Archive for December, 2017

WASHINGTON AND WINNERS

Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined, “GOP near tax, health wins.” Mid-morning, the tax bill passed. Not a single Democrat voted yes. The New York Times reported, “Victory for G.O.P. as House Clears Way for Trump Signature.” I used to think winning only involved sports and the Oscars. My bad—and America’s.

Will the new tax law promote the general welfare? Trickle-down economics has failed in the past, but circumstances change in every generation. What concerns me more is the attitude in Congress and the White House—and it’s not new—that the most critical reason to pass legislation is to defeat the other party. “Winning” equates with moral superiority. Only secondarily do politicians consider the nation’s wellbeing.

The new tax law certainly will impact the economy short-term and long-. Republicans see the gross domestic product (GDP) soaring, bringing Washington increased tax revenues—at lower rates, of course—to counter the projected additional $1.5 trillion deficit.

Most Americans, however, don’t see themselves winning. According to cnbc.com, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday “shows that just 24 percent of Americans believe the president’s tax plan is a good idea – barely more than half of the 41 percent who call it a bad idea.” Moreover, “by an overwhelming 63 percent to 7 percent margin, Americans say the plan was designed to help corporations and the wealthy rather than the middle class.”

The same cnbc.com report states, “there are signs that the tax debate has taken a political toll on Republicans and the president alike.” Do the “winners” care? Stated cnbc.com, “Dozens of lawmakers stand to reap a tax windfall thanks to a loophole inserted in the sweeping GOP tax overhaul bill, according to a review of federal financial disclosures.”

Donald Trump may not have helped his and the Republican cause when on Wednesday he announced, “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.” Has he thrown the healthcare system into chaos? If so, how will millions of affected Americans respond?

Of course, the mega-rich—including Trump—will win big. A coterie of far-right political donors, including the Koch Brothers, will reap a major return on their investment not only in the Republican party and its candidates but also in political action committees, think tanks and trade associations, as well as shell organizations designed to hide their tax-deductible contributions. For the frightening details, read Jean Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The new tax law also will provide more work for CPAs and tax attorneys. They always win with the arrival of new legislation.

So, short term, the economy and stock market may spike, boosting Republican hopes to hold both houses of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. But the nation risks experiencing what one TV commentator termed “a sugar high”—a burst of economic energy followed by a crash. If so, Trump supporters also will feel pain. The deficit—once an object of Republican concern—may grow so large that even Democrats express heartfelt concern. And in 2025, most middle-class Americans’ taxes will go up.

Let’s get real. No legislation is perfect. But laws passed without a meaningful measure of bipartisan support deliver “wins” that leave more than the minority party as losers.

To you who celebrate Christmas—Merry Christmas! May the holiday renew your spirits. To all: Happy New Year!  

The post will break for a few weeks and return January 12.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

RUBY-RED TURNS BLUE

Last Tuesday, ruby-red Alabama turned partially blue. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special senatorial election. Pending a requested recount, Jones heads to Washington. His 20,000-vote margin of victory was small, but the election’s message may—pardon the expression—be huge.

To begin, changing demographics may soon reverse populism’s recent gains. The percentage of whites and Christians is shrinking. Young white evangelicals are questioning their elders’ political stances favoring the far right despite candidates’ and elected officials’ misdeeds. These young people may also be conservative, but they won’t accept the behavior and speech exhibited by a Trump or a Moore regardless of potential Democrat gains.

Minorities continue to grow and vote despite hindrances placed at the ballot box. In Alabama, Birmingham’s mayor Randall Woodfin is African American. He succeeded a black mayor. The city has come a long way since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church church that killed four African American girls and gave the city the nickname “Bombingham.” African Americans are willing to exercise their electoral muscle. Ninety-four percent gave Jones their vote.

Importantly, 30 percent of white voters went for Jones, according to The Washington Post. Not an overwhelming percentage but meaningful. Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby publicly refused to back Moore. He voted for a write-in candidate. Others followed suit. Conservative majority leader Mitch McConnell (Tennessee) stated that Moore didn’t belong in the Senate. All demonstrated a measure of concern with common decency, since several women accused Moore of sexual predation decades ago. Alabamians also were aware of Moore’s 2004 removal from the state’s supreme court and 2016 court suspension for placing his personal Christian beliefs above the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. He later resigned.

Jones’s victory may not represent the turning point in American politics, but it may signal change. President Trump, after supporting the losing Luther Strange in the primaries, eventually threw his weight, such as it is, to Moore. He even campaigned, albeit in Florida where he didn’t have to be seen with Moore. His lukewarm efforts failed, although Trump said on Wednesday it wasn’t his fault.

Is Trump’s “power” weakening? Also on Wednesday, the heartland-America USA Today editorialized, “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY] a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”

Are Americans deserting the Republican party? No. Many continue supporting big tax cuts and small government. That’s a political viewpoint to which they are entitled. Still, some Republicans in Congress and their supporters appear to be revising their win-at-all-costs stance. God and morality could become more important than political power.

A blue victory doesn’t mean Democrats and independents should see the world through rose-colored glasses. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warns that many Americans will view the rising economy as good reason to ignore Trump’s rantings, insults and possible Russia connections.

After World War Two, many Italians and Germans supposedly admitted that Mussolini and Hitler did terrible things but, “At least they made the trains run on time.” November’s mid-term elections will reveal if many Americans, who have followed something of a parallel view of the far right, have the integrity to moderate their positions.

To you who are celebrating Chanukah—Chanukah Sameach! May the festival of lights bring new light to us all.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The media continues to follow Robert Mueller’s investigation into the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. A fuss was made this past week about Trump knowing that his national security advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, lied not only to Vice President Mike Pence but also to an FBI agent before Trump fired him. Don’t get excited. This represents some of the what of the matter. But it’s just part of the story.

The investigation will bear fruit only when we understand why Trump turned his back on, and even condemned, the United States’ top security agencies for reporting that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Why he admires Putin and his governing style yet has chided leaders of allied governments. Why he fired FBI head James Comey. And why, early this week, he trashed the FBI.

We know Trump believes good relations with Russia can be to our advantage. But that’s like advocating mom and apple pie. It’s always preferable to establish good relations with all nations— even those with whom we have conflicts, such as Iran and North Korea. But Trump has never assumed the role of statesman and geopolitical thinker. He has never written or delivered cogent speeches or position papers detailing the ways American-Russian engagement can make the world safer and freer.

So back to the key question: Why all the contacts between Trump’s people and Russia? Why did members of the Trump team mention the easing of sanctions imposed by Barack Obama before the inauguration? Why the guilty pleas from Trump team members, which may cripple or end the careers of those who entered them? And why the constant discovery of more questionable contacts between the Trump campaign and transition teams, and Russia?

Follow the money!

On Tuesday, Thompson Reuters reported Mueller subpoenaed global banking giant Deutsche Bank for information regarding Trump and his family’s accounts and transactions. Might this relate to past New York Times and Vanity Fair articles on Russians laundering money through Trump condominium projects in New York and Florida? Will it reveal other Trump-Russian financial arrangements? Whatever, this form of inquiry represents the search for key answers.

It’s also critical to know why Trump refused to release his tax returns as all other candidates have over the last forty years. Look for Mueller’s team to review Trump’s tax returns soon—if they’re not doing so now. Their examination will go way past the tasks performed by the IRS. A tax expert told me that the IRS doesn’t look for illegal activities when individuals or entities state appropriate revenues, claim reasonable deductions and pay appropriate taxes. Additionally, sources of revenue and recipients of expenses don’t draw attention. It’s all about the numbers.

Mueller’s forensic accountants and investigators will dig deep. They’ll search for sources of revenue and recipients of financial obligations not listed on Trump’s returns. They’ll seek to uncover layers of shell companies to find the real people and organizations behind Trump’s business dealings.

When Mueller and his staff reach conclusions, they’ll know if Trump sought to enable Russians to profit from equity positions in some of his projects and to collect on large debts he owes Russian banks, oligarchs and mobsters. The truth is out there. To find it, Mueller will follow the money.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

LOUISIANA

Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.