On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Meyerson

A few days ago, TheWashington Post ran an article detailing the curtailment of abortion rights in states since the 2010 elections, when many states fell under right-wing Republican control. Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since then, while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not.

What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states—in order, Rhode Island (42 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent)—were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights. Conversely, the 13 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics—in order, Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent)—were among the 33 states that have curtailed access to abortions since 2010.

In sum, the relationship between the number of Catholics in a state and the intensity of the state’s anti-abortion policies is completely inverse.

Now, there are a host of other variables at play here, too. The share of secular residents in those heavily Catholic states doubtless exceeds their share in the least Catholic states; the same surely goes for feminists. But what these lists confirm, to the surprise of no one who’s been following the politics of abortion over recent decades, is that the anti-abortion cause has political heft not in places where Catholics live, but in states that are home to evangelical Protestants. The promptings of Catholic clerics in the John Paul and Benedict mode notwithstanding, the culture-war politics of their parishioners are nowhere near so fierce and misogynistic—or at least, as politically effective—as those of the evangelicals. And, of course, many of their parishioners are engaged in the culture wars (if they’re engaged at all) on other side—in this case, the pro-choice side—of the barricades.

Kuttner

Make America Great Again—Progressive Variant. So let’s take Trump at his word and make America great again. A good place to start would be by repealing the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for the rich and investing that money in America. Like in a serious infrastructure program.

That would provide tangible benefits that would help real people. It would create lots of good jobs, modernize public systems that have been under-funded for decades. And it would be a pretty good down payment on a green transition.

An Invest in America program would produce real investment, 100 cents on the dollar, as opposed to tax cuts that go into corporate stock buybacks and don’t add a penny to investment. And it would demonstrate that true public investment is often more efficient than private.

Topping up that $1.5 trillion with infrastructure bonds would help, too. If the Federal Reserve can buy over $3 trillion in sketchy financial paper to bail out underwater banks, maybe even the Fed can invest in America.

A progressive Invest in America program is also the right answer to panic about robots and artificial intelligence taking away human jobs. These automation scares come along every generation or so. In 1940, when the unemployment rate seemed stuck around 14 percent, many economists of that era believed that it just couldn’t go any lower—all those machines.

Then came World War II, with its massive public investment, and unemployment melted to under 2 percent. We need a World War II-scale build up—without the war. Let’s make America great again. How about it, Dems?

Kuttner

How Impeachment Will Whipsaw the GOP. As noted in a previous post, some too-clever Democratic strategists don’t want to talk about impeachment for fear of animating the Trump base to turn out and vote this November. But there are not enough hard-core Trumpers to keep the House in Republican hands.

Once Dems take back the House, impeachment inevitably becomes the first order of business. For several months—if Trump is still in the White House by next January—more of the lurid details of his corruption and opportunism will be spread across the public record as the Democratic House uses its full investigative powers. And the House is very likely to vote for impeachment.

This would then put Republican senators in an exquisite bind, heading into a presidential year: Back Trump to the end, alienate swing voters, and go down with the ship? Or vote to convict and infuriate the hard-core Trump base? Meanwhile, criminal prosecutions for Trump’s close associates and family are coming down the pike.

One way or another, Trump is likely to be gone by the 2020 presidential election. One possibility is that Trump, ever the deal-maker, cuts a grand deal with the impeachers and the prosecutors: He resigns the presidency, in exchange for no prosecutions. That way, he saves his skin and his brand. That deal could also look better and better to Senate Republicans, who don’t share their House counterparts' enthusiasm for Trump.

There is no parallel to the disgrace of the current Republican Party in putting opportunistic ideological and legislative gains ahead of the Republic. The legislative orgy will be over after this November, and Republicans will be looking to their own futures in the face of more and more hard evidence of Trump’s thuggery and a rising Blue Tide.

Meyerson

This past Sunday, with the share buybacks of American corporations at an all-time high, The Washington Post business section ran a major piecedocumenting buybacks’ rise and giving the arguments for and against the practice. And the arguments for, I’m compelled to say, look mighty flimsy.

Those arguments have never been more important, since the Republican tax cut supercharged the irresistible force (greed) that compels CEOs to authorize buybacks—as their pay is commonly linked to the share values that buybacks inflate. And “supercharged” may be understating it: “In February alone,” the Post reported, “U.S. corporations announced a record $150.7 billion in buybacks.”

The problem with buybacks—the problem their defenders are obliged to address—is that they simply funnel corporate profits into shareholders' pockets rather than into investment. The defenders’ argument is that once the shareholder gets a hold of that additional money, he or she invests it in a company that will actually invest it. “That money doesn’t go into a black hole,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the doyen of Republican economic advisers, told the Post. “It goes into a financial market somewhere. Another entity uses that money to make investments that kick off a chain of events that leads to higher capital for workers, higher wages, higher productivity.”

“The shareholder,” said John Cochrane, an economist at the right-wing Hoover Institution, “goes and invests it in another company that might have something better to do with it. Money usually takes four or five steps to get anywhere, but eventually the money from the buyback makes its way into the hands of a company that isn’t going to leave it in cash. It’s going to build something new with it.”

There are some problems with these arguments. If buybacks “kick off a chain of events” that eventually lead to higher wages, higher productivity, and more investment, why haven’t we seen higher wages, higher productivity and more investment in the past couple of decades? After all, we’ve had a decade of record-high buybacks—by University of Massachusetts economist William Lazonick’s calculations, virtually all the profits of the Fortune 500 from 2005 to 2015 went to share buybacks and dividends, even as productivity slowed and wages stagnated.

Indeed, in dismissing the case against buybacks, Cochrane actually makes a pretty convincing case against their utility. Why does it take “four or five steps” for a shareholder’s investment to actually reach a corporation that invests its funds in something productive? Could it be that a shareholder who has pocketed the buybacks from corporation A—whose CEO felt compelled to issue the buyback lest his company’s stock lag behind the competition—goes and invests it in corporation B, whose CEO is under the identical pressure to boost his share price by buying back shares as the CEO at corporation A was? And so are the CEOs at corporations C and D, which is why it may take five steps, or more, to find a company that actually will invest some of its cash. And who’s to say that our shareholder doesn’t actually seek out corporations that reward shareholders through buybacks rather than corporations that divert those funds into long-term investments? That’s certainly the modus operandi of our activist investors.

To read and ponder the Holtz-Eakin and Cochrane defense of buybacks is to be compelled to conclude that if we truly want to boost productive investment, we need to tax those profits on which American corporations are comfortably nestled (our public corporations, the Post reports, currently have $4.9 trillion in cash) and use the proceeds for public investment. If we truly want to boost workers’ wages—and with $4.9 trillion on hand, the corporate sector appears to be able to do that—we should simply eliminate all obstacles to those workers forming unions.

The Post piece, then, has performed an invaluable service. By publishing these defenses of share buybacks, it has made clear that share buybacks are indefensible.

Kuttner

President Pence, What’s Not to Like? I’ve heard otherwise sensible people say that removing Donald Trump would not be a good idea because then we’d get President Pence and then Republicans could regroup.

You gotta be kidding. For starters, Pence is one of the worst retail politicians in American politics.

You have to be pretty lame to be on track to face defeat as an incumbent Republican governor in Indiana. Pence agreed to be Trump’s running mate only because he was in such trouble at home.

Also, Trump’s removal and the installation of Pence would split the Republican base. Pence has none of Trump’s animal appeal as a faux-populist for the hard-core Tea Party base. 

The idea that Pence would represent a new post-Trump GOP unity is fantasy. And don't discount the power of post-Trump recriminations as Republicans face a blue blowout in the midterms.

Pence is a conventional, evangelical far-right politician. That’s poison in the socially moderate swing-district suburbs. And as a bonus—unlike Trump, there is almost no risk that Pence will blow us all up.

A weak candidate and a fractured Republican Party. Bring it on!

Kuttner

Depends on what you mean by “sell.” Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated assurances to Congress last week that “We never sell your data” were in a class with Bill Clinton’s insistence in the Lewinsky affair that “I did not have sex with that woman.” (She had sex with him, but he did not have sex with her, get it?) Or maybe that kind of sex isn’t really sex. But I digress.

Zuckerberg’s claim is the same sort of hogwash. Facebook may not literally “sell” a packet of data, but it sorts and sells access to all sorts of personal information that it collects every time you go on Facebook. That's how Facebook makes its money. It’s a distinction without a difference.

The other big lie Zuckerberg kept telling was his insistence that you control who has access to your data. Yes, you control which information you want available to what categories of other Facebook users and the general public. But you have no control whatsoever with what Facebook does with your data. 

The only remedy is total prohibition of any commercial use of data collected by Facebook. If Wikipedia can operate without commercializing data that reflect user searches, so can Facebook. And if Facebook can’t make that business model work, good riddance. There are surely other ways for people to stay digitally connected. 

Kuttner

Let Us Praise Trump’s Incoherence. So now Trump, having bashed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a wrongheaded product of the despised Barack Obama, wants to join it after all. Or maybe he doesn’t.

The TPP was a lousy deal. It was mainly about helping big U.S. multinationals, and did little or nothing for labor and environmental rights. And despite the latter-day spin about the TPP containing China, it did nothing to restrain China’s predatory trade practices. Further, the United States already has trade deals with all of the major member countries of the TPP.

But the large farm lobby and its allies in Congress have been putting pressure on Trump to back off the trade-war talk, and TPP is emblem of a more establishment sort of trade agenda. Based on past behavior, we have no idea whether Trump will change course. He says whatever pops into his head based on the issue du jour.

This, of course, drives his advisers crazy. There is a serious schism between the trade hawks—led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and economic adviser Peter Navarro—and the traditional globalists around Trump, now including economic chief Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary (and Goldman man) Steve Mnuchin, plus Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

It’s impossible for Trump to split the difference on this. He will either seek to get the United States into TPP or he won’t.

Let’s take a moment to give thanks for Trump’s incoherence and incompetence. A competent demagogue could have done so much more damage.

Meyerson

Paul Ryan’s world was already crumbling when he announced yesterday that he wouldn’t seek re-election. It wasn’t just that 40 of his Republican colleagues had already declared they weren’t running again. It wasn’t just that pollsters and prognosticators were predicting the GOP would lose the House come November, and Ryan his speakership. It wasn’t even that Ryan, lacking 60 Republican votes in the Senate, wasn’t able to roll back the essential government services he so despised, and that, after November’s election, that prospect would be even more unlikely.

It was also that Ryan’s model of government—low taxes, few and low-quality services—was being rejected even in the most Republican of states. In Kansas, good Republican parents had ousted the Ryan-Brownback tax-and-budget-cutting legislators in GOP primaries, supplanting them with representatives who voted to raise taxes to provide more funding for schools. In West Virginia, a wall-to-wall Republican state government had caved to striking teachers’ demands to do the same. It was happening, too, in Oklahoma, and the prospect of higher taxes and more public funds also loomed over Kentucky, Arizona, and who knows what other supposedly solid Republican states.

Not an Ayn Rand moment, nor a Grover Norquist moment, nor a Paul Ryan moment. Let Mitch McConnell deal with Donald Trump’s messes. The writing was on the wall: It’s time to go. 

Postscript—For the GOP: Denny Hastert, John Boehner, and now Paul Ryan.

For the Democrats: Nancy Pelosi abides.

Kuttner

Never Stiff Your Lawyer. As a developer and business mogul, Donald Trump famously stiffed contractors, college students, bankers, and partners. But he forgot the first rule of living outside the law: Never stiff your lawyer. Even the Mafia knows that.

It’s not yet clear whether Trump deliberately failed to repay lawyer Michael Cohen for advancing hush money to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn actress Stormy Daniels, or whether Cohen and Trump just failed to figure out the choreography of laundering a reimbursement from Trump to Cohen. But either way, there was enough probable cause of possible criminal activity for the special counsel and the U.S. attorney in New York to raid Cohen’s files.

When lawyer and client are suspected of joint fraudulent actions, the usual lawyer-client privilege doesn’t apply. That’s well-established legal doctrine.

After the raid, Trump indignantly tweeted, “Attorney-client privilege is dead.” In this case—his own—he’s right. But in cases where the lawyer is not the suspected fraudster, privilege is alive and well.

It’s not smart to have your attorney blur the roles of criminal lawyer, deal-maker, and fixer. Now, having opened this door, Robert Mueller is also investigating Cohen for pursuing deals in Russia on behalf of Trump, based on the coziness of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin.

This case blends three longstanding Trump trademarks: sexual grotesquerie, shady deals, and stiffing creditors. How fitting that it could be the beginning of his final downfall.

Meyerson

Even before Monday’s report from the Congressional Budget Office, which projected a budget deficit of $1 trillion in 2020, Republicans were already responding to the gap they created when they passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut. Their response, of course, isn’t to revisit the cuts they showered on the rich, but to cut the domestic spending that they and the Democrats agreed to when they passed a spending bill a couple of weeks ago.

Now the administration and its congressional enablers are looking at enacting an “enhanced rescission package” to roll back the portion of that spending directed at such frivolities as education and the environment. While the Senate customarily requires 60 votes to pass a bill, a rescission bill can pass with just 51 votes, which, through a happy GOP coincidence, is exactly the number of Republicans in the Senate (although the ailing John McCain hasn’t been able to be in the Senate for the past several months).

The case for the rescission was recently made on Fox News by the new White House National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, who came to the job on the strength of his (very convincing) cable news performances as a supply-side simpleton. “It’s really not a bad idea to trim some spending,” Kudlow told Fox, “because, after all, spending can lead to deficits and spending interferes with the economy.”

Good thing those trillion-dollar tax cuts for the rich don’t lead to deficits! Good thing, too, that Kudlow appreciates how spending on infrastructure and education can interfere with the economy (albeit, contra Kudlow, positively).

Endeavoring to rescind all that spending interference with the economy isn’t the only thing the deficit-creating GOP senators and representatives will do to stop those pesky deficits. This week, they also plan to vote for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget—which, fortunately, requires a two-thirds vote for passage, meaning it won’t pass. Balanced-budget amendments have become the last refuge of GOP tax-cutting scoundrels. 

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