Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Paterson and his Budget -- Sad State of Affairs

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 13, 2009

As we New Yorkers look ahead at the upcoming pages of our 2009 calendars, we can be certain of a few red-letter days. First of all, we can be sure that eventually, maybe by mid-May, the salt will wash away from our roads, cars, sidewalks and vegetation. We can be sure that the robins will once again fly low over the green grass of our lawns, seeking worms and bugs and singing to us from sun-washed branches as they greet summer mornings. Undoubtedly, we will someday take the covers from our swimming pools and barbecues and enjoy some healthy summertime activities. So, you can see, we have many positive things to look forward to.

However, there will also be some dark days on this year’s calendar. There will be the day when Governor Paterson – yes, the governor who now holds the record for the lowest approval rating of any governor on record – will sign the 2009 – 2010 NYS budget. This will be a dark day for many reasons, and almost all of them are tax-related.

As we begin to learn some of the details of Paterson’s proposals we are learning more about his liberal views. The fact that Paterson had several scandals that had to be explained away shortly after his rapid rise to power, following the disgraceful exit of former governor and client number nine, Eliot Spitzer, I can overlook with a mere tsk, tsk and a head shake. After all, it seems it is becoming common policy for public servants to serve their own prurient interests before they serve the interests of the public. However, the changes in our daily lives that will come from the enactment of Paterson’s policies will result in more than a shake of my head; it will result in the shake-down of my wallet and bank accounts.

Some of the proposed changes in his budget will send taxpayers and small businesses heading for the Border States of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio, or even across the International Border to Canada. And with the exit of these revenue creators will go the revenue needed to pay for these new plans and programs. If you don’t believe me, just drive east along I-86 and then south into any Pennsylvania gas station. You will be amazed to see how many cars with New York State license plates are lined up at the pumps and how many packs of cigarettes and cartons of beer are being purchased by the drivers of those cars. After Paterson’s proposed budget is imposed upon us, you will see them walking out with cartons of soda as well, as soon as they realize that the cheaper gas makes it worth the trip to save the extra 18% off the price of a soft drink.

Paterson seems to be following the failed policies of his predecessor, Mario Cuomo, who mistakenly believed that we could tax our way out of debt. It is funny that those who claim we cannot drill our way out of high oil prices somehow believe we can drill deeper and deeper into the taxpayers’ pockets and keep pumping revenue into the state coffers.

The fact that Paterson is proposing increases in welfare benefits while simultaneously increasing taxes on businesses and consumers of everything from music to Mountain Dew, indicates where his priorities and principles lie.

He has suggested an increase of 30 % in welfare benefits and a cut in school tax relief and tuition assistance. Now, let’s just look at these two items for a minute. Taxes have always been used for dual purposes by our legislators. Beyond the obvious goal of raising money for protection and services for the general public, taxes have also been used to promote and stifle behavior. Through taxes we either penalize bad behavior or reward good behavior. In this one example, we see welfare recipients being rewarded and students and taxpayers being penalized. What then, do you think, is the behavior being targeted? Should we believe that Paterson believes it is in our best interest to punish SUNY students with higher tuition, thereby driving them to consider out-of-state schools? The statistics show that once a student enrolls in an out-of-state school, she is less likely to return to her home state, taking with her the skills and income needed to expand our economy.

On the other hand, by increasing welfare benefits, we will reduce the incentives to remove numbers from the welfare rolls, thereby limiting the number of producers (income tax payers) and increasing the number of welfare consumers (income tax suckers).

Space and time does not allow me to expose more of the many misguided policies in this budget, but I do have enough words left to encourage you to call and write our state representatives and voice your opposition to this budget. As sure as the robin sings and the flowers bloom, taxes will always come, but while we have our voices, let us use them to make sure we have representation with our taxation.

Paterson and his Budget -- The Long View

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, March 13, 2009

It has been interesting to see the way conservative optimism has given way to doomsday pessimism and blatant fear-mongering (as opposed to the disguised fear-mongering of the past few years).

My fellow-columnist has painted a vivid depiction of a mass exodus of taxpayers and business leaders and a bankrupting of New York State’s economy. My hopeful liberal optimism allows a slightly rosier perspective.

It is true that our state’s taxes dwarf those of other states. However, this condition is not unique to Governor Paterson’s administration. For years, smokers have headed North or South to purchase tobacco products at cheaper prices. Drivers near the Pennsylvania border have been able to travel short distances to fill up for less. Businesses have relocated in states with friendlier taxation laws.

That Paterson is unpopular is also undeniably true. His poll numbers show only a quarter of the state’s residents approve of the job he is doing. Of course, his story isn’t much different from other states’ governors who have seen their numbers drop in the face of economic hardship and tough budgetary decisions.

That said, I have my own criticisms of Paterson’s choices. Slashing education funding at a time when a skilled workforce must be built, and when the technological and intellectual needs of the future must be met, worries me greatly. I would prefer an increase in spending for both K-12 schools and higher education, even if it comes with a larger tax burden.

I can understand the motivation behind taxing unhealthy practices like smoking and consumption of large quantities of high-fructose corn syrup. But, like my brother I disagree with this targeted taxation that seems to take aim at the working class, which represents the largest group of consumers of such products. These folks are already bearing the burden of our consumer-driven economy, and are suffering the most from job losses and rising prices. Since I have a penchant for sugary caffeine-rich drinks and downloaded music, I have a personal aversion to taxes attached to such luxuries. However, I can always vote with my feet and purchase a CD or two (it may curb my spending to a responsible level and keep me from those impulse buys that I regret within moments of the download). I also might look back one day and celebrate giving up Pepsi the same way I smile when I see the carton price at Walmart and thank God I crushed out my last butt twenty years ago.

I do find Gordon’s appraisal of relief spending somewhat offensive. At a time when jobless rates are rising and economic conditions find greater numbers in need, he takes the tired old “welfare state” line. It seems ludicrous to believe that increased spending will result in increased welfare rolls, as if public aid will somehow appear favorable to earning a decent living in a secure job. I guess he missed the recent stories of hopefuls camping out to compete with hundreds of applicants for a few dozen fire-fighter jobs, or of the well-attended job fairs in our region. As jobs are created, there will be an eager workforce to fill them, regardless of any perceived incentive to sit back and collect a government check.

Of course, Paterson’s budget isn’t a done deal. Alternative proposals have been offered that may trim a few million from the $121.1 billion in the governor’s plan. I find it interesting that some Republicans in the state legislature who opposed the federal stimulus package have been proposing using those same funds to cover the $14 billion deficit in the expected budget. It seems shortsighted to count on that lump-sum money to shore up the budget when the following year is apt to see a greater shortfall.

I hate to see the STAR rebate program die as much as anyone else does. I hate the thought of paying even more for a twelve-pack of soda. I would hate to give up my iTunes purchases. But these are tough times and I know there will be plenty of sacrifice in the short term and the long term.

Maybe we can’t tax our way out of our problems, just as we can’t drill ourselves into oil independence, but spending the stimulus funding to close the budget gap is just postponing the tax burden. Spending cuts and increased revenue efforts have to intersect in order for the state to function in a fiscally responsible manner. We should raise our voices to protest unfair taxes or to preserve programs that are vital. But we should remember that we will survive this budget and these tough times as sure as we have endured the worst of the winter.

Playing Politics with Relief Policy

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, February 27, 2009

Last week President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. There has been much discussion over the last few weeks about the provisions and costs of the plan and how effective it will be.

The media has played a major role in shaping the public perception of the legislation. Depending on which newspaper you picked up on recent mornings, the headline would project different perspectives. One paper tagged an Associated Press story using words like “huge” and “humongous” to describe the size of the stimulus package, while another headlined the same story with mention of expected job increases or anticipated project funding.

All in all expectations have been low. Even the president and members of the Democratic Party in Congress were cautious. Obama asserted that the plan was imperfect but necessary. Democratic Congress members were conflicted over the votes they had cast. The fact is that even while most economists support the use of such government spending to stem the tide of the worsening economic crisis, they do not hold much hope that the results will be overwhelmingly positive. Nearly all economists agree that the next couple of years will be bad. The favored indicator of economic stability, unemployment rate, will reach 10 or 12 percent by some estimates. However, without the stimulus package, these economists say the rates will be much higher.

But reasonable caution and checked enthusiasm were cause for further media criticism. I heard one news network pundit (a former Bush administration staffer) criticize Obama’s use of the word crisis. He said it was the president’s job to act as a cheerleader and that would boost the public’s confidence. Personally, I would prefer a president with a firm grasp on reality to one so out of touch that he finds it hard to quote the price of a gallon of gasoline or to assess the gravity of an economic downturn.

I don’t think the stimulus package is the be-all and end-all of solutions to the current recession or the impending depression. I think it is a pro-active step in the right direction, and better than doing nothing.

Oh, I have heard Republicans defend unified disapproval of the package by saying they had proposed an alternate growth package. However, after some searching, I was able to come up with little detail of any such plan. Mostly it was about either instituting new tax cuts or making Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy permanent. One interesting detail I heard discussed on the floor during the last hours of debate before the house passed the Bill on Friday, February 13, was a suspension of the Capital Gains Tax. One Republican representative mentioned that suspending the tax alone would generate market gains of 300 points. I found this interesting because, given the daily hemorrhaging of the market, few are worrying about the Capital Gains Tax (unless they are politicians, apparently). In fact, while times are tough, investors can use the tax code to deduct some of the losses they have suffered.

What bothered me the most about the Congress’ actions during the lead-up to the signing, was the politicizing of what was intended to be a relief package for struggling Americans. I haven’t read the entire legislation, but I am sure there are probably examples of wasteful spending inserted by Democrats. I am also discouraged by the cuts of education funding that were made as concessions to win the necessary Republican votes for the Senate’s version.

More disturbing yet was watching House minority whip Eric Cantor at work. He is credited (in fact lauded) for pressuring Republican members of Congress into voting against the bill en masse. He was successful in getting unanimous disapproval from the House and only allowed three dissenters in the Senate (and those were sent clear messages about their reelection hopes after bucking the Party). The New York Times applauded him on the day after the vote and anointed him the next Newt Gingrich. He did send Obama a “thanks but no thanks” message regarding his attempts to reach out to GOP legislators. It is good to know that petty politics still trump public service on the Hill.

Facts are facts. The stimulus package is the largest ever. The national deficit will increase by somewhere between $1.2- and $2-trillion. Progress will take time and be hard to measure. But we can look at it with a sense of perspective. Former President Bush’s T.A.R.P. program will cost about as much (its final cost estimated above $2-trillion by some accounts). He turned a surplus into a $10-trillion deficit within two terms. And there is almost no transparency and absolutely no accounting for how the T.A.R.P. funds are being used. So much for fiscal conservatism.

The Wrong Prescription?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, February 27, 2009

Thankfully, medical advances have been made in the years since our first president was treated by the physicians of his day. We no longer have to worry about receiving the prescribed treatment of “bloodletting” to relieve us of the ailments that are now treated with antibiotics and medications. Sadly, in the case of our ailing economy, it seems that today’s economic physicians are now prescribing the financial version of bloodletting to treat this patient.

The Economic Stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last week, instead of stimulating our economy and reviving consumer confidence, has had the effect of sending the economy further into a comatose condition. As investors saw these physicians head to the bedside with those large syringes aimed for the arteries of our economy, they immediately responded with deeper drops in stock indices and corporations responded with increased job cuts.

The mistaken idea that increased spending and the subsequent tax increases and increased Federal regulations – that accompany all Federal spending – will revive a failing economy is very similar to the mistaken idea that relieving a body of diseased blood will bring an ailing body to its feet. After the failure of the first stimulus package initiated in October of last year, the doctors decided that the reason it failed was not because it was the wrong prescription, but because the syringes were not large enough and not enough blood was removed.

Everyone – from the authors in the House and Senate and the president who signed it – admits that the bill is far from perfect, yet they determined that: “It is better than doing nothing”. However, I think that there may have been some merit to doing nothing when doing something may actually result in the sedation rather than the stimulation of the economy.

Let me explain.

As the details of the bill become public, and my brother is not the only one who has not read the whole bill – you can also include the overwhelming majority of those who signed it, the long-term effects became more evident to the market. The drops in the stock market seem to indicate a lack of confidence in the plan.

The life force of any economy is job production and private investment. This bill, while claiming to “save and create over 3.5 (or 4.5 depending on which week you listen to Obama) million jobs” and to initiate private and public investments, does neither. The shovel-ready projects hailed by these doctors will not see one shovel move without at least two years of environmental studies and impact statements. The jobs produced, even then, will be project-specific and not linked to long term economic health.

The key to job production has never been turned by the hand of the Federal government. Even in the example used by most of today’s doctors, which is the New Deal of FDR, many historians believe that his policies of spending actually lengthened the Depression.

The jobs produced by private industry spurred the recovery of Reagan in the early 80’s. Following the disastrous years of Jimmy “Who Needs the Panama Canal and Appease the Ayatollah” Carter, our economy was in the Intensive Care Unit. Unemployment was higher than now, interest rates and inflation were both in double digits; American pride was dragging in the dust as our image was held captive by Iran. The answer was not to increase Federal spending. It was to initiate American productivity by increasing military spending and innovation.

We now live in a safer, more technological world because that stimulus worked. This one will not.

My brother states that he was unable to find an alternative plan proposed by the opposition party. Well, I have heard several propositions, and the ones that make the most sense to me include a tax holiday that would immediately put dollars back into the hands of consumers. This is so obvious to me – it is like a nurse standing in the corner holding a dosage of antibiotics while all the “expert” doctors continue to suck blood from our dying economy.

As Obama saw the lack of confidence and heard the complaints from those who worried about the deficit, he made plans to deliver a plan of reducing the deficit. Good idea. I am all for a reduced deficit and a more balanced budget. However, the early headlines suggest that he will halve the deficit (in about 5 – 6 years) by reducing war spending and abolishing Bush’s tax cuts. Okay, let’s assume that North Korea and Iran will not make good on their promises to shake the world with a nuclear device, and let’s assume his surge in Afghanistan goes exactly as planned, we still need increased military spending to maintain superiority and assure our security. The tax cuts he plans to abolish are the very tool that brought us out of the malaise caused by 9/11.

Again, more blood from the arteries of a dying economy.