What does the word reform mean? As with many other words, it tends to mean different things to different people. And when it comes into the political arena, it means not only different things to different people, but in the mouth of a politician, its meaning may shift with the wind, so that what you hear may not be what was meant. Or what was meant was not supposed to come through clearly, or maybe it was just the thing to say at the time at some rally, and meant just about nothing.
Since we are in the first year of a new presidential administration in Washington, the air is thick with talk of reform. What can we take from this talk? Well…the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online lists as its first definition “to put or change into an improved form or condition.” Good! I think of reform pretty much like that. If I speak of reforming bad habits, and if I am sincere about the whole thing, I should be a better man thereafter. If a company spokesman talks about reforming its customer service procedures, that should result in service that is better, and which more people will find pleasing. So the idea of change for the sake of improvement is pretty well baked into the shared public perception of “reform.”
What the western world knows as the Reformation caused such a rift between Martin Luther on one side and Pope Leo X, and their respective followers, that Luther’s attempt to reform the church from within, followed by Leo’s negative reaction and attempts to get Luther to back down, resulted in a rift that is now nearly 500 years old. Such is the way of reform; while everyone seems to think it’s a good thing, any two advocates will have a hard time defining what is true reform.
And, with all that as prologue, I will settle on two themes that advocates frequently cite as being in need of reform: the US tax code and the US system of legal immigration. Both have been used as debate points by many politicians over numerous campaigns, with little change resultant. If everyone would like to see these areas reformed, why is there never a real and lasting effort to push forward consensus legislation and then implement such legislation?
I have written about immigration once before, and I really don’t want to belabor this one issue, but it bears repeating that this becomes a “front and center” issue only in federal election years. Of course, it is an item of federal jurisdiction and federal jurisdiction alone, so there is some logic to the cyclical importance. On the other hand, if it is as important as it is made to seem during each presidential cycle, shouldn’t work continue in the off years to solve this issue? In reality, immigration is used by opposing sides only as a club to beat other political candidates as being either “soft on immigration” or as “heartless” toward the huddled masses. Old familiar slogans get repeated (“We are all immigrants” on one side, and “let’s take care of our own first,” for example).
The Trump campaign made all sorts of hay out of a gross distortion of the truth in the 2016 campaign, namely that huge numbers of illegal immigrants were “pouring across our southern border.” Of course, Trump himself profited by citing a few cases of crimes committed by these illegals to whip up fear that some dark-complexioned foreigner was waiting behind each tree to either steal your job, your spouse, or maybe murder you. In truth, our southern border, in recent years, has been more of an exit for illegals (or undocumented immigrants, if that falls more easily on your ears) than an entry point. 11,000,000 is the widely accepted estimate of people present in the US (and not all from south of the Rio Grande, either) now present in some violation of visa law, and it is gradually declining as people from points south return home at a greater rate then they enter. And those who do enter illegally or stay beyond their legal visa status do not commit serious crime more frequently than the native-born American population.
What is meant by Trumpists, then, when they speak of immigration reform? Beefed-up enforcement and throw the bums out, of course. This is consistent with their “America first” rhetoric.
On the other side are many of Trump’s own business colleagues, who benefit from any depressing effect on wages that results from a shadowy, fearful labor force. They are joined by people whose humanitarian instincts cause them to sympathize with those who seek to answer the call of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor…” At some point in any discussion of the issue, someone is bound to assert that “We are all immigrants!”
If Trumpists get their way, legal immigration will decrease in absolute terms, but you can bet the supply of cheap immigrant labor in New York, California, Florida, Texas, and a handful of other locations will continue. I will add one pure opinion of mine on the issue of legalization of the many who live and work here without the inherent legal right to do so (the so-called “undocumented immigrants”): Here’s as offer. Come out of the shadows. Present yourself along with proof of your stay and your employment (or some other reason why the American public should want you to remain). I would reward such people with documentation that would let them remain as long as they are not convicted of any crime (I mean crime, not infractions like speeding or bouncing a check), in a provisional status for a long period of time–say, 10 years. No mass legalization into full status as happened under Ronald Reagan’s “legalization.” Large numbers of Americans are sympathetic enough–many because they know someone in questionable status–to agree to some remedy. What they do not want is for “scofflaws” to be rewarded by becoming eligible for the same benefits as people who enter legally, and at the same rate. Compromise? Sure, that’s what you call anything that leaves both sides equally unhappy.
Tax reform? No reform in the sense of improving the current state of things is going to happen. Period. Full stop. Republicans may have enough strength in the current House of Representatives to force through one or more of their fantasy measures (and I’ve talked about this before, as well) such as an outright repeal of the estate tax, which would stop any tax on estates of over about 5 million dollars. Stop the excruciating levy on the Paris Hiltons (oh, and the Ivanka Trumps, coincidentally) of the world.
Democrats do not capitalize on arithmetic. Stuck as their rhetoric is on talk of “a gift for the one per cent,” this fails to convert to anything that will make anyone think in concrete terms. One per cent is one person per hundred, ten people in a thousand, 100 people in ten thousand, 1,000 people in 100,000, and 10,000 people in a million. I will never sniff being one of the top one per cent in income, and chances are, you never will either. Your taxes and mine are not likely to be reduced by any “reform” that comes to pass in the Trump years. The idea will be to try to buy us off with five dollars here and there so we will not notice Wall Street celebrities socking away more millions that they might heretofore have paid taxes on. And the talk of eliminating the deduction of state and real estate taxes might even lose us that five dollars.
WAKE UP, America! Do you really think Donald Trump is a “little guy’s advocate”? If so, just wait. Bernie Madoff will be out of prison some day.