Robert Kuttner

The Austerity Lobby Loses One

Flickr/Michael Pollack
Flickr/Michael Pollack A conference sponsored by Fix the Debt in Washington, D.C. takes place in January 2012. T he fiscal deal that raised taxes on the top one percent was a victory only for what it did not do. It did not cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or other public spending. Unfortunately, it merely put off the next round of jousting over fiscal issues to a time when Republicans will have more leverage. In what we might call Cliff One (tax increases for the rich), the status quo played to President Obama’s advantage. If Congress failed to act, taxes would go up on everyone. So the Republicans caved. But in the coming battles over Cliff Two (the debt ceiling) and Cliff Three (the $120 billion in automatic cuts known as the Sequester) the status quo favors the Republicans. If Congress fails to act affirmatively, the United States defaults on its debt, and highly deflationary spending cuts kick in automatically. President Obama might dispatch Cliff Two by invoking the...

The Endless Cliff

Flickr/Talk Radio News Service
Flickr/Talk Radio News Service B eyond yesterday’s narrow escape from the dreaded fiscal cliff are … more cliffs. President Obama and Congress averted one fiscal calamity of tax-hikes-for-all only to face even steeper cliffs—the sequester, the debt ceiling, the Social Security shortfall, ad infinitum . It is a fiscal Wizard of Oz, an extended odyssey with perils on every side. The question progressives are asking themselves this morning is whether President Obama settled for too little in the fiscal mini-deal, having traded away his best single piece of leverage—the automatic tax increase on all Americans scheduled to hit today unless Congress acted. Some, like our colleague Robert Reich, have argued that it would have been better to “go over the cliff”—let tax hikes briefly take effect on everyone, thus increasing pressure on Republicans—rather than to make this agreement. Mercifully, Obama backed off any “grand bargain.” The deal was a defeat not only for the Republicans but for the...

Retrench Warfare

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, left, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to the Senate floor for a vote on the fiscal cliff early this morning. The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation. In the deal that the Senate agreed to, with only eight senators voting against, the Democrats won big in two respects. They forced the Republicans to raise taxes on the rich, and they took all spending cuts including in Social Security off the table—for now. If Tea Party Republicans vote against the deal and it passes the House with the voters of nearly all Democrats and a few dozen renegade Republicans, it could cost John Boehner his Speakership. But automatic cuts of $120 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over a...

The Problem's Guns—Not the Mentally Ill

Flickr/Robert Huffstutter
In the aftermath of the massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook elementary school, right-wing defenders of unregulated guns have gravitated to a common alibi: The problem isn’t guns; it’s mental illness. If only society kept better track of crazy people and kept weapons out of their hands, we could prevent more episodes of armed mayhem. Senator elect Marco Rubio has spoken of the need to “keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill” and dozens of Tea Party Republicans have echoed the same talking point. The always predictable Charles Krauthammer wrote: “While law deters the rational, it has far less effect on the psychotic. The best we can do is to try to detain them, disarm them…. there's no free lunch. Increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties.” And the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, in additional to calling for an armed guard in every school, urged an "active national database of the mentally ill." Oh my, where to begin? Mental illness is just now starting to...

Debating the Chained CPI

Flickr/The Survivor Woman/401(K)
Yesterday, I posted a piece that questioned the political and policy wisdom of President Obama’s latest offer for a budget deal. My qualms were vindicated when Speaker Boehner, rather than taking the widely leaked “progress” as a new common ground, went back to his starting point and offered his own “Plan B”. This left President Obama in just the position that he vowed that he’d be in again—“negotiating against himself.” In the piece, I also criticized the role of my friend Bob Greenstein in lending credence to backdoor cuts in Social Security. Bob is the much revered and tireless advocate for the poor who is the longtime president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. My piece questioned both his political logic in assuming that Social Security cuts have any place in this budget deal and his assumption that including them will somehow protect programs for the poor. My piece mistakenly described the annual cut as 3 percent rather than 0.3 percent, but it accurately pointed...

Chairman Summers? Let’s Hope Not

AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers addresses a press conference after attending the Group of Seven finance ministers in Fukuoka, Japan in July 2000. He’s back. Larry Summers is running hard to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve when Bernanke’s term expires in early 2014. This is not a great idea, for three main reasons. The first is Summers’ famous temperament. The problem is not just that he’s less than sensitive to women. It’s that he’s a bully in general, cocksure of himself, using others as foils and prevailing by controlling the agenda. Through several turns in a career marked by falling upwards, Summers’ chief patron and sponsor, Robert Rubin, keeps assuring people that “Larry has changed.” And Larry keeps not changing. It was the bullying more than the disrespect towards women that finally got him fired as president of Harvard. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously said of Franklin Roosevelt, “a second-rate...

Social Security: Will Obama Cave?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama looks toward reporters shouting questions at him regarding the fiscal cliff as he walks to the White House after attending a holiday party for the National Security Council. O nce again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor. Especially foolish is the cut in Social Security benefits, disguised as a change in the cost-of-living adjustment formula. Before getting to the arcane...

Rice Takes Herself Out

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Here is the lead of The New York Times' two-column front-page story today: Washington—President Obama knew before he picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon what Susan E. Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, was calling about: she wanted to take herself out of the running for secretary of state and spare him a fight. Really ? Are you kidding? I have no inside sources, but this just not how things work. Does Times reporter Landler truly think that President Obama left this decision to Rice? More likely, the president and his political strategists and vote counters have been agonizing for weeks about whether a good dogfight with Republicans over Rice’s confirmation would be a net plus or a net minus. Ultimately, they decided it was better to get someone else. If Obama really did leave this to Rice herself, he is even more of a wuss than his worst detractors contend. Landler continues in the second paragraph: By acceding to Ms Rice’s request, which she had conveyed to White...

The Courts: How Obama Dropped the Ball

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
(AP Photo/J. David Ake) I n his novel King of the Jews , Leslie Epstein sets his story in the wartime ghetto of Lodz, Poland, where the Gestapo ruled through an appointed council of Jewish elders. Epstein, researching the book, tracked down the gallows humor of the time. In one such joke, told by a character in the novel, two Jews are facing a firing squad. The commandant asks if they would like blindfolds. One of the condemned whispers to the other, “Don’t make trouble.” “Don’t make trouble” could have been the credo of the first year of the Obama Administration. The White House calculated that if the president just extended the hand of conciliation to the Republicans, the opposition would reciprocate and together they would change the tone in Washington. This was the policy on everything from the stimulus to health reform to judicial nominations. It didn’t work out so well. Now, spurred by the tailwind of a re-election victory and the realization that public opinion is on his side,...

Magnificent Trespasser

Albert Hirschman, an economist who became one of the greatest of the 20 th century’s moral philosophers, died Tuesday at age 97. Hirschman’s intellectual odyssey took him from the study of eastern European economies under Hitler to work as a development economist for the Federal Reserve Board, then in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, as an adviser to the Colombian Planning Ministry, and then to engagement with the enduring questions of economy and society from the 1970s until illness suspended his active life. Along the way he taught at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Study. To the extent that Hirschman is widely known today, it is mainly though a small book with a puzzling title, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty , written in 1970. The book has a huge following among social scientists, mainly outside of Hirschman’s own profession of economics. His basic insight is elegant, simple, and original. Citizens and consumers have two basic ways of responding when they...

Folks Like Me

(Flickr / 401(K) 2012)
When President Obama calls for raising taxes on the top 2 percent, he has a habit of declaring that, “Folks like me” should pay higher taxes. He used the phrase dozens of time during the campaign, and just this week again in an interview on Bloomberg. Either someone on the president’s speechwriting staff has a tin ear, or Obama himself does. For starters, the comment puts unnecessary distance between the president and the citizenry. It signals: I am not like most of you. I am far wealthier. But the phrase, “folks like me,” is wildly misleading. The people whose taxes really need to rise are not folks from the professional class like Barack Obama. They are folks like Mitt Romney and Pete Peterson—people with net worth in the billions or hundreds of millions; people behind the corporate Fix the Debt campaign; people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. These are people not at all like us, and they are not people like Barack Obama. As Obama used to remind audiences, he is a lot...

The Importance of Elizabeth Warren

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The Boston Globe , Politico, and Huffington Post are all reporting that Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren has been granted her wish to get a seat on the Senate Banking Committee. This victory for progressives is huge. It means that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who makes the committee selection, later ratified by the Democratic caucus—did not cave to pressure from either the financial lobby or from Senate Banking Committee Chairman, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who is effectively part of that lobby. (South Dakota gutted its usury laws decades ago to make the state hospitable to the back office operations of the biggest banks.) It isn’t just that Warren is a resolute progressive. It’s that she knows so much about the financial industry, from her years as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP, and before that as one of the leading scholars of bankruptcy and consumer abuses. And it’s that she’s incorruptible, as well as very smart. More than your typical freshman...

Republicans, Exposed

(Flickr/David Silver)
President Barack Obama’s persistence has managed to smoke out House Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans. Their just-announced plan for cutting the deficit is what we suspected: cuts in Medicare and Social Security; no higher tax rates on the rich; limits on tax deductions that would hit the middle class as well as the wealthy, but only raise half the revenue of Obama’s plan; and a lot of fudging with numbers. The Republicans might as well be parading around with a sign that reads “Kick Me.” None of this stuff solves the real problem of getting a recovery going. If you believe that deficit reduction is required, it doesn’t even solve that. And the plan cuts into social insurance programs that are hugely popular, while Obama defends them. Best of all, the corporate deficit hawks marching under the banner “Fix the Debt” are left out in the cold. Nobody is emphasizing austerity as an economic cure. Corporate Democrat Erskine Bowles is yesterday’s news (sit down, please), almost as...

Greedy Geezers, Reconsidered

(Seymour Chwast)
F or three decades, conservative critics have been warning that the elderly are living too well at the expense of the young. Since the early 1980s, financier Peter G. Peterson has been predicting that Social Security’s excessive generosity would crash the retirement system and the economy. The late British journalist Henry Fairlie, in 1988, famously wrote a piece in The New Republic with the cover line “Greedy Geezers,” faulting the elderly for living too well at the expense of the young. (Seymour Chwast) Thanks to the economic boom of the late 1990s, senior bashing went into temporary eclipse. With full employment and rising wages, payroll tax receipts swelled the Social Security trust funds. In the three years between 1997 and 2000, the system’s projected year of reckoning—when it could no longer pay all of its claims—receded by eight years (from 2029 to 2037). At that rate, Social Security would soon be in perpetual surplus. All it took to balance the system’s books was decent wage...

Fix Gene Sperling

The corporate-led group, Fix the Debt, is having its latest conference next Tuesday, December 4. Fix the Debt wants massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare, of the sort that the Obama administration has pledged to resist. The usual suspects will be there—Michael Peterson who runs the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Maya MacGuineas who heads the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, and several corporate CEOs. But look at who is providing cover for this rightwing crusade. Obama economic chief Gene Sperling is giving a major speech. Does one hand at the White House know what the other is doing? And liberals John Podesta and Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress are also getting star billing, as is former AARP policy chief John Rother. Liberals should boycott this crowd and its austerity message, not lend it innocence by association.

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