Economy

Forget the Fiscal Cliff—We've Got Other Problems

Flickr/DonkeyHotey
The “fiscal cliff” is a metaphor for a government that no longer responds to the biggest challenges we face because it’s paralyzed by intransigent Republicans, obsessed by the federal budget deficit, and overwhelmed by big money from corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires. If we had a functional government America would address three “cliffs” posing far larger dangers to us than the fiscal one: The child poverty cliff. Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of American school-age children living in poor households grew from 17 to 21%. Last year, according to the Agriculture Department , nearly 1 in 4 young children lived in a family that had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point in the year. Yet federal programs to help children and lower-income families—food stamps, aid for poor school districts, Pell grants, child health care, child nutrition, pre- and post-natal care, and Medicaid – are being targeted by the Republican right. Over 60 percent of the cuts in the GOP’...

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...

An End to Debt Ceiling Shenanigans?

Center for American Progress
Via Matthew Yglesias, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, explains one of the administration's key demands as deals with Republicans on the fiscal cliff—an end to the debt ceiling as a negotiation tool: Make no mistake about it: no budget agreement – however robust – will provide the economic certainty and confidence we aspire to if job creators, investors and working families believe that, after we reach that agreement, just months down the road, we will start the next round of debt limit debacles. As both economist and business leaders have told us, only the greatest national tragedies have competed with the debt limit debacle of 2011 in terms of damaging consumer confidence. So let’s be clear: if we want to see the economic benefit of a bipartisan budget agreement we need to agree that the era of threatening the default of the United States as a budget tactic is over. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is something we should cherish and...

News Flash: Americans Still Don't Understand Deficits

Business Insider
At Business Insider, Walter Hickey reports results from an online survey (commissioned by the website) that show a public muddled over the consequences of going over the fiscal cliff. Per the survey, 47.4 percent of Americans said that the deficit would increase if we went over the cliff, only 12.6 percent say that it would decrease. Here are the full results: Yes, this is an online poll, and you should take the results with a grain of salt. Still, this remarkable, given the fact that the whole reason to worry about the cliff is that it would put the United States on a path of large and (relatively) rapid austerity. With that said, I’m not too surprised; most Americans don’t actually understand what the deficit is—opinions of the deficit are essentially a proxy for opinions of the economy writ large. Voters associate high deficits with poor economic performance—the public might say that it wants more action to lower the deficit, but what it means is that it wants Washington to improve...

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...

Resistance (on Tax Rates) Is Futile

Google
Google Obama will force you to bend to slightly higher tax rates on rich people. It seems that Republicans are beginning to understand the futility of their opposition to higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Writing for the Washington Examiner , Byron York reveals the extent to which GOP lawmakers know the weakness of their position: [M]any in the GOP do not believe that raising the rate on top earners from 35 percent to 39.6 percent (the rate before the Bush tax cuts) would seriously damage the economy. Second, they know that most Americans approve of higher taxes on the top bracket, and President Obama, having campaigned and won on that platform, seems dead-set on higher rates. Third, they fear that if the government does go over the cliff and Democrats propose re-lowering taxes for everyone except the highest earners, Republicans would be in the impossible position of resisting tax cuts for 98 percent of the country on behalf of the top 2 percent. It’s hard to overstate...

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...

A New, Tougher Obama?

(AP Photo)
In response to pushback from Congress and progressive activists following a report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal that Obama had offered to be “flexible” on tax-rate hikes for the very richest, the White House formally unveiled a tough bargaining stance: $1.6 billion in tax increases over a decade, all on the top two brackets, and no tax hikes for the bottom 98 percent. The White House proposal included only $400 billion in spending cuts over a decade, none of which cut into Social Security or Medicare—details to be filled in later. Obama also proposed a change in the law to eliminate the obstructionist ritual of requiring a congressional vote to periodically increase the debt ceiling. (The debt increase has already been obligated by previous congressional actions, so the debt-ceiling vote is entirely redundant and nothing but an opportunity for mischief.) The Republicans, not surprisingly, dismissed the White House position out of hand. Two things are encouraging about Obama’s...

Explaining the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Biltmore House, where the mortgage is probably paid off by now. (Flickr/Steve and Sara Emry)
Something strange has happened in the past few days as we have approached the Austerity Trap (aka "fiscal cliff"). Suddenly, people are actually talking about the possibility of cutting back on the home interest deduction, a "gift," as Mitt Romney might call it, that dwarfs most others the federal government distributes (among tax expenditures, only the deduction for health insurance costs the government more). I continue to believe that there's just no way Congress is going to touch the MID, cherished as it is by so many. But I could be wrong, and this is a good time to brush up on where the deduction came from and what its consequences are. The mortgage interest deduction came about essentially by accident. When the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow for an income tax, Congress made all interest payments deductible. Mortgage interest wasn't mentioned specifically, and there was no suggestion that this was something necessary to promote home ownership. But as more Americans...

Fast Food Shouldn't Mean Low Wages

(Flickr/GenBug)
From Burger King to Walmart , the low-wage workers we depend on to staff America’s consumption-driven economy are tired of being overworked and underpaid, and they are letting their bosses know. Early this morning, fast-food workers in New York City went on strike across more than half a dozen chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s. Backed by community groups like New York Communities for Change , United NY , and the Black Institute , as well as various representatives of religious organizations, fast food workers are asking for a chance to work with dignity in an industry notorious for its fast pace, low wages , and often erratic scheduling. Also notorious for high turnover , fast food workers have historically had a difficult time organizing for better conditions. As reported by Steve Greenhouse at The New York Times : Leaders of the effort said that workers were walking off the job to protest what they said were low wages and...

Snatching Defeat out of the Jaws of Victory

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Invited guests listen as President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building about extending middle-class tax cuts before they expire in January. The president said he believes that members of both parties can reach a framework on a debt-cutting deal before Christmas. P resident Barack Obama, to his great credit, has drawn a bright line. Taxes have to revert to the rates that were in effect before the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent. This is crucial because the less the very rich pay, the more others have to pay either in the form of less tax relief for the bottom 98 percent or on program cuts like Social Security and Medicare. Or has he drawn that line? Yesterday, the White House put out the word that the president was willing to be “flexible” on the question of tax rates for the top bracket. Specifically, that means the president will accept the Republican idea of getting some of the needed revenue by closing loopholes rather than...

Will Tim Geithner Lead Us over or around the Fiscal Cliff?

I’m trying to remain optimistic that the president and congressional Democrats will hold their ground over the next month as we approach the so-called “fiscal cliff.” But leading those negotiations for the White House is outgoing Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, whom Monday’s Wall Street Journal described as a “pragmatic deal maker” because of “his long relationship with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, for whom balancing the budget was a priority over other Democratic touchstones.” Geithner is indeed a protégé of Bob Rubin, for whom he worked when Rubin was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration. Rubin then helped arranged for Geithner to become president of the New York Fed, and then pushed for him to become Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Both Rubin and Geithner are hardworking and decent. But both see the world through the eyes of Wall Street rather than Main Street. I battled Rubin for years in the Clinton administration because of his hawkishness on the budget...

The Election Heard Round the Watercooler

(Flickr / striatic)
This year's election wasn't the most negative in history, or the most trivial. But it did see a few new developments, including one particularly troubling one: the spread of politics into some places it used to be unwelcome. And not just any politics, but a kind of ill-informed, antagonistic kind of politics, the kind that says that your party losing is literally a national catastrophe and that there is no such thing as an opponent, only an enemy. When we hear ridiculous stories like that of the gun store owner in Arizona who took out an ad in the local paper proclaiming, "If you voted for Barack Obama, your business is NOT WELCOME at Southwest Shooting Authority," we aren't surprised. After all, hundreds of thousands of people—maybe millions—got an extra dose of partisanship at their jobs this year for the first time. When the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010, most of the focus was on the fact that the decision allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to...

Simpler Is Better

(Flickr / James Milstid)
On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal ran one of its trademark editorials making fun of government red tape—the massive regulations required to implement the Affordable Care Act; the 398 different rulemakings necessary to carry out the Dodd-Frank Act, and a great deal more. I seldom agree with the Journal ’s editorial page, but it makes an unintentional point: Government regulations have become so complex that they can’t do their job. Or at best, the sheer complexity makes the government sitting ducks for the mischief of industry lobbyists looking to further complicate the rules with loopholes. But where does the complexity come from? It comes from the metastasized abuses of the private sector and the success of the business elite in getting government to pass laws with plenty of room for industry to maneuver. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, by contrast, was simplicity itself. It ran just a few pages and didn’t need 398 different rulemakings to carry it out. The act provided that you...

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