To be honest, I’d thought I’d feel better about it.
What the deal does
In short, the tax deal gives both the Republicans and the Democrats the one thing they wanted most. For the Republicans, that one thing was extending the Bush Tax Cuts to everyone, especially protecting those making over $1 million a year in income. I emphasize the protection of those people making over $1 million a year in income because we saw Senate Republicans (and a few Democrats) vote against the opportunity to both reduce the deficit and maintain the Bush Tax Cuts for everyone but the very very rich.
Clearly, the most important thing for the Republicans – which they got with the current tax deal – is maintaining lowered tax rates for the richest 2 percent of Americans, rather than lowering the deficit or, for that matter, investing in infrastructure and education that will be the pathway to future prosperity.
On the other hand, the Democrats got the thing that they most wanted: extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Here’s how the New York Times summarized the expansion:
“The bill would also keep jobless aid flowing to the long-term unemployed for 13 more months, maintaining extended limits, which now range from 60 weeks in states with less than 6 percent joblessness to 99 weeks in states where the unemployment rate is more than 8.5 percent. Benefits normally last for 26 weeks.”
While the Republicans insisted on legislation that didn’t jive with their deficit-reducing campaign promises, the Democrats stuck to their long-stated commitment to extending unemployment benefits.
At a time when there are six candidates for every open job, and we know that people receiving unemployment benefits immediately pump most if not all of that money back into an economy that is wallowing due to lack of consumer spending and confidence, extending unemployment benefits is not only the right thing to do for people struggling to get back to work, but also is a necessary boost for our economy – unlike extending the tax cuts for Americans making over $1 million, who have proven themselves unwilling to invest their money back into the economy either through spending or hiring.
The upside for both parties is that this tax deal offered much-needed political coverage (thanks to right-wing misrepresentation of the success of the stimulus) to provide much-needed additional stimulus to an economy in which the private sector, despite having been bailed out by taxpayers, refuses to begin hiring again. Liberals who are optimistic about this tax deal point to the stimulatory effects of the deal. Here’s how Ezra Klein, economics blogger for the Washington post, describes it:
“So is this a good deal? It’s a lot better than I would’ve told you the White House was going to get if you’d asked me a week ago. There’s some new stimulus in the form of the payroll-tax cut and the expensing proposals. The older stimulus programs that are getting extended – notably the unemployment insurance and the tax credits – probably would’ve expired outside of this deal. The tax cuts for income over $250,000 are a bad way to spend $100 billion or so, and the estate tax deal is really noxious.”
The problem with stimulus in the form of tax incentives, especially to the wealthy, rather than direct government spending in jobs and infrastructure is that it provides, according to many economists, a less-effective boost to the economy. But, perhaps Klein is right that this is the best we could have hoped for.
What Americans think about the deal
According to a recent Pew Research Report, Americans from both parties show strong support for the tax deal:
“The agreement between President Obama and congressional Republicans to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits is getting strong bipartisan support. Overall, 60% approve of the agreement while just 22% disapprove.”
These poll results confirm what Republicans like Dick Cheney have long-suspected: As long as you talk tough about the deficit and the size of government, Americans won’t be upset when you insist on measures that hardly anyone, not even Glenn Hubbard, the architect of the Bush Tax cuts, believe are good for our country’s long-term deficit problems.
So now what?
Let’s hold our noses and grant that this is the best deal that President Obama and the Republicans could come up with. Now what?
Corporations and the wealthy need to quit complaining about uncertainty about higher tax rates and start spending and hiring. The American people have endured more than their fair share of uncertainty when we used ours and our childrens’ tax dollars to bail out the failing financial system, which benefited the wealthy much more than average Americans. The lower and middle classes are likely to continue the long process of getting rid of their debts (deleveraging), so the rich now need to do their part to carry the economy – especially on the heels of this latest deal.
The people of the United States have done everything we can – perhaps too much – to reassure corporations and the wealthy that they can continue paying this near-historically low rate of the cost of living and doing business in America. Corporations and the rich had better start spending all that cash they are sitting on immediately through hiring and capital investment. Otherwise, having, as we’ve done so often, privatized the profits and socialized the risks of the wealthiest Americans, the rich should abandon their pretenses of being either entrepreneurial or socially responsible, and admit that they will happily take advantage of their wealth and position to increase their wealth and position.
Furthermore, if the rich don’t re-invest their money in American jobs, they should be publicly shamed by Americans from all points of the political spectrum as unpatriotic, modern-day robber barons.
Many conservatives claim that asking corporations and the wealthy to do their part is a form of class warfare. My simple response: They started it.
As I’ve argued before, many economists, like Edward Glaeser, contend that the rich have used their ability to lobby the powerful to bend the system to unfairly benefit them. In the words of NMSU professor Chris Erickson, they have:
“…manged to corrupt the system so that the benefits are flowing more to them than would be justified in a completely free market. One of the ways to balance so that we get an outcome that is more consistent with a free market is to tax the rich… I think a higher tax rate on the wealthy is justified in the current circumstances.”
In other words, if they want to think of this as class warfare, they should remember that the Pearl Harbor of this conflict happened when they used their money and influence to distort the system. For more details, check out this breakdown from The Fiscal Times:
“According to the IRS, the top 400 earners in the U.S. grossed a whopping $137 billion in 2007 (the latest data available). A household making $50,000 a year is taxed at 17.4 percent, assuming no write-offs. Yet the billionaires were only taxed an average rate of 16.7 percent, amounting to $22.9 billion.”
It’s shameful that the top 400 billionaires pay a lower rate of taxes than a household making $50,000 a year. I’d argue that if there is a class war underway, the rich started it by using there power and money to avoid paying their fair share. But that’s my simple response.
My somewhat more complicated response to whether this is class warfare: It’s not. Typifying public discussion about the costs of democracy and freedom, and how those costs should be allocated, as class warfare is merely a ploy to short-circuit meaningful discussion. We need to be able to discuss our problems reasonably.
But really. What now?
This tax deal proves that congressional Republicans have little credibility when they claim to be concerned about either the debt or long-term deficits. On the other side, President Obama has invested a lot of political capital in this deal, with the hopes that it will encourage corporations to start hiring again. If they do not, Obama will be stuck with a deal that angers his base and doesn’t improve the economy. To that end, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s gone on a “charm offensive” to do just that:
“The White House has been pursuing a charm offensive with the biggest U.S. employers in recent weeks, hoping to convince them to plow some of the $2 trillion in cash they are sitting on into expansion and hiring in the U.S.”
The debate about the Bush Tax cuts, and, in effect, our long-term deficit problem, will be continued when the cuts are scheduled to sunset again in 2012, just in time for the next presidential election. Perhaps President Obama is right that these concessions will provide the short-term stimulus that our economy needs, and we can address the Bush Tax cuts (and the long-term deficit problem) after more people are employed again. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, perhaps this imperfect deal will pave the path for future compromises that actually benefit the long-term well-being of America, rather than the narrow constituencies of our two-party system. I’d start with finding ways to address the troubling decline of inter-generational mobility that has bedeviled the working and middle classes in the last few decades. This will provide access to prosperity for all Americans, not just the already wealthy. Again, only time will tell.