Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

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.”

Leaving Our Tribe

Whenever we leave a “tribe”—a group of people we’ve been closely associated with for a period of time—we may feel we’ve lost our identity on returning to “normal” society.

One combat veteran who suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggested that veterans of combat be sent back together when returning to civilian life. They had formed a unit. Perhaps return to society could be done together. They would confront “normal” life as a unit, just as they faced combat together. (What It Is Like to Go to War; Karl Marlantes)

In Saudi Arabia in 2003, where I served with U.S. embassy and consulate staffs during the second Gulf war against Iraq, we had experienced a prolonged period of increasing danger to Americans. Several terrorist incidents finally led to partial evacuation of staff.

As one of those sent “home,” I experienced a strange sense of loss. My disorientation was hardly worthy of the name when compared with someone returning from combat. Yet the sensation, half of sorrow for no longer having a “tribe” of fellow colleagues facing danger together, was real enough.

I incorporated them into one character’s feelings in Tender Shadows on her return to the States from a similar situation:

“ . . . she remembered last evening in her sterile apartment. Flipping through fifty television channels from sheer loneliness and finding nothing of worth. The country she’d come back to . . . offered twenty-four-hour food service, shop-‘til-you-drop malls, and movies filled with angst and black humor. Washington allowed no ready-made community like her foreign assignments.”

For this fictional character as with others in real life stressful situations, community is the missing ingredient.

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.

Donald Trump, a New Andrew Jackson?

The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was a short drive from my elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Every year or so, our teacher would lead the class on a field trip to the Hermitage.

We toured the mansion’s rooms, my grade school colleagues and I, reveling in our release from school routine. Guides led us past rooms furnished in the upper class style of the early nineteenth century. Only later did I realize the slave labor required for Jackson’s comfort.

Jackson is known as a populist, the first president who was not one of the Massachusetts/Virginia founding fathers of the country. He represented the westward movement of the country by those who hadn’t inherited wealth.

Many of that day looked to improve their lot in life by settling west of the Appalachians on new land. No doubt they cheered Jackson’s forced removal of most of the native Americans from land their people had called home for generations.

In a time of rapid population growth and new inventions, the cotton gin led to the planting of more cotton. Plantation owners fought any attempt to abolish slavery, fearing loss of the unpaid laborers who supported their lifestyle.

The inconsistency of the American ideal of freedom with the subjection of an entire class of people was already leading to political battles.

According to reports, U.S. President Donald Trump has placed a picture of President Andrew Jackson on the wall of his office in the White House. Trump also is often called a populist, touted as breaking the power of government elites, an outsider.

Today also is a time of rapid transformation around the globe, caused by the computer age, globalization, massive immigration for economic and security reasons, and the entry of more women and minorities into the work force.

Economic inequality has increased, leading to prosperity for some and the loss of jobs and adequate wages for others. Those left behind feel alienated and abandoned by their politicians.

In the recent election, Trump took advantage of these trends by encouraging divisiveness and anger rather than offering a vision of cooperation for change.

We are not bound to follow the direction he has set. We can talk and respect each other and work out differences to real problems. Or we can hammer down the other “side” in anger and truly see our American dream vanish.

Capitalism: Neither God nor Satan

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incisive book, Strangers in Their Own Land, portrays citizens in Louisiana caught between watching the industrialized devastation of their beloved state and their need for jobs. “It’s the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” one says.

Some of us see capitalism as some kind of god that we must serve. One may also worship socialism or money or government. In fact, all, it seems to me, are neutral, capable of either evil or good, depending on the type of allegiance we give them.

A saying of the early Christian missionary, Paul, is often quoted as “money is the root of all evil.” That is not what he said. He said “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” It’s the love of money (or capitalism or government or whatever) that is the problem.

Capitalism is neutral. It can be used for good: money from individuals pooled to form companies and create jobs. Or it can be used for evil: the extraction of maximum profit no matter what ecological or human damage it causes.

Government, I believe is similar. It is neither good nor evil in itself. Rightly used, government protects us from foreign enemies, crime, and economic predators. It can create programs that serve its citizens, like social security, in a way that private industry can’t.

Wrongly used, it can take from workers in order to give to the wealthy. Without adequate oversight, its resources can be wasted or riven with corruption.

Workers, needing jobs, tend to worship capitalism and hate government. Others, seeing only the tragedy of ecological devastation, tend to reverse their worship.

In fact, worship is a poor choice for either. Better is a watchful use of both.

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.

Short Term Thinking; Long Term Problems

Terrorism is an evil we can see and fear, unlike more insidious evils. After a terrorist attack, the media instantly portrays dead bodies and grieving families. We are angered, as we should be. We pass legislation for a strong military and sometimes send our armies to foreign countries to fight terrorists.

Other evils are harder to grasp because the results may not show up until years later: inferior schools or inadequate mental health facilities or lack of drug rehabilitation services.

Though most of us would say we believe in “good” schools, we don’t instantly see the damage to our country of a poorly educated work force.

Unless we have a mentally ill family member, we may think of mental illness only when we quickly pass by a troubled street person.

Throwing young drug offenders in prison is less costly than providing rehabilitation and job training for them—in the beginning.

What if we had not decided to invade Iraq after we were already involved in a war in Afghanistan? What if we had invested the money we spent for that war in schools and job training?

What if we had invested more in mass transit and less on securing oil fields in the unstable Middle East?

Going further back into our history, what if early settlers in Virginia had not decided to use slaves to work their tobacco fields? Suppose they had kept to small farms instead of large plantations?

We pay later for those easy choices, sometimes generations later.

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.

Are Free Elections All We Need for Democracy? What Is Illiberal Democracy?

On April 16, Turkish voters gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, greatly increased powers. Observers believe Erdogan, already attacking dissent and the free press, will act to further erode civil rights in his country, even becoming something of a modern day sultan.

Turkey is a democracy, a Muslim majority nation located where the Middle East meets Europe. It is a member of NATO and thus allied militarily with the United States and other western nations.

The election in Turkey is the latest in a series of democracies moving to limit civil liberties, including Russia and Hungary.

Two decades ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 1997). At the time, U.S. embassies in the Middle East, where I was serving, championed free elections as an answer to many of the problems there.

Zakaria sounded a warning about the consequences of free elections without other safeguards. “It has been difficult to recognize this problem,” Zakaria wrote, “because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Free elections alone, Zakaria pointed out, may produce dominance of one ethnic group, or the election of leaders from a single family corrupted by crime, or the suppression of free speech and religion.

Along with free elections, Zakaria said, we must include other measures such as a constitution granting protection to all, regardless of ethnic identity, religious preference, or other identifiers. A judiciary unconstrained by the need to be reelected every few years in partisan contests is also necessary.

Is the recent election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency a move toward illiberal democracy and the protection of favored groups? Or is it a correction, instead, toward a government that includes those left out of a changing economy and culture? Both?

Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan. Most other western democracies were more restrained. Russia, however, also congratulated the Turkish leader.

Safe Places

What if girls and young women at risk of unwanted pregnancies found safe places to gather and grow? What if such places offered guidance often missing in dysfunctional families? What if they provided an alternative to all that advertising suggesting that a woman’s only concern is attracting a male?

If those at risk could gather in safe places, they might discover a more mature vision of their purpose. They might find practical help—with their homework, with ideas for careers, with the motivation to set goals for their lives.

Older women could tell stories about finding their place in life and their need for maturity before allowing males into their lives. They could model motherhood as a responsible choice.

Working with young women before an unwanted pregnancy might bring together both sides on the abortion issue.

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.