Over the weekend Donald Trump raged against the Russia “witch hunt,” which he claimed was an effort to distract from his push for “historic Tax Cuts & Reform.” And there actually is a relationship – but it goes in the other direction. If Trump survives this crisis – which may mean that U.S. democracy doesn’t – tax cuts will have a lot to do with it.
For Republicans in Congress know perfectly well that Trump is utterly unfit for office and has been abusing his position for personal gain. Many of them surely suspected, long before Monday’s indictments, that members of his inner circle, and perhaps he himself, have colluded with a hostile foreign power.
If they nonetheless circle the wagons around Trump – in particular, if they allow him to fire Robert Mueller, which now seems all too likely – there will be one main reason: Trump offers their big opportunity to cut taxes for the very wealthy. Indeed, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that almost 80 percent of the Trump tax cut would go to people with incomes over $1 million; these people would get an average cut of around $230,000 a year.
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But here’s what gets me: The wealthy donors for whom the GOP will apparently do anything, up to and including covering up for possible treason, will get no joy from their tax cuts.
I don’t mean that history will judge them harshly, although it will. I don’t even mean that plutocrats as well as plebeians will eventually suffer if America becomes a lawless, authoritarian regime. I mean that a few hundred thousand dollars extra will do little if anything to make the already wealthy more satisfied with their lives.
You might well ask, who cares? Even if tax cuts would make the rich joyful, this shouldn’t count against the sheer misery Republicans are trying to impose on the tens of millions of people they’re trying to deprive of health care, food stamps, disability benefits and more.
Still, for some reason I find it fascinating that all this misery, plus the possible destruction of constitutional government, may happen without even making the intended beneficiaries happy.
To be fair, money is a nice thing to have, and I personally am by no means an ascetic. In New York 2017, in particular, life is good if and only if you can afford a decent place to live, which doesn’t come cheap.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of evidence, both within and between countries, showing that other things being equal, having more money does make people happier. This evidence is, however, based on surveys that don’t capture what’s happening at the very top of the income scale.
To figure out what extra money means at the top, you need to turn to less formal sources of insight.
Take, for example, reactions to the Obama tax hike of 2013. Few people seem aware that the wealthy faced a pretty big tax increase that year – average federal taxes on the top 1 percent rose to 34 percent of income from 29 percent of income – thanks to expiration of part of the Bush tax cuts and the imposition of new taxes to help pay for Obamacare.
So, do you remember widespread wailing and rending of garments among the economic elite? I don’t; many super-affluent Americans barely seemed to notice.
Or take a fascinating Fortune article from 1955, reprinted a few years ago, describing the lives of top executives. At the time, thanks to income taxes and wage compression, such men were much poorer than their counterparts had been in 1930. The 1955 executive owned a motorboat, not a yacht, and “gets along with one or two servants.”
Yet the article conveys a sense of men satisfied with their lives. Maybe all the wealth members of that class lost under the New Deal – and have regained many times over in our second Gilded Age – didn’t do much for their happiness?
Now, obviously much of the pursuit of wealth is really about status and power – as Tom Wolfe wrote in 1968, it’s about “seeing ‘em jump.” You can see this in Trump’s personal taste in furnishings, which a Politico article perceptively described as “dictator chic” – designed not to be comfortable, but to impress and intimidate.
But a tax cut that goes to almost all wealthy Americans doesn’t even deliver the kind of status payoff many of the truly rich crave, since the guy in the mansion next door gets the same cut.
Again, arguably none of this matters very much. The GOP policy agenda of rewarding the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class would be vile even if tax cuts would make the rich ecstatic. The party’s willingness to turn a blind eye to corruption with a hint of treason would be horrifying whatever the motivation. Still, there seems to me to be an extra dimension of awfulness to the whole situation once you realize that all this betrayal serves no real purpose, not even a bad one.
And maybe, just maybe, members of the GOP donor class will take this moment of national crisis to ask themselves what really matters. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain a $230,000 tax cut, and his formerly democratic nation lose its soul?