At the end of this banner stock market year, you can bet that major business publications will be naming their investor of the year. You can stop now. I have the winner, and nobody is even close when it comes to his total return on investment: Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
A recent report in The Washington Post, quoting intelligence sources, said Putin may have spent less than $500,000 to hack our last election and help (though Hillary Clinton helped much more) Donald Trump become president. And Putin’s payoff is Trump’s first year: a president who is simultaneously eroding some of our most basic norms, undermining some of our most cherished institutions and enacting a mammoth tax bill that will not make America great again.
If you assume, as I do, that Putin wants to see an America that is not an attractive model for his own people or others to emulate, and that he wants an America run by a chaos president who cannot lead the West, then Trump is his dream come true, whether or not there was any collusion between them.
So Vladimir Putin, come on up! You’re my Investor of the Year.You’re the Warren Buffett of geopolitics.
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Just do the math:
On norms, we’ve grown numb to a president who misleads or outright lies every day. Different newspapers measure this differently. The Washington Post says Trump has averaged 5.5 false or misleading claims every day in office, putting him on pace for 1,999 in his first year. According to The New York Times, Barack Obama told 18 “distinct falsehoods” over his entire eight-year presidency, while Trump, in his first 10 months in office, “has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly.”
In terms of institutions, Trump has personally disparaged the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department. His head of the Environmental Protection Agency has turned the EPA over to the fossil fuel industry. Ditto at Interior. His IRS is being starved of funding to do its job. And his secretary of state is gutting the State Department, shedding our most experienced diplomats and replacing them with … no one.
The Treasury secretary’s economic “analysis” of the Republican tax bill consisted of a one-page — fewer than 500 words — assessment, claiming that the $1.5 trillion plan would more than pay for itself, assuming a whole set of perfect circumstances come true. Your kid’s third-grade book report was longer than the Treasury’s analysis of our biggest tax overhaul in 30 years.
But this erosion of institutions is not all on the White House — the Republican congressional leadership went along for the ride, spurning proper congressional oversight of the tax bill. There were no hearings with a range of economic and tax experts, and only nominal debate. It was just rammed through.
And then there’s the future: Putin never could have dreamed up this deformed Trump-GOP tax bill, but it is precisely how you don’t make America great again. We actually have a tried-and-true formula for that — one employed by every great American president since our founding. It has five parts, and this bill pretty much ignores all five.
First, we’ve always educated our citizens up to and beyond whatever the main technology of the day was — when it was the cotton gin, that meant universal primary education; when it was the factory, that meant universal high school; and now that it is the computer and artificial intelligence, it should be some form of postsecondary education for all — and then lifelong learning. If we were really doing tax reform intelligently, we’d make all postsecondary education tax deductible, to encourage everyone to become a lifelong learner.
Second, we invested in the best infrastructure — roads, rail, ports, airports, telecom. This tax bill not only makes no provision for that, it actually erodes such investments in many states. With a limitation on the deduction for state and local taxes, and the deficit’s ballooning by $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion, many cities and the federal government will have fewer resources for new schools and bridges.
Third, we had the best rules to incentivize risk-taking and to prevent recklessness. I am all for cutting corporate taxes — and payroll taxes — but I’d offset them with a carbon tax that would simultaneously combat climate change and stimulate renewable energy, the next great global industry, to make us more resilient and innovative. It never occurred to Trump.
Fourth, we had, in the last century, the most open immigration policy to attract the most high-I.Q. risk-takers, the people who often start new business, as well as high-energy lower-skilled workers. I don’t have to tell you where Trump is on that.
Fifth, we had the most government-funded research to push out the boundaries of science so our companies could pluck the best ideas — witness the internet and GPS — to start new industries. The surge in the deficit created by this tax bill will curtail precisely such research.
So there you have it: a tax “reform” bill that defies all five principles that made us great for two and half centuries.
Even Putin surely could not have imagined that Trump would be this foolish and the Republican Party this cynical. It’s just the extra dollop of caviar on Vladimir’s Christmas blini.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.