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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2003 / 7 Shevat, 5763

Michael Long

Mike Long
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What They Believe For The Moment


The economic stimulus battle is politics, not policy.


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Item for item, the President's economic stimulus package does good things that neither Democrats nor Republicans can wisely argue against: it puts more cash in the pockets of people who spend money, and who can help create jobs. There's more: It encourages investment by eliminating the second taxing of income in the form of dividends. It will also end the marriage penalty, increase the child tax credit, and allow ten million Americans to lower their tax obligation by shifting down into the 10 percent bracket.

Similarly, when considered as a list of benefits, the Democrats' package is a nest of goodies that are pretty appealing to the public: people who work or who are looking for work get more money in their pocket to pay the bills, and nearly everybody who can walk and chew gum gets a tax "rebate" check for up to $300, even if they don't pay any taxes at all. Businesses get a tax break on new investments, and the states pick up a few billion to offset a little of the backbreaking financial mandates put on them by Washington.

Almost all of those ideas are fairly good, just about any way you look at them. But the long knives are out anyway, as they always are in Washington. This is a place - rather, a business - where politicians say what they surely don't believe, that their particular stimulus package and nothing else is the key to instantly raising the economy out of its neo-chronic doldrums into blue skies and cool breezes.

Not only that, they also portray their opponents' plan as a path to some new ring of economic hell, even if they themselves had proposed big chunks of such a plan before.

"This is about the job market, rather than the stock market," sniffed Democratic Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, assessing his party's plan. Of course he conveniently ignores the part of his proposal that provides a significant tax break to business, his party's all-purpose bogeyman.

"[T]he Democrats' plan is like trying to toast a marshmallow with a flashlight," said Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Yet Rep. Blunt seems to have forgotten that he was making such campfire snacks himself not long ago, when his party passed out similar checks to taxpayers early last year.

There are significant differences in the philosophies behind the plans: the President's plan is designed to boost the fundamental structures of the economy in the long-term (a recent Democratic plea, especially as a reason to roll back tax cuts), while the Democrats are focused on putting a little money in people's pockets right now (which was last year's Republican drumbeat), and shoring up government-supported infrastructure at the state level instead of the overall economy (which is a sort of laissez-faire surprise from liberals that conservatives could get behind if they had to).

So for each side to declare the other's program something between folly and treason - which is what's happening right now -- is a bit much, and all too usual.

The fact is you could very nearly swap these plans between the parties and everybody could make a neat and politically consistent case in support of their new positions.

Which serves as just another reminder of what we all know but ought to be reminded of once in a while: many if not most politicians are more interested in maintaining power than in doing the right, smart thing. It's not an academic exercise up here where bearded men sit pulling their chins trying to parse economic statistics into a coherent forecast.

It's cliques lining up behind what their friends are doing.

And never mind if, as is the case this year, each side was proposing pretty much the same little snippets in other arrangements not too long ago.

One could reasonably assume that the idea is not to grow the economy, but to denigrate the other side as quickly and sternly as possible.

Here's a modest proposal: jam both plans together and pass it all, the tax cuts, the checks for everybody, the state funding, the business incentives, the relief for investors, everything.

Then we could consolidate the current little arguments into a single grump over deficit spending, another topic where the parties' stance depends less on fact than on whose ox is being gored.

Of course there are some serious policy-based reasons for these inconsistencies, and at least a few of them are actually true. But it is so much easier to fire back than to think, and politics is, 99 percent of the time, about taking that path of least resistance.

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
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© 2001, Michael Long