On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson


This past Sunday, with the share buybacks of American corporations at an all-time high, The Washington Post business section ran a major piecedocumenting buybacks’ rise and giving the arguments for and against the practice. And the arguments for, I’m compelled to say, look mighty flimsy.

Those arguments have never been more important, since the Republican tax cut supercharged the irresistible force (greed) that compels CEOs to authorize buybacks—as their pay is commonly linked to the share values that buybacks inflate. And “supercharged” may be understating it: “In February alone,” the Post reported, “U.S. corporations announced a record $150.7 billion in buybacks.”

The problem with buybacks—the problem their defenders are obliged to address—is that they simply funnel corporate profits into shareholders' pockets rather than into investment. The defenders’ argument is that once the shareholder gets a hold of that additional money, he or she invests it in a company that will actually invest it. “That money doesn’t go into a black hole,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the doyen of Republican economic advisers, told the Post. “It goes into a financial market somewhere. Another entity uses that money to make investments that kick off a chain of events that leads to higher capital for workers, higher wages, higher productivity.”

“The shareholder,” said John Cochrane, an economist at the right-wing Hoover Institution, “goes and invests it in another company that might have something better to do with it. Money usually takes four or five steps to get anywhere, but eventually the money from the buyback makes its way into the hands of a company that isn’t going to leave it in cash. It’s going to build something new with it.”

There are some problems with these arguments. If buybacks “kick off a chain of events” that eventually lead to higher wages, higher productivity, and more investment, why haven’t we seen higher wages, higher productivity and more investment in the past couple of decades? After all, we’ve had a decade of record-high buybacks—by University of Massachusetts economist William Lazonick’s calculations, virtually all the profits of the Fortune 500 from 2005 to 2015 went to share buybacks and dividends, even as productivity slowed and wages stagnated.

Indeed, in dismissing the case against buybacks, Cochrane actually makes a pretty convincing case against their utility. Why does it take “four or five steps” for a shareholder’s investment to actually reach a corporation that invests its funds in something productive? Could it be that a shareholder who has pocketed the buybacks from corporation A—whose CEO felt compelled to issue the buyback lest his company’s stock lag behind the competition—goes and invests it in corporation B, whose CEO is under the identical pressure to boost his share price by buying back shares as the CEO at corporation A was? And so are the CEOs at corporations C and D, which is why it may take five steps, or more, to find a company that actually will invest some of its cash. And who’s to say that our shareholder doesn’t actually seek out corporations that reward shareholders through buybacks rather than corporations that divert those funds into long-term investments? That’s certainly the modus operandi of our activist investors.

To read and ponder the Holtz-Eakin and Cochrane defense of buybacks is to be compelled to conclude that if we truly want to boost productive investment, we need to tax those profits on which American corporations are comfortably nestled (our public corporations, the Post reports, currently have $4.9 trillion in cash) and use the proceeds for public investment. If we truly want to boost workers’ wages—and with $4.9 trillion on hand, the corporate sector appears to be able to do that—we should simply eliminate all obstacles to those workers forming unions.

The Post piece, then, has performed an invaluable service. By publishing these defenses of share buybacks, it has made clear that share buybacks are indefensible.


President Pence, What’s Not to Like? I’ve heard otherwise sensible people say that removing Donald Trump would not be a good idea because then we’d get President Pence and then Republicans could regroup.

You gotta be kidding. For starters, Pence is one of the worst retail politicians in American politics.

You have to be pretty lame to be on track to face defeat as an incumbent Republican governor in Indiana. Pence agreed to be Trump’s running mate only because he was in such trouble at home.

Also, Trump’s removal and the installation of Pence would split the Republican base. Pence has none of Trump’s animal appeal as a faux-populist for the hard-core Tea Party base. 

The idea that Pence would represent a new post-Trump GOP unity is fantasy. And don't discount the power of post-Trump recriminations as Republicans face a blue blowout in the midterms.

Pence is a conventional, evangelical far-right politician. That’s poison in the socially moderate swing-district suburbs. And as a bonus—unlike Trump, there is almost no risk that Pence will blow us all up.

A weak candidate and a fractured Republican Party. Bring it on!


Depends on what you mean by “sell.” Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated assurances to Congress last week that “We never sell your data” were in a class with Bill Clinton’s insistence in the Lewinsky affair that “I did not have sex with that woman.” (She had sex with him, but he did not have sex with her, get it?) Or maybe that kind of sex isn’t really sex. But I digress.

Zuckerberg’s claim is the same sort of hogwash. Facebook may not literally “sell” a packet of data, but it sorts and sells access to all sorts of personal information that it collects every time you go on Facebook. That's how Facebook makes its money. It’s a distinction without a difference.

The other big lie Zuckerberg kept telling was his insistence that you control who has access to your data. Yes, you control which information you want available to what categories of other Facebook users and the general public. But you have no control whatsoever with what Facebook does with your data. 

The only remedy is total prohibition of any commercial use of data collected by Facebook. If Wikipedia can operate without commercializing data that reflect user searches, so can Facebook. And if Facebook can’t make that business model work, good riddance. There are surely other ways for people to stay digitally connected. 


Let Us Praise Trump’s Incoherence. So now Trump, having bashed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a wrongheaded product of the despised Barack Obama, wants to join it after all. Or maybe he doesn’t.

The TPP was a lousy deal. It was mainly about helping big U.S. multinationals, and did little or nothing for labor and environmental rights. And despite the latter-day spin about the TPP containing China, it did nothing to restrain China’s predatory trade practices. Further, the United States already has trade deals with all of the major member countries of the TPP.

But the large farm lobby and its allies in Congress have been putting pressure on Trump to back off the trade-war talk, and TPP is emblem of a more establishment sort of trade agenda. Based on past behavior, we have no idea whether Trump will change course. He says whatever pops into his head based on the issue du jour.

This, of course, drives his advisers crazy. There is a serious schism between the trade hawks—led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and economic adviser Peter Navarro—and the traditional globalists around Trump, now including economic chief Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary (and Goldman man) Steve Mnuchin, plus Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

It’s impossible for Trump to split the difference on this. He will either seek to get the United States into TPP or he won’t.

Let’s take a moment to give thanks for Trump’s incoherence and incompetence. A competent demagogue could have done so much more damage.


Paul Ryan’s world was already crumbling when he announced yesterday that he wouldn’t seek re-election. It wasn’t just that 40 of his Republican colleagues had already declared they weren’t running again. It wasn’t just that pollsters and prognosticators were predicting the GOP would lose the House come November, and Ryan his speakership. It wasn’t even that Ryan, lacking 60 Republican votes in the Senate, wasn’t able to roll back the essential government services he so despised, and that, after November’s election, that prospect would be even more unlikely.

It was also that Ryan’s model of government—low taxes, few and low-quality services—was being rejected even in the most Republican of states. In Kansas, good Republican parents had ousted the Ryan-Brownback tax-and-budget-cutting legislators in GOP primaries, supplanting them with representatives who voted to raise taxes to provide more funding for schools. In West Virginia, a wall-to-wall Republican state government had caved to striking teachers’ demands to do the same. It was happening, too, in Oklahoma, and the prospect of higher taxes and more public funds also loomed over Kentucky, Arizona, and who knows what other supposedly solid Republican states.

Not an Ayn Rand moment, nor a Grover Norquist moment, nor a Paul Ryan moment. Let Mitch McConnell deal with Donald Trump’s messes. The writing was on the wall: It’s time to go. 

Postscript—For the GOP: Denny Hastert, John Boehner, and now Paul Ryan.

For the Democrats: Nancy Pelosi abides.


Never Stiff Your Lawyer. As a developer and business mogul, Donald Trump famously stiffed contractors, college students, bankers, and partners. But he forgot the first rule of living outside the law: Never stiff your lawyer. Even the Mafia knows that.

It’s not yet clear whether Trump deliberately failed to repay lawyer Michael Cohen for advancing hush money to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn actress Stormy Daniels, or whether Cohen and Trump just failed to figure out the choreography of laundering a reimbursement from Trump to Cohen. But either way, there was enough probable cause of possible criminal activity for the special counsel and the U.S. attorney in New York to raid Cohen’s files.

When lawyer and client are suspected of joint fraudulent actions, the usual lawyer-client privilege doesn’t apply. That’s well-established legal doctrine.

After the raid, Trump indignantly tweeted, “Attorney-client privilege is dead.” In this case—his own—he’s right. But in cases where the lawyer is not the suspected fraudster, privilege is alive and well.

It’s not smart to have your attorney blur the roles of criminal lawyer, deal-maker, and fixer. Now, having opened this door, Robert Mueller is also investigating Cohen for pursuing deals in Russia on behalf of Trump, based on the coziness of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin.

This case blends three longstanding Trump trademarks: sexual grotesquerie, shady deals, and stiffing creditors. How fitting that it could be the beginning of his final downfall.


Even before Monday’s report from the Congressional Budget Office, which projected a budget deficit of $1 trillion in 2020, Republicans were already responding to the gap they created when they passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut. Their response, of course, isn’t to revisit the cuts they showered on the rich, but to cut the domestic spending that they and the Democrats agreed to when they passed a spending bill a couple of weeks ago.

Now the administration and its congressional enablers are looking at enacting an “enhanced rescission package” to roll back the portion of that spending directed at such frivolities as education and the environment. While the Senate customarily requires 60 votes to pass a bill, a rescission bill can pass with just 51 votes, which, through a happy GOP coincidence, is exactly the number of Republicans in the Senate (although the ailing John McCain hasn’t been able to be in the Senate for the past several months).

The case for the rescission was recently made on Fox News by the new White House National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, who came to the job on the strength of his (very convincing) cable news performances as a supply-side simpleton. “It’s really not a bad idea to trim some spending,” Kudlow told Fox, “because, after all, spending can lead to deficits and spending interferes with the economy.”

Good thing those trillion-dollar tax cuts for the rich don’t lead to deficits! Good thing, too, that Kudlow appreciates how spending on infrastructure and education can interfere with the economy (albeit, contra Kudlow, positively).

Endeavoring to rescind all that spending interference with the economy isn’t the only thing the deficit-creating GOP senators and representatives will do to stop those pesky deficits. This week, they also plan to vote for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget—which, fortunately, requires a two-thirds vote for passage, meaning it won’t pass. Balanced-budget amendments have become the last refuge of GOP tax-cutting scoundrels. 


Trump Turns Against Putin. Here’s this week’s news quiz. Why did Donald Trump attack his chum Vladimir Putin after reports that Putin’s puppet, Bashar al-Assad, had again used nerve gas to kill children in a rebel-held area near Damascus?

A) Is Trump, with Robert Mueller closing in, trying to signal distance from Putin? 

B) Is his new national security adviser, John Bolton, more of a Middle East hawk?

C) Was Trump genuinely troubled by the appalling images of suffocating children?

D) Is Trump trying to repair America’s frayed alliance with Europe?

E) Does Trump, who also lashed out against the Kremlin’s poisoning of a former double agent in Britain, have a thing about slow, agonizing death?

No, gentle reader, none of the above. Trump issued his indignant tweets after seeing the carnage on Fox News.

Basically, Trump derives nearly all of his abrupt policy statements based on what he watches on Fox. So the most powerful foreign-policymaker in the country is some junior Fox producer who decides what to air.

For the most part, if a major story makes headlines elsewhere but doesn’t play into the Fox narrative, it is ignored. Since nerve gas dropped on civilians in Syria didn’t quite fit the Fox template, pro or con, the gang at Fox went with the indignation, and Trump followed.

But what of Putin? Is Trump for real? Or was this just a momentary lapse?

The Treasury has lately gotten a lot tougher with blockage of financial activity by oligarch cronies of Putin. But angry tweets don’t exactly add up to a Syria policy, and Trump is basically in the same box as Obama was when it comes to deciding what sort of retaliation and against whom.

A colleague observes that he will believe Trump is serious about breaking with Putin when Trump begins using one of his trademark nicknames to mock the Russian leader.

Let’s see: Sad Vlad? Venal Vlad? Vlad the Impaler? Vladimir Puta? Poisoner Putin? Puppeteer Putin? Pukey Putin?

Is it great having foreign policy made via schoolyard insults, or what?


Trump’s Trade Tantrums. Donald Trump has a new toy: tariffs. He seems to be putting them in roughly the same mental category as tweets: something to use to express instant frustration and vituperation. This is not exactly a policy, much less an effective one.

Trump’s shadow trade war with China is reminiscent of his “mine is bigger” contest with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. America imposes $50 billion in tariffs against China, Beijing retaliates with at least $50 billion in tariffs on U.S. exports, Trump doubles down to $100 billion.

One good thing about tariffs: They do less damage than nukes. We saw how both sides backed down from a nuclear confrontation in Korea. The professional trade negotiators will probably back Trump down from a full-blown trade war with China, too.

But here’s the problem. When Trump’s immediate tantrum dies down and his short attention span shifts to something else like National Guard troops on the Rio Grande, the issue hasn’t gone away. North Korea remains more of a threat than ever. And China plays a long game—long as in several thousand years.

China, with its strong state, has a better hand than we do and China’s astute leaders are playing their hand far better than Trump is. China’s system of state-led capitalism, combined with coerced or stolen tech transfer, is eating our lunch.

At the end of the day, the tariff escalation has to end in a draw, and that will change nothing. Only a concerted effort by the West to insist that China play by something like symmetrical rules, even if not identical rules, will restore balance to the system. Tariffs can be part of a bluffing game, but they can’t be the whole game.

The free trade establishment blew this challenge in one fashion. Trump is blowing it in another.


This coming weekend, Hungarians will go to the polls and likely re-elect—since the opposition parties refuse to coalesce—the nation’s demagogic, neo-fascist, anti-Semitic prime minister, Viktor Orbán. In the course of his most recent term, Orbán has curtailed the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press, rewritten Hungary’s history books to extol the nation’s Nazi-allied fascist government of the 1930s and early ‘40s, built a wall on the nation’s border to keep out immigrants, and proclaimed Hungary to be officially Christian. He has justified these policies by depicting Hungary as under threat not just from Muslim immigrants but from notorious Western and specifically Jewish influences—calculating that this was the way to solidify his support among the nation’s older, rural, more poorly educated voters.

Indeed, the central theme of his re-election campaign has been his 24/7 all-media attack on George Soros—the Hungarian-born-and-raised American investor who as a boy had to hide from the Nazis and as a young man flee the Soviet’s invasion in 1956. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, having become a billionaire, Soros funded the rise of civil society institutions behind the Iron Curtain—including in Hungary—with projects including sponsoring a number of talented young Eastern-bloc students, including Orbán himself, to study in the West. (That Soros, long a target of the American Right, did more to undermine communism than virtually any living member of the American Right is one of our more prominent current ironies.) After the Berlin Wall fell, Soros funded NGOs throughout Eastern Europe, and a new university in Budapest.

In recent years, as much of Eastern Europe, and Hungary in particular, have increasingly flouted basic democratic norms, Soros has continued to fund institutions that promote majority rule, minority rights, and the responsibility of nations to open their doors to refugees.

Soros, of course, is Jewish. And the Orbán re-election campaign has been one long anti-Soros screed, whose all but unconcealed message is that international Jews were undermining Hungary’s traditional Christian culture.

Orbán is not alone among world leaders in sounding this xenophobic tocsin (and toxin). The wall, the fear of the Other, the attack on civil society—sound familiar? But I’m not talking about Trump, who hasn’t yet singled out Soros for major vilification.

I’m talking about the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s prime minister has long vilified Soros for funding such groups as J Street, the American Jewish organization that advocates for a two-state solution, and the New Israel Fund, an NGO that supports civil rights and civil liberties in Israel. Recently, the Israeli right has leaned on Bibi to expel the roughly 30,000 African refugees who have come to Israel in recent years, fleeing their countries’ sectarian violence. The New Israel Fund—whose leaders had obviously read that portion of the Passover Haggadah that says Jews should welcome strangers in the land, since they once were strangers in the land of Egypt—supported Israeli groups that rejected the Right’s xenophobic, racist position. This week, as Bibi unveiled a revolving door of four separate and conflicting policies on the disposition of the refugees, none of which welcomed them to the land of Israel, he took to Facebook to excoriate both the New Israel Fund and Soros in particular. Like Orbán, Bibi and the Israeli right have sought to curtail foreign contributions to their NGOs, even though in Israel, those contributions come overwhelmingly from diaspora Jews, chiefly in the United States, who are alarmed by Israel’s self-transformation into an apartheid state increasingly under the sway of fundamentalist loons.

So a specter is haunting both Eastern Europe neo-fascists and the increasingly thuggish Israeli right: George Soros, champion of despised minorities, and the very personification of the international, cosmopolitan, secular, wandering Jew. Maybe the Likudniks will start burning crosses on Soros’s front yard.