"From some on the right, I expect we'll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that's what we did for eight years." (Applause.) "That's what helped us into this crisis. It's what helped lead to these deficits. We can't do it again."
President Obama spoke these words in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, after pledging to enact an agenda that will create jobs and tackle our long-term budget deficit. He did a good job of explaining that the budget deficits that exist today are the result of deficit-financed tax cuts, two deficit-financed wars, and a major recession all occurring before he entered the White House.
But one has to wonder if President Obama is gently bearing left at a time when any sensible directions would call for a sharp left turn.
The Bush Tax Cuts
He remains committed to extending the Bush income tax cuts for the 98 percent of taxpayers who have adjusted gross income (AGI) below $250,000 (or below $200,000 for an unmarried taxpayer). The budget document released by the administration last year showed, in a convoluted way, that this would cost $1.88 trillion between now and 2019. His proposal to partially extend the Bush cut in the estate tax (making permanent the estate tax rules in effect in 2009) would cost another $576 billion over the same period, for a total of about $2.45 trillion.
The estimated costs of these proposals may be different in the budget to be released next week (since all the projections change at least somewhat in response to developments in the economy). But make no mistake, the cost of extending most of the Bush tax cuts far exceeds the savings the President hopes to achieve with his proposed spending freeze (which will actually cut spending if one accounts for inflation and other factors).
Cutting Non-Security Discretionary Programs
The administration is reported to believe $250 billion can be saved from the spending freeze, which would last three years but would not apply to national security, Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. The first problem is that these exempt categories of spending, along with interest payments on the national debt that cannot be avoided, make up 70 percent of the federal budget. Americans love to complain about wasteful government spending, but few realize that, once you eliminate those categories of spending that are very popular with the public, there's not a whole lot left to cut. The non-security discretionary spending that is left has come under increasing pressure in recent years since it's the only part of the budget lawmakers feel comfortable attacking.
The second problem is that cutting back spending when the economy may still be weak could prolong our downturn. Progressive observers have warned that the Roosevelt administration's decision to stop stimulating the economy and focus on deficit-reduction plunged the country back into a deeper depression in 1937.
For their part, administration officials have explained that they are not proposing an across-the-board freeze. Rather, they will identify particular types of spending that represent wasteful giveaways to special interests rather than public services that people depend upon.
Even if that's true (and the jury is still out on that), it's still peculiar that taxes aren't getting more attention. This is the third problem with the President's approach. The need for higher taxes is like an 800 pound elephant in the room that everyone is trying to ignore, even if they vaguely acknowledge that Bush's tax cuts got us into this mess. Does a family with an income of $190,000 really need every cent of their Bush tax cuts? Do families with $7 million in assets really need to be fully exempt from the estate tax? The President's tax proposals would have us believe so.
Steps in the Right Direction
The President certainly wants to move in the right direction, as was evident in various parts of his speech. He reiterated his proposal to charge a fee on risk-taking by the largest banks, which would raise $90 billion over a decade according to the administration. We've argued before that this is entirely reasonable. The institutions affected know they have an implicit guarantee from the government and are prone to put the entire economy at risk as a result. It makes sense to demand that they pay up in proportion to their risk-taking.
The President also reaffirmed his desire to do something about offshore profit-shifting by corporations. The proposals he made last year along these lines would raise $200 billion over a decade and would be extremely important, as we have explained in detail, in preventing U.S. corporations from shifting their profits to other countries.
Sometimes this shifting means companies actually move jobs and operations offshore, but other times it involves accounting gimmicks and transactions that exist only on paper. Either way, Americans lose tax revenue for no good reason other than that Congress is afraid to take on the lobbying power of multinational corporations.
America has a budget problem that is long-term in nature. The money we spend this year or next year to stimulate the economy has little impact on the long-term deficit. Reforming our tax system permanently, however, is an important part of the long-term solution.