Washington, DC – It was in the 1980 presidential contest that Ronald Reagan first asked the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
It was a fitting introduction to the Age of Greed – don’t think about your fellow citizens or your country or the world, was part of the message – and it ushered in the most massive upward redistribution of income and wealth that America has ever seen.
Over the ensuing three decades the United States would become a much more unequal society, where the majority of people could no longer aspire to a middle-class existence.
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The Reagan presidency itself was a disgrace in other respects too, making America infamous in the hemisphere for its sponsorship of genocide and torture in Central America and dictatorships elsewhere.
Now comes Mitt Romney in the Reagan tradition, hoping to win the presidency on the basis of America’s weak economy over the last four years. But there are a number of problems with his argument.
First, the obvious: President Obama didn’t create the economic mess that we are looking at – he inherited it from the previous government. Although both Democratic and Republican politicians contributed to the $8 trillion housing bubble that caused the Great Recession, it cannot be blamed primarily on the Democrats and certainly not on Obama himself.
The question then is whether the Obama administration has done enough to turn things around in the last four years – and most important, whether Romney might do better.
I have criticized President Obama for not pursuing a much larger stimulus, as have other economists such as my colleague Dean Baker, and Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.
The federal stimulus only replaced about one-fifth of the private spending lost in 2009-2010 due to the bursting of the housing bubble; and half of this stimulus was canceled out by the budget tightening of state and local governments.
However, the federal stimulus did create an estimated 3 million jobs that would not otherwise have been there. The administration’s rescue of the auto industry, also opposed by Romney and his party, probably saved an additional 1.5 million to 2.5 million jobs.
So, if you think that Obama didn’t do enough in his first term, you would not want Romney for the next four years, because he and his party were opposed to the measures that actually did save millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars of income for Americans.
In fact, the Congressional Republicans cut $100 billion out of the federal stimulus package that would have gone to state and local governments so that they would not have pushed so many people into the unemployment lines, including teachers and firefighters.
On the positive side, President Obama’s health-care reform – which Mitt Romney wants to repeal – helps tens of millions of Americans.
The most important provisions do not kick in until 2014, when 30 million additional Americans will have health insurance, and people who have pre-existing health problems will not be discriminated against in obtaining insurance. Some of the provisions have already taken effect, for example allowing parents to keep their children on their insurance policies up to age 26.
People might also want to take into account whether they will be better off four years from now if President Obama loses.
Perhaps most worrisome are Romney’s pledges to cut Social Security, the bedrock program that stands between most of our senior citizens and a life of poverty. He also wants to cut other important government programs in order to raise military spending by $2 trillion over the next decade – while most of the country is really sick of our involvement in pointless wars.
These are not policies that will make Americans better off four years from now.