Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#48, August 18, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Congress has gone home to spend its vacation convincing taxpayers that the sweeping tax cut it voted for is a good idea. The Republican majority thought this was a sure winner, an easy sell, but so far, we ingrates have said, "No, thanks," leaving Republicans gibbering and confused. How could we turn down a deal like that? Why would we not want our money back?

How about native good sense? We have, after all, heard fairy tales before. The last big one, that we could reduce taxes, increase military spending and keep all the other spending constant, led to a quadrupling of our national debt in a period of twelve years.

Now, after decades of red ink, we have at last balanced our national budget (albeit with a few asterisks), and are even beginning to talk about surpluses, three trillion dollars worth. And Congress wants to give us back $792 billion of that.

To which we say "Show me the money." We will believe in that three trillion dollar surplus when we see it

We know that the very idea of that surplus is built on a series of "IFs." IF we make deeper cuts in domestic and military spending, and IF the current long-lasting economic boom continues, and IF there is no significant and expensive world crisis, and IF there are no major natural disasters to pay for, we might have a surplus, which might be three trillion dollars and then again might not.

But suppose that all of those IFs work out exactly as Congress and the president believe they will. We understand that every good fairy tale has its ogre. This one is Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Remember when he said "irrational exuberance," and the stock market plunged? Remember that he told Congress the economy was already overheating, and the stimulation of a tax cut would make things worse?

These aren't just words -- they're the preface to the raising of interest rates. If they go up, the economy slows down, people lose jobs, tax collections go down, interest on the national debt goes up, and the surplus disappears.

So "show us the money" is our first problem with the Republican proposal, but it's by no means the only one. We also have the good sense to realize we still have a four trillion dollar national debt that piled up during the days of the first great fairy tale. During those years, instead of "tax and spend," which is at least honest, and balances the books, we said "Charge it," sticking ourselves and our children and grandchildren with not only the debt but its accumulating interest.

We know that to give any surplus back to ourselves before paying down that debt is dishonest. We wouldn't be just gleefully "spending our children's inheritance," we'd be sticking them with the bill for our Caribbean vacations.

But if the money DID exist, and we DID want to spend it, well, most of us know there are better things to do with it.

It's a favorite fiction of Republicans that government does nothing useful, but in fact, it provides the essential infrastructures society depends on:

  1. legal: laws, courts, prisons and police that protect public safety and commerce; building and fire codes and inspectors to make homes and offices safe
  2. public health: sewers, water treatment, control of epidemics, an emergency medical system, and medical research;
  3. education: schools, community and trade schools, colleges, libraries, and museums, to preserve and teach essential knowledge and skills;
  4. transportation: safe, well-maintained roads, bridges, rails and waterways, without which commerce and a mobile population cannot function
  5. public works: safe and well-maintained dams, a reliable electrical grid, a robust internet structure
  6. environmental: to protect our air, our water, and our public lands

Rational legislators would understand that tax cuts are appropriate only after these essential government functions are paid for. And we've noticed that Congress has not been doing that.

We know that Congress has allowed our bridges, dams, and schools to crumble for lack of funding for maintenance, repair, and replacement. We know that Congress has allowed our national parks to deteriorate. We know our government has allowed cities to fall apart as their tax base moves to the suburbs. We know that Congress has taken a world class public health system and starved it of the cash to maintain it. We know that we are all at risk when hundreds of public hospitals and emergency rooms are forced to close.

So, thank you very kindly, Mr. Congress, but we don't want our money back, even if it should turn out to exist. What we'd really like you to do for us is a little harder: we would like you to do something intelligent with it.

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