TIME Books

The Politician America Really Needs: A Certain First Lady

Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson Bettmann/Corbis

Jonathan Darman is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

Forget the LBJ fantasies—if we could have Lady Bird back, things might be different

In this dismal hour of American politics, there is no better way to strike just the right note of sober-minded weariness than to speak, wistfully and longingly, about the wonders of Lyndon Baines Johnson. What we wouldn’t give for the impresario of arm-twisting—the president who, in the mid-1960s, forced greatness out of Washington that transformed people’s lives. The steward of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The man who delivered Medicare. If only we had LBJ around, who could force even our do-nothing politicians to do something.

The sad truth is that today’s politics are probably too hopelessly polarized to make good use of a legislative wunderkind. What we need are politicians who are unafraid to go to the most difficult places, to look painful realities in the face. And for that, we don’t need LBJ. We need his wife.

This might seem strange, sure. In pictures from the 1960s, Lady Bird often looks like the ultimate example of a smiling, silent good wife. Throughout her long career in Washington, she was always guided by a simple question: how to serve her husband best. To serve Lyndon, a wild-tempered man of expansive appetites and unending need, that often meant suffering indignities that were shocking even in a pre-feminist era. Jackie Kennedy, who watched Lady Bird write down every one of Lyndon’s thoughts and wishes, thought Lady Bird looked “like a trained hunting dog.”

LANDSLIDE -- book jacket

But Lady Bird’s dutiful subservience obscured her strength: a rare willingness to see the world as it really was. Despite his modern reputation as a pragmatist, LBJ often struggled to look at the future realistically, preferring to alternate between fantasies of great glory or doom and gloom. At key moments in the Johnson presidency, when Lyndon would give in to paranoia about the future, Lady Bird was a lone voice of reason.

During the historic campaign of 1964, as delegates to the Democratic National Convention gathered in the late-summer heat of Atlantic City, a woe-begotten Lyndon, worried about the demands of the office, took to his White House bedroom, saying he might refuse the nomination and let the presidency go. Lady Bird wouldn’t have it. In a letter to her husband she was kind but clear: “To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland in your future. Your friends would be frozen in embarrassed silence and your enemies jeering.” Lyndon got on a plane to the convention and accepted his party’s nomination as planned.

In the fall, even as landslide victory began to look like a sure thing, Lady Bird worried about the South, where white Democrats were enraged over the Administration’s handling of Civil Rights. Though southern politicians said they could not guarantee her safety, she set off for the confederacy in a train dubbed the “Lady Bird Special” to make the case for her husband.

And trouble came. In Charleston, she was greeted by angry protesters and a crude sign calling her “BLACK BIRD.” In Columbia, South Carolina, her words were temporarily drowned out by a booing mob. It was enough to shake a seasoned politician but Lady Bird simply held her white-gloved hand in the air. “This is a country of many viewpoints,” she said. “I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you.” And with that, her harassers hushed.

Just weeks before the election, the political world convulsed with the news that Walter Jenkins, the Johnsons’ closest aide, had been caught having sex with another man in the basement of a Washington YMCA. Lady Bird urged her husband to show public support and compassion for a man who had served their family for decades. When he refused, Lady Bird defied the advice of his counselors and released her own public statement: “My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in service to his country.”

In the course of the ‘64 campaign, Lady Bird displayed a deep realism about human nature that is far more rare in a First Lady than we might think. President Obama, like his predecessors, promotes his wife as a source of real-talk, the one person who is unimpressed by his office and still gives it to him straight. But a First Lady, like any spouse, often feels the criticisms of her husband more acutely than does the president himself. A bunker of denial and recrimination can be an enticing escape for both partners in a political marriage. Hillary Clinton provided many assets to her husband during their time in the White House, but relief from paranoia and self-pity was not among them.

Even Lady Bird’s powers had their limits. As the Johnson presidency wore on, Vietnam overwhelmed everything, including Lady Bird’s ability to cut through the illusions in her husband’s head. It is tantalizing to imagine an alternate history of the Johnson presidency in which the First Lady was empowered to help her husband in Vietnam the way she helped him in other areas.

And it is tempting to imagine what would happen if more leaders today had Lady Bird’s spirit, her willingness to go to the unkind places, to face the fury of hostile crowds. Imagine how things might be different if our leaders had faith that when you look at the hard things plainly, they often to turn out to be far less frightening than they seem. And then imagine what would happen when a truly gifted leader broke that silence and spoke.

Jonathan Darman, a former political correspondent for Newsweek, is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

 

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Protests in Hong Kong: A Brief History

Hong Kong protest 1967
A pro-China protester arrested by police officers during a demonstration in Hong Kong on May 18, 1967. Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

The city has seen plenty of demonstrations over the past half century

Correction appended: Sept. 29, 2014, 9:50 a.m. E.T.

For a region of only about 400 square miles, Hong Kong has seen more than its share of protest in the last century. The uprising that sprang into action this week — as “Occupy Central” protesters demand the ability to elect their next local government head, the Chief Executive, without the intervention of Beijing — is part of a long history of political conflict in the area.

1967: Communists in the British colony of Hong Kong rise in support of the Cultural Revolution sweeping China

When England took control of Hong Kong in 1842 after the first Opium War, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston is said to have remarked that it was “a barren island with hardly a house upon it” — but by the middle of the 20th century Hong Kong was becoming a prosperous business center. The cultural difference between the Communist mainland and the neighboring region was thrown into stark contrast in 1967.

Though the initial protests of that summer seemed to have arisen organically among Hong Kong workers, China supported the movement from afar and issued an ultimatum demanding that arrested protesters be freed; the ultimatum, however, did not involve any question of British control of the area. As TIME explained, the situation between the two nations was one of “mutual dependence”:

Britain wants to hold onto Hong Kong to protect its vast investments and to retain a Far Eastern headquarters for British banking and trade interests. It also does not know how it could gracefully withdraw from Hong Kong under the present circumstances without totally losing face in the Orient. In recent years, Red China has been building up its influence in the Crown Colony, and Britain has been too afraid of offending its overpowering neighbor to do anything about it. As a result, about one-fifth of the colony’s Chinese, who make up 99% of the 4,000,000 population, are openly pro-Peking, and the rest play it safe. Red China commands the support of three of Hong Kong’s major daily newspapers, the most important labor unions, and a large number of schoolteachers, which is one reason a high proportion of young Chinese in Hong Kong are Maoists.

That July, when shots from across the Chinese border killed five Hong Kong police officers, the U.K. responded by sending in troops, the first armed confrontation between British and Chinese soldiers in Hong Kong since Communist rule had begun in China nearly two decades before. Though the stand-off between the two powers could have gotten even more intense, by early August things had calmed down.

And that bitter history did not keep China and Hong Kong from getting closer in the decade that followed. Rather, they grew to rely on one another, economically at least: TIME reported in 1979 that China sent an annual $2 billion in exports to Hong Kong, while the same amount went back to the mainland in remittances from residents and earnings of Chinese companies located there. Hong Kong businesses relied on Chinese labor, while the Chinese government used Hong Kong as an outlet for its economic dealings with the rest of the world.

1989: Tiananmen Square helps Hong Kong’s independent political identity take shape

Economic interdependence was a major factor in shaping the 1984 decision about what Hong Kong would look after the U.K. handed over control in 1997. According to the agreement, the preexisting “system of law” and capitalist economy would be preserved even as the region became part of China. The decade-long period of transition, however, was marked by more strife.

In 1989, as pro-democracy protests gripped the mainland, a full one-sixth of Hong Kong’s population (by TIME’s count) came out to march in support of that cause. Meanwhile, many in Hong Kong weren’t much happier with the U.K. than they were with China: even as it began to seem that Beijing’s grasp on Hong Kong might be tighter than expected, Westminster also made it harder for residents of the colony to settle in the U.K., a move that left many Hong Kong residents feeling stranded between two cultures. After the Tiananmen Square massacre that summer, the modern Hongkonger identity began to crystallize. According to TIME’s reporter in Hong Kong at the time, Hong Kong residents were both firmly pro-democracy and firmly Chinese:

The glittering glass-and-steel Bank of China, Southeast Asia’s tallest building and a prominent addition to Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline, was to embody the faith that both Hong Kong and China placed in a common future, a visible symbol of the ”one country, two systems” promised when the British crown colony reverts to China in 1997. Last week two enormous black-and-white banners drooped across the tower’s facade bearing a grim message in Chinese characters: BLOOD MUST BE PAID WITH BLOOD.

Overnight the savage massacre in Tiananmen Square shattered Hong Kong’s wary faith in that future. Thousands donned funeral garb to mourn the dead of Beijing. The stock market plunged 22% in one day in a paroxysm of lost confidence. Chinese flocked to mainland banks to withdraw their money, as much in anger as in fear. And the largely apolitical people of this freewheeling monument to commercialism discovered a newfound political activism.

The grief and fury felt in Hong Kong are the latest expression of a startling change in the colony’s view of itself. Throughout its almost 150-year history as a bold, pushy trading enclave, the business of Hong Kong has been business. The colony was a place where foreigners and Chinese alike came to make money and get away from the political turmoil on the mainland. But since the student movement blossomed in Beijing last April, Hong Kong has been galvanized. It has found an identity at last, and it is Chinese.

2003: Pro-democracy protests return

In the early ’90s, Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten — the last British governor of the region — proposed a plan to further democratize Hong Kong’s government, over Beijing’s objections. So when the transfer took place in 1997, the question of how much democracy would last, and for how long, lurked beneath the smoothness of the hand-over.

Less than a decade later, that concern proved well-founded: in 2003, Hong Kong residents took part in what was the biggest pro-democracy protest in the whole country since 1989, sparked by a new antisubversion national security law, which ended up not passing. As TIME noted, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive had been counted on to “keep Hong Kong in its place,” but it was becoming clear that such a task was easier said than done.

2014: “Occupy Central” begins

Read more about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong here, on TIME.com: Hong Kong’s Protesters are Fighting for Their Economic Future

Read TIME’s 1989 cover story about the Tiananmen Square massacre, free of charge, here in TIME’s archives: Despair and Death In a Beijing Square

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the year in which England took control of Hong Kong. It is 1842, not 1942.

TIME conflict

Mandatory Palestine: What It Was and Why It Matters

"Mandated territories granted England include: Tanganyika Territory (formerly part of German East Africa), Mesopotamia and Palestine," wrote TIME in a brief news bit in 1923—a fleeting mention of a decision that would change the face of the Middle East as we know it

TIME

The map above is from a 1929 TIME article titled “Islam vs. Israel”—even though, as the map makes clear, in 1929 there was no country called Israel. (On a desktop, roll over to zoom; on a mobile device, click.)

Instead, there was Mandatory Palestine. The idea of a mandatory nation, using the common definition of the word, is an odd one: a country that’s obligatory, something that can’t be missed without fear of consequence. But the entity known as “Mandatory Palestine” existed for more than two decades—and, despite its strange-sounding name, had geopolitical consequences that can still be felt today.

The word “mandatory,” in this case, refers not to necessity but to the fact that a mandate caused it to exist. That document, the British Mandate for Palestine, was drawn up in 1920 and came into effect on this day in 1923, Sept. 29. Issued by the League of Nations, the Mandate formalized British rule over parts of the Levant (the region that comprises countries to the east of the Mediterranean), as part of the League’s goal of administrating the region’s formerly Ottoman nations “until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The Mandate also gave Britain the responsibility for creating a Jewish national homeland in the region.

The Mandate did not itself redraw borders—following the end of World War I, the European and regional powers had divvied up the former Ottoman Empire, with Britain acquiring what were then known as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Palestine (modern day Israel, Palestine and Jordan)—nor did it by any means prompt the drive to build a Jewish state in Palestine. Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish homeland, had emerged in the late 19th century, though it wasn’t exclusively focused on a homeland in Palestine. (Uganda was one of several alternatives proposed over the years.) In 1917, years before the Mandate was issued, the British government had formalized its support for a Jewish state in a public letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour known as the Balfour Declaration.

But by endorsing British control of the region with specific conditions, the League of Nations did help lay the groundwork for the modern Jewish state—and for the tensions between Jews and Arabs in the region that would persist for decades more. Though Israel would not exist for years to come, Jewish migrants flowed from Europe to Mandatory Palestine and formal Jewish institutions began to take shape amid a sometimes violent push to finalize the creation of a Jewish state. Meanwhile, the growing Jewish population exacerbated tensions with the Arab community and fueled conflicting Arab nationalist movements.

TIME reported on some of the tensions in the 1929 article from which the map above is drawn:

The fighting that began between Jews and Arabs at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall (TIME, Aug. 26) spread last week throughout Palestine, then inflamed fierce tribesmen of the Moslem countries which face the Holy Land (see map)…

…Sporadic clashes continuing at Haifa, Hebron and in Jerusalem itself, rolled up an estimated total of 196 dead for all Palestine. A known total of 305 wounded lay in hospitals. Speeding from England in a battleship the British High Commissioner to Palestine, handsome, brusque Sir John Chancellor, landed at Haifa, hurried to Jerusalem and sought to calm the general alarm by announcing that His Majesty’s Government were rushing more troops by sea from Malta and by land from Egypt, would soon control the situation

The clashes in Mandatory Palestine, which at times targeted the British or forced British intervention, began to take a toll on U.K. support for the Mandate. As early as 1929, some newspapers were declaring “Let Us Get Out of Palestine,” as TIME reported in the article on Jewish-Arab tensions. Though the Mandate persisted through World War II, support in war-weary Britain withered further. The U.K. granted Jordan independence in 1946 and declared that it would terminate its Mandate in Palestine on May 14, 1948. It left the “Question of Palestine” to the newly formed United Nations, which drafted a Plan of Partition that was approved by the U.N. General Assembly—but rejected by most of the Arab world—on Nov. 27, 1947.

As the day of May 14 came to an end, so did Mandatory Palestine. The region was far from settled, but the Mandate did accomplish at least one of its stated goals. Mere hours earlier, a new document had been issued: the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Read a 1930 cover story about the Zionist movement during the period of Mandatory Palestine: Religion: Zionists

TIME Afghanistan

New Afghan President Sworn In After Disputed Vote

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaks during a news conference at his resident in Kabul on Sept. 10, 2014 Massoud Hossaini—;AP

"We want to be held accountable. I am your leader but I am no better than you. If I make mistakes, you should hold me accountable"

(KABUL, AFGHANISTAN) — Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was sworn in Monday as Afghanistan’s new president, replacing Hamid Karzai in the country’s first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban.

Moments after Ghani Ahmadzai took the oath, he swore in his election challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive, fulfilling a political pledge he had taken to share power and defuse election tensions that had threatened to spark violence between the country’s north and south.

Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank official and Afghan finance minister, wore a dark black turban popular in the country’s south as he swore in his two vice presidents and then Abdullah.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, spoke first and thanked Karzai for his service and the people of the country for casting votes in the millions despite the threat of attack from Taliban militants who tried to thwart the election process.

“We are committed as one in the national unity government,” Abdullah said. “Our commitment will be fulfilled together as unified team to create national unity.”

Ghani Ahmadzai then congratulated Karzai for a peaceful and democratic transition of power, and he thanked Abdullah for making the national unity government possible.

“We want to be held accountable. I am your leader but I am no better than you. If I make mistakes, you should hold me accountable,” Ghani Ahmadzai said.

Karzai — the only president Afghanistan and the West have known since the invasion — wore a wide smile as he greeted his presidential guards upon entering the palace. Karzai has said he is glad to be stepping down after more than a decade of what the U.S. ambassador recently said was one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

The inauguration caps a nearly six-month election season that began when ballots were first cast in April. A runoff election in June between Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah stretched on for weeks as both sides leveled charges of fraud. The United Nations helped carry out what it said was the most thorough recount in its history, a count that reduced Ghani Ahmadzai’s vote percentage from 56 percent to 55 percent, but still gave him the win.

But the real power struggle was taking place in marathon talks between the two sides, often brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials. The political deal the sides agreed to created the new position of chief executive that Abdullah will now fill.

U.S. officials have said they expect Ghani Ahmadzai to sign a security agreement with the U.S. shortly after his inauguration to allow about 10,000 American troops to stay in the country after the international combat mission ends on Dec. 31.

Even as the inauguration unfolded in the heavily guarded presidential palace, two bomb attacks took place on the road connecting the country’s main airport with the palace. One roadside bomb did not result in any deaths or injuries, but a second attack about a kilometer (half mile) from the airport by a suicide bomber killed six or seven people, police officer Abdul Latif said.

A bigger attack took place in the eastern province of Paktia. Police Capt. Mohammed Hekhlas said that a car bomb exploded near a government compound as gunmen attacked, sparking a gun battle that killed seven Taliban militants. Another police official, who gave his name as Azimullah, said four police officers and two civilians also were killed.

The inauguration took place eight days after the political deal was signed between Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah. Though Kerry played a big role in the political deal, the short notice of the inauguration date and events elsewhere in the Middle East did not allow him to attend. Instead, the U.S. was represented by John Podesta, counselor to President Barack Obama. Other notable guests included Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain and Indian Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari.

TIME politics

Celebrities Congratulate Chelsea Clinton on Her New Baby Girl

President Obama Speaks At The Annual Clinton Global Initiative
Chelsea Clinton is viewed in the audience as U.S. President Barack Obama, who is in New York City for the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative on September 23, 2014 in New York City. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky is the world's newest Clinton

Chelsea Clinton announced late Friday night that she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky. That makes Hillary Clinton a grandmother, and could have implications for her much-speculated 2016 presidential run—Clinton has said she wants to experience being a grandmother before deciding whether she’ll run for President.

Politics aside, the Twittersphere was aglow with will-wishing and congratulations for Chelsea Clinton on her daughter’s birth, with personalities from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to Democratic National Committee Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile extending their regards.

Here are some of the choice tweets:

And here are some playful mentions thrown in for good measure:

Note the tongue-in-cheek cynicism, too:

 

TIME Family

See Chelsea Clinton’s Life in Pictures

From her first baby pictures to her pregnancy, here's Chelsea's very public life in pictures

TIME Tech

Tech Firms Desert Powerful Right-Wing Group After Climate Change Spat

Silicon Valley distances itself from the American Legislative Exchange Council

Google wasn’t the first major tech company to leave powerful conservative activist organization the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) over its position on climate change, but it seems to have been the one that set the other dominoes falling.

After Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said Monday that the company would no longer support the group, which opposes environmental regulations and has said climate change could be “beneficial,” Yahoo, Facebook and Yelp all issued statements indicating that, for unspecified reasons, their memberships in the group would be allowed to expire.

Microsoft had already quit the organization in August, according to the liberal group Common Cause which monitors ALEC, after a Boston-based investment group raised questions about the company’s support in light of ALEC’s opposition to federal renewable energy programs.

The group is known for creating model legislation that promotes free market and conservative policies, which it then works to pass in state legislatures around the country. On energy policies, it has sponsored initiatives to curb the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and opposed federal programs aimed at increasing the production of energy from renewable sources.

It has been extraordinarily effective at getting legislation passed, particularly in the last several years, and has become a favorite target of progressive groups, much like the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who are themselves reputed to be major ALEC supporters. ALEC did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TIME. In response to news that Google would be pulling its support, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson said in a statement, “It is unfortunate to learn Google has ended its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council as a result of public pressure from left-leaning individuals and organizations who intentionally confuse free market policy perspectives for climate change denial.”

The most recent wave of departing Silicon Valley companies haven’t explained their decisions to leave ALEC, but the news comes after intense lobbying from liberal and environmental organizations. “We reevaluate our memberships on an annual basis, and are in that process now,” Facebook said in a statement. “While we have tried to work within ALEC to bring that organization closer to our view on some key issues, like net neutrality, it seems unlikely that we will make sufficient progress and so will be unlikely to renew our membership in 2015.”

Similar spurts have happened in the past. According to records kept by ALEC watchdog The Center for Media and Democracy, in 2012 both Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced a parting of ways with ALEC. The same year McDonald’s announced it was revoking support for the group and Pepsi followed the next day with an announcement that it too had cut ties with the group.

The Guardian reported in 2013 that ALEC was facing a “funding crisis” following the departures of a number of member firms.

TIME politics

Obama’s Wrong About Our Go-It-Alone, Imperialistic, America-First Tax Code

Burger King To Buy Tim Hortons Chain For About $11.4 Billion
A vehicle drives past a Burger King Worldwide Inc. restaurant in Peoria, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Burger King Worldwide Inc. agreed to acquire Tim Hortons Inc. for about C$12.5 billion ($11.4 billion) in a deal that creates the third-largest fast-food company and moves its headquarters to Canada. Bloomberg—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

Our "territorial” tax system is just Yankee imperialism

The Obama administration is not living up to its promise to move the country away from an arrogant, unilateral approach to the world. And it has not embraced a more consensus-driven, multipolar vision that reflects the fact that America is not the sole player in the global sandbox.

No, I am not talking here about national security or counter-terrorism policy, but rather the telling issue of how governments think about money — specifically the money they are entitled to, as established by their tax policies.

The president and Jack Lew, his treasury secretary, have labeled companies that relocate overseas “unpatriotic.” This week the administration announced a series of executive actions meant to crack down on such relocations — legally known as “inversions” — when they entail folding a U.S. entity into an overseas holding company, often for tax purposes. Walgreens, the drugstore chain, recently backed down from a plan to pull off an inversion given the firestorm around the issue.

The political fight around these inversions have pitted profitable corporations (mostly pharmaceuticals) and their lobbyists against politicians and pundits lamenting the fact that some folks refuse to pay their “fair share” or to appreciate the benefits bestowed upon us all by our American citizenship. And we all know which side of that fight we’re supposed to be on.

But hold on. The political debate around this issue is — and I know this will come as a shock! — divorced from the real underlying problem. The inversions debate is less about greedy companies wanting to lower their taxes and more about the fact that ours is a country with an outdated tax code — one that reflects the worst go-it-alone, imperialistic, America-first impulses.

Most of the arguments around inversions, and most of the media coverage, are purely focused on tax rates. And that’s understandable. We’re used to squabbling about rates and, at 35 percent, America’s corporate income tax is among the highest in the world. So this story of unpatriotic companies is almost entirely told as a quest for lower rates elsewhere.

But the far more significant problem is old-fashioned Yankee imperialism. The United States persists in imposing its “worldwide taxation” system — as opposed to the “territorial” model embraced by most of the rest of the world.

Under a “territorial” tax system, the sovereign with jurisdiction over the economic activity is entitled to tax it. If you profit from doing business in France, you owe the French treasury taxes, regardless of whether you are a French, American, or Japanese multinational. Even the United States, conveniently, subscribes to this logical approach when it comes to foreign companies doing business here: Foreign companies pay Washington corporate taxes on the income made by their U.S. operations.

But under our worldwide tax system, Uncle Sam also taxes your income as an American citizen (or Apple’s or Coca-Cola’s) anywhere in the world. What confers jurisdiction in this case is not the location of the economic activity but your home base or residency, as a company or individual. So $100 made by Apple selling a device in Shanghai or Paris is the same to Uncle Sam as $100 made in Los Angeles.

Well, almost the same. The one difference is that the $100 profit Apple makes in another country is first taxed by that country, and only taxed by Washington when it is literally brought back home (“repatriated,” in tax lingo). At that time, Apple receives a credit for the taxes paid elsewhere (just like you get to deduct your state income taxes from your federal tax bill).

So, let’s assume Apple makes $100 in a country with a 15 percent corporate tax. Apple pays that country’s tax authority $15. Then, Apple must decide whether or not to keep the rest of its money overseas. Bringing that $85 back to the United States to invest in business here or return to shareholders would require Apple to pay an extra $20 tax to Uncle Sam. (Apple would owe $35 in U.S. taxes minus the $15 credit it would receive for taxes paid elsewhere on that income.)

This deferral in imposing a tax that shouldn’t be imposed in the first place gives us the worst of all possible worlds — in complexity, inefficiency, and disincentives to investing in America and its future. Defenders of the status quo and corporate critics like to point out that companies often don’t pay a full 35 percent rate on their global income because a hefty portion of their overseas profits remains trapped overseas. So they shouldn’t whine about the rate, the argument goes, as if companies relish these artificial hurdles to allocating resources where they are most needed.

Imagine you are a California-based widget manufacturer competing around the world against a Dutch widget manufacturer. You both do very well and compete aggressively in Latin America, and pay taxes on your income there. Trouble is, your Dutch competitor can reinvest those profits back in its home country without paying additional taxes, but you can’t. Alibaba, the Chinese online retailer that just floated its massive IPO in New York, may face a lot of challenges expanding beyond its Chinese market, but taxes certainly won’t be one of them. USA Today reported that the company’s effective tax rate is 11.9 percent, compared to more than 30 percent for Amazon. And, the Chinese company won’t be hounded by its Communist regime to pay taxes on money it makes outside China.

The big underlying conceptual problem is that our worldwide approach to taxation, dating back to the 1920s, is the tax code equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. It presupposes that America has jurisdiction over anything Americans do elsewhere, and that other countries don’t really matter. It presupposes that it is our government, and no other, that is responsible for creating the conditions for business to take place. This approach dates back to a time when it would have been unimaginable to think that iconic American multinationals could one day do more business in foreign lands than at home, or that they might face formidable foreign competitors (even within the U.S. market!).

A number of companies have moved their headquarters outside the United States because our tax code makes it so difficult to run a global business. But it was emblematic of our nationalistic hubris that Burger King was also denounced as “unpatriotic” recently when its merger with Canada’s Tim Horton’s was announced. The company’s relocation to Canada (hardly a dodgy, tax-evasion haven) makes sense given where the combined companies’ operations are, but in Washington this was just seen as another treason by inversion – because in our myopic worldview, other countries don’t matter.

Instead of attacking companies struggling to compete in the global marketplace, the Obama administration should work with Republicans to move to a territorial tax system. That’s even more important than fiddling with the actual rates, because it is what will level the playing field between U.S. companies and their foreign competitors. Both would pay the U.S. rate here, but not elsewhere.

If we modernize our tax system to reflect the realities of the global economy, we won’t just stop more American companies from leaving. We’d also be encouraging plenty of foreign companies to pull off inversions of their own, to America. We may not be the only country that matters (sorry, D.C.), but if we fix the tax code, we’d be about as good a place to do business as anywhere else on earth.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He wrote this piece for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Eric Holder’s Legacy: Duplicity, Incompetence, and Obliviousness

Attorney General Addresses Ferguson Police Shooting, Day After Visiting The City
Attorney General Eric Holder makes a separated during a major financial fraud announcement press conference on Aug. 21, 2014 at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. Alex Wong—Getty Images

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.

Holder exists to protect the president and his policies. Worse, his successor will almost certainly take up exactly where he leaves off.

So Eric Holder is stepping down as attorney general of the United States, reportedly just as soon as a successor is named and confirmed.

It’s a shame that it can’t happen sooner.

Despite some positive actions — refusing to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that is plainly discriminatory, and calling for long-overdue sentencing reform, for instance – Holder’s tenure has been marked by a disturbing mix of duplicity, incompetence, and obliviousness.

Which is another way of saying that he was a thoroughly typical attorney general, a cabinet position that has long been held by individuals whose first loyalty is to the president that appointed them rather than to the Constitution they swear to defend.

From A. Mitchell Palmer (who rounded up and deported real and imagined Communists) to John Mitchell (convicted on perjury charges related to Watergate) to Janet Reno (who ordered the disastrous assault on the Branch Davidians and spent years threatening to censor cable TV), the position has long been a holding tank for low-performing miscreants.

Early on his tenure, Holder told Congress that federal agents wouldn’t raid and arrest proprietors of medical marijuana dispensaries that were complying with state laws (all pot is illegal under federal law). Yet through 2013, the Obama administration was averaging 36 medical marijuana prosecutions a year, compared to 20 a year for the George W. Bush administration. Either Holder directed the Department of Justice and was lying to Congress or he was an administrator whose subordinates routinely disobeyed him. Neither possibility is comforting.

In 2012, he was held in contempt by a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives for refusing to testify about the “Fast and Furious” scandal emanating from the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF). Fast and Furious involved government agents allowing illegal sales of guns that were later found at the scene of the murder of a Border Patrol agent. The BATF is part of the Department of Justice and Holder has given conflicting statements about the operation.

Holder managed to earn the ire of progressive politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) when he admitted that some Wall Street banks were not only too big to fail but too big to jail. The sheer size of some institutions, he told Congress, “has an inhibiting influence — impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.”

Arguably more disturbing was Holder’s central role in signing off on the secret monitoring of Fox News’ James Rosen and other journalists and his staunch defense of National Security Agency surveillance programs (even when federal oversight boards decreed them unconstitutional and ineffective). It took a 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to get Holder to acknowledge in plain language that there were in fact limits to the president’s secret kill list (the existence of which is itself deeply disturbing).

That Holder has moderated on some of these issues — just a couple of weeks ago, Holder voiced support for NSA reforms that would “provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system” — only drives home just how situational his ethics and actions always have been as attorney general.

Back in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama rightly attacked the risible performance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom he said conceived of his job as being “the president’s attorney” rather than “the people’s attorney.”

Yet that’s exactly how Eric Holder has behaved during his time in office. Holder exists to protect the president and his policies. Worse still, his successor will almost certainly take up exactly where he leaves off.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Midterms

A Virtual Cycle

Joe Klein Road Trip Thom Tillis and Mark Walker
US Senate candidate Thom Tillis, right in blue shirt, greets and speaks to rally attendees at the Guildford County Republican Party headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 20, 2014. Jeremy M. Lange for TIME

Nobody wins when voters only experience politics second hand

Peter Tennis is an endangered species. He’s 72, lives in Marietta, Ga., and still works in commercial real estate. He’s a devout Episcopalian who insists we begin our breakfast at the OK Cafe with a prayer. He reads the newspaper every day and clips out the stories he finds interesting. A few years ago, he saw an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a 15-year-old black kid who had been sent to adult prison for participating in an armed robbery. He started corresponding with the young man, then visited him in prison and led a group to pray for him at St. David’s Episcopal Church. He found this work so rewarding that he began contacting other prisoners he read about, visiting them in prison, helping them where he could; he corresponds regularly with “three prisoners at a time” in Georgia. There isn’t a dramatic climax to Pete’s prison work. He just does it. His wife Margot is similarly involved, teaching English to Latino adults. “I once knew a guy named Railroad Bob, pretty down and out,” Pete says. “But he said something I’ll never forget: ‘We teach best what we desperately need to learn.'”

I mention Peter and Margot Tennis because they reached out to me when they heard I was going on another of my annual road trips–this time through the South. Pete offered to organize a meeting of his friends and co-workers to talk politics with me in Marietta. That’s how these road trips work; TIME readers provide the itinerary. But a certain sort of TIME reader: Dr. Richard Merwarth, 76, in Pittsboro, N.C.–who organized a meeting for me with 200 or so senior citizens at the Galloway Ridge retirement community–is another. What Pete and Dick have in common is that they are active citizens–not activists, just people who think part of their job as Americans is to be involved in stuff. It’s probably not an accident that they’re both in their 70s: they are among a dwindling but vital minority in the country. They grew up believing that public life, including politics, was a group activity, something you share with your neighbors. That isn’t true anymore. Politics is now a virtual activity. It happens, mostly via ads, on television and the radio. That makes it a lot easier for most people: nothing is expected of them but a vote. “We just don’t do many events anymore,” a campaign manager in Georgia told me. The candidates’ time is better spent dialing for dollars. That’s nothing new, but gradually politics–and political reporting–has become an arid exercise, the tabulation of money raised and ads promulgated (and invisible phone banks microtargeting voters, which is something journalists can’t quantify). It’s hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers–who staged raucous rallies complete with beer, barbecue and juicy speeches–would recognize the process.

A politically eclectic group gathered in a bland room at the East Cobb, Ga., county offices, 25 people, mostly friends and real estate colleagues of Peter Tennis. They were mostly conservative, though not angry Tea Party sorts. There were a handful of moderate liberals, too, who weren’t as forceful as the conservatives. “Politicians just want to throw money at things,” said Jeff Marshall, 54, a recent Connecticut transplant. “I’m just not convinced that government can do all that very effectively.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment, of course. But a small-business owner named Charles Bonds, 41, put some flesh on it, regaling the group with the troubles his company, with 51 employees, was having with the Affordable Care Act. He wanted to provide health coverage and was required to under the law. But his private insurer had raised premiums 57.8%, and while the rates in the local Obamacare exchange were better for his employees individually, the law said that companies with more than 50 employees had to provide the insurance. The obvious answer was to fire two people, hire some temps and subsidize his employees to get their insurance through Obamacare. “And even if we did that, the feds require us to report which of our employees haven’t gotten health coverage–which is sort of like snitching on them.”

Eric Flamm, 58, a computer consultant, said he thought the whole idea of mandated health care was “flagrantly unconstitutional,” and he was “pessimistic about ever getting the federal government to shrink.”

The other big issue was a surprising amalgam of immigration and terrorism. Bob Wood, 72, said he was worried that the southern border was porous, that ISIS terrorists were crossing over, that the country was riddled with sleeper cells. “They’re all over the place,” he said. Several others said they were fearful of ISIS and immigrants–no accident, it turned out, since the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, a businessman named David Perdue, had just launched an ad accusing his opponent, Michelle Nunn, of supporting “amnesty” and an immigration bill that wouldn’t seal the southern border and might allow ISIS terrorists in. (The bill, which was passed with the support of 14 Republican Senators, provides “legal status” but not citizenship for undocumented workers and also would spend an additional $38 billion on increased border security.)

The Perdue ad is almost hilariously despicable. It also accuses Nunn–the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn–of “funding organizations linked to terrorists.” This allegedly occurred while she was the president of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. The real story is TCFP: too complicated for politics. Users of eBay were offered a list of charities to support via Points of Light. In the end, they chose to give $13,500 to a federally approved organization called Islamic Relief USA, which has “ties” to an international organization of the same name, which allegedly has “ties” to Hamas. Said Neil Bush, the chairman of Points of Light: “To attack an organization founded by my father … to smear our organization for political gains, is in my opinion shameful.” (Bush the Elder has endorsed Perdue.)

In North Carolina, a few days earlier, I attended an actual political rally. It was staged by Republicans in Greensboro and featured their U.S. Senate candidate, Thom Tillis, who wasn’t carrying a pitchfork; and neither did Mark Walker, a local minister running for Congress. “It’s sad,” Tillis said, “that we have to be this disappointed in this President.” He criticized his Democratic opponent Kay Hagan–for supporting the Affordable Care Act, diplomacy with Iran, the Senate immigration bill–with a call-and-respond line: “Is that a Senator from North Carolina?” He told his own up-by-his-bootstraps story. (Tillis started on a loading dock and didn’t get his college degree until he turned 36, but he’s been successful in business and is now the speaker of the state legislature.) “I’m optimistic about our country,” he said, running against the right-wing radio trope that the country is in the midst of an Old Testament slide toward damnation.

It sounded to me, at first, like the Republicans had wised up in 2014. They were serving up smoked brisket, not red meat. There was a rationale for this: white women are likely to be the swing group in the North Carolina and Georgia elections. Women tend not to respond to rhetorical violence. Walker, the minister running for Congress, mentioned neither gay rights nor abortion. It was, I thought, grounds for optimism about the growing climate threat of political overheating. But after I saw the Perdue ad in Georgia, I realized that I–like the lovely folks who set up my road-trip meetings–was living in a community-oriented past, where speeches and rallies meant something. Nowadays, a candidate can be all smiles and more-in-sadness-than-in-anger on the stump, and run ads that are sicker than swamp gas on television, where it really counts.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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