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Greed Simple

When George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency, he portrayed himself as just a regular guy, despite his having so much more money than the rest of us, a “compassionate conservative” who knew how to reach across party lines to forge bipartisan legislation for the good of the people. His speeches were not sinuous, complex or devious. Those short, simple declarative sentences suggested a simple honesty. Indeed, many of his foes accepted him at face value and wrote him off as simple-minded. After the election, the disappointed majority told hostile jokes about him, but even these focused on his simplicity: a flat-footed simplicity that was, they said, indistinguishable from stupidity. No one suggested that he was a public-policy liar, a sly but steady reactionary, a right-wing ideologue with plans to change the world. But it’s increasingly clear that he is.

Even while many were caricaturing him as a simpleton, the president was enlisting ultra-conservatives to help him remake the world. The president’s confederates aren’t conspirators working in the shadows: They’ve published their agenda in numerous papers, and its essentials are available on the Web site of the Project for the New American Century. Informed Americans can see the brutal shape of President Bush’s foreign policy and the colossal size of his global ambitions. Yet many are still unaware—or maybe they simply can’t believe—his domestic plans. A president who undertakes to remake the world won’t hesitate to remake the United States.

George W. Bush has already undermined the United Nations, and now, focusing on domestic issues, he hopes to dismantle Medicare and to unravel as many social safety nets as he can. Republicans bitterly opposed Medicare from its beginning. They would much rather see people buy health insurance from profit-making companies which would then be able to distribute dividends to shareholders. But ordinary citizens want to protect Medicare—they know the government program works—and that makes it difficult for the president to attack it directly. Yet he can, to use his own sly word, “reform” it. Under his guidance, the Republican-controlled Congress contrived a Medicare drug-benefit program that specifically invites insurance companies to move in on Medicare with their own for-profit drug plans.

The House plan charges retirees $35 a month in premiums and has a $250 deductible, and participants have to pay all drug costs above $2,001 and up to $4,900 a year. The Senate plan is marginally more generous. To see how shabby the House concoction is, you need only compare it to Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the one enjoyed by the members of Congress. In that happy program, there are no additional premiums, no deductibles, and no gaps in coverage. And to make sure they will continue to enjoy those benefits, Congress put through legislation that keeps the Federal program intact, no matter how they reform Medicare.

House Republicans recently invented something they call Health Savings Accounts, which they hope to tack onto Medicare legislation. These accounts would not be taxed, and you could use the money to pay medical bills or pay for health insurance. The accounts would benefit affluent insured people far more than they would help the uninsured who have no money to put into such accounts. Republican sponsors estimate that 40 million of these tax shelters for the rich would be created over the next decade, depriving the U.S. Treasury of $174 billion.

Conservative backers of the Health Savings Accounts legislation say it would encourage consumers to take a more direct role in controlling the cost of health care. That’s a particularly cruel joke. Last year the cost of the 50 most popular drugs for seniors rose three times faster than inflation. According to Families USA, which has conducted the annual study since 1999, 37 of the 50 drugs had price increases greater than 11.5 times the rate of inflation. Consumers buy prescription drugs because they’re ailing and their doctors tell them they must. Pharmaceutical companies make enormous profits, and individual consumers are helpless to stop them. Bill Frist, the ultraconservative Senate majority leader, said he planned to introduce similar legislation in the Senate: “Health savings accounts are a signature issue for me,” he announced.

President Bush’s recent “jobs bill,” his “stimulus package,” wasn’t about jobs or stimulating our slack economy. It was a tax cut. It was designed to reorganize the tax code, to endow the rich with greater riches, and to put the United States into a deficit. Bush would have cut taxes under any conditions—he’s never made a secret of that—and calling the cut an economic stimulus was his way of appearing concerned about unemployed workers. His first tax cut/stimulus package didn’t improve the economy: The country lost 1.7 million more jobs. His second cut appears to be no better. According to the Labor Department, the number of men and women claiming jobless benefits late last month hit its highest point in more than 20 years. There are now 3.82 million on the rolls.

“President Bush sold his tax cut as a practical way to bolster a sagging economy, but many parts of the package further Republican conservatives’ long-term goal of radically restructuring the income-tax system.” That quote isn’t from some sullen leftist magazine; it comes from The Wall Street Journal’s analysis of the tax package. As for the Bush deficit, it’s a “strategic deficit” like those created by President Reagan, a deficit engineered to deplete the treasury and make it impossible to create social programs or to adequately fund those that exist. Furthermore, when the treasury runs out of money, the government is compelled to borrow, so the rich, grown yet richer from the tax cut, make loans to the government—at sufficient interest, of course. It’s a wonderful system, if you live at George W. Bush’s economic level.

It’s hard to imagine that our president—this smiling man who speaks in simple declarative sentences, this kid who gets such a kick out of dressing up like a pilot and actually handling the controls of a fighter plane—it’s hard to believe that our president would inflame the nation with puffed-up tales about an enemy in order to launch an unnecessary war. And it’s just as hard, or maybe even harder, to think that he would purposely empty the treasury, rig the tax code to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and undermine our limited health-care program. But the evidence is everywhere to see.

—Gene Mirabelli

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