Last weekâ€™s GOP debate at the Reagan Library, followed the next night by the Presidentâ€™s address to Congress, threw into stark relief the strengths and weaknesses of each sideâ€™s understanding of jobs and the economy. The Republican hopefuls get a gentlemanâ€™s CÂ on the impact of regulation on economic activity. But their approaches to the overall economy and job creation ranged from silly to dangerous, and earn them all Fâ€™s. The President has to produce results, and his ideas arenâ€™t constrained by primary challengers. This may help explain why his approaches are broader and more thoughtful, earning him a solid B on the overall economy and an A-minus on job creation.
All of the Republican hopefuls â€” the two leaders Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, the so-serious minded Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, and the media-infatuated Michelle Bachmann and the rest â€” agreed on one economic prescription: Apply deep and immediate budget cuts to an economy generating little growth and no jobs. This common position not only defies the basic dynamics of supply and demand in a slow economy. It also rejects the policies of the last five GOP presidents. After all, it was true-blue conservatives Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who justified big spending increases for defense and big tax cuts to boost the flagging economies of their own times. Â Â
Nor are the Republican wanna-beâ€™s chastened by the current examples of Germany, France and Britain, which all embarked on austerity programs this year while the European Central Bank (ECB) raised EU interest rates. The results have been even more anemic growth than our own. In fact, the two GOP frontrunners along with the inimitable Mr. Paul not only demanded deep spending cuts, but also sided with the ECB by denouncing Fed chairman Ben Bernanke as an inveterate inflationist. The markets they all claim to worship donâ€™t see it that way, since our long-term interest rates remain near record lows. For their determined contempt of introductory macroeconomics, all of the GOP putative presidents flunk.
The current President at least appreciates that this economy needs a boost, not more headwinds. His package adds $450 billion over 12 months, in theory adding new demand equal to 3 percentage points of GDP. In practice, it would work out to be less than that, since people will save some of the money they gain from lower payroll taxes, and some of the tax cuts for businesses wonâ€™t be taken up. The administration also gets credit for recognizing that the sick housing market is a critical piece of the puzzle behind the slow economy. Their answer, however, misses the most basic point: Mr. Obama called for expediting Fannie Mae refinancings to put more money in the pockets of some homeowners. But that wonâ€™t affect the more economically consequential, high foreclosure rates that have been pushing down housing values, and so dampening peopleâ€™s willingness to spend. On balance, give the Presidentâ€™s economic team a solid B on the overall economy.
Both sides also call for tax cuts to spur job creation. All of the GOP candidates, however, would focus on cutting corporate taxes. Now, most economists agree that the corporate tax cries out for reforms, especially a lower marginal rate tied to ending distorting tax breaks for favored industries. Â But no reputable economist who doesnâ€™t aspire to a top position in the next GOP administration has found that those reforms would have noticeable effects on jobs in any short or medium-term. With large U.S. businesses already holding some $1 trillion in banked profits, by what economic logic would additional tax cuts move them to create jobs?
The only route from this GOP position to new jobs depends on lower corporate taxes translating into higher dividends, mainly for the very affluent, which they would then spend, boosting demand. Even so, much of those additional dividends probably would be saved, which wouldnâ€™t create any jobs under todayâ€™s conditions. Moreover, the GOP hopefuls also insist on spending cuts to offset any lower corporate tax revenues â€” and that would mean job losses. For their resolute ignorance of labor economics and public finance, these hopefuls score another F.
President Obamaâ€™s tax plan is both more detailed and better targeted to creating jobs â€” which should be unsurprising, given how much he has riding on near-term results. He would reduce the cost to businesses of creating new jobs and maintaining their current workers. To do this, he would temporarily suspend the employer side of the payroll tax for new hires by firms with about 1,000 employees or less, and temporarily cut by half all employer-side payroll taxes for firms with about 100 workers or less. This strategy is eminently sensible â€” and downright brilliant compared to the broad corporate tax cut championed by the Republican hopefuls. Full disclosure: Iâ€™ve urged the administration to propose cutting the employer side of the payroll tax since December 2009, including eleven times in these blog essays.
The decision to limit these new tax incentives to small and medium-size companies is less than ideal, since big businesses employ nearly half of all workers. On the other hand, big businesses are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars in banked profits, so they clearly have the means to hire more workers. On balance, these proposals deserve an A-minus.
The same score goes to the Presidentâ€™s call for more direct, job-related spending. This includes new funds for the states to prevent more layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters; new support for school construction; and additional investments in infrastructure (through a National Infrastructure Bank). More problematic are the jobs benefits from other parts of the plan, including support for expanded access to high-speed wireless and public-private partnerships to rehab homes and businesses. Thereâ€™s also little direct jobs benefit in the administrationâ€™s otherwise-laudable plans to reform the unemployment insurance system and bar employers from discriminating in hiring against long-term jobless people. All told, another A-minus.
The Republican hopefuls have time to develop better strategies for growth and jobs, especially compared to their current dismal positions. Theyâ€™ll have to play catch-up, however, because President Obama has proposed a sound new jobs agenda. And if congressional Republicans refuse to work with him on it, the public will know whom to blame.