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Tax Avoidance, the Paradise Papers and the Republican Game Plan – posted 11/26/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/30/2017

November 26, 2017 Leave a comment

As the Republicans push to pass their tax plan, so much remains unsaid. You have to ask: why at a time of unprecedented economic inequality are the Republicans promoting a discredited trickle-down scheme that is widely seen as a massive give-away to the rich?

Greed by the super-rich is one immediate answer. The rest of us are being played for suckers.

However, I think there is a deeper context. By using taxes to balloon the federal deficit, Republicans will tie the hands of Democrats for years to come. The Democrats will be forced to address deficit reduction rather than the promotion of bold and popular programs. On the agenda will be shrinking entitlements and greatly reduced federal spending.

If this is a game of field position, the Democrats are getting outfoxed, playing deep in their own territory with little chance of scoring. Republican ball control dominates.

Fundamentally, this tax bill, in either the House or Senate incarnation, is about creating new ways for the wealthiest corporations and individuals to protect and expand their wealth. High-income people by far get the largest benefits while many middle and lower-income households will end up worse off.

The Republicans tout crumbs falling off the table as they reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. This is a movie we have seen before. The rich get much richer and the trickle-down never trickles down.

Curiously, at the same time this spectacle is going on, we have had the release of the Paradise Papers. For those unfamiliar with the Paradise Papers, they are leaked documents which show the world’s biggest businesses, heads of state and global figures in politics, entertainment, and sports have sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens. A German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, obtained the Paradise Papers and then shared the information with the New York Times, the Guardian, and the BBC.

Among other revelations, the Paradise Papers show extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisors and donors, including Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Commerce Secretary. Through a chain of offshore investments, Ross has received substantial payments from Navigator Holdings, a firm co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. Ross now says he will divest in Navigator.

Among Trump insiders, Ross has not been alone in using offshore tax shelters. The Paradise Papers name Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and SEC Chairman Jay Clayton as all having significant history with tax havens.

The Paradise Papers also show aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations like Nike and Apple. They show some of the biggest names in the film and TV industries protecting their wealth through offshore schemes. The worst offending tax havens are Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Singapore although they are not the only ones.

Tax avoidance is a major contributing factor in understanding why economic inequality has mushroomed not just in the United States but internationally. When vast sums of money disappear offshore, support for basic infrastructure including hospitals, roads, schools and clean air and water dries up. The Paradise Papers show England is having the same problem with this as we are in the United States.

Maybe it is stating the obvious but laws should not allow profits to be shifted away from where they are generated to another country with no taxes or a negligible tax rate.

Poverty and inequality are dramatically and adversely affected by tax avoidance. The super-rich, who absolutely can afford to pay, sleaze out of paying their fair share. By not paying, they maximize their profits while undermining the revenue needed for critical human needs.

When President Trump ran for president, he promised to address offshore tax havens and bring trillions of dollars back to the U.S.. Just on November 1, Trump reiterated this concern:

“Finally our plan will bring back trillions of dollars from offshore…that will come pouring back into our country that will be put to work and will be spent by our companies that could never get the money back for many years. Bring the money back. We’re rebuilding America.”

The concern about tax havens was short-lived. House Republicans, at the behest of the Koch brothers and other large corporations, have now effectively squashed any plan to seriously tackle tax avoidance. In their new tax bill, House Republicans have almost entirely scaled back the tax avoidance provision.

Considering that Trump, who still has not released his own taxes, and his circle have made a career of tax avoidance, this reversal can hardly be considered surprising. Any idea of a public good does not enter into Trumpworld.

It is hard to conceptualize what the loss of what Trump calls “trillions of dollars” means to us. My imagination first calls up less homelessness, universal health care including adequate opioid addiction treatment programs, and timely hurricane response unlike what has happened with Puerto Rico.

The super-rich have been great at having a flotilla of lobbyists, apologists, and paid propagandists to justify and obscure their tax evasion. Americans invariably get more upset about the poor person on food stamps than the self-dealing billionaire stashing loot in the Caymans.

It seems to be easier to hate on the poor person you see in the supermarket whom you believe to be a scammer than the billionaire who lives a luxury life completely removed from any personal frame of reference. Yet the harm perpetrated by the billionaire tax cheat is immensely worse than any food stamp fraud.

The Congressional Budget Office has stated that the Republican tax plan will instantly trigger $400 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare in the next ten years, including $25 billion in the first year after the bill is enacted. The reason is that the tax bill will increase the deficit more than $1.5 trillion.

Under the provisions of a law known as Statutory PAYGO, there must be an automatic cut in spending when Congress increases the deficit this much. Medicare will not be the only government program to face the squeeze. A wide array of other government programs will also be strangled.

Statutory PAYGO allows the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the sole power to decide how to implement the Medicare cuts. The current director of OMB, Mick Mulvaney, is no friend of Medicare or government spending. A self-described “right-wing nutjob”, former House Freedom Caucus member, and Ayn Rand admirer, Mulvaney is a man on a mission. If he stays at OMB, it is a safe bet Mulvaney will ax Medicare as much as he can. Even if he is not there, his replacement will probably be a clone.

Democrats, progressives, independents, and moderate Republicans need to fight tooth and nail against the Republican tax plan. There is more going on here than first meets the eye. The decreased revenue from the tax changes will be used to justify cuts in essential programs for a generation. The damage will be felt far into the future.

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Looking at Mass Shootings Through a Domestic Violence Lens – posted 11/12/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/26/2017

November 12, 2017 2 comments

It is hard to keep up with all the mass shootings. There have been so many of them and they happen with such depressing regularity.

Everytown Research, an organization devoted to understanding and reducing gun violence, says that between 2009 and 2016, 156 mass shootings  occurred in the United States. Everytown defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people, not including the shooter, were shot and killed.

While we have been conditioned to look first for an ISIS or Al Qaeda link, the majority of mass shootings, 54%, are connected to domestic violence. The most common scenario is a toxically angry man who goes off because he has lost control over his wife or girl friend. These enraged men act out with extreme violence when the women in their lives do not submit to them.

Underlying the domestic violence is an ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against women which still pervades our culture. The devaluation of women and the idea that men are superior and have the right to control and dominate them remains rampant in American society. While there are many men who devalue women but never commit violent acts, the role of prejudice against women and misogyny in American society is insufficiently understood and addressed.

In the U.S., guns are an omnipresent tool used to intimidate women. Everytown writes that 4.5 million women have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun. While that number seemed high to me, even lower estimates boggle the mind. Research suggests that the presence of guns in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood that a woman will be shot and murdered by a fivefold factor. This is a dark side of gun culture that we don’t talk about.

The mass shooting in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church on November 5 in which 25 people were murdered and 20 more injured is the latest example of the domestic violence connection.  Devin Kelley had a history of hitting, kicking, and choking his wife. He had threatened her many times with loaded and unloaded guns.

In 2012, the Air Force had court-martialed Kelley for an assault on his wife and his young stepson. As part of a plea deal, Kelley admitted to hitting the infant on the head and body “with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm”. Kelley fractured the child’s skull and caused internal bleeding.

Kelley served 12 months in a military prison and he received a bad conduct discharge.

In 2013, after moving to Colorado, police charged Kelley with misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Numerous witnesses saw him beat a dog with his fists. He tackled the dog, held it down with his knees and punched it while the dog yelped. Kelley then picked up the dog by the neck, threw it down and dragged it to his camper. When the police investigated, they found the dog was undernourished.

In 2014, after his divorce, police received a report of abuse against Kelley’s new girl friend. She had sent a text to a friend that “her boyfriend was abusing her”. When the police arrived they were told by people at the house that there was no problem. The police did not arrest Kelley in that incident. Two months later, Kelley married that girl friend.

Since the church shooting, police have reported that Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law who frequently attended at that church. The police also found social media posts from Kelley that suggested a fascination with mass shootings.

Kelley would have been prohibited from buying or owning any firearms if the Air Force had reported Kelley’s conviction into a background check system. He went on to buy at least four guns in Colorado and Texas between 2014 and 2017. The police recovered an AR-15-style rifle at the church and two handguns from Kelley’s car.

In our collective societal response to mass shootings like Sutherland Springs, we seem to turn off our critical faculties, as if we are infected by an intellectual paralysis. In the face of successive mass shootings and decades of government inaction, we have been rendered mute and powerless.

We need to overcome the idea that nothing can be done to stop gun violence.

For starters, we need a much-improved, universal, national background check system that does not allow loopholes. Even the NRA admits that seven million records are missing from the system. This includes a large number of people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Devin Kelley was just one of many who have evaded the background check system.

Whether a person buys at a licensed gun dealer, a gun show, or in a private sale, there must be a background check. There is a body of persuasive public health evidence showing that closing the unlicensed gun loophole will save many lives.

It remains far too easy for domestic violence abusers, convicted felons, the seriously mentally ill and even people on terrorist watch lists to obtain firearms. Now, in most states, gun purchasers can avoid background checks by buying from unlicensed sellers online. That is wrong.

According to Everytown, in 42% of mass shootings, the shooter had exhibited warning signs prior to the shooting. The warning signs were suicidal ideation, homicidal threats or other erratic behaviors. There were no shortage of red flags around Devin Kelley but family, acquaintances, and law enforcement missed the warning signs.

Rather than a simple mental health diagnosis, I think we need to look harder at the behavioral risk of dangerousness. It is extremely hard to predict how a person will act but a history of violent behavior is a better predictor of future violence than mental illness.

Possibly we should reform our laws around restraining orders. California, Oregon and Washington have passed Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Under these laws, family members and law enforcement can petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals in crisis, especially those at a dangerously-elevated risk of suicide.

Additionally,  we should be advocating for renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. These are weapons designed to maximize lethality in military combat and should not be available to civilians. The AR-15 was the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Aurora, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Sutherland Springs.

The regulation  of assault weapons, high capacity magazines and bump stocks is not an infringement on Second Amendment rights. No constitutional right is absolute and all are subject to reasonable regulation. Assault weapons have proven to be a major threat to public health and safety in this nation.

The fact that the gun lobby objects strenuously to every effort to regulate the industry as heading down some slippery slope shows evidence of extreme  paranoia more than rational thought. As with any legislative reform,  every  proposed gun control measure should be evaluated on the merits.

Seeing mass shootings as a product of a small number of mentally deranged individuals misses the context of how women are treated in American society and how they become victims of male violence. The mass shootings are not inevitable events. If we had the political will as a society to address how women are devalued and discriminated against, we could greatly reduce the frequency of tragedies like Sutherland Springs where the link between domestic violence and mass shootings is readily apparent.

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