Obama Needs to Teach the Public How to Get Out of the Mess We’re In, But He’s Not

The President wants businesses that hire new employees this year to get $5,000 per hire, in the form of a tax credit. That will come to about $33 billion. It’s good step. He’s also supporting a cut in the capital gains tax for small businesses. That makes sense; after all, small businesses generate most jobs.

But here’s the problem. Both of these measures, and many of the other tax cuts he’s proposing, give ammunition to supply-siders who think the way out of this awful economy is simply to cut taxes on businesses. If a new jobs tax credit is a good idea, why not a cut corporate in income taxes? If it’s useful to reduce capital gains taxes for small businesses, why isn’t it useful to reduce them for all businesses?

The answer, of course, is that across-the-board supply-side tax cuts for businesses don’t increase the demand for the things businesses produce. They’re useful only to the extent businesses are confident consumers are out there, able and willing to buy. Carefully targeted — as are the cuts the President is proposing — they can give businesses an extra nudge to hire. But without adequate demand, they’re useless.

So what’s the President’s new proposal for boosting overall demand? Hmmm. Turns out, he’s not really proposing anything new on that score. (Some who watched his State of the Union the other night thought they heard him call for a second stimulus. Actually, he didn’t, and as far as I can tell he doesn’t plan to.) His political advisors are telling him to emphasize deficit reduction instead. And that’s what he did Wednesday night when he talked about a “freeze” on discretionary spending, and a “commission” to look for ways to cut the deficit.

I can understand why Obama’s political advisors are pushing him in this direction. Many Americans borrowed too much during the boom years before the Great Depression, and now they’re paying the price. So they naturally analogize their own plight to that of the federal government and the economy as a whole. The government is too deep in debt, they reason. Logically, that means the only way out of the nation’s economic doldrums is for the government to mend its ways. The government has to reduce its budget deficit just like American families have to reduce theirs.

This analogy is faulty, of course. If John Maynard Keyenes taught us anything, it’s that a federal budget is not at all like a family budget. In fact, it’s precisely because families have to pull in their belts that the federal government has to let its belt out. When consumers and businesses aren’t buying much of anything, the government has to fill the gap. That’s the only way to get jobs and get the economy moving again. Once the economy is percolating, the government can pull back. By then, tax revenues will soar, and the long-term deficit will shrink. (And yes, entitlement reform is probably necessary in the long term. But here again, it’s vitally important to separate the long term from the now.)

But if the public learns the wrong set of lessons — that tax cuts for businesses are good, and deficit reduction starting now is good — there’s no hope for getting wise policies out of Congress. The debate is framed all wrong.

The President — any president — is the nation’s educator in chief. Everything he proposes contains an implicit lesson. The economic lesson President Obama ought to be teaching is that targeted tax cuts, mostly for small business, are good to the extent they give businesses a nudge toward creating more jobs. But businesses won’t begin to create lots of jobs until they have lots of customers. And that won’t happen until lots more Americans have work. The only way to get them work when businesses aren’t hiring is for government to prime the pump.

One final lesson I wish he’d teach: The best and fastest way for government to prime the pump is to help states and locales, which are now doing the opposite. They’re laying off teachers, police officers, social workers, health-care workers, and many more who provide vital public services. And they’re increasing taxes and fees. They have no choice. State constititions require them to balance their budgets. But the result is to negate much of what the federal government has tried to do with its stimulus to date.

We need a second stimulus directed at states and locales. I wish our educator-in-chief would say that loud and clear, explain why, and then do it.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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1 Comment on Obama Needs to Teach the Public How to Get Out of the Mess We’re In, But He’s Not

  1. Though I agree with the general concept surrounding the “it’s precisely because families have to pull in their belts that the federal government has to let its belt out” comment, the issue I take with this is that the flipside is never true, i.e. when families let their belts out, the government should pull its belt in. But because it is politically unpalatable for politicians to reduce the size of their own budgets, they just do not control their spending in times of prosperity, then use times of turmoil to call for the need of additional spending, which is “to help support the economy.”

    If you want to chastize Wall Street for taking people’s money and making investments that seem risky and unjustifiable from a risk/return standpoint, then the government should be willing to turn the magnifying glass on themselves. If you consider every expense the government incurrs as an investment in our country’s future, then I believe it is reasonable to say that after their track record, the majority of us would fire them as our investment managers. Considering the numerous reports of wasteful spending on the part of a variety of politicians–from both side of the aisle mind you–I would argue that they have failed to live up to their fiduciary duty and should be dismissed, if not indicted.

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