Politics, Moderate



Jared Kushner 'forgets' to disclose his assets? Seize them.

Catherine Rampell on

That's exactly why we need the banana republic rule (named for the lawless state, not the store).

It might push Kushner -- and other ultra-wealthy people serving the president -- to be excruciatingly thorough on these forms. Here's how it would work.

Above a certain value -- let's say $1 million -- any assets that are "forgotten" on federal disclosures can be seized by Uncle Sam. If they weren't memorable enough for these forms, then clearly you're rich enough that you don't really need them.

Treasury gets to take them, without compensating you.

"That's socialism!" you might protest. But really, it's not so different from another policy that the definitely-not-socialist Trump administration already backs enthusiastically: civil asset forfeiture.

This is when law enforcement seizes private property without proving the owner is guilty of a crime, often without even charging the owner with a crime. Just last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was restarting a federal forfeiture program the Obama administration had shut down.

"Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement," Sessions explained, even though the stuff being seized is not necessarily providing "material support" for any crime or any criminal.

With such tenuous logic, why shouldn't Sessions support appropriating possibly-innocent-but-still-kinda-suspicious financial disclosure omissions, too?

I'm not the first one to suggest a fix like this, by the way.

In the 1960s, famed University of Chicago economist Arnold Harberger proposed a self-assessed property tax system that worked much the same way. You'd register the value of your assets with the government -- and you'd be required to sell your property at these self-declared valuations to any buyer.

For example, if you preposterously claimed your fancy golf club was worth no more than $5 million, you could be forced to sell it at that price on the spot. Likewise, if you omitted an asset entirely, that would be equivalent to saying the asset was valued at zero -- and it could be taken from you without compensation. Lowballing or outright omissions could be much more costly than simply paying a fairly assessed tax.

This so-called Harberger tax is intended to encourage greater honesty, much needed in countries where institutional enforcement is weak.

Back in the '60s, Harberger was pitching this idea to Latin American countries struggling with corruption and lawlessness. But all of a sudden it seems so relevant here in the United States.


Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group


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