BERT FRIDLEY's friend, Freddie Posh, earns just under a half-million dollars a year. They've been friends since they were in grammar school, so they've always been able to speak frankly to one another.
"Freddie," Bert said, "do you think it's fair that I, with an income of $32,651.82, should pay income taxes at the same rate as you, with an income of close to a half-million?"
"It's not only fair," Fred replied. "It's for your own good."
"Give me that again, Fred."
"I repeat. It's for your own good. That's why President Bush and the Republicans in Congress -- and by the way, quite a few Democrats -- have been so reluctant to change the tax rate for the upper-income brackets."
"I have an open mind, Freddie. Tell me why it's for my own good."
"In a word, investment. You have to have a class of people capable of investing, to keep the engine of democracy moving."
"How does that help me?"
"Simple. I invest money in new plants and equipment, that provides productivity and jobs, and people like you are assured of employment."
Bert had to think about this for a minute. "But Fred, you spend six months of the year at Cannes and the other six in Boca Raton. I get two weeks' vacation at Ocean City, and that's . . ."
"You're missing the point," Fred interrupted. "Last year I invested heavily in Cosmic Technologies, enabling them to plan a vast new expansion with great promise."
"My recollections, Fred, is that all Cosmic Technologies did with your money was buy out Astral Computers, its chief competitor, shut down three subsidiaries and put 4,000 people out of work."
"That was a step toward efficiency. To survive you have to have a lean and mean organization."
"Tell that to those 4,000 people who lost their jobs."
"Bert Fridley, you never have understood the economic system. For example, capital formation."
"Does that have something to do with the Redskins?"
"Don't be silly, Bert. It means you have to have people like me to provide capital for investment. People who take risks to expand the economy."
"But Freddie, you don't even have a job."
"But my money works -- for you and all Americans."
"What you are saying is that we need a class of wealthy people -- drones -- to spend all their time -- er-ah -- making love to the queen for the good of the hive. Symbolically, that's what you're doing in Cannes all summer and Palm Beach all winter. And maybe not just symbolically, for all I know."
"What about the risk I take?"
"Freddie, your risk in terms of putting bread on the table is less than the risk I took last week when I bought a refrigerator on credit. If you invest a hundred thousand, you've still got four hundred thousand left."
"That's the way the system works."
"All I know is that over the past 10 years, the bottom fifth of the population has gotten much poorer and the top fifth has gotten much richer. And I didn't say it; the Wall Street Journal did. Remember, that's 'the daily diary of the American dream.' "
"Unfortunately," Fred smirked, "the Wall Street Journal sometimes allows itself to be hoodwinked by its liberal reporters."
"Furthermore, the taxes of those in the bottom fifth have increased up to 50 percent more than their income since 1981. For the top fifth it's exactly the reverse. And that's straight from the Congressional Budget Office."
"And yet Congress doesn't seem to want to change the situation, even though your beloved Democrats have a majority. Could it be that they don't want to indulge in infamous soak-the-rich policies that you seem to be advocating?"
Bert looked puzzled. "Could it be that they don't want to offend the people who provide their campaign funds?"
"There -- you said it. Even Democrats depend on rich people, just to get elected." Freddie slapped him on the back. "Bert, you're a well-meaning guy, but hopelessly naive. You're not going to change the way the world works."
"Well, doggone, I vote."
"For who, Bert? For who -- er -- whom? Do you think your favorite Democrat is going to alienate his rich friends? What you're advocating is nothing short of class warfare."
"You're damn right," said Fridley. "I've had enough."
Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.