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Posts published in December 2019

A new national pastime

johnson

Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, seems to be the principal 21st century motivation of much of American capitalism.

The greed of pharmaceutical companies powered the opioid epidemic. Greed seems to have driven one of the great corporate brands in America — Boeing — to cut corners on a new generation of 737 aircraft. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is credibly accused of amassing $100 billion exempt from federal taxation in support of charitable causes, but then really using the cash to prop up some of the church’s for-profit businesses.

Surely greed, the special kind reserved to white male billionaires, is also driving a mind-numbingly stupid plan by Major League Baseball to eliminate 25 percent of all minor league teams. Forty-two teams would be wiped out. Baseball’s commissioner — being commissioner means you work exclusively for the billionaires who own baseball teams — has determined, apparently by using a Ouija board, that minor league teams in places such as Frederick, Md.,and Salem, Ore., are redundant.

It was once difficult to imagine that Commissioner Rob Manfred could make his frequently tone deaf predecessor, Bud Selig, look good. But with his plan to slash and burn minor league baseball, Manfred has done just that.

Among other things Manfred’s plan — now opposed by a growing cadre of politicians in both parties, all of minor league baseball and baseball-loving fans everywhere — would eliminate entirely the Pioneer League, a rookie level professional league that has existed since 1939.

Lewiston, Pocatello, Twin Falls and Boise had teams in the original Pioneer League. The circuit helped launch the careers of hundreds of major league players, including Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and George Brett. The league currently has eight teams spread from Great Falls, Mont., to Grand Junction, Colo.

Idaho Falls won the pennant last season.

Manfred has deemed the league expendable.

Manfred has done something else that no one in public life has been able to accomplish: He’s united Vermont’s socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and Idaho’s conservative Republican Congressman Mike Simpson. Both are convinced the commissioner is pulling the equivalent of bunting with two out in the ninth inning down by 10 runs. In other words, he’s crazy.

Simpson is justifiably upset that Manfred’s scheme would eliminate the Idaho Falls Chuckers, a wildly popular local franchise that plays its home games in a spiffed up stadium near downtown Idaho Falls. Like other teams targeted for elimination, Idaho Falls has invested heavily in creating an attractive, useful facility.

Manfred says so what?

Sanders teed off on the commissioner this week after Manfred, ducking from numerous brush back pitches from critics, suggested that he would just eliminate the entire operating agreement that governs major league relations with minor league teams. That’s a ridiculous suggestion from a commissioner believing his own press releases.

You have to ask what is driving the thinking of baseball’s billionaires and their handpicked mouthpiece? The commissioner has been vague about his motivations, short of suggesting that he wants to streamline the minor league line-up and make minor league operators shoulder more of the cost for developing players and running ballparks.

So, of course, the real reason is money. The billionaires in charge of the national pastime apparently believe they can squeeze a few more golden eggs out of baseball’s goose. And the eggs are indeed golden. Baseball’s most expensive enterprise, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is worth $4 billion. The Yankees are a close second, with the Chicago Cubs, owned by the billionaire Ricketts family, and the San Francisco Giants are not far behind.

These teams normally report skinny operating margins that are calculated after a ton of expenses are factored in and the owners receive a handsome share of profits. While it is difficult to begrudge the players whatever they can earn from whatever the market can bear, it’s also true that owners, often with more money than good sense, spend lavishly on players that are overrated or over the hill.

Last year’s standout free agent, Bryce Harper, signed a mind-blowing 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The contract was panned by many, since Harper, while he has genuine top-rank skills as a ballplayer, has had an erratic career and more often than not has been a disruptive presence in the clubhouse. That is another way of saying he’s not a great teammate.

Harper subsequently led the Phillies to a mediocre .500 season, while the team he left, the Washington Nationals, won the World Series. Almost anyone who has observed baseball for any length of time would have said giving Harper such a long-term, super-rich contract was nuts. But billionaires from the White House to the dugout often substitute smarts for confidence.

The Manfred plan to gut minor league baseball, driven by short-term money considerations, is long-term stupid. Demographics show the sport’s fan base is older and whiter than basketball or football. Minor league baseball helps develop new, younger fans. Major league teams are pricing many fans out of the ballpark experience with triple digit ticket prices and $15 beer. Even spring training, until recently a refuge from the total commodification of the game, has become shockingly expensive. The Giants now want $65 for right field seats for a routine spring training game. The charge for parking, a couple of hot dogs and tickets will make a family outing nearly as expensive as a regular season game.

Simpson and Sanders and the rest are right to push back hard against Manfred. If they continue to receive lip service, they should threaten and then be willing to leverage the anti-trust exemption long enjoyed by major league baseball. The future of the great game is in the balance.

And baseball, run by a bunch of greedy billionaires as a personal novelty project, isn’t theirs to destroy. Baseball belongs to fans deserving a chance to see a game in a family-friendly ballpark close to home.

There is nothing wrong with minor league baseball that a few enlightened owners couldn’t fix. A good first step would be to hire a commissioner who cares as much about the fans — and the game — as he does about the nincompoops in the owners’ boxes.
 

Rationales

stapiluslogo1

Idaho’s two Republican representatives in the U.S. House this week had the same bottom line on the question of impeaching President Donald Trump - both voted against - but they delivered different kinds of rationales.

As the scores of congressional statements zipped by on Impeachment Day, there was little chance to parse what people of either party were saying. Here, a look at the Idaho two.

In the floor debate, Idaho 1’s Russ Fulcher was concise. He said he would use his time “to enumerate in detail every high crime and misdemeanor committed” by Trump, and then of course offered a period of silence. (That pause in the sound and fury in any event probably was broadly enjoyed.)

There are levels to this. Trump has not been convicted in court of any crimes, though in fact many have been alleged and outlined by many people, in connection with the impeachment subjects and elsewhere. But “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as many legal and historical reviews have made clear, is a category different from crimes as such. They’re in the eye of the congressional and public beholder, and relate to serious misbehavior in office and abusing the public trust. If you take Fulcher’s statement as an expression of his opinion that what Trump has done is not an abuse of the public trust, then that’s that. But opinions will vary.

Mike Simpson, in the second district, set out a more detailed rebuttal to the two articles of impeachment.

First, “Democrats have yet to present any evidence that President Trump abused his power. In fact, everything we have seen thus far paints the opposite picture. Ukraine President Zelensky has stated multiple times publicly that he never felt pressure from President Trump to complete any task for the United States. Further, at the time of the July 25th call between the two leaders, Ukrainian officials did not even know that security assistance was paused. Finally, no Ukrainian investigation was ever initiated. Aid was delivered and no investigation took place. I fail to see the connection the Democrats are trying to make here that would rise to an impeachable offense.”

There are problems here. First, Zelensky has been placed (as he still is) under such extreme pressure, facing a threatening holder of his nation’s fiscal lifeline, that his attempts to remain diplomatic with President Trump can hardly be taken at face value. (A man holds a gun in your face and demands you proclaim him a great humanitarian: What are you going to say?) There’s been ample testimony that the Ukrainians knew of the withhold of funds around and probably well in advance the time of the call (as in truth, they would have had to be idiots to not understand as much). And the Ukraine investigation Trump required ultimately did not happen because, as Democrats pointed out repeatedly on the House floor, Trump was caught, and the gambit had to be abandoned.

On Article 2, “There are perfectly legitimate avenues to resolve differences between branches of government. When Administration officials did not make themselves available for a partisan, predetermined investigation, House Democrats chose to pursue the most drastic of options, instead of the appropriate and Constitutional option that is available when two co-equal branches of government disagree: letting the judiciary branch decide. This move again showed me that Democrats were looking for any reason to impeach this President rather than trying to conduct a serious and honest investigation.”

Simpson here is saying Trump’s order that current and former administration officials not provide testimony, documents or other information - in ways past presidents considered for impeachment did not do - could have been cured by getting an order from a court that they must testify. But leaving aside the slow-walking aspect - how many months or even years would that approach have taken through the appeals system? - that would require, it still doesn’t answer the original point. The president blocked cooperation with a constitutionally-allowed action by Congress, not allowing it to do its work, without even providing a legal rationale. How is that not obstruction of Congress?

With the wealth of statements and ideas released from the House floor on Wednesday, many deserve a more careful look. It’s time to slow down and think.
 

Santa visits the Statehouse

schmidt

Santa’s sleigh circled the dome and found a safe spot to perch.

Santa stretched his legs, swung his big belly out and planted his boots in the crusty Boise snow. He patted Dunder’s and Bitzen’s flanks and circled back for his bag. The starry night showed no light in the east as he called to the team, “Take a break you all. This finishes off Idaho, then we sweep down the West Coast. You know the drill.” Knowing there was no chimney, he took the stairs.

He slipped a little on the marble floor; the bag on his back shifted and a box toppled out and over the rail. He followed it’s fall and listened for breakage. It dropped to the main floor and thudded. Santa harrumphed, “Must be those socks for Speaker Bedke,” he muttered.

He stopped outside the JFAC analysts’ offices up on the fourth floor. He knew from the book they’d all been nice, none naughty, so they were all getting new sharp pencils. He gave the one in charge of the prison budget a red one, just as his little joke.

Down the winding stairs he first dropped the big box of chocolates for the Senate staff. Then in front of the Majority office he had to place his finger by his nose and ponder. He had a couple lumps of coal to give out, and the Treasurer had suggested the Speaker and Pro Tem in her letter to Santa, but he didn’t think he should pick sides, since they had both suggested the coal (or worse) for her. So, he picked his smallest slightly wrinkled Washington apple, left it there and then strolled over to the Minority side. He left them a bright new dog leash.

His bag was half full as he swung east to the House side and he offloaded the bigger box of chocolates for their staff. On Speaker Bedke’s desk he left a note to look downstairs for his present. On the Minority side he left a small bag of peanuts, honey roasted.

The second floor was easier as the bag got lighter. The Secretary of State got boot polish, the Attorney General a new tie (black and gold). The Lieutenant Governor got a small pink purse.

By the time he got to the west Governors wing on the second floor the lumps of coal were banging together in the bottom of his bag. But his book said the governor’s staff had been very good, so they got free Boise parking passes.

Governor Little had also been good, the book said, so the lumps of coal stayed in the bag. It was against his good judgement but he left a Copenhagen can top with the Idaho seal on it for the chief executive.

Just as he was leaving the Governor’s office he heard footsteps behind him. The security guard called, “Hey!” and Santa swung around. He was holding Bedke’s crumpled package. “You drop this?” he asked.

“Why yes son, I did.” Santa reached out and took it from the young man.

“Thank you,” he said and twinkled his eyes.

“You about done ‘cause I gotta lock up this wing?” the young man asked.
“Just a couple of lumps of coal to give out.” Santa sighed.

“Let me, I’m doing my rounds, just tell me where.”

Santa flipped through his book. “Well, I guess it will be for two of the Senators or Representatives down in the basement.” He said still counting all the tally marks. As he took out the coal from his bag he fumbled and they fell to the floor, breaking into many pieces.

“Oh dear.” Santa pouted his rosy lips.

“It’s OK. This way I’ll have enough for everybody.” The young security guard smiled as he collected the shards. “And don’t you worry. If I run out I know how to make more. That’s how we do things around here.”

“Merry Christmas son.” Santa smiled.

“And Merry Christmas to you.”
 

The stench grows

richardson

Soon, U.S. Senators will be called upon to act as jurors, to take an oath separate and distinct from their investiture oath to uphold the Constitution. Rule XXV of the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials provides the text of that oath: “I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ____, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”

“Impartial justice” requires senators to apply the same standards to presidents of their own party as they would if the person on trial belonged to the opposing party. Also implicit is a mandate that a senator withhold judgment as to the guilt or innocence of the official charged by the U.S. House of Representatives until completion of the trial, until all the evidence has been fully presented. Thus, it is appalling that the senate majority leader would boldly announce that he and the GOP Senate caucus are in lock-step with the White House – as to “all things” having to do with the impeachment trial.

Last week Mitch McConnell gleefully told Trump whisperer Sean Hannity, “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.” He flagrantly admitted he would take his cues from Trump’s lawyers, and positively beamed when announcing, “There’s no chance the president will be removed from office.”

Almost as appalling is Lindsey Graham’s shameless confession that he does not intend to be a “fair juror,” and will not pretend to be one. This is such a far cry from Graham admonishing his colleagues at the time of the Clinton impeachment “don’t decide the case until the case’s end.” How can he and Moscow Mitch raise their right hand and swear an oath to “do impartial justice,” when they have announced they intend to undermine the concept of impartial justice at every turn?

As troubling as these declarations of presidential fealty are, I find a slim ray of hope in the notion that McConnell and Graham may have gotten out over their political skis. Their sham trial may prove to incriminate Trump in the eyes of many Americans in a way that a real trial with oath-honoring senate jurors never could. Polls and surveys tell us that many of our fellow citizens have not yet made up their minds on the issue of whether Trump should be removed from office. I doubt they will be impressed as it becomes ever more evident that Trump has no evidence, no facts to support his ill-defined, shape-shifting defense. If he did, McConnell wouldn’t need to turn the Senate into a kangaroo court.

People may not have followed every twist and turn in the impeachment process and may have found some constitutional law concepts elusive, but most rank and file American voters know justice – and injustice – when they see it. Since the 1950's, they’ve watching everything from Perry Mason to Law and Order, and hundreds of thousands of them have served on real juries. They have taken a solemn oath to be fair, to weigh the facts, and follow the law, to put aside any personal feelings. In my experience, with only rare exceptions, they take that oath very seriously. They will be troubled by senators who treat their oaths as perfunctory soundbites.

Often judges emphasize the importance of the jurors’ oath by instructing them along these lines: “You, as jurors, are the judges of the facts. You must not substitute or follow your own notion or opinion as to what the law is or ought to be. It is your duty to apply the law as I explain it to you, regardless of the consequences. It is your duty to base your verdict solely upon the evidence, without prejudice or sympathy. That was the promise you made and the oath you took.” Chief Justice Roberts, who will preside over the Senate trial, would be well-advised to make such a statement, even knowing it will fall on many deaf ears.

I predict McConnell’s scheme for a down and dirty trial and quick vote of acquittal will not play well in Peoria – or anywhere else for that matter. I am reminded of the juror in the Paul Manafort trial who, though she was a strong Trump supporter, had voted for Trump in 2016 and planned to vote for him again in 2020, voted to convict Mr. Manafort. When asked why she parted ways with the president who had called the Manafort prosecution a “witch hunt,” the juror calmly replied in words to this effect: “It was my duty to listen to the evidence and follow the law.”

Would that McConnell and Graham had half the honor and integrity of that Manafort juror. But now it’s too late for them to play it straight. They have shown their hands. I believe the American people (at least those not indoctrinated by Fox) will see through McConnell's and Graham's farce. Rather than exonerate the president, the GOP machinations and corruption will only underscore the president’s guilt; the stench of Trump’s treachery -- and theirs -- will grow.
 

Not exactly a brown envelope

jones

The Ukrainians are under the gun. Russia grabbed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has been waging war in the eastern part of that country ever since. The hostilities have taken the lives of over 13,000 Ukrainians. It is obvious that Russia has the upper hand, with significantly more military firepower and cyberwar capability.

The United States recognized that it was in our national security interests to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression and, along with our European partners, we have been providing military and financial support to that beleaguered country. The U.S. also imposed stiff economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s henchmen to force the Russians and their proxies out of Crimea and Ukraine. Additional sanctions were later imposed for Russia’s attack on America’s 2016 election.

However, right from the start of his presidency, Donald Trump has been unenthusiastic about helping Ukraine. When it appeared in the summer of 2017 that the President was on the verge of recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and lifting the Russian sanctions, the Republican-controlled Congress hurriedly passed legislation to stop him with a resounding veto-proof majority.

Trump has unfortunately latched onto a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for attacking our presidential election in 2016. The theory was invented by Russia in 2016 and has been peddled ever since by Russian intelligence. All U.S intelligence agencies, the Special Prosecutor and the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee have conclusively found that the Russians were responsible for the attack.

Nevertheless, some Republican Congressmen have started parroting the Russian line in recent days as a way of defending Trump against impeachment. They have not been able to produce any evidence that Ukraine tried to influence our election or to explain how it would serve Ukraine’s interests to do such a stupid thing--Congress would not be continuing to fund Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression if the discredited theory was true. On the other hand, Russia has benefitted beyond its wildest dreams from its election attack.

Despite the fact that the conspiracy theory has been debunked as total nonsense, Rudy Giuliani was in Ukraine the first week of December, trying to gather “evidence” against Ukraine. He met with pro-Russian individuals who oppose the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and scallywags from a former government who were ousted for corruption. These characters, like Giuliani’s indicted comrades Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are about as slippery as eels.

President Zelensky, a former comedian with little government experience, met with former KGB officer Vladimir Putin on December 9 with a very weak hand. The two met to try to work out a peace agreement for the eastern part of Ukraine where hostilities are taking place. Ukrainians rightly feared that Zelensky would have great difficulty in negotiating an acceptable deal for Ukraine with the bad cards he’d been dealt by Trump and Giuliani.

Zelensky’s hand was seriously weakened by the actions of Trump and Giuliani. Trump had previously made it clear to Zelensky that he would get neither $391 million in military aid, nor a show of support from Trump, unless he publicly announced that he was launching an investigation into the conspiracy theory, as well as one against a political opponent of Trump.

Giuliani reiterated that threat just days before Zelensky’s meeting with Putin. He tweeted from Ukraine that Zelensky’s failure to follow through on the corruption investigations “will be a major obstacle to the U.S. assisting Ukraine.” Trump told reporters on December 7 that Giuliani was acting on his behalf. It appears that Trump is doubling down on the conspiracy theory, regardless of how seriously it wounds our strategic partner, Ukraine.
 

I give up

rainey

The time has come to throw in the towel. Yes. This is a rant.

We have three daughters in our family. All of them were once 16-years-old. Trump’s unbelievable attack on 16-year-old Greta Thunberg made me think of our own former 16-year-olds.

If someone - anyone - had publically gone after any one of them at anytime in any place, I’d have cleaned his clock on the spot! Never mind the Asperger’s Syndrome. Just the thought of a demented, immoral, vacuous, ego-ridden, lying son-of-a-bitch shaming the Office of the President of the United States by attacking a child brings on a level of hatred I’ve never felt before.

God knows, I’ve tried to hold out hope someone - ANYONE - in Republican “leadership” would reach a point where someone - ANYONE - would take a stand opposing the racist, lying misogynist in the White House. It hasn’t happened. And, based on the deafening silence after this most recent hateful tirade, it ain’t gonna happen!

I was raised in a good Republican home. An Eisenhower Republican home. Some of my earliest memories are of Republicans, both local and in Congress. Some of my earliest use of the voting franchise was for Republicans. The GOP was part of my growing up.

Now, I’ve become an Independent and have voted for a goodly number of Democrats. I’ve held out hope for the Republican Party that the whole bunch was just “going through a phase” and would eventually come to their senses.

I give up!

There are - give or take - about 215 Republicans in Congress. They outrightly control half of Capitol Hill. About 215. And not one - not ONE - of any seniority can sound a moral alarm and say to the rest of us “This is wrong?” Not ONE?

Now, the Republican Senate Majority Leader says he’s “working closely with the White House” and assures us Trump “will not be removed from office” regardless of the Articles of Impeachment adopted by the House. He may even be acquitted! So much for the Constitutional requirements of his office. So much for the oath he took as a Senator. So much for the juror’s oath before the trial.

Something of a systemic cancer has metastasized in the elected GOP body politic. The anti-deficit, limited government, lower taxes, more individual freedom party has done a l-80. None of those qualities - not one - can still honestly be offered by Republican candidates.

They’ve driven deficits to record highs. They’ve used government to invade the lives of their perceived “enemies.” They’re squandering taxes with massive giveaways to the rich. They’ve deprived thousands of freedom-seeking immigrants of their legal rights. They’ve jailed thousands of innocents. Even children stripped from their parents.

The GOP has stood mute as Trump has intimidated and threatened. They’ve tried again and again to take access to life-saving medical care and health insurance from millions of Americans. They’ve allowed the most corrupt, inexperienced and arrogant presidential cabinet in history to savage the environment, stymie science, deny realities of climate change and slash programs that have adversely affected the lives of millions.

And one more thing: the 60-million or so Americans who look the other way, abiding such behavior while supporting this outrage. The 60-million or so who can swallow what the Republican Party has become under Trump and still waste their precious vote no matter the moral and civic devastation being wrought by him and his accomplices.

I’m sick to death of hearing phony Republican/phony Christian “moralists” weeping and tearing their clothing over abortion while standing silent as children by the thousands are locked in cages without the care you’d give a serial killer on death row. Save the seed but, once born, they’re someone else’s problem. What the Hell is “Christian” about that?

Yes, this is a rant. But, it’s also a statement of total frustration and condemnation of an entire political party unwilling to act responsibly - much less live the oath of office all have sworn to - in the face of an abominable, amoral, racist demagogue.

The Republican Party as we’ve known it - the party of conservatism, thrift, moral value and limited government - is no more. Current members of Congress have betrayed the trust of voters who bought the promises and rhetoric of previous elections. There are no more Rockefellers, Eisenhowers, Doles, Goldwaters, Bakers, McCains. Just a bunch of moral cowards lacking the courage - or even respectable decency - to “walk the talk” of their sacred oaths.

Rant over. And so, too, respect for a party of voiceless, morally vagrant, cowardly, self-serving national embarrassment.
 

On Warren’s wealth tax

mckee

“Congress! Congress! Don’t tax me --
“Tax that fellow behind the tree”

--- Anon, circa 1930

Elizabeth’s plan sounds so reasonable, how could anyone find fault with it? A static wealth tax on the super-rich of a few pennies per year on every dollar over $50 million. Come on, who can really find fault with just a couple of pennies from the super wealthy?

The unsavory part of her argument on this issue lies in her promise that no tax increase in other taxes now being paid by the middle class will be necessary to pay for any of her social programs because they will all be financed in the future by the taxes on the super-rich. This is demonstrably not true.

The whole idea of a wealth tax has the super-rich-howling like mashed cats, and has the Republicans from edge to edge with their hair on fire. But her plan is also opposed by a fair number of middle-of-the-road economists, scholars, and tax professionals for the very sound reasons that it would have a repressive impact upon the economy, that it cannot be counted on to produce consistent revenue streams into the future, and that it would be extraordinarily difficult and expensive to administer and enforce.

Let’s take a look at these reasons one at a time:

The Penn-Wharton Budget Model (University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business) estimated that the wealth tax proposal would cause the nation’s annual economic growth to decrease by 0.2 percentage points each year over ten years, according to a New York Times report. The PWBM was previously applied to Trump’s 2017 tax cut, were it predicted that the cuts would increase economic growth by 0.06 percentage points annually over ten years – a very low figure that did not please the Trump Whitehouse. The model reports that Elizabeth’s wealth tax would be three times more impactful than Trump’s tax cuts, but in the opposite direction. Thud.

Taxing the entirety of one’s wealth by a fixed rate that is anywhere close to the expected ROI (return on investment) from that wealth will, because of normal fluctuations in the economy and over time, inevitably erode the base wealth. Consider for example, according to Forbes, the average ROI for all investment income for fiscal 2018 was 4.8%; the ROI of huge fortunes tend to fall with the range of national averages. If Elizabeth’s tax were in place for this year, her proposed top rate of 6% on billionaires would wipe out the year’s income and erode the base of every fortune with an actual ROI for the year in the range of the year’s 4.8% average. Every year the actual ROI fell below the fixed rate of tax, wealth would be eroded. Further, once it is gone, a recovery to par or above the next year will not return the base to the previous figure.

Bernie touts this aspect as a positive feature of his plan, not a bug. He proposes a maximum tax rate of 8% on wealth over $10 billion, and predicts s that the wealth of billionaires will be reduced by half within 15 years. Bernie wants the super-rich class to eventually disappear and his plan is truly aimed at redistribution of wealth through taxation.

An aspect more practical and easier to understand is the expense and difficulty in administering and enforcing a wealth tax. Although we rely upon self-reporting for income taxes, the process is aided greatly because most income is also measured and reported by third-party sources. Our employers and all manner of individuals and businesses we are in contact with are all obligated to report to the government when substantial income is paid over to us – and in the case of employment, to withhold and remit directly to the IRS an estimated amount against the potential amounts due. This wide net of required reporting plus mandatory employee withholding make the cross checking of sources into a relatively simple matter and bring the overall administration and enforcement of the income tax laws a manageable endeavor.

The measurement and taxation of static wealth, however, is a different matter. The accumulation of wealth is a private matter, and there are few opportunities for reliable third-party reporting, as in the case of income. Consider the difficulties and expense in administering and collecting estate taxes when large estates are involved. In 2018, the IRS audited 1283 returns of estates in excess of $10 million.

It often takes years to complete and close a single estate return that satisfies everyone from the administrators of the estate to the beneficiaries to the taxing authorities. Given the estimate of over 75,000 families with wealth in excess of $50 million, and a target for compliance of auditing one-third of the wealth tax returns filed, this means there will be somewhere around 25,000 wealth tax returns to be audited every year - an impossibility with the IRS at present staff levels, None of the candidates estimate how large the IRS would have to become to service the requirements of the wealth tax returns, or the expense of it all.

Nor do the candidates seriously discuss the efforts and counter measures that will be required to stave off the armies of sophisticated CPAs, lawyers and tax professionals who will come forward seeking ways to avoid or defer the imposition of taxes. An article in a recent on-line journal on tax accounting estimated (with some degree of anticipation, to be sure) that preparation of annual returns for the super-rich who are subjected to the wealth tax proposed by Elizabeth or Bernie could easily exceed $150,000 per return per year. The expected hoopla that will be created when this process has to be repeated for the tip-top of the super-rich every year boggles.

In 1990, twelve of the 34 nations of the free market countries of Europe had in place some form of wealth tax. Today, only four retain this type of tax. According to an NPR report, the countries which abandoned their form of wealth tax did so in the main because (a) they were too tough to administer and too expensive to enforce, (b) too many rich people were fleeing the country and (c) they did not bring in the amounts of revenue (when compared to the cost of administration) sufficient to justify the problems.

Elizabeth estimates that her wealth tax will produce $2.75 trillion over ten years. Bernie says the tax will result in the wealth of billionaires being reduced by half over 15 years. We cannot have it both ways. The inevitable result, once the wealth base begins to be seriously eroded, is that revenues from the tax will begin to dwindle and there will be a need to seek other sources to sustain the social programs.

Final conclusion? If the objective is redistribution of wealth, Elizabeth’s tax is a mechanism that will probably contribute to that goal. If the objective is to develop a steady, dependable source of revenue for the multitude of social programs that are being proposed, this new tax will face many problems. Either way, Elizabeth will have a difficult time with this issue in the general election.
 

A bad time for truth

johnsonlogo1

I came of age in politics when it was considered a sin – a near mortal sin – to be caught in a lie or to be deemed guilty of a flip-flop. Now shameless lying and blatant position shifting are at the center of American politics.

It is a bad, awful, distressing time for facts. Everywhere you look politicians are shading and shifting or more often bald faced lying and changing positions for political advantage.

Nowhere is this denial of facts more obvious than Republican efforts to shuffle off the extent to which Russian influence has come to rest at the center of American politics. Republican senators and members of Congress regularly repeat Kremlin talking points on national television. The attorney general dismisses his own Justice Department inspector general’s report that concluded that the 2016 counter intelligence investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign was justified. And on the very day articles of impeachment are prepared against the president, Trump invites the Russian foreign minister to the Oval Office, a blatant display either of the president’s hubris or proof that he really is under Vladimir Putin’s thrall.

It is worth remembering, which is difficult to do amid the chaos that has marked American politics for the last three years, that the trail that leads to Trump’s seemingly inevitable impeachment by the House of Representatives always arcs back to Moscow, and not the one on the Palouse.

Trump will be impeached, of course, if not convicted for his efforts to bribe the president of Ukraine into announcing an investigation into a political rival. The operative word here is “announcing” since Trump could care less about political corruption in Ukraine. He merely wants a Twitter bat to swing repeatedly at Joe Biden, an outcome he has perhaps already succeeded in achieving. The mere announcement of investigations could be used, in the absence of real facts, to bludgeon a political opponent in the same way Hillary Clinton’s emails drove the narrative for Trump in 2016.

But the real connecting tissue here is Russia. Let’s review.

In 2014, Russia “annexed” Crimea, a part of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Subsequently pro-Russian forces invaded eastern Ukraine. The Obama Administration led a unanimous Europe in condemning these actions, forced Russia out of the bloc of leading economic nations and imposed the first of a series of sanctions. Obama later sanctioned Russia for election interference.

For Putin these moves against the old Ukrainian Soviet republic, as Konstantin Skorkin wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, “signaled Russia’s rebirth as a great power, ready to ignore world opinion in the pursuit of its national interests.”

Enter the whole Trump-Russia thing, which is explicitly connected to Ukraine in a dozen very specific ways.

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump told an interviewer in 2016 as he echoed Kremlin talking points. Earlier this year Trump bizarrely claimed Crimea “was sort of taken away from President Obama,” effectively absolving Putin of his obvious responsibility for an invasion and the resulting deaths of 10,000 Ukrainians.

The Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election makes clear – you really should read it – that Russia broadly and blatantly interference with the election to assist Trump and that he encouraged and welcomed the helped. Putin has admitted he was happy to see Trump elected knowing he would be a soft touch for continued Russian interference in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 aimed at signaling the incoming administration would work to ease Obama’s sanctions related to Ukraine. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in jail for, among other things, money laundering related to work he did for pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, almost certainly at Putin’s behest.

When Trump first met with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office shortly after he had fired the FBI director, he boasted that James Comey’s dismissal took the heat off him. For good measure Trump then disclosed national security secrets to his Russian friends. That information was subsequently leaked to the Washington Post and Idaho’s Jim Risch – bizarrely is the word here too – blamed the leakers and said Trump was within his rights to cavalierly declassify secret information. Risch was correct that Trump has that right, but doing so doesn’t make it right.

In the summer of 2018 Trump met face-to-face with Putin in Helsinki and when asked if he believed Russia had interfered in the election the American president sided with the former KGB operative over the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence officials. He then spun a word salad of misdirection and lies about the FBI, “the server” and Clinton’s emails, a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump eventually connected back to… Ukraine.

This chain of events, a Manchurian Candidate-like screenplay, rolls off the backs of Putin Republicans like water off a duck. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor: Russian disinformation clings to these Trumpian disciples like breadcrumbs on Chicken Kiev.

Now we daily confront the systemic lying by Republican elected officials who join Trump in advancing a totally fanciful narrative that Ukraine, the country Putin continues to war with, was really responsible for American election interference. Congressman Russ Fulcher has been sipping this crazy conspiracy Kool Aid lately, suggesting without a thimble of evidence, that former vice president Joe Biden is corrupt and that’s why Trump was justified in pressuring the Ukrainian government.

You’re left asking – and every member of Congress should be forced to answer – who really benefits from this embrace of Russian propaganda inserted into the American political bloodstream? Who benefits from advancing a false narrative about Ukraine and working to weaken a new pro-western government there? Who benefits from efforts to delegitimize career diplomatic officials, intelligence agencies and the press that has uncovered much of this sordid mess? Who benefits when Republicans like Fulcher side with Russia over the Constitution and labels an impeachment inquiry, one obstructed from the get go by the president, as a “shameful, sham of a coup.”

How did the Republican Party get from Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “the evil empire” – the Soviet Union in the 1980s – to the embrace of a president who has courted, praised and enabled a Russian president who was once an intelligence agent of that evil empire and today seeks to rebuild it?

The times are ripe with irony. The party that once prided itself on tough-minded reality in opposition to brutal authoritarians now celebrates a homegrown con man who embodies the kind of lawless thuggery Reagan once condemned.

Congressman Mike Simpson, the last Republican I would expect to embrace Russian fables, lamented Trump’s looming impeachment by saying, “today is a dark day for our country.” Simpson is right, but for all the wrong reasons.
 

Self-reports

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On his long-running radio program, Garrison Keillor said that at his mythical Lake Wobegon “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

In the recently-released Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the state Department of Education, you can find some of the same self-perception. Asked to describe their academic grades over the last year, 43.9 percent of students questioned said “mostly As” and nearly four-fifths said “mostly As or Bs.” Either something is a little off in the scholastic grading process (a possibility) or the students are not totally reliable - maybe over-optimistic - self-reporters.

The report compiles self-reports across a range of areas, some of them involving activities that can put the students at serious personal risk. It says up front, usefully, that “The YRBS does have several limitations which may impact the reliability and usefulness of the results. The 2019 Idaho survey is administered to students enrolled in one of Idaho’s traditional public or charter schools. Many teens who are at the highest risk for unhealthy behaviors may have dropped out of school and therefore are not represented by these results. In addition, respondents of self-reported surveys may have a tendency to under-report behaviors that are socially undesirable, unhealthy, or illegal (bullying, drug, alcohol and tobacco use, sexual assault, etc.) and over report behaviors which are socially desirable (exercise frequency, healthy diet, seatbelt use, etc.).”

In other words, there’s some tendency to make oneself look a little better in the survey. It’s a normal reaction; many adult poll respondents do the same. But it may have led to some results that could catch the attention of a number of adults. About a fourth of the students reported themselves as overweight, for example, but 44.7 percent were “trying to lose weight.” There are several possible reasons for the discrepancy, but few of them are comforting.

And there were some encouraging numbers. Barely a quarter of the students reported using alcohol in the previous month, for example; that number historically likely has been much higher; binge drinking rates have been dropping, slowly. Student tobacco use is reported as falling by more than half in Idaho in the last decade. Fewer than a third report having had sexual intercourse; that number has been dropping in Idaho as it has in national trend lines. So too the self-report of 23 percent of female high school students of having “experience[d] sexual dating violence one or more times during the past 12 months.”

The report does raise some red flags in areas where the numbers of problems nonetheless runs high.

In the area of “unintentional and intentional injuries,” a number of reported behaviors came in reassuringly low. (Just 3.8 percent reported driving after drinking alcohol and 7.1 percent reported carrying a weapon on school property in the previous month - or is that encouraging?) But nearly half of all students reported texting or emailing while driving: Awfully risky activity, especially for new drivers.

And this felt eerie as well: 38.9 percent said they “felt sad or hopeless for 2 or more weeks in a row so that they stopped doing some usual activities during the past 12 months.” That struck me as a high number and it should spook a lot of parents, especially if it’s actually on the low end of actual student experience.

The numbers have been changing with time. People whose high school days ran a generation or two ago could have pointed to problem areas then too, maybe more or less serious in nature. Whichever, you can say this about them: The issues in high school are different these days. As always. Reports like this are worth the read for helping us keep up.