Category Archives: Tax

My Unexpected Move from Adman to Taxman

Writing TV commercials was fun but retirement would be heaven. I could do whatever I pleased. I’d get to spend weekday afternoons at Yankee Stadium with the sun shining down on the boys of summer.

Then a new world appeared out of the green. I invested my profit-sharing in the stock market. I discovered that newspapers had business pages as well as sports pages. I puzzled over terms I’d never seen before (such as basis prices, which I’ll return to). Looking back I realize this was just the start of an endless tax education.

All federal tax laws are pieces of a giant Rube Goldberg, the Internal Revenue Code. Informally called the tax code, it’s often called unprintable names by thousands of Americans.

I can’t speak to their reasons but I came to have my own. For more than a generation Republicans have promoted the zombie idea that cutting taxes raises revenue. It was the perfect cover for rigging the code with provisions that hugely favor the wealthy.

I’d always written for a living. Now I started writing for a cause: tax fairness.

April 13, 2006 was a breakout day. My article about capital gains and basis prices, “One tax tweak that’s worth billions,” ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. After five-plus years and dozens of rejections, I was finally in print.

I sent that article (and all those since) to the tax-deciding House Ways and Means committee and the Senate Finance committee, to the majority and minority leaders of both houses, to my two senators. Beside writing articles, I’ve testified in writing at Congressional hearings.

Not that it does much good. Almost nothing I’ve pushed for has gone anywhere. Almost everything I’ve pushed against has stayed in place or gotten worse.

Estate taxes are a perfect example. Back in 2000 there was a $675,000 per-person exemption from federal estate taxes. The 2020 exemption is $11,580,000 (more than $23.1 million for a couple). According to a Census Bureau estimate, estate taxes in 2018 would actually be paid in only 0.07 percent of cases. Putting it another way, the so-called “death tax” is a non-tax 99.93 percent of the time.

Another handout to the haves is a loophole called the stepped-up basis. It allows appreciated assets to be passed along with the appreciation simply wiped away; only post-inheritance gains are subject to taxes.

Imagine how shocked and happy I was when my first cause became law, tucked into the rescue package passed at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. David Cay Johnston made me almost as happy when he mentioned it in one of his books on taxes: “For stocks, mutual funds and bonds…Congress now requires brokerages to report the basis of these investments, a reform wrought partly after my reporting on this issue and the work of others, including Gerald Scorse…”

I had another surprise upper just last month. Teresa Ghilarducci’s Forbes blog linked to an article of mine and backed the position it took.

So it goes for an adman-turned-taxman, grateful for “the positive psychological benefits associated with a concept now known as mastery: practicing an activity at which you have no previous level of expertise, and experiencing gradual improvement over time.”

Here’s hoping for a lot more time and a lot more improvement.

(Epilogue: The coronavirus pandemic has become the latest excuse to comfort the comfortable. The CARES Act helps millions, but it takes extravagant care of the haves.)

Ten-Point Agenda for the Global South after COVID-19

Jorge González Morales (Mexico), Capitalism, 2020

Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

In 1974, the United Nations General Assembly passed a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which was driven by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The resolution laid out a clear plan for the structural transformation of the world system, which was in the throes of a crisis at the time. But, the NIEO was set aside and the world order was shaped in a neoliberal direction; this neoliberal orientation furthered the crisis and brought us to this current cul-de-sac of human possibilities.

Our team at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research developed a ten-point agenda for a post-COVID-19 world. Last week, I presented this agenda at the High-Level Conference on the Post-Pandemic Economy, organised by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The rest of this newsletter is taken up with the agenda, which we hope will be adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) who might take it forward for discussion to the UN General Assembly. We are certainly in need of a New International Economic Order.

1. Tackle the global pandemic.

Our priority is to tackle the global pandemic. To this end, enhancing and pivoting public sector production towards masks, protective equipment, ventilators, field hospitals, and tests for the entire population must be central – as it is already in places such as Vietnam and in Venezuela. It is essential to establish worker control over working conditions so that workers – who are best placed to make these decisions – can be guaranteed a hygienic work environment. In the absence of adequate public action, governments need to create work plans to hire people for projects to break the chain of infection and to ensure that people are fed, clothed, and in good health; such public action can learn from the cooperatives in Kerala (India) and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba. The workforce in shuttered sectors – such as tourism – should be immediately hired into jobs that are geared towards countering the pandemic.

Greta Acosta Reyes (Cuba), Women Who Fight, 2020

2. Broaden medical solidarity.

A united front of the Global South must reject the IMF and creditor-driven limit placed on government sector salaries; because of these limits, former colonised countries have been losing medical personnel to the North Atlantic states. States must use their precious resources to enhance public medical education and train medical workers within communities to provide public health services. ALBA’s medical internationalism, with the Cuban brigades in the lead, must become a model for the world through the World Health Organisation (WHO). Chinese medical internationalism would play a key role here as the US departs from the WHO. The entire private health sector must be nationalised, and smaller medical centres need to be created so that people can easily access public health facilities. Governments must withdraw from public insurance for private health care; in other words, no more public subsidies for private health care. Public health systems must be strengthened, including the production of medical equipment and medicines and the distribution of essential medicines (whose prices must be controlled by regulations).

3. Create an intellectual commons.

The Global South must push for the annulment of the TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which provides unrestrained property rights on goods that must be part of the global commons. This applies directly to the COVID-19 vaccine, which must be offered for production in countries without consideration of profits or intellectual property rights. But it applies equally to any pharmaceutical drugs, many of them publicly financed – the profits for which are then privately appropriated – and to energy technologies that would swiftly move us from fossil to renewable fuels as well as to more efficient communications technologies (such as 5G). In the short term, the states of the Global South must enhance mechanisms for science and technology transfer amongst themselves.

Judy Ann Seidman (South Africa), Capitalism, 2020
4. Cancel debt.

Reasonable estimates suggest that the ‘developing countries’ owe $11 trillion in external debt, with debt service for this year alone estimated to be $3.9 trillion. With the coronavirus recession, such payments are unthinkable. Debt relief must go beyond the forty-seven ‘least developed countries’ and include all of the states in the Global South; this relief must not only postpone debt, but it must cancel debt (from both public and private creditors). An international alliance must be formed on a broad front to pressure creditors to cancel the debt so that all resources that go to service the debt can be channelled fully towards the dire needs of society.

5. Expand food solidarity.

Half of the world’s population struggles with hunger. Food sovereignty and food solidarity are essential antidotes, as has been shown by platforms such as Via Campesina. Corporate control over agriculture must be challenged and food production must be made into a human rights priority. Funds need to be marshalled towards enhancing the production of food; these funds need to be spent on infrastructure for agrarian production (including to enhance such projects as the ALBA Seed Bank). Universal public distribution systems must be strengthened to provide higher incomes for farmers and to ensure distribution of food to the people. A more robust rural landscape will decongest cities and draw people to live meaningful lives in rural areas.

6. Enhance and invest in the public sector.

The CoronaShock has shown that the private sector is simply not capable of addressing emergencies, let alone human needs. States of the Global South must lead by offering a robust defence of the public sector, not only for the production of key goods and services (medicine and food), but for anything that is essential for modern life – more public housing, more public transportation, more public Wi-Fi, and more public education. Allowing the profit sector to commodify these parts of human life has eroded our capacity to build a civilised society.

Davide Leone, Associazione Italiana Design della Comunicazione Visiva (Italy), Capitalism, 2020

7. Implement wealth taxes.

Currently, roughly $32 trillion is sitting in offshore tax havens, and untold amounts of money are simply not counted towards taxation. Two things are necessary: first, that illicit financial flows be recovered, and second, that wealth taxes be properly imposed on the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie and the wealthy land-owning elite, as well as financiers and those engaged in financial speculation. These funds would be enough to redirect priorities to eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, and indignity on a global level.

8. Enact capital controls.

Without capital controls, a country has no effective economic sovereignty. States of the Global South must create an international platform that binds each of them to undertake capital controls; this is a political issue that cannot be implemented by a single country. Capital controls are measures taken by a government to regulate the flow of finances into and out of a country. Such controls include transaction taxes, minimum stay requirements, and caps on the amount of currency that can move across borders. Capital controls and democratic control over the Central Bank will prevent capital flight and should give governments sovereignty over their currency and their economy.

Túlio Carapiá and Clara Cerqueira (Brazil), Fruits of the Earth, 2020

9. Shift to non-dollar-based regional trade.

Dedollarisation is an essential part of a new agenda. Sixty per cent of the world’s reserves are held in dollars, and world commerce is largely conducted in dollars. The Dollar-Wall Street Complex has a near stranglehold on international finance and trade; it is no surprise that US unilateral sanctions are having a catastrophic impact on countries not necessarily because they rely upon the dollar, but because their trading partners are enmeshed in it. The dollar has become a weapon to undermine development. Experimental alternative payment systems like the Sucre need to be dusted off, and new global financial institutions need to be created to facilitate wire transfers. In the short run, this could begin with non-dollar-based regional facilities, although there is a need for global institutions to set aside the immense advantage provided to the United States by the dollar being used as a global currency. Relatedly, there is a need to strengthen regional trade blocs that would honour barter as a mechanism for payment.

10. Centralise planning, decentralise public action.

The pandemic has shown us the power of central planning and the importance of decentralised public action. Economies that are not allowed to plan their use of resources have floundered before the virus. There is a need to establish participatory central planning mechanisms on an ever-increasing scale and to recast social production towards need – not towards profit. These plans must be derived from maximum democratic input and must be transparent to the public. Central planning would enable the nationalisation of sectors such as mining (including energy production), the large-scale production and processing of food, and tourism; these would be placed under worker control into cooperatives. It would be an instrument to minimise waste, including profligate military expenditures. The enhancement of local self-government and cooperative production, as well as of associations and unions of the people, will allow social life to become increasingly democratic.

Ahmed Mofeed (Palestine), Coca-Cola Zero, 2020

The images in this newsletter are from the Anti-Imperialist poster exhibition. The first set of posters are on the idea of capitalism. Please go to the website and browse through the posters, which come from seventy-seven artists from twenty-six countries and twenty-one organisations.

Pandemic Fallout Includes Handout to Rich Retirees

The coronavirus pandemic is worlds apart from the financial meltdown of 2008-09. Even so the government’s response was identical in one telltale way. Congress once again gave a special dose of tender loving care to taxpayers who need it the least.

The 2008 bailout suspended annual required minimum distribution (RMDs) from retirement accounts. Surprise, surprise, the same tax break showed up in the $2.2 trillion stimulus signed by President Trump.

Waiving RMDs is welcome news for the well-heeled. They have plenty of income outside their IRAs and 401(k)s. They’re fine with passing up a distribution, and seriously happy to avoid the taxes that come with it.

(A quick history: The first retirement accounts didn’t need any waiver to avoid taxes. In addition to untaxed contributions and tax-free capital gains, there were no mandatory distributions either. The party ended when lawmakers finally laid down a time limit. A 1986  tax reform mandated minimum distributions starting at age 70 1/2. It’s been reset at 72 effective this year.)

The new waiver lets retirees off the hook for 2020. The hook is still in, though, for the millions who actually rely on their accounts and can’t get along without withdrawals.

They’ll be forced to do what the affluent have been spared from doing. They’ll have to liquidate holdings at prices battered by the fastest stock market crash in U.S. history (including three record drops in the Dow over just eight days). Wall Street has rallied since its late-March low but remains well in the red for the year.

The stimulus bill did slightly better for younger workers. Account withdrawals prior to age 59 ½ normally incur a 10 percent penalty; taxpayers financially harmed by the pandemic won’t have to pay that penalty. Income taxes can be spread out over three years, but the full amounts remain due. There’s also an option to repay the distribution back into a retirement plan.
Withdrawing savings ahead of time, however, carries a penalty all its own. David Certner, the legislative counsel and policy director for the AARP, put it this way:

It’s never a good idea. It’s particularly not a good idea when the market is down. But for people who are in really bad shape, this may be their one emergency alternative.

Now for a look at the waiver from a fiscal perspective: the government will be losing billions at the worst possible time.

The stock market racked up giant gains last year. RMDs are based on account balances as of December 31, so the taxes on distributions were certain to hit new highs. Revenues have steadily trended up as millions of boomers reach minimum distribution age. Coupled with the market’s 2019 performance, bumper RMD taxes should be flowing into the Treasury.

Now most of those dollars will likely be staying in the pockets of taxpayers whose pockets are already full. At the same time, Congress will be shoveling money out the door in the biggest national bailout ever.

Waiving RMDs is tax policy tilted toward the upper incomes. The timing makes it financially foolhardy as well. The waiver might last only a year, just as the first one did. Even so, a government already starving for revenue may never make up what it’s now passing up.

Some have argued that now isn’t the time to worry about who gets what, or for what reasons, or anything else. All that can come later; the only thing government should concern itself with at the moment is doing everything possible to help as many people as possible.

Point taken. We’re all in this together. It’s an extraordinary time demanding extraordinary measures. Nothing else matters.

All the same, suspending RMDs has little to do with going all out for America. It has everything to do with going all in for those at the top.

Same old, same old. Here’s to a post-pandemic with fewer tax favors for the haves.

The IRS Deserves Cheers, Not Jeers

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) struggles every day with an infernal problem. It’s expected to separate taxpayers from their hard-earned money and leave them feeling well-treated at the same time.

They don’t feel well-treated, far from it. According to the 2019 report to Congress by the National Taxpayer Advocate: “The current state of IRS customer experience lags far behind other government agencies and the private sector”

But the IRS doesn’t lag behind when it comes to return on investment, or ROI. That’s the standard measure of “bang for the buck”—in this case how many dollars the Treasury takes in for each dollar spent on enforcement.

By that yardstick the IRS is up in the sky with Lucy. It might be flying even higher if Republican lawmakers hadn’t meat-axed its funding.

Treasury figures put the agency’s ROI at roughly $5 for each $1—a return of 400 percent. A report from the Government Accountability Office cites even higher enforcement returns, from $11 to $13 for each $1. In late 2018, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) evaluated the IRS as a way to reduce the deficit. By the CBO’s calculations, increases in the agency’s budget could cut federal red ink by $35 billion over the decade 2019 – 2028.

ROI dollars made not a dime’s difference to the GOP, which sent Congress off on an IRS budget-slashing spree. Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) remembers it fondly: “I know that when we were in the majority [from 2010 – 2018]…we took great pleasure in cutting the amount of money that was going to the IRS every year.”

The cuts also warmed the hearts of tax cheats and potential cheats. With enforcement funds gutted, audits have become far less likely.

By 2017, for the first time since 1953, the IRS had fewer than 10,000 auditors. That led to 675,000 fewer audits, 42 percent less than in 2010.

Audit rates plunged as well, especially for upper-income taxpayers. Rates for incomes from $200,000 to $10 million and up were roughly 80 percent lower in 2018 than in 2011. Audits of low-income Americans dropped too, but not nearly as much. In fact, Americans earning under $25,000 had a higher audit rate in fiscal 2018 than those with incomes up to $500,000.

Missteps by the IRS fed into the budget-cutting fervor, and share the blame for the staff reductions and service shortfalls that inevitably followed. When President Trump’s 2019 budget proposed another $738 million cut, Americans for Tax Reform said the agency itself had supplied the hatchet: “While IRS bureaucrats claim the agency is underfunded, the IRS has proven…that it cannot properly use the resources it already gets.”

Trump would later switch sides and ask for a small increase in fiscal 2020 IRS funding. His budget request also proposed additional money “to expand and strengthen tax enforcement.” It would cost $15 billion and generate $47 billion in revenue.

Besides ROI, there’s a second good reason not to bash the IRS.

Most Americans never even think about cheating on their taxes. They’ve been warned away by the words on their W-2 statements, “This information is being furnished to the Internal Revenue Service.” No surprise, the tens of millions who get W-2s lead the nation in tax honesty: they report 99% of their income from work.

Plenty of taxpayers, however, do their own income reporting. Their numbers come only from them, verified by no other source.

It’s an open invitation to play fast and loose, and do they ever. The IRS estimates that self-reporters fail to report almost two-thirds of what they make at work. Their under-reporting is the biggest single part of America’s tax gap, the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid.

The gap now totals $458 billion a year. Until Congress makes all workers subject to third-party reporting, the IRS is the only way to recover at least some of those billions.

In 2005 Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt co-authored the best-selling book Freakonomics. In a 2006 op-ed, they let taxpayers in on a bitter truth:

Unless you are personally cheating by one-fifth or more, you should be mad at the I.R.S.—not because it’s too vigilant, but because it’s not nearly vigilant enough. Why should you pay your fair share when the agency lets a few hundred billion dollars of other people’s money go uncollected every year?

Instead of getting mad, let’s hear some cheers. Saddled with an infernal job, decimated by budget cuts, the IRS fights a lonely fight for all honest taxpayers. And remember, its ROI is sky-high.

Rich Getting Richer Via Tax Policies

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” This famous quote has always been true, but never as true as today. After decades of dominance by the right, here’s the 2019 version:

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is insanely better.”

The insanity stems from tax policies. Marginal income tax rates plunged starting in the 1980s, hitting their modern-day lows under President George W. Bush. After rising modestly during the Obama Administration, they fell again under President Trump.

Rate cuts generate only part of the current bonanza. Tax breaks passed by various Congresses account for the rest, hugely increasing the billions that flow to the haves.

So, insanely, taxes really are making the rich richer. With inequality soaring, they’re widening the income gap instead of making it smaller.

All taxpayers get at least modest breaks, but the big money goes to those who need it the least: income is redistributed upward, with disproportionate shares going to the top percentiles.

The most blatant example literally “wills” capital gains (and capital gains taxes) away. With the stroke of a pen, when assets such as real estate and equities are passed along to heirs, all unrealized capital gains are wiped out. The assets are revalued and given a new basis price, their worth at the time of transfer.

It’s called a step-up in basis, and it can happen again and again. As a result, wealth can pass untaxed from one generation to the next.  (Retirement accounts get no such break, but non-retirement holdings do — and guess who has those.)

In another fiscal favor to the rich, income from wealth is taxed at a lower marginal rate than income from work. The federal rate on long-term capital gains and dividends is 20 percent, well under the 37 percent top rate on income from wages and salaries. The highest earners do pay an Obama-era surcharge of 3.8 percent on investment income; even so, they still save more than a third compared to the tax on income from labor.

This break in particular acts as rocket fuel for income inequality. With income from capital becoming an ever-greater share of total income, a lower rate drives up the fortunes of wealthy Americans and leaves middle America farther and farther behind.

Tax expert David Cay Johnston ran the Internal Revenue Service numbers.  From 1961 through 2013 (the latest year for which data is available), the 400 richest Americans saw their federal income taxes drop from 42.4 cents on the dollar to 22.9 cents. For 2013, adjusted for inflation, that gave the top 400 an average $195.4 million in extra after-tax income. The vast majority of Americans took home more dollars too: an average of $6,812.

It’s the ratio, Johnston wrote, “that may take your breath away.” After more than 50 years of deliberate tax policy choices, here it is:

For each dollar of increased after-tax income enjoyed by the vast majority in 2013, the top 400 enjoyed $28,684 more. That’s $28,684 to $1.

The ratio can always go higher and probably already has; it came before the Trump tax cut, which delivered its own special breaks to the rich.

One of those more than doubled the estate tax exemption, raising it from $5.5 million to $11.4 million for an unmarried person. A couple can shield twice that amount, or $22.8 million.

It was a major anti-estate tax victory, but only the latest in a streak going back to 2001: the exemption back then topped out at $675,000, or $1.35 million for a couple. Legislation passed in that year gradually raised the totals to $3.5 million/$7 million by 2009. Congress later upped those exemptions as well, and the 2017 law has raised them to new highs.

According to “death tax” propaganda, estate taxes amount to double taxation of a lifetime’s hard-earned income. According to the facts, “unrealized capital gains account for almost half of the fair market value of estates.” Under the stepped-up basis (see paragraphs 7 and 8), those gains will never be taxed, period.

Let’s end with an exclamation point. From 2014-2023, two tax breaks alone will put the haves up by an estimated $1.984 trillion. Just from lower taxes on capital gains and the stepped-up basis, those who need nothing will be up by nearly $2 trillion.

That $2 trillion should be going to the common good, not to the well-off. Congress can make it happen by ending tax breaks that do little more than make the rich richer.

• This piece first appeared at www.nydailynews.com

The Palestinian Authority is No Longer Crying Wolf Over its Imminent Collapse

We have been here many times before. However, on this occasion even the principal actors understand that the Palestinian Authority is not crying wolf as it warns of imminent collapse.

The crisis is entirely of Israel and Washington’s making. Keen to pander to hawkish public opinion in the run-up to last month’s election, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a severe blow against Mahmoud Abbas and his government-in-permanent-waiting.

He announced that Israel would withhold a portion of the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and which it is obligated under the Oslo accords to pass on to the PA, based in the West Bank.

The money deducted is the sum the PA transfers as stipends to the families of political prisoners and those killed and maimed by the Israeli army.

This is an incendiary issue, as Netanyahu well knows, given that Palestinians view these families as having made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle to liberate their people from brutal Israeli occupation.

Abbas cannot be seen to back down, and so has refused to accept any of the monthly tax transfers until the full sum is reinstated, amounting to nearly two-thirds of the PA’s revenues.

Given how precarious Palestinian finances are, after decades of resource theft and restrictions on development imposed by Israel, the PA is already on the brink of bankruptcy.

The problem for Netanyahu and Washington is that the PA was established – under the 25-year-old Oslo accords – to take the pressure and costs off Israel of policing the Palestinian population under occupation.

If the PA collapses, so do the Palestinian security forces that have been keeping order in the West Bank as Israel has continued to plunder Palestinian land and resources.

Late last month the United Nations warned that the standoff had left the PA facing “unprecedented financial, security and political challenges”.

Which means that, despite his recent electoral triumph, Netanyahu is in a serious bind.

He cannot be seen by his even more right-wing coalition partners to be climbing down and restoring stipends to people Israelis view simply as “terrorists”.

Equally, he dares not risk a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank. That would be a real possibility if the Palestinian economy implodes and there are no Palestinian security forces to suppress the resulting wave of popular anger.

A preview of the difficulties in store was given at the weekend, when more than 600 rockets were fired out of Gaza, threatening the cancellation of the Eurovision song contest in Israel later this month.

By Sunday evening, four Israelis were reported dead, while 20 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. The Palestinian fatalities included two pregnant women and a toddler.

There is also the danger, from Israel’s point of view, that if Abbas’s PA collapses, the void in the West Bank will be filled by his Hamas rivals, who run Gaza. Israel has been delighted to keep the Palestinian territories divided under feuding Fatah and Hamas leaderships.

A way out – or a change of tack – is urgently required.

Israel has tried twice to quietly make partial tax transfers to the PA’s bank account, in the hope the money would be accepted. The PA returned it.

Then, the European Union stepped in. Ostensibly an “honest broker”, it appears to be occupying a role the Trump administration has formally abandoned. The EU proposed last week that the PA accept the transfers on a “provisional basis”, until the crisis can be resolved.

PA officials were dismissive. “Let the people take to the streets,” one said. “We have our backs to the wall.” The PA line is that in the current climate, if it backtracks, Israel will simply intensify unilateral measures harming the Palestinian cause.

So now, more in desperation than any realistic prospect of achieving peace, attention is turning to Donald Trump’s long-promised “deal of the century”.

After endless delays, the US administration now seems to be preparing for its release next month, soon after the holy month of Ramadan finishes.

The plan’s main architects, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, have issued a spate of statements hinting at the contents.

Greenblatt has sought to reassure neighbouring Egypt and Jordan that they will not shoulder the burden. He discounted rumours either that Gaza’s Palestinians would be encouraged to move to the Sinai, in a land swap that would allow Israel to annex parts of the West Bank, or that Jordan would find itself recast as an alternative Palestinian homeland.

Kushner, meanwhile, has strongly suggested that the goal of a two-state solution, implied by the Oslo process, will finally be jettisoned. “New and different ways to reach peace must be tried,” he has said.

He has also stated that the plan will stress “economic benefits” for the Palestinians and “security” for Israel.

David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel and a stalwart ally of Israel’s most extreme settlers, has recently added that Israel will maintain security control of the West Bank.

According to analysts, these statements suggest the White House is preparing the ground for an offer to the Palestinians of “limited autonomy” – an outcome Arab officials confirmed to The Washington Post.

Sensing the danger, 40 former senior European officials have signed a letter opposing any plan that creates a Palestinian “entity devoid of sovereignty, territorial contiguity and economic viability”.

“Limited autonomy” would be a reformulation of Israel’s long-running ambition to thwart permanently Palestinian hopes of statehood – a policy the late Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling once termed “politicide”.

Since the late 1970s, the Israeli right has advocated hemming Palestinians into enclaves where they are denied sovereignty.

The model of disparate cantons, effectively operating as glorified municipalities and surrounded by a sea of Israeli settlers, is little different from that of “black homelands”, or Bantustans, established in apartheid-era South Africa.

Now, it seems, the Trump administration is ready to support this racist idea as a way to promote regional peace.

The Americans hope that, with a few sweeteners, the Palestinians can be made to swallow this bitter pill. It is an idea Netanyahu has advanced for some time, with his talk of “economic peace” – or what might be better termed “economic pacification”.

But the current impasse on taxes shows that buying off the Palestinians with bribes, in return for the abandonment of core national goals, may not prove so easy.

With the PA close to collapse, it is hard to see how Trump’s deal of the century can do anything other than speed up the authority’s demise.

• A version of this article was first published in The National

Paul Manafort and the Crime of Not Provoking Russia

Paul Manafort has been convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for what the judge calls “white collar crimes” unrelated to “Russian collusion.” The mainstream press is in a state of shock. Surely, the morning cable anchors protest, he should have gotten 20 years!

He was friends with (“pro-Russian”) Ukrainian businessmen and politicians! He took fees for political consulting work with foreigners—that he never reported to the IRS! He committed bank fraud and tax fraud! And he may have had a role in the decision of the Republican National Committee at the Republican convention in July 2016, to modify a section of the program to remove reference to the provision of U.S. lethal military aid to Ukraine!

For two years that last accusation has been treated by the press as the truly damning one, the clear proof of a conspiracy to help Russia. There’s been a deliberate effort to generate outrage, where none really smolders in the masses’ breasts. How many people in this country feel strongly about the issue of Ukraine, could find the country on the map, have any knowledge in its history or any strong feelings about the matter of who should have sovereignty over Crimea?

The implicit argument is that not to give offensive weapons to the government in Ukraine at the time (then headed by Arseniy Yastenyuk, who had attained power through a U.S.-supported violent coup and the documented sponsorship of grotesque neocon beast Victoria Nuland) was anything other than the height of irresponsibility, if not treason. (“What more do we need than that?” demands the angry CNN “foreign policy analyst” or “national security analyst” while the hosts nod in agreement.), But this new regime in Kiev was riddled with fascists, was engaged in an effort to impose its armed authority over a rebellious ethnic Russian Donbas region, and might potentially be at war with Russia at any moment.

One could interpret the platform change as a rational retreat from an unnecessary provocation of Moscow. Why should that be so controversial or mysterious?

But to the talking heads of MSNBC and CNN, and maybe some on Fox, the minor move was sure, clear proof of Russian collusion. The party committee couldn’t have been applying mere common sense, and deference to a presidential nominee who’d expressed hope for normal relations with Russia. No, it had to have been hijacked by Russian agents.

In the real world, it’s just possible that Manafort (for whatever reasons) had educated Trump to some basic facts: Ukraine has long been ethnically divided between Ukrainians and (ethnic) Russians. The regime that seized power in February 2014 (toppling the democratically elected if highly corrupt one that Manafort had served) had completely alienated the Donbas region from the outset by its anti-Russian discriminatory measures, provoking the rebellion. As for the Crimean Peninsula, it had been Russian from 1785 to 1954, and the base of the Russian Black Sea Naval Fleet since the 1780s, so it wasn’t surprising that Moscow would want to re-assert sovereignty to prevent the very real prospect of losing its base to the relentlessly expanding NATO.

(It would have made sense for Bernie Sanders, had he won the Democratic nomination—that is, had we had a fair, not rigged, Democratic primary process—-to have stricken out any such language from a Democratic Party platform.)

I wrote a number of columns about Ukraine after the 2014 putsch opposing U.S. intervention in Ukraine and the U.S. effort, involving about $ 5 billion invested in what Victoria Nuland and Madeleine Albright both referred to publicly as “support for the Ukrainian people’s European aspirations.” (This was code for the drive of right-wing politicians in Ukraine to join EU after following the well-established pattern of former east bloc countries first joining NATO, then the European trade bloc.) Some of these were re-posted on Russian media. Am I thus guilty of collusion?

This matter of the non-support for military involvement in Ukraine, as a bad thing, is at the heart of the collusion case. The Manafort judge T.S. Ellis has been right to be skeptical, and to suspect that the prosecutors have been trying too hard to pin on Manafort a conspiracy charge implicating Trump and Russia. (Or a Trump staffer and a Russian businessman. Or a Trump aide and a Ukrainian businessman, or Russian-Ukrainian businessman, or Russian-American businessman.)

The fact of the matter is, as Graham Stack, a Fusion GPS researcher once hired to gather dirt on Manafort, pointed out last year: “Manafort was nothing like a pro-Kremlin influence on the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych… Instead, Manafort was one of the driving forces pushing Yanukovich towards signing the agreement with the EU. The Kremlin has every reason to hate him.”

That is, Manafort for his own business reasons wanted Ukraine to join the European Union, just like Victoria Nuland wanted to use the Ukrainian people’s (supposed) yearning to join the organization—that was then squeezing the life out of the Greeks and was subsequently rejected by the British—-as part and parcel of Ukraine’s planned entry into the anti-Russian military alliance. (This had been announced in 2008, the same year as NATO unveiled plans to welcome Georgia as well in the near term. That plan is on hold after the Russo-Georgia War of that year, just as plans to admit Ukraine are permanently on hold for fear—by the Germans, if not the U.S.—of provoking Russia.)

The motives of Nuland and Manafort were very different. She wanted a cause that would unite the opposition and facilitate regime change; he wanted a deal that would personally aggrandize him, given his investments in EU countries and in Ukraine. But  Russia was as of February 2014 opposed, for reasons Moscow stated clearly. (Basically, the cross-border economies are so deeply integrated, the cultures so similar and movement between the two countries so free that EU goods once in Ukraine would flow uncontrollably into Russia, damaging the Russian economy. Was the Russian stance unreasonable? Moscow offered Kiev a generous aid package, which Yanukovych accepted; meanwhile, Russia indicated it had no problem with Ukraine’s eventual EU membership once certain issues were resolved, and reiterated Putin’s aspiration for a Eurasia-wide free market to extend from Vladivostock to Lisbon. (Was this reasonable? Or does it “threaten our national interests” somehow?)

The Russians perhaps convinced Yanukovych that the austerity measures Ukraine would have to accept even for associate NATO membership would be destabilizing. So he withdrew from the provisional deal that had been pushed by Manafort.The  U.S.-backed  opposition declared Yanukovych a traitor loyal to Russia, and the government fell giving way to the current dysfunctional regime that lionizes fascists like Stephan Bandera.

One should definitely condemn Manafort for his past “consulting work”—with the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Jonas Savimbi. (This list of clients includes at least five mass murderers.) But why single him out for assisting the former, democratically elected Ukrainian president in his negotiations with the EU? (Oh, because he didn’t report the income…the tax fraud thing…  Terrible indeed.)

The fact is, Manafort would not have been on trial had there not been an effort to seize on any kind of link between anyone around Trump and any one or thing Russian to substantiate the charge of “Russian interference” in the U.S. election. The thinly researched and argued January 2017 “Assessing Russian Activities”intelligence report on that “interference” was followed by a drive to investigate Trump campaign collusion with Russia, with a clear political mission to explain Hillary’s loss by attributing it to Trump’s (treasonous, secret) relationship with Putin.

It hasn’t led to anything yet but a meeting in a Manhattan cigar bar Aug. 2, 2016 between Manafort, his deputy Mike Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian business partner of Manfort’s since 2005 (“thought to be linked to Russian intelligence”) that might have involved  the sharing of some polling data that by law should have been kept secret (or only shared with U.S. political operatives seeking to legitimately influence the outcome of the U.S. election).

Maybe some Russians used the information to influence targeted U.S. minds, using Facebook to throw the election result in Wisconsin. That would see horrible, would it not? An attack by other people on our democracy?! (While we never interfere, anywhere!)

The message is in any case clear. We should be outraged that “the Russians” “interfered” in “our election” tainting its result. We should view “our” elections as sacrosanct affairs, and be outraged that Trump staffers were willing to talk to Russian officials or private citizens, about the election or lots of other things, neglecting to report any contact with nationals of a country that (for some reason) we’re supposed to regard as an “adversary.”   Indeed, the overriding historical import of the movement to drive Trump from office is its re-enforcement of Russophobia in this country.

Trump is depicted as evil less due to his bigotry, misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, or corrupt business practices than due to his failure to do the right thing: take a hard line on Russia.

That means denouncing Putin, the way Hillary did. (Clinton as top U.S. diplomat called Putin a new Hitler, for re-annexing Crimea.) It means continuing to demand, as Obama did, that Russia withdraw from Crimea and cease whatever material support it provides to the separatists in the Donbas region or face continuing U.S. (and EU) sanctions. (These are hopeless demands, and are hurting Europe as well as Russia. Yet their maintenance is depicted as the only responsible route forward, and suggestions they be lifted portrayed as capitulation to evil.)

And it means howling in indignation when Paul Manafort, the closest thing to a “smoking gun” about collusion between Russia and Trump, only gets four years behind bars. It means disparaging Judge Ellis, noting his expressed concern about special prosecutors’ overreach and the possibility of the case becoming a “political weapon.”

News anchors visibly consternated by the sentence length seem troubled too by the likelihood that the Mueller probe will conclude with no real evidence. The dream of Trump being exposed as a Russian agent—promising sanctions relief after his victory in return for advance Russian notice about Wikileaks’ hacked emails publication schedule—-is fading.

In its place is the dream of replacing Trump in 2020 with an (appropriately) anti-Russian leader. This would mean one committed to NATO (which is still officially on track to include Georgia and Ukraine, to better encircle and provoke Russia); committed to the sanctions designed to hobble the Russian economy and prevent other countries from trading with it; committed to challenging Russia’s influence in the Middle East and depicting any such influence as “foreign interference” in a region that ought by rights be dominated by the U.S. as the world’s “exceptional” nation; and the insistence on the myth that the U.S. has “national interests” transcending class interests that need to be protected from Russia pursuing its own.

The appropriately anti-Russian leader the mainstream media seeks must of course be, preeminently, a proud capitalist. The restoration of normality must combine the new Russophobia (which has nothing to do immediately with anticommunism—since the Russian state is thoroughly capitalist and Putin’s party is both pro-market and pro-Orthodox religion—but draws on Cold War specifically anti-Russian tropes) with a clear repudiation of socialism.

*****

Saturday: Dave Gura on MSNBC expressing puzzlement that John Hinckenluper in a Joe Scarborough interview refused to call himself a capitalist (recognizing the negative connotations of that word among many young people).

Shame! the bipartisan panelists all agree; he should have proudly broadcast his capitalist status, and promoted the market as the key to creating jobs. If the Dems go with a “socialist” message, Trump will win! The very word socialism is Kryptonite!

These two phenomena—the mainstream ruling-class disappointment that the “Russian collusion” case is collapsing, and alarm at the soaring popularity of “socialism”—are related. To bring him down, one accuses the president of collusion with a country vilified throughout the Cold War; the USSR was targeted for its “socialism” but also attacked on the basis of ethnic stereotypes that remain useful to the anti-Russian propagandist. To make sure his successor is committed to the post-Cold War strategy of maintaining global hegemony and preventing the emergence of any rival, one must insure that someone who accepts capitalist imperialism takes office.

The morning TV news anchors, makers of public opinion, unite in agreement that it is unacceptable to question the motives of legislators who always vote in favor of Israel. (In this they in fact unite with Trump, who’s opportunistically charging the Democrats with antisemitism.) They also unite in agreeing it’s good the Hanoi summit between Kim and Trump failed, because it would be against U.S. interests to reduce sanctions until Pyongyang gets rid of it’s nukes (which it’s not going to do without sanctions relief, so the anti-Trump position is a virtual demand for war). These are some of the responsible positions of the anti-Trump mainstream.

My, what an awful, awful man! Such a Russian stooge! Jeopardizing our national security, serving Russian interests, by pulling out of Syria! (When did insistence on indefinite deployment of U.S. forced illegally in Syria become so mainstreamed?) And by talking about an Afghan pullout!

And his campaign chairman was meeting Russians! (Let us recall Manafort was chairman all of three months.) And Manafort was secretly meeting Russians, our adversaries!

Such outrage. Such unanimity. Such slavish devotion to capitalism, imperialism, “our heroes” in the U.S. military, sterile political correctness plus unquestioned devotion to Israel, and of course the systematic vilification of Russia. The trashing of both socialism and Russia, the latter having nothing to do with the former anymore, but what difference does it make?  We’re supposed to believe that both of them are Kryptonite, and that the choice before us is between the responsible capitalist and Russophobe (such as Joe Biden) and the capitalist and imagined Russophile traitor Donald Trump.

Wall Street Mini-Tax Could Raise Maxi Revenue

With great fanfare, politicians on the left are thinking big on tax reform: a 70 percent rate on incomes over $10 million, a wealth tax on the super-rich, estate taxes as high as 77 percent. With no fanfare at all, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has made the case for thinking small. According to the CBO, a mini-tax on sales of stocks, bonds and other holdings could boost revenues by scores of billions a year.

The estimate came in December 2018 when the CBO released its list of options for cutting the federal deficit. For the period 2019-2028, a Wall Street tax of 0.1 percent would bring an extra $777 billion into the Treasury. Market declines were predicted early on, along with lower capital gains and lower trading volumes. Even so, after factoring in all the headwinds, the tax still produced average annual revenue increases of almost $78 billion. The numbers rose as the years went by: the inflow totaled $534.5 billion in the closing half-decade, compared to $242.2 billion from 2019-2023.

The tax is called a financial transactions tax, “FTT” for short. The United States had one from 1914 until 1965; it could be coming around again as lawmakers try to cope with “the defining challenge of our time,” income inequality.

Such a levy would instantly become the single biggest non-income tax on wealth in America. Five days a week and after-hours, the financial markets execute millions of trades involving billions of shares. The huge majority belongs to taxpayers in the upper rungs. Given the volume and the value of the trades, even a tiny tax would generate giant revenues. The Institute for Policy Studies, in a Q&A on the tax, said the burden “would fall overwhelmingly on short-term speculators. For most pension funds and traditional stock-and-bond-holders, the cost would be negligible—in fact less than typical portfolio management fees.”

A detailed analysis of FTTs by the Tax Policy Center was published in 2016. The study looked at the arguments pro and con, and there were plenty of both. For opponents, the tax was “an answer in search of a question.” It would “curb productive trading…reduce market liquidity, raise the cost of capital, and discourage investment.” If you want more, “It could also cause prices to adjust less rapidly to new information.”

For proponents, the upsides included less “speculative short-term and high-frequency trading,” less volatility, and fewer bubbles. Payback was part of the argument too: It “could help recoup the costs of the [2009] financial-sector bailout as well as the costs the financial crisis imposed on the rest of the country.” From this sprang the nickname, the “Robin Hood Tax.”

The name fits—but Robin never took from the rich on a scale so small and yet so large. The study concluded that a tax of 0.34 percent “could raise a maximum of about 0.4 percent of GDP ($75 billion in 2017) in a highly progressive manner.” Note that the 0.34 percent rate more than triples the CBO’s 0.1 percent, but brings in no more revenue. The reason is tax evasion, which rises as the rate increases; the increases can ultimately lose more revenue through evasion than they gain. Nonetheless, the tax is clearly a fiscal policy bonanza.

If it again becomes law, said the Center, the bonus billions could be used “to benefit the poor, finance future financial bailouts, cut other taxes, or reduce public debt.” The last option, of course, is how the CBO was spending the money. There’s no lack of other possible uses, including sorely-needed infrastructure repairs or restoring free tuition to public colleges and universities.

Even the right gets something to love with a FTT. Here’s the Tax Foundation in February of 2018, praising sales taxes and their superiority to income taxes: “Retail sales taxes are one of the more transparent ways to collect tax revenue. While graduated income tax rates and brackets are complex and confusing to many taxpayers, sales taxes are easier to understand; consumers can see their tax burden printed directly on their receipts” (in this case, directly on their financial transactions receipts).

In the newest news, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-NJ) have just submitted FTT legislation calling for an 0.1 percent tax to the current Congress. Earlier efforts over the last decade have gone nowhere, and any Democratic bill faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Timing is everything, though. And the nonpartisan CBO just gave out those big, beautiful numbers for precisely the tax that Schatz and DeFazio are proposing.

This article originally appeared at www.nydailynews.com

“We Don’t Do Propaganda”

Earlier this month, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia For Realists, was interviewed by the high-profile Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson. During a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Bregman had bluntly told billionaires that they should stop avoiding taxes and pay their fair share:

“We gotta be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.”

His comments went viral which, in turn, led to him being invited on to Carlson’s television show. It’s safe to say that the interview did not go as the right-wing host would have liked. In fact, Fox News decided not to air the segment. However, it was captured on mobile phone footage in the Amsterdam studio where Bregman was doing the interview and it was later distributed via Twitter. He told Carlson:

‘The vast majority of Americans, for years and years now, according to the polls – including Fox News viewers and including Republicans – are in favour of higher taxes on the rich. Higher inheritance taxes, higher top marginal tax rates, higher wealth taxes, it’s all really mainstream. But no one’s saying that at Davos, just as no one’s saying it on Fox News, right? And I think the explanation for that is quite simple, is that most of the people in Davos, but also here on this channel, have been bought by the billionaire class. You know? You’re not meant to say these things. So I just went there, and I thought, you know what, I’m just going to say it, just as I’m saying it right here on this channel.’

Carlson was happy enough at this point. Indeed, he praised Bregman for what he’d said in Davos: “That was one of the great moments – maybe the great moment in Davos history.”

Carlson added: “If I was wearing a hat, I’d take it off to you.”

The Dutch historian continued:

‘America is still pretty much the most powerful country in the world, right? So if it really would want to, it could easily crack down on tax paradises. But the thing is, you guys have brought into power a president who doesn’t even want to share his own tax returns. I mean, who knows how many billions he has hidden in the Cayman Islands or in Bermuda. So I think the issue really is one of corruption and of people being bribed, and of not being, not talking about the real issues. What the family—what the Murdochs [owners of Fox News] basically want you to do is to scapegoat immigrants instead of talking about tax avoidance.’

By this point, it was clear that Carlson was unhappy with how the interview was going:

‘And I’m taking orders from the Murdochs, that’s what you’re saying?’

Bregman responded reasonably:

‘No, I mean, it doesn’t work that directly. But I mean, you’ve been part of the [right-wing libertarian think tank] Cato Institute, right? You’ve been a senior fellow there for years.’

The Fox News presenter interjected aggressively, seemingly rattled: “Well how does it work?”

Bregman replied:

‘Well, it works by you taking their dirty money. They’re funded by Koch billionaires, you know? It’s as easy as that. I mean, you are a millionaire, funded by billionaires, that’s what you are. And I’m glad you now finally jumped the bandwagon of people like Bernie Sanders and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected Democrat politician in New York], but you’re not part of the solution, Mr. Carlson. You’re part of the problem, actually. … All the anchors, all the anchors of Fox—’

By this point, Carlson had lost it: “You would have to be a moron, you would have to be—”

Bregman carried on speaking:

‘They’re all millionaires. How is this possible? Well it’s very easy, you’re just not talking about certain things.

‘You are a millionaire funded by billionaires, that’s what you are… You’re part of the problem.’

Bregman then correctly predicted: ‘you’re probably not going to air this on your show.’

He added:

‘But I went to Davos to speak truth to power and I’m doing exactly the same thing right now. You might not like it, but you’re a millionaire funded by billionaires and that’s the reason you’re not talking about these issues.’

Carlson: “But I am talking about these issues.”

‘Yeah, only now. Come on, you jumped the bandwagon. You’re all like, oh, I’m against the globalist elite, blah blah blah. It’s not very convincing to be honest.’

That was too much for Carlson who exploded:

‘I wanna say to you why don’t you go fuck yourself ― you tiny brain. And I hope this gets picked up because you’re a moron. I tried to give you a hearing, but you were too fucking annoying…’

Unflustered, Bregman interjected with a smile: “You can’t handle the criticism, can you?”

Afterwards, Bregman shared the clip on his Twitter feed:

‘Here’s the interview that @TuckerCarlson and Fox News didn’t want you to see. I chose to release it, because I think we should keep talking about the corrupting influence of money in politics. It also shows how angry elites can get if you do that.’

As predicted, Fox News did not air the segment. No doubt prompted by Bregman releasing the exchange into the public domain, Carlson addressed it on his show:

‘Things went fine for the first few minutes and then Bregman launched into an attack on Fox News. It’s not clear that Bregman has ever seen Fox. But he wanted to make his point. Fine.

‘But then he claimed that [adopts a fierce voice] my corporate masters tell me what to say on the show, and that was too much.’

Carlson continued:

‘Whatever my faults or those of this channel, nobody in management has ever told us what positions to take on the air – never – not one time. We have total freedom here and we are grateful for that. I have hosted shows on both the other cable channels so I know first-hand how rare that freedom is. On this show, thanks to Fox, we get to say exactly what we think is true, for better or worse.

‘But there was no convincing Bregman of that, he knew what he knew. So I did what I try hard never to do on this show, and I was rude. I called him a moron and then I modified that word with a vulgar Anglo-Saxon term that is also intelligible in Dutch.

‘In my defence, I would say that was entirely accurate. But you’re not allowed to use that word on television. So, once I’d said it out loud, there was no airing the segment.’

Carlson then pointed out that Bregman had released the exchange and that you could find it online:

‘There is some profanity, and I apologize for that. On the other hand, it was genuinely heartfelt and I meant it with total sincerity.’

It was a far from convincing explanation for why Fox News had not aired the segment. After all, a simple bleep could have overridden any profanity: a standard procedure used in television.

Note that we are not claiming that everything Carlson says can be dismissed as kow-towing to his ‘corporate masters’. Last year, for example, he admirably challenged the establishment consensus on Syria. That expression of dissent may well have boosted his ratings: always a welcome factor for a media outlet. Our point is that there is no freedom to ‘say exactly what we think’ on a corporate outlet. As Herman and Chomsky explained in Manufacturing Consent, there are structural limits in the ‘mainstream’ media:

‘the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.’1

That phrase, ‘keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises’, is crucial. Thus, for instance, a Fox News presenter who looked critically at the ownership and advertising behind that network would not last long; indeed, would likely never have been promoted into that trusted position in the first place.

‘You Say What You Like, Because They Like What You Say’

What was perhaps most interesting in Carlson’s riposte to Bregman was his defence of Fox News:

‘nobody in management has ever told us what positions to take on the air – never – not one time. We have total freedom here and we are grateful for that. I have hosted shows on both the other cable channels so I know first-hand how rare that freedom is. On this show, thanks to Fox, we get to say exactly what we think is true, for better or worse.’

Even former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger understood the absurdity of this response. In 2000, he told one of us in an interview:

‘If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch”, or whoever, “never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood.’

In fact, Bregman had already noted when he released the exchange:

‘I stand behind what I said, but there’s one thing I should have done better. When Carlson asked me how he’s being influenced by Big Business and tax-avoiding billionaires, I should have quoted Noam Chomsky.’

He expanded:

‘Years ago, when he was asked a similar question, Chomsky replied: “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”‘

Long-time readers of Media Lens will recall this example very well. It came up in a BBC2 programme in 1995 called The Big Idea when Andrew Marr – then of the Independent and now with BBC News – interviewed Chomsky about the propaganda model of the media. The quote in question comes when Marr is struggling to grasp the propaganda system that filters for obedient, power-serving journalists who are able to carve out a successful career in the ‘mainstream’.

Marr: ‘I’m just interested in this because I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on, to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism. And I have to say, I think I know some of them.’

Chomsky: ‘Well, I know some of the best, and best-known, investigative reporters in the United States – I won’t mention names – whose attitude towards the media is much more cynical than mine. In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they know, and they consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through. And it’s perfectly true that the majority – I’m sure you’re speaking for the majority of journalists who are trained – have it driven into their heads, that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, we stand up against power. A very self-serving view. On the other hand, in my opinion, I hate to make a value judgement but, the better journalists and, in fact, the ones who are often regarded as the best journalists have quite a different picture. And I think a very realistic one.’

Marr: “How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…’

Chomsky: “I’m not saying your self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’

Chomsky’s phrase, ‘if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting’ sums up the propaganda system of the corporate media. What Tucker Carlson appears not to understand is that he has ‘total freedom’ to say what he likes on Fox News because he has shown that he can be trusted to remain within acceptable limits. He has obviously never heard Noam Chomsky explain how it works. Nor does he seem to be familiar with US critic Michael Parenti whose riposte to the proud boast by many a corporate journalist that ‘nobody tells me what to say or write’ was:

‘You say what you like, because they like what you say.’

Parenti expanded on the theme during a talk titled ‘Inventing Reality’ in 1993:

‘And, you know, the minute you move too far – and you have no sensation of a restraint on your freedom. I mean, you don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So, you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.’

Perhaps the Pulitzer Prize-winning US author Upton Sinclair put it most succinctly when he wrote:

‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

Obviously, the same applies to a woman. Indeed, Deborah Haynes, then defence editor at The Times and now foreign affairs editor at Sky News, tweeted proudly last year: “No one tells me what to think.”

Orla Guerin, a veteran BBC News journalist currently reporting from Venezuela, believes herself to be scrupulously impartial and neutral:

‘Thank you for watching, but we don’t do propaganda. We call it they [sic] way we see it, even if that does not suit the pre-conceived idea/ ideals that some have.’

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC News Middle East editor, opined:

‘We are the best source of decent, impartial reportage anywhere in the world.’

At first glance, the claims made by Guerin and Bowen sound plausible. After all, the BBC is widely admired and lauded around the world. In reality, the BBC is structurally and institutionally incapable of reporting fully and honestly the crimes of the West and its allies. It has never told even a fraction of the truth about US-UK crimes in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. It has never properly reported these crimes or placed them in an accurate historical conquest, showing how the West has consistently attacked independent national movements abroad to ensure that local tyrants, armed and supported by ‘us’, suppress local people to the benefit of Western corporate interests. This framework of understanding is considered completely beyond the pale in ‘polite’ BBC discourse; it is not even thinkable for them. Moreover, the BBC exactly reverses this apologetic stance in its endless channelling and hyping of condemnatory Western government claims, often fabricated, against Official Enemies such as Iraq, Libya, Syria; thus preparing the way for Western sanctions and other forms of ‘intervention’, including full-scale invasion.

BBC reporting on Venezuela is a current ugly example. Because the US, UK and its allies are the world’s leading human rights violators, and because senior BBC News journalists and editors cannot even conceive of this possibility, BBC output must be considered propaganda on every issue relating to international – and, indeed, often domestic – affairs. Our media alerts and books are chock-full of examples and analysis that show this in great detail.

To take just one recent example: if Bowen’s absurd claim about the BBC were true, it would have reported extensively on former FBI Director Andrew McCabe quoting Donald Trump:

‘I don’t understand why we’re not looking at Venezuela. Why we’re not a war with Venezuela? They have all the oil and they’re in our back door’.

But you will never see this become the lead item on BBC News at Ten. Why not? Because that would sink the story we’re supposed to believe: that the US is acting out of humanitarian concern for Venezuelans. In a sane media, McCabe’s account of a meeting with Trump would have been central to countless news stories and discussion about Venezuela. BBC News, ITV News and Channel 4 News would all be leading with this on their news bulletins. The newspapers would have it on their front pages. In fact, our database searches show that not a single ‘mainstream’ UK newspaper has reported the remarks. The left-wing Morning Star is the only national newspaper to have covered the story.

Likewise, ‘mainstream’ news media seem supremely disinterested in similar remarks from the notorious US neocon hawk, John Bolton, resurrected from the war crimes of the Iraq invasion, and now anointed as the US National Security Advisor. He made crystal-clear the realpolitik considerations driving US policy towards Venezuela:

‘It’ll make a big difference to the United States if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela’.

Imagine if Putin had made similar remarks threatening war on Venezuela, and been entirely open that the objective was the vast oil reserves there. There would be no end to the headlines devoted to his monstrous intentions and the perfidy of Russian imperial ambitions.

We challenged Paul Royall, the editor of BBC News at Six and News at Ten, about not reporting the former FBI director citing Trump’s desire for war on Venezuela:

‘Hello @paulroyall. You are the editor of @BBCNews at Six and Ten. Why is *this* not front and centre in your news reports on #Venezuela? Why have you instead *buried* a crucial factor that helps to explain US policy towards #Venezuela?’

As ever, Royall – who follows us on Twitter – remained silent. Similar challenges to Orla Guerin and Andrew Roy, BBC News foreign editor, also blew past like the proverbial desert tumbleweed. Likewise, an earlier tweet of ours was ignored:

‘Your news reports present a highly partial, US-friendly view of #Venezuela. By omitting crucial facts, you are misleading your audiences’

As the veteran journalist John Pilger has long pointed out, this phenomenon is called ‘lying by omission’. It is a major factor in enabling senior journalists at major ‘mainstream’ news organisations to claim wrongly, as Orla Guerin did, that, ‘We don’t do propaganda’. This is a deadly myth. Deadly, because it masks the fact that corporate media, especially BBC News, are responsible for propaganda that pushes more Western ‘intervention’, more war, more stolen natural resources, more mass deaths of innocent civilians, more refugees, more corporate profits, more fossil-fuel burning, more species loss and, ultimately, more planetary destruction; perhaps even human extinction in an era of climate chaos.

  1. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage, 1998/2004, p. 298.