Scott Alexander on The Art of the Deal

The Slate Star Codex blogger decided to read, and belatedly review, The Art of the Deal (1988) by real estate developer and now-GOP nomination frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump and his campaign aside, the book affords insights into the legal and regulatory side of the development business. Following a funny description of the role of the real estate developer in coordinating deals, Alexander writes:

…The developer’s other job is dealing with regulations. The way Trump tells it, there are so many regulations on development in New York City in particular and America in general that erecting anything larger than a folding chair requires the full resources of a multibillion dollar company and half the law firms in Manhattan. Once the government grants approval it’s likely to add on new conditions when you’re halfway done building the skyscraper, insist on bizarre provisions that gain it nothing but completely ruin your chance of making a profit, or just stonewall you for the heck of it if you didn’t donate to the right people’s campaigns last year. Reading about the system makes me both grateful and astonished that any structures have ever been erected in the United States at all, and somewhat worried that if anything ever happens to Donald Trump and a few of his close friends, the country will lose the ability to legally construct artificial shelter and we will all have to go back to living in caves.

But if you are waiting for new proposals from Trump about reforming regulation, you might need to go on waiting:

Here is a guy whose job is cutting through bureaucracy, and who is apparently quite good at it. Yet throughout the book – and for that matter, throughout his campaign for the nomination of a party that makes cutting bureaucracy a big part of their platform – he doesn’t devote a lot of energy to expressing discontent with the system. There is no libertarian streak to Trump – in the process of successfully navigating all of these terrible rules, he rarely takes a step back and wonders about a better world where these rules don’t exist. Despite having way more ability to change the system than most people, he seems to regard it as a given, not worth debating. … the rules are there; his job is to make the best deal he can within those rules.


  • Trump loves the rules. He loves them because he has the connections ad resources to “cut through them.” He loves them because anyone who can’t is automatically eliminated from competing with his developments.

  • Both the post and the comment by Stephen above suggest that a true lover of free enterprise capitalism would change the way that real estate entitlements are handled in New York and other large cities rather than playing by the existing set of rules. Only people whose knowledge comes from hanging around libertarian think tanks and their blogs would be foolish enough to suggest this. Trump was just one of many large developers and investors in New York, albeit the one whose business strategy was to make his name a front page celebrity. To think that he could have totally changed the way in which real estate development happened in New York when twenty years of Giuliani and Bloomberg were unable to accomplish this shows a disconnect with the world as it exists.

    • Appreciate the kind personal remarks, Paul B., but I think Scott Alexander’s point — and he deserves credit for it, not me — is that Trump has not offered any ideas for improving the rules *as a national candidate*, not that he failed to do so as a New York development player. If he spoke up now, he would reach a far bigger audience and influence a national debate. Indeed, author Philip K. Howard (“The Death of Common Sense”), another veteran of NYC legal and regulatory battles, has criss-crossed the country telling audiences that rationalizing rules on development is vital if the whole country is not to wind up with a system as expensive and insider-based as NYC’s. Trump could too.

      • It’s also the case that Trump’s method of “hire the best person I can find, have them work out a solution, and then just do that” is not going to be as successful when there’s Congress and a whole Federal bureaucracy who thinks that A) they’re already doing the best job they can, B) they’re already doing the best job anyone can, and C) who cares what this guy thinks because in four to eight years he’ll be gone anyway.

        • There is another reason, an even simpler reason, why Trump. “hire the best person I can find, have them work out a solution, and then just do that” won’t work out so well.

          The people who are the best of the best in their fields are generally in a position to pick an chose their employers as they are the ones everyone wants to hire. On top of that, such people are generally motivated by things beyond money.

          People like that generally don’t work for government, because job security is not a top level motivator for them.

          People like that won’t work for a boss like Trump, not at any salary.

          In any event, to judge by his past performance, often “the best he can find” are barely competent morons.