Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Norquist Watch

Yep, Grover is still a lunatic. Nicholas Confessore had the uneviable job of interviewing "Barf Bag" for the NYT Magazine....

His particular genius is for persuading one organization to reach beyond its own agenda to help out another -- for getting, say, the cultural traditionalists at the Eagle Forum to join the business libertarians at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in opposing fuel-economy standards for automobiles by convincing the traditionalists that, as Norquist once explained to me, ''it's backdoor family planning. You can't have nine kids in the little teeny cars. And what are you going to do when you go on a family vacation?''

Kind of funny for an unmarried man, possibly a closet gay, to gripe about people not being able to punch out unlimited numbers of brats due to the size of their car, isn't it?

In the years since Bush's defeat, Norquist's way of thinking about taxes -- that they should be cut whenever and wherever possible -- has become the central tenet of American conservatism. Currently, the Pledge has been signed by 222 members of the House and 46 Senators, which includes pretty much every Republican in both chambers. It has also been signed by Bush's son President George W. Bush, who has not only kept his pledge but also made cutting taxes the signal domestic accomplishment of his first term. Taxes are likely to be at the heart of Bush's second-term agenda, too: not long after Election Day, Bush announced that the tax code had become ''complicated and outdated'' and ''a drag on our economy'' and that it was time, once again, for tax reform. Earlier this year, Bush named members to a bipartisan commission to get the ball rolling. ''All options,'' a Treasury Department official warned, ''are on the table.''

Of course when Grover talks about cutting taxes, he inevitably means taxes for rich people. To maintain some level of government service, taxes on the poor - regressive taxes like sales taxes and various "fees" - keep going up while the parasites cavort. It happened here in Ohio. The sales tax went up, various fees have gone up, and now they're talking about adding on a "parking fee" at our state parks, instead of taking people like Les Wexner, turning him upside down, and shaking until his ill-gotten gain comes flying out. Nick Confessore, to his credit, sees through Grover's smoke screen:

During the latter half of the 20th century, most Democrats and Republicans accepted -- at least in theory -- the notion that taxation should be as broad-based as possible; no one swathe of the public, and no one sector of the economy, should absorb too much of the cost of government, both because it was unfair and because it was inefficient. The 1986 act brought the federal tax code closer to that vision by cutting loopholes and, as a consequence, expanding the pool of taxpayers. But Republicans today have something else in mind. By their lights, the old consensus is not only outdated, but egregiously so, even offensively so. Bush's call for reform gives them a chance to replace it with something else.

And in many respects, the replacement is already well under way. After four rounds of largely Republican-inspired tax legislation, today's code is a profoundly different instrument than the one that existed when Bush first took office. And though the White House has never publicly laid out a common rationale for its policies, Bush's changes -- which have cut income taxes on high earners, reduced rates on capital gains and dividend income, temporarily eliminated the estate tax and allowed businesses to write off the cost of new capital purchases more quickly -- depart drastically from the old model of reform. Bush's cuts have greatly reduced the costs formerly borne by corporations and the wealthy, leaving the tax code considerably less progressive than it once was.

Evidently Grover does not learn from history, or he'd realize that this kind of thing has a nasty tendency to lead to firing squads and/or guillotines.

How you view this arrangement depends a lot on whether you buy the assumption that letting the wealthy off the hook will eventually benefit everyone else. Early one recent Saturday morning, I paid a visit to John Podesta, the last chief of staff to serve under Clinton, at his home in Washington. He greeted me at the door in sweat pants and a T-shirt, and we sat down at his kitchen table to talk taxes. Podesta has a lean, shrewd face, a twinkle in his eye and a reputation as one of the party's canniest operatives; these days, he heads the Center for American Progress, which he founded a little more than a year ago to incubate new policies and approaches among left-of-center types.

Podesta has little faith in the conservatives' trickle-down approach. He also says it is bad economic policy -- ''fatally flawed,'' as he put it. ''We're already seeing the current account deficit increase by $600 billion a year,'' he continued. ''People are mortgaged to the hilt. The middle class is now being fundamentally squeezed. They've gotten no benefit from the tax reduction. G.D.P. growth is going almost all to corporate profits. And we're creating an overall economic circumstance in which the dollar is certain to drop, interest rates are certain to rise and growth over the long term looks kind of sketchy.''

To understand why the G.O.P. has pursued such a policy, Podesta argues, you have to look at the political dividends, not the economic ones. ''What are the structural elements of what they are trying to do with the tax code?'' he began, busying himself at a small coffee machine. ''I would say there are three. One is to eliminate taxation on wealth and investment. Second is to create a revenue stream that aims at a government the size of which we haven't seen almost since before the Depression.'' Already, he points out, the government takes in far less than it spends, forcing the Bush administration to borrow billions of dollars to cover the revenue lost from cutting taxes. ''Three is that if you build in taxation only on wage income, you have massive resistance by the middle class to letting those taxes rise. So you've kind of locked in three structural components that end up being highly beneficial to wealthy people, and I think, from a conservative governance point of view, create not just restraint on the growth of government, but essentially pressure to downsize the government.''

In other words, the rich get richer, and you end up eating dog food and shivering on top of a heat grate on the sidewalk.

Check it out.


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