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JOHN BALZAR

Divided (by Class) We'll Fall

Bush's 10-year tax package cuts into the very core of society.

January 12, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

Careful about all this "class warfare" talk. A little goes a long way and won't get us far.

One cause for real alarm about the president's 10-year tax cut, deficit-increase package: the division it's tearing open in society. Some of the truly ugly episodes in America's political history are rooted in the demagoguery that sends one group rampaging against another. As Jefferson and a long string of other leaders both good and bad have observed, revolutions are sometimes necessary. But not just yet. Not here.

Unfortunately, the players in Washington seem determined to play brinksmanship with this one.

Class warfare? No sooner had the leaks commenced than this became the popular term of argument pro and con over George W. Bush's $674-billion surprise.

And like most wars, it begins with hardening of views, the summons for everyone to join one side or another, the demonizing of those seen as foes, the spreading of anxiety and a general squandering of our civic energy.

Is this what we really voted for? War at home as well as in Iraq?

Let's stand back. I don't know exactly when Washington began to think in Soviet-style terms about 10-year plans, but it now seems the fashion. The rising debate in Washington over taxes and deficits isn't the annual partisan squabble. Economic stimulus? Our dreams for the long haul are wrapped in here too.

Where do we want to be after these 10 years? We don't hear much about that -- not in the planning of this proposal or its presentation or the reaction. We froth and fume over who gets what: Investors get half, unless they're 401(k) investors, and then they get zilch. The states get stiffed. Parents get a bonus unless they make more than $100,000. The unemployed get a trust fund. Seniors with incomes below $50,000 get 6% of the largess while those with $200,000 retirements get 40%. Married couples get what singles already have. Stockbrokers get overtime.

This is how we chart the future? Calling hungry hogs to the trough for a wallow in red ink?

Taxes in the U.S. serve two vital purposes, both of which are getting lost as we assume class-war footing. Taxes are our collective ante for roads, self-defense, education, health care for the elderly, law enforcement, Social Security and the other workings of our nation.

Might we work a question in edgewise: What happens to those things 10 years down the road?

Until recent years, taxes also represented our consensus that we were a middle-class society. To that end, we restrained the natural tendency of some people to accumulate a disproportionate share of our wealth. Republicans and Democrats alike referred to it as the progressive tax system. Earnings above a certain level were taxed at "progressively" higher rates.

Not so long ago, those rates went above 90% for earnings at the top level. Let's pause and remember that Americans were far less greedy and stressed as a consequence. Our overall standard of living progressed by the years. Along the way we built an interstate highway system. Our public schools were first-rate. Our industries led the world. There was no shortage of innovation or ambition. And we surrounded ourselves with personal comforts. We congratulated ourselves that we were the richest and freest nation on Earth.

Gated communities were not the rage. You never saw lawn signs warning of immediate response by private armed security. And we didn't have to face the unsettling news that two decades of growth in personal income had come to an end.

So what happens to the dwindling middle class in 10 more years? You can guess the answer.

Class warfare is what you end up with when the core of society is weakened and no longer holds us in agreement. We are drawn into the bear pit to quarrel over who gets what, when. As if that alone matters, and nothing else. We regard the middle class and what it represents as we might an old aunt: a nice enough lady who is still a presence in the family but isn't taken seriously anymore.

Yes, America prospers by the enterprise of its individuals. But America gained its greatness with the understanding that individuals do not prosper apart from the fortunes of the nation. Aristotle put it this way 2,325 years ago: "The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes."

But now our shared values, neighborhood values, our social conscience, our better natures, our prudence are being swept aside in a war for personal gain. The first casualty in this war is the very thing that made us so proud of our nation for so long: our quest of togetherness.

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