The tax cut effort is an exercise in greed and arrogance. The nation faces a fiscal crisis (rising debt, large deficits, and major budget needs such as infrastructure), a social crisis (falling incomes for the bottom half), and a political crisis (a collapse of trust in public institutions). The public is against Donald Trump’s tax proposals. Yet the unstoppable mode of the Republican Party is to cut taxes for the rich. This is greed fueled by the arrogance of power.
The Senate version of the tax cut hasn’t yet been agreed on by key Republican senators, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will try this week to move it almost instantaneously from its unveiling to a floor vote. The Congressional Budget Office has just shown that, under this bill, the poorest Americans actually pay for the richest. Yet if McConnell has his way, there will be no hearings and no expert debate on a piece of legislation that will affect trillions of dollars and all Americans. Authoritarian regimes are more transparent than Washington.
The United States has become a plutocracy, a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Every branch of government is dangerously affected.
President Donald Trump has an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion and a trail of corporate bankruptcies, swindles, money laundering, and defaults associated with his business dealings. He owes his net worth to his daddy. He now aims to secure the Trump family billions by eliminating the estate tax.
Meanwhile, Trump’s cabinet is a haven of multimillionaires and billionaires, and at least seven of the nine Supreme Court justices are millionaires. Roughly 300 members of Congress (out of 535) are millionaires. They don’t need the goading of lobbyists to vote for corporate tax cuts. They have their personal financial balances firmly in mind.
Then of course come the campaign donors of the Republican majority in Congress, led by billionaires David and Charles Koch, Robert Mercer, and Sheldon Adelson. The Koch Brothers have long peddled the noxious ideology of Ayn Rand, which holds that the rich owe nothing to society.
A few congressmen have made clear that the tax bill is about meeting the expectation of the Republican Party donors, not about the will or need of the public. If they don’t pass the tax cut, the donors won’t come back. Still worse, the big donors threaten to run ads and primary-election opponents against those who dare to speak the truth. Those Republican congressmen who aren’t operating for their personal wealth live in fear of the party’s mega-donors.
All of this passes for normal in 21st-century America.
Of course, Democrats also have their well-heeled donors, though Democratic Party mega-donors are much more likely to favor tax increases on the rich. Still, there’s no doubt that donors and lobbyists for Wall Street, the health care industry, and other major sectors disproportionately influence the policies of both parties. Supported by advisors from Wall Street, Bill Clinton deregulated the banks, George W. Bush led us into the 2008 financial crisis, and Barack Obama bailed out and coddled the bankers. And now Trump seeks to reward them with a new round of tax cuts.
Plutocracies are self-feeding. Wealth feeds power and power feeds wealth. Yet eventually the runaway greed, unless checked early enough, will lead to a mega-crisis. The United States seems to be on such a path, with growing risks of another financial bubble or a future fiscal crisis. The timing is especially inopportune, since America is challenged as never before by the global shifts of economic, diplomatic, and military power.
The long-term hope for America is a new political movement by the poor and working class, as occurred in the populist-progressive era at the end of the 1800s, the union organizing of the 1930s, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. If history is a guide, the plutocrats are overplaying their hand and will reap the consequences, albeit with the risk of a very serious national crisis. If we are fortunate, America may yet escape a grievous self-inflicted wound in the coming weeks, if just a few Republican Senators put country over greed and vote down the egregious tax-cut proposals.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”