Spending Other People's Money Makes Trump a Perfect Fit for Washington
Staring into the abyss.
If you're looking for a silver lining on the mushroom cloud of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, consider the way it has exposed the phoniness of certain commonplace pieties.
Last week, in comments about getting other countries to pay for safe zones in Syria, Trump boasted of using other people's money: "It's called OPM. I do that all the time in business. It's called other people's money. There's nothing like doing things with other people's money."
The comment rocketed around the news-osphere, and quickly became part of a Clinton campaign ad, in no small part because he made it the same day it was reported that he used money from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits against him. But it also got plenty of traction because it reinforces the dominant (and correct) narrative about Trump: that he's an unscrupulous, chiseling swindler. People of good character put their own money where their mouths are.
Really? Somebody better tell Washington, then.
In the nation's capital, spending OPM is S.O.P.—to the tune of trillions of dollars every year. It's the chief political pursuit, in fact. Most of the arm-twisting in D.C. gets done for the purpose of taking a nickel from one person's pocket to put in somebody else's.
A great deal of that happens through social-welfare programs. Granted, the recipients usually spend the money on food, medical care, shelter, and other necessities—and the desire to keep people from dying in the streets is a noble one. But that doesn't change the fact that social-welfare programs cannot exist without a constant, huge supply of OPM. And many people think it's a national sin that the supply isn't even bigger.
The same holds true for a vast array of federal programs—from Amtrak to the National Institutes of Health to the Voice of America. That's how most government programs and policies work: Somebody comes up with a bright idea, and then decides it is so worthy everyone else should be forced to pay for it. Modern presidential campaigns are largely built around this: Candidates appeal to the voters by promising things to Smith—rural broadband! Universal pre-K! Free college! A giant border wall!—that Jones will have to pay for.
Of course, Washington can't afford to pay for everything directly. Hence much effort also is expended finding indirect ways to use OPM. These are nearly limitless. Should low-skilled workers be paid more? Support candidates like Hillary Clinton, who will raise the minimum wage. Do we need to bring back American manufacturing? Support candidates like Trump, who threatens to impose huge tariffs on Chinese imports. Should employees get paid family leave? Support either Clinton or Trump, since they both promise to make companies provide it. Some people will benefit. Others will get stuck with the bills.
A few days before Trump made his "other people's money" comment, The Washington Post ran an exposé on "How Donald Trump Retooled His Charity to Spend Other People's Money." Rather than use his own personal funds for worthy causes, Trump convinced others to donate money to his foundation—money he then passes out, often leaving the impression it had come from him.
"Trump," the article grimly reports, "had found a way to give away somebody else's money and claim the credit for himself."
This is exactly what politicians do all the time. "Congressman Storpingoiter Proud to Announce $15 Million Federal Housing Grant for District," goes the typical press release. Often there will be a little ceremony so local officials can stand around and applaud the congressman. That Storpingoiter sure is a swell guy, bringing home other people's money like that. Isn't he?
The story on Trump's charity is full of sentences that apply just as well to elected officials. "Nearly all of its money comes from people other than Trump," it notes. "Trump then takes that money and generally does with it as he pleases. In many cases, he passes it on to other charities, which often are under the impression that it is Trump's own money."
Gee, who does that remind you of?
When Trump takes other people's money and re-gifts it to worthy endeavors, critics blast the practice as "slimy and shameless." When Washington does the same thing, it's called "housing assistance" or "federal crop insurance" or the "Foreign Market Development Program" or the "Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
This is no defense of Trump, mind you. The similarity between how Trump operates and how politicians operate is not an exoneration of him but an indictment of them. And while the analogy here lines up neatly in many ways, there are still some significant differences. For instance, donations to the Trump Foundation are voluntary. If you don't want to give, you don't have to.
But just try saying no to the IRS.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.