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Reforming the Welfare State – Reagan and Obama

In Britain a national election lasts just three weeks and spending by each candidate is strictly capped.

Campaigning between elections is not permitted. Accepting so much as a hotel stay from a lobbyist is a resigning offence. As a result, our news is full of the American campaigns to make up for the deficit in newsworthy political conflict locally. I follow the American election, as does most of the world given the potential for good and ill that proceeds from it. Please indulge me in ruminating on one aspect of the Obama candidacy that intrigues me.

Ronald Reagan came to power on a popular backlash against the welfare state. It appears that Barack Obama may come to power on a similar backlash against the welfare state. The difference is the identity of the welfare claimants.

Ronald Reagan inflamed the public’s righteous anger against a stereotyped ghetto “welfare queen” who raised a brood of illegitimate, proto-criminal children on public funds. Barack Obama will inflame the public’s righteous anger against the corporate welfare queens who have raised a brood of profiteering executives and lobbyists in the generation since. Under Reagan and succeeding presidents, including Clinton, the K Street lobbying machine transformed Washington DC into a government by the lobbyists, of the lobbyists and for the lobbyists. Subsidies, market distortions, tax breaks, earmarks, selective protectionism, regulatory forbearance, cost-plus government contracts, relaxed accounting oversight, criminal and civil immunity, war profiteering and other policy depredations promoted a corporate welfare state beyond the dreams of ghetto avarice.

Ronald Reagan partisans demonised citizens who paid no taxes but claimed public housing, medical care and food stamps as their right. Barack Obama appears prepared to challenge corporations who pay no or nominal taxes (worth clicking through just for the graph) but claim government subsidies, earmarks and tax breaks as their right. Corporations have further stripped the US tax base by outsourcing or relocating jobs abroad, leveraged speculation rather than productive capital investment, and transfer pricing to avoid US tax. If Obama does parallel Reagan, both campaigns will tap a deep well of public anger against the perceived injustice of those who degrade the nation’s future prosperity while claiming too much from its taxpayers.

The bankers of Wall Street now toasting the Fed’s recent largesse from their Hamptons beach houses and yachts are the latest in a long line of American corporate welfare queens who have lobbied for and secured generous federal contracts, subsidies and regulatory forbearance. As noted two weeks ago in Looting the Vaults, more has now been lent to banks by the Fed under opaque new facilities than has been appropriated for the war in Iraq. Both the Fed’s new facilities and the war appropriations arguably benefit corporate welfare queens rather than serve the public interest.

The contrast between McCain and Obama on lobbyists alone is striking. Obama has banned contributions from lobbyists to his presidential campaign, even returning $500 donated by Thurgood Marshall, Jr. Instead, Obama has built a novel fundraising machine that reaches out to millions of working class Americans. McCain’s campaign relies almost entirely on wealthy contributors and lobbyists for finance. He has recently suffered a series of staff purges as high-ranking campaign officials – all of them lobbyists – were linked to large corporations and dictatorial regimes. Obama has committed to opening his fundraising events to the press pool. McCain insists on holding his fundraisers behind closed doors, no press allowed.

Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee and party leader is preparing to drive the contrast home. Yesterday Obama enforced his opposition to special interest money on the wider party. Obama announced that from now on the Democratic National Committee will return cheques from lobbyists and political action committees, mirroring the Obama presidential campaign. This is a significant initiative in positioning the Democrats as the party to reclaim government from the corporate welfare queens.

The media pundits will use the reliable rhetoric of identity politics, religious strife, class war, patriotism and national security, but they are merely masking the fundamental policy conflict that divides the presidential candidates: Should government serve the people or the corporate elite? When Obama invokes Reagan, as he does very effectively in his elegantly crafted speeches, he is tapping the same vein of public outrage against a government promoting the comfort of those who contribute too little to the nation’s wellbeing.

A recession would clarify the public policy choices. When the economic pie is shrinking, fairness becomes a surer focus. The eyes of the hungry are watchful as the slices served get smaller.

Can Obama successfully challenge the K Street machine? He encourages us to hope, but we should be realistic. The K Street machine will not sit idly by as their unfettered control of the corporate welfare state is threatened by the upstart junior senator from Illinois who would not “wait his turn”.

Ghetto welfare queens were powerless to forestall the legislative and regulatory reforms that cut their subsidies. Corporate welfare queens are very far from powerless. We see new evidence of their power to claim public funds and direct public policy every day as the credit crisis closes off private finance options and squeezes profits. Whether the American public can elect enough reform-minded representatives to successfully challenge the corporate welfare queens may be the political test of this generation and may well determine whether the American economy recovers its powerhouse status.

Also on Thursday, Obama introduced legislation on the floor of the Senate to expose the corporate welfare queens hiding in the federal budget: The Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008 (pdf).

Is JP Morgan a welfare queen for the Fed subsidised Bear Stearns buy-out? Discuss.

Next week I promise to stick to economic and regulatory policy.

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