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Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761

Jim Wooten

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It's tough being an adult in the land of sound bites and transfer payments -- IT really is hard to be an adult in America.

George W. Bush is evidence.

According to the latest poll for CNN and Time magazine, 61 percent of Americans believe Bush cares more about protecting the interests of large business corporations, while 31 percent say he cares more about protecting ordinary working people. In another poll for ABC News and The Washington Post, the country is evenly split on whether we as individuals will benefit from the president's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. An astounding 49 percent say no. Furthermore, 30-40 percent, a number that's varied by only a few percentage points over the past two years, advocate more government spending instead.

The messages abound.

Point One: In previous decades, Democrats spent wildly while in power, layering new spending programs on top of the old, showering more and more money on problems less and less solvable by money. Job-training programs, which exist by the score, are an example. Eventually, though, voters recognize that the problem may not be the lack of training opportunities, but the waste and misdirection in their design or the destructive behaviors and attitudes of the targeted individuals. A wave of spending, therefore, has always been followed by adult accountability, usually from Republican administrations.

That second wave, where spending and government are reined in, however, is not yet here, according to the polls. Changes in the Internal Revenue Service code have effectively eliminated half the nation's taxpayers from income tax liability. Analysis of 1998 IRS data by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation reveals that the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers made 18.5 percent of income in 1998 and paid 34.8 percent of the individual income taxes, up from 33.2 in 1997 and 27.6 in 1988. The bottom half earned 13.7 percent of all income, but paid 4.2 percent of the individual income tax burden.

The result is that the percentage of voters who see government as an instrument for transferring wealth from somebody else to them is tipping dangerously close to a majority. At that point, the welfare state is unavoidable. America's economic strength has been relatively unfettered markets with responsible business regulation and a limited involvement by government in claiming and allocating financial resources, in attempting to pick winners and losers.

Throw in, incidentally, the preference programs for hiring, admissions and contracting that convey advantage by law or regulatory edict and the advocacy group for government activism grows even more. Government, in that role, is an instrument for transferring wealth to designated beneficiaries.

Point Two: While the group that views government's growth as a problem is shrinking, the debate over its size and role becomes more difficult. Why? Because much of the analysis and conversation now is political soundbite designed to appeal to emotions.

Take, for example, last week's decision by President Bush to rescind a new Environmental Protection Agency standard for arsenic in drinking water. Read or hear the last four words -- "arsenic in drinking water" -- and the alarm bells go off. Hear that he is "weakening" drinking water standards and that "the mining industry" desires it, and immediately the casual listener or reader assumes the worst. Add a soundbite from an "environmentalist" or a politician, and the image is formed: Bush favors industry over the ordinary worker.

The truth is much more difficult to grasp. It requires a deeper understanding of the issues. What is a safe level? Where does arsenic in drinking water come from? What is the science? What is the political agenda of those who are being quoted? What are the consequences, in terms of claiming public resources and tax dollars, for accepting the proposed new standard -- which, incidentally, was issued three days, three days, before former President Clinton left office. It was, in fact, among the spate of EPA regulations left behind when, like the pardons, the public had insufficient time to react to bring reason and balance to the process.

It's really tough being an adult in Washington.

Comment on JWR contributor Jim Wooten's column by clicking here.

03/22/01: End Bar Association's say on nominees to federal bench
02/27/01: Stop punishing those who live responsibly
01/23/01: The language of opposition turns vicious
01/12/01: Practicing what she preaches was Chavez's only offense
12/14/00: Our divided nation --- and those who caused it
12/07/00: Honest labor is for chumps who can't talk and politic their way to wealth


© Jim Wooten