Branders vs Builders

February 23, 2020

by Steve Stofka

At the National Press Club this week, Army secretary Ryan McCarthy spoke about people resisting change “because they focus on what they are going to lose instead of what they are going to gain” (C-Span, 2020). True? Not true?

In 2016, almost half of voters voted for change. In 2008, former President Obama ran on a platform of change. In his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders is touting big policy changes. He is leading in early caucus primaries and early caucus results place him as this weekend’s winner in Nevada.

Americans have been able to embrace change because our political institutions resist change. Unlike Britain, we have a written Constitution that proscribes or sets boundaries for change. In the U.S., minority interests are given more power to play an obstructionist role and this is particularly true in the Senate. When Harry Reid was the Democratic Majority Leader, he accused Republicans of obstructionism (C-Span, 2011). When the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, became the Majority Leader in 2015, he made the same accusations against Democrats (C-Span, 2017). The parties trade scripts.

Tired of listening to the same script, a lot of voters chose an off-script candidate, Donald Trump, in 2016. For most of his term, the White House has been run on an informal basis, changing policy with the political weather in Washington. President Trump is a brander, not a builder.

Presidents who want to enact a large part of their agenda must be both branders and builders. It is an unusual combination of traits. In the 20th century, only FDR and Ronald Reagan were both. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt. This is a subjective call. What are your candidates for the title of both brander and builder?

When a President is capable of both roles, the other party reacts strongly to what they build and their brand. This is certainly true of both FDR and Reagan. Republicans continue to tear away at the federal bureaucracy first erected by FDR. President Reagan was and is the champion of that movement among mainstream Republicans.

Responding to the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democrats elected a leader they hoped could emulate the substantial change in direction that FDR brought about. President Obama was neither a brander nor a builder. His “no drama” demeanor could not build coalitions in an age when people wanted a “fire in the belly” leader like Mr. Trump.

Bernie Sanders is such a “fire in the belly” candidate, but can he build the coalitions needed to pass direction changing legislation? He has not done so during his thirty years in the House and Senate, according to NYU historian Timothy Naftali (Stein, 2020). His campaign slogan is “Not me, us!” He is asking voters to play a vital role in melding political coalitions.

Mr. Bloomberg’s anemic first performance on the debate stage this week was hardly encouraging. Yet, Mr. Bloomberg appeals to practical Democratic and Independent voters, as well as establishment Republicans like Clint Eastwood who have tired of watching President Trump playing in his White House sandbox. This weekend Mr. Eastwood gave Mr. Bloomberg a thumbs up (Berley, 2020). Why would Republicans vote for a Democratic candidate? If the Senate remains in Republican hands, they will act as a check on a Democratic President and House. If other notable Republicans signal an approval of Mr. Bloomberg, that might persuade pragmatic Democratic voters to choose him as well. The road to the White House is a maze of planning, circumstance, and shifting voter and donor alliances.

////////////////

Notes:

Berley, M. (2020, February 22). Clint Eastwood Endorses Bloomberg, Citing ‘Ornery’ Politics. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-22/clint-eastwood-endorses-bloomberg-citing-ornery-politics

C-Span. (2011, September 6). Opening Remarks from Senators Reid and McConnell. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?301374-4/opening-remarks-senators-reid-mcconnell (01:11).

C-Span. (2017, July 11). Senators McConnell and Thune on Health Care. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?431157-2/senators-mcconnell-thune-health-care (13:24).

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy at the National Press Club. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?469279-1/army-secretary-ryan-mccarthy-national-press-club. (8:14)

Photo by Alfred Kenneally on Unsplash

Stein, J. (2020, February 12). As Bernie Sanders ascends, his potential White House approach to the economy comes into focus. Washington Post. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/02/12/bernie-sanders-ascends-potential-white-house-approach-obstacles-come-into-focus/

The Billionaire Ballot

February 16, 2020

by Steve Stofka

“Dad, can I get a new bike?”

“What do you think money grows on trees?”

“No. If it grew on trees, I wouldn’t ask you for a new bike. I’d ask for a ladder so I could pick my own money.” A great comeback that I never said. No new bike. I could still dream of being President someday.

My dad was born before the Great Depression, a time when money lived in the ground. In 1849, people went crazy when they learned that there was gold in the dirt of California (PBS, n.d.). It’s God’s will, some said. In 1876, eight years after the Federal government signed a treaty with the Sioux Indians, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of North Dakota. Sorry, Sioux Indians, but you’ll have to move (NPS, n.d.). 

It took labor and money to dig up money when it lived in the ground. Now it lives in the digital “cloud.” Are we inherently distrustful of money that can be created with the push of a finger on a computer terminal? Seems too easy. We are 50 years into a system that is untethered from any practical restraint. The Federal Reserve guides their monetary policy according to goals set by a law passed at the height of inflation in the 1970s. They do not have to dig up dirt to get more money. They don’t have to keep gold or silver reserves. It seems like the same magical thinking of a kid who dreams about becoming President.

Presidential candidates must work hard to generate enthusiasm and donations of time and money to fuel their campaigns. A successful candidate for the Presidency usually finds a phrase that resonates with supporters.  In 2008, former President Obama used “Yes, we can” and various combinations of “Change” (List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans, 2020). President Trump used “Make America Great Again” during his 2016 campaign. His current slogan is “Keep America Great.” I heard Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren sound out “Fighting Back” at a Virginia rally this past Thursday (C-Span, 2020). Mike Bloomberg has blanketed media with the phrase “Mike will get it done” (Mike Bloomberg, 2020).

In 2016, Marco Rubio and other Republican candidates complained that the inexperienced Donald Trump could buy the party’s nomination with his vast resources. Mr. Trump had promised to spend $100 million of his own money and spent $65 million in the final accounting (Peters & Storey, 2016). This was only half of the $121 million in inflation adjusted dollars that Ross Perot spent on his Presidential campaign in 1992 (Boaz, 2019).

Enter Mike Bloomberg. In the few months since he announced his candidacy, his campaign has spent $400 million (Burns & Kulish, 2020). His political spending is dwarfed by his charitable giving. In 2019, Mr. Bloomberg’s foundation donated more than $3 billion to charity. Unlike President Trump, Mr. Bloomberg has demonstrated his business acumen and has past political experience in the mud pit of New York City politics. He is used to the tough bargaining and political alliances that consume Washington. Mr. Trump knows only intimidation, not bargaining. He is the Twitter version of Venezuela’s former President, Hugo Chavez, who used radio to attack his political enemies.

What entices these billionaires to want a high stress job in Washington? What lies in the ground in Washington is not gold, but great power and reputation. Under FDR in 1932, the Democrats first began to consolidate political power in Washington. World War 2 and the Cold War helped grow that power base. So did the Federal programs of social support – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and countless others. Beginning in the 1960s, Congress began to grant the President more executive power to conduct war and administer the growing array of Federal agencies.

As the power of the Presidency grew, each Presidential campaign attracted more money. Through a series of campaign reform bills, Congress attempted to regulate the flow of money into politics. In the past decade, two recent Supreme Court decisions have undone many campaign regulations (Ballotpedia, n.d).

The discovery of gold in California and South Dakota attracted many prospectors who worked hard to grab the prize. Like today’s Presidential candidates, many miners did not have the resources necessary to capitalize on the opportunity. Well-funded companies like Homestake Mining proved successful. This is the era we are in now. Little Johnny or Mary can put away their dreams of being President. Is that good for the country?

////////////////

Notes:

Ballotpedia. (n.d.). Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/Bipartisan_Campaign_Reform_Act

Boaz, D. (2019, July 9). RIP Ross Perot, the Billionaire Who Ran for President. Retrieved from https://www.cato.org/blog/rip-ross-perot-billionaire-who-ran-president. Mr. Perot spent $65 million, or about $121 million in current dollars.

Burns, A., & Kulish, N. (2020, February 15). Bloomberg’s Billions: How the Candidate Built an Empire of Influence. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/15/us/politics/michael-bloomberg-spending.html

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Senator Elizabeth Warren Campaigns in Arlington, Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?469313-1/senator-elizabeth-warren-campaigns-arlington-virginia (43:08).

List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans. (2020, February 14). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._presidential_campaign_slogans

Mike Bloomberg 2020. (2020). Mike Bloomberg for President: Official 2020 Campaign Website. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from https://www.mikebloomberg.com/

Peters, J. W., & Shorey, R. (2016, December 9). Trump Spent Far Less Than Clinton, but Paid His Companies Well. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/politics/campaign-spending-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html

Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

Remove Impeachment?

February 9, 2020

By Steve Stofka

Despite a strong labor market and a rising stock market, last year’s deficit was the largest in seven years (Tankersly, 2020). The tax cut package of 2017 has not delivered the promised economic growth. The first estimate of 2019 GDP annual growth was 2.3% (FRED, n.d.), the average during the past four years of the Obama administration. According to Mr. Trump, that growth rate was a “disaster” under Obama. Now it is a good growth rate. In his State of the Union address this week, President Trump said that “our economy is the best it has ever been” (CPR, 2020).

Growth during the three years of the Trump administration has averaged 2.5%, slightly above the tepid rate of growth under Obama. The growth standard is 3.0%, the average during the last fifty years of the 20th century.

How to make a tired nag of an economy look like a racehorse? The White House Council of Economic Advisors compared GDP growth during the Trump administration to growth projections of 2.0% made before the 2016 election (CEA, 2020). That comparison makes the growth rate look ½% higher than expectations. A component of GDP growth is government spending, whether that spending is borrowed or not. That additional growth has come at the expense of the Federal debt (CBO, 2020).

Like the Obama administration before, the Trump administration has bought itself GDP growth by borrowing money from the rest of the world and spending it. Without those annual deficits, GDP growth would have been negative for the past 15 years. The stock market has climbed 33% since the 2016 election because the money is flowing freely from Washington and the Federal Reserve. The amount of borrowed and printed money that the Federal government pumps into the economy creates additional profits for companies.

As predicted, President Trump was found not guilty by the Senate. Since the founding of the country, three Presidents have been tried for impeachment but not convicted. Let’s look at the Presidents who were not impeached even though they committed arguably impeachable offenses.

 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not impeached by a Democratic House for lying to Congress about the lend lease program to Britain in 1940. President Lyndon Johnson was not impeached by a Democratic House for lying to Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin attack in Vietnam in 1964 (Moise, 2019). President Ronald Reagan was not impeached by a Democratic House for his complicity in selling arms to Iran (Brown U., n.d.).

All of these were matters were of grave national importance to the American people. President Clinton was impeached by a Republican House for lying to them about his affair with a White House aide. Tawdry, yes. National importance? No.

Since no president has been convicted of impeachment, should we enact a Constitutional amendment to nullify impeachment? The arguments we have today about impeachment reflect the same arguments made by delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (Klarman, 2016). Some thought that state legislatures should initiate impeachment proceedings. The “New Jersey” plan proposed that a majority of state governors could remove a president. Some wanted to give the Congress power to remove a president at will, but others thought that would make the president subservient to Congress. Thinking that Congress might threaten impeachment as retribution for a presidential veto, some advocated against impeachment at all. Shouldn’t the voters decide, they argued? If the president were elected every two years, the voters could vote a president out of office at the next election. A Presidential term should last longer than two years was the counterargument. Most of the delegates agreed that impeachment was a check on a president and decided to include it in the Constitution.

What offenses should be subject to impeachment? The delegates disagreed on that as well. Some thought it should be for “malpractice or neglect of duty” but others thought the offenses needed to be more serious. “Treason, bribery, and corruption” was suggested, but “corruption” was not specific enough. “Maladministration” was proposed but was rejected. How about “other high crimes and misdemeanors against the State?” Well, that was more specific than “corruption” and “maladministration,” but not too specific as to straitjacket Congress. The final language inserted in the Constitution was “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II, Section 4). Today, we argue about that wording. Go figure.

When the Constitution was written, the delegates did not contemplate a political system with two parties. Within two decades, they realized their mistake and initiated the 12th Amendment to have the president and vice-president elected together from the same party.

Some Constitutional delegates worried that the impeachment process would become politicized. History has shown that they were right. Should we admit that a conviction of impeachment is practically impossible? We must either lower the threshold for conviction in the Senate from a super-majority of 67 Senators to a majority vote, or remove the idea of impeachment from the Constitution entirely. What do you think?

/////////////////////////

Notes:

Brown U. Research. (n.d.) Understanding the Iran-Contra Affairs: The Beginning of the Affair. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/i-thebeginning.php

Colorado Public Radio (CPR). Transcript & Video: President Donald Trump’s 2020 State Of The Union. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.cpr.org/2020/02/04/transcript-video-president-trumps-2020-state-of-the-union/

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). (2020, January). Budget and Economic Data. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/about/products/budget-economic-data#2 Note: 2019’s Federal deficit was 4.7% of GDP, 40% higher than the 3.3% deficit in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Council of Economic Advisors (CEA). (2020, January 30). United States GDP Growth Continues Exceeding Expectations. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/united-states-gdp-growth-continues-exceeding-expectations/

Federal Reserve (FRED). (2020, January 30).  Real Gross Domestic Product (GDPC1). [Web page]. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDP

Klarman, M. J. (2016). The framers coup: the making of the United States Constitution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (pp 235-237).

Moïse Edwin E. (2019). Tonkin Gulf and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, (Preface). Sample retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0UEnAnvQ978C&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=gulf+of+tonkin+vietnam+war

Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

Tankersley, J. (2020, January 13). Budget Deficit Topped $1 Trillion in 2019. NY Times. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/business/budget-deficit-1-trillion-trump.html

A Normal Week

February 2, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Tuesday was the first day of President Trump’s impeachment trial. Mr. Trump borrowed former President Clinton’s impeachment playbook and got busy. He flew to Davos, Switzerland to give a speech at the World Economic Forum.

The speech was constructed of many truth stretchers. Instead of boasting about the economy’s strong employment, Mr. Trump had to say that the numbers are the best. They are not. Doesn’t matter. While Mr. Trump’s political opponents are spending time and energy disputing his boasts and lies, he is on to the next speech, the next carefully arranged event.

Facts are musical notes in a score designed to showcase his greatness. Mr. Trump is the bandleader. In politics, performance is key and he is a good performer. He is the boss of facts. Disagreeable facts are out of tune and “fake.” Sit down fake news media. Stop playing.

President Trump cites a statistic that there are more women than men in the workforce for the first time in history. They are not. That happened in 2009 under former President Obama’s watch. This is not a good statistic. It means that men in traditional male jobs are losing their jobs. In 2009, it was the massive unemployment in construction after the housing crisis. Until a year ago, job openings in manufacturing had climbed steadily (BLS, n.d.). In 2019, Mr. Trump’s trade war with China led to thousands of factory job losses and a sharp decline in job openings.

Those who do follow economic numbers know these are truth stretchers or truth wreckers as soon as the words leave Mr. Trump’s lips. That’s a small percentage of the general population. In an age of ready access to information, there is too much information. We struggle to separate the wheat – reliable information from a reputable source – from the chaff – those who shade or hide the truth to push a point of view.

To a casual ear, Mr. Trump sounds like he knows what he is talking about when he says 150 billion of this and 200 million of that. He pulls numbers out of the air just as a magician pulls a quarter from behind a child’s ear. When questioned by reporters, members of his own party answer that they can’t speak to what Mr. Trump says or tweets. They are afraid of retribution. He is the Teflon President. No accountability and no shame. 

A president must perform. A good performer tells enough of the truth to tell a convincing story. Lying is a part of any president’s job. They must lie to foreign leaders as they play the international game of political poker. Presidents lie to hide uncomfortable truths from the American people. They lie to protect themselves, members of their cabinet and party. Until a presidential candidate takes the oath of office, they may not realize the full extent of the lies they must tell. It’s one of the stresses that make the job so difficult.

There is important and unimportant stuff to lie about. Mr. Trump lies about silly stuff that matter only to him. Who cares whether some people think he has small hands? He does. Whether he had a smaller inauguration crowd than Mr. Obama? Mr. Trump cares. Whether he understands the dictator of N. Korea better than everyone else? He does. He insists that he is a better president than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Braggadocio?

/////////////////////////

Notes:

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (n.d.). Job Openings: Manufacturing JTS3000JOL. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/JTS3000JOL

Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

California Landed Gentry

January 26, 2020

by Steve Stofka

What is a fair share of taxes? As I noted last week, different households pay a varying share of sales tax to the city but consume the same amount of public services. Income taxes and property taxes vary as well. In California’s booming real estate market, younger homeowners are furious that they must shoulder an inequitable share of a community’s property tax.

In the 1970s, the population of California swelled and created a large increase in demand for housing. The higher demand and runaway inflation during the period led to rapidly escalating home prices. Proposition 13, an amendment to the California constitution, was sold as a remedy for older homeowners on fixed incomes who could no longer afford the property taxes on the homes they had owned for years. Commercial properties were included in the amendment as a way to protect small businesses and the stability they brought to communities.

In 1978, California voters passed Prop 13, as it was called. Annual increases in residential and commercial property taxes were limited to 2% for existing property owners. These were years of high inflation. In 1979, the inflation rate was 14%, far higher than the current 2% rate (BLS, n.d.). In the two years following passage of the amendment, property tax collections collapsed by 50%. The resulting loss of revenue and high inflation caused a financial crisis in cities and counties throughout the state (BOE, 2018). Because taxes are based on acquisition cost, not current appraised value, the law has created large disparities in tax liability between neighbors in similar housing. In addition, the law has created inequalities between homeowners of different ages. The purchase of a home would normally step up the appraised value of the property to a current value but new homeowners over 55 were exempted. Older homeowners could also transfer their house to their children without triggering a step up in appraised value. Many homes are never sold. The homeowners and their heirs rent out the homes at current rental prices and pocket the profits. The law has created a class of landed gentry in the state (Dillon, Poston, 2018).

In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the law did not violate the 14th Amendment (Nordlinger v. Hahn, n.d.). In the past forty years, the law has severely reduced funding for California schools and helped to create notorious budget shortfalls. In the 1970s, California ranked in the top ten states in the quality of public education. This past year, Wallet Hub ranked the state #38 (McCann, 2019).

The fixing of one problem often creates a much larger inequity in the end and that requires an endless stream of fixes to the solutions to the problem. It’s good business for lawmakers. Adam Smith, the father of economics, documented the process in his book Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776). Labor guilds and business interests often proposed regulations which gave them an advantage in a market. The public good was often compromised by laws that favored these interest groups. Smith proposed a free market approach as the only way to protect the public from the corruption and favoritism that inevitably marks a political state. California is a living example of the same problems that Smith described in 18th century England. Human nature has changed little in the past 200 years.

In 2020, California voters may have a chance to undo that part of the law that applies equally to commercial property, but homeowners will continue to enjoy incremental changes to their property taxes (Levin, 2018). The dream of homeownership will elude many families in the state. Taxes are inherently unfair but Californians have created their own brand of unfair taxes.

//////////////////////

Notes:

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Inflation Calculator. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=1&year1=197901&year2=198001.

California State Board of Equalization (BOE). (2018, December). California Property Tax: An Overview. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.boe.ca.gov/proptaxes/pdf/pub29.pdf#page=5

Dillon, L., Poston, B. (2018, August 17). Must Reads: California homeowners get to pass low property taxes to their kids. It’s proved highly profitable to an elite group. Los Angeles Times. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-california-property-taxes-elites-201808-htmlstory.html

Levin, M. (2018, August 4). Prop. 13 could be partly undone in 2020—here’s what you should know. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://calmatters.org/economy/2018/08/prop-13-could-be-party-undone-in-2020-heres-what-you-should-know/

McCann, A. (2019, July 29). States with the Best & Worst School Systems. Wallet Hub. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://wallethub.com/edu/e/states-with-the-best-schools/5335/

Nordlinger v. Hahn. (n.d.). Oyez. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1991/90-1912

Photo by The Joy of Film on Unsplash

Smith, Adam. (1776). The Wealth of Nations (Kindle Edition). Digireads.com Publishing (2019). Available at https://www.amazon.com/Wealth-Nations-Adam-Smith-ebook-dp-B000FC1CVE/dp/B000FC1CVE/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=

Our Fair Share

January 19, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The holidays are over. This week our city picked up Christmas trees set by the curb. The sun set after 5 PM, the first time since the time change in the first week of November. The sun is returning to the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the variations in the amount of sunshine throughout the year, we all get the same amount of sunshine over the course of a year. Not so with our tax bills.

Estimated taxes were due this week. The self-employed, retired people and others who earn income with no taxes withheld must pay estimated taxes every quarter. This past year the IRS audited less than ½% of returns, a lifetime low. That sounds great because none of us wants to endure an audit. The very word strikes fear in the hearts of many taxpayers, but most of us have a small chance of being audited regardless. We don’t pay enough in taxes for the IRS to do much more than a paper audit, a request for supporting documentation.

The IRS is not a popular agency and became less popular when the agency discriminated against Tea Party and progressive groups during the 2010 election (Farhi, 2017). House Republicans repeatedly cut the agency’s budget, but that retribution has had serious budget consequences. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the government could raise an additional $1 trillion in tax revenue – that’s about 20% of total revenue – with stricter enforcement of existing law (Heeb, 2019). In 2019, the Federal deficit, or budget shortfall, was $1.1 trillion (BPC, 2020). Stricter enforcement would have effectively erased that deficit.

The race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President promises to center around several themes. The first is the horse race against President Trump, whose incumbency gives him a distinct advantage when running for re-election. The press often seems more concerned with the contest than the underlying issues of a campaign. Taxation is a recurring discussion in each election. More or less? What is a fair share? More, more, more social programs, taxation and regulation, or less, less, less social programs and taxation and more defense spending and power for large corporations?

What is fair? As children we have a keen sense of fairness – our “monkey brain.” We are social creatures who feel scorned at what we perceive as unequal treatment. Equal and fair are not the same thing. A fair share is not the same as an equal share. If I can afford to buy $50,000 worth of goods in a year, why should I have to pay more sales tax than someone who only buys $30,000? We make equal use of a city’s public services. Why should we be treated unequally? Well, we have become accustomed to paying an equal percentage of what we buy in the stores as a sales tax.

Why don’t we follow that same approach for income taxes? States like Colorado do charge the same rate of state income tax regardless of income. Is that fair? Some cities like Denver charge a head tax, a flat fee income tax for anyone who works within the district. Should we follow the same approach throughout the nation? Warren Buffett and I would pay the same amount in income taxes. Is that fair?

Should prices for public utilities be adjusted based on income? If my neighbor makes twice what I do, should they pay twice for the same amount of water? Currently, we are charged the same rate. The income and property taxes of those over 65 are often given a discount. In some districts, a person who reaches 65 finds that they can lower their property tax by 50%. Is that fair?

Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, proposed that all student debt be eliminated. Should students who went to more expensive private schools be rewarded more than students who borrowed less because they went to a state college? Should students who borrowed less because they worked part time while going to school be penalized? Is that fair?

In Matthew 20:1–16, Jesus tells a parable of the workers in the vineyard. Workers who came to work in the morning agreed to an amount of money for a day’s work. Workers who came to work later in the day were also promised the same amount of money for working the rest of the day. Jesus was making a point that each person will be rewarded equally in the kingdom of heaven no matter when in their lifetime they come to God’s love. No matter what your religious orientation, is that fair?

Each election we get to vote on what’s fair. Some people don’t vote because they say that their opinion doesn’t matter. It certainly doesn’t if they don’t vote so they have proved their case. If I vote and my neighbor doesn’t, my vote effectively counts double. In a few weeks, the Democratic primaries will start. The first two are in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with small populations and an even smaller number of people who participate in the caucus system. The votes of a few thousand people can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In a democratic nation of 320 million people, is that fair?

///////////////////////

Notes:

Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). (2020, January 9). Deficit Tracker. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/deficit-tracker/

Farhi, P. (2017, October 5). Four years later, the IRS tea party scandal looks very different. It may not even be a scandal. Washington Post. [Web page]. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/four-years-later-the-irs-tea-party-scandal-looks-very-different-it-may-not-even-be-a-scandal/2017/10/05/4e90c7ec-a9f7-11e7-850e-2bdd1236be5d_story.html

Heeb, G. (2019, November 19). The US could raise $1 trillion more in taxes through stricter IRS enforcement, according to a new study. Markets Insider. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-could-raise-1-trillion-more-tighter-irs-enforcement-study-2019-11-1028700145

Photo by Maria Molinero on Unsplash

The Fuel of Fear

by Steve Stofka

January 12, 2020

The Constitution requires that a census be taken every ten years. The first census in 1790 counted almost four million people. The Census Bureau estimates the population at 330 million now, a hundred-fold increase (Census Bureau, 2019). The Constitution was a hard-fought bargain between representatives of regional interests. Politicians in the North and South distrusted each other. Southern states estimated that they would gain the most population growth in future decades because the growing season was longer in those states, and most people depended on agriculture for their existence. Until those population trends developed, the South worried that the more populous North would dominate Federal policy (Klarman, 2016). Our lives are impacted by the fear and distrust of our founders.

Minority and isolated rural communities are at risk of being undercounted because they distrust government. Minorities may have come from a country where there is good reason to distrust government. Indian tribes have several hundred years of reasons to distrust state and federal governments. Response rates to the census questionnaire vary dramatically. In some of the 3000 counties nationwide, responses are only 20%. In some, the response rate is 80-85% (C-Span, 2020). An advocacy group testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing this week estimated that 400,000 Latino children aged 0-4 were not counted in the 2010 census (C-Span, 2020). Pre-school programs for at-risk Latino children receive less funding when the government doesn’t know those children exist.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and a Congress ruled by the Democratic Party made an abrupt shift in the role of the Federal government. Until then, the policies of state governments had a more direct impact on the lives of most Americans. Today, the Federal government is involved in every aspect of our lives. Census counts determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of Federal tax dollars each year.  Political scammers rely on the fact that minority populations are fearful, and they spread disinformation about the census to fuel that fear and help reduce the population counts of those communities. Because so many federal programs are tied to the census, people who are fully counted in one state benefit if those in a neighboring state are under counted. The counting of people has become a political sport.

Politicians are afraid of losing the jobs they worked hard to get in the first place. Their interests become aligned with companies whose campaign contributions help protect a politician’s position. Some fault the private market for overpriced drugs and high housing costs but it is the failure of policy makers to respond to the interests of the constituents who voted them into office. Politicians respond instead to the wishes of pharmaceutical, energy and real estate companies. A dominant company in an industry does not want competition. They lobby politicians to craft policies that make the market less free to protect their market domination. It is not the role of private companies to respond to a broad constituency of voters. That is the role of politicians, who blame the private market instead of their own public policy. Then they call for more public policy failures to fix private industry. Private industry increases their lobbying and campaign contributions in response.

Humans have a proclivity for fear and are more alert for negative experiences. Psychologists calls it a negativity bias (Cherry, 2019). For good and bad, fear infected our Constitution at the outset and drove the founders to craft a Constitution of compromise. Smaller states feared the majority will of the larger states. The founders feared the power of the British Parliament and the king just as minority populations fear the government today. Driven by fear for their own political survival, politicians sought the support of the few at the expense of the people who voted them into office. Then and now, we fuel our public policies with fear of the other, whoever we think that is. Our country becomes ruled by fear.

//////////////////////

Notes:

Cherry, K. (2019, April 11). What is the Negativity Bias? VeryWellMind. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Response rates. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=12401

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Latino children. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=13069

Klarman, M.J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 192.

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, July 1). Quick Facts. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219

The Black Hole of Generational Wealth

January 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As we begin this new decade, let’s look at some developing trends. In 2005, the wealth of the Boomer generation (1946-1964) finally surpassed that of their parents (Federal Reserve, 2019). This was the so-called Silent generation born in the years 1925-45. In 2005, each of those two generations owned a quarter of the nation’s wealth for a total of slightly more than half the nation’s wealth. There are about five generations that make up a human life span. Older generations have had more time to accumulate wealth, so this distribution of wealth among the two oldest generations was expected.

Turn the dial forward 14 years to 2019 and the distribution of wealth has changed significantly following the Financial Crisis. The median age of the Boomer generations is now 64 and they own 60% of the nation’s wealth. Even more remarkable is the 25% share of the country’s wealth owned by the oldest generation who are 75 years or older (Federal Reserve, 2017). The median wealth of those oldest households is greater than that of the Boomers.

What happened? Most of that wealth is in real estate. Following the financial crisis, asset prices have recovered. Housing prices have risen sharply on both coasts where most of the country’s population lives. Between the 2013 and 2016 Surveys of Consumer Finances, the median net wealth of the 75+ generation increased 32% while the oldest of the Boomer generation aged 65-74 had a 6% decline.

As these oldest Americans die, their wealth will pass to younger generations but most of it will presumably pass to their immediate heirs, the Boomers. Within five to ten years, the Boomers – less than 25% of the population – will own 70% or more of the nation’s wealth.

The Consumer Survey data shows that approximately 80% of that 70% will be owned by 10% of the Boomers (Federal Reserve, 2017, Figure B). A small percentage of old people will control a majority of the wealth in the country. Wealth buys political influence to protect that wealth. Younger generations have a greater number of votes but have not exercised that vote power in the same percentages as older people. Will the concentration of wealth prod younger people into exercising their power at the ballot box? Older and wealthier Americans have political alliances that give them more electoral power than their vote numbers. In this coming decade younger Americans will have to come out in overwhelming numbers on election days to overcome the power of those alliances. Will we see a generational revolution this decade?

The strength – and weakness – of older people is their predictability. They will counter proposals for fairer wealth distribution with familiar arguments. “These younger people want something for nothing” has been an effective counterargument for several decades. “These policy proposals are socialist and un-American” is another effective ad campaign against policy changes. “How will we pay for this? Higher taxes and less money for working people” is another strategic counterargument that attracts moderate and conservative voters.

The past decade has been historic. We ended the “aughts” or 2000s with the election of a black American for president and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We ended this decade with the impeachment of President Trump. Like President Clinton who was impeached in 1998, both men enjoyed robust economic growth, historically high stock and housing market prices during their terms. Economic well being did not insulate either president from impeachment by the opposite party. Get ready for the next decade. I’m betting that economic disparity and political friction create a maelstrom that makes the past two decades look tame.

/////////////////////

Notes:

Federal Reserve. (2019, December 23). Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989: Wealth By Generation. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/table/#quarter:120;series:Net%20worth;demographic:generation;population:all;units:levels

Federal Reserve. (2017, September). Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2013 to 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances: Table 2. Family median and mean net worth, by selected characteristics of families, 2013 and 2016 surveys. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-September-changes-in-us-family-finances-from-2013-to-2016.htm#xtable2-familymedianandmeannetworthb-c9084a05

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Look Back, Look Forward

December 29, 2019

By Steve Stofka

In this last week of 2019, I’ll look way back for a bit of perspective heading into the coming election year. In 1932, voters elected FDR to the Presidency. More significantly, they elected an overwhelming majority of Democrats to the Congress to enable FDR to make big changes. Voters wanted an activist government to fix things.

$2.8 trillion is a lot of money, about 2/3rds of what the federal government spent in 2018 (CBO, 2019). That’s how much inflation-adjusted money depositors lost in bank failures during the Great Depression (Investopedia, n.d.). Imagine if ¾ of all the cash and money in checking accounts just vanished. That’s $2.8 trillion.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created in 1933 to protect bank depositors from the loss of their life savings. During the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, Washington Mutual had losses of $307 billion. Depositors lost nothing. That’s activist government.

Republican advocate for a reactive rather than a proactive government – one that has a light regulatory hand. Too often this type of government ignores signs of trouble until a full-blown crisis develops like the 9-11 terrorist attacks or the Great Financial Crisis.

Voters will be asked to decide on which government role they prefer. Advocates for an activist government believe in grand communal solutions, many of which are poorly executed but are better than nothing. Cars, phones, computers and the social media that dominates our public policy discussions were all privately developed solutions that have adapted quickly to user demands. Government solutions are clunky contraptions of conceited ambitions that are slow to evolve as effective solutions. When they finally achieve some efficiency, the problem has changed. Examples include rent control, Social Security, Medicare, and the federal student loan program.

Advocates for a reactive government wait until the situation is near crisis levels, see that no one has created a solution yet and propose a public private partnership (PPP). These programs are not well designed to solve the problem but serve the purpose of funneling public tax dollars into private coffers while policy makers pontificate about free market solutions.  Examples are prisons, toll roads, and university student housing.

Presidents are usually elected for a second term. President H.W. Bush lost his bid for a second term in 1992 because of the lingering effects of a recession.  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for economic reasons as well. Divisions in the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War convinced an unpopular President Lyndon Johnson that he should not run for a second term in 1968. It’s unlikely that we will have a recession next year and that will increase the likelihood that Mr. Trump will be re-elected. Will that influence your financial decisions in any way?

The SP500 has gained 41% since President Trump took office in January 2017. Most of that gain has come in the past year. A record amount of money flowed into equity ETFs in December (Bell, 2019). Are investors chasing the high? Now is a good time for older investors to evaluate the risk-reward profile of their portfolio. An unpleasant task is to imagine what choices you might need to make if the value of your equity holdings were cut in half. That’s what happened in 2001-2002 and again in 2007-2009.  

97% of the U.S. is classified as rural but only 20% of the population lives there (Census Bureau, 2016). The map of the country may be colored a political shade of red, but there are relatively few voters per county. An ever-increasing portion of the people live in the scattered blue and politically purple areas. For decades the children who grew up in rural communities have left and not returned. The political fight for the direction of the country is not between rural and urban populations but between voters in smaller metro areas and suburban communities (Marema, 2019).

///////////////

Notes:

Bell, H. (2019, December 20). ETFs See Record $52B Inflows. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.etf.com/sections/weekly-etf-flows/weekly-etf-flows-2019-12-19-2019-12-13

Census Bureau. (2016, December 8). New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html

Congressional Budget Office. (2019, June 18). The Federal Budget in 2018: An Infographic. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/55342

Investopedia. (n.d.). Bank Failures. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bank-failure.asp

Marema, T. (2019, March 14). Contrary to What You Hear, the Rural-Urban Gap Didn’t Grow in 2018 Election. The Daily Yonder. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.dailyyonder.com/contrary-hear-rural-urban-gap-didnt-grow-2018-election/2019/03/14/

Majksner, Nikola. (n.d.). The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex in the Valley of Heroes, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/as_pS7EkK-Y

A Lump Of Coal

December 22, 2019

by Steve Stofka

While going through the personal items my mom left behind, I found a picture of her and some childhood friends lounging on the grass. The girls were dressed in simple clean dresses that looked homemade. The boys were dressed in pants whose legs could not keep up with a 7th grader’s growth spurt. The year was about 1934, the place a farming community in Texas during the Great Depression.

When we were kids, my mom would not allow us to call someone names. Cursing was out. No surprise there. Even popular pejoratives like “fink,” “bozo,” and “retard” were out as well. “I will not have my children behaving like cheap white trash,” she would say. We never got a definition of cheap white trash. We could only get a sense of it. Bad manners, an insensitivity to the feelings of others, a lack of respect for authority and other people’s property, a lack of responsibility. Cheap white trash was not about a bunch of depression-era kids dressed in simple clothes. It was not about being poor in material wealth; it was about being poor in spirit.

President Trump is our century’s version of the circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum. Almost half of voters chose him in the hope that he could tame the beasts in Washington. He behaves in a brash and boorish manner that is better fit for a wrestling persona than a president. Mr. Trump’s overbearing manner echoes that of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister and billionaire media mogul.  

This week the House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr. Trump on two counts, one of which was obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Unlike previous impeachment proceedings, Mr. Trump refused to testify on his own behalf and blocked the testimony of several material witnesses. After the vote of impeachment, he sent a six-page letter to the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The letter detailed his explanation of events and voiced his condemnation of the House’s impeachment process (Trump, 2019).

Mr. Trump is a champion of insensitivity who claims to be above the rules of propriety but holds his perceived enemies to a rigid code of conduct. One of the many contradictions that makes him such a colorful character.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition this week. One of the program’s hosts, Steve Inskeep, interviewed a spokeswoman for the White House about the impeachment (NPR, 2019). Mr. Inskeep had to interrupt several times when her assertions contradicted known facts. She attempted several versions of the history of the impeachment proceedings. She reminded me of a running back who hits the defensive line, is rebuffed and persistently tries another opening.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader and the person who single-handedly controls the journey of most legislation, has promised to closely coordinate with the White House during a Senate impeachment trial. According to Ms. Pelosi, about 275 bipartisan bills passed by the House this year are buried in Mr. McConnell’s desk (C-Span, 2019). He is up for re-election in 2020 and faces challengers from the party’s base in his home state of Kentucky. He is standing very close to President Trump as a matter of survival, not principle. The first principle of political success is to get re-elected.

Politics in a democracy is a messy affair of conflict and compromise, bare knuckle bargaining and chess master tactics. Relatively few of us enter the field. Those who do must convince themselves that they have not compromised their character even when they had to compromise their principles. Many campaigned hard to get elected to office and work even harder to stay elected.

For more than two years of former President Obama’s first term, Mr. Trump was a leading spokesman for the “birther” movement to nullify Mr. Obama’s presidency because his birth certificate was a forgery. Only after Mr. Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016 did he admit that Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. and that his presidency had been legitimate (NPR, 2016). In a touch of irony characteristic of an episode of the Twilight Zone, the House has put a certificate of another sort, the black mark of impeachment, in Mr. Trump’s Christmas stocking. He promised to revive the coal industry. Now he has his lump of coal.

//////////////////////////

C-Span. (2019, December 19). House Speaker Weekly Briefing. [Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467564-1/speaker-pelosi-wait-senate-trial-details-naming-impeachment-managers

NPR. (2019, December 19). White House Responds to Impeachment. [Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/12/19/789704256/white-house-responds-to-impeachment

NPR. (2016, September 16). Without Apology, Trump Now Says: ‘Obama Was Born In’ The U.S. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/09/16/494231757/without-apology-trump-now-says-obama-was-born-in-the-u-s

Photo by Nick Nice at Unsplash.com

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. (2019, December 17). Letter to: The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives. [Web Page]. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Letter-from-President-Trump-final.pdf