The Taxonomist

Gore Plan Prevails

Remember how George W. Bush regaled the voters last year with his criticism of Al Gore's "targeted" tax cuts? "You only get a tax break if you do exactly what the government tells you to do," Bush frequently carped. Well, Bush has now revealed the fine print of his own tax proposals--and lo and behold, those new details look remarkably like what Gore proposed.

On top of the eight tax-cut provisions he campaigned on, Bush's budget adds 29 more, with a price tag of $138 billion over 10 years. If you retrofit your home to use solar energy, or purchase health insurance, or buy long-term-care insurance, or make electricity from garbage, or take care of an ailing parent, or get a computer from your employer so you can work at home because you're disabled, or adopt a child, or set up an international corporate tax shelter, or sell your land to a conservation trust, or do any of a long list of other things that Big Brother Bush thinks are important, you get a tax cut. If not--well, too bad.

Gore, of course, copied his strategy from his mentor, Bill Clinton, who found that the only way to persuade a Republican Congress to adopt new programs was to style them as tax breaks. For Clinton and Gore, the end justified the means, you might say. But for Bush and his supporters, it's exactly the opposite. However much they may disdain government programs, they love tax cuts even more. In other words, for Bush the means seem to justify the end.

Talk Softly and Carry a Big Shtick

I did a radio gig the other day to help out my friends at Pacifica in San Francisco. They had mistakenly booked a fellow from the National Taxpayers Union before discovering that NTU was a deceptively titled right-wing anti-union group, and they needed me for balance. I was treated to a tour de force performance by my debating partner.

Over the past year or so, many on the right have learned to eschew Newt Gingrich–style bombast in favor of a more soothing approach. The technique, pioneered 20 years ago by former Congressman Jack Kemp and perfected by George W. Bush in last year's campaign, is to endorse liberal goals and then explain why they necessitate conservative policies. NTU's spokesman had this shtick down to a T. Although the substance of everything he had to say was illogical, hypocritical, self-contradictory, or just plain false, he delivered his rap in the most moderate of tones. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, as my mother used to say.

Asked why tax forms are so complicated, he blamed "politics." Sadly, he said, Congress just can't resist the blandishments of interest groups calling for more and more special tax breaks. Well, yeah, but one of those interest groups is the National Taxpayers Union, which almost without exception supports any and every measure that reduces taxes, whether it be rate cuts, new loopholes, or stopping the IRS from enforcing the law.

When one of the hosts complained that the Bush tax cuts are outrageously tilted toward the rich and will endanger important government programs, the NTU guy opined that (a) it's impossible to cut taxes without favoring the rich, but (b) we can easily solve that problem by simply making the tax cuts much bigger. Don't worry about lost government services, he added, since most spending is on wasteful things like "corporate welfare." He failed to note that NTU has religiously supported the corporate-tax loopholes that make up the bulk of that spending category.

Won't giant tax cuts endanger Social Security? Heavens, no. We must preserve and protect Social Security, and the only way we can do so is to means-test benefits and slash payroll taxes.

It's perfectly scandalous that median-income workers pay 50 percent of their incomes in taxes to support big government, said the NTU guy. As well it might be, except that the real median figure for all federal, state, and local taxes is about 30 percent--and in the case of the progressive federal income tax that NTU and Bush so desperately want to cut, the median effective rate is only 6.5 percent. Etcetera, etcetera.

Last month, after a short TV debate with antitax activist Grover Norquist, I joked that our encounter lacked the usual insults. (Heck, Grover even called me part of the "center-left" rather than his usual, more flamboyant appellations.) Grover, who likes to speak his mind, grumpily agreed. In fact, he groused, since last summer the Bush people have insisted on this new approach--because their polls show that conservatives are much more popular if they don't say what they really believe.

So there you have it. Liberals have won over the voters' hearts and minds about the importance of programs like Social Security, health care, education, and so on. That leaves conservatives forced to pretend to be part of the consensus. Such gross dishonesty was a winning strategy for Bush last year. How long will it take the public to notice the gap between right-wing rhetoric and policy?

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