Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Obamanomics II: a corporate tax cut?

The Wall Street Journal Online has a terrific interview with Obama on economics up today - wide-ranging, confrontational, moving freely between theory and policy specifics.

Unfortunately, the front-page print writeup by Bob Davis and Amy Chozicki fails to do the discussion justice. Curiously, it's only two-thirds as long as the print writeup of a March 3 economics interview with McCain -- early fruits, perhaps, of Murdoch's stated desire to make WSJ features shorter. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's chief economic advisor, gets almost half again as much ink as Obama, and much of the article is devoted to dubious parallels between Obama's plan for Federal venture capital-style investment in alternative energy and past failed Federal attempts at alternative energy investment.

The print article does not convey the subtlety, pragmatism, balance and strategic reach of the economic vision Obama expressed in the interview.*

The full discussion is a prime example of how Obama casts liberal spending and tax proposals as a restoration of balance, a return to the historical center after years of rising inequality, and a set of investments essential to competing in a global economy. Obama's bid to build a working majority for these policies consists in part of acknowledging the validity of certain conservative principles and (for a Democrat) inconvenient truths:
  • "the combination of globalization and technology and automation all weaken the position of workers" (listening, David Brooks?).
  • "You might undoubtedly get to a point where the capital gain and dividend taxes are so high that they distort investment decisions and you're weaker economically."
  • "if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up."
Acknowledging these points enables Obama to present his redistributionist tax proposals and proposed investments in education, health care, infrastructure and alternative energy as pragmatic and essentially centrist. He uses history -- references to previous periods of successful public investment, and to the last thirty years' rise in income inequality -- to move the center to the left. Particularly revealing is his response to a question about taxes. Challenged as a redistributionist, Obama talks first about fairness, but then about efficiency:
Here's what I would say: I do believe the tax policies over the last eight years have been badly skewed towards the winners of the global economy. And I do think there is a function for tax policy in making sure that everybody benefits from globalization or at least the benefits and burdens are shared a little more easily. If, as some talk about, we've got a winner-take-all economy where the highly skilled, highly educated are reaping huge rewards and the unskilled or even semi-skilled are getting a much smaller share of the economy, then our tax policies can help cushion some of the blow through providing health care. So if people lose their jobs they're not losing their health care as well. That actually makes a more flexible work force that makes workers more mobile and less resistant to change.

If we've got investments in education, that will make us more competitive in the long run. We've got to pay for that like anything else. But it would be a mistake to say I view our tax code only as a distribution question. I also think that our tax code has come to distort a lot of economic decision making so I'd like to see simplification as part of an overall tax agenda. On the corporate side, for example, one of the things I've asked my folks to look at is: Are there ways we can close existing loopholes in tax havens at the same time as we're lowering overall rates? We've got this new problem: The biggest problem with our tax code when it comes to the business side is that we have one of the highest tax rates -- corporate tax rates -- on paper but our effective tax rate is one of the lowest … You know, how much you pay in taxes as a corporation a lot of times is going to depend on how good your lobbyist is, as opposed to any sound economic theories. So those distorting effects I'd like to actually remove and eliminate from our tax system, but obviously that's a complicated and difficult task. The last time we did it was in 1986. We're going to have to, I think, revisit that.

A less skilled politician, and a less subtle thinker, would use McCain's proposed cut in the corporate tax rate as a populist bludgeon -- a powerful one, at a time of heavy economic stress. Obama, instead, acknowledges that a high corporate tax rate can hurt U.S. competitiveness -- or would if it were not offset by a thousand loopholes. Obama argues fairness and efficiency and good economic outcomes are interdependent. And fairer, more rational and efficient policies depend on lobbying reform.

The discussion is shadowed by a different kind of centrism: Clinton's. Obama is asked explicitly whether budget pressures would not force him, as they did Clinton, to put deficit reduction ahead of investment - specifically in infrastructure, but implicitly in a range of social programs. The reporters also cast this question as a choice between Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (deficit reduction) and Clinton's Labor Secretary Robert Reich (investment in infrastructure). Obama says explicitly that he would draw on both. But he also makes it quite clear that he expects to reverse Clinton's emphasis, and put investment first -- and that the historical moment would allow him to do so:
Well, look, the difference I would suggest is that there is a strong recognition in the public mind that we can't continue on our current energy path. It's not sustainable. Which means there's a bigger opening to bring about change....

Finally, you've got a war in Iraq that is deeply unpopular, where we've been spending billions of dollars. We're going to have to catch up on deficit reduction but I think people also recognize that if we can spend that much money rebuilding Iraq, surely we can find some money to rebuild America.
It's interesting that Obama "leans Reich" on this question, because on a different plane he's deeply influenced by Reich's thinking. That is, he's absorbed Reich's argument in Supercapitalism that widening income inequality, a large risk shift from the community to the individual, and the corruption of our political process by lobbying are all due more to the rise of global hyper-competition among businesses than to the policies of either party. Obama's position is that Republican policies -- anti-unionism, radical deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy --have exacerbated and failed to address these problems -- but not caused them. His response to a question about the historical underpinnings of "the question of redistribution" is almost pure Reich:
...the combination of globalization and technology and automation all weaken the position of workers. I would add an anti-union climate to that list. But all weakens the position of workers, particularly blue-collar workers, in the economy, and some of it is just historical. You know after World War II, we were in this unique position where Europe was decimated, Japan was decimated. China was off the grid because of Mao. And so we didn't have a lot of competition out there, and now other countries are rising and automation has supplanted a lot of work that used to be done by middle-class workers.

We have drastically increased productivity since 1995, and there was the theory that if you increase productivity enough some of these problems of living standards would solve themselves. But what we've seen is rising productivity, rising corporate profits but flat-lining or even declining wages and incomes for the average family.

What that says is that it's going to be important for us to pay attention to not only growing the pie, which is always critical, but also some attention to how it is sliced. I do not believe that those two things -- fair distribution and robust economic growth -- are mutually exclusive.

Having argued at length that re-emphasizing shared prosperity is the deepest pragmatism, Obama is able at the end of the interview to effectively cast himself as the anti-Bush (and implictly, an anti-McCain)-- a card-carrying member of the reality-based community:
I tend to be eclectic. I do think we're in a different time in 2008 than we were in 1992. The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I'm going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense. I'm a big believer in evidence. I'm a big believer in fact. You know, if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up. It's too much work.

On the health-care front, for example, if I actually believed that just providing a tax cut to everybody would solve the problem of lack of health insurance and cure health-care inflation, I'd say great, that's a nice way to do it. It prevents a lot of headaches. But I've seen no evidence that the kinds of policies John McCain puts forward would actually work.

If I saw strong evidence that an additional $300 billion in tax cuts that John has proposed -- without a clear way of paying for it -- would actually boost economic growth and productivity, I'd be happy to take a look at that evidence. But I haven't seen that. It's all conjecture.

Obama is telling the country that Colbert was right. Reality has a liberal bias. Not everywhere, not at every time. But here in the U.S., after eight years of Bush.

*In fairness, it should be noted that while Davis and Chozicki seem deeply skeptical about Obama's spending and tax plans, Davis at least is an equal-opportunity skeptic. Reporting the McCain interview, he pretty much let McCain hang himself - making it clear without editorializing that McCain's proposed tax cuts would cost about $400 billion per year, to be offset only by trivial savings gained by clamping down on earmarks. Davis also reported deadpan as McCain disowned, as it were in real time, the social security plan posted on his own website.

Related posts:
Obamanomics: rebalancing the national portfolio
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia

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