Friday, August 26, 2016

Trump’s wealth, real or unreal?

Donald Trump’s political rise was due partly to the widely held belief that he is a multi-billionaire whose wealth comes from his business skill.
If he could become a billionaire as a tough negotiator in real estate deals, he could be the kind of strong and successful leader the U.S. needs.
Supporting his reputation, he projected the greatest self-confidence about his ability to solve problems and lead the country just as he had led his vast network of companies. He proudly splashed his name on his enterprises, thanks to his reputation as a businessman and television celebrity.
Trump claims to be worth $10 billion dollars, placing him among a handful of the wealthiest people in the world. Forbes magazine, which independently rates the rich, says he’s worth $4.5 billion.
But neither Forbes nor anybody else really knows, because most of his investments are in private deals, not in corporations required to publish financial reports. Still, Trump insists people should be impressed by his wealth and even once sued a writer who said he was a mere “millionaire.”
Why is the amount of Trump’s wealth subject to so much doubt?
Anybody is free to set a value on his or her assets and Trump seems to say he has done that to come up with $10 billion. His holdings are worth that amount – in his opinion. But when a bank is asked to accept the property as security for a loan, it may find it has a lesser value.
Here’s how it could work. Whatever the value of a parcel of land, it might gain in value if you could get the necessary permits to build a skyscraper on it. You value your own property on the assumption that you will get the permits.
In the case of New York hotels, it worked. He might control the land, but need permits and want tax breaks. Thanks to his father’s ability to call in favors for having made political contributions, he received them.
Trump and his many companies own real estate in partnership with others, who control most of the property. But he may attach value to it beyond the scope of his investment on the strength of his name being the building’s “brand” and his company having management responsibility.
I am the king of debt,” Trump has said. He uses borrowed money to cover his share of investments as much as he can. This at least raises the question if he distinguishes between gross investment and net value.
A piece of property has value, perhaps equal to its cost or to what it might get, if sold. That would be its gross value. Its value at any moment is that gross value less the amount of money borrowed to purchase it and not yet repaid. That would be the asset value of Trump’s share of a building.
If he sets his wealth based on the gross value, without taking into account his debt, his assets would be inflated. Only when he makes debt payments, would his assets grow.
If he does not make debt payments, his companies may seek bankruptcy protection from making further payments and the property passes to the lender. Trump companies have been involved in at least four bankruptcies to shed financial responsibilities.
The exact amount of debt existing behind his investments remains unknown, but the New York Times recently dug up at least $650 million in debt on his U.S. investments. The more he and his companies owe, the less wealthy he is.
Trump has thus far refused to disclose his tax returns. While they would not necessarily expose his net worth, they could provide important clues to his wealth.
Even if they showed he legally paid little tax, which he suggests is the case, he would have revealed his gross income and the allowances he used to reduce it for tax purposes. For example, losses in some activities could be used to offset gains in others, this reducing his tax liability.
Using Forbes’ estimate, his annual income would be $45 million assuming he gained only one percent on his investments. Perhaps he lost more than he profited, thus paying little or no taxes. So his tax returns matter, especially in light of his claims of business success.
Trump’s fame depends on beliefs about his great wealth and the skill and intelligence that made it possible. If he has greatly exaggerated his financial success as businessman, what might that say about his possible political success as president?

Friday, August 19, 2016

LePage, GOP use stealth to cut social welfare

Republican policy maintains government has grown too large and should be cut back. Not only should it get out of the way of business, but also a reduced government would allow for generous tax cuts.
That sounds like a simple proposition to tame a government that issues too many regulations and pursues goals that could be better left to the private sector.
But, below the surface, this argument is not about government in general. It is targeted at social welfare policies that grew up during and after the 1930s New Deal. Conservatives want to repeal these policies regardless of the assistance they provide to tens of millions of Americans.
If adopted, this policy would amount to a rollback of history to the period between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression when the federal government’s prime role was to aid business, even if it exploited workers.
But it is clear that a frontal assault on social welfare policy won’t succeed. Virtually all Democrats support New Deal social policy and millions of voters have come to benefit from its programs.
Recently, it has become evident that advocates of cutting government have not given up. Instead, they pursue their goals more indirectly and patiently.
Gov. Paul LePage has created a classic example of this more subtle approach. His tactics undermine the widely held belief that the essential function of government is to maintain public health and safety.
The Maine Legislature has funded public health efforts to fight disease when it appears and to promote healthful conditions to protect people. In recent years, this has included fighting tuberculosis and flu and assisting in the survival of infants.
Funding supported 50 public health nurses. Now, there are only 25. As nurses retired or left, they were not replaced. The survivors are now spread so thinly as to be unable to do much of the job assigned to them by law.
The next step is not difficult to forecast. LePage wants to cut 2,300 state jobs. He suggests that this can be accomplished mostly by eliminating vacant positions, so few state employees would lose their jobs.
First, his administration artificially creates vacancies and then he seeks to eliminate the vacant positions as unnecessary. To accomplish his policy, he ignores the statutory requirements for public health nurses and refuses to spend money appropriated for them. But he cuts the size of government and produces savings for taxpayers.
At the federal level, the GOP tried to convert Social Security into what would amount to a private retirement scheme. The proposal flopped when the votes in Congress to adopt it were lacking.
Congressional Republicans, unable to transform Social Security into an investment fund, are attacking the money to administer it. While benefits are financed by employer and employee contributions, the operation of the program is subject to the normal congressional appropriation process.
Suffering from funding cuts, the program will increasingly falter and public discontent can be expected to rise. Then, the time may be ripe for killing Social Security, as we now know it.
In both the public health nurse and Social Security moves, field operations are now being drastically cut and the provision of services slowed.
A closer look reveals that cutting government spending is more about reducing or eliminating targeted social programs than about meaningful change in the size of government.
Total federal outlays in 2015 were $3.7 trillion. Cutting Social Security administrative costs, as now proposed, would produce savings of two-thousandths of one percent.
While that could undermine Social Security, it will not produce tax cuts. It would cut the size of government only by laying off people who help beneficiaries.
The Defense Department receives half the funds subject to annual appropriation, a total amount equal to all other federal government agencies combined. While its spending could make it the prime target for reducing the size of government, if that’s what voters really want, it is not the focus of budget cutters.
Like virtually any large entity, government can be amazingly inefficient and wasteful. When candidates tell voters they want to cut government spending, their promise is often based on eliminating waste and promoting efficiency, actions that invariably fail for fear of causing major job losses.
The issue is not smaller government or tax cuts. Opponents of social welfare spending sense the time may be ripe to cut it, while promising lower taxes. Their solution is having private sector jobs replace benefits taken from people whom they believe have become too dependent on government handouts.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why this election is not about the economy

There are at least three big myths about the economy in this year’s political campaign.
In 1992 campaign, strategist James Carville highlighted the key issue for the Clinton staff, saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Though there’s a lot of talk, positive and negative, about the recovery from the recession, the economy is not the biggest issue this year.
Second, despite claims to the contrary, incomes have begun to recover. While the rich have grown richer, state and municipal increases in the minimum wage have boosted incomes at the other end of the scale.
Finally, Donald Trump’s business success does not give him any special advantage in improving the national economy. Different rules apply, especially when it comes to using borrowed money. And presidents have less economic influence than they claim.
The economic proposals by the two major candidates run true to form.
Democrat Hillary Clinton would raise taxes on the most wealthy and use the proceeds to fund public works projects. Government would directly create jobs by hiring people to build roads and bridges.
Republican Trump just announced his plan consisting of traditional GOP proposals to cut government regulation and taxes. Business would have more money it could invest in expansion and new job creation.
Trump would reduce government revenues until the economy improves, yielding more tax income. Clinton would cover costs using funds from a tax increase on the wealthy.
Either way, voters are asked to believe that new jobs will turn part-time into full-time employment and bring some people back into the labor force. But the problems of the economy may not be that simple to solve, assuming the proposals would work.
Clinton made some remarks about coal miners that were ripped from their context. Yes, she said, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners …out of business.” But she also proposed bringing them jobs producing “clean renewable energy.”
Contrast that view with one of a Trump voter shown in a now famous news video. He said that the GOP candidate would “preserve the culture I grew up in.” Trump wants to save the coal industry.
Trump advocates what amounts to recovery of the old economy with traditional incomes – “Make America Great Again.” Clinton looks for a new economy with more skilled jobs and new pay scales.
Jobs are coming back. Last week, the federal government reported 255,000 new jobs in July, topping economists’ forecasts averaging 180,000. And incomes have finally begun to move up.
In the depths of the recession, more than 80 percent of people saw the economy as the country’s biggest problem, according to the Wall Street Journal. Now, the paper reports than only about a quarter hold that view.
Still, President Obama has to do a better job explaining his successful policies. Auto sales had been down 40 percent until the federal government stepped in. The industry was saved and the government got a huge share of its investment back. The single government stimulus program also worked.
Perhaps the end of the economic crisis is why polls now give Clinton and Trump equal ratings on their ability to deal with the economy while showing Clinton ahead in the race for the White House. She leads on dealing with foreign affairs, including threats to the U.S., issues that are unusually politically relevant.
Trump argues that the economy would do even better if immigration was essentially halted and millions of people were sent back to their countries of origin. The implication is that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, plus some new arrivals are posing a security threat.
The opposing view is that immigrants both add consumers, needed for the economy to grow, and to take entry-level jobs that Americans don’t want. Deporting millions could undermine growth. Obama’s expulsion of two million immigrants may have slowed recovery.
Trump would also slam the door on major trade deals and try to roll back existing ones in the belief that others are stealing U.S. markets.
Trade provides lower priced goods in the U.S. market and many retail and import jobs. The main reason for huge Chinese imports is the lower price tag on its goods. If trade deals are dismantled and new ones blocked, prices will undoubtedly rise. Are Americans ready to pay more to buy American-made products?
The economy will always be a big issue. But this year, it’s increasingly difficult to make the case it is in bad shape. Voters focus now on candidates’ character and their ability to run the government, fight terrorism and keep domestic peace.

Political power, money corrupt the Olympic ideal

There are three major political events this summer. Three?
Yes, there are the two national political conventions. But there’s also the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. It should take our minds off politics for a couple of weeks, but it is a highly political event.
In fact, the Olympics may be the most political event of the three. There’s almost nothing about it that isn’t more political than athletic.
When the modern Olympics were created more than a century ago, they were meant to promote personal ties across national lines as athletes from many countries gathered to compete. They were all amateurs and teams might be composed of people from several countries.
Achievements were measureable and the motto was “higher, faster, stronger.”
The idealism of those early days has been swept away by national rivalries and professionalism. It wasn’t worth cheating in the early Olympics, but now there’s much at stake, because national prestige and personal profit have come to matter.
It begins with the selection of the host country. This year it is Brazil in recognition of that country being among the supposedly emerging world leadership group, BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
But the BRIC concept seems have faded as quickly as it emerged. Brazil has shown it has neither the financial resources nor the political stability needed for a host country. The Olympics may hang on by its fingertips in Rio and making it to the final ceremony may be its greatest accomplishment.
The Zika virus and unsanitary conditions have led some top athletes to decline participation. Team housing is not ready and boating competition waters remain polluted. Brazil, in the midst of a major political crisis, simply cannot bring these conditions under control.
In the past, the host country could organize events so that its participants were able to pick up a few extra medals. But, instead of its moment in the limelight, Brazil is likely to suffer a loss in its reputation as the result of hosting the Games.
Then, there’s the political choice of events. For example, baseball and softball are excluded, because organizers worry the U.S. would always win. No matter that millions around the world play and watch these sports unlike rhythmic gymnastics with its two gold medals going to gymnast-dancers who are judged not scored.
The professionalization of the Games provides a strong incentive for cheating. And the most well known form of cheating is the use of performance enhancing drugs.
The logic is as obvious as it is basically wrong. If athletes from a country rack up a lot of medals, it supposedly implies that the country is superior to others. In turn, its Olympics reputation should enhance its influence in the world.
This year, Russia’s systematic and government-sponsored cheating on drug tests, allowing its athletes in both summer and winter Olympics to benefit from PEDs, has been starkly revealed. “Higher, faster, stronger” results have become “Hyped, falsified, stolen.”
By now, these moves to produce phony results are not worth the effort. Some top athletes disregard Olympic medals. The world now knows about the cheating. And people have been able to recognize the difference between winning a Greco-Roman wrestling medal and exercising world power.
The role of PEDs has become undeniable as the result of recent revelations about Russian tampering with tests. To that cheating has just been added the corrupting role of money.
What started out as a series of amateur competitions has become highly professionalized. Every participant from the countries sending large teams receives pay. If an athlete wins a medal, there’s usually a big bonus.
In some countries, the athlete is paid by the government as a public employee. In the U.S., where the teams get no government funding, the sports organizations distribute sponsorship money to athletes free from any outside control.
NBC, the authorized broadcaster of the Games in the U.S., touts them no matter their problems. It is a major funder of the International Olympic Committee. That allows “volunteer” Olympic Movement leaders to pay themselves well, stay at the best hotels and travel first class. They even get a special stipend to attend the Rio Games.
There’s a sharp contrast between what the sports association executives and the competitors are paid. One participant says he could do better than his current income as either an association executive or flipping hamburgers.
Every four years, Americans face a highly charged presidential campaign with its claims of corrupt practices and the dominant role of big money.
We are probably unaware that the supposed pure Olympics are just the same.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Trump quits presidential race -- an election fantasy or is it?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, having grown tired of the campaign, quit.

In part, that’s because he did not enter the race to head the GOP ticket to win.  A man who likes to see his name in print, he thought he would gain great publicity that could bolster his business reputation.  He thought he might come in second.  Winning was as much a surprise to him as it was to everybody else.

He had no idea of how difficult it is to run and how many people you have to please.  In fact, he had no political idea at all and came to believe that his natural abilities, obvious to him if not to many others, would provide all the answers he needed.

His candidacy struck a spark with some voters fed up with Washington’s way of doing business.  Whatever Trump meant politically, and nobody knew what that was, he certainly would bring change.

But the daily slogging through a campaign for which he was unprepared and the incessant criticism from Democrats and Republicans were taking the fun out of running.  The media believed nothing, including tax returns, is personal.  When he was criticized, he hit back, producing even more problems.

Running turned out to be more complicated than business.  Trump selected a few key states as his campaign focus, partly because that did not require many overnight trips away from his Manhattan tower.

Even worse, saying whatever he thought got him into trouble.  Having political instincts closer to a pugnacious schoolboy than a major party candidate appealed to some but lost him support in the polls.  He worried he could turn out to be seen as a “loser.”

Having accomplished what he set out to do – make the Trump name a national byword – he decided matters had gone far enough.  To the surprise of all and the relief of many, he abruptly announced that he would step aside as the GOP nominee.

The Republican National Committee, seeking to avoid a lengthy and bloody fight for succession, picked his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence as its replacement presidential nominee.

Fox announced that Trump would have his own show – “Celebrity Candidate” – on its news station.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Vice presidential nominees matter this year

If you were offered a lottery ticket that had a better than 20 percent chance of winning the jackpot, you would probably buy it.
That’s what Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine just did. They are the vice presidential nominees of their parties.
Their odds of becoming president are based on nine of the 44 presidents having been succeeded by their vice presidents before their terms ended.
John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president for his first two terms, famously said his job wasn’t “worth a buck of warm spit” or something like that. FDR had left him out of major policy discussions, then the usual practice with vice presidents. Even if once correct, Garner’s quip now misses the mark.
In all the talk about the vice presidential picks, little attention is given to this most important of attributes: whether the candidate could step up to the top job.
Another important aspect of the choice is that it is probably the most important campaign decision a candidate can make.
The Pence and Kaine picks produce positive results to both tests.
Republican presidential nominee Trump needed a running mate, who understands how Washington works, has good conservative credentials and won’t steal his limelight. Pence fills the bill.
Some suggest that Trump would focus on broad policies and leave it to Pence to be the chief operating officer, running the White House on a day-to-day basis and dealing with congressional leaders on the president’s behalf. How that job would mesh with Trump’s attention to at least some details remains unknown.
In the meantime, Pence can be expected to be a fully supportive campaigner on the national campaign trail. Indiana, usually a sure bet for the GOP even without him on the ticket, will get little of his attention as his term ends.
Clinton’s pick of Kaine makes sense, though Bernie Sanders’ supporters wanted a more liberal running mate. Sanders himself, focusing on the priority of defeating Trump, is positive about the Clinton choice.
Like Pence, Kaine brings a combination of both legislative and executive experience. Obviously, though not as liberal as Sanders, he’s a sharp contrast with strict conservative Pence. While Virginia has been moving to the Democratic side, his choice should assure it goes for Clinton.
Clinton had to calculate that, faced with a Trump alternative, Sanders supporters had nowhere else to go. That meant she could accept their temporary ire by selecting a running mate who might help her attract moderates and disaffected Republicans.
The same thinking undoubtedly applied to her consideration of a woman, a Latino or an African American running mate. These constituencies should support her by good margins, given the alternative, and don’t need any further inducement.
Plus, given the growing importance of Latino voters, Kaine brings an unusual advantage. Not only does he speak Spanish fluently, but he spent almost a year working in Honduras running a local employment center. That on-the-ground experience should matter to some voters.
Clinton’s selection of Kaine while ignoring Sanders supporters suddenly became complicated. Sanders had long claimed that the Democratic Party was favoring Clinton. The surprise release of leaked emails provided the proof.
For months, Sanders had wanted Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz to resign because of her favoritism. After the emails, she had to be forced out. Coupled with the Kaine selection, a concession had to be made to the Vermonter’s supporters. Still, Kaine himself seemed tone deaf to the importance of placating them.
Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who once ran for veep, has said a vice presidential candidate rarely matters, but becomes a factor during the single vice presidential debate.
Pence could show his governmental experience and how well he can answer tough policy questions, filling gaps in Trump’s background. The debate with Kaine, who also has extensive experience, could be an in-depth clash of issue positions going beyond merely cheerleading for the top of the ticket.
In effect, a key turning point in the campaign could be this confrontation between professionals who both know their business. It’s possible that the vice presidential debate may be more critical this year than ever before.
If Trump were elected, the development and success of his policies could depend on Pence’s ability to push them through the Washington mill. Kaine, serving with an experienced president, would likely be a governing partner as has become the case since Al Gore served with Bill Clinton.
The two supposedly unpopular presidential candidates may find themselves unusually dependent on their two potentially more appealing running mates.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump may not win, but will shake up politics

Conventional wisdom says that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, will lose the presidential election, because he embodies values and practices rejected by most Americans.
Whatever the dubious polling reports at any moment, reputable and successful forecasters see him losing the electoral vote by a landslide. Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee, would win as much because of Trump’s defects as her merits.
The media, abandoning its often misguided attempts simply to match quotes from two sides of an argument and call it objective reporting, has challenged Trump’s bold statements made with little or no basis in fact. Most news stories are about his false claims, “politically incorrect” statements and questionable business tactics.
Trump has made no effort to flesh out a platform, though there’s still time. His anti-immigrant promises are called un-American, but they appeal to some voters. His reliance on racist and even crypto-Nazi sources does not dent his popularity.
It is easy to assume that people backing Trump are themselves racist, holding opinions and values that are outside the American mainstream. Perhaps some fit this definition, but dismissing his supporters because of his behavior, values and lack of presidential demeanor misses the point.
The campaign may be more about the people who support Trump than about the candidate himself.
In reactions to my earlier columns and in a lengthy report in a recent issue in the New Yorker magazine, some Trump supporters reveal they are not racist, don’t really want to build a wall with Mexico and recognize that Trump’s talk often goes too far. In short, they are not what his opponents want to believe them to be.
They see what most Americans see – a political system that has become incapable of making decisions on pressing national needs, a system where partisan gain is more important than sound public policy. But they do not believe that a conventional politician can fix what’s wrong.
Many of his supporters may accept that he has no realistic chance of winning. But a strong race by him could send a chill down the spines of both parties, perhaps causing them to seek compromise as a way of assuring their survival. Or maybe a strong Trump run would lead to the creation of a new, moderate party.
Trump may not have run with this in mind. His giant ego will have been well fed merely by running as the nominee of one of the two major parties. Yet, even if his campaign is nothing more than a big ego trip, it has tapped into deeper political currents.
The Democrats seem to help him or fuel the views of his supporters. Hillary Clinton, demonized by the GOP, is the quintessential conventional candidate. She doles out promises to key constituencies and adjusts her message to pick up votes. Constituencies support her when she offers them what they want to hear.
Her drawback is that she is so obvious about it. Voters see a calculating politician of questionable sincerity, following a carefully drafted script and perfectly playing the usual role of candidates for federal office. These officeholders have been able to cling to power without producing needed results.
With her considerable background, Clinton almost looks like an incumbent. In a safe contest, the frontrunning incumbent simply avoids mistakes by avoiding the political debate as much as possible. She hasn’t had a press conference this year. She picks her talking points and avoids being questioned.
Clinton looks like the winner because she may have fewer negatives than Trump. Some Republicans, fearful of seeing their party seized by an untamed outsider, would rather sit out the campaign or even support Clinton, a known personality, than see Trump do well. They think he holds dangerous views.
It is possible that neither Trump nor Bernie Sanders, both fed up with conventional politics, thought they could win their party’s nominations. An incredibly divided field of conservatives helped Trump. A failure to move beyond his single, compelling issue when he started winning may have been Sander’s downfall.
The latest NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll reports that 56 percent of voters favor a candidate who would bring “major changes” to government even if the nature of those changes are now “not possible to predict.” Only 41 percent favor a candidate with a more “steady approach” even if that brought “fewer changes.”
It sounds like voters would favor Trump over Clinton. But he is falling short because of his undisciplined and controversial style. In other words, Trump may work as the messenger of national discontent but not as a presidential candidate.