This debate is about the real track record

The second presidential debate will focus on the economics of the middle classes, writes CAP's Heather Boushey.

President Obama and Governor Romney are preparing for their next big showdown in New York tonight. This debate will feature audience questions in a “town hall” format. Many Americans, including myself, will want to know who will do more over the next four years for the middle class and who will support the strongest job creation. This is the key challenge facing American and is the political territory that could be most decisive in next month’s election.

Romney will win this debate if he is able to convince the American public that President Obama’s economic policies have been a failure and that his economic plan will generate job gains. Romney claims that his economic plan will create 12 million jobs and that 7 million of them will come about as a result of his tax cuts.

But US economists, including myself, question whether Romney’s job creation claim can be believed. If anything, Romney’s 59-point economic plan will most likely push the US back into a recession. Economists estimate that, at best, it will create around 87,000 jobs in next year, or, at worse, could actually lead to the loss of anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 jobs.

Romney’s economic plan is a “jobs fail” because it is based on the same economic logic that supply-siders have been pushing on the US economy for some time now. The supply-side story is that if the government gives the wealthy back their taxes, they will invest those added funds, thus growing the economy, creating jobs, and improving middle-class incomes. In the 1980s and 2000s, policymakers did exactly that, but it didn’t work. Both eras experienced significant tax cuts aimed at higher-income households that were supposed to spur investment.

President Obama will win the debate if he runs on his record and exposes the Romney economic plan. Over the past year, the US economy has added 1.8 million jobs, which is a strong track record of solid job gains, month after month. The private sector has added jobs every month for 31 months and the unemployment rate is now where it was when Obama took office.

Jobs have come back because policymakers acted decisively. In February 2009, before he had even been in office a month, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped nearly $800bn into the U.S. economy and stopped the haemorrhaging of jobs. Later that year, the administration helped stabilize the auto industry, which has helped that sector turn itself around into a job-generating industry for 27 of the past 36 months.

If Obama can articulate his record and expose Romney’s plan, tonight’s debate will be a home run. If Romney can avoid scrutiny and run down the President’s record it, could be game on for the third and final debate.

Heather Boushey is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Senior Economist at CAP

Obama and Romney after the first debate. Photograph: Getty Images

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496