SYNOPSIS: Bush's silent tilt towards the rich reaches silly levels.
When George W. Bush first became governor of Texas, he tried to cut the state tax on business profits while increasing the sales tax — that is, he tried to cut taxes on wealthy shareholders while raising taxes that bear most heavily on ordinary families. This top-down class warfare was too much even for Texas, and Mr. Bush learned that it's better to take a less direct approach: use unrealistically optimistic budget projections to justify tax cuts for the rich, then when reality strikes use the pressure of a tight budget to squeeze programs for the poor and middle class.
Until last week, the word was that Mr. Bush's tax cut had to be passed immediately to give the economy a short-term boost. Then Democrats came up with a much cheaper proposal that puts more money into consumers' hands this year. Now the word is that tax cutting is about long- term incentives, not short-run economic management.
But the push to pass the tax cut quickly, with minimal discussion, is still on. After all, who knows what wavering moderates might learn if they have time to check the details?
Not a week goes by without the discovery that some feature of the plan will cost far more than originally admitted. Last week's bombshell was a report from the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation that repealing the estate tax would offer wealthy Americans an array of new strategies that would allow them to legally avoid paying hundreds of billions in income taxes. That original "trillion-dollar tax cut" is now at $2.7 trillion and rising.
Republican leaders dealt with this blow, sort of, by postponing the phase-out of the estate tax. This does nothing to make the tax cut more affordable in the long run. But they hope that they can keep people focused on 10-year budget forecasts, and that nobody will ask what happens in year 11. Meanwhile, this news has another implication: Mr. Bush's tax plan is, believe it or not, even more tilted toward the rich than previously thought.
For all those chants of "no fuzzy math," Mr. Bush's people have never actually refuted independent estimates that about 40 percent of his tax cut goes to the richest 1 percent of families. In fact, a table released by the Treasury Department last month, although it was designed to convey the impression that the tax cut favored the middle class, actually contained enough information to show that if Treasury officials had calculated the share of the benefits going to the top 1 percent (they didn't), and if they had included the effects of estate tax repeal (they didn't), they would have come up with about the same number.
But now it seems that this is an underestimate. The Joint Tax Committee tells us that estate tax repeal will make it easier for the rich to avoid income taxes. So we can now surmise that more than half of the benefits of the tax cut will go to the wealthiest 1 percent. Or to put it in raw numbers: We're talking about a tax cut that would be worth nothing to the poorest quarter of families, which contain one-third of the nation's children; that would give an average of $616 per year to families with incomes between $30,000 and $40,000 (I calculated that number directly from the Treasury table. So much for that $1,600 "typical" tax cut); but would probably give more than $60,000 to families in the top 1 percent, whose average income is more than $1 million.
Meanwhile the big squeeze has already begun. Mr. Bush hopes to rush through the tax cut before anyone has a good look at his spending plans, but some details are starting to emerge: the Department of Health and Human Services intends, among other things, to slash spending on rural health, disease prevention and aid to senior citizens. And we can be sure that's just the beginning.
Will Mr. Bush eventually accept a revised tax plan that is less tilted toward the wealthy? I doubt it. Everything we have seen so far is consistent with the theory that those tax cuts for the rich are the whole point of the plan, that the middle-class cuts, such as they are, are no more than a loss leader designed to attract unwary customers.
And about those who thought Mr. Bush meant something kinder and gentler by "compassionate conservatism," all I can say is, let them eat cake. And drink arsenic.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.4.01