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Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter on Barack Obama, the savior of Route 3 in New Jersey

Wednesday, September 15, 2010
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HH: Joined now by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, author of a very necessary book for Republicans right now, a biography of President Obama’s first year in office, and of course, the wonderful 100 Days of FDR book. Jonathan, I debated Howard Dean last night, and I could not for the life of me get him to understand why taxing sub-chapter S corporations above $250,000 is a disastrous idea. I hope you’re one of those smart Democrats like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman who realizes we should not raise taxes right now.

JA: I’m sorry to disappoint you, Hugh.

HH: (laughing)

JA: You know, we are talking about 3% of people in small business, and I think that 3% can handle it. So if the sub-chapter S applied to as many people as you guys erroneously suggest, then I’d be on your side. But the facts suggest otherwise.

HH: But Jonathan, I was just explaining to people…

JA: I’m sorry, Hugh, let me just finish this one point. I don’t mean, I know I stopped, and you were right to jump in, but I forget to mention it. It’s very important for your listeners to understand how much money we’re talking about – $700 billion dollars. So if people are concerned about the deficit, as so many claim to be, to just say that we’re not, that we’re going to just forego that $700 billion dollars so that 3% of people in small business can get a tax cut, I’ve got a problem with that.

HH: First of all, it’s $700 billion over a decade, Jonathan, and everyone’s talking about a two at most, three year extension of this until the economy turns around.

JA: Well, I would hope it would be over a decade. $700 billion a year, now that’s real money.

HH: But it’s really not $700 billion, because people are talking about a three year extension maximum. So it’s more like $200 billion, and that’s not dynamically scored, and you’re talking…

JA: No, no, no.

HH: Yes, we’re talking…

JA: Look, if your folks get in, Hugh, do you think they’re going to stop at three years? You think after three years, everybody’s going to say okay, now we’ll raise taxes for people over $250,000? Your party is so committed to tax cuts uber alis, you know, no matter what, you have to have these tax cuts, you can’t in good conscience tell me that three years from now, you’re going to be for a tax increase.

HH: I absolutely can.

JA: The balance…

HH: I’m not telling you that. I’m telling you that the $700 billion number, like the other argument about the 3%, is fallacious, and I wonder why, Jonathan, Democrats won’t really debate the actual impact on employment of allowing, of stopping that tax hike, because you’re killing jobs. You’re killing jobs for people who need jobs, who desperately want jobs. And small businesses will not take on the risk of Obamacare plus higher taxes. So you’re out there, and I think Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson have figured this out, as other Democrats are figuring out, they don’t want to be job killers, Jonathan.

JA: Well, first of all, first of all, who are the job killers? I mean, we’re talking about, there’s a bill pending right now, a small business package, which George Voinovich, the Senator from Ohio, he understands that the White House is right about this, why just in the name of political advantage would Mitch McConnell and the Republicans want to stop this package of tax credits for small business job creation? Talk about talking out of both sides of one’s mouth, I assume, I hope, you’re for that package, aren’t you?

HH: No, I’m not, and it’s not, it’s simply you can’t pick winners and losers. The stimulus didn’t work. I don’t trust you guys to pick any winner.

JA: What do you mean it didn’t work? What do you mean the stimulus didn’t work? Hugh, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month when Barack Obama took office. We’re not gaining, you know, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 jobs a month. We’re still in a deep hole. I’m not rationalizing our terrible economy. We’ve got terrible unemployment. But we, the stimulus, along with Bernanke’s policies, prevented another Great Depression. If we had stayed on that 750,000 job loss pace, we would have had another Great Depression, without exaggeration, by the end of 2009. So I am really tired of these people who say the stimulus didn’t work. Did it work as well as all of us would like? Are we back on our feet? No. Did it prevent a depression? Yes.

HH: Jonathan, that’s where…

JA: So let’s be clear about that.

HH: What I think doesn’t matter, but here’s the key thing. The country doesn’t believe that. The country rejects that, and here’s why.

JA: Well, you’re right about that.

HH: I’m going to ask you, would you point to me to any single project, a power plant, a nuclear power plant, a new bridge, a new college, a new campus, that the stimulus built? What do you look at when you say here’s what the stimulus gave us, a new runway, a new anything. What did it build?

JA: Well, this is, first of all, there are lots of, know, where I live in New Jersey, I just about less than a mile from my house, there’s a big, poorly-designed, you know, by some bureaucrat sign about the American Recovery Act, that it paid for this road construction. So there are projects all over the country that I agree with your point. I think you’re absolutely right about this. One of the great failures of the stimulus was that they did not, you know, put in money, in part because there are $300 billion dollars in tax cuts in the stimulus, but they did not, they have more infrastructure spending than any bill since the Highway Act of the 1950s. But as you say, not enough memorable projects. It’s a lot of sewage systems, you know, ramp extensions on various highways, things that help create jobs, help communities, helped to stop the bleeding, but do not leave a permanent legacy. So I think you’re absolutely right about that.

HH: Jonathan, I see lots of these signs, too. I think actually they put most of the stimulus into sign creation. But as I say, I asked Howard Dean, and I’ll ask you. Can you name one particular, one bridge, one power plant, just one particular geographic GPS site that you know stimulus dollars went to, you can say this would not have happened?

JA: Well, I, you know, I live in New Jersey. Route 3. I mean, Route 3 in New Jersey. But you can go in many, many communities and find these projects. I think one of the really unfortunate things is that you know, there was money in the stimulus that the Republicans, the moderate Republicans, for their vote, they insisted be taken out for school construction, which people would have seen it much more when they drove their kids to school, they saw that their stimulus was building classrooms. But that was taken out by Susan Collins at the last minute. That was sponsored by Ben Chandler of Kentucky and taken out. So I agree with you, there’s not enough memorable stuff. But I wish that the critics would stop, and it is a lie to say the stimulus has done nothing. That’s simply a lie. And people have to quit saying that.

HH: Jonathan, I disagree. I think it vanished…

JA: It hasn’t done enough. It hasn’t done enough, but to say it’s done nothing is just not true.

HH: It simply extended the fabricated, bloated government at state levels, and went right…

JA: Ask Mark Zandi, ask Martin Feldstein, who was Reagan’s chief economic advisor. To say it did nothing is just factually untrue. It’s beneath you, Hugh.

HH: Jonathan, we disagree on that. I just think it vanished into…

JA: It’s not a matter of disagreement. It’s a matter of fact. Come on.

HH: It is a matter of disagreement. The economic…

JA: Come on, come on, Hugh.

HH: The economic impact of that, no, come on, come on yourself, Jonathan.

JA: You cannot spend $787 billion dollars and not get something for it.

HH: Come on, come on yourself. Oh, yes you can. This isn’t MSNBC.

JA: You can have them filling and digging holes, and you’d still get economic growth.

HH: No, you don’t. You can actually negatively impact growth by sucking capital out of the private markets.

JA: No, you can’t. No, you can’t.

HH: That’s exactly what happened.

JA: There’s nobody but the most right, the most extreme economist who agrees with you. It’s just…

HH: Jonathan, the country agrees with me.

JA: Look into it. You won’t find it.

HH: The country agrees with me.

JA: Look, look, the country, the voters do agree with you. And you know what? I’m sorry to say, they’re misinformed. You know, I saw Mitch McConnell on TV recently. I like to think of these things in historical terms. And he was saying how I read history, and these historians are saying that the big spending on the New Deal got us out of the Depression. They’re wrong. They were just wrong. It wasn’t until World War II that we got out of the Depression. And I felt like yelling at the TV saying what are you talking about? World War II was massive government spending. Massive government spending.

HH: Jonathan Alter, it’s always a pleasure. Come back soon before the election certainly. I’ve got to go.

End of interview.

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