Archive

February 25th, 2017

Why it's been 31 years since the last tax reform

    President Donald Trump has promised the most comprehensive overhaul of the tax system since 1986. That was when a Republican president joined forces with a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican Senate to lower personal income-tax rates and simplify a messy and outdated tax system.

    Today, Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Democrats agree with them that the system has once again become messy and outdated. So in theory it should be easier to reach agreement now than it was then.

    Forget that theory. Passing tax reform this year will be a much tougher slog than it was 30 years ago, or than Republicans expect it to be today.

    Republican opposition would have doomed President Ronald Reagan's plans without Democratic support, and the bipartisanship and skilled political leadership needed to push them through don't exist today.

    Thus while a sweeping tax-reform bill is a top priority of both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, with a goal of passing it by July, the odds are that it won't happen. A look at what took place in 1986 helps explain why.

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Who gains if U.S. universities start losing out

   Since World War II, the U.S. university system has been the envy of the world. More than that, it has to some extent been the world's university system, drawing the best scholars from all over the planet to do their research and teaching where academic standards are highest and resources greatest. America's higher-education dominance has continued even as other sectors of the U.S. economy have lost ground to foreign competition, and it has fueled the rise of new industries in which the U.S. has become a world leader.

    By most measures, this dominance continues. According to Shanghai Ranking Consultancy's 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities, which focuses on research output, 15 of the world's top 20 universities, and 50 of the top 100, are in the U.S.

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Trump's foreign policy: the worst and the dimmest

    Back in 2001, during the "end of history" interregnum between the Cold War and 9/11, Henry Kissinger published a book called "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" It was obviously a rhetorical question coming from a master of diplomacy. But now it is a very real issue, because the United States under President Donald Trump does not actually seem to have a foreign policy. Or, to be exact, it has several foreign policies -- and it is not obvious whether anyone, including the president himself, speaks for the entire administration.

    On Feb. 15, for example, Trump was asked, during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether he still supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. His insouciant reply? "So I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." This immediately prompted news coverage that, as a New York Times article had it, "President Trump jettisoned two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy on Wednesday by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians."

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Trump wasn't a real CEO. No wonder his White House is disorganized.

    Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made much of his business experience, claiming he's been "creating jobs and rebuilding neighborhoods my entire adult life."

    The fact that he was from the business world rather than a career politician was something that appealed to many of his supporters.

    It's easy to understand the appeal of a president as CEO. The U.S. president is indisputably the chief executive of a massive, complex, global structure known as the federal government. And if the performance of our national economy is vital to the well-being of us all, why not believe that Trump's experience running a large company equips him to effectively manage a nation?

    Instead of a "fine-tuned machine," however, the opening weeks of the Trump administration have revealed a White House that's chaotic, disorganized and anything but efficient. Examples include rushed and poorly constructed executive orders, a dysfunctional national security team, and unclear and even contradictory messages emanating from multiple administrative spokesmen, which frequently clash with the tweets of the president himself.

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Trump war on leaks might bring more chaos, not less

    The issue of leaks to the press has caused a public stir once again, yet the history, the law and the practical enforcement all seem puzzling. Leaks are supposed to be super-dangerous, or so we are told, yet actual leakers, until recently, were not prosecuted very often.

    To make sense of this puzzle, I read a variety of interesting histories. The most interesting source was "The Leaky Leviathan," by David E. Pozen of Columbia Law School.

    Pozen stresses that leaks serve the purpose of the federal government more often than not. A survey from the mid-1980s found that 42 percent of surveyed senior government officials felt that it was sometimes appropriate to leak information to the press -- hardly a sign this is intrinsically treasonous behavior. Nor has the federal government moved to stop leaks the way the private sector has.

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Trump persists in his campaign against the press

    Not yet a month in office, President Trump was back on the campaign trail in Florida the other day in what could be called a victory lap celebrating the job he had already won.

    The event was a transparent ego booster shot to his constant need for reassurance that his faithful flock was still with him. He held it amid spreading street protests and news-media allegations that his infant administration was in governing chaos.

    At great length, he boasted of "our incredible progress in making America great again" and of the "truly great movement" he had assembled "without the filter of the fake news, the dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them. They make them up in many cases, they just don't want to report the truth and they've been calling us wrong now for two years."

    Trump argued that "Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it."

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This is what it's like working in the Trump administration

    To get a sense of how insular and disrespectful, even to its own, the Trump administration has become just 30 days in, consider the case of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

    Tillerson is less empowered on foreign policy matters than the president's son-in-law, who oversees the Middle East; his personal lawyer, who, reports say, was involved in writing a "peace plan" for Russia and Ukraine; and political adviser Stephen Bannon, who has an unprecedented seat on the National Security Council and deep influence on the president's views on a host of foreign and domestic policies.

    Meanwhile, Tillerson, one of the most powerful former chief executives in the world, is reduced to reorganizing the State Department bureaucracy, a worthwhile and substantive initiative, but perhaps better left to a deputy, if he could only hire one without prior White House approval.

    Speculation has already begun on how long before Tillerson tells President Donald Trump that he didn't sign up to be neutered and irrelevant, and he moves on.

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The problem with Donald Trump's blame game

    Presidents have long liked to play the blame game. In his early State of the Union addresses, Ronald Reagan blamed the economy he inherited from Jimmy Carter. Barack Obama, who frequently spoke of the economic crisis unfolding as he took office, was called the "blamer in chief" by conservative media; in mid-2009, the New York Times suggested that tactic would not work for very long, reasoning at some point a president must take responsibility for the problems before him.

    But President Trump has shown unusual range in the number of people and institutions he's targeted in his first weeks in office: He's blamed the Democrats for delaying his Cabinet picks. The "low-life leakers" are a "big problem," Trump tweeted. It was during the Obama administration that "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia," asking "was Obama too soft on Russia?" amid inquiries into his own team's contacts with Russian officials. Massive voter fraud is to blame for him losing the popular vote, Trump has claimed, despite no evidence to support it.

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February 24th

The increasing importance of a Labor Department that understands the threats to workers in the current economy

    American workers got a very big break when Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination for labor secretary.

    Created in 1913, the Labor Department's mission is "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights." The fact that Puzder's career revealed him to be uniquely anti-worker - he opposes minimum wages and overtime pay and prefers machines to workers ("they're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case") - made him obviously ill-suited for the position.

    What may be less obvious is how the Labor Department pursues its mission, and why the agency and its secretary increasingly matter. So let me try to at least scratch the surface.

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The enduring myth of the U.S. immigration crisis

    With the rise of Donald Trump, anti-immigrant sentiment has reached levels not seen in decades in the U.S. Anger against illegal immigration and fear of refugees, previously confined to the fringes of the Republican base, are now at the center of public dialogue. Among some pundits and intellectuals, the response has been to try to accommodate this anger -- to see immigration as a problem that needs solving.

    I think this is wrong. Yes, I'm in favor of improving the U.S. immigration system -- my proposal is to implement a skills-based system like Canada's. Yes, the current system is suboptimal in a number of ways. But by treating immigration as an urgent problem in need of dramatic policy action, centrists are conceding way too much. The current situation is not an emergency at all.

    Illegal immigration to the U.S. ended a decade ago and, according to the Pew Research Center, has been zero or negative since its peak in 2007:

    About a million undocumented immigrants left the country in the Great Recession. But even after the end of the recession, illegal immigration didn't resume.

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