It’s the Budget, Stupid!

How does G. W. Bush’s ten year tax plan that purports to return 1.35 trillion dollars to citizens relate to real wealth and real poverty? The very sum itself boggles the mind. I try to imagine what a trillion dollars looks like! And what does it have to do with the price of a bologna sandwich?

For those who deny that poverty still exists in the United States, take a road trip and see it for yourself. You don’t have to drive onto Indian reservations to notice the numerous trailer parks nestled on the outskirts of every town and city, containing people who cannot afford to buy a home or pay rent on an apartment. The rural poor also live in ramshackle homes with front yards full of old cars, clothes lines full of wind blow and tattered garments, because they can’t afford to pay for a dryer or for the electricity it uses. You see shabbily dressed kids in rural America. In the cities and towns, you don’t have to seek out ghettoes, barrios or skid rows. They’re ubiquitous.

The poor people, more than 50 million, most without access to health care and free higher education, now lose unemployment insurance. About 800,000 workers got their negative Christmas present when Congress adjourned without renewing their benefits. Another 100,000 a week will exhaust whatever state funds remained according to the Washington DC Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 2003 should provide devastating challenges to those who got the pink slip in 2002. The official unemployment rate hovers around 6% nationally.

Bush called on Congress to help, but since he has already chosen his military and police priorities, it remains unclear where Congress will find funds to help out the unemployed, many of whom might soon become homeless as well. A December 23 USA Today story uses November data from the Department of Labor that shows long-term unemployment patterns reappearing.

“1.7 million workers have been out of work six months or longer — the most since 1994,” the story reports. Low wage workers, usually poorly educated and often from minority groups, generally got their discharge notice first. They are the least able to deal with loss of income and worst prepared for long term joblessness.

States typically offer 26 weeks of payments, after which workers turn to federal programs that give up to 26 more weeks of benefits. But these programs were not designed to meet the issues of long-term unemployment, which has arisen since March 2001. California Governor Gray Davis announced an almost 4% cut in education affecting kindergarten through 12th grade. To make up a $6 million deficit in the prison budget, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton released prematurely 567 prisoners. “It’s not going to be pretty,” he said.

The compassionate conservative Bush government has thrown the ball where it said it belongs, to the private charities. But the filthy rich, the reputed backbone of philanthropy have reduced their donations.

After a decade of relative prosperity, the middle and working classes ran up their credit card debts. USA Today cited , which tracks credit card trends, to show that the average household had almost $8,500 worth of credit card debt in 2002, an increase of 160% in the past decade.

As we know, under compassionate conservatism, the Bush government has slashed the social budget while elevating the military and “security” budgets to a record high of $400 billion and simultaneously cutting taxes. The President, with congressional approval, has shifted the burden of maintaining a highly unequal social order to the states the very entities that failed to meet such a challenge in the early 1930s.

Indeed, the New Deal arose because there seemed to be no alternatives to the federal government’s taking an active and guiding hand in alleviating mass misery. Now, the federal government, the entity that commands trillions of dollars, refuses to shell out to the people who most need them, but insists that the way to happiness is to reward the already rewarded.

As if to emphasize that point, Bush restored cash bonuses to his political appointees, those least needy and least qualified. The irony of this move was not lost on regular government workers whose raises Bush reduced from 4.1 to 3.1%, claiming that the war on terrorism had forced this move.

Compassionate conservatism has become the euphemism for screw the poor and have a good laugh at their expense. Administration insiders and Wall Street Journal editors have found a new label for the poorest of Americans. These “lucky duckies,” because they don’t have to pay much income tax compared to the deeply disadvantaged multi billionaires, have had a free ride for too long. Why not put a federal tax bite into their $6.35 an hour wages as well as the $10 thousand an hour “earned” by those of good breeding? Mark Twain defined good breeding as consisting “of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”

The Bush victory followed by his high post 9/11 ratings — appears to have made possible the dream of the greediest of the disgustingly rich class to amass more, consume more and make fun of those who have less. Rush Limbaugh, my favorite right wing radio huckster, gives the process of looting the national treasury an ideological bent. He insists that tax cutting means conservatism. Do not give a penny to the entity that provides schools, roads, sewage and other necessities. Indeed, the government subsidizes agri-business directly and other enormous corporate conglomerations indirectly in the form of insurance for overseas investment and support for overseas advertising. Mort Sahl defined these kinds of conservatives as “feeling that they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”

The new grand theft planners in the Republican plutocracy, led by ideologues for the ultra rich inside the White House, propose that shareholders who receive corporate dividends should pay only half as much tax. This, insist White House and Congressional insiders, is a core piece of the overall tax plan that W will reveal this month.

The conservative economic logic that would make the rich even richer by reducing their already reduced taxes amounts to faith. W and Limbaugh believe that the most affluent having possession of even more money will stimulate the economy. Under the current tax scheme, the legal right wingers argue, companies have an incentive to not pay dividends. Instead, they amass debt. I asked several liberal economists. All scoffed at the notion that such a move would stimulate the economy. It might give the stock market a kick in the ass, one said.

The real loser, the US Treasury, would see its income reduced by $100 billion plus over the next decade. This would mean further cuts in social programs, which would hurt the poor. Those possessing large stock portfolios would reap the benefits of course. But the results would not show up until next year and thus have little chance of tickling the economy now when it needs it.

I didn’t find it difficult to discover this information about Republican tax plans. And in talking to people throughout the country over decades, I find that many share my feelings of disgust and loathing. So, why don’t most Americans vote? Indeed, the majority (some 62% of eligible voters), according to their massive estrangement from the polls in November 2002, apparently eschew politics.

I confess that after listening to the car radio and watching the billboards, I too became distracted by needs I didn’t know I had. I became overwhelmed with all the goods I didn’t possess, all the feelings of power, prestige, status and honorific deference that had been somehow denied to me. What was wrong with me, I asked. Why do I feel so stressed? Judging from looks on faces and conversations eavesdropped on, many others felt the same. The ultra stressful daily activity of earning a living leaves little time to think about much beyond the immediate crisis and the deluge to distracting stimuli muddles the reflective lobes of the brain. The general message of the ads is to focus on you and what you’re missing in life. Not one of the commercial or political messages directs you to think about the budget the core of politics.

The AM radio reactionaries rant and rave about the liberal media (practically non-existent on radio). The rich deserve all they have and more; the poor have had bad luck, poor character or suffer from stupidity and laziness. The sacred subjects merit much attention, abortion, prayer in school, the alleged right to bear arms. I hear nothing about the right to food, shelter, jobs, medical attention, and education.

To staunch the depression reaching me from the Limbaugh, Larry Elder, Dr. Laura and Sean Hannity, I began making a list of peripheral issues featured in bumper stickers and posters. Driving California highway 395 from Los Angeles to Lone Pine, I spotted a “US out of the UN” sign. I saw numerous “United We Stand” bumper stickers and posters and one that said “Love your neighbor and don’t despair, but keep your fence in good repair.”

The “United” slogans come in a red, white and blue design accompanied by an actual flag decal. Remember John Prine sang: “Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven any more. It’s already overcrowded from your last little dirty war.”

On the highway, one woman proudly sported an NRA designer license plate. I also passed two firing ranges next to the highway along with several places carved out of the Mojave Desert where you could ride your newest motorized three wheeler, round and round in the sand, making all the noise you wanted.

I observed two anti-abortion bumper stickers and a sign that advocated prayer in the schools as the answer. One car’s bumper read: “war is not the answer.”

OK, I said to myself: “what is the question?”

I stopped making a list and listened to news headlines on AM radio. An “expert” said that President Bush has decided to go to war in Iraq no matter what Saddam, the UN or anyone else does or says. Colin Powell told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the President has made no such decision.

On an AM talk show one “expert” advocated a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, saying that he found intolerable the fact that a rogue state possessed nuclear weapons. Another “expert” advocated diplomacy to resolve the Korea predicament. Eat a bologna sansdwich, I say.

Why do I see no indication of budget discussion, the central core of what “experts” used to call politics?

SAUL LANDAU’s new film, IRAQ: VOICES FROM THE STREETS is distributed by The Cinema Guild (800-723-5522). He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. He can be reached at:


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.