Let’s be clear: the terms ‘tax evasion’ and ‘tax avoidance’ are often used interchangeably. However, only those activities which occur in a tax avoidance scheme are considered lawful.

Plenty of reliable media sources have carefully examined and reported on the awful legacy of Donald Trump’s multiple bankruptcies on a myriad of small businesses: architects, carpet suppliers, lighting and electrical distributors, even custom cabinet-makers.

A recent expose published by The New York Times focused on Trump’s taxes and revealed a previously unexposed nuance:  many of his unpaid bills were essentially ‘double counted’ through the magic of accrual accounting.  Thus, Trump and his Organization underpaid many vendors, while concurrently creating a paper loss for Trump which translated into a ‘tax loss carryforward’ good to shield future profits from future taxation.

If people had been able to look at this bad behavior as a base line, and project it forward, they might have been able to see how much damage The Donald has already done to families and communities in the U.S.

Following his inauguration in January 2017, Trump’s operating principles haven’t changed at all.

A direct result of the introduction of Trump operating principles into the Executive Office has become an oblique assault on moderate and small family-owned businesses across the U.S. — in the manufacturing sector; in retail; agriculture; mining; ranching; hospitality; media; transportation; entertainment; food; construction; business services; technology; and more.

The foundation of success epitomized in the American Dream is entrepreneurial — hard work, focus and sacrifice oriented to a long term view.

The minority of small business operators who operate like Trump — those who operate at the margins and take advantage of honest business people who operate on the platform of honesty and honor — get put out of business quickly.

Tax avoidance – using any and every loophole to avoid paying taxes – is legal, even when some of the activities involved may be considered by some to be morally repugnant.

Somehow, Trump has been able to use his unique combination of charisma and showmanship to fool a rather sizeable segment of American adults into believing his shtick.

How very sad…

Paul Ryan retired from Congress in January 2019 after 20 years of service culminating in his 3+ years of service as Speaker of the House.

Ryan was the chief cheerleader for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and he left D.C. touting it as the greatest accomplishment of his political career.

Ryan repeatedly exclaimed how this new legislation (TCJA) would unleash unprecedented U.S. economic prosperity, by providing:

  1. Tax relief for middle-income families;
  2. Simplification of the tax code for individuals;
  3. Economic growth; and
  4. Repatriation of $3+ Trillion of profits U.S. companies have parked overseas would generate more investment and jobs in the U.S.

16 months after passage of the TCJA, it should be crystal clear that:

  1. Almost none of the tax cut benefits have reached the low- and middle income Americans who were promised tax relief;
  2. The TCJA legislation is some 1,097 pages itself, and it states very clearly that it is an Amendment to (the existing) Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (not a simplification);
  3. Economic Growth? The jury is still out on this one, but there seems to be no evidence of growth above or beyond the existing growth trend line which began in mid-2009;
  4. American companies have returned some (+/- $500 Billion) of their profits held overseas as a result of the tax holiday which was part of TCJA. Much of that money was used for stock buy-backs and debt reduction.

In fact, 16 months following the passage of the TCJA, U.S. companies are still waiting for final guidance from the Treasury Department on many of the final rules relative to repatriation.

And, despite continued U.S. economic growth and record corporate profits, a record 60 Fortune 500 companies avoided paying any federal income tax in 2018.

Federal tax revenues have declined during a period of economic expansion and our government spending has increased, thus the verifiable result from Paul Ryan’s signature accomplishment – the TCJA — is an increase in our federal deficit, an extra-special gift to our children and grandchildren.

The Treasury Department announced in March 2019 that the deficit for the first four months of the 2019 budget year (which began Oct. 1, 2018) totaled $310.3 Billion, up from a deficit of $175.7 Billion in the same period the year prior.

The Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the annual federal deficit between revenues and expenses will hit $897 Billion in fiscal year 2019, up 15.1 percent from the $779 Billion deficit recorded in FY 2018.

The end result: Our total federal debt will reach $22 Trillion this year – about 105% of GDP.

Why is that important? A comprehensive study by the World Bank examined economic data from 100 developing and developed economies spanning a time period from 1980 to 2008, concluding that a public debt/GDP above 77% begins to create a drag on economic growth.

The World Bank analysis concluded that for each additional percentage point of debt above the 77% threshold costs 0.017 percentage points of annual real growth.

If the World Bank study is correct, we are currently missing about 0.5% of our economic growth potential due to misguided public policy decisions, in addition to the future burden of repaying federal debt which was incurred unnecessarily.

Paul Ryan achieved his personal goal of shepherding record tax reform through Congress resulting in the passage of TCJA.

Although his personal goal was achieved at the expense of American society, Paul Ryan clearly is a winner.  So, please join me in sending a note of thanks and congratulations to Paul Ryan.  He left us a legacy.

Paul Ryan & Tax Cuts

April 16, 2019

Dear Paul Ryan,

In 1998 – at the age of 28 – you were first elected to the House of Representatives to represent the 1st District of Wisconsin.  You were re-elected a number of times, and you served for 20 years in Congress.

After John Boehner announced his intention to resign from the House and the Speakership in 2015, you were selected by your colleagues to become Speaker of the House.

You were involved in some very positive legislative accomplishments during your 20 year tenure as a Congressman representing the 1st District of Wisconsin, and during your tenure as Speaker of the House.

Unfortunately, your legacy will forever be connected to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) which was passed into law at the end of 2017.

Although the TCJA provided the Trump Administration with an accomplishment relative to their campaign platform, it is a highly flawed piece of legislation which was created on a foundation of fictitious and inaccurate assumptions.

Just 16 months following the passage of TCJA, we can clearly see the adverse impacts.

Business and corporate tax cuts have resulted in: stock buy-backs; excessive executive compensation and bonuses; acquisitions and consolidations resulting in plant closings and layoffs.  All of these have been enabled by tax cuts which have resulted in 60 major corporations paying zero federal income taxes in 2018.

Whereas in times of economic expansion, the great majority of economists advise public sector entities to reduce deficits and aim for balanced budgets, the TCJA does just the opposite.

Some of the loss of tax revenue from business and corporate entities has been replaced by increased federal tax liability on individuals (like me), the majority of the lost tax revenue has been made up through deficit spending.

The annual federal budget deficit is expected to reach $900 Billion in fiscal 2019 and to equalize in the range of $1 Trillion annually for the next decade, up from $779 Billion in 2018.

Mr. Ryan:  over the course of your service in Congress, you achieved national recognition as a conservative policy wonk and as a relentless critical observer of our federal budget. You seemed to be a relentless critic of federal deficits, winning acclaim from centrists for your detailed charts showing the dangers that fiscal shortfalls posed to America’s future.

You slipped out of Washington in January 2018 knowing that you led the American people down a dangerous and dead-end road.

In your defense, we can acknowledge that you reluctantly took on the role of Speaker knowing that it was an impossible responsibility to fulfill.  Despite this, we must hold you fully accountable for failing to disclose to your constituents – and the entire U.S. population – that the TCJA was a sham – a complete flim-flam designed to create a false reality.

Paul Ryan:  Let us hope that your family, your wife, your children – and your neighbors – are willing and able to forgive you for selling out the interests of the people of Wisconsin — as well as the people of the United States – for whatever benefits you personally gained from your treachery toward the end of your tenure in Congress when you became the champion of the fictitious Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Mr. Ryan:  Good luck to you, and God bless.

Dear Senator Scott:

I live in Clearwater, FL so I write to you today as an alert and engaged constituent.

You are an accomplished and admired American leader.  After volunteering for military service during the Vietnam era, you honorably served your country in the U.S. Navy as a radar technician aboard the USS Glover. You overcame significant social and economic obstacles to earn a J.D. from the SMU Dedman School of Law.

You are a former Chairman and CEO of one of the largest private sector health care corporations in America (Columbia/HCA).  You then admirably served two terms as Governor of Florida; and you now serve as one our two U.S. Senators from the Great State of Florida.

In fact, you have been recognized as a uniquely qualified American leader who ran the largest health care company in the world, and who cares deeply about the costs and quality of health care to consumers.

I tuned into watch and listen to Face the Nation (CBS) on March 31, 2019, eager to learn from your current perspectives on health care in America.

I was disappointed by your responses to Margaret Brennan’s questions about a renewed partisan focus to repeal the ACA (President Trump, March 26, 2019).  I was particularly concerned about your focus on drug prices as a key driver of excessive costs in our health care sector. While your observations contain some truth, you failed to disclose the background behind persistent high prices of ethical pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

On April 1, 2019, you were interviewed by Steve Inskeep from Morning Edition (NPR).

Mr. Inskeep attempted to draw out your unique expertise on some of the most critical issues facing our nation relative to our health care delivery system, noting that ‘President Trump says he wants Republicans to be known as the party of health care’.

You zeroed in on high prescription drug costs, and you cited a bill you are introducing, the “Transparent Drug Pricing Act” which aims to stop drug companies from charging more for medication in the U.S. than in other countries.

In both cases, you responded to some solid direct questions with sadly incomplete ‘softball’ answers.

I did not hear you mention the “non-interference” clause of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 which is frequently cited as the core reason for excessive drug costs in the U.S.

Medicare accounts for more than 25% of annual national retail prescription spending, and taxpayers currently pay nearly 70% more for drugs in the Medicare program than through the Veteran’s Administration, which has direct negotiating power with drug companies.

The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 precludes the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) from negotiating directly with drug manufacturers on behalf of Medicare Part D enrollees. A simple act of Congress, supported by the executive branch, can repair this problem quickly.  In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that over 90% of the public believes that allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries is needed.

As a highly accomplished expert in the field of health care, you are certainly familiar with a comprehensive study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School which examined peer-reviewed medical and health policy literature from January 2005 to July 2016. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (August 23/30, 2016, “The High Cost of Prescription Drugs in the United States”).

Their research studied scholarly articles addressing the sources of drug prices in the United States; examined the justifications and consequences of high prices; and investigated possible solutions for the pharmaceutical price conundrum we continue to face in America.

This independent professional research concluded that high U.S. drug prices are the result of U.S. government protected monopolies granted to drug manufacturers, combined with coverage requirements imposed on government-funded drug benefits. They noted that the most realistic short-term strategies to address high prices include:

  • enforcing more stringent requirements for the award and extension of exclusivity rights;
  • enhancing competition by ensuring timely generic drug availability;
  • providing greater opportunities for meaningful price negotiation by governmental payers;
  • generating more evidence about comparative cost-effectiveness of therapeutic alternatives; and
  • more effectively educating patients, prescribers, payers, and policy makers about these choices.

Individuals in the U.S. are directly impacted by the cost of prescription drugs at the retail level, whether fully covered by their insurance provider; through a co-pay; or fully funded out of pocket.

Indirectly, each taxpayer in the U.S. helps to subsidize the cost of prescription coverage for current and retired local, state and federal government employees; veterans; and those of our neighbors who are eligible for Medicare/Medicaid benefits.  When drug prices are inflated due to a lack of appropriate government regulation, U.S taxpayers are subsidizing excessive profits which accrue to executives and shareholders of pharmaceutical companies.

It is – and has been – clear to me that our elected officials in Congress have failed the people of the U.S. over a rather long period of time.  Our elected representatives have failed to address the root causes of high drug prices which have been identified and delineated in (the previously cited) independent and non-partisan report published almost 3 years ago.

Senator Scott, I believe the great majority of my fellow Floridians join me to expect much more of you in this arena.

We count on you — A recognized expert in the field of health care — to give us the full, honest and unvarnished picture on these issues, and to support new and appropriate legislation which strategically addresses the rapidly changing operational landscape on which our economy and society operates.

Dear President Trump:

It has been reported that you don’t want to see any additional federal aid directed to Puerto Rico.

The government debt crisis in Puerto Rico started in 1973 when the government began to operate on a deficit budget (i.e. spend more than what it collected). To cover the annual budget shortfall, the government issued bonds.

The impact of that decision had long range impacts, beginning with reduced capital spending resulting in deferred maintenance of public sector infrastructure (roads, bridges, public utilities, hospitals, electric power grid, ports, airports, etc.).

The practice of deficit spending in Puerto Rico continued for 4 decades!

In 2014 three major credit agencies downgraded several bonds issued by Puerto Rican government entities to “junk status” after the government was unable to demonstrate that it would be able to pay its debt from sustainable current cash flows. That action precluded Puerto Rico from access to the public debt markets, and forced them into the shadowy world of hedge funds and high-yield debt issuers.

I think you are punishing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló — and the people of Puerto Rico — for a situation which they inherited.

Meanwhile, there is a long-term lesson to be learned from the current Puerto Rico situation.

Fiscal responsibility requires discipline. In times of economic expansion, all eyes should be on reducing debt without creating abrupt changes in revenues or spending.
 
No responsible government should plan to operate on a deficit budget during times of economic expansion (prosperity).
 
The real job of our federal government is at a strategic level — looking into the future to create and support programs and policies which will help support a positive foundation for future Americans at the state and local base.
 
President Trump: I believe your fiscal priorities need to be revisited and carefully evaluated through an honest and open strategic filter.

The Amazon Conundrum

March 5, 2019

While New Yorkers continue to debate the loss of Amazon from a site in Queens, the discussion seems to have lost sight of what Amazon contributes to the long-term well-being of our society.

Amazon is not a friend to America, has contributed very little if anything to our overall economy. The stock is currently grossly overvalued with a P/E ratio in excess of 80x.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has an estimated net worth of $165 Billion, primarily as a result of a business model which has dramatically changed the U.S. retail sector.

Most egregious? Amazon paper earnings for 2018 are $11.2 Billion, and early reports indicate that they will pay $0 in federal income taxes on these earnings.

(Amazon reported $5.6 Billion in U.S. profits in 2017 and paid $0 last year.)

Amazon creates jobs? True. Good jobs? False.

Economic scholars generally agree that a ‘living wage’ in the NY Metro area for an adult with one child is $31/hour, with 2 children $41/hour.

Amazon announced in early October 2018 that it would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its U.S. employees.

Meanwhile, much like Walmart, Amazon has created a business model which effectively eliminates competition and destroys small business.

The hot topic today is the talk of ‘Democratic Socialism’ being portrayed by some pundits as a death threat to American democracy.

The real threat to American democracy is the proliferation and exponential growth of a few family-controlled and vertically-integrated oligarchies which are capable of re-creating the Feudal System which characterized medieval Europe during the Middle Ages.

“Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are bound to repeat the outrage of history.”

National Emergency

February 13, 2019

Yes, we are facing a national emergency, and it’s not along our southern border.

Our real national emergency is our National Debt.

Let’s first agree that when the U.S. federal government runs a deficit, or spends more than it receives in tax revenue, the U.S. Treasury Department borrows money to make up the difference.

Next, let’s agree that our national debt is the amount of money the federal government has borrowed through various means, including: (1) by issuing bills, notes and bonds which are bought by investors (domestic and foreign), including the public, the Federal Reserve and foreign governments; (2) through intra-governmental debt, essentially money borrowed from trust funds used to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The great majority of economists and economic and fiscal analysts tend to agree that the significance of national debt is best measured by comparing the debt with the federal government’s ability to pay it off using the debt-to-GDP ratio, simply by dividing a nation’s debt by its gross domestic product.

Various sources have estimated that a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio is in the 40% to 60% range.  A longitudinal study conducted by World Bank economists published in 2010 estimated that in highly developed countries, 77% was a ‘tipping point’ where productivity and potential economic growth was constrained by adding additional debt without addition of incremental revenue.  (In emerging economies, they estimate that 64% is the tipping point.)  In either case, potential for default begins to increase once the tipping point has been breached, thus putting upward pressure on borrowing costs.

The first instance when U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 77% was toward the end of World War II.  In the post-war years, our national debt shrank in comparison to the booming post-war economy, and the debt-to-GDP ratio fell as low as 24 percent in 1974.

Recession and rising interest rates during the Carter administration put upward pressure on the debt-to-GDP ratio, and once the tax cuts enacted during Reagan’s first term combined with increased spending on both defense and social programs, the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 50 % in July 1989.

Economic growth in the ‘90s, combined with tax increases under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped keep the debt load in line, and by the end of December 2000, our national debt was about 55% of GDP.

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, U.S. military spending spiked, yet tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 during the George W. Bush administration combined with a mild recession in 2001 and the Great Recession beginning in 2007 caused significant decreases in tax revenues. By the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the debt-to- GDP-ratio reached 75%.

Deficit spending is one of the key tools available to stimulate economic recovery, and by the time of Obama’s 2nd inauguration in January 2013, the U.S. debt had grown to $16 Trillion – a debt-to-GDP ratio of 101%. By that time, it was clear that the economic stimulus of deficit spending had worked, evidenced by an expanding U.S. economy; signs of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; resurgence of the U.S. stock market; continued job growth; and other positive economic indicators.

All of these positive signs at the beginning of 2013 pointed to the need to rein in government spending and to strategically increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes).

Yet, the Congress has stubbornly refused to deal with the reality that our U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio has remained above 100 percent since 2013.

In early 2018, an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in late 2017 will push the U.S. national debt to $33 Trillion — 113 % of GDP — by 2028, a ratio not seen since immediately after World War II.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a sham (and a scam) which created a situation exactly opposite of what responsible elected officials should have supported.  The sooner it is  amended, repaired or repealed, the sooner the American people will be transitioned into a less dangerous and more stable and sustainable economic environment.

Common Sense Tax Reform

January 30, 2019

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently announced the launch of an exploratory committee to consider a 2020 White House bid, vowing to be a tenacious advocate for economic fairness and rebuilding the middle class.

Sen. Warren subsequently proposed an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” through which her campaign committee promises to raise some $3 Trillion in new federal tax revenues over the next 10 years.

Her proposal is not a tax on income; it is a tax on assets.

She identified some 75,000 U.S. families which hold assets in excess of $50 Million.

Her proposal is interesting, and it seems relatively simple.  All families with assets between $50 Million and $1 Billion would owe a 2% annual tax on assets valued in excess of $50 Million; and, the rate would rise to 3% on those assets that exceed $1 Billion.  What could go wrong?

Most appealing in the Warren proposal?

Senator Warren claims that this approach would affect just the wealthiest 0.1% of Americans, and that the incremental revenue generated through this novel approach could help rebuild the American middle class by providing for universal child care; student debt relief; and other critical societal needs.

What could go wrong?  Let us try to explore some possibilities.

The Warren plan anticipates that if your family holds $750 Million in gross assets, you would be facing a potential annual tax of $14 Million on those assets.

What the plan doesn’t mention is that for a fraction of that amount, you could employ lawyers and other experts to help value your assets quite differently.

One recent case study was illuminated by some extensive research conducted by the New York Times on the estate of Fred Trump.  https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-10-03/trump-taxes-fred-s-scheme-was-quite-impressive

Stay tuned.  There is more to come from The Walrus on “Common Sense Tax Reform”!

Since Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, there have been many commentaries on his financial history — particularly because he has refused to release his tax returns.

In 2016, David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner of The New York Times obtained Trump’s 1995 tax returns, and for their article published on the front page of The New York Times on October 3, 2018, they worked together for over a year to investigate the wealth that the president inherited from his father.

The narrative in the NY Times investigative piece is compelling.

Like most rules and regulations, U.S. tax law assumes that people will voluntarily comply in the interest of equity and fairness across the board.  If the laws are not fair, they should be amended, not circumvented.

Having worked in the real estate and financial services industry for many years, I am familiar with many of the strategies exposed in the article, particularly the rather arbitrary and capricious use of independent appraisals to determine market value at a point in time.

Where many — if not most — wealthy families and individuals pay their fair share of taxes (perhaps grudgingly), the Trump family has notoriously and conspicuously fought against taxing authorities, continually challenging assessments and levies as a part of their overall family business plan.

Note a recent kerfuffle in Westchester County, NY where a Trump National Golf Club is located.

With a 65,000 square foot club house, private gourmet restaurant, swimming pool, tennis pavilion and courts, the 18-hole, 7,261 yard Jim Fazio designed course is situated on 140+ acres of prime real estate in the Town of Ossining, NY.

This ultra-exclusive private club demands a hefty 5-figure initiation fee from new members, with minimum annual dues of $19,400.

In his 2017 Executive Branch Personal Financial Disclosure Report (filed 6/14/2017), Donald Trump revealed the value of his ownership interest in Trump National Golf Club – Westchester at ‘over $50,000,000.’ with annual personal income attributable to the Club of $9,771,428.

Yet, in 2015, the Trump Organization sued the town of Ossining to lower its assessment from the 2014 value of $13.5 Million to $1.4 Million in order to reduce property and school taxes.

After the feud with Ossining became public, Trump’s lawyers raised the dollar value of the golf course, but it was still nowhere near the official 2015 assessment of $14.3 million and 2016 assessed value of $15.1 million.

The moves are consistent with repeated efforts by the Trump Organization to challenge property valuations in an effort to win massive local property tax reductions, not to mention the potentially illicit impacts on federal, state and local income tax obligations which in many cases are directly linked to these local assessments (valuations).

Over the past several years, Trump has lauded himself as “one of the most successful businessmen in the world,” who paid “no more tax than legally required.”

“I have brilliantly used [the U.S. tax] laws,” Trump said at a campaign event in October 2016. “I was able to use the tax laws of this country, and my business acumen, to dig out of the real estate mess — you would call it a depression — when few others were able to do what I did.”

It was a reported $916 Million net operating loss in 1995 which gave Trump the ability to avoid paying taxes on more than $50 Million in annual taxable income over the following 18 years.

Make America Great Again? Only if others are willing to cough up the tax revenues needed to pay the freight.

“We Fed an Island”

September 15, 2018

While U.S. President Trump continues to blame the people of Puerto Rico and their elected local leadership for delays, inefficiencies and various failures in the response to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria (2017), Trump is lavish with praise for the wonderful response by his administration.

“I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success,” Mr. Trump said.  “I actually think it is one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.”

Meanwhile, other sources do not agree with President Trump’s assessment.

One of the true unsung heroes involved in the Island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria is José Andrés, a chef and restaurateur who helped organize others from the food industry to form a veritable army comprised of both professionals and volunteers to feed residents, medical professionals and other disaster response workers.

A year after the initial response to Maria began, José Andrés has released a book reflecting on his experiences and lessons learned from the disaster response.

This article from the Washington Post describes his passion and introduces the book in a manner I wish I was able:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/jose-andress-riveting-we-fed-an-island-calls-for-a-revolution-in-disaster-relief/2018/09/05/b126d766-ad70-11e8-b1da-ff7faa680710_story.html?utm_term=.df529f66adc0