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Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing–The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

8:56 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy of Mother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on
birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current cr:p of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly
exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can
decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such
information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Sanders Filibusters Tax Cuts, Electrifies the Left

9:01 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, became a folk hero to progressives when he took to the floor of the Senate for nearly nine hours on Friday to speak against the plan to extend tax cuts for the wealthy in exchange for extending unemployment benefits for millions of workers and extending tax breaks for the middle class.

On the Senate floor, Sanders accused his Republican colleagues of wanting to roll back the New Deal:

And that is, they want to move this country back into the 1920s, when essentially we had an economic and political system which was controlled by Big Money interests, where working people in the middle class had no programs to sustain them when things got bad, when they got old, when they got sick, when labor unions were very hard to come by because of anti-worker legislation.

Senate video servers were overwhelmed as over 12,000 people tried to watch online, John Nichols of The Nation reports.

“Instead of us having to compromise all the time, maybe it’s time of for some of the Republicans to start compromising,” Sanders told host Laura Flanders in an interview with GritTV. (Watch the video.)

Sanders said that over the past few days his office had received 2,000 calls congratulating him for his stance.

Despite Sanders’ eloquent appeal to level the economic playing field,  the Senate seems poised to move on the Obama tax deal, notes Steve Benen at Washington Monthly the plan will fare in the House. The House Democratic caucus rejected the plan on Thursday in an unofficial vote.

Some Democratic House members have voiced their frustrations with the president. Still, Benen thinks it’s unlikely that House Democrats have any intention of scuttling the bill. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats realize they will probably get an even less favorable bill if they wait until the Republicans take over control of the House.

Ed Brayton of the Michigan Messenger notes that while the two houses of Congress were negotiating, more than one million Americans had already lost their unemployment benefits at the end of November and hundreds of thousands more stand to lose their benefits in the coming weeks.

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times points out that the so-called “99-ers”, people who have been out of work for over 99 weeks, will not be helped by the proposed compromise on unemployment benefits extensions. Approximately 2 million people have already hit the 99-week wall on UI benefits. The so-called Grand Compromise won’t stop their benefits from running out.

The proposed deal, dubbed “benefits-for-billionaires” by GritTV host Laura Flanders, would also effectively end the Build America Bonds program, a program that allows cash-strapped states to borrow to maintain public services. As labor activist and commentator Bill Fletcher pointed out in an interview with Flanders, ending the bonds program is an attack on public sector retirement benefits. If credit dries up, the states will be unable to meet their obligations, such as retirement benefits promised to public sector workers. This is backdoor union-busting. If the state has no money, its contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Taibbi vs. the Vampire Squid

Chris Lehmann of The Nation has a positive review of journalist Matt Taibbi’s new book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. The book is Taibbi’s wide-ranging take on the meltdown of the American economy from the housing bubble to the credit crisis and beyond. The Vampire Squid is Goldman Sachs, to whom Taibbi allots an outsize share of the blame for derailing the U.S. economy.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Tax Cuts for the Rich Extended

10:11 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein,  Media Consortium Blogger

Congressional Republicans and the White House  struck an agreement in principle on Monday night to extend all the Bush tax cuts for 2 more years in exchange for extending unemployment benefits. The GOP agreed to the so-called “Lincoln-Kyl compromise” a partial 2-year extension of the Bush estate tax cuts on estates worth over $5 million. If the deal had not been struck, estate taxes on estates over $5 million would have gone back up from 0% to the pre-cut rate of 55%. Instead, the rate will be 35% for the next 2 years.

The GOP also agreed to a short-term “stimulative” 2 percentage-point cut off the 6.2% payroll tax we all pay on income up to $106,800. The good news is that a payroll tax holiday will provide the most noticeable tax relief to low- and middle-income Americans. The bad news is that payroll taxes fund Social Security, so cutting the tax means starving a program that most directly benefits average people. Social Security is not in crisis yet, but steps like these could push the program into worse financial straights where significant benefit cuts become inevitable. It’s almost as if the GOP, having failed to spark panic about an as-yet non-existent Social Security crisis, is determined to engineer one.

All these gimmes for the rich were the price of a partial extension of unemployment benefits. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. If Congress had failed to act, 2 million people stood to lose their benefits this month and another 7 million would have run out before the end of next year, reports Andy Kroll of Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise. The economy only added 39,000 jobs in November when analysts were expecting about 150,000. “At the beginning, some people just thought it was a printing error,” said reporter Motoko Rich on the New York Times‘ weekly business podcast. The overall unemployment rate climbed to 9.8%.

At ColorLines, Kai Wright argues that the time has come for President Obama to seize the opportunity to debunk conservatives’ bad faith arguments for tax cuts above all else:

At the same time, the anti-government crowd’s political hand—if forced—has never been weaker. A depressingly large number of middle-class and working-class Americans now know all too well what economists have long understood: You get a great deal more economic bang out of keeping lots of people from becoming destitute than you do by helping a few people horde wealth. People remain enraged about the no-strings-attached bank bailout, for instance, because they intuitively understand its ramifications. Wall Street is now enjoying a narrow, taxpayer-financed recovery while unemployment, hunger and poverty all continue climbing through the former middle class.

Extending UI makes sense

Tim Fernholtz of TAPPED tackles some of the bad arguments against extending unemployment insurance. Economist Greg Mankiw claims that extending unemployment insurance is just a surreptitious ploy to redistribute income to the poor from the wealthy. Actually, as Fernholtz points out, the point of a UI safety net is to prevent people, 3 million of them in 2009, from becoming poor in the first place. Poverty is very expensive for society at large. If we can keep the unemployed in their homes, spending their benefits in their communities, we can keep the socially corrosive effects of poverty at bay until the economy improves. The social costs of child poverty alone have been estimated at $500 billion a year, Fernholtz notes. The deeper we allow people to sink into poverty, the more difficult it will be for the economy to rebound. On this view, UI is a shared investment in a well-ordered society, not just a lifeline for jobless families.

Why corporate tax cuts won’t create jobs

Jack Rasmus of Working In These Times explains why tax cuts will not create jobs. Simply put, banks and big companies are sitting on over a trillion dollars. Among the nation’s biggest banks, lending to small and medium size businesses, the engines of job creation, has dwindled over 2009 and 2010. America’s biggest companies are sitting on a hoard of $1.84 trillion dollars, which they are not investing in job-creating projects. The Deficit Commission recommended slashing corporate taxes, ostensibly to spur investment and job creation, which would ultimately generate taxable income to help balance the budget. As Rasmus points out, this wishful thinking is predicated upon the assumption that if only corporations had more money, they would invest it to create jobs. The fact that companies are already sitting on huge piles of cash suggests that shoveling more moolah on the pile won’t change the basic dynamic. Perhaps companies are waiting to invest because they know that consumers aren’t keen to buy goods and services when they are unemployed or fearing job loss.

Economic disobedience

At In These Times, Andrew Oxford interviews sociologist Lisa Dodson about her new book on getting by in the low-wage economy. Her research shows that as economic instability mounts, many Americans are quietly taking matters into their own hands:

To understand how fair-minded people survive in an unfair economy, Dodson interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers and their employers across the country, examining what she terms the “economic disobedience” now pervasive in the low-wage sector. From a supervisor padding paychecks to a grocer sending food home with his employees, these acts of disobedience form the subject of her latest book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.

Winner-take all economy

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Yale political science profesor and  Jacob Hacker explains why the Deficit Commission has it all wrong when it comes to tax cuts vs. unemployment benefits.

Hacker studies inequality. He has written a book on how the richest Americans cornered an unprecedented share of the country’s wealth for themselves over the past three decades. The richest Americans have never been in a better position to help the country grapple with the deficit. Yet, as Hacker points out, the Deficit Commission wants to balance the budget on the backs of middle- and lower-income Americans by cutting spending on programs that disproportionately benefit working people and readjusting the tax code to make it even more favorable to the rich.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: A Progressive Deficit Fix?

8:36 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The co-chairs of the 18-member deficit commission issued a preliminary presentation two weeks ago that favored tax breaks for the wealthy and left open the possibility of deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other social programs. But there’s still time for the commission to radically reshape its message before it issues its final report.

Jan’s plan

That’s exactly what progressive Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) is trying to bring about. Schakowsky is a member of the commission and she has an alternative, progressive plan to rein in the deficit, as David Moberg reports for Working in These Times:

It would not go into effect until 2015 or after unemployment subsides, and it provides for $200 billion of job-creating investments during the next two years, in addition to reducing the deficit by $441 billion in 2015, nearly double Obama’s target. Slightly more than a third of Schakowsky’s proposed deficit reduction would come from new revenue (mostly tax changes hitting the wealthy and corporations but also from cap-and-trade carbon emission controls), 30 percent from ending or reforming tax expenditures (again, mainly benefiting rich taxpayers), a quarter from defense cuts, and 9 percent from mandatory programs (like offering a public option for health insurance and requiring Medicare to bargain over drug prices). Though Social Security does not contribute to the deficit, Schakowsky plans to secure future payouts without benefit cuts by increasing how much the wealthy pay into the retirement program.

A public option for health insurance would keep rising health care costs in check because insurers would have to compete with non-profit, government-administered insurance. Instead of cutting Social Security benefits for the needy, Schakowsky would simply eliminate the arbitrary payroll tax ceiling on high earners. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

A coalition of progressive groups calling itself Our Fiscal Security unveiled its own alternative proposal for cutting the deficit on Monday, Luke Johnson reports for the Colorado Independent. Key planks of the platform include repealing the Bush tax cuts, reinstating the estate tax for married couples with assets greater than $4 million, and capping itemized deductions at 15%. Coalition members include Demos, the Century Foundation, and the Economic Policy Foundation.

Generation Recession

Young adults have the highest unemployment rate of any demographic. At the National Radio Project, Rina Palta examines the impact of joblessness on the nation’s 80 million “Millennials.” (Audio) Palta talks to young people who are weathering their first layoffs mere weeks or months after landing their first professional jobs.

Mark Kirk: Tax Cuts for the Rich “No Matter What”

The day before 2.5 million Americans stand to lose their unemployment benefits, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) went on TV to insist that unemployment insurance is misguided and that the government must cut taxes for the rich “no matter what,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd reports in AlterNet.

Oddly enough, Kirk fancies himself a moderate by Republican standards, according to Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly. Kirk believes that extending unemployment insurance would “just add to the deficit.” In fact, as Benen notes, extending unemployment benefits would be a very efficient way to infuse billions of dollars into the economy. Unemployed people will spend their extended benefits on food, gas, rent, and other necessities. That money doesn’t just disappear into the ether, it feeds local businesses, who in turn keep other Americans working.

The Republican Party line is that the rich need tax cuts because they create jobs. If tax cuts for the rich created jobs, we should already have a full employment economy. As the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, taxes for the rich are at all time lows and unemployment is at historic highs. It is crazy to assume that allowing these tax cuts to continue will magically produce jobs that have yet to materialize, or even bring back the jobs that have disappeared since the Bush tax cuts went into effect.

Ireland’s Billion Dollar Bailout

Over the weekend, the world’s financial institutions agreed to spend $90 billion to bail out Ireland. Tim Fernholz of TAPPED worries that this sum is too small to bring Ireland back from the brink of its sovereign debt crisis. He argues that the world financial community is making the same mistake it made in the 1990s when it forced debtor nations into fiscal austerity without forcing creditor nations to restructure their loans on more sustainable terms.

Once again, bondholders are being spared while Irish taxpayers are being expected to shoulder the heaviest burdens. The economic argument for saving the bondholders is that a bond is an ironclad promise, and that if you start expecting bondholders to accept less than 100% of what was promised to them (no matter how ill-advised they were to take that promise), the entire system will fall apart. It’s ironic that the promises that governments make to their citizens are endlessly renegotiable while bond deals are ironclad. Worldwide, citizens outnumber bondholders. Having citizens lose faith in their government seems far more dangerous than expecting bondholders to take a haircut.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.