Finally, Evidence of Russian Election Meddling … Oh, Wait

Embassy of Russia in Washington D.C.
Embassy of Russia in Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On December 1, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to the FBI about conversations he had with  Sergey I. Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The charges, and Flynn’s plea, were part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of “Russian meddling” in the 2016 US presidential election.

Finally! Hard evidence! The Trump campaign really did work with the Russians to fix the election and deprive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of her pre-ordained return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

But there are big problems with that narrative.

Americans cast their votes for president on November 8, 2016. The Electoral College voted on December 19.

The charges relate to discussions between Flynn and Kislyak on December 22 and December 29. If the two were conspiring to fix the presidential election, they must have been using a time machine. Surely we would have heard about that part if there was anything to it, right?

So, if the incoming National Security Advisor and the Russian ambassador weren’t conspiring to fix the election, what were they talking about? According to the charges and plea, two things (two things that Flynn lied about, anyway):

First, on December 22, Flynn apparently asked the Russian government to help delay or kill a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning  Israeli  settlements in occupied Arab territory.

Secondly, on December 29, Flynn apparently asked the Russian government to refrain from retaliating in kind versus sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.

Flynn lobbied Russia  — after the election — on behalf of Israel, and Flynn lobbied Russia — after the election — on behalf of the United States. He pleaded guilty to lying about those two things. He was neither charged with, nor admitted to, colluding with the Russians prior to the election or with an eye toward affecting it.

So no, none of this is evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Rather,  it is prosecutorial abuse and extortion. Mueller charged Flynn with “crimes” that shouldn’t be illegal and that are unrelated to the supposed point of the investigation — and probably threatened to also charge his son — in order to “flip” Flynn, get him on Mueller’s side instead of Trump’s side, and thereby possibly make progress toward taking down bigger game.

Nobody owes the FBI the truth. Subjects of investigation have no moral obligation to cooperate in their own prosecution. It’s law enforcement’s job to find evidence, not potential defendants’ job to assist them in doing so. Unless one is under oath in court, no law should compel truthfulness or punish falsehood in talking to the cops.

Did  the Russian government meddle in the 2016 presidential election, above and beyond a few weird and likely completely ineffectual social media campaigns? Your guess is as good as mine. So far, the evidence still hasn’t shown up.

But another government, Israel’s, didn’t even bother to hide its meddling. And it took its first installment of payback in having Michael Flynn lobby the Russians on its behalf. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Special Counsel to investigate that.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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“Tax Reform”: Dump the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction

1040 Tax Form

The US Senate’s version of “tax reform” reduces the amount of mortgage interest that home buyers can deduct from their taxable incomes. Currently, the maximum deduction is for interest paid on mortgages of up to $1 million on two homes or on home equity loans of up to $100,000. The new bill would cap that at $500,000 on one home. The House version doesn’t reduce the mortgage cap, but does away with the home equity deduction.

This fairly minor piece of the “tax reform” puzzle is drawing a lot of comment, and quite a bit of resistance and criticism both on Capitol Hill and in public discussion. Here’s why:

 

For obvious reasons, people who are in the process of buying homes love the home mortgage interest deduction. It lets them claw back a little bit of money they’d otherwise pay to Uncle Sam. About 20% of American taxpayers benefit from the deduction each year, and politicians want their votes.

Politicians also love campaign contributions from the other parties who benefit even more from this deduction — home builders, realtors, and mortgage bankers and brokers.

I’m a big fan of tax cuts. In any amount, of any kind, for anybody. The less money the government takes from Americans, the better. But I’d rather those cuts didn’t come in the form of “targeted” deductions or credits.

At present, the home mortgage interest deduction represents $70 billion less in annual federal tax revenues than would be the case if it didn’t exist. That raises two possibilities:

The first possibility is that the government is getting that $70 billion elsewhere. That is, from the people who aren’t paying down mortgages.

The second possibility is that the government didn’t need that $70 billion and is just letting it go back to taxpayers.

If the government is getting the money from people other than home buyers, well, that doesn’t seem very fair. So what if I decide to spend my money on beer, football tickets and a new big screen 4k television instead of on the monthly payments for a McMansion? Why should that increase my tax bill?

And if the government doesn’t need the money and is letting it go back to taxpayers, why not just reduce the tax rate and let it go back to ALL the taxpayers instead of creating a targeted deduction that only gives it back to 20% of them?

A lot of marketing dollars have gone into promoting the idea that owning a home is invariably a good idea and an essential piece of “the American dream.” But in fact, there are good reasons for many people to rent. Why should the burden of financing government fall more heavily on their backs?

The home mortgage interest deduction is part social engineering for the financial benefit of generous campaign contributors, and part vote-buying from a demographic created in part by that very social engineering. I’m surprised the politicians are tinkering with it at all. But since they are, they should dump it and replace it with a general rate reduction.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

A Pizza Problem: Why Those Third Party Polls Don’t Pan Out

RGBStock.com Vote Pencil

According to a recent survey conducted by NBC News and GenForward, 71% of millennials believe America needs a third political party. That sentiment varies with race, sex, and current party affiliation, but  holds strong majorities in every demographic.

There’s nothing particularly new here. In every presidential election, pluralities or majorities say they’re “willing to vote for” or “interested in seeing” a third party candidate. In between, pluralities or majorities proclaim the “need” for a third party.

That excites third party activists like me (I’m a long-time Libertarian). But in election after election, the actual voting returns Republicans and Democrats to Congress and  the White House.

Why? For part of the answer, consider pizza toppings.

According to a 2011 Point of Sale survey by Brian Roemmele, pepperoni accounts for 36% of topping orders. That leaves 64% as a “different topping” market which could presumably out-sell pepperoni.

But there’s a problem: Customers don’t agree on what that different topping should be.  14% order sausage, 11% prefer mushrooms, 8% just want cheese. Tomatoes, peppers, and anchovies account for 2% each. 64% of customers want something other than pepperoni on their pizzas. But they don’t want the SAME something.

 

Think of the Republicans and Democrats as the pepperoni of politics — and consider the fact that in politics, when a bunch of people put in their various orders (that is, vote in an election), only the pizza with the most popular topping actually gets made. Everyone else goes hungry.

Many, maybe most, Americans want a third political party. But some of them want it to be a party of the left and some of the right, while still others want a centrist party or are obsessed with different sides of single issues (like abortion or guns or drugs).

Plurality or majority support for a generic third party in principle is not the same thing as plurality or majority support for a specific third party in the voting booth.

In practice, most voters who say they want a third party end up voting Republican or Democrat, or just not voting. Why?

Perhaps they can’t find a third party they agree with any more than they agree with the Democrats or Republicans.

Or maybe they find a third party they like, but  fear-mongering supporters of the “lesser evil” variety of pepperoni convince them that their preferred party can’t win and that the “greater evil” pepperoni type absolutely must be defeated.

Or, as too often happens, the pepperoni lobby makes it difficult or impossible for the restaurant to even put anchovies on the menu. Er, that is, major party  legislators pass “ballot access” laws to exclude the option of voting for third party candidates.

Is it impossible for third party candidates to win elections? No. They often do at the local level and occasionally for state legislature or Congress. But it’s a tough row to hoe.

For a new party to consistently get into the winner’s circle, voters are going to have to coalesce around something more specific than “something else.” Hopefully, that something else will be freedom.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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