Why the Private Sector Isn’t Doing Fine
Obama's emphasis on saving government workers hurts American business.


Michael Tanner

President Obama is correct that much of this spending binge began under President Bush, but Obama’s policies have taken the Bush spending (including one-time spending hikes such as TARP) and turned them into the new baseline for future spending. And the president would have spent even more if he could have gotten away with. The purpose of last week’s press conference, after all, was to renew his call for more spending.

The president says “more spending,” and businesses correctly hear “more debt” and “higher taxes.”

This long-term burden on American business comes on top of short-term uncertainty. In January 2013, the Bush tax cuts will expire, leading to the largest tax hike in U.S. history unless Congress can reach an agreement. If reelected, President Obama seems determined to use this potential “fiscal cliff” to push for higher taxes on the wealthy, businesses, and investors. The president’s insistence, in particular, on raising capital-gains taxes will discourage business investment and expansion, while the hike in federal income taxes will fall especially hard on small businesses and Subchapter S corporations, which often file taxes as individuals.

Also ahead, pending a decision from the Supreme Court, is the potential implementation of Obamacare. Most of the law’s tax hikes, $569 billion over the first ten years, fall on businesses. Next year, for example, there would be new taxes on medical devices and investment income, among others.

And in 2014, the law will impose a mandate on employers with 50 or more workers to provide their workers with health insurance, at a cost of $4,450 on average, or else pay a $2,000-per-employee fine. As former Labor Department economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth explains:

The $2,000 per worker penalty raises significantly the cost of employing full-time workers, especially low-skill workers, because the penalty is a higher proportion of their compensation than for high-skill workers, and employers cannot take the penalty out of employee compensation packages. Suppose that a firm with 49 employees does not provide health benefits. Hiring one more worker will trigger a penalty of $2,000 per worker multiplied by the entire workforce, after subtracting the statutory exemption for the first 30 workers. In this case the tax would be $40,000, or $2,000 times 20 (50 minus 30).

If you were that small-business owner with 49 employees, how fast would you run out to hire that 50th worker? In fact, a Gallup survey of small businesses found that nearly half (48 percent) cited Obamacare as a reason why they are not hiring. It’s worth noting that in France, another country where numerous government regulations kick in at 50 workers, there are 1,500 companies with 48 employees and 1,600 with 49 employees, but just 660 with 50 and only 500 with 51.

And, if Obamacare is not enough of a burden on business, 2013 will also see the onset of many of the new Dodd-Frank regulations on banking, lending, and finance.

President Obama seems wedded to an old-fashioned Keynesian philosophy of trying to revive the economy by using government hiring and spending to increase consumer demand. By now we should have learned that no amount of pump-priming is going to help, as long as businesses are worried about the crushing burden of debt, taxes, and regulation in their future.

That’s the real truth behind President Obama’s gaffe: He’s not just out of touch; he’s wrong.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.