Archive

April 19th, 2016

States boycotting states is not the answer

    Last month, President Obama returned from Cuba, where he took another step toward normalizing relations with the island nation. In his speech to the Cuban people, the president made the case that engagement is a more powerful agent of change than isolation, even where strong disagreements remain. With his visit, the president continued to chip away at the more-than-50-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

    Two days later, Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, laid the foundation for a new embargo. He announced that San Francisco's city workers are banned indefinitely from traveling to North Carolina unless doing so is essential to public health and safety. The embargo is intended to protest North Carolina's new law prohibiting the state's local governments from enacting antidiscrimination rules that protect gay and transgender people and limiting transgender people to bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate. Since then, more cities and states, including the District of Columbia, have announced similar travel bans. Others will likely follow.

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Tax-code reform, not customer service, is the answer to IRS problems

    This probably will beggar belief for the millions of Americans struggling to meet this year's April 18 deadline to file their income tax returns, but the IRS says it has gotten better at handling taxpayer questions. Two years ago, only 38 percent of the taxpayers who called for help got the assistance they needed. Last year, the number went up to 70 percent.

    That the IRS counts this as progress is not exactly reassuring. But it's very much in keeping with the long and vexed history of what is known as "taxpayer assistance." For seven decades, the IRS has struggled to answer questions about the increasingly byzantine tax code. Sometimes it has succeeded; just as often, it has failed.

    It's hard to imagine now, but until about the middle of the 20th century, relatively few people filled out Form 1040. The IRS -- then known as the Bureau of Internal Revenue -- did little outreach, and when it did, the rare taxpayers who sought assistance actually spoke with deputy collectors of internal revenue, relatively high-ranking government officials who probably knew the tax code inside and out.

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John Kasich is still here, you guys!

    It is getting to be awfully late, and John Kasich is still here.

    At first it seemed fine. Florida was fun. Even Ohio was fun. Everyone running around, debating, placing ads everywhere, fighting for votes. But when Donald Trump said that he was going to take the campaign back toward his place (New York) -- maybe stopping by Wisconsin on the way, if people had delegates and wanted to join him -- Marco Rubio took the hint and made a tactful exit.

    Not Kasich.

    Now the popcorn is gone, the movie is over, Ted Cruz is staring at his watch on one end of the couch, Trump is staring at his watch on the other end -- and Kasich is still here, smiling contentedly with his feet propped up on the coffee table.

    Nothing that has been tried on him has worked. Articles have been handed to him with headlines such as"John Kasich: The Candidate Who Wouldn't Leave?" and "Kasich is a proven loser who should drop out." Kasich has settled deeper into the couch and read all of them.

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Donald Trump's green record has left no trace

    Let's tame at least one legend in Donald Trump's mind - his self-proclaimed status as an environmental hero.

    "I've won many environmental awards,"the Republican presidential front-runner said on CNN's "New Day"on Sept. 24. He made the claim while criticizing Pope Francis's call for action on climate change in an address to a joint meeting of Congress.

    "I've gotten so many awards for the environment," Trump said during a speech in Des Moineson Dec. 11. "I understand the environment; I've won many, many awards."

    "I think that climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money. I know much about climate change," Trump said on Jan. 18, two days before NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record. "I've received many environmental awards."

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154 years after emancipation, D.C. has grim, unfinished business

    The 1862 act authorizing the freeing of all slaves in our nation's capital was received with great joy among the city's abolitionists and enslaved blacks. That Emancipation Day event is being celebrated this weekend in Washington.

    Probably no one in 1862, however, could have been more ecstatic than George Washington Young, who lived in the Southeast section of the District of Columbia. Unlike the joyful slaves, Young was not gaining his freedom. He was a slave-owning planter. Young was euphoric because he was going to make out like a bandit.

    The District was the only jurisdiction in the nation where slaveholders were compensated for emancipated slaves when Abraham Lincoln signed the act, almost nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Young owned 69 slaves. The federal government, under the act, paid the city's 966 slave owners 44 percent of the appraised value of their 3,100 slaves. That transaction put Young in Fat City.

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Five myths about tax havens

    News broke this month of an unprecedented data leak: Some 11.5 million documents containing detailed, confidential information about more than 200,000 offshore companies involved with Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, had fallen into the hands of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists via an anonymous informant. Collectively known as the Panama Papers, the files revealed just how widespread the abuse of offshore tax havens is among the world's elite politicians and business people. Still, myths persist about the supposed benefits of offshore tax havens, both for the countries that stash wealth there and for the havens themselves.

 

    1. Tax havens protect vulnerable people against despotic governments, unjust laws and political turmoil.

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Who cares if the 'Panama Papers' were planted?

    Last week, a respected Russia scholar in the U.S. speculated that the Kremlin might be behind the so-called Panama Papers, the big dump of data about offshore accounts that has implicated several countries' officials in shady dealings. And on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia blamed the U.S. for the leak.

    So far, the Panama Papers have caused the resignation of Iceland's prime minister (whose wife owned some bank debt that the government was trying to restructure) and Spain's industry minister (who had denied, falsely, that he'd had any offshore dealings). There probably will be further fallout: The millions of documents haven't been fully investigated. Still, it's probably safe to say that there will be no resignations, firings or criminal inquiries in Russia.

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Sanders rages against the dying of the light

    Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could see his flame fading during the debate with Hillary Clinton on Thursday. If he loses the New York primary on Tuesday he can soldier on, but the gallop that won him eight of the last nine contests is over. You could tie up all the superdelegates in traffic in the Holland Tunnel until the Democratic convention and Sanders still couldn't win the nomination without New York.

    That's probably why Sanders and Clinton rolled out all their old grievances, only louder and more insistently. There was a "no, you didn't, yes, I did" quality to the back and forth. She went after him for his lack of specificity, notably for failing to spell out his plan for breaking up the big banks. He repeatedly questioned her judgment, a big step back from his earlier blunder of saying she wasn't qualified.

    "Let's talk about judgment. And let us talk about the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country," he said, referring to Iraq. "I led the opposition to that war. Secretary Clinton voted for that."

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In defense of our unfair, messy nomination process

    Watching it unfold from his home state of New York, Donald Trump was aghast when Ted Cruz picked up all of Colorado's 34 delegates at the state's Republican convention last weekend. As his grip on a first-ballot nomination slipped away, Trump lashed out: "The system, folks, is rigged. It's a rigged, disgusting, dirty system." On the other side, Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders's campaign manager, vowed to contest Hillary Clinton's nomination at this summer's Democratic convention - presumably because the system of superdelegates, among whom Clinton leads 469 to 31, is also rigged. Even pundits agree: "Why does the Democratic Party even have voting booths?" MSNBC's Joe Scarborough railed this past week, after watching Sanders win Wyoming's caucuses only to receive fewer of that state's delegates (including superdelegates) than Clinton did.

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Clinton uses debate to stay tight with Obama

    Hillary Clinton has stuck close to Barack Obama throughout her presidential campaign, but at the Democratic debate in Brooklyn on Thursday night, she practically dragged a cardboard cutout of the president on stage with her.

    Her performance was par for her course. Strategic: Obama is wildly popular in New York and among Democrats in general, and he has moved slightly above water in national approval polls among voters. Methodical: She follows her plan to the letter, and if it calls for invoking Obama at every opportunity, she's not going to miss that chance.

    Clinton took no risks at this debate, and really hasn't throughout the campaign. Nor has she shown any sign of leaving even an inch between herself and the bulk of her party. If the Democrats ratchet up what they believe is possible on minimum wage, Clinton shifts with them.

    This is positioning guaranteed to frustrate many pundits. But it's also a good way to win a presidential nomination.

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