Columns » Ernest Dumas

The aristocrats

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Never mind that President Bush’s popularity and moral authority are sinking to historic levels, his campaign to remake the United States in the image of Louis XIV’s France is continuing right on pace.

So many Americans believe that the president cannot be trusted to do the honest thing that Bush himself has directed the White House counsel to train his staff on the difference between right and wrong. But by watching a Congress that for five years has turned his every vision but a privatized Social Security into reality, you would never know that Americans are not cheering. If anything, Bush’s political miasma seems merely to have made the struggle to make the country an aristocracy even more urgent. This is another critical week in the process.

Congress — the Republican majority, that is — is rushing through the budget reconciliation process. If we can assume that the White House and the House of Representatives will largely have their way over the Senate, when they put the finishing touches on the budget the country will have taken another stride toward an economic order based on privilege, where the rich get still richer with the government’s help and where the poor and the rest grow ever weaker.

This has been going on since 2001 with the first big tax cuts for the rich and big corporations and the first big rips in the safety net. But the country was hopeful and prosperous then. Poverty was shrinking and opportunity expanding, and the most pessimistic economist could see only giant budget surpluses far into the future. All of that has changed.

When the Republican majorities began hammering out the final budget last week here is what they knew:

• The nation is running the largest budget deficits in history by far, poverty has been increasing every year since Bush took office, the middle class is shrinking, the inequality between the rich and the rest of America is escalating sharply according to the administration’s own statistics, the president has the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover, the number of people who have to go hungry part of the year is rising, the number and percentage of Americans without health insurance is ballooning every year, and for those who are covered the costs are rising and the coverage is shrinking. The government’s healthcare research agency calculated last month that 84,000 poor Americans are dying each year — the equivalent of a Hurricane Katrina each week — because of the imbalance in healthcare coverage for low-income people.

What is Congress doing about those conditions? It is sharply reducing the number of people who can get medical attention under Medicaid and the degree of coverage they can get. Medicaid beneficiaries (an unusually high number of them in Arkansas) will have to make large co-payments and premiums for their care although research shows that this causes many not to access health care and to get sicker. It is cutting back on food assistance to the needy, slashing the government’s child-support enforcement so that poor children will lose some $2 billion a year for clothing, food and medicine they need, and tightening up on help for the working poor for their rising heating bills.

Meantime, the president and House Republicans (the Senate is much saner) are pushing ahead with more tax cuts, the fifth round of tax cuts targeted at the rich since Bush took office.

Can there have been a more counterintuitive sequence of national condition and government policy than this in all the nation’s history?

The budget cuts are supposed to make way for mammoth spending on hurricane victims and to pare the five-year budget deficit by $50 billion. Polls show the public no longer considers Republicans to be the champions of fiscal restraint, so the president’s people are hoping that no one really believes that the fiscal discipline is being done on the backs of the poor. The vast promised aid for Katrina and Rita victims was quietly snuffed in the reconciliation process. But Katrina and the budget deficit are fig leaves anyway.

Next in the expedited reconciliation process is a package of tax cuts targeted at the rich that will enlarge deficit projections by $70 billion over the same five years. You do the math.

The tax package includes the extension of some of Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the upper bracket that are due to expire in the next two years, which will add hugely to deficit projections. One is halving the capital gains tax. Remember when Bush and our own homegrown Republicans were saying that it actually was a bonanza for low- and middle-income families in places like Arkansas, not the well-to-do?

The Treasury Department has posted the statistics on the first year of the tax cut, 2003. You might wonder how it went in our little corner.

Eighty percent of Arkansas tax filers had gross incomes of less than $50,000, but together they received only 7.5 percent of all the tax savings for Arkansans. A total of 1.1 percent of people had incomes that year greater than $200,000. They amassed 69.6 percent of the benefits.

In Bush’s America, as in Bourbon France, that obviously was not enough.

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