On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

December 7, 2017

So much for federalism.

As the Republicans see it, the purpose of national government is to rein in states and localities that believe in and enforce a social contract. The GOP tax bills are still to be reconciled with each other, but both have been designed to force Democratic-controlled states to roll back their progressive taxes and, with that, their support for public schools and universities, environmental protections, public-sector unions—the works. By eliminating state and local tax deductions, they aim to compel blue states—California and New York most of all—to become more like such bastions of enlightenment as Mississippi and Alabama.

That’s not an incidental by-product of the GOP’s tax bills; that’s their intent. “It’s death to Democrats,” right-wing economist Stephen Moore told Bloomberg News. “They go after state and local taxes, which weakens public employee unions. They go after university endowments, and universities have become playpens of the left. And getting rid of the mandate is to eventually dismantle Obamacare.”

Justice Louis Brandeis famously termed states and cities “laboratories of democracy.” Lest anyone doubted it, Republicans have again made clear that they’re no fans of either democracy or laboratories, much less both.

December 6, 2017

Philanthropist and activist Tom Steyer took a fair amount of heat from the Democratic establishment for raising the impeachment flag. But he may well have it right.

Trump seems to be getting closer and closer to firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as the waters rise around him. His statements are getting more and more reckless, suggesting panic.

Republicans need to be put on notice that Trump has already obstructed justice and may soon be even more flagrant about it. Even if he doesn’t fire Mueller, the special counsel’s finding will likely produce a prima facie case.

Trump’s defenders keep pointing out that a president cannot be indicted, only impeached. That’s exactly right. The 2018 midterms could well be run on the Republicans’ failure to impeach a president who richly earned impeachment. It’s not too soon to put them on notice.

December 5, 2017

In recent years, The New York Times has morphed into something more than our paper of record with occasional mistakes. In its advertisements, particularly in its print editions, it has become the Weekly Shopper of the Very Rich—and not just the New York Very Rich, but, keeping up with the lifestyles of Milllionaires Without Borders, the Global Very Rich. Who but a Russian oligarch could afford some of the properties advertised regularly in the paper’s Sunday Magazine?

A marginally less plutocratic ad that ran, full-page, in Sunday’s paper nonetheless drives home the same lesson that these property offerings and the recent $450 million purchase of DaVinci’s (or somebody’s) Salvator Mundi should have made screamingly clear: that the rich have too goddamn much money, and not quite knowing what to do with it all, are bidding up prices to absurd levels.

The Sunday ad announced a forthcoming (December 10) sale of New York Yankee memorabilia, to be conducted by Heritage Auctions, which terms itself “the world’s largest collectible auctioneer.” Among the items were a bat that Babe Ruth used and signed during the 1920 season (which Heritage estimated would go for “$600,000 plus”), the bat which Lou Gehrig wielded in 1939 in his “final two home run games” (which Heritage estimated would go for “$800,000 plus”), and a 1992 scouting report on Derek Jeter (whose value Heritage set at a mere $50,000 plus).

Now, Babe Ruth’s 1920 season was possibly the most remarkable, and disruptive, in the history of American sports. He hit 54 home runs that year, more than any other American League team hit—thereby propelling baseball from a low-scoring game of singles and stolen bases into the outta-the-park slugfest it soon became. Gehrig was a great player whose tear-jerking 1939 farewell to the game and its fans, as he began to succumb to ALS, was the stuff of heroism and grace.

But, as with the DaVinci (or the somebody), the value that the auctioneer has put on these bats says more about the huge pools of money in which the rich now splash around than it does about Ruth or Gehrig or their feats at the plate. As in the Gilded Age, such auctions have become nothing more than displays of conspicuous consumption—except that, since they’re now conducted by phone with unidentified (to the public) bidders, the consumption is conspicuous while the consumer remains self-protectively inconspicuous.

And about that Jeter scouting report: How soon until some stars’ contracts—the written documents—are put up for bid? And will the value of the auctioned contracts exceed the dollar amount that the contracts stipulated would be paid to those stars? As our plutocrats grow richer and richer (a process that the Republican Congress felt irresistibly impelled to accelerate), that day can’t be far off.

December 4, 2017

Can Democrats make big gains in the 2018 midterm by running against the Republican tax bill?

Maybe not—but they can take back Congress anyway.

Why is tax bill not easy pay dirt, despite its unpopularity?

First, it’s complicated as hell. Second, it may not take full effect until after the 2018 midterm election. Third, almost half of working-class Americans will actually get a net tax cut, even though the cut for the rich is much bigger. And fourth, the offsetting cuts in social benefits will take effect after a lag.

In running against the tax cut, it’s fine to point out how Republicans are the party of billionaires and bogus trickle-down economics. But Dems have to be careful not to sound like the boy who cried wolf, or too policy wonkish. Most voters won’t feel that much effect.

That said, the Republicans will still be monumentally unpopular next year. The Virginia and New Jersey state and local elections last month showed impressive evidence of a true grassroots blue upsurge. Swing voters are increasingly alienated from Trump, too.

By next year, Trump will be in even bigger trouble, courtesy of the special counsel, assuming he’s still in office. So we can expect a happy election night for Democrats next November.

Just don’t put too many eggs in that tax basket. And above all, have a clear, affirmative program.

December 1, 2017

Neo-fascism in the U.S., under Trump, has produced one kind of political deadlock, in which Congress is often stalemated, unwilling to address real problems, and occasionally the right simply steamrolls the opposition, as in the case of the emerging tax bill. In Europe, the rise of the far right produces a different sort of deadlock—governing coalitions that are too weak to govern, fueling even more support for neo-fascism.

The latest case is Germany, long Europe’s improbable rock of stability. The rise of the far right has narrowed the space for possible governing coalitions. This is all too reminiscent of the pre-Hitler period of the late 1920s, during which the growth of Nazis and Communists in parliament produced weak centrist, multi-party governments that failed to solve the deepening economic distress that invited Nazism.

In the aftermath of the fragmented result of Germany’s September elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to assemble an awkward four-party coalition—her own Christian Democrats (the CDU); its sister Bavarian affiliate, the CSU, which trends further right; plus the libertarian Free Democrats and the socially liberal Greens. This was a bridge too far, and talks collapsed.

In the wake of the collapse, there is only one possible government: a “grand coalition” made up of Merkel’s CDU plus the long-suffering Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD has been Merkel’s junior coalition partner for most of the period since 2005, and has seen its popular support steadily weaken, to a sickening postwar low of just 20.5 percent in the recent elections.

SPD leaders vowed it was time to go into opposition and rebuild. Now, however, it appears that another grand coalition is all that stands between Germany and chaos.

One benefit is that the SPD could extract tough terms: more public investment, reform of the labor laws that weakened trade unions, less of an austerity policy. The risk, however is that the SPD in government would make the neo-fascist AfD the official opposition party, and that the policy tweaks extracted by the SPD would not be enough to change Europe’s fundamental austerity trajectory, would blunt the SPD as an opposition, and would further energize the neo-fascist right.

The entire West needs nothing so much as a robust, progressive left, to counter the far right’s story of what is wrecking the lives of working people, and to offer something persuasively better.

November 30, 2017

With John McCain’s announcement this afternoon that he will support the grotesque tax bill now before the Senate, the odds that the bill will pass have improved significantly.

In its (and McCain’s) defense, the bill does address one glaring deficiency under which the United States suffers: insufficient inequality. Today, our country still lags behind Mexico, among our fellow OECD members, when it comes to economic inequality. With the passage of the GOP’s tax reform, which will supercharge the upward redistribution of income and wealth, it becomes conceivable that we could match or surpass Mexico. We would still lag the level of inequality that existed in France under Louis XIV—not called the Sun King because he was a pauper!—but that would only give the Republicans a new target to shoot at.

Why did McCain decide to give Trump a victory this time around? We can only conclude that increasing inequality runs deep in Republicans’ DNA; it’s as reflexive, and as thoughtful, as the bounce of a knee when hit by a hammer.

A larger hammer is now poised to descend on the 99 percent.

November 29, 2017

Among the many awful things about the tax bill now greased for passage is what it tells us about allegedly mainstream Republicans. Despite their supposed contempt for Trump, one by one they are falling in line—being bought off by last-minute revisions in the bill, most of which will make it even worse, like more tax breaks for billionaires.

Even senators humiliated by Trump—Corker of Tennessee, the well-named Flake of Arizona—who are not running for re-election and could easily vote no—appear to be supporting this bill, for their corporate pals. Even two supposed moderates, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, and bogus deficit hawks like Tom Johnson.

It reminds you of German conservatives and Hitler. They decided that despite his insanity, he could be used to further their own goals (and let’s hope the analogy ends there).

Still worse is the deliberate use of the tax bill to punish states and citizens that tend to value good government and to vote for Democrats—by killing the deduction for state and local taxes. This is in the House bill and may well stay in the final bill.

Worst of all is the churlish punishment of universities by removing the tax deductibility of graduate fellowships. Students, who are dead broke, will now have to pay tax on tuition waivers, which run as high as $50,000—a deliberate poke at the educated class for the sin of tending liberal.

This is all of a piece for an administration that prizes ignorance, but it is a new low for tax legislation. We now know that for all the infighting, the Republicans in Congress are as contemptuous of democracy as their one-time nemesis, Donald Trump.

November 28, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has never shown herself to be a shrinking violet, but her silence as the Republican tax cut bill slithers its way through Congress is worth noting. Consider all the bill does for—or more precisely, against—both students and teachers:

It ends schoolteachers’ ability to deduct up to $250 for their expenses incurred buying equipment for their classrooms or students.

It ends graduates’ and former students’ ability to deduct up to $2,500 for their interest payments on student loans.

It requires graduate students to declare as taxable income the tuition fees that their universities routinely waive, essentially requiring them to pay taxes on incomes of approximately $50,000 when their actual incomes are roughly half that.

The bill, in all its majesty, requires students and teachers at DeVos’s beloved private and parochial schools, as well at her detested public schools, to pay these added taxes, burdening the teachers and students she presumably wants to encourage, as well as those she wants to banish, with taxes that in many cases may drive them from their profession.

Defense secretaries have been known to lobby Congress when defense appropriations are under consideration, and to keep certain critical defense industries in business. Some might think the future of American education is a factor in the nation’s defense as well, but apparently not the current education secretary, at least, not so much that she has bestirred herself to speak up for teachers and students. Far from championing her charges, she offers the Silence of DeVos.

November 27, 2017

The press coverage has played the tax bill as a steep climb for the Republicans, but we should also pay attention to a possible GOP secret weapon—wavering Democrats. Three Democrats facing re-election in states that Trump carried by large margins have yet to commit firmly against the bill. They would be Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Ever since the first of the Reagan “supply side” tax cuts, Republicans have been able to enlist some conservative Democratic support, including for all of the Bush II tax cuts. Centrist Dems love finding votes that they can characterize as pro-business.

At least six Senate Republicans have expressed qualms about aspects of the tax measure, including its backdoor attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act, its early phase-out of cuts for individuals, and its increase in the national debt by an estimated $1.4 trillion according to the Congressional Joint Tax Committee.

But never underestimate the ability of Mitch McConnell to make special deals to win over this or that skeptical Republican. So far, no Republican senator has definitively shut the door on supporting some tax bill, not even deficit hawks like Wisconsin’s Tom Johnson or the much-overrated “moderates,” Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

Giving up the idea of using tax legislation to kill Obamacare may yet rescue this bill. McConnell will lose some Republican senators—the path to a majority is narrow at best—but it would be a travesty indeed if a tax bill were to squeak through thanks to the support of faithless Democrats.

November 23, 2017

“Hey, turkey!”

How did “turkey” become a derogatory term? The turkey, after all, is not the most ungainly of God’s creatures, not if you contemplate anteaters or right-wing talk show hosts. 

The answer, as is the case for many such American slang usages, lies buried in those library stacks that host a collection of the back issues of Variety, the self-proclaimed bible of showbiz. Here’s the plot:

In the 1920s, Broadway was booming. It cost a great deal less to mount a show in those days, and there were far more theaters on or near the Great White Way than there are today. In 1928, the peak year before the Crash, nearly 300 shows opened on Broadway.

And a lot of them closed very quickly. However, the one way that producers could ensure their shows would last at least five or six weeks—long enough to make their money back and maybe a little more—was to open their shows around Thanksgiving. Then as now, the show-going public would swell during the holiday season, as tourists and locals viewed the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as the show-going time of the year.

Not surprisingly, this meant that Variety’s theater critics, who had to shlep to and review every last one of those shows, were subjected to an inordinate number of real lulus. When a producer had sunk his or someone’s money into what he realized was a stinker of a play or musical, the only way he could emerge financially unscathed was to open that show around Thanksgiving. 

Soon, Variety’s critics coined a name for such shows: turkeys. The rest, as they say, is history.