The Common Good

The Tax Cuts for the Rich That Obama Should have Fought

Sojomail - December 9, 2010


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-- Elizabeth Edwards, (1949-2010), in her final Facebook post on Monday. (Source: Politico)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Obama Should Have Fought Tax Cuts for the Rich

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Time and again, we heard Barack Obama on the campaign trail say that Washington was broken, and he was running for President of the United States to change it. He was right about our political system, and his presidency has offered further proof. Washington is a broken system and needs to be changed. But early on in the Obama presidency, the White House decided that the system was even more broken than they had imagined, special interests were even more powerful, and the influence of money over everything in Washington was almost complete. So instead of changing the "broken system," and "the ways of Washington," they decided to work within it, and still tried to get some things done for the people. That was a mistake. That was the moment the new president should have called in leaders of social movements, including those from the faith community, to strategize how to create enough pressure from the outside to make real reform on the inside possible. But that never happened.

At a Democratic National Committee fundraising dinner in February 2010, Obama said, "Change is easy if you're just talking about tinkering around the edges. Change is harder when you actually dig in and try to deal with the structural problems that have impeded our progress for too long." What Obama has found is that as long as the system is broken, change is hard, even when you tinker around the edges. We have seen tinkering around the edges when it comes to the poor, our economic system, the war in Afghanistan, and immigration reform. But these systems don't just need tinkering, they need deep change.

Obama should have fought on taxes. The richest 2 percent of the country just got an extension of tax cuts they didn't need at great cost to us all. There was GOP opposition, and Democrats battling with one another, but President Obama should have been fighting against the self-interests of the wealthiest Americans long before this. He allowed those who benefit from these tax cuts and the political allies they have bought in Congress to frame the debate and set the terms of engagement. So Obama is now backed into a corner, and just made a compromise that he thinks is the best deal possible when up against the clock. He got some good things for working families in the payroll tax cut, the extension of unemployment benefits, various refundable tax credits, and the important middle class tax cut. But the president is now presiding over the great redistribution of wealth that has been going on for a very long time -- the redistribution of wealth from the middle and the bottom, to the top of American society -- and leaving us with the most economic inequality in American history. This will only grow larger with the Obama "compromise."

If Obama had he fought earlier, he could have ensured the protection of small business owners, who are the primary job creators. Obama could have focused the higher tax rates on the very rich and protected those who are more in the middle and really creating jobs. But now, most of the people who will be keeping their tax cuts are not job creators. After all, how many jobs will be created by the Goldman Sachs traders, or the hedge fund gamblers, or the celebrities who dominate our lives? Almost none. On the contrary, they have been the "job destroyers," and have wrecked this economy and the lives of so many people.

Let's be clear here: At the root of the crisis was just a handful of banks -- not the banking industry, not business in general, but a handful of very rich people who took big and selfish risks. They are already getting richer because of our taxpayer bailout, and now we're giving them more tax breaks and estate tax bonanzas. There is socialism in America, but it's only for the rich. Risk has been socialized for some of the very richest people in the country, and then, the "free market" pain is distributed to all the rest.

The rich are too big to fail in America, while many in the rest of the country really are failing. The president did want to keep some things for average Americans in this compromise, but he lost the big battle a long time ago when he did not fight the people whose greed, recklessness, and utter lack of concern for the common good led us into this terrible crisis. He waited too long to fight, to force a national debate on economic fairness, and to counter the distortions of the Republicans who clearly don't mind adding huge sums to the deficit (almost a trillion dollars with the tax cuts) as long as it benefits their wealthy patrons. The Republicans will now seek to reduce the deficit by adding more pain to the rest of us -- especially those on the bottom and increasingly shaky middle rungs of the economy. And now, Obama and the rest of us are all backed into corners without a way out.

Our national economic philosophy is now to reward the casino gamblers on Wall Street and to leave the majority of the country standing outside the casino with a tin cup, hoping that the gamblers are at least big tippers. More tax breaks and benefits for the very wealthiest people in America is not only bad economics and bad policy; it is fundamentally immoral. In a letter to the president signed by more than 100 religious leaders, we said just that.

So far, they haven't listened.

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The House of Representatives passed the Dream Act yesterday! Dream would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students who attend college or serve in the military.

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