The Washington Post - 29.08.2019

(Joyce) #1

THURSDAY, AUGUST 29 , 2019. THE WASHINGTON POST EZ RE A


THURSDAY Opinion


H


ave you heard the one about t he
lawbreaker who got pardoned b y
President Trump?
It’s s o funny i t’s criminal.
As T he Post’s Nick Miroff a nd Josh
Dawsey r eport, Trump h as told his subor-
dinates t o seize p rivate land and disregard
environmental rules as they build a border
wall, o ffering to pardon them f or breaking
the l aw. The White House response?
Trump is j oking.
Hahahahahahaha. My sides a re totally
splitting.
That w as a lmost a s funny a s the t ime
when — stop me i f you’ve heard t his one —
Trump told Russia to hack i nto Hillary
Clinton’s e mails. “ He w as joking,” t he
White House said.
LOL! R OFLMAO!
So deadpan was Trump’s h umor then
that the Russians didn’t g et t he j oke; t hey
began acting o n Trump’s r equest within
hours, special c ounsel R obert Mueller
found. Now that’s f unny.
And who can forget t he hilarious time
when Trump t old l aw e nforcement officers
that they s hould feel free to rough up the
people they a rrest?
“He was making a joke,” t he White
House said.
The incorrigible cutup! Even t he head
of the Drug E nforcement Administration
was f ooled b y the p resident’s wickedly
subtle humor. He i ssued a statement
warning agents not to follow t he presi-
dent’s advice.
Trump’s e mergence as a comedic genius
is a recent development. B ack during the
campaign, Trump said h e didn’t j oke
around: “ Mexico i s going to pay for t he
wall — believe m e,” h e said. “Politicians
think we’re joking. We d on’t j oke. This i s a
movement, and m ovements don’t joke.”
That m ade sense, because h ere’s t he
funny t hing: Trump isn’t very f unny. His
humor is cutting and c oarse, rarely l ight-
hearted. His u nsmiling supporters t ook
him “seriously but not literally.”
But a pparently we shouldn’t t ake him
seriously, either — because he and his
aides h ave recast a series of o minous state-
ments a s jokes that t he rest o f us just
didn’t get:
l A sking then-FBI D irector James
Comey to end the investigation into former
national security adviser Michael Flynn.
l Telling a campaign crowd to take a
loyalty p ledge to him.
l T hreatening to fire then-Health and
Human S ervices S ecretary Tom Price.
l S aying “I love WikiLeaks” w hen i t re-
leased stolen Democratic emails.
l S aying Democrats who didn’t applaud
his State of the Union a ddress w ere
“TREASONOUS.”
l C alling himself the “ Chosen One,”
among other m essianic claims.
l Wishing he w ere “president f or life” o r
serving another “10 o r 14 y ears.”
l T hanking Russian President Vladimir
Putin for e xpelling U.S. diplomats.
Trump is s o dry that e ven he h as diffi-
culty determining when he’s j oking. When
he says h is White House r uns w ell, it’s s aid
“jokingly, but m eaning it.” His c laim t hat
former p resident B arack O bama founded
the Islamic State is “sarcastic but not that
sarcastic.”
Trump’s “ joking,” t herefore, i s less h a-ha
funny t han his funny little way of b lunting
the d amage when he s ays something par-
ticularly o utrageous or is caught in a lie.
Now comes Axios’s report that Trump
has a sked aides about the e fficacy o f drop-
ping nuclear bombs on hurricanes. This
one h as the v irtue of actually s ounding
like a joke.
So far, Trump denies i t, but w ith such
frequent, f rantic and doth-protest-too-
much denials (“The media in o ur C ountry
is totally o ut of c ontrol!” he tweeted Tues-
day night) that the report is a lmost cer-
tainly true.
In p ublic and in private, Trump has long
raised questions about the point of s tock-
piling nuclear weapons if you never use
them. The real question is w hy h e didn’t
come out with a hurricane-nuking plan
earlier. It f its p erfectly with his strategic
thinking in its thorough lack o f regard f or
consequences or collateral damage.
Trump isn’t f ooling anyone, so he might
as well take ownership of the nukes-you-
can-use position. There are many ways to
get more bang for the buck from our nu-
clear arsenal. A ll it takes is some out-of-the-
silo thinking by the commander in chief.
After dropping one in the eye of Hurri-
cane Dorian, he c ould use another one t o
deforest the A mazon, thereby eliminating
the t hreat o f future forest fires. A string o f
nuclear e xplosions a long the s outhern
border w ould prove a more effective d eter-
rent than a wall. Nuclear fallout would
swiftly e liminate t he alleged bedbug i nfes-
tation a t Trump’s D oral club in F lorida.
Nuking Greenland would likely bring
down t he purchase price.
There’s h ardly a problem Trump couldn’t
eliminate with a controlled nuclear detona-
tion. He c ould nuke his tax returns, nuke
the Fed, nuke Obamacare, nuke the federal
debt, nuke 40 pounds of body fat, nuke rare
steaks, nuke opioid stockpiles, nuke mea-
sles outbreaks, nuke Democratic precincts
and nuke the leech with three jaws and
59 teeth just discovered in Washington.
In t he unlikely event anything were to
go awry, Trump has a well-tested excuse
for p ressing the b utton: I was just joking.
Twitter: @Milbank

DANA MILBANK
WASHINGTON SKETCH

The comic


genius that is


Donald Tr ump


ravello, italy


T


here are two kinds of people:
those who like active vacations
and those who like sedentary va-
cations. I’m one of the weird hy-
brids who likes both. That makes me, I
suppose, the Jekyll and Hyde of holiday-
ers. Luckily, my p artner — who is the boss
not only of her two boys but also of me —
shares my dual mind-set.
Accordingly, my f amily and I began our
recent trip to Italy with an educational
visit to Rome and Pompeii and e nded with
a sybaritic idyll on the Amalfi Coast. The
weather, food and amenities were all per-
fect. The only problem is that a lot of
people had the same idea. August being
the height of the high season, we predict-
ably had to battle our way through hordes
of fellow tourists. Ye t not even overcrowd-
ing (or the political chaos in Rome) can
spoil Bella Italia. You can easily get punch-
drunk on its splendors, from Bernini’s
sublime statues to the Amalfi Coast’s ma-
jestic cliffs.
One of the highlights was a few nights
on Capri, a small isle in the Tyrrhenian
Sea t hat has hosted pleasure seekers since
the days when Emperor Tiberius built
villas there. We did what tourists are
supposed to do; I even lost my sunglasses
in the sea while viewing the famous Blue
Grotto from an overpriced rowboat. (Per-
haps some future archaeologist will con-
clude that the Romans wore plastic
shades?)
But even on Capri, I could not devote
myself exclusively to the enjoyment of the
pellucid blue waters, the fresh seafood
and the icy limoncello. The dyspeptic
English novelist Graham Greene — a
brilliant literary stylist who featured in
my biography of the real “Quiet Ameri-
can,” Edward Lansdale — kept a home on
Capri for decades. The address is not
publicly listed (at least I didn’t find it on
the Internet), but I nevertheless felt com-
pelled to make a pilgrimage. This involved
trudging the hilly streets of the town of
Anacapri during the suffocating heat of
the e arly afternoon, grumpy f amily in t ow.
I thought I had found t he sacred s ite when
an elderly Italian man told us, “The
a--hole Graham Greene? He lived down
there.” I never was able to identify precise-
ly which v illa w as his, b ut I did learn w hat
kind of reputation the novelist (who died
in 1991) had a mong his neighbors.
On my Roman holiday, my guide was a
dead man of incomparable erudition and
wit: the late Australian art critic Robert
Hughes. I spent every free moment of my
first week in Italy reading his 2011 book
“Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal
History.” Published just a year before he
died, it incomparably enriched my jour-
ney by providing the kind of historical
detail and critical judgment that you
search for in vain in guidebooks — or tour
guides.
I used to be one of those people who
read thrillers on vacation but, for some
reason, most thrillers no longer thrill me.
Maybe because these days reality is far
more unbelievable than any fiction? For
whatever reason, I find it impossible to
disengage my brain even on vacation and
can’t understand those who do. People
who sit for hours in a beach chair or an
airplane seat without any reading materi-
al simply baffle me: What is going on
between their ears, I wonder?
I yearn for intellectual sustenance on
vacation but want, of course, to avoid
tedium or boredom. I want to read some-
thing that will entertain me but also help
me appreciate w hat I am seeing. H ughes’s
book fit the bill like a refreshing Aperol
spritz on a hot afternoon.
I learned that Roman armies relied on
sacred c hickens to foretell t he outcome of
battles (if they pecked with gusto at their
chicken feed, this was considered an ex-
cellent o men); t hat the word “ fornication”
comes from the arches or fornices of
Rome, a go-to spot for ancient prostitutes;
that a third-century Christian martyr sup-
posedly defied his pagan tormentors by
telling them, as they were roasting him to
death, “Turn me over, I am done on this
side”; that the Romans, and their papal
successors, did more damage to ancient
Rome than any invaders by continually
reusing materials from old buildings to
construct n ew o nes; that, until the a dvent
of the Grand To ur in the 18th century,
English travelers regarded Rome with
horror as a place w here ( in the w ords of an
anonymous poet) “ev’ry sentiment is lost,
And Treach’ry reigns”; that the legendary
Spanish Steps were, in fact, paid for with
French money; that the Futurist poet
Filippo Marinetti regarded pasta as the
bane of modern Italians because it sup-
posedly made them sluggish; and a great
deal more b esides.
Relying exclusively on printed sources
has a poor r eputation among professional
historians for understandable reasons:
too often, the result is a bad clip job. But
Hughes w as such a skillful and opinionat-
ed synthesizer that he made something
new out of some very old sources, dating
all the way back to Plutarch. I enjoyed his
book all the more for having just seen the
sites he described. If you visit Rome, I
suggest you take Hughes with you — and
wherever you go, I recommend you find
an appropriate tome to add intellectual
depth to your journey. Downtime needn’t
be brain-dead t ime.
Twitter: @MaxBoot

MAX BOOT

The ideal


Roman


holiday


Y


ou could call i t a constitution-
al crisis, and many are doing
so. The speaker of the House
of Commons has used the ex-
pression “constitutional outrage,” a nd
some are going further: #stopthecoup
is trending on British Twitter. A lterna-
tively, you could dismiss it as nothing
more than a bit of unattractive “parlia-
mentary chicanery,” as a Brexiteer
friend o f mine just did over t he phone.
But however this saga ends — with
Brexit or no Brexit, an election or no
election — the British prime minis-
ter’s u nusual and unprecedented five-
week suspension of Parliament, an-
nounced Wednesday, will end b y help-
ing to discredit Parliament, and to
discredit democracy, in one of the
oldest democracies i n the w orld.
Johnson’s t eam i s playing down this
decision, but t here can be no p retense:
He has called this suspension, which
will begin Sept. 11, to avoid a parlia-
mentary v ote. His predecessor, T here-
sa May, was unable to get a Brexit
treaty through Parliament — mostly
because Brexiteers themselves could
not face the ugly realities, so much
worse than the paradise they had
promised. Johnson probably can’t get
May’s Brexit treaty through Parlia-
ment, e ither, a nd h e hasn’t g ot very far
in negotiating a new one.
At the same time, the majority in
Parliament will not back a “no deal”
Brexit — an abrupt withdrawal that
would disrupt t rade, commerce, t ravel
and just about everything else that
connects Britain to the outside world.
The House of Commons a lready v oted
once against a “no deal Brexit,” in
March. Earlier this week, the leaders
of the opposition parties, plus some
rebellious Conservatives, met and
made a new legislative plan designed
to delay Brexit to stop “no deal” once

again.
Johnson does not have a parliamen-
tary majority, or even a popular majori-
ty, for a “no deal” Brexit. Indeed, with a
tiny majority of one, he barely has a
parliamentary mandate at all. He cer-
tainly does not have a popular man-
date: He was not chosen in a general
election but was nominated, instead,
by 92,000 members of the Conserva-
tive Party. Without Parliament, with-
out the public, without real legitimacy,
he nevertheless believes he has to make
Brexit happen by the deadline, Oct. 31
— because that is what he promised
during his leadership campaign and
because otherwise his party might not
survive to the end of this decade.
There could be democratic solutions
to this dilemma. One of them would be
a new referendum. Johnson doesn’t
want that, however, because most polls
show the public would probably not
back Brexit a second time. An election
would also be a solution, and we might
get to that: One of the effects of
Wednesday’s announcement might be
a vote of no confidence in the govern-
ment during the few days Parliament
meets next week before suspension — a
vote that some Conservatives will now
reluctantly support.
But an election in these circum-
stances, following Wednesday’s dra-
matic parliamentary suspension,
would also be ugly. One of Johnson’s
advisers has hinted t hat the campaign
slogan will be “The People vs. The
Politicians” — that is, illogically the
People v s. Parliament. M any also s eem
to think Johnson m ight let Brexit hap-
pen, by default, while the campaign is
going on and Parliament is not sitting.
If that’s the case, it almost doesn’t
matter who wins: That kind of cam-
paign, with that kind of slogan, amid
that kind of chaos, will deepen the

profound divisions in the country,
convince w hoever l oses that they h ave
been cheated, and make life for the
next government nearly impossible.
If the Conservatives win after such a
campaign, a rebellious opposition will
do everything, constitutional and un-
constitutional, to thwart their rule. If
members of the Labour Party win, they
will be tempted to use some of the same
tricks, including the suspension of Par-
liament, to push through their own
unpopular agenda. If there is a hung
Parliament, nothing of any kind will be
decided at all. The scars will last. “We
aren’t killing one another,” Lord Jona-
than Marks, a Liberal Democrat con-
stitutional scholar, told me, “but it’s as
bad as the 17 th century in many ways.”
For those who don’t remember, in the
17 th century, B ritain had a civil war.
I’ve so far resisted these compari-
sons, but now Britain’s political crisis
really does resemble the parallel crisis
in the United States. A ruthless execu-
tive is pushing the outer bounds of
what is constitutionally possible in
order to achieve unpopular outcomes.
A ruling party that i s afraid for its own
electoral future is shamefacedly sup-
porting him. A divided opposition
seeks to block him but doesn’t have a
popular leader itself. A conservative
party is using populist slogans that
undermine national institutions. Old
precedents and customs are being
abandoned at great speed, leaving
only a vacuum in their wake.
It is, if you like, the ultimate irony.
Brexit, allegedly, was meant to return
“sovereignty” to the British Parlia-
ment. Instead, Brexit might end up
discrediting the British Parliament,
and British politicians, well into the
future — just like their American cous-
ins.
applebaumletters@washpost.com

ANNE APPLEBAUM

A move to discredit Parliament


ADRIAN DENNIS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street in London on July 24.

BY GROVER NORQUIST


I


t is wrong to tax inflation.
Last week, President Trump
agreed. He endorsed the idea of in-
dexing capital gains so that n o Ameri-
can would be taxed on the inflation gain
on the sale of a house, land, a small
business, stocks or assets of any kind.
Trump said, “Many people like indexing,
and it can be done very simply. It can be
done directly by me.”
One day later, Trump told a press gag-
gle that he’s “not looking to do indexing.

... But if I wanted to do it, I believe
I could.”
The press gasped at the sudden shift
from “I will” to “I won’t.” Greenland was
ours for longer. But those who have
worked to end the taxation of inflation in
capital gains for almost 30 years noticed
what did not change. The president stated
and r estated his view that his administra-
tion could define the cost of an asset for
tax purposes as cost plus inflation. No
vote by Congress required. This could
happen whenever Trump chose.
That i s a game-changer.
The present capital gains t ax is particu-
larly brutal to older Americans who
bought a home, built a small business or
invested in the stock market before the
hyperinflation of the late 1970s. Older
Americans who have lived through many
years of even modest inflation are in-
creasingly paying taxes on mostly imagi-
nary “gains.”
Those damaged most? Older voters.
Rural voters. Midwest voters. Home-
owners. Self-employed small-business
men and women. A.k.a.: Trump voters in
swing states. Inflation is a larger part of
the c apital gains taxes they pay.
How important would this change be
for A mericans?
If you bought a share of IBM stock in
1970 for $14.81 and sold it today for


$134.42, you would pay $28.47 in capital
gains taxes. Eliminating the inflation
over that period reduces your tax bill by
70 percent.
Te xas farmland averaged $722 an acre
in 1986. In 2019, that land was nominally
worth $2,815, for a capital gains tax owed
of $482. Ta ke out inflation and the tax
falls to $247 per acre — a 50 percent
reduction.
Ending the taxation on inflation for
capital gains would immediately i ncrease
the value of every asset — land, homes,
stocks, business — in the United States. A
signature by the Treasury Secretary
would make the United States wealthier.
For the few? Well, 99.5 million U.S. indi-
viduals own mutual funds, and about
78 million Americans own homes. There
are millions of farmers and ranchers.
More than 30 million small businesses.
The stale rhetoric of tax cuts benefiting
only the “one percenters” rings hollow.
Twenty-four million American house-
holds had a capital gains filing in 2016.
And 56 percent of those households
earned less than $100,000 per year. More
than 80 percent earned less than
$200,000.
The other gain from indexation is de-
regulatory. Dan Clifton of Strategas Re-
search Partners points out that t rillions of
dollars of land and buildings are held by
corporations but not sold solely because
of the heavy inflation tax. End that tax,
and c ompanies would offload “sticky c ap-
ital” that remains underutilized. Those
assets would be liberated to be put to
highest and best use — a massive increase
in productivity nationwide. And the defi-
cit? Clifton predicts “a gusher of revenue
from trillions of dollars’ worth in older
corporate assets sold as quickly as the
contracts can be written.” Scott Hodge,
president of the Tax Foundation, t old t his
writer that the Ta x Foundation’s model
“and every model I am aware of” misses

this seismic shift because they assume
(counterfactually) that all capital is per-
fectly allocated already.
Trump says he’s “not looking to do
indexing.”
He w ill.
Economic growth has declined from
3 percent annually toward 2 percent:
President Barack Obama’s average.
Trump would like to increase growth.
Four options. One, get the Fed to reduce
interest rates. Two, get Democratic House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi ( D-Calif.) t o agree to
a pro-growth tax cut. Three, win or end
the t rade war with China. And four, index
capital gains. The first three depend on
the cooperation of the Fed, Pelosi or Chi-
na. After a while, Trump will refocus on
the one lever solely under his control:
indexation of capital gains.
Is Trump correct that he has the au-
thority? Well, things have changed since
1992 when the George H.W. Bush admin-
istration decided it could not change the
definition of “cost” f rom “historical cost”
to “real cost.” I n 2002, t he Supreme C ourt
ruled in Verizon v. Federal Communica-
tions Commission that the word “cost”
was “protean” and can be defined by
regulators as they wish. Further, two
months ago, in Kisor v. Wilkie, the court
reaffirmed the authority of federal agen-
cies to interpret legislative l anguage.
The Democratic presidential candi-
dates will likely denounce the move and
promise to rescind i t. But this would allow
all Americans to calculate exactly what
they have to lose if a Democrat wins the
presidency in 2020. More than 100 mil-
lion Americans will note that the differ-
ence between Trump and the Democrats
can be measured in thousands or tens of
thousands of dollars. A powerful incen-
tive to vote. Worth a ride t o the p olls.

Th e writer is president of Americans for Tax
Reform.

Indexing capital gains helps more than the rich

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