Symbiotic Relationship

Are journalists doing their job properly in the budget debate? The Republicans have talked both parties into a stalemate, partly because few have challenged the Republicans’ premises about how the economy operates.

Today (July 11, 2011) on the News Hour, we heard from two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, about their views on the budget deadlock. Unfortunately the interviewer, Gwen Ifill, asked weak questions that left the audience – as she not very helpfully surmised – without key information. Can journalists help move the debate beyond he said/she said?

When the Republican said that the American people want spending to be cut to balance the budget, Ifill might usefully have pointed out that the public also supports – and has supported by big majorities for two years – increasing taxes on the rich. When the Republican argued that raising taxes on the “job creators” was a bad idea, Ifill might have noted that the “job creators” are jobs 11 million jobs short and that corporate tax revenue is at a 60 year low as a proportion of the budget. When the Republican argued that most businesses are so small that their owners do not file tax returns as corporations but rather as individuals, Ifill might have pointed out that most businesses’ revenue is so low that they will not be taxed by any proposal that is coming out of the White House. When Ifill asked if the Republicans were willing to pay a political price as part of a deal with the Democrats, who also would pay a price to get to a compromise on spending, the Republican said it was a big and sufficient sacrifice for Republicans to agree to increase the debt limit. No doubt the Club for Growth and the Business Roundtable will lambaste any tax increase. Ifill might helpfully have pointed out that the Republicans seem to be willing to pay a serious political price with voters of modest incomes by their proposal to abolish Medicare for everyone under 55, which is extremely unpopular.

When the Democrat got his chance, he excoriated the Republican’s smug sacrifice. He agreed that the sticking point in a potential compromise was tax increases on the wealthy, which he argued was a matter of fairness. The poor and elderly would be hurt by the House Republican budget whereas the rich would get off without paying an extra dime. Ifill might have asked him how the Democrats’ position would stimulate economic growth and employment. How does his concern for the poor and elderly help the working- and middle-classes? As is typical, the Democrat never took on the Republicans’ economic analysis and therefore fell into the old trap of wimpy hand-wringing. He was correct to reject the abolition of Medicare and any threat to the structure of Social Security pensions. But that is simply defending the position that the Republicans argue the Democrats should compromise in order to get the economy moving again.

Could we get past this old discussion? Could the Democrat actually challenge the Republican head on and say that the government creates jobs and should do so just because the private is not? Could the Democrat point out that the profits of the large corporations have recovered from the Great Recession and the bankers are receiving lavish salaries once again and, therefore, argue that these business leaders are not hiring because the incomes of working class people are too low or insecure to give them confidence to buy things? And that it is a terribly misguided policy to have cut 430,000 government workers from the payrolls in the last 18 months – not only are these the people who teach and provide public safety – but laying off public employees creates unemployment every bit as much as laying off private sector workers. That it is backwards to attack the ability of unions to negotiate higher pay in a recession when consumer incomes have stagnated. Of course, the Democrat might say, we should tax very high income individuals and corporations because we need to put that money to work so that Americans can go back to work.