Ben Bernanke, a one-man fire brigade -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Dec 07, 2010

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

Read today's column Ben Bernanke, a one-man fire brigade in which Gene writes: "Ben Bernanke may or may not succeed in saving the economy, but at least he has the courage to try - and the honesty to tell the truth. The same cannot be said of our elected officials. Congress is buried under a crushing surplus of cynicism, while the White House seems paralyzed by a deficit of courage."

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly roundtable. Today's main course, I'm betting, will be the tax-cuts deal that the White House made with congressional Republicans last night. I'm not a fan -- I don't think it's good policy, and I don't even think it's good politics. But the deal is done, pending a lot of justified grousing from Democrats on Capitol Hill, and I guess my advice to the White House -- not that anyone asked -- would be to own it. If the president believes that extending the millionaires' tax cut, throwing in some more tax breaks, accepting the GOP position on the estate tax, etc., all adds up to the best course of action, he should say so. Better to be the protagonist than appear to have been forced to accept the unacceptable.

How would you grade Obama's handling of the tax cuts?

He campaigned against the Bush tax cuts and vowed not to extend them for the rich. He has just agreed to extend them. The White House blames the Hill for not dealing with the tax-cut issue sooner; the Hill blames the White House for caving... But leaving the finger-pointing aside, if you vow not to accept something and then accept it, you didn't do well.

For one who touts himself a great defender of representative government, how can you think it's proper or non-corrupting to the system for the head of the FEDERAL RESERVE, a non-elected Wall St. dunce, to make monetary policy for the nation....especially since the Congress and the President won't do so????????

This is a reference to today's column, which praises Fed chairman Ben Bernanke for "quantitative easing" and other measures to try to jump-start the economy. Making monetary policy for the nation is Bernanke's job. The whole idea of an independent central bank is to take this important duty out of the hands of politicians responsive to the latest opinion polls. And if Congress and the president aren't stepping up, it's good that somebody is willing to do so.

I saw that President Obama is trying to "win back" independents by making deals with Republicans. I don't understand this strategy, since he is losing his liberal base through his constant caving (it's not bipartisan if the other side gets everything they want and you get nothing). We keep taking steps further and further to the right wing and I'm starting to wonder, is it possible that a stronger, more liberal Democrat might try to make a primary challenge on the left? Right now if that Democrat was credible and showed some real strength, I might really be tempted to support him or her over the President.

I don't expect President Obama to face a serious challenge from the left. I understand why the White House sees the need to return to the good graces of independents, but I think the president and his aides underestimate the disillusionment among the liberal Democratic base. He'll need some enthusiasm among progressives, and right now they're not enthusiastic.

I almost never agree with anything you say but on this topic I fully agree. I believe we are very lucky to have Bernanke. But my question to you is, do you agree that the income tax rates should be reduced for inviduals and corporations if the loopoles are reduced?

If loopholes and deductions were seriously reduced, it ought to be possible to lower rates -- except, of course, that the Bush tax cuts already lowered the rates, but without closing any loopholes. So I think it should be possible to lower individual tax rates from where they ought to be, but probably not from where they are now. As far as corporate rates are concerned, closing loopholes should permit lower rates -- as long as the loopholes were really nailed shut.

A problem with public sector stimulus has been a lack, or inability, to coordinate actions to reach a desired goal. This is because the goals of different bodies differ. The Federal government provided $800 million in stimulus funds which was basically a wash and unemployment remained about the same because, during the same time period, state and local governments cut spending by $800 million. The Fed probably does need to provide $600 million to stimulate the economy, yet we may see the public sector remain ineffective overall as, once again, the continuing decreases in state and local government spending may counteract the Fed's actions. Do you think there is the political will, especially with a Republican Congress, to provide greater Federal economic stimulus so it will have some overall positive effect?

No. I mean, unless you count the Bush tax cuts as stimulative. (They don't do much to stimulate anything, especially the tax cuts for millionaires. But I repeat myself.) Imagine, though, what the economy would be like if that $800 billion in stimulus money and the $600 billion in Fed money hadn't been provided. So there hasn't been enough stimulus, in my view, but the fact is that there has been some.

I liked Obama, went door to door on his behalf in a neighboring state, Massachusetts was "safe." I studied politics at Univ. of CA, San Diego, I worked for a congressman, I understand pragmatism in real politics. But I do not understand the President's focus on negotiating, apparently not out on the trail (like Mass where Senator Scott might have been persuaded), and it looks like the tax structure will not change, until the next presidential election. I have children, and now grandchildren. I worry about their futures. What can an individual do? Why is Obama letting the Republicans control the information. Why doesn't he fight back. I am beginning to think we need Lyndon Johnson back. He, except for Vitenam, a big exception, was my favorite "modern president.

Well, you can't have LBJ back. But it's true that on the tax-cuts issue, public opinion was clearly with Obama and the Democrats. Yet here we are.

"Republicans are obsessed with defending the rich." Tell me why liberals are so obsessed with bashing the rich? Don't the rich already pay the vast majority of taxes in this country, to the point many people increasingly pay little or nothign in taxes? The problem we have in this country is too much spending. When JFK was president, somehow the country got by on a budget of around $100 billion a year. Almost 50 years later, the country's population has not quite doubled, but the budget has mutilplied far beyond that, thanks to more entitlements (LBJ with Medicare in 1965, Bush the Junior with his Prescription Drug program and now Obamacare)....

The reason the rich pay a bigger share of taxes is that they receive a bigger share of overall income. The gap between rich and poor is hugely greater than when JFK was president. And there are two columns in the federal ledger: spending and revenue. We keep cutting taxes, but there's no constituency for cutting programs. We just need to pay for the government programs we demand -- and those who receive a far greater share of income need to pay their fair share.

Good Morning Mr. Robinson, Mr. Bernanke only got it part right when he cited disparities in educational achievement as a principal reason for growing income inequality in the U. S. Tax policy, as evidenced in President Obama's capitulation to the Republican Party to kick the can down the road and give the wealthy a two-year extension of their unwarranted and budget busting tax reductions, and government policies designed to reduce membership in labor unions are probably just as important factors in leading us to becoming just another banana republic.

I think you're being unfair -- to banana republics.

Considering the inability to raise taxes on the top 2% income earners, how likely is it that we will see Social Security taxes to go back to 6% next year? I think it unlikely that we will find anyone willing to support a Middle Class tax increase in an election year. Is there any way Social Security can survive a 33% or so funding cut?

The payroll tax cut mystifies me. It's already fashionable to make all kinds of menacing noises about Social Security -- which, by the way, has taken in trillions more than it has paid out, over the life of the program thus far. I don't see any way the payroll tax is going to be restored to its "real" rate with an election looming. So haven't we just hastened the Social Security "crisis," which doesn't really have to be a crisis at all? I don't get it.

I guess the question is why no one seems to be truly interested in saving the economy. The unemployment rate is still way too high and no one seems to have a solid plan to put people back to work. Or am I missing something?

You're not missing anything.

How do the Republicans get away with not having to answer questions about the deficit? This adds more than the stimulus ever did. Where is the teaparty now?

Good question. If your major concern is the deficit, what happened last night just increased it by nearly $1 trillion. You should be enraged. You should be ready to take to the streets. Where's Glenn Beck? Where's Sarah Palin? Retreating, rather than reloading?

This is bascially a second stimulus. What angers me is that the Bush tax cuts are extended for a full two years for everyone, yet unemployment is only for 13 months

You could see it as a second stimulus, but it's not likely to be a very stimulating one. The biggest boost to the economy comes from the extension of unemployment benefits -- money that gets spent immediately. The least stimulative measure is the tax cuts for the rich -- money that probably doesn't get spent.

Eugene, you've got to be kidding me. What has the Obama administration done to offend independents? Surge in Afghanistan? Continue the Bush legacy of TARP? Pass a health plan that was a give-away to insurance companies? Better to ask what he's done for the left, who got the man elected. I think you're wrong about him not facing a serious challenge from the left.

I agree that President Obama has done nothing to provoke the ire of independents, but the fact is that they voted for Republicans last month, not Democrats. And as I've said, I think the White House underestimates the extent to which progressives are disillusioned. But I still find it hard to envision a serious challenge from the left.

I've been really sympathetic to the headwinds Obama's been facing since Inauguration Day but I'm frustrated and confused. He also came in with huge political capital and party majorities. I'm beginning to question both his judgment and political savvy. I don't understand how the GOP keeps winning issue after issue, even with their hideous track record, shaky positions, and charisma-free leadership (and, no, I don't see Palin as "leadership").

This is one of the great mysteries. I wrote a column last week saying that what the Republicans did have was a sense of purpose. Democrats have been less unified -- and are paying the price.

First, I have to candidly and honestly say that, as federal employee whose salary has just been frozen for two years, I'm glad that my taxes will not be going up. My point, however, is that the handwriting was on the wall months and months ago that the Republicans were very likely to regain majority status in at least one house. Obama and/or his advisers simply did not seize the opportunity when they should have to deal with the tax cut situation. Again, Obama has shown me that his book smarts do not readily translate into street smarts, and that he is not politically astute or adroit. Nobody smells blood in the water better than the GOP, and they will see Obama as weak and wounded.

The president and his advisers would respond that they saw the handwriting and wanted to deal with the tax-cut issue at the beginning of the year, but faced resistance on the Hill, where many Democrats didn't want to deal with taxes before the election.

Don't you just shake your head when the Republicans, who vilified the stimulus bill during the mid-term campaign, just signed up for a deal that cost more than the stimulus and, like the stimulus, adds to the deficit? The mental gymnastics to justify this are truly impressive.

So they'll just pretend it never happened. Philosophical consistence does not trouble the GOP leadership.

OK, so there is a large majority agreement that the economic difficulties of the past eight years are linked to the Bush tax cuts while paying for a war. So, the solution today is to continue the tax cuts while continuing to pay for a couple of wars?

You got it.


On that note, folks, my time is up for today. Thanks, everyone, for venting. See you again next week.


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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