October 17, 2008

Obama and the Bush Economic Legacy

After the American Century

The final debate is over, and again the American public has said in polls that Obama won. He has defeated McCain now three times, by a wider margin each time. Joe Biden also defeated Sarah Palin. If this were the World Series, then at 4 - 0 it would be all over. But there are 18 days or so left, when conceivably the Republicans can pull some improbable rabbit out of their economy-battered hat. I doubt it, however.

One thing that has become quite clear in these encounters is that Obama is not easily ruffled. Throughout the campaign, whenever McCain let off a nasty remark or a made an attack, Obama remained cool, even-tempered, often smiling. Voters clearly prefer a man who remains dignified to one who is irate, one who has specific proposals to one who mostly repeats the same generalizations over and over. (See, for example, McCain's utterly vague remarks on Social Security in the second debate.)

It also seems likely that McCain's endless claim that Obama was going to raise taxes simply did not convince anyone, even "Joe the Plumber" in Ohio, who, it now turns out, is not a plumber after all. What I do not really understand is why the Democrats have not said more often that all they want to do is go back to the tax system that worked so well in the Clinton years. No need for fancy explanations, just say the truth, that Bush lowered taxes on the rich, creating a deficit for all Americans to pay off.

While Obama seems likely to win the election on the economy, however, the financial mess he inherits is daunting. I checked the statistics today, and it is absolutely true that the average American, white or Black or Hispanic, lost real income during the Bush years, even before the current financial collapse. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, from 2000 until 2005, the average white family lost $1,300 in annual income, in constant dollars. It was worse for African-American families, who averaged a $2,700 loss, and they were starting from a lower income to begin with. For Hispanic Americans the loss was "only" $1000. They did a bit better, on paper, but bear in mind that the undocumented immigrants, of which there are an estimated 10 million now, are largely Hispanic, and they get the lowest wages.

These losses continued in 2006, 2007, and the present year, so that the average American quite literally has been worse off because of George W. Bush's tax policies combined with no real support for unions or for a higher minimum wage. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, the Bush Administration oversaw the redistribution of wealth to those who least needed it. The poorest 40% of the American population, who are largely working poor and lower middle class, collectively got more than 13% of all income in 2001 when Bush took office. By 2005, however, this hard-working group, whose health care expenses shot up far faster than inflation, were collectively much worse off, with only 12% of the total income. While they were falling, the next 40% was holding even, i.e. keeping the same share as before. The only group that was getting higher incomes after Bush were the top 20% of wage-earning Americans. This is nothing short of a disgrace, when the economy as a whole was doing well (until two months ago). But it may be hard to redress this economic injustice when the economy is in recession.

Should John McCain somehow win, of course, the unfairness will worsen, and class discrimination continue. It was quite ridiculous to hear McCain call Obama's tax plans a form of class warfare. The unfairness began in 2001, and the Republicans knew exactly what they were doing. If they were honest, they would admit that their fantasies of a deregulated economy lifting all boats led to a tsunami of bad debt.