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Political Animal

If It's War They Want

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/4/2009

It's getting to that time when we may have to man the barricades and wait for the telltale sound of squealing now that President Obama has released his budget. Not long after that, we'll see the banners and hear the predictable charges of "Class warfare!" And if you think about it, that's exactly what it is--and the class that has been taking it on the chin for the last 30 years is about ready to return fire.

It was Ronald Reagan who began this battle, on a number of fronts. It was Reagan, the first union member to become president, who cut the legs out from under the collective bargaining movement, beginning the steady erosion of union membership (thus giving power to the executive class whose salaries began their explosive and outrageous rise). It was Reagan who began the campaign to lower the top-tier tax rates, by a series of avuncular lies, the biggest of which was ridiculed as "trickle-down economics." Give all the tax breaks to the top brackets and the largesse would trickle down to everyone else. Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, was even quoted in The Atlantic in 1981 as calling the Reagan tax plan "a Trojan Horse" to bring down the top rate. By the time George H.W. Bush took office, the top tax rate was down to 28 percent, and Reagan had yet to fulfill his promise to balance the budget with all the magical revenues that cutting taxes were supposed to bring.

When Bill Clinton raised the top rate back up to 39.6 percent, conservatives took to the airwaves with their unceasing whine that Clinton enacted "the largest tax increase in American history." Eight years later, Clinton balanced the budget and left George W. Bush with a surplus. And what was the first thing Bush claimed? That he could cut taxes, keep the surplus and grow the economy! Have we learned anything here yet?

About every other year in this space for the last six years, I have repeated Santayana's old saw about what happens to those who forget history (while putting together my book of columns, this became rather obvious), but here I am again trying to point out what will happen--and the conservatives are playing their part right down to re-blocking the same choreography.

The blogger David Waldman, known as "Kagro X" on the Daily Kos, compiled a list of quotes from prominent Republicans back in 1993 after Clinton proposed his deficit reduction plan (that, like Obama's stimulus plan, passed without a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives). Newt Gingrich, who this weekend was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as one of the Republicans jockeying to lead the party out of the wilderness, said this at a GOP press conference in August of 1993: "I believe this will lead to a recession next year. This is the Democrat machine's recession, and each one of them will be held personally accountable."

In contrast, by the time George W. Bush had been in office a year, the right-wingers were already champing at the bit not just to keep lowering the top rate, but actually pushing to tax low-income earners even more, since in their eyes, if poor people aren't taxed enough, they aren't angry enough about the size of government (which has always been bad in the eyes of the right). Calling the poor "Lucky Duckies," the Wall Street Journal editorialized in November 2002 that "Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government."

By the end of the Bush administration, Bloomberg reported that the average tax rate paid by the richest 400 Americans dropped a quarter to a stunning 17.2 percent and their average income doubled to $263.3 million, mostly because of the steady Bush effort to keep cutting capital gains rates. The Congressional Budget Office points out that the average post-tax income of the top one percent of households, adjusted for inflation, jumped by a million dollars since 1979, while the pay for most families has only barely climbed faster than the inflation rate.

If this is class warfare, the tanks of the rich have been grinding the rest of us down into the mud for 30 years. Lawrence Summers, the former Clinton treasury secretary turned Obama economic advisor, used to say that, in effect, families in the bottom 80 percent of earners were each sending an annual check of $7,000 to the top one percent.

President Obama has a chance to reverse the reverse-Robin Hood mindset that the Republicans have foisted on us for two generations. All the money that has been funneled to those top earners has gone to eviscerate government, enable irresponsible stock traders and real estate swindlers, and balloon executive salaries despite vanishing profits and failing companies, while the pensions and the jobs and the futures of middle class and poor Americans vanished like tears.

Change isn't going to come quick. As a matter of fact, it's going to be a war, and the people who got all that money aren't going to give up easily.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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