AUSTIN, Texas - The state of the union is that money talks and public policy is sold to the highest bidder.
Those who give money in political contributions - less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population gave 83 percent of all campaign contributions in the 2002 elections - get back billions in tax breaks, subsidies and the right to exploit public land at ridiculously low prices.
This system in turn costs ordinary Americans billions of dollars, not to mention the costs to health, safety and the environment and the cost of not having enough money for good schools.
Public Campaign, the group working for public financing of political campaigns, has put together some of the salient information in the form of a poster, available at www.publiccampaign.org - and perhaps the most depressing thing about it is the size of the payoffs for relatively small investments in political campaigns.
For example, the top corporations that paid zero taxes from 1996 to 1998 - including AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Chase Manhattan, Enron, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Microsoft, Pfizer and Phillip Morris - gave $150.1 million to campaigns from 1991 to 2001. Public Campaign reports they got $55 billion in tax breaks from '96 to '98 alone, perennial legislation to gut the alternative minimum tax and billions in rebates to select corporations. Public Campaign also notes that we paid with a huge shift in who pays more into the federal treasuries: Three times as much money now comes from working people's payroll taxes as from corporate tax payments.
The entire system of taxation is regressive. The only way the spinners of damn lies and statistics can get away with claiming that the rich pay more in taxes is because they count only the income tax, which is progressive. But sales taxes, excise taxes, import tariffs, payroll taxes and state taxes give an entirely different picture.
The Consumer Expenditure Survey prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the burden from nearly all forms of taxation - income, excise, sales, property and payroll - is spread fairly evenly up and down the scale.
The poorest fifth, with an average income of $7,946, has a cumulative tax rate of 18 percent. The richest fifth, with an average income of $116,666, now pays 19 percent in cumulative taxes - and that of course goes down under the Bush plan. The percentages for the three middle quintiles are 14, 16 and 17.
There is double taxation throughout the system, yet President Bush is concerned only about the "double taxation" of dividends. The poorest fifth of Americans has an average of $25 in dividend income; the richest fifth has $1,188. Yet $364 billion out of a $674 billion "economic stimulus" plan is for ending taxes on dividends.
The big winners in our cash-and-carry system of government are corporate special interests.
Public Campaign finds that for a mere $48.9 million in campaign contributions, from 1989 to the present, the managed health care and health insurance companies got protection from lawsuits by patients who have been denied medical care, and defeat of proposed laws that would make it easier for patients to choose their own doctor and would get their emergency room visits reimbursed. We pay with over 41 million Americans lacking health insurance - and with unnecessary death and suffering when HMOs overrule doctors.
As Kevin Phillips reports in Wealth and Democracy, the entire top 1 percent, more than 1 million families, increased their average net worth by 75 percent during the 1990s. The net worth of the middle quintile, adjusted for inflation, declined 10 percent between 1983 and 1995, and rose briefly in 1998 and 1999, only to slide back after 2000.
"Wage earners in the United States collectively ended the decade with less pension and health coverage, as well as with the Industrial West's least amount of vacation time, shortest maternity leaves and shortest average notice of termination," says Mr. Phillips.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the typical American worked 350 more hours per year than the typical European, the equivalent of nine work weeks.
That's the state of the union.
Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.
Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.