It has been nearly eight years since the end of the Great Recession, and Americans still express anxiety over the economy. On October 14, 2016, Gallup reported that 17% of Americans believe that the economy is the most important problem facing the United States, ahead of dissatisfaction with government (12%), racism (10%) and immigration (7%).
On the eve of the 2016 election, I had the opportunity to sit down with George Athanasopoulous, the Republican candidate for Colorado’s Seventh Congressional District (CD7) and talk about the economy, the issue most voters say is the most important in this election.
James: Trade has taken a central issue in the presidential election, and many have attributed the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States, at least in part, to bad trade deals between America and other nations, namely China. What is your take, and why should CD7 voters care about trade?
George: Trade is an important issue for all Americans, not just those who have been displaced by outsourcing. It can also be a wonky, complicated issue with the potential to bore someone to tears. Boring, unless and however, you lost your job because your employer moved it to China or Mexico. In principle, I am in favor of free trade, because it provides consumers more choices at lower prices. But, policymakers in Congress have not given enough consideration to the fact that not every country plays by the same rules, which is at the heart of the issue. You mentioned China, so let’s use that nation as an example. China has become the world’s factory not because the Chinese people are the best workers in the world, but rather because the Chinese government pegs their currency to the dollar at a level that gives Chinese businesses an unfair, built-in cost advantage no matter what they produce. In fact, the St. Louis Federal Reserve reported in June of last year that economic sectors in the U.S. that were more exposed to import competition from China lost more manufacturing jobs. The Chinese monetary authorities have reduced the worst of the abuse, allowing the yuan to rise against the dollar in recent years, but more needs to be done to level the playing field and give the American worker an opportunity to compete. It is a painful irony to the American worker that no iPhones are made in the United States, even though it was invented by a legendary American company.
James: What has been the impact of trade policies on Americans?
George: The impact of unfair trade on the American worker has been nothing short of devastating. In 1980, 21% of the American workforce was employed in the manufacturing sector, as compared to only 8.5% today. And, that decline is not just because other sectors have grown faster than manufacturing. The number of Americans working in manufacturing jobs in August 2016 was 12.3 million, down 36% from 19.3 million in January 1980. That substantial decline in manufacturing jobs happened while the workforce grew by 59% to 144.6 million people today. As a result of this massive loss of manufacturing jobs, rungs have been removed from the socioeconomic ladder and impaired upward mobility for millions of Americans. If this trend continues, it will cripple America’s ability to compete in the global economy, something that my opponent continues to ignore at best, or willfully deny at worst.
James: But most jobs lost to China and other countries have occurred in the Rust Belt, why should voters in your district care?
George: Many CD7 voters know friends, family and acquaintances who have been adversely affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. They have adult children who are going to college or who have recently graduated. The loss of opportunity in the manufacturing sector has made it more difficult, and in some cases impossible, for young Americans to get a good start in the economy. Graduates from Colorado colleges would benefit from a stronger manufacturing sector in the state and in other states. We would have more companies recruiting on campus for our graduates. In short, we are all in this together and a strong manufacturing sector is vital to an American economic renaissance; something my opponent just doesn’t seem to understand.
James: What can be done to make things better for the American economy?
George: We need to make America an irresistible place to invest in order to make our nation more competitive in the global economy. Today, America has the highest corporate tax rate among 34 other countries with advanced economies. The U.S. corporate tax today stands at 39.1%, as compared to the average of 24.1% for 34 other industrialized nations. Our high tax burden makes it more difficult to encourage investment in America, which reduces new job creation. We need an economy that works for all of us, and unfortunately not enough good-paying jobs are being created fast enough in this country or in Colorado. If America’s corporate tax rate was reduced to just the average rate of other advanced countries, however, it would be a huge boost to the economy by attracting more investment in the private sector, create jobs and put more rungs back on the socioeconomic ladder. As a Congressman, I will work with my GOP colleagues and reach across the aisle to work with like-minded Democrats from Rust Belt states to make America’s corporate tax rate more competitive with other industrial countries. My opponent stands for the opposite.
James: We hear a lot about how big the federal debt level has grown. I wrote about it in a blog post, The Debt Bomb, over a year ago. The federal debt has grown so large, however, it almost seems like an abstraction to the average American. As a practical matter is it really that big of a deal?
George: It is a very big deal, and let me put some perspective on it. In January 2009, at the start of Barack Obama’s first term, the federal debt stood at $10.6 trillion. Today, it has reached $19.6 trillion, and continues to grow. That’s an astronomical amount of money, more than the $18.5 trillion value of the entire U.S. economy. The towering federal debt is a huge issue for every American, and that’s not just my opinion. In May of this year, the bipartisan Coalition for Fiscal and National Security called the national debt “the single greatest threat to our national security.” This group, led by retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that the federal debt is projected to climb to 131% of America’s Gross Domestic Product over the next 25 years. At that level, the group warns that the debt burden would slow economic growth, reduce income levels and impair our national security posture. My family is originally from Greece, and in 2007 and 2008 the economic catastrophe brought on by the Greek government owing too much debt was on full display for the entire world to see. The world can’t afford the U.S. to have the same kind of economic meltdown. Even though tax receipts today are at all-time highs, the federal government is still spending more than it takes in. America doesn’t have a tax problem, it has a spending problem and my opponent has been part of the problem since 2007 helping the Obama Administration double the federal debt while in office. Sadly, he still doesn’t have a plan to address it.
James: Isn’t it just easier to make the rich pay their fair share?
George: That’s an interesting choice of words, and certainly that is the prescription of the Democrats. What is one person’s “fair share” feels like stealing to a middle class family with two breadwinners struggling to make ends meet. America has a progressive tax system, and people who earn more pay more in taxes. According to the Internal Revenue Service, 149 million taxpayers filed a return in 2014. 52 million of them paid zero federal income tax, because they qualified for various tax credits and deductions, like the Earned Income Tax Credit for low wage earners. The 28% of Americans who made $250,000 or more annually in 2014 paid 55% of total taxes in 2014. When the wealthiest one-third pay more than half of the total taxes, it’s a stretch for the Democrats and my opponent to claim that somehow other Americans aren’t paying their “fair share.” You could tax the one percent at 100% and still not plug the annual fiscal hole.
James: What else can be done to improve the economy?
George: We need to make it easier for businesses to form and grow. All too often, both parties have worked with big business interests to stifle competition through a complex web of ever-increasing regulations. Let’s put a number on it. The Heritage Foundation reported in May that since 2009 the Obama Administration had imposed 229 new major federal regulations costing $108 billion annually, based on estimates made by the regulatory agencies’ own numbers. In fact, since Obama took office the federal government has issued over 20,642 new rules. Some of those rules, like those protecting migratory birds, don’t have a direct impact on the economy, but many of them do, especially the major rules. Here’s why. Nearly half of Americans work in businesses employing fewer than 500 people. Over-regulation disproportionately hurts small business. Big multinational corporations can afford to hire armies of lawyers, accountants and consultants to comply with the rising regulatory burden, but a small business can’t. Can we really say that the 20,000 new federal rules were necessary? My opponent refused to acknowledge this is even an issue, which hurts American small business owners and their employees.
James: This is a little off topic, but Americans are cynical about politicians, big media and our public institutions. Gallup has been tracking attitudes towards trust in government since 1993 and in their most recent survey that organization reported that only 19% of Americans believe they can trust the government to do the right thing. What can be done to restore trust?
George: Voters should be cynical. For too long, the leadership in both major political parties have ignored the needs of middle class families. Not enough has been done for the married couple with kids, both husband and wife working and making a combined $80-$90 thousand a year who are still struggling to deal with rising healthcare premiums, housing costs and wondering how in the world their kids are going to pay for college without incurring a massive debt burden. It used to be the right and left would come together and get things done for the middle class. Today, the middle class voter really doesn’t have much say in policies that directly impact them, because the average person doesn’t have a billion dollar Political Action Committee to make campaign contributions, they have no lobbyists and aren’t wealthy enough to make a big donation to the Clinton Foundation. We need a political revolution of a different kind in America. There’s nothing wrong with our system of government, but there is something wrong with sending the same people funded by the same big money interests back to Washington DC and expect things to change. Instead of sending my opponent back for a sixth term, we need to send people to Washington DC who will break the collusion between big government and big business to improve opportunities for the middle class. That is my pledge to the voters of CD7, should they choose to send me.
James: Thank you for your time, George.
You can get more information about George’s issue positions and his background at his campaign website www.GeorgeForColorado.org.