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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother (Not) – March 28, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Mono Lake, CA, just after sunset – 2020 photo by hodldeeznutz. Those columns are called tufa, and are made of limestone.

Trump has finally made America number 1! We’re again showing the world our exceptionalism by having more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world.

The House has also passed the stimulus bill, and Trump has signed it, so we will also spend the greatest amount of money on the pandemic, with the smallest fraction of it going to the people who really need it.

Or on the medical equipment that we need the most.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the $2 trillion does a whole lot more than provide relief to very rich people and corporations. This from the NYT:

“Senate Republicans inserted an easy-to-overlook provision on page 203 of the 880-page bill that would permit wealthy investors to use losses generated by real estate to minimize their taxes on profits from things like investments in the stock market. The estimated cost of the change over 10 years is $170 billion.”

The NYT explains that under the existing tax code, when real estate investors generate losses from depreciation, they can use some of those losses to offset other taxes.

This is a big tax break because depreciation is a paper loss, resulting in cash flowing to the investor while tax deductions also flow to the investor.

But the use of those losses was limited by the 2017 tax cut. The paper losses could be used only to shelter the first $500,000 of a married couple’s nonbusiness income. Any leftover losses had to be carried forward and used in future years.

The new stimulus bill lifts the $500,000 restriction for three years, this year, and two retroactive years, a boon for couples with more than $500,000 in annual capital gains or income from sources other than their business.

The IRS says the group that benefits comprises the top 1% of taxpayers. Final words to the NYT:

“A draft congressional analysis this week found that the change is the second-biggest tax giveaway in the $2 trillion stimulus package.”

As we approach a new week, doesn’t it seem like fear is setting in? One thing that might have helped would be an empathetic leader in the White House, but you fight the pandemic war with the bozo you have.

In the Thursday evening Coronavirus briefing he acted like a mafia boss, saying that one governor:

“Used to be a big wise guy but not so much anymore…we saw to it he’s not so much anymore.”

He’s referring to New York’s Andrew Cuomo asking for more ventilators. This is GoodFellas meets House of Cards.

As long as Trump controls the distribution of federal resources, he will use it to bully and threaten states for his own political benefit. And think about this: Trump is willing to hand out $500 billion to corporations to save executives, but isn’t willing to spend $1 billion on more ventilators to save sick Americans?

This is what the Trump administration has become:

Trump is NEVER going to do what is necessary to bring this pandemic under control. Success will only be achieved through cooperative action by the States. And, by the rest of us.

Reality is sinking in, we’re gonna be in our houses for a long time. 2020 is becoming the people vs. Donald Trump.

But, there are uplifting moments if you look carefully. Here’s a small effort at a Saturday Soother, aided by the students of Berklee College of Music in Boston MA. After the school closed down and the kids left for home, they created a virtual performance of Bert Bacharach’s “What The World Needs Now”:

Despite Trump, the rest of us are in this together. Protect yourself and your loved ones, this will eventually end, and you want to be here.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 23, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Great Wave off Kanagawa – Japanese woodblock print by Hokusai c. 1829. The wave could represent a tsunami of COVID-19 cases, or could it represent the rising of malign intent by Trump towards our democracy?

Are we in the midst of a national emergency or not? Is a tsunami of COVID-19 cases about to inundate America, or not? Let Wrongo answer: It’s a national emergency. When there’s a national emergency, does the federal government let the states take care of the problem? It does not.

Here’s America’s worst excuse for a leader on twitter Sunday afternoon:

He says it’s not the federal government’s job to lead in a national emergency. As Haberman and Baker said in the NYT: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“For years, skeptics expressed concern about how he would handle a genuine crisis threatening the nation, and now they know.”

Any other president, even the weakest, would have acted differently. Despite the fact that his policies are generally pretty standard right-wing Republican, Trump has managed to make a national disaster worse than it had to be.

Now all Americans should know how it feels to be Puerto Rican.

Bloomberg reports that Trump’s directive for governors to buy their own medical supplies to fight the coronavirus ran into a big problem when the federal government outbid them for the products! Earlier that day, Trump said that his administration is not a “shipping clerk” for medical gear that the states require to fight the virus.

Another example from the NYT: (emphasis and brackets by Wrongo)

“…on Saturday {Trump] sought to assure an anxious American public that help was on the way…and that private companies had agreed to provide desperately needed medical supplies to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus.

But Mr. Trump [said] he would not compel companies to make face masks and other gear to protect front-line health workers from the virus….. Mr. Trump said the clothing company Hanes was among those that had been enlisted to start churning out masks, although the company said they would not be the N-95 masks that are most effective in protecting medical workers.”

Trump could simply order companies like Hanes to make them, but instead, Hanes is making masks that don’t actually protect medical personnel. Capitalism @ work!  At a time of national emergency, Trump is letting the market do it, and simply declaring victory.

Another: In the on-going (Sunday) negotiations on the Coronavirus bail-out package, it turns out that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and the White House are demanding that the relief package include $500 billion to be provided to corporations at the discretion of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The best part is that it permits the Treasury secretary to withhold the names of corporate recipients for up to six months. How is it possible to use taxpayer money for corporate bailouts and demand that taxpayers can’t know who’s received the funds?

Finally, here’s an example where Trump is unhappily, showing leadership. He wants to suspend habeas corpus, the Constitutional right to appear before a judge after arrest, and seek release:

“The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the coronavirus spreads through the US.”

The DOJ is looking for broad authority, including the ability to ask chief judges to detain people and to pause court proceedings during emergencies. It would apply to:

“any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,”

This means you could be arrested and not brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. Shouldn’t we be even more careful about granting new powers to the government if we’re in a national emergency?

We can hope that the House will block this nonsense.

We should remember that the US government was founded for the very purpose of solving some rather serious problems that the individual states couldn’t handle. That role of federal leadership has worked for 230+ years, but that doesn’t work for Trump.

You should be asking why.

It seems certain that at some point, Trump will say that the states were unable to solve the virus emergency, so he’s stepping in. He’ll try to use COVID-19 to assume extraordinary emergency powers between now and the election. That’s beyond frightening.

More will die because Trump won’t lead in the fight to contain the Coronavirus. And in the background, he’s busy laying the groundwork for emergency powers.

Wake up Democrats!

It’s time to ask, what are the DC Democrats doing to block all of this?

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Call It the Great Virus Crash of 2020

The Daily Escape:

Desert bloom on Siphon Draw Trail, AZ – photo by ericatect

That was the term used on Wednesday by Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research:

“It’s all at once a health crisis, financial crisis and economic crisis. We need to fix the health part of it before we have it solved, but we can take financial and fiscal steps to blunt its effects.”

JPMorgan Chase said it forecasts a 14% decline in gross domestic product in the second quarter. That’s enough to scare anyone. In a partial response, the Trump administration suspended evictions, authorized the Defense Production Act, and is eyeing a stimulus package worth about $1 trillion.

The headline is that Trump wants to give Americans direct cash assistance. He wants to send two $1,000 checks to many Americans. Beginning April 6th, $250 billion would be issued, and another $250 billion would be issued beginning May 18th. Payments would be tiered based on income level and family size.

The Treasury Department is circulating a two-page sheet of priorities that it wants to see in the final deal:

  • Part of it is a $50 billion “airline industry secured lending facility” that would allow it to make direct loans to “U.S. passenger and cargo air carriers”.
  • The Treasury would also earmark $300 billion to help small businesses avoid mass layoffs.
    • Eligible borrowers would be companies with less than 500 employees.
    • Loan amounts would be limited to 100% of 6 weeks of payroll, capped at $1540 per week per employee.
  • The Treasury also wants Congress to allow it to temporarily guarantee money market mutual funds. Some are worried that an investor panic could lead to a run on these funds. This was done before during the Great Recession.
  • Finally, there would be a $150 billion fund to prop up other sectors, including hotels.

And Wednesday was another day when Trump appeared in front of the press, attempting to look as if he’s a war president. The bad news was that they again halted trading on the stock markets during his press conference.

At Wednesday’s close, the Dow was down another 1,338 points. We’ve now lost almost all of the gains accrued during the Trump administration. Nearly every asset class – stocks, bonds, gold, and oil – fell as investors fled to the safety of cash.

Mr. Market has decided that cash is king. The smart money can’t decide whether Trump’s offering too much stimulus. If so, things must be really bad. And if he’s not offering enough, then there’s no leadership.

Here’s one way to look at the Dow’s performance:

  • First 1153 days of Obama’s presidency +67%
  • First 1153 days of Trump’s presidency  +0%

The WH needs to shut him up. Each time he speaks, things get worse for the rest of us.

Inside this crisis is perhaps the biggest political challenge for Democrats: They have to agree to help an incompetent president and his Party avoid killing their constituents.

That’s a bitter pill, particularly in an election year.

It isn’t a stretch to see how Democrats would be painted as obstructionists if they fail to support what Trump wants at a time when millions of people need a cash bridge to help them across economic difficulties.

Wrongo thinks helping people is a good idea, and a total of $2,000 is better than nothing, but what will it really do? The average US mortgage payment is over $1,000, while the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $1,234. So for a couple, in most cases, one month’s housing costs will eat up about 25% of the total cash from the government. The rest will go to car expenses, the cell phone, perhaps student debt payments. Maybe, if people can stretch, it will last two months.

It’s helpful, but far from enough if employers remain closed for two months or more.

And loans to small businesses? Will small businesses willingly take on more debt when they can’t be sure when their income will return, or if the business will survive?

Any loans to large corporations is a huge mistake. The big four US airlines – Delta, United, American, and Southwest – whose stocks are getting crushed because they will run out of cash in a few months, would be the primary recipients of that $50 billion bailout. But together, they incinerated $43.7 billion in cash on share buybacks since 2012. Now they are looking to get that back from the taxpayers. Those buybacks enriched the very shareholders that Trump now wants to bail out.

Perhaps Trump said it best, although it was a while ago: “We’re seeing a stock market like no one has ever seen before.”

Trump spent the first three years of his presidency trying to erase Obama’s legacy.  Now, The Great Virus Crash in Trump’s last year will erase his.

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We’re In Uncharted Territory

The Daily Escape:

Sunset, Factory Butte, UT – photo by goat_chop56

Blog reader David K. emailed:

“Now, what do we common folk do?  Start our “victory gardens” and shelter in place?  Volunteer to help our local farmers raise food? Hoard?  Wish I had a great idea, because I agree that our leaders don’t have a clue how to respond.”

That gave Wrongo pause. What do those of us who aren’t part of the “smart money” crowd supposed to do, particularly if what we’re facing is a worldwide depression? John Pavlovitz frames the existential issues quite clearly:

What happens if the stores run out of essentials for good?
What if you run out of money to stockpile them?
What if your neighbors stop sharing with you?
What if the government won’t help you?
What might you do then?

Politicians say we’re at war, but as Kunstler says: “At least in wartime, the bars stay open. That’s how you know this is a different thing altogether from whatever else you’ve seen in your lifetime.”

We’re attacked by a novel virus that’s created a completely novel social and economic situation. By definition, we aren’t prepared for an abrupt crash of both our social fabric, and our economic well-being.

Our politicians have no answers, despite most of them having been around for the 2007-2008 Great Recession. The Fed hasn’t done us any favors since then, either.

Last Saturday, Wrongo said that we’re crossing a threshold between what we know and an unseen future. Our traditional systems are no longer capable of keeping society and the economy on an even keel. Nobody really knows how deep and how harsh this will get, but the situation presents two questions:

  • How much disorder will we have to endure?
  • What does the world look like when this thing is over?

All this is happening in an election year, when the entire government and the political parties’ power structures are vulnerable, and could change. We are facing a new reality, for which no one has any answers.

Politics being what it is, the White House and the Congress are trying to work together to come up with solutions. On Monday, Trump gave another press conference on COVID-19. During his talk, the stock market dropped nearly 3,000 points. It was the market’s worst day since Black Monday in 1987.

The smart money was behind Trump in order to get its corporate tax cuts, but now, they’ve voted with their money. And Trump’s starting to look a little bit like Herbert Hoover.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) floated Democrat Andrew Yang’s idea of giving every American $1,000. He was joined in principle by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK). We’ll see if this is just more Republican grandstanding, or if they actually back a real plan of support for working people.

With Trump, you can expect to see bailouts for several industries, including banks, airlines, casinos and cruise lines. Imagine: Casinos are asking for help from the guy who only knows how to bankrupt casinos.

Reuters reports that the US airline industry said that it needs $50 billion in grants and loans to survive the dramatic falloff in travel demand from the COVID-19 outbreak. This is just more socialism for America’s corporations.

Two thoughts: First, $50 billion is higher than the book value of all the airlines combined. Why should they have any of our money? Either Republicans are for free market capitalism, or they should just shut up. Most of these airlines have implemented stock buyback programs when they should have been building contingency funds instead.

Second, this $50 billion should be added to whatever Congress spends on small businesses that are forced to close due to quarantine, or on parents forced to stay home to take care of kids who aren’t going to school anymore. They’re the ones who are really hurting.

We’ve lived through a time of unprecedented affluence. We’ve told ourselves we deserved it all, that we were entitled to all that our country has provided.

But that’s most likely over, and it might not return in Wrongo’s lifetime.

We have to think about what must change if we are to have a functioning society and economy in the decades to come.

The list of all the things that we need to change is far too long to enumerate here. At a minimum, we need to reform capitalism, make health insurance universal and strengthen worker’s rights.

We have to do a better job of sharing the wealth. It we don’t do that voluntarily, our children’s children’s generation will come and fight us for what we have.

To protect our families and their future, we need to become even more active politically in order to make these and other changes happen.

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Biden’s Win and Trump’s Economic Stimulus

The Daily Escape:

This week’s Supermoon over Three Fingers, WA – March 2020 photo by Alpackie

Today we’ll talk superficially about two topics. First, a quick take on Tuesday’s Democratic primary, and second, about whatever it is Trump is cooking up with Republicans as an “economic stimulus” in this time of Coronavirus and stock market volatility.

Here’s Jameson Quinn with a pithy summary of the primary:

“Right now, the best-case scenario is that Joe Biden will be the next president of the USA; the worst-case is that Trump is the last one. That is to say, we will have a choice between a guy whose primary campaigns twice flamed out from self-inflicted errors and who, the day he takes office, will be the oldest president the country has ever had; and a narcissistic, mobbed-up reality television star whose platform is focused on his core base of racists, trolls, and racist trolls.”

But how do you really feel?

That said, Wrongo was always for Elizabeth Warren, but now, that door has closed. Wrongo like many others, overestimated the importance of competency and policy. Most people don’t read policy papers, and they knew that Biden had been Obama’s VP. That was enough to get them to vote for Biden.

People make their voting decisions based on things like personality, perceived connection to their tribe, perceived electability and an “X” factor, vague trust in a candidate’s judgment. Would Biden be a good president? Who really knows?

Moving on to Trump’s economic stimulus: It isn’t surprising that Trump promises some more corporate socialism and the stock market likes it. And it isn’t surprising that no one in the media notices that the Party of Obama Derangement Syndrome had zero concerns about debt/deficits once Orange became the new black.

But, rather than proposing tax cuts, good policy starts with identifying the problems:

  1. Sick people: They require costly medical care. Many can’t afford it, even if it’s available, and even if they have insurance.
  2. Unemployment: Unemployment will rise. Sick people without sick leave will lose their jobs. Businesses will have less revenue.
  3. Goods shortages: Much of our goods come from China, including medical supplies and drugs. Trade has already been disrupted, and it will get worse. Italy finds it needs thousands of ventilators, and China is supplying them.
  4. Childcare: Schools and daycare centers are closing, and working parents are in a jam. Worse, parents will be hospitalized with no care arranged for their kids.

Tax cuts won’t address these problems. Most sick people don’t have much income, so tax cuts won’t matter to them. Unemployed people won’t have income either. The idea that the government can wall off the economic impacts of a virus-caused recession is correct. Once the economic slowdown spreads, the right kinds of government programs could soften the blow.

Here’s Wrongo’s prescription for Trump and Congress:

  • No bailouts for any industry
  • Targeted financial help for hospitals and the health care sector
  • General financial relief paid directly to workers and families

America’s businesses and capitalists had a fantastic decade. Let them and their rich executives weather this economic downturn on their own.

Trump’s people floated the idea of a push back of the April 15 Tax Filing Deadline. This does nothing for people, and shows just how little the administration is prepared to do.

Trump’s suggestion of a payroll tax cut is also misplaced. It’s been tried in the past, including by Obama. But tax cuts are less effective than simply providing lump-sum payments to families below a certain income threshold.

Also, payroll taxes are the primary source of funding for Social Security and Medicare. So this opens the door to another GOP stealth attack on Social Security. Trump has already said he plans to cut Social Security if reelected.

Jason Furman, Obama’s head of the Council of Economic Advisers, proposed an immediate, one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult, plus $500 for every child. Such payments would help cover rent, food and other costs, without a large administrative burden of trying to determine who got sick, or who lost work due to the Coronavirus.

Furman’s proposal would add up to $350 billion. The right wing will say no financial stimuli for Joe Sixpack. Those things must be paid for.

But Trump thought it was fine to dig a $ trillion hole in the budget for an unnecessary tax cut during good economic times.

What we need now is urgent. It requires smart, humane, and energetic action.

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The Health Crisis Now Coincides With a Financial Crisis

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, St. Augustine Beach, FL – March 2020 photo by Carl Gill

The WaPo reported that a Coronavirus-sparked oil war sent crude prices down on Sunday by 32.3%. That triggered a forced temporary halt of stock trading on Monday, when the S&P 500 index sank 7% shortly after the market’s opening.

This occurred on the 11thanniversary of the current bull market. But, as Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, wrote:

“The uncertain economic impact of coronavirus continues to grip markets, with stocks, commodities and interest rates all dropping sharply. Markets hate uncertainty and there is a ton of it currently in play.”

There is no question that there will be more angry Americans now that a health crisis coincides with a financial crisis. Who they focus their anger on remains to be seen. Trump took credit for each rise in the stock market, so will he take ownership now that it’s tanking?

He’s not a broadly popular president, and this will make him less popular, so fewer people will believe him when he tries to lay the blame on others.

The oil price plunge was triggered when Russia announced on Friday that it would no longer stay within the OPEC+ quotas after April 1st. Saudi Arabia then said it would slash prices for its customers in April. In addition, they hinted at increasing production from the current level of 9.7 million barrels per day to 10 million barrels per day.

This is the start of an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia over market share. But the real target for both may just be the US shale oil sector. US banks and other investors have been fueling the shale oil sector’s growth with hundreds of billions of dollars of loans over the years. And the shale oil producers keep ramping up production, despite it being largely unprofitable. They continue to burn through cash.

Brian Sullivan at CNBC warns us: The US oil industry valued its oil reserves, as collateral for its loans, at $60 a barrel. Today’s price is now about $30/barrel.

By sending some of these shale-oil companies into bankruptcy, Saudi Arabia and Russia are hoping that new money will refuse to support the US shale oil sector. Then production in the US will decline and take some oversupply out of the oil market.

Their timing is impeccable. Oil demand is down due in part to the Coronavirus. Chinese manufacturers are producing less and airlines in particular have less need for jet fuel. If OPEC and Russia increase production, and assuming US production still increases while demand globally is in steep decline, then global markets will be awash in oil.

And what does an oil glut do for Iran, already fighting a severe Coronavirus outbreak, and needing higher oil prices for their own economy?

But no worries! We can count on the competent leadership in the White House. And if that doesn’t make you comfortable, you might ask yourself, “Is this 1929 all over again?”

Maybe not, but if it is, who will be our FDR? In the 1930s and 1940s, FDR spent money on America’s democratic infrastructure. That money gave jobs to people. He created a social safety net, and allowed industry to again flourish.

But in the past 30 years, all the money has gone to our industrial infrastructure and to the rich, through tax cuts and subsidies. The easy money party has helped to pump up both stock prices and asset prices, giving us an ever-growing income and wealth gap.

What happens to the health of the people and to the health of economy between now and November is going to be a huge political concern. There’s always a tension between the best health policy, and the best economic policy.

Trump wants economic policy to win out, but the primary beneficiary of that is industry and the rich.

We should remember that when leaders are seen to be incompetent and/or ARE truly incompetent, they try to divert the voters’ attention. What Trump attempts to do in order to divert our attention, is worthy of discussion.

As of today, the fuse is lit. It’s an election year, and we know that Trump won’t go away quietly.

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Coronavirus in China Is Spreading Fast

The Daily Escape:

Sparhawk Mill, Yarmouth ME – photo by Benjamin Williamson

Should we be concerned about the new Chinese coronavirus? Given developments in the past few days, we need to focus on it. The CDC announced on Monday that a total of 110 people in 26 US states are under investigation for possible infection with it. But officials continue to believe the immediate health risk to the US public remains very low.

OTOH, the increasingly stringent measures taken in China to contain it sure make it look like Chinese officials are at least worried, if not yet panicked.

China is suffering from shortages of test kits and personnel to confirm that suspected cases are indeed the coronavirus. We know there are no special anti-viral medications that work, people can only rely on their own immunity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has increased its estimate of global risk of the coronavirus from moderate to high. It’s now clear that this coronavirus is very contagious. The estimates of the reproduction rate (number of new infections caused by someone with the disease) is between 2.6 and 2.9. If that is true, the reproduction rate would be higher than for the 1917 Spanish flu, but lower than for measles, which is between 12 & 15. The reason is that it’s a large pathogen. From Foreign Policy:

“The coronavirus is a physically large virus—in relative terms…too big to survive or stay suspended in the air for hours or travel more than a few feet.”

So far, this coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2.2%: The latest data is 4524 confirmed cases, with 106 deaths. This observed level isn’t good, but it’s far lower than for SARS (9.6%), and is similar to the Spanish flu, which was 2.5%.

These are the reasons for the current freakout. Governments have started evacuating staff from Wuhan. CNN reports that:

About 240 Americans being evacuated from Wuhan Wednesday morning local time…arriving in Ontario, California. About three dozen Wuhan-based US diplomats and their families are also expected to be on board…”

CNN mentions that Australia, France, Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea and the UK are also evacuating their government employees and families.

Won’t evacuations just be another way to spread the disease unless the evacuees are quarantined for the 14 day incubation period? So many practical questions.

It’s a little early to speculate, but the impacts can go well beyond just public health. We’ve already seen a one-day negative impact on Mr. Market, who momentarily panicked.

A pandemic would severely affect Chinese economic output. With public transportation halted, commerce grinds to a stop as people avoid public places and thousands of employees can no longer go to work. Who pays their wages while the city is locked down?

We know cities can’t truly be isolated for longer than a few days. And we know people can’t live without food, water, fuel, etc. and money to buy these essentials.

The realities leave officials with an impossible choice: Either truly isolate the city (which isn’t possible) for more than a few days, or allow the flow of goods required to sustain millions of city residents. The second option creates uncontrollable vectors for the virus to spread beyond the city as transport workers and those fleeing the lockdown illegally, move on to other cities.

How would America cope with this virus if it gained a foothold here?

We had that experience 100 years ago. One of Wrongo’s grandfathers died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Of the estimated 500 million people in the developed world to be infected, the recorded mortality rate was 50 million, with about 675,000 occurring in the US. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of the 1918 pandemic.

Today, our elites would retreat to their country homes while demanding that their companies stay open. We’ve seen panic buying in Manhattan before blizzards that would only affect the city for two days. Logistics being what they are, local distribution centers absolutely do not have enough food to last through a prolonged shutdown. And Amazon won’t be delivering you toilet paper.

In times like these, it’s useful to remember that there is a never-ending attack being waged by the forces of privatization to take over America’s public health system, turning it into another monopoly profit center.

So far, we’ve held this effort at bay, but the lobbyists and the monied class keep working to convince Washington that this government system represents “waste, fraud and abuse”. The fight goes on.

Sadly, our leaders are immune to the coronavirus infections, because it is transmitted through the head (eyes, nose and mouth), and they generally have their heads up their asses.

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Trump Gives More Tax Breaks to Corporations

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise at Delicate Arch, UT – 2019 photo by going_postal

While we were all celebrating New Year’s, the NYT published a story about how Trump’s Treasury Department quietly weakened elements of the 2017 Trump tax law, making it even friendlier to wealthy individuals and corporations.

As a result, the tax bills of many big companies are even smaller than what was anticipated when the bill was signed. This means that the federal government may collect hundreds of billions of dollars less over the coming decade than previously projected. The budget deficit has jumped more than 50% since Trump took office. It is expected to top $1 trillion in 2020, partly as a result of the tax law.

Lobbyists targeted two provisions in the original 2017 law designed to bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from companies that had been dodging US taxes by stashing profits overseas. From the NYT:

“Starting in early 2018, senior officials in President Trump’s Treasury Department were swarmed by lobbyists seeking to insulate companies from the few parts of the tax law that would have required them to pay more. The crush of meetings was so intense that some top Treasury officials had little time to do their jobs…”

Because of the way the bill was rushed through Congress, the Treasury Department was given extra latitude to interpret the law. Add the fact that the law was sloppily written, helped to make the corporate lobbying campaign a resounding success.

Treasury has issued a series of obscure regulations that carved out exceptions allowing many leading American and foreign companies to pay little or nothing in new taxes on offshore profits. The NYT says companies were effectively let off the hook for tens if not hundreds of $billions in taxes that they would otherwise have been required to pay under the 2017 law.

You may remember that the idea behind the Trump Tax Cut was that companies would get the tax cuts that they had spent years lobbying for, but the law would also fight corporate tax avoidance and the shipment of jobs overseas.

A few facts about the Trump tax cut: Republicans used a Congressional process known as budget reconciliation, which blocked Democrats from filibustering and allowed Republicans to pass the bill with a simple majority.

To qualify for that parliamentary green light, the net cost of the bill, after accounting for different tax cuts and tax increases, had to be less than $1.5 trillion over 10 years. But the bill’s cuts totaled $5.5 trillion. To close the gap between the $5.5 trillion in cuts and the maximum allowable price tag of $1.5 trillion, the package sought to raise new revenue by eliminating deductions and introducing new taxes.

The two key provisions are known by the acronyms BEAT (base erosion and anti-abuse tax) and GILTI (global intangible low-taxed income). Shortly after Trump signed the tax bill, lobbyists from major American companies like Bank of America and General Electric as well as foreign banks, swarmed the White House in an effort to gut the BEAT and GILTI taxes.

Trump’s Treasury Department largely granted the lobbyists’ wishes, turning what was already a massive corporate handout into an even more generous gift to big companies and banks.

In the last 2 quarters of 2019, we saw massive corporate share buybacks. The richest families and corporations pocketed most of that money, with minimal re-investment into company assets, increased employee pay, or benefits.

The folks who didn’t get what they needed were the bottom 90% of Americans. Welcome to the plutocracy where billionaires whine about getting picked on, and the bottom 80% own just 7% of the nation’s wealth.

The mission of the Trump presidency is nearly complete. He’s packed the Supreme Court with reliable conservatives. He’s delivered the Randian wet dream of low corporate taxes while leaving most corporate tax loopholes in place.

Trump’s version of the Republican Party is in their end game: Bankrupting the government, privatizing government’s remaining services, and stealing the silverware on their way out the door.

We have entered the smash-and-grab portion of the GOP’s program. They care, but only marginally, if Trump is re-elected in 2020. Their work is done.

The narrative that our economy is the best ever, was enabled by a record federal deficit. When it’s time to protect Social Security, or provide better access to healthcare, the GOP will cry about the budget deficit that’s likely to be more than $1 trillion/year, from here to forever.

Normalized insanity is in full swing. Welcome to the asylum!

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America Is OK With a Wealth Tax

The Daily Escape:

Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon NP, UT – November 2019 photo by biochemistry_unicorn

Over the past year, progressives have made a wealth tax a central part of the policy discussions in the Democratic primary. Both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposals to tax the wealth of billionaires to help pay for improvements to the social safety net and infrastructure.

Currently, the US mostly taxes individuals on the income earned from their jobs and investments. The wealth tax is different since it would tax assets like stocks, yachts, artworks, and vacation homes.

Critics of the wealth tax have made a variety of arguments against them. The most prominent that the US government couldn’t enforce them effectively. Consider this from Business Insider:

“Usually, progressives cast Europe as a model for the cradle-to-grave social benefits that nations like Norway provide because of steeper tax rates on richer citizens. But most…countries have ditched them [wealth taxes] over the last few decades.”

Twelve European countries had a wealth tax in 1990, but the number now stands at four: Spain, Switzerland, Norway, and Belgium, which just introduced a limited wealth tax of its own.

Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the Warren and Sanders wealth tax proposals, says the European wealth taxes failed because governments created many exemptions that undercut their ability to draw revenue:

“The wealth taxes in Europe have failed by and large….they didn’t raise that much revenue because of big exemptions for asset classes….”

Others argue that the super-rich already donate big amounts to charity. One of Saez’s co-authors, Gabriel Zucman, says that the annual giving of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett equates to ~3%–4% of their wealth, while the other top 20 billionaires’ giving equals ~0.3% of their wealth. Like a really tiny wealth tax. Here’s his chart:

Annual charitable giving of the top 20 richest Americans: $8.7 billion, equaling just three tenths of one percent of their wealth. For the top 400 richest Americans, their taxes paid = 1.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.4% of their wealth.

But, the average American paid taxes equal to 5.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.3% of their wealth. Joe Six-pack gave the same amount of his assets to charity as did the top 20 billionaires.

If Warren’s 6% wealth tax was enforced on the top 20 richest Americans above, they would pay $60 billion to support the social safety net.

Moreover, despite the nay-saying by the rich, surveys show that Warren’s 2% tax is broadly popular:

(This was an online survey of 2,672 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11)

The survey by the NYT and Survey Monkey shows that 75% of Democrats and more than half of Republicans say they approve of the idea of a 2% tax on wealth above $50 million. The proposal receives majority support among every major racial, educational and income group.

The majority of college-educated Republican men disapproved, with only 41.5% approving of it.

The NYT reports that the proposed wealth tax is even more popular than the Trump tax-cut enacted in 2017. Only 45% of Americans said the tax cut was a good move:

“The movement against the Trump tax cuts since then has been powered, oddly enough, by Republicans. They largely still back the law — by 76% over all, compared with 20% of Democrats — but that support has dropped six percentage points since April.”

The shift on the tax cut is highest among high-earning Republicans: Americans earning more than $150,000 a year are far more likely to favor a tax increase on the very wealthy than the Trump tax cuts.

America’s tax code is designed to allow massive fortunes to grow ever larger. Wealth is concentrating in a tiny segment of the population, as the middle class shrinks.

We see that even the most high-minded billionaires can’t even give money away faster than their piles of dough are growing. And when Democrats like Warren and Sanders suggest a way towards tax reform, the GOP and the conservative think-tanks condemn them as socialists who want to punish success.

Most Americans are fed up with a government and an economy that overwhelmingly benefit corporations and the rich at the expense of everyone else. A wealth tax can work if Congress doesn’t get rolled by lobbyists that demand loopholes for their clients.

Wrongo will have no trouble backing a candidate who supports a wealth tax. But, increasing the taxes on corporations and a financial transactions tax should come first.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – November 10, 2019

Bill Gates is the second-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $106.2 Billion. Here’s what Bill Gates said about Elizabeth Warren’s tax plan:

“I’m all for super-progressive tax systems….I’ve paid over $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes. If I had to pay $20 billion, it’s fine. But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over….You really want the incentive system to be there without threatening that.”

Here’s what would actually happen to Gates under Elizabeth Warren’s tax plan: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The Warren campaign calculates that under Ms. Warren’s plan, Mr. Gates would owe $6.379 billion in taxes next year. Notably, that is less than Mr. Gates earned from his investments last year. Even under Ms. Warren’s plan, there’s a good chance Mr. Gates would get richer.”

Gates won’t have to pay as much as he thinks. The fundamental question is whether it’s ok for a billionaire to add 6% less to his massive fortune under Warren’s plan? Can billionaires still be successful executives if they don’t pocket every last penny they can lay their hands on?

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg doesn’t think the current Democratic presidential field is sufficiently deferential to the rich, so he’s running to make sure we get there.

When you think about it, two billionaires, Bloomberg and Steyer are running as Democrats. A third, Howard Schultz, billionaire behind Starbucks, tried to run as an independent. All wanting the job of billionaire Donald Trump.

Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg has said he would fight the Warren’s taxes on billionaires. Tim Perkins, a billionaire venture capitalist compared the “progressive war on the American one percent” to the Kristallnacht and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, Chairman of Blackstone, compared a tax increase for people like him to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Why does anyone care about the tax concerns of these people? They never have to think about money, and neither will their heirs. It’s a familiar story, the astronomically rich are willing to donate large portions of their wealth, so long as interfering with their cozy power relationship with politicians is off the table.

On to cartoons. No plan goes unpunished:

America has a difference of opinion on health insurance:

Bill Barr waves his God flag:

GOP wants to take a few shots at the whistle blower:

Trump misunderstood which turkey could do him a favor:

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