The unemployment rate is 7.8%. Both parties agree that this is too high, but they propose totally different solutions to create more jobs. The Republican solution is to give more tax breaks and other advantages to the rich and to corporations because they are the job creators. Really? Then why haven’t they created more jobs in the last 30 years. This historical experiment of “trickle down” economics has been tried since the time of Ronald Reagan and it has proven to be an abject failure. Yet Republicans are still pushing it as the solution to all our problems.
Esteemed Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman wants to take the traditional Keynesian approach and do deficit spending to improve the economy. He says there’s no reason to worry about the deficit since the US can borrow money at extremely low rates. Not to worry. He sides with Dick Cheney who famously said, “Deficits don’t matter.” He and Bush then went on to add trillions to the national debt by fighting two unpaid for wars, tax breaks for the rich and an unpaid for prescription drug benefit for seniors that was in reality a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies. But now that a Democratic President is in office, Republicans are all worried about deficits. They should have been worried when George W Bush was doing the profligate spending.
However, I disagree with both Cheney and Krugman. Deficits do matter and here’s why. Sure the government can borrow a lot of money, as much as it wants to, at extremely low rates. But the government has to pay interest on the national debt and that is a growing part of the budget. Interest on the debt is the fourth largest government expenditure after Defense, Medicare and Medicaid. In 2011 Federal, state and local governments spent $454,393,280,417.03 on interest. It actually came down dramatically in 2012 to $359,796,008,919.49. That’s still a lot of money. The Federal government alone spent around $220 billion in net interest on its debt in 2012, and is predicted to spend over a trillion dollars in interest by 2020. That’s $1 trillion we can’t spend to educate our kids or to replace our badly worn-out infrastructure.
And there’s no guarantee that interest rates will continue to remain at historical lows. They are being held there right now by the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. The Fed is printing money at the rate of $85 billion a month. This money is being essentially given to the large Wall Street banks. Theoretically it’s being loaned, but if someone loans you money at a zero interest rate, why would you ever pay it back? It’s foolish to think that interest rates will always remain this low and that foreign nations and individuals will continue to loan us money ad infinitum.
The Fed’s policy of printing money and then giving it to the big banks relies on the theory that low interest rates will get the economy moving again. The theory goes that people will be attracted to the low interest rates, borrow money and consume. It assumes that banks will actually loan out the money. Since consumption is 70% of the US economy, GDP will increase and that will create more jobs. In other words the Fed is exercising the same trickle down theory of economic growth made famous by Ronald Reagan and that has been tried for the last 30 years and failed. The Fed is essentially devaluing American currency in the hopes that this will create jobs. And it has been a big failure insofar as job creation is concerned but it has kept the US government’s borrowing rates low.
So if both deficit reduction and job creation are important, how do you do both. Put simply the US government has to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Republican emphasis on cutting spending, especially spending on social programs, would lead to austerity and that would contract the economy even more. So that isn’t the solution. To be fair President Obama has not been on the side of deficit spending as a way to get the economy out of the doldrums. He has been for a balanced approach of stimulating the economy and paying down the deficit. But Paul Krugman and many Democratic theorists like Robert Reich have.
The trick is to note that government spending does not have to be deficit spending. Government spending can increase without incurring greater deficits by increasing government revenues. And there are different varieties of government spending. Republicans favor just giving government money to private corporations and having them do the job. Their policy is to let the government just be a money conduit from taxpayers to corporations. Alternatively, government can spend money directly on jobs programs like rebuilding infrastructure. Instead of using the indirect approach which amounts to pushing on a string which is what the Fed is doing and which Republicans advocate, the government can actually create jobs directly in the public sector. If you want to create jobs, why not just create jobs directly instead of trying to get the private sector to create jobs. President Obama should just get up and say, “We’ve tried various policies to get the private sector to create jobs; they haven’t worked so now the government, the public sector, is going to create jobs directly.”
But here’s where Democrats and President Obama have a problem. Instead of calling for more revenue by taxing the rich and corporations and government direct spending instead of spending to fund private corporations to rebuild infrastructure, Obama is reticent because he is afraid of being labeled a socialist. No worries, he’s already been labeled a socialist despite his administration’s being the most pro-business administration in years. And beware of the public/private partnership which is just another variation of the privatization of functions which the government can do more efficiently. We don’t want to replace the military-industrial complex with an infrastructure-industrial complex replete with lobbyists, cost plus contracts and highly paid CEOs. There’s no need for Wall Street to get involved.
Well, where is the money going to come from? Senator Bernie Sanders has an answer: End Offshore Tax Havens. One out of four profitable corporations pays nothing in taxes. Tax rates on profits are the lowest since 1972. Last year Facebook paid nothing despite having a billion dollars in profits. Government revenue as a percentage of GDP is lower than at any time in history. Corporate contributions to tax revenue are the lowest of any major country on earth. It is absurd for major corporations to stash huge amounts of money in countries like the Cayman Islands which have a zero tax rate.
Bernie Sanders and Jan Schakowsky have introduced the Corporate Tax Fairness Act. The bill will raise $590 billion over the next decade. The bill will also stop giving tax breaks to corporations for shipping jobs overseas. Their bill would prevent oil companies from disguising royalty payments to foreign countries as taxes in order to reduce their taxes in the US among other things. And it has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing. A financial transaction tax would bring in as much as $100 billion annually. We used to have one; Europe just recently enacted one. Let’s end the “carried interest” loophole for hedge and private equity funds. Wall Street needs to start paying its fair share.
Corporations have been getting away with murder in not paying their fair share of taxes. This is from an article by Bernie Sanders:
“In 2010, Bank of America set up more than 200 subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands (which has a corporate tax rate of 0.0 percent) to avoid paying U.S. taxes. It worked. Not only did Bank of America pay nothing in federal income taxes, but it received a rebate from the IRS worth $1.9 billion that year. They are not alone. In 2010, JP Morgan Chase operated 83 subsidiaries incorporated in offshore tax havens to avoid paying some $4.9 billion in U.S. taxes. That same year Goldman Sachs operated 39 subsidiaries in offshore tax havens to avoid an estimated $3.3 billion in U.S. taxes. Citigroup has paid no federal income taxes for the last four years after receiving a total of $2.5 trillion in financial assistance from the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis.”
The sad fact is that the private sector is not in the process of creating jobs but of destroying jobs through automation and robotics. Almost anything a human being might have done in a job is now being done by robots. Some say that this creates jobs for “knowledge workers.” Sure if you’re among the upper 1% in knowledge talent. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook are not looking for the average college graduate. They’re looking for the upper 1% of college graduates. Together they employ less than 200,000 people in the US. The top talent in every field are making good money. Everyone else is going downhill if they’re employed at all. 50% of college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed in terms of their qualifications. In the 2009-2010 recovery, 93% of the gains in income went to the top 1%.
Why should the private sector create jobs if they can get a robot to do the work 24 hours a day at a cost of less than $5.00 an hour? If the private sector will not create jobs, that leaves the government to create jobs directly. Instead of pushing on a string with policies that are supposed to create jobs indirectly by encouraging the private sector to do so, government should get more involved. More government revenues plus direct job creation rebuilding infrastructure could result in growing the economy, providing good middle class jobs and paying down the debt.
Chrystia Freeman in her book Plutocracy explains this phenomenon which results in the divergence of jobs and income, creating a well to do upper 1% class and everybody else:
“This is what ecomomists call the “superstar” effect – the tendency of both technological change and globalization to create winner-take-all economic tournaments in many sectors and companies, where being the most successful in your field delivers huge rewards, but coming in second place, and certainly in fifth or tenth, has much less economic value.”
We are seeing the effects of a meritocracy where the top 1% of talent merges with the top 1% in terms of income and wealth. This is great for the top 1% of graduates from elite colleges but not so much for the average graduates of average colleges with $100,000. in student loan debt and a job at Starbucks instead of a career type job in their field. In every field the chasm between the superstars and everyone else is getting bigger and bigger. Inequality increases with the acceleration of meritocracy. Meritocracy and plutocracy converge creating a democratic dystopia.
That’s why the government has to step in to regulate this runaway dystopia. Taxes on corporations and the rich need to be increased in order to tamp down inequality. This revenue needs to be redistributed to the former middle class in terms of job programs. It could be redistributed in terms of welfare and unemployment insurance, but this creates a class of dependents. It would be much better to create a middle class of workers rebuilding infrastructure. And this is not a trivial job. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there is $2 trillion worth of work that needs to be done just to bring roads, bridges and other basic infrastructure up to par. But there is more to infrastructure than just that. When you consider all that needs to be done to prevent and combat the changes due to global warming, there is enough potential work out there to fully employ US workers for generations. Utilities need to be hardened and undergrounded. Fossil fuel powered electric plants need to be converted to solar and wind. Buildings need to be made less energy consuming. High speed rail needs to be implemented. Housing needs to be moved back from the shorelines.
There is no lack of work that needs to be done, and this is work the private sector not only won’t do but in many cases it is work that the private sector is lobbying against doing. They profit from using the atmosphere as a dump. It’s crucial that the government prevent runaway wealth maldistribution, create jobs that the private sector has no incentive to create and save the planet from ecological disaster.