York City real-estate holdings can't be scoffed at. Yes, his success at cashing in on the Trump brand with marketing deals around the world is undeniable. Yes, his years as the high-paid star of a high-rated reality TV show are on the record.

But if Trump had moved to a country-club estate in Del Boca Vista, Florida, as a young man and spent his life playing golf and womanizing while making passive, conservative stock investments, he'd probably be worth far more than $3 billion.

So I've come full circle. Free-market capitalism, I apologize for my temporary loss of faith. I'm still baffled by the inexplicable success of the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant franchise and the Ed Hardy "alternative lifestyle fashion brand" -- but not Donald J. Trump's business "success."

Reed, who read The World Almanac from cover to cover when he was 4 and still remembers that Bolivia mines a lof of tungsten, is the deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section. Email: Twitter: @chrisreed99. Column archive:

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