Surprise! There's hypocrisy in the budget debate

Jon Margolis

August 05, 1993|By Jon Margolis

DON'T be shocked, but not everyone involved in the current political debate is being entirely candid.

This is not unprecedented, but here the major offenders are not the office-holders but the citizens, the ones fighting President Clinton's budget proposal.

No presidential budget is sacrosanct, and there are legitimate grounds for finding this one unacceptable. But is it too much to ask its opponents to be honest about their opposition?

Well, yes, it seems to be.

But just because some are dishonest, others need not be naive. Real motives, even when hidden, can usually be discerned.

Some are obvious. Ross Perot is as obvious as ever, motivated by a blend of ambition, petulance and egomania. Mr. Perot said last week that he would fight the Clinton proposal because "the American people have no interest in a tax increase unless it balances the budget eventually."

There was no evidence that Mr. Perot had talked to the American people. Pollsters for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News talked to a random sample of them and found that most of them think Mr. Clinton's plan is a step in the right direction because it reduces the deficit, even if it does not abolish it.

But had Mr. Perot taken a temperate stand in favor of the president or even a temperate stand against him, he would be less likely to get invited onto a lot of television talk shows.

The Republicans are half-obvious. That half is politics. They're against Mr. Clinton because he's a Democrat.

But the Republican leaders are also protecting the interests -- financial, not political -- of their core constituents, and in many cases of themselves. Here, along with the rest of the anti-Clinton coalition, their motives are a tad less obvious. But this tad is so small that it would boggle the mind to see how many congresspersons are being bamboozled by it; did not the mind know how bamboozleable most congresspersons are?

To hear the budget foes tell it, they are motivated by their compassion for the struggling middle class, which would be burdened by a gasoline tax increase of five cents.

Hogwash. The gas tax is not the problem.

It isn't even unpopular. The latest poll shows an even split on the Senate version, which is 4.3 cents a gallon. At any rate, the tax is chicken feed. At a nickel a gallon, it would cost the typical driver $30 a year, and in increments of about 50 cents at a time. With this tax, a gallon of gas would still cost less than it did a few years ago.

Furthermore, there is a certain amount of discretion involved; most people can decide to drive somewhat less. And as Andrew Tobias pointed out in Time magazine, every time a person buys a new car (even a new used car) it is more fuel efficient. So the cost of a gasoline tax increase can evaporate as quickly as the fuel does.

No, the people in general are not in an uproar over the gasoline tax. A few people in particular are in an uproar over higher income tax rates for the wealthy. These people are -- surprise, surprise! -- the wealthy. The lobbyists fighting the Clinton plan are really upset that they and their friends, the folks who earn upward of $200,000 a year ($140,000 taxable income), are going to have to pay more.

They comprise only 1.2 percent of the people. But because they make roughly 15 percent of all income, they have disproportionate clout. They are the ultimate special-interest group.

There is an argument to be made against raising taxes on the rich. It's a tough one, because only the rich got real tax cuts throughout the 1980s, when state, local and Social Security taxes are included. The argument is that if the affluent are allowed to keep more of their money, they will invest more of it, boosting the economy.

But nobody is making that argument. Everyone has seen the polls showing that about three-quarters of the voters think it's time the wealthy paid more, so instead they are crying fake tears over the gas tax.

Perhaps the biggest fraud is the claim that the Clinton budget will hurt small business. In fact, it includes several goodies for small business, enough to inspire them to expand, perhaps enough to lift some proprietors into the higher brackets. That's -- the part they don't like. They want the goodies and low rates.

There is nothing particularly new about defenders of privilege trying to paint themselves as friends of the common man. Nor should they be condemned for doing so. It's only those who believe them who should be ashamed of themselves.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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