March 9 (Bloomberg) -- Back in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson gave us the War on Poverty. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs. Now that we have seen President Barack Obama’s first-year legislative agenda, we know what kind of a war he intends to wage.
It is no wonder that markets are imploding around us. Obama is giving us the War on Business.
Imagine that some hypothetical enemy state spent years preparing a “Manchurian Candidate” to destroy the U.S. economy once elected. What policies might that leader pursue?
He might discourage private capital from entering the financial sector by instructing his Treasury secretary to repeatedly promise a brilliant rescue plan, but never actually have one. Private firms, spooked by the thought of what government might do, would shy away from transactions altogether. If the secretary were smooth and played rope-a-dope long enough, the whole financial sector would be gone before voters could demand action.
Another diabolical idea would be to significantly increase taxes on whatever firms are still standing. That would require subterfuge, since increasing tax rates would be too obvious. Our Manchurian Candidate would have plenty of sophisticated ideas on changing the rules to get more revenue without increasing rates, such as auctioning off “permits.”
These steps would create near-term distress. If our Manchurian Candidate leader really wanted to knock the country down for good, he would have to provide insurance against any long-run recovery.
There are two steps to accomplish that.
First, one way the economy might finally take off is for some entrepreneur to invent an amazing new product that launches something on the scale of the dot-com boom. If you want to destroy an economy, you have to persuade those innovators not even to try.
Second, you need to initiate entitlement programs that are difficult to change once enacted. These programs should transfer assets away from productive areas of the economy as efficiently as possible. Ideally, the government will have no choice but to increase taxes sharply in the future to pay for new entitlements.
A leader who pulled off all that might be able to finish off the country.
Let’s see how Obama’s plan compares with our nightmare scenario.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been so slow to act that even liberal economist and commentator Paul Krugman is criticizing the administration for “dithering.” It has gotten so bad that the Intrade prediction market now has a future on whether Geithner is gone by year’s end. It currently puts the chance of that at about 20 percent.
No More Deferral
On the tax hike, Obama’s proposed 2010 budget quite ominously signaled that he intends to end or significantly amend the U.S. practice of allowing U.S. multinationals to defer U.S. taxes on income that they earn abroad.
Currently, the U.S. has the second-highest corporate tax on Earth. U.S. firms can compete in Europe by opening a subsidiary in a low-tax country and locating the profits there. Since the high U.S. tax applies only when the money is mailed home, and firms can let the money sit abroad for as long as they want, the big disadvantage of the high rate is muted significantly.
End that deferral opportunity and U.S. firms will no longer be able to compete, given their huge tax disadvantage. With foreign tax rates so low now, it is even possible that the end of deferral could lead to the extinction of the U.S. corporation.
If any firms are to remain, they will be festooned with massive carbon-permit expenses because of Obama’s new cap-and- trade program.
Obama’s attack on intellectual property is evident in his aggressive stance against U.S. pharmaceutical companies in the budget. He would force drug companies to pay higher “rebate” fees to Medicaid, and he included wording that suggests Americans will soon be able to import drugs from foreign countries. The stock prices of drug companies, predictably, tanked when his budget plan was released.
Obama will allow cheap and potentially counterfeit substitutes into the country and will set the U.S. price for drugs equal to the lowest price that any foreign government is able to coerce from our drugmakers.
Given this, why would anyone invest money in a risky new cancer trial, or bother inventing some other new thing that the government could expropriate as soon as it decides to?
Finally, Obama has set aside $634 billion to establish a health-reform reserve fund, a major first step in creating a universal health-care system. If you want to have health care for everyone, you have to give it to many people for free. Once we start doing that, we will never stop, at least until the government runs out of money.
It’s clear that President Obama wants the best for our country. That makes it all the more puzzling that he would legislate like a Manchurian Candidate.
(Kevin Hassett, director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is a Bloomberg News columnist. He was an adviser to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential election. The opinions expressed are his own.)