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COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

The Pot Calls the Kettle Socialist : Defense contractors and microchip manufacturers also are on the federal dole.

March 12, 1995|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a former Times national correspondent

I know it's not news when Newt Gingrich goes off the deep end, but now he's really losing it. Railing that the editorial boards of America's newspapers are rife with socialists reveals a cognitive disconnect that rivals the late Sen. Joe McCarthy's assertion that communists had infiltrated the Pentagon. Editorial boards serve at the whim of publishers, a group so alienated from the politics of the left that more than a few of them must have thought that Gingrich meant socialites.

On the other hand, Gingrich's definition of socialist (any government program with a social purpose) is so broad that it is possible that most socialites would be included. For example, those who favored extending the California freeway system to Newport Beach would qualify.

American presidents from F.D.R. on would certainly fit under Gingrich's socialist rubric. Did one of them ever denounce public education as a liberal Democrat plot, as Gingrich did last Monday, saying that liberal Democrats should be condemned for "the monstrosities they have created, their public-housing projects that are death traps for the poor, their public schools that are literacy traps for the poor"?

In a devilish bit of socialist disinformation, Washington Post reporter Kenneth J. Cooper pointed out that "it was Whigs who pushed universal public education in Northern states before the Civil War and Republicans who opened schools throughout the South afterward." Gingrich also acknowledged that most massive public-housing projects, like Cabrini-Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, were a creation of the Eisenhower Administration. Then again, Eisenhower, although a Republican, was probably, as McCarthy suggested, a closet socialist.

Actually, Republicans have a thing for public housing. Just look at how many of them are serving time for milking the Housing and Urban Development Department during the Reagan years. James G. Watt, former Interior secretary and once a major conservative thinker, was the latest indicted, on 25 counts of lying to Congress about his lobbying HUD on behalf of private developers. Independent counsel Arlin M. Adams reported that the investigation of Watt has already enabled the federal government to recover $10 million intended for low-income housing in the Virgin Islands that ended up in some already stuffed wallets. Sounds pretty socialist, even Brezhnevian.

Silly me. What I seem to have trouble grasping is that federal funding of the wealthy has nothing to do with socialism. Still, there are some Republicans troubled by this socialism for the rich. Take the folks at the Cato Institute, a respected conservative, libertarian Washington think tank. A recent Cato study complains that "business subsidy programs cost federal taxpayers roughly $85 billion annually and the dollar amount has been growing substantially." One example is the nearly $100 million a year that the Pentagon gave to large producers of computer microchips, including Intel, which are hardly hurting.

Then there's the $2 billion a year provided through the Rural Electrification Administration to hugely profitable electric utilities, which, as Cato points out, "hold down the costs of running ski resorts in Aspen, Colo., five-star hotels in Hilton Head, S.C., and gambling casinos in Las Vegas." Last year, the Agriculture Department spent $110 million advertising Pillsbury muffins, Gallo Wine and McDonald's Chicken McNuggets for sale abroad.

What about the dubious tax breaks for wealthy corporations, which the OMB estimates cost $54 billion last year in lost tax revenue? That's more than three times what Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program, costs. One example of the rapacious corporate giveaways is the $500-million annual tax subsidy for the production of ethanol from corn. Fully 70% of ethanol in this country is sold by one company, Archer Daniels Midland, a $10-billion agribusiness. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole must like that company, which has handed him more than $150,000 in contributions over the years.

We haven't even mentioned the $253-billion Pentagon budget, which sustains the largest and most successful planned economy in the world. True, the Pentagon has its job training, health and other safety-net programs that the Republicans might find socialist, but it works really well with the private sector. Just ask defense contractor Martin Marietta, which according to the Cato report recently billed the Pentagon for $263,000 worth of tickets to a Smokey Robinson concert, $20,000 for golf balls and $7,000 for an office Christmas party. Hell of a deal . . . just don't call it socialism.

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