It was politics, not the smell of gas and burnt rubber, that lingered in my head as I grazed at the annual car show last week at the downtown Convention Center. Tens of thousands flocked to the main exhibition halls to kick the tires of the newest Chevys, Caddies and Camrys. But the real human traffic pileup occurred in the smaller Concourse Hall, set aside for the top drawer in motoring vehicles.
I stood like a squeezed sardine as throngs panted over quarter-million-dollar yellow Lamborghinis, red Ferraris and the ultracool Azure series Bentleys. There was barely room to breathe as the crowd elbowed one another away to snap digital pictures of the gleaming machines.
And this was no creamy elite (they need go no farther than their own driveways to appreciate a $280,000 Testa-rossa). No, this was strictly the hoi polloi, el pueblo, the regular folks, in cutoffs and baggy pants and fanny packs and T-shirts. There was a slightly pornographic aspect to the whole scene. Like a youngster thumbing through National Geographic, or a teenager peering at Playboy, these voyeurs were salivating over exotica theyd love to explore but somehow knew theyd never quite get there.
Or do they? Extravagant wealth is both scorned and admired in America and not always in equal measure. Even the poorest among us secretly, and often not so secretly, sometimes convince themselves that one day soon . . . well, you know the rest. This is what underlies many of the idiosyncrasies of American politics. Slam the rich but not too hard, because one day I intend to be one of them.
How else can one explain the nonchalance with which the American people stand by and so passively watch the ongoing accelerated transfer of wealth in this country from the bottom upward? For surely in a more politically sophisticated, more class-conscious country, President Bushs economic speech last Tuesday would have been met at the very least by outraged citizens throwing open their windows and furiously beating on pots and pans, by marches of protest, and perhaps a torchlight rally in front of the White House.
But not in America, where CNNs Lou Dobbs and other media gargoyles fawn over the smirking Bush as if he were some sort of philosopher-king. Bushs "plan" I wince even writing that word to provide increased "jobs, growth and opportunity," as he put it, is but one more bald-faced gimmick to further enrich the rich. Excuse an additional automobile metaphor, but if your car engine burns a head gasket, you dont fix it by charging a new set of chrome wheels on your MasterCard.
Some 10 million people are unemployed across the country right now. Not in decades has national job loss mounted so quickly as in the last two years. Wages are once again leveling off and even dropping. More Americans than ever have no health insurance. The elderly cant afford prescription drugs. Even the professional classes cant afford spiraling college tuition. Doctors walk off the job, unable to pay for malpractice coverage.
But what does Bush propose? Not only speeding up his $1.6 trillion favor-the-rich tax cuts already passed by Congress, but an additional cut in taxes on stock dividends. On stock dividends! Will those of you who earn more than a thousand, no, make that a hundred, dollars a year in dividends now raise your hands?
Fact is, some 40 percent of all stock dividends in this country go to only 2 percent of the population. A full quarter of the benefits included in the Bush dividend tax cut will go to those who earn more than $1 million a year. So if Reaganomics was correctly dubbed "trickle-down," then the Bush approach is more akin to "piss-on-you economics." About the only measure missing now from the Bush plan would be a proposal to make monthly payments on yachts, on vacation homes and on those Lamborghinis tax-deductible. Indeed, arent they owned by what the CNBC commentators and the White House like to call "our most creative and productive citizens"?
The only silver lining here is that the Bush administration might be too distracted by its program of economic looting and sacking to be a significant threat to world peace the possible war with Iraq notwithstanding. These guys are such committed thieves that its only through happenstance that they could ever rise to the stature of serious imperialists. Their hearts are much closer to greed than geopolitics.
The Bushies are essentially, as the Sopranos dear, departed Ralphie would call them, whoahhs for the corporate lobbyists. On every major domestic economic issue of the last two years, the Bush White House has taken the strict industry position: dishing out juicy war-profiteering welfare to the airlines in the wake of 9/11, shilling for the oil drillers in the Alaska wilderness, fronting for the automakers in the fight around fuel-efficiency standards, imposing a patients bill of rights friendly to Big Pharma and the HMO mafias, overturning workplace ergonomic standards to please only the employers, reciting bankruptcy laws to punish consumers, and, of course, developing an energy policy as much as written by the K Street lobbyists.
Now presiding over this whole economic shell game is new Treasury Secretary John Snow. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out this week, Snow sat as CEO of railroad giant CSX while, during the years 19982001, it raked in nearly a billion dollars in profit. Not only did CSX not pay a cent of income tax during that period, it actually got back $164 million in tax rebates. Dont try that at home without adult supervision.
So dont give this crew too much credit. Dont assume theyre even capable of world domination as some of their critics allege. They aint smart enough. Take a look at the new book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush just out by David Frum, the speechwriter who helped pen the term "Axis of Evil." Writing of his inside view of the administration, he says, "One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge . . . conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House."
Perhaps Im too harsh in blaming the American people for their passivity. Its not like theyre being offered much choice of leadership. The Democrats still cling to their Herbert Hooverian worship of balanced budgets and are proposing a meek and mostly benign alternative "stimulus" program. The Democrats want to give you a one-time $300 tax rebate, about 75 cents a day, and hardly on the scale of what CSX got back from the Treasury. But, what the hell, youre just a citizen not a corporation.
Settle down for two or three months of mostly empty debate over the Bush economic plan. In the end, most if not all of it will be approved by Congress. It will do nothing to help all those car-show lookie-loos buy the machine of their dreams. But if you already own one of those Bentleys or Maseratis, these sure are sweet times.