George, patron of the well-to-do


January 29, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Wasn't George the Patrician good last night? It's his best role, after all. He plays George the Patrician so well -- and so much better than he plays George the Tube Socks Shopper at J.C. Penney. The man's a natural defender of the rich. It's in his blood.

Consider his defense of a capital gains tax cut. Though it wasn't a major part of his speech, I'm sure it provoked a few salutes in those all-boys clubs the president likes to visit now and then. You could almost see the old-money walruses in their wing chairs, raising a Chivas to their boy in the White House as he chastised the Democrats for engaging in tawdry class warfare.

"Never has an issue been more demagogued by its opponents," the president said, referring to the tax cut he consistently supports and forgetting, for the moment, his little crusade against flag burning. "But the demagogues are wrong. They are wrong, and they know it. Sixty percent of the people who benefit from lower capital gains have incomes under $50,000. A cut in the capital gains tax increases jobs and helps just about everyone in our country."

Then, it got even better.

George, in his best Yankee-Yalie tone, decided to take a swipe at the revisionists who deride the Reagan-Bush policies as favoring the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor. To George, such revisionists are just a bunch of party poopers -- soreheads who missed the debutante cotillion.

"Those of you who say, 'Oh no, someone who's comfortable may benefit from that.' You kind of remind me of the old definition of the Puritan, who couldn't sleep at night worrying that somehow someone somewhere was out having a good time."

Good show, old boy! Really zonked them with that one, George!

Then came George Bush in yet another role -- peacemaker in America's class war:

"The opponents of this measure -- and those who've authored various so-called soak-the-rich bills that are floating around this chamber -- should be reminded of something: When they aim at the big guy, they usually hit the little guy. And maybe it's time that stopped."

Yeah, right. Cut it out! All this talk about unfairness in the tax structure -- it's counterproductive, you guys.

The rich get richer. Of course! They're supposed to get richer. What do you think makes this country great? And so what if the well-to-do get a little tax break here and there? So what if they get to keep their champagne flutes filled and their serving dishes loaded with Smokehouse Almonds? Better we all are for it. So let's stop this terrible, deplorable harassment of the rich. They don't deserve it.

For George the Patrician, it was his finest hour. It made his ancestors proud. And I'm sure he made a few smiles at the country club.

But the last thing working-class, middle-class people want to hear this time around is any variation on the trickle-down theme, which is the simple logic behind a capital gains cut.

Too many are still waiting for the trickles to reach them.

This past year, the Census Bureau reported that 33.6 million Americans live below the government-set poverty line ($13,359 annually for a family of four). A record 23.6 million people -- close to one in 10 Americans -- get food stamps.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve recently confirmed what had been suspected since a year or two after the Trojan horse of Reaganomics arrived in Washington: The rich got richer while the middle class stagnated. If there was a boom in the 1980s, its beneficiaries were a relatively small number of affluent Americans who were able to widen the gap between themselves and the rest of American society. A dramatic rise in the net worth of the most affluent Americans was due to the economic power they already had when the 1980s began. They benefited from the stock market boom, the explosion in housing prices and the high interest paid on certificates of deposits and other investments. They had huge capital gains. Wealth became more concentrated among the wealthy.

And did the wealthy pay their share in taxes?

There are still too many loopholes for the well-to-do. In 1990, some 550,000 couples and individuals reported income of $200,000 or more to the Internal Revenue Service. Of that number, 472 with a total income of $211 million paid no taxes at all.

George is right. Someone somewhere is having a good time.

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