During the heat of the 1994 mid-term elections some 23 years ago, Republican Congressional Representatives Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey rolled out their Contract with America, a pledge to pursue a conservative legislative agenda once the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives. The Contract listed eight reforms the Republicans promised to enact and ten bills they promised to bring to the floor. The proposed legislation was typical conservative claptrap: require balanced budgets; institute harsher criminal sentences; end welfare; cut payments to the United Nations; and, as always, cut taxes on the wealthy. Interestingly enough, social conservatives did not seem to have a hand in the making of the contract, which was free of any anti-choice or other divisive social issues. After the Republicans wiped out the Democrats in November of 1994, they were able to pass some of the Contract’s proposal, but not all of it.
Despite its mixed success, the Contract with America was a significant symbolic victory for conservatives in their thirty-year war to install an economic and political regime that benefits the wealthy. The Contract set the stage for all political discussion until well into the Great Recession. Conservatives still espouse many of its false notions, such as the idea that tax breaks on the wealthy create more jobs. But most importantly, it has served as a proud and palpable symbol of conservative principles. Not so much anymore, but for years, Republicans would pledge to the Contract as a means to demonstrate their sincerity and commitment to the movement. The Contract became conservatism, as Marshall McLuhan predicted might occur when he said in the 1960’s that the medium was the message.
Since the election, I have been thinking a lot about the Contract with America. The Democrats should revive the idea and present a 21st Century Contract. By becoming a touchstone for Democratic candidates, a new Contract could establish the terms of public debate looking forward, especially in light of Trump’s splintering of Republican solidarity and the emergence of economic equity as an issue.
I’ve taken a hand at creating a first draft of a 21st century contract. It aggressively advances the idea of European democratic socialism, but it takes into account the views of all contemporary Democrats, except for those with heavy ties to the financial industry or who have forgotten the central importance of trade unions in creating a fair, just and equitable society. My contract addresses just about every issue facing Americans except the spiraling cost of higher education, although putting this contract into law will mitigate that problem to a large extent.
Here is the contract. I intend to send it to my Senators and Congressional representative and demand they make the pledge. I ask my gentle readers to follow suit.
THE NEW CONTRACT WITH AMERICA
If elected to office, I pledge aggressively to support legislation to:
Create a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.
Ensure that all Americans have the basics that all humans deserve, including education, health care and a secure retirement.
Create real opportunity for all people, regardless of race, religion, sex, beliefs or economic class by creating a level playing field.
Protect the environment for our children by mitigating the effects of climate change and transitioning to a sustainable economy and society.
To achieve these objectives, I will support the following specific legislative actions:
Raise the minimum wage to $15/hour and remove all current exemptions, including for farm workers and interns.
Remove the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax.
Reform the federal income tax system to raise more revenue from the wealthy, who have gotten a free ride for three decades, as follows:
Increase the number of individual tax brackets and tax the highest bracket—income over $1.0 million—at 70%
End the lower capital gains tax except for investment in initial public offerings of stocks.
End the carried interest deduction.
Increase the federal tax on gasoline by one dollar and earmark 75% of it to the development of rail-based mass transit within and between cities and the rest to maintenance of highways, bridges and sewers.
Replace the exchanges for individual health insurance with Medicare coverage (the so-called public option) for anyone lacking health insurance coverage through work or Medicaid.
Replace district public school funding with statewide funding that provides all public schools with the same amount per student and redistrict schools to promote integration.
Pass a new omnibus Civil Rights law which explicitly protects the rights of LGBTQ people; gives ex-cons the right to vote; ends Jim Crow sentencing laws; directs all states wishing to receive any federal funds to extend voting hours and end voter ID laws; and mandates equal pay for women and minorities for the same job with the same experience.
Outlaw state right-to-work laws and all charter schools run by for-profit organizations or that hire non-union staff when the local public school is unionized.
Give legal citizenship to all “dreamers” immediately and create a path to citizenship that takes no longer than five years to any undocumented immigrant who can prove residency before 2016.
End all federal and state subsidies for oil & gas exploration and production and nuclear electricity generation and redirect the funds to supporting the development of wind and solar energy and technologies for cleaning up the environment.
Cut the military budget to $400 billion a year and end all funds for the development of newer nuclear weapons or automated (robot) weapons.
By Marc Jampole At first listen, Donald Trump’s speaking style when he eschews the teleprompter seems chaotically free form, as if he tossed a few dozen tweets and sound bites into one of his “Make America Great Again” caps and picked a few out, one at a time, not bothering to supply connective material or an overarching direction. But there is a method to Trump’s rhetorical madness—a tried and true method that has been around since at least the British music halls of the 19th century.
It’s called stand-up comedy, a style of public speaking with which voters are familiar from late night comedy shows and prime time specials, a style which generally makes its live and broadcast audiences feel good because it makes them laugh, even when the comic is discussing something serious or infuriating. Talking like a stand-up comic may be as significant a part of Trump’s appeal to his core as his nativism, racism, misogyny and isolationism.
Most elected officials and candidates use the same speaking style, which after salutations and a short joke follows a basic three-part structure: 1) Tell them what you’re going to say; 2) Say it; 3) Tell them what you just said. Within that overall framework, the typical political speech will go from issue to issue. In each part of the speech, the speaker will employ a rather limited set of rhetorical devices: using more words than are necessary as opposed to speaking directly; referencing a mix of anecdotes and isolated statistics; and hedging bets with such weaselly phrases as “anticipate” “start to address” and “return to American traditions.” The speaker typically builds tension through repetition, especially of the first few words of a sentence, as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. For example, in a speech warning of the danger of electing about Trump that Hillary Clinton made in June 2016, she repeated “He said…” to begin a series of five sentences in a row, and later repeated “It’s no small thing…” to begin three sentences in a row. In a typical stump speech, Bernie Sanders would embed the emphatic rendering of the simple phrase, “we are going to” in four or five sentences in a row.
Except for the use of anecdotes and statistics, both often fabricated, Donald Trump rejects this standard stump speech style in favor of stand-up comedy.
We can identify several characteristics of stand-up comedy that Trump has repurposed for the political arena. First and foremost is the lack of a recognizable formal structure in Trump’s rants. The contemporary comic for the most part doesn’t tell traditional jokes, but rambles from topic to topic, free form and without apparent goal, occasionally telling a story or saying something funny or zinging a sacred cow or well-known human foible. You never have the feeling that the contemporary comic is scripted, but rather speaking a spontaneous stream of consciousness rap. And yet she-he manages always to tell the same jokes and even sling the same insults at audience members in all routines. Doesn’t that sound like Trump? For Trump, the jokes are the insults, the zingers, the boasts, the false facts, the inaccurate characterizations and the unrealistic promises. Instead of starting with the standard “Great to be here,” Trump will often begin in the middle of an anecdote, sometimes even borrowing the “A funny thing happened on my way to the show” joke that begins many classic stand-up comedy routines. For example, the first words of his speech of his victory tour, in North Carolina, were “So the weather was really bad, really bad, and they said, ‘You know these are great people in North Carolina. They won’t mind.’ No, but they said, ‘they won’t mind, sir, if you canceled and made it another time.’ And I said, what?”
The contemporary comic will take a complex social issue, reduce it to one or two points which will be inflammatory but not necessarily salient and then melt away our anxiety with simplistic, often aggressive and senseless exhortations. Lewis Black and Chris Rock both take this approach. Doesn’t it also sound like what Trump has done to many issues, for example, reducing the complexities illegal immigration to building a wall and the fight against terrorism to limiting immigration from Muslim countries?
Stand-up comics frequently find humor in playing on stereotypes or insulting people.
Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Ron White, they all reduce people to stereotypes consisting of one or two traits, and then make funny remarks or tell stories that exemplify those traits. It’s what Trump does to issues and to other politicians—“Crooked Hillary,” “Lying Ted, “Little Marco.” While some comedians, such as Don Rickles, Dom Irrera and Lisa Lampanelli, built their routines entirely around insults, most will throw in at least some name-calling, sometimes of the audience, sometimes of well-known people, sometimes of themselves. Insult humor is also a mainstay of situation comedies like “Big Bang Theory,” “Two Broke Girls,” “Everybody Love Raymond” and “Two and a Half Men,” for example.
In stereotyping people, stand-up comics will often briefly leave their own persona by changing their voice and body movements to imitate another person. A wide range of comics will play several parts in their routines, from Bill Cosby to Chris Rock. Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher often breaks into their respective versions of Trump’s voice for a sentence or two. A few extremely gifted mimics like Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams have built their entire routines going from character to character. Some of Trump’s most notorious moments occur when he is briefly playing another person, such as his imitation of a reporter with a physical disability. Trump imitated others in the North Carolina speech referenced above. No other politician of recent vintage would dare take on the voice and gestures of another person.
The contemporary comic is self-referential, either drawing from her or his own life or interrupting a thought process to refer to her or himself—how the performance is going, why something makes the performer angry, the effect of current events on the comic’s personal life or something else just as extraneous to the topic at hand. Those who believe that Trump is unqualified for office because of his instability often cite his extreme narcissism as a character flaw. Many of his lies stem from an irrational desire to self-aggrandize. His early speeches after the inauguration, to the Central Intelligence Agency and members of the military, started with and returned often to his personal issues—poll and voting results and insults he may or may not have hurled. There are many comics who focus on themselves, from Jack Benny to Rodney Dangerfield on to Elaine Boosler, Wendy Liebman, Amy Schumer, Lewis Black and Jeff Foxworthy, among myriad others.
Other than talk-show hosts who pretty much deliver jokes in the tradition of Bob Hope, most contemporary stand-up comedians play a comic character that is a well-known stereotype. There are red-neck comedians like Ron White, Bill Engvall and Jeff Foxworthy. Wendy Liebman and Sarah Silverman are promiscuous Jewish-American princesses. Chris Tucker is an angry black man. Amy Schumer is always a party girl. George Lopez plays a series of Hispanic stereotypes and D. J. Hughley and Eddy Murphy play a series of African-American stereotypes. Playing a role is a cherished tradition of stand-up comedy: Jack Benny was a miser. Red Skelton was a clown. Lenny Bruce was a hipster; Cheech and Chong were dopesters. Irwin Corey was a gasbag.
Trump plays a stereotype character whose roots go back to the Italian commedia dell’arte in the Renaissance. But every comic type with origins of a thousand years will have many manifestations. The left, Democrats, many centrists and the mainstream news media see one version of the classic type upon which Trump has modeled, subconsciously or not, his public person. But Trump supporters saw a different version, comic to be sure, but also heroic.
At essence, Trump is Pantalone—the older, wealthy man, often vain, often a lecher, often a bully, often pompous and ignorant, who usually gets his comeuppance in commedia dell’arte skits, sometimes even wearing the horns of a cuckold. Moliere’s “bourgeois gentleman” is the classic example of this comic type. A friendlier, sunnier and definitely de-sexed precursor to Trump was Ted Baxter of the Mary Tyler Moore show, played by Ted Knight.
Most of the intelligentsia across the political spectrum view Trump as the know-nothing buffoon version of Pantalone, the bourgeois gentleman who thinks he knows more than the dancing, speaking, music and other experts he has hired to aggrandize his reputation, or perhaps a Ted Baxter as a sexual predator.
To New Yorkers, Trump has long been a puffed-up and vain buffoon—a wealthy fool, someone with a lot of money but no taste. Before running for president, the properties he built were garish. His private life exemplified what used to be called the “nouveau riche,” those who have money but spend it tastelessly and foolishly. His “Apprentice” TV show was a parody version of the business world, his gruff and insulting style a parody of a type of executive who is not all that prevalent nowadays, certainly not among public companies responsible to shareholders.
But the rich and pampered oaf is not what his followers saw in Trump. To Trump voters, he was the Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason characters of the two Caddyshack movies of the 1980’s that are still frequently aired on a number of broadcast and cable stations. Both play extremely rich white males who made their money at least partially in real estate development. Their vulgarity, apparent ignorance of social etiquette and kind treatment of the “hired help” turn them into average Joes who are breaking down the barriers of elite institutions. Viewers may laugh at Dangerfield and Mason as they commit social faux pas or make ridiculous statements, but we treat them as heroes who upend the social order for the good of the whole when they insult, trick or defeat pompous and snobby rich folk. There is no difference in what the audience feels for these rich disrupters in the Caddyshack movies from what supporters feel about Donald Trump. In the numerous interviews with core Trump supporters since the election, they forgive his vulgarity and stumbling as part and parcel of his outsider status.
How much has Trump’s stand-up comic style contributed to his success in connecting with enough former Democratic voters to win an electoral majority? Did delivering his nativist, racist, misogynist messages like a comic serve to enhance his dystopic ejaculations? It certainly made them seem “funny” to those who despise so-called “political correctness,” but did his voters respond to the jokes positively, or would Trump have won by a greater margin if he had delivered his material in the traditional style that characterized every other candidate on the campaign trail this year?
The very fact that Trump’s language and rhetoric so little resembles the standard fare certainly contributes to the view that he is a disrupter. That he distills his messages into short statements—be they insults, lies or simplifications—make them easy to remember, transmit on social media and use in television news, which now favors quotes of less than ten seconds. His performance might steal a movie satire of elections. On the other hand, the news media treats his rally speeches and early morning tweet rant as manifestations of instability, inexperience and ignorance.
We can’t really know whether his performance helped him win the election unless a progressive Democrat attempts the same approach. I’m certain that any number of Hollywood and New York comedy writers would love to help a candidate of the left try the stand-up style.
Meanwhile, we can anticipate that Trump is going to ramp up campaign style rallies to rile his base as his ratings continue to tumble and he continues to implement unpopular policies and made racist, sexist and otherwise distasteful statements. Like any stand-up comedian, Trump loves the immediate applause, the laughs and the hoots, the love and attention unmediated by polls, computers, experts or media spins. It’s the love of attention that has Trump now actively seeking deals with the Democrats.
Like any professional comic, Trump’s inventiveness feeds off the audience response. Playing to live audiences will therefore likely incite Trump to make more of the type of embarrassing and ignorant statements that marred his campaign and that he has continued to make in the first year of his administration. In the best case scenarios, Trump or others walk back the assertions he makes via Twitter, news conferences and large rallies by twisting the meaning, denying he said it or quietly restating long-standing American policy. We have already seen this dynamic play out again and again—with North Korea, Charlottesville, transgender military service, Israeli settlements and the one China policy. The worst case scenario, as may happen with DACA, has Trump turn a federal department on its head to implement a legally suspect executive order that hurts individuals and the economy, all so that Trump can say he delivers on a promise he makes in his large tent meetings.
In other words, Trump may talk and and act like a stand-up comedian, but the joke is on the American people and the world.
Politicians of both parties seem to take for granted the idea that a tax cut leads to economic growth and more jobs. As it turns out, they are only half right. Tax cuts to the poor and middle class lead to growth and jobs. Tax cut on the wealthy create no new jobs and generate no new economic growth.
One reason for this phenomenon is that poor and middle class people spend more of the extra money produced by a tax cut and save little, if any, of it. By contrast, the upper middle class and wealthy will save most of the additional money, typically burying it in deep holes that have no real impact on job creation except when a burst bubble leads to massive layoffs—in stocks on the secondary market, artwork, collectables, real estate and other non-productive investments. Remember that when you buy a share of IBM or Apple, not one penny goes to the company to expand or develop; the company only collects from selling the initial sale of a stock offering.
To understand the other reason that raising taxes on the wealthy creates jobs and economic growth, compare the spending and saving patterns of all people and the government. Poor folk spend a lot, save a little. Even the most spendthrift of rich folk eventually run out of things to buy and end up burying their money in non-productive assets. But the government spends every dollar we send it—circulating trillions of dollars back into the economy by sending checks to millions of individuals and businesses. That spending grows the economy and creates jobs.
While paying a bit more in taxes than a few years ago thanks to Obamacare taxes and the unwinding of some Bush II tax cuts, the wealthy are still paying much less in taxes than they did in the golden age of the American economy, approximately 1945-1975. Compared to other industrialized democracies since the beginning of the 20th century, the current rich in the United States pay historically low rates and amounts.
Economists have discovered that one beneficial side effect of high tax rates on the wealthy is that it leads to greater equity in income and wealth. When the highest incremental tax rate was 90%, executives had less incentive to pay themselves large salaries and so plowed more of their company’s earnings into R&D and salaries and benefits for other employees. As top individual tax rates declined—from Kennedy to Reagan to Bush II—the salaries of top execs soared, while those of everyone else stagnated or diminished. In the 1960’s, for every dollar the average factory worker made, the average chief executive officer made $42. By the 21st century, the ratio exploded to anywhere from $340 to $540 paid to every CEO for a dollar paid to factory workers, depending on the year. In Europe, by the way, the ratio is a much lower 25 to 1! Thus by raising taxes on the wealthy, we will not only give the government more money to spend on education, healthcare, infrastructure, alternative energy development and the social safety net, we will also encourage large companies to invest more and give more to employees, which will grow the economy and reverse decades of growing wealth inequality.
Donald Trump and Republicans are clamoring for a cut in the corporate tax rate. While the rate is high, with all the loopholes and deductions corporations are paying less now than they did 20, 30 and 40 years ago, and, depending on the survey you see, about the same or a little less than corporations pay in the rest of the developed world. It’s those loopholes we have to look at. Which of them serve a policy end and which merely make it easier for corporations to reduce their taxes? Take the social policy of protecting the environment and transitioning to renewable energy. Our current corporate loopholes and deductions heavily favor oil and gas exploration and use. We would be much better off ending all subsidies to the oil and gas industry and replacing them with greater incentives to develop and use alternative energy and pollution-lowering devices and systems. In the end, whatever the set corporate tax rate and systems of deductions, the real rate corporations pay should rise a little, and certainly not be lowered.
One of the big lies of right-wing economic policy is that Americans pay more in taxes than most other countries of the world. We pay very low taxes when compared to the rest of the developed world. The Tax Foundation found that the total tax burden faced by average wage earners in the United States is 31.7 percent of their pretax earnings, which 24th highest of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), far below the 34-country average of 35.9 percent. Maybe that explains why most of the rest of the industrialized countries have universal health care, better kept roads, more extensive mass transit systems, lower-cost higher education and better retirement plans. According to the Tax Policy Center, total U.S. tax revenue—individual and corporate—now equals 26% of gross domestic product, well below the 34% average for developed countries.
If the goal is to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, than the best tax reform is to lower taxes on the wealthy, like Trump and the Republicans seem to want to do.
If, however, the goal is to create more jobs, improve the economy and invest in our future, we should keep taxes as they are on the poor and much of the middle class and raise taxes on the wealthy.