I. We Are in the Midst of an Economic Crisis
To say that we are experiencing an economic crisis is probably becoming an understatement. Explaining how the crisis unfolded is like watching a “domino effect” in reverse. Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 777.68 points, the biggest single-day drop in its history. The market fell on news of Congress’ failure to pass a $700 billion bailout package that, according to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, would save crumbling financial institutions and prevent a credit crunch that may send the global economy into a tailspin. The sense of urgency for the ultimately doomed package grew when, in less than a week, two deposit banks – Washington Mutual and Wachovia – failed and had to be absorbed by other financial institutions. The federal seizure of Washington Mutual represented the biggest bank failure in U.S. history, and greatly eclipsed the failures of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, whose demise, along with the federal seizures of AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, precipitated Secretary Paulson’s $700 billion bailout proposal. As of its close on Monday, the Dow has suffered a 34% drop since this time last year.
Even if one turned a blind eye to the horror movie that is the U.S. mortgage market, the signs of our impending economic crisis were written on several walls. Since Bush took office, our national debt has swelled by a jaw-dropping 66.7% and, as of September 25, 2008, stands at more than $9.5 trillion, which represents nearly two-thirds of our GDP as of the second quarter of 2008. The Iraq war has cost the U.S. more than $526 billion and continues to cost $10.3 billion per month. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, by 2017, the Iraq occupation will cost between $1.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion, which will likely have to be debt financed, meaning that billions of dollars in interest must be added to that cost.
To fund, among other expenses, the occupation of Iraq and our reliance on foreign oil, the U.S. is increasingly mortgaging itself to its competitors and potential adversaries. As of July 2008, China holds $518.7 billion in U.S. Treasury Securities (this figure does not include Chinese investment in other areas in the U.S.). Perhaps equally, if not more perplexing: we’ve allowed ownership of our Treasury Securities by oil exporters - which include Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia - to increase by nearly 30% between July 2007 and July 2008 and, during that same period, Russian ownership of U.S. securities has more than doubled. Add to these figures the fact that, as of FY 2007, the U.S. was running a $738.6 billion budget deficit, and it is not hard to see that the U.S.’s penchant for spending billions more than it generates, an appetite which grew markedly under Bush’s presidency, would eventually send our economy spiraling into a meltdown.
While the supposed revenue from Bush’s wealth-favoring tax cuts may not have trickled down to working Americans, the hardships resulting from the emerging economic crisis have. The unemployment rate has risen by 1.4% in 12 months (more than 2 million people), with most of that increase occurring over the past 4 months. Moreover, available third quarter data point to the first quarterly drop in consumer spending in 17 years. While job rolls are decreasing and incomes are stagnant, energy prices have risen markedly. Since the Iraq war began, the average price-per-gallon of gasoline has risen 118% (from $1.73 on March 24, 2003 to $3.77 on September 22, 2008). The price of natural gas has risen by over 50% in the six-month period ending June 2008. Health care costs have risen at a rate four times faster than wages over the past six years. Indeed, from our banking crisis to our huge debt, rising unemployment, decreased consumer spending and increased energy and heath care costs, nearly all signs point to an economic crisis that this country has not seen since the Great Depression.
II. Obama’s Plan Will Strengthen Our Economy and Protect Our Workers
It is for this reason that the most important question on voters’ minds may be which presidential candidate’s policies will lead to an economic recovery. If that’s the question on your mind then Barack Obama’s economic policies should appeal to you as well as to the remainder of over 95% of working Americans. Obama’s policies reflect the fact that the best ways to generate economic growth are to stimulate the workforce, invest in business and put more money in the hands of those who need it most.
Obama’s plan focuses on putting more Americans to work and helping the overwhelming majority of Americans keep more money in their pockets. By investing in wind energy and other renewable energy sources and fuel infrastructure and by incentivizing U.S. auto manufacturers to step up domestic production of hybrid vehicles, Obama will create a new job sector and open up 5 million new “green” jobs. In addition to fuel infrastructure modernization, Obama will also invest in the transportation infrastructure by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank (NIRB), an independent entity tasked with moving our transportation system into the 21st century. The NIRB will provide financing to projects that will create up to two million new direct and indirect jobs while generating roughly $35 billion in annual economic activity.
Obama will also invest in preparing Americans for 21st century jobs – by making college more affordable (example: larger tax credit for educational assistance to low income students) and by incentivizing training for tech-sector jobs – and ensuring that more jobs stay in the U.S. Obama will give preference in public contracts to companies that maintain a domestic workforce rather than moving jobs overseas. Obama will also fight for passage of the Patriot Employer Act of 2007 – which Obama introduced and which will create a tax credit for companies that maintain a favorable ratio of domestic to foreign workers, provide decent wages and health insurance and support employees who serve in the military. By contrast, McCain would repeal the domestic production activities tax deduction, a deduction that primarily benefits small businesses and is aimed at encouraging domestic production – rather than foreign outsourcing – of goods. McCain is clearly demonstrating how committed he is to keeping our jobs at home.
Obama realizes that thriving businesses are an integral part of sustainable economic growth. Thus, he will eliminate all capital gains taxes to start up and small businesses and also make the “Making Work Pay” tax credit (discussed below) applicable to small business owners. Obama will make the research and development tax credits permanent (a move McCain supports), thereby continuing a commitment to develop a skilled research and development workforce and a domestic technology infrastructure that primarily benefits American workers.
Americans returning to work under an Obama administration, as well as the overwhelming majority of those already working, will see their after-tax income improve at a time when Americans need higher effective income the most. It is by now no secret that, despite McCain’s misrepresentations to the contrary, Americans making less than $250,000 per year will see an increase in their after tax income under Obama’s plan. According to the Tax Policy Center’s “Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans”, Obama will extend the 10, 15, 25 and 28 percent tax brackets while restoring the Clinton administration’s 36 and 39.6 percent brackets at the upper end. Obama will also provide a $1,000 energy rebate to American families – funded by a windfall profits tax on oil companies – together with a $1,000 per family ($500 for individuals) “Making Work Pay” tax credit – which will eliminate income taxes for 10 million Americans – and an elimination of taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 per year – ending taxation of 7 million seniors and increasing their annual savings by an average of $1,400. Taken together, Obama’s tax policies would mean a 5.5% tax cut for the poorest 20% of Americans and a 2.6% cut (an average of $1,118 in extra income) for middle-income Americans.
Moreover, Obama will work to ensure that families have a proper work/life balance. He will expand the FMLA to cover businesses with 25 or more employees (the threshold is currently 50 employees), and also expand coverage of the FMLA to include: (1) up to 24 hours of leave each year for parents to participate in their children’s academic activities; (2) leave for employees to address domestic violence; and (3) leave for elder care. Obama will also expand flexible work options for civil service workers and will invest in programs aimed at showing private employers the benefits of the same. Moreover, Obama will extend and expand the child and dependent care tax credit, providing significantly more assistance to low-income families and increasing the after-tax wages of the poorest workers.
The inability of homeowners to pay their mortgage is a principal cause of our apparent need for a $700 billion bailout. Obama is thus fighting to ensure that any package that makes its way through Congress includes provisions to help families stay in their homes. Additionally, Obama’s plan would create a 10% universal mortgage credit for those families who do not itemize deductions and are thus not eligible for the mortgage interest and property tax deductions. Obama will also fight for passage of his “Stop Fraud Act”, which is aimed at protecting homeowners from predatory lenders.
McCain, on the other hand, favors maintaining, and in some cases expanding, Bush’s tax policies that favored the wealthy and regressively put the highest tax burden on those least able to afford it. As the Tax Policy Center explains, while keeping all current individual tax brackets in place, McCain would drop the 35% corporate tax bracket and phase down the next highest bracket until it reaches 25% by 2014 (effectively dropping the top corporate tax rate by 10%). McCain will also greatly extend the AMT exemption until it reaches $143,000 by 2013 (Obama would extend AMT exemptions as well, but by not nearly as much) and increase the estate tax exemption to $5 million while reducing its tax rate from 45% to 15%. While this news may bode well for corporations, wealthy Americans who are actually subject to the AMT, and the approximately 4,000 extremely wealthy estates subject to McCain’s estate tax, it doesn’t look so good for the rest of us. Under McCain’s plan, the poorest American workers will see, on average, only $21 in additional after-tax income, while the richest 1 in 1000 Americans will see more than $290,000 in additional income (Obama’s plan would increase the tax burden of those individuals by 8.9%, or an average of $550,000). Middle income Americans’ after-tax income will increase by only $325 under McCain. Further, McCain actually markets his plan to repeal the domestic production activities deduction as a partial offset to the revenue loss from dropping corporate tax rates. Translation: McCain will make small businesses and those companies that produce “Made in the USA” goods bear the cost of his big corporate tax cuts.
Perhaps McCain wants American workers to take that extra $21 and invest it in healthcare, because as I explained in my healthcare article, McCain plans to end the era of pre-tax insurance payroll deductions and replace it with an inadequate tax credit, meaning that the poorest Americans will likely have to come up with an average $12,000 for off-the-shelf health insurance, which McCain wants to deregulate the same way he deregulated Wall Street (and we see how well that went). McCain’s programs clearly do not favor most working Americans and, furthermore, are counterproductive to digging us out of our weakened economy.
While McCain’s plan will disproportionately benefit the richest Americans, the cost of his plan –which will be borne by working and middle class taxpayers, as well as by future generations – is staggering. The Tax Policy Center estimates that McCain’s tax plan would increase our budget deficit to nearly $7.4 trillion by 2018. (recall, as noted above, that the deficit is just over $7 billion as of FY 2007). McCain’s wealth-favoring tax brackets and AMT extensions will alone account for $2.9 trillion of that revenue decrease over the 10 year period. In other words, while the rich would continue to get richer on the backs of American laborers under McCain’s plan, McCain plan would generate an astonishing acceleration of the rate at which our nation is mortgaged to foreign, and potentially hostile, countries. To be sure, Obama’s plan will also generate increased budget deficits, but by a significantly smaller amount and in a much more progressive manner.
III. The Way Ahead
The “chickens” that represent Reagan’s and Bush’s trickle down economic policies are finally coming home to roost, and it looks like the cost for the failure of these economic policies is going to be somewhere north of $700 billion. This is not to say that democrats do not share blame for the policies that got us into this mess. However, the economic policies espoused by democrats differ from those of republicans in that they have not placed the burden for reparation of our nation’s fiscal irresponsibility on America’s poorest workers. According to Princeton professor Alan S. Binder, “income inequality has trended substantially upward under Republican presidents but slightly downward under Democrats.” And since 2001, when Bush took office, we’ve witnessed a marked rise in after-tax income inequality. McCain wants to continue Bush’s policies, squandering our resources and spiraling our economy deeper into the deficit abyss while providing laughable tax breaks for everyday Americans who have to watch as big corporations and the extremely wealthy enjoy significantly more after-tax income. That’s a continuation not only of the policies of inequality, but also of the policies that got us into this mess.
Barack Obama’s plan will put more Americans to work, protect American jobs and modernize our workforce while investing in small businesses, protecting Americans’ homes and creating a progressive tax code that provides real income to American workers, all at a cost that is significantly less than McCain’s regressive tax policies. Obama clearly understands what is needed to bring about an economic recovery and his policies are better able to accomplish that task than are McCain’s. Obama is the better candidate for economic recovery.