Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “McKee”

An unmistakable gesture is needed


One of Trump’s enormous mistakes was unilaterally dumping into the trash the finely negotiated Iran nuclear pact, officially termed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or J.C.P.O.A., that Secretary of State John Kerry had accomplished in an astonishing diplomatic coup never achieved before or since. Trump declared that the U.S. was pulling out of the pact, declaring it to be the worst deal ever. He imposed draconian economic sanctions upon Iran to force them to return to table to negotiate an agreement more to Trump’s liking.

Nothing happened the way Trump wanted. Iranian leaders ignored Trump’s threats and refused to consider renegotiating the deal while the sanctions were in place. Relations with the U.S. steadily soured as Iran has stepped up aggressive actions in the Middle East and appeared ready to return to production of nuclear weaponry. Our European allies largely ignored the U.S. sanctions and Trump’s threats and have continued as though the pact was fully operational. Russia and China have distanced themselves from the fray and are ostensibly trying to appear aloof, while working for their own interests in the shadows. The Middle East economy is in chaos. In the four short years of the Trump administration, the world situation with Iran has moved from one of easing tension and cautious optimism to one approaching the rim of disaster.

Prior to Trumps precipitous action. relations with the United States had been improving. Under the leadership of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president who took over from the radical iconoclast Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, Iran’s civilian economy and its relations with its European neighbors was improving while its hardline military presence was softening. Although the country was also under the joint-but-supreme control of the rigidly militant Ayatollah Khamenei under its dual-headed government which no one in the West appears to understand, President Rouhani was making headway in many areas. Trump’s actions re-invigorated the position of the hard liners, making Rouhani’s tasks of any further improvement in relations with the West all but impossible. Rouhani’s term is up in June and the next five years depends greatly on whether the moderates can hold on to Rouhani’s position.

Biden has been tip-toeing around trying to get all the players back to a table somewhere to work out a solution. Iran refuses to agree to reopening negotiations so long as the economic sanctions are in place. Biden is being pulled by traditional diplomats who insist that any concessions by the U.S. must be met by reciprocal concessions from its adversary. The advice is that the U.S. should never concede one iota of any position taken until and unless there is a reciprocal and satisfactory concession towards the U.S. demands; that there must be a quid pro quo that we approve of. The result so far has been a frustrating stand-off, with no progress on the U.S. vs. Iran fronts and an impatient Europe getting more nervous as the war clouds of impending disaster continue to mount.

The answer seems obvious – at least to get the thing moving in the right direction. Biden should just undo what Trump did. Lift the sanctions and declare that the U.S. is once again a member of J.C.P.O.A. He can do this unilaterally with the stroke of a pen. It does not require Congressional approval. There in nothing written that says it has to have the approval of the other members of the J.C.P.O.A, meaning there is no need to get diplomats around any table somewhere. Just declare it done.

Do not misunderstand. The J.C.P.O.A. is not the best deal in the world, nor was it intended to be. It is full of holes and fails to address many problems that are in desperate need of solution. But the pact is a start; it is a beginning that no one thought possible, a first step that could lead to other actions. What is more, it had the support of every world power in the industrialized world. It was a remarkable diplomatic feat. Throwing it away because it was not good enough was just plain dumb.

There is no guarantee that trying to paste the thing back together again will work. But for sure it cannot make it worse, and the diplomatic symbolism of the gesture would be unmistakable.

Is disaster inevitable?


The depth and breadth of the situation we are in is staggering. The damage already done is so invasive and the remedies we have attempted are so inartful and ineffective that it may be too late. Some hoped that as soon as Trump was off the stage, we would come to our senses and normalcy would begin to return. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is not to be.

We face a situation today where fully 50 million of us, if not more, are convinced that the recent election was a fraud, the product of a massive conspiracy by the Democrats to steal the presidency from the rightful Republican incumbent in favor of a senile, incompetent has-been. What is worse, this huge segment of our electorate refuses to accept the lawful recourses provided through investigation and reports by local election officials, audits and recounts by state authorities, and the unanimous judicial declarations flowing from over 60 separate lawsuits filed in different federal and state courts. Instead, and inexplicably, all of these resources are now considered part of the conspiracy.

The U.S. Senate – once considered to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, the pride of our democracy and a paragon of legislative excellence – proved itself to have feet of clay when its members, facing a basic issue of patriotic duty versus personal interest, turned the recent impeachment effort into a partisan farce. Members of the Senate were not mere jurors, they were front-seat witnesses and very nearly victims. The House managers did an outstanding job of laying out the case for impeachment. The president’s lawyers presented a sophomoric defense that bewildered their profession and embarrassed their cause. And yet, fully half the Senate struggled incomprehensibly with the decision.

We can see now that the invasion of the Capitol on of January 6 was not an unexpected surprise, but the intended result of a deliberate campaign to undermine the basic tenets of our democracy – being the principles of an unyielding commitment to majority rule, of equal justice under the law, of the sanctity of the vote, and of a universal demand for the truth, enforced and guaranteed through an independent judiciary, and all enabled and protected by a wide and unrestricted free press. Every one of these fundamental and essential concepts of our democracy have been shredded incomprehensibly by the direct efforts of our past president.

We first saw our demand for truth begin to soften and wither when Trump began his first campaign for the presidency in 2015, filling his campaign with outrageous claims and promises. The media, faced with the 24-hour news cycle, covered everything Trump said. Trump was not taken seriously at first; he was considered a side-show, a carnival event with no chance of winning. Perhaps because of this, the template was originally laid for no critical comment from the press, just “accurate reportage” with the obligation to defend left to others.

Initially, Trumps’ charges were shrugged off as exaggerated campaign issues from an outlier. It did not matter that Trump had taken the notion of exaggerating campaign issues to an outrageous level previously unheard of. Most thought he was running as a stunt and would pull out before getting close to any real heat. Others were convinced that the party insiders would not allow him to get too close to the prize; that there were ways to derail this ill-fitting candidate before he became a real problem.

By the time the party woke up to what was happening, it was too late. With all the reasonable alternatives knocked out early, by May of 2016 the party faced the predicament of nothing but Trump or unsavory choices for the final run. The party grudgingly accepted the inevitable and came out of the convention fully believing that the year was lost.

But the machinery behind Trump knew what it was doing. The central task was to erase the credibility of the national press. When the press finally woke up and began inserting immediate corrections to lies and distortions, Trump did not concede error or retract what he had said but instead doubled down, repeating everything and blaming the accusers. The notion was that it was not Trump who was stretching the truth, it was the national media – all of whom were left-wing communists bent on destroying the county. Sean, Tucker, Rush, and all their ilk, lapped it up. Talk radio thrived. Fox News capitalized on the wedges being driven down the middle of political news. The Washington Post began counting the lies Trump told – to a number that eventually reached an astonishing middle-five-figure total. This was of no matter, of course, for Trump’s followers did not read the Washington Post.

What was at work here was, and is, a principle directly out of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda master allied with Adolph Hitler in the 1930s: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Trump’s drumbeat was paying off. Suddenly, we were dealing with “alternative facts” concerning the economy, health care, taxation, immigration - and election returns. We were told that these were not really lies or distortions or untruths – just a different way of looking at things. From the right instead of the left.

To our great dismay, these painful devices began to work exactly as predicted. In May of 2020, Trump started the theme that the election was going to be rigged. He kept this lie up without a break, and without a single fact to back it up, straight through to November. It was exactly the same theme that he ran in 2016, when he first ran against Hillary. But in 2020, Joe Biden did not run into any last-minute grenades, and he never took his eye off the critical battleground states. The result was a convincing win in total votes, including most of the critical background states, giving Biden a solid majority of the necessary electoral college.

Out came the “alternative facts” that Trump had been drumming into his core supporters for years. The Democrats had stolen the election. No matter that the media reported there to be no evidence of any wrongdoing, the national press was lying, and “everybody knows” that they were not to be trusted. No matter that every time Trump went to court over an election issue, being over 60 times in six states, the judges found there to be no case wrongdoing. Again, to the core of Trump supporters, the courts were incompetent, they did not look at the evidence, and “everybody knows” that the judges were not to be trusted. Trump had been this for years with no one seriously challenging him, and his efforts were paying huge dividends.

Because of Trump’s drumbeat of lies, we now find a furious segment of the Republican party, convinced beyond reason that the Democrats rigged the vote and the electoral college result against Trump and stole the election he had won. The same group now believes that the state election authorities are incompetent, the courts are corrupt, and Congress is ineffective in correcting the wrong.

This massive number of believers, who might be as many as 74 million strong if all who voted for Trump are counted, are writing and talking incessantly. They are not backing down. They are not coming around to reason. The Tweeter and Facebook rules will not contain them. Their declared objective is to regain control – not by the respected democratic means of open elections and majority rule, but by the direct application of force. Their text messages are filled with reference to military action, martial law, and armed protest. Signs of their efforts are everywhere. Witness the increasing number of death threats to election officials, the kidnapping attempt on the Michigan governor, and the demonstrations bristling with assault rifles and body armor that are springing up in state capitols all around. Is anyone still surprised at the armed invasion of our national capitol building in January?

What is next? And where will it end?

All uphill from here


Let me be clear: the election process was not perfect, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether the individual instances of errors and irregularities that would inevitably have occurred in any election of this size can be combined into some sort of massive, criminal scheme carried out under the direction of the Democratic Party that would have impacted the outcome of the entire election adversely to the re-election of Donald Trump?

This is what Trump is claiming. It should be considered complete baloney by all quarters, but it is not.

The growing emphasis on one-man, one-vote, the insistence on greater transparency, and the advent of technology, television, and the 24-hour news cycle have combined to virtually put an end to the corrupt political practices that spotted former times of our election history. In a recent study titled “The Truth About Voter Fraud” by Justin Levitt, published in 2007 by the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, the author concluded after a lengthy investigation covering all states that by any measure, voter irregularities have become extraordinarily rare. While he found allegations of voter improprieties were common, investigation invariably revealed that most claims were without basis or were greatly exaggerated. The author concluded that “[M]uch evidence that purports to reveal voter fraud can be traced to causes far more logical.…” The cataloged reasons found by the author were clerical or typographical errors, lack of uniformity between voter rolls when compared with other sources, and just plain innocent mistakes. The 2020 election appears to fit his conclusions.

In Trump’s thirty-some lawsuits challenging the vote in six states, handfuls of anecdotal instances of alleged irregularities were presented with the argument that they were representative of a wide-spread fraudulent conspiracy in the election process. However, when the affidavits were examined in detail, the anecdotes recited did not include any evidence of any connection between the incidents being described and the Democratic Party organization, or on the existence of any overall plan or scheme, or contain any of the specific elements necessary to prove fraud.

According to the Washington Post summaries, most of the instances reported as irregularities were technical mistakes that were caught and corrected in due course before the final count was determined. Other incidents were based on hearsay reports from unidentified workers to election observers rather than from the workers themselves pertaining to optional processes allowed by law and being taken in some precincts but not in others, or of irrelevant confrontations with the Republican observers. None went beyond describing an action the writer thought seemed peculiar with the writer’s conclusion that things were improper. In most instances, the affidavit writers were Republican observers who were untrained and unfamiliar with the processes they were observing. When examined, the circumstances mostly turned out to be normal steps in the complicated processes involved. In any event, the isolated Instances, even if illegal, would not be evidence that the entire process was tainted absent additional proof. Collecting a large number of such individual instances does not improve the proof; it is still only evidence of separate, individual incidents.

Republicans argue that statistical results were out of whack with what had been experienced in previous elections, and that this was circumstantial evidence from which one could assume irregularities from the numbers. However, in this case, the circumstances are completely explainable. 2020 was an extraordinary election because of the Covid-19 pandemic and because of the political spin placed on mail-in voting by Trump. Early polls and surveys indicated that a huge number of Democrats – many times more than in previous years – intended to vote by mail. Trump, on the other hand, was castigating the mail-in voting process and Republicans, by and large, were being encouraged to vote in person. Everyone – even Republican sources – predicted that the mail-in vote would heavily favor the Democrats. Everyone – even the Republicans – were aware that the early vote counts would not be indicative of the final totals until the mail-in vote was counted. The resulting returns happened almost exactly as predicted, with the totals being very close to that predicted by the pre-election polls. The law does not allow one to choose a result from circumstantial evidence that can be fully explained more than one way.

What is missing from all of the affidavits surveyed so far, and all of the arguments advanced in court so far, is direct proof of any sort of actual common plan or scheme by the Democrats that could tie the disparate collection of irregularities together, or any proof of fraudulent intent on the part of any Democratic leaders in directing or arranging for the irregularities at any of the voting levels involved. Even if statistical proof of irregularities existed (which it actually does not) or could be taken as valid in questioning an election (which it actually cannot) it would not help establish the specific criminal elements of the massive corruption Trump is alleging. Statistics may not be used to prove the necessary specific criminal intent or the existence of a plan or scheme, which are the necessary elements of a fraudulent conspiracy. There are no assumptions or presumptions here – it takes direct evidence of the wrongful acts or circumstantial evidence that cannot be explained any other way.

The deficiencies in these affidavits as admissible evidence in court was obvious and was why they were found unacceptable in every case by the several courts in all six states where litigation has been attempted. It should be noted that several instances were findings by trial judges recently appointed by Trump. In no case has any court found there to be any proof of fraudulent intent on the part of the Biden Campaign or the leaders of the Democratic party, nor has there been any direct proof of any agreements between or among these entities pertaining to the election process.

In fact, and in the real world, criminal conspiracies are almost always broken up by either turning an insider into a prosecution witness or by inserting an undercover agent into the operation who works his way into a position to uncover the entire operation. Without insider testimony, these cases are very difficult to put together and try. In the election cases, and despite the fact that the Department of Justice, the F.B.I. and John Durham, the special prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General, have all been working on election problems for over a year, there is no suggestion of any leaks that have occurred and are being followed up, or of any knowledgeable insider who has come forward with an offer of testimony, or of an undercover agent embedded in any state operation. Attorney General Barr conceded in a recent interview that neither the Department of Justice nor the F.B.I. had any evidence of any fraud in any of the counting that would alter the course of the election.

Nevertheless, Trump continues to maintain his drumbeat claim and that he actually won and that the entire election was a massive, fraudulent conspiracy manufactured by the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign. He knows that if he keeps repeating his claims over and over again, eventually somebody will begin accepting them as true. And this is exactly what is happening.

According to a recent post-election poll, 77% of Trump voters believe as a fact that Trump won the election and that Biden’s victory is the result of a fraudulent conspiracy by the Democrats. Factoring this percentage against Trump’s total vote means that fully 57 million adult American voters believe the election to have been fraudulent.

Most of us will heave a sigh of relief when President-Elect Biden finally takes over in January, but unless something changes, it is still going to be all uphill.

It ain’t over yet


We are going to be dissecting this thing for years. How could they have voted for him after what came out about him? Where did all those votes come from? Why wasn’t it a landslide all the way down the ticket?

The reason is in some basic, fundamental principles of propaganda. That we listen selectively and hear what we want to hear. That a proposition repeated over and over as being true is eventually accepted as true. And that we tend to remember the first thing we hear about a subject and the last – primacy and recency – giving lesser significance to information gleaned in the middle. Trump understands these concepts thoroughly and uses them all with abandon to drive home what Kellyanne Conway referred to at one time as the alternative truth. It is the practice of coming out early with outrageous comments about adversaries or events, and then maintaining a drumbeat of the same statement consistently – no matter what the forthcoming explanations might be – to the very end, all through the same outlets and all intended for the same ears.

In the case of every Democratic candidate to cross Trump in any way, he gave those willing to listen no option of what to recall first or last. With the barrage of words Trump maintained, and the media’s practice of reporting every word he said, the first and last thing anyone was going hear would be Trump’s claim.

It did not matter that his words were lies, or were completely wrong, or had been thoroughly rebutted. Those in Trump’s base, depending on background, education, position in life, attitudes of the day and feeling towards the speaker, listened selectively. They heard what they wanted to hear. Further, and as the propagandist knows, repetition can easily substitute for credibility. The more times a proposition is presented as true, the greater the chance that it will eventually be accepted as true. And while Trump was driving these messages home to the base, the general electorate was subjected to the same messages, albeit not with the same level of intensity. But the same principles work for everyone, capturing many who either left their guard down or were not listening intently.

Trump maintained for months that the only way the Republicans could lose the election was if it were fixed. The claims were dutifully reported widely by the mainstream press and all the news networks. The reaction of many was to roll their eyes, and mutter, “There he goes again,” recognizing the hype and not falling sway to it. It is only now, after the election, that defenders are coming forward with the explanation that there is no evidence to any of the claims being made. But this comes after months of the drumbeat claims of fraud and corruption.

Now, when the media repeats Trump’s more outrageous claims, someone might add, “But there is no evidence of this accusation.” But this is too late. Those listening carefully would correctly take away that there is no evidence of any corruption or fraud in the election. But too many do not listen carefully and might well remember – through primacy, recency or repetition, all the claims that have been made during the months and months before, and - despite the cautionary warning – accept that there is something wrong with the election process.

Put some number of millions of these listeners behind a TV set with nothing but Fox News, or give them radios only tuned to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Mark Levine, and they will not only remember the claim as told, they will believe it, and be advocates for doing something about it.

Trump’s impact is going to be with us for a long, long time.

What a mess


Our government is in dire straits, with an impossibly arrogant president so deep in corruption, incompetence, and ignorance that the foundations of our democracy have been laid bare and are actually beginning to wither. He has managed to circumvent or stymie the intricate network of checks and balances put into place to prevent just this circumstance. The national press has been rendered essentially impotent and fully half the country is either caught up in the machinations spewing forth from the Whitehouse or is just plain oblivious to the happenings.

We are so far adrift in our foreign affairs, and so completely cut off from our allies and trading partners, that we are on the verge of being considered irrelevant by the rest of the world. We have become a selfish bully internationally, tolerated and placated by our friends and manipulated into atrocious mistakes by our more devious enemies. We are no longer respected for the examples we set, admired for the skill of our diplomacy, or trusted in the use of our military power. We are no longer considered a leader in the industrialized world.

Our Congress is in shambles. The Republican members have led the Senate to abandon its principled independence under the Constitution and to become hostage to an autocratic bully who demands personal loyalty and absolute obedience no matter what the cause. The result is a dysfunctional body that has failed to uphold its responsibility of oversight over the executive branch, a necessary element of the checks and balances created by the founders.

The most disturbing development is the complete abrogation of any respect for the truth. From a not-distant time when the worst thing a high-level political leader could be called out for was a deliberate lie, we now accept, acknowledge and report on “alternative facts,” as though truth were merely an option to be decided relatively by the desirability of the position taken. The president’s penchant for distorting the facts is to the point where the press has given up trying to keep up with the truth; instead, they report his words verbatim and then offer non-committal scores on how many lies he has told – with a number that now reaches into the thousands.

The necessity of replacing Trump this November could not be more apparent. The impeachment is behind us, and history will eventually tell whether the Senate trial was just a mistake or an outright debacle. Things are bound to get worse, and if Trump is re-elected, they will get much worse. He is already testing the concepts of “president for life” with his base at rallies and in casual conversations, and the cognoscenti foresee obvious signs of his intentions to seek a way around the 22d Amendment if he is elected to a second term. We are literally facing the possibility of a dictatorship being forced upon us.

Against this background, the Democratic Party gives every appearance of doing its best to screw things up. The party is made up of so many factions that working towards a consensus is proving to be a Sisyphean task – and one that appears out of the grasp of current party leadership. The run-up to the formal campaign has been an unorganized cluster-bleep, with no guidance from the DNC. The Iowa curtain-raiser was a disaster, and the DNC and its chairman are getting soundly roasted for it. Party management continues to maintain that the open and unfettered competition will produce the strongest candidate – which sounds fine in theory. In practice, the number of candidates running against each other present a substantial risk of the predictable infighting chewing up the winner of the primaries so badly that he or she will not recover in time to win the general.

From jaundiced view outside the party, by the undecided, independents, and disenchanted Republicans, being the potential voters who have to be corralled in the general election if Trump is to be beaten, the candidates currently leading in the race to face Trump in the fall look like (1) an over-the-hill avowed socialist, (2) an ultra-liberal technocrat so deep in the weeds that she keeps getting in her own way; (3) a nimble former Navy lieutenant, too soon out of college, who managed to become mayor of Podunk before coming out; (4) a good natured has-been who is telephoning in his third try for the job, and (5) an unknown and untested senator from Wisconsin. Wisconsin!

Inside the party, the youth are behind Sanders, but the older voters are put way off by his avowed socialism. Further, too many women blame him for Hillary’s calamity last time out. The far left are enamored with Warren but the moderates consider her a screwball. The blacks and browns won’t touch Mayor Pete yet, and Biden, who started out as the top dog, is really the second choice of even his closest supporters – he’s OK but they still keep looking around. His campaign is currently taking on water, and unless he’s got a rabbit in a hat somewhere, even a landslide in South Carolina may not be enough. Klobuchar did well in Iowa and got a huge bump in New Hampshire, but it is not known yet whether she can maintain and continue to grow on her recent successes.

In the second tier, Yang and Bennett finally tossed in theirs towels, but there are still the two billionaires, both late arrivals, who have been pouring their own money into the melee. If it were not for the money, they would be considered jokes. As it is, no one really knows yet what to make of them. The rest appear too far behind to have any chance.

Most Democrats will say that they can support any of the candidates up there, top tier or not, but that alone will not win the general. It has to be assumed that the Democrats will turn their own voters out in numbers to beat, or at least match, the turnout from the declared Republicans. The winner, then, is going to be determined by the key votes in the battleground states from the independents and disenchanted Republicans. That is going to take something more that party resolve.

This means the ideal candidate probably has to come from the middle. Best would be a moderate, acceptable to the progressives who will not drive off the youth, or a progressive, satisfactory to the moderates who will not drive off the elders. He or she will keep the non-white vote energized and the women fired up, will satisfy the unions without driving small business away, be able to sustain the withering attack that will come from big business and the hard right, and manage throughout to keep Trump safely tethered or in his cage. Sanders and Warren are too far left, Buttigieg cannot get the black and tan votes, Bloomberg is too old and is going to have trouble with the non-white vote on account of baggage from his time as mayor of NYC.

This probably means Biden, Klobuchar, Buttigieg if he solves his problem with the non-whites and can hold on to the evangelicals in the South once they realize he is gay, or Steyer, if he can solve the problem of name identification and the stigma of being a billionaire – and for all of them, that they can enchant or scare the youth vote into staying engaged and getting out to vote. If Bernie is tossed under the bus, this is going to be a tall order under the best of circumstances.

One can foresee a Democratic convention with three to five candidates going in, each with a share of the delegates but no clear front runner – a sight not seen since the 1950’s. If such should happen, it might be possible to run the convention in a constructive fashion, and come out with the entire party enthusiastically united behind the selection, but the risk is that the convention will divide itself into warring factions with the winner winding up not being the consensus leader but rather a compromise, mutually unsatisfactory to most, but with a good sized number walking away unsatisfied and planning on staying home. Which could be a disaster.

Fasten your seatbelts, everybody, it is going to be one hell of a ride.

On Warren’s wealth tax


“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.

An eye on the ball


When Will Rogers was asked about his politics over 90 years ago years ago, he replied, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” The truism persists to this day. As what may be the most important election of this century approaches, the Democratic candidates seem hell-bent on twisting themselves into pretzels trying to convince that they are sufficiently to the left and pure enough for the primary while avoiding any traps or dead ends that might sabotage their chances in the general election.

In the political polls published every few minutes, the top four candidates – Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg – are favored nationally by over 70% of those responding, with the rest of the pack splitting up less than 20% of the favorable responses. To make matters more complicated, and despite an already overcrowded menagerie of wannabes, two of the bottom layer now consist of latecomers Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer – billionaires both – who have begun throwing bundles of money into the works. Both have committed to putting their own money into the campaign, at least through the primaries, and are not dependent upon contributions. Whether money alone can catapult either into the top tier of candidates remains to be seen.

With a huge issue for Democrats being the search for a solution to the unsustainable shifting of wealth to the top 2%, with everyone focusing on the necessity of undoing the tax benefits and other devices Trump has granted to the super rich, and with the middle and lower classes continuing to see their shares dwindle and their futures becoming bleaker as the rich continue to become richer, it is difficult to understand how the Democratic party can be expected to follow either these two American oligarchs anywhere. Watch for the cognoscenti to have a field day dissecting the hoopla these two are going to cause.

Money, for everyone else, is a bugaboo. Three campaigns – Harris, Castro, and Booker - appear to be on or close to life support. Harris and Castro have overhauled their organizations, releasing staffers, and closing offices – almost always an indication of pending collapse. Booker, who cannot seem to get any traction, is running out of money and recently announced that he may not make the cut for the December debates. The newest entry, Deval Patrick, once the governor of Massachusetts, was all but invisible when he announced to nobody in particular in June that he was running. He is still all but invisible today, without even a dent in the polls and complaining that money sources are all dry or committed elsewhere.

The early poll numbers that appeared to put Yang in the running may have been the result of curiosity rather than genuine interest. There has been no sign of continued movement beyond his initial bump, which, with his internet savvy, he managed to engineer into participation in every debate until now. It does not appear that he will make the December cut. Yet he hangs on.

With her campaign stuck in neutral, with little money, and with no visible organization, Gabbard also hangs on. Her remarks and a recent personal visit to Syria’s Bashar al Assad generated blistering criticism from all quarters, and have left her without a single friendly face among the media. She is even losing ground in her home state, having triggered an aggressive primary opponent for her House seat. She recently announced she is giving up her House seat to concentrate on the presidential primary. When she does depart the campaign scene, it will be to a few months as a lame duck congresswoman and then to obscurity. Perhaps this is the reason she hangs on.

Of the original cast of over 22, Bennett, the senator from Colorado, continues to ride in the caboose with a skeleton staff, having but spending almost no money. He has not appeared for any of the debates except the first, but announced that he still expects to stay though New Hampshire – for some reason that is not readily apparent.

Of the crowd at the bottom – and excepting the two billionaires – only Klobuchar appears to be steadily rising from the deep anonymity where she started to a standing that now places her next in line in many polls, just below the top tier. She is demonstrating an ability to keep a steady eye on the middle of the road, where elections are actually won, she consistently remembers that the main objective is to beat Trump, and she steadfastly refuses to be drawn into any name calling or policy fights with other candidates. She raised a respectable $17.4 million as of September 30 and has made all the debates including December.

That leaves the big four – Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg - each dragging their own anchors, each with identifiable members of the commentariat who can be counted on for favorable but subtle coverage almost daily, and each followed by a noisy coterie of enthusiastic helper-outers from within the party faithful who are loudly proclaiming that their candidate is the only true way.

The problems of these four are mundane and legion. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” which is enough to scare the bejesus out of anybody over 50. Also, because the primaries are supposed to be selecting a Democrat to lead the party, it is a problem for many that and Bernie is not a Democrat. With Elizabeth it is that she sees a black-hearted Republican capitalist under every rock, and is convinced the only solution is government protection against everything. Mayor Pete is going to be a wonderful candidate – in about 10 more years. Except for the non-white vote, the fact that he is gay poses no risk to his election. The only area where objection will be found among white voters is with the evangelicals to the far right, and they are not going to vote for any damn Democrats anyway, so nothing is risked here. The non-white vote is another matter. No Democrat has won anything without carrying the non-white vote and Buttigieg has only 2% of this bloc at this time.

And that leaves Joe. He has been around longer than anyone, has made every mistake one can make, and has never received anything but lukewarm interest from the party poohbahs. Even when Joe is getting a friendly mention in the press, he gets an elbow. They always – always without exception – bring up one of Joe’s faux pas or gaffs or tangled-tongue mishaps as an aside to whatever actual story is being covered for the day. And yet, here he is. Despite all the baggage piled around him, Biden is on top of the pack of Democrats in the primaries where he has been since the beginning, and he is a clear leader in every measure of the general contest between any of the Democrats and Donald Trump.

If only the Democrats did not have to resolve the pesky policy decisions between the left and the more left and could simply declare that their primary and single objective was to beat Trump, preferably by a candidate with coattails sufficient to bring along the House and Senate. If that was only the objective here, there would probably be no question that Biden should be the candidate and that everybody else ought to get out of the way. The party could get behind Biden, and the general election against Trump could start right now.

Wait a minute. Isn’t that the number one objective right now? Doesn’t everything else pale by comparison to the mandatory, essential necessity of ousting Trump? If the Democrats can’t get this right in their primary elections, what are the chances that they won’t screw it up in the general?

The bully doubles down


Anybody remember Trump announcing that trade wars were easy and would be won quickly? This was over two years ago, and as we head toward the third full year of seriously compromised relations with China, is there anyone out there who still believes that?

Trump announced the imposition of an additional 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports, almost everything China imports to us in the area of consumer goods. This is on top of the 25% in tariffs he has already imposed, which will bring the total to 35% on most items. He repeats the completely false and misguided assertion that these tariffs are being paid by the Chinese, not us. In fact, and in most cases, the tariff is nothing more than a fancy sales tax imposed on top of the retail price and paid by the consumer.

Fox News faithfully repeats Trump’s moronic nonsense, and every Republican insider who should know better looks the other way. Treasury’s Mnuchin and Commerce’s Ross, who surely knows better, have kept their mouths firmly shut. Senator Risch and his foreign relations committee and Senator Wicker and his commerce committee remain silent.

Trump scoffs, and says the Chinese are having to absorb the cost through devaluing the yuan. This further demonstrates Trumps stunning lack of understanding of basic economics. Trump accuses China of manipulating the yuan not understanding that devaluation is the reverse of what a manipulator would attempt – it is going the wrong way. It is true that China raced to stabilize the yuan when the bottom dropped out, putting the floor at 6.99 yuan per dollar, but the fall itself was a market adjustment resulting from the ongoing trade war.

The only impact the fall of the yuan will have in the long run is to increase the inflation in China as the Chinese economy moves to absorb the deflation by raising prices. There will be some short-term opportunities in the U.S. for deals at old prices while the market adjusts, but the end result will be much higher prices reflecting real values underlying the yuan. The losers in China are those holding paper and fixed contracts at the old prices who have to accept payment with the revalued yuan. New deals will be at new values, and Trump’s notion that China will absorb any of the new tariffs will evaporate.

As the bottom was falling out under the yuan, our stock market tumbled down the worst drop of the year on Friday and Monday. China has ceased imports of soybeans, and the stockpiling has reached proportions in the U.S. never seen before. Farmers are going broke and Trump has in place a $16 billion bailout for farmers hurt by the trade war. And still nobody says anything.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump has collected $63 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports through June of 2019, paid by the American importers as the goods arrived in ports in the U.S. The associated press reports that the latest tariffs will cost the average family an additional $200 per year, starting just in time for the holidays. This is on top of the average $830 per year the existing tariffs already cost the average household per year, which will raise the total to over $1,030 per year in loses due to increased prices for the average family – meaning that every dime of the savings to the middle-class family allegedly granted by the so called 2017 tax reform bill will be erased completely beginning yet this year.

Further, China has announced that it will impose counter tariffs on U.S. imports, further slamming American exporters and potentially magnifying the damage to both of the world’s biggest economies. Trump claims he will continue to “tax China” until they make a deal, continuing to claim, with his eyes tight shut, that China is paying this bill not the American consumer.

So far, the impact of Trump’s war against China has netted the U.S. exactly zero in terms of new or improved marketing deals – no change in any quarter of any measurable kind in any area of trade relations with China. China is showing no sign of being willing to accept any of Trump’s demands. Instead, it is publicly hunkering down in an obvious strategy to wait out the end of Trump’s term. All of the Democratic candidates have promised to abandon Trump’s ill-conceived program of general tariffs as first orders of business if and when the administration changes in 2021.

This is a war of attrition here, and the question is who can hold out the longest as their economy crumbles, their exports dry up, and their consumers go without? We may have the stronger economy with probably greater resilience, but China, at a population of 1.386 billion, has four times our number to spread the pain around, plus a managed economy that can be regulated to smooth the ride, plus a thousand year history of being able to maintain with total self-sufficiency. On top of all this, China is our biggest creditor, holding some $1.1 trillion in U.S. treasury bills. While no one expects China to dump these investments, if it should even decide to rattle the cages a little, the bond market may well panic.

In China, all we are doing is slowing their growth rate from what was in the range of a whopping 10% to a still healthy 6%. In the U.S., we were hoping for a reasonable domestic growth rate of 3% or so – Trump promised 4% to sustain his 2017 tax cuts, but nobody believed this was in the cards. Now, after almost two full years of tariffs, most economists predict our rate of growth will soften to a middling 2% - it is currently healthy but wobbling at 2.1%. One study, released in February of 2019 by a non-partisan economic consulting firm in Washington, predicted that by three years out, the economic impact of the general tariffs in place then would be a decline in the U.S. GDP of just over a full one percent, an impact on an average family of four of $2,390 in increased prices per year, and a loss of 2.2 million jobs.

The majority of experts appear to expect foreign trade to continue a backslide which will significantly affect inflation and drag the profitability of American multinational companies towards if not over the brink. The heaviest cost will fall on the middle class in terms of increased prices on consumer goods and the loss of jobs. Even Trump supporters do not offer rosy pictures; most say only that it is not as bad as it seems, pointing to the fact that Caterpillar was able to absorb $70 million in tariff costs and still turn a profit. $70 million! It is astonishing to see someone try to make a positive statement of the government imposing this magnitude of unnecessary tax cost on a single business.

Congress could fix it, but it won’t. The Republican majority in the Senate behind Leader McConnell are paralyzed and have done nothing, despite the contention by most experts that Trump’s tariffs are against the law. Tariffs are supposed to require Congressional authority unless necessary for national security. Trump has jammed the entire general tariff structure, including all the consumer tariffs, under an executive order based on national security.

So, now what? As Trump surrounds himself with incompetent sycophants, refuses to accept advice from anyone genuinely knowledgeable, and continues to make stuff up any time he is faced with a tough question, one might ask, “How can it get any worse?”

Watch and learn, my friends, just watch and learn.

On the Trump trade war …


Take this statement: “We are losing billions of dollars through on-going trade deficits and it has to stop.” Is this true or false? It is the mainstay of Trump’s attitude towards foreign trade. It does have a seductive ring to it, and a recent CBS poll says that six in ten of us favor Trump’s efforts. Some recent man-on-the-street interviews give the impression that many of us think showing a little muscle is a good thing. Trump says that trade wars are easy to win. A little short-term pain is all that is happening here and that all will be well soon. After all, isn’t this just part of Making America Great Again?

No, it is not! The facts are that Trump’s entire pitch on foreign trade is total malarkey. Every single word out of Trump’s mouth is wrong. Every word. What he has said demonstrates a stunning failure to grasp even the fundamentals of international trade. He clearly does not understand the consequences of a bilateral trade imbalance and he has not the faintest idea of how tariffs work.

First and most obvious, we are not losing any money as a nation in trade deficits. In a growing economy, an imbalance in trade is merely an indication that there are surplus dollars on one side available for discretionary spending. Since we are by far the largest economy in the world, it is expected that we will have the most in surplus dollars for discretionary spending. The U.S. has operated with a worldwide negative trade balance since 1975 and our economy has grown and continues to grow exponentially. In its simplest form, the outflow of excess U.S. dollars from one year’s imports provides funds to our trading partners for the next year’s increase in exports, and both economies prosper.

Unless political pressures get in the way, or truly illegal or unwarranted government intervention is involved, we do not need to worry about the other country. As long as our own economy is strong and growing, with modest inflation, manageable interest rates, and exchange rates close to par, the market forces alone will keep our interests in a workable position relative to our trading partners.

When one or more of these ratios get out of whack, such as where one side gets unfairly involved in specific markets by way of price fixing, subsidized dumping, or currency manipulation, for example, direct action may be warranted. Adjusting or withholding foreign aid, implementing domestic subsidies, imposing trade embargoes and the use of specific, targeted tariffs are common methods of correcting or countering specific ills in specific trading conditions often found in foreign markets. When needed, these measures are applied deftly, with tweezers and scalpel – not a mean ax or wrecking ball. The objective is to target the precise problem without tipping over the whole table.

One aspect that everyone agrees should not be considered is any notion that trade can be brought into balance by the imposition of general tariffs. One would think that the disastrous consequences of the last attempt to protect the U.S. economy with general tariffs – the Smoot Hawley tariffs of the 1930s – would prevent ever again any serious attempts at trying to force an adjustment to the balance of trade through general tariffs. The Smoot-Hawley tariffs were a disaster; they had no impact on general trade, triggered worldwide retaliation, and worked to worsen and prolong the great depression by years. It took the U.S. decades to rectify the damage done by these tariffs.

And yet, here comes Trump. Against all advice, Trump is using general tariffs to push us into a trade war with China, our second largest trading partner, without cause other than his subjective belief that trading with China is not “fair” and with no defined objective to end his war other than that trade with China has to become “more fair.”

General tariffs are an excise tax upon the U.S. consumer, no matter what Trump and his henchmen try to claim. The objective of a tariff is to artificially increase the price of the item in order to drive the volume of sales or imports down. If the price increases, demand goes down. This is basic economics. The direct impact is on the exporting country because their exports will go down and their revenues will suffer. But the indirect impact is on the consumers in the importing country because their costs are going to go up. Furthermore, general tariffs have the effect of a double whammy because they invariably foster retaliatory tariffs by the other country.

The point is that these tariffs are NOT just being paid by the Chinese exporting companies or the Chinese government. The effects of tariffs are felt by everybody in the market, both sides. After less than three quarters of a year of general tariffs, being since mid-summer 2018, the impact already felt by the U.S. consumer from higher costs and lost jobs is estimated at an average of over $860 per family. This figure will dramatically increase if Trump imposes the next round of tariffs on $300 billion in general trade from China, which he has threatened to do by the end of June.

The imposition of broad tariffs have not produced any results other than to depress markets and cost jobs in both countries and increase the cost of most products involved to consumers in both countries. By the end of May 2019 these tariffs are estimated to have reduced U.S. long-run GDP by 0.2%, reduced wages by 0.13%, and eliminated 156.000 full time equivalent jobs. If Trump imposes the next round of 25% general tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese imports, which he has threatened to do by the end of June, the hit on our GDP is expected to be at or around -0.45%. (The Tax Foundation, May 31, 2019) In the U.S., each tenth of percentile in reduction of GDP translates to $20 billion, or 79,000 full time equivalent jobs

Trump is ignoring the progress that has been made in trade with China and is making demands that China cannot and will not meet. China is not coming around, we are not well positioned, and no deal with China is imminent. Most experts agree that China is giving every sign of being ready to hunker down and weather out the storm for as long as Trump remains intransigent – or in office. His decision to double down and expands the tariffs broadly across the entire market is about to turn into a complete disaster.

To be sure, is China faring less well than us, with its long-term growth rate slipping from 9% to less than 6%. The turmoil in the market has caused problems with its monetary supply, strengthening the dollar against the yuan (which is going the wrong way if one wants to dampen the volume of imports from China), and wreaking general havoc in its financial markets. But China, culturally and politically, is better positioned to withstand the stress. The Chinese economy is regulated to a degree not possible in the U.S., with targets and objectives broken down into specific five-year strategies. The Chinese are always maneuvering with the long-term effect in mind and the Oriental patience is legendary.

On the other hand, Trump is steadfastly ignoring all the sound economic advice he is being given from all sides – including from well qualified Republicans. Even though the political pressures on Trump from the collapsing export markets and the massive increases in consumer prices throughout the U.S. economy are enormous, and even though China has not flinched or quivered even an eyebrow, Trumps inability to admit error and his penchant for doubling down in the face of impending disaster indicate no relief in sight. Trump seems determined to take the recovering and steadily growing economy he inherited from Barak Obama and, having jerked one of the foundational underpinnings out with an unsupportable trillion-dollar tax cut, he is now determined to wreck international trade. It will only take a few more moves to stall the economy out and turn it all into a nose-dive.

Hang on tight.