Blow, Cohen, and Kristof

In “Campaigns of Ultimate Disappointment” Mr. Blow says this country wasn’t designed to facilitate change. It took centuries to arrive at its current condition and will need time to shift away from it.  Mr. Cohen is wringing his hands and weeping over “The Death of Liberalism.”  He moans that authoritarianism is ascendant and with it anti-rational bigotry. History does not end. It eddies, he says.  Mr. Kristof reminds us of the glaringly obvious in “The Real Welfare Cheats.”  He says the tax code is rigged to give America’s biggest corporations a free ride.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I’m already completely exhausted by this presidential campaign season. The candidates seem to share that fatigue. Nerves are fraying as story lines grow stale.

There is the demagogic, megalomaniac Republican front-runner who simply appears to be winging it, just as surprised as the rest of us that he has duped enough people to position himself to have a strong chance of securing the nomination.

There is Ted Cruz, a power-hungry extremist who never learned how to play well with others, who wears other folks’ hatred of him as a badge (or many badges), and whose policies in many cases are even more strident and worrisome than those of the front-runner.

There is John Kasich, the mealy-mouthed “other option” who won only one state — his own — and whose primary pitch is that he is not the front-runner or Cruz and therefore stands the greatest chance of beating the eventual Democratic nominee.

Speaking of Democratic nominees: You have Hillary Clinton, whose greatest strength is pragmatic reality — a message that doesn’t exactly sizzle — and whose saving grace is strong support from minorities, without which her candidacy would have long ago tanked. And yet she is surrounded by people, like her husband, who seem to be working assiduously to damage that minority support. Just last week, Bill Clinton launched into an awkward, rambling defense of the 1994 crime bill and his wife’s use of the term “superpredator.” This week her supporter Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, made a cringe-worthy joke (with which she happily played along!) about running on “C.P. time,” which I have always understood to be “colored-people’s time,” a corrosive stereotype of the perpetual lateness of black people.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders, the pied piper of pipe dreams, who articulates a noble set of principles but outlines unworkable and, in some cases, outlandish policies that will never see the light of day with the next Congress, which is not likely to be dissimilar from the existing Congress. The New York Daily News was brutal in its endorsement of Clinton this week: the paper’s editorial board referred to Sanders as “a fantasist who’s at passionate war with reality” who has “proved utterly unprepared for the Oval Office while confirming that the central thrusts of his campaign are politically impossible.” Ouch.

And the truth is that very little about this race has changed in the last month, though some might argue that Cruz has a gust of wind in his sails and Sanders’s string of recent victories is impressive. But what largely gives the appearance of change is that contests have been held in states that favor a particular candidate over others. This gives the impression of momentum, when in fact it is simply a function of the map.

The basic foundation of support remains relatively unchanged, and if those dynamics persist until all the contests have been completed, simple math tell us that the front-runners now will be the front-runners then.

We are just watching cars crash in slow motion.

That’s boring. There is a tremendous political media infrastructure whose job it is to make this sound like it’s still interesting, fascinating even, but it’s just not. It’s boring.

It won’t truly be interesting again, at least not for me, until we reach the potential chaos of the conventions, and after that, move into the general election, where the contrasts in visions for the future of this country will likely be as stark as they’ve ever been.

But that said, this whole political season seems to me rife with profound disappointment. Too many people are making too many big promises that they know full well they can’t deliver, but the individual voters believe that they can and the media establishment is doing far too little to disabuse voters of those notions.

Last month the president spoke at the Toner journalism prize ceremony, saying:

A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more. The electorate would be better served if that happened. It would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they can’t keep.[Applause.] And there are reporters here who know they can’t keep them. I know that’s a shocking concept that politicians would do that. But without a press that asks tough questions, voters take them at their word. When people put their faith in someone who can’t possibly deliver on his or her promises, that only breeds more cynicism.

I fear that the cynicism the president describes is inevitable because this country, in its founding documents, wasn’t designed to easily facilitate change, let alone revolutionary change.

It took centuries for this country to arrive at its current condition and will take time to shift away from it.

That isn’t what people want to hear in an anti-establishment, revolutionary change cycle, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

I fear that we are going to move from the race’s current banality to an eventual, and most assured, sense of betrayal in which armies of voters see promises of radical change come crashing to earth. That to me is unfortunate and even frightening.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Liberalism is dead. Or at least it is on the ropes. Triumphant a quarter-century ago, when liberal democracy appeared to have prevailed definitively over the totalitarian utopias that exacted such a toll in blood, it is now under siege from without and within.

Nationalism and authoritarianism, reinforced by technology, have come together to exercise new forms of control and manipulation over human beings whose susceptibility to greed, prejudice, ignorance, domination, subservience and fear was not, after all, swept away by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Communism fell, and closed societies were forced open, and an age of rapid globalization dawned, and the United States earned the moniker of “hyperpower,” it seemed reasonable to believe, as Francis Fukuyama argued in 1989, that, “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” Therefore, per Fukuyama, the end point of history had been reached with “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

This was a rational argument. It made sense. Hundreds of millions of people enslaved within the Soviet imperium had just been freed. They knew — everyone knew — which system worked better. The problem is that the hold of reason in human affairs is always tenuous.

Looking back at human history, the liberal democratic experiment – with its Enlightenment-derived belief in the capacity of individuals possessed of certain inalienable rights to shape their destinies in liberty through the exercise of their will — is but a brief interlude. Far more lasting have been the eras of infallible sovereignty, absolute power derived from God, domination and serfdom, and subjection to what Isaiah Berlin called “the forces of anti-rational mystical bigotry.”

Such anti-rational forces are everywhere these days — in Donald Trump’s America, in Marine Le Pen’s France, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, throughout much of the Middle East, in North Korea. Representative government under the rule of law has proved to be insipid fare for an age that traffics in heady images of power and violence through solipsistic social media and online games.

Berlin, well before Fukuyama, identified a potential weakness of liberalism. In “The Crooked Timber of Humanity,” he wrote: “A liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realize its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats.”

No, but as the framers of the U.S. Constitution knew, machinery of such liberal inspiration is the best hope to afford citizens a lasting defense against tyranny.

Liberty, however, requires certain things. Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions. It demands acceptance of multiple, perhaps incompatible truths. In an age of declamation and shouting, of polarization and vilification, of politics-for-sale and the insidious submersion of politics in fact-lite entertainment, the emergence of Trump is as unsurprising as it is menacing.

No wonder Putin admires him. Russian authoritarianism is all about the muscular trappings of power and popular adulation cultivated through fawning media for a Czar-like figure. Berlin noted there was “some truth” to the conservative writer Joseph de Maistre’s view that “the desire to immolate oneself, to suffer, to prostrate oneself before authority, indeed before superior power, no matter whence it comes, and the desire to dominate, to exert authority, to pursue power for its own sake” are forces that are “historically at least as strong as desire for peace, prosperity, liberty, justice, happiness, equality.”

And so history does not end. It eddies back and forth.

The broad failure of the Arab Awakening — the greatest liberation movement since 1989, an attempt by Arab peoples to empower themselves — had many causes, but a central one was the absence of any liberal constituency in societies from Egypt to Libya. Even a country with a large middle class like Egypt was not ready to accept the mediation of multiple truths through democratic institutions. So power went back to the generals, and the Islamists — even the moderates among them — were condemned to prison or worse.

In Russia, and now in countries from Hungary to Poland, and in China, forms of authoritarianism are ascendant and liberalism (or even modest liberalization) are in retreat. In the Middle East, the Islamic State casts its long, digitized shadow. In Western societies beset by growing inequality (neo-liberal economics has also sapped the credentials of liberalism), political discourse, debate on college campuses and ranting on social media all reflect a new impatience with multiple truths, a new intolerance and unwillingness to make the compromises that permit liberal democracy to work.

The threat for liberal Western societies is within and without. Liberalism may be feeble as a battle cry, but nothing is more important for human dignity and decency.

Geez, Roger… Take a pill, or get a stiff drink…  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

We often hear how damaging welfare dependency is, stifling initiative and corroding the human soul. So I worry about the way we coddle executives in their suites.

A study to be released Thursday says that for each dollar America’s 50 biggest companies paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2014, they received $27 back in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

Goodness! What will that do to their character? Won’t that sap their initiative?

The study was compiled by Oxfam and it comes on top of a mountain of evidence from international agencies and economic journals underscoring the degree to which major companies have rigged the tax code.

O.K., O.K., I know you see the words “tax code” and your eyes desperately scan for something else to read! Anything about a sex scandal?

But hold on: The tax system is rigged against us precisely because taxation is the Least Sexy Topic on Earth. So we doze, and our pockets get picked.

John Oliver has a point when he says, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” The beneficiaries of tax distortions are counting on you to fall asleep, but this is a topic as important as it is dry.

It’s because the issues seem arcane that corporate lobbyists get away with murder. The Oxfam report says that each $1 the biggest companies spent on lobbying was associated with $130 in tax breaks and more than $4,000 in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

And why would a humanitarian nonprofit like Oxfam spend its time poring over offshore accounts and tax dodges? “The global economic system is becoming increasingly rigged” in ways that exacerbate inequality, laments Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

One academic study found that tax dodging by major corporations costs the U.S. Treasury up to $111 billion a year. By my math, less than one-fifth of that annually would be more than enough to pay the additional costs of full-day prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds in America ($15 billion), prevent lead poisoning in tens of thousands of children ($2 billion), provide books and parent coaching for at-risk kids across the country ($1 billion) and end family homelessness ($2 billion).

The Panama Papers should be a wake-up call, shining a light on dysfunctional tax codes around the world — but much of the problem has been staring us in the face. Among the 500 corporations in the S.&P. 500-stock index, 27 were both profitable in 2015 and paid no net income taxglobally, according to an analysis by USA Today.

Those poor companies! Think how the character of those C.E.O.s must be corroding! And imagine the plunging morale as board members realize that they are “takers” not “makers.”

American companies game the system in many ways, including shifting profits to overseas tax havens. In 2012, American companies reported more profit in low-tax Bermuda than in Japan, China, Germany and France combined, even though their employees in Bermuda account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their worldwide totals.

Over all, the share of corporate taxation in federal revenue has declined since 1952 from 32 percent to 11 percent. In that same period, the portion coming from payroll taxes, which hit the working poor, has climbed.

Look, the period of the Oxfam study included the auto and banking bailouts, which were good for America (and the loans were repaid); it’s also true that the official 35 percent corporate tax rate in the U.S. is too high, encouraging dodging strategies. But we have created perverse incentives: C.E.O.s have a responsibility to shareholders to make money, and tax dodging accomplishes that. This isn’t individual crookedness but an entire political/economic system that induces companies to rip off fellow citizens quite legally.

It’s now widely recognized that corporations have manipulated the tax code. The U.S. Treasury, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, theEuropean Union and professional economic journals are all trying to respond to issues of tax evasion.

Bravo to the Obama administration for cracking down on corporations that try to move abroad to get out of taxes. Congress should now pass the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, and it should stop slashing the I.R.S. budget (by 17 percent in real terms over the last six years).

When congressional Republicans like Ted Cruz denounce the I.R.S., they empower corporate tax cheats. Because of I.R.S. cuts, the amount of time revenue agents spend auditing large companies has fallen by 34 percent since 2010. A Syracuse University analysis finds that the lost revenue from the decline in corporate audits may be as much as $15 billion a year — enough to make full-day pre-K universal.

Meanwhile, no need to fret so much about welfare abuse in the inner city. The big problem of welfare dependency in America now involves entitled corporations. So let’s help those moochers in business suits pick themselves up and stop sponging off the government.

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