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Barbershop Talks The Republican Tax Bill And Basketball


Now it's time for the Barbershop, where we talk to a group of interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week, we have Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for the first President George Bush, now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. She joins us in our Washington studios. Thanks for being here.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

SUAREZ: Next, Kevin Blackistone - he's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and a columnist at The Washington Post. He's with us here in Washington. Welcome, Kevin.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you much.

SUAREZ: And finally, Paul Butler - he's a professor of law at Georgetown University but joins us this week from our studios in New York. Paul, welcome.

PAUL BUTLER: What's up, Ray? Woof-woof.

SUAREZ: All right. First up this week, the Republican tax plan. And I think we can call it the Republican tax plan because it had zero support from Senate Democrats. Mary Kate Cary, that's not common, isn't it? Is it reworking an entire tax system without support from the other party?

CARY: You're right, Ray, that is not common. And when it's been done in the past, it was months and months of work for sweeping bipartisan legislation. And I think most Republicans believe that bipartisan would have been better. But I think they're going to take what they can get here. As a fiscal conservative, I wish that it was not adding to our deficit. But I do think that simplifying the tax code was long overdue and that the current tax code - not simple, not fair and not promoting economic growth - was a sort of unacceptable status quo for most people. So I think that's why they moved ahead without the Democratic vote.

SUAREZ: Is it really that much simpler? Aren't you going to need an accountant this spring?

CARY: Well, supposedly, we can all do our taxes on the back of a postcard now. I'm dying to see it. The IRS is going to issue new withholding numbers in February to employers. And that's when I think people will start seeing the difference in their paychecks. And just in the last 48 hours, we've seen the number of companies that have started issuing bonuses and raising the minimum wage to $15 for their workers is pretty remarkable. Wells Fargo - 400 million to local communities. So I think it's already having effects. So we'll see if the postcards arrive, and we can all do our taxes on one piece of paper. That'd be great.

SUAREZ: What people make of this, I guess, is a crystal-ball moment. There's really no way to know until it's really here. A University of Chicago survey of economists found pretty wide skepticism about the tax bill's effects on the GDP. Of 38 economists surveyed - and, you know, they're nobody's liberals at the economics department of the University of Chicago - only one thought U.S. GDP would be substantially higher a decade from now than under the status quo, before the tax bill was changed. Is this a kind of legislative victory that the Republicans will need going into the 2018 midterms? Or is it a kind of short-term success that will depend, really, on how the two parties talk to their followers about what this all means? Paul Butler, What do you think?

BUTLER: This is about hood robbing - robbing the poor to give to the superrich. Who does that? Republicans do. And that's why Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were grinning from ear to ear. This is a redistribution of wealth to millionaires. But that's pretty much why the Republican Party exists. It's not good for anybody outside the 1 percent. But watch, for most white people, that's not going to matter. Every Republican candidate for the last 50 years has gotten the majority of the white vote. And if Trump runs for re-election in 2020, he will too, despite this plunder disguised as a tax bill that he just aided and abetted.

SUAREZ: Now, come on. A moment ago, Mary Kate was talking about actual tangible things that corporations are doing. In a couple of weeks, people will start to get paychecks that may have an extra 20 bucks, 30 bucks or if they get paid monthly, as much as 150 bucks more in them. That's not something that's for real?

BUTLER: Well, Mary Kate was also saying that supposedly we're going to be able to do our tax bill or our tax - pay our taxes on the back of an envelope. That's not going to happen. Any idea that this helps anybody but the top 1 percent is a beautiful twisted fantasy.

SUAREZ: Kevin Blackistone, what's your thoughts?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I look at it as a bribe. Before I covered sports, I actually used to cover economics in the great state of Texas. And one thing that jumps out to me about this is that these corporations, like AT&T, are getting a lot of credit for giving bonuses to so many of their employees in the wake of the passage of this tax bill. But AT&T, like so many corporations in America for a number of years now, have been sitting on record coffers and despite that, have not increased hiring, have not increased wages and have, to a large extent, if they are manufacturing, have left their manufacturing overseas. So I see this as being a hoodwink on the American public. And much like what the Trump administration just threatened to do at the U.N. over the Jerusalem declaration, they are trying to bully this issue, in this particular case, with the American public.

SUAREZ: Kevin, I want to change topics but stay with you. A new basketball league is in the offing - the Junior Basketball Association proposed by Big Baller CEO LaVar Ball. Explain what the JBA is and how this proposal came about.

BLACKISTONE: Well, LaVar Ball was the most audacious man in sports for 2017. He has three sons who are prodigious basketball talents, the oldest of whom is in the NBA, the youngest of whom should be in high school but is being home-schooled somewhere, maybe now in Lithuania. And he is proposing to put together a league for high school graduates who do not want to be part of the college system in order to become professionals.

And so what he is proposing to do is to pay them a salary of maybe a $100,000 a year to play in this league that he's putting together. And there are no requirements that say that you have to be a year removed from high school before you can accept this paycheck, which is the case with the NBA's most minor league, now called the G League.

And, you know, I applaud his audacity. And I applaud the idea because what he's really doing is putting another spotlight on this multibillion-dollar college athletic industry that is in dire need of a more equitable way of dividing the revenues that it has with the labor that - off of which it gets all that revenue.

SUAREZ: And, Paul Butler, may it be tearing the veil of virtue off of the NCAA? The JBA says it's going to pay its players, as was mentioned, as much as a $100,000 a year. Could this be a viable alternative to college for talented high school students who might not otherwise want to deal with the more restrictive rules of the NCAA?

BUTLER: No, man, as a university professor, I sure hope not. So what's the problem? I think the problem is college students, who in this case are mainly young black men, creating millions of dollars in wealth and not reaping the benefits of their labor. There's a name for that. It's called capitalism. It's how the economy works or doesn't work for black people.

This actually reminds me of the debate this week between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West - with West saying it's not just about racism; it's also about economic exploitation. So black people get hit with a double whammy. But I don't think, Ray, the answer is for workers to simply change masters - to go from the NCAA to LaVar Ball. I think there has to be a long-term solution that's more about getting the NCAA to share the wealth.

SUAREZ: Let me jump in there because, right now, if you buy a kid a steak dinner, he loses his eligibility and you get in trouble, too. Meanwhile, the coach for state university is making a couple of million dollars a year - sneaker deals, Coca-Cola deals, festooning the arena, which is also a multi-million-dollar project. The only kid who's not making any money, not even getting the cost of a steak dinner - the one who creates the entertainment that makes all of that money rule.

BUTLER: I feel you, Ray. I also think, though, that a college education is incredibly important. It's something that many of these young men should aspire to. And if going to college to ultimately play in the NBA is their incentive, I guess I'm OK with that.

SUAREZ: Mary Kate Cary, some quick thoughts?

CARY: Yeah, I'm in favor of it. College isn't for everyone. And for those who want college, you know, people like - we were talking about Malcolm Brogdon before we came out - got his masters while playing at UVA and is now with the Milwaukee Bucks. For guys like that, it works. And for those who want to go straight to the pros, there should be an option for them, too. Minor league baseball has not killed the NCAA baseball program, so why couldn't this work if he can get the money to do it and pull it off?

SUAREZ: We have a little time left before we part to talk about who's been naughty and who's been nice. And I want to go around the panel. First, who's getting a lump of coal in their stocking, Kevin Blackistone?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I've got to give a lump of coal to Jerry Jones and Bob McNair and those NFL owners who dared to thwart the constitutional rights of NFL players who decided to follow Colin Kaepernick in protesting. I would give a lump of coal to the coach of the Mississippi State women's basketball team which, after a fabulous upset of UConn in the NCAA women's semifinal - stopping UConn's 111-game winning streak - then decided to play yo-yo with his star point guard in the championship game. She didn't get enough minutes. She didn't get a chance to score and cost them.

SUAREZ: Mary Kate, quickly.

CARY: Quickly. I'm taking Harvey Weinstein off the table because what he did was so far beyond naughty that it would be disrespectful to the women.

SUAREZ: He doesn't even get coal.

CARY: He's just gone. Right.

SUAREZ: And Paul Butler?

BUTLER: The random airline employees who make me take my carry-on luggage and try to fit it into that little compartment, which it never fits...

SUAREZ: Oh, wow. That's a very specific lump of coal.

CARY: Wow.

SUAREZ: That was Mary Kate Cary, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, Kevin Blackistone, University of Maryland professor of journalism, and Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown. Thank you, everyone. Happy holidays to you all.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

BLACKISTONE: Same to you.

BUTLER: Merry Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.