The Problem with Personality Contests

By James Kwak

This presidential election has come down to a referendum on Donald Trump, the man muppet whatever he is. Tactically speaking, that’s probably a good thing. Trump is an absolutely horrendous life form, and as long as he can’t get more than 43% of the vote, he almost certainly can’t be president. (Gary Johnson just isn’t that appealing.) Of course, focusing on personal attributes has been the Hillary Clinton strategy all along, even dating back to the primaries, when she focused on her experience and seriousness in the face of Sanders’s popular proposals (single payer, free college, etc.). It’s been even more true of the general election, in which Clinton has gone out of her way to portray Trump as a unique, rather than as the culmination of the evolution of the Republican Party.

Ordinarily we bemoan the focus on personalities rather than issues. (How many millions of times have Democrats complained about voters who chose George W. Bush because they would rather have a beer with him than Al Gore or John Kerry?) This time around, we seem happy enough with the personality contest, either because it increases Clinton’s chances of winning, or because Trump is so toxic that, this time, personality really does matter.

Still, there is a cost to the fixation on personal foibles and failings, even when they are relevant. The affair of Trump’s taxes is a perfect example. Trump’s taxes are relevant: his shifting, flimsy excuses for not releasing them show him to be a liar with something to hide; the $916 million loss illustrates the colossal failure of his real estate ventures in the early 1990s, and perhaps an aggressive approach to taking deductions for paper losses. From that point, however, the fact that he carried forward that loss to avoid paying federal income tax for years is no more his fault than Mitt Romney’s low average tax rate: it simply illustrates an existing problem with the tax code that Trump is well within his rights to exploit. (If you don’t like Mitt Romney, consider Warren Buffett, everyone’s favorite multi-billionaire: Buffett is a darling of the left because he favors higher tax rates on multi-millionaires, but in the meantime he pays the same low rate as Romney.)

The real problem with Trump, when it comes to taxes, is not what he pays or doesn’t pay, but how his tax plan would affect everyone’s tax burden. And there the numbers are not pretty. From the Tax Policy Center:

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 11.35.11 AM.png

This is a classic, massive tax cut for the top 1%, similar to those proposed by Herman Cain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and every other Republican presidential candidate in recent memory. And this is on top of an existing tax code that already contains enormous loopholes for the ultra-rich. As I discuss in my latest Atlantic column, income tax is basically optional for the wealthiest families. (So is the estate tax, for the most part.) That’s the real problem we need to fix. Trump’s taxes will help Clinton get elected, which is a good thing. But the focus on Trump also distracts from the more serious problems with our tax code, which we really should should be talking about.

12 responses to “The Problem with Personality Contests

  1. Well the country and world for that matter, are going to hell in a hand basket quickly.
    Rather than discuss important issues like the qualitative easing of the country, the debt problems per person, or entitlement reforms, we dig up the latest dirt on our competitors.
    Even our public servants are of the lower end of their class, lawyers, who can’t find a job or start their own firms, find themselves turning to public service as best means to their end. This explains the over abundance of lawyers of last resort to become congressmen to be controlled by, you guessed it, more lawyers. Once off the beaten path of natural law, lawyers become destructors of society rather than beneficiaries to one.

  2. I have seen Trump’s tax plan discussed in numerous article and blog posts. The media has lowered their credibility with bothsideism to the point where these issues have not effect on the election. And now, the policy differences are stark. what matters is winning. Elections have consequences.

  3. Ray LaPan-Love

    As the governor of New Mexico…Gary Johnson probably knows Mexico with the same sort of intimacy that Sarah Palin had with Russia. And surely by now he knows where Aleppo is, and what is happening there, at least a little.

    If Johnson were to win too, that would mean Trump would have to lose, and that would have Trump available for the Secretary of State job. So then President Johnson (not Andrew the other idiot), could relax on foreign policy and leave that to Trump the international business wizard.

    That would also mean that Jill Stein could be the Treasury Secretary, and this would keep some man from having to introduce himself as a ‘secretary’, which is a little weird, in regards to gender. Then Secretary Stein, who looks like a secretary anyway, could explain how she came to the conclusion that the bailout totaled 15 trillion dollars. Thus, perhaps she could share her formula for expanding value and we could then… all live happily ever after.

    As for Hillary, who better to be the Secretary of Defense than a ‘woman’, and one who sold tear gas to the Bahrainis so they could spray it on pro-democracy protestors. A woman who is already comfortable calling herself a ‘Secretary’, but just as comfortable being the first pant-suit jingoist.

  4. As usual, a well written post. Please excuse me for going off topic a bit… A lot of the talk of tax code issues are with the corporate tax rate. It bothers me quite a bit that a corporation could have a tax rate lower than me. I am a small business owner that uses schedule C. I think corporations should be able to lower their taxes by deducting dividends as a business expense

  5. BRUCE E. WOYCH

    How can the tax code mean anything with a fiat dollar, quantitative fleecing, and CEOs and corporations that engineer their own salaries and the financial architecture is a numbers game behind the curtain of derivatives? Add off shore accounts and rationalized tax evasion and the fix is in. While the tax code may look like disease, I suspect it is just symptoms and treating the symptoms of corruption will not cure the disease.

  6. I think we have turned into a country of Pagans Bruce, once the final rate of interest charged went above 10% by law, we ceased to be a serious Christian society. I don’t know how the quran addresses that subject, perhaps they are in the same sinking boat of religious betrayals.
    Needless to say there are plenty of leaky boats to go around and plenty of people treading water so it’s not as if proper warning of the consequences of such action was not given, I think it was just not heeded by our elite level of politicians, and naturally the central banks had no other choices except fiat to go with the trade standard trumping the gold one.
    They might have succeeded had gvt efficiency and discipline been improving rather than rotting away like a patient overwhelmed with parasites, the parasites always seem to win the battle, but lose the war in the end, by the law of numbers.

  7. Donald Trump and his nineteen-year carry-forward of losses of $900 million dollars is yet another example of reasons why we must ultimately move to “Taxation-by-Artificial-Intelligence”. Every individual, every business (including GE, Chevron, and all international corps doing business in this country) would all be part of a big big data set, and taxes taken from each business, each person, to “maximize the nation’s economy.” That doesn’t mean some sort of draconian, procrustean levelling, or equalization. It means stuff such as “financial engineering”, with derivatives and gambling mechanisms, which don’t help society become richer, are taxed at a high rate, and activities which (the AI program deduces) leads to a better economic outcome (say, maybe a grocery store in a poor neighborhood where there is none) gets a low, or negative, tax rate.
    And, no appeal. The AI Tax system has already considered why you would appeal, and it has decided…no.

  8. Bruce E. Woych

    o2generate: When we speak to tax and tribute “con-tribute” is lost in the shuffle and re-tribution is meant for the little people that have always suffered in history at the hands of state power and the private interests that derive exclusive benefit from being at the “control fraud” stations of state capture. But even as it exists, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_avoidance “Tax sheltering is very similar, although unlike tax avoidance tax sheltering is not necessarily legal. Tax havens are jurisdictions which facilitate reduced taxes” (from on-line:Tax avoidance).
    Clearly https://en.wikipedia.o/wiki/Panama_Papers#United_Kingdom deception and fraud has been built into the system as routine practice that has not been admitted until recent exposures. It is also clear that the Big 3 or 4 Accountant Institutions can not historically hold up to pure credibility and the technicalities of tax codes are more barrier to entry for most of us than actual avenues of critical assessment and comprehensive reform. Corporations cry crocodile tears over how they are unfairly taxed but also assess their social and National responsibilities as “externalities” that are hostile to growth and development (as they perceive their own interests under one dimensional profit measures that are just business). As skunk
    indicates (above comment) “…the parasites always seem to win the battle, but lose the war…” but unfortunately ecological and cultural distortions are the cost of that war regardless of the final outcome. As long as we reify and deify economy and markets as realities and subject society to a false belief that society is best served by servicing “economy” rather than wholesome and healthy aggregate society as a whole, we sill continue to partition and bifurcate our priorities away from full spectrum solutions. We do not fix tax codes, we make them and it is the people behind that process that need to be properly accounted for along with their private interest economies of scale that tax public wealth for the ultimate purpose of elite welfare.

    Regards to you and skunk…keep the faith and stay the course.
    PS: Take a look here; the sole survivor of the great Treasury looting!
    Important Labor Fights Are Going Down at Ivy League Schools
    We’re Not in a New Cold War – It’s Far Worse
    The Wacky MACRA Final Rules (The Crapification of Rural Health Care)

    nakedcapitalism: undistracted and on track.

  9. Bruce E. Woych

    Financial Transaction Tax is Feasible, and If Set Right, Desirable

  10. I recall the phrase ” all the world should be taxed” and I believe it came from Caesar. The problem is when YOU believed him, the Earth provided all the elements to live free, plants, energy, and even some other things(education) are all mostly all free to obtain.

    Then why do they cost the end consumer so much money today you should ask, well, taxes, the cost of transportation with entitled convenience at any cost, disguised as the cost of doing business and for your benefit naturally.
    You don’t have to live with taxes just because that’s the way it’s always been done, it’s not rocket science, or even a new feature app called “rocket in your pocket”, it’s just new age common sense folks.

  11. Bruce E. Woych

    @skunk: small steps of progress here:
    http://inequality.org/city-cutting-edge-ceo-pay-reform/

    Taking CEO Pay Reform to Cities
    Posted on October 13, 2016 by Steve Novick
    A member of the Portland, Oregon City Council explains his proposal to use tax policy to tackle extreme CEO-worker pay gaps.
    “…dramatic growth of inequality has been fueled by very high compensation of a few managers at big corporations, as illustrated by the fact that 60 to 70 percent of people in the top 0.1 percent of income in the United States are highly paid executives at large firms.”

    “…the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule in 2015 requiring public companies to disclose the ratio of the compensation of its chief executive officer to the median compensation of its employees. The new disclosure will help shareholders better evaluate chief executive officer compensation based on performance, and it offers local, state, and federal governments a tool for establishing policies that address increasing ratios of chief executive officer to median worker pay.”

    “…I have proposed adding a surtax on the City’s existing Business License Tax for publicly traded companies that report a ratio of CEO to median worker pay of 100:1. The tax code is often used to promote certain social policies. The deduction for charitable giving, for example, promotes charitable giving. If adopted, this proposal would promote a more equitable distribution of income.

    “The surtax I’m proposing would give companies an incentive to narrow the economic divide within their own firms—by lowering CEO pay and/or by lifting up their workers’ wages. Of course, this reform alone will not close our nation’s economic divide. But it would send a powerful message that our community is ready to take a stand against the extreme inequality that harms all of us. And if other local and state governments, as well as Congress, begin to use the SEC information to drive policy, we will see change as shareholders recognize the collective effect of policies like my proposed surtax. California and Rhode Island have both considered similar policies, and I’m hopeful Portland could help lead the way on this critical issue.”

    The Portland surtax proposal will come before the City Council for a public hearing on October 26 at 2 pm Pacific Time. The hearing will be broadcast live and written comments can be submitted in advance to members of the council.
    Originally published on the web site of the City of Portland.
    Steve Novick is a member of the City Council in Portland, Oregon.

    (excerpts only; see the entire article at the link)

  12. Almost sounds like a never ending list of reforms due to the law of numbers, a thing the depopulation and father time will address with speedy resolve.