Columns » Ernest Dumas

The best times since Warren G. Harding

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It is hard to say which of the evening television images was the more jarring, Howard Dean joyfully bellowing and leaping around the stage as the Iowa caucuses recorded his crushing defeat or President Bush grinning coyly for 55 minutes as he bragged about the peaks to which his policies had taken the United States. Both masked the terrible truth that was as transparent in Bush's case as it was in Dean's. There was no earthly cause for the celebration. But Dean might be excused for the deranged reaction to the sudden and dramatic turn in his fortunes, and there was evidence even the next day that he had drawn sober lessons from what had happened. Bush has had two and a half years to reflect on what he was doing wrong, and in the State of the Union address he declared it all a roaring success and promised more of the same. More tax cuts for investors and the mega-rich, more lagniappe for the Wall Street investment houses and the stock traders, even better times for the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry, higher and higher budget deficits. Well, actually, he didn't promise higher deficits but, if he's re-elected, to cut them in half by the year after he leaves office. But no serious economist expects that to happen, especially if the Republican Congress enacts his program, which would slash government revenues by additional hundreds of billions of dollars while adding hundreds of billions of new spending. Remember, Bush has promised the opposite of what happened on deficits in every previous reprise. Remember, too, that federal tax revenues have fallen, even without factoring for inflation, for three years in a row, the first time that has happened since Warren G. Harding in 1920-23. And it occurred this time while the economy was actually growing a little. Bush apparently wants to exacerbate that trend, if he's even aware of it. Two weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund, a client of our government, warned that the Bush policies, which produced staggering deficits and growing trade imbalances, were threatening the economic security of the whole world. It said the U.S. debt to other countries would in a few years reach 40 percent of the U.S. economy, a level of external debt that would play havoc with the value of the dollar, international exchange rates, and global investment and growth. A paper by former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin a few days earlier warned that the scale of deficits loomed so large that they risked awful consequences for the country and the world. "Alarmists," the White House said. Bush ticked off a few selected statistics and suggested that the American economy was in wonderful shape. He cited the spurt of growth in the fall quarter and reports of some job creation in the past several months. The new jobs, Labor statistics show, are few and far between and mostly part-time and minimum-wage service jobs. You would think that by writing $400 billion in hot checks on the Treasury last year and even more this year that he could show the country a better time than that. Bush proposed to gladden the good times with more tax cuts: new open-ended tax shelters for those with the wherewithal to invest, tax shelters for those can afford individual health insurance, and making permanent the giant tax cuts that the Congress granted in 2001. Bush and the Congress put a 2010 cap on the tax cuts then so that the long-term forecasts of their cost would not look so staggering. There's no need to keep up the pretense any longer, even if the step would cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade. Republican lawmakers leaped to their feet when the president proposed letting [very rich] people escape estate taxes forever. He, of course, called it "the death tax," which makes the average Joe think that his belongings would be taxed on his death. Fewer than 2 percent of the estates of the Arkansas deceased each year are taxed at all and only a fraction of those any discernible amount. The president proposed once again to give the securities industry what it has long sought, a dipper for the Social Security trust fund. Young people, he said, should have a chance to divert their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, even if it speeds up the insolvency of Social Security. For some reason he didn't mention his plan for Medicare reform, which is to divert a sizable part of Medicare trust funds to the insurance industry so that it can compete with Medicare for the business of healthier retirees. Just as well. For the working stiff who was not mesmerized by the Bush grin or the happy talk about war there was enough to send him into despair.

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