The Thomas Fire and the Tax Bill
Pardon me a moment of whimsical naivete. It’s been a rough December (I’ll get to that shortly). But wouldn’t it be cool if our government would, just occasionally, operate on behalf of the people, the constitutionally emphasized—We. The. People.—instead of perpetual transcendence into ideological beliefs that defy economic evidence or mathematical logic?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course.
Yes, this week it was the Republicans (with the exception of a few), who gleefully passed a tax bill that has the sole purpose of cutting corporate taxes by a whopping 40 percent—under the pretext of benefiting the non-CEO class. The bill’s swipes at said class are simply ways to subsidize the corporate giveaway.
The Democrats (with the exception of a few) are guilty of shirking responsibility to the greater population, too. Under President Obama, they couldn’t offend health insurance companies by capping their premiums—and requiring reliable coverage in return—or just abolishing them completely and expanding Medicare so our tax dollars cover our health care. They couldn’t cross big banks by reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which would separate speculative from commercial activities, after one of the most heinous financial crises of the past century.
But let me return to the GOP tax giveaway. Major corporations aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to divert their tax cuts into the real economy, or to their rank-and-file workers. They will not, no matter how many times Donald Trump tweets it, repatriate trillions of taxable dollars. We know this.
Let me remind you what JPMorgan Chase CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon said a week before the bill was passed. And this is a millionaire who knows a thing or two about offshore shell companies, financial fraud and multibillion-dollar pay-to-play settlements with the Department of Justice.
An ardent supporter of the tax bill, he pontificated, “Some will raise wages. Some will buy companies. Some may do dividends and buybacks. Don’t act like that is a bad thing. That is their money. Think of it as a QE4. That money gets recirculated in the American system.”
You may be wondering what he means by QE4, or quantitative easing. Round QE4 is the method by which central banks, like the Federal Reserve, fabricate and then pour money into the markets by purchasing bonds, or stocks in some countries, from these markets or banks.
The Fed’s claim is that somehow buying government debt that has never been used to finance any government project, or buying toxic mortgage bonds that no one else wanted, in order to keep the value of these bonds up and thus rates low, stimulates the real economy.
Many elite economists defend this Madoff-esque scheme, too. But the reason this is a ridiculous assumption is that those bonds or assets simply get locked up in the Fed’s books. The money is shelled out to the big banks that churn the bonds. They use it for gambling purposes, or to buy their own shares. This isn’t ideology. It’s process.
Yet it’s the same misplaced rationale that the GOP, President Trump and his swamp of the financial elite use to pitch the narrative that more money for them, more money in the market, and more money in the hands of people like Jamie Dimon or Jared Kushner means economic stability or financial prosperity for anyone without a seat at that shell game.
It’s not just Dimon, the man Obama once dubbed his favorite banker, who has spent billions of dollars in buybacks. In a recent Yale University study, just 14 percent of CEOs surveyed said their companies would make large, immediate capital investments in the U.S. if the tax bill passed with the extra money. They are not even hiding their intentions.
In 2016, corporations collectively paid about $300 billion in federal taxes (or just 9 percent of all federal tax receipts). In contrast, Standard and Poor’s 500 companies bought back over a half-trillion dollars of their own stock, indicating they were hardly hurting from undue tax burdens. Citigroup asked and received from the Fed permission to buy back $15 billion of its own stock over the year, Bank of America will buy back $17 billion and JPM Chase will purchase $19 billion of its own shares—this in just over a year. Their choice to buy their own stock is legal manipulation of the market and a diversion of funds that could be deployed for small businesses, individual loan restructurings or long-term infrastructure or development projects that would employ more people in more secure jobs.
The Thomas Fire
That gulf between the lives and economic realities of everyday people and Washington, D.C., and the Wall Street elites could not have become any clearer for me than on Dec. 5, when I found myself at the very epicenter of the Thomas fire, now the second-largest fire in California history.
Over the years, I have retreated to Ojai to write parts of my books. So when I read on Facebook that a fire had broken out near Thomas Aquinas College, a small liberal arts school nestled between Santa Paula and Upper Ojai, surrounded by the mountains of Los Padres National Forest—about a mile from where I now live—I was concerned.
It’s amazing how quickly all your plans can change, beyond any control you might imagine you have over them. What began as having dinner in downtown Ojai transformed to racing back up a mountain—to save my dogs. It wasn’t clear how big the fire was, nor how fast it was spreading, but its speed and the wind forces became sadly apparent.
There have been a lot of natural disasters this year, not to mention those in previous years. Hurricanes in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, and on the U.S. East Coast and in Texas. Earthquakes in Mexico. Fires in Northern California. It’s easy to tune in and then tune out—unless you become the news cycle.
You never think you’ll be the one who needs to evacuate your home. Until you are backing your car as close to your door as you can and jamming the trunk with your possessions in the dark, in a blanket of smoke, winds whipping the trees at 80 mph, falling branches pelting you. Then you realize that you’re not immune—not to the elements, not to disasters caused by Mother Nature or by humans.
Ojai is smoky, dusty and charred, but still standing, resolute. The community spirit is alive. People are resilient. But weary. They want to return to normal. But their businesses are hurting.
Microeconomic Pain and Taxes
I’m writing this piece in a coffee shop in Ojai. The two guys at the table next to me are swapping stories about people they know who lost their homes, from young couples with toddlers to retirees whose entire nest eggs were lost along with their ranches. A man in a wheelchair is discussing an offer to rebuild his house in return for the land as collateral rather than wait for an insurance company. A woman is talking on her iPhone about how bad the air quality is.
Ojai has a microclimate and a microeconomy. The microclimate and the strategic bravery of firefighter heroes saved the town when it was encircled by flames that spread from the surrounding mountains. The battered microeconomy, dependent on a healthy dose of tourism along with a dedicated set of locals, might take longer to emerge from the fog of undetermined loss.
The mountains framing Route 150, where the Thomas fire—which has claimed 270,000 acres—first broke out, is lined with scorched branches and blackened brush. Some roads remain blocked by police cars, houses ravaged and residents displaced. Someone named Skip has a list of all the people who lost their homes.
The thing about local economies and communities is that they band together and support each other when necessary. There is strength in that lattice of community, whether it’s as small as Ojai or as large as New York City, where, in the wake of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, as I walked up Broadway from Goldman Sachs on Broad Street, bar owners offered drinks, shopkeepers offered water, and everyone shared a spirit of solidarity.
Two weeks after the Thomas fire broke out, I sat down with George Alem, owner of the Ojai Beverage Company, one of 10 small businesses his family owns that collectively employ 390 people in Ojai and nearby Ventura.
In the second week of the fire, his sales were down by a third (they were down 100 percent the first week when he was closed). So far, he hasn’t had to lay anyone off, but like other struggling local businesses, he’s had to cut back shifts, which curtail his staff’s wages and tips. He said, “I’ve never been in a state of crisis before, so it’s hard to know what that is.” Meanwhile, he has organized and contributed donations to people affected by the fires.
Fighting to Stand
No one here wants a handout. They just need time and space for business to recuperate and, meanwhile, to make payroll, pay vendors and keep the lights on. There’s no government assistance for businesses not considered directly affected by the fire. Insurance coverage presents a similar problem. Local business owners found themselves arguing with insurance companies about whether a fire barreling down to the boundaries of town, and mandatory evacuations of the entire area, constituted a direct impact.
And whereas a representative of one large insurance company said they are working hard to fulfill claims, people are finding claims not being honored for various reasons, such as discrepancies between their definition of fire versus wind damage, an issue that cropped up during Hurricane Katrina, too.
It’s similar with the big banks. Three major banks service Ojai and surrounding small towns: Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America. They are here to facilitate basic financial transactions, not help the local community grow. A representative of one of these banks told me that they weren’t asked to step in to help locals during this disaster because they haven’t been involved at a loan level.
In times like these, it’s credit unions or small personal banks like the Ojai Community Bank once was (it was recently taken over by Bank of the Sierra, a 39-branch bank conglomerate) that can move a local community past economic challenges and emergency conditions.
The Real Tax Dodgers
Which brings us back to what the federal government is or is not doing to mitigate the damage after disasters such as major wildfires—and back to the GOP tax bill. The final version eliminates tax deductions due to casualty losses unless the president declares the event to be a disaster.
This California fire, and the last one, were declared disasters. But it’s unnecessarily mean to have people who just lost their home, business or both have their future hinge on semantics, especially when this can be part of a political game.
In crises or in everyday economic hardship or growth mode, we should be able to turn to those elected to the job of protecting us to do just that. They are failing in that duty with regard to banking and insurance regulations. They are failing in the very concept of fairness.
Instead, people turn to citizen heroes like Trevor Quirk, a lawyer who organized Upper Ojai Relief the day after the Thomas fire broke out. The pop-up charity has been feeding, clothing, housing and providing assistance to people who have lost everything. Quirk has been amazed at how quickly it has become a central clearinghouse and support network for everything related to the fire: pitchforks, dishes, plastic bins, even a lost pig that was detached from its owner. “I’m not kidding, it happens over and over again,” he says. “You can’t make this stuff up—I literally ask for something, and it appears.” His is one of many relief operations spawned throughout the counties impacted by the fire.
Through the new tax bill, large companies have been given billions of dollars in federal tax savings. With that money, they can buy their own shares, when all Trevor Quirk needs is chainsaws, for which he spent $10,000 of his own money. It’s one of many inequities brought to us courtesy of the tax bill, and it is indicative of the GOP’s need to squeeze every cent from those most in need, to fund those who need it least.
We, as a nation, really can and should do better than that. And if these lawmakers can’t get that right, we need to replace them with ones who can.