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Other view: In Trump's America, a new list of grievances

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Amy Siskind took one of her occasional trips to Val-Kill, the Upstate New York home of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I needed a Zen moment,” Siskind, who had campaigned for Hillary Clinton, told me. “And that is a place that inspires me.”

Soon afterward, Siskind began keeping what she calls the Weekly List, tracking all the ways in which she saw America’s taken-for-granted governmental norms changing in the Trump era.

The project started small, read by friends and with only a few items a week.

By Week 9, though, the list had gone viral.

“It blew up—I had 2 million views that week,” she said. “People were responding like crazy, saying things like, ‘I’m praying for you.’ “

As time went on, the list grew much longer and more sophisticated. Here are three of her 85 items from mid-June:

“Monday, in a bizarre display in front of cameras, Trump’s cabinet members took turns praising him.”

“AP reported that a company that partners with both Trump and (son-in-law) Jared Kushner is a finalist for a $1.7bn contract to build the new FBI building.

Vice President Mike Pence hired a big-name “lawyer with Watergate experience to represent him in the Russian probe.”

Now, in Week 32, every item has a source link, and rather than just a few items, there are dozens. (Her weekly audience usually hits hundreds of thousands, she said, on platforms including Medium,Facebook and Twitter.)

The idea, she said, came from her post-election reading about how authoritarian governments take hold—often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized. Each post begins with: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”

She’s not the only one to have this idea; on Twitter, for example, designer Laura Olin created @_rememberbot, where frequent tweets begin with the words “It is not normal” and catalogue the oddities of TrumpWorld. (“It is not normal for U.S. presidents to criticize federal judges.”)

But Siskind may be the most dogged and systematic. One follower even made a searchable database of her lists.

“It’s scary to look back on the early weeks and see what we’ve already gotten used to,” she said. Examples: a secretary of state who rarely speaks publicly, the failure to fill important positions in many agencies, a president who often eschews intelligence briefings in favor of “Fox & Friends.”

“We forget all the things we should be outraged about,” Siskind said.

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and author of the PressThink blog, called Siskind’s efforts “a service that is thoroughly journalistic and much needed.”

The lists “help people experience the history that is being made and keeps them alive and alert to the dangers of eroding norms,” Rosen said.

In their user-friendly format, he said, they are “one way of dealing with an overload of significant news, a surplus of eventfulness that allows things to hide in plain sight simply because there are too many of them to care about.”

Other view: This isn't tax reform

This appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

The purpose of tax reform is to raise revenue more efficiently—with fewer loopholes and special breaks that distort economic incentives and necessitate higher marginal rates. In discussing tax reform since President Donald Trump’s election, Republicans have promised to do just that: pass a bill with lower rates for both individuals and businesses, applied to an income “base” broadened by the elimination of deductions and credits.

If you listen very closely to what GOP leaders have been saying lately, however, especially in remarks last week by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Vice President Mike Pence, what you’ll hear is the carefully chosen words of people planning something that’s not real tax reform at all.

Speaking to the National Association of Manufacturers Tuesday, Ryan pledged to take on “defenders of the status quo”—and then proceeded to defend many of the status quo’s worst aspects. He pledged to get rid of “special-interest carve-outs” except for those that “make the most sense”—such as the deduction for mortgage interest. Actually, this distortion of the real estate market is one of the tax code’s least sensible features, but it is politically sacrosanct due to the power of the real estate lobby. The only major individual tax break Ryan seemed to leave on the chopping block was the deduction for state and local taxes, which disproportionately favors states that send Democrats to Congress. Any GOP tax plan would eliminate the estate tax, Ryan insisted—thus entrenching the concentration of wealth in the United States.

Somewhat more plausibly, Ryan advocated a new corporate tax system, with a lower top rate, so as to discourage shifting production abroad. However, he gave few specifics and seemed to soft-pedal the means of paying for the plan he and his House colleagues had previously offered—a so-called “border adjustment” that would raise tens of billions of dollars per year, essentially by taxing the U.S. trade deficit. He referred to a “new, lower tax, specifically for small businesses,” which could translate into a costly new benefit for “pass-through” entities, such as sole proprietorships and S corporations.

Meanwhile, Pence repeated the Trump administration’s promise that the end result of any tax rewrite will be “tax cuts,” implicitly endorsing the dubious notion that the U.S. economy lags due to an excessive tax burden. And not just any tax cut, Pence said, but “the largest tax cut since the days of Ronald Reagan,” meaning even bigger than those enacted by President George W. Bush.

Ryan, too, alluded to the need for “tax cuts.” That made the week’s GOP messaging unanimous and reinforced suspicions that, for all their talk of reform, slashing taxes, mainly for the wealthy and corporations, is the one policy that Republicans agree on and therefore the only policy they are actually going to enact.

Stapilus: Consequential numbers

Numbers are different from ideology in this way: They are specific, and they can have inescapably concrete meanings.

Two Idaho examples from last week.

The campaign of Tommy Ahlquist, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessman heavily involved in Boise downtown redevelopment, mentioned the number 100 a couple of times. On Wednesday he released a video ad saying he has “a blueprint to cut $100 million dollars in wasteful government spending in his first 100 days” as (presumably) governor. To be precise, it says he has a “blueprint” to do that, but didn’t actually promise he would accomplish it. As to what the blueprint contains, we’re given no clues.

Put aside for a moment the whole question of exactly where all this waste is located, and how the new governor would expect to root it out so fast. Although we can reasonably guess where the idea came from: The last presidential campaign featured comparable sorts of extravagant promises that turned out to be not easy to deliver in the real world.

I’d suggest instead constituents asking their Republican legislators: Is there really that much actual waste in the state budget? You’ve been voting for years to pass state budgets: Are you being that wasteful? What do you think of this accusation—from a possible top standard bearer for your party next year—that you have been?

Some notable Q and A might result. And we might get some specifics: Where exactly is this massive amount of waste? One person’s waste, after all, can be another person’s important priority, and since actually listing the cuts is likely to aggravate a lot of people, that often doesn’t happen in the course of campaigns.

Another set of numbers also emerged last week, far from anyone’s Idaho campaign ad. (And yes, it is stunning to think that the TV ads for the 2018 Idaho gubernatorial campaign have already begun. Prepare yourselves to be inundated for months to come.)

The second set of numbers comes in part from Idaho: That would be $7.25. This is the level of the Idaho minimum wage.

The Idaho Business Review pointed out last week a comparative, that minimum wages are on the rise in neighboring states. By 2020, Washington’s will boost from $11 to $13.50, Oregon’s from $9.75 to $11.25, Nevada’s from $8.37 to $8.96 in 2020, and Montana’s from $8.16 an hour to $8.75 in 2020.

This will have consequences too. Many Idaho employers have reported some difficulty in the last year or two finding employees. (Obviously, some employers can and do pay higher wages, but local competitive pressures can discourage that.) If you’re looking for a job, or even if you already have one, in the minimum wage pay range, why would you want one on the Idaho side of the border? For people in or near border areas, the answer is clear enough, and it could apply as well to people willing to pull up stakes.

Of course, there’s the argument that higher minimum wages may depress employment. But the business environments in the higher-minimum-wage states around Idaho are faring fine. And the largest increases in Idaho employment in the last few years have tended to come in sectors like construction, where wages mostly are notably above the minimum wage.

Comes down to numbers. And what they represent about quality of life.