Weekly Audit: More Jobs Please

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

One year after President Barack Obama secured passage of his critical economic stimulus package, the U.S. Senate is finally taking anther look at how to create jobs and repair the economy. These issues are more important than ever, but absurd Republican obstructionism and timid Democratic negotiation are once again threatening good public policy.

Not really bipartisan, is it?

As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the Senate Finance Committee reached a “bipartisan” agreement to supposedly spur job creation last week. Republicans demanded billions in tax cuts for wealthy people, but kept on caterwauling about the federal budget deficit. In exchange for $80 billion to dedicate to jobs—an extremely modest figure given the state of the labor market—Republicans asked for hundreds of billions in giveaways for the rich. And that’s just to get the bill through the Finance Committee, much less the full Senate.

In a piece for Working In These Times, Michelle Chen notes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the Finance Committee “compromise,” but stripped out a critical extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers in the process.

The Republican uproar over such modest job figures is an economically preposterous political ploy, and Democratic cave-ins to their demands are both bad politics and bad economics. Chen notes that 70% of Americans support a $100 billion jobs bill. And we know what kinds of programs help spur employment—many of them were passed in the stimulus bill last year and have saved millions of jobs.

Stopping the Bleeding

In an interview with Christopher Hayes of The Nation, Economic Policy Institute Fellow Josh Bivens explains that Obama’s economic stimulus package has worked well, effectively stopping the job hemorrhaging that the economy was experiencing immediately before Obama took office. Here’s Bivens:

“We haven’t returned to growth on employment … but the rate of contraction has slowed radically. Immediately before the Recovery Act is passed, we’re losing on the order of 700,000 jobs per month … In the past three months, we’re now down to something like between 50 and 75,000 jobs lost per month, on average … it really is a stark before and after.”

Racial inequality and the recession

The trouble is, the stimulus was only big enough to prevent the economy from getting much worse. It was not large enough to return the economy to serious job growth. And the brutal effects of the recession are not being shouldered equally. As LinkTV’s collaboration with ColorLines illustrates (video below), the Great Recession is hitting people of color much harder, but the story of racial inequality is being lost in stories about statistical economic recovery in the financial sector. The special profiles several families of color struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession since the Great Depression, which features Depression-era unemployment rates for African Americans.

“What we don’t see on TV are the [people] who never had a home or a good job to lose in the first place. These are the millions of poor people whose chance to cross the line into middle class has always been cut short by another kind of line, the color line,” says host Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen.

Rabb, ColorLines and LinkTV describe a social safety net that has been shredded by opportunistic politicians. Instead of focusing on ways to guarantee good jobs, politicians since the Reagan era have demonized black single mothers by exploiting racist stereotypes in an effort to justify slashing federal supports for the poor and unemployed. The result is a fundamentally unstable economy. Our society has weak demand for goods and services in good times, and that demand completely falls apart when economic conditions deteriorate. And while these socially destructive initiatives have been described as “pro-business,” the truth is, businesses don’t like societies where millions of people are impoverished. They don’t have any customers.

Predatory lending strikes again

The recession hasn’t exactly been a picnic for the middle class, either. In an article for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll profiles the mortgage mess that Ocwen Loan Servicing created for borrower Deanna Walters. Unlike millions of other borrowers dealing with mortgage headaches, Walters wasn’t actually behind on her payments. She was making payments regularly, but Ocwen was misplacing them, and charging her thousands of dollars in improper fees. Walters even paid the fees, but Ocwen eventually foreclosed on her home and sold it in an auction without even informing Walters.

As Kroll emphasizes, Ocwen’s antics aren’t unique. There is an entire class of companies known as mortgage servicers that specialize in deceiving and bullying borrowers out of their money. They often use illegal tactics, and as I note for AlterNet, have been systematically exploiting a badly designed foreclosure relief program from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Funding projects that will put people to work

As prominent economist Dean Baker argues for The American Prospect, there are dozens of productive programs that would put millions of people back to work—if they could just get the funding. The government could quickly and easily provide money to improve public transportation, develop open-source software, fund objective clinical drug trials and (my favorite) support writers and artists, whose work would subsequently be available for the public to enjoy for free.

Taxing financial speculation

The federal government can afford these programs right now, especially without any additional tax revenue. But if we’re really worried about the budget deficit, we can always turn to reasonable new sources for taxes. As Sarah Anderson details for Yes!, an obvious place to look is financial speculation. Since excessive and risky trading helped bring down the economy in 2008, a tax discouraging this behavior could make the economy stronger and reap as much as $175 billion a year for the public.

Our economy wouldn’t face troubles of the same order as those it must overcome today if so-called conservatives had not spend decades pursuing a radical agenda to shred the social safety net. The stimulus package has not spurred job growth to date because of cuts demanded by Congressional Republicans, nearly all of whom refused to vote for the bill anyway. Our economy needs a jobs bill now. It’d be nice if Republicans would show some interest in governing, but if they continue to refuse, Democrats must act on their own.

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: Attack of the Imaginary Budget Demons

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

On Feb. 1, President Barack Obama unveiled his 2011 budget proposal. While conservative pundits reacted with predictable, yet preposterous, wailing about the federal budget deficit, the short-term U.S. budget outlook is just fine. If anything, Obama’s budget doesn’t dedicate nearly enough funding to create jobs.

As John Nichols notes for The Nation, Obama budgets just $100 billion for jobs in fiscal 2011. The amount is nowhere near enough to make a significant dent in the epic unemployment rate. The government’s fiscal 2011 calendar begins in October of this year, and by that time, the stimulus package Obama pushed through in February of 2009 will have been exhausted, leaving the labor market without serious support from the federal government.

The free market isn’t going to take care of the jobs shortage on its own. While the unemployment rate fell from 10.0% to 9.7% during January, the “improvement” is really just a statistical mirage—the economy actually lost 20,000 jobs during the month.

If we had pushed through a bigger, or as Nichols notes, a better stimulus package in the first place, we might not be facing the same situation today. Part of the problem is that Obama redirected about $326 billion of the $787 billion bill away from direct job-creation efforts toward a set of tax cuts intended to appease Republican senators.

Tax cuts do not equal job growth

But as Art Levine emphasizes for Working In These Times, the $100 billion that Obama sets aside for job creation in 2011 appears once again to take the form of relatively inefficient tax cuts. Giving money to businesses, even small businesses, isn’t really going to make them start hiring unless there’s a real demand for what those businesses produce. When everybody is broke and out of work, that demand doesn’t exist, since people don’t have money to spend.

If the government wants to create jobs, it has to do it directly by hiring people to help rebuild the nation’s infrastructure through institutions such as schools, transportation and green energy. Just as important, the federal government can provide funding to state and local governments to make sure that jobs that serve our communities—teachers, cops, etc.—don’t disappear.

Sure, these things cost money. But the short-term budget deficit is nowhere near the current deficits of many European nations, or the deficits the U.S. ran during World War II. The budget deficit only matters to economics insofar as it raises concerns that the government will not be able to pay back its debt. But despite caterwauling from the right, investors just aren’t worried about a U.S. debt default. If they were, they would demand very high interest rates on Treasury bonds, and Treasury rates are at their lowest levels in decades.

If policymakers want to keep the jobs bill from running the deficit higher, they could always raise taxes on somebody. Financial speculation on Wall Street seems like a good place to start, but just about any tax on the wealthy would work fine. Rich people don’t get hammered by recessions. After all, they’re rich.

Overzealous tax cuts hurt communities

In a piece for AlterNet, David Sirota details the budgetary disaster that has already befallen the city of Colorado Springs, CO., a conservative enclave where anti-tax extremists have managed to slash just about every basic government service imaginable. Rather than impose some modest taxes on the wealthy, Colorado Springs is going to lay off cops and firefighters, let its parks go to waste, shut-down rec centers and museums and even allow its streetlights to go out. This is the Republican plan for fiscal responsibility.

But several state governments recognize that shredding the social fabric just isn’t a good idea. In Oregon, Sirota notes, voters just approved two ballot initiatives to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals rather than allow their state to slide into social decay.

How to deal with a deficit

There are two ways to increase a budget deficit: You can either increase spending, or cut taxes. If you want to decrease the budget deficit, you can either cut spending, or raise taxes. As Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones, Republicans both increased spending and cut taxes during the George W. Bush presidency. Now those same so-called fiscal conservatives are feigning outrage over the prospect of the government actually spending some money to put people back to work. These are not serious economic arguments—conservative politicians are just hoping to gut progressive policy priorities.

But while the attacks don’t hold any water, conservative media outlets are latching on to them, and Obama isn’t pushing back.

What caused the current crisis

Writing for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner notes Obama’s recent support for a proposal from right-wing deficit hawks to create a commission to evaluate the causes of our so-called fiscal crisis. But we already know what put us in the current fiscal situation: Rising health care costs, a brutal recession, and the Bush era. The commission is being pushed by radical conservatives for a reason—it’s part of an effort to gut Social Security. It’s bad economics, bad public policy and it badly misreads the real source of public discontent. Kuttner explains:

“Public concern about deficits is really a proxy for broader unease that government is not delivering enough practical help . . . . The president should be helping citizens sort this out, not caving in to the fear-mongers.”

Fortunately, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Senate leaders appear committed to passing at least some kind of legislation to help put people back to work.

Whatever right-wing pundits say, the U.S. fiscal crisis remains a totally theoretical problem. Someday, if the U.S. budget does not come down, it is conceivable that investors would be reluctant to purchase U.S. debt. For now, that is simply not the case. But the crisis in the job market is very real and requires direct action. Put simply, the deficit is no excuse for inaction.

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: Fighting Economic Inequality in Haiti and at Home

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Rampant poverty can’t be written off as the result of historical accident or a worker’s incompetence. It is actively cultivated by bad public policies that direct economic resources into the hands of a wealthy few. The resulting inequality creates unnecessary suffering all over the world, from the humanitarian crisis in Haiti to the alarmingly high poverty rate in the United States.

Systemic poverty in Haiti

The tragedy in Haiti is not only the result of a massive earthquake. As Richard Kim explains for The Nation, Haiti has long been one of the world’s poorest nations, and that poverty has prevented the country from protecting itself against natural disasters. As Kim explains:

Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor—by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.

Kim details Haiti’s struggles under the weight of colonialist debt that dates back to 1804, the year it won its independence from France. Soon after the revolution, the U.S. and France threatened a trade embargo against Haiti unless the nation of former slaves agreed to pay reparations to its former slave-masters in France. Haiti paid off this extortion with loans from U.S. and European banks. The country was still paying those loans back in the 1940s.

In 2003, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded that France repay Haiti $21 billion of these unjust payments. He was ousted by a military coup for his efforts. Even today, the emergency IMF loans that are ostensibly helping Haiti cope with the disaster are crippled by insane stipulations, such as raising electricity prices for Haiti’s poorest citizens.

One-eighth of U.S. population receiving food stamps

The U.S. has been waging a quiet war against its own poor for decades as well. In a blog for Working In These Times, Akito Yoshikane highlights today’s record level of poverty: One in four U.S. children are living on food stamps, while one-eighth of the entire nation is receiving them. That’s over 38 million people, or more than four times the population of New York City. A poverty epidemic on this scale is a total affront to any concept of economic justice, liberal or conservative.

MLK and economic justice

Just economic policy was a critical concern for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But today’s 13.2% U.S. poverty rate is actually higher than when King spoke out against it in 1968, as Rich Benjamin notes for AlterNet. The economic oppression of minorities continues to this day. While the overall U.S. unemployment rate is 10%, among black workers, the rate is an astonishing 16.2%, while Latino and Latina workers face 12.9% unemployment.

10% unemployment vs. multi-million dollar bonuses

It’s impossible to tolerate 10% unemployment in any economy. But those high rates are especially cruel considering the multi-million-dollar bonuses being paid to bankers who were bailed out with U.S. citizens’ tax dollars. Nomi Prins‘ fantastic interactive chart at Mother Jones reveals both the obscene executive pay levels and staggering federal bailouts that banks subsequently used to boost profits and banker pay.

Top bank executives scored regal paydays for nearly destroying the economy, and some of them even helped pervert the government into an enabler of banking excess. Need an example? Prins highlights Robert Rubin, who pushed through a host of radical deregulatory laws as Treasury Secretary in the 1990s, then left to take a job at Citigroup, where he reaped over $120 million before his company needed a massive bailout. There’s no reason for policymakers to accept a 13.2% poverty rate while subsidizing paychecks for wealthy bankers.

What can be done?

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a panel convened to uncover the causes of the financial crisis, could play a key role in overturning the injustices embedded within the U.S. financial system. As Ruth Coniff notes for The Progressive, it’s not simply that the bailouts saved the banks. It’s that the banks are piggybacking on taxpayer-granted perks to score record profits.

Economic arguments are routinely deployed to excuse outrageous social injustices—the most common argument for the U.S. bank bailout claims that things would have been much worse for everyone if we hadn’t thrown billions at the banks. There are grains of truth in the argument. If all of the banks had actually failed, the result would have been economic mayhem. But that bailout money should have come with major strings attached. There is no reason why bank CEOs, rather than taxpayers, should be reaping the rewards from profits that taxpayer funds generated.

In both global and domestic politics, severe inequality is often accepted as an economic fact, not a problem that must be solved. But the moral outrage prompted by the disaster in Haiti and the U.S. financial bailout is both real and justified. If we want to live in a just society, we cannot continue to subsidize the rich by exploiting the poor.

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 Pulse: No Public Option: Worse Than Nothing?

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

In search of the elusive, filibuster-proof 60th vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eviscerated the Senate's health care reform bill on Tuesday. Potential GOP swing voter Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) confirmed that Reid promised to kill both the public option and the expanded Medicare buy-in, according to Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo.

Snowe didn't pledge to support the bill, of course. She didn't even promise to cooperate on the procedural votes required to pass the bill before Christmas, a deadline that the Obama administration has its heart set on. In other words, Reid gave away the progressive crown jewels of health reform on spec to a senator who cheerfully turned around and continued the Republican stalling strategy. From Snowe's vantage point, that's a great move. The longer the bill hangs in limbo, the more Reid will give away.

Former Democrat Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seems determined to kill the bill. Lieberman must be motivated more by a desire to spite liberals than any principled policy stance. He keeps threatening to filibuster policy proposals he once campaigned on, like the Medicare buy-in. Lee Fang of TAPPED notes that Lieberman told the New York Times that he now opposes the buy-in because it's beloved of lefty single-payer types like Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY); and the policy wonk behind the public option, Prof. Jacob Hacker.

The Women's Media Center has launched the #UnderTheBus campaign, which calls on supporters to contact their representatives and urge them not to let Lieberman and his close, anti-choice ally Ben Nelson (D-NE) sell out women's health care for political gain. Nelson has hinted he won't vote for the bill unless it contains strong abortion funding restrictions.

Stephanie Mencimer reports in Mother Jones that a bunch of teabaggers decided to stage a sit-in to oppose the health bill at Lieberman's office. Mark Meckler and some Tea Party Patriots showed up at Lieberman's office and asked to meet with the senator. When they were told he wasn't available, they all sat down. When they tried that routine at Sen. Barbara Boxer's office (D-CA), her staff ignored them. Lieberman's staff called the cops. (Note to teabaggers: Sit-ins are for enemies, not allies.)

The senate bill is so watered down that it wouldn't even stop insurance companies from capping benefits, as Roger Bybee reports at Working In These Times.

Former congressional candidate Darcy Burner says she'd rather see the bill die than have it pass in its current state. She argues that if health care reform doesn't curb costs, it's just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. She writes in AlterNet:

The fundamental failing of the newest Senate proposal is that it requires individuals to purchase health insurance, but does nothing to rein in what insurance companies charge. There is nothing to stop spiraling health costs from eating up an ever-increasing percentage of our national productivity.

The House bill has two major cost-control mechanisms: the public option and the 85 percent medical-loss ratio requirement. The Senate bill is on track to have neither, and nothing new to replace them. The Senate bill is a recipe for national disaster. If it's that bill or nothing, I prefer nothing.

Adding insult to injury, the Senate also voted down a bill yesterday that would have made it easier for consumers to purchase cheaper prescription drugs abroad. Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent suggests that the White House was relieved to see the Dorgan-Snowe bill defeated because it would have violated the deal it struck with pharmaceutical companies earlier this year. The drug companies promised up to $80 billion for health care reform if Democratic leaders withheld support for several initiatives that would cut into drug company profits.

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

There's more...

Weekly Audit: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

President Barack Obama invited leading economic thinkers to a job creation summit on Thursday to help combat the worst unemployment crisis in decades. The stakes couldn't be higher: If Obama can't build momentum for robust legislation that will create jobs, the unemployment rate could remain in double-digits all the way through 2011.

In Salon, Andrew Leonard highlights some positive comments Obama made at the jobs summit. In an exchange with The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner, Obama said that the long-term budget deficit is an issue, but that the best way to reduce that deficit is to spur economic growth. When the economy is growing, the same tax rates reap greater returns for the government.

If the U.S. dramatically slashes economic support programs to clamp down on the deficit in the short-term, the economy is going to shrink. About two-thirds of the economic growth in the third-quarter of 2009 came from intiatives related to Obama's economic stimulus plan. If we cut back on stimulus, we lose more jobs and make the long-term deficit worse by hampering growth.

We've faced this kind of dilemma before and seen what happens when you focus too much on the deficit,  as Katrina vanden Heuvel emphasizes in a column for The Nation. "In 1937, just as there was some recovery from the Depression, the debt hawks swooped in and there was a return to the deficit reduction model," vanden Heuvel writes. "Things went south again. We don't need a repeat of that."

So Obama doesn't want to attack the deficit at the expense of jobs, which is good. But it's problematic that the President is still at the summit stage on the most politically pressing issue for Democrats, as Terence Samuel explains for The American Prospect. If the labor market doesn't start getting better soon, voter dissatisfaction with Obama's economic platform will impact other critical policy initiatives, from health care to climate change.

"The president is up against an unpredictable clock," Samuel writes. "With his approval rating hovering around 50%, he can't be sure how long Democrats in Congress will stick with him on anything if there is not some noticeable improvement in the jobs picture soon. The urgency on the job situation is not lost on Democrats in the House and Senate who must defend the seats of 18 Democrats in 2010."

Most of the pressure Obama now faces is to create jobs, not just save them. That's because his stimulus helped get the unemployment rate under control--we're still losing jobs, but not as fast as we were in January. But as Aaron Glantz notes for New America Media, the risk of heavier job loss is still present.

State governments are up against very difficult budget constraints, thanks to tax losses related to widespread layoffs and foreclosures. If they don't get help from the federal government, states will be forced to cut expenses, which means shedding more jobs. Glantz highlights a recent conference call with AFL-CIO leaders who warned that state and local governments could be forced to cut up to one million jobs in 2010 if Congress and President Obama fail to enact a major jobs bill.

David Moberg envisions an ideal jobs bill for Working In These Times. We need a major aid package to state governments, modernizing our schools and transportation network, a public-sector job program to fund important work in our communities, and a tax credit for companies that hire workers. The whole thing would only cost $400 billion and would create 4.6 million jobs. That could be enough money to move unemployment out of crisis-mode. Right now, about 15.4 million workers are out of a job. Half those workers have been put out of work over the course of the recession. Creating 4.6 million jobs would make an enormous difference.

And while the $400 billion price tag may sound like a big number, it's a drop in the bucket compared to our $9 trillion fiscal deficit. Going back to The Nation: As vanden Heuvel notes, the whole package could be paid for with a modest tax on risky Wall Street securities trading.

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.

There's more...


Advertise Blogads