Pigs, Hogs, Unwanted Tax Expertise, and Trump

“Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered,” my father, a tax lawyer, always said. I was still in elementary school when he started teaching me about his work, how he took provisions intended to impose tax on a particular business arrangement and found ambiguities that could be interpreted to allow his clients to do what they wanted and keep their money. I remember walking to church with him one Sunday as he explained the advantages of structuring a business as an S rather than a C corporation. I was only ten, but I tried to follow along and ask questions, lest the conversation turn to my math grades.

His specialty was international tax. His clients were, by and large, wealthy men with one foot in the U.S. and most of their assets somewhere else. He expected my sister and me to form a law partnership with him. We would be Newton, Newton, and Newton, he said.

Out loud, I agreed. (Dissent wasn’t allowed.) Internally I scoffed. Why would I spend my life strategizing to help rich people? Parsing technical passages? Even long division gave me a headache. I liked reading and writing and acting and singing. When I went to college, against his advice, I majored in English. Then I graduated and, unsure what else to do with myself, I capitulated to his wishes and went to law school. Once there I resisted for a year or so. Finally I gave in again and signed up for a basic income tax class.

I loathed it exactly as much as I expected to. Staring at the Internal Revenue Code, the sections and subsections relentless in their passive-voice impenetrability, I had a chip on my shoulder about my lack of interest, which I conflated with a lack of aptitude. Many if not most of my classmates were extremely gung-ho — future tax professionals who, like my father, wanted to master the concepts so they could exploit them.

Three days a week I sat there, quietly mutinous, until very suddenly in class one morning I realized I was shirking a challenge. If everyone like me, everyone with a liberal arts bent and what my father called bleeding heart tendencies, avoided learning about tax law, only those on the other side would understand it. And weren’t taxes one of few checks on accumulation of wealth in a capitalist society? How could people invested in a progressive system of government make things more fair if we didn’t understand the system we were trying to change? So I took on tax as an unpleasant mission, one to which I was not particularly suited, one at which I was afraid I would fail.

I finished that class with an unspectacular grade. Then I took an estate and gift tax class, and then corporate income. Eventually, by dint of many long caffeinated nights and lots of teeth grinding, I got the highest grade in my estate planning class. No one was more surprised than I was. Even more satisfying than getting the book award, though, was knowing I’d mastered the Ponzi scheme and that I might, if I focused, even be able to help turn it inside out.

I graduated from law school 17 years ago and practiced only briefly, for a couple of years. My most fulfilling job as an attorney was with a state taxing agency. I issued rulings and helped draft regulations, and I met with taxpayers and their counsel and issued the agency’s last word on audit challenges before they went to litigation.

“We just feel this assessment is unfair,” an attorney for a large corporate taxpayer would, on occasion, say to me.

And in those cases, I would remind the attorney that the law is not about feelings, that under the law a tax applies or does not apply, and if it applies it is the responsibility of the taxpayer to pay it. It is owed to the state, which has bills to pay and obligations to fulfill. Sometimes there were genuine questions, mitigating factors. Not infrequently, though, the challenge utterly lacked merit; the tax was simply due. And then, unless the agency disagreed with my analysis, I would uphold the assessment and send it along.

Over the years I’ve maintained an interest in tax policy as Republicans have dismantled our progressive system and created giant bypass routes through the tax code for the rich and corporations, and as Democrats have tried to close those routes and restore fairness. I’ve become interested in banking regulations, and the lack thereof, and in fiscal malfeasance of all kinds. But nothing has reignited the passions of my background, the convictions behind my unwanted tax expertise, like the rise of Donald Trump and his preparation to march unimpeded into the Office of United States President with unprecedented conflicts of interest.

(The chairman of the House Oversight Committee has dithered about a federal connection to Trump’s past and current activities, but news reports have provided ample evidence of them. They also suggest, as George W. Bush’s former White House ethics attorney argues, that Trump’s financial dealings will be unconstitutional his first day in office. Trump leases a hotel from the federal government and has rented rooms to diplomats for the inauguration at well over market value, giving them the sense that they will curry favor with him and our government by paying these exorbitant rates, in possible violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. He will also violate the terms of the federal lease agreement by becoming president in the first place. He’s conducting business meetings with international executives even as he takes meetings with foreign leaders to discuss his administration. He owes vast sums to foreign banks, one of which, Deutsche Bank, in turn owes the United States billions of dollars. He has business interests all over the world, and during the election was, like his wife and children, applying for trademarks worldwide, presumably in anticipation of profiting off a potential victory. His family members hold leadership roles both in his business dealings and transition meetings. Contrary to his claims on the eve of the election, he appears to have taken not one step to put his assets into a blind trust. Instead, all of his activities have suggested a focus of personal enrichment at the expense of our country’s needs. He’s so busy holding business meetings he doesn’t even have time for intelligence briefings. I wrote this paragraph more than a week ago, but every day there’s something new. We can all follow along with the latest at the website corrupt.af.)

I’m disgusted by the failure of our Democratic leadership to come together and demand that we seek answers about all of this before handing over the reins. An exception are the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, who wrote a letter meticulously detailing Trump’s conflicts and condemning the chairman’s failure to move forward with that investigation. According to that letter, while the committee’s chairman continues to ignore Trump’s conflicts, concerned citizens are “jamming our phone lines with more calls than we have ever received on any other issue.” I’m not surprised.

Over and over again, I and other concerned citizens have been calling to demand action now to protect our nation’s coffers — which are filled with our own money — and our reputation. We’ve also called our representatives in support of a bill called the Presidential Accountability Act, co-sponsored by Katherine Clark and Jerrold Nadler in the House of Representatives (and currently stalled in the House Judiciary Committee), which would require Trump to resolve his conflicts of interest before taking office. Senator Ben Cardin is proposing a resolution along the same lines, but focused on foreign conflicts. We’ve been supporting Elizabeth Warren’s call for the Government Accountability Office to review what she calls Donald Trump’s “chaotic” transition to the presidency, a transition which, as she points out, taxpayers (that’s us) are funding.

Financial shenanigans have always come in many forms, but I’m pretty sure Donald Trump has invented wholly new species. His business dealings were a poisoned feast of questionable pursuits and relationships even before they became entangled with his march to the White House. There are so many aspects of his finances to be concerned about that it’s nearly impossible to wrap our minds around even the ones that are public knowledge, so complex and so mind-bogglingly blatant that we can’t quite process what’s right in front of us. This is particularly so if we feel a little intimidated by the intricacies of money and fiscal policy.

It’s also hard to stay focused on Trump’s financial malfeasance when we don’t even know if another country tipped the election, when we’re constantly being bombarded by this racist appointment, that attack on free speech, the impending dismantling of our education system, the near-certain acceleration of climate change, the threat that our citizenship will be revoked because we protest, and so forth.

When Trump is questioned about his conflicts, his financial arrangements, his double-dealing, he equivocates, he offers excuses. He says he won’t have conflicts of interest when he’s president because a president by definition doesn’t have conflicts of interest. He says he’s offended, his feelings are hurt, the press is “crooked” and singling him out. He says he’s going to make an announcement with his children that will solve everything even as he indicates he has no intention of selling his business. Above all, though, he keeps doing what he’s doing. He moves ever closer to draining the swamp right into his bank accounts.

If the tables were reversed, if Trump were a Democrat, whatever else Republicans might be doing and decrying, they would always have one eye on the money. Investigations would have begun already. Media outlets would continuously be forced to report on the conflicts, as they were forced to focus on Clinton’s foundation, because Republicans would talk about it daily. They would make it news.

There’s a lot to be worried about and a lot to be angry about in what Trump has done so far. But let’s make like the other side and always keep one eye on financial side of things. Let’s be relentless in calling for our investment in the country to be protected. It will make us feel just; it will make us feel serious; it will make us feel powerful. Balance sheets aren’t just for right-wingers. Ethics aren’t something an election can override. Hogs get slaughtered, we can only hope.

(I originally sent this as one of my Ideas & Intimacies newsletters. Those archives aren’t public, but a handful of readers asked me to make an exception for this one, so I posted it here. A little-known fact is that I originally started what eventually became known as a book blog with the intention of talking almost as much about tax policy as about literature. For this particular dispatch I blame Lizzie Skurnick, who said I’d feel better if I wrote this all down. You know what? She was right.)