Weekly Audit: Why Democrats Must Focus on Jobs Now

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The job market in its worst state since the Great Depression and is putting tremendous strain on millions of Americans. Without action from Washington, D.C., the unemployment rate will remain elevated for years to come, and almost certainly above 9 percent through the end of 2010. Public esteem for economic policymakers isn’t doing so hot either. There are several simple steps that President Barack Obama and Congress could take to create jobs, but of late, neither have shown much interest in doing so.

Jobs matter

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, one of the best opportunities to repair the job market is a piece of legislation authored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA). The bill’s strategy is straightforward: Local governments pinched by the recession can apply for federal funds to ensure that teachers, cops, and other public servants are not laid off in the name of balanced budgets. Local governments that have already let employees go could apply for funding to re-hire them.

The result would be a clear win for the economy. Miller estimates that his bill could create 750,000 jobs, while the Economic Policy Institute expects the bill could create as many as 945,000. It’s also a smart political move—Obama’s political adversaries would no doubt find some way to criticize the move (they invented death panels for health care, after all), but as Fernholz notes, voters care much more about getting back to work than they do about ideological warfare or abstract bloviations about the federal budget deficit.

The deficit vs. jobs

And the federal budget deficit is no excuse for inaction on jobs. In the middle of a recession, providing funding for jobs can ultimately be deficit-reducing. More people working means more people buying goods and services. That means higher tax receipts for the government on a variety of fronts.

The deficit only matters if it is so severe that investors are skittish about lending money to the government. We would see this nervousness in the interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds—the rate would be very high, as investors demanded a high return for the risk they were taking on. But in fact, interest rates are very low—the interest rate on 30-year bonds is currently just over 4 percent, while it frequently eclipsed 9 percent during the presidency of George H. W. Bush.

War doesn’t improve the economy

But if lawmakers wanted to take action on the deficit, there is no reason why they should do so at the expense of jobs. Congress just approved an additional $60 billion in funding for the war in Afghanistan, while refusing to provide a $28 billion for teachers in the name of deficit reduction. Congress has officially spent $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Robert Greenwald notes for AlterNet, wars which have done little to improve either U.S. economic or foreign policy goals:

These wars aren’t making us safer. They aren’t worth the cost, and we don’t need them. What people do need are jobs and help when they don’t have enough work or any work at all. But instead of leading on the jobs issue, they’re delaying and dissembling about the cost– while spending trillions on war.

Indeed, the failure of Congress to take action on jobs before its Memorial Day recess means that over one million Americans will stop receiving unemployment benefits within a month’s time.

Tax time

As Art Levine emphasizes for Working In These Times, spending is only half of the budget equation. The other half is revenues, which means taxes. There are all kinds of ways that the government could responsibly raise taxes and use that money to create jobs. One political no-brainer would be requiring hedge fund mangers and private equity kingpins to pay taxes at the same rates as those of other billionaires.

Thanks to a George W. Bush-era tax cut, these Wall Street titans are taxed at rates as low as 15 percent, dramatically lower than the 35 percent tax rate for rich people who make their millions in the form of salary rather than interest on investments. Levine also details a host of jobs initiatives that were ultimately axed in favor of concerns about the deficit.

Tax the speculators

As Sarah Anderson notes for Yes! Magazine, taxing financial speculation itself could help give our economy a double jolt. By taxing risky Wall Street gambling, the government could bring in billions to spend on jobs. If that tax discouraged Wall Street traders from engaging in risky gambling, the lower levels of speculation would help insulate our economy from the kinds of shocks it received in the fall of 2008.

Come November, the top concern at the polling place will correspond closely to the top concerns of consumer pocketbooks. Tough economic times will mean losses for incumbents in both political parties, but the party that does the most to create jobs will do the most to curb its losses. It will also be pursuing responsible public policy, and advancing the well-being of its constituents.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: After Health Care, the Economy

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Now that health care reform has finally been enacted, a host of critical economic issues are taking center stage, including financial reform, unemployment and deeply rooted economic inequality. But it’s important to note that with its health care vote, the U.S. House of Representatives actually approved a very important, and often overlooked financial reform: Student lending.

Pedro de la Torre III of Campus Progress explains the current student loan nightmare in an interview with The American Prospect’s Rebecca Delaney. For years, the U.S. government has paid massive subsidies to some of the worst-run companies in the country.

Thanks a lot, Sallie Mae

As de la Torre notes, instead of directly making loans to students, the government spent years funneling money to firms like Sallie Mae to actually make the loans. When things went sour, taxpayers covered the lender’s losses from student loans that ultimately went bad.

Taxpayers were also footing the bill for the loans and taking on the risk, while private companies and their executives enjoyed the benefits. The executives made quite a haul. In 2008 alone, Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord took home an astonishing $46 million. Even among CEOs, that’s a princely sum—more than double what Halliburton CEO David Lesar made the same year. All of that money could have financed a lot of college educations.

Fortunately, the student loan landscape is almost certain to change as a result of the health care vote. The House bill included a provision to end student loan subsidies and boost funding for direct grants from the government to students.

Since the student loan reform and health care were both eligible for reconciliation in the Senate (meaning only 51 votes are needed for passage instead of the 60 to clear a filibuster), House Democrats decided to move on both at the same time. It’s a significant reform, and one that will soon become law with President Barack Obama’s signature.

What would an overhaul of the consumer finance industry entail?

The student loan system is just one aspect of the consumer finance industry that needs a major overhaul. On mortgages, credit cards, overdrafts, and payday loans, the banking status quo is one of outright predation. As Heather McGhee of Demos explains to The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, there’s a reason why federal agencies do a lousy job regulating consumer banking abuses.

Right now there is no agency responsible for consumer protection alone. Every regulator also focuses on making sure banks don’t fail, which generally means that regulators support anything that increases short-term profits. Egregiously predatory practices generally lead to big short-term gains in banking.

A new consumer financial protection bureau

Last week, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced a bill that would create a new bureau of consumer financial protection, with no constraints from bank profitability. It’s a step in the right direction, but as McGhee notes, there are plenty of problems with Dodd’s proposal. Most problematically, the bill gives existing agencies a veto power over any new consumer protection rules. That’s a terrible loophole. Existing regulators have actively opposed consumer protections in the past, and there is every reason to expect that practice to continue.

Rapid tax refunds scam the poor

It’s late March, which means tax season is getting into full swing. All over the country, mascots from Liberty Tax are spilling into the streets wearing goofy costumes, trying to win your business. But millions of Americans don’t realize that Liberty, along with H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt and hundreds of smaller businesses are engaged in a monstrous scam disguised as a complicated accounting service.

As Alexander Zaitchik emphasizes for AlterNet, these tax preparers have used deceptive advertising and slick salesmanship to con people into taking out “refund anticipation loans,” also known as “rapid refunds” and a handful of other pleasant euphemisms. It’s a simple gimmick: H&R Block does your taxes, and then presents you with your tax refund, right away, no waiting. But the check you receive is not actually your tax refund—it’s your tax refund minus a truckload of fees that you didn’t realize were being deducted. This is the tax-time equivalent of payday lending.

When the government sends in your actual, larger tax refund one-to-two weeks later, you won’t see it—it goes straight to H&R Block’s bank partner. Those banks are making big money taking from your tax returns. Here’s Zaitchik:

“In 2008, more than eight million Americans spent nearly a billion dollars paying interest and fees on RALs—often based on misleading or incomplete information—swelling the profits of tax preparers and their partner banks.”

The one break low-income people get under the U.S. tax code is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the nation’s largest anti-poverty program. Only about 16% of taxpayers qualify for the EITC, but as Zaitchik notes, nearly two-thirds of the people who take out refund anticipation loans receive the credit. Tax preparers are making a concerted effort to prey on the poor, making the EITC program more expensive and less efficient for all taxpayers—not just those who go to H&R Block or Liberty Tax.

More action needed on jobs

Beyond finance, the U.S. economy has a serious jobs problem. Last week, Congress approved an $18 billion jobs package that is simply far too small to make a serious dent in the nearly double-digit unemployment rate. As Art Levine explains for Working In These Times, the package will create 250,000 jobs at best. That number shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone watching the U.S. economy, which has shed about 7 million jobs since the recession began.

There are much stronger options available than the $18 million bill the Senate approved. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has introduced a bill in the House that would quickly save or create one million jobs, and the House has already passed a separate $154 billion jobs package that would prevent 900,000 lay-offs. If the Senate moved on either one, the result would be a major economic boost.

The link between poor economies and poor health

All of these problems—unemployment, student loan scamming, refund anticipation loan sharking and other forms of financial predation—reinforce economic inequality in the United States, which is at levels unseen since before the Great Depression. That inequality is ultimately actively damaging to public health, as epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson explains in an interview with Brooke Jarvis for Yes! Magazine. Rampant economic inequality in the United States is literally making us sick.

“We looked at life expectancy, mental illness, teen birthrates, violence, the percent of populations in prison, and drug use,” Wilkinson says. “They were all not just a little bit worse, but much worse, in more unequal countries.”

With health care finally finished, Congress and the administration have an opportunity to make serious headway on the economy. They’ve got plenty of work to do.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.




Senate sends small jobs bill to Obama

The U.S. Senate gave final approval to a small jobs bill today by a vote of 68-29. Eleven Republicans and the Senate's two independents joined 55 Democrats to pass the bill. The only Democrat to vote no was Ben Nelson of Nebraska (roll call here). The motion to invoke cloture on this jobs bill passed the Senate on Monday by a 60-31 vote, with six Republicans voting with all Democrats but Ben Nelson (roll call here).

From the Washington Post:

The centerpiece of the bill is a new program giving companies a break from paying Social Security taxes for the remainder of 2010 on any new workers they hire who had been unemployed for at least 60 days. Employers would also get a $1,000 tax credit for each of those workers who stays on the payroll for at least one year.

Aside from that program, the measure includes a one-year extension of the law governing federal transportation funding, and would transfer $20 billion into the highway trust fund. The bill also extends a tax break allowing companies to write off equipment purchases, and expands the Build America Bonds program, which helps state and local governments secure financing for infrastructure projects.

Last month the Senate approved a similar bill, but after the House made minor changes, the bill had to clear the Senate again before going to the president's desk.

Most House Democrats support a larger job-creation bill with more money for infrastructure projects, but there may not be 60 votes in the Senate for such a measure.

Weekly Audit: The GOP Hates Jobs

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Through inaction and timid legislative negotiations, Congress just keeps letting the U.S. sink deeper and deeper into the economic abyss. Last week, Congress denied relief to the jobless and is currently poised to undercut a proposal that would rein in predatory lending. With unemployment out of control and banks pillaging citizens’ pocketbooks at every turn, the economy is in dire need of serious financial reform and a major jobs package.

More than one million have lost unemployment benefits

As James Ridgeway emphasizes for Mother Jones, over a million people receiving unemployment benefits ran out of financial rope on March 1 thanks to Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-KY) self-righteousness. As a result of bizarre Senate procedural rules, Bunning’s sole “no” vote was enough to stop a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for those who are out of work. Of course, Bunning had plenty of moral support from his fellow Republicans. Ridgeway highlights a Think Progress post on Rep. Dean Heller’s (R-NV) preposterous argument that it is time for the government to cut off unemployment benefits, since there are so many bums.

“What makes Heller’s statement really stupid, of course, is that people could become hobos if Congress doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, rather than if they do,” Ridgeway writes. “Modest as they are, these weekly benefits are what’s keeping thousands—and perhaps millions—of families out of poverty.”

As Brian Beutler notes for Talking Points Memo, Bunning’s economic insanity also triggered a 21% cut in the fees doctors receive for treating Medicare patients. That’s a big “Screw you!” to seniors.

What happens when unemployment benefits dry up?

The degree of personal crisis attached to unemployment is also important. We’re talking about access to basic necessities. As Roger Bybee notes for Working In These Times, when a family runs out of unemployment benefits, the result is an absolute personal catastrophe in which there is simply no money left to buy food, pay rent, or meet electricity bills.

Yet when a major financial institution finds itself on the verge of collapse, the government is quick to come to the rescue. In addition to the one million people ran out of benefits on March 1, four million more are slated to run out by June—that’s roughly the combined populations of Los Angeles and Dallas. This is a tremendous national crisis. Here’s Bybee:

“There is plenty of bipartisan compassion in Congress when it comes to bailing out the wealthy and their banks. But when it comes to spending federal money to bail out folks … with unemployment compensation and a major jobs program, a bi-partisan consensus forms among conservatives in both parties eager to show ‘fiscal discipline.’”

As Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz emphasizes in an interview at AlterNet, the jobs crisis is so severe that the government needs to go much further than simply extending existing unemployment benefits. At minimum, it also needs to send a major package of fiscal aid to states on the order of $200 billion to allow states to hire teachers and cops, as well as prevent further layoffs.

Making the jobs bill accessible to all

While a new jobs bill is critical, it’s important to make sure everyone has access to its efforts, as Aaron Glantz explains for The Progressive. The economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last year has helped keep the economy from falling off a cliff, but it’s overwhelmingly neglected communities of color. The unemployment rate for blacks is 16.5%, nearly the double the 8.7% rate for whites, while Latinos face an unemployment rate 50% higher than whites. Not all of that disparity can be blamed on the stimulus, but the federal contracts awarded for new jobs projects overwhelmingly went to white-owned firms. We have to make sure that the funds Congress dedicates to unemployment relief are distributed fairly.

Save the Consumer Financial Protection Agency

After watching the government hurl trillions of dollars at faltering banks, it’s obvious that major financial reform is urgently needed. And one of the most important aspects of that reform is a new regulatory agency that defends consumers, not just bank balance sheets. As Tim Fernholz argues for The American Prospect:

“Shoring up our financial system to avoid new disasters remains popular with the public but only if it represents real reform. …That means closing loopholes and making clear that this bill has what it takes to protect average citizens as well as restricting banks’ bad behavior.”

And yet astoundingly, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the current Democratic leader of financial reform negotiations in the Senate, appears ready to drop Obama’s proposal to create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA).

Instead, Dodd would house the regulator under the Treasury Department, and give the existing, failed bank regulators effective veto power over the CFPA’s moves. It’s a head-fake: We create a new regulator, but are instead giving that power to the same failed agencies who allowed the banks to pillage our pocketbooks, our retirement savings and our home values.

Failed negotiations with the GOP

This is supposedly all part of a set of negotiations with Republicans, but they aren’t really negotiating in any clear sense. Negotiating means going through some process of give-and-take. Right now, Republicans are just seeing how far Democrats will bend, and so far, there has been no limit. Ferhnolz is right. Voting for the banks and against taxpayers and consumers will be a very bitter pill for Republicans to swallow. Dodd and the Democrats need to make them do it instead of caving to pressure and allowing Republicans to vote for a weak bill that doesn’t protect the public from banker excess. Make the Republicans vote for real reform, or face the consequences at the polls for voting against it.

The public shame that is currently being heaped upon Bunning should prove that point. The American public wants jobs and financial reform. They want to go back to work and make sure that the bankers who tanked the economy can’t keep getting rich by hijacking their savings. Woe unto the politician who opposes that.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.




Senate passes scaled-back jobs bill

The U.S. Senate passed a scaled-back jobs bill today by a 70-28 vote (roll call here). 57 of the 59 Senate Democrats voted for the bill; Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted no and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was absent. 13 Republicans voted for the bill. Five of them helped Democrats break a Republican filibuster on Monday: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and the retiring Kit Bond of Missouri and George Voinovich of Ohio. Two Republicans who were absent for Monday's cloture vote also voted yes today: Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Six other Republicans tried to block this vote from going forward on Monday but turned around and voted for the bill today: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, George LeMieux of Florida, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Senate Democrats and the media are calling this a $15 billion jobs bill, but David Dayen notes, it's really a $35 billion measure: "the extension of the Highway Trust Fund would add $20 billion for infrastructure projects, but because of the way it’s financed, through a fund shift, it doesn’t count as an expense."

In addition to the highway fund money, the main features of the jobs bill are a tax credit for small businesses that hire new workers, "Build America Bonds" that help state and local governments to borrow money, and a provision to allow small businesses to write off more expenses.

Senator Chuck Grassley voted against today's bill and against the cloture motion on Monday. He and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus had agreed on a different jobs bill, which Senate Majority Leader Reid abandoned. In a statement submitted to the Senate record on Monday, Grassley slammed Reid's "disregard for bipartisanship" and noted that tax-extending provisions in the Baucus-Grassley bill had enjoyed broad support from both parties in the past.

The House passed a larger jobs bill in December that included many of the tax-extending provisions Reid omitted from the Senate bill.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moodys.com, said last week that Reid's jobs bill was "a good first step" but not nearly large enough to address the unemployment problem:

A failure to provide additional funding to struggling states, for example, would lead to job losses that would “overwhelm” all the other job-creating efforts being tried, he said. And while the Schumer-Hatch tax credit would create between 200,000 and 300,000 new jobs, Zandi estimated, that number is a drop in the bucket relative to the roughly 11 million new jobs needed to get the country back to pre-recession jobless levels.

Reid has promised to introduce more jobs-creating legislation soon. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will try to move quickly on the bill the Senate just approved, Roll Call reported.


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