On the tax bill we begin grouchy and wind up, as befits the season, hopeful.
Grouchy: Wednesday afternoon’s big White House rally celebrating its passage was embarrassing. All these grown men and women slathering personal, obsequious, over-the-top praise—“exquisite presidential leadership,” “a man of action,” “the president of the United States, whom I love and appreciate so much”—as Donald Trump emceed and called new praisers to the stage. They do this to keep the president happy, feed his needy ego and insist on his competency. It looked less like praise than self-abasement.
Actually, and I’m sorry to say this, the mood reminded me of the tale of Stalin telling some lame joke in a dinner speech. His ministers all laughed as if it were the wittiest thing they ever heard. Then they kept laughing, louder, and wouldn’t stop, because they knew the first one to stop would be noticed by Stalin and would soon be gone. So boy did they laugh.
The president thinks this kind of thing makes him look good. It doesn’t, it diminishes him: Keep the buffoon happy. Here is what would make him look good, and elevate him: normal human modesty. If he modestly waved off the praise, shut it down, said, “Please, let’s talk about the bill and how it will help our country . . .”
He would look bigger, as modest people always do, and his praisers would not look smaller.
On to hope: The fair way to judge the tax bill was never through the mindless, whacked-out rhetoric on both sides—the worst bill in the history of the world, the best thing since Coolidge was a pup—but through the answer to one question: Will this bill make things a little better or a little worse? There is much reason to believe it will make things better. It is imperfect, to say the least. But it is good to cut the corporate rate from an absurd and uncompetitive 35% to a more constructive 21%; it is compassionate to double the child tax credit; it is fair to cut taxes for small businesses, many of which are struggling.
America is waiting and hoping for a boom. By all means encourage the circumstances in which it can take place.
And the bill is going to prove popular. The Democrats bet wrong on this. Almost immediately on passage, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bancorp announced a raise in their lowest wage to $15 an hour. AT&T said it would give about 200,000 unionized workers a $1,000 bonus and increase capital spending $1 billion. Comcast said it would give 100,000 employees bonuses and spend more than $50 billion in infrastructure improvement.
You can sit back in your sophisticated way and say, “Hmm, that looks like a curiously orchestrated public relations push.” You can say, “How nice, the malefactors of great wealth are giving their workers a little tip.” You can wonder if they’re spreading cheap good cheer to grease their mergers. But if you are working the line in Smalltown, U.S.A., and just got bumped up to $15, or you’ve been surprised by an unexpected thousand dollars at Christmastime, you will see this not as a tip but as a real and concrete break, thanks to that most unexpected of benefactors, the U.S. government.
Who cares about CEOs’ motives if they’re doing something good?
It is true the tax bill is not popular in the polls. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey put support at 24% with 41% opposing it. But here’s something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while: During the Reagan era, I noticed a funny thing about public opinion and tax policy. When you run for office and promise you’ll cut taxes, the crowd cheers lustily. Then once in office you put together a tax bill and the polls show public support is lukewarm. Then you pass it and its popularity bubbles around in the polls. Then an election comes and you win and the voters tell pollsters they backed you because you cut taxes. There are a lot of reasons this might be—a campaign vow is intentional and abstract, a final bill is real and messy—but I suspect there’s something in this: Voters don’t like to tell pollsters they’re for tax cuts. They have the feeling it’s the wrong position, that it’s small-minded and if they were nicer, they’d be less self-interested.
Anyway, polling doesn’t matter right now. Down the road it matters.
As for me, I am interested in my own lack of sustained dismay. I share this information because I’m wondering if there isn’t something of a broader public mood in my reaction. As a salaried worker in a high-tax state, I am about to get clobbered with the loss of the state and local tax deduction. And yet I find myself not minding so much. America is in so much and so many kinds of trouble that if this thing makes it a little better, then OK. Please, 2018 tax bill, make it better.
I end with this. This bill gives American big business more than a boatload of money, it offers a historic opportunity—a timely and perhaps final one.
Big corporations can take the gift of the tax cut (and the continuance of the carried interest loophole, that scandal) and do superficial, pleasing public relations sort of things, while really focusing on buying back stock and upping shareholder profits.
And they’ll do this if they’re stupid, and craven.
Or they could set themselves to saving the system that made them, and helping the country that made their lives possible.
They can in some new way see themselves as citizens—as members of America, as people with a stake in this nation, a responsibility for it. They can broaden, invest, hire, expand and start the kinds of projects that take the breath away. They can literally get young men and women out of the house, into the workplace, learning something. They can change and save lives. This would be costly. Spend.
One of our two political parties is being swept by a young and rising new left that is fiercely progressive and on fire for socialism. It may well in coming decades sweep the CEOs and their corporations away if they cannot rouse themselves to present economic freedom as an ultimate and democratic good.
This may be the last opportunity for business leaders to do what hasn’t been done in a generation, and that is defend the reputation of capitalism.
Wall Street once had statesmen; it wasn’t dominated by dumb quarterly-report jockeys. Shareholders were assumed to be patriots, and grateful ones, because they had so profited from the luck of being born here, into a system where the quick and sturdy could go from nothing to everything.
That system is troubled. If they cannot see private interest as utterly aligned right now with public interest, then they are truly as stupid and venal as their enemies take them to be.
Are they? I hope not. But I also hope they see this moment for what it is.
And now on to Christmas. God bless us every one.