Newt’s Tax Plan, and Why His Polls Rise the More Outrageous He Becomes

December 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Robert Reich, Robert Reich’s Blog

Newt Gingrich has done it again. With his new tax plan he has raised the bar from irresponsibility to recklessness.

Every dollar estimate I’m about to share with you comes from the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center – a group whose estimates are used by almost everyone in Washington regardless of political persuasion.

First off, Newt’s plan increases the federal budget deficit by about $850 billion – in a single year!

To put this in perspective, most forecasts of the budget deficit cover ten years.  The elusive goal of the White House and many on both sides of the aisle in Congress is to reduce that ten-year deficit by 3 to 4 trillion dollars.

Newt goes in the other direction, with gusto. Increasing the deficit by $850 billion in a single year is beyond the wildest imaginings of the least responsible budget mavens within a radius of three thousand miles from Washington.

Imagine what Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s or Fitch would do if it became law. We’d go directly from a triple-A credit rating to triple X – the veritable porn star of fiscal mayhem. Interest on our debt would become larger than most of the rest of the budget.

Most of this explosion of debt in Newt’s plan occurs because he slashes taxes. But not just anyone’s taxes. The lion’s share of Newt’s tax cuts benefit the very, very rich.

That’s because he lowers their marginal income tax rate to 15 percent – down from the current 35 percent, which was Bush’s temporary tax cut; down from 39 percent under Bill Clinton; down from at least 70 percent in the first three decades after World War II. Newt also gets rid of taxes on unearned income – the kind of income that the super-rich thrive on – capital-gains, dividends, and interest.

Under Newt’s plan, each of the roughly 130,000 taxpayers in the top .1 percent – the richest one-tenth of one percent – reaps an average tax cut of $1.9 million per year. Add what they’d otherwise have to pay if the Bush tax cut expired on schedule, and each of them saves $2.3 million a year.

To put it another way, under Newt’s plan, the total tax bill of the top one-tenth of one percent drops from around 38 percent of their income to around 10 percent.

What about low-income households? They get an average tax cut of $63 per year.

Oh, I almost forgot: Newt also slashes corporate taxes.

I’m not making this up.

This might be amusing if Newt were just being old Newt – if this were another infamous hot-air bubble emerging from an always provocative, sometimes clever, often bizarre mind.

But it’s the tax plan of the leading candidate for president of one of the two major political parties of the United States.

And it comes at a time when America’s super rich are raking in a larger portion of total income and wealth than at any time over the last eighty years, and when their marginal taxes are lower than they’ve been in three decades; a time when the nation’s long-term budget deficit is causing cuts in education and infrastructure which will impair our future and that of our children, and when safety nets and social services are being slashed.

Can Newt get away with this?

Probably — because his plan also comes at a time when Americans are so cynical about the major institutions of our society that someone who offers huge, outrageous plans holds a special fascination: The whole system is so awful, people tell themselves, why not just jettison everything and start from scratch? Let’s throw caution to the winds and do something really big – even if it’s colossally stupid.

This is why the more outrageous Newt can be, the better his polls. The more irresponsible his bomb-throwing, the more attractive he becomes to a sizable portion of Americans so fed up they feel like throwing bombs.

History is full of strong men with dangerous ideas who gain power when large masses of people are so desperate and disillusioned they’ll follow anyone who offers big, seemingly easy solutions.

At times like this a nation must depend on its wise elders – people who have gained a reputation for good judgment and integrity, and who are broadly respected by all sides regardless of political affiliation or ideology – to call out the demagogues, speak the truth, and restore common sense.

The great tragedy of America today is the paucity of such individuals when we need them the most.

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America In Decline

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Noam Chomsky

The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

“It is a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay,” Giacomo Chiozza writes in the current Political Science Quarterly.

The theme is indeed widely believed. And with some reason, though a number of qualifications are in order. To start with, the decline has proceeded since the high point of U.S. power after World War II, and the remarkable triumphalism of the post-Gulf War ’90s was mostly self-delusion.

Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted. The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade.

Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office may in fact bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests.

Corporate power’s ascendancy over politics and society—by now mostly financial—has reached the point that both political organizations, which at this stage barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.

For the public, the primary domestic concern is unemployment. Under current circumstances, that crisis can be overcome only by a significant government stimulus, well beyond the recent one, which barely matched decline in state and local spending—though even that limited initiative probably saved millions of jobs.

For financial institutions the primary concern is the deficit.

Therefore, only the deficit is under discussion. A large majority of the population favor addressing the deficit by taxing the very rich (72 percent, 27 percent opposed), reports a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Cutting health programs is opposed by overwhelming majorities (69 percent Medicaid, 78 percent Medicare). The likely outcome is therefore the opposite.

The Program on International Policy Attitudes surveyed how the public would eliminate the deficit. PIPA director Steven Kull writes, “Clearly both the administration and the Republican-led House (of
Representatives) are out of step with the public’s values and priorities in regard to the budget.”

The survey illustrates the deep divide: “The biggest difference in spending is that the public favored deep cuts in defense spending, while the administration and the House propose modest increases. The public also favored more spending on job training, education and pollution control than did either the administration or the House.”

The final “compromise”—more accurately, capitulation to the far right—is the opposite throughout, and is almost certain to lead to slower growth and long-term harm to all but the rich and the corporations, which are enjoying record profits.

Not even discussed is that the deficit would be eliminated if, as economist Dean Baker has shown, the dysfunctional privatized health care system in the U.S. were replaced by one similar to other industrial societies’, which have half the per capita costs and health outcomes that are comparable or better.

The financial institutions and Big Pharma are far too powerful for such options even to be considered, though the thought seems hardly Utopian.

Off the agenda for similar reasons are other economically sensible options, such as a small financial transactions tax.

Meanwhile new gifts are regularly lavished on Wall Street. The House Appropriations Committee cut the budget request for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the prime barrier against financial fraud. The Consumer Protection Agency is unlikely to survive intact.

Congress wields other weapons in its battle against future generations.

Faced with Republican opposition to environmental protection, American Electric Power, a major utility, shelved “the nation’s most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from an existing coal-burning power plant, dealing a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming,” The New York Times reported.

The self-inflicted blows, while increasingly powerful, are not a recent innovation. They trace back to the 1970s, when the national political economy underwent major transformations, ending what is commonly called “the Golden Age” of (state) capitalism.

Two major elements were financialization (the shift of investor preference from industrial production to so-called FIRE: finance, insurance, real estate) and the offshoring of production. The ideological triumph of “free market doctrines,” highly selective as always, administered further blows, as they were translated into deregulation, rules of corporate governance linking huge CEO rewards to short-term profit, and other such policy decisions.

The resulting concentration of wealth yielded greater political power, accelerating a vicious cycle that has led to extraordinary wealth for a fraction of 1 percent of the population, mainly CEOs of major corporations, hedge fund managers and the like, while for the large majority real incomes have virtually stagnated.

In parallel, the cost of elections skyrocketed, driving both parties even deeper into corporate pockets. What remains of political democracy has been undermined further as both parties have turned to auctioning congressional leadership positions, as political economist Thomas Ferguson outlines in the Financial Times.

“The major political parties borrowed a practice from big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy or Target,” Ferguson writes. “Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, U.S. congressional parties now post prices for key slots in the lawmaking process.” The legislators who contribute the most funds to the party get the posts.

The result, according to Ferguson, is that debates “rely heavily on the endless repetition of a handful of slogans that have been battle-tested for their appeal to national investor blocs and interest groups that the leadership relies on for resources.” The country be damned.

Before the 2007 crash for which they were largely responsible, the new post-Golden Age financial institutions had gained startling economic power, more than tripling their share of corporate profits. After the crash, a number of economists began to inquire into their function in purely economic terms. Nobel laureate Robert Solow concludes that their general impact may be negative: “The successes probably add little or nothing to the efficiency of the real economy, while the disasters transfer wealth from taxpayers to financiers.”

By shredding the remnants of political democracy, the financial institutions lay the basis for carrying the lethal process forward—as long as their victims are willing to suffer in silence.

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The Enemy is Washington: An Economy Destroyed

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Paul Craig Roberts

Recently, the bond rating agencies that gave junk derivatives triple-A ratings threatened to downgrade US Treasury bonds if the White House and Congress did not reach a deficit reduction deal and debt ceiling increase.  The downgrade threat is not credible, and neither is the default threat.  Both are make-believe crises that are being hyped in order to force cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

If the rating agencies downgraded Treasuries, the company executives would be arrested for the fraudulent ratings that they gave to the junk that Wall Street peddled to the rest of the world. The companies would be destroyed and their ratings discredited. The US government will never default on its bonds, because the bonds, unlike those of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, are payable in its own currency. Regardless of whether the debt ceiling is raised, the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase the Treasury’s debt.  If Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, then so is the US government.

There is no budget focus on the illegal wars and military occupations that the US government has underway in at least six countries or the 66-year old US occupations of Japan and Germany and the ring of military bases being constructed around Russia.

The total military/security budget is in the vicinity of $1.1-$1.2 trillion, or 70 per cent -75 per cent of the federal budget deficit.

In contrast, Social Security is solvent.  Medicare expenditures are coming close to exceeding the 2.3 per cent payroll tax that funds Medicare, but it is dishonest for politicians and pundits to blame the US budget deficit on “entitlement programs.”

Entitlements are funded with a payroll tax.  Wars are not funded. The criminal Bush regime lied to Americans and claimed that the Iraq war would only cost $70 billion at the most and would be paid for with Iraq oil revenues. When Bush’s chief economic advisor, Larry Lindsay, said the Iraq invasion would cost $200 billion, Bush fired him. In fact, Lindsay was off by a factor of 20. Economic and budget experts have calculated that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have consumed $4,000 billion in out-of-pocket and already incurred future costs.  In other words, the ongoing wars and occupations have already eaten up the $4 trillion by which Obama hopes to cut federal spending over the next ten years. Bomb now, pay later.

As taxing the rich is not part of the political solution, the focus is on rewarding the insurance companies by privatizing Medicare at some future date with government subsidized insurance premiums, by capping Medicaid, and by loading the diminishing middle class with additional Social Security tax.

Washington’s priorities and those of its presstitutes could not be clearer. President Obama, like George W. Bush before him, both parties in Congress, the print and TV media, and National Public Radio have made it clear that war is a far more important priority than health care and old age pensions for Americans.

The American people and their wants and needs are not represented in Washington. Washington serves powerful interest groups, such as the military/security complex, Wall Street and the banksters, agribusiness, the oil companies, the insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and the mining and timber industries. 

Washington endows these interests with excess profits by committing war crimes and terrorizing foreign populations with bombs, drones, and invasions, by deregulating the financial sector and bailing it out of its greed-driven mistakes after it has stolen Americans’ pensions, homes, and jobs, by refusing to protect the land, air, water, oceans and wildlife from polluters and despoilers, and by constructing a health care system with the highest costs and highest profits in the world.

The way to reduce health care costs is to take out gobs of costs and profits with a single payer system.  A private health care system can continue to operate alongside for those who can afford it.
The way to get the budget under control is to stop the gratuitous hegemonic wars, wars that will end in a nuclear confrontation.

The US economy is in a deepening recession from which recovery is not possible, because American middle class jobs in manufacturing and professional services have been offshored and given to foreigners.  US GDP, consumer purchasing power, and tax base have been handed over to China, India, and Indonesia in order that Wall Street, shareholders, and corporate CEOs can earn more.
When the goods and services produced offshore come back into America, they arrive as imports. The trade balance worsens, the US dollar declines further in exchange value, and prices rise for Americans, whose incomes are stagnant or falling.

This is economic destruction. It always occurs when an oligarchy seizes control of a government. The short-run profits of the powerful are maximized at the expense of the viability of the economy.
The US economy is driven by consumer demand, but with 22.3 per cent unemployment, stagnant and declining wages and salaries, and consumer debt burdens so high that consumers cannot borrow to spend, there is nothing to drive the economy.

Washington’s response to this dilemma is to increase the austerity! 

Cutting back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, forcing down wages by destroying unions and offshoring jobs (which results in a labor surplus and lower wages), and driving up the prices of food and energy by depreciating the dollar further erodes consumer purchasing power.  The Federal Reserve can print money to rescue the crooked financial institutions, but it cannot rescue the American consumer.

As a final point, confront the fact that you are even lied to about “deficit reduction.”  Even if Obama gets his $4 trillion “deficit reduction” over the next decade, it does not mean that the current national debt will be $4 trillion less than it currently is.  The “reduction” merely means that the growth in the national debt will be $4 trillion less than otherwise.  Regardless of any “deficit reduction,” the national debt ten years from now will be much higher than it presently is.

Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury, Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and professor of economics in six universities. His latest book, HOW THE ECONOMY WAS LOST, was published by CounterPunch/AK Press. He can be reached at: PaulCraigRoberts@yahoo.com/Counter punch.

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Getting Past the Paralysis on Jobs

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Fareed Zakaria

TV CNN ZakariaEvery week brings fresh evidence that America’s unemployment crisis is much deeper and more systemic than predicted — yet Washington seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Fears of the budget deficit and a dysfunctional political climate have paralyzed people on both sides of the political aisle. The result is that America is “sleepwalking” through its biggest crisis, writes Mohamed El-Erian, the low-key co-CEO of PIMCO.

Around 24 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed (the latter in part-time jobs that average $19,000, half the median wage). If these people don’t find jobs soon, they will lose skills and work habits and become permanently unemployable, with grim consequences for their families, communities and the country. And if employment growth does not pick up significantly, tax revenue will stay depressed, unemployment costs will rise and the deficit will balloon well beyond current projections.

We still seem to be hoping that somehow this problem will resolve itself, but it won’t. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke explained this week that the economy has gone through the worst financial crisis and the deepest housing collapse since the Great Depression. In fact, the problem is even worse. Employment growth has been stalled since 2000. If not for the housing and credit bubble, this jobs crisis would have revealed itself much earlier.

We’re in a new world for the American worker. Technological change and globalization allow companies to get more output with fewer workers. Emerging markets provide millions of skilled workers who can produce the same products at a fraction of the price that Americans can. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that from 1947 till 2000, productivity growth was correlated with employment growth. Since 2000, they have diverged. Productivity has risen while employment has fallen. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence has concluded that in America, growth and employment will diverge in the future.

Does this mean that we are stuck in a low-growth, low-employment future? No, but the crisis is structural, and we have to recognize its scope and urgency. “Shutting off the alarm and pulling the blanket over one’s head is not a solution,” says El-Erian.

Republican concerns about government spending over the long term are understandable, but cutting spending in the short run will result in more unemployment and slower growth. President Obama talks about jobs but seems too paralyzed to do something ambitious to help create them. Even Bernanke said this week that there isn’t much he could do about the slow-growth, high-unemployment trajectory we are on. Have we all become fatalists?

In fact, we could enact some measures that would spur job creation, many with a limited effect on the deficit. Most immediately, Washington needs to find ways to employ the millions of workers whose jobs disappeared with the housing bust. The simplest way to help them, and the country, would be to create a national infrastructure bank to repair and rebuild America’s infrastructure — which is in a shambles and ranks 23rd globally, according to the World Economic Forum — down from sixth only a decade ago.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has played down this proposal as just more stimulus, but if Republicans set aside ideology they would see it is actually an opportunity to push for two of their favorite ideas: privatization and the elimination of earmarks.

The United States builds infrastructure in a remarkably socialist manner; the government funds, builds and operates almost all American infrastructure. In many countries in Europe and Asia, the private sector plays a large role in financing and operation of roads, highways, railroads and airports, as well as other public resources. An infrastructure bank would create a mechanism by which such private-sector participation would become possible here as well. Yes, some public money would be involved, mostly through issuing bonds, but with interest rates at historic lows, this is the time to rebuild. Such projects, with huge long-term payoffs, could genuinely be called investments, not expenditures.

A national infrastructure bank would also address a legitimate complaint of the Tea Party — earmarks. One of the reasons federal spending has been inefficient is that Congress wants to spread money around in ways that make political sense but are economically inefficient. An infrastructure bank would make these decisions using cost-benefit analysis, in a meritocratic system, rather than basing decisions on patronage and whimsy.

The country needs much more: a revival of manufacturing, emphasizing technical training and apprenticeship programs; aggressive measures to promote those industries that are booming, such as entertainment and tourism; an expansion of retraining; streamlining the patent process; more visas for skilled immigrants to stay and create companies and jobs in America. These should be part of a national plan for jobs that President Obama must lay out soon. But start with something that would have an immediate impact and put people back to work — the rebuilding of America.

comments@fareedzakaria.com

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