SYNOPSIS: Meditations on big lies, the Bush tax cut, and Hitler
You may recall that George W. Bush promised, among other things, to change the tone in Washington. He made good on that promise: the tone has certainly changed.
As far as I know, in the past it wasn't considered appropriate for the occupant of the White House to declare that members of the opposition party weren't interested in the nation's security. And it certainly wasn't usual to compare anyone who wants to tax the rich — or even anyone who estimates the share of last year's tax cut that went to the wealthy — to Adolf Hitler.
O.K., maybe we should discount remarks by Senator Phil Gramm. When Mr. Gramm declared that a proposal to impose a one-time capital gains levy on people who renounce U.S. citizenship in order to avoid paying taxes was "right out of Nazi Germany," even the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, objected to the comparison.
But Mr. Grassley must have thought better of his objection, since just a few weeks later he decided to use the Hitler analogy himself: "I am sure voters will get their fill of statistics claiming that the Bush tax cut hands out 40 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. This is not merely misleading, it is outright false. Some folks must be under the impression that as long as something is repeated often enough, it will become true. That was how Adolf Hitler got to the top."
For the record, Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice — the original source of that 40 percent estimate — is no Adolf Hitler. The amazing thing is that Mr. Grassley is sometimes described as a moderate. His remarks are just one more indicator that we have entered an era of extreme partisanship — one that leaves no room for the acknowledgment of politically inconvenient facts. For the claim that Mr. Grassley describes as "outright false" is, in fact, almost certainly true; in a rational world it wouldn't even be a matter for argument.
You might imagine that Mr. Grassley has in hand an alternative answer to the question "How much of the tax cut will go to the top 1 percent?" — that the administration has, at some point, produced a number showing that the wealthy aren't getting a big share of the benefits. In fact, however, administration officials have never answered that question. When pressed, they have always insisted on answering some other question.
But last year the Treasury Department did release a table showing, somewhat inadvertently, that more than 25 percent of the income tax cut will go to people making more than $200,000 per year. This number doesn't include the effects of estate tax repeal; in 1999 only 2 percent of estates paid any tax, and half of that tax was paid by only 0.16 percent of estates. The number also probably doesn't take account of the alternative minimum tax, which will snatch away most of the income tax cut for upper-middle-class families, but won't affect the rich.
Put all this together and it becomes clear that, sure enough, something like 40 percent of the tax cut — it could be a bit less, but probably it's considerably more — will go to 1 percent of the population. And the administration's systematic evasiveness on the question of who benefits from the tax cut amounts to a plea of nolo contendere.
Which brings us back to the new tone in Washington.
When Ronald Reagan cut taxes on rich people, he didn't deny that that was what he was doing. You could agree or disagree with the supply-side economic theory he used to justify his actions, but he didn't pretend that he was increasing the progressivity of the tax system.
The strategy used to sell the Bush tax cut was simply to deny the facts — and to lash out at anyone who tried to point them out. And it's a strategy that, having worked there, is now being applied across the board.
Michael Kinsley recently wrote that "The Bush campaign for war against Iraq has been insulting to American citizens, not just because it has been dishonest, but because it has been unserious. A lie is insulting; an obvious lie is doubly insulting." All I can say is, now he notices? It's been like that all along on economic policy.
You see, some folks must be under the impression that as long as something is repeated often enough, it will become true. That was how George W. Bush got to the top.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.18.02