Making the best of a bad situation

MAKING THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION…. At the surface, the circumstances surrounding the deal on tax policy between congressional Republicans and the White House tilt in the GOP’s favor. After all, the agreement gives Republicans their top goal (at least temporarily), while President Obama’s sound, popular tax plan has been scuttled.

To that extent, it’s an unsettling situation — Senate Republicans took the political process hostage, and they’re receiving their ransom.

But one of the recent knocks on President Obama is his habit of negotiating poorly, failing to get much in return for his concessions. That’s not the case in the tax deal at all. On the contrary, the resulting agreement really isn’t that bad. I’m comfortable putting this in the “better than expected” category.

Who gets what? For Republicans, that’s easy: a two-year extension on all Bush-era tax rates, regardless of income. Making matters slightly worse, the White House also agreed to include a deal on the estate tax, raising the exemption to $5 million per person and a 35% maximum rate, and a two-year extension on a capital gains top rate of 15%.

But then there’s the flip-side. The president secured a 13-month extension of aid for the long-term unemployed, reportedly his top priority. The deal also includes a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, which will give workers a boost in their paychecks; an expanded earned-income tax credit; the continuation of a college-tuition tax credit; and new opportunities for businesses to write off the cost of some equipment purchases.

Obama was able to secure help for the middle class and the unemployed; Republicans were able to keep breaks for the wealthy. In other words, both sides got to fight for their natural constituencies.

But taking a step back, when considering what all was accomplished here, the deal starts to look less like an agreement on tax rates, and more like something else. As David Leonhardt put it, “This deal looks an awful lot like a second stimulus.”

The apparent deal over the Bush tax cuts highlights why the Democrats probably had to accept the extension of all the Bush tax cuts. No politician is likely to use this word — at least no Democratic politician — but the deal amounts to a second stimulus bill. […]

Subtract the $400 billion cost of the Bush tax cuts. Subtract another $140 billion or so, which is the cost of extending the Alternative Minimum Tax patch (and almost certainly would have happened regardless). You’re then left with more than $300 billion in net stimulus over two years. And while that sum will not be enough to fix the economy all by itself, it is serious money. The original stimulus bill cost about $800 billion, and most of the money will have been spent in the first two years after its passage.

None of this is meant to wave away the failure by Mr. Obama and other Democratic leaders to take action on the Bush tax cuts earlier. The Democrats did not need to be in this position. But the outcome is not all bad, especially for the short-term sake of the economy.

I’m reluctant to go too far down this road — a real stimulus would include a hearty dose of additional infrastructure spending, for example. What’s more, some of these provisions may be stimulative, but there are easier, more efficient ways of using these funds to improve the economy.

But for all the recent talk about deficits, debts, and austerity, this agreement effectively ignores all of those concerns, and finances the entire deal by adding to the deficit — which I think is quite wise under the circumstances.

All things being equal, I suspected the deal to be worse. Call that the soft bigotry of low expectations if you will, but I’m actually feeling slightly relieved.