First of all, just a few days ago, Mr. Romney was denying that the very programs he now says take care of the poor actually provide any significant help. On Jan. 22, he asserted that safety-net programs — yes, he specifically used that term — have “massive overhead,” and that because of the cost of a huge bureaucracy “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.”
This claim, like much of what Mr. Romney says, was completely false: U.S. poverty programs have nothing like as much bureaucracy and overhead as, say, private health insurance companies. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has documented, between 90 percent and 99 percent of the dollars allocated to safety-net programs do, in fact, reach the beneficiaries. But the dishonesty of his initial claim aside, how could a candidate declare that safety-net programs do no good and declare only 10 days later that those programs take such good care of the poor that he feels no concern for their welfare?
Also, given this whopper about how safety-net programs actually work, how credible was Mr. Romney’s assertion, after expressing his lack of concern about the poor, that if the safety net needs a repair, “I’ll fix it”?
Now, the truth is that the safety net does need repair. It provides a lot of help to the poor, but not enough. Medicaid, for example, provides essential health care to millions of unlucky citizens, children especially, but many people still fall through the cracks: among Americans with annual incomes under $25,000, more than a quarter — 28.7 percent — don’t have any kind of health insurance. And, no, they can’t make up for that lack of coverage by going to emergency rooms.
Similarly, food aid programs help a lot, but one in six Americans living below the poverty line suffers from “low food security.” This is officially defined as involving situations in which “food intake was reduced at times during the year because [households] had insufficient money or other resources for food” — in other words, hunger.
So we do need to strengthen our safety net. Mr. Romney, however, wants to make the safety net weaker instead.
Specifically, the candidate has endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s plan for drastic cuts in federal spending — with almost two-thirds of the proposed spending cuts coming at the expense of low-income Americans. To the extent that Mr. Romney has differentiated his position from the Ryan plan, it is in the direction of even harsher cuts for the poor; his Medicaid proposal appears to involve a 40 percent reduction in financing compared with current law.
So Mr. Romney’s position seems to be that we need not worry about the poor thanks to programs that he insists, falsely, don’t actually help the needy, and which he intends, in any case, to destroy.
Still, I believe Mr. Romney when he says he isn’t concerned about the poor. What I don’t believe is his assertion that he’s equally unconcerned about the rich, who are “doing fine.” After all, if that’s what he really feels, why does he propose showering them with money?
And we’re talking about a lot of money. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Mr. Romney’s tax plan would actually raise taxes on many lower-income Americans, while sharply cutting taxes at the top end. More than 80 percent of the tax cuts would go to people making more than $200,000 a year, almost half to those making more than $1 million a year, with the average member of the million-plus club getting a $145,000 tax break.
And these big tax breaks would create a big budget hole, increasing the deficit by $180 billion a year — and making those draconian cuts in safety-net programs necessary.
Which brings us back to Mr. Romney’s lack of concern. You can say this for the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital executive: He is opening up new frontiers in American politics. Even conservative politicians used to find it necessary to pretend that they cared about the poor. Remember “compassionate conservatism”? Mr. Romney has, however, done away with that pretense.
At this rate, we may soon have politicians who admit what has been obvious all along: that they don’t care about the middle class either, that they aren’t concerned about the lives of ordinary Americans, and never were.
AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais
That Lawrence Summers, a president emeritus of Harvard, is a consummate distorter of fact and logic is not a revelation. That he and Bill Clinton, the president he served as treasury secretary, can still get away with disclaiming responsibility for our financial meltdown is an insult to reason.
Yet, there they go again. Clinton is presented, in a fawning cover story in the current edition of Esquire magazine, as “Someone we can all agree on. ... Even his staunchest enemies now regard his presidency as the good old days.” In a softball interview, Clinton is once again allowed to pass himself off as a job creator without noting the subsequent loss of jobs resulting from the collapse of the housing derivatives bubble that his financial deregulatory policies promoted.
At least Summers, in a testier interview by British journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, was asked some tough questions about his responsibility as Clinton’s treasury secretary for the financial collapse that occurred some years later. He, like Clinton, still defends the reversal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, a 1999 repeal that destroyed the wall between investment and commercial banking put into place by Franklin Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression.
“I think the evidence is that I am right about that. If you look at the big players, Lehman and Bear Stearns were both standalone investment banks,” Summers replied, referring to two investment banks allowed to fold. Summers is very good at obscuring the obvious truth—that the too-big-to-fail banks, made legal by Clinton-era deregulation, required taxpayer bailouts.
The point of Glass-Steagall was to prevent jeopardizing commercial banks holding the savings of average citizens. Summers knows full well that the passage of the repeal of Glass-Steagall was pushed initially by Citigroup, a mammoth merger of investment and commercial banking that create the largest financial institution in the world, an institution that eventually had to be bailed out with taxpayer funds to avoid economic disaster for millions of ordinary Americans. He also knows that Citigroup—where Robert Rubin, who preceded Summers as Clinton’s treasury secretary, played leading roles during a critical time—specialized in precisely the mortgage and other debt packages and insurance scams that were the source of America’s economic crisis.
Even Clinton, in a rare moment of honest appraisal of his record, conceded that his signing of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), legalizing those credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, was based on bad advice. That advice would have had to come from Summers, his point man pushing the CFMA legislation, which Clinton signed into law during his lame-duck days.
When the British interviewer reminded him of Clinton’s comment, Summers, as is his style, simply bristled: “Again, you make everything so simple, when in fact it’s complicated. Would it have been better if the whole financial reform legislation had passed in 1999, or 1998, or 1992? Yes, of course it would have been better. But … at the time Bill Clinton was president, there essentially were no credit default swaps. So the issue that became a serious problem really wasn’t an issue that was on the horizon.”
That is a lie. Credit default swaps had been sold at least since 1991, and collateralized debt obligations of all sorts quickly became the rage during the Clinton years. Summers surely remembers that Brooksley Born, the legal expert on such matters that Clinton appointed to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), warned about the ballooning danger of those unregulated derivatives. Born, who served with Summers as one of four members of the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, tried repeatedly and in vain to get her colleagues to act. When her pleas fell on deaf ears she issued a “concept release” calling attention to an unregulated derivatives market that was even then spiraling out of control.
The CFMA legislation that Summers pushed and Clinton signed was a specific rebuke to Born’s efforts. As Summers testified at the time before a Senate committee: “As you know, Mr. Chairman, the CFTC’s recent concept release has been a matter of great concern, not merely to Treasury, but to all those with an interest in the OTC [over-the-counter] derivatives market. In our view, the Release has cast the shadow of regulatory uncertainty over an otherwise thriving market—raising risks for stability and competitiveness of American derivative trading. We believe it quite important that the doubts be eliminated.”
Those doubts were eliminated by the new law exempting all of that troubling OTC derivatives trading from all existing regulations and regulatory agencies. Summers argued in his congressional testimony that there was no reason for any government regulation of what turned out to be tens of trillions of dollars in toxic assets:
“First, the parties to these kinds of contracts are largely sophisticated financial institutions that would appear to be eminently capable of protecting themselves from fraud and counterparty insolvencies and most of which are already subject to basic safety and soundness regulation under existing banking and securities law.
“Second, given the nature of the underlying assets involved—namely supplies of financial exchange and other financial instruments—there would seem to be little scope for market manipulation of the kind seen in traditional agricultural commodities, the supply of which is inherently limited and changeable.”
Has any economist ever gotten it so wrong?