How the Grinch Stole the Alabama Afterglow

Barely had we time for celebrating before the Grinch ruined the mood. Like a digital village green full of Whos in Whoville, we gathered around our televisions, computers, and phones to gaze in grateful wonder when the good (and mostly black and/or female) citizens of Alabama made a much-needed stand and said, “#MeToo and #NotThisTime” to Roy Moore.

We should have realized there would be no happy Seuss ending to this week, however. Instead, the GOP (Grinch’s Own Party) snuck down our chimneys and left all but the very richest Whos a nice little pile of coal. And you wondered why Trump promised to keep the mines going.

The GOP tax bill is a breathtakingly brazen Christmas gift– oh, let’s face it, it is a once in a generation giveaway– to those who have been investing their wealth to shift our country from a republic to an oligarchy. The shameless process and reckless speed with which these legislators have betrayed everyone else appears to have been successful. Yet, they are simultaneously affixing their names to an act that will be condemned for decades.

I confess that approaching this week’s blog has been a disheartening prospect. The hope produced by Tuesday’s Alabama results made the swiftness of the capitulation by the “moderate” or “principled” GOP Senators all the more stunning. Susan Collins, John McCain, Bob Corker, Lisa Murkowski, Jeff Flake, James Lankford, Jerry Moran: What tangled rationales does it take? How will you answer for your votes to the voters of your states in the coming years? More immediately, how do you sleep?

I haven’t the expertise to address the myriad of dire consequences being forecast by the overwhelming majority of those who do. Besides, I expect you are reading them, too. But, I do recommend an excellent summary in the NY Times, The Winners and Losers in the Tax Bill. Also, in this era of demeaning and denigrating the media, it might help you remember a happier time when most journalists enjoyed well-earned respect if you would take a minute to read the brief CVs of the two authors of the article, Alan Rappaport and Jesse Drucker. Click on each name at the top of the article, then be sure to click on More after the first couple sentences for the entire bio.

But, I want to devote the rest of the post to a guest columnist, Fareed Zakaria. It is brief enough to keep the total length in line with past posts. And, it focuses on a set of consequences to the new tax law that I have not seen addressed elsewhere: The Republican obsession with cutting taxes and starving government will not only result in harmful cuts affecting vast numbers of individuals, it will sentence us to the continued decline and deterioration of our infrastructure and public investment in research, development, and education. While most individuals have some capacity and opportunity to ameliorate their circumstances, our national prosperity and health depends upon shared investment for the common good.

The GOP tax bill may be the worst piece of legislation in modern history
by Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post, Dec 14, 2017

If the Republican tax plan passes Congress, it will mark a watershed for the United States. The medium- and long-term effects of the plan will be a massive drop in public investment, which will come on the heels of decades of declining spending (as a percentage of gross domestic product) on infrastructure, scientific research, skills training and core government agencies. The United States can’t coast on past investments forever, and with this legislation, we are ushering in a bleak future.

The tax bill is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, and some experts think the real loss to federal revenue will be much higher. If Congress doesn’t slash spending, automatic cuts will kick in unless Democrats and Republicans can agree to waive them. Either way, the prospects for discretionary spending look dire, with potential cuts to spending on roads and airports, training and apprenticeship programs, health-care research and public-health initiatives, among hundreds of other programs. And these cuts would happen on top of an already difficult situation. As Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution points out, combined public investment by federal, state and local governments is at its lowest point in six decades, relative to GDP.

The United States is at a breaking point. In August, the World Bank looked at 50 countries and found that the United States will have the largest unmet infrastructure needs over the next two decades. Look in any direction. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the United States has almost 56,000 bridges with structural problems (about 1,900 of which are on interstate highways), and these are crossed 185 million times a day.

Another industry report says that in 1977 the federal government provided 63 percent of the country’s total investment in water infrastructure, but only 9 percent by 2014. There’s so much congestion in America’s largest rail hub, Chicago, that it takes longer for a freight train to pass through the city than it takes to get from there to Los Angeles, according to Building America’s Future, a public interest group.

There is no better indication of the U.S. government’s myopia than the decline in funding for research. A recent report in Science notes that for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding. Research and development topped 10 percent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now less than 4 percent. And the Senate’s version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably keep it. All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas. A recent study found that China is on track to surpass the United States as the world leader in biomedical research spending.

When I came to America in the 1980s, I was struck by how well the government functioned. When I would hear complaints about the IRS or the Federal Aviation Administration, I would often reply, “Have you ever seen how badly these bureaucracies work in other countries?” Certainly compared with India, where I grew up, but even compared with countries such as France and Italy, many of the federal government’s key offices were professional and competent. But decades of criticism, congressional micromanagement and underfunding have taken their toll. Agencies such as the IRS are now threadbare. The Census Bureau is preparing to go digital and undertake a new national tally, but it is hamstrung by an insufficient budget and has had to cancel several much-needed tests. The FAA lags behind equivalent agencies in countries such as Canada and has been delayed in upgrading its technology because of funding lapses and uncertainties. The list goes on and on.

There are genuine problems beyond underfunding. The costs of building American infrastructure are astronomical. But during the Depression, World War II and much of the Cold War, a sense of crisis and competition focused America’s attention and created a bipartisan urgency to get things done. Ironically, at a time when competition is far more fierce, when other countries have surpassed the United States in many of these areas, America has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for growth. Those who vote for this tax bill — possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation — will live in infamy, as the country slowly breaks down.

On the road, on taxes, on times that need a-changin

Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

-American Tune, by Paul Simon  1973

Those words were written and poignantly sung during a time when you could say our national innocence was being lost. In the previous ten years, we witnessed the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. We were staggering to the end of our disastrous war in Vietnam.  We had learned that our government could not be trusted to tell us the truth or to do the right thing. Watergate was revealing that the president was, in fact, a crook.

Yet, Congress rallied and reassured us that the Constitution and the rule of law still prevailed. There were lines that could not be crossed, depths to which we would not fall.

Until recently, I have believed bulwarks still stood that would protect the country from self-destruction. The most recent proof of this was surviving the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The U.S. and possibly the world economies were pulled back from the brink of meltdown by the courageous actions of administration and federal officials from both Bush and Obama presidencies. Subsequent bipartisan (Dodd-Frank) legislation sought to prevent future such calamities.

Since then, however, the political currents have been increasingly contaminated with twin pollutants– money and lies– which is enfeebling our democracy and emboldening the ever-growing hegemony of corporations and the ultra-rich. Citizens United gave the green light (and abolished speed limits) to a buying spree of political influence and elections. Meanwhile, politicians, in service to their corporate and rich donors, have been practicing and perfecting a deceitful sleight of hand. Show your base what they want to see, tell them what they want to hear, all the while scheming to enrich the wealthy at the expense of, well, everyone else.

About a month ago, we learned about the Paradise Papers, a trove of over 11 million financial documents, leaked from an anonymous source to a German newspaper and then given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Together with the Panama Papers, released a couple of years earlier, they contain details of some of the estimated $20-30 trillion that is kept in tax-free havens around the world by companies and wealthy individuals, large numbers of whom are American.

I mention this only as a backdrop for this week’s craven display in the Senate with the GOP tax bill. No hearings. No meaningful debate. No opportunity for Senators to read the over 500 page bill, let alone to have public reaction. Get it done as quickly as possible to avoid scrutiny and evaluation. In spite of the mantra of talking points– tax cuts for the middle class, grow the economy– this legislation is blatantly skewed to favor the very same bunch who are already avoiding taxation on much of their trillions.

Naturally, there must be some on the right in Congress whose motivation is not primarily to further plump up donor fat cats. It is clear that some are also guided by a belief that government must be starved and shrunk. They may see enduring a mad president as a worthwhile tradeoff for the decimation of departments such as the EPA and State. Just as our stalwart senators have held their noses with one hand while grasping their long-sought tax “reform” with the other.

So, now we find ourselves in another “age’s most uncertain hour” and we wonder if Lady Liberty will stick with us again, long enough for us to muster new defenders. And, if so, who will they be?

Last evening, as the tax bill loomed closer to passage, Steve Schmidt, Republican consultant and former McCain campaign (2008) manager, tweeted this:

Indeed. Though there are plenty of Boomer sexagenarians and quinquagenarians (honest, I looked it up!) on the Senate floor as well.

I’m wondering if there has not been some hubris in my stating, more than once, that the purpose of this blog is to help leave things in better shape for our younger generations. After all, Boomers and older who are in power, whether corporate or political, are far more likely to be endemic to the problem than key to the solution. As for the rest of us, well, we have had our chance … and Trump is in the White House. When he spoke of “American carnage” at his inauguration, it turns out to have been in the future tense. And here we are.

If I am despairing of our politicians, it looks like I am turning to our songwriter-poets. Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
Cause the times they are a-changing
Maybe a little premature, but I think this is where we are heading. A friend, a reader of this blog, sent me a link to a post from yesterday’s The Atlantic It starts with, “The baby boom is being evicted from the penthouse of American politics. And on the way out, it has decided to trash the place. That’s probably the best way to understand the generational implications of the tax legislation Republicans are driving through Congress.”
It echoes Steve Schmidt’s tweet in saying that younger generations are destined to be the biggest losers in this bill. “What’s very clear through all of this is that the group that most pays are the younger people,” according to Eugene Steuerle, the co-founder of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Yet, by 2018, more Millennials than Boomers will be eligible to vote. By around 2024, more Millennials will be turning out to vote than Boomers. Post-Millennials, those born after 2000, will start voting in the same time frame, widening the generational advantage. Incidentally, “While about 80 percent of the baby boom is white, over two-fifths of Millennials and nearly half of the post-Millennials are not.”
That looks to me like times will be a-changin. The energy and vision will come from those younger than we are. Our role will be diminished, but need not disappear. Our old road is rapidly aging. Once sturdy bulwarks are in disrepair. When younger generations are building new ones, will we get out of the way or lend a hand? In a couple years, when Paul Ryan or whoever announces the “Entitlements Reform Act”, will we stay in our aging road and fight for ourselves? Or, will we accept some personal losses and fight to save Social Security and Medicare for future generations? Will we embrace changing times? Will we work to restore an America of the people, by the people, and for the people?