RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

For Trump, Taxes are for Losers

A couple of weeks ago, The Donald brought to our attention the fine and noble word “fiduciary,” one we rarely hear these days. He said it was his fiduciary duty to pay no taxes. That, along with his whispered “that makes me smart” when, during the first debate, he referred to his lack of taxpayer obligation, makes clear his opinion that (in the words of Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean) only the little people pay taxes. And, indeed, the tax code is written to encourage over-consumption.

Clever taxpayers can write off too much entertainment, too much business expense and too much depreciation on stuff they buy. A few years ago, tax advisors were recommending purchase of giant SUVs, so that taxpayers could claim big deductions. So, what was the fiduciary decision? To buy a vehicle that was bigger than necessary, used too much fuel, created too much pollution but gave a way to write off expense against income? Or was it the taxpayer’s fiduciary duty to save fuel, reduce pollution and pay a little more tax?

In Don’s case, he said that the fiduciary role obligated him to rig his case with the government so that he could spend money on his family, business and employees. Well, you can eliminate the employees as we’ve heard from dozens of them who have been stiffed. But, just hours after his “fiduciary” statement, we got the news from the New York Times that, really, his good fortune, tax-wise, was really to offset bad fortune in the casino business. Having lost $916 million in 1995, he was able to balance that against profits (if any) for 18 years. $916 million, by the way, is more than 90% of a billion. Which back in 1995 was real money.

So much for “that makes me smart.” A loss of nearly a billion dollars is the opposite of smart.

Maybe, then, he was claiming the “fiduciary duty” partly to mask the fact that he’s bad in the casino business, but, bottom line, there’s no question that this scene points to big problems in the tax code. Still, I’m less interested in Don’s business problems than in his corruption of language. As humane and upright citizens, we operate under the definition of fiduciary duty, or, as defined by “under circumstances which require total trust, good faith, and honesty.” This word can be almost biblical in its meaning, or at least ethical.

Yet, the noble idea has been corrupted by the likes of businessmen who manipulate balance sheets to provide the largest short-term profits at the risk of long-term health to the government, fellow citizens and, indeed, the planet. As pointed out by critics near and far, shirking your tax liability causes long-term damage to all the government benefits a normal business counts on.

In the case of The Donald, his casinos depend on a mighty stream of transportation, using airports, railroads and highways built by the government. If there’s a fire or a break-in, he calls on local governmental services. And, for employees, he needs people who have benefited from education provided by the government and health care, ditto.

It’s nonsense to say that fiduciary duty has something to do with avoiding paying your full share for benefits. It’s much like saying that a businessman is smart if he avoids costs by using slaves, or polluting the environment, or making unsafe products. Just ain’t fiduciary.

In normal day-to-day activities, the word “fiduciary” usually means that there’s an understood trust between parties to an agreement, and that the holder of the trust — lawyer, accountant, investment specialist, real estate agent — will act in the best interest of the person s/he’s representing. Sometimes these relationships are written in law and other times they are not. We can bring back this spirit by choosing to do business with people who treat the relationship as the most important part of their business plan. That usually means supporting your neighbors, by the way, whether it’s the long-established local bank, the community radio station or the woman that bakes pumpkin pies in her kitchen for the holidays.

About a year ago, I had reason to review old copies of The Progressive Populist, reading my columns back to 1998 when I struggled to explain what it meant to buy local, especially in matters of the foods you choose. Today, nearly 20 years later, farmers’ markets are packed, and there are bunches of blogs about being a locavore, eating food raised within a hundred miles, or within your “food shed,” or even eating foods from your zip code.

So I’m here to tell you, change is possible even when you’re struggling to explain the vision, there’s no government support and there are billion-dollar industries poised against you. In fact, the struggle to explain ourselves is part of our fiduciary duty to the future generations.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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