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The President Plays Poker

by Thomas Fischermann Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004 at 3:53 PM

The past tax cuts tore holes of billions in the federal Washington budget.. The ambitious reformer GWBush puts all his eggs in one basket, that his society of owners will not soon be mocked as a society of debtors.


More Inequality and Insecurity Threaten Americans

By Thomas Fischermann

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, 47/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The stage is free for George W. Bush, the radical economic reformer. “The people have made clear what they want”, the president announced last weekend in Washington. His vision of the ownership society that he rubbed in again and again in the last weeks to his voters is part of that: the “society of owners”. An economic order in which all Americans have better chances to be homeowners and stockholders with private health care and private pension insurance. “Dignity, pride and confidence” could prevail in his second term in office, Bush said.

On first view, this is a beautiful vision. However the problem is Bush’s grip on the political-economic tool box. The president want above all to drive back the state by refusing tax revenue.

Old age provision is the first example. “We start now with the pensions”, the freshly confirmed president promised last Thursday in Washington. Details of his planned reform were not released but every employee in the future should set aside a few percent of his or her pension payments from the state pension fund. Instead the money will be deposited in tax-free special accounts – as private savings for old age. Additional tax relief should create more homeowners. An abundance of tax-free special accounts should make long-term savings more attractive. “Health Savings Accounts” could replace health insurance for some citizens in the future. Doctor visits would be financed with those accounts.

Tax cuts as an ideology. In his first term in office, Bush brought many enormous tax cuts through Congress and now will codify them indefinitely. In the last days, tax purists in the environs of the White House even dreamt of a “fundamental” tax reform, a complete abolition of the past “progressive” income tax. Under the old system, rich Americans still pay more taxes proportionately than poorer Americans. This does not suit the neoconservative view of the economy.

These reforms may go quite far. Bush’s ownership society is founded on deeply rooted ideas of the American Dream. Striving for possession is central, wrestling for economic independence and insistence on personal responsibility. Successes in post-war America are alluded to when the broad middle class actually gained cars, houses, pensions, private health care and securities.

There is extreme inequality in American society. For at least two decades, accumulating assets has been a very polarized experience in the United States. Seen superficially, the owner nation grows and prospers. Two-thirds of households own their own homes today; half have stocks. Both are historical records. Seen more closely, only a third of all households own more than 00 in stocks. A very widespread reason for that stock ownership is that employers cancel company pensions and replace them with private funds and stock packages. Some households in the lower middle classes live in their own homes today but struggle with oppressive mortgage debts and wallets with completely overdrawn credit cards. All in all the poorest 40 percent of American households lost more than three quarters of their assets between 1983 and 1998.

The trivial but essential problem of Bushism remains: Whoever wants to own something first needs a regular income. Income differences are greater in the United States than anywhere else in the industrialized world. The top 20 percent of households earned half of all income and their share is increasing. In comparison, the same group in Germany earns 36 percent. The assets comparison of Americans appears even worse. On average only the assets of the higher-earning Americans grew appreciably since 1982 – those with household incomes over ,000.

Do Bush’s tax cuts benefit a family father who has problems putting a roof over his head, works for a low wage, pays low taxes but can no longer afford the greatly increased health insurance premium and soon the increasing school- and college fees for his children? He cannot have personal security in George Bush’s owner society. He would be helped more with more efficient public schools, unemployment insurance and social housing. No wonder that the opposition democrats regard Bush’s idea as a hidden program that only helps the rich.

“Economically naïve”, Bush’s advisors insult back. Whoever has a low income today must not be caught in this situation tomorrow. Permanently low taxes and more incentives to save and work would also liven up the economy. New jobs would then arise and the incomes of all Americans including the poor would climb.

This is a special poker game. Conventional economists point out that Bush’s economic reforms first entails enormous costs. The past tax cuts tore holes of billions in the federal Washington budget. The planned pension reform could even cause holes of trillions in the pension fund according to past estimates. The tight federal treasuries alarm investors and depress the dollar price. The ambitious reformer George W. Bush puts all his eggs in one basket: that his “society of owners” will not soon be mocked as a “society of debtors”.

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