Gaming the Fiscal Cliff
Politics, profit, and pageantry

Costco CEO Craig Jelinek


Kevin D. Williamson

The so-called fiscal cliff is one installment in a series of manufactured crises, the purpose of which is to provide the political establishment with small problems it can solve or pretend to solve while steadfastly refusing to address the much thornier problem of the long-term non-sustainability of U.S. public finances. Watching the melodrama unfold, I sometimes think I should be reviewing it in my theater column over at The New Criterion rather than analyzing it for National Review.

The fundamental unseriousness of the fiscal-cliff debate can be appreciated by examining the Corker plan (as my colleague Dan Foster does here), which probably is very close to the best that deficit hawks could hope for in terms of a bipartisan compromise — which is to say, precious little. At best, the Corker plan would reduce the growth of U.S. federal debt by about $4.5 trillion over the next decade, but it would not eliminate the deficit or reduce the debt, and it would allow for trillions of dollars to be added to the wrong side of the national ledger.

The Democrats give every indication of being interested in using fiscal-cliff hysteria to achieve nothing but a modest, almost symbolic increase in federal income-tax rates for taxpayers earning $250,000 or more, which would do very little to reduce the deficit but would confer a measure of emotional satisfaction on the Left. A fair number of small-business owners, managers, and professionals would see their taxes go up, but the actual rich — the Wall Street types, CEOs, Silicon Valley princelings, etc. — would continue to have the bulk of their income taxed at the lower capital-gains rate. That rate will go up (from 15 percent to 20 percent) absent a fiscal-cliff deal, but the hedge-funders and such still will be paying a rate about half the top income-tax rate. President Obama wants that tax increase to happen, but only for taxpayers earning $250,000 or more.

If the president gets his way on investment income, that will produce at best about $240 billion over a ten-year period: chump change when compared with deficits running $1 trillion or more every year. It would take a decade to offset the debt run up in just one of President Obama’s many recovery summers. And that assumes that the economy does not slip back into recession and that investors do not change their behavior very much in response to the new tax regime. The latter of course is unlikely — and if the president doubts that, he should have a conversation with Democrats’ new favorite tycoon, Jim Sinegal of Costco.

Democrats suddenly are in love with Costco. Mr. Sinegal, founder of the company, spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and current CEO Craig Jelinek has been an ally of the president during the fiscal-cliff debate. On Thursday, Mr. Sinegal and Mr. Jelinek were visited by Joe Biden, who came by to commemorate the opening of the chain’s first Washington, D.C., store. That is a remarkable thing: The country is on the edge of a fiscal crisis, war is burbling in the Middle East, the president’s hometown is in the grip of a horrific wave of violent crime — and the vice president of these United States is going to Costco ribbon-cuttings.

Beyond getting the Biden treatment, Mr. Sinegal was the subject of a fawning New York Times profile and now has his very own Internet meme, which features his beaming face above the caption: “Costco CEO pays his employees $17/hr on average, plus benefits, earns less than $500K, refuses Wall Street demands to cut employee salaries and benefits.” Almost none of that is true, of course, but it hasn’t stopped the Left from holding up Costco as the ideal progressive alternative to Walmart.