Monday, September 20, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - The Angry Rich and Taxes -
September 19, 2010
The Angry Rich

Anger is sweeping America. True, this white-hot rage is a minority phenomenon, not something that characterizes most of our fellow citizens. But the angry minority is angry indeed, consisting of people who feel that things to which they are entitled are being taken away. And they’re out for revenge.

No, I’m not talking about the Tea Partiers. I’m talking about the rich.

These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.

Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.

The rage of the rich has been building ever since Mr. Obama took office. At first, however, it was largely confined to Wall Street. Thus when New York magazine published an article titled “The Wail Of the 1%,” it was talking about financial wheeler-dealers whose firms had been bailed out with taxpayer funds, but were furious at suggestions that the price of these bailouts should include temporary limits on bonuses. When the billionaire Stephen Schwarzman compared an Obama proposal to the Nazi invasion of Poland, the proposal in question would have closed a tax loophole that specifically benefits fund managers like him.

Now, however, as decision time looms for the fate of the Bush tax cuts — will top tax rates go back to Clinton-era levels? — the rage of the rich has broadened, and also in some ways changed its character.

For one thing, craziness has gone mainstream. It’s one thing when a billionaire rants at a dinner event. It’s another when Forbes magazine runs a cover story alleging that the president of the United States is deliberately trying to bring America down as part of his Kenyan, “anticolonialist” agenda, that “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” When it comes to defending the interests of the rich, it seems, the normal rules of civilized (and rational) discourse no longer apply.

At the same time, self-pity among the privileged has become acceptable, even fashionable.

Tax-cut advocates used to pretend that they were mainly concerned about helping typical American families. Even tax breaks for the rich were justified in terms of trickle-down economics, the claim that lower taxes at the top would make the economy stronger for everyone.

These days, however, tax-cutters are hardly even trying to make the trickle-down case. Yes, Republicans are pushing the line that raising taxes at the top would hurt small businesses, but their hearts don’t really seem in it. Instead, it has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.

And among the undeniably rich, a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes — but that was a long time ago.

The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - The Tax-Cut Racket -
September 16, 2010
The Tax-Cut Racket

“Nice middle class you got here,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. “It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

O.K., he didn’t actually say that. But he might as well have, because that’s what the current confrontation over taxes amounts to. Mr. McConnell, who was self-righteously denouncing the budget deficit just the other day, now wants to blow that deficit up with big tax cuts for the rich. But he doesn’t have the votes. So he’s trying to get what he wants by pointing a gun at the heads of middle-class families, threatening to force a jump in their taxes unless he gets paid off with hugely expensive tax breaks for the wealthy.

Most discussion of the tax fight focuses either on the economics or on the politics — both of which suggest that Democrats should hang tough, for their own sakes as well as that of the country. But there’s an even bigger issue here — namely, the question of what constitutes acceptable behavior in American political life. Politics ain’t beanbag, but there’s a difference between playing hardball and engaging in outright extortion, which is what Mr. McConnell is now doing. And if he succeeds, it will set a disastrous precedent.

How did we get to this point? The proximate answer lies in the tactics the Bush administration used to push through tax cuts. The deeper answer lies in the radicalization of the Republican Party, its transformation into a movement willing to put the economy and the nation at risk for the sake of partisan victory.

So, about those tax cuts: back in 2001, the Bush administration bundled huge tax cuts for wealthy Americans with much smaller tax cuts for the middle class, then pretended that it was mainly offering tax breaks to ordinary families. Meanwhile, it circumvented Senate rules intended to prevent irresponsible fiscal actions — rules that would have forced it to find spending cuts to offset its $1.3 trillion tax cut — by putting an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2010, on the whole bill. And the witching hour is now upon us. If Congress doesn’t act, the Bush tax cuts will turn into a pumpkin at the end of this year, with tax rates reverting to Clinton-era levels.

In response, President Obama is proposing legislation that would keep tax rates essentially unchanged for 98 percent of Americans but allow rates on the richest 2 percent to rise. But Republicans are threatening to block that legislation, effectively raising taxes on the middle class, unless they get tax breaks for their wealthy friends.

That’s an extraordinary step. Almost everyone agrees that raising taxes on the middle class in the middle of an economic slump is a bad idea, unless the effects are offset by other job-creation programs — and Republicans are blocking those, too. So the G.O.P. is, in effect, threatening to plunge the U.S. economy back into recession unless Democrats pay up.

What kind of political party would engage in that kind of brinksmanship? The answer is the same kind of party that shut down the federal government in 1995 in an attempt to force President Bill Clinton to accept steep cuts in Medicare, and is actively discussing doing the same to Mr. Obama. So, as I said, the deeper explanation of the tax-cut fight is that it’s ultimately about a radicalized Republican Party, which accepts no limits on partisanship.

So should Democrats give in?

On the economics, the answer is a clear no. Right now, fears about budget deficits are overblown — but that doesn’t mean that we should completely ignore deficit concerns. And the G.O.P. plan would add hugely to the deficit — about $700 billion over the next decade — while doing little to help the economy. On any kind of cost-benefit analysis, this is an idea not worth considering.

And, by the way, a compromise solution — temporary tax breaks for the rich — is no better; it would cost less, but it would also do even less for the economy.

On the politics, the answer is also a clear no. Polls show that a majority of Americans are opposed to maintaining tax breaks for the rich. Beyond that, this is no time for Democrats to play it safe: if the midterm election were held today, they would lose badly. They need to highlight their differences with the G.O.P. — and it’s hard to think of a better place for them to take a stand than on the issue of big giveaways to Wall Street and corporate C.E.O.’s.

But what’s even more important is the principle of the thing. Threats to punish innocent bystanders unless your political rivals give you what you want have no legitimate place in democratic politics. Giving in to such threats would be an economic and political mistake, but more important, it would be morally wrong — and it would encourage more such threats in the future.

It’s time for Democrats to take a stand, and say no to G.O.P. blackmail.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - 1938 in 2010 -
September 5, 2010
1938 in 2010

Here’s the situation: The U.S. economy has been crippled by a financial crisis. The president’s policies have limited the damage, but they were too cautious, and unemployment remains disastrously high. More action is clearly needed. Yet the public has soured on government activism, and seems poised to deal Democrats a severe defeat in the midterm elections.

The president in question is Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the year is 1938. Within a few years, of course, the Great Depression was over. But it’s both instructive and discouraging to look at the state of America circa 1938 — instructive because the nature of the recovery that followed refutes the arguments dominating today’s public debate, discouraging because it’s hard to see anything like the miracle of the 1940s happening again.

Now, we weren’t supposed to find ourselves replaying the late 1930s. President Obama’s economists promised not to repeat the mistakes of 1937, when F.D.R. pulled back fiscal stimulus too soon. But by making his program too small and too short-lived, Mr. Obama did just that: the stimulus raised growth while it lasted, but it made only a small dent in unemployment — and now it’s fading out.

And just as some of us feared, the inadequacy of the administration’s initial economic plan has landed it — and the nation — in a political trap. More stimulus is desperately needed, but in the public’s eyes the failure of the initial program to deliver a convincing recovery has discredited government action to create jobs.

In short, welcome to 1938.

The story of 1937, of F.D.R.’s disastrous decision to heed those who said that it was time to slash the deficit, is well known. What’s less well known is the extent to which the public drew the wrong conclusions from the recession that followed: far from calling for a resumption of New Deal programs, voters lost faith in fiscal expansion.

Consider Gallup polling from March 1938. Asked whether government spending should be increased to fight the slump, 63 percent of those polled said no. Asked whether it would be better to increase spending or to cut business taxes, only 15 percent favored spending; 63 percent favored tax cuts. And the 1938 election was a disaster for the Democrats, who lost 70 seats in the House and seven in the Senate.

Then came the war.

From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise. Over the course of the war the federal government borrowed an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today.

Had anyone proposed spending even a fraction that much before the war, people would have said the same things they’re saying today. They would have warned about crushing debt and runaway inflation. They would also have said, rightly, that the Depression was in large part caused by excess debt — and then have declared that it was impossible to fix this problem by issuing even more debt.

But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity. Overall debt in the economy — public plus private — actually fell as a percentage of G.D.P., thanks to economic growth and, yes, some inflation, which reduced the real value of outstanding debts. And after the war, thanks to the improved financial position of the private sector, the economy was able to thrive without continuing deficits.

The economic moral is clear: when the economy is deeply depressed, the usual rules don’t apply. Austerity is self-defeating: when everyone tries to pay down debt at the same time, the result is depression and deflation, and debt problems grow even worse. And conversely, it is possible — indeed, necessary — for the nation as a whole to spend its way out of debt: a temporary surge of deficit spending, on a sufficient scale, can cure problems brought on by past excesses.

But the story of 1938 also shows how hard it is to apply these insights. Even under F.D.R., there was never the political will to do what was needed to end the Great Depression; its eventual resolution came essentially by accident.

I had hoped that we would do better this time. But it turns out that politicians and economists alike have spent decades unlearning the lessons of the 1930s, and are determined to repeat all the old mistakes. And it’s slightly sickening to realize that the big winners in the midterm elections are likely to be the very people who first got us into this mess, then did everything in their power to block action to get us out.

But always remember: this slump can be cured. All it will take is a little bit of intellectual clarity, and a lot of political will. Here’s hoping we find those virtues in the not too distant future.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist - The Real Story -
September 2, 2010
The Real Story

Next week, President Obama is scheduled to propose new measures to boost the economy. I hope they’re bold and substantive, since the Republicans will oppose him regardless — if he came out for motherhood, the G.O.P. would declare motherhood un-American. So he should put them on the spot for standing in the way of real action.

But let’s put politics aside and talk about what we’ve actually learned about economic policy over the past 20 months.

When Mr. Obama first proposed $800 billion in fiscal stimulus, there were two groups of critics. Both argued that unemployment would stay high — but for very different reasons.

One group — the group that got almost all the attention — declared that the stimulus was much too large, and would lead to disaster. If you were, say, reading The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages in early 2009, you would have been repeatedly informed that the Obama plan would lead to skyrocketing interest rates and soaring inflation.

The other group, which included yours truly, warned that the plan was much too small given the economic forecasts then available. As I pointed out in February 2009, the Congressional Budget Office was predicting a $2.9 trillion hole in the economy over the next two years; an $800 billion program, partly consisting of tax cuts that would have happened anyway, just wasn’t up to the task of filling that hole.

Critics in the second camp were particularly worried about what would happen this year, since the stimulus would have its maximum effect on growth in late 2009 then gradually fade out. Last year, many of us were already warning that the economy might stall in the second half of 2010.

So what actually happened? The administration’s optimistic forecast was wrong, but which group of pessimists was right about the reasons for that error?

Start with interest rates. Those who said the stimulus was too big predicted sharply rising rates. When rates rose in early 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Bond Vigilantes: The disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers return.” The editorial declared that it was all about fear of deficits, and concluded, “When in doubt, bet on the markets.”

But those who said the stimulus was too small argued that temporary deficits weren’t a problem as long as the economy remained depressed; we were awash in savings with nowhere to go. Interest rates, we said, would fluctuate with optimism or pessimism about future growth, not with government borrowing.

When in doubt, bet on the markets. The 10-year bond rate was over 3.7 percent when The Journal published that editorial; it’s under 2.7 percent now.

What about inflation? Amid the inflation hysteria of early 2009, the inadequate-stimulus critics pointed out that inflation always falls during sustained periods of high unemployment, and that this time should be no different. Sure enough, key measures of inflation have fallen from more than 2 percent before the economic crisis to 1 percent or less now, and Japanese-style deflation is looking like a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the timing of recent economic growth strongly supports the notion that stimulus does, indeed, boost the economy: growth accelerated last year, as the stimulus reached its predicted peak impact, but has fallen off — just as some of us feared — as the stimulus has faded.

Oh, and don’t tell me that Germany proves that austerity, not stimulus, is the way to go. Germany actually did quite a lot of stimulus — the austerity is all in the future. Also, it never had a housing bubble that burst. And with all that, German G.D.P. is still further below its precrisis peak than American G.D.P. True, Germany has done better in terms of employment — but that’s because strong unions and government policy have prevented American-style mass layoffs.

The actual lessons of 2009-2010, then, are that scare stories about stimulus are wrong, and that stimulus works when it is applied. But it wasn’t applied on a sufficient scale. And we need another round.

I know that getting that round is unlikely: Republicans and conservative Democrats won’t stand for it. And if, as expected, the G.O.P. wins big in November, this will be widely regarded as a vindication of the anti-stimulus position. Mr. Obama, we’ll be told, moved too far to the left, and his Keynesian economic doctrine was proved wrong.

But politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth. The economic theory behind the Obama stimulus has passed the test of recent events with flying colors; unfortunately, Mr. Obama, for whatever reason — yes, I’m aware that there were political constraints — initially offered a plan that was much too cautious given the scale of the economy’s problems.

So, as I said, here’s hoping that Mr. Obama goes big next week. If he does, he’ll have the facts on his side.