James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Obama’s centrist shift evaporates

Feb 18, 2011 19:45 UTC

President Barack Obama’s much-trumpeted move to the center? Apparently, it doesn’t go much beyond using buzzwords such as “innovation” and employing CEOs as stage props. His 2012 budget introduction and Wisconsin incursion make that clear.

This was the week for the president to show that he had really learned the lessons of both the 2010 midterms and the shortfalls of his own economic policies. Instead, it was the American public that learned something. It learned that Obama pretty much is who he is – and he’s probably not going to change.

He’s the guy who was the U.S. Senate’s most extreme liberal. He’s the guy who told Joe the Plumber that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” He’s the guy who tried to use the Great Recession to greatly expand the welfare state.

He’s that guy.

Obama’s 2012 budget was the first revelatory moment of the week. Even with rosy economic projections, it would still add another $9 trillion to the national debt from 2011 through 2021. And it did nothing to address entitlements, the key drivers of America’s long-term fiscal problems, even though his own debt commission gave him a plan with bipartisan support.

Even worse, Obama attempted to hide the budget’s alarming profligacy. In his news conference, Obama stated that by the middle of the decade, his just-released budget would “not be adding more to the national debt. …  We’re not going to be running up the credit card anymore.” Yet from 2015 through 2021, the Obama budget would add $4.7 trillion to the national debt. And public debt as a share of the overall economy would rise to 77.0 percent from 76.1 percent.

But the president tossed in a qualifier: “Our annual spending will match our annual revenues.” Well, that clears things up. If you don’t count $3.7 trillion in interest payments as part of spending, the budget is balanced in 2017 and then slowly builds a tiny surplus.

Yet Obama’s narrowly define surpluses will quickly disappear in coming decades as government healthcare spending explodes. And if the economy grows a bit more slowly than what White House economists now forecast — say, more like the predictions from the Congressional Budget Office — Obama’s primary deficits would never disappear at all.

But just as entitlements are the root problems of the federal budget, at the state level it’s the fat pension and healthcare benefits — unfunded to the tune of $3.5 trillion — awarded to government unions by the politicians they elected.

The result is the Battle of Madison as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin tries to get a handle on a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion, as well as longer-term fiscal problems. He probably didn’t expect an encouraging word for the White House, and he was not disappointed.

As Obama told a Milwaukee television reporter: “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

Entitlements and government unions are both products of the heyday of American liberalism from the 1930s through the 1970s. Just like when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in the old Soviet Union with the goal of modernizing and preserving that system, Obama hopes to do the same with America’s union-backed welfare state by making it — and funding it — more like Europe’s.

If Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey are successful at the state level and Rep. Paul Ryan at the national, Obama may instead preside over its collapse.


Obama is clearly and without doubt a MARXIST. Just review his past and present associations.

COMMUNISM is alive and well in the U.S.A.

Americans need to wake up and see that liberals have bankrupted the country with entitlement programs that are too costly for American taxpayers, rich and poor alike.



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Obama budget reveals Obama’s core

Feb 14, 2011 18:54 UTC

Here’s what President Barack Obama’s new budget tells me: He hasn’t shifted to the center, he’s shifted into 2012 campaign mode, one that let’s him be who is really is.

The budget is a political document that bets voters really don’t care much about deficits. (Over the next decade from 2012-2021, it would add another $8 trillion dollars to the national debt and take the national debt as a share of the overall economy to 77 percent from 62 percent in 2010). As such, Obama will portray himself as the jobs-first, going-for-growth candidate who does a bit of fiscal gardening on the side — just a few prudent budgetary snips here and there.

And on the other side (at least as painted by Team Obama): the fiscally austere Ryan-Rand Republicans who would savage Social Security and Medicare and recklessly slash critical investments necessary to win the future. No wonder his budget calls for cutting expected deficits over the next decade by just $1.1 trillion vs. the $3.9 trillion (including $556 billion in entitlement cuts) advocated by his own debt panel. To support his commission would mean going off message and losing a valuable campaign issue.

Any slight chance that Obama might chart a bold path on debt reduction probably died when the UK recently reported an unexpected economic decline, a drop some economists incorrectly blame on Prime Minister David Cameron’s tough-love budget. No way is Obama going to risk a renewed economic slowdown and his potential reelection. As it is, his budget forecasts average 2012 unemployment of 8.6 percent. That means Obama expects to try and win a second term in the most hostile employment climate since the Great Depression.

Oh, and tax cuts? Not there. This budget adds little to Obama’s vague State of the Union talk of cutting U.S. corporate tax rates, soon to be the highest among advanced economies. Obama only calls only for “beginning the process of corporate tax reform. Overall, he wants to raise a variety of taxes, including $700 billion in income and capital gains tax rates on wealthier Americans.

Of course, that merely circles us back to the driving force (besides ambition) behind the Obama presidency: to redistribute wealth after decades of growing income inequality and to finish weaving the social safety by creating universal healthcare. He certainly didn’t run to become an Eisenhower Republican — as Bill Clinton once referred to his administration — and comfort jittery bond markets. But markets will eventually have their say — and maybe sooner rather than later.


But the GOP is NEVER in campaign mode, right? This article reveals James Pethokoukis’ core more than anything else.
So let’s talk honestly about the budget. Republicans don’t care if their agenda puts hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work, by design. THey don’tcare if their cuts undermine education, law enforcement, infrastructure, and public safety. They don’t care if their budget plan undermines economic growth, competitiveness, and innovation.
But if the Obama administration wants to cut wasteful spending on military projects the Pentagon doesn’t want, all of a sudden, the GOP not only cares, but they are demanding unnecessary spending that looks, feels, and smells very much like earmarks and “make work projects” that benefit certain Republican districts.
And you have the gall to accuse Obama of being in campaign mode?

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Why Fannie and Freddie are sticking around

Feb 11, 2011 16:21 UTC

The Obama White House finally has a kinda-sorta housing plan. But here is the thing: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, seized by the U.S. government back in 2008, don’t possess the political clout they used to. But the two mortgage finance giants still have a network with shared interests. That lingering influence is a big reason why they — or possibly similar-looking replacements — will be around for a while longer.

The White House and congressional Republicans agree that housing finance, a big contributor to the recent financial crisis, needs a sweeping overhaul. That includes dramatically reducing or eliminating the role of Fannie and Freddie, which have soaked up more than $150 billion in taxpayer aid since the federal takeover. But it looks like President Barack Obama’s team can’t decide on a single plan and will instead offer a menu of options for reducing government’s role in housing. And while the GOP is adamant it wants to wind down Fannie and Freddie as soon as possible, it doesn’t seem ready to start quite yet.

Rash moves are unwise when U.S. housing remains mired in a deep downturn. But all the Washington waffling isn’t a sign of prudence. A reform roadmap is way overdue. Unfortunately, inaction is tempting when pain is near and benefits distant. Democrats and Republicans are also up against an onslaught from the potential losers if the government ends or sharply reduces its support of the residential mortgage market — currently channeled through Fannie and Freddie.

And there are plenty of those folks. Real estate agents and homebuilders, of course, want housing credit to be as widely available as possible. The very existence of mortgage insurers depends on Fannie and Freddie’s requirements. Big banks are used to offloading mortgages via the securitization market which, though currently in the dumps, was formerly greased by the safety and uniformity of the government backstop. Small banks, meanwhile, worry that big banks would dominate a private-sector mortgage market. And mortgage bond investors are fearful of even a gradual removal of government support.

Overall, the real estate industry gave nearly $70 million to candidates in the most recent congressional election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Together with the other constituencies, there’s considerable juice to stymie legislation. Sadly, the biggest hole in financial reform may continue to gape at least until the next Congress takes office in 2013.


“Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to die”

Funny how when it comes to embracing risk the ones who exalt the private sector seem to find a role for government.

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Geithner’s odd attack on Toomey debt ceiling bill

Feb 8, 2011 18:53 UTC

All kinds of economic policy ideas are floating around Capitol Hill at any given moment. Very few of their congressional authors receive a direct rebuke from Team Geithner over at the Treasury Department.

So how did Sen. Pat Toomey get so lucky? Well, the Pennsylvania Republican proposed a simple legislative idea: If Congress is unable to quickly agree on a plan to raise the national debt ceiling, Treasury should prioritize U.S. debt payments so America doesn’t slip into default. (Treasury estimates that the limit will be reached between April  5 and May 31. It has already taken steps to avoid a breach and is reducing the amount of money it holds in a special account at the Federal Reserve. As of Jan. 31, the total public U.S. debt stood at $14.1 trillion, or $215 billion below the limit.) Spending would have to be sharply reduced elsewhere until an agreement was reached, one that would hopefully also include deep short-term and long-term spending cuts.

As Toomey puts it:

Certainly, no one should damage the full faith and credit of the United States. In fact, Democrats and Republicans should all agree on at least one thing: Under no circumstances is it acceptable for the U.S. government to default on its debt. Not only are we morally obligaed to honor our debts, but we benefit greatly from the nearly universal conviction that those who lend to us will always be repaid, on time and in full. We should never undermine that conviction.

Timothy Geithner is having none of it, calling the Toomey plan “unworkable” in a letter to Toomey:

In fact, the legislation would be quite harmful if enacted. A simple analogy may help illustrate the problem. A homeowner could decide to “prioritize” and continue paying monthly mortgage payments, while opting to cease paying other obligations, such as car payments, insurance premiums, student loan and credit card payments, utilities, and so forth. Although the mortgage would be paid, the damage to that homeowner’s creditworthiness would be severe.

Geithner’s right hand man, Neal Wolin, also goes after Toomey’s idea on the department’s blog:

While well-intentioned, this idea is unworkable.  It would not actually prevent default, since it would seek to protect only principal and interest payments, and not other legal obligations of the U.S., from non-payment.  Adopting a policy that payments to investors should take precedence over other U.S. legal obligations would merely be default by another name, since the world would recognize it as a failure by the U.S. to stand behind its commitments.  It would therefore bring about the same catastrophic economic consequences Secretary Geithner has warned against.

Here’s the problem: Geithner and Wolin are mistaken in assigning all U.S. obligations equal weight and importance. Take Social Security benefits, for instance. They’re an obligation to be sure, but the Supreme Court has ruled recipients have no legal right to receive them. And federal budget scorekeepers don’t even include money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund in their debt-to-GDP calculations. Also, back in the winter of 1995-96, a federal shutdown meant government vendors didn’t get paid. But long-term Treasury yields actually declined during that period. It borders on the ridiculous to think international investors would flee Treasury bonds because a government contractor in Virginia was not paid in a timely matter.

Treasury’s analysis, it seems, is at heart a political one — not a financial one. The Obama administration doesn’t want the debt ceiling to be used by Republicans as an effective lever to get large spending cuts. And anything which makes the perceived risk of default less likely — such as Toomey’s bill — undercuts the White House’s scary messaging.

Bondholders may actually favor Toomey’s idea, just like California bondholders are keen on how the Golden State’s constitution makes paying general obligation debt a top priority. The best option is for Republicans and Democrats to quickly agree on spending cuts as a part of a deal to raise the ceiling. And instead of having the limit be an absolute figure in the future, total debt should instead be calculated as a share of the total economy — preferably far less than the 60 percent level recommended by the IMF. That way it would be a fiscal feature rather than a budgetary bug.

Obama tells business to share the wealth

Feb 8, 2011 03:38 UTC

A few thoughts on President Obama’s speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

1. Would it be too much trouble for him to be more specific about how deeply he wants to cut corporate tax rates? I hope he doesn’t see the OECD average of 25 percent as a floor. Canada’s rate will be dropped to just 15 percent next year. And if he really wants more of company profits to be “shared” with workers, then he ought to propose abolishing corporate taxes altogether since 70 percent of the tax burden is passed along to workers.

2. Would it be too much trouble for him to be a bit more specific about what regulations he wants to cut? The Heritage Foundation has 20 great ones for his consideration. The think tank also has this helpful piece of advice:

Rather than require agencies to identify harmful regulations during the next 120 days, or even to eliminate unwarranted rules, the order [on reviewing federal regulations] merely requires agencies to submit a “preliminary plan” for reviewing regulations sometime in the future, with the goal of making their regulatory program either less burdensome or “more effective.” And despite promises of transparency elsewhere in the order, the results of any regulatory reviews conducted are required to be released online only “whenever possible.”

3. Not surprising that the execs in attendance clapped when Obama talked about “investing” in America. That partly means transferring taxpayer money to Big Business.  And that stuff about a new social contract between government and business? Time for a Milton Friedman break:

But the doctrine of “social responsibility” taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collectivist doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means. That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”


If it wasn’t apparent before the 08 elections, it should be painfully clear now that Pres. Obama views business as something that should be tolerated and controlled. He does not believe ENOUGH in the free-market system to let it work. Our economy has been resilient in the past, but Mr. Obama has created incredible uncertainty among businesspeople. He PERSONALLY is probably the number-one factor holding back business investment and hiring. Businesspeople are “people” and they rely not just on financial analyses and market studies to make decisions. They also use their intuition. Intuitively I do not have confidence in Mr. Obama that he will do right by business and he never really does anything to change that feeling. Above all, he is a master (or at least he THINKS he’s a master) at careful selection of words so that an inattentive listener will believe he is making concessions or changing his tune. In reality, he’s the same semi-socialist whom some of you elected. In that (and other) regards, I greatly prefer Mr. Bush.

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Obama’s big shift?

Feb 7, 2011 15:53 UTC

The president told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that he hasn’t shifted to the center. “I’m the same guy,” Obama says.  Right, he’s the same guy — a guy who will try and push through as much of his left-of-center agenda as he can.  If he had the votes,  for instance,  Obama would certainly be pushing a cap-and-trade energy plan or higher income taxes. But he doesn’t, so it’s time for Plan B.

And at the heart of that plan is winning reelection, a goal Obama apparently believes will be much easier if America’s CEOs aren’t railing against him. Conflicts with Corporate America cuts against the post-partisan mantle is his trying to reclaim.Thus his speech today to some 200 executives at the US Chamber of Commerce.  But here is the thing:

1) Obama should try and make these folks, at least some of them, angry by taking away tax breaks and subsidies in exchange for a lower corporate tax rate.

2) Fundamentally, Obama is skeptical  of markets which is why his way of embracing the private sector is via a grand, corporatist partnership with Big Business who will rent seek with the best of them. Established giants don’t want new competitors. They don’t want a constantly churning, entrepreneurial economy. The status quo is just fine for them, especially regulations that help preserve their advantage. Innovation can be a threat.

3)  When Obama decides to rely on markets rather than government for allocating healthcare resources, then I will acknowledge a shift to the center.


This from the author who thinks Reagan was a conservative. Obama has cut taxes for billioniares, signed a stimulus bill that was over 30% tax cuts, increased defense spending, expanded the War on Terror, surged in Afghanistan, signed a Republican health care bill, made the Too Big to Fail banks whole, proposed off-shore oil drilling, proposed cutting entitlements, frozen government pay, and just hired the CEO of General Electric and a Chief of Staff from JP Morgan Chase. You think he’s “left of center”? Well, perhaps. You think Paul Ryan is moderate.

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Gen. Paul Ryan launches his war on Big Government

Feb 4, 2011 18:44 UTC

In the context of World War II, this was the Doolittle Raid. D-Day still awaits in the future.

I think if House Republicans consisted of Paul Ryan and 241 of his clones, the first round of budget cuts coming out of the House Budget Committee might have been more Rand Paul-esque. Something more in the hundreds of billions of dollars. A grand slam.

But, to mix metaphors, what Ryan did manage is a solid double into the gap, with the runner making it to second base standing up.  Ryan’s plan would save $74 billion relative to the Obama budget, $58 billion in non-security spending and $16 billion below Obama’s request for security spending. Non-security spending would be cut to $420 billion or about $40 billion below current levels with an additional $8 billion added for defense and security needs.

Of course, if these cuts were the end of story, they would be disappointing. But I am sure there will be more to come, hopefully accompanied by proposals to reform entitlements. Not the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. Just the beginning of the beginning.


General Ryan is typical of career bureaucrats. They talk like Richard Nixon. Their mantra is obfuscation and hundreds of billions for the military gravy train. Then like Reagan they make people believe they won the Cold War which was really over before ‘Bonzo’ became President. If the so-called
consevatives really are serious about cutting the federal budget they need to take low and middle income people off income taxes; cut the military budget to $400 billion; phase out social security and medicare; repeal voluntary military; repeal the Dept. of Domestic Security; cut out agriculture subsidies; create a Dept. of Nutrition to replace all agencies which deal with food; allow medical professionals to prescribe behavioral drugs; fix the national infrasture asap; get freight of the highways and onto the rails; create a national mass transit system run by electricity generated by nuclear power; turn the District of Columbia back to Maryland and move the federal capitol to the Kansas City area; get rid of the Dept. of Interior; get rid of all socialistic federal programs that denigrate the Bill of Rights; make it illegal to receive a federal pension and work in any other job; set up by law a livable annual income which will enable every citizen to achieve individual self-sufficiency; require States to license any and all healthcare professionals; set up a national healthcare system that people can join to get healthcare, drugs and all other medical services to compete with the private system which now causes inflated healthcare costs; get rid of the FDA and the medical professionals who are in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry. If the pols in DC could pass all of those reforms America would come back if they also dumped the Federal Reserve System which is run by Wall Street and the Judeo-Christian Big Business Coalition of fascist dictators.

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Why Obama’s magic number for reelection isn’t 270, it’s 215 (thousand jobs)

Feb 3, 2011 23:34 UTC

Team Obama would surely love to run a Reaganesque, “Morning in America” reelection campaign, cruising to victory by taking credit for a dynamic economic recovery. But for that scenario to play out — or anything close to it — the unemployment rate would have to drop a whole lot. (The president’s political advisers will be closely watching the January jobs report.)  In a new research note, analyst Matt McDonald of Hamilton Place Strategies, a policy advisory and strategic communications consultancy in Washington, makes the following points:

1) Usually in presidential election years, the magic number to watch is 270. But for 2012, the magic number may actually be 215. That is how many thousands of jobs the economy has to create every month for the unemployment rate to drop below 8 percent by Election Day 2012.

2) Since 1960, the unemployment rate has been above 7 percent during four elections: 1976,1980, 1984 and 1992. In three of these 4 elections, the incumbent party lost. Only in 1984 did Reagan win with 7.2 percent unemployment, which was in the context of a 1.3 percentage point drop in unemployment during the year prior to the election.

3) For President Obama, with a current unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, an unemployment rate below 7 percent is hard to envision by November 2012. However over the coming 2 years, he would see an improved political position from a significant drop in the unemployment rate. Current economic forecasting projects a fourth quarter 2012 unemployment rate of approximately 8 percent (CEA: 7.7 percent; CBO: 8.2 percent; Blue Chip: 8.4 percent). If the unemployment rate can break this 8 percent level, President Obama can credibly argue that he is making progress on jobs, even though the unemployment rate will still be historically high.

4) If we assume a straight-line projection of job growth and further assume 120,000 new entrants to the job market every month, the economy would need to create 215,000 jobs per month every month between now and November 2012 to get the unemployment rate below 8 percent. Every month we are above 215,000 new jobs, it gets a little easier to reach that 8 percent goal and every month we are below 215,000, it gets a little harder. This is the benchmark that interested parties should be watching tomorrow as the January jobs numbers are released.

McDonald does note a big complicating factor. Discouraged workers could rejoin the workforce as prospects improve. “This would have the effect of increasing the number of jobs needed each month to reduce the unemployment rate,” he notes.

Indeed, if the workforce had not shrunk so much during the downturn, the unemployment rate right now would be higher than at any point since the Great Depression. On the other hand, some economic observers, including those on the Federal Reserve, think the workforce may stay small. The longer people stay out of work, the longer they tend to stay on the sidelines since employers become biased against them. In addition, it’s unlikely that unemployed home construction workers or mortgage lenders will find their industries bouncing back anytime soon.

But whether Obama joins the unemployed in January 2013 may depend on whether 215,000 Americans find a job every month between now and Election Day 2012.

Time for new rules to limit Washington spending

Feb 3, 2011 17:47 UTC

If only U.S. Treasuries had covenants like corporate debt does. Instead of linking to EBITDA, metrics like borrowing or spending as a share of GDP could be used. That might be a stretch, but lawmakers are still trying to implement new fiscal rules. It’s an idea whose time has come – or at least come back.

Back in 1985, Congress passed a law requiring it to meet annual deficit targets on the way to a balanced budget in 1991. On its face, the effort was a complete bust. Congress routinely evaded the yearly limits, and the 1991 budget was $269 billion in the red. But much fiscal good was done. Before the recession hit in 1990-91, the deficit had fallen to 2.8 percent of GDP from 5.1 percent, while the rate of annual discretionary spending (excluding social insurance programs) also had declined substantially.

Two legislators have taken up the cause anew. Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat, want to reduce spending over 10 years to a cap of 20.6 percent of GDP, the 40-year historical average. Exceeding that limit would result in across-the-board spending cuts that could only be waived by supermajority votes in both chambers. Based on Congressional Budget Office baseline forecasts, hitting the proposed Corker-McCaskill target would create a small projected surplus.

Some argue the cap is far too low given an aging U.S. population, rising healthcare costs and higher debt interest payments. Indeed, it would require a hefty 20 percent Medicare cut by 2025. But such reductions aren’t unreasonable, says the CBO, if Medicare was to be turned into a subsidized voucher program for seniors, as some Republicans propose.

The Obama debt commission had a slightly different perspective, arguing for limits that focused on debt instead of spending. It’s an approach the International Monetary Fund also endorses. But whatever form such rules might take, expect the general concept to be a part of the debate over raising the U.S debt ceiling. Congress would still hold the key to its own fiscal handcuffs, of course. But escaping austerity might prove just a bit harder.

Any way you slice it, U.S. corporate tax rates are too high

Feb 2, 2011 20:35 UTC

David Leonhardt (NYT) makes the point that U.S. companies often pay far less than the top statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent:

Of the 500 big companies in the well-known Standard & Poor’s stock index, 115 paid a total corporate tax rate — both federal and otherwise — of less than 20 percent over the last five years, according to an analysis of company reports done for The New York Times by Capital IQ, a research firm. Thirty-nine of those companies paid a rate less than 10 percent.

Arguably, the United States now has a corporate tax code that’s the worst of all worlds. The official rate is higher than in almost any other country, which forces companies to devote enormous time and effort to finding loopholes. Yet the government raises less money in corporate taxes than it once did, because of all the loopholes that have been added in recent decades. …

The problem with the current system is that it distorts incentives. Decisions that would otherwise be inefficient for a company — and that are indeed inefficient for the larger economy — can make sense when they bring a big tax break. “Companies should be making investments based on their commercial potential,” as Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at New York University, says, “not for tax reasons.”

Instead, airlines sometimes buy more planes than they really need. Energy companies drill more holes. Drug companies conduct research with only marginal prospects of success.

Inefficiencies like these slow economic growth, and they are the reason that both conservatives and liberals criticize the corporate tax code so harshly. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, says it hurts job creation. Mr. Obama, in his State of the Union address, said that the system “makes no sense, and it has to change.”

It should also be noted that whether you are talking about the statutory rate or the effective rate, the U.S. is still at uncompetitive levels (via Tax Foundation):




Rubbish. Any taxes at all are too high for James Pethokoukis. Corporate tax rates in the United States are among the lowest in the world. Combine that with the loopholes that corporate lobbyists have bought for their clients, and most US corporations pay no tax at all.

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