Notes on the nation’s current controversies
by Conrad Black
American political discourse is becoming more fruitless all the time.
The terrible tragedy in Las Vegas has led to amplified calls for gun control, although no version of gun control that anyone is advocating would have prevented that tragedy. The perpetrator had no criminal record or worrisome psychiatric history and would have passed any proposed test to show the responsibility necessary to buy a sophisticated gun, and the principal demand the Democrats have put forth is Hillary Clinton’s insistence that a Republican proposal to make it easier for private citizens to buy silencers for their guns be rejected. In this case there was no silencer, so while Mrs. Clinton’s arguments may have merit, they have nothing to do with this incident. The only gun-control measures that would reduce the possibility of a Las Vegas horror are a good deal more stringent than any that more than 10 percent of the country would approve of and would probably require a constitutional amendment. Increased security measures where there will be large gatherings of people, as would have occurred if the president or vice president were addressing the crowd rather than a popular music group, might have accomplished something and may be desirable and possible to impose, but that is really a local-government matter.
The NFL controversy seems mercifully to be receding, with the inevitable and pathetic Democratic and media effort to portray Trump as a racist having failed once more. If the player-demonstrators had been complaining about the general condition of the American justice system, or the dysfunctionality of government generally, there would have been some rationale to it, though those are not the sort of causes that normally arouse that kind of small-numbers/maximum-attention demonstration. The numbers of African-Americans killed because of the malice or negligence of white police in America are much smaller than the numbers of lawless murders of whites or murders of African-Americans by African-Americans. Any needless death is a terrible thing, but generating an immense controversy over a phenomenon that, though despicable, is relatively rare, and doing so by affronting the entire country, never made any sense. If it continues, it will be a serious danger to the prosperity of the league and its more politically demonstrative players.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who got about 80 percent as many Democratic-primary votes as Hillary Clinton last year, has, in quick order, advised the nation that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were caused by global warming (a concept that the saner eco-alarmists have abandoned in their retreat to “climate change”); and that the (false) charge of administration indifference to hurricane-racked Puerto Ricans is something “we have a right to” attribute to President Trump’s status as a racist. It is frightening to contemplate the level of support Sanders enjoys, in a country where the unexciting comedian Jimmy Kimmel has appointed himself the premier contemporary political commentator. Kimmel’s desire to broaden his repertoire is understandable, but removing coercion and fines from the health-care system does not constitute depriving 24 million people of health care, as he claimed, and no one has suggested that prayers are an entirely sufficient answer to the Las Vegas shooting (Kimmel’s latest foray into Tocquevillism). Where is Walter Lippmann when we need him?
The country is hamstrung between Obaman low-growth welfarism and Trumpian economic expansionism, and particularly between Obama’s goal of a single-payer, entirely socialized medical-care system and a mixed private-public health-care system that is accessible to more people at less cost than what evolved prior to Obamacare. The United States has far too expensive a health-care system and one that is very inadequate for lower-income groups in such a rich country. Obama accomplished only half of his desired transformation of “spreading the wealth,” and Trump is struggling to implement his half-won revolution to “drain the swamp.”
The key to producing rising prosperity, and to sustaining the recent economic growth caused by the anticipation of growth-oriented tax reform, is the adoption of something like the tax bill the administration presented in outline last week. The Democrats have greeted it with the incantation that they had already begun before the proposed terms of the bill were released — that it is just a pay-off to the rich. This is false, as it does cut taxes for most people and the Republicans can make a reasonable case for their claim that it is a “middle-class tax cut.” I doubt that the president, given the partisan hostility of most of the media, will pry many Democratic senators loose from the reactionary despotism of their leader, Chuck Schumer, but with a few modifications and Trump’s much greater platform and talent for leading and stirring public opinion, he can generate considerable pressure for tax reform on Democratic politicians with little demonstrated aptitude to resist pressure.
The vortex between the residue of the Obama era and the goals of Trump seems to be controlled by the very unpromising triumvirs, senators John McCain, Rand Paul, and Susan Collins, with a possible wild card in the outcome and timing of the corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez. It is in every respect regrettable that Senator McCain is choosing to round out a very distinguished career with acts of obstructionist vengeance against Mr. Trump (without getting into the responsibility for the hostility between them). Rand Paul seems to enjoy the niche he has carved out for himself of opposing every legislative initiative that is not perfect. Ms. Collins is too indistinct a figure for me to offer a prediction about her.
The attempt to smear Trump as legally and ethically tainted has generally failed (despite the proclivity of CNN commentators to refer to the “drip, drip, drip” of the Russian-collusion nonsense, a more accurate description of their reporters on the subject than of the events being covered). It has been overtaken by rising concerns about the conduct of the Clintons and senior Obama officials, and complete obstructionism has given way to some civil exchanges, as Trump will likely serve his term, has raised his game somewhat, is holding his following, and may be able to sell his tax reform.
Everyone likes the idea of a postcard tax return and just three tax brackets.
Everyone likes the idea of a postcard tax return and just three tax brackets. The country already seems to buy Trump’s argument that reduced corporate and middle-income taxes will spur growth and debunk the Obama theory of “secular stagnation” and permanent 1.2 percent growth. That, on the heels of the housing bubble, the Great Recession, a 125 percent increase in the national debt, the large increase in defined poverty and food-stamp use, no real wage or productivity growth in over 15 years, a decline in the work force of 15 million, and around 20 million people simply dropping out of almost everything except a haze sustained by expanded Medicaid, have strained public morale and patience more than the complacent political establishment had remotely imagined even a year ago.
The proposed tax bill will encourage business investment, which has declined by two-thirds in 30 years, by allowing full expensing. Reducing tax deductibility for debt should encourage more prudent corporate and family borrowing. Proposed increases in the child tax credit are good, though they could be higher, and the doubling of the standard deduction to $24,000 will be a great benefit to tens of millions of people and the Democrats must not be allowed to get away with claiming otherwise. Everyone wins from the repatriation of up to $3 trillion of overseas profits. In order to win the battle on this issue, the administration will have to get free of the antediluvian tyranny of the Congressional Budget Office, which has not predicted any economic development accurately in decades. Eliminating the deductibility of local and state income taxes is a severe measure clearly aimed at the blue states California, New York, and Illinois. It is a bit harsh, and I suspect it will have to be rolled back some, but as I have written many times, revenue shortfalls could be made up from sales and services taxes on elective and luxury spending.
This proposal is fundamentally a big step forward, but if the administration can’t win a vote or two in the Senate with its public-relations campaign, it must at least do well enough to ensure that a year from now it can win the battle between the Democrats’ claim of Trump’s ineffectuality and Republican counter-charge of scorched-earth obstruction. Otherwise, in three years, the Sandersites and the Cruzites will be fighting it out and the last two years will seem like President James Monroe’s “era of good feeling.”
First published in National Review Online.