This week the first presidential candidates’ debate will be aired on television. A good part of the topic of the first debate will focus on economic programs of the respective candidates. They will say they represent fundamental differences. This is in part true. But equally true is that their positions on the economy in many important aspects are strikingly, and disturbingly, similar. Read the following except from my just published article on this topic in Z magazine.
This week the first televised debate between the two presidential candidates will be held and a good part of the debate will address programs for economic recovery for the next four years. Both parties and candidates are now proclaiming there are historic, stark differences and choices between them; that this election will mean choosing two fundamentally different paths for the country for years, and perhaps decades, to come with regard to the future of the economy in terms of jobs, taxes, deficits, housing, state and local governments, and other economic indicators. A closer examination reveals, however, that while there are some clear differences between the two candidates on economic matters, the similarities in their economic proposals are both striking and disturbing.
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Upon entering office in 2009 Obama promised to create 6 million jobs if his $787 billion stimulus bill of (mostly business) tax cuts and spending subsidies to states and unemployed were passed. But after 18 months neither the tax cuts nor subsidies resulted in any appreciable job creation. Between June 2009 when the recession was officially declared over, and 18 months later in December 2010, an additional 1.1 million private sector jobs were lost. By year end 2010 the president had to resort to the claim he had at least had ‘saved’ further millions of jobs. With the effects of the $787 billion stimulus mostly spent, his job creation strategy then shifted mid-2010. A second recovery program passed late 2010 composed totally of an additional $800 billion in tax cuts—including $450 billion in extended Bush tax cuts Obama promised in 2008 he would not do.
This $800 billion more in tax cuts was supplemented by a new policy focus on manufacturing and promoting exports as the primary program to create jobs. Multinational corporate CEOs , like General Electric’s Jeff Immelt, were put in charge of his job creation program. That meant more free trade agreements, more deregulation for business, and more subsidies for U.S. export companies.
In 2011-12 still more business tax cuts were proposed as the way to create jobs. In 2011 tens of billions more for small business to hire unemployed and a so-called ‘JOBS’ (Jump Start Our Business Startups). JOBS was nothing more than a cover for more tax breaks and financial deregulation for start up companies, but Obama praised it as ‘a game changer’ for employment. More subsidies to the states to hire teachers and emergency responders, now being laid off in the hundreds of thousands, was also proposed but never passed Congress.
Obama’s Jobs Programs over the past 42 months therefore amount to the following:
• Tax cuts and more tax cuts for businesses
• Manufacturing-centric policies driven by more Free Trade agreements, more manufacturing export subsidies, and more business deregulation
• More subsidies to the states to hire teachers and emergency responders
These programs have proved pretty much a total bust, however: After $3 trillion in tax cuts and spending, total private sector employment has risen by only 2 million, or about 50,500 per month, which is well less than half that needed just to even absorb new entrants to the labor force. Total unemployment, as measured by the labor department’s U-6 rate, has fallen by a mere 1.3 million—from 24.6 million in June 2009 to 23.3 million in July 2012. Between June 2009 and July 2012 a paltry 200,000 manufacturing jobs were created, for an average of a mere 5,000 per month. And Obama’s much vaunted recovery of the Auto Industry has produced 157,000 auto jobs, which is still 180,000 fewer than existed at the start of the recession in December 2007.
Despite this embarrassing record on job creation, the President in his September 6 convention speech indicated clearly he would ‘stay the path’ with this business tax cuts + manufacturing promotion + free trade as his basic approach to job creation. He made it clear his second term’s strategy would be to “export more products” and that he would continue to work with business leaders to “create 1 million more manufacturing jobs over the next 4 years”. In his speech he also proudly proclaimed he had signed free trade agreements “bringing jobs back” and declared he would sign still more—a clear reference to his proposal for creating a ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP), a free trade agreement with all the countries of the pacific rim which Obama has been promoting for several months and an even bolder goal than George W. Bush’s Free Trade of the Americas that was proposed in 2005 to create a free trade zone throughout all of north and south America. In other words, in terms of jobs creation programs don’t expect much different from his first term in either job creation programs or results in an Obama second term.
Romney’s view on how to create jobs focuses even more heavily on tax cuts as the primary approach. Romney proposes to create 12 million jobs by 2017. The primary engine would be extending the entire $3.4 trillion in Bush tax cuts of the last decade as is for another decade (minus extending the cuts for those households earning less than $40,000 a year). Obama would extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 3% households. So Obama cuts out part of the ‘top tier’ of households from the Bush tax cuts extension, while Romney cuts out the ‘bottom tier’ of households. (Both support, however, reducing the top corporate tax rate from current 35%, as noted below).
To create the 12 million, however, Romney proposes more than just extending the Bush cuts: he calls for even more tax cuts for corporations (as does Obama), reduced business regulations and more Free Trade agreements (ditto Obama), but adds more oil drilling and some token worker retraining as addenda to his jobs program.
However, Romney’s 12 million jobs goal is somewhat of a sham. It amounts to creating only 180,000 jobs a month on average, i.e. just 50,000 more than needed for new entrants to the labor force each month. That means reducing the current 23 million jobless by only 50,000 a month, which would leave 20 million still unemployed by 2017. So the Romney program is not really a program to eliminate the massive jobless overhang today—apart from the question of whether more business tax cuts, free trade, oil subsidies, etc. will even create the 12 million jobs in the first place.
In short, the relationship between job creation programs and business tax cutting is just a matter of degree between the two presidential candidates. Romney advocates ‘Bush tax cuts on steroids’ to create jobs, while Obama exempts the top 3%. Both strongly propose Free Trade and more business deregulation as job creation measures. Obama proposes subsidies to states to hire teachers and firefights, while Romney doesn’t and proposes token job retraining. Romney wants still more cuts and subsidies to oil companies; Obama does not. Both support multiple handouts to small businesses. But all these programs have been proven failures to date, so the unemployed have little to expect from either candidate once elected.
As previously mentioned, Obama proposes to discontinue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 3%. The top marginal tax rate for individuals would be allowed to rise from 35% to the 39.6% level of the Clinton years, impacting wealthiest households earning more than $250,000 a year. Taxes on the wealthiest 1% (earning more than $600,000 a year) would rise $93,000 a year. (For millionaires a tax hike of $296,000 a year). The tax on capital gains, now at only 15%, would also increase to 20% under Obama proposals. Oil and gas industry tax breaks would be reduced.
But what Obama proposes to ‘taketh away’ from the top tier of the personal income tax he proposes ‘to giveth’ to their corporations. His proposals include reducing the top corporate tax rate from current 35% to the 28% it was under Reagan. This shift is proposed despite the fact that in 2011 corporate taxes amounted to only 12.1% of profits—compared to the 1987-2008 period when corporate taxes averaged 25.6% of profits. For all businesses, corporate and non-corporate, the super-generous ‘bonus depreciation’ provision of the past two years, in which businesses can write off the cost of all capital investment in the first year of purchase, would also be continued despite its costing a whopping $55 billion a year.
Obama also favors changing the taxing of U.S. multinational corporations, reducing taxes on their offshore profits, even though that group today is hoarding $1.4 trillion of in their offshore subsidiaries and refusing to pay US taxes on it. In exchange for this tax reduction, Obama proposes to raise taxes in a yet unspecified way on those multinationals that offshore jobs.
Romney’s tax program is once again an extreme version of Obama’s but with many content similarities. In addition to extending all the Bush tax cuts of the past decade, for yet another decade, which would cost the US Treasury another $4.6 trillion according to the Congressional Budget Office research arm, Romney proposes the following tax changes:
• Cut the personal income tax rate for the rich even further than Bush, by 20% across the board.
• Cut the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% (vs. Obama’s 28%)
• Introduce a ‘territorial tax’ for US multinational corporations, which would in effect end the current foreign profits tax they pay (or in fact now refuse to pay)
• Repeal the Medicare 2.9% additional tax on the wealthy contained in Obama’s 2010 ‘Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by repealing the entire Act.
• Allow tax credits for those earning less than $40,000 a year to expire (i.e. earned income, child care, and other tax credits).
• End all taxation on capital gains, dividends and interest income for households earning less than $200,000 a year.
• Keep the capital gains, dividends and interest income taxed at current 15%.
• Bigger tax cuts for business research and development
• End the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) altogether, which impacts those earning around $150,000 a year and above
• End the Estate Tax altogether
In summary, apart from their respective positions on extending the Bush tax cuts, both Obama and Romney are largely in synch on introducing more massive cuts in corporate income taxes, reducing corporate taxes to the 25%-28% range from current 35%–despite corporations today paying the smallest share of taxes from profits. Both have plans as well to provide multinational corporations even more tax concessions. Romney differs in proposing to give upper middle class households bigger incentives to invest in stocks, bonds and other interest bearing securities—an ultimate boon to his stock-bond market buddies. He also proposes to give the wealthy big tax bonuses by ending the Estate, Alternative Minimum, and forthcoming Medicare 2.9% taxes. Both propose more tax cuts that will not reduce the projected US budget deficits over the coming decade, but actually make them worse—and much, much worse in the case of Romney—leading in both cases to even more massive cuts in spending programs than either candidate is so far admitting to.
Budget Deficits: Obama
Obama’s policy with regard to US deficits is his pledge to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. That has been Obama’s stated goal since the deficit debates in 2011 leading up to the debt ceiling crisis of August 2011. That $4 trillion goal, moreover, is the same as proposed by his Deficit Commission (Simpson-Bowles), Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, and various other Senate and ex-government officials. Details of the president’s $4 trillion deficit reduction plan are to be found in his 2012 budget. It is perhaps of some interest to note that Obama’s budget projections include a $5.8 trillion bill for defense spending over the decade, an amount which is 23% greater on an annual average than defense spending during the Bush years, 2001-2008.
The Congressional Budget Office has issued a different estimate of the likely budget deficits over the next decade. Given current tax cuts and spending projections, the CBO estimates the Obama deficits will amount to $6.4 trillion from 2013-2022. In January 2013 government spending will decline by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade, based on the debt ceiling deal agreed upon by Obama and the Republican House of Representatives in August 2011. Raising the debt ceiling once again will therefore become a major issue in early 2013. That means major tax increases and/or further spending cuts will be on the agenda immediately after the November 2012 elections regardless who is elected president (the challenge sometimes referred to as the coming ‘fiscal cliff’ by the media). Republican insistence on no tax increases and on raising defense spending even higher than projected by law or in the Obama budget, will mean an historic confrontation between deficit reduction and massive cuts in social program spending, including not only Medicaid but Medicare, Education, Social Security, and other discretionary spending programs. As this writer has been predicting, the confrontation will start immediately, within days, of the upcoming November 2012 elections—again regardless of who is elected president.
Budget Deficits: Romney
As frightening as the upcoming budget deficit confrontation following the elections will be with the Obama budget as starting point, the Romney budget-deficit proposals represent a deficit crisis of even far greater magnitude.
Romney tax cut proposals include the major elements of a continuation of the Bush tax cuts for another decade, at a cost of $4.6 trillion, plus adding trillions more in business-investor tax cuts. The result is deficits for the next decade equivalent to approximately $10 trillion! To address this massive deficit Romney proposes cutting federal spending from its current 24% of GDP to 18%-20%. That 6% of GDP in 2013 equals an immediate reduction in spending and/or increase in working poor and middle class tax cuts amounting to $300 billion. By 2015 the estimate is $500 billion, presumably rising further thereafter. In addition, he proposes to reverse the sequestered scheduled $500 billion in defense spending cuts agreed to in Congress in August 2011. The increases in working poor and middle class tax cuts were noted above. The spending cuts would mostly come from discretionary non-defense spending on items like education, transportation, healthcare, etc., for which Romney proposes a 5% cut across the board. The 5% represents no more than $60 billion a year. As others have pointed out, the Romney proposals do not add up and it is unclear how the 5% discretionary cuts, no defense cuts, retaining Bush tax cuts, adding trillions more in corporate-wealthy individual tax cuts can cover the $10 trillion. Proposing to reduce federal spending by 6% of GDP means spending cuts and/or tax increases totaling at least $900 billion a year. It can only mean unmentioned additional massive cuts in Medicaid-Medicare-Social Security and historic reversals in middle class tax breaks that are left conveniently unmentioned.
The Romney deficits therefore mean not only massive social spending cuts but hundreds of billions more in middle class tax increases as well. High on the list of the latter would have to include the elimination of tax deductions for health care and pension contributions by workers, virtually ending the mortgage interest and state income tax deductions, new taxation on Medicare benefits, and ending most of the earned income tax deduction for the working poor. Sharply reducing, or even ending, these deductions would be necessary to accommodate Romney’s proposed business and investor tax cuts. Romney would additionally end Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, reducing the deficit by another $.9 trillion. The rest presumably would come from other spending cuts in education, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
In summary, whoever wins the election, get ready for massive social spending cuts and a fight over how little to raise taxes. The deficit reduction proposals of both candidates envision historic cuts in social spending. Both envision more tax cuts for corporations that would additionally have to be made up from spending cuts and/or middle class tax hikes. Obama’s deficit reduction plan envisions some tax increases on the wealthiest individuals, while Romney’s envisions trillions of dollars more tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for by tax hikes by the poor and middle class as well as historic cuts in social spending of even greater magnitude than Obama’s.
There is virtually no difference between the two candidates on trade policy, and free trade agreements in particular. Both strongly supported recent free trade agreements with Panama, Columbia, and South Korea. And Romney supports Obama’s current drive to implement the biggest expansion of free trade with the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP) pacific rim free trade policy, a development that will dwarf in scope and magnitude even Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA and his opening of China trade. According to the Economic Policy Institute, China trade alone has cost the US 2.7 million jobs just in the past decade. NAFTA millions more. Neverthless, both candidates unreservedly advocate accelerating free trade agreements.
The battle between Romney and Obama on trade amounts to token differences on how to show they are ‘tough on China’. Romney accuses Obama of being ‘too soft’ on China and demands more punitive action. Both candidates talk in vague generalities about the ‘offshoring’ of US jobs that has occurred by the tens of millions in recent decades, but neither offers any specific proposals for addressing the issue.
Health Care – Medicare/Medicaid: Obama
The heart of Obama’s Healthcare policy is, of course, the retention of his 2010 Affordability Care Act. Costing nearly $1 trillion over the rest of the decade, the Act does provide a number of meaningful benefits for the general populace. However, it has two great flaws: first, it amounts to a health insurance company subsidy bill. Health insurers will receive hundreds of billions of dollars of extra business. The second flaw is that it fails fundamentally to control health insurance and other health care costs. The problem of runaway healthcare costs will thus re-emerge and continue under the ACA, a problem which has already emerged as health insurance premiums and other costs have once again begun surging in 2011-12.
On the positive side, the ACA raises taxes on the wealthy by another 2.9%–which is the real source of much of the opposition to the ACA by the wealthy, transmitted through their manipulation of the Teaparty on the issue. But it also includes a reduction in payments to doctors and health providers in the amount of more than $700 billion. That will inevitably lead to doctors and providers refusing increasingly to provide services to Medicare patients. The ACA is thus a form of income shift that promises to reduce health care access. That is the price to be paid for the subsidization of health insurers and coverage extension to the tens of millions without any coverage.
It should further be noted, that Obama has signaled in July 2011, as he sought desperately an agreement with Republicans on the debt ceiling debate, that he was willing to cut Medicaid and Medicare by $700 billion despite the proposed expansion of Medicaid in his ACA. That public proposal provoked a near revolt by Democrats in Congress and was withdrawn. Nevertheless, it remains ‘on the table’, as they say, and will most certainly arise again immediately after the November elections. Voters will not hear of this during the election campaign, but will most certainly once the election is over.
Health Care – Medicare/Medicaid: Romney
Romney’s program with regard to health programs and policy top priority is to repeal Obama’s health care act of 2010. Next in priority is his complete embracing of his Teaparty Vice President, Paul Ryan, view for Medicare. The Ryan plan is to voucherize Medicare, provide payments to senior to then go and buy private health insurance—an even bigger windfall for insurance companies than Obama’s subsidies to insurers in his ACA. Ryan has projected this will ‘save’ the federal government $700 billion. However, not all seniors will receive the same voucher payment. Some will get less than others, thus creating a kind of ‘two tier’ voucher system. Moreover, there are no assurances the value of vouchers will increase annually with the rising cost of healthcare services, thus requiring seniors to increasingly pay more out of pocket for healthcare insurance. The main beneficiary from this, apart from health insurance companies, is the federal government which Ryan estimates will save $700 billion in government spending over the next decade. The Romney-Ryan Medicare voucher plan thus represents an income transfer of hundreds of billions from seniors to both insurers and the government.
Romney-Ryan are also major proponents of massive reductions in the Medicaid program, proposing to cut federal and state Medicaid costs by turning it into block grants to the States—many of which would refuse to participate or would take the money in the block grant and spend it elsewhere.
Proposals by both candidates are almost identical with regard to social security. Both are purposely saying little before the election about how they would address social security. Romney proposes vaguely that the age for eligibility for retirement benefits should be raised, as does Obama. Neither say raised to what or how quickly. Both suggest cost of living adjustments annually should be lowered. Obama implies by changing the way the consumer price index is applied. Romney goes further and recommends the creation of a ‘two tier’ system in the future (similar to Medicare) in which seniors with a certain level of retirement income would receive less social security benefits. What’s left unsaid by both is their agreement to target social security disability benefits for major reductions.
Housing Crisis: Obama
Apart from the failure to create jobs, the next greatest economic policy failure of Obama’s first term has been his reluctance to direct confront the housing crisis. The housing sector has languished in a veritable depression for three and half years, with home building and jobs stuck at only a third to half of pre-recession levels. More than 12 million of the 54 million mortgaged homeowners in the US have been forced into foreclosure, often illegally by the banks. More than 8.5 million on Obama’s watch, while than 10 million similarly languish with mortgages in ‘negative equity’.
From the beginning in 2009 Obama’s policies have focused on subsidizing mortgage lenders and mortgage servicers (big 5 banks), to help them move foreclosed homeowners out of their homes and to resell to new buyers. Early 2009 Obama programs like HAMP (Home Affordability Modification Program) are acknowledge failures, providing tens of billions of dollars of subsidies to banks and homebuilders and token assistance to homeowners.
In 2010 Obama then ignored the ‘robo-signing scandal’ that broke that summer, leaving it to state attorneys general to deal with. However, when it appeared legal suits would cost the banks potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, only then did the Obama administration intervene in 2011. That intervention was designed to help the banks—not homeowners—by limiting banks’ liability to homeowner and state legal suits. As part of that compromise, banks’ liability from legal suits arising out of robo-signing illegal foreclosures was capped at a mere $25 billion. Payments to homeowners illegally foreclosed have averaged only $1,500 each in the settlement and less than a billion of the $25 billion. Recent reports are that the $20 billion is not going to reducing loan balances for homeowners in ‘negative equity’ but is being deducted by banks against the $25 billion in the form of charges against short sales of homes in negative equity. In other words, homeowners are not being assisted to remain in their homes, but assisted in vacating them—which the banks then resell to new buyers at still further profit.
In exchange for the limits on liability, the banks were ‘encouraged’ to participate in latest OBAMA housing recovery program, his 2012 program called HARP 2.0. The HARP program was a ‘quid pro quo’ for relieving from pending massive liability action by the States. But HARP 2.0 is, in final analysis, just another ‘banker subsidy’ program. Not only are the big mortgage banks protected from further legal suits, but they are profiting nicely from the program. In exchange for refinancing homeowners in negative equity, the banks involved receive a commission of 5 ‘points’ (each point=1% of the value of the mortgage) from the quasi government mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Five points on a $500,000 mortgage refinancing amounts to a generous $25,000 fee paid to banks by the federal government for each refinancing. In turn, these costs incurred by Fannie and Freddie will have to be restored with funding from Congress and thus the taxpayer. HARP 2.0 remains as Obama’s latest centerpiece program for rescuing the millions of homeowners illegally foreclosed or in negative equity.
Housing Crisis: Romney
Romney’s program for ending the Housing crisis includes the following measures: first, to sell the 200,000 estimated local government owned homes. Somehow that is supposed to help raise home values, according to Romney, but will actually increase the excess supply of homes on the market and thus further depress home prices in most cases. Another Romney proposal is a vague demand to ‘restart lending’ to credit worthy borrowers. How to force banks to lend to homeowners, when they have been clearly reluctant to lend to small-medium businesses, is not explained in the Romney proposals. Romney’s Housing solution also calls for major reform of the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac government mortgage institutions as well as still further deregulation of mortgage lenders and banks—i. e. two long time conservative demands designed to further privatize and deregulate the housing market.
While there are several dramatic differences between the Obama and Romney economic programs, there are also several almost identical programs shared by both. Both favor major reductions in corporate taxes. Both advocate hundreds of billions in social spending cuts, including entitlement programs. Both are almost identical in their positions on Free Trade.
Concerning tax policies, both propose to extend much of the Bush tax cuts—Obama suspending the cuts for the top 3% and Romney eliminating tax credits for the working poor and lower middle class. Obama has proposed some minor tax loophole closings, while Romney proposes additional, massive tax cuts for investors and businesses on top of the Bush tax cuts. Obama’s deficit over the decade amounts to a sizeable $4-$6 trillion but Romney’s more than $10 trillion. Both mean massive cuts in social programs coming immediately after the November elections, with Romney requiring major middle class tax hikes as well. Obama’s budget is very generous to Defense, and Romney’s even more so. A big difference between the two exists with regard to healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. Romney wants to destroy Obama’s ACA immediately and Medicare eventually. Both appear quite willing to gut Medicaid spending, with Romney cutting other discretionary spending by additional trillions over the decade.
These comparisons mean that, regardless who is elected president, an historic reduction in social program spending is on the agenda for the weeks immediately following the November 2012 elections. Defense spending will be either totally or partly protected from the cuts. And taxes will be further reduced for corporations, tokenly raised for wealthy individuals, and most likely significantly raised for middle class and the working poor. Nothing of any significance will be done to address the Housing crisis and programs to create jobs will continue to fail to have much impact.
It is this scenario that has prompted this writer repeatedly to predict the likelihood of a double dip recession in 2013, especially if the Eurozone crisis continues to deteriorate and China and the rest of the global economy continue on a path to an economic ‘hard landing’. It is possible, if Obama is re-elected, the fiscal austerity coming in early 2013 may be delayed a year and effectively ‘back loaded’ to start taking its greatest effect a year later in 2014. But if Romney is elected and Republicans control either, or both, houses of Congress the more draconian austerity programs will take effect earlier in 2013. That alone will ensure a double dip recession. And if the Eurozone slides deeper in recession and banking instability, virtually guarantee a double dip.