President Obama supports letting many of the Bush tax cuts expire. He’s defending the passage of a new round of tax cuts, promised to benefit America’s middle and working classes. These cuts, however, would continue to benefit the affluent, or those individuals earning more than $170,000 a year. CNN Money reports that the tax cuts promoted by Obama for the middle class would also reduce taxes for those making between $171,850 and $195,550. This group would now fall into a “sweet spot” that would reduce their payments from the 33 percent tax bracket down to the 28 percent tax bracket. In contrast, those individuals who make more than $200,000 would see their payments increase from the 36 percent bracket to the 39.6 percent bracket.
The increase in taxes for those making more than $200,000 is misleading, however. While these individuals would legally be required to pay more in terms of their tax bracket, they would nonetheless qualify for other tax reductions under Obama’s plan.
The details are provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The organization reports that under Obama’s plan, “people making more than $1 million will receive more than five times the tax cut benefit, in dollar terms, as a middle class family making $50,000 to $75,000. The wealthy would qualify for cuts under the proposed extension of the income tax rate reductions and married filers’ reductions. In relation to the income tax, the CBPP estimates that those in the $200,000 to $500,000 income category would receive, on average, an 83 percent greater tax cut than those immediately below them earning more than $100,000 but less than $200,000. Those earning between $500,000 and $1 million would receive, on average, a 13 percent greater tax cut than those immediately below them making between $200,000 and $500,000. Finally, individuals earning more than $1 million would benefit from a 15 percent greater cut than those immediately below them making between $500,000 and $1 million. These numbers may sound confusing, but the major theme is really quite simple: as an individual’s (or a household’s) earnings increase into the six figures and beyond, they will be entitled to increasingly larger tax cuts under the Obama plan when compared to middle, working class, and poor Americans.
The Obama tax cuts, while clearly benefitting the middle class in many ways, will also represent a major pay day for America’s upper class. This apparently isn’t enough for Republicans in Congress, however. They complain that the rich should benefit from all the tax cuts granted under Bush, not merely some of them. They feel that any tax increases (relatively to the cuts the rich received in the last few years) are illegitimate. Nowhere is this position more clearly declared than by House of Representatives Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, who defends the Bush era tax cuts, which went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest one to five percent of Americans.
Boehner complains that “you can’t raise taxes in the middle of a weak economy without risking the double-dip in this recession…You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America and to get the economy going again. If we want to solve the budget problem, we’ve got to have a healthy economy and we have to get our arms around the runaway spending that’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
The supply side notion (first advocated by the Reagan administration) claims that economic growth only comes from massive tax cuts directed toward the rich. This theory, although promising prosperity for America’s middle class and poor, has done little to deliver benefits to the masses. A careful study from the Economic Policy Institute finds that “the economy has little to show for the $860 billion in tax cuts” passed under Bush from 2001 to 2005. In this EPI report, Lee Price concludes that “by virtually every measure the economy has performed worse in this business cycle than was typical in past ones, including that of the early 1990s, which saw major tax increases.” The EPI compares the 2001 to 2005 business cycle to other cycles in history (a cycle being defined in economics as a period beginning with a contraction in national GDP, a trough period when contraction ends and expansion begins, a sustained expansion period, and a peak of growth). EPI finds that, in spite of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, “almost every broad measure of economic activity – GDP, jobs, personal income, and business investment, among others – has fared worse over the last four and a half years (again, 2001 to 2005) than in past cycles.”
The EPI’s findings raise serious questions about the effectiveness of tax cuts aimed at the rich in bringing about economic recovery. The worthlessness of tax cuts for the rich in assuring middle class prosperity has been reinforced over the last few years as well. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire this year. Since the 2008 economic collapse and ensuing recession, the Bush tax cuts (in addition to the massive infusion of TARP funds for American “too big to fail” banks) have not been sufficient to push the U.S. into a serious economic recovery at a time when those who still have jobs are working harder and harder for declining wages. It was not until this year that the recession formally ended (a recession being defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth), and economic growth has been rather anemic, at just over one percent for the second quarter of 2010.
One would think that all these negative signs would be enough to convince Republicans (and conservative Democrats) not to renew tax cuts for the wealthy. This, however, has not been the case. The Republican Party – aided by reactionary pundits in the media – continues to push tax cuts for the rich. They do this, not because these cuts promote strong recovery and prosperity for middle America, but because they subsidize Republicans’ primary constituency – the rich. Democrats have long been reliant on, and supportive of corporate power as well, so their relatively weaker support for tax cuts for the rich is not surprising either.
Rather than asking what the Democrats and Republicans should be doing to reduce the size of government (as both parties’ leaders are doing), we should be asking how the government should be expanding its efforts to help the needy during times of economic desperation. The Democratic expansion of Medicaid under the 2010 health care reform bill will certainly help America’s poor in terms of increasing the size of the social welfare state, but a far larger (and much needed) expansion in the form of establishing a universal health care, Medicare-for-all system, would do a lot more in reducing the suffering of vulnerable Americans. What also would help the country (in addition to the recent extensions of unemployment and state school funds passed by Democrats in Congress) is another stimulus, which should be passed prior to the 2010 midterm elections.
The Democratic Party has gone Republican in at two ways when it comes to the tax cuts: 1. by pushing for a market solution over expanding government social welfare services; and 2. by continuing the tax cuts to the rich, even if in a reduced form from the far larger, more extreme amount preferred by conservatives. The choice to promote tax cuts over increased social spending (on food subsidies for the poor and on a new stimulus) signals a privileging of the well off over the truly needy. Instead of helping preserve the jobs of state educators and other public employees through massive stimulus spending, the Democrats have instead chosen to grant tax cuts to those who already have jobs. Why this group should be prioritized over the unemployed is anyone’s guess. The Democratic approach signifies the party’s increasing embrace of the Republican themes that “the government is the problem,” and that the best way to promote economic recovery is to reduce government revenues, and “give the people more of their own money,” rather than use that money to help those who are the most desperate.
There are penalties to be paid for going Republican at a time when Republicans are just as unpopular as the Democrats in the public mind. The Democratic Party’s emphasis on unnecessary tax cuts, and its timidity in pushing for an expansion of government stimulus has left us in the desperate economic position we are in today. The party is willing to promote at least limited welfare spending, passing $34 billion in unemployment extension benefits, and an additional $26 billion to help states fill their deficits and stave off cuts in education and Medicare. These most recent education and Medicaid packages, however, came along with $10 billion worth of cuts in food aid to the poor. The recent Medicaid, school, and unemployment bills also total just $50 billion for the year (after adjusting for the food aid cuts), and this represents a small fraction of the hole in state deficits that needs to be filled.
The state deficits for 2010 were estimated to total $192 billion, according to the CBPP. State deficits for 2011 are estimated at approximately $120 billion. Allowing all the Bush era tax cuts to expire would produce an additional $217 billion in revenues for the federal government throughout 2010 and 2011, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institute and the Urban Institute. This amount is more than enough to plug in the $120 billion hole in the 2011 state budget deficits. It’s unlikely that the Democratic Party will take this route, however, in light of its increasing support for Republican mantras about the holiness of tax cuts as a means of economic stimulation.
Democrats could single handedly end the state budget crises that will (sadly) continue to grip the country over the next year. Instead, they will continue to meander throughout the rest of 2010, refusing to push any sort of stimulus on par with the $787 billion stimulus package passed in 2009. Democratic refusals to pass a second stimulus will all but guarantee continued economic stagnation – and possibly decline. The party’s incompetence and preference for the rich will likely come back to haunt it in the 2010 election, in which the American public will angrily (and rightly) throw out many Democrats due to their mishandling of the economic crisis.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events. He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org