In the coming days, Republicans in Congress will try to stampede their tax bill through the reconciliation process and toward President Donald Trump’s desk for signing. If they manage this, it won’t be because reconciliation has made the House and Senate versions of the bill somehow fairer; there’s no way that two horrific versions of “reform” alchemically morph into something even halfway decent.
To the contrary: if they steamroll this plunderous legislation through, it will be so that they can deliver tax breaks, at any cost, to the wealthy conservative donor class, and, equally important, so they can stick it to affluent blue states and their residents.
Like so much else about Trumpian priorities, from his attacks on immigrant communities that disproportionately live in states like California and New York, through to his assault on environmental regulations, this is a payback moment. It uses the illusion of “reform” to sabotage a web of longstanding federal deductions vital to residents in high cost-of-living, liberal cities and states. The bill targets areas of the country that have high property values, higher state and local income taxes, higher medical costs, a relatively expansive social safety net, high numbers of graduate students, high investment in alternative energy and so on.
Let’s be absolutely clear: This isn’t “reform,” a word that comes with a connotation of progress and fairness. It’s the equivalent of the post-World War I “reparations” imposed on the losing nations by the victors, structured to be a punitive and debilitating transfer of wealth from Democratic states to Republican ones.
The intent is clearly to trigger an economic and political crisis in states such as California, pushing voters who have, over the past decade, at long last moved away from the sort of knee-jerk anti-tax policies that brought us Proposition 13 in 1978 – limiting not only residential property taxes but, far more destructively, also the real estate taxes paid by many of the world’s wealthiest corporations – toward a new spasm of anti-tax and anti-social spending politics. The goal, unstated but palpable, is to make deep red Kansas the universal model – low taxes, cataclysmically low social investments, a shredded safety net, a neutered environmental and regulatory movement.
There will be those in California who urge the state legislators and city officials to play defense in response: See what programs can be protected, while ceding ground on others; find ways to accommodate by trimming the local and state tax burden so as to minimize the damage caused by federal plunder.
Such a strategy is guaranteed to be a losing one. Once you start slashing programs and limiting vital expenditures, you are playing on the hard-right’s ground, playing by their rules and abiding by their priorities. Over one or two or three electoral cycles, voters will end up concluding that a corroded safety net system isn’t worth fighting for, that instead of deaths by a thousand cuts they might as well simply protect their personal finances by slashing state and local spending, and knuckle down in the new, lean, mean reality.
In such a defining, abnormal moment, California can only preserve its progressive, inclusive values by thinking big and playing offense: by showing residents, as well as other parts of the country, the value of expanded social infrastructure, the tangible pay-off from a fairer, more progressive tax code.
There is a reason that residents of countries like Denmark or Norway tolerate high taxes. It isn’t because they have a particular Scandinavian gene that makes them immune from the frustrations they experience when a large part of their paycheck gets taken in the form of taxes. Rather, it’s because they clearly see the benefits they accrue as a result of the social investments such taxes facilitate.
Unlike here in America, their higher education systems don’t hobble students with years of debt. Their healthcare systems cover every resident, and unexpected accidents or sicknesses don’t result in families suddenly being thrust into destitution. Their cities aren’t ravaged by homelessness. Their environments are clean. Their public transport systems are state-of-the-art. Their workers get six to eight weeks a year paid vacation. New parents get months of paid maternity and paternity leave.
If the GOP’s heinous tax bill becomes law, California ought to fight back with all of the clout that the sixth largest economy in the world possesses. And we fight back best by assertively reimagining the public realm.
Let’s show the rest of the country that we can create humane and expansive social infrastructure with our dollars, that we have the moral muscle to manifestly improve the lives of all residents, to create, in California, a 21st century equivalent of the New Deal.
In a Trumpian era in which the Feds are fetishizing greed and embedding cruelty and discrimination in public policy, Californians can resist by expanding healthcare coverage, investing in schools and universities, building up affordable housing stock and creating more rather than settling for fewer rights for workers. How ironic it would be if the GOP attempt to gut California fiscally ended up solidifying support for bold social infrastructure investments that truly benefit every resident.
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.