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Laurence J. Kotlikoff

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Saving Face or Saving Lives? When Will Obama Lead?

Posted: 05/10/2012 6:00 pm

I'm running against President Obama as a candidate for the nomination of the Americans Elect platform. But I have deep respect for him as a person and voted for him in the last election. Overall, I think he's done a B to B+ job in office.

I'm a tough grader, so that's actually a pretty high grade. I'd give President Bush, the latter, a D, for example.

Unfortunately, our problems are so severe, that B+ isn't good enough. We need to have bold, new, transparent, simple, effective policies to fix health care, taxes, social security, energy, and Wall Street. We also need to face military realities squarely, with no regard for politics. We're not getting any of this from this president.

The reason is simple. Our president has all the right values, brains, and communication skills, but he doesn't lead.

The latest example is his decision to publicly support gay marriage. Vice President Biden had to drag him into making this announcement. It was the right announcement -- but it was the right announcement years ago. Real leaders don't need to be told what to do. Nor do they wait to say and do what is right until it's politically expedient. They stand up and let themselves be the first one that's counted.

The first example of failed leadership was health care reform, which the president left for Congress to mismanage. Although the Affordable Care Act provides vitally important health insurance coverage for tens of millions Americans, its passage was another example of catastrophic success -- do something terrific for some segment of society and leave a new, potentially enormous unpaid bill for our kids to pay. The Purple Health Plan shows you what the president should have endorsed.

Meanwhile, the president did nothing to address the enormous and exploding bills our children face from the existing federal health care programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, as well as the massive tax subsidy to employer-provided health care, which is a primary reason that federal revenues have been declining as a share of GDP.

The second example was financial reform. The president sat back and let Congress pass Dodd-Frank, which addresses neither of the two fundamental problems with the financial system, namely opacity and leverage. As a result, we have a full employment act for government regulators, with no reduction in the risk of financial meltdown and no assurance that Wall Street's gambling losses won't end up, yet again, in the taxpayers' lap.

Yes, Secretary Geithner and Chairman Bernanke, I know you think the government made money on its Wall Street bailout. But you aren't counting the real cost, namely the 27 million Americans who are out of work and short on work and the millions of retirees who lost much of their lifetime savings when the stock market fell by half. The Purple Financial Plan is what we need and what you and the president have failed to even consider, notwithstanding its support from a long list of experts, including seven Nobel Laureates in economics and former Treasury Secretary George Shultz.

The third example is Social Security. The president, who has proposed no reform, tells us that the program is in good shape, needs only modest reforms, and can be fixed in the future. But Table IVB6 in the just-released Trustees Report shows the opposite. It says that the system is 31 percent underfunded, meaning we need an immediate and permanent hike in the 12.4 employer plus employee Social Security FICA tax to keep the system handing out promised benefits through time. That comes to four cents of every dollar every American will earn from now through eternity. That's not a modest problem. The Purple Social Security Plan fixes this problem, but don't hold your breath for this President to propose it.

The fourth example is energy policy. What virtually every economist will tell you is we need to implement a substantial carbon tax and then have the federal government get out of the way and stop picking energy winners and lowers. Have you heard the president publicly advocate a carbon tax?

The fifth example is tax policy. We need a simple, broad based tax system, which taxes consumption, and which is much more progressive than the current system. Maybe I missed it, but the only thing the president seems to care about is raising the top rate of the existing, terribly flawed income tax. This isn't going to really fix the tax system, nor will it make the system much more progressive.

The last and most important example of failing to lead is on Afghanistan. It's clear to everyone, particularly the troops stationed there, that this experiment in nation building, like that in Vietnam and Iraq, has not worked and that whether it does work in the future is in the hands of the Afghans. Leaving our troops in that country for two more years appears to be a politically motivated decision that will save face (and not much at that), but sacrifice lives.

The president says he won't leave our troops there a day longer than is absolutely needed. I don't believe him. I don't think the long-run outcome of Afghanistan will be any different whether we leave tomorrow, next month, next year, or in twenty years. But leaving our troops in harm's way for no real strategic or security purpose for two more years is a truly terrible abuse of our military. If the President were a real leader, he'd announce a complete withdrawal in six months from Afghanistan.

 

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