Apart from its extraordinary cost and regressive tilt, the tax deal negotiated between the President and the Republicans has another fatal flaw.
It confirms the Republican worldview.
Americans want to know what happened to the economy and how to fix it. At least Republicans have a story – the same one they’ve been flogging for thirty years. The bad economy is big government’s fault and the solution is to shrink government.
Here’s the real story. For three decades, an increasing share of the benefits of economic growth have gone to the top 1 percent. Thirty years ago, the top got 9 percent of total income. Now they take in almost a quarter. Meanwhile, the earnings of the typical worker have barely budged.
The vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going. (The rich spend a much lower portion of their incomes.) The crisis was averted before now only because middle-class families found ways to keep spending more than they took in – by women going into paid work, by working longer hours, and finally by using their homes as collateral to borrow. But when the housing bubble burst, the game was up.
The solution is to reorganize the economy so the benefits of growth are more widely shared. Exempt the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes, and apply payroll taxes to incomes over $250,000. Extend Medicare to all. Extend the Earned Income Tax Credit all the way up through families earning $50,000. Make higher education free to families that now can’t afford it. Rehire teachers. Repair and rebuild our infrastructure. Create a new WPA to put the unemployed back to work.
Pay for this by raising marginal income taxes on millionaires (under Eisenhower, the highest marginal rate was 91 percent, and the economy flourished). A millionaire marginal tax of 70 percent would eliminate the nation’s future budget deficit. In addition, impose a small tax on all financial transactions (even a tiny one — one half of one percent — would bring in $200 billion a year, enough to rehire every teacher who’s been laid off as well as provide universal pre-school for all toddlers). Promote unions for low-wage workers.
But here’s the obstacle. As income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power. Money is being used to bribe politicians and fill the airwaves with misleading ads that block all of this.
The midterm elections offered dramatic evidence. NBC news reported shortly after Election Day, for example, that Crossroads GPS, one of the biggest Republican secret-money organizations, got “a substantial portion” of its loot from a group of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity managers. Why would they sink so much money into the midterms? Because they’ve been so strongly opposed to a proposal by congressional Democrats to treat the earnings of hedge fund and private equity managers as ordinary income rather than capital gains (subject to only a 15 percent rate).
In other words, the problem isn’t big government. It’s power and privilege at the top.
So another part of the solution is to limit the impact of big money on politics. This requires, for example, publically-financed campaigns, disclosure of all sources of political spending, and resurrection of the fairness doctrine for broadcasters.
It’s the same power and privilege that got the Bush tax cuts in the first place, and claimed the lion’s share of its benefits. The same power and privilege that got the estate tax phased out.
Get it? By agreeing to another round of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, the President confirms the Republican story. Cutting taxes on the rich while freezing discretionary spending (which he’s also agreed to do) affirms that the underlying problem is big government, and the solution is to shrink government and expect the extra wealth at the top to trickle down to everyone else.
Obama’s new tax compromise is not only bad economics; it’s also disastrous from the standpoint of educating the public about what has happened and what needs to happen in the future. It reenforces the Republican story and makes mincemeat out of the truthful one Democrats should be telling.
© 2010 Robert Reich