Thursday, May 29, 2003


The former president can't run again, but he's still needed on the campaign trail.

One of the best reports on President Bush's signing of the latest reckless tax reduction is from Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. Milbank doesn't miss the key element of the story -- the reason this is Big News and will be Big News for years to come:

In a 21-minute speech and three-pen signing ceremony, Bush avoided any mention of federal deficits or debts, the main concern of several moderate Republicans who joined Democrats in blocking his request for a $726 billion cut over the same 10-year period. The tax cut that Bush signed yesterday was made possible in part by legislation he quietly signed a day earlier that increased the federal government's debt ceiling by nearly $1 trillion.

The contrast between the two signings was sharp. While the tax legislation was signed before hundreds of people and dozens of cameras, the president signed the increase of the debt limit in private on Tuesday, announcing it with one sentence released by his press secretary saying the legislation "increases the public debt limit from $6.4 trillion to $7.384 trillion." According to congressional figures, the cap will need to be increased by another $600 billion next year, rising to more than $12 trillion over 10 years.

Yes, you read that right. $12 trillion. Bush's prodigal tax cuts are expected to double America's national debt in 10 years. Start counting now -- by thousands -- and you won't live long enough to reach 12 trillion. Stop Bush now, and you probably still won't live long enough to see his fiscal irresponsibility corrected.

Here's the odd thing in Milbank's piece: Nine candidates are currently running for the Democratic nomination to run against Bush in 2004, yet for a concise and pointed response to the Bush tax plan, Milbank turns to ... former President Bill Clinton. That's partly because the Democratic candidates are still looking for traction, and partly because nobody cuts through Bush foolishness as well as Clinton. From Milbank's article:

Former president Bill Clinton, speaking at the John F. Kennedy Library, said he "can't find anybody with a straight face" to defend the tax package, whose advocates "compromise the future of our country." Of the Republicans, Clinton said: "When ideological people find themselves in a hole, they ask for a bigger shovel."

Here's more from Clinton's remarks (via WCBV TV in Boston):

The real reason for the tax cuts and their particular design in 2001 and 2003 was ideological, almost theological, the notion that we're all just put upon by this onerous government of ours taking our hard earned money away and that there's no such thing as a bad tax cut and no such thing as a good spending program unless it lays concrete or builds a missile. These tax cuts are too small in the short run to do any good and way too big in the long run to avoid serious harm.

That's gonna leave a mark. Or at least it should. Clinton is currently unemployed -- here's hoping he decides to take this show on the road. (Bill, come back, your country still needs you.)

One more item from Milbank:

According to a calculation by Bloomberg News, Bush himself would save $26,739 in taxes under the new law.

Bush's personal windfall: $26,739

Annual income threshhold below which families will receive no child credit in Bush's tax plan: $26,625

Yes, Mr. President, there are many, many families who live on less income in a year than the nice little lagniappe you just presented yourself with. One out of every six American children lives in such a family. And your tax plan makes sure that such families won't receive the largesse you're so eager to bestow on wealthier families -- and on yourself.

posted by Fred Clark 4:25 AM

Wednesday, May 28, 2003


The sound you hear is the last lifeboat leaving as the iceberg rips through the hull.

Sen. Bill Frist offered his true assessment of the state of the economy, then quickly backpedaled from his momentary truth-telling to revert to the Official Party Line:

"Economists tell me that the economy is like a great ship. It cannot be turned around quickly," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "While this economy need not necessarily be turned around -- it is headed in the right direction of growth -- it needs to pick up its pace."

Frist was right the first time -- this economy needs to be turned around quickly.

His garbled metaphor isn't quite as much fun as former Vice President Spiro Agnew's famous, "The ship of state has gone off track." But the Senate majority leader's comment does betray the confusion and dissonance of the official explanation for the Bush administration's economic plan. The economy is a giant ship that must be turned around quickly and continue in the direction it is headed. Hmmm.

This is the kind of talk that comes from pursuing one set of objectives while trying to appear to be pursuing a very different set. As Paul Krugman notes, even "the normally staid Financial Times, traditionally the voice of solid British business opinion" rejects the idea that Bush's $1 trillion-plus in tax cuts over the last three years have anything to do with "stimulus."

The Times -- that's the Financial Times, of London, bastion of old-school pro-business sentiment; not the New York Times of the SCLM -- believes that Bush's acceleration of the already record-setting U.S. federal deficit can lead only to financial ruin and a fiscal crisis. And because the inevitable result of Bush's policies are so glaringly obvious, the Times assumes that this result -- massive deficits, crippling debt and a fiscal crisis -- must be the Bush administration's intent.

Proposing to slash federal spending, particularly on social programs, is a tricky electoral proposition, but a fiscal crisis offers the tantalizing prospect of forcing such cuts through the back door.

The economists at the Times believe, as Frist says, that the U.S. economy is like a great ship. And they believe the captain of that ship is deliberately steering it onto the rocks.

This is precisely the same conclusion reached by Thomas Frank in Harper's (see excerpts below). Franks uses a different transportation metaphor, the runaway train:

The Bush team seems bent on so battering and stigmatizing the only institution capable of policing capitalism that we will be left with no practical alternative. They will fritter away the surplus. They will squander the goodwill of the world. They will jam the locomotive into reverse, toss something heavy on the throttle, and jump for it.

It seems Agnew was right: the ship of state has gone off the tracks and into a sharp nose-dive.

posted by Fred Clark 5:53 PM


Why the Bush budget is a work of evil genius.

Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, has an essay in the June 2003 Harper's titled "Get Rich or Get Out: Attempted robbery with a loaded federal budget." It's required reading for anyone who plans to live in this country 10 years from now, when Bush's budgetary time-bomb has crippled the federal government.

Frank, bless him, actually read the Bush administration's proposed 2004 budget and his essay is something like a book review -- a book review of a poorly written and, well, evil book. Harper's may put the whole article online some time in September or thereabouts, but the magazine itself is now at newstands ($6 well spent).

Some excerpts:

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Attempted robbery with a loaded federal budget
Harper's, June 2003

The 2004 budget is toxic. It is an epic of distortion and evasion and contradiction and misleading rhetorical ploys. The object of this malodorous epic is to outline the Bush administration's plan for plunging the nation from surplus into deficit and to cast the blame for the ensuing disaster on the very people -- the retired, the sick, the poor -- who wil feel the brunt of its effects. ...


There is nothing inherently wrong with deficits, even massive ones, as a tool of state policy. In wars and recessions it is right and even proper for the federal government to spend more than it takes in, so as to ensure that resources continue to flow to consumers and to those hardest hit, and thus stimulate the economy. The 2004 budget is not concerned with any of that. Here war and recession are merely pretexts for getting the crudest social trends of the last 20 years moving again. This deficit is designed to enrich those at the very top of the social pyramid while cutting services for those lower down. This is not cyclical Keynesianism. This is not a helpful or even a merely benign program of deficit spending. It is a blueprint for sabotage. It is an instruction manual for how to power up a complicated machine and dash it headlong into a stone wall. After which the president will turn to us and say, "See? I told you big government doesn't work." ...


Much of the press commentary on this budget has focused on the deficits into which it proposes to plunge us. The budget's authors have, of course, anticipated this reaction. That surplus for which everyone pines was, we are helpfully informed, nothing more than a "revenue bubble" propelled by a bull market that was "already in the process of popping" when the businessman president took office. Although it is obviously true that the booming stock market pumped up tax receipts, and although it was foolish for anyone to count on those inflated tax receipts continuing into the future, to call the surplus a "bubble" is to confuse the issue. In ordinary usage, a "bubble" is a pitfall of the private sector, a situation in which prices are driven to unsustainable heights by collective fantasies of stupendous future profits. A bubble is a swindle --you know, like the NASDAQ. Here the term is simply used to imply that the surplus was doomed all along and that the current administration, unlike its predecessor, is in no way to blame for its disappearance. Those tax cuts enacted two years ago? They did not cause the deficit. The budget would have been in deficit anyway because of falling revenues from the stock-market crash. Tax cuts, therefore, aren't important. Slam door, walk away.

What this fails to consider is that the deficit is worse, is morebad, than it otherwise would have been had those tax cuts not been enacted. What this further fails to consider are the deficits going forward, which the budget expects to get bigger as we begin to feel the effects of the mammoth new tax cuts that are proposed only four pages earlier in this selfsame document.

But no. "The Real Fiscal Danger," the budget tells us in a chapter of that title, is Social Security and Medicare. When you cut rich people's taxes, no harm can possible come. When you offer insurance for the average person's health care and retirement, however, you're playing with fire. ...


Here is a sentence that actually occurs on page 31 of the main volume of the 2004 federal budget: "But in 2002 the combined shortfall in Social Security and Medicare of nearly $18 trillion was about five times as large as today's publicly held national debt."

An eighteen trillion dollar shortfall! Frightening, is it not? Until you read further and realize that, in fact, both programs are today in surplus, that Social Security will remain in surplus for 14 years to come (it will be able to function on the money in its Trust Fund until 2042), and that the $18 trillion figure is a cumulative 75-year estimate based on extreme long-term projections that will probably turn out to bear as much resemblance to reality then as the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair does to our reality today. None of this is admitted, however, until the chapter is nearly over, even though the mind-bending $18 trillion number has already been unleashed to do its terrifying work on the very first page. The chapter also includes a boxed heart attack headed "What Does $18 Trillion Mean To You?" which invited the reader to believe that in order to pay for Social Security and Medicare "the federal government would have to confiscate almost half of all household wealth ..." ...


By the terms of normal human interaction, this stuff is so dishonest it's well-nigh Enronian. According to one economist I talked to, the $18 trillion number is so groundless that it can have been introduced here only in order to panic and deceive. It is a transparent effort to redirect the blame for the massive cuts in government spending that Bush's tax cut[s] will necessitate. And, one might add, to come up with some figure that might rival the actual, present-day, real-world destruction of more than $7 trillion of household wealth by the collapse of the stock market -- the very place, as it happens, that this administration would rather we put our Social Security money. ...


Even if you accept the administration's wildly pessimistic view of Social Security's future, the problem is dwarfed by the size of the administration's tax cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that this budget's proposed tax cuts, added to those of 2001, will, over the course of the 75 years, outweigh Social Security's estimated long-term shortfall by a factor of three. Take into consideration who will benefit from each policy choice -- fund Social Security, help out the average American; go ahead with the tax cuts, help out the very wealthiest stratum of society -- and it is clear what is being proposed here is a historic reconfiguration of the machinery of government to serve the rich rather than the poor or even the middle class.

The real problem with Social Security, of course, is that it is a popular and successful program. Its existence confirms that there are economic functions better served by government than by business, and as such it provides a foundation for the activist government that pro-business conservatives like the current president have dedicated their lives to destroying. ...


For all the media attention that has been paid to the administration's tax package, the budget itself gives the subject surprisingly short shrift. The tax-cut chapter is only four pages long, the figures that it presents are apparently unrelated to those being used by the media, and the breakdown of who will benefit from the tax cuts is as predictably misleading as everything else in this feculent document, proceeding by age group and marital status rather than by the more obvious and useful category of income. ...


The genius of the administration's new tax-cut plan is that it balloons over time as different tax cuts kick in. Passing it now would take only $40 billion or so out of the federal revenues, but by the year 2013 it will have rolled up a total cost, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, of nearly $2 trillion, including interest. Add to that the $1.6 trillion in lost revenue that will eventually result from the 2001 tax cut, and you can see the vague outlines of the vise in which legislators 10 years from now will find themselves squeezed. ...


One of the reasons the Bush people love tax cuts is that tax cuts defund government -- but gradually and indirectly, allowing plenty of time for blame evasion later. Although it may not look like much now, this tax cut is a time bomb planted in the heart of activist government: as it grows, the whopping giveaway to the rich will compel massive cuts in government spending somewhere down the road. Imagine as all the deficit-reduction battles of the early '90s are fought all over again, only with much greater stakes. Imagine the look of dawning desperation on those politicians' faces as they begin to understand Bush's masterful fait accompli. ... And then will come the moment of hard truth. On whom will death set his fateful hand? Who will be defunded? Maybe it will be Head Start. Or Medicaid. Or Food Stamps. Or perhaps the windbags in D.C. will accede at long last to the administration's desires and do the only thing that will rescue them from this elegant trap -- gut Social Security. ...

posted by Fred Clark 5:42 PM

Sunday, May 25, 2003


The following is from David Mamet's "Notes for a Catalogue for Raymond Saunders," in his (Mamet's) book Writing in Restaurants, which I recommend highly for anyone involved with theater (i.e. anyone who acts, directs, writes, reads, views, or lives in a culture that contains theater).

As a child I played the violin. The other children shunned me, but I followed my star and I studied every day.

A group of toughs called Legs O'Donnel and the Dead Man's Lot gang put out word that if they ever caught me on their turf they would beat me silly. So I stayed away from Dead Man's Lot.

One winter evening I was hurrying home. I'd studied late and knew my mother would be worried, so I, timorously, took the shortcut across Dead Man's Lot.

Halfway across I looked up and there was O'Donnel and his gang. He said they were going to beat me. I felt, if I was to get a beating I would take it for that in which I believed. So I took out my violin and played. I played as I had never played before, and when I finished I looked up, prepared to take my medicine.

And I found I was alone.

Many years later I was taking a cab through midtown and, passing by the Artist's Entrance of Lincoln Center I saw several men who looked familiar.

I asked the cabbie if he knw who those men were and he told me they were the Juilliard String Quartet. I paid off the cab and stepped out on the sidewalk. I stared at them.

The Juilliard String Quartet were no other than Legs O'Donnel and the Dead Man's Lot gang.

It became clear to me that my playing for them on that cold December night had turned them from a certain life of crime and had inspired them to become the most accomplished string musicians in the world.

I drew nearer them and I saw recognition come into their faces.

And they beat the shit out of me.

posted by Fred Clark 4:51 PM


A superpower can and should do more than just blow things up.

The death toll from Algeria's devastating earthquake has surpassed 2,000. This leads me to revisit this post, in which I repeat and applaud Mother Jones' Jack Hitt for exploring the path not taken after 9/11:

A few months back, a terrible earthquake rattled a portion of Iran. Entire villages were erased. The immediate death toll was 500. Thousands were injured. A radio account of people trapped and dying beneath a collapsed mosque had me riveted. ...

When the news moved on to something else, I fell into a waking dream. I do this a lot lately. It begins with some other president, or at least another version of George Bush. This president reacted differently to 9/11. ...

... this doppelgänger Bush would have seen the advantage -- oh, about a year ago, when half the world seemed to be wearing NYFD caps -- in stationing a fleet of C-5 cargo planes at Kennedy Airport. When an Iranian earthquake or a Bali bomb blast occurred, 200 of New York's bravest and all that rescue paraphernalia for which we are famous -- Jaws of Life cutters, search dogs, remote cameras -- would immediately be dispatched. In my dream, I see NYFD pulling trapped Persian grandmothers out of that collapsed mosque. And the fantasy plays on out, with the president -- Bush would be especially great at this part -- taking to a podium and saying, "Al Qaeda blows up buildings and kills people. We dig through rubble and save human lives. This is what America does."

The complaining note in Hitt's "waking dream" is justified, but I hope that this idea isn't wholly viewed as a partisan issue. After all, the fact that such a vision is not even close to being made reality is not only a failure of Republican leadership, or only of Democratic leadership -- it is a failure of American leadership.

America is a superpower -- whatever that means. We can, as President Bush has repeatedly demonstrated, do whatever we want. The problem (as I argue here) is that we have no idea what we want. The most powerful nation in the world has little idea what to do with its power. What it should do. What it could do. I can't help but again rely on that quote from Walker Percy:

What happens to a people to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a nation lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what it is waiting for is war -- or the end of the world.

What if rather than just "waiting for something to happen ... waiting for war" America had the vision, the leadership and the courage to act constructively as well as destructively? What if -- as a very small first step -- America were to put in place the kind of emergency response teams that Hitt describes?

Imagine that within hours of the Algerian quake, Secretary of State Colin Powell had called President Bouteflika to offer America's condolences, and to tell the president that two C-5s had just left Dover Air Force Base and could reach Algeria within hours. With permission from Algerian authorities, an American (international? "coalition?") disaster relief team of professionals with state-of-the-art equipment could be on the scene to do whatever could be done to help. These American teams would wear uniforms, but not military uniforms. They could arrive, assist those whose towns, homes and lives had been levelled, then get back on the plane and return home when the initial, but vital, work was done.

Imagine how this might alter the effectiveness of the anti-American, anti-Western radicals' message. ("Death to America." "Hey, the Americans pulled my cousin out from under a building. Does that sound like a Great Satan to you?") But this happy side-effect -- helping others makes us safer -- is only that, a side-effect. The main reason to help in such disasters is much simpler: because we can.

Responding to disasters and emergencies is relatively straightforward and simple, but there are also many tragedies besetting the world that are less episodic, more pervasive. Billions lack access to clean drinking water, not because of a recent earthquake, but because of grinding poverty -- poverty that will likely continue unless the water situation changes. America could do a great deal to change that.

And of course some communities here in the United States -- and in our territories like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia -- are grappling with troubling woes that American know-how and American resources could help to overcome. We should tackle those as well.

This is baldly, perhaps naively, altruistic. It is also baldly, perhaps naively, patriotic. It scares me, and saddens me, that in Bush's America those aren't usually the same thing.

One cannot make an argument for altruism. Almost by definition, it cannot and does not make any argument on its own behalf. But what is the alternative? A greedy nation of frightened consumers, circling the wagons and defending the "homeland"? No thank you.

posted by Fred Clark 5:24 AM

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