Rich man's Robin Hood

Peace in Washington, peace (maybe) in Bosnia, the Dow hit 5,000, and now we've all stuffed ourselves with turkey and can start worrying about how to get everything done before Christmas.

Don't touch that dial and don't take your eyes off that sausage factory in Washington. The Republican budget remains a recipe for the most astonishing transfer of wealth from the Have-Nots to Haves ever contemplated in an apparently sane country.

During the recent Word War, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's biggest whine--aside from the fact that he had to go out the back door of an airplane--was that people were lying. Of course I listened up, knowing Newt Gingrich to be a classic example of what the shrinks call projection: Whenever he accuses someone else of something, he's always doing it himself.

And sure enough, there he was on one of the Sunday chat shows, angrily insisting that the Republicans have not cut Medicare--not, not, not. How can anyone claim they are cutting Medicare when they are going to spend more money on Medicare?! The speaker was shocked! He was outraged!

Up in the Wind Factory, a performance like that is called "staying on message." Gingrich can stay on message until Rice wins a national championship, but the Republicans have still cut Medicare by a whopping $270 billion. Gingrich as Arbiter of Truth is even more rank than Gingrich as Arbiter of Other People's Manners.

It's time for Our President the Policy Wonk to get down to wonking. Nearly every page of the Republican budget contains bad public policy. It will make innumerable problems worse, create new ones, and theoretically balance the budget by soaking everyone except the rich.

One fundamental truism of public policy is that the earlier we spend money on our citizens, the bigger the payoff is. Prenatal care saves the money that would otherwise have to be spent on premature, low-birthweight babies. It's incredibly expensive to keep preemies in the hospital for months. Well-infant care saves money that would otherwise have to be spent on childhood illnesses.

Head Start saves money because we know that kids who go to it do better in school and are less likely to drop out. Day care, child care, good schools, after-school programs and (yes) midnight basketball leagues--any investment we make in children's lives saves us money that we would otherwise have to spend keeping young thugs in prison for the rest of their lives after they drop out and go bad. Not to mention the wear and tear on our persons and property; not to mention the total waste of their lives.

California is now close to spending more on prisons than it does on higher education--surely the death warrant of a civilization.

A second fundamental of public policy is that it should not punish those who work and are barely making it, which this budget does by raising taxes on the working poor. The Earned Income Tax Credit is, in the words of Ronald Reagan himself, the best anti-poverty program ever invented. To limit Aid to Families With Dependent Children payments and at the same time make it harder for low-income workers is frankly insane. And I am more concerned about Medicaid, health insurance for the poor, than I am even about cuts in Medicare. Medicaid is all that gives poor children access to health care.

To top off all the other follies in the Republican budget, it proposes a series of tax cuts heavily weighted in favor of the wealthiest people in America, who, as you may have heard, are already doing astonishingly well. This is the same dumb trickle-down economics that the Republicans tried in the 1980s, and it didn't work then, either.

Clinton and his advisor Leon Panetta, who is one of the most constructive people in Washington, need to sit down and list all the bad policy in that budget and then read it to the public. I don't care if it takes three hours and is the longest speech in modern political history.

Another jigger about the Republican plan you'll want to keep an eye on:
It is "back-loaded," as they say in budget circles. That is, the serious cuts don't kick in until the end of the seven-year period. Next year, a little pinch, a little squeeze, but the sky will not fall, and the R's will say, "See, we told you it wasn't the end of the world." We won't see the effects of this budget on children for a generation, but they're going to be there.

We're all going to be hearing a bewildering array of numbers--cuts Medicare, does not cut Medicare, etc. Alice Rivlin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and now head of the Office of Management and Budget, has a well-earned reputation for refusing to fudge numbers. I think that we can rely on her numbers and on those of the private group Citizens for Tax Justice.

Now is the time for all good men, and women, to come to the aid of their country. Sometime between the pumpkin pie and the Christmas stockings, all of us need to find the time to follow this budget battle and to weigh in on it. I know that working mothers in particular are almost desperately busy at this time of year, but this is a fight that affects our children's futures in the most direct way.

Damned if I want to trade them away so the rich can have a capital-gains tax cut.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins