The battle over the US deficit is not over yet

Obama puts tax rises back on the table - but will his words be matched with action?

 

In the aftermath of a last-minute deal to raise the US debt ceiling, Barack Obama has hinted that tax rises may be back on the agenda.

The immediate crisis of the US potentially defaulting on its debt was averted with a last minute deal, but politicians on both sides of the debate are still unhappy. Much of the attention has been focused on the intransigent Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, but it would be wrong to under-estimate the anger among Democrats.

Many feel that Obama capitulated far too much ground, agreeing to huge scale cuts in public spending.

While Republicans have insisted that the deal does not include tax rises, Obama said in a short statement that the national debt could only be reduced through a combination of spending cuts and tax rises, particularly for big corporations and the very wealthy. In a return to the rhetoric he entered the debt battle using, he said:

Everyone is going to have to chip in. That is only fair. That's the principle I'll be fighting for during the next phase of this process.

And fight he will have to, if he wants to get tax rises through. His attempt to end the Bush-era tax cuts last year triggered outrage and - once again - he relented, agreeing to extend them until 2012. Ending these enormous tax cuts is the obvious way to reduce the deficit (you can see here how much they contributed to the country's huge debt), but Obama may yet decide it is too risky so close to an election.

Putting tax rises back on the table in as serious way will reignite the ideological battle that brought America to the brink of default this week.
Indeed, many Republicans remain dissatisfied with the current deal, arguing that its spending cuts do not go far enough. Many Tea Party activists still oppose it, even though that their representatives successfully pushed the entire debate far to the right despite controlling less than half of one House ("I hate the deal," said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire)..

Obama has already eloquently argued that those most able to pay should do their bit for deficit reduction, at the start of this battle. There is a clear ideological case to be made at the next election: that tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich should not be maintained at the cost of healthcare for pensioners. However, if his words are not matched by confident, decisive action, there is no point in reopening the debate. He has a lot of work to do if he is to shore up support among his own support-base, let alone the country at large.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.