Observe the media’s economic illiteracy: reporters and pundits wonder why the nominal 35 percent corporate tax rate should be lowered when corporations pay a real rate that is so much lower. What those reporters and pundits don’t see is that many actions that corporations take to lower the real tax rate are nonproductive actions that would not be taken were it not for the high nominal rate. This constitutes a waste of resources to society.
PS: Corporate taxation is at least double taxation. So even a believer in taxes ought to oppose it.
Pundits at CNN and other news outlets are much distressed over the report that Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessories company won trademark recognition from the government of China just as that country’s president was sitting down with President Trump and the First Daughter for dinner at Mar-a-Lago.
“Conflict of interest!” they protest. “Conflict of interest!” They then set off on an inquiry into how such conflicts can be prevented, an effort beset by a growing sense that nothing can be done about the problem.
They are justified in that sense of futility because within the range of options they would consider acceptable, nothing can be done.
Ivanka Trump is a federal worker, albeit at a salary of zero. But it would make no difference if she had no job in the White House because she would still be the president’s daughter and that’s not going to change. Any foreign leader — or anyone else, for that matter — who wants to curry favor with President Trump can easily calculate that doing something nice for his daughter at least can’t hurt. After all, she doesn’t have to be a Special Adviser to the President to be a special adviser to her father, the president. And if she is talking to her father about the country, her comments could be colored — even unconsciously — by her business interests. But even if they were not, Trump himself, who is famously a sucker for flattery and, presumably, for praise for his family, might be influenced by the kindness of strangers.
So how can conflicts of interest be avoided? It would be unreasonable to demand that Ivanka Trump divest herself of her company and have no business interests: she does have rights. She no longer manages her company, but she still holds a stake, even if she has put her assets into a trust. Moreover, she also has resigned as executive vice president of the Trump Organization and sold her common stock in it. CNNMoney reported that her lawyer says that “Ivanka Trump has converted her stake in her father’s company into fixed payments, which means she can’t benefit from the financial performance of the Trump Organization…. At the White House, Ivanka Trump’s role will be to advise her father and concentrate on issues related to women in the workplace, child care, parental leave and job training, [the lawyer] said.” In another story CNNMoney reported that her lawyer “said her client would recuse herself from certain policy matters, like trade agreements, that are specific enough to affect her line of clothing and accessories.”
But, as I said, this makes no difference whatever. People seeking Trump’s good will might still think it advantageous to direct benefits to Trump family business interests. Even with her reduced roles, Ivanka Trump surely wants to see her company and the Trump Organization prosper.
So we appear to be stuck with four to eight years of potential conflicts of interest. We’ll never know if decisions coming out of the executive branch were ultimately influenced by conduct calculated to please Trump.
But maybe all is not so hopeless after all. Recall that I said the pundit class knows no solution that itwould regard as acceptable. That leaves open the possibility of a solution that is unacceptable to them. “Unacceptable,” however, does not necessarily mean unreasonable.
The heart of the potential for conflicts of interests is not the Trumps’ business empire. Rather it’s presidential power to steer benefits to particular interests. So the surest way to eliminate the potential for conflicts is to eliminate the president’s power to steer benefits to anyone. This would include not only favors granted by executive action but also those that a president can push through Congress.
Here we have an analogy with campaign finance. Those who fret over that issue don’t want to understand that no one would make mega-contributions to candidates if officeholders had no favors to sell. Who shops where there’s nothing to buy? By the same token, no one will do favors for a presidential daughter if the president has nothing to bestow in return.
If politicians could not impose trade restrictions (and therefore could not selectively lift them either) or provide foreign aid or grant any of the other favors the government today can grant, we wouldn’t have to worry about conflicts of interest.
Of course, the people who do worry are the same ones who think the government should have the power to do all those things — and more. They want to have their cake and eat it too. But they can’t because logic is logic.
This may sound like a call for “limited government,” but that’s just a slogan. In the real world, states seek missions and expand. Therefore, nothing less than abolition will do.
All I can say is, we’ve got a hell of a political system on our hands when the surest way for a president to win the adoration of those who thought him a dangerous, ignorant, narcissistic, erratic, and bullshitting blowhard yesterday is to drop a bomb or fire a cruise missile today.
We already knew something like this was the case. War presidents tend to be remembered better than presidents who had the misfortune to reign during peacetime, sometimes despite their best efforts.
I guess it’s understandable that a president who “led the nation into war” would stand out in the memory more than one who did not, but it’s no less a matter of concern to those who actually hate war and love peace rather than just say it. It’s especially worrisome when you realize that many people — pundits and scholars in particular — believe that only in waging war does a president display his finest traits: leadership, courage, strength, resoluteness, and so on.
Since presidents are thought to come into their own only during state-sponsored butchery, we may find a parallel in what Randolph Bourne said of the state itself. Writing in 1918, after the evil evangelist Woodrow Wilson had taken the United States into the Great War, Bourne observed that a republican state in peacetime is boring. It “has almost no trappings to appeal to the common man’s emotions. What it has are of military origin, and in an unmilitary era such as we have passed through since the Civil War, even military trappings have been scarcely seen. In such an era the sense of the State almost fades out of the consciousness of men.
“With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again. The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war….”
Then everything changes.
“The moment war is declared…,” Bourne continued, “the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.”
In other words, war reminds the people that their real religion is the religion of State, i.e., nationalism. Their other religions place a distant second.
War of course has changed in many ways since Bourne’s day. We won’t see columns of men marching down joyously tearful crowd-lined American streets on their way to be dispatched to Syria or any of the other places in which “we are at war.” There will likely be no conscription with its patriotic appeals. (Am I too hasty in ruling this out?) America’s heroes do their killing largely though not entirely by remote control, from behind drone consoles or on ships safely in the Mediterranean. To be sure, special-ops “advisers” and “trainers” get to see some of the action up close, and sometimes one of them takes a hit, at which time we’ll be frequently assured that he or she really did die for our freedom. Anyone who suggests an American warrior died in vain or on behalf of imperial ambitions will be shunned — or worse.
So a president today may have to work a little harder than in the past to garner adoration — but not that hard, especially when it comes to our furrowed-brow pundits and solemn politicians.
The Trump case drives home the point. Here was a guy who until recently scared the bejeezus out of our weightiest thinkers. He was thought to combine three of the worst traits: conceit, ignorance, and impulsiveness, born of an exaggerated estimate of his own gut. Yet all he had to do to win over these critics was (illegally) to command the Navy to fire several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles from some ships, and suddenly he’s just the right man in just the right place at just the right time. CNN’s and the Washington Post‘s Wise Pundit, Fareed Zakaria, declared him president just after the missiles launched. The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof said Trump’s action was of “dubious legality,” “hypocritical,” and “right.” Every major newspaper lauded him editorially and turned over its op-ed page exclusively to commentators who agreed. Such praise gushed forth even though Trump’s strike against Syria was rash, having been ordered before an inquiry into the origin of the chemical-weapons attack had been conducted. Dissent was as scarce as a hint of humility in the Trump household.
We can be sure that Trump did not misread the lesson. He’s a man who has craved the respect of the establishment all his adult life. When he could not win it in the business world, he said the equivalent of “screw you” and ran for president as an anti-establishment candidate. But that was never authentic; he was as transparent as a snake-oil hawker.
Yet Trump continued to crave the respect of those who, in his mind, really matter (unlike the forgotten working people he pretended to champion). It didn’t hurt that by going after Russia’s ally and suggesting that Vladimir Putin was complicit, he could show Those Who Matter that he really isn’t a Kremlin puppet. It also didn’t hurt that he chose to go after a guy (Assad) whom the American establishment has wanted to get off for a long time, although this will benefit the bin Ladenites and worse. (“If there was anything that [the strike on] Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” Prince Eric said.) Neocons and humanitarian (sic) interventionists alike favor the destabilization of Syria long sought by Israel and Saudi Arabia, not to mention America’s Israel-firsters.
So as I said, we’ve got a hell of a political system on our hands.
Unfortunately, I never met Will Grigg, our managing editor here at The Libertarian Institute. I will always regret that. Our only direct contact was by phone during several conference calls in which he, Scott Horton, and I hatched our little conspiracy on behalf of liberty. We also had some exchanges on Facebook, long before The Libertarian Institute was a twinkle in Scott’s eye. Before that, I knew of him only through Scott’s interviews with him and his blog, Pro Libertate.
But despite the paucity of personal contact, Will certainly make a lasting impression on me. He had that effect on people. How could he not? His work shines forth with unrelenting research, deep understanding, immovable integrity, and precise, compelling prose. He inspired readers with every meticulously chosen noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. He enriched our lives.
Will’s love of liberty, justice, and truth knew no bounds. No one exposed the outrages of the “criminal justice” (sic) system better than he. No one worked harder to uncover the facts. No one was more implacable in judging those facts in the light of the goodness of freedom and the evil of the state. He is gone now, but I will continue to learn from him and the great work he left us.
Will Grigg will be missed by many. We honor him best by continuing his work.
It says something about the complexity of language (and me perhaps) that I took so long to realize that Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan, which I found off-putting from the start, consists of the same words as the name of the pre-World War II organization I’ve respected for decades.
The same phrase coming from Trump and John T. Flynn, author of the must-read anti-fascist work As We Go Marching, has two different meanings for me, as though the very words were different.
I think I know why. The America First Committee (AFC) had a single, admirable objective: to keep the United States out of another European war in light of the disastrous consequences — foreign and domestic — of Woodrow Wilson’s entry into the Great War in 1917. (See my condensed history of the committee here.) Its many members and supporters would have agreed on little else, considering that they included Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, future presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy, future Kennedy in-law and Peace Corps head Sargent Shriver, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Sears, Roebuck Chairman Gen. Robert E. Wood, and individualist muckraking journalist Flynn. It had 800,000 dues payers.
America First has been unfairly maligned through the years, mostly because its national spokesman, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, gave a speech in which he said U.S. entry into the war was being urged primarily by Britons and Jews. (On its face that’s neither an anti-British nor anti-Semitic statement.) However, after declaring that the AFC would “bring together all Americans, regardless of possible differences on other matters, who see eye-to-eye on these principles,” it added parenthetically: “This does not include Nazis, Fascists, Communists, or members of other groups that place the interests of any other nation above those of our own.” Ousted from the national committee were builder and American Olympic Association president Avery Brundage, who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies, and Henry Ford, who had written derogatorily about Jews. Indeed, Flynn, who headed the New York chapter, made it clear at large gathering at Madison Square Garden that anti-Semites and fascists should get the hell out of the hall. The crowd was so angry at the known fascist whom Flynn had singled out that the man needed police protection.
As for the war, the committee believed that an “impregnable defense” would deter any attack, that staying out of the war was vital to maintaining democracy, and that “aid [to the Allies] short of war” would make America vulnerable and risk deeper involvement in the war.
The committee disbanded after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which many believed (with good reason) President Roosevelt had provoked as a backdoor to war. (He couldn’t get Hitler to attack.) In its final statement, the AFC leaders said, “Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained.”
Now let’s compare the America First Committee with Trump’s America First program. We know it is not about staying out of war. Last night he ordered a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airbase (without the congressional authorization he once said was necessary for such an action) — although Syria has not attacked the United States. He’s intensifying the wars in Iraq (against ISIS), Syria (against ISIS), Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and probably some other places we don’t know about yet. Trump has also embraced NATO, which more or less obligates the American people to go to war to defend, among others, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey, and Albania, and soon perhaps Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine. He seems ready to go to war against North Korea. (See my “Trump Never Was a Noninterventionist.”)
Trump likes to distinguish his “America First” foreign policy from his predecessors’ policies, which allegedly put other countries first. Here Trump shows his ignorance of the dynamics of the American Empire. No one has propounded, either explicitly or implicitly, an “American Second” foreign policy. Even foreign aid (a small part of the government’s budget) is justified as being in “America’s interest,” and I have no problem believing that its champions honestly think this. Trump is wrong if he believes the alliance system and regime change have been intended to put other countries first. These were always conceived as in the interest of the Empire. Trump can’t acknowledge this because his brand largely consists of an aggrieved-nation shtick.
Now it is true that the interests of the Empire are not the interests of the American people. But neither are the interests that Trump’s program serves.
Ironically, none of his policies puts America first, if that phrase means something like “doing what enhances the well-being of the people living in the United States.” The damage of war — morally, psychologically, and fiscally — is too obvious by now to need elaboration. I agree with F. A. Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, who said, “It is now urgent in the interest of liberty that many persons become ‘peace-mongers.'”
The damage to Americans from protectionism and nativism should be equally clear. On the harms from restricting immigration, see Matthew Iglesias’s consequentialist “The Case for Immigration.” Immigration is not just good for the immigrants.
As for protectionism, it should be obvious that one American industry’s protection is many other American industries’ pain. The other day CNN’s Jake Tapper (perhaps the most overrated interviewer in television news) quizzed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the Trump administration’s heralded crusade against foreigners who “dump” low-cost products, such as steel, in America. (Dumping is not an objective phenomenon because cost is not an objective phenomenon.) Ross defended the plan because of the harm dumping does to underpriced American steelmakers. It did not occur to Tapper to ask about the harm, through higher prices, that anti-dumping measures inflict on Americans who make things out of steel or use things made out of steel — a group that far outnumbers the steel producers. Ross certainly did not mention them. You’d never know from their discussion that about half of what Americans import are producer goods — products used to make other products. (Not that there’s anything wrong with importing consumer goods.)
So how can we say that Trump’s program puts America first? It may put a small privileged group of Americans ahead of a much larger group of Americans, at least for a while, but that’s about it.
The upshot is that in Trump’s hands “America First” is a demagogic slogan that depends on people’s economic illiteracy to augment his power and diminish their liberty. It has nothing to do with John T. Flynn’s noble cause.
In his news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan today, President Trump said that since the chemical attack in Syria, “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” He boasted of his “flexibility” in the face of change. All of this suggests his willingness to destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, something he has opposed until now. In other words, it will be war
He also bashed President Obama again for not solving this problem when Assad was believed to have crossed Obama’s red line with the use of chemical weapons. Trump has yet to acknowledge that in 2013 via Twitter he warned Obama not to attack Syria because it would have disastrous consequences.
At any rate, Trump seems to have boxed himself in. If he doesn’t attack, his current criticism of Obama will look ridiculous. Can he allow that?
Meanwhile, the bin Ladenites in Syria and ISIS are licking their chops.
Randolph Bourne, who broke with his Progressive comrades a century ago and opposed Woodrow Wilson on US entry into the Great War, is famous for writing, “War is the health of the state.” He also wrote this:
You’d better not miss a chance to bash Putin, but it’s okay to praise Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the brutal ruler of Egypt who has killed and jailed — indefinitely and without charge — many people, including opposition journalists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“President Trump vowed support of Egypt’s hard-line government Monday as part of what he described as mutual efforts to defeat terrorism and violent extremist groups, USA Today reported. “‘We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,’ Trump told Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House. ‘You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.'”
General Sisi took power when the democratically elected president, Muhamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was driven from power by the military with some public support. Morsi had been elected after a popular uprising against long-time military dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Obama administration’s criticism of Morsi was widely interpreted as support for Morsi’s ouster, but President Obama also spoke out against a military takeover. Morsi and others were arrested, charged on a variety of counts ranging from murder to treason to torture to incitement to violence and sentenced to death. The sentence was overturned, but he was separately sentenced to life in prison.
Sisi faced no opposition when he was “elected” president. The U.S. gives $1.5 billion a year in military aid to Egypt, but by law must suspend the aid in the event of a military coup. The Obama administration did not label the takeover as a coup and made only a token suspension of some aid. (See this for more on Obama’s relationship with Sisi’s regime.)
“For those who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the value of America’s ideals, accepting a future of decline and retreat in the name of ethnic purity should be unacceptable. That the more homogeneous America will be not just smaller and weaker but also poorer on a per capita basis only underscores what folly it would be to embrace the narrow vision. That hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to move to our shores — and that America has a long tradition of assimilating foreigners and a political mythos and civil culture that is conducive to doing so — is an enormous source of national strength.
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