Hard Choices

GEORGE F. WILL

June 07, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Since the House vote to raise taxes considerably and cut spending slightly, the Democratic wing of the political class is preening about the ''hard choices'' it made. It chose to preserve every program, prune a few, and grasp a larger share of taxpayers' resources.

The honey subsidy (a relic of the Second World War, when honey was a sugar substitute and beeswax was used for waterproofing) survived. The wool subsidy (a relic of the immediate postwar period, when the military worried about having enough wool for uniforms) survived. The president boasts of reducing the Rural Electrification Administration subsidy. That is a Washington ''hard choice'': trimming a Depression-era program that lost its rationale a generation ago.

The largest peanut producer on the list of the top 2,334 producers who control more than 50 percent of the government-established peanut quota is that of a Georgia farmer. He controls 18,262,701 pounds of the quota. He can sell that many pounds of peanuts for at least $6,154,530, thanks to a price floor guaranteed by the government. The General Accounting Office estimates that this is a $2.7 million windfall.

Or he can ''earn'' about $2.1 million by producing nothing but renting his quota to another producer. The GAO estimates that consumers pay half a billion dollars extra in government-inflated peanut prices. The peanut program survived the ''hard choices'' dictated by the ''crisis'' that supposedly requires tax increases.

Some ''conservative'' House Democrats demanded ''entitlement caps'' as the price of their vote for the president's package. Here is the ''hard choice'' they settled for: If entitlement spending exceeds certain targets, the government must either raise taxes or cut spending or do nothing (which means borrowing to cover the increase of the deficit). But it has always been the case that when outlays exceed revenues government must tax more or spend less or borrow more.

Another Washington ''hard choice'' is to blame problems on despised ''interests.'' Last week Hillary Clinton said the health-care system is being ''ripped off'' by ''price gouging'' and ''unconscionable profiteering'' by people who ''have made too much money.''

Mrs. Clinton, who fancies herself an advanced thinker, actually is an echo of an old tradition that historian Richard Hofstadter called ''the paranoid style in American politics.'' It is a tradition of suspicion and overheated rhetoric, ascribing social problems to sinister cabals -- blaming economic problems on ''Jewish financiers,'' blaming wars on munitions makers (a.k.a. ''merchants of death''), blaming diplomatic difficulties on ''communists in the State Department.''

The First Couple's first fling at such cartoonish simplification concerned the inadequate rate of child immunization, which they blamed largely on profiteering by greedy pharmaceutical companies. Last week the public policy center at Brandeis University issued a report that the university summarized as follows:

''In attacking vaccine prices, the Clinton administration has ignored the real cause of low childhood immunization rates: the fact that parents do not take the responsibility to fully immunize their children. In addition, the study found that vaccines are already widely available without charge or at low cost to eligible parents who are motivated to immunize their children.''

We should not expect such a politically incorrect idea to be presented to the First Couple by the amazingly adaptable David Gergen who, having served Ronald Reagan, now serves a president who vows to ''reverse Reaganism.''

Hiring Mr. Gergen underscores President Clinton's evident belief that Mr. Reagan was a chimera conjured up by clever salesmen, a cipher whose successes were tributes to his handlers.

Mr. Gergen will not dispute his boss about that. After Mr. Clinton's victory in the House last week, Mr. Gergen, sitting in the White House, gushed that it ''was as well done as anything that my friend and mentor Jim Baker pulled off in the Reagan regime.'' You see: President Reagan was a bystander.

The media have been reporting that Mr. Gergen got Mr. Reagan to ask, in the 1980 debate, the potent question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Well.

Leave aside the question of whether Mr. Gergen really did that. (I think not.) But note that he must be telling the media that he did. President Clinton may come to regret Mr. Gergen's coming stories about who ''pulled off'' what during the Clinton years.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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