Who says we need a tax cut?

March 11, 2001|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- Barnstorming the country to drum his outsized tax cut to a public that, if the polls are right, is largely indifferent, President Bush is telling us we've been overcharged by the federal government and are due a refund.

This is an appealing conceit -- it makes righteous victims of us all -- but, to put the matter politely, it is not true.

We are being overcharged only if you think the future doesn't matter. And even if you do think that, the future is still out there, coming fast and bringing challenges.

Not least is the looming retirement of the baby boomers, a huge cohort that is bearing down on Social Security and Medicare like a plague of hungry locusts.

The larger part of the current surplus is collected in the trust funds of those two systems. Building them now against the dead-certain claims that are coming is like a family socking away money to put a couple of kids through college a decade from now. It is simply good sense.

Then, too, Mr. Bush says the surplus belongs to the taxpayers, and this is so. But the national debt belongs to us, too.

The surplus is the best opportunity we've ever had to retire the debt, cut federal borrowing fees that are costing us an arm and a leg and, into the bargain, promote solid economic growth by making affordable money available to the private sector for business expansion and modernization.

The president suggests that by some magic -- apparently compounded mainly of just saying it's so -- we can have big tax cuts mainly for the rich, debt reduction, Social Security and Medicare solvency and still buy big increases in military and education spending and, oh yes, while we're at it pick up their prescription tab for stretched seniors.

What Mr. Bush doesn't mention is that his plan accelerates the cuts in the out years, meaning that to pay for them, existing federal programs -- nicked only lightly this year -- will cumulatively have to be savaged and that in time of big increases in the regressive payrolls taxes will likely be necessary to keep Medicare and Social Security afloat.

Mr. Bush is getting a major assist in his pitch from media suddenly more lapdog than watchdog.

NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, for instance, has taken to characterizing the Bush proposal as "your tax cut" -- as in, "Your tax cut came under fire today from Democrats in Congress," or words to that effect.

And most of the press bought unquestioningly into the administration's spin that Alan Greenspan supported the Bush tax cuts in his recent comments to Congress.

In fact, what the ever-oracular Federal Reserve chairman seemed to say was that he would rather see the surplus go to tax cuts than to big new spending commitments. But that is not the only choice. Debt reduction paired with spending restraint would have an equally prudent outcome.

Most of the media's once-healthy skepticism has melted into fawning, and Mr. Bush is hawking his budget and tax cuts more in the rhetoric of right-wing talk radio than of serious policy. No telling where, in the long run, that combination can take us.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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