Opinion

The Great Debate

Think everything on a dollar menu costs a dollar? Think again.

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How expensive are those everyday low prices? How much do things really cost on that fast-food restaurant’s dollar menu? The answer is more than you think, but maybe not for the reason you think.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities.

The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week, so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full-time work at $7.25 an hour only adds up to $290 a week. How do you live on that?

You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum-wage employers count on you doing.

Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the Democratically led House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Wal-Mart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance, which is what makes it possible for huge companies to get away with paying people so little. Add in the taxes you’re paying, and there’s nothing on the dollar menu that actually costs only a dollar.

What Hollande can learn from Queen of Hearts

French President Francois Hollande’s predicament is, oddly enough, akin to one Alice faced in Lewis Carroll’s 19th century classic.

A year after taking power, Hollande is buffeted by the lowest popularity of any modern Gallic leader, a record number of jobless, a recession and shriveled business investment – while still needing to cut his budget deficit to hit European targets.

The protagonist of Alice in Wonderland, meanwhile, confused by her strange encounters down a rabbit hole, meets the Queen of Hearts, who tells her: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.”

Examine inequality’s causes before prescribing solutions

Fear and loathing of income inequality is both totally understandable and ultimately misplaced.

It’s understandable because everywhere around us it seems as if top income earners ‑ those latter-day kulaks vilified as the “1 Percent” by the Occupy crowd and populist politicians ‑ are gaining while the rest of us seem barely able to hang on to a lower-middle-class standard of living.

It’s misplaced because it glosses over strong evidence that the ability to rise above your starting place ‑ the American Dream, by most accounts ‑ is better than it was 40 years ago.

A mandate to help the middle class

The focus in Washington has now shifted to the fiscal cliff, with the White House and Congress, particularly the House Republicans, staking out negotiating positions on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester.

The White House’s firm opening salvo—and House Speaker John Boehner’s grudging admission that he is “open” to a budget deal that contains new revenue—have been much discussed. With six in 10 Americans expressing support for higher taxes in exit polls on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama’s position is a strong one.

It’s important to remember, however, that the public came out on Election Day in support of more than Obama’s tax stance. Exit polls and public-opinion surveys show that the president’s mandate goes far beyond taxes and the fiscal cliff.

Obama’s mandate: tax increase on rich

Republican leaders such as Grover Norquist and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continue to strike a hard line on taxes and revenues, “warning” President Barack Obama that the GOP will not negotiate or compromise when it comes to tax policy and deficit reduction.

From an electoral politics standpoint, the Democrats should “have at it.”

As the election made clear, this policy is out of step with voters. Obama made raising taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year a centerpiece of his economic message – something he emphasized in his recent press conference – and he was rewarded with a resounding victory. Voters also handed Democrats an increased Senate majority, where the tax debate played out front-and-center in many campaigns.

This theme echoed through state politics as well. Voters in California, for example, passed Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to fund K-12 public schools through a revenue increase that comes from the highest earners.

The economy needs a ‘unity Cabinet’

The election left us with a status quo political lineup, one that failed to make any meaningful fiscal progress over the past two years. So is it realistic to expect that we can avoid the fiscal cliff and achieve some sort of “grand bargain”? Yes, it is possible, and here is how to do it:

First, President Barack Obama should form a “unity Cabinet” to demonstrate to the public and Congress that he wants to bring the nation together and accelerate progress on key challenges. It should include Democrats, Republicans and independents. All should be respected in both parties, have meaningful private-sector experience and credibility within and outside the Washington Beltway.

These criteria are especially critical when it comes to the president’s top economic team. Obama will almost certainly change the leadership at the Treasury Department, since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has talked about leaving after the first term, and the Office of Management and Budget. Smart appointments could help reboot Obama’s relationships with Congress and increase the chance of success.

Obama should raise taxes on the middle class

It won’t be easy for President Obama to do big things in his second term, with Congress still divided. Yet one legacy-caliber goal is easily within reach: Obama can restore fiscal balance without deep spending cuts by doing, well, nothing. By simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of this year, for everyone, and vetoing all future tax cuts, the president would leave office in four years with America’s fiscal house largely in order while ensuring a strong federal government for years to come.

Economists predict that allowing the U.S. to go over the “fiscal cliff” would produce a mild recession, and they are probably right. But with signs pointing to a slow yet steady recovery, that downturn would likely be short-lived and worth the longer term gain of achieving fiscal stability without taking a meat clever to key government programs.

Obama promised on the campaign trail that he wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class and implied that repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would yield enough revenue. In fact, more than three-quarters of all revenue lost by the U.S. Treasury because of the Bush tax cuts is due to cuts that benefit households making under $250,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Simple math suggests that as long as the vast majority of earners are paying the lowest tax rates in half a century, it will be hard to tame the deficit without deep spending cuts.

The GOP and voter anger

President Barack Obama’s lackluster, let’s-work-together performance in Wednesday night’s presidential debate stoked the fears of his liberal backers that Democrats simply won’t fight for them the way Republicans relentlessly battle for their wealthier, aging, corporate constituents.

After four years of Republican intransigence – even when Democrats have championed Republican ideas – the Democratic left insists that the White House hasn’t grasped that the 2012 campaign is not about policy. So far, Republicans are proving more adept at speaking, in both coded and direct terms, to Americans’ stark demographic and psychological divisions.

That Republican nominee Mitt Romney stood before the nation and all but disowned the tax-cut, Medicare, health policy and other GOP doctrines he had campaigned on for months is likely to matter little to his backers. The last three Republican presidents, as MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes pointed out, also campaigned on promises of economic growth, deficit reduction and tax relief – and all left behind a faltering economy and ballooned deficits. What they reliably delivered was tax cuts benefiting the wealthy.

Tax reform does not guarantee growth

One of the few thin­gs that President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to agree on when they debate next week is the need for tax reform. Both candidates have backed streamlining America’s crazy-quilt tax code, and both have said that reforms could boost economic growth. Meanwhile, two key congressional committees held a rare bipartisan hearing last week – with lawmakers from both parties saying that tax reform is needed to rev up the economy.

Yet exactly how and why tax reform would spur growth is far from clear. Many proponents of reform, including Romney, want to lower tax rates while retaining the same level of revenue. But doing that means reducing major individual tax breaks that subsidize key sectors of the economy – including housing and healthcare. Long term, there are good arguments for whacking such subsidies, which tilt heavily in favor of affluent households and distort our economy. But curbing these freebies doesn’t offer a short-term economic fix and, in fact, could hurt growth.

Let’s start with the best-known big tax break – the mortgage interest deduction, which will cost the U.S. Treasury about $100 billion next year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Shrinking this loophole is a good idea in principle, since it primarily benefits more affluent households who have big mortgages and itemize their taxes, but it would be a blow to a housing sector that is still struggling. Smaller subsidies for home buyers would mean weaker sales and less new construction and would keep home values depressed – not an outcome that anyone wants to see right now. Among other things, such reform could be another severe blow to construction workers, who now have the highest unemployment rate of any group.

Why Romney can’t defend capitalism

When Fox News worries out loud that Mitt Romney’s failure to account for his time at Bain and his personal tax affairs may represent his Swiftboat moment, it is plain the Republican presidential bid has careened offtrack. The Bain attacks are “part of a strategy by Team Obama to turn Romney’s biggest perceived strength – his business experience – into his biggest weakness,” writes Fox’s Juan Williams. “Romney needs to come clean or his hopes of being president will end long before Election Day.”

How has Romney come so close to bungling his big chance, even before he has been nominated by his party? He appeared to be in an ideal position to turn his experience as a businessman into a winning political narrative. During these jobless economic doldrums, Romney might have become a champion of capitalism, explaining how private enterprise works and how it creates jobs.

His problem is that his time at Bain is not a classic story of heroic capitalism at work. Instead of an old-school entrepreneur with a good idea who raises funds to employ Americans to make a product that sells successfully around the world, Romney took distraught companies, charged them hefty fees, fired workers, and set the stumbling enterprise off in a new direction, laden with debt. Some companies prospered, some failed. Some gave Americans new jobs, some sent jobs overseas.

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