The first presidential debate provided no answers.
Mitt Romney’s oversold triumph came only if you judged it as a theatrical performance with the salesman from Bain ticking off bullet points, pretending to be specific but not saying much of anything. He declared his plan “is not like anything that’s been tried before” but offered a barely reheated version of what Republican candidates have been peddling for decades: tax cuts with unspecified loophole closing, deep cuts in unnamed domestic programs, hikes in military spending, more corporate trade deals, deregulation, and education reform (read vouchers, charters and no support for even the basics). He promised this would produce 12 million new jobs over the next four years, essentially the number that independent analysts such as Moody’s Analytics project if the recovery takes its course.
But in the reality-based world, deep spending cuts combined with no net tax cut (Romney’s new debate promise) would lower deficits but cost Americans jobs and the recovery. Republicans and Romney essentially admit this, howling that cutting military spending would put people out of work.
It follows as night to day that cutting spending on roads or schools or veterans’ services would also add to the unemployment rolls.
Obama offered a tepid contrast in the debate. He started, sensibly enough, by reminding Americans of something Romney seems to have forgotten: the free fall that the economy was in when he took office. But when it came to what comes next, the president didn’t even mention his own jobs program that the Republican House had torpedoed. Instead, after calling for investment in education and “new sources of energy here in America,” he moved to “taking some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way.”
Much of the remainder of the debate was a mangled discussion of deficit reduction, with Romney flunking math, claiming he could bring deficits down without new tax revenue or cuts in Medicare, Social Security or education, while increasing the military budget — and the president lamely trying to defend arithmetic.
This campaign takes place as the economy faces fierce headwinds. Europe is headed into a recession; China and India’s economies are slowing. Manufacturing is losing jobs as export demand flags. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is taking extraordinary measures to try to keep the United States above water. Yet political Washington is focused on deficits, not on jobs.
We are witnessing what social critic Naomi Klein has called “the shock doctrine” — politicians using a crisis to force through ruinous policies that the public would otherwise never accept.
The trillion-dollar annual deficits coming out of the Great Recession are used to justify an assault on core building blocks of economic security. The debt-ceiling debacle bequeathed the misbegotten “fiscal cliff” — mandated spending cuts and expiring tax provisions at the end of the year. To avoid that, legislators are meeting in backrooms about a “grand bargain” to reduce deficits by trading cuts in Medicare and Social Security for some greater tax revenue.
Neither presidential candidate is prepared to embrace this folly publicly or break with it in private. Obama put forth a bold jobs act last fall, but now ties any talk of investment to talk of deficit reduction. Romney rails about deficit reduction while peddling more tax breaks for the wealthy — eliminating the estate tax, sustaining the top-end Bush tax cuts, even defending the obscene carried-interest dodge.
We need action now to put people to work. With interest rates near record lows, we should be issuing Rebuild America bonds to rebuild our failing infrastructure. The resulting increase in jobs, productivity and competitiveness would more than pay for the investment. We should be helping states and localities to rehire teachers and police officers. We should be creating urban corps and green corps to provide jobs to veterans and the young. With the richest 1 percent of Americans pocketing a staggering 93 percent of national income growth coming out of the recession, we can pay for the state and local aid jobs by asking them to pay a fair share of taxes.
We’ve seen a case study of this in Europe. With a fragile recovery, conservatives in Great Britain focused on deficits and inflicted austerity on the British economy. The result has been a double-dip recession, rising unemployment, spreading poverty and misery — and belatedly a change of course. There is no reason to repeat that calamity here.