By Donella Meadows
–August 12, 1993–
Well, yes, I guess it’s true what they’re saying, that the just-completed budget battle does reverse, partially, by a hair, the momentum of Reaganomics. Government spending, especially military spending, will go down some. Taxes on the richest one percent of us will rise to about half of what they were in 1980. The gas tax will go up, but we’ll still pay less for gasoline in real terms than we paid in 1985, far less than in 1981, and about one-third of what they pay in Europe or Japan. The national debt won’t rise quite so fast.
It was a great accomplishment, I guess, to get things moving, reluctantly in constructive directions instead of pell-mell in destructive directions. But by the time the last vote was cast in Congress, I was feeling as low as I did during the Reagan years.
It was the rhetoric that depressed me — the selfish, poisonous whining from the call-in shows and editorials and TV talking heads, as well as from the politicians. It’s going to take a lot longer than six months for the nation to throw off the virus that has burrowed deep into our collective psyche and that still deludes us into thinking that government is our enemy and that taxation is our worst problem.
“I’m one of those guys who make over $250,000,” said a talk-show caller, “and now I don’t know HOW I’ll ever be able to retire.” He has a real problem, given all the material props he must need to feel good about himself. I could feel sorry for him, if he would wonder for even a moment how the person who makes $35,000 is going to retire. Or how a worker is going to raise his family when he makes $12,000 for six months, off the books, with no health care and no pension, and then is laid off.
I hasten to say that it’s fine with me if someone makes $250,000; it’s just not fine when that person wallows in self-pity. I must hasten to say that, because the ongoing Reagan legacy hurls taunts of “class envy” whenever one criticizes anyone rich, and accusations of soft-headedness whenever one feels sympathy for the poor. When did the rich achieve such perfection as to raise them above criticism? When did we lose all sense of fellow-feeling? How did we evolve a society where the privileged broadcast their frets and fears without knowing or caring about the troubles of anyone else?
“I live on a fixed income,” moped an elderly woman on another talk show. “This gas tax is going to put me under.” Upon inquiry it turned out that it will cost her 40 cents a week. Even if you drive 20,000 miles a year in a 15 mpg petropig, this onerous gas tax, met with screams of outrage from sea to shining sea, will set you back less than $60 per year. You could save more than that by keeping your tires properly inflated — and MUCH more by trading in for a car that gets 30 mpg. If you can’t be bothered to do either of those things, why whine about a puny gas tax?
On the talk shows they play an ad telling us how to get “tax-amnesty” — how to exercise our taxpayer “right” to be forgiven back taxes. There was a time in America when it would have been considered shameful, unpatriotic, not to mention illegal, to duck your taxes, leaving them for others to pay. Now it’s a right!
People have always squawked about taxes. The rich have always grasped to become richer. But I don’t remember another time when they did it so self-righteously — or when politicians actively led the people toward civic irresponsibility, deceiving them all the way. Snarling Bob Dole knows perfectly well that this “greatest tax hike in history” applies only to the richest 1.2 percent of us — those who benefited from the greatest tax cut in history when Reaganomics began. But Dole and his friends tangled the words “middle class” with the words “tax hike” over and over until 67 percent of Americans think the new taxes will fall on them.
Well, despite the rhetoric the new budget squeaked by. But in the process the children of the nation were treated to another public chorus of “I, me, mine, and now.” They watched their elders and leaders despise the government, fulminate against the lightest tax burden in the industrial world, while rushing to the public coffers for flood and hurricane relief, crop supports, corporate subsidies, federally insured bank deposits, Social Security and Medicare, military bases and defense contracts, highways and Superconducting Supercolliders.
We are still demonstrating to the coming generation the art of taking without giving, while pretending to be a rugged individual. Hate the government with your hands out. Call up a talk show and gripe about how the government messes everything up, but do nothing to make the government work.
I was raised to believe that it’s easier to be an individual, standing on my own, trying to be all I can be in a supportive community, rather than in a wilderness of “all against all.” I was taught that the social contract means giving and taking, both in fair measure. That people in government may do foolish, wasteful, or venal things, and therefore the price I have pay for democracy is to stay involved, keep an eye on my leaders, and insist upon their integrity, not wash my hands and walk away.
The kids growing up hearing that those are dangerous, hateful, liberal ideas will be around a lot longer than Reagan, Dole, Clinton, or me. Reaganomics is a long way from over.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993