The Truth Still Matters

Will be going to North Dakota today to discuss tax reform and tax cuts. We are the highest taxed nation in the world – that will change.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017

But the truth still matters:

oecd tax burdens

The chart includes individual and corporate taxes, as well as local taxes, as reported by the 35-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

For some historical perspective, consider “When the Rich Said No to Getting Richer” by from David Leonhardt of The New York Times:

A half-century ago, a top automobile executive named George Romney — yes, Mitt’s father — turned down several big annual bonuses. He did so, he told his company’s board, because he believed that no executive should make more than $225,000 a year (which translates into almost $2 million today).

He worried that “the temptations of success” could distract people from more important matters, as he said to a biographer, T. George Harris. This belief seems to have stemmed from both Romney’s Mormon faith and a culture of financial restraint that was once commonplace in this country.

Romney didn’t try to make every dollar he could, or anywhere close to it. The same was true among many of his corporate peers. In the early 1960s, the typical chief executive at a large American company made only 20 times as much as the average worker, rather than the current 271-to-1 ratio. Today, some C.E.O.s make $2 million in a single month.

The old culture of restraint had multiple causes, but one of them was the tax code. When Romney was saying no to bonuses, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Even if he had accepted the bonuses, he would have kept only a sliver of them.

The high tax rates, in other words, didn’t affect only the post-tax incomes of the wealthy. The tax code also affected pretax incomes. As the economist Gabriel Zucman says, “It’s not worth it to try to earn $50 million in income when 90 cents out of an extra dollar goes to the I.R.S.”

The tax rates helped create a culture in which Americans found gargantuan incomes to be bizarre.

A few years after Romney turned down his bonuses from the American Motors Corporation, Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that lowered the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent. Under Ronald Reagan, it dropped to 50 percent and kept falling. Since 1987, the top rate has hovered between 30 percent and 40 percent.

For more than 30 years now, the United States has lived with a top tax rate less than half as high as in George Romney’s day. And during those same three-plus decades, the pay of affluent Americans has soared. That’s not a coincidence. Corporate executives and others now have much more reason to fight for every last dollar.

And fight they do (it’s called “class warfare”).

Meanwhile, the president* is unnecessarily threatening hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country by their parents and another extremely dangerous hurricane is on its way. This is further evidence that Republicans are evil and global temperatures are rising, but you already knew that.

Update:  John McCain, the Republican senator who talks a good game but can’t be relied on, has changed his mind about repealing the Affordable Care Act. He now says he’d vote Yes on what is “in may ways … the most radical” repeal bill yet. Further evidence for [see above]. 

2nd Update: McCain now says he would only vote for repeal if the legislation survived committee hearings and was subject to amendments proposed by both sides. That’s not what the 81-year old senator implied earlier today. This latest announcement is good news, because the repeal legislation is extremely unlikely to pass if it’s subject to “normal order” in the Senate instead of being rushed through. 

What To Do (Which Side Are You On?)

It’s already Day 5 of the T___ administration. Sadly, there’s no indication yet that Vice President Pence has begun following the steps in the 25th Amendment (in particular, the Let’s-Replace-A-Crazy-President clause). However, stories describing the President’s mental instability and general unfitness for his new job are appearing, and it’s been suggested that Pence’s staff may be leaking damaging information in order to lay the groundwork for just such a constitutionally-mandated transfer of power. One can hope.

Of course, there are things to do besides hoping. Except for the extremely successful, worldwide Women’s March on Saturday, the best known call to action has probably been “The Indivisible Guide: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”. What began as an overloaded Google doc is now a website:

WHO IS THIS DOCUMENT BY AND FOR?

We: Are former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda.

We: See the enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda and want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that.

You: Want to do your part to beat back the Trump agenda and understand that will require more than calls and petitions.

You: Should use this guide, share it, amend it, make it your own, and get to work.

Here’s the summary of Chapter Two:

How your MoC [Member of Congress] thinks — reelection, reelection, reelection — and how to use that to save democracy. MoCs want their constituents to think well of them and they want good, local press. They hate surprises, wasted time, and most of all, bad press that makes them look weak, unlikable, and vulnerable. You will use these interests to make them listen and act.

Chapters Three and Four offer instructions for organizing your own anti-T___ group and doing things that will have the biggest effect (attending events, requesting meetings and making coordinated phone calls).

Another document that’s received a lot of attention was written immediately after the election by the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. It’s called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. Having lived under Putin, she lets us know it would be a big mistake to give T__p the benefit of the doubt. For example, she wishes Hillary Clinton had said something like this that dark night in November:

We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Gessen’s six rules for surviving autocracy are: 

  1. Believe the autocrat (don’t assume he’s exaggerating when he promises to do something terrible)
  2. Don’t be taken in by small signs of normality
  3. Institutions won’t save you (nor will cultural norms)
  4. Be outraged
  5. Don’t compromise
  6. Remember the future (in other words, keep hope alive).

Gessen followed this up with another article, this time describing her great-grandfather’s experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and her grandmother’s as a government censor in the Soviet Union. Her conclusion is: given a choice between collaboration (possibly under the guise of being a “realist”) and resistance, choose resistance.

In December, the economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich cautioned against falling into one of four syndromes: (1) normalizing the situation (“he’s just another President”); (2) going numb or shutting down emotionally; (3) cynicism; or (4) helplessness. Prof. Reich, who is currently providing almost continuous political commentary on Facebook, ends with this:

If you find yourself falling into one or more of these syndromes, that’s understandable. Normalizing, numbing, becoming cynical and feeling powerless are natural human responses to the gross absurdity and genuine peril posed by T___.

But I urge you to pull yourself out. We need you in the peaceful resistance army, starting January 20.

Finally, here are some sites that offer alternative perspectives on the news. They’re good places to visit if you want an antidote to outlets like CNN, the TV networks and the front page of The New York Times (The Washington Post is better these days):

Pro Publica (Journalism in the Public Interest) 

Think Progress

Talking Points Memo

Media Matters for America

Vox

Daily Kos (a group blog about politics)

Hullabaloo (another group blog about politics)

Plus, something that might give you chills. It did me.

Capitalism and Inequality

Quote: “Since 1974, the top 1% and the bottom 50% have swapped their relative shares of the national income… Unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.”

Reports from the Economic Front

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies –…

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An Open Letter to the Leading Democrat in the House

As foreign diplomats and business people begin funneling cash to the President-Elect by taking rooms and scheduling events at T—p’s new Washington hotel (see “kleptocracy”), someone shared the following letter with me. It’s addressed to Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

I am writing to you on the assumption that you will continue to be leader of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives, and am urging you and the Democratic Caucus to immediately start drafting Articles of Impeachment for our presumptive President, Vice President, and other executive positions subject to impeachment.

Like many Americans, I am deeply troubled by the results of the November election. Assuming the lobbying of the Electoral College comes to naught and we do end up with this amazingly unqualified individual as President, my feeling is that everyone should do whatever they can to minimize damage to the country during his tenure.

Impeachment of executive branch officials, both elected and appointed, is the domain of the House of Representatives. There is surely zero chance that Articles of Impeachment drafted by the Democratic Caucus would pass the Judiciary Committee. But I do believe a steady stream of draft impeachment documents presented to the committee would help keep the incompetence of the Executive Branch and its appointments in the public eye. Even if the majority party does not allow draft Articles of Impeachment to come under committee consideration, their existence and content can still be publicized.

When considering the President and Vice President, and the people who are being named for other positions subject to impeachment, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be no trouble to create a steadily growing list of impeachable offenses for several years to come.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Meanwhile, a few Republicans in the Electoral College can still interfere with the monster’s journey to the White House. 

Today’s Screwed Up America Roundup, With a Glimmer of Hope at the End

New York Magazine says they’re going to provide a weekly inventory of T—p’s “affronts to liberal democracy”. Their first batch includes nine items, the worst of which was his announcement that he’s appointing: an anti-semitic propagandist as his chief strategist; a Southerner so racist that Republicans (!) refused to make him a Federal judge as Attorney General; and a dangerous nut job who was fired from his last government job as his National Security Advisor.

But what did we expect? The heads of organized crime families value loyalty above all else, and these three individuals were among T—p’s most fervid supporters. On the other hand, the Tea Party Congressman he wants as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency wasn’t initially a T—p supporter. He does, however, want to cancel the Iran nuclear arms deal and bring back waterboarding.

Next, two articles from The Washington Post. Ronald Klain, who was Chief of Staff for Vice Presidents Gore and Biden, warns that T—p’s so-called “infrastructure” plan is a trap. It isn’t a plan to fix what’s known as our “crumbling” infrastructure or create lots of jobs. It’s a way to raid the Treasury on behalf of selected investors. There will be no requirement that any particular work will be done or any jobs will be created. Nevertheless, the recipients of the tax breaks will be guaranteed a profit.

Again, what would we expect from a shady real estate developer whose fortune heavily relied on a billion dollars in tax breaks from New York City?

To understand how T—p plans to profit from being President, read “Welcome to the T—p Kleptocracy”. The T—p family business will keep going but with inside information and influence peddling as profit enhancers:

The irony is that so many of Trump’s supporters believed his preposterous claim that he would be the one to banish corruption from Washington, that he’d “drain the swamp” and send that crooked establishment packing. He’ll do nothing of the sort, of course; his transition team is drowning in corporate lobbyists, and among his first priorities are cutting taxes for the wealthy and removing oversight from Wall Street… what’s different and probably unprecedented is the way Trump will increase his fortune by hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars while he’s president.

Finally, there’s an article at the Time magazine site called “The Electoral College Was Created to Stop Demagogues Like Trump”. Actually, one of the reasons the Electoral College was created was to protect the institution of slavery in the South. But protecting us from demagogues and the obviously unfit was another big part of its appeal. Today, the Electoral College serves two purposes:

One of them is to give small states power as well as big states and the cities. The other is to provide a mechanism where intelligent, thoughtful and statesmanlike leaders could deliberate on the winner of the popular vote and, if necessary, choose another candidate who would not put Constitutional values and practices at risk.

The Electoral College was designed to avoid Presidents “with talents for low intrigue” and to interfere with “the desire in foreign powers [you know, like Russia!] to gain an improper ascendant in our councils”!

Can you therefore imagine Alexander Hamilton jumping up and down somewhere in the great beyond, desperately trying to get our attention? “See, see, this brightly-colored personage of low character and little understanding is precisely the type who must never become President of our fair nation. We gave you the Electoral College, fools! Now employ it!”

(And after that glimmer of hope: Will the con man break one of his biggest campaign promises and allow the Republicans to privatize Medicare and Social Security? I mean, Jesus H. Christ!)

This Week of All Weeks, Jane Addams Is Worth Thinking About

Jane Addams (1860-1931) isn’t famous these days. At one time, however, she was the most-admired woman in America and well-known throughout the world.

Wikipedia lists her occupation as “social and political activist, author and lecturer, community organizer, public intellectual”. Her tombstone in Cedarville, Illinois, describes her as a “humanitarian, feminist, social worker, reformer, educator, author, publicist, founder of Hull House, President [of the] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. It also notes that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Addams fought for women’s suffrage and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States. Sociologists view her as a social theorist. Philosophers place her in the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.  At her death, some compared Jane Addams, who never sought political office, to her hero, Abraham Lincoln.

As this horrible week comes to a close, it may help us to consider Jane Addams as an example of, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”.

Today, Addams is best known as the principal founder of Hull House, the first “settlement house” in the United States. It opened its doors in Chicago in 1889 and continued to operate until 2012. Its initial goal was to help recent immigrants find their place in American society, because Addams’s purpose in life was to convert her progressive ideas into action.

Here is a passage from Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jane Bethke Elshtain:

The statement of purpose in Hull-House’s charter read: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago”; but this fails to capture the spirit and the manifold activities of Hull-House. Addams refined this statement over the years. It was a “place for enthusiasms”; it helped “give form to social life”; it offered “the warm welcome of an inn”; it was a place for mutual interpretation of the the social classes one to another; it responded to ethical demands and shared fellowship; it was a place for the life of the mind….

At the conclusion of her second autobiographical volume, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams takes another stab at it: “It was the function of settlements to bring into the circle of knowledge and fuller life, men and women who might otherwise be left outside” [ p. 92].

The work of Hull House “gained expression in day nurseries, kindergarten classes, playgrounds, boys’ and girls’ clubs, a cooperative boardinghouse, theater workshops, music schools, language classes, reading groups, handicraft centers and eventually a Labor Museum” [p. 93].

In the early days, after Addams and a Hull House resident named Julia Lathrop came to the aid of a young woman, all alone, giving birth in a nearby tenement, Addams exclaimed:

“This doing things that we don’t know how to do is going too far. Why did we let ourselves be rushed into midwifery?” To which [Lathrop] replied: “If we have to begin to hew down to the line of our ignorance, for goodness’ sake don’t let us begin at the humanitarian end. To refuse to respond to a poor girl in the throes of childbirth would be a disgrace to us forevermore. If Hull-House does not have its roots in human kindness, it is no good at all” [p. 93].

We might say the same thing about the United States of America during the months and years ahead.

Organizing for the Future

A review at the London Review of Books caught my eye because the two books discussed both have the word “Postcapitalism” in their titles. Who doesn’t want to know what’s coming next?

The review didn’t convince me that anyone knows. Two possibilities are mentioned: Full Automation and Universal Basic Income. Presumably, “Full Automation” refers to automating as much as possible. More robots and smarter software should lead to fewer people having jobs. That might lead to everyone being guaranteed a basic income. Or it could lead to mass sterilization, with only lottery winners and good-looking people being allowed to reproduce.

What I found more interesting were some remarks about “austerity”, the recently popular attempt to stimulate world economies by reducing government spending:

In both books, the critical fronts are a total opposition to austerity and neoliberalism, and a focus on the possible consequences of increased automation, including the creation of a ‘surplus population’. The ‘real austerity project’, Mason argues, is ‘to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up’. As a result, ‘the next generation will be poorer than this one; the old economic model is broken and cannot revive growth.’ Those places which, in their different ways, have managed to insulate themselves – authoritarian China, Russia or Iran, residually social democratic northern Europe – will not be exempt: ‘By 2060, countries such as Sweden will have the levels of inequality currently seen in the USA.’

Further down in the article, there’s some practical discussion:

What the historical labour movement did, in Srnicek and Williams’s eyes, was set itself goals and demands – for pensions, social security, fewer working hours – and fight for them inside and outside the workplace. What they are really proposing … is that a new set of demands be agreed and doggedly insisted on, in the manner of the old left.

But how could enough of us agree and doggedly insist on a new set of demands? Maybe the authors of the books being reviewed have an answer, but the only way I can see that happening is through the creation of a mass movement like the labor movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

In his very good book The Age of Acquisition: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, Steve Fraser describes how organized labor contributed to the general welfare after the New Deal and World War 2:

…the labor movement of those years of uproar created – more than any other institution, public or private – a standard of living envied everywhere. In 1945, 40 percent of American families lived below the poverty line… By 1970, only 10 percent lived in poverty… Not only did the economy grow at an annual average of 4 percent during the postwar era, but that growth favored the poor more than the wealthy…it was the organized labor movement that compelled broad sectors of American industry still unwilling to engage in the new mechanisms of collective bargaining to nonetheless match the standards of living (wages, hours, vacations, holidays, pensions, health care and more) that unions were winning for their members….

An “American standard of living” and the forms of industrial democracy that made it possible … shattered the old order [196].

Perhaps globalization means that a race to the economic middle (or even the bottom) cannot be stopped. But it was organized labor and other progressive organizations that demanded and achieved progress in the past. I think it will have to be organized human beings, whether or not they have traditional jobs, who demand and achieve progress in the future.