War Between Left and Right Heats Up Again
From the April 29, 2007 Sunday Times
April 30, 2007
by Irwin Stelzer
Elections matter. Some 85% of French voters think so, but only about 60% of British and American voters agree. That could be because we Anglo-Saxons see no difference in what is on offer from the various politicians begging for our votes, or because we are too satisfied with the way things are to bother to vote.
Either way, experience in America in recent months suggests that elections matter a great deal. And not only in the crucial foreign-policy area, where a Democratic Congress is attempting to force President George Bush to pull American troops out of Iraq soon, the devil and Al-Qaeda take the hindmost.
Consider issues of corporate governance. After a spate of legislation following the Enron and other corporate scandals, Republicans felt that all that need be done had been done. Not the Democrats who, now in control of both houses of Congress, are pushing legislation that will require companies to give shareholders the right to an advisory vote on executive pay, which they consider too high.
That’s all part of the Democratic party’s tilt in favour of “the little guy”. Another is the plan to raise the minimum hourly wage from $5.15 to $7.25. That is designed to help directly the 5.6m workers (4% of the workforce) now earning less than $7.25 per hour, and indirectly the 7.4m (6% of the workforce) earning close to that wage whose pay would also go up. To them, the recent election has mattered. As it will for those whose jobs disappear because they are not profitable workers at the new, higher wages.
That same theme – a tilt from “the rich” to the poor and the middle class – will be reflected in tax policy. Most Democratic presidential aspirants have promised to eliminate those of Bush’s tax cuts that provide relief to households earning more than about $200,000 per year, and shift the burden to families earning more than $500,000 a year. That would in effect eliminate the reductions Bush pushed through in taxes on dividends – from 38.6% to 15% – and capital gains – from 20% to 15%. And all Democrats favour restoring the inheritance tax that Bush has been gradually phasing out.
Trade policy is also importantly affected by the shift in political power from Republicans to Democrats. Bush has been an ardent supporter of freer trade, with only a few nods to protectionist sentiment. Not the Democrats, who see freer trade as a threat to the jobs of many of their constituents, and who won’t sign on to any new trade deals unless they include clauses requiring America’s trading partners to adopt laws guaranteeing the rights of workers in poor countries to form trade unions.
And while on that subject, the Democrats plan to tilt the balance of power in the direction of unions, which are staggering from huge membership losses as the economy shifts from unionised industries in which muscle power matters, to those in which brain power is the driver, and in which workers see no need for trade unions. The Democrats want to replace the secret ballot, now guaranteed to workers when unions demand recognition elections, with a nonsecret card-check system that opens voting workers to intimidation from fellow workers and union organisers. That might be a step too far for the president, who rumour has it is prepared to veto any such bill.
These differences in economic policy are far from trivial. Indeed, they add up to a Democratic revolution against the supply-side economics that have guided American economic policy since Ronald Reagan rode out of Hollywood and into the White House. Supply-siders believed then, and believe now, that tax cuts increase incentives to work hard and take risks. Cut taxes on corporations and dividends, and investors will invest more; cut taxes on work, and workers will be more willing to put in those extra hours that drive productivity up and unit labour costs down. Keep trade routes open, and foreign competition will force manufacturers to be more efficient and keep prices down.
Democrats aren’t buying any of that. Companies must be regulated lest they abuse shareholders, workers and the environment. High taxes are needed to fund the expansions of the welfare state that they have in mind, including government-funded universal healthcare. Domestic jobs must be protected from “unfair” foreign competition. The rich will not down tools and work less hard if they pay more in taxes.
It might seem odd that America’s highest earners – billionaire hedge-fund operators – agree with the Democrats. They have turned Greenwich, Connecticut, home of hedge funds managing $100 billion in assets, into a Barack Obama cash machine. Almost to a man (few are women) the hedge-fund crowd is throwing its financial weight behind Obama, the presidential wannabe who is attacking Hillary Clinton from the left. One of Obama’s economic advisers says that the charismatic Illinois senator has nothing against the rich, it is just that he wants to help the poor, “and the resources have to come from where people are doing better”.
Nothing new in this alliance of wealth and the left. America’s billionaires have always leaned left, while mere millionaires have leaned right. So America has joined France and Britain as places in which voters are being given a choice of economic policies. In France, they must choose between Nicolas Sarkozy’s move to the right and freer markets, and Ségolène Royal’s socialist nostrums. In Britain, they will have to choose between Gordon Brown’s interventionist state and . . . policies to be determined. In America, the choice is between supply-siders and redistributionists. These elections matter.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.