Friday, March 17, 2006

Birds of a feather...

Maybe you've heard about Bush's top domestic policy advisor getting busted for stealing crap from Target. "Top domestic policy advisor" -- think Josh on early West Wing -- before he went to work for Santos. Dude makes $161.000 per year and he's wandering down to Target on weekends to boost $5000 worth of crap in a year? This obviously isn't a case of economic need -- it's the same sickness that drives so many wealthy, powerful people to keep squeezing the lemon long after all the juice is gone. I call it RAS (Rich Asshole Syndrome). Ask any homeless guy; he'll tell you that the people who give him some change aren't the ones who can afford it most easily, but the ones who cannot. Being obscenely wealthy is stressful. On some level, we know we don't deserve it, but we strive to make sense of it -- to create a narrative in which it makes sense that we have it and they don't. How else to live with the fact that the cost of our shoes could provide a month's health care for an entire village. I say "we" because, having spent a lot of time in places like India and Cambodia, I know what it's like to be obscenely wealthy. And I know some of the bizarre psycho-emotional contortions one can get into trying to feel justified and somehow "worthy." That's why the wealthy are so fond of telling us that they worked hard for every penny -- as if the poor don't work hard. It's a particularly poignant form of survivor's guilt -- but the victims aren't necessarily dead, just living in pain we'll never have to bear.

Given the nature of the bus we're riding, some will have a seat and some will have to stand. If you don't want to give your seat up to the pregnant woman, the least you can do is let her lean on your shoulder occasionally. But to do that requires that you acknowledge the injustice of the whole situation, and your complicity in being one of the "winners." That's far too much for the simple-minded buffoons we choose as our leaders these days. So no sharing of seats, and no leaning!

Anyway, here's a nice piece of work showing how Bush's advisor's crime is nothing more than a very small enactment of Bush's economic policies. From

"Claude Allen's Mentor
Shoplifting and Bushonomics.
By Jacob Weisberg

Last week, Slate broke the news that Claude Allen, until recently the White House chief domestic-policy adviser, was arrested for theft in suburban Maryland. The president has expressed his shock and disappointment. How could one of his top appointees, a devout Christian who passed a series of FBI background checks, have been a common thief? But the more we hear about what Allen is accused of, the less it sounds like kleptomania and the more it sounds like an application of Bush economic policy.

Allen's alleged scam was something called "refund fraud." According to the police in Montgomery County, he would purchase a home-theater system or a computer printer from a department store and put it in the trunk of his car. Then he would come back to the same store with his receipt, pull an identical item off the shelf, and take it to the return desk for a refund. Using this technique, a brazen perpetrator pays for the item once but derives value from it two times—he gets his money back and keeps the merch. Allen is alleged to have stolen more than $5,000 worth of merchandise over the past year in this way.

Just as a point of comparison, consider Bush's Social Security proposal, which died on the vine in Congress last year. Bush wanted to create a system of private retirement accounts for future retirees. To create these accounts would have required him to divert $1 trillion or so from the Social Security Trust Fund, which pays for benefits for current and future retirees. Since Bush did not propose to reduce benefits, how was he going to make up the difference? By sauntering to the customer service desk and asking for his money back. In this case, the receipt was a bogus projection that the retirement funds invested in the stock market would grow so quickly that everyone would come out ahead. The main difference between Allen's alleged scam and Bush's attempted one is scale. The goods Bush tried to slip under his coat at the Social Security Administration were worth around 200 million times as much as the ones Allen is said to have lifted at Target and Hecht's.

Allen's appliance-rustling days are surely over, but his former colleagues in the West Wing are still running all their favorite cons. At the moment, they're trying to slip more tax cuts out the door without stopping at the cash register. Their trick is to claim that with the manager's special, tax cuts are on sale—for nothing. "You cut taxes and the tax revenues increase," Bush said last month, in a typical statement on the subject. In other words, tax cuts will mean more money for the Treasury, not less.

There is, of course, no economic support for the concept that tax cuts are cost-free, just as there are no shops where customers are encouraged to walk past the checkout line without paying. Bush's tax-avoidance scam is based on the truism that government revenues almost always rise in nominal terms because of inflation, population growth, and GDP growth. Even if Congress cuts taxes, government is likely to take in more in 2007 than in 2006—it just won't take in as much more as it would have otherwise. According to a recent paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, after Bush's 2003 tax cuts, federal revenues were $316 billion below the administration's own previous forecast.

Another con the president pulls not at Wal-Mart but at the Office of Management and Budget is price-tag swapping. In this scam, the presidential perp picks out a high-priced item like a package of lamb chops or the Iraq war. When the security camera is pointed elsewhere, he peels off the $200 billion price tag and attaches a lower one. Should a subordinate threaten to squeal to security, the ringleader deals with the problem Tony Soprano-style. For instance, when the government's chief Medicare actuary came up with a too-high price tag of $551 billion for Bush's Medicare prescription drug bill, members of the president's gang paid a visit and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Keep quiet and keep your job. The official price tag was dropped to $400 billion—even though subsequent estimates have ranged as high as $700 billion.

Presidents set a moral example, and given the message Bush has been sending, it's no surprise that the problem of inventory shrinkage has spread to Congress as well. For example, Republicans in the Senate recently proposed a novel way to "pay" for extending Bush's tax cut on investment income, which will otherwise expire in 2009. They want to allow millionaires—and not just those making less than $100,000 a year—to convert their conventional IRAs to Roth IRAs, which allow people to deduct money tax-free upon retirement. This change would produce a temporary revenue boost, because taxes are due on the initial conversion to a Roth IRA. But the change would be a big money-loser in the long run. With this swindle—paying for one tax cut for the rich with another tax cut for the rich—Bushonomics has finally reached its larcenous apogee.

So, where might Claude Allen have learned you can get the things you want without having to pay for them? Let's just say it wasn't at church."

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