It’s interesting to imagine how long it took after the first plane hit the World Trade Center before the Bush administration fully grasped the enormous opportunities that had just opened up.
If that sounds crass, I hasten to point out that I’m not the one who has taken advantage of the anxious post-9/11 political climate, in which it’s considered unpatriotic to criticize or even question the White House. The Bush administration has effectively exploited this climate to push forward dubious policies that, in more relaxed times, would be subject to considerably more scrutiny and debate.
Of course, the first policies to get a post-9/11 makeover were those dealing with Washington’s ability to use force in the world. With virtually no opposition, the Pentagon’s budget was pushed way up, the president began speaking openly about pre-emptive nuclear war and the White House moved plans to win control over Iraqi oil onto the front burner.
But domestic issues with even less connection to “fighting terrorism” have also been put on fast-forward, including, as we saw last week, extreme tax cuts for the extremely wealthy. (Meanwhile, homelessness is rapidly rising, even among working Americans.)
Of course, tax cuts for the rich didn’t just spring up after 9/11. From the beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush was pushing for a $1.6 trillion tax cut aimed largely at the rich — the constituency that lavishly financed his presidential bid and will be counted on to finance his re-election campaign.
But Bush’s tax-cut effort picked up steam after September 11. Suddenly, a not-particularly-popular and not-convincingly-elected president took on the mantle of a national saviour, able to peddle just about anything. In the new political climate, the expectations of the financial elite rose, and White House efforts to satisfy those expectations became bolder.
The centrepiece of Bush’s proposed $674 billion tax cut is the elimination of tax on dividend income — something that is heavily concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. The result will be huge deficits for years to come, providing fuel for those pushing for ever-deeper social spending cuts. (These deficits should at least finally put to rest any lingering illusion that the Republican party is the party of fiscal responsibility.)
The White House has only bothered to place the flimsiest fig leaf over this latest boondoggle for the rich, asserting that it will provide “stimulus” for the whole economy. But even some pro-business commentators admitted there’d be little stimulus in eliminating dividend taxes for the rich (middle class stockholders already escape tax because their stocks are in tax-sheltered retirement plans).
The tax cut is unlikely to encourage companies to invest in the economy; if anything, they’ll be under pressure from shareholders to pay out tax-free dividends instead. Still, the mainstream media deferentially referred to the proposed tax cut as the“economic stimulus package.”
If economic stimulus were really the goal, almost any other plan would be preferable — even handing out cash to people passing by on the street; at least they’d spend it! What Bush is proposing is so extreme, so unwarranted, so tilted to the mega-rich, so far from dealing with real problems that it simply leaves one’s jaw in a freefall.
Is there no limit to the level of benefits considered appropriate to hand over to members of America’s “regal class” who, according to former U.S. Labour Secretary Robert Reich, already enjoy “more wealth and income than any aristocracy has ever had”?
Is there no point at which fatigue — from continually helping themselves to an ever-larger slice of the pie — sets in?
Bush’s 2001 tax cut delivered an average ten-year saving of $342,000 each to those in the top one per cent. Roughly half the benefits of this year’s proposed elimination of the dividend tax will go to that same top one per cent. After a while, one’s eyes start to glaze over at yet another statistic illustrating the enormity of the benefits going to the richest citizens.
It’s hard to think of how to describe what’s going on without resorting to words like “plunder.” With the public still in a state of confusion and anxiety — an anxiety constantly stoked by reports of dark-beige-coloured men doing suspicious things like crossing borders — the Bush administration is moving hard and fast to plunder the U.S. treasury on behalf of those who brought it to power.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was clear that the American right would be emboldened. But who would have dreamt it would come to this 9/11 as an opportunity for the biggest heist the rich have ever attempted.