There are at least two pretty effective ways to turn someone into a Republican: (1) get them married with kids and (2) get them to invest in the stock market. So, if I were a highly paid Democratic political strategist, I would make sure to spend a few minutes every day thinking of ways to get Americans out of the stock market—the faster, the better. And that's why if Barack Obama is elected president next week, 2009 may well bring a concerted and all-out effort by the Obama administration and a Democratically dominated Congress to turn the generally pro-Republican Investor Class into an endangered class by, among other tactics, raising investment taxes and ending the tax preferences for 401(k)'s, IRAs, and other retirement accounts. Here is the emerging battle plan for Operation Investor Class Rollback:
1) Hike Investment Taxes. Obama wants to raise capital gains taxes even though he has kinda, sorta admitted that it might be bad for the economy and might actually decrease tax revenue to the government. For now, he's talking about raising the highest cap gains rate by one third to 20 percent, though earlier in the campaign, he floated pushing it as high as 28 percent, a near doubling. (Recall that Democratic presidential contender John Edwards wanted to raise it as high as 40 percent, a move that was applauded by liberals who want investment income to be taxed as onerously as labor income.) With the next administration facing a trillion dollar budget deficit—maybe more—there will certainly be pressure to raise taxes to higher levels than now being suggested.
2) Eliminate 401(k)'s, IRAs, and other retirement plans. Democrats in the House are now talking openly about the longtime liberal dream of repealing the tax advantages of putting money into a 401(k) plan or other tax-advantaged retirement account. "The savings rate isn't going up for the investment of $80 billion [in 401(k) tax breaks], we have to start to think about whether or not we want to continue to invest that $80 billion for a policy that's not generating what we now say it should," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington at a recent hearing, according to an industry trade paper.
Indeed, House Democrats recently invited Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at the New School of Social Research, to testify before a subcommittee on her idea to eliminate the preferential tax treatment of the popular retirement plans. In place of 401(k) plans, she would have workers transfer their dough into government-created "guaranteed retirement accounts" with a 3 percent real return.
Not only would removing the preferential tax treatment of these vehicles raise investment taxes by $100 billion a year and affect Americans making less than $100,000, it would surely prompt many Americans, already shell-shocked by the market's recent losses, to flee stocks. All this ignores the fact that there are trillions of dollars in American retirement accounts, and abandoning the higher-returning stock market at a probable bottom is classic financial foolishness. If you believe long term in the American economy, then you have to believe in the stock market. If you don't, then you have to admit the government won't be able to afford its promises anyway.
3) Replace private capital with public capital. But wouldn't a weak stock market hurt the economy by making it tougher to raise investment capital and lessen the return on risk? Surely, it would. But Obama is planning hundreds of billions of dollars of government "investment" in cutting-edge technology, particularly in the energy and healthcare sectors. One specific example: Obama wants to create something called a "Clean Technologies Venture Capital Fund" and invest $10 billion a year in emerging energy technologies. Now, the private VC industry is already pouring billions into alternative energy, but Obama thinks that's not enough and wants Uncle Sam to get in on the action at taxpayer expense. Interestingly, a new study by the University of British Columbia looked at the performance of the Canadian government's venture capital efforts. It found that government venture capital isn't nearly as successful as private venture capital.
Bottom line: All this makes smart political sense for Democrats. See, since the mid-1960s, stock ownership in the United States has risen from 10 percent of households to around 50 percent. And that growing Investor Class, a term coined and popularized by CNBC commentator and host Lawrence Kudlow, has helped nudge America evermore to the right. It sure helped George W. Bush get elected twice to the White House, voting for him by wide margins against John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. And it was those results that have helped ensure Democrats will fight to the death to prevent Social Security from being reimagined into a system of personal and high-return investment accounts. Privatization? Given its potential effect on voting patterns, Uncle Sam might as well send every American household a copy of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose on DVD.
But now if the Democrats control both the White House and Capitol Hill, look for them to move hard in the other direction, from an Ownership Society to a Government Owns It Society that would perhaps nudge America back to the left.