After victory, a reality check for Obama
By Diana Furchtgott-Roth
Pity President-elect Barack Obama. Today, only three days after his historic victory as the first African-American elected president, the Labor Department announced that the economy lost 240,000 jobs from payrolls in October and that the unemployment rate rose to 6.5%. This underscores the difficulties he faces in raising taxes on “the rich” to fund new spending.
Obama must recognize that his campaign promises are impossible to implement without making the economy sicker. The economy is weak and getting weaker, probably contracting now at an annual rate of 3-4 percent.
Obama’s promises include a combination of tax cuts and welfare for 95 percent of working Americans, an end to America’s foreign oil dependence, a costly healthcare plan, more education spending, and so-called pay equity for women. Much of this is supposed to be funded by levies on businesses as well as tax increases on those making over $250,000.
But, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, Obama’s tax package would cost $2.9 trillion over the decade from 2009 to 2018. That includes increasing the tax rate on capital gains from 15 percent to 20 percent, and raising the top two tax rates, 33-36 percent and 35-39.6 percent, on singles with taxable income exceeding $165,000 and married couples earning over $201,000.
The Tax Policy Center’s estimates do not include the effects of financial market chaos and the stock market decline, which has reduced taxable income. And with the economy worsening, tax increases on upper income earners would net less than the Center projected, increasing the 10-year deficit to over $3 trillion.
Here’s one small example. In 2005, the latest data available, the Internal Revenue Service recorded 3.5 million returns with $200,000 or more. About half those returns had capital gains income, which averaged $304,000, netting approximately $80 billion in taxes annually.
These revenues will be reduced by weak stock markets—as well as by disincentives to invest stemming from higher taxes. In addition, many Americans are losing jobs, meaning not only less wage and salary income to be taxed but increased government payouts for unemployment benefits.
As president, Obama will have difficulty paying for new projects such as an incremental $65 billion health care plan, a $30 billion addition to the Medicare prescription drug plan, and $37 billion in increased education and research spending—all estimates for one year.
The bill for some other proposals would go to employers, who are already struggling to survive the recession. Investments in alternative energy and electric vehicles, for instance, would be funded by requiring purchases of permits to emit carbon, estimated to raise $56 billion annually.
Obama would also require most employers to offer paid sick and maternity leave, vacation, and parental leave for school visits. Employers would be penalized for paying women less than men for “equivalent” jobs, however they are defined.
Of course, in a recession, federal deficits are desirable. The question is how to structure them to help the economy recover. By increasing taxes on upper-income earners, small businesses, and capital gains, President Obama would reduce incentives to work and invest. Additional requirements on employers would encourage them to open plants overseas, rather than in America, slowing job creation.
After the euphoria in the streets and the chants of “yes we can” have faded, the question will remain: do Obama’s promises make fiscal sense?
Diana Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.