Category Archives: All Politics Is Local

Trump’s Tax Proposals: Boon or Boondoggle?

President Donald Trump’s tax proposals are interesting, to say the least. On May 4, 2017, The Economist magazine talked with Trump about the proposals. Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council also were present.

Trump suggested that the elimination of certain taxes, including, for example, taxes paid by the wealthy for the Affordable Care Act, would result in tremendous savings for taxpayers.

The proposals also call for drastic cuts in many social and environmental programs. However, the cuts to these programs would not offset deficits caused by less money coming in from taxes.

When questioned by The Economist about the increase in deficits, Trump said such deficits were “priming the pump.”

He claimed the deficits would only last a couple of years and then magically disappear because eliminating the taxes would result in a stronger economy. Trump officials talk of a 3% growth rate, which most economists think is unsustainable. (While campaigning, Trump talked of a 5% growth rate.)

The Economist’s assessment of the tax proposals:

“Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant.” (The Economist, “Courting Trouble,” May 13, 2017.)

According to The Economist, Trumponomics “is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king.”

Grace Under Firing: The Gift of Gratitude

An American diplomat, Thomas Countryman, was fired by the Trump administration a few days after Trump took office as president. Countryman was on his way to a conference on arms control when he learned of his sudden ousting.

Countryman had given thirty-five years of service to his country. He was a talented career officer, relieved of duty in a purge reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.

One might expect him to be bitter. Instead, in a farewell address to his U.S. State Department colleagues, Countryman wrote: “Some of you have asked if recent events have left me disgruntled. The answer is no; I am probably the most ‘gruntled’ person in the room.”

He quoted from another retiring ambassador: “The State Department doesn’t owe me anything. It has given me everything.” Countryman went on to count the blessings in his career of service.

Another official unceremoniously relieved of his duties, James Comey, wrote in a similar vein to his former FBI colleagues: “I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I’m not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won’t either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply.”

He ended the letter: “Working with you has been one of the great joys of my life. Thank you for that gift.”

Donald Trump also has much to be thankful for. He was granted the opportunity to serve his country in ways given only to a few.

However, his tweets, his main form of communication, show little evidence of grace or gratitude. Perhaps he should ponder the words of those public servants that he has attempted to humiliate.

The New Elites

We common people watch as the new government elites, those who won political power in 2016, battle among themselves.

Will the family clan, represented by Jared Kushner, win? Will they defeat the ultra conservatives, led by Steve Bannon? Or will Bannon’s group claim victory and bring down government as we have known it since our recovery from the 1930’s Great Depression?

Yet the battle over healthcare suggests an outside chance for ordinary Americans to influence outcomes. How will their interests fare in the looming battle over tax reform?

Will tax changes benefit mostly the wealthy, including the Trump family? Or will changes lead to the wealthy paying their fair share and taking some of the burden off working and middle class families?

Will popular government programs like social security, benefitting ordinary Americans, survive or will we continue our slide toward the inequality of the robber baron era?

Will tax breaks, sometimes used by big corporations to pay little or no taxes, continue to feed our deficit? Or will we ask for a level playing field for the small businesses that provide so many of our jobs?

In the 2016 election, voters supposedly defeated government elites. Now we will see if they can defeat business elites.

I’ve Never Been Hungry . . .

The only time I’ve gone to bed hungry was when I was on a voluntary fast for medical or religious reasons. I’ve never wondered where my next meal was coming from.

I’ve always owned or rented housing with a warm, secure place to sleep.

Except for a few years in my early twenties, I’ve always had health insurance.

I’ve never been jobless, except voluntarily to raise my small children.

For these blessings, I can claim no special goodness or intelligence. I did not choose the parents who loved and nurtured me. I did not choose to live in a time when a college education was affordable for the average family or when most corporations provided health insurance and adequate salaries, and the government began a pension program for all its working citizens.

A society is fair and just only if every child has food, clothing, a secure place in which to grow up, health services, and proper education. Jobs should provide parents adequate salaries as well as the time to nurture their children.

Our religious and voluntary organizations encourage the sharing of blessings. The U.S. Constitution, also, in its preamble, makes the government a partner in these efforts. One of the reasons for our union is to “promote the general welfare.”

Our government is not a business run by a boss to gain material profits for a few owners. It exists for us all, not for a favored few.

Not Waiting on Washington (D.C., That Is)

According to our utility company, more of our local electricity is derived from solar energy. Some of it will be produced from a converted former Navy housing site that will sell this newer form of energy.

Still another solar farm is replacing coal-fired plants. It is reported to cover over 600 acres and is among the largest in the country. It will serve more than 17,000 homes.

Executive orders from the Trump administration have rolled back environmental regulations. At the local level, however, changes to less polluting forms of energy continue.

The administration has promised legislation to update our infrastructure and produce more jobs. Hopefully, whatever measures are passed will include support for jobs in the newer energy industries.

The two most populous countries in the world, China and India, are searching for solutions to unhealthy levels of pollution. Think of all those potential customers.

Death is Still Certain; Taxes—Who Knows?

The famous quote: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes” is attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Today taxes are still certain. It’s the kind of taxes and who pays them that appear up for grabs.

Few would disagree with the complaint in The Economist (April 1, 2017) that “the most striking thing about tax in America is its complexity.” Much of the complexity, the article suggests, is because of the number of tax breaks. The U.S. congress has passed multitudes over the years, many of which benefit the wealthy.

The chief source of income for the average American is the wage he or she earns for a job. One criticism of the U.S. tax system is that it tends to tax this kind of income rather than wealth. The wealthy can afford tax advice to take advantage of the myriad—and legal—tax breaks.

This is not to say that the wealthy should be criminalized. Many wealthy individuals donate to worthy causes and use their money to create jobs. However, if tax reform is to take place, it should result in less burden on the working and middle classes and a fairer share paid by the wealthy.

If the Trump administration found healthcare to be more complicated than expected, tax reform promises to be even more difficult. Like healthcare, tax reform should be fair to ordinary Americans. The U.S. deficit does not need to increase because more tax breaks are given to wealthy citizens.

Short Term Thinking Can Be Deadly

No doubt the new administration’s announcement of a hiring freeze for government employees is popular with many. It is to remain in effect, apparently, until the government workforce declines “sufficiently.”

I was recruited to be a Foreign Service Officer by the U.S. Department of State in 1990 after an earlier hiring freeze was lifted.

Part of my job in U.S. missions overseas was the processing of requests for temporary visas to visit the United States. Citizens of other countries apply by the millions to travel to the U.S. for tourism, business, and study as well as for more specialized interests like investment. After the hiring freeze, visa interviewers were understaffed.

During the summer of 2001, the visa section of the embassy in the country where I worked sometimes processed seven or eight hundred visas a day. Just two officers were available to interview and approve or reject their travel to the U.S. Obviously, they had minimal time for careful interviewing.

Around this time, nineteen young men received visas, the majority of them from the country where I worked, to study at flight schools in the United States. These young men later hijacked airliners and plowed them into the World Trade towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Another crashed in Pennsylvania due to heroic actions of passengers on the plane.

Hurried processing may have contributed to those visas, though other factors certainly played a part. Anyone not closely associated with visa processing has difficulty understanding the toll exacted by too few workers for the jobs assigned.

The same is true for many government agencies that protect us at home as well as overseas. Sometime deadly results only show up years later.

I suppose the country saved money from fewer government employees that summer of 2001, though.

Don’t Drink the Water

In several less developed countries where I lived overseas, we had water systems of our own, not trusting the local supply.

In another place, I would wake in the night and hear the guards making their nightly checks of our yard and gates. In other countries, we lived in guarded compounds.

On the other hand, when we lived in Canada, we lived in an apartment of our choosing, with no extra security. We drank water from the tap.

What causes the difference between the two types of nations?

In too many developing countries, corruption means bribes must be paid for getting anything done. Infrastructure is poor or non-existent, schools are inadequate or not available for the majority of children, the water is contaminated, and armed thugs threaten the general population. Sometimes the armed thugs are the police.

Back in my own country, I don’t have private security. I depend on the local police and/or public emergency vehicles to arrive after an accident, acute illness, or possible crime. I drink the local water. When my children were growing up, I sent them to public schools.

I have never minded paying adequate taxes for these public services. Yet taxes often have a bad name. A campaign promise to never raise taxes or even to cut them is often used to secure votes.

Lately, parents in some states have brought suit in courts to require more adequate funding of public schools. Mental health services are proving woefully inadequate. Bridges need to be repaired. Yet, legislators are elected on promises never to raise taxes.

Meanwhile, some of the wealthy pay little or no taxes. We are told we must bribe them with more tax cuts in order to keep our jobs.

We get what we pay for, including the regulations that protect us with oversight of government functions. We can choose not to pay for adequate health services, drug treatment programs, quality education, clean water, infrastructure, and regulations to protect us from wealthy cabals.

Or, we can go the way of those countries with private security forces, crumbling roads, contaminated water, and healthcare and education only for the wealthy.

The Last Line of Defense

According to reports, hundreds of U.S. State Department employees are signing a “dissent” cable.” This dissent cable is a communication to the acting head of the State Department indicating disapproval of the recently signed order by President Trump halting the processing of refugees into the United States.

Many of these signers have worked overseas with refugees and immigrants to the U.S. They are aware of our honored place in the world as guardians of the unwanted (“wretched refuse” as the Statue of Liberty proclaims) from other nations, including the grandfather of President Trump.

A dissent cable allows the expression of views differing from the official one of any political administration, not just the present one. One of the more recent ones dissented from President Obama’s decisions on Syria. It supports the discussion and frankness that a democracy, at its best, encourages.

White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said dissenters should “get with the program or they should go.” In reaction, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, has pointed out in a letter (January 31, 2017) to President Trump: “The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual prohibits reprisal or disciplinary action against anyone who uses the Dissent Channel.”

Laura Rosenberger, a retired State Department officer penned a plea to career officials in the U.S. government to stay in their jobs. (“Career Officials: You Are the Last Line of Defense Against Trump,” January 30, 2017, Foreign Policy)

Many State Department officers have the experience and education to find jobs with higher salaries and less hassle. Please don’t, Rosenberger says: “Your jobs have never been more important. You are patriots who work for the American people, largely out of sight and with little recognition or glory—and your job remains to keep them safe and secure, as you have always worked to do.”

Wall Street Is Doing Well; What About Main Street?

The bull market is setting records. As might be expected, putting one of their own into the White House appears to have excited Wall Street. Good times are here again, at least for them.

What about Main Street? Some on Main Street are excited about Wall Street elites replacing government elites. Surely Wall Street will look after them better than government elites? Of course, wasn’t it Wall Street who came up with the idea of those bundled mortgages that contributed to the Great Recession?

Some on Main Street are concerned about losing health care. Various plans have been floated to replace the Affordable Care Act. One is to replace it with some kind of catastrophic health insurance. Individuals would pay their own health costs until they reached a certain amount, then catastrophic health care would kick in for them.

The problem is how much the person would have to pay and how well they could afford this amount.

Members of Congress, who will decide on healthcare, could probably afford such a plan. For someone on minimum wage, it could be disastrous.

Whatever replacement is finally decided on, members of Congress will most likely have access to adequate healthcare coverage.

I don’t object to members of Congress having their healthcare. I don’t imagine Wall Street has to worry about healthcare, either, which is fine. I just don’t see why Main Street should have to worry about it.

Leadership Is Not About You

Prudence Bushnell was the ambassador when the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, was bombed by terrorists in 1998. Over 200 people were killed. The majority were nearby Kenyan civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Forty-six of Bushnell’s colleagues, Kenyan and American, died in the embassy itself.

“Leadership is not about you,” Bushnell wrote recently in The Foreign Service Journal, (January/February 2017 issue “Notes to the New Administration.”)

“The lesson that practicing leadership means getting over yourself to focus on others came as a whack upside the head a few weeks after the attack. I was asked to speak at an unexpected remembrance ceremony for a beloved colleague. I was burned out from funerals, memorial services, anger, and sadness. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I actually felt a stab of resentment. Whack: This is not about me.”

Some of the employees of the United States government that President Trump will supervise have, like Bushnell, seen what it means to sacrifice for their country: military personnel who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Foreign Service officers who have been through bombing attacks, intelligence officers who risk lives to keep the U.S. government informed of dangers, and a lot of ordinary employees who come to work every day proud to serve as administrators and organizers of the vast amount of information and decisions required to serve over 325 million citizens of their country.

President Trump, it’s not about you. It’s about them and the citizens they—and you—serve. You are a servant.

Harry S. Truman, an Example for Donald J. Trump

Donald Trump, President-elect as of this writing, due to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in two days, tends to issue orders.

Some have applauded Trump’s style, believing that Mr. Trump will operate the U.S. government with the same authoritative style that he used in ordering around employees in his companies.

Unfortunately, a couple of centuries of government under the Constitution, its amendments, and laws passed by the U.S. Congress may stand in his way.

President Harry S. Truman, very much a strong executive, serves as an example.

In 1952, in order to avoid a strike by American steel company employees, President Truman ordered the seizure of the steel companies. The President argued that the strike would affect the ability of the United States to wage war. (The country was in the middle of the Korean War at the time.)

The employees sued the government. The government lost its case when the Supreme Court found that, in seizing the mills, the president had exceeded the authority given him by the U.S. Constitution.

One of the Justices, Robert Jackson, wrote in upholding the court finding:

“With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations.”