Archive for November, 2017

The Thinker

The Republican tax bill is really quite breathtaking in its audacity

Those of us of sufficient age will remember when W’s father, George H. W. Bush was running for president. The elder Bush’s famous words during the campaign were: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” It was infamous because after he won election in 1988 he made a deal with Democrats that modestly raised taxes.

Since that time it’s been anathema for any Republican to even think about raising taxes.

Next week the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on its version of a tax bill that will raise taxes, just like the House bill. To make this worse, they are dramatically cutting taxes on the wealthy and making the already stretched middle and lower classes generally pay more in taxes.

And it doesn’t seem to be bothering Republicans at all, which is perhaps the most amazing part. Since Ronald Reagan declared government and taxes evil, never raising taxes has been the nonstop diatribe from Republicans. Now although trying to paint their legislation as a tax cut, no one actually believes it is one. Virtually every analysis shows that it will increase the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion plus add taxes for most middle and lower income people. It’s also likely the resulting exploding deficit will give them reason to cut social services back even further.

The Republicans think that if they can get through this through Congress and into law, it’s one point for their side in an otherwise miserable legislative year when they have controlled all levers of power. They think their voters will be thrilled. Any objective person though looking at this turd of legislation will see it as an abdication of nearly forty years of Republican bedrock orthodoxy. Any Republican rank-and-file who actually believed this stuff should be dumfounded.

Just last year when Obama was still president Republicans were threatening to shut down the government if proposed spending bills were not revenue neutral. “We can’t leave our grandchildren with a mountain of debt”, we heard in many variations ad nauseum. Now, adding another $1.5T to the debt? No problemo.

It’s not news to Democrats that Republicans were not sincere about debt reduction, at least not when they were in charge. It exploded under Reagan, and again under Bush II. When Bush II’s Medicare Part D bill was voted into law, it was done at 3 AM in the House chambers so it would be less obvious how hypocritical Republicans were being. Maybe they felt a little ashamed. They might try the same strategy this time but I don’t think it will work and I doubt feeling ashamed about what they plan to do has even entered their minds.

Still, it takes amazing audacity to give huge tax cuts and inheritance windfalls to the very richest while bleeding the working class even more. This is explainable: all Republicans really care about is the moneyed class and making them even more so. They got control of the Executive and Congress. Now is the time to squeeze the system for themselves and their special moneyed interests. It’s the culmination of decades of strategy to convince Americans to act against their own self-interest. That $1.5T deficit? The only reason that’s there is because they have to get this bill through the Senate using budget reconciliation rules, i.e. Republicans-only so it could only add so much to the deficit, at least officially. Without the rule maybe there would have been no lower and middle class tax increases. To give the rich this tax windfall though and keep the deficit spending to $1.5T, they had to squeeze someone. Couldn’t be them of course, so lower and middle classes it has to be.

And Trump? The guy who ran as an outsider and promised to help the working class? To make America great again? The candidate who during one of the first debates openly admitted he traded money for favor from politicians? The charlatan that Americans elected who ran promising he’d do exactly the opposite? Why he’s all in on this tax bill, of course! His family will reap at least $1B in estate tax relief alone from its passage in its current form. What’s not to like about that? It’s pretty clear what Trump is all about. He’s about bleeding the government dry mainly to enrich himself and his empire. He goes golfing pretty much every weekend at one of his resorts to make sure the Secret Service has to pay usury rates to rent his golf carts and stay in his hotels. Much of the rest of his administration is looking out for either themselves and/or their sponsors. Education Secretary DeVos is trying to move tax dollars toward charter schools. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is downsizing national monuments so private interests can mine and frack gas on nearby lands including possibly the Grand Canyon. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin when not posing holding sheets of dollar bills with his wife is trying to loosen regulations on Wall Street, the same regulations that caused the Great Recession.

In short Trump’s voters — but really the vast majority of Americans — are being played for suckers. It’s time for Republicans to give America that high colonic of their dreams. With the oligarchy in charge, it’s time to fleece the sheep just as winter approaches instead of afterward.

Or so they think. I think a wave is building and come November 2018 Republicans are going to discover the wrath of the American voter. It’s quite similar to the late 19th century when homeless urchins roamed the streets while the Carnegies and Rockefellers lived the life of Gatsby. Back then the voters spoke and a true progressive called Teddy Roosevelt won office, along with a massive wave of Republicans (who were the modern day Democrats of their time). Too big to fail corporations were broken up. National Parks multiplied. Government represented the people again.

Granted the challenge will be harder in 2018. In the late 19th century the art of gerrymandering had not yet been perfected. Blacks and women were disenfranchised but that was the status quo; however there were enough regular folk out there with voting rights to sweep the oligarchy out of power. I’m anticipating that’s what we’ll see in 2018. It’s not really Republican vs. Democrat anymore, it’s big business against the rest of us. It will be mostly Republicans but also a lot of corporate Democrats that will pay the price this time.

No time like the present holiday season for Republicans to play the part of the Grinch. In 2018 though Republicans and their ilk are likely to find their game is over.

 
The Thinker

Get ready to be a guerrilla activist for net neutrality

These regulations to end net neutrality the FCC are likely to pass next month makes no sense. Okay, it does make sense if you want to free Internet Service Providers to discriminate the delivery of content over the web or if you think it makes sense for them to prohibit some content from being delivered at all. That’s clearly how it could end up affecting us customers. What doesn’t make any sense is the rationale that FCC commissioner Ajit Pai is using to end net neutrality.

Pai argues that free of the burden of net neutrality, ISPs will want to invest in their infrastructure instead, presumably delivering us more and greater broadband and more services. No, really! This is truly so laughable it’s amazing if Pai can say this with a straight face. Free of the “burden” ISPs like Comcast – if they think they can get away with it – will work hard to figure out how to pad their bottom line in new and creative ways and spending money to build higher speed networks won’t do that. It’s not you they care about; it’s their stockholders but also how much money they can make off their monopoly in bonuses and stock options.

With a few exceptions, ISPs have monopolies. With net neutrality though they can’t discriminate on what content is delivered and how quickly it is delivered. We still have to pay their ridiculous usury fees but at least we don’t have to pay extra for the privilege of streaming Stranger Things or worry that if we want to wax our carrots on pornhub.com we need to chip in an extra $10 a month for an “all adult access pass”. We don’t have to worry that Time Warner will cut off our access to washingtonpost.com because they don’t like its liberal content or force our browsers to show news clips from Fox News.

It’s hard to know now which of these scenarios will actually happen if net neutrality rules go away. We do know that in Portugal the mobile carrier Meo “innovated” by letting you decide what sort of content packages you want. Want access to social networks this month? Meo will charge you €4.99 a month for the privilege and if not, well no Facebook or Twitter for you. I strongly suspect that given the “magic” of the free market here in the USA things will get much more creative than this.

And it’s not like you are likely to have a choice, certainly not here in Western Massachusetts where I live as Comcast has the lock on high speed internet. You choices are to maybe get a dial up service if there is still a phone company out there doing landlines and your house is suitably wired, which is what I was doing until 1999. Or you could stick a huge satellite antenna in your yard (if you have a yard and the HOA allows it) and point to a Hughes satellite, and pay handsomely for the privilege of really crappy Internet service. You can also try to run your Internet through your cell phone on a network like Verizon although 4G speeds are mediocre at best compared to broadband and wireless Internet tends to be pricey. Or I suppose you could exercise your freedom by disconnecting from the Internet and maybe going once a week to use a computer at your public library to check your email.

Comcast says it supports net neutrality but it wants to be free of its rules anyhow, which is a polite way of saying it doesn’t support them and will see how much it can get away with once the cops go away. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of high-speed Internet providers maybe you will get some competition and relief from these rules. When we lived in Northern Virginia we could choose between Cox and Verizon FiOS. We paid about $25 less per month for better service than we get here.

But really, what incentive will Comcast and other ISPs have to improve their network? What usually drives these improvements is competition, something they don’t have to worry about any more than Ma Bell had to worry about it in the 1960s in most communities. Ma Bell did have to worry about Public Service Commissions, but with the FCC going to a hands-off mode there will be virtually none of that at the FCC. Supposedly the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will take up the slack, according to Pai. There are two problems with this approach. First, the FTC is understaffed so it won’t have much ability to take action, a situation the Trump administration is likely to make worse. Second, since they have no rule making authority they can only say that in this instance an ISP is acting against trade rules.

So how do you fight this, particularly when the FCC appears so tone deaf that it will ignore 20 million comments filed, mostly in support of net neutrality? Since these rules seem likely to pass, we have to hit ISPs where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Here are my suggestions:

  • Municipalities should build their own broadband networks. No one in Chattanooga, Tennessee is complaining about their municipal network but you can bet Comcast doesn’t like it and has been working state legislators to get rid of it. Their rationale: it’s not competitive but nearby communities that aren’t on the municipal network pay Comcast a lot more than city residents do for inferior service. Such innovation!
  • Boycott ISPs to the extent possible if they don’t practice strict net neutrality. ISPs usually provide cable services. Cut your cable to a basic plan or get rid of it altogether and use a HD TV antenna instead. Let them know why you are doing it and that you won’t come back until they practice strict net neutrality again.
  • Use a VPN service while you can. I wrote about this back in April. With these new rules, ISPs will be free to track your usage and sell the information to the highest bidder. Until they block VPN ports or degrade service, this at least allows you to get the full Internet, perhaps with some degradation of service as content will have to go through a proxy. Most likely though ISPs will either block or degrade VPN services, but it may work for a little while.
  • Protest regularly outside local, regional and national ISP office. Be noisy and in their faces. If you own stock in these companies, go to their annual meetings and raise holy hell.
  • Petition Congress. The FCC is clearly planning to stay tone deaf while the Trump Administration survives. You can complain to your representative and senator and pledge to vote against them if they don’t support net neutrality.
  • Vote for candidates who support of net neutrality. Democrats are not necessarily supporters of net neutrality. It took a major campaign in 2013 to get the Obama Administration to favor rules in this area. Expect Congress and the Trump Administration to stay tone deaf, but definitely support candidates that promise to bring back net neutrality. By and large they will be Democrats. If you can, do more than vote for these candidates, but use your friends and social networks (to the extent ISPs will allow you to!) to campaign for them as well.

I bet these new rules likely to pass next month probably won’t last long. But it will take major activism from many engaged Americans to roll these back. Plenty of energy is there already if 20 million comments were filed, but apparently we need more. So be prepared to take action and not to roll over on this. Complain to your ISP and cut back your use of their services if they discriminate based on content origin. And protest, protest, protest! This should be an issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

 
The Thinker

Should Bill Clinton have resigned?

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said last week that because Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinski, he should have resigned.

Gillibrand appears to be applying the new emerging conduct standards some twenty years after Clinton’s tawdry oral affair with the then White House intern. Her complaint does not appear to be that there was sexual harassment involved, but that the relationship was inappropriate. By that standard though Donald Trump should have never taken the oath of office, although as best we can tell so far Trump has not overtly sexually harassed any women since assuming office. Given his track record though, I’d not be taking bets he makes it through his term unscathed in this area.

Bill Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House not for having an affair but for lying about it under oath. In truth, Republicans wholly loathed Clinton as would have impeached him for pretty much anything they figured they could get away with however spurious and minor. The Senate refused to convict him. That Clinton had the affair was not in doubt and was confirmed by the infamous blue dress that Lewinski kept with his semen stains on it.

Clinton tried to use legal semantics to dodge an allegation of perjury, claiming that in his mind “sex” meant intercourse. It was a dodge worthy of the weasel that many saw him to be. Ultimately it was an unsuccessful defense. Clinton was only the second president in history to be impeached, so in some sense he will always carry that mark of shame. Apparently that would be insufficient for Gillibrand now. (In any event Clinton left office at the end of his term with record high approval ratings, so it doesn’t appear the American people saw him as an ineffective president or were particularly upset with the consensual conduct.)

It’s highly debatable whether Clinton’s affair with Lewinski constituted sexual harassment. Exactly what sexual harassment was in the mid 1990s was very murky. I should know because I was a federal employee at the time and we were still trying to puzzle it out. The standard was quite murky and subjective. Much of the murkiness had to do with how the conduct was perceived. Basically you were sexually harassed if you felt you were sexually harassed. There was a clear rule that someone who had power of you should never harass you: a boss or someone in your chain of command. Coworkers were also not supposed to harass each other, and harassment could be in three forms: physical, sexual or emotional. Penalties were not criminal but civil. Most involved discipline like letters of reprimand but in extreme cases could have resulted in being fired. What I took away from the training was that I should be professional at work and if I were to have an affair I should do it with someone outside the office.

Part of the standard (and what made it so murky) was that the conduct had to be unwelcome. I don’t think that standard ever applied in the Clinton-Lewinski affair. It’s hard to know for sure but what we do know about it appears to show that Lewinski initiated the affair, so it was not conduct that she spurned. So while Clinton may have dropped his pants from time to time for various women, it does not appear that the conduct was unwelcome when it got that far.

This can be readily contrasted with more than a dozen women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual assault. Even Trump seems to have qualified his conquests, looking for women in his social circles as opposed to within his organization. So it’s not clear based on what we know that Trump has engaged in any sexual harassment as it is legally defined. His conduct might still be illegal, because sexual assault is a different crime than sexual harassment and one with much harsher penalties. There is no evidence that Bill Clinton ever sexually assaulted anyone. There are women (like Paula Jones) who say that his advances were unwelcome but because there was not a power relationship involved it was not sexual harassment.

Clinton was in a power relationship with Lewinski, but with some caveats. Lewinski was a White House intern that received no salary. Implicit in being an intern is the ephemeral nature of the work. She could have been dismissed at any time for any reason and there was no real damage in doing so. Lewinski was there to learn about the mechanics of governing and likely to make connections to further a political career. It’s unsurprising that given the opportunity to be closer to Clinton that she would take it. Lewinski was also not a minor and was at least 23 when the affair began. The same cannot be said about many of the women accusing Roy Moore of sexual assault and pedophilia.

There is also the problem of trying to hold someone to a standard that was murky at best two decades ago. As a lawyer Clinton was well aware of what conduct was legal, murky and illegal and was careful not to engage in conduct that went beyond the murky stage. Sexual harassment at the time definitely fit into the murky category. Lewinski herself never reported sexual harassment. Her heart was broken when the affair proved ephemeral and Clinton would not move into a closer relationship, which is understandable given his marital status. It took Lewinski’s friend Linda Tripp who secretly (and illegally) recorded her conversations with Lewinski in which she disclosed the affair for it to see the light of day. So Lewinski was disappointed and probably heartbroken but never felt sexually harassed. Since much of the definition of sexual harassment depends on how it is perceived by the victim this standard simply doesn’t apply.

Obviously it was stupid conduct, both by Clinton and Lewinski, and that’s basically Gillibrand’s complaint. Stupid conduct like this in her mind is not excusable or could be remedied by a president except apparently through resignation. In short, in Gillibrand’s mind if the conduct makes you feel ashamed or should make you feel ashamed you should resign.

By that standard Trump would never resign. He is clearly unrepentant for his past sexual misconduct. This misconduct was well known to voters, who voted him into office anyhow. It does not appear to bother Republicans enough to initiate impeachment proceedings against him and in any event it occurred before he took office. It’s well within the purview of Congress to impeach and remove a president for such conduct, as impeachment is a political act. Impeachment and removal implies no illegal conduct. Such conduct may be prosecutable, which happened to Clinton, but only for incidents outside of his presidency. In his case he was sued for his conduct and settled out of court. He also lost his law license, not a matter of breaking the law but one of privilege and which had no effect on his standard of living.

Gillibrand’s look backward about what Clinton should have done is aspirational at best. Perhaps someday this sort of conduct will rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Even with this Year of the Woman though it looks like we are quite far from reaching that standard.

 
The Thinker

It’s time for men to evolve into real men

In case you hadn’t noticed there are a whole lot of women complaining about sexual harassment all of a sudden. Those accused of harassment, including lots of politicians and celebrities, are feeling more than a little like someone dragged in front of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. In some cases before they have a chance to offer a rebuttal their careers appear to be over; movie contracts pulled and gigs canceled.

In the past women who squawked usually found out why it was a good idea to shut up. In Hollywood their contracts and bookings tended to dry up. A lot has changed in the last year or two, but things have really picked up in the last couple of months. Lots of powerful men have been brought down starting with a number of people at Fox News including Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. Men with Democratic Party inclinations have been no less immune. There is Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, of course, with decades of harassing women who sought his favor. Weinstein also gave heavily to liberal causes but seemed incapable of demonstrating these principles where it mattered: in the workplace. Scores of women and likely many more scores we don’t know about have come forward to complain about Weinstein’s harassment, which included crude and obscene behavior that wholly appalls me.

It sure feels like the tables have turned at last. I can’t blame women for not having the courage to come forward but the penalties for doing so seem to have lessened. Women (and in some cases men; last night a man reported being harassed by George Takei of all people in 1981) are fed up. Rules for explicit and implicit workplace and social conduct are being rewritten.

Speaking as a man though it does feel kind of dangerous simply because it becomes a matter of she said vs. he said. It feels like once accused the man is guilty until proven innocent, which is usually impossible. In some cases like Harvey Weinstein his guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Alabama Senate candidate and egregious Bible-thumper Roy Moore back in 1979 initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He was age 32 at the time and an assistant district attorney in Alabama, probably a position of some status in the community. Three other women also came forward indicating they were minors when Moore initiated romantic relationships with them too.

To me this is beyond reasonable doubt too, as none of these women knew each other, but all came forward to Washington Post reporters when they were tracked down. Having said that I would not be surprised if Alabamans elect Roy Moore anyhow. It didn’t stop them from voting for Donald Trump, whose own extremely checkered past in this area is also beyond reasonable dispute. It sure appears that tribalism these days can excuse pretty much anything, including pedophilia. In any event where there are other witnesses that can report these women told them about these incidents at the time, that’s pretty damning.

Far more men have power over women than the other way around. That’s just the way it is at the moment but perhaps not how things will remain. Having not walked in a woman’s shoes, I can’t empathize. I do have an idea how it feels. I have a gay cousin that either has a crush on me or is pulling an elaborate prank. It makes our relationship uncomfortable, but there is no power relationship to deal with and there’s zero chance that I would sleep with him. So I have just one quasi-relatable experience in my lifetime and certainly nothing I have to deal with on a daily basis. Women don’t pursue me most likely because I have the wedding ring on my finger. But even if I didn’t I’m confident they still would not pursue me. I have been fortunate enough to have a couple of female bosses in my life. They were all positive experiences. I grew to prefer women as my bosses.

Women though can’t help being female. They can’t hide the fact that they have breasts or that their ass is perceived as cute. But really men aren’t that particular. Heterosexual men would put out for pretty much any woman who put the move on them, at least if they worked at them long enough. We do sense though that women don’t want to be harassed in general and so almost instinctively we stay away.

But of course there are plenty of men like Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and Louis C.K. who don’t have these constraints on their behavior. There must be something about having power that eggs them on to cross the line. Or perhaps they were boors all along but power makes them believe they will get away with it. Men do like to win, which is why sports appeal to most men. Power distinguishes you from other seemingly lesser men. It generally brings perks and privileges. And it does attract some women. Perhaps they think that since it attracts some women, all women that knock on their door to some measure must want them too.

I mostly speculate because I don’t understand these men. To act like them I would first have to see women as objects instead of people, or at least give myself permission to treat women’s feelings as if they didn’t matter. Even if I could get past these feelings, I still don’t understand why these men would harass women, especially with obscene behavior. I assume I am like normal men in that when women are attracted to me because of whom I authentically am, that’s a big turn on. It’s hard for me to think of a bigger turn off than to force myself on a woman that doesn’t want me. I would want women to think highly of me, not the worst of me. What woman really wants to see you masturbate into a plant?

The shrinks tell us that for these men the real aphrodisiac is not sex, but power. Forcing people to do things they don’t want to do — particularly something as intimate as having sex with you — is a violation not to mention in many cases a criminal offense. If you get sex, it’s likely to be bad because it’s not really consensual. It certainly won’t feel healthy. Perhaps it’s like being an opioid addict and that for many men if you try it once, you can’t quit.

Should we shed a tear for men? In the past this sort of behavior, reprehensible as most saw it, still had some legal or societal sanction. It wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t vote and husbands couldn’t legally rape their wives. The rules of conduct are both explicitly and implicitly changing. Meanwhile, many men feel at some sort of genetic level they are programmed to be this way. They are supposed to strive to be top dog, and being top dog means privileges the other dogs don’t get. To me, this certainly seems to explain our president. I’m speculating that for these men these new rules are all unnatural. Never mind that there are all sorts of laws that seems unnatural but is nonetheless necessary.

Men need to grow up. I’m glad that women are speaking out against those who harass them, and though it still brings some danger to them personally I hope they will continue to do so. We need to evolve, especially those in positions of power. Such men (and women) don’t deserve the privileges of power if they can’t also handle its responsibilities.

 
The Thinker

Election 2017 postmortem

A year ago I remember the feeling of being punched in the gut by Trump’s election. What the hell had happened? The country that voted for Donald Trump did not resemble the country I knew, but I didn’t spend much time hanging out in red states. One takeaway was that blue-collar people gave America their middle finger by voting for Trump. It was a way of saying, “Pay attention to us!” Trump rode that anger into the White House, despite losing the popular vote.

It’s been a year of shock, upset stomachs and queasiness for the rest of us. It so affected my wife that she flew to Aruba to avoid all the hoopla around Trump’s inauguration. It’s also been a year of resistance and spine stiffening as Democrats and progressives resisted the Trump and Republican agenda against incredible headwinds. Yesterday’s off-year election, small as it was in scope, provided the relief we needed a year ago. Many of us are suddenly feeling like there may be a way to regain our mental health again. At least my wife has no plans to fly to Aruba next January.

The bellwether was Virginia, which elected a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general along with the entire House of Delegates. The results were stunning by any measure. Democrats swept all three spots with Democrat Northam swamping Republican Gillespie by over 8 points. In a legislature gerrymandered to ensure pretty much any Republican can win, a 66R-34D legislature currently stands at 48D-47R with five races too close to call. If the preliminary results stand, the Virginia House will split 50R-50D with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Elect Justin Fairfax (an African American) presumably casting the tie vote.

A couple of races though were emblematic of the change; but none more so than VA-13 near Manassas, which happens to be where my daughter lives. Danica Roem, Virginia’s first openly transgender candidate, trounced longtime delegate Bob Marshall 54.4% to 45.6%. To put it bluntly, Marshall was the biggest asshole in the Virginia House. His views were wacky in the extreme, including most recently a bill (which fortunately died in committee) that would have required women like Roem to use public bathrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificate. (Roem would have had to use the men’s room.) This race was emblematic of the change in the state. Democrats simply crushed Republicans. First time women candidates did exceptionally well.

Ironically, Democrats have mostly Trump to thank. Democrats swept most competitive offices that were on the ballot last night and many that were thought to be noncompetitive. I can’t think of a single prominent Democrat who believed Democrats might win back the Virginia House. This morning, Democrats are on the cusp of this achievement. This would be their biggest pickup in an election since 1899. Trump turned out to be a huge motivator for Democrats, causing them to turn out at a rate of 10% higher than Republicans. In short, Democrats showed up for a change. They did more than show up. They showed up in droves. This too is a rare event for Democratic voters, notoriously fickle as a party, inclined toward apathy and more comfortable at home watching Netflix than in the voting booth. Disgust with Trump and his agenda though brought them out.

Democrats did well practically everywhere. They took back the governorship and lieutenant governorship in New Jersey, doubtlessly propelled by Chris Christie’s miserable 14% approval rate. However New Jersey was largely returning to form. Virginia has been a swing state. With this election it’s quite clear that it will swing less and should move toward being a solid blue state.

Virginia could be an outlier but it’s probably not. With Trump’s approval hanging in the mid 30s, he is toxic. Trying to emulate his strategy, as Ed Gillespie tried to do, proved toxic to Gillespie and other Republicans. While it might have appealed to Trump’s base and helped Gillespie’s turnout, it inflamed the Democratic base more.

Republicans have a big problem and his name is Donald J. Trump. They can no longer assume that political gerrymandering will render sufficient numbers of safe seats so they can keep their majorities in Congress. If Democrats can make the Virginia model national, they will easily sweep the House in 2018 and might pickup the Senate as well.

In any event, Democrats period of long frustration and inertia is over. The tide has turned. Trump being Trump, he won’t learn anything from this election and will double down on a failed strategy. So there is no reason for Democrats not to turn out again en masse in November 2018.

 
The Thinker

The oligarchy in charge

Based on polls, only 25% of Americans want Congress to enact the Republicans’ tax “reform” plan. A look at the proposed plan (which will likely change substantially before getting a vote) makes it easy to see why: despite all the hoopla, there is nothing in it for most of us, since most of us are not wealthy.

If you are wealthy, well, it looks pretty good. Less than 1% of us will owe an estate tax when we pass on, but Republicans want to get rid of that altogether. By creating fewer tax brackets, more of us will pay at the 25% tax rate meaning the 28% tax rate goes away. So if you make over $156K, you will pay less tax than you did before, but probably not if you make less than this. To be taxed at the 35% level you would have to make more than $260K, which means the 33% rate disappears for those whose income is between $156K and $238K, effectively a tax cut for them. As for that top tax rate of 39.6% which applies now if you make over $480K, if this bill becomes law, you will have to earn more than $1M to pay this rate. That’s a lot of savings for those in the $480K to $1M bracket.

A lot of these tax rates though become just theoretical for the rich. Since many of the rich own LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations) they can pass income to themselves at a “pass-through” rate. It is now 20%, which meant most of these people saved money on their taxes because if this money were considered as ordinary wages they’d pay at a higher tax rate. This rate goes to 25% in the plan, but it’s still less of a tax rate than anyone making over $260K would pay if this income were counted as wages.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us this attempt to “simplify” the tax code means we’ll probably be paying more. There was a somewhat theoretical tax rate of 10% for those earning up to $19K. The rate changes to 12% so in principle the poor pay more than they do now. Those taxed at the 15% rate, which is most of us, will be taxed at 12% for income up to $77K. That sounds good but look what they are taking away: no deductions for state and local income taxes (which affects mostly blue states), no deductions for student loans (claimed by 25% of filers) and limitations on home interest deductions. The standard deduction goes up meaning fewer of us will itemize, which could have ripple effects like fewer of us giving to charities.

The bottom line is that at best most of us ordinary wage earners will be coming out even, but are more likely to be paying more taxes through a lot of smoke and mirrors, while the rich will generally pay a lot less. Oh, and that corporate tax rate falls, good if you are a corporation. However a lot of the old loopholes that keep many corporations from paying taxes remain in place. And to finance all of this there will be increased deficit spending.

So it’s unsurprising there’s little support for the plan as it’s pretty obvious who the winners and losers will be. And the winners will be those who financed the campaigns of these Republicans, i.e. the oligarchy. As Jimmy Carter noted, we no longer have a democracy, but an oligarchy. This stinky, duplicitous tax bill pretty much proves it.

How else would a bill that has 25% support make it through Congress? Most representatives are gerrymandered into safe districts. It’s all by design so incumbents can keep their jobs, so of course they are going to do the bidding of those who funded their campaigns instead, at least if they think they can get away with it. They need special interests to fund their next one. Which is why they have to do this now somehow. It has to be done before the year is up so there is plenty of time for the smoke to clear before next year’s midterm election.

While it all looks pretty bleak, it’s not. This bill and any subsequent amendments to it are more likely to fail than not. And this is because (blessedly) the oligarchy does not vote as a bloc. They each have their own interests at heart, which often conflicts with someone else’s interests. For example, the bill writers have proposed limiting the mortgage interest deduction. This has the National Association of Home Builders up in arms. They have vowed to defeat the bill unless this proposal is removed from the bill. Remove it though (like the proposal to end deductions for 401K savings, since rescinded) and something else has to replace it.

And this is because Republicans are trying to do this on their own using the Senate’s budget reconciliation rule, which allows bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. The other way would be to make it a matter of regular order, and that would mean that Democrats would have input into the legislation. Such legislation would likely pass and get broad support, but it wouldn’t resemble what the oligarchy wants. Can’t have that!

Yes, our tax code is a mess but it’s a result of lots of compromises along the way. It has its own inertia because reconciling all these conflicting interests happened long ago and has slowly evolved along the way. Our tax code is already a huge gift to corporations, LLCs and the wealthy. This bill is just trying to make it more so and is doing so using the unorthodox procedure of violating the normal committee process. I hope that like getting rid of Obamacare before it, it too fails. As bad as our tax code is, this makes it worse and increases our deficit, the one thing Republicans supposedly care most about, at least when Democrats are in charge.

Americans aren’t buying it. But don’t take it for granted that this will fail too. Call your representative and senators to let them know you know it’s a con, and you will hold them accountable at reelection.

 

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