Mitt Romney's wet noodle economics

He tries to make a case for simultaneous tax cuts and budget balancing, but it's impossible

Published August 18, 2010 7:35PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney is smart enough not to join Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin in using the proposed mosque at ground zero to to launch a presidential bid. While Gingrich is busy comparing Muslims to Nazis (“Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington”), and Palin is calling on New Yorkers to “refudiate” the plan (she subsequently corrected her word choice), Romney is offering an economic plan.

That’s a wise choice. Mitt knows Americans don’t care about mosques in Manhattan. They care about money in their own mitts.

Romney is intent on selling himself to America as the businessman who can turn the country around (sad to say, unemployment is likely to remain high all the way through November, 2012). Unlike Palin and Gingrich, Romney did, after all, run a business (yes, it was a firm that bought and sold companies and laid off lots of people along the way but, hey, that’s business.)

So we should take Romney’s economics seriously. In today’s (Wednesday’s) Boston Globe op-ed Romney attacks Obama’s economic policies for being ineffective and calls for what he calls a “growth and jobs” agenda. Here are the main points:

– match U.S. corporate taxes with those of other developed economies,

– preserve the Bush tax cuts for everyone, “especially small business,”

– allow businesses to write off capital investments made in 2010 and 2011 rather than over time,

– eliminate taxes on investment dividends,

– eliminate taxes on capital gains and interest for households earning less than $250,000 a year, and

– balance the federal budget.

Apart from the impossibility of simultaneously cutting taxes and balancing the budget without taking a meat cleaver to Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending (Romney delicately sidesteps this conundrum by urging we “reshape government programs” and “restructure entitlements”), his policies raise a more fundamental problem.

Call it the wet-noodle problem.

For Romney, the key to America’s recovery is to cut taxes on businesses and on people who invest in them. These steps, he says, are the “conditions that enable businesses of all sizes to grow and thrive.” In other words, if businesse get more capital at less cost, they’ll create jobs.

But anyone looking closely at the American economy today would see this is nonsense. American corporations have an unprecedented $1.8 trillion of cash. The Fed, meanwhile, has slashed interest rates to essentially zero – a record low – and is still holding over $2 trillion in securities that it said last week it will keep from shrinking. And a Federal Reserve survey released earlier this week showed that banks have been making it easier for businesses of all sizes to get loans. Credit standards for small firms have been loosened for the first time since late 2006.

In other words, businesses have all the capital they need. They’re sitting on it or can borrow it more cheaply than ever. But they aren’t using it to create jobs.

Why not? Because there’s not enough demand for their products or services. Consumers aren’t buying.

Retail sales continue to slide. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target report disappointing sales for July. Same with popular back-to-school retailers like Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters, and TJX. Housing sales are down. Appliances are down. (Cars sales are up a bit but that’s mainly because they fell to record lows in 2008 and 2009, and by now some people who have held back need another.)

Romney’s supply-side economics won’t create jobs. It’s pushing on a wet noodle. Businesses create jobs only if consumers are pulling the noodle from the other end.

These days, businesses are raising profits by cutting costs (mostly by laying off even more workers), shifting operations abroad wherever they can find consumers (China, Brazil, India), and buying up their own shares of stock. Romney’s tax breaks will only hasten all this.

If Mitt Romney really wanted to increase American jobs and not just corporate profits he’d understand why consumers aren’t buying, and focus his proposals there.

The first reason they’re not buying is they’re still carrying a huge debt load. Mortgage debt is still engulfing millions of families. Americans also owe some $826.5 billion in revolving credit, mostly on credit cards (credit card debt was $975.7 billion in September 2008, so they still have a long way to go). On top of that, outstanding student loans (both federal and private) total some $829.7 billion.

So instead of boosting corporate profits, let Americans reorganize their mortgage debt in personal bankruptcy, protect them from credit card companies that charge gargantuan interest on credit card debt, and give their kids more direct aid for college.

The second reason consumers aren’t buying is their nest eggs have shrunk down to the size of peas. Homes are still worth 20 to 40 percent less than in 2007, and 401(k)s are down 20 percent. Baby boomers now have to save for retirement big time.

So instead of a giving corporations a tax break on their incomes, and giving investors tax breaks on dividends and capital-gains, cut the payroll tax for ordinary Americans. 80 percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes, and it’s a regressive tax. Eliminate payroll taxes on the first $20K of income and make up the difference by raising the cap on income subject to payroll taxes (now about $106,000).

The third reason consumers aren’t buying is they’ve lost their jobs or are scared of losing them, or can only find part-time jobs that pay less. And because most families rely on two wage earners, the chance that at least one of them has lost or is in danger of losing a paycheck is double. That means families have no choice but to economize.

So instead of giving tax breaks to companies for buying more machines to replace their workers, make big profitable companies pay severance to any worker they lay off, equal to a month’s salary times the number of years worked. And require that any corporations receiving government contracts and subsidies (including defense contractors) use the money to create jobs in the United States.

Mitt Romney is the most credible of all the likely Republican presidential candidates. He’s right to focus on the economy, and he’s to be commended for coming up with specifics. But his specifics are looney. Romney’s wet-noodle economics won’t create American jobs.

By Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

MORE FROM Robert Reich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Great Recession Mitt Romney U.s. Economy