Obama's Post-Partisan Plan Almost Where It Should Be

While the chorus of complaints about President Barack Obama’s spending and tax package was dispiritingly predictable, the post-partisan surprise is that its basic structure is evolving to just about where it should be. The legislative process is adding its normal quotient of special interest subsidies on both the spending and tax sides -- think of it as a “congressional tax,” because they really can’t help themselves. And compared to the last decade of limitless tolerance for the unregulated escapades of Wall Street financiers that’s now pushing many of the world’s economies over a cliff, the partisan outrage at this conventional if distasteful part of the legislative process seems pretty hollow.

The important matter here is that at its core, the package should do roughly what we want it to, given the gravity of current conditions and our equally serious, longer-term problems with wages and jobs. (There is one gaping exception: nothing serious yet to address the foreclosure and housing crisis). In effect, the Administration has cleverly packaged some broadly useful, longer-term economic and social initiatives with some traditional “stimulus,” and it’s selling it as the answer to the crisis. It provides some of that answer -- unfortunately, not all of it by a long shot -- but it also offers the Administration’s first responses to other legitimate matters on which President Obama happened to win his election.

First, there are at least $230 billion dollars in clear economic stimulus -- notably, some $65 billion for more food stamps and an extension of unemployment benefits and $30 billion in other assistance for low-income households, all of which will directly support consumption; and another $80 billion in large grants to states dealing with fast-falling revenues and balanced budget requirements, which will save jobs and so also support consumption. There also are about $50 billion out of a larger pot of infrastructure projects that can properly count as stimulus -- for schools, highways, transit, public hospitals, and so on – because they can get started fairly quickly and absorb idle resources (that’s mainly idle construction and machine workers, and equipment). Then there’s nearly $90 billion for state Medicaid programs. That’s not stimulus precisely, but it will relieve states from having to choose between cutting medical treatment for poor and elderly people or cutting other jobs and purchases to maintain those treatments. Given our circumstances, there are no sensible, post-partisan arguments against these provisions.

The second tranche of the package provides some $250 billion in tax cuts, most of it the first stage of the President’s promised tax relief for the now-famous “95 percent of Americans,” plus another year of relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax’s slide down the income scale. There’s no point calling this stimulus. The fix in the AMT is an annual ritual which would happen with or without the package. A small package of business tax cuts (maybe $20 billion) also will do little economic good or harm. And the same can be said of the personal tax cuts. The best guess of economists is that 75 to 80 percent of those tax cuts will be saved with no stimulus effect, since 60 percent of last spring’s rebates were saved and anxieties over falling incomes, job losses, or worse have all intensified since then. But they’re still worth doing as progressive, post-partisan down payments on using the tax code to respond to the sharp increases in inequality under our recent, unlamented conservative regime. It certainly would be better to adopt these kinds of changes as part of a broader reform of the tax code. But as tax changes go, they have the unusual virtue of actually helping most people.

Finally, there’s a third group of some $220 billion in new public investments -- in education, training, broadband, clean tech, environmental cleanups, modernizing the electricity grid, energy efficiency, health care IT and medical research, and, yes, more as well. The current Great Recession is brutal, and it’s getting worse; but one reason it’s so painful is that it followed an economic expansion in which, the income data tell us, most Americans barely held their own ground. These investments are close enough to a post-partisan agenda for raising the productivity of the overall economy as well as millions of workers, plus a small down-payment on addressing climate change. And the productivity pieces, at least, could begin to address the remarkable, recent stagnation in most people’s incomes. It will take much more than that to restore the strong wage and job gains we saw in the 1990s, notably serious cost containment in health care and a lot more energy efficiency than is in sight right now. But it’s a useful first step, and one for which NDN has long argued.

So it’s not just “stimulus,” but also the heart of the President’s first year agenda – and on balance, that’s a good thing. The missing piece remains what we have lamented for six months now (check NDN's Keep People in Their Homes page) – there’s still no new policy to stem the rising foreclosure rates driving the freeze in the capital markets, which in turn propelled the worst global downturn in 75 years. Without that, the stimulus and the new investments will have little lasting effect. So that remains the most important, unfinished business of the President's first 100 days.


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