On this one, I am with Obama. The deal cut by the President with the Republicans is enough to make one sick. Extending the unjustified tax cuts for the super rich is appalling, and my in-box is filled each day with messages from left-liberal political groups urging me to do this or that to help block the deal. [Full disclosure: I also have somehow gotten onto the Republican national Committee's database, and I receive endless postal appeals and robo-phone call "surveys" designed to get me to say whether I prefer Palin or Huckabee or Romney. I am ashamed to be on their list, but I have chosen to leave myself on it because it costs them something to contact me, and every little bit helps.]
NEVERTHELESS: I think it is preferable to a political standoff in which all the Bush tax cuts would end. Let me spend a little time explaining myself, before you remove the link to this blog from your list of favorites and conclude that Wolff has gone over to the dark side [or alternatively, has simply gone senile -- always a threat at my age.]
Since I am a strong believer in making politics personal, I shall begin with some facts about myself. I was awarded tenure at Columbia University in 1964. For the next forty-four years, until my retirement in 2008 from the University of Massachusetts, I had an assured salary that rose steadily, either because of cost of living increases or because of genuine raises, from the $11,000 I received from Columbia in '64 as a tenured Associate Professor to roughly $180,000 that I was earning at the end of my career, thanks to an eleven month administrative salary. [By the way, the CPI calculator tells me that the 2008 equivalent of my 1964 salary is $76,400, so my real salary more than doubled over my long period of tenure -- not bad for an atheistical anarchistic Marxist on the public payroll.] Like countless others in my social and economic class, I have been completely protected from the vagaries of inflation, recession, job layoffs, outsourcing, and the rest. National politics has been, for me, a deadly earnest spectator sport, roughly on a par, emotionally, with college basketball here in Chapel Hill. One of the reasons that I have trouble remembering which years have been boom years and which recession years in America is that I have experienced no noticeable alteration in my personal circumstances as a consequence of the one or the other. There were a series of terrible budget crises at UMass during my thirty-seven years there, but although they resulted at one point in the phones being removed from our faculty offices, and though there was never money for travel or research, the simple fact is that I coasted along happily as though I had an independent income.
Now, with these personal reminiscences on the page, let me turn to the deal that Obama struck with the Republicans. Bad stuff first: The handout to the super rich will continue for two more years. In light of what I have said on this blog in recent months, I am going to take it as given how I feel about that. So what did Obama get in return? Well, all the attention is on the extension of the tax cuts for those referred to as "middle class," which, since it includes households with net taxable annual income of less than a quarter of a million, means, by my way of thinking, a great many rich people as well as "struggling middle class families." This is, all by itself, a good thing for the economy, since taking all of that money out of the economy in the form of higher taxes would have an anti-stimulus effect. But Obama got two other things as well. He got an extension of unemployment benefits for two million out of work Americans for another thirteen months. These people are hurting, and those benefits are desperately needed to put food on the table and clothes of peoples backs. All of it, we can assume, will be spent right away, providing a maximum amount of stimulation to the faltering economy.
And -- in many ways the biggest gain of all -- Obama got a one year reduction in the FICA or social security tax levied on the paychecks of working Americans. Let us please remember that for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, many of whom pay no income taxes, the payroll tax is a huge regressive bite into their meager incomes. If I understand what I have read, that tax will be cut roughly a third or a bit less, for a period of a year.
These people have been completely forgotten in all the political talk about "the middle class." To have secured some benefit, however short-lived, for them is in my eyes a political triumph.
Now, how will this play out politically? I do not think there is any doubt that it will help the Republicans, who will be perceived as having faced down the President. The appalling Mitch McConnell will gloat. John Boehner, the George Hamilton of politics, will preen himself and probably weep. We on the left will gnash our teeth and take antacids to counteract the bile in our stomachs. But millions of poor and middle income Americans will get a break when they need it.
Worn down teeth and a bilious stomach seem to me a small price to pay for forty-five years of secure comfort.
So, on this one, I am with Obama.