Jonathan Alter at the Daily Beast has an idea that will infuse the president’s “economic patriotism” rhetoric with some bite: Compel companies to take “loyalty oaths” to prove their patriotism.
You may find this suggestion a little creepy, maybe even a little fascistic; but Alter says that “it’s time for red-blooded Americans to take matters into our own hands.”
And by taking the matter into “our” hands, Alter means that President Obama would unilaterally bar any company that practices “inversion” – corporate merging with foreign firms to save on U.S. tax bills – from doing business with the federal government. Companies that follow the administration requirements will earn a government seal of approval. If you act “un-American” and fail to recognize your “real interests” and those of the United States – which are, naturally, indistinguishable from the president’s agenda – you will be shunned and your business punished.
You will be powerless to stop it.
That’s because efforts to stop desertion aren’t populist or socialist but nationalist, a much more powerful force in American politics. Unbridled nationalism is a menace; it leads to trade wars and, all too often, real wars. But properly channeled, nationalism and patriotism are matters of the heart that cut to our deepest ideas of who we are.
Ah, properly channeled nationalism. You see, when you do it it’s just a bunch of dangerous jingoist rubbish. When we do it … America! And after five years of conflating patriotism and left-wing economic policy, you are expected to treat a completely legal tax designation as an attack on the homeland. Unless, of course, you’re a seditious weasel who’s betting against America.
Now, I suppose, a conservative might ask: Can we really trust politicians who offered legislation to limit free expression and religious freedom (as defined by the Supreme Court, which still decides these issues) to be arbiters of American patriotism? Or is it only the president who’s tasked with deciding who deserves special status? A liberal might ask, what happens when the next administration, one with different views on “nationalism,” begins divvying out golden stars? When the future GOP president punishes companies that aren’t helping fight the war on Iran, for instance, will that be cool, as well?
Now, we could lower corporate tax rates to be more competitive with the nations that are enticing companies to move elsewhere and avoid this sort of ugliness. There is some unanimity on the issue. But as Alter notes, this probably won’t work considering how many countries continue to cut corporate taxes or eliminated them altogether.
Clearly I’m not the rock-ribbed patriot Alter is, because I hope corporations continue to use inversion to avoid taxation until DC is forced to pass reform that completely eliminates corporate taxes that unnecessarily burden consumers. Multinational corporations do not exist to be tax collectors. Now, if a person was going to get into the economic patriotism game, he might point out that rent-seeking companies that subsist on government subsidies and use their political connections in Washington as a cudgel against competition, are engaged in something far more un-American. And you can imagine the unholy cronyism that’s likely to erupt once the executive branch begins deciding which companies deserved to be rewarded for their patriotism.
It’s worth remember that when Alter proposes that Obama discipline companies that have done nothing illegal or illegitimate, he’s simply taking Obama’s “economic patriotism” to its next logical step. He wants the administration to threaten the close “easy access to American markets” companies enjoy. And really, haven’t we all suffered enough with all this unhindered access to affordable goods, exotic merchandise and cool gadgets? Samsung. Honda. Toyota. Nestle. GlaxoSmithKline. Do you believe shoppers concern themselves with the fact that Food Lion is a subsidiary of a Belgium company? I suspect that most Americans, in their everyday lives, don’t care where their favorite companies are situated, because intuitively they understand the benefits of trade.
In politics, we have a different story. Voters are susceptible to crass nationalistic – in this case, isolationist – economic appeals. So here we are. In a world where so-called centrists demand loyalty oaths.
This week, Brookings Institution released a study that found American entrepreneurship was slowing – dying out, is probably a more accurate way to describe it. Considering what’s gone on, it’s not surprising that companies are looking for relief from convoluted regulatory schemes and high taxes. But this obsession over inversion – what The Joint Commission on Taxation estimates “costs” the IRS around $20 billion over a decade – is only a reflection of how frivolous and small the Democrats’ economic agenda has become.
As far as patriotism, it’s typically defined as a devotion to one’s country and a concern for its welfare. While people are free to argue that Tea Party types misunderstand or misappropriate the Constitution, at the very least they’ve hitched themselves to a patriotism that is tangentially related to some form of recognizable American idealism. If Alter is right, and our “deepest sense of who we are” really entails whining about tax receipts of multinational companies, then we’re probably in bigger trouble than I think.