Entitlement never met a yuppie it didn’t like

It started with Reagan. The man who wanted Americans, particularly poorer ones, to know there was no free lunch spurred a culture of Americans, particularly richer ones, expecting exactly that.

Driving home one day this past March, I heard President Dummy on the radio. He was asked by a reporter who he was endorsing in the November elections. The president refused to give a name, but he did say the important issue before the voters was who would lower taxes and stand strong in the world.

I’ll say that again, because the statement obviously didn’t make an impression with the reporters in the room: none of them laughed, or fell over (I heard no thuds): the important issue before the voters was who would lower taxes and stand strong in the world.

That’s how simplistic, how stupid, Mr. Bush’s view is of what’s right for a prosperous nation. Talk tough and cut taxes. A free lunch and a big stick. John Wayne with a bag of Tootsie Rolls.

Let’s forget the talk-tough part—that’s been dealt to death already—and zero in on the other mantra of today’s “New Repuglicans”: lower and lower and lower taxes. Since Reagan, we’ve been hearing about this; it’s the solution for everything. At the same time, Reagan told people—read, poor people—they’d have to get out of the government feeding trough and fend for themselves as he cut social program after social program, particularly in the departments of Health and Human Services and Education. Twenty-some years later, the proof how well this has worked is in our outstanding schools, educated workforce and superb statistics for infant mortality, longevity, and nutrition for which we are the envy of Burundi.

I guess the implication was that after all those horrible welfare bloodsuckers were forced to fend for themselves, money would fall out of the sky. Working people, meaning in Republicanspeak people in suits carrying attaché cases and Coach bags and driving SUVs purchased with gas guzzler-tax breaks, would see better times. And for a while they did, though it was largely because of a ponzi scheme on Wall Street that had little to do with Republican legislation, other than banking deregulation.

Since money never really fell from the skies (rather, winds just redistributed it from one yard to another), it seems to me these sorts of people—educated (they went to college of some sort), specialized (they do something arcane in an office accessed by elevators with mirrored walls), upwardly-mobile (they just peeled the sticker off a new credit card with a $50,000 limit), and ambitious (they won’t work nights and Saturdays forever, dammit)—have been the people of expectations. They’ve been expecting continuous tax cuts from an already cash-strapped, over-burdened government operating with a long-term debt that is mind-numbling and alarming. Yet for many of these people, all that will matter come November is, “Who’s cutting my taxes most?

I wish I’d known back in high school that that’s all it’s about. I could have skipped my civics classes.

It’s the white-collar upwardly mobile who are now most eager for a handout, in other words. “Lower my taxes, more and more.” Has anyone ever said, “Gee, there could be limits to this thing. I vaguely remember, during my excellent private school education, learning about the Law of Diminishing Returns.”

Not that tax revenue is well-spent to begin with. The government wastes money in spectacular fashion.

And it’s come up with a great explanation for it, even an excuse. The government preaches that it is in fact the root of all evil. I’ve always found it amusing that conservatives spend so much time telling us—almost bragging—how bad government sucks, and then every four years or six years or two years they beg for your vote, promising you milk and honey this time. It’s schizophrenia that would have alarmed Freud.

Of course, what one hears is that gov’ment is bad, but the person who’s begging the vote is really good. Politicians do this by running as “Washington outsiders,” even as they’ve spent the last 30 years there, in a range of government jobs, elected and unelected, and are so tight with lobbyists that they share underwear every morning.

Meanwhile, the haves keep thinking they should have more. And what better way for a Republican to score points than to say they will lower your taxes more than the other guy. Does anyone ever ask the question, When can you not lower taxes anymore? How about making big business pay their fair share? Is that ever on the table?

Do we ever hear about making government better? Punishing—really punishing—people who cheat, who dispense and accept no-bid contracts, who create patronage jobs? Do we go after them the way we went after the welfare mothers and petty criminals? Do we ever discuss meaningfully how we’re going to pay for all the services the boomers and yesteryear yups will soon be demanding without this tax money?

It’s not secret that taxes in Europe are a lot higher than here. —Or are they? If European workers are giving 60 percent, 70 percent—the numbers you hear vary—of their paychecks to taxes, how come many of them have all that money left over for Gucci, Prada, Grundig, Mercedes, BMW, and Dolce & Gabbana? If you spend time in many European countries today, and most Amercans have never even been to Europe, let alone lived and worked there like I have, you’ll see a lot of the people are quite well-versed in the art of shopping. And good living. Americans have this antiquated image of Europe from an Antonioni film. Or from those clips that show them kissing us on the lips and throwing pedals at our feet in 1945. The truth is, both socially and technologically, Europe is ahead of America today. But since 80 percent of Americans have no passport and have never left this country, they don’t know that the Continent is on the whole doing well.

But this shouldn’t be. Big government is supposed to suck, remember? High taxes are supposed to be a drain; they impede the economy; every business school in America teaches that (over and over). Therefore, all those Europeans should be miserable. Miserable! Yet they consistently outscore the United States in quality of life issues. They live longer (despite all the smoking and drinking; maybe the real top killers in the U.S. are being denied by our there’s-a-pill-for-everything medical indu$try), are happier (even with all those Bergman movies) and are less stressed. Are they clamoring to come live here? Are we having to build fences to keep them out of the U.S?

Perhaps if one gets more and better services for the taxes they pay, one has more money left over for disposable income that here go to paying for all the lovely “privatized” services that neo-conmen are always crowing about. (This particularly becomes evident when one realizes that while local governments keep privatizing services, they are not returning the savings to the taxpayers.) Perhaps the fact that these privatized business services are profit-making ventures, largely traded on the stock exchanges, might explain why the capitalistas of the United States are so very fond of them and see them as The Answer to All Your Woes. In law they call that conflict of interest. AM-radio and cable-TV talk shows call it “conservative values.”

The myth is that private businesses are always run better, and inherently the way to go. They are meaner and leaner. Cleaner and greener. But the real world shows otherwise. There’s hardly a handful of businesses on the NYSE and NASDAQ really well-run and worth their valuations. What makes me say that? Beyond my own observations of reality—Enron, Haliburton, Citigroup, Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche, Global Crossing, Ernst & Young, Dynegy, KPMG, Sunbeam, Qwest Communications, Tyco, Waste Management Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers, Adelphia, Bristol-Myers Squibb, CMS, Energy Computer Associates, BCCI, Duke Energy, El Paso Corporation, Mirant, Freddie Mac, Cendant, Harken Energy, Lucent Technologies, Merck & Co., Merrill Lynch, Nicor Energy LLC, Peregrine Systems, Reliant Energy, ImClone, WorldCom—there’s the doubts expressed by this guy. It’s refreshing to have a capitalist see the corporate system for its faults.

More importantly, though, you get what you pay for. The United States can’t be a world-class country while offering services on the cheap. If you privatize them, even if taxes go down, you’re still paying for the services privately. More alarmingly, most of the time these privatized services are not in the spirit of American competitiveness: when Reagan and others said or say “It’s time to start running America like a business,” they’re neglecting to mention the fact that most private services are no-bid contracts over which the citizen usually has little or no input. (Did you decide which private company picks up your trash? I can’t even choose my cable TV carrier. Why not?) Not the same as the classic American business model being held before our eyes as salvation. And since the business is not really competing, it has more leeway in raising fees and prices, which is the same as a tax hike. And if taxes for human services keep getting lowered, the infrastructure and social structure of America will collapse. I don’t mean it will be stressed—it already is that. I mean it will collapse as certainly as if Al Qaeda itself led the attack. Our schools are a joke (if you have a macabre sense of humor), half the graduates are functionally and culturally illiterate, many if not most of our tech innovations are now coming from immigrants or workers on visas who then bring the riches and skills back to their home countries. Back in the 80s this was bothering us, but now that it’s obvious we’ve lost the brain war, we simply don’t talk about it anymore. As John Ralston Saul points out, the really dire issues in a culture are simply not discussed. Poverty is matched here only by the Third World, and our infrastructure in some places looks like Iraq’s. Instead of being concerned about these critical issues, politicians—especially the “conservative” ones (you know, the ones who’ve rung up a $500,000,000,000 debt for the war so far)—just want to buy our votes by promising a tax cut, some bit of chump change in our pockets for marking a ballot on election day. The liberal ones would rather argue about who’s the better orator and who cares more for their country by crying, always just before a crucial primary. And the urban cowboy in the Oval Office now boils it all down thusly: The important issues are who would lower taxes and stand tall in the world.


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