Why A “Windfall”?

If you’ve been following the aftermath of the tax reduction legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, you’ve seen stories about how some corporations have reacted to the new law by giving their employees bonuses or cutting their charges to consumers, and other, more critical stories noting that many of the companies are giving their employees one-off bonuses, rather than more permanent raises.

windfall-money-manBut while different articles about the tax cut legislation may make different points about how the tax cut legislation is affecting companies, workers, and the country at large, the coverage does seem to have one curious common theme and descriptive element:  the tax relief provided by the new law is typically said to have produced a “windfall” for companies and individuals alike.

It’s a very interesting choice of words — and one that conveys a deeper message, too.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “windfall” as “something (such as a tree or fruit) blown down by the wind” or as “an unexpected, unearned, or sudden gain or advantage.” The key underlying concept is that the “windfall” is a lucky gift and an unearned surprise — like an inheritance from your mother’s rich second cousin whom you’d never met.

“Windfall” is a telltale choice of words in this context because tax payments necessarily have been earned by whoever is making them; companies and individuals wouldn’t be paying taxes if they hadn’t sold the products or done the work or made the investments that generated the revenue in the first place.  By calling the proceeds of a tax cut in which individuals and companies pay less a “windfall” for them, you’re really suggesting that the taxpayers aren’t entitled to their own money, the government is — and taxpayers should consider themselves lucky that, for a time at least, they get to keep more of it.

Income earned as the fruit of labor or investment isn’t like fruit blown down from a stranger’s apple tree.  You can argue about whether the tax cut was good economic or social policy, but when taxpayers get to hold on to more of the money they’ve already earned it can’t reasonably be characterized a “windfall” for them.  The fact that so many news articles nevertheless present the issue in that way says a lot about how the news media, at least, views the respective entitlements of taxpayers, and government, to the money taxpayers earn.


Shutdown Fatigue

The federal government shut down at midnight, when Congress proved to be unable to agree on a another stopgap spending bill.  As is usually the case, the Democrats and the Republicans used the looming shutdown to try to increase their leverage to obtain their political goals — whether those goals are immigration reform, or health care funding, or something else — and when neither side blinked, the shutdown occurred.  Of course, each side then blamed the other.

maxresdefaultWe’ve been through this scenario multiple times before, most recently in 2013.  We somehow made it through each of those prior cataclysms, and I’m pretty sure that the sun will come up today as well.

I may be wrong about this, but out here in the heartland I’m sensing a lot less angst, generally, about this shutdown than seemed to be the case with prior shutdowns.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been through this same, pointless charade multiple times before, and the country just has a lingering case of shutdown fatigue.  Maybe it’s because, with the flood of scandals and tweetstorms and investigations and unseemly behavior that has been washing over the nation in recent months, we’ve already used up our storehouses of outrage and have just been psychologically bludgeoned until we’re functionally insensate.  Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve come to recognize that all of this shutdown stuff is just more callous political maneuvering by both parties, and we’re heartily sick and tired of being viewed as mere pawns to be manipulated in the stupid power games that are always being played in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the cause, we’ll just go on living our lives, without paying too much attention to the yammering politicos and their efforts to pin all of the blame for this unnecessary disruption and unending dysfunctionality and irresponsibility somewhere else.  Who knows?  Maybe if we just ignore this latest shutdown, the politicians might realize that their shutdown gambit isn’t working anymore and actually go back to doing their jobs.

Where Have All The Deficit-Cutters Gone?

From time to time, both Republicans and Democrats express concern about the out-of-control accumulation of federal debt and the annual federal budget deficit.  Republicans raise the issue when they want to get elected.  Democrats raise the issue when they want to stop the GOP from cutting taxes.

But in reality, and for years now, no one in either party has done anything meaningful about the ever-growing national debt.

debt-limit-history-data-for-web-2013-updated-rjr-chart120largeConsider what’s going on now.  Republicans have been laboring over a tax bill for months, and are supposed to get it through Congress and to President Trump this week.  Of course, tax relief is an easier political sell, as rates paid by various constituencies, and backroom deals, get cut.  But where are we on spending?  Well, the House Republicans apparently want to “temporarily” extend spending for most agencies at current levels, with a $650 million increase in defense spending.  In the Senate, where Democrats hold the balance of power because of the filibuster, Democratic leaders say that we need to have equivalent increases in defense and non-defense spending.  Oh, and there’s this, too:  we’re facing another one of those stupid self-inflicted shutdown points, where some government activity will stop unless a spending bill is signed into law by Friday.

So let’s take stock here.  The House Republicans want to hold spending steady, except for an increase in defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  The Senate Democrats want to increase defense and non-defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  And our elected representatives have conveniently maneuvered themselves into a position where they can say that they need to cut a deal that will no doubt increase spending in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.  And by the way, there is absolutely no sign of the kind of thoughtful review of the thousands of ongoing government programs and subsidies and agencies to determine whether they are truly needed and should be modified or eliminated outright — which is what truly committed and rational deficit-cutters would be trying to accomplish.

Gee . . . I wonder why Congress’ credibility with American voters is so low?

Hang On To Your Wallets

Here’s some news that should cause all taxpaying Americans to feel a cold, hard lump in the pit of their stomachs:  Congress has decided to focus on “tax reform.”

ap17306662049220Congress’ decision to pivot to tax reform has produced all kinds of news stories, most of which have headlines that can only stoke the angst.  What does the proposed tax reform bill means for the value of your home?  What kind of hidden tax brackets might be found deep in the dense language of the proposed bill?  How will small business owners be affected?  What company’s stock price took a dive because the bill proposes repealing a crucial tax break?  All of these stories, and more, can be found simply by running a google search on “republican tax bill.”

The stories are indirectly reflective of the key problem with the federal tax code, because the many different areas of potential concern they address shows just how wide and deep is the reach and impact of our federal tax structure.  Virtually every company, industry, form of property, job, trade, college, technology, and concept is affected by some form of federal tax or federal tax break.  At the founding of the republic, Alexander Hamilton may have devised a simple approach to raising revenue to fund the federal government, but those days are long gone.  Now, the tax code is a complicated morass far beyond the ken of the average citizen, with special rates and breaks and benefits and exclusions and surcharges that only experts and lobbyists understand.

So, given that reality, why should the average citizen be concerned that Congress has decided it’s time to mess around with the tax code?  Because our political class, Republicans and Democrats alike, have shown they are primarily interested in raising lots of money so they can be reelected . . . which means the risk that some special provision written specifically to help a large donor will be inserted in the dead of night simply can’t be ignored.  And with the Dealmaker-In-Chief in the White House, who’s going to really dive into the details of whatever gets passed, trying to make sure that the average citizen doesn’t get gored while the special interests get their perks and sweetheart deals?

Maybe it all will work out, and the tax code will be made more fair and equitable and easy to understand, and we’ll be able to file our tax returns on postcards like the photo op pictures are indicating.  Maybe — but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then, I’m hanging on to my wallet.

When Not Even Early-Morning Baseball Practice Is Safe

Yesterday members of the Republican congressional baseball team met early in the morning for a practice session in advance of an upcoming game against a team of Democrats.  The annual game, which gets played in the stadium where the Nationals play and typically produces lots of money for charity, is one of the handful of remaining vestiges of civility and across-the-aisle cooperation that can still be found in our increasingly polarized national politics.

2017-06-14t131000z1lynxmped5d12artroptp4virginia-shootingBut the world being what it is these days, even an early-morning baseball practice is no longer safe.  A heavily armed gunman, who has been identified as James Hodgkinson, showed up and began firing — apparently with the intention of killing Republicans.  He shot  Congressman Steve Scalise, who remains in critical condition, and others as well before engaging in a firefight with authorities and sustaining fatal injuries.  In view of the fact that the gunman got off dozens of rounds, and the players practicing on the field were described as “sitting ducks,” it’s almost miraculous that more people weren’t killed or seriously injured.  Those who were present say that the heroism and prompt actions of police saved many lives.

The shooter is described as a Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans — but in reality you could just call him a nut, based on what he’s written and posted to social media.  Senator Sanders immediately disavowed what the shooter did, because of course Sanders’ political positions don’t call for his supporters to engage in murderous violence.  And yet there are people out there on the fringes, at both ends of the political spectrum, who can’t simply content themselves with political opposition and have to take the next step, and the next, first into more vitriolic speech and imagery and ultimately into some kind of twisted mindset where going to a baseball practice and shooting whoever is out of the field seems like the right thing to do.

There have always been nuts out there.  What’s discouraging about the modern world is that there seem to be more of them ready to act out their disturbed impulses, heedless of who might get hurt.  And now we’ve reached the point where even a simple baseball practice isn’t safe.

The baseball game is going to be played, by the way.  That’s a good thing, I think, but it’s the only good thing about this whole ugly episode.  And you inevitably wonder:  how many more nuts are lurking out there, thinking the answer to what troubles them is a lot of indiscriminate killing?


Chickens, Meet Roost

Hang on to your hats, folks!  Yesterday, the new Congress was sworn in, and amidst the first-day activities — which featured an ill-considered effort by House Republicans to change the powers of an ethics investigative unit, that was abruptly reversed in the face of criticism from the media, Democrats, and Donald Trump — we started to get a sense of what might be coming in the next few months, after the new President is sworn in, too.

roostingchickensTwo things seem pretty clear.  First, President-elect Trump and the Republicans in Congress are serious about taking aim at some parts of President Obama’s agenda.  Second, some of the methods used by the Democrats over the last eight years to implement that agenda are now ready to be used by Republicans to reverse course.

For example, President Obama has been very active in setting policy through executive orders, rather than by obtaining changes through the congressional process.  In fact, the President is continuing to issue executive orders and probably will continue to do so until the Trump Administration takes office.  Similarly, the Obama Administration has issued regulatory guidance that changes the prevailing approach in a number of areas.  But what can be achieved through executive orders also can be undone by executive orders, and the Trump Administration has indicated that it plans to do precisely that.

In short, because President Obama was unable to convince Congress to enact many of his policy initiatives, those initiatives are ready to be changed at the stroke of a pen.  President Obama recognizes this; in fact, he recently urged Trump to try to govern through legislation, rather than executive order, for this very reason.  Republicans said President Obama’s advice against overuse of executive orders was “ironic,” but in any case it is clear that many of his executive orders are going to be reversed when President Trump takes office.  We don’t know yet exactly how extensive the changes will be, but don’t be surprised if the coverage of Trump’s first day in office includes footage of him signing a series of executive orders to change Obama Administration policies.

You’ll also recall that, during the Obama Administration, the Democrats who controlled the Senate exercised the “nuclear option” and changed certain internal rules about how many votes were needed to overcome filibusters.  Now New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the new head of Senate Democrats, regrets that the Democrats took that action — because it will make it tougher for Democrats to oppose and block confirmation of Trump’s selections for positions in his Cabinet.

It’s all pretty predictable.  You can think about chickens coming home to roost, sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander, and what goes around coming around — but the reality is that, with the pendulum swings we’ve seen in voting for President and for the Congress, anything that isn’t enacted into law through the legislative process contemplated by the Constitution will be immediately subject to change when the power shifts again, and that every procedural maneuver used to further one side’s agenda will be hauled out and used anew when the other side takes over.

It’s not a good way to govern.

A Gutless Wonder

Washington, D.C. is all agog about “Congressman X,” the Democratic member of Congress who has anonymously penned a 65-page book called “The Confessions of Congressman X” about how corrupt, cynical, and phony members of Congress are.  One chapter, for example, is entitled “Harry Reid’s a Pompous Ass.”

Well, of course he is.  In fact, so is every member of Congress.  And, for that matter, so is “Congressman X.”

5_122016_xman8201_c0-562-850-1057_s885x516Here’s what I want to know:  why doesn’t Congressman X confess for the record?  Why doesn’t he have the guts to identify himself and express those opinions for attribution?

In my view, the sad tale of “Congressman X” is the problem, writ large, with our “public servants” right now.  They’re gutless.  They’re so chickenshit, one and all, irrespective of party, that they gladly prostitute themselves for lobbyists and spend all of their time fundraising so they can be returned to the Washington merry-go-round next term.  And when “Congressman X” nears the end of his “service,” he writes an anonymous tell-all book so he can make even more money from his period of “public service.”  It’s tawdry and appalling — but it’s so Washington, D.C.

No one has the fortitude or the principles to stand up and be counted.  And that’s why we have a dysfunctional government in which the legislative branch — which the Founders designed to be the most powerful of the coordinate branches of government — has steadily yielded power to the executive branch and the judiciary, to the point where we now have a federal government that is largely governed by executive decree rather than legislation considered, drafted, and debated by the “people’s representatives.”

So I say that “Congressman X” can bite me.  A pox on his house, and a pox on all of their houses.  Won’t anyone in D.C. stand up and be counted for a change?