Tag Archives: Bush tax cuts

Obama’s Tax Deal and the Future of Social Security

It’s worth pointing out once again that  last week’s  tax deal is hardly the victory for the American people it is made out to be. One of the biggest chunks —thirteen percent of the total monies — come from Social Security and Medicare in the form of a one-year cut in payroll taxes. The government promises to pay back what it is taking from the Social Security trust fund by borrowing the money, then floating bonds to guarantee  repayment.

This one year abeyance might not seem like much. But with the coming of a right-wing  Republican House, under pressure from the further fringes in the Tea Party, it does not augur well for the future of the program. From its inception under FDR, the Republicans have dreamed of getting rid of Social Security, along with such other things as the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Department of Education and the UN.

“Social Security’s dedicated funding base is jeopardized by this deal in an unprecedented way and there is a grave risk now that the retirement benefits of America’s workers will have to compete with our other priorities for a share of the general budget,” said Texas Congressman Loyd Doggett at a press conference cheld by the National Committee to preserve Social Security and Medicare. “It would result in Social Security being as dependent on annual Congressional action as public television or our National parks.”

“If the recent debate on the Bush tax cuts has taught us anything, it is that taxes are easy to cut but hard to restore, said Florida Congressman Ted Deutch at the same press conference. “If this provision is made permanent, it will double Social Security’s long term funding gap and open a door that Democrats have long fought to keep closed – budgetary attacks on Social Security.’’ 

Cutting social welfare programs will be very much in vogue with the new Congress, especially as it ramps up for a showdown on raising debt limits this coming spring. Because the right wingers are out to get social programs and because all spending measures must start in the House, it is highly likely that Social Security and Medicare will occupy center stage in this debate, and that the proposals of various fiscal commissions will come into play. First, the suspension of a cost of living increase for Social Security recipients could well be extended. Second, the age at which one can begin to collect Social Security will most likely be raised from 67 to 69. And finally, the Bush tax cut deal digging into the Social Security trust fund certainly will be an opening for the right to further a  borrowing spree–ironically, all in the name of reducing the deficit.

However, there is a potential remedy. In 2012, the economy should be stronger than it is today, argues Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

 In addition, Congress likely will have enacted some significant budget cuts, and the nation likely will be debating the sort of further cuts that various commissions have recently proposed, including cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits for elderly widows and seriously disabled people with incomes as low as $20,000. At that point, the President will need to make clear that he will veto any legislation extending the high-end tax cuts or the weakening of the estate tax beyond its 2009 parameters, and he should use the bully pulpit to take this case to the country.

If only we could count on our president to do something like this at all, much less in an election year.

Behind the Battle Over Social Security

As the midterm elections near, the future of the Social Security system has become a hot-button issue–and a confusing one. A number of Republican politicians have hit on it as yet another way to undermine Obama and the Democratic leadership, by criticizing their supposed fiscal irresponsibility. Some must also see victory at hand in the conservatives’ longstanding battle to destroy one of the most hated remnants of the New Deal. These include the GOP’s chief architect of change Paul Ryan,who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program and privatize Social Security. He is backed up by House minority leader John Boehner, who, if the Republicans take the House, could become the next speaker. 

Some Democrats have risen to defend the best–and most solvent–anti-poverty program the nation has ever known. But for other Democrats–including those in the White House–the response is more triangulation. It was Obama who set in motion the Fiscal Commission, supposedly to study the deficit but in fact, as just about everyone in Washington knows, to pare entitlements, cutting Medicare and Social Security. Originally, this commission was thought ready to propose lifting the limit at which one could draw Social Security from 62 to 67. Now scuttlebutt  is that the entry age should be 70. Our supposedly “socialist” president has placed the country’s premier social program in the hands of Alan Simpson, a Republican crank who views old people as the new welfare queens. 

It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of older voters don’t know what to make of it. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times reported on “tales of political burnout and withdrawal among older voters” in one swing county in Colorado. Many in this consituency, which can usually be counted upon to vote in large numbers, seemed to be withdrawing altogether from the fray. Others were preparing to shoot themselves in the foot:

Bill Benton, 79, a lifelong Colorado resident who described himself as an Eisenhower Republican, supports Mr. Buck and believes that his comments suggesting that the private sector could perhaps do a better job with Social Security were “just talk.” Mr. Buck has said that despite his comments, he would not support privatizing the retirement program. “I like him, but he says some dumb things,” Mr. Benton said.

With all the rhetoric flying out of Washington, it’s likely that some older people have come to view the whole topic of Social Security as the centerpiece in a Washington charade of boasts and lies, another turn in the game of smoke and mirrors, much in the manner of the shouting match over health care. It turns the stomach, feeds the hate against Washington, and sends people fleeing to escape a nightmare they can’t understand–sometimes, it appears, right into the arms of the Tea Party.

And in fact, people who suspect a smoke-and-mirrors game are pretty much on the money. Social Security’s elevation to a central political debate is tied to another hot-button issue: The future of the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts, which benefit the very rich—the people who pump cash into a candidate’s campaign—are set to expire next year. “In 2010, when all the Bush tax cuts are finally phased in, a staggering 52.5 percent of the benefits will go to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers,” according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Washington-based  public interest group that follows and analyzes tax policy.

The impact of these cuts on the national treasury–and the deficit–cannot be overestimated: “The tax legislation enacted under President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2006 will cost $2.48 trillion over the 2001-2010 period,” Citizens for Tax Justice reports. “This includes the revenue loss of $2.11 trillion that resultsdirectly from the Bush tax cuts as well as the $379 billion in additional interest.’’

Obama has declared his opposition to extending the tax cuts for the highest income brackets. But some conservative Democrats will have other ideas. And if the White House’s resolve fails, as it often does, there’s another deficit-cutting alternative at hand in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a lot easier for politicians to talk about paring down entitlements than it is to attack the rich on whose largesse they depend.

Happy New Year, Geezers. Please Die Soon.

The Wall Street Journal reports today on a temporary suspension of the estate tax (what conservatives call the “death tax”), which will go into effect on January 1, 2010.  The lapse dates back to the bundle of tax cuts passed under the Bush Administration in 2001:

Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax’s disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn’t make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011–at a higher rate and lower exemption.

The WSJ piece is titled “Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man,” and its interviews demonstrate, once again, that the rich really are different: They’re really creepy. It seems quite a few of them are making end-of-life decisions based on how it will affect their inheritance taxes.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”…

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. “We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently,” says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

The article focuses on people who are trying to keep their so-called loved ones alive until 2010 begins. But you can just as easily imagine all the  greedy bastards out there who are hoping their healthy old relatives will get really sick, really soon, so they can kick off before the year ends.

On the Atlantic‘s business blog today, Derek Thompson comments on the political implications of the year-long estate tax suspension. He highlights the hypocrisy of Republican policymaking, which that insists upon deficit reduction while simultaneously serving the interests of wealthy people like these, whose riches have to be wrested from their cold, dead hands:

I’ll be interested to watch how both parties deal with the tax for 2011. Naturally, Republicans are united against any action that involves not destroying the death tax forever. That includes Sen. Judd Gregg, the moderate Republican and co-producer of the fantastical commission to reduce the deficit, who has consistently supported every effort to whittle away the estate tax.

Obviously, one way to reduce the deficit is to reduce spending. But another way is to raise taxes — or at least to not kill the taxes that we already have in place. The Lincoln-Kyl bill in the Senate to cut estate taxes after the one-year hiccup would cost almost $250 billion over 10 years. That is, as they say, real money, and it’s hard for me to imagine how this tax cut would spur economic growth, since inheritance is passive. If we’re going to consider spending over the baseline part of PAYGO, we should do the same for government receipts below the baseline. So would Republicans plan to make up that money?

Obama’s Lifeline: For a Change, Government Spending That Actually Helps the People Who Need It Most

Republicans took to the Sunday morning news shows to express their “concern” about parts of the stimulus package presented by the Obama administration last week. House Minority Leader John Boehner declared that he would vote no “if it’s the plan I see today”–a pretty idle threat, since even if he takes his entire party with him, the Democrats still have nearly an 80-vote margin. In the Senate, however, two Republican votes are needed to create a filibuster-proof majority, which might at least slow the package down and could force some compromises.

There’s good reason for the Republican resistance. While it makes numerous concessions to favored conservative approaches–lots of public-private partnerships that will allow the private sector to cash in, tax cuts for businesses and the middle class, and no immediate end to the Bush tax cuts (which will expire on their own in 2010)-the $820 billion stimulus package also includes some dramatic increases in support for the nation’s social welfare programs.

With this package, Obama begins the process of reversing cutbacks initiated by Reagan and carried forward by the two Bushes, with some help from Clinton’s welfare “reform.” There may still be plenty of holes, but with this plan, the new government confirms that has some responsibility for providing a safety net for its poor and disabled, its children and elderly. To see the magnitude of the shift, it is only necessary to glance at the last budget drawn up by President Bush, for fiscal year 2009: In the midst of the growing recession, it had yet more cuts to the social welfare system, reducing already inadequate health and feeding programs for the most vulnerable Americans.

Here are some of Obama’s initiatives–not quite the New Deal, but quite a new deal compared to what we’ve grown used to over the past 30 years:

  • As unemployment grows, more and more people lose their health insurance and turn to Medicaid. State budgets already are in desperate straits, and can’t possibly shoulder this added burden. Obama would pump federal money into state Medicaid budgets as well into the program providing for health insurance for children.
  • In addition, Obama wants to shore up existing health insurance coverage for people losing jobs by extending COBRA and underwriting part of its cost through tax rebates. COBRA is a program that enables people losing their jobs to continue their health insurance if they pay for it. Obama wants the federal government to partially subsidize these payments, and also gives some low-income unemployed people access to Medicaid.
  • The president’s plan proposes to extend unemployment benefits through December 2009 and increase weekly unemployment insurance benefits by $25.
  • The stimulus package would incresasing food stamp benefits for the 30 million people now in the program, and provide support for food banks, school lunch programs, and the WIC program that provides for mothers and infants.
  • Obama’s plan would give 7.5 million blind, disabled, and aged Americans an immediate $450 by increasing-on a temporary basis–Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Scrooged by the Democrats: Will the Rich Ever Pay Their Fair Share?

All of us who have been taught the Biblical story of Christmas (since my grandfather was a Methodist minister, that certainly includes me) will remember that Jesus is supposed to have been born in a stable because there was “no room at the inn.” Less often repeated is the reason why his parents had hit the road in the first place, despite the fact that Mary was nine months gone at the time. According to the Book of Luke, “it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Romans ordered all people to go to their home towns to register for a census, which was needed in order to institute the new tax system. That’s why the holy family was schlepping the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem when Mary went into labor.

 

The Bible never tells us how much Joseph—an impoverished carpenter with two dependents, one of them a kid who wasn’t even his—ended up having to pay in taxes. But it’s safe to assume that the local Romans, and the wealthy Sadducees who supported them, got off easy in comparison to working stiffs like Joseph. Maybe they even got off as easy as rich Americans have, under the tax cuts passed by the Bush Administration in 2001 and 2003.

 

During the Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama, along with all of his Democratic contenders, promised a swift repeal of these tax cuts. A rollback of tax cuts benefitting only corporations and the wealthiest individuals was supposed to provide the financing for Obama’s policy proposals, from education and health care to infrastructure and green energy. But by September, the Democratic nominee was already backpedaling on his pledge, and within three weeks of his election, Obama’s economic advisors confirmed that, after all, the new president might just let the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule in 2011, rather than eliminating them two years earlier. The decision is based on the premise that it is unwise—in economic as well as political terms—to raise taxes during a recession, since lower taxes stimulate the economy.

 

At the same time, New York’s Democratic governor David Patterson has refused to consider instituting a temporary “millionaire’s tax” to address his state’s desperate financial needs, choosing instead to slash vital social programs. Patterson claims that such a tax that this will drive businesses and wealthy individuals out of New York and further depress the economy. (This despite billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s declaration that among his rich friends, he’d “never heard one person say ‘I’m going to move out of the city because of taxes.’”)

 

In fact, an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, released earlier this year, debunks the myth that tax cuts for the rich more than “pay for themselves” by fueling economic growth.

There is no evidence that the tax cuts caused any increase in economic growth, let alone growth sufficient to offset their cost.  In fact, the 2001-2007 economic expansion was among the weakest since World War II with regard to overall economic growth. Moreover, revenue growth was very poor during 2001-2007.  Real per-capita revenues fell deeply in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and have since risen to barely 2 percent above their 2001 level.  Over the course of other postwar economic expansions, they grew by an average of 12 percent.

Capital gains taxes, CBPP found, have the effect of lowering revenue in the long run. And tax cuts financed by deficit spending—as they were under Bush, and undoubtedly will continue to be under Obama—are especially harmful.  

Brookings Institution economist William Gale and now-CBO director Peter Orszag concluded that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are “likely to reduce, not increase, national income in the long term” because of their effect in swelling the deficit. [The Congressional Budget Office’s] recent study of a deficit-financed extension of the 2001 and 2003 income-tax cuts found that “real [Gross National Product] per person would decline by 13 percent in 2050” relative to an extension that was financed through a balanced mix of revenue and spending changes effective immediately.

Even the Bush Treasury Department’s analysis of the cost of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts “estimated that they would generate only enough economic growth to cover less than 10 percent of their long-term cost. Furthermore, that estimate was based on a best-case scenario; it depended on the assumption that the cost of the tax cuts would be fully offset by spending cuts.”  


Likewise, on the state level, a recent study looked at a
much stiffer “half-millionaire’s” tax that went into effect in New Jersey. While the study found a tiny increase in the “out migration” rate among wealthy residents, it detected no damage to the economy. In fact, it found that overall, the state’s tax revenue increased by $26 for every $1 lost.

 

Especially during a recession, if we put more money in the pockets of the rich, it is likely to stay right there—in their pockets. On the other hand, if we put more money in the hands of  low- and middle-income workers through tax cuts, and in the hands of the poor and unemployed through increases in government programs (food stamps, TANF, unemployment benefits), that money is virtually guaranteed to go directly into the economy, since its recipients have no choice but to spend it on their basic needs—food, clothing, gasoline, doctor’s bills. A few of them might even be able to afford a room at the inn.