National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

With tax cuts, U.S. abdicates responsibility

The topic is taxes, but the underlying theme is a government’s responsibility toward its people.

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir had some pointed comments on the matter -- and linked them to Catholic social teaching -- in last week’s NCR.

Economics professor Drucilla Barker, in a letter to The New Yorker May 26, took the secular tack. She sees current U.S. budget priorities “poised to do irreparable harm to America’s economy and way of life.”

Admittedly these writers are not “compassionate conservatives” in the current understanding of the term. They’re addressing the Bush administration’s abdication of governmental responsibility toward the common good -- what we see as the White House’s abandonment of a sense of commonweal, an abandonment that ranges from treating the poor as capitalists to treating the forests and pristine areas as private preserves for those who extract and sell natural resources.

Our starting point is the one Hehir laid out: “The church has an expansive conception of its responsibilities for the common good. Poverty has multiple roots and many manifestations. The responsibility of the state or the government to address the fact of poverty is not limited to what it can do through religious or other private organizations. The state has distinct, independent duties to the welfare of individuals in society.”

Barker hitched her arguments to the United States’ taking on some elements of a banana republic: “In poor countries with extreme inequalities of income and wealth, powerful groups can refuse to bear their share of the tax burden for maintaining public services, social programs and the military.

“Raising revenues through borrowing rather than through taxation is an easy way out [and] aptly describes what is happening in the United States -- income and wealth inequality has increased steadily … while federal support for social programs has decreased.”

What Barker is talking about is what has happened, and accelerated, during the past 18 months.

A government established by the rich for the rich, which is this administration’s calling card, guarantees a Third World within this wealthy First World. Exhibit No. 1 in this indictment is the gimmick-laden tax cut package approved by Congress just before Memorial Day. According to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, the legislation will provide millionaires with a tax cut worth $93,500, grant no relief to 50 million households, and $100 or less to another 74 million households. Hardly fair, nor, for that matter, very smart, if the short-term objective is to boost the economy.

But it isn’t. The short-term intent is political -- the 2004 presidential elections.

Meanwhile, with few exceptions (Howard Dean’s opposition to the war against Iraq, Dick Gephardt’s call for a repeal of the tax cuts to pay for universal health insurance), the Democrats are rudderless.

Of all the tax cut’s pernicious effects (and there will be many, such as the growth in tax shelters for the wealthy) the most worrisome is the squeeze it places on needed domestic spending. Pressing problems in areas that include health care and housing, jobs and environmental protection, port security and education will go unmet for years to come, victim to the largest deficits the federal government has ever run.

Given the administration’s priorities -- tax cuts and the military -- there simply is not the money to address these problems.

In the past decade the state governments have been made the depository for social service dollars. Despite recent short-term fixes from the U.S. Senate, the U.S. states’ aggregate budget gap, according to the National Governors Association, has widened to almost $60 billion. State year-end balances from FY 2001 to FY 2002 fell 42 percent. More than half of all states took in less last year than the previous year and 29 have instituted across-the-board cuts.

The tax cut may send billions to the states, but will do nothing to help cities, said New Haven, Conn., Mayor John De Stefano Jr., president of the National League of Cities, which met recently in Washington. “People weren’t looking for a tax cut.” The mayors need money to fight crime, poor health, inadequate housing and deteriorating physical infrastructures, they said. But there will be nothing for them from this year’s federal budget.

Unemployment soars; welfare has disappeared. Ladies and gentleman of the United States, the country has a problem. And a presidential election campaign that’s already started.

The Democrats meanwhile don’t know what they are for, and certainly don’t know what they’re against.

Bush -- victorious in Afghanistan, triumphant in November 2002’s mid-term elections, conqueror of Iraq, master of Capitol Hill -- is at the pinnacle of his power. Next year, an election year, he will call for yet again more tax cuts.

“Compassionate conservatism” -- the political right’s anemic answer to promoting the common good -- is out, replaced by a hard-headed and deliberate governing strategy that promotes preemptive military strikes, tax cuts for those that need them least, and the starvation of domestic priorities.

As a plan for a great nation, it’s a disgrace. As an electoral strategy, sadly, it just might work.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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