Friday, December 08, 2006

You're no Jack Kennedy


My father can't decide if I am deliberately perverse or merely stupid. Although I carefully refrain from raising contentious politics topics in his presence, Dad cannot stop himself from making provocative oracular pronouncements. When he baits me sufficiently, I snap, whereupon he begins to wonder anew just where he went wrong.

I can tell him, too. My octogenarian father has an advanced case of political Alzheimer's disease, probably contracted from excessive exposure to Rush Limbaugh's pontifications. (He actually takes seriously the pronouncements of that drug-addled gasbag.) It's strange that a man who is otherwise in full possession of his faculties should have tumbled so completely into extremist politics, but Dad has made the full transition from a Kennedy Democrat in the 1960s to a Bush neo-con today. He breathed a sigh of relief when Bush saved the country in 2004 from the specter of a left-wing Kerry presidency. That would have been the end of civilization as we knew it. After all, it said so in his copy of Unfit for Command.

This year the day before Thanksgiving was November 22. People of a certain age cannot shake off the associations that come with that date. Both Dad and I fall into that category, although I was just a grammar school kid when John F. Kennedy was murdered. I dutifully appear at my parents' home for major holidays and I was there the day before Thanksgiving when my father began to reminisce about JFK's brief presidency. He opined that Kennedy would have become “one of the greatest presidents ever” if his life had not been cut short.

Perhaps. I can still recapture in my mind the sense of the possible we felt in those days. We had a young and charismatic president in the White House, the vanquisher of the evil Nixon. (The 1960 presidential election is the first national contest I remember; I got to stay up late till the race was called for Kennedy.) Since reality is not a controlled lab experiment, we can't run it again to see how things would have turned out if the disaster in Dallas had not occurred. We just don't know. But Dad had more to say.

“If Kennedy were alive today, he'd be considered a conservative.”

Oh, geez. I should have known something like this was coming. Dad has become fond of revisionist history in his old age. The icons of the past must be reshaped to fit into his current right-wing framework. Sure, JFK's liberalism was of a tempered sort, but claiming him for conservatism is going a bit too far. But Dad's coup de gra├že was about to be unleashed.

“Bush's policies are the same as Kennedy's. They both cut taxes.”

Oh, yes. Today we all remember how Kennedy's tax cuts poured wealth into the pockets of his fellow millionaires, just as Bush's contemporary cuts have enriched the billionaires. Right.

I knew there was something flaky about Dad's comparison between his old hero and his new hero. Too bad I didn't have at my fingertips the simple fact that JFK's tax cut reduced the top marginal rate by an amazing twenty-one points: from 91% down to 70%, while Bush's took the existing top rate of 39.6% down to 35%. I wish I had known that. “So, Dad, do you think George Bush would support setting the top tax rate at the level set by JFK?” My father would probably have sensed a trap and refused to commit himself. He is familiar with his son's wily ways.

Although the size of the JFK cut might initially make Bush look like a piker, the differences can be readily discovered. The Kennedy cut was mitigated by the number of dollars subject to those highest rates that he cut, while the Bush cuts embraced much more (in constant dollars; see below). The biggest problem with the Bush program is its disproportionality. The famous motto of the Kennedy economic program was “A rising tide raises all the boats.” JFK's tax proposals (actually enacted after his death under Lyndon Johnson) did spark a long-lived economic recovery that continued until undermined by the costs of the escalating Vietnam war. (Hey, I just thought of another parallel between the Kennedy and Bush eras! Too bad I forgot to share it with my father.)

Today, however, the economic growth attributed to Bush's string of tax cuts has been notable for its weakness and its asymmetry. The rising tide metaphor doesn't work for George W., because wage earners are left out.

It's always tricky trying to compare economic policies that occurred decades apart, but it's even more difficult to make the case the Bush's are similar to Kennedy's. The ostensible reasons were the same—jump-start the economy—but Bush's cuts were driven by ideology and drafted by plutocrats, who reaped the rewards. William Ahern of the Tax Foundation has compared the Kennedy and Bush tax cuts and made the argument that they are similar in relation to national income:
Tax Cuts and National Income

Contrasting the size of the tax cuts with national income shows that the Kennedy tax cut, representing 1.9 percent of income, was the single largest first-year tax-cut of the post-WW II era. The Reagan tax cuts represented 1.4 percent of income while none of the Bush tax cut even breaks 1 percent of income. The Kennedy tax cuts would only have been surpassed in size by combining all three Bush tax cuts into a single package.
Yes, but there were three Bush tax cuts and any proper comparison requires that they be aggregated. Together they add up to 2.0 percent of income. They do exceed the Kennedy cuts. Of course, a tenth of a percentage point is not a huge difference, but we are talking about 1964 (the year the JFK program was enacted) and 2003 (when Bush's three consecutive cuts were all on the books). In constant 2003 dollars, the impact of the Kennedy cuts was $55 billion. By contrast, Bush's is $186 billion.

One would have expected a bit more bang for those bucks.

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