Back when Republicans were (mostly) sane–when they cared about good government at least as much as raw power, I worked in the Indianapolis mayoral administration of Bill Hudnut. Bill had his faults, as we all do, but he passionately loved the city and tried to do what was best for all of its inhabitants.
He was also a former Presbyterian minister who often compared America–and to a lesser extent Indianapolis– to “The Shining City on the Hill.” We were to be a beacon, an ideal to which others aspired.
In the absence of a real newspaper, I can’t offer an educated evaluation of today’s Indianapolis, but no one in their right mind thinks today’s United States is a beacon to be emulated. It isn’t simply our massive and embarrassing policy failures (think health care, the environment, criminal justice, race relations, women’s rights and economic justice, for starters…)
It’s the corruption.
As the New York Times has recently–amply, overwhelmingly– documented, our President is a crook. Not that most of us are surprised, given the indictments of his associates, the scandals of his cabinet , and his whole sordid history.
The blockbuster New York Times report on the Trump family’s history of fraud is really about two distinct although linked kinds of fraudulence.
On one side, the family engaged in tax fraud on a huge scale, using a variety of money-laundering techniques to avoid paying what it owed. On the other, the story Donald Trump tells about his life — his depiction of himself as a self-made businessman who made billions starting from humble roots — has always been a lie: Not only did he inherit his wealth, receiving the equivalent of more than $400 million from his father, but Fred Trump bailed his son out after deals went bad.
So, Krugman says, voters who bought Trump’s highly inaccurate version of Donald Trump bought snake-oil. But the bigger, and much more damaging fraud is the story we tell ourselves about America the Meritocracy.
The tale of the Trump money is part of a bigger story. Even among those unhappy at the extent to which we live in an era of soaring inequality and growing concentration of wealth at the top, there has been a tendency to believe that great wealth is, more often than not, earned more or less honestly. It’s only now that the amounts of sheer corruption and lawbreaking that underlie our march toward oligarchy have started to come into focus.
Until recently, my guess is that most economists, even tax experts, would have agreed that tax avoidance by corporations and the wealthy — which is legal — was a big issue, but tax evasion— hiding money from the tax man — was a lesser one. It was obvious that some rich people were exploiting legal if morally dubious loopholes in the tax code, but the prevailing view was that simply defrauding the tax authorities and hence the public wasn’t that widespread in advanced countries.
But this view always rested on shaky foundations. After all, tax evasion, almost by definition, doesn’t show up in official statistics, and the super-wealthy aren’t in the habit of mouthing off about what great tax cheats they are. To get a real picture of how much fraud is going on, you either have to do what The Times did — exhaustively investigate the finances of a particular family — or rely on lucky breaks that reveal what was previously hidden.
We’ve had some of those “lucky breaks,” as Krugman points out. Thanks to the Panama Papers and other leaks, we now know that outright tax evasion by the very wealthy is pervasive. Researchers estimate that the rich pay on average 25 percent less than they owe–enough to pay for the entire food stamp program. And of course, that tax evasion serves to entrench privilege and allows it to be passed on to the heirs of that privilege.
Just like Trump’s daddy did.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have been “systematically defunding the Internal Revenue Service, crippling its ability to investigate tax fraud. We don’t just have government by tax cheats; we have government of tax cheats, for tax cheats.”
It’s not just that the president of the United States is, as veteran tax reporter David Cay Johnston put it, a “financial vampire,” cheating taxpayers the way he has cheated just about everyone else who deals with him.
Beyond that, our trend toward oligarchy — rule by the few — is also looking more and more like kakistocracy — rule by the worst, or at least the most unscrupulous. The corruption isn’t subtle; on the contrary, it’s cruder than almost anyone imagined. It also runs deep, and it has infected our politics, quite literally up to its highest levels.
So much for “the Shining City on the Hill.” America is more like an inner-city neighborhood where kids look up to the rich drug dealer.