2018-01-18 02:44:07 UTC
Imagine if we had spent 2017 with a competent White House working to solve
Americas hardest problems.
By Ezra ***@ezraklein Jan 2, 2018, 9:40am EST
Political journalists cover what happens in American politics. Thats the
job. And so, over the past year, weve written about the tax bill, the
travel ban, the resistance, the tweets, the regulatory repeals, the
looting of the American government. It was a long 2017.
What we miss in those stories is what doesnt happen. But what doesnt
happen matters too. Time, energy, and money are limited. Opportunity costs
are real, and thats particularly true in a White House as unfocused,
understaffed, and ill-managed as this one.
And so, in my 2017 retrospective, I want to explore some of the things the
Trump administration didnt do, and the price we may pay for it.
In 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, a record 63,000
Americans died from drug overdoses and two-thirds (and possibly more) of
those deaths were opioid-related. To put that in perspective, thats more
Americans than died from HIV/AIDS in the worst year of the epidemic, more
Americans than die annually from motor accidents or gun violence. If
current trends continue, opioids could kill 650,000 over the next decade.
This is a crisis that needs not just money but also focus, leadership, and
creativity. Progress is possible Vermonts success has proven that. The
federal government could be scaling up Vermonts program; it could be
throwing its vast scientific and public health resources into research and
support; it could be spending real money on a race-to-the-top program to
fund, study, and expand promising state and local responses; it could be
working to change our cultural understanding of addiction, our
counterproductive tendency to treat it as a moral failure.
Instead, capital both financial and political that could have gone
toward solving the opioid epidemic was plowed into undermining the
Affordable Care Act and funneling trillions in tax cuts to corporations.
Trump eventually declared a state of emergency over the opioid crisis, but
didnt even ask for new funding to fight it. According to a member of his
own opioid commission, hes been all talk and no follow-through.
The opioid crisis is just one example. Others abound. Climate change,
outdated infrastructure, college affordability, mass incarceration, child
care, and much more deserves to be on a list like this. There was a vast
array of problems more pressing, and policies more promising, than those
the Trump administration pursued in 2017.
We will pay the cost for what the Trump administration did over the past
year, of course, but we will also pay the price for what we did not do
with that time and those resources instead. That price will be harder to
see, but in the long run, it will likely be higher.
What if we hadnt spent the last year trashing Americas global
In 2017, the Pew Research Center surveyed 37 countries and found a median
of just 22% said they have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in
world affairs. Trumps behavior, meanwhile, has frayed our most important
relationships. The times in which we could completely depend on others
are, to a certain extent, over, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany,
said, in a stunning rebuke to the EuropeanAmerican alliance.
The world looks at America and sees a weakening power with chaotic
domestic politics and a correspondingly unpredictable foreign policy.
All this has left China, with its expansionist ambitions, floored at its
luck. Evan Osnos, who covered China for the New Yorker, told me that Trump
has been such a gift to them that they are suspicious its real. A few
thousand years of history have taught them the universe is cruel, and they
cant quite figure out how it was that the cosmos delivered to them this
American counterpart who seems so hell-bent on giving China a historic
opportunity for leadership. (Osnos expands on this idea in a must-read
The time spent destroying Americas global leadership, giving China an
opportunity to accelerate its rise, and rewarding Russia for interfering
in our elections could, under another administration, have been time spent
building new relationships, modernizing our military, leading the worlds
fight against climate change, taking cybersecurity seriously, and
preparing ourselves for the problems of the future.
And Americas global brand matters for reasons beyond geopolitics. As our
standing drops, consider the inventors who, looking at an angry and
unwelcoming America, may not come here, the PhD students who may choose
not to stay here, and thus the companies and ideas that will not be born
here, and perhaps not born at all. It has been to Americas benefit that
Silicon Valley took root here. Its successor may not.
These are costs we will never quite know if weve paid. You dont miss the
business that didnt get founded, the patent that never got filed, the
experiment no one ever attempted. Similarly, if countries developing in
this era attach themselves a bit more closely to Chinas model than to our
own, if they look at America and see a society thats less worth of
emulation than was once true, there will be a cost to that too a cost in
liberty around the globe, in the values that animate the international
order, and it could be immense, even if we never quite realize were
What werent we thinking and talking about?
Politics in the Trump era is, for many, a terrorizing distraction, a daily
obsession. It crowds out other questions, pursuits, ideas, discussions.
Trump has weaponized social media and cable news, he has mastered the news
cycle by owning our outrage, he has learned that he can command the
conversation by lobbing incendiaries into our cultural and tribal divides.
As a result, he takes up inordinate mental space, among both his
supporters and his opponents. As this analysis from Echelon Insights
shows, Trump dominated the national conversation on every single day of
What if we had not spent all of 2017 thinking about Donald Trump? What if
all those mornings hadnt been dominated by his tweets, if all those
evenings hadnt been spent absorbing new evidence that his campaign was
linked to Russia and that he was trying to obstruct the FBIs
investigation? What other conversations would we have had, what other
issues would have filled the space?
I dont pretend to know the answer. But I don't believe that the role
politics is playing in so many of our lives now is healthy, that the daily
pitch and tone of the conversation is constructive. Even if you celebrate
political engagement, and I do, this isnt a renewed civic spirit, but a
sense of emergency, of threat. It, too, is a cost, and we are paying it
daily, with untold long-term consequences for our country.