Job creation in September remained on the thin side, and mortgage rates are still safely in the fives – 5.75 percent on the lowest-fee 30-year deals.
Payrolls grew by only 96,000 last month, and half of that total comprised low-octane hires by government. Other data were similarly tepid, and the Fed has given its first hint that it may pause after the next couple of .25 percent hikes in the Fed funds rate.
Tonight’s debate will include a great deal of employment posturing, with John Kerry pointing to weakness in September, and President Bush taking credit for the 236,000 jobs added in the same report by “benchmark revision” to the March 2003-March 2004 interval. Inclusive of that revision, the economy has added 1.8 million jobs in the last 18 months, only 100,000 per month, barely enough to cover population growth, and no up-trend is in evidence.
The economy is not doing as well as Bush will claim tonight, and without a series of tax increases and cuts in spending and benefits there is no conceivable way to close his $500 billion hole in the annual budget (inclusive of Social Security revenue and un-funded promises). Nor does Kerry have a plan to deal with the budget, save increasing taxes on the “rich,” revenue that he has promised to spend on new projects. Although Kerry will promise to increase employment, neither he nor anyone else knows how to do so except by growing the economy on a sound financial basis, possibly by improving education, and then by dedicated hopefulness.
Some presidential campaigns do make a useful contribution to economic policy: Reagan’s run in ’80 against big government, Poppy Bush’s self-inflicted ’92 clobbering by anti-tax promises, and the Republican “shut-down-the-government” gift to Bill Clinton in ’96 were recent examples. This one is on a uselessness par with Carter/Ford in ’76.
I can understand why the current candidates are afraid to touch issues like the deficit and Social Security (they are a bit preoccupied by foreign policy). However, there are other issues: tax fairness, for one, and corporate governance for another, on which either party might make hay.
A new study last week found that the 275 largest American corporations that were profitable from 2001-2003 paid the lowest share of income taxes in at least 40 years – only 1 percent of GDP, about one-third of the long-term average. Commerce Department figures say that in the same interval all corporate profits rose by 26 percent, but corporate tax payments fell by 21 percent.
It would be too dangerous to say tonight, but our budget deficit is so big solely because tax revenue is too low. Federal spending is running at about 21 percent of GDP, in the high end of a 40-year range, but tax revenue is only 15.7 percent of GDP, three full percentage points below the bottom of the long-term range.
I am fully aware of the argument that low taxes on corporations and on capital will promote investment. However, a nation without tax equity – everyone paying some fair share – will degenerate into a grab fest, a kleptocracy, no nation at all.
Another thought from these corporate tax statistics: corporate America is running two sets of books, one to keep the IRS happy, and one to please the stock market. Which set is correct? Which is the authentic, green-eye-shade job, and which the puffed, distorted, we-can-make-it-look-that-way version?
In the mortgage business, we always take the IRS version as gospel. In corporate America, the IRS version is secret – an investor may not compare Rosie’s scenario to the tax payin’ one.
I know that Republicans are supposed to be business friendly, and Democrats anti, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why neither party has staked out “good business” as high ground worth defending.
Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker and nationally syndicated columnist based in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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