Kevin Drum

Donald Trump Is a Mediocre Businessman

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 1:16 AM EST

I know I've beaten this dead horse before, but I continue to be a little surprised that no one has seriously attacked Donald Trump on his business acumen. After all, it's his big calling card: he knows how to negotiate great deals and he's made a ton of money from them.

But this doesn't seem to be true.1 In fact, he seems to be a pretty mediocre businessman. Today, for example, the New York Times tells the story of Trump's 1988 purchase of the Plaza Hotel. As even Trump admits, he was so enamored of owning it that he overpaid significantly and managed it poorly, something which contributed to his eventual financial downfall:

Once he owned the hotel, Mr. Trump put his wife, Ivana, in charge of renovating it....By 1990, the Plaza needed an operating profit of $40 million a year to break even, according to financial records that Mr. Trump disclosed at the time. The hotel had fallen well short of that goal, and with renovating expenses, in one year it burned through $74 million more than it brought in.

But Mr. Trump didn’t spend a lot of time sweating over the Plaza’s finances. He was too busy with new challenges. A few months after the Plaza deal closed, he purchased the Eastern Air Shuttle for $365 million, and in 1990, he opened the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, which cost $1 billion to build. Some of the loans he took out to pay for deals were personally guaranteed.

....Mr. Trump’s brief ownership of the Plaza...marked the beginning of his transition from an owner of major assets to a manager of major assets. An increasing share of his wealth would come in the future from licensing his name, not just to builders but sellers of suits, cologne, chandeliers, mattresses and more. In professional parlance, he went from “asset heavy” to “asset light.”

The Plaza was a huge money loser. The shuttle was a disaster. Trump never understood the casino business, and his Atlantic City properties started hemorrhaging cash almost as soon as they were completed. All of this pushed him to the edge of personal bankruptcy, which he avoided solely because his banks decided Trump's holdings could be liquidated at a higher price if they allowed him to stay solvent. In the aftermath of this bloodbath, he raised money by taking the remains of his casino and resort properties public. And since this was a public company, we know exactly how well it did: it lost money every single year and went into bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 (and again in 2009 for good measure). Since then, he's mostly bought and managed golf resorts, which has been a good but not great business for him.

Bottom line: When it comes to building and managing tangible assets, there's really not much evidence that Trump has any special talent. He inherited a huge amount of money and nearly lost it all during his first couple of decades in the development business. However, before the money ran out he was able to use it to create the "Trump show" (his words), and in the couple of decades since then his income has come not from building things, but primarily from licensing and entertainment.

Trump seems to have two genuine talents. The first is that he's apparently a masterful reader of people. The second is that he's a hypnotic blowhard, which accounts for his success at both branding and TV, as well as his success at scams like Trump University.

Needless to say, we've seen both of these talents at work on the campaign trail. The first allows him to zero in unerringly on his opponents' most sensitive spots—weaknesses that others frequently don't even see, let alone exploit. The second allows him to mesmerize the media and the public while pulling off the greatest scam of his life.

But as a businessman, he's so-so. He lets his decisions be guided by his gut, and his gut isn't really very good. That's where Trump Plaza, Trump Air, Trump football, Trump City, the Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Steaks, and Trump University come from. That's not much of a recommendation for the presidency.

1Needless to say, he can prove his business mettle anytime he wants to. He just has to open up his books. Show us revenues and GAAP earnings over the past 20 years. Show us return on equity and return on assets. Break it all down by business line so we can see how much is from TV and branding vs. tangible projects. There's nothing hard about it.

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An Update on the Yosemite Park Trademark Dispute

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 8:47 PM EST

I wrote a post yesterday about a New York company that claims it owns the trademark to various locations at Yosemite National Park. Based on the story I read, this seemed obviously outrageous, and that was the tone I took.

But that was probably wrong. I ended up looking into this issue a little more deeply, and it turns out that the whole thing goes back several years and is actually a fairly pedestrian contract dispute. Here's a quick outline of what happened:

  • In 1993, the National Park Service put up the concessions at Yosemite for bid. The winner was Delaware North, which was required to buy the assets of the Curry Company as part of the deal. This included the Ahwahnee Hotel, Camp Curry, and several other pieces of property.
  • In July 2014 the concessions were once again put up for bid, with the winning bidder required to pay Delaware North fair market value for the assets it owned. The real property had been turned over to the government after the 1993 deal closed, but there was still the matter of "other property."
  • The Park Service initially valued the "other property" at $22 million. In December 2014 it increased its valuation to $30 million, which included an estimate of $3.5 million for intangible property. Of this, $1.63 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North disagreed with this assessment. It valued "other property" at about $100 million, which included an estimate of $51 million for intangible property. Of this, $44 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North filed a protest with the GAO over the Park Service valuation, but in April 2015 the GAO dismissed the protest.
  • June 2015 Aramark won the Yosemite contract.
  • In September 2015 Delaware North took the case to court.

And that's pretty much where we stand today. It turns out there's nothing inherently outrageous about Delaware North owning some of these trademarks, as even the Park Service admits. "We have not denied the fact that they do own intellectual property," said Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite National Park. "But with these trademarks, it's kind of two issues: One, are these trademarks valid, and, two, what is the value of them?" So this is a pretty routine contract dispute. Which trademarks are legit and which aren't? Did Delaware North acquire these trademarks "surreptitiously" or with the knowledge of the Park Service? And how much are they worth? Delaware North says they're worth $44 million. The Park Service says they're worth $1.63 million. The issue is now in court, and Delaware North says it has offered to allow Aramark free use of the trademarks until the dispute is settled. Yesterday, however, the Park Service announced that it would simply rename everything and make the case moot.

It's quite possible that Delaware North's valuation is absurdly high. That's my guess, since the value of these trademarks is mostly due to being attached to Yosemite Park, not to anything special that Delaware North has done to create or exploit them. But I'm no lawyer and I don't know. That's for a court to decide.

Finally, Police Misconduct Against an Unarmed Black Man Gets Bipartisan Attention

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 11:20 AM EST

"I normally incline to give the police the benefit of the doubt," says Ian Tuttle over at National Review. And that's true. In fact, it's fair to say that pretty much everyone at National Review supports the police under almost all circumstances. Nobody at NR ever manages to mount much concern over charges of racism—except to ridicule and disparage them as products of liberal victimology, of course—and they have especially little patience for charges of racism in police conduct.

And yet, Tuttle says the case of Cedrick Chatman "bears close scrutiny." Why is that? What's different about Chatman's case? Just this:

Following the release of the Laquan McDonald video and the revelations that Rahm Emanuel & co. almost certainly worked to bury it until after his tough reelection contest, the newly released video of the shooting of Cedrick Chatman in 2013 raises serious questions....The video is not conclusive. But the optics are not reassuring....Policing, even the “routine” aspects of it, is dangerous work, especially on the South Side of Chicago. But this is a case that bears close scrutiny — and so does the relationship between the city’s elected officials and its law enforcement.

Whew. For a moment I thought that NR had gone soft. I figured I might wake up tomorrow and find them running sympathetic stories about #BlackLivesMatter and railing against institutional racism in American law enforcement.

But no. It's just that this makes good ammunition against Rahm Emanuel. All is right with the world.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 3:10 PM EST

A few days ago Marian went out to buy some new cat toys because, you know, a couple dozen clearly wasn't enough. You can see her haul below, all with nice, fresh tails. Once the tails come off—which doesn't take long—they're no fun anymore. But you can't please everyone. Hilbert looks like he's saying "What? That's all? I jumped all the way onto the counter just for this?"

In other cat news, my sister points us to this YouTube video of a cat invading a Liverpool-Spurs soccer match. It's three years old, but who's counting?

America Is a Dystopian Hellhole and Don't You Forget It

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 2:53 PM EST

It is, of course, normal for Republicans to claim that Democrats have screwed everything up and vice versa. That's what political parties do. But as I (and many others) have noted before, it's remarkable just how apocalyptic Republicans are this year. Listening to the GOP debate last night, you might have barely avoided slitting your own throat in despair over the destruction of a once-great country that we've all witnessed over the past seven years.

As a public service, I figured I would collect the most ominous statement from each candidate last night. Obviously this is a judgment call in some cases, since there were so many to choose from. But there's also a surprise. Here are my choices:

Bush: The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe. The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder.

Carson: You know, when you go into the store and buy a box of laundry detergent, and the price has gone up — you know, 50 cents because of regulations....And everything is costing more money, and we are killing our people like this....It's the evil government that is putting all these regulations on us so that we can't survive.

Trump: Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show....We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people....Those two young people — those two horrible young people in California when they shot the 14 people....Many people saw pipe bombs and all sorts of things all over their apartment. Why weren't they vigilant? Why didn't they call? Why didn't they call the police?...We have to find out — many people knew about what was going on. Why didn't they turn those two people in so that you wouldn't have had all the death? There's something going on and it's bad. And I'm saying we have to get to the bottom of it.

Rubio: This president is undermining the constitutional basis of this government. This president is undermining our military. He is undermining our standing in the world....The damage he has done to America is extraordinary. Let me tell you, if we don't get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.

Kasich: In this country, people are concerned about their economic future. They're very concerned about it. And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to — keeping them from getting it. That's not the America that I've ever known.

Christie: When I think about the folks who are out there at home tonight watching....They know that this country is not respected around the world anymore. They know that this country is pushing the middle class, the hardworking taxpayers, backwards, and they saw a president who doesn't understand their pain, and doesn't have any plan for getting away from it.

And the surprise? There's nothing on this list from Ted Cruz. He had plenty of criticisms of Obama, but I looked at everything he said last night and there was really no hint of America going to hell in a handbasket. I didn't expect that, but I'll bet it's deliberate. Maybe he knows something the rest of field doesn't?

Charts of the Day: Which One Do You Believe?

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 2:28 PM EST

Over at the motherblog, Kristina Rizga has an interesting piece about what happens when you try to integrate majority-black schools. Basically, nobody likes it. The poorer (mostly black) parents don't like the idea of a bunch of rich folks coming in and pushing them around. The richer (mostly white) parents don't like the idea of their kids going to a low-performing school. But Kristina points to a substantial body of research showing that, in fact, white kids do fine when they move to schools in poorer black neighborhoods. In fact, they might even do better on a variety of metrics.

The whole piece is worth a read, but because I'm a nerd I going to use it as an excuse for a statistics lesson. One of the links in the piece is to a recent report from the federal government about the black-white achievement gap. It contains three charts of note. The first is on the right, and it shows white test scores in schools with different densities of black students. Basically, it confirms the worst fears of white parents: as the percentage of black kids goes up, the test scores of the white kids go down.

But wait. Maybe the white kids in majority-black districts are lower performing to begin with. So let's control for income. That gets you the chart on the bottom left. Not so bad! Then let's control for some other characteristics. Bingo! If we do a proper job of comparing apples to apples, white kids actually do better when they go to schools with very high densities of black students. White fears turn out to be entirely unfounded.

So here's the question: which chart do you believe? The one with the raw data? Or the ones with all the fancy-pants statistical controls? Are the controls legitimate? Or are they just the result of a bunch of liberal analysts in the Department of Education torturing the data until they get the politically correct result they want?

Even statisticians might disagree about this. So how are laymen supposed to understand it? If you were a parent and these were your kids we were talking about, which chart would you believe?

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New York Company Claims Trademark Rights to "Yosemite National Park"

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 12:24 PM EST

A company in New York claims that it owns the trademark rights to "Yosemite National Park" and wants $50 million to give it up. This is not a joke. It's actually happening. The Park Service isn't yet giving in on this, but it is caving on a bunch of other names, including the Ahwahnee Hotel:

On March 1, the famed Ahwahnee — a name affixed to countless trail guides and family memories — will become the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. And Curry Village, a collection of cabins near the center of the park that has carried the same name since the 1800s, will become Half Dome Village, park spokesman Scott Gediman said Thursday.

....Also affected will be: Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, becoming Yosemite Valley Lodge. Wawona Hotel, becoming Big Trees Lodge. Badger Pass Ski Area, becoming Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.

Coming soon: Yellowstone National Park will be renamed Majestic Geysers Park. Redwood National Park will become Incredible Trees Park. And Everglades National Park will become Big Swampy Park.

UPDATE: This is probably not actually as outrageous as I thought. More here.

Donald Trump Wins Special Award of Merit For Brazen Lying

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 11:42 AM EST

"It's a depressing thing when you have to evaluate candidates' wins and losses by weighing the relative effectiveness of their lies....And the moderators, naturally, did no fact-checking of any kind. The result was a debate that probably left viewers less informed than they were coming in."

That's Dylan Matthews commenting on last night's debate. As for me, all I can do is shrug these days. I expect exaggerations and spin from politicians as a matter of course, but this year is different: Republicans seem to have finally woken up to the fact that they can say literally anything they want and pay no price for it. Their audience wants to be lied to, and being needled the next day by fact checkers does them no harm.

Nonetheless, I really have to give Donald Trump special props. Back in October he brazenly denied saying that he called Marco Rubio "Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator" even though it was right on his own website. Moderator Becky Quick simply wasn't prepared for this, and initially apologized because she didn't have a cite for the quote right in front of her.

Now fast forward to last night and Trump does the same thing again. Neil Cavuto quotes Trump as supporting "up to 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods" and Trump interrupts him to call the New York Times a bunch of liars. He then launches into a bowl of word salad so Palinesque that it leaves Cavuto dazed and confused. "I'm sorry, you lost me," Cavuto says, and Trump then proceeds to lose him a bit more.

All of this despite the fact that the Times has Trump on tape telling them what he'd do to fight Chinese currency manipulation: "I would do a tariff....I would do a tax, and the tax — let me tell you what the tax should be. The tax should be 45 percent."

For this, I give Donald Trump a special award. Not because his lies last night were any worse than anyone else's, but because they were so cheerfully brazen. Maybe it should be a statuette of Rose Mary Woods showing reporters how the 18-minute gap could have happened. And in the future, debate moderators really need to learn to have their sources right in front of them when they ask Trump a question.

We Are Live-Blogging the GOP Debate in South Carolina

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 8:48 PM EST
Crew members set the stage at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, S.C., in advance of Thursday's Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate.

Overall, this was sort of a boring debate, though it heated up a bit at the end. On a substantive level, there's not much to say: nobody really said anything new. I guess that's just the nature of things when you get to the sixth debate. My take:

Bush: He relentlessly tried to be reasonable. Apparently he thinks that eventually this will be a winning strategy, and maybe he's right! But not tonight. He didn't do anything to help himself.

Carson: At his best, he was in snoozeville. At his worst, he was incoherent. He's a goner.

Rubio: He's a hard duck to analyze. Rubio basically has a bunch of index cards in his head, and he recites one of them whenever he gets a question. The thing is, his index cards aren't bad. And he recites them reasonably well. But eventually they just get old. That's how it felt tonight—until he pulled out a brand new index card and attacked Cruz hard at the end. It was a good attack! It might help him. Maybe.

Trump: Fairly quiet by his standards. He did well responding to Cruz about "New York values." His closing statement about the sailors was probably effective. His endless prevarication on the 45 percent tariff was a loser. Not his most dynamic performance, but he did OK. His numbers will probably go up.

Cruz: He was good tonight. He handled the natural-born citizen thing pretty well. Trump pwned him on New York values, but that helped Trump more than it hurt Cruz. His explanation of his tax plan was pretty much incomprehensible, and it was made worse when Rubio went after it, but I think that was his only real stumble. He's a good debater, and probably picked up a few points tonight.

Kasich: He seemed like an island, totally disengaged from everyone else on the stage.

Christie: As always, he tried to seem like (a) the adult in the room and (b) the toughest guy in the room. It worked OK tonight, and he might pick up a point or two. But nothing more.

Overall, I'd say Trump, Cruz, and Rubio might gain a bit. Bush and Carson will drop a bit. Kasich and Christie will stay in nowhere-land.

Transcript here.


10:20 - Kasich: Mailman father blah blah blah. Bush: "Detailed plans count." Oh Jeb.... Christie: Dammit, America is a hellhole and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Carson: Zzzzz. Rubio: Obama wants to ruin America. Hillary too. Cruz: Benghazi! Radical Islamic terrorism! Political correctness! Trump: If I'm president, we will win on everything we do.

10:19 - Time for closing statements. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

10:13 - Bush: We just heard a big spat between two "backbench" senators. Burn!

11:11 - Ooh. Big attack on Cruz from Rubio. Cruz says half the things Rubio said were false. But what about the other half?

11:04 - "We want Rand! We want Rand!" Well, don't we all?

11:01 - Is it a blind trust if Don, Eric, and Ivanka Trump run the company? Um, no. Pretty sure it's not. But I've actually been a little curious about what Trump would do with his company if he won.

10:57 - Christie says current Republican Congress "consorted" with Barack Obama. Quelle horreur!

10:55 - Big fight between Rubio and Cruz. Now Christie comes in to break it up. Let's talk entitlement reform!

10:52 - Rubio says that Cruz's tax plan would be bad for seniors. He's right, but I doubt anyone understood what he said.

10:49 - Carson just gave an answer that I flatly didn't understand. I'll have to review it later.

10:46 - It's tax time. I'm guessing everyone is in favor of cutting them. Especially on corporations and the rich.

10:43 - Now Cruz says his business tax is like a tariff. No, it's not. But who's counting, anyway?

10:41 - Cruz says Trump and Bush are both right about China. Such a peacemaker. The answer is a flat tax. Wait, what? What did I miss?

10:40 - Boos when Trump attacks Bush. The arena must have a big Bush cheering section.

10:39 - Trump also wants a trade war against Japan.

10:38 - Rubio: the answer to all our problems is to do the opposite of Barack Obama.

10:36 - So...Trump says the NYT lied, but I guess they didn't. Imagine that. Trancript here.

10:35 - OK, but what about the tariff, Donald? Blah blah blah. Biggest bank in the world has an office in his building. But he's totally open to a tariff.

10:35 - Did Trump call for 45 percent tariff on China? He says, of course not. He says he'd only do it if he stayed mad at them. Or something.

10:30 - Bush still trying to be reasonable. It's so crazy it might work!

10:29 - "Radical Islamic terrorism." Say it. SAY IT!

10:24 - Trump: "There's something going on and it's bad." I guess that's Trump's campaign in a nutshell.

10:22 - Bush: "You can't make rash statements." Exciting as always!

10:21 - Jeb Bush steps up and defends letting Muslims into the country. Good for him.

10:19 - No follow-up, of course.

10:18 - These guys have lots of criticism of Obama, but they sure are shy about proposing actual concrete measures to step up the fight against ISIS.

10:15 - Should we send 20,000 ground troops to Iraq to fight ISIS? Carson says we should just give the military whatever they ask for. That's it. And we should send in lots of special ops to put ISIS on the run. Uh huh.

10:11 - The fights between Trump and Cruz have been amusing, but generally speaking this debate has been pretty boring. Lots of canned applause lines and not a lot else.

10:10 - Does Saudi Arabia suck? Kasich says they need to stop funding radical clerics and madrasses. But what if they don't?

10:07 - Ooh. Bush brings out the old Jerusalem chestnut. Go Jeb!

10:05 - New York values? William F. Buckley came out of Manhattan! New Yorkers were great after 9/11! So there.

10:01 - Sorry for the hiatus. So what's going on? Guns? Looks like everyone is in favor of guns, guns, and more guns.

9:37 - The hamsters that power motherjones.com seem to be tired tonight. Sorry about that. If you're having trouble commenting, keep trying!

9:34 - Cruz mostly treats natural-born citizen controversy as a joke. Probably smart.

9:31 - Audience booing Trump again.

9:30 - Audience booing Trump when he starts talking about polls.

9:27 - Audience not happy that Neil Cavuto asks Cruz about whether he's a natural-born citizen. Cruz calls it a "birther" theory.

9:23 - Ah, an old favorite: Cruz turns a million-dollar loan from Goldman Sachs into an attack on the liberal media. That never gets old, does it?

9:20 - Trump says Syrian refugees are Trojan horses.

9:19 - Carson: What if someone hit us with an EMP, cyber-attack, and dirty bomb all at once? That would be pretty bad.

9:18 - Carson already whining about not getting enough questions.

9:17 - Rubio: Benghazi! Also: Obama has betrayed Israel, gutted the military, and apologized on ten world tours. That's quite the memorized applause list.

9:13 - Bush: ISIS has a caliphate the size of Indiana! Also, US military has been totally gutted. Can't even project power anymore.

9:11 - I wonder if anyone is going to acknowledge that American sailors did cross into Iranian waters near a major military base?

9:09 - If economy collapses next January, Kasich will balance the budget. That should work great.

9:06 - Cruz just can't wait to bring up the American sailors. Ugh. Apparently he would have nuked Tehran immediately upon their capture.

8:57 - "The pirates are fighting in advance." Huh?

8:48 - What will Donald Trump say tonight? In just a few minutes we'll find out!

The Truth About Benghazi Is Finally Going to Be Exposed

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 6:03 PM EST

You remember Lamar Smith, don't you? He's the nutbag congressman from Texas who's been harassing NOAA because they've published papers saying the climate has warmed up. Smith knows that climate change is a hoax, so he wants NOAA to turn over vast troves of email that his staff can trawl for evidence of the government's massive conspiracy to fudge the data.

So far NOAA hasn't cooperated, but Smith can harass them because he's the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Climate change is science,1 so that puts it squarely in his bailiwick.

But there's more to science than climate change. You know what else is science? Cybersecurity. And do you know one of the key cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the US government? Email servers. And do you know who used private email servers a few years ago? Hillary Clinton. And do you know what she was writing emails about? Benghazi. So that means Benghazi falls under Smith's jurisdiction:

Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on Wednesday launched his own investigation of Clinton’s private email server, invoking the panel’s jurisdiction over cybersecurity issues. The new investigation will focus on the private IT companies involved in maintaining the Clinton server.

....The Smith probe, according to three letters sent to the company's involved with the server, will focus on Colorado-based Platte River, which housed Clinton’s server after she left State; Datto, the Connecticut-based back-up company they used as a backstop; and SECNAP, a Florida company that provided cybersecurity for her server.

It's about damn time, if you ask me. John Boehner wouldn't allow investigations like this because he was scared it would make congressional Republicans look like idiots. That's typical Boehner. Just another gutless Beltway sellout. But Paul Ryan is running things differently, and now Smith has been unleashed. Finally, we'll get the truth.

And please: no whining about how this is obviously just a witch hunt designed to hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Oversight is one of Congress's most solemn duties. The truth is out there, folks.

1Supposedly, anyway.