The Tax-Cut Con Goes On

Why Social Security and Medicare are on the ballot.

What will happen if the blue wave in the midterm elections falls short? Clearly, at this point it still might: Democrats will surely receive more votes than Republicans, but thanks to gerrymandering and population geography, the U.S. electoral system gives excess weight to rural, white voters who still have faith in President Trump. What if, thanks to that excess weight, the minority prevails?

.. But the attack on the social safety net probably wouldn’t stop with a rollback of Obama-era expansion: Longstanding programs, very much including Social Security and Medicare, would also be on the chopping block. Who says so? Republicans themselves.

.. In a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Representative Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — in effect, the man charged with containing the blue wave — declared that, given the size of the budget deficit, the federal government needs to save money by cutting spending on social programs. When pressed about whether that included Social Security and Medicare, he admitted that it did.

.. Many major figures in the G.O.P., including the departing speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and multiple senators, have said the same thing.

(Meanwhile, groups tied to Ryan have been running attack ads accusing Democrats of planning to cut Medicare funding — but hey, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So, apparently, is honesty.)

Now, Republicans who call for cuts in social spending to balance the budget are showing extraordinary chutzpah, which is traditionally defined as what you exhibit when you kill your parents, then plead for mercy because you’re an orphan. After all, the same Republicans now wringing their hands over budget deficits just blew up that same deficit by enacting a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy.

So it might seem shocking that only a few months later they’re once again posing as deficit hawks and calling for spending cuts. That is, it might seem shocking if it weren’t for the fact that this has been the G.O.P.’s budget strategy for decades. First, cut taxes. Then, bemoan the deficit created by those tax cuts and demand cuts in social spending. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This strategy, known as “starve the beast,” has been around since the 1970s, when Republican economists like Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman began declaring that the role of tax cuts in worsening budget deficits was a feature, not a bug.

As Greenspan openly put it in 1978, the goal was to rein in spending with tax cuts that reduce revenue, then “trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”


For Whom the Economy Grows

If Jeff Bezos walks into a bar, the average wealth of the bar’s patrons suddenly shoots up to several billion dollars — but none of the non-Bezos drinkers have gotten any richer.

.. Since the 1970s, however, the link between overall growth and individual incomes seems to have been broken for many Americans. On one side, wages have stagnated for many; adjusted for inflation, the median male worker earns less now than he did in 1979. On the other side, some have seen their incomes grow much faster than the income of the nation as a whole. Thus C.E.O.s at the largest companies now make 270 times as much as the average worker, up from 27 times as much in 1980.

.. similar disconnect between overall growth and individual experience seems to lie behind the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the current state of the economy and its disdain for the 2017 tax cut. G.D.P. numbers have been good in recent quarters, but much of the growth has gone to soaring corporate profits, while median real wages have gone nowhere
.. But how do facts like these fit into the overall story of economic growth? To answer this question, we need “distributional national accounts” that track how growth is allocated among different segments of the population.

.. Producing such accounts is hard but not impossible. In fact, the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have already produced estimated accounts with considerable detail over the past half century. The main message is one of growth going disproportionately to the top and not shared with the bottom half of the population, but there are also some surprises in the other direction. For example, the middle class, while still lagging, has done better than some common measures indicated thanks to fringe benefits.

.. In a reasonable world, then, something like the Schumer-Heinrich bill would become law in the near future. In the real world, of course, the proposal will go nowhere for the time being — because Republicans don’t want anyone to know what distributional national accounts might reveal.

.. By now everyone knows that conservatives routinely yell “socialist!” whenever anyone proposes doing something to help less fortunate members of our society — which is a key reason so many Americans now think favorably of socialism: If guaranteed health care is socialism, bring it on. But the right doesn’t just cry foul at any attempt to limit inequality; it does the same thing whenever anyone tries to talk about economic class, or measure how different classes are faring.

.. My favorite example here is still former senator Rick Santorum, who denounced the term “middle class” as “Marxism talk.” But that was just an especially ludicrous version of a general attempt on the right to suppress talk about and research into where the economy’s money goes. The G.O.P.’s basic position is that what you don’t know can’t hurt it.

And to be fair, progressives like the idea of distributional accounts in part because they believe that more knowledge in this area would help their own cause.

Crushing it for whom, Mr. Kudlow?

Last week, one of President Trump’s top economic advisers, Larry Kudlow, argued the U.S. economy is “crushing it,” posting boom-like numbers in key areas, all thanks to the leadership of the president.

Evaluating such claims usually begins with assessing whether the president should get credit for an economy he inherited in year eight of a solid expansion. But the fact that Trump is claiming credit for trends that were largely ongoing before he took office is one of the few ways in which he is not much different from former presidents.

.. Who is actually getting ahead in the Trump economy?

.. . In contrast, corporate profits and equity markets truly are crushing it, both on a pre- and especially, given the large business tax cuts, a post-tax basis.

.. There is also no evidence of an investment boom, suggesting the recent, above-trend growth in GDP is Keynes, not Laffer — meaning the deficit spending is providing a temporary boost but will not have lasting, positive impacts for long-term economic growth.

.. Starting with wages, since Trump took office, the real hourly wage for the 82 percent of the workforce that is blue collar in factories and non-managers in services is up half-a-percent, an extra 11 cents per hour.

.. the growth of mid-level pay has picked up a bit, as we’d expect with such low unemployment. But inflation, largely driven by higher energy costs, has also sped up, canceling out any real gains.

.. If energy prices come down and unemployment continues to fall, real wage growth for mid-wage workers will improve. But the magnitude of their gains will likely be nothing close to the administration’s claim that the tax cut would add at least $4,000 to annual earnings within a few years of the legislation.

.. In President Barack Obama’s second term, real annual wage growth for mid-wage workers was about 1 percent, so call that the baseline.

.. Sticking with the tax cut, its proponents main claim was the big corporate cuts would generate more business investment, which would lead to faster productivity growth, which would position us for higher paying jobs. So far, every link in that chain is broken.

.. Business investment is growing, as we’d expect in an economy operating close to full capacity. But its growth rate is not faster now than at various points earlier in the expansion.

.. There has been a modest uptick in investment in structures (such as plants, offices, wells, mine shafts, warehouses) in the first half of 2018, but, as economist Dean Baker has shown, the growth in such investment was due to higher energy prices generating increased investment in mining for oil and natural gas.

.. While mining investment has increased by 36.7 percent over the last year, it rose by 47.3 percent from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010, when the Obama administration was still enforcing environmental laws. In both cases, the key factor was rising world oil prices.

.. It takes time to plan investments, so it is too soon to conclude the tax cuts have not made a difference. But none of the surveys of companies’ investment plans show any plans to ratchet up capital spending

.. What is clear is firms are using their tax windfalls to boost share prices through buybacks, which, along with strong corporate profits, are fueling a historical bull market for stocks.

.. instead of borrowing $2 trillion to finance the regressive tax cut, Congress could have put more money in the pockets of working Americans and made investments for our economic future.

.. First, we should have expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit to compensate for decades of stagnant wage growth. The Brown-Khanna plan, calling for a $1.4 trillion EITC expansion, would have provided working families making up to $75,000 with up to $8,000 more in take home pay.

.. the best way to raise pay for ordinary Americans is to do so directly as opposed to pretending it will come through the largesse of executives and shareholders.

.. Second, we should have put billions to expand the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program, linking employers to technical schools to develop credentials that respond to the needs of our cutting-edge industries.

.. Third, we should have provided hiring incentives for anchor companies to create jobs in places left behind such as Paintsville, Ky., or Flint, Mich. If a company is willing to hire in places where people do not have enough access to high-wage jobs, then they should get support for doing so.

.. Fourth, we should have invested in bringing high speed Internet to every corner of America. Providing fiber broadband to every corner of the United States is the modern equivalent of rural electrification.

.. Larry Kudlow’s right: The Trump administration is crushing it for its donor base, which is in turn handsomely rewarding them.

.. But it has done nothing for the forgotten Americans and nothing to make sure America is a winner in the 21st century. We do not need more sugar highs for those already doing well. We need to give lasting pay raises to those struggling to pay the bills and then focus on the forward-looking investments that will finally reconnect GDP growth to broadly shared prosperity.

The Slippery Slope of Complicity

the absence of any meaningful pushback from Congressional Republicans. Indeed, not only are they acquiescing in Trump’s corruption, his incitements to violence, and his abuse of power, up to and including using the power of office to punish critics, they’re increasingly vocal in cheering him on.

..  if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

But why? Is Trumpocracy what Republicans always wanted?

Well, it’s probably what some of them always wanted. And some of them are making a coldblooded calculation that the demise of democracy is worth it if it means lower taxes on the rich and freedom to pollute.

.. They’re not really ideologues so much as careerists, whose instinct is always to go along with the party line. And this instinct has drawn them ever deeper into complicity.

.. once you’ve made excuses for and come to the aid of a bad leader, it gets ever harder to say no to the next outrage.

.. Republicans who defended Trump over the Muslim ban, his early attacks on the press, the initial evidence of collusion with Russia, have in effect burned their bridges. It would be deeply embarrassing to admit that the elitist liberals they mocked were right when they were wrong

.. the path of least resistance is always to sign on for the next stage of degradation.

“No evidence of collusion” becomes “collusion is no big deal” becomes “collusion is awesome — and let’s send John Brennan to jail.”

.. The party has long been in the habit of rejecting awkward facts and attributing them to conspiracies: it’s not a big jump from claiming that climate change is a giant hoax perpetrated by the entire scientific community to asserting that Trump is the blameless target of a vast deep state conspiracy.

.. as long as they toed the line they can count on “wing nut welfare” — commentator slots on Fox News, appointments at think tanks, and so on.
.. Even now, I don’t think most political commentators have grasped how deep the rot goes.
.. We’re seeing, in real time, what the GOP is really made of.