The illusion that Barack Obama will lead from the economic center has quickly come to an end. Instead of combining the best policies of past Democratic presidents -- John Kennedy on taxes, Bill Clinton on welfare reform and a balanced budget, for instance -- President Obama is returning to Jimmy Carter's higher taxes and Mr. Clinton's draconian defense drawdown.
Mr. Obama's $3.6 trillion budget blueprint, by his own admission, redefines the role of government in our economy and society.
To be fair, specific parts of the president's budget are admirable and deserve support: increased means-testing in agriculture and medical payments; permanent indexing of the alternative minimum tax and other tax reductions; recognizing the need for further financial rescue and likely losses thereon; and bringing spending into the budget that was previously in supplemental appropriations, such as funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The specific problems, however, far outweigh the positives. First are the quite optimistic forecasts, despite the higher taxes and government micromanagement that will harm the economy.
Mr. Obama has bravely said he will deal with the projected deficits in Medicare and Social Security. He's proposed additional taxes on earnings above the current payroll tax cap of $106,800 -- a bad policy that would raise marginal tax rates still further and barely dent the long-run deficit.
Increasing the top tax rates on earnings to 39.6% and on capital gains and dividends to 20% will reduce incentives for our most productive citizens and small businesses to work, save and invest -- with effective rates higher still because of restrictions on itemized deductions and raising the Social Security cap. As every economics student learns, high marginal rates distort economic decisions, the damage from which rises with the square of the rates.
As for energy policy, the president's cap-and-trade plan for CO2 would ensnare a vast network of covered sources, opening up countless opportunities for political manipulation, bureaucracy, or worse.
The president's proposed limitations on the value of itemized deductions for those in the top tax brackets would clobber itemized charitable contributions, half of which are by those at the top.
A similar effect will exacerbate tax flight from states like California and New York, which rely on steeply progressive income taxes collecting a large fraction of revenue from a small fraction of their residents.
The pervasive government subsidies and mandates -- in health, pharmaceuticals, energy and the like -- will do a poor job of picking winners and losers (ask the Japanese or Europeans) and will be difficult to unwind as recipients lobby for continuation and expansion.
New and expanded refundable tax credits would raise the fraction of taxpayers paying no income taxes to almost 50% from 38%. This is potentially the most pernicious feature of the president's budget, because it would cement a permanent voting majority with no stake in controlling the cost of general government.
From the poorly designed stimulus bill and vague new financial rescue plan, to the enormous expansion of government spending, taxes and debt somehow permanently strengthening economic growth, the assumptions underlying the president's economic program seem bereft of rigorous analysis and a careful reading of history.
Unfortunately, our history suggests new government programs, however noble the intent, more often wind up delivering less, more slowly, at far higher cost than projected, with potentially damaging unintended consequences. The most recent case, of course, was the government's meddling in the housing market to bring home ownership to low-income families, which became a prime cause of the current economic and financial disaster.
Friday, March 6, 2009
I highly recommend this article in today's WSJ by Michael J. Boskin, which explains how and why Obama's policies are likely to create serious problems for our economy in the years to come. If you want to be an informed critic of Obama's policies, this article is a must-read. Excerpts:
Posted by Scott Grannis at 7:55 AM