The Tax Bill Battle Shows the Left Needs a “Single Payer of Fiscal Policy”

A conversation with Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition.

Sarah Jaffe

(L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) talk with reporters following the weekly Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon in the U.S. Capitol November 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

When the heirs and heiresses of billionaire fortunes can take over an entire political party and force them to pass public policies that the vast majority of even their own voters don’t want, there is a problem with democracy.

Michael Kink: I am the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition.

Sarah Jaffe: The last time we did one of these interviews, we were talking hypothetically about a tax bill. Now there is a tax bill that has passed one house of Congress. What are some of the highlights and/​or lowlights of this thing?

Michael: I would say that it is almost all lowlights. It is a cartoon parody of the most ridiculously unfair tax plan that anyone could come up with. It literally adds new subsidies for private jets while taking away tax deductions for the parents of disabled kids. It is utterly, utterly ridiculous.

The only highlight is that it is tremendously unpopular. The vast majority of Americans don’t like it, don’t want it, understand that it benefits the wealthy over regular people, and understand that it doesn’t close any loopholes and opens up some new ones. The broad popular dissatisfaction with the tax plan is similar in percentages to where the healthcare bills were, but maybe not quite at the level of intense opposition. You had people with the healthcare bills whose lives were literally on the line.

I would argue that the tax bill puts lives at stake in many of the same ways that the healthcare bills did. It includes a massive cut to Medicaid and Medicare. But it’s a tax bill, so there is certainly a presumption in the media that most people don’t particularly care about tax bills or most people figure, They will give a bunch of money to the rich, and maybe they will give a little bit of money to me or someone like me. I will be okay.”

The fact is, unless you are incredibly, ridiculously, preposterously rich, you are not going to get much of a benefit at all out of this. And most regular working-class or middle-class people are going to see tax increases.

The folks who get big tax cuts are the heirs and heiresses of billionaires. They are going to inherit their massive fortunes tax-free. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. and the kids of the hedge fund moguls and private equity titans are going to do really well. Multinational corporations are going to get a massive cut in their tax rate. There are going to be new corporate loopholes, including actual new subsidies for outsourcing jobs. That’s one of the things that Trump voters, Bernie voters and every voter in between was pissed about. They are opening up new subsidies for corporations to move profits and jobs overseas.

The carried-interest loophole is still wide open, and hedge fund managers and private equity managers will benefit from a new pass-through tax scam that will cut their taxes even more. All of these folks are big campaign donors, and they use their political contributions to really rig the system. They have got a tax bill that is a dream for them.

Young people with student debt are going to lose their interest deduction for that debt. School teachers are going to lose their deductions for teaching supplies. Families struggling with medical expenses are going to see deductions eliminated. The tax bill itself sets off $25 billino a year in automatic cuts to Medicare.

They are still trying to pass this bill even though it is incredibly unpopular. Chris Collins, the congressman from Buffalo, admitted to The Hill, My donors are basically saying, Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” So they are even admitting that the main pressure for this bill is coming from their biggest campaign contributors.

We are working around the country to fight this. A lot of the healthcare activists and grassroots activists who fought and beat the healthcare bill are engaged in this and are fighting back against it. The American Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, the National Nurses United and a bunch of community groups have come together for a national day of action on Wednesday, November 29. There is a website with some details of the actions at www​.stop​GOP​taxs​cam​.com. We are aiming for a kind of grassroots march on Wall Street on Saturday December 2. If the bill keeps going into December, as we expect it will, we are going to aim for a second wave of direct actions and protests on Capitol Hill on December 5.

Sarah: I have been thinking about the last time we had a Republican president selling us a big package of tax cuts for rich people. It was George W. Bush, and the argument was that it was tax cuts for everybody, and it just so happens that rich people make more money and so they got bigger tax cuts. And this bill is just ludicrous. They would have passed something by now with much less opposition if they were not being so grotesquely class war about it. I just wonder what is even happening here.

Michael: I think that the ownership of the Republican Party by the most aggressive and most entitled and system-rigging rungs of capital is entirely complete. The Bush tax cuts for the rich included a refundable tax credit where families got checks. Working people got an actual check. Now, you can say, I got a $400 check, and some billionaire a dozen zip codes away got a $4 million check.” But regular people who might be Republican or Democratic voters got something.

Nobody gets anything out of this bill. It goes to private equity titans, hedge fund managers, international banks, multinational corporations. I do think that the policy apparatus in Washington in the Republican Party is so completely and utterly broken, so distant from the reality of the vast majority of people who provide the votes to keep these people in power, that they just don’t talk to those people, they don’t listen to those people, they don’t care about those people.

It shows such utter contempt for their voters that I don’t know how long they can exist as a political party. I don’t think most people who are getting nothing and are getting hurt from public policies are going to put up with it. There is a larger question of whether there is an actual, forceful, populist progressive option that anybody in mainstream politics is going to put out there. But the Republicans are working to pass bills that benefit billionaires and their lobbyists. I don’t think that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world really care about anybody else right now. That is very clear from the legislation that they are presenting to the public.

Sarah: That is an interesting question you bring up: What would we like to see as the alternative? What should Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison and anybody else who wants to be the leadership of a left alternative to this be pushing forward right now? Single-payer healthcare was the obvious thing in the wake of the repeated healthcare disasters, but what should we be demanding in response to this?

Michael: I think there are two angles to look at. One, at even the most moderate level, if you look at public opinion polls, things that pollsters already ask people about, most Americans want the wealthy to pay their fair share. Most Americans want to see higher taxes on rich people, not lower taxes on rich people. Most Americans would like to see a lot of loopholes eliminated, particularly the loopholes for outsourcing jobs. Most Americans would like to see a tax system that doesn’t overly reward people who are already wealthy, that doesn’t overly reward people who just invest for a living, that does something to help families that are struggling. We don’t have any legislation that does that.

More aggressively, what is the single payer of economic policy or fiscal policy? I would argue that if most people want to see the wealthy pay their fair share, and most people want to see government budgets that actually invest in and create jobs by hiring people and giving them paychecks as opposed to just sprinkling helicopter-loads full of cash on rich zip codes, we could talk about fiscal policies that actually redistribute income and invest in the future. We can talk about public goods. We can talk about the opportunity to close loopholes, make the wealthy pay their fair share and invest in an economy that would actually employ a lot more people then we have now. We could make the transition into a clean energy infrastructure. We can move forward with single payer healthcare that responds to our opioid addiction crisis, that responds to the aging of America, that provides more independent living options for seniors and for people with disabilities.

There are a lot of things we could do that would create a lot of good, meaningful jobs for Americans with decent paychecks, and we have the money to do it. The Republicans are saying they would be willing to spend a $1.5 trillion on something. If we were going to spend $1.5 trillion on clean energy and public health and education and higher education, a lot of people would be in favor of that. The tax system can provide the resources to do it. You could be scared of the phrase redistribution of income.” But when pollsters ask questions about making the wealthy pay their fair share and investing in programs that create, that is what they are talking about. When we have young people supporting socialism over capitalism by significant margins because they have been screwed so badly by the economy, I think it is incumbent on politicians to provide more effective public policies.

There aren’t too many people who are doing that right now, but there are starting to be some, and I think we are starting to see the public rewarding politicians who come out with more forceful and positive solutions. Single-payer healthcare is very popular. We are seeing the weakness of the center-right system of moderate Democrats that relies on tax incentives.

The alternative is: Let’s have something big and powerful and forceful like single-payer health care. Let’s have free, affordable, universal childcare for all kids that includes a strong early education program that gets every single kid in America ready to go to school and be a great learner. If other countries do it, we could do it, too. Let’s have a distributed networked clean energy system that reduces peoples’ electric bills, that reduces climate destroying greenhouse gases, and that creates millions of American jobs for people of every race everywhere in the country. The ability to do big powerful things that people want is there.

Sarah: We talked a lot about the healthcare fight and how that worked and how at the end of it, we come out with more support than ever for a single-payer healthcare bill. This could, indeed, work the same way if the pushback to this is actually paired with a positive demand. Not just, No” but actually, No, and while you are at it, if you think we have however many trillions to spend here, then, good. Let’s spend it on creating jobs.”

Michael: It’s $1.5 trillion. In terms of public policy, it suggests new areas to go forward. Everyone understands that if you get rid of the estate tax, it is only benefiting these heirs and heiresses of the billionaires. That is ridiculous. You could have a 100 percent inheritance tax on fortunes over $1 billion or over $5 billion. You could say, We do not want dynastic wealth in this country. You can get your first billion and keep it, but we are not going to let you keep this 2nd, 3rd, and 14th, and 30th. We are going to take that and put it back into public goods. Because you created Facebook or that hedge fund or whatever with huge amounts of public resources. You use mathematicians trained at land-grant universities. You use the advanced research facilities at colleges and universities. You took patents that were in the public realm, and you made private profits off of them.”

When the heirs and heiresses of billionaire fortunes can take over an entire political party and force them to pass public policies that the vast majority of even their own voters don’t want, there is a problem with democracy.

I don’t know if we will get to 100 percent inheritance tax. That is a little bit hyperbolic. But I do think the same way we saw a lot of the support for single payer healthcare, after the GOP tax bill, you are going to see a lot of proposals for higher inheritance taxes. You are going to see tax bills that close loopholes on outsourcing jobs that are going to be taken more seriously. You are going to see continued progress for our state-level bills to close the carried interest loophole. If Congress is so bought and paid for that they won’t do it in Washington, then state lawmakers in Albany, Springfield, Sacramento and Harrisburg can take steps to bring the money back for state governments until and unless Congress does it. There is going to be more support for fair taxes at the state level.

I think this is an education process. I hope to God we beat it. I think the idea of giving huge amounts of money to the super wealthy while we are destroying our public healthcare system is a really, really scary thing for the future. It is a kind of dystopian nightmare of public policy for the future of our country and that is why people are fighting so hard against it.

Sarah: What lessons did you and the other folks who are planning all these actions learn from the healthcare bill that is being applied to fighting the tax bill?

Michael: From a movement perspective, it was really interesting seeing a lot of different people from different backgrounds realizing how much they have in common. There was a kind of commonality of purpose and experience with the healthcare fight that I think is really an antidote to the division — the politics of hate — that Trump, Breitbart, the Mercers and Bannon have thrown at us. They really want to keep people divided. They want to keep people hating each other.

On healthcare, you saw a lot of people in the same boat, and they came from a lot of different places. There were folks from Arkansas and Alaska and New York and California and Connecticut and Vermont and Alabama all working together, all doing teach-ins in church basements, all sleeping in sleeping bags together. That was a very powerful thing to see. I think in tax policy you have seen something of the same thing happening with the Indivisible groups, labor unions, students, Bernie folks and more conventional big national unions jumping into this fight.

They declared class warfare. Whether or not you agree with fighting class warfare on behalf of people who are workers, the billionaires declared class warfare on everyone.

Sarah: How can people get involved in some of these various actions that are going to be coming up in the next week?

Michael: Go to Stop​GOP​taxs​cam​.com. There are some simple bullets on the plan, and there is a whole set of days of actions where folks can click through. That hashtag #GOPtaxscam is also going to be in place where you can look on Twitter and Facebook. There will be a lot of local events. I think the face to face is really important: going to events, joining with other people.

There is certainly a plethora of online calling tools. You should call your member of Congress, your House member and your Senator. If you know those numbers, fine. If you go to, www​.tax​pol​i​cy​cen​ter​.org or www​.notonepen​ny​.org, there are a lot of places you are going to get a Click here, put in your zip code, and we will call your Senator and your House member for you.”

I do think that they need to be getting calls every day next week. There are a lot of Republican Senators who have expressed concerns: Senator McCain on process and Collins on the healthcare angles. Senators Corker and Flake and Moran and Langford have all talked about the problems with the bill in increasing the deficit. This bill explodes the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars even after you have cut $1.5 trillion from Medicaid and Medicare. They are going to have problems within their own conference passing this bill quickly.

We need every Democratic Senator to oppose it and we need those couple dozen House Republican members, particularly from big states: New York, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Many Republican House members in those states voted against the bill, but many of them voted in favor of the bill. I think the bill that comes back to the House to consider is probably going to be worse than the bill they got before. It is going to hurt more people, it is going to be more destructive to working-class and middle-class voters who will either re-elect these people or kick them out of office.

So, I do think that there are going to be several opportunities over the next couple of weeks for people power to try to work its magic one more time. That is something that has worked over and over and over this year in stopping the worst of the public policy proposals that Trump is trying to jam through Congress. There is one more thing we have got to stop this year before we can take a break.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a writer and reporter living in New Orleans and on the road. She is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone; Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, and the forthcoming From the Ashes: Grief and Revolution in a World on Fire, all from Bold Type Books. Her journalism covers the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets, and her writing has been published in The Nation, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and many other outlets. She is a columnist at The Progressive and a contributing writer at In These Times. She also co-hosts the Belabored podcast, with Michelle Chen, covering today’s labor movement, and Heart Reacts, with Craig Gent, an advice podcast for the collapse of late capitalism. Sarah has been a waitress, a bicycle mechanic, and a social media consultant, cleaned up trash and scooped ice cream and explained Soviet communism to middle schoolers. Journalism pays better than some of these. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.