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The tools we don't need


NEW YORK -- Somebody at Homeland Security must have slipped the manuscript of my next book to Karl Rove. Among other things, my upcoming political manifesto posits that the Republicans won't be able to surf the 9/11-generated shock-and-awe wave forever. It's still the economy, stupid; it always will be.

All the foreign policy successes in the world -- catching Saddam, terrorizing Libya into unilateral disarmament, even dragging Osama's bloated carcass down K Street -- won't make 3 million people forget that they've lost their jobs or that Bush, whose estimated net worth runs between $9,634,088 and $26,593,000, refused to extend their unemployment checks.

Unless there's another dramatic attack in '04, domestic issues will determine what happens in November.

Word has it that Bush will kick off his "re-election campaign with a package of domestic economic proposals to be announced during this month's State of the Union address. What the GOP calls "The Ownership Society," writes conservative New York Times pundit David Brooks, will "embrace the more productive and fluid economy, but make sure government aggressively moves to give workers the tools they need to cope."

"The Ownership Society," which acknowledges that most people change employers and careers throughout their working lives, shows that conservatives have been doing some creative thinking about their domestic agenda. Among the highlights:

Portable Health Insurance: Tax credits would subsidize medical premiums, the number of people who qualify for existing government programs like Medicare would be expanded, and small businesses would be allowed to form pools so their employees would qualify for group plans.

Re-employment Accounts: Unemployment stipends would be replaced by lump-sum personal "accounts" that layoff victims could spend, says Brooks, "on training, child care, a car, a move to a place with more jobs, or whatever else they think would benefit them."

Privatizing Social Security: This idea has been around for years. You would decide where to invest the money in your Social Security "account," like employees do now with their 401(k)s. As with a 401(k), you would reap big rewards during stock market booms but risk getting wiped out in a crash.

Except for Social Security privatization, which would excessively endanger retirement funds to line the pockets of politically connected Wall Street brokerage houses, these are interesting ideas -- in theory. If you take a closer look, however, reality asks a lot of tough questions.

Bush says he wants Americans to adopt a "responsibility culture." But his Ownership Society concept requires more responsibility than most folks should be asked to bear. The health insurance tax credit, for example, would come in the form of a big refund check after taxpayers file their 1040s. Many workers, hit hard by stagnating wages and unexpected expenses, will spend the government windfall on other bills. The same thing goes for re-employment accounts. You and me, we might spend the money on computer classes. But for too many people, it's too big a temptation.

Worse still, the GOP's track record suggests that Bush's Ownership Society would merely replace the antiquated liberal safety net -- which assumes that a person works for the same employer his or her entire life -- with a privatized system that's so poorly underfinanced as to be worthless. The much-ballyhooed No Child Left Behind Act has been, well, left behind -- it hasn't received a penny. Bush welshed on his promise to spend $15 billion on African AIDS prevention. The average dollar value of the school vouchers issued by Cleveland, whose program Republicans say should be copied nationally, is so low that parents can't afford to move their kids to private schools. And the average taxpayer will receive just $800 from Bush's tax cuts -- enough to bankrupt the treasury but not to stimulate the economy.

"Congress and the administration are looking at proposals that cost $50 billion to $80 billion over 10 years," the Times says. But that's chump change next to the size of the problems they claim to address. $8 billion per year would provide healthcare to just 3 percent of America's 44 million uninsured.

The only way to fund this election-year vote grab would be to cancel the $1.8 trillion tax cuts and the $100 million-per-year occupation of Iraq -- but Republicans aren't that serious.

"The public is not expecting perfection, but is looking for progress," says GOP pollster David Winston. Perhaps he's right -- maybe the American people will view three percent as "progress." But where I come from, 3 percent ain't even a tip.

Ted Rall's most recent book is: Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan.

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