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Friday, November 17, 2017

Given how often Donald Trump reminds us of his incredible accomplishments as a businessman, you might reasonably expect that his new book on “how to make America great again” would include a business plan.

You know, an actual how-to with specific proposals, details, revenue projections, cost estimates, risk analyses, and, especially, how to get the Congress he denigrates to turn his ideas into law.

Instead, all that buyers of Crippled America get for their $25 (retail) is a jumble of contradictions and thoughts that have not yet reached the half-baked stage. The book reads as if it were assembled from a lot of brief voice memos; to call it dictated would be an offense to that verb.

Crippled America is so badly organized, illogical, and filled with made-up facts that one wonders why Trump never said “you’re fired” to any of the 23 people he embarrasses by thanking them for their help stretching his lightweight thoughts to fill 193 small pages — mostly through the canny use of large type.

Slipped in between his endlessly repetitive self-praise are some sound economic ideas. What’s missing is any semblance of understanding how to turn those ideas into law.

In that same vein, Trump also praises the murderous Russian dictator and military aggressor Vladimir Putin, calling him the world’s only effective leader. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s nice to be a dictator and not to have to deal with Congress, the courts, or a constitution.

It has become de rigueur for politicians to denounce government waste. And in doing so, Trump manages to both contradict himself and get his facts wrong.

Trump says, rightly, that we need to spend a lot more on infrastructure. At page 126 he says, “if we are serious about making America great again, this is where we have to start.”

But 32 pages later Trump writes “$9.6 billion could be saved” by ending the Rural Utilities Service program. That’s an infrastructure financing program that benefits about 4,6 million people this year and its fiscal 2015 budget was $7.3 billion, far less than Trump’s figure. The program’s budget authority — what Congress provides from taxpayers — is less than $400 million.

Ask yourself how any competent businessman, much less Trump The Great, could be off by such a large factor.

The book Crippled America is rife with contradictions like this, all of them indicative of the lack of rigorous analysis we could expect from a President Trump, who cites Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi parody Sleeper as a source. But then why would his lack of sophistication come as a surprise, given that his self-declared expertise lies in using journalists and other people’s money to get rich and get himself three wives with what he regards as good looks?

Much of the book is devoted to attacking journalists, especially those few Totos of the press who have pulled back the curtain on his Oz-like bluster.

Consider Trump’s writing on page 17 about his embarrassing responses to some smart questions asked by Hugh Hewitt, the studious right-wing radio talk show host. Trump tried to fake his way through, only to establish that he couldn’t distinguish a Qud from a Kurd.

Most Americans would be stumped by Hewitt’s questions. But most Americans are not asking to be made commander in chief. Instead of admitting he was in over his head and promising to do better,
Trump whines in his book that the questions were unfair, a gotcha game of Trivial Pursuit.

You can just imagine Trump in the White House, lost and confused, after Congress, some world leader (like Putin or Angela Merkel), or even the beheading bunch at ISIL refuse to follow Trump’s script. “Not fair!” Trump will complain, impotently.

Conflating issues is a classic Trump strategy. On page 2 he writes about “members of the media who are so lost when it comes to being fair that they have no concept of the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion.’”

Trump goes after Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post, Kyle Smith of the New York Post, and “the odious” Jonah Goldberg of National Review, decrying them as hacks “who are supposed to be reporting the news [but] have no concept of fairness.”

No, they do not report the news. All three write opinion columns. (Well, Goldberg tries.)

Trump does not name a single news reporter, or publication, that erred. He does, however, make it clear that the only stories he finds reliable are those that accept as gospel whatever he says.

Lacking any actual evidence, Trump makes stuff up. Consider his all-upper-case assertion on page 14 about news coverage of his remarks that the Mexican government was sending rapists and murders to the United States.

“Here’s what the media reported: TRUMP CALLS ALL IMMIGRANTS CRIMINALS and TRUMP CALLS ALL MEXICANS RAPISTS!”

My research assistant and I both ran checks through Nexis and Google, but could not find a single news clip that supports either of those statements. But to Trump that is of no concern because facts are what he says they are, no matter the empirical evidence.

Similarly, Trump says, “women are flocking to my message… Likewise, Hispanics are climbing on board…”

The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows women flocking to Ben Carson, at least in Iowa, where they favor the retired doctor over Trump 33 percent to 13 percent. Trump’s favorability among Hispanics runs under 30 percent. But be assured that the pollsters, even the ones working for Fox, must be in cahoots against him because he tells us again and again that just about everyone loves Trump, even “the blacks.”

Again and again, Trump claims that various falsehoods have been reported about him without providing any supporting detail or verifiable facts. He writes several times that he doesn’t mind being attacked, that he doesn’t use the press, but that he depends on the press — except when he never does.

Most intriguing is Trump’s assertion at page 145 that profits breed dishonesty:

People sometimes forget that the newspapers and television stations are profit-making businesses – or at least they’re trying to be. If they have to choose between honest reporting and making a profit, which choice do you think they will make?

The reasonable question to ask Trump is whether his lifelong pursuit of profits has had any effect on his choices and his integrity. We already have the answer to that question from his own sworn testimony about how he inflates his personal wealth — and in a finding by a federal judge, after a trial, that he cheated illegal immigrant workers in pursuit of profits.

Making up attacks on journalists will play well with those who don’t actually read the news and harbor all sorts of negative opinions about the press — opinions which are themselves based on the opinions of people who profit from distorting the news, like Goldberg and the team at Murdoch’s Faux News.

Trump writes that his plan to eliminate income taxes for half of households and reduce the top tax rate from 39.6 percent (plus an add-on for very rich investors) to 25 percent will be “revenue neutral.”

That’s not just bad math, its typical Trumponomics, in which sales pitches and wishes are all that matter and cold hard analysis does not exist.

The conservative Tax Foundation has pointed out that in the first decade federal revenues would fall by $12 trillion – more than a third of the currently expected stream of tax dollars. The annual budget deficit, which has come down sharply under President Obama, would soar to record highs. It would probably be much worse than the estimate, since the Tax Foundation’s footnotes show it excluded many factors, in part because of vagaries in the Trump plan.

My own calculations suggest that Trump would have the federal government spend at least $1.50 for each dollar of tax revenue. This year the Obama administration will spend less than three cents more per dollar than taxes bring in. So if you love federal debt, Trump’s your man.

Given Trump’s serial business bankruptcies and government-backed favors that forced others to relinquish some of their wealth to him, as documented from public records in various books including my 1992 book Temples of Chance, his debt repayment record should make taxpayers nervous, even terrified.

That brings up a critical point about his campaign. As with his many business deals he sells the sizzle, not the steak. Any rigorous analysis of Trump’s campaign promises, vague as they are, will show that he would plunge the nation into economic disaster.

On tax policy, Trump takes a lesson from the deceptive playbook used by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. The Bush campaign would not say what its plan was except for a few details designed to appeal to middle-class voters, and its online calculator only worked for incomes up to $100,000.

Trump promises at page 153 to repeal the “death tax,” though no such tax exists. What he intends, but does not say, is to let super rich Americans like himself escape taxes on the increased value of their fortunes, transferring it all free of tax to their heirs. That would shift tax burdens down the income ladder and increase our extreme inequality.

Trump also displays appalling ignorance of corporate taxation, probably because he generally organized his businesses as partnerships, often in which he was both the general partner and the majority limited partner to get the favorable accounting and tax treatment Congress bestows on such arrangements.

“American-owned corporations have as much as $2.5 trillion in cash sitting overseas,” he writes, but will not bring it home “because the tax rate here is much higher than they are paying in other countries.”

First, it’s closer to $5 trillion held offshore by non-financial companies, as my analysis of IRS and Federal Reserve reports showed last year.

Second, in that quoted line Trump entirely misses the reason that money is offshore. By siphoning profits out of the country, multinational companies turn the burden of the corporate income tax into a profit center. By deferring the tax, the companies get a zero interest loan from Uncle Sam, which many of them then invest in Treasury bonds, forcing American taxpayers to pay them to defer their taxes — a system that takes from the many to enrich the multinationals.

He also proposes a 15 percent tax rate on business, which for privately held firms would cause enormous economic distortion as owners try to avoid his proposed 20 percent and 25 percent rates on income taken from those firms. Combine his tax rate on business and repeal of the estate tax and you supercharge the fortunes of the already rich by shifting tax burdens on to everyone else, including those trying to work their way to riches.

Like his ultra low-budget campaign, Crippled America is not so much about making America great as it is about selling Trump The Magnificent, so he can get a new and more lucrative job as a television entertainer. He has demonstrated for sure that there is a vast audience of people short on critical thinking skills who just adore his brand of self-aggrandizing blather.

So desperate for praise is Trump that the back cover includes a quote from Robert Redford. Had the author spent two minutes checking the facts, he might have grasped that the acclaimed actor and director was damning him with faint praise.

There is a lesson in the meaning of the Trump candidacy: Ask not what Trump can do for your country, ask what you can do for Trump.

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again by Donald J. Trump; Simon & Schuster (208 pages, $25)

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