Nation Topics - Economic Policy
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With the Bush Administration, the corruption isn't hidden in the Lincoln Bedroom. It's paraded in your face. On June 18 Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill lunched with executives of leading financial houses at Windows on the World high atop New York's World Trade Center. His unstated purpose was to help raise $20 million from the companies he regulates, as an initial ante for a private advertising campaign to promote Social Security privatization. When George W. Bush joked during the campaign that the rich were "my base," he wasn't kidding.
The Administration has lurched straight from its tax cut to privatizing Social Security. On June 11 the sixteen members of Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, all handpicked by the White House for their prior support of private accounts, announced that they are unanimously in favor of using part of Social Security taxes to create "individually controlled personal retirement accounts" to be invested in the stock market. Commission co-chairman Richard Parsons, co-chief operating officer of AOL-Time Warner, made the costs clear, saying the panel would consider raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. "For future retirees, you can consider everything on the table," he said.
A coalition of citizen organizations led by the Institute for America's Future and including labor, women's groups, the National Urban League, senior and youth groups, and disability activists immediately denounced the commission members as "astonishingly unrepresentative of the views held by most Americans concerning Social Security's future." A week later two members of the House Ways and Means Committee ran into a Midwestern version of the same citizens' coalition in Missouri when they conducted a "field hearing" to promote privatization. According to the St. Petersburg Times, committee chairman Bill Thomas had envisioned the hearing as an opportunity to foment an "intergenerational clash" between retirees and Generation Xers on Social Security reform. Instead, seniors and young people demonstrated for "intergenerational solidarity" against privatization.
Similarly, O'Neill's airy power lunch was punctuated by a protest rally organized by the AFL-CIO, the Institute for America's Future, the New York Statewide Senior Action Council, the 2030 Center (for young people) and other groups. Joined by Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Jan Schakowsky, the protesters denounced the blatant impropriety of O'Neill's helping solicit private funds to lobby for a plan that will generate billions for financial barons like Morgan Stanley, American International Group, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank, all of whom were expected to be at the lunch.
To repeat what we've said before: Social Security is not in financial trouble now and may never be; just tweak the actuarial assumptions used by the privatizers and any shortfall disappears. But even if more money is needed at some point to pay benefits, sensible solutions are at hand--the simplest being to raise or remove the cap on the amount of earnings on which Social Security taxes are levied. That idea, of course, does not go down well with the high-income crowd that supports Bush.
By the fall, the Bush Administration will hang around the neck of every Republican running for Congress a detailed plan for privatization, and Bush and O'Neill will be publicly identified with the campaign designed to sell this lemon to the American people. In 2002, Americans will have a clear choice to make.
A Nation analysis finds that benefits to Bush, Cheney and the Cabinet could top million.
An activist think tank is fighting the right at the ballot box--and winning.
If all goes as the GOP has planned, George W. Bush will have on his desk by Memorial Day a $1.35 trillion tax bill that is wrongheaded and an utterly inequitable pander to the privileged. Every American should be clear about what this bill is: a blueprint that will define the political and social landscape we live in for decades to come. The immense tax cuts will not only disproportionately benefit the wealthy and increase the widening gap between rich and poor, they will also severely circumscribe the government's capacity to help improve the lives of all Americans. (As if to prove the point, the Senate Finance Committee voted out this tax giveaway the same day the Senate voted against increased funding for teachers to help reduce class size.) This downsizing--indeed, emaciation--of government is of course exactly what the right is aiming for. Grover Norquist, "field marshal" of the Bush tax plan, was quoted recently in these pages saying that his goal is "to cut government in half...to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Under the plan, the 400 richest multimillionaires will receive tax breaks worth an average of $1 million a year. The poorest working families will get zip, even as the nation faces a growing investment deficit measured in children without healthcare, families without housing, overcrowded airports and neglected alternative energy and conservation. Senate "moderates" claim they improved the bill, which is true. Under the original Bush plan, 26 million children in low- and moderate-income families would get no benefit from the tax plan. Under the modified bill, that drops to 10.6 million. The $58 billion a year handed to the wealthiest 1 percent could be used to lift another 2 million children out of poverty, provide health insurance to 5.1 million uninsured children, fund universal preschool and expand childcare services to more than 9 million children--two-thirds of those eligible.
Besides being unfair, the bill, which stretches the cuts over eleven years rather than Bush's original ten, is dishonest--in reality a stealth raid on the Treasury. The Senate earlier voted to cut the Bush tax plan by 25 percent. To meet this, the Finance Committee simply backloaded the bill even more than originally planned--phasing in the full tax cuts later so they don't count under the ten-year limit used to estimate its costs. The $1.35 trillion giveaway balloons to $4.2 trillion in the next decade, after all the provisions kick in. It also calls for ending popular tax breaks in a few years--like the tax credit for research and development--in the confidence that no future Congress would choose to do so. Plus the bill is designed so that 40 million taxpayers will eventually be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax, insuring changes that will add dramatically to the total cost. And the Republican Congress is just warming up: Even now the K Street lobbyists are cooking up ways to lard a minimum-wage-increase bill with fat corporate tax cuts.
Bush has peddled this tax cut as the elixir for a good economy and a bad one, for rising gas prices and declining stock prices, for small businesses and waitress moms. The repeal of the estate tax is shamelessly presented as a way to save family farmers, even though advocates cannot locate one farm that has actually been lost because of the tax. It's all hype, lies and distortion.
Remember--in 2002 and beyond--those responsible, from Bush to the Republican majority that marched lockstep in support, to the handful of Democratic renegades who provided the margin. They must be held accountable for this travesty.
He's an archconservative who thinks big and knows how to get things done.
In one of the most foolish and cruelly ironic urban public policy decisions in recent memory, New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are planning to shower a series of subsidies, expected to total more than $1 billion, on the high citadel of self-styled free-market global capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange.
In December the city entered into a letter of intent to assist the NYSE in constructing a new trading floor. The arrangement commits the city to acquire land for the new exchange building, and for the city and state to construct a new trading floor for the NYSE and to grant it tax and subsidized energy benefits. In exchange, the taxpayers receive $10 million in annual rent, which will never come close to reimbursing the city and state for their costs.
The sole purported rationale for this corporate welfare bonanza is to retain the NYSE in New York City. If one were to credit this claim, the gift of more than $1 billion for the purpose of retaining fewer than 6,000 jobs--while not even ostensibly creating new ones--would, even by the corrupt standards of job-retention- blackmail deals between corporations and politicians, set a high-water mark for casuistry. However, the deal is even worse than that description suggests. There is no chance that the stock exchange would leave New York City. When I went on the NYSE floor last year and asked veteran traders about the possibility of the exchange moving to New Jersey, they laughed as they dismissed it out of hand. In addition to the institutional identity and reputation of the stock exchange, its personal connections to Wall Street firms--committed to New York City by history, by the Manhattan residences of many of their principals and employees and by long-term office rental commitments, increasingly sealed by yet other city subsidies--preclude the possibility of a move across the Hudson to become the Hoboken Stock Exchange.
NYSE's New Jersey ploy is nothing more than a ruse for covering public officials using what Justice Louis Brandeis once called "other people's money." As is typical of such arrangements, the corporate-politician conspiracy to ramrod the deal is shrouded in secrecy and in contempt for democratic processes. The city refuses to make available to the public a copy of the letter of intent it signed with the NYSE to proceed with the deal. The architectural plans for the building complex--expected by preservation advocates to generate outrage--remain concealed. The governor forced legislation authorizing the deal to go forward on a super-expedited basis, leaving legislators virtually no time to review the bill. They proceeded to pass it unanimously. New York City Council members also have failed to object to the bill.
The Fourth Estate, perhaps inured to the issue by the steady drumbeat of announcements regarding New York City taxpayer subsidies for big business, has done a less than stellar job covering this boondoggle. The New York Times editorial page endorsed the scheme years ago, when it was first being floated. Recognizing "why some oppose on principle any concession to the blackmailing tactics of businesses that threaten to move unless they get public assistance," the Times concluded that New York had no choice but to succumb. "If New York City refuses to play this game, other, hungrier cities and states will take advantage of that passivity." Apparently, the corporate executives at The New York Times Co. found this argument persuasive. In February the Times and New York City completed their own corporate welfare deal--giving the Times $29 million in tax breaks and other incentives to maintain its offices in Times Square.
It would be hard to script a more brazen and shameless corporate giveaway than a billion-dollar donation to the emblem of global capitalism from a city where nearly one in three children lives in poverty, and public investment necessities go begging. But the final act of the NYSE drama has yet to play out: There is still time for the citizens of New York, and at least one of the candidates seeking to replace Giuliani when his term expires at the end of this year, to demand cancellation of this corrupt deal.
Resident Bush's budget brandishes the camouflaged conservatism that is the hallmark of this disingenuous Administration. It advertises a 4 percent increase in discretionary spending that's in reality virtually a freeze, after taking into account inflation and population growth. Since spending on the military is going up, the amount actually committed to domestic programs is cut by 4.7 percent in real per capita terms. Bush boasts an 11 percent increase in education funding, but much of that simply counts money committed in last year's budget. And the increase is offset by deep cuts in expenditures for job training and displaced workers, even as the economy slows.
Much of the budget is fraudulent, knowingly so. Spending must be squelched to afford Bush's tax cut while paying down the debt. But the President isn't serious about cutting popular programs. So he calls for deep cuts in farm programs, which he knows Republican senators will block. He ends subsidies to US shipbuilders, which he knows Senate majority leader Trent Lott will reverse. Otherwise, the largest losers are environmental, renewable energy and energy conservation programs. Bush's answer to the energy crisis is to drill on every jot of federal land that might hold oil. His prescription for those concerned about global warming is presumably a little more arsenic in their water. The real military budget remains a mystery, awaiting the Defense Secretary's "strategic review." Yet, even the defense marker used in the current budget returns the military to its cold war average.
Democrats and moderate Republicans are boasting that they've already abandoned the Bush budget and are falsely declaring victory because they knocked a quarter off his tax cut. Congress will surely add money to education, restore funds to children's health and disability programs, and protect farmers (read, agribusiness). And it is likely to double the funds Bush earmarks for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare. We will witness a furious debate over these numbers, with Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate facing off against the remorseless Tom DeLay and his conservative majority in the House.
Lost in this scrapping is any mention of the real opportunities facing the nation. Years of economic growth have generated potential government surpluses--$5.6 trillion at the most recent estimate. Now, with the economy slowing, we have the chance to invest in making the country better and help jump-start the economy at the same time. Bush's most disingenuous claim is that his budget "takes care of our needs." In reality, it merely assumes that all needs are met and projects a continued decline in federal domestic discretionary programs to their lowest levels as a percentage of GDP in history.
Instead, we could truly address the disgraceful truth that in this rich nation one in six children is raised in poverty and deprived of the healthy, fair start vital to equal opportunity. Now we have the resources to rebuild an aging and overburdened infrastructure--witnessed daily in the power blackouts, collapsing sewers and aged water systems, overburdened airports, deferred toxic waste cleanups. Now we can redress the growing shortage of affordable housing and insure that every American has access to healthcare. We could even meet the international standard for foreign assistance and lead the world in providing real debt relief for the poor nations and in launching a humane response to the AIDS pandemic. All these are within reach--but are ruled out by a bipartisan consensus that more than half the surplus ($3 trillion over ten years) must be used for debt reduction in the name of "saving" Social Security and Medicare. Bush would consume the rest of the projected surplus (if not more) with his tax cuts, about 40 percent of which will go to the millionaires in the richest 1 percent of the nation. Democrats seem ready to declare victory if they can trim Bush's ten-year tax cut by 25 percent and spend the savings primarily on a prescription drug benefit.
We are about to witness a debate about priorities in Washington. But none of the alternatives debated will address our challenges or our opportunities. If progressives in the Democratic Party are to serve any function, it's time for them to find their voice.
In the clash over tax cuts and social programs, much of what progressives need to do is defensive. But it would be a mistake not to float new ideas, too.
In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan's efforts to portray Democrats as the party of "tax and spend," social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.
Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda--one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America's middle class--even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.
Nothing is more relevant to this point than today's debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.
Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government--one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.
The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today's technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We're still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators--surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don't just fall on their own.
Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges--for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It's a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, "Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I've had." America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can't achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.
We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone's prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term "universal healthcare" we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn't popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda--healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy-- reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.
So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I'm not ready to join. The answer to "compassionate conservatism" isn't timid progressivism. It's a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that's how we will be able to win as the party of the people.
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.