We can argue about whether president-elect Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier — ten years of tax breaks and other incentives worth $7 million to the company — was a good one or not. We can get riled up about Trump taking credit for keeping open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. But our real concern should be about deals substituting for policy.
A deal results from a negotiation between the contesting parties. Policies result from decision-making processes by an institution that does not directly benefit or suffer from the outcome; those who do are supposed to recuse themselves.
Deals differ depending on those negotiating them. Policies are the same for all concerned.
Deals are therefore unpredictable. It is usually a good practice not to state honestly what your expectations or limits are. That’s why deal-making can be called an “art.” Policies aim at predictability. They announce their intent and the mechanisms for achieving that intent.
Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators. Because policies apply more broadly, they are not predicated on individual weaknesses, although the tactics used for achieving policy objectives might.
Deals can fail. One side or both can walk away from the table. The conflict of interests then continues, often without a fallback for how to resolve it. Policies can fail to achieve their goals, but they survive particular failures. They may even be amended and improved based on cases where they proved themselves inadequate.
Deals are done by individuals. Policies are created by institutions.
Donald Trump fancies himself a deal-maker. He has exhibited no interest in or aptitude for policy.
This is dangerous.
On the positive side, because deals deal with particulars, they can hew more closely to the precise needs of both sides. Policies can steamroller the particularities of a case the way a law can be applied evenly but unjustly if there are extenuating circumstances. That’s why we amend policies, and hand their implementation to dedicated career professionals — people candidate Trump has disdained as stupid and corrupt.
But even that positive attribute of deals does not scale. As others have pointed out, president-elect Trump has gotten widespread praise for intervening to save 800 jobs, while President Obama has gotten little credit for policies that have contributed to the creation of 15 million jobs. If President Trump made one 800-job deal a day, he would have to be president for 51 years to equal President Obama’s achievement.
Most dangerous of all, a government that works by making deals is a government in the pocket of a strongman who thinks that he alone can save us. A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.
President Trump’s experience in office is unlikely to teach him the weakness of governance by deal-making, for he is going to spend his time making deals and repeatedly exulting in his successes, while excusing his failures by excoriating those who did not accept his terms.
We can only hope that the American public sees through this. The Art of the Deal is in this case indistinguishable from the Ego of the Despot.