Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Obama, Can You Spare a Job?

One of the latest attacks on Obama’s failed policies claims that his economic stimulus created few jobs at exorbitant cost to taxpayers: $278,000 per job, to be exact. Fuzzy math aside, what these attacks omit to mention is that the stimulus, like all else these days, operated under the conservative creed that everything has to be done through the private sector. This ethos, firmly embraced by Obama
himself, prevents the government from taking the far more efficient route of simply employing people, which might have created many more good jobs for the same price tag.

Had Obama had heeded FDR’s experience during the Great Depression, we could have put unemployed people to work rebuilding American infrastructure—bridges, tunnels, railroads, roads–not to mention restoring and shoring up wetlands and carrying out other environmental projects. That’s what Roosevelt
famously did
with his Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation
Corps.

Such an initiative might conceivably have been possible, on some scale, prior to the midterm elections. But with the gridlock in Congress and diminishing confidence in the President and government, any such course now is hard to imagine. Instead, the austerity imposed by the debts deal will likely further impede any chance at real job growth–as Roosevelt himself found in 1937 when he briefly adopted austerity measures, only to see falling unemployment rates spike once again.

But even at this dismal stage, there are nonetheless a handful of realistic projects that ought to appeal to some fiscally minded conservatives as well as to Democrats.

Jonathan Alter, who is a historian of FDR’s New Deal as well as a journalist, has promoted an idea that involves allowing states to “convert their unemployment insurance payments from checks sent to the jobless into vouchers that can be used by companies to hire workers.” The amount of the unemployment checks would in effect become subsidies to the employers, so that “for instance, a position paying $40,000 might cost employers only $20,000, thereby encouraging them to hire…If a mere 10 percent of unemployed Americans persuaded employers to accept such vouchers, more than a million people would find work with no new spending beyond some administrative costs.”

Alter believes the plan, first suggested by Alan Khazei, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Massachusetts, might appeal to “a Republican House  that loves the concept of voucher.” But so far there’s been no interest from either Congress or the Obama Administration.

Another option is the already much-discussed German experience with the short work week. As Kevin A. Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explained this scheme back in 2009.

Firms that face a temporary decrease in demand avoid shedding employees by cutting hours instead. If hours and wages are reduced by 10 percent or more, the government pays workers 60 percent of their lost salary. This encourages firms to use across-the-board reductions of hours instead of layoffs. Here’s how the program works.

A firm facing the challenges of the recession cuts Angela’s hours from 35 to 25 per week, thus reducing her weekly salary to 714 euros from 1,000 euros. Angela does not work for the firm during those hours. As part of its short-work program, the government now pays Angela 171 euros–60 percent of her lost salary. Most important, she still has a job. Effectively, the government is giving her unemployment insurance for the 10 hours a week that she is not employed.

Senator Jack Reed and  Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have put this program into legislation which so far has  gone nowhere, with only a handful of co-sponsors. This despite the fact that as Dean  Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out: “Twenty  one  states (including California and New  York) already have short-time compensation as an option under their
unemployment insurance system. In these states a governmental structure already  exists to support work sharing, although there would have to be changes to make  the system more user friendly so as to increase take-up rates.”

Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post last week pointed to another way of immediately putting people to work, which harkens back to the idea of rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure:

Over the next decade, the federal government is slated to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building roads, schools, airports, trolley  lines and airport terminals, modernizing the air traffic control system, replacing computer systems and buying planes, ships, tanks, trucks and cars.  Moving up some of that spending from years 8, 9 and 10 to years 1, 2 and 3 won’t cost any more in the long run, or increase the long-term deficit any more, but could sure help put a floor under the economy in the short run. For those worried about pork, the actual spending decisions could be left to an independent Infrastructure Bank.

To spur private investment in equipment and research, the government could immediately allow companies of all sizes to deduct 100 percent of such expenses made in the next three years, rather than “depreciating” them over many years. That incentive to invest now will increase the deficit in the short run but have little or no impact on the long-term deficit.

As Suzy Khimm reports in the Washington Post, “The question of infrastructure funding will come up as soon as Congress returns from its August recess,” since “a bill reauthorizing  spending on surface transportation — which would help build roads, highways,  and the like — is set to expire in September. There’s a big gap between the House GOP proposal, which would slash federal spending to 35 percent less than Fiscal 2009 levels, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s two-year plan to spend $55 billion a year. Boxer’s proposal would require revenue beyond what’s in the Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from the gas tax, promising yet another fight over which will be better for the economy — reducing the deficit or Keynesian spending on infrastructure.”

We all know how that fight is likely to turn out. And as Jonathan Alter points out, even these modest approaches to job creation call for an attitude of what Roosevelt called “bold, persistent experimentation” on the part of the government–and the leadership to back it up. And as we’ve seen all too clearly, Obama is no FDR.

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Obama’s Rhetoric May Be “Fiery,” But His Health Care Reform Is Still Lukewarm

Some news outlets have described Obama’s speech at a health care rally in Pennsylvania this morning as “angry” or “”fiery.” As satisfying as it is to hear Obama say something nasty about the insurance companies, the details of his “vilification” of these bloodsucking middlemen are well in line with the tepid outlines of the Democrats’ current health care reform plans. As described by the Christian Science Monitor:

President Obama charged that insurance companies have made a calculation that they can deny coverage for preexisting conditions, drop coverage when people need it most, and make big profits “as long as they can get away with it.”

It was widely known from the start of the so-called health care debate that a baseline goal would be to stop insurance companies from denying people coverage because of pre-existing conditions, or knocking people off the rolls when they got sick. (The public option, as everyone should by now have realized, was never much more than a bargaining chip.) And that’s just what’s likely to happen.

It was also well understood that any health care reform must genuflect before the alter of the  free market. That has been a given since Reagan took office in 1981 and the Heritage Foundation came up with its health care reform plan–which quite resembles the one now being promoted by Obama and many other Democrats.  

The Heritage plan, as I and others have written before, is based on the Federal Employee Health Benefits program (FEHB). It supports a vending machine type “exchange” to sell private insurance across the country to one and all, thereby achieving a supposed twofer–affordable universal health care and preservation of the free market. The problem, of course, is that there is no free market when it comes to health insurance, and the FEHB is becoming more expensive by the day. So the exchanges will do nothing but bring mediocre and criminally overpriced insurance to slightly larger pool of people.

And if we are to believe the latest tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, this is pretty much what Americans seem to want–a timid, lukewarm reform that addresses some of the worst abuses of the health care system without rendering any fundamental change.  Here are some details from the poll: 

The public [is] still split on health care reform legislation, with 43 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. However, the poll also finds that majorities of Americans of all political leanings support several provisions in the health reform proposals in Congress and most attribute delays in passing the legislation to political gamesmanship rather than policy disagreements….

[The] poll finds that at least six of every ten Republicans, Democrats and independents back at least some of the key provisions in the reform bills that have passed the House and Senate. They include measures that would: reform the way health insurance works, such as preventing insurers from excluding people because of pre-existing conditions; offer tax credits to small businesses to help their workers get coverage; create a new health insurance marketplace; help close the Medicare “doughnut hole” so that seniors would no longer face a period of having to pay the full cost of their medicines; and expand high-risk insurance pools for individuals who cannot get coverage elsewhere.

It is slightly more encouraging to learn that “Providing subsidies to lower and middle income people also receives strong support from Democrats and independents and near majority support from Republicans.” The problem is that unless we take a meaningful bite out of the profits of the drug and insurance companies–which no one seems willing to do–there won’t be money left to subsidize anything other than junk insurance for those who can’t afford a decent policy. 

The liberal-minded will surely object to me saying this, but I’m inclined to think the Kaiser poll is pretty accurate–because when it comes down to real social and political change, the United States is basically a conservative nation. Anything more than the most incremental change has happened only when we had both a mass grassroots movement and strong political leadership–think of the Civil Rights Movement or the New Deal. 

Neither one of these things has surfaced when it comes to the current health care reform. So the best we can look forward to are a few tinkerings with the existing system, which are better than nothing–but not much better.

D-Day, the Queen, and a Wartime Childhood

By now we’ve all heard about how Queen Elizabeth was snubbed by Nicholas Sarkozy, who was apparently so dazzled by the prospect of Barack Obama’s visit that he neglected to invite the queen to any of the events commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. (In a last-minute face-saver, Prince Charles agreed to attend instead.) Some people are blaming Gordon Brown, who was too busy trying to save his political skin to make sure the queen got her due. But the British press, which is having a field day over this royal faux pas, has directed most of its rage at Sarko, and at the ungrateful French in general.

The Daily Mail declared the snub “an insult to the memory of the 17,556 British and 5,316 Canadian troops who died to free France and are buried there.” Commentators in the same paper took things a step further, declaring Sarzkozy a “diminutive egomaniac,” and denouncing the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys whose “widespread collaboration with  the Nazi occupiers” made it all the more difficult for the British to “save” them from tyranny.  

I don’t go in for French-bashing, and under normal circumstances, I couldn’t care less about anyone in the British royal family, or any of the pomp and protocol that surround them. I think it’s great that Michelle Obama dared to touch the queen–she could have given her a fist bump for all I care. In fact, I wonder why the Brits don’t just do away with the monarchy altogether, and save themselves a lot of money. (Although they’d still have to deal with MPs cleaning their moats at the public’s expense.) But when it comes to anything having to do with the Second World War, I’ve got a soft spot for the British in general, and in particular for HRH–who lives in my earliest memories as Princess Elizabeth. 

I had a wartime childhood. When I was very small, we used to sitting around the radio, listening to Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the streets of London during the Blitz.

Later, when America was in the war and my family lived in Washington, D.C., we listened with our blackout curtains drawn. I remember hearing the news about D-Day, and later seeing the newsreels when we went to the movies. Those were the sounds and images of my childhood.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the APS.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the ATS.

I also have a clear memory of Princess Elizabeth, who was just ten years older than I was and still a teenager, speaking from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. I don’t know exactly when this happened or what she said, but I remember that she and her family seemed cheerful and apparently fearless despite being in a ravaged city, at the heart of a threatened land.  Later, the princess worked as an ambulence driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. As the press has rightly pointed out, she is the last living head of state to have actually served in World War II.

It all sounds pretty sentimental, I know. But there’s something else going on here, as well–something that has to do with age and the generations. It is widely assumed that the 65th anniversary will be the last major gathering of D-Day veterans on the landing beaches, since the youngest of them are now in their 80s. Speaking at the American Cemetery on the cliffs over Omaha Beach this morning, Barack Obama talked about a veteran of the 101st Airborne who had come to Normandy for the anniversary, and died last night in his sleep.

None of the heads of state present at the ceremonies was even alive during the war. If the queen had been there, at least she would be commemorating a lived experience–not something recorded in history books and PBS documentaries, and remembered by fewer and fewer of us with every passing year.