Clive Crook in his new Financial Times column faults Obama for:
telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.
This is his second column on the subject – and he bases this claim on a small portion of Obama’s overall plan. He does not fault Obama for proposing to increase the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 39%, as Bush’s tax cut legislation actually mandates unless it is amended; he does not fault Obama for pusing for health care reform; he does not fault Obama for pursuing cap-and-trade legislation; he does not fault Obama for any range of allegedly “socialist” policies – rather he takes issue with the fact that Obama plans to cap the deduction for charitable contributions, so that those making over $250,000 get the same percentage credit for a charitable contribution as someone making less than $250,000.
In addition to this rather minor tweak of our tax system (which Crook points out will generate a large amount of revenue thanks to the extreme concentration of wealth in our society), Crook raises the more substantial issue of how health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation, both of which he favors, are being paid for:
[T]he revenues from cap and trade are spent mainly on wage subsidies and tax cuts tilted toward the working poor. The down-payment on the cost of healthcare reform is financed by an additional tax increase on the rich.
Crook seems to be trying to conjure that bane of neo-liberals and conservatives alike – class warfare! All of this based on the assumption contained in the beginning, that Obama is “telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.”
But is this so? Crook bases his argument on the presumption that the status quo is fair. He says that if Obama is planning on paying for health care reform without levying any additional taxes on the majority of Americans, then this majority is getting something – or in the exaggerated vernacular of those who make opinons for a living, “everything” – for nothing.
But this same majority of Americans getting “something for nothing” here allows a very small minority to control a far disproportionate amount of resources. The legitimacy of these social bargains – whereby those with power and wealth are allowed to keep their power and wealth peaceably – rarely enters into the minds of those who benefit most from the bargain until we enter periods of unrest and instability. In many parts of the world – China, Pakistan, Russia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland – the current crisis is calling into question the legitimacy of their social bargains in fundamental ways. In America, this crisis is calling into question the historically recent amendments to our social bargain from the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.
The crisis might have prompted a sort of reactionary liberalism that sought to rollback the Reagan revolution in its entirety – much as Reagan’s reactionary conservatism sought to undo the Great Society. But instead, liberalism is guided by Barack Obama whose liberalism accepts some of Reagan’s most profound critiques and incorporates them into a new liberalism, leavened with both the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.
Clive Crook’s invocation of the lazy masses being offered everything for nothing strikes me as a more refined take on Rick Santelli’s famous rant about the “losers” who took out loans they could not pay for. What strikes me about both sentiments is the sense of who the “losers” are – not the corporations and Wall Street bankers who lost the most. To call them “losers” may be morally appropriate but rings hollow when you’re speaking about those who benefited the most from our societal bargain. These “losers” may be feeling the pressure from our flagging economy but having benefited disproportionately during the boom of the past thirty years – and especially the Bush recovery – are still quite well-off. Those who “lost” the most also had the most – and still, after losing so much, often have more than the majority of the population. The real “losers” in the complete derogatory sense of the word as the individuals who took on mortgages they could not afford and now will be left with nothing but bad credit and the knowledge that they too contributed to the financial meltdown.
In other words, the real losers are not those whose prosperity (based on fees generated from borrowed money) is diminished, but those whose prosperity was never quite achieved as they borrowed money (generating the above-mentioned fees) to acquire some portion of their American dream of prosperity.
Crook while complaining about those being offered everything for nothing fails to acknowledge the system itself which has been redistributing wealth upwards for some time now. What – a different version of Crook might ask – did the 95% of Americans receive for allowing the top 5% to control most wealth? They received the promise of a growing economy that would lift everyone up – and the assurance that certain basic services would be provided, even to the least of our citizens. So, if the wealthy will be paying $4.10 more per day to help maintain the stability of the society which has provided them with the opportunity to become so wealthy, I wouldn’t call that something for nothing.
The stock market isn’t a rational creature – it is subject to panics and irrational exuberance and sour moods and churlishness and massive misjudgments. To judge whether an economic plan is working or not requires time and wisdom – neither of which are found in the daily results of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Of course, Stewart founds some time to mock Rick Santelli on the way:
Humor makes it all go down so much easier.
There’s no denying the inchoate anger, not fully formed, matured, directed, or realized, that some seek to target Obama with. The problem is that these Santellis and these Limbaughs and the rest of them have no more to offer than the mythical Howard Beale of Network – whose famous rants clearly inspired Santelli’s on-air persona:
Watching this famous clip today is eerie – as it echoes into our own time – and makes Santelli’s performance seem all the more post-modern.
In the end, it comes down to this:
As a nation we have a choice to do nothing, to let Obama implement his plan, or to come up with a better one. In my opinion, Obama’s opponents have yet to offer a serious alternate plan. Which is why I’m sticking with him on this, at least for now.
Opponents of Obama’s response to the financial crisis have taken a number of approaches their disagreement. As with all political opposition, these approaches begin with a seemingly common-sense question or objection – and use it as a lever to attack their opponents. Governor Bobby Jindal for example used a bit of each of the following approaches to go after Obama – though not quite committing to any of them fully. I’ve paired many of these approaches with the most prominent individuals who have become associated with them – and tried to respond to them. What is common among them all is a desire to tap into the inchoate rage that this crisis is engendering among all Americans – and to try to focus that rage on Barack Obama. What is lacking among these approaches is a compelling or plausible alternative.
I.Do we need to do anything at all? (James K. Glassman)
What Mr. Dow 36,000 failed to account for was that the stability of societies around the world is dependent on economic growth and the opportunity this brings. The opiate of the masses unhappy with their governments is no longer religion – it is the hope that results from economic growth, the miracle and curse of rising expectations.
Mr. Dow 36,000 believes that if our economic heart seems to have stopped beating, the answer is to have faith that our blood will continue to flow. “We don’t need stimulus – we need to calm down,” he says. But the only rational response is to shock the heart back into action, to stimulate it.
II. But do we need to spend all this money?
Yes, if not more. The basic theory of Keynesian stimulus is that when the aggregate market demand for goods and services enters into a decreasing spiral.
Less demand = Lower prices = Less supply = Less jobs = Less demand = Lower Prices = etcetera
When an economy enters this cycle, Keynes believed, the government must step in and increase demand by spending more than it receives in taxes. (If it taxed to make up for it’s increased spending, it would not be adding demand but merely redistributing it.) Projections indicate that the US gross domestic product will fall by $2.1 trillion in the next two years. Which is why some Nobel-prize winning economists were frustrated that Obama’s plan was so small that it will not be able to make up for the drop in demand.
Joe Scarborough pointed out on Meet the Press last Sunday that, as all deficit spending is stimululative, the last eight years of the Bush presidency have been Keynesian stimulus too:
Scarborough uses this point to make out Obama’s stimulus to be more of the same, except with the stimulus directed towards the bottom 95% of Americans instead of the top 2%. He’s not entirely wrong, but to continue the metaphor above – if someone’s lifestyle choices have put enormous pressure on their heart, as they snort cocaine or take speed or otherwise constantly overcharge their heart, the first step to getting them healthy is usually to get them to stop putting so much pressure on their heart. But if their heart beat is dropping rapidly, or their heart has stopped, then the first step is no longer to remove the cocaine from their system but to inject them with someone that will energize their heart. This is a stimulus. And this is the reason Obama’s economic team is increasing our deficit in the short term.
III. What about tax cuts? (Eric Cantor)
The Republicans proposed a $3.1 trillion dollar permanent tax cut as their alternative to Obama’s $780 billion dollar spending/tax cut stimulus. That they continued to criticize Obama for fiscal irresponsibility and accused him of “generational theft” while supporting this bill aptly demonstrates that this was a pure political play. But if nothing else, the sheer size of the Republican alternative stimulus suggests what the reports of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Office concluded: tax cuts work slower and have less stimulative effect than almost any kind of spending measures. This is why more than half of Obama’s bill is spending.
IV. Fine. But even if this works, the deficit will be out of control! (John McCain)
Damn right it will. Hell – after eight years of rapidly decreasing taxes coupled with the largest increase in domestic spending since the War on Poverty and two large and seemingly unending wars, the deficit was already out of control. Even before that, as Bush failed to respect the “lockbox” that Al Gore promised to protect with the extra funds raised by Social Security taxes, we were in trouble. But even if we had saved all of this money paid into the Social Security program which is owed to me and you in a few dozen years (or less) the rapidly escalating cost of health care would leave our government with a deficit of over $60 trillion dollars over the next few decades.
Which is why Obama has been talking about dealing with America’s long-term fiscal problems since he was on the campaign trail – and especially since he was elected. In the weeks before his election, Washington was taken with his idea of a “Grand Bargain.”
But none of this will matter if the economy doesn’t begin growing again. If the first step to recovery is deficit spending to get the economy going again – continuing the above metaphor, using paddles, injections, whatever to get our economic heart functioning again – the next step is to clean up our act and take a fiscally responsible approach to governing and entitlement spending – in other to stop the irresponsible behaviors that helped create the crisis. If our economy is still stagnant, we will need to dismantle a good portion of our federal and state governments. But if the stimulus works, and the economy begins to grow again, adjustments can be made. Another point that Obama and his Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzag have made clear is that the first step to solving America’s long-term fiscal problems is tackling the problem of our rapidly escalating health care costs – which thanks to their rapid growth make up an ungodly percentage of our unmet future commitments. This is why Obama sees health care reform as one of the first steps that needs to be taken – to stop the rapidly escalating costs of health care.
Yes, we do. Obama has described his economic team as a bunch of mechanics who are trying to fix the machine that is our economy. When a mechanic sees that a spring or a lever or a cog isn’t functioning properly – and this piece is preventing the machine from working – the mechanic knows the problem will not be fixed by lecturing the piece or letting it fail for not properly doing it’s job. The correct thing to do is to replace it or glue it or do whatever is necessary to make the piece function as it must. Yes, the bankers whose job it was to properly calculate risk and make money instead spectacularly failed to understand the risks they were taking and lost money; and yes, the liars and idiots who took our mortgages they couldn’t afford should be punished too. But while one bank failing is just, a failure of our banking system could paralyze the economy. And while an idiot who took out a loan he couldn’t afford should get his house foreclosed upon, too many foreclosures will take down a neighborhood. Both of these are part of systemic problems which has resulted in downward spirals.
Obama, in taking this approach, seems to be combining some elements of Hayek’s warnings about the limits of the discipline of economics and the failure of the best-laid plans with Keynes’s fierce urgency of now – a kind of trial-and-error, scientific approach to financial crisis management as opposed to a more ideological, morality-driven approach associated with partisans of the left and right.
Obama has elected to do what needs to be done to fix the economy as a whole – and this means helping people whose decisions were poor, people who were greedy, people who were stupid, and yes, losers too. No matter how distasteful, the situation bankers and mortgagees must be helped in order to fix the economy.
To reiterate, the Obama plan has several steps:
Fixing the mortgage and banking mess.
Arresting the downward economic spiral touched off by these messes with government spending to stimulate demand.
Put our government on a fiscally sane path by tackling the enormous gap between our spending promises and revenue generation in the area of entitlements – and at the same time, reigning in deficit spending as soon as this crisis has passed. (These steps are necessary to prevent those who we currently owe from panicking.)
VII. I hope he fails! Socialist! Communist! Marxist! Terrorist! Black Hitler! The Antichrist! Nobama! (Rush Limbaugh)
In fairness to Rush, he’s only publicly expressed a few of these sentiments. I’m not sure that he’s called Obama a black Hitler yet – but I’m sure he’s joked about it. This approach presumes that Obama has a quasi-secret agenda he is trying to impose on America – and that this agenda is so awful, it would be better to suffer another Great Depression or worse than to capitulate. Rush has described Obama as acting in bad faith, as being deranged, as having a mental illness (which Rush diagnoses as liberalism), and as all manner of awful and un-conservative things. Rush is a true propagandist and ideologue – and he has become the rallying point for movement conservatives.
His critiques now have power as the anticipatory fear of what Obama might do overwhelms the sense of what Obama is doing – and if Obama fails, Rush will be hailed as a visionary and a leader. But if Obama continues to display the conservative temperament and pragmatism that won him the election, then he will be as little remembered as Father Coughlin with his anti-Roosevelt screeds.
Rush – like proponents of failed ideologies everyone – continues to maintain that the conservative movement did not fail, but rather that it never truly had the power to achieve it’s agenda.