Forget the deficit - what about jobs?: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Apr 26, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

In his column "The word most politicians ignore: Jobs," Robinson writes, "If you followed the debate in Washington, you wouldn?t hear much about the cost of keeping the minivan on the road. All that Americans care about, you?d have to assume, is the national debt and its long-term evolution. If you listened carefully, you?d conclude that the solution ? cutting federal medical and retirement benefits ? was basically settled, and that the only question is whether to do it with a scalpel or a chain saw."

Do you think Congress has got it all wrong? Or do you disagree with Robinson and think that we should be more concerned with the deficit? Weigh in now and ask your questions.

Producer's Note: Please note that Eugene Robinson will be chatting at 11 a.m. on Tuesday instead of his normal 1 p.m. time. He will return to his normal time next week. Thank you!

If you are concerned about what polls say, why were you not chiding the President and Democrats for putting health care reform ahead of jobs? After all, health care reform was polling as less important in 2009 than either jobs or deficit reduction.

Hi, sorry for the delay -- I'm finally here. Computer issues. Anyhow, you raise a good point -- one I thought of when I was writing today's column. I cheered the Dems for doing health care reform, and I think that on balance it was worth the political cost. It could have been done in ways to minimize that cost, but that's another story. If the GOP wants to keep talking about deficit reduction, fine. Maybe it will be worth the cost, too. But there will be a cost.

As a senior (62+) and a registered Democrat, I am sick of hearing my party say the Ryan plan wants to end Medicare "as we know it." This is insulting to seniors who realize: (1) the Ryan plan would not apply to current citizens 55 and older; and (2) we have to end Medicare as it has been since it has been a colossal economic drain that cannot continue as is. Don't try to fool me party leaders, I may be older but I can still think!

But didn't you just confirm what your party is saying? You say "we have to end Medicare as it has been," which I would say is the same as "Medicare as we know it," no?

Answering your constant bleat that the "rich" need to pay their fair share of taxes, here's what actually happened under Bush insofar as the rich's share of yotal federal income tax payments is concerned: Tax year 2001 2008 Top 1% of returns 34% 38% Top 5% 53 59 Yes, Eugene, the richest 5% of taxpayers saw their share of federal income taxes go up under Bush. Sounds fair to me, but I'm sure you disagree (although you will not conced the validity of these IRS figures) because you believe the top 5% should pay more than 60% of the total.

You ignore the fact that the rich are paying a greater share of tax revenue because they are reaping in a greater share of overall income. Their income gains have outstripped their tax liabilities. See, I do like facts.

That Obama's own commission on the deficit wants to reduce the top rate on personal income tax to no more than 29%, and when Paul Ryan suggests something similar you jump up and down and denounce him? Sounds like Ryan agrees with the President's own folks, eh?

I'd be happy to jump up and down and denounce that recommendation from the commission, too. The idea that wealthy households in the United States are overtaxed is absurd. Tell that to citizens of other industrialized countries.

I have read that because of loopholes and tax shelters, the richest Americans actually have a lower effective tax rate (17%) than the middle class and even the poor (22.5%). It's not the 38% as advertised. In more than one year Donald Trump has paid zero in federal income taxes. Why oh why can't the Democrats tell this side of the story?

Democrats need a remedial course in storytelling.

Spot on with today's commentary. But its also at the state level. The Republicans campaigned in 2010 on the economy and jobs, but have done nothing except try to cut funding for things like Planned Parenthood and on the state levels pass a bunch of voter ID bills, remove workers rights and pass a bunch of abortion bills. Is this because jobs bills cost money, and the GOP does not want to spend anything?

Well, how would one go about trying to create jobs? That would require those "s" words that have become taboo -- "spending" and (cover your ears) "stimulus." But everyone agrees that the most effective anti-deficit measure would be a growing economy.

I agree that both jobs and the long term debt are important. In my opinion, we need to deal with the jobs issue first. Once we have people productive and paying into taxes and supporting the economy, we not only have more people with improved lives but we also have a more secure economic base. This may cost us some funds in the short run. Once there is a secure economic base, then we should deal with the long term debt crisis. I do not like that people argue it is choosing one over the other: we need to think more long term. I just fear politicans lack long term planning skills.

Your fear is justified. I don't know why sequence is such a difficult concept to understand around here. It's not either-or, it's first this, then that. Polls show that Americans want the immediate focus to be on jobs and the economy. On the deficit, polls also show that Americans have a very good idea of what we should do first -- get rid of the tax cuts for the wealthy. There's also wide support for cutting the defense budget. If our officials would do those things first, they'd find people more willing to consider other measures, I think.

Hi, Gene. Can you weigh in on the GOP axiom that less taxes on corpoprations, small businesses, and the wealthy translate into job creation? I completely understand the concept, but - frankly - I just don't see it in practice. However, I would glady offer to eat my hat or similar if anyone can break it down into simple and demonstrable metrics.

Your hat is in no danger of going into the soup pot. We've cut taxes. Revenues from taxes are at or near historic lows. And the jobs?

Don't you think that real "leadership" on deficit reduction would be to admit the very plain truth that neither spending cuts nor taxing "the wealthy" alone will cover our debts? Wouldn't a real leader admit that we are going to have to raise taxes on everyone?

Yes, but let's not pretend that raising taxes is easy, politically speaking. A real leader, I believe, should demonstrate good faith by taking measures that have widespread support and that strike people as fair -- ending the tax cuts for the rich, for example, and cutting sacred-cow defense spending. Then that leader would have standing to talk about shared sacrifice. One reason people don't want to hear about across-the-board tax increases is that they believe the wealthy and the well-connected are getting a free ride.

Hi Gene, Do you read the comments that people make following your articles? When I read some of them I wonder if the person even read your article or just sees you wrote it and has a response to whatever they think is your opinion. Do you think the same sometimes?

It's clear, sometimes, that there are commenters who haven't actually read the piece they're commenting on. Such is life.

Coming into this Congressional session, the Republican Party was going to be the party of jobs, jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Since January they have been the party of everything but jobs, with the Speaker even going so far as saying that if people lost jobs, "So be it." Outside of a few known firebrands like Rep Weiner of New York though, none of the Democrats have been pointing this out. Why is this not a larger issue?

I don't know. Again, some remedial classwork in storytelling should be in order.

So Obama initially told the middle class that those of us who were not making 200K wouldn't pay more. However now the "leadership" on the left talks about raising capital gains taxes, raising the gas tax and Ezra Klein keeps talking about adding a VAT tax, which would really hurt the middle and lower class. Sure our income tax rate may not rise, but those taxes above would affect everyone, not just the rich. All of this also makes it harder to pay your bills on time.

It does make it harder. I believe Americans are receptive to the idea of shared sacrifice. But they won't buy it if they believe the rich are getting a pass. President Obama's absolute promise of no middle-class tax increase was probably unwise -- and will seem hollow if tax increases are thinly disguised as "revenue enhancements" or some such.

Do you actually wonder why Washington chooses to focus on the deficit rather than on job creation or is this a rhetorical manoeuvre? If you had to guess as to why the politicians continue to ignore jobs despite all the evidence you point to, what might you guess?

Ideology. Look, the deficit is a problem that will need to be addressed. But what sense does it make to start slashing and burning when the fragile economy is struggling to get back on its feet? Obviously, it would be easier, less painful and more effective to attack the deficit at a time of prosperity. Paul Ryan's budget plan is an ideological manifesto, not an economic blueprint.

Because this is where I see the logic of democrats going. At some point, people don't need the money so they might as well just give it to the government. Of course that's not socialism or anything.

That's ridiculous. We're talking about returning income tax rates to where they were in the Clinton years, for heaven's sake. For much of the post-War period, our top marginal tax rates were much higher. The republic, and the concept of free enterprise, survived.

What everyone in policy world seems to agree on, is that our rates are high, but the deductions make them a joke. However what everyone also agrees on is that there is too much of a lobby to ever remove the loophooles. Everyone from non-profits to homeowners lives off these discounts too. So a multi tiered flat tax, with virtually no other deductions may actually result in much higher payments, even with much lower rates. Of course this will never happen.

In theory, it's easy to devise a simple no-loopholes income tax scheme. In practice, it would last five minutes before new loopholes -- looking much like the old loopholes -- began to appear. How many Americans would not have been able to buy their homes without the interest tax exemption? How many families would be in trouble if that exemption suddenly went away? It would have to be phased out -- and at the same time, I'm guessing, a replacement would somehow be phased in.

Mr. Robinson, You state that Americans want jobs AND extensive entitlement programs. Unfortunately, both are not possible. Something has to give. This country did just fine without social programs for many, many years. But now that the bills are coming due the reality is setting in that they both do not add up to prosperity. Look to history. Countless empires have fallen due to excessive social programs----America will be no different.

I disagree with your reading of history. I imagine that the millions who have had a decent retirement because of Social Security, the veterans who went to college on the GI Bill and many, many others would disagree, too.

Do you see elections (for the near future) swinging up and back, with voters backing each party, differently every two years?

I think that's a real possibility. In 2006, we had a huge swing to the Democrats. In 2008, a further swing to the Dems. In 2010, a huge swing to the Republicans. The electorate is nothing if not volatile. People are looking for solutions, and the political system doesn't seem to be delivering them.

You keep talking about all sides being part of a shared sacrifice. However its factually accurate that a very large percentage of lower income (and even some middle income) pay $0 in income tax. I find this just as offensive as the rich paying 10%. Shared responsibility must be truly that, or it rings hollow. The lower class get off for free, the upper class are too rich to care, and the middle class get destroyed by each party.

So let's fix this. As far as lower-income households are concerned, you can't squeeze blood from a stone. Working-class jobs that pay a living wage have disappeared. The middle-class, meanwhile, is getting squeezed -- middle-class incomes have been as stagnant as a lily pond. The rich are, yes, getting richer. Aren't these structural problems what we should be talking about?


And with that, folks, my time is up. Thanks for tuning in, and see you again next week. (And sorry, again, for the late start.)

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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