Monday, November 19, 2012

The Twinkie Manifesto

November 18, 2012


The Twinkie, it turns out, was introduced way back in 1930. In our memories, however, the iconic snack will forever be identified with the 1950s, when Hostess popularized the brand by sponsoring “The Howdy Doody Show.” And the demise of Hostess has unleashed a wave of baby boomer nostalgia for a seemingly more innocent time.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really innocent. But the ’50s — the Twinkie Era — do offer lessons that remain relevant in the 21st century. Above all, the success of the postwar American economy demonstrates that, contrary to today’s conservative orthodoxy, you can have prosperity without demeaning workers and coddling the rich.

Consider the question of tax rates on the wealthy. The modern American right, and much of the alleged center, is obsessed with the notion that low tax rates at the top are essential to growth. Remember that Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, charged with producing a plan to curb deficits, nonetheless somehow ended up listing “lower tax rates” as a “guiding principle.”

Yet in the 1950s incomes in the top bracket faced a marginal tax rate of 91, that’s right, 91 percent, while taxes on corporate profits were twice as large, relative to national income, as in recent years. The best estimates suggest that circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of Americans paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent, twice what they pay today.

Nor were high taxes the only burden wealthy businessmen had to bear. They also faced a labor force with a degree of bargaining power hard to imagine today. In 1955 roughly a third of American workers were union members. In the biggest companies, management and labor bargained as equals, so much so that it was common to talk about corporations serving an array of “stakeholders” as opposed to merely serving stockholders.

Squeezed between high taxes and empowered workers, executives were relatively impoverished by the standards of either earlier or later generations. In 1955 Fortune magazine published an essay, “How top executives live,” which emphasized how modest their lifestyles had become compared with days of yore. The vast mansions, armies of servants, and huge yachts of the 1920s were no more; by 1955 the typical executive, Fortune claimed, lived in a smallish suburban house, relied on part-time help and skippered his own relatively small boat.

The data confirm Fortune’s impressions. Between the 1920s and the 1950s real incomes for the richest Americans fell sharply, not just compared with the middle class but in absolute terms. According to estimates by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, in 1955 the real incomes of the top 0.01 percent of Americans were less than half what they had been in the late 1920s, and their share of total income was down by three-quarters.

Today, of course, the mansions, armies of servants and yachts are back, bigger than ever — and any hint of policies that might crimp plutocrats’ style is met with cries of “socialism.” Indeed, the whole Romney campaign was based on the premise that President Obama’s threat to modestly raise taxes on top incomes, plus his temerity in suggesting that some bankers had behaved badly, were crippling the economy. Surely, then, the far less plutocrat-friendly environment of the 1950s must have been an economic disaster, right?

Actually, some people thought so at the time. Paul Ryan and many other modern conservatives are devotees of Ayn Rand. Well, the collapsing, moocher-infested nation she portrayed in “Atlas Shrugged,” published in 1957, was basically Dwight Eisenhower’s America.

Strange to say, however, the oppressed executives Fortune portrayed in 1955 didn’t go Galt and deprive the nation of their talents. On the contrary, if Fortune is to be believed, they were working harder than ever. And the high-tax, strong-union decades after World War II were in fact marked by spectacular, widely shared economic growth: nothing before or since has matched the doubling of median family income between 1947 and 1973.

Which brings us back to the nostalgia thing.

There are, let’s face it, some people in our political life who pine for the days when minorities and women knew their place, gays stayed firmly in the closet and congressmen asked, “Are you now or have you ever been?” The rest of us, however, are very glad those days are gone. We are, morally, a much better nation than we were. Oh, and the food has improved a lot, too.

Along the way, however, we’ve forgotten something important — namely, that economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible. America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life, Death and Deficits

November 15, 2012


America’s political landscape is infested with many zombie ideas — beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die. The most prominent zombie is the insistence that low taxes on rich people are the key to prosperity. But there are others.

And right now the most dangerous zombie is probably the claim that rising life expectancy justifies a rise in both the Social Security retirement age and the age of eligibility for Medicare. Even some Democrats — including, according to reports, the president — have seemed susceptible to this argument. But it’s a cruel, foolish idea — cruel in the case of Social Security, foolish in the case of Medicare — and we shouldn’t let it eat our brains.

First of all, you need to understand that while life expectancy at birth has gone up a lot, that’s not relevant to this issue; what matters is life expectancy for those at or near retirement age. When, to take one example, Alan Simpson — the co-chairman of President Obama’s deficit commission — declared that Social Security was “never intended as a retirement program” because life expectancy when it was founded was only 63, he was displaying his ignorance. Even in 1940, Americans who made it to age 65 generally had many years left.

Now, life expectancy at age 65 has risen, too. But the rise has been very uneven since the 1970s, with only the relatively affluent and well-educated seeing large gains. Bear in mind, too, that the full retirement age has already gone up to 66 and is scheduled to rise to 67 under current law.

This means that any further rise in the retirement age would be a harsh blow to Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution, who aren’t living much longer, and who, in many cases, have jobs requiring physical effort that’s difficult even for healthy seniors. And these are precisely the people who depend most on Social Security.

So any rise in the Social Security retirement age would, as I said, be cruel, hurting the most vulnerable Americans. And this cruelty would be gratuitous: While the United States does have a long-run budget problem, Social Security is not a major factor in that problem.

Medicare, on the other hand, is a big budget problem. But raising the eligibility age, which means forcing seniors to seek private insurance, is no way to deal with that problem.

It’s true that thanks to Obamacare, seniors should actually be able to get insurance even without Medicare. (Although, what happens if a number of states block the expansion of Medicaid that’s a crucial piece of the program?) But let’s be clear: Government insurance via Medicare is better and more cost-effective than private insurance.

You might ask why, in that case, health reform didn’t just extend Medicare to everyone, as opposed to setting up a system that continues to rely on private insurers. The answer, of course, is political realism. Given the power of the insurance industry, the Obama administration had to keep that industry in the loop. But the fact that Medicare for all may have been politically out of reach is no reason to push millions of Americans out of a good system into a worse one.

What would happen if we raised the Medicare eligibility age? The federal government would save only a small amount of money, because younger seniors are relatively healthy and hence low-cost. Meanwhile, however, those seniors would face sharply higher out-of-pocket costs. How could this trade-off be considered good policy?

The bottom line is that raising the age of eligibility for either Social Security benefits or Medicare would be destructive, making Americans’ lives worse without contributing in any significant way to deficit reduction. Democrats, in particular, who even consider either alternative need to ask themselves what on earth they think they’re doing.

But what, ask the deficit scolds, do people like me propose doing about rising spending? The answer is to do what every other advanced country does, and make a serious effort to rein in health care costs. Give Medicare the ability to bargain over drug prices. Let the Independent Payment Advisory Board, created as part of Obamacare to help Medicare control costs, do its job instead of crying “death panels.” (And isn’t it odd that the same people who demagogue attempts to help Medicare save money are eager to throw millions of people out of the program altogether?) We know that we have a health care system with skewed incentives and bloated costs, so why don’t we try to fix it?

What we know for sure is that there is no good case for denying older Americans access to the programs they count on. This should be a red line in any budget negotiations, and we can only hope that Mr. Obama doesn’t betray his supporters by crossing it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Let’s Not Make a Deal

November 8, 2012


To say the obvious: Democrats won an amazing victory. Not only did they hold the White House despite a still-troubled economy, in a year when their Senate majority was supposed to be doomed, they actually added seats.

Nor was that all: They scored major gains in the states. Most notably, California — long a poster child for the political dysfunction that comes when nothing can get done without a legislative supermajority — not only voted for much-needed tax increases, but elected, you guessed it, a Democratic supermajority.

But one goal eluded the victors. Even though preliminary estimates suggest that Democrats received somewhat more votes than Republicans in Congressional elections, the G.O.P. retains solid control of the House thanks to extreme gerrymandering by courts and Republican-controlled state governments. And Representative John Boehner, the speaker of the House, wasted no time in declaring that his party remains as intransigent as ever, utterly opposed to any rise in tax rates even as it whines about the size of the deficit.

So President Obama has to make a decision, almost immediately, about how to deal with continuing Republican obstruction. How far should he go in accommodating the G.O.P.’s demands?

My answer is, not far at all. Mr. Obama should hang tough, declaring himself willing, if necessary, to hold his ground even at the cost of letting his opponents inflict damage on a still-shaky economy. And this is definitely no time to negotiate a “grand bargain” on the budget that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

In saying this, I don’t mean to minimize the very real economic dangers posed by the so-called fiscal cliff that is looming at the end of this year if the two parties can’t reach a deal. Both the Bush-era tax cuts and the Obama administration’s payroll tax cut are set to expire, even as automatic spending cuts in defense and elsewhere kick in thanks to the deal struck after the 2011 confrontation over the debt ceiling. And the looming combination of tax increases and spending cuts looks easily large enough to push America back into recession.

Nobody wants to see that happen. Yet it may happen all the same, and Mr. Obama has to be willing to let it happen if necessary.

Why? Because Republicans are trying, for the third time since he took office, to use economic blackmail to achieve a goal they lack the votes to achieve through the normal legislative process. In particular, they want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, even though the nation can’t afford to make those tax cuts permanent and the public believes that taxes on the rich should go up — and they’re threatening to block any deal on anything else unless they get their way. So they are, in effect, threatening to tank the economy unless their demands are met.

Mr. Obama essentially surrendered in the face of similar tactics at the end of 2010, extending low taxes on the rich for two more years. He made significant concessions again in 2011, when Republicans threatened to create financial chaos by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And the current potential crisis is the legacy of those past concessions.

Well, this has to stop — unless we want hostage-taking, the threat of making the nation ungovernable, to become a standard part of our political process.

So what should he do? Just say no, and go over the cliff if necessary.

It’s worth pointing out that the fiscal cliff isn’t really a cliff. It’s not like the debt-ceiling confrontation, where terrible things might well have happened right away if the deadline had been missed. This time, nothing very bad will happen to the economy if agreement isn’t reached until a few weeks or even a few months into 2013. So there’s time to bargain.

More important, however, is the point that a stalemate would hurt Republican backers, corporate donors in particular, every bit as much as it hurt the rest of the country. As the risk of severe economic damage grew, Republicans would face intense pressure to cut a deal after all.

Meanwhile, the president is in a far stronger position than in previous confrontations. I don’t place much stock in talk of “mandates,” but Mr. Obama did win re-election with a populist campaign, so he can plausibly claim that Republicans are defying the will of the American people. And he just won his big election and is, therefore, far better placed than before to weather any political blowback from economic troubles — especially when it would be so obvious that these troubles were being deliberately inflicted by the G.O.P. in a last-ditch attempt to defend the privileges of the 1 percent.

Most of all, standing up to hostage-taking is the right thing to do for the health of America’s political system.

So stand your ground, Mr. President, and don’t give in to threats. No deal is better than a bad deal.