Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Trump Administration Continues to Attack the Environmental Projections First Put Into Place by the Nixon Administration

Trump Administration Continues to Attack the Environmental Projections First Put Into Place by the Nixon Administration

If you, the reader, are uncertain whether to support Trump or whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, I urge you to consider the devastating reduction in protections for clean air, clean water, and clean land (thus also clean air/water and food) under the Trump administration’s ‘hate anything Obama’ approach that has put industry blowhards in charge of the Environmental Protection Administration, an agency created on December 2, 1970 to ensure federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement of environmental protection.

GP: Donald Trump digs coal lUS-POLITICS-TRUMP 1

(Image of Trump at West Virginia campaign rally in August 2017, from CNBC article on Trump rollbacks of regulation, cited below)

Under Trump, we have instead a complete disregard for the environment, a view that harks back to the times when rich owners of factories, mines, or corporate farms exploited and polluted land, waters, and people in their greed for profits. For example, in July 15, 2019, the New York Times reported that the Government Accountability Office found that the administration “did not consistently ensure” that its appointees to EPA panels satisfied federal requirements.  This was during 2017, when the Trump administration dismissed academic scientists from EPA advisory boards in order to replace them with industry-connected appointees.  Panels that had in the past included a very high percentage (more than 80%) of academic scientists were reduced precipitously under Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first EPA head.  Pruitt, of course, resigned in scandal (as so many in the Trump adminsitration have done) in 2018 after loading EPA advisory panels with industry hacks .  See, e.g.,  E.P.A. Broke Rules in Shake-Up of Science Panels, Federal Watchdog Says, NY Times, July 15, 2019; Removing Academic Scientists from Science Advisory Panels, Harvard Environmental & Energy Law Program, Feb. 26, 2018 (noting replacement of scientists with industry insiders and consultants, including a climate change skeptic, following Scott Pruitt’s October 31, 2017 directive).  Scientists removed from the panels refused often to be silent.  For example, some formed their own air pollution panel after Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s next EPA administrator, disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel in October 2018.  It had “some of the nation’s top scientists, who were tasked with reviewing how soot and other microscopic air pollutants impact human health.”  Rebecca Beitsch, Scientists booted from EPA panel form their own group, The Hill (Sept 26, 2019).

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Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Taxes–especially Wealth Taxes and Mark-to-Market of Capital Gains

Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Taxes–especially Wealth Taxes and Mark-to-Market of Capital Gains

Not surprisingly for those of you who are members of the ABA Tax Section, there is a meeting of that group next week in Florida when a thousand tax lawyers (give or take a few) will be talking about everything from basis to wealth taxes; GILTI, BEAT, Dual BEIT, to EITC.  Yours truly will be on a panel of the Tax Policy and Simplification Committee, meeting Friday morning, to discuss how the tax system should respond to the wealth gap.  Joining me on the dais will be Roger Royse (moderator and panelist), Rich Prisinzano from the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Dan Shaviro, Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation at NYU and a blogger at Start Making Sense.  We’ll talk about the income and wealth gap data, including the different perspectives of  Saez & Zucman, serving as wealth tax advisers to Senator and Democratic presidential candidate hopeful Elizabeth Warren; Penn Wharton Budget Model, applying a more standard budget model to determine harms and benefits of the Warren Wealth Tax; and Cato INstitute.  We’ll also discuss Sen. Ron Wyden’s proposal for a mark-to-market system of capital gains taxation (including a lookback charge of some kind for hard-to-value assets, Prof. (and former Cleary partner) Edward Kleinbard’s Dual Business Enterprise Income Tax proposal, and other means of making the regular tax system more progressive such as rates, removing the capital gains preference, and reinvigorating the estate tax that has been the object of a GOP murder squad for the last 20-30 years at least.

Meanwhile, today in Florida there was a Tax Policy Lecture at  the University of Florida on Taxing Wealth, with Alan Viard, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, David Kamin, Professor at NYU School of Law, Janet Holtzblatt, Senior Fellow at the Tax Policy Center, and William Gale, Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy7 at the Brookings Institution.

Last fall, the Tax Policy Center held a program on Taxing Wealth (webcast recording available at this link) with Mark Mazur, Ian Simmons, Janet Holtzblatt, Beth Kaufman, Greg Leiserson, Victoria Perry, and Alan Viard.  Sony Kassam from Bloomberg Tax served as moderator.  The link has a series of power point presentations from that meeting as well, for your edification.

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Bloomberg’s Plan for Addressing Economic Inequality: not a wealth tax

Bloomberg’s Plan for Addressing Economic Inequality: not a wealth tax

A bit ago (Jan 8, 2020), the New York Times described Michael Bloomberg’s plan1 for addressing the income and wealth inequality in the United States that has been a constant topic of discussion by Democratic candidates.  Briefly, as with the robber barons of Teddy Roosevelt’s age, the wealth of the global commerce titans and particularly the private equity fund buyers and sellers of companies (and layers off of employees) has exploded over the last four decades in the US, beginning in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  Most of the benefits of productivity gains have gone to a very few people at the top, and the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution actually owns a smaller share of the nation’s wealth than 40 years ago.  The top 1% have gained enormously, and the top 0.5% have been even more enriched.  We have ultra multibillionaires like Jeff Bezos who can pay $9 billion to his wife in a divorce settlement and still be the wealthiest man in the world with more than $130 billion in net worth.  He earns about $78.5 billion a year (counting value of his Amazon shares) or more than $6.5 billion a month2 and thus exemplifies this new “gilded age” of ultrawealthy tycoons.  This exists at the same time that the Trump administration proposes work requirements that will eliminate food stamp aid for 700,000 of hungry Americans and, with other initiatives, will take  food stamps from 3.7 million beneficiaries who simply cannot get work that pays well enough to fund a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their families.3  This will “save” the U.S. about $5.5 billion over five years–less than Bezos ‘earns’ in a month.  This disparity–$5.5 billion to feed 3.5 million hungry Americans versus provide a month’s additional wealth for a person already wallowing in wealth like Jeff Bezos–is why it is clear that the US needs to figure out how to respond to the inequality crisis in order to protect American democracy and ensure Americans have a decent standard of living.

Bloomberg’s plan seems to be a moderate stance like Obama and Biden that attempts to focus on factors other than the wealth gap and the accompanying power gap that wealth provides.  As the NY Times reports, he “frames the economic divide primarily in regional terms–and not along … rich-versus-everyone-else class lines.”1  The Times article notes that his plan is not unlike the charge Obama gave to Joe Biden for the Middle Class Task Force.1\

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The Democratic Debate in Des Moines: progressive candidates on means testing versus universality

The Democratic Debate in Des Moines: progressive candidates on means testing versus universality

Dana Chasin at 2020 Vision does a good job of encapsulating key issuesthat surface in the Democratic debates.

Let’s get this out first:  most listeners will admit that the debates seem both too long and too short, as mentioned on Stephen Henderson’s Detroit Today program this Wednesday 1/15 morning.  They are too short, because candidates are interrupted at the 30-second time limit and not allowed to develop nuanced, considered answers to questions.  They are too long, because they go on for 2 hours.  I’d add that they are problematic, because the media pundits have their own views of what creates energetic dialogue that makes good ‘copy’ for programming, versus the kinds of in-depth discussions about issues like climate change, health care, education, the Supreme Court, congressional oversight/checks and balances, tax policy, wealth inequality and income inequality, plutocracy and oligarchy, etc. that people want to hear.

One important distinction that Chasin notes for thinking about socio-economic programs is the distinction between means testing and universality.  A means-tested program is generally available to lower-income people and often phases out and is capped at some income level beyond which it is no available.  A universally offered program is one that is available to all, rich and poor alike.  So the Earned Income Tax Credit is a means-tested program that is capped (too low, in my view), and Social Security is a universally available program (though there is a graduated payout scale and the funding formula caps pay-ins to the program at a ridiculously low level that means the rich pay only a pittance into the program)

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Dan Shaviro (NYU) and Tim Smeeding (WISC) on NPR’s Detroit Today Show

Dan Shaviro (NYU) and Tim Smeeding (WISC) on NPR’s Detroit Today Show

For those of you who may not have the opportunity to tune into Stephen Henderson’s radio program Detroit Today on NPR, it might be useful to have a short summary of the January 9 discussion of the “wealth gap” from that program.

Background

Tax lawyers have traditionally talked of the “tax gap”1  and frequently mentioned the growing “income gap” between the top 1% of the income distribution and the remaining 99%, but the “wealth gap”2 discussion among tax lawyers, tax policy thinkers, economic analysts and indeed progressive legislators about the relative net assets of different segments of the population has become increasingly important as people have recognized the trend of increasing wealth for the top 0.1% in the US and stagnating wealth for most of the US population.  The wealth gap is even more significant when race/ethnicity is taken into account: the 400 wealthiest families in 2015 owned as much as the country’s entire African-American population plus 1/3 of the Latino population.4  The median white household in 2011 had about $111 thousand in wealth, while the median black household had $7 thousand and the median Latino household had $8 thousand, with the impact of slavery and post-WWII homeownership policies being the underlying source of most of the disparities.3 See also How Ameria’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019.  The generational wealth gap is also worrisome: older Americans’ wealth grew between 1989 and 2013 but all other age groups had their wealth decline. The gender wealth gap underlies the power distinction that lies at the bottom of the MeToo movement: women earn less than men for the same work at the same level, and they save less and are more likely to live in poverty in old age.

That means that children in this country born to families in the top 10% of the wealth distribution have enormous advantages from birth:  they are essentially guaranteed the best medical, educational, and institutional support imaginable, with every opportunity for learning and advancement laid before them.  Their parents can afford to ensure they are able to get into top colleges (e.g., Harvard alumni preferences for their children), meet the “right” people for success in their preferred field (the “connections” that wealthy families build), take a preferred non-paying internship in another city with family funds supporting living expenses and more, all the way up the ladders of success.  Children born into families in the bottom half of the wealth distribution face a struggle at every point along that ladder:  schools that are inadequately funded after decades of Republican concentration on assessment and hurdles rather than support and educational opportunities; lack of exposure to different possibilities and the people who can open doors into those possibilities; lack of funding to make it possible to accept an opportunity when it presents itself.

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Trump celebrates his (very expensive) tax cuts for himself and his rich golfing buddies

Trump celebrates his (very expensive) tax cuts for himself and his rich golfing buddies

Remember how Trump sold the Republicans’ $1.5 trillion-deficit-creating tax cut plan as a boon for the middle class that was going to create jobs and raise wages?  That was in September, when he told congressional lawmakers at the White House that “The rich will not be gaining at all with this plan.”  See Washington Examiner (Sept. 13, 2017).

Let me repeat that:  Trump said “The rich will not be gaining at all with this plan.” (emphasis added)

No tax lawyer or professor believed that statement.  Nobody that knew anything about the early drafts of the bill believed that statement.  But quite a few Trump supporters have believed that statement.

It wasn’t true.  It was a bald-faced lie, and Trump knew it was a bald-faced lie.  He has no trouble making such lies and does it multiple times a day.  But this one was both manipulative and deceptive.  Manipulative, because it helped to prevent any outcry from his core supporters that might have caused a Senate vote loss.  Deceptive, because it was intended to mislead, as so much of what this man does in the office of the President.

Trump made absolutely clear what he really is proud of at his holiday golfing retreat at Mar-a-Lago, where memberships now cost $200,000 (were $100,000 before they counted as access to the Presidency) and members are part of the oligarchic ultra rich set that Trump so adores.  Here’s what he told them just before Christmas:  “you all just got a lot richer” from the passage of the Republican tax cut legislation.  See Bobic, Trump Told Friends ‘You All Just Got a Lot Richer” From Tax Bill: Report, HuffPost (Dec. 24, 2017).

So September, Trump is claiming that the rich won’t gain a thing from the tax cut but come December, Trump is boasting about how much richer the rich got from the tax cut.

Next up?   The Republicans who didn’t care if they created a $1.5 trillion deficit with their tax cuts for the rich now whine about the dreadful deficit (that they created) and the oh so shocking necessity, now, of cutting back on

  • Social Security (they want to privatize it so the rich can get rich off of passing risk onto the vulnerable elderly but this is less likely since they can’t do it by reconciliation with just GOP votes) and
  • Medicare (they want to decimate it- and can do that with reconciliation-GOP apparently doesn’t want us to have the kind of universal and cheaper health care that the rest of the developed world enjoys because there’s no money in that for them) and
  • Medicaid (GOP can’t make money off it and they don’t care about the poor kids and families and old people that depend on that anyway).

See, e.g., Jeff Stein, Ryan says Republicans to target welfare, Medicare, Medicaid spending in 2018, Washington Post (Dec. 6, 2017) (“Republicans will aim next year to reduce spending on both federal health care and anti-poverty programs, citing the need to reduce America’s deficit”);  Republicans are headed for a collision in 2018, Business INsider (defunding Social Security or funding infrastructure).

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What is the GOP goal? A return to the “gilded age” (or worse)

What is the GOP goal? A return to the “gilded age” (or worse)

When right-wing Roy Moore said that the time when America was great was during slavery, he revealed something key to the current GOP members of Congress and state legislatures–their primary goal is to return to a time when owners of property held all the keys to the kingdom and workers were just serfs expected to do as told and whose lives didn’t really matter much to the boss capitalists.

Historian Nancy MacLean suggests that this is the reason for the tax bill’s largesse to corporatists and the wealthy, the reason the GOP wants to undo Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and essentially all the progressive programs introduced in the twentieth century to form the basis for a thriving middle class and surging democratic union.  See Cahuncey DeVega, Historian Nancy MacLean on the right’s ultimate goal: rolling back the 20th century, Salon.com (Dec. 13, 2017).

Here are some key points from the article.

1) “[T]he Democratic Party is terrible at translating complex questions of public policy into simple narratives that evoke emotion and, in turn, action from the American people.” Id.

Indeed, having an able, sympathetic messenger who can translate the issues that truly matter into terms that make sense to ordinary people is something the Democratic Party lacked in the last election.  The tone deafness of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and, much of the time, Hillary Clinton, meant that ordinary people didn’t understand that Trump is merely a blowhard capitalist who doesn’t care if he cheats or lies or exploits other people so long as he gets notoriety and money, while the Democrats have been the party working for a decent sustainable economy, environmental protection and preservation, protection from pollution and diseases, and working wages for ordinary folk.

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GOP Congress: my (wealthy) donors made me do it

GOP Congress: my (wealthy) donors made me do it

The GOP’s tax-complicating, deficit-increasing, wealthy-subsidizing, Arctic destroying, Health Care damaging, $1.5 trillion tax “reform” package is unpopular with most Americans, destructive to the government’s ability to fund needed programs from disease prevention to FEMA to basic research to needed infrastructure improvements, and wildly popular with the wealthy GOP donors like the (oil-rich) Koch Brothers, the Mercers, the Wal-Mart heirs, etc.

So why did GOP representatives and senators vote for this bill that most of them hadn’t read and didn’t understand? Back in early November, one Republican in the House was surprisingly honest about his reason: his wealthy GOP donors told him to get the tax bill (that favors the wealthy) passed or don’t ask for campaign assistance. See Bob Bryan, Top GOP Congressman: my donors told me to get the tax bill passed or ‘don’t ever call me again’, Business Insider (Nov. 7, 2017).

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Do GOP House and Senate reps even know what they voted for?

Do GOP House and Senate reps even know what they voted for?

The House passed the awful “tax complication bill of 2017” on Tuesday.  The Senate had to make a few changes because it didn’t comply with the Byrd rules, and then will presumably pass it today. It’ll go back to the House where the HOuse will then take the final vote on the Senate changes and send it to Mr. Trump for signature.

The GOP will claim that they have singlehandedly put together a marvelous tax cut package for the middle class.  That is a pack of lies.

The tax cut package redistributes upwards–it is a marvelous cut for the wealthy (the estate tax reductions costing about $200 billion over ten years, the corporate tax reductions (including increased incentives for offshoring while lowering the top corporate tax statutory rate (higher than most corporations ever paid) to 21% from 35%, the lowering of the top individual rate from 39.6% to 37%, and a 20% “deduction” from taxable income for “qualified business income” for owners of businesses (whereas workers with the same earned income don’t get that nice little subsidy, based, it appears, on Mitt Romney’s keen disregard for the large group of American workers and working poor that he labelled “takers” compared to the regard he had for the wealthy capitalists, who he labelled “makers”, etc.).  It is a piddling cut for most non-wealthy individual Americans, especially those who live in “blue” states and already contribute more tax money to the federal government that is transferred to “red” states.  And the corporate tax cuts are permanent while the individual tax cuts go away at various times over the next decade.

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The GOP Tax Bill Disses the Working Class

The GOP Tax Bill Disses the Working Class

Here’s something about the GOP House and the GOP Senate:  they each passed tax bills (supposed to come out in a “conference” agreement sometime today) that diss the United States’ working class taxpayers.  White or black, Christian or Jew or other, citizen by birth or naturalized citizen–workers are treated as an inferior “taker” class and owners are treated as a superior “maker” class–the same old GOP class warfare that has been evidenced in Republican-driven tax legislation for decades.  That shows in the provisions that have been discussed quite a bit already, even though there is no official distributional analysis and even though the Treasury Department put out a one-pager claiming to provide an analysis showing huge economic growth would eliminate any deficits (based on both the tax “reform” legislation and promised cost-cutting “reforms” to Medicare and Social Security):

  • the  significant reduction in impact of the estate tax,
  • the huge reduction in the statutory corporate tax rate of most benefit to officers/shareholders (it was 35%, it will be 21% under the conference agreement, apparently, even though the “effective” corporate tax rate ranged from negative to around 24-25%–essentially more favorable than many of our fellow advanced economies’ corporate tax rates);
  • the territoriality of the corporate tax (generally, zero tax on foreign earnings of U.S. companies);
  • immediate expensing of company investments (a five year provision that allows companies huge tax benefits for those five years);
  • the elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT), at a cost of about $250 billion in revenues.
  • the reduction in the top rate for wealthy individuals (from 39.6% to 37%),
  • the substantial reduction in the  State and Local Tax Deduction for workers (thus changing entirely the economics of paying for a house already purchased, while allowing sole proprietors, partnerships and other “owners” of equity in businesses the ability to deduct such State and Local Taxes in full);
  • a larger standard deduction but the elimination of personal exemptions;
  • a larger child tax credit that only becomes refundable over time (limiting how much it helps the poor) but is available to wealthy households (starting to phase out at half-a-million of income!);
  • the only slight reduction in the ability of wealthy individuals to take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction (reducing the debt limit to $750,000 instead of $1,100,000)
  • the elimination of the corporate AMT (which cuts taxes for wealthy shareholders/owners/managers) but the retention of the individual AMT (which primarily affects the upper middle class and not the wealthiest taxpayers under the current rate bracket system);
  • the elimination of the Affordable Care Act mandate and penalty (which reduces the amount of Medicaid and insurance subsidy funds for poor and middle-income taxpayers, as well as guaranteeing the deconstruction of the health care system for 13 million or more Americans by 2027 and  increasing insurance premiums for upper-middle-class taxpayers); and
  • the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to rape by fossil fuel oligarchies (a piddling amount of revenue, but sufficient to buy off the principle-less Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska );
  • making the corporate tax changes permanent (and effective without any transition period) while making the individual tax cuts other than benefits for the wealthy like the estate tax changes temporary.
  • (just to name a few).

When the health care mandate removal is combined with the other provisions,  “On net, the poor would actually lose out in all years once this effect is taken into account.”  Dylan Matthews, The Republican tax bill that could actually become law, explained, Vox.com (Dec. 14, 2017).  The following Tax Policy Center graph from the Vox article (using the Urban-Brookings Microsimulation Model) shows that by 2027 the top 0.1% end up doing much better (average tax cut for the top 0.1 percent is $221,550 a year).  The bottom 20% do worse while the middle–the second and third quintiles–have a very insignificant plus (average tax cut of the third quintile is $490).   Within the third or middle quintile, more than 62% of taxpayers that earn between $54,700 and $93,200 would see their taxes go up, “[b]ut only about 0.1% of the very richest one-thousandth of Americans would see a tax hike.”  Id.  Early gains–though small, intended perhaps to benefit the GOP in earlier votes–don’t last because the individual cuts aren’t permanent.  A change to chained CPI for indexing brackets amounts to a tax increase on individuals, while the permanent corporate tax cuts mean rich and very rich do well while middle and upper-middle lose out.

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