A positive development in our politics is that attention is finally turning to the debt and the annual deficit. In case you aren’t aware of the raw numbers, the deficit for the past two years has ballooned to more than an aggregated $3 trillion. That has raised the national debt to more than $14 trillion – or, about $123,000 for every household in the United States. I give President Obama credit for finally listening to the nation and recognizing the seriousness of the problem. It marks a dramatic turn for him, seeing as how he spent more in his first two years in office than his predecessor did in eight.
In his speech last week, the President didn’t mince words: he expects the “wealthy” to pay substantially more than they currently do while he continues to spend like a drunken sailor on things only a drunken politician would consider necessary. Lo, the blogosphere and networks have focused on the President’s new Medicare proposal (more on that tomorrow) and how yes, the “rich” should pay more. After all, the argument goes, the middle class is paying higher rates than the wealthy and that is just unfair. It certainly seems a winning political argument; after all, who isn’t for soaking the rich?
This makes for good sound bites and good politics, but bad policy. I realize that in some regions the Democrats definition of “wealthy” (a family earning $250,000/year) might make sense. But in others, $250,000 per year is simply middle class. Upper middle class, to be sure, but hardly wealthy. In the New York metro area, a family easily achieves a combined $250,000 in income with two public sector workers. It is even easier to reach if one person sells cars and the other works in the local bodega. The same holds true for San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major metro areas around the country. This is really a call to arms in class warfare, the destructive political game played by Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, with disastrous effects for the nation – though those effects weren’t felt until decades later. Even liberal icon FDR understood the dangers of the game and generally shied away from playing it.
Fortunately, the IRS keeps records on the truly wealthy and the rest of us. The latest data they have is from 2007; but since the one tax policy liberals love to hate – the “Bush Tax Cuts” were already in effect – it makes a good statistical reference point. You can find it here. In it, the IRS keeps tabs on the 400 wealthiest taxpayers in the country and compares their rates to the rest of the taxpaying public. They began tracking the data in 1992, so we have a 15 year window in the way tax policy evolved through both the Bush and Clinton eras.
At first blush, it seems as though liberals may be on to something. The IRS calculated the effective tax rate on the top 400 earners as 26.38% in 1992, rising to a high of 29.93% by 1995, and then steadily dropping to 16.62% by 2007. But statistics are wonderful things; anyone can quote a number out of context to prove an argument and this is exactly what the liberal media is doing.
First, I give credit to the IRS for doing what nobody to the left of center has bothered doing in their arguments. Their numbers reflect 1990 dollars ,thereby accounting for inflation (in mathematical terms, they normalized values). So, if the truly wealthy were paying lower effective rates, then the government should have been taking in less money from them, right? Not so fast: in 1992, the IRS collected about $4.5 trillion; by 2007 that figure rose to $14.5 trillion. Why? Well, in 1992 not a single one of those 400 returns reflected an effective tax rate over 31%. By 2007, even with the hated “Bush Tax Cuts”, 55% of the top 400 had an effective tax rate of at least 35%. The lower overall tax rate for these taxpayers is reflected in the fact that 35 of them paid no tax – an effective rate of 0%.
Overall, the truly wealthy combined to pay 2.05% of the taxes in 2007, nearly double the 1.04% they contributed in 1992. In actual dollars, they contributed nearly $23 billion of the government’s total tax take of $1.1 trillion. Those who make up this class are certainly already paying their share and the administrations attempts to paint them as sore winners can only result in flat out class warfare.
We do have a revenue problem, since we’re spending more than 4 times what the government is taking in. A better focus would be on the 45% of Americans who currently do not pay any income tax. Certainly, if you’re gross income is below the poverty line for your region, you shouldn’t be expected to pay, but I doubt 45% of Americans are living in poverty. That certainly seems much fairer and also guarantees that those currently benefiting from living here also gain equity in the system.
However, I doubt we’re going to find $1.6 trillion in revenue by asking everyone to pay their taxes. We still need deep spending cuts just to get the 2012 budget balanced. Tune in as I tackle those issues throughout the week.
New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District, which covers most of Bergen County and in Hudson County, parts of Kearny and Jersey City as well as Secaucus, is currently represented by Steven Rothman. It’s time to change that and elect Michael Agosta to Congress this November.
Steve Rothman is a likeable person. Anyone who doubts that he is doing what he believes is best for the citizens of his district, the state and the nation in general are seriously deluded. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Rothman’s views of what’s best too closely follow the ideas of Karl Marx. That is, Rothman is an unabashed socialist. He honestly thinks every problem we face is best solved by a huge dose of government intervention and wealth redistribution. He doesn’t call himself a socialist, of course; but his voting record speaks for itself. He is ranked as a far-left liberal, having voted for nearly every proposed tax increase and government program that’s been introduced since he took his seat in 1997. Perhaps the best thing to be said about Rothman is that unlike his predecessor, Robert Torricelli, nobody suspects Rothman of undue corruption.
Michael Agosta, unlike Rothman, is a political neophyte who espouses the ideals of smaller government and personal responsibility. He is a man of good standing, although the Democratic Party has certainly tried to impugn his character over the past two weeks. A former Federal Air Marshall and soldier, Mr. Agosta’s national security credentials are born of the front-lines, not of a government-sponsored think tank. And on economic issues, Michael Agosta understands that the only way to revive the economy is to get people back to work – and to do that, we need to reduce taxes and hold the government accountable for their actions.
This November, vote for Michael Agosta. Vote to return America to Americans, not politicians.
Once every two years, Labor Day signals the opening of the “Silly Season.” What is this “Silly Season” you ask?
In a nutshell, the “Silly Season” is when the general populace joins political junkies in paying attention to the politicians running for office in November. And the politicians, on cue, begin campaigning in earnest. But what it makes the season silly is the way the politicians act. Suddenly, Democrats begin espousing conservative ideals. Ordinarily, they’re joined by Republicans discovering their love of liberal programs.
But this year promise to be sillier than most. With an unsettled economy, unemployment rising and public dissatisfaction in both political parties rising to all-time highs, Democrats are in serious trouble heading into the
campaign season. Many Congressional seats once considered safe for the Donkey Party are now in play; seats once considered as being in-play or toss-up’s are now leaning Republican. As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, the DNC is cutting loose many candidates, hoping to minimize losses in the November mid-terms.
In short, what many Democrats are discovering is that the positions they’ve spent the past four years carving out are not exactly what the country wanted. The reason they won most of their seats – including the Presidency – was national dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. The initiatives the current administration have pushed through have proven even more unpopular than the ones proposed by GWB. How bad is it? 56% of Americans want the abomination that passed as health care reform repealed. Republicans now lead Democrats in all ten of the major issues polls.
Not surprisingly, in light of these developments many Democrats are running as far from their own party as possible. It’s amazing how many Democrats are now against the very health care package they passed earlier this year. (Remember when Nancy Pelosi declared that once we knew what was in the bill, we would love it? Oops.) Even President Obama is finding his conservative voice, as reports suggest he will ask Congress to pass “targeted” tax breaks on Wednesday. To add to the sense of desperation from the Democrats, many are hoping to cast their opponents as extremists who would destroy the fabric of American life.
Of course, Republicans are tempted to equally join in the insanity, but so far have held the line on leaning left. They fully understand that the nation has peeked behind the Progressive curtain and been repulsed by the view. This is turning into one of the strangest elections ever seen, where the minority party is the one fending off negative attacks. Normally the reverse is true, but Republicans don’t need to go on the attack in this cycle. The news, even left-leaning organizations like MSNBC and the NY Times, can’t help but report the dismal employment numbers. So Republicans are remaining more or less silent, except to point out that the news hasn’t been good since the Obama administration took over. That’s attack ad enough. Besides, the left is self-immolating itself well enough that the Republicans don’t need to join in.
So kick back and enjoy the Road to November. It promises to be a fun – if bumpy – ride.
One thing is becoming painfully obvious: the way we, as Americans, view economic opportunity is out of step with the way the world operates today. It is time that we recognize this and address it in a positive manner, without the political fire-bombing that is hurled daily on both the left and the right.
The left is stuck with an early 20th century Keyensian view of economics. I’d argue that particular view didn’t really work then and won’t work today. Massive infusions of government capital during the 1930’s into public works projects did build some marvelous edifices, such as the Hoover Dam, but did not absolutely nothing to end the Great Depression. America didn’t return to full employment until the advent of World War 2 – the result of increased war production and more than 10 million men entering military service. Once the war ended, the economy again returned to near-Depression era levels of unemployment. What finally proved the cure for the economic ills of the 1st half of the 20th century was that in the post-war period, only the US remained capable of providing the goods and services needed by the world. It was an export economy, fueled by international demand, which put America back to work.
The right seems permanently wed to supply-side economics. Strict adherence to that model might have worked, but we’ll never know. While government receipts during the supply-side era (1981-2008) outpaced inflation by (See fig. 1), government spending at all levels increased at an even more dramatic pace, leaving us with unsustainable levels of debt and continuing government deficits – and a seemingly insatiable public demand for services that we cannot afford.
The current model being followed is a strange amalgam of the two diametrically opposed economic philosophies, with government interventions and expanded spending coupled with “targeted” tax breaks. In one sense, this new model has worked: businesses are sitting on a virtual mountain of cash. But in a much larger sense, these haven’t worked to stoke the economy – and for one simple reason, the demand needed by businesses to invest that capital doesn’t exist now. Employment data continues to remain bleak, representative of the fact that businesses are not investing in human capital. Part of the reason is undoubtedly tied to regulatory uncertainty, since anyone running a business needs to properly plan and account for the funds allocated for human resources. But that uncertainty alone cannot account for the downward pressure July’s economic data displayed on employment.
What is needed is recognition by both those on the right and the left that a new demand model is required for our current age. Modern technologies have made many labor-intensive occupations of the late 20th century redundant. Cloud computing and SaaS technology reduce the need for office and technical staffing, closing off two of the high-growth industries of the past 30 years. Manufacturing tasks that once required dozens of people can now be fully automated, with only one operator required. (Just last night I watched a documentary on Zippo lighters – the entire assembly line only needs 5 people to run it; a perfect example). Even many low-wage jobs have been replaced – the other day I went food shopping. No cashiers were available; the entire checkout line was self-service with two people running 20 checkout lanes.
In other words, there are two possibilities now facing the country:
- Current unemployment levels are now the “new normal” and a return to sub-5% unemployment is unlikely. In this event, the current social services are inadequate and need serious revamping. Unemployment insurance as currently exists needs to be discarded, replaced by a system that is more proactive in returning the unemployable to the workforce while ensuring that people are not discarded like yesterdays news. Such a program needs to be structured so that chronic unemployment and other abuses are not permitted. In short, in such a world, unemployment services should not be a state duty, they should very much be a federal-corporate symbiosis. It is impossible – and against a state’s interests – to train somebody for employment opportunities in another state, but it is in a company’s best interest to do so.
- Current unemployment levels are an aberration; a temporary result of career displacement due to a technology upheaval. Such upheavals have occurred before and the nation weathered those storms, most recently in the late-1970’s as the nation shifted from a manufacturing base to a services based economy. In this case, the government needn’t do much of anything, except make career retraining available and mandatory, in order to continue receiving unemployment insurance payments. Once, that is, the new employment needs are identified.
I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to know which of the two scenarios is correct. What I do know is that until we begin to honestly discuss them, no action can be planned or undertaken. But as I mentioned at the top of this post, neither side seems ready to abandon decades-old dogma. I doubt either will over the next 90 days, as we begin a new national election cycle and both sides seem to only care about scoring political points by feeding raw meat to their adherents.
It’s up to the American people to put aside our natural inclination to fear in uncertain times and force our political leaders to engage in an honest discussion of the situation. And if they won’t?
Then it’s up to us to replace them this November with people who will.
I’m certain many of you have been watching the unfolding – seemingly in slow-motion – debate on extending unemployment benefits. Then again, I’m also certain that quite a few of my fellow citizens haven’t given it more thought than which sunscreen to bring to the beach. After all, it is July. This is hardly the time of year when political juices get flowing for most of the electorate.
However, I have two strikes against me when thinking about this: for one, I am an admitted political junkie and two; I am one of those approximately 6,800,000 Americans who has been officially unemployed for longer than 6 months. (That’s a pretty dismal number, but it’s actually rosy when compared to the long-term underemployment number and the actual numbers of Americans who have been unemployed so long that the feds stopped counting them. But I digress.) So, I’ve been watching and listening with keen interest.
Being fiscally conservative (ok, ϋber-conservative) and also unable to secure new, permanent employment, I find myself torn between the two very real issues at play. Those two issues are, to put it simply, how do we reconcile a real need to prevent utter destitution for the millions like myself – and at the same time, do it in a way that doesn’t further bankrupt the country? It seems to most reasonable Americans that the proposal put forth by the Republican caucus – paying for the cost of extending unemployment benefits by using some of the remaining funds from last year’s gargantuan stimulus package – is a good compromise. Why the Democratic caucus is so opposed to the idea has been beyond me. After all, even that most liberal of economists, Paul Krugman has said repeatedly that unemployment benefits are “a highly effective form of stimulus.” Congress loves “earmarks,” or setting aside money for pet projects. In an election year when there are likely upwards of 20 million voters who face the prospect of losing everything on a daily basis, it seems logical that Congress would earmark $38 billion of pre-existing expenditures on a pretty popular program. It would be a win-win, something that almost never happens for a politician: they could claim both the labels of “caring liberal” and “fiscal conservative” with one vote. So why won’t they?
The answer (as with almost everything Congress does these days) lies in the details. The program is part of H.R. 4213, a 412 page megalith that deals with a whole of stuff not at all related to employment or economic stimulus. In fact, the section dealing with the benefit extensions is Title V, subtitle A of the bill. It incorporates all of 9 ½ pages of the bill.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself what could be in the other 402 pages of the bill. Well, here are a few highlights. Feel free to hit the link and read it for yourself:
*Provisions to build sewer systems
*Alternative fuels vehicle credits
*Energy efficient appliance tax credits
*New standards for windows and doors (You can’t make this up, folks)
*Railroad track maintenance credits
*Rum excise tax relief for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Hey, even if we’re all broke, at least we should be able to swig cheap rum, get drunk and forget this mess!
The list goes on and on. There are over 500 individual line items in this bill. Not only have our congressmen been busy putting earmarks into this thing, it seems they’ve taken special care to pack it with more pork than a Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. No wonder they couldn’t find the $38 billion! (By the way, by the Obama administrations own estimates, there should be nearly $340 billion left from last year’s budget buster.)
Oh, and one final note regarding the supposed disincentive of providing unemployment benefits: In ordinary times, I agree that extending unemployment benefits can be a disincentive to finding gainful employment. But these are not ordinary times; not when estimates range from five to eight people for every available job opening. And speaking from personal experience, I can assure you that getting 30% of my prior earnings in an unemployment check doesn’t exactly meet my monthly commitments. Here’s hoping Sen. Jon Kyl and Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, who have publicly espoused this thought, take a good look around their respective states and come to their senses. They are not properly representing their constituents, their party or the nation as long as they hold that view.