Revising the tax code: What do Republicans really want?

There is actually widespread, even bipartisan, agreement that the U.S. tax code is in serious need of revision. In fact, the most recent major revision was in 1986 and, as historians note, since the federal income tax was instituted in 1916, there has been a major rewrite every 32 years.  Which means, 2018, it’s your turn.

However, there’s no real consensus on what changes are needed and no guarantee that a Republican-controlled Congress won’t make the current problems even worse. Although “alternative facts” are much in vogue these days, there are a few real facts worth keeping in mind as the debate unfolds in Washington this week.

First, despite what Donald Trump keeps saying, the United States is not even close to being the most heavily taxed country in the world. Many nations tax their citizens at much higher rates as part of a deliberate choice to fund a much broader range of services than are available in this country. Universal health care. Free higher education. A much more extensive set of social services.

Second, on the other hand, Trump’s contention that the corporate tax rate in this country is among the highest in the world is correct.  Few companies actually pay that rate,however, because they are able to find loopholes, tax havens and other evasions.  Many pay nothing.  How do you reduce the nominal rate while also increasing the amount of corporate tax revenues? Is there any will in Congress to address the abysmal level of compliance or collection among U. S. corporations?

Third, the “theory” of supply side economics–that the economy and the rest of society will benefit when the wealthiest among us pay minimum taxes–has never worked in practice.  If supply side economics actually worked, the growing disparities in wealth and income in this country in the past two decades would already have stimulated major growth in the economy.  Instead, executive salaries are rising to historic highs, stock buy-backs and increased dividends are much more prevalent, and employee pay raises and investments in business are lagging. And wage earners fall farther and farther behind.

Fourth, the tax code is entirely too complicated.  Only 10% of Americans fill out their own tax returns; 60% use tax-preparation agencies and another 30% use tax-preparation software.  It is estimated that American families spend 3.16 billion hours each year getting their tax forms completed.  By contrast, many European countries have returns that can be filled out in less than half an hour.

Here we get to the challenge of rewriting the tax code.  The 1986 revision was widely seen as a significant advance, simplifying the rules, achieving a progressive structure and raising enough money to fund government.  Since then, however, Congress has regularly found ways to modify and amend the law, carving out exceptions and special provisions, sometimes for a single company.  The irony is that while the IRS is routinely seen as the villain in our tax system, it is Congress that keeps messing it up and Congress which makes it more difficult for the IRS to do its job by repeatedly reducing its budget.

One of the great acts of hypocrisy that we see regularly is members of Congress pledging to make the system easier for taxpayers–while knowing that their capitulation to lobbyists requesting special favors is a major reason why tax forms are so complicated.

Similarly, new tax legislation will test whether Republicans actually care about budget deficits or only are concerned when there is a Democratic President.  I would bet on hypocrisy triumphing yet again.

What can we expect from the latest Republican tax initiative?  Its really hard to say since they have kept their proposal secret.  Any piece of legislation that impacts as many people as the tax code does and is as complicated deserves–indeed demands –extensive public hearings and lively debate, what Senator John McCain has called “regular order.”  If they have their way, Republicans will pass a bill in the dead of night with no hearings and little public awareness of what is being enacted.

Donald Trump clearly has no idea what the proposal will do, just as he had literally no understanding of the various pieces of health care legislation that were proffered earlier this year.  He wants something he can call a “win”, regardless of its content.  While he has made various promises in the past about what he would support–no changes in 401 (K) plans, tax increases for the wealthy–he is very likely to renege on those pledges just as he has so many others.

Similarly, because he has never released his own tax returns, Trump’s claim that he will not personally benefit from the new tax law is impossible to verify.  The exception is the effort to eliminate the estate tax, which would save his family hundreds of millions of dollars.  In fact, the beneficiaries of such a change would constitute far fewer than 1% of taxpayers and is hard to justify on any grounds.

Most Republican tax proposals in the past have had two objectives: lower the tax burden for the wealthy and force a reduction in the size of the federal government by making less revenues available.  The rhetoric surrounding the current proposal is substantially different from that, but, unless a few brave Republicans stand up for the truth, that will be the outcome again this time.

There are, in fact, examples from other countries of how we could greatly improve our tax system, but there’s no chance that any of those will receive any consideration in the current political environment.  The best we can hope for is less rather than more damage.  Unfortunately, that sentiment can be applied to most of what is going in in Washington these days.

 

Military-Civilian Relations in Donald Trump’s White House

 

In the adult day care center at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, General John Kelly has been generally seen as a leading pillar of stability. Since replacing the hapless Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff, he has brought a degree of order to the President’s schedule and cut down on unfettered access to him particularly by the most zealous staff members.  He has also reassured many outsiders by his mere presence.

Managing the White House may well be the most challenging job of Kelly’s long and distinguished career.  We continue to be reminded that not even a career Marine General can bring total order to the chaos that defines the Trump Administration.  Trump continues his tweets at all hours on all topics, big and small.  He lurches from position to position with no warning and no apparent rationale.  The family kiddie corps still occupies offices down the hall despite their absence of relevant qualifications or discernible impact on the issues they claim to care about.

In fairness to Kelly, he can hardly be expected to perform miracles.  As a staff person in the White House with no operational responsibilities and a history of strict adherence to the chain of command, Kelly likely sees his job as managing rather than weighing in on major policy issues.  Those looking to him to save the Affordable Care Act or prevent a massive give-away of tax dollars to America’s richest 1% are almost certain to be disappointed.

The main hope of Trump-watchers is that Kelly will keep him away from the nuclear button and rein in his reckless threats to start a war with North Korea because his pride has been hurt by Kim Jong un. They also hope he can insure that Trump maintains the United States’ membership in NATO and avoids a confrontation in the Middle East.  Whether Kelly plays a role in Trump’s apparent desire to dramatically increase the military budget as well as the country’s nuclear arsenal is much less clear.

Kelly certainly does not conform to the stereotype of military generals sometimes found in popular fiction.  Neither “Seven Days in May”–depicting an attempted military coup–nor “Dr. Strangelove”–scary satire about a nuclear war resulting from unhinged fingers on the levers of power–seems relevant.

In fact, the authors of the Constitution consciously constructed a system in which civilian control over the military was one of the fundamental principles of American government.  By contrast, in the contemporary world, we have numerous examples of the military seizing control in countries with less well-established traditions of constitutional government.

Among the critical strengths that Kelly brings to his job are his reputation and his credibility.  While he clearly possess political skills–anyone who rose to the most senior levels of the military as he did had to be politically adept–he is now operating in a totally different political environment.  At times, his lack of experience in national partisan politics has shown.

Beyond that, Trump has continuously disregarded traditional political norms and has left even wily veterans of Washington scratching their heads trying to figure out what makes him tick.  Kelly, in other words, is not the only one having to learn on the job how to deal with a president who frequently simply disregards the existing rules.

That’s the context for assessing Kelly’s dive into the ugly mess Trump created last week regarding calls to families of service members killed since he assumed office.  The General is certainly incredibly knowledgable about the challenges of comforting families who have lost a loved one in war.  That one of those lost was his own son makes the issue an understandably emotional one for him.

Kelly’s very human side showed when he took the podium at a press briefing to support Trump in a dispute with a family who publicly objected to the tone and content of his “condolence” call.  The politics of the issue were further complicated by the fact that a Congresswoman and friend of the family was riding in the car and overheard Trump’s call on a speaker phone.

Whether Kelly learns from this experience will be a key to his continuing effectiveness as Chief of Staff.  He made at less three significant errors, all of which reflect the dangers of working for Donald Trump.

For one, Kelly made an accusation about the Congresswoman that was false.  He has yet to correct the record or apologize.  His mistake was almost certainly the result of believing something that he had been told in much the same way that Colin Powell made the case at the United Nations for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on a faulty briefing.

Distortions of what political opponents say or do are much too common in today’s politics.  Whether the information passed on to Kelly was known to be false or was the result of sloppy staff work is less important than that his credibility took a big hit as the result of his public assertion.  I assume that Kelly will be more careful in the future about who he believes.

A second costly mistake was to engage in the kind of name calling that is a staple of Trump’s political style.  Calling a critic an “empty barrel” diminishes Kelly and makes him look like less of a general and more of a partisan mud-slinger.  That’s Trump’s job, not his.

Finally, even though he was operating in an area of personal expertise and experience, Kelly failed to see the other side of the argument when he made sweeping statements about the “correct” way to receive condolence calls.  He dismissed out of hand the right of a grieving family member to handle the information in any way she chooses.  That Kelly was “shocked” that someone else heard the call is imposing his personal preference and ignoring the rights of others.

The big lesson for Kelly from this incident should be that his credibility and reputation are on the line every time he goes public in support of the President.  He may believe that it buys him more leeway to manage Trump, but the President’s incredibly short-term focus suggests that he will care only about what Kelly has “done for him lately.”

Count me among those who hopes that Kelly learns from this experience and that he continues to be a stabilizing force in the most erratic and dangerous presidential administration in American history.

 

 

Donald Trump’s Destructive Rampage

 

This President of the United States likes breaking things. He particularly likes breaking things that have former president Barack Obama’s name on them. Last week may have been the most destructive ever. Up to now. But, of course, you’ve heard that before.

Ever since Donald Trump took office, we have struggled to understand what motivates him.  Observers have offered a variety of psychological labels, a range of metaphors, a cacophony of adjectives.  After his most recent burst of executive orders, tweets and public declarations, the image that seems most apt is of a bull in a china shop.   Debris is flying in every direction and a lot of Americans are being hit by the broken shards.

Trump’s most recent act of destruction was to cut off health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.  Given that assistance to less wealthy Americans is a core part of the legislation, it’s really not clear that he has the authority to take such action.  Yet, he and his Congressional Republican supporters seem indifferent to either that issue or to the great harm that will be done to millions of citizens.  Fortunately, a number of State Attorneys-General have already filed suit challenging his legal ability to so sabotage the law.  Whether a court will intervene quickly enough to prevent the literal bleeding will be known soon.

In that same week, the President began undermining the nuclear deal with Iran, cut back on environmental regulations concerning coal-fired power plants, withdrew from UNESCO, threatened to abrogate the NAFTA agreement and undercut protections for LBGQT Americans.  In none of these areas does Trump have an alternative policy.  He just hates the ones that currently exist although he would be hard pressed to explain why other than in the most vague terms.

Trump is basically a destroyer.  He’s certainly not a builder even if you factor in his efforts to have a wall erected along the Mexican border.  The Administration still doesn’t have a national infrastructure program although it was one of his major campaign promises.  He has never had a replacement for Obamacare other than empty promises about how much better things would be without it.  He has “decertified” the Iran agreement — and left it to Congress to fix his mess.

Of all the dangers arising from his presidency, the most serious is the threat to the rules and norms of our democracy.  While there are multiple strong, clear voices warning us of the risks that his actions pose–the new book, “One Nation after Trump” by E.J. Dionne, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann is an important example; a recent Vox report on the concerns of 25 prominent political scientists is another–Republican office holders have almost universally turned a blind eye and pretended that everything is pretty much normal.

Normal is absolutely the last word you should use to describe Trump and his presidency.  If our democracy survives–and it’s hardly a sure thing at this point–history will have damning things to say about those Trump enablers who could have put the brakes on but chose instead to advance their own agendas in the wake of his turbulence.

Similarly, Trump voters who continue to support him are failing the most basic test of citizenship. Much has been written about the importance of listening to and trying to understand the plight of white working class people who have suffered under the shifting global economy.  You have to wonder, however, whether they’ll ever notice that coal and manufacturing jobs are not coming back despite Trump’s blustering.

His support also comes from better educated, affluent Americans.  My own experience with trying to listen or to have a serious conversation with them is analogous to talking to a brick wall.  They ignore or make excuses for his ethical lapses, his constant lies, his crude behavior, his racism and misogyny.  We are told that using facts is not a good way to appeal to people with different opinions.  That does narrow the options.

Ta Nehisi Coates expressed it well in a recent publication.  Most of Trump’s supporters are not racists, but they are willing to tolerate and support a man, Trump, who is a racist.  His outrageous and irresponsible posture toward the suffering in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is hard to understand through any lens other than racial bias.  To say that first responders are not going to stay there “forever” shows a callousness that is totally at odds with the basic values of this country.  It’s pretty clear that he does not view Puerto Ricans as Americans.

What’s to be done?  First of all, don’t expect help from Republicans.  Some agree with what he is doing, some view him as a “useful idiot”, and some are so focused on squeezing every dollar they can out of the system that they really don’t care what he does.

What are the chances that Trump supporters, of all income levels, will come to the realization that he is a con man who won’t fulfill any of the promises that he has made?  While polls show a slight eroding of his base, a large portion of Trump backers remain unfazed by his reckless and irresponsible presidency even when they stand to be harmed by it.

Can we look to Robert Mueller for a remedy?  There are a lot of signs that he may be getting closer to some recommendations–which might explain Trump’s current unraveling.  A report to Congress urging impeachment of the President would probably be met with delays and more likely outright opposition.  The chances of a 25th Amendment remedy by the Cabinet seems even less likely.

A grand jury indictment is not implausible, but would raise legal issues about whether a sitting president can in fact be indicted.  The bright, albeit somewhat perverse, side of that approach, might be to bring all of government to a screeching halt.  In this case, less would definitely be more.

The more promising scenario, one which will take longer and allow continued damage in the meantime, is for the current upsurge in political activism to result in dramatic changes in the 2018 congressional election, including Democrats regaining control of at least one house of Congress.  That’s far from a sure thing, but it’s definitely a worthy goal.

As the American patriot Thomas Paine put it during the founding of our nation, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Once again, we face an existential test of whether this nation will endure.

 

Words are not enough

The recent barrage of horrible news defies an easy response. It feels overwhelming. Even worse, so many of our “leaders” have already slid easily into clichés and meaningless expressions of concern. “Thoughts and prayers” for the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, like those offered up on innumerable occasions in the past, seem particularly hollow.

Carnage of innocent victims should not be “the price we pay for freedom” as some Second Amendment extremists have argued. The cold hard reality is that the NRA, members of Congress who are afraid to oppose them and too many on the far right give no evidence that they actually care about the lives that are lost on a regular basis to gun violence.

To the contrary, the price we pay for living in a civilized country should be the choice to make big guns and ammunition clips, etc. available only to those with demonstrated military needs for them.

Politicians, briefly, express a phony piety after each deadly incident, then quickly move on to advocate for legislation that will make it even easier for the next person to engage in deadly rampages. Next up on their agenda: a proposal to make the purchase of gun silencers easier. You certainly won’t want that deer or the concert goer to hear the shots being fired.

It used to be that elected officials saw their job as being problem-solvers.  The goal was not to find a perfect solution, but to improve conditions.  With respect to the prevention of deaths by firearm, the posture of the gun lobby is that either no regulation whatsoever is permissible under the Constitution–a position that even the U.S. Supreme Court does not agree with–or that any proposed step will not provide a perfect solution.

The much-used straw man is that any regulation is but the first step to taking away all guns.  How many times did you hear that warning while Barack Obama was president?  There is no data or evidence that moves this debate a centimeter.  Comparisons to the record of other countries are dismissed out of hand.  Examples of nations with stronger gun laws having fewer deaths by firearms are ignored or denied.

We have engaged in a wide-spread program to counter terrorism.  In the process, we have been willing to give up some of our freedoms in the name of greater safety.  Similarly, we have undertaken massive campaigns, spending millions of dollars, to counter public health threats.  In reality, the number of deaths from terrorists in this country pale in comparison to the human tragedy of gun violence.

Yet some keep proclaiming that “now” is not the right time to talk about gun regulations.   We continue to let our public officials get away with mouthing empty expressions of regret, but taking no remedial actions.

As often as I have written about the scourge of gun violence in this country, I have no expectations that this most recent “most deadly gun rampage in American history” will change anything.  We have too many elected officials who are cowards, who don’t really care about the victims, who have political agendas that focus only on the wishes of their largest donors.

This could be a moment for a courageous leader to stand up and speak truth to cowardice.  While there are some voices calling for action, those with the largest pulpits are totally silent.  We know there’s no chance of a bipartisan approach.  When last seen addressing this issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was toting a rifle around at an NRA convention.  House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have no interest other than slashing the federal budget and is totally lacking any signs of a backbone.

What about President Trump?  At one point in his life, he expressed support for gun regulations, but that was several twists and turns ago.  During the presidential campaign, he promised to be a really good friend to the NRA.

Is there anything in his time as president that would lead to a glimmer of hope about this issue?  How many ways can you say no?  Trump’s overriding political strategy is to play to a conservative base that does not support any gun regulations.  His shaky relationship with fact makes him most likely to deny that guns constitute a public health crisis in this country.  Trump may well claim that current gun regulations are working just fine.

In his initial comments after the Las Vegas shooting, he described it as an act of “pure evil.”  Hard to argue with that assessment, but where do you go from there?  It’s far too easy then to assert that behavior of the shooter was so unpredictable and random that nothing could have been done to prevent it.  Of course, something might have been done to prevent an evil person from having 23 rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and high-powered sights readily available.

If Trump is criticized for his response to Las Vegas, and there’s no certainty that he will be, he is likely, as he has done with the criticism of his administration’s feeble response to the plight of hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, to lash out and blame the victims.

At a moment when we could really use courageous, moral leadership in this country, the odds seemed stacked against it.  Spare us the words of condolence that we have heard so often in the past.  What is desperately needed is action to prevent future carnage in the streets of yet another American city.