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Share the Benefits and the Burdens

June 02, 2003|Mario Cuomo | Mario Cuomo was governor of New York for 12 years.

Almost overnight, we've gone from the greatest federal budget surpluses to the greatest federal deficits and debt in our history. Our states and local governments will have $100 billion of cumulative deficits, creating property tax and sales tax increases, as well as cutbacks in vital services like education, health care and environmental protection -- more blows to an already weak economy that has lost 2.7 million jobs in two years.

Ten million of our 150 million workers are unemployed; the rest are sliding backward, loaded with debt, not able to keep up with the increased costs of health care, education and housing. Sixty million Americans last year went without health care for part of the year. Thirty-five million Americans are poor; 12 million of them are children at risk of poverty and abuse. Millions of elderly go without prescription drug coverage.

The president agreed to devote more resources to education and promised to "leave no child behind" -- then he didn't leave enough money behind to improve their public schools and to help them get a college education.

He promised to help people who desperately needed health insurance and prescription drugs, but now he says the nation can't afford it, nor can we afford to shore up Medicare and Social Security.

If he's right, it's certainly not because we lack the resources; it's because the president has chosen instead huge tax cuts -- the largest portion of which go to the wealthiest Americans.

Most objective experts agree that these cuts are nothing more than a Pavlovian response to the demands of conservative dogmatism. There's a place for ideology in political policymaking, but it's certainly not first place. First place should go to common sense.

Let's be sensible: We can stimulate business, make American workers more productive and avoid punishing tax increases all at the same time. We should defer the nearly $500 billion in 2001 cuts until we get the federal government back to the annual surpluses that President Bush assumed when he decided on the cuts in the first place.

In the meantime, we should choose different, more economically productive tax cuts. Instead of giving nearly $500 billion to the richest 1.2 million Americans, we should use part of it to give tax cuts to the hard-working 150 million workers who are struggling because they can't afford to buy all they need.

Millionaires don't need more spending money. These workers do, and they will spend it buying goods and services and helping businesses. These cuts would be stimulative to the economy besides being fairer to the Americans who need fairness the most.

We also should give part of the nearly $500 billion to states and local governments as short-term revenue-sharing for use in avoiding hurtful tax increases and reduced investment in education, health care and law enforcement.

The rest of the nearly $500 billion should be used as additional federal aid to education, health care, the environment, Social Security and Medicare.

The United States was born in outrageous ambition. The deprived and the oppressed from all over the globe came here with little more than the desire to realize themselves. In just over 200 years they built us into the most powerful nation on Earth, a nation that has multiplied success generation after generation. They did it by insisting on a market system and personal responsibility that make up the rock-solid foundation on which our society has flourished.

But they also realized that we could not achieve greatness as a dog-eat-dog society of millions of disassociated individuals. They recognized the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of us -- as a nation and beyond. So they supplemented the market system by having government contribute to the people's well-being in order to enhance the productivity of American workers.

We made this country great by coming together and sharing benefits and burdens for the good of the whole nation.

That's not some glib slogan invented as the latest political conceit. It's history, and it's plain common sense.

As we invest in one another's ability to be productive, we increase the community's wealth and we reduce its costly disorientations. That's what Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the highway program and the United Nations are all about.

God forbid we should allow history to record that the best thing this generation did as a nation was to destroy enemies and win wars, instead of helping people help themselves earn a good life. We know we can frighten people with our awesome military might; what we need to be sure of is that they respect us for our wisdom and fairness as well.

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