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Grading Obama and the GOP Hopefuls on their Plans for Jobs and the Economy

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Last week's GOP debate at the Reagan Library, followed the next night by the President's address to Congress, throw into stark relief the strengths and weaknesses of each side's understanding of job creation and the economy. The Republican hopefuls get a gentleman's C 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 Fs. The president has to produce results, and his ideas aren'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 -- the two leaders, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney; the so-serious-minded Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul; and the media-infatuated Michele Bachmann and the rest -- agree 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, but it 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.

Nor are the Republican wannabes 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 inflationist. The markets they all claim to worship don't see it that way, since our long-term interest rates remain near record lows. For their determined contempt of elementary 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 won'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, missed a basic point: Mr. Obama called for expediting Fannie Mae refinancings to put more money in the pockets of some homeowners. That's all for the good, but it won't affect the more economically consequential, high foreclosure rates that have been pushing down housing values, and so dampening people's willingness to spend. On balance, give the president'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, 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. But no reputable economist who doesn'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. And with large U.S. businesses already holding some $1 trillion in banked profits, by what other 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 and so boost demand. Even so, much of those additional dividends probably would be saved, which wouldn't create any jobs under today's conditions. Moreover, the GOP hopefuls also insist on spending cuts to offset lower corporate tax revenues -- and that would mean job losses. For their resolute ignorance of labor economics and public finance, these hopefuls score another F.

President Obama's tax plan is both more detailed and better targeted at creating jobs. First, 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 -- and downright brilliant compared to the broad corporate tax cut championed by the Republican hopefuls. (Full disclosure: I've urged the administration to propose cutting the employer side of the payroll tax for new hires since October 2009, including a dozen times in these blog essays.)

The administration's decision to limit these new tax incentives to small- and medium-sized companies is less than ideal, since big businesses employ nearly half of all U.S. 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 president's call for more job-related, direct federal 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). The jobs benefits from other parts of the plan may be more problematic, including the president's otherwise sensible support for expanded access to high-speed wireless and public-private partnerships to rehab homes and businesses. There's also little direct jobs benefit in the administration's 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 still have time to develop better strategies for growth and jobs, especially compared to their current dismal positions. They'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 president can ensure that the public will know whom to blame.