The Executive-Class President
by Paul Starr
The American Prospect magazine, April 2001
We are so used to a politics of blurred class interests in
America that clarity is actually confusing. Throughout our history,
the major parties have been economically heterogeneous, and the
basic tenets of the American creed have denied any legitimacy
to class as a basis of political action-except, that is, for measures
in aid of the great, sprawling middle class that is ideally supposed
to embrace nearly everyone. Democrats lean to labor but regularly
nominate multimillionaires for office, and Republicans lean to
business but appeal to the moral traditionalism of many working
families. In recent years, despite the unions' continued effectiveness
in mobilizing their members to vote Democratic, a majority of
white working-class men have often voted Republican-as they did
in the last presidential election.
This long history of muted class politics and working-class
conservatism makes all the more striking the in-your-face program
that President Bush is pressing Congress to adopt. The first priorities
of the new administration have not been slightly biased in favor
of the more affluent They have been tilted to an overwhelming
degree in favor of the very rich. Defenders of the administration's
income-tax proposals often say that the rich get the biggest cut
because they pay the most in taxes. But while the top 1 percent
would get 43 percent of the benefits of Bush's income-tax reductions,
they pay only about half that proportion of federal taxes. The
skewed distribution of benefits stems from Bush's deliberate choices
about which tax to cut and how to cut it. Designing cuts targeted
to low - and middle-income people-indeed, to more of the people
who voted for him- would be easy, but he hasn't bothered.
The repeal of the estate tax is even more exclusively directed
to the rich since it would benefit the heirs to none but the top
2 percent of estates-the only estates that now pay the tax. Defenders
of repeal say it would help preserve family farms and small businesses,
as if the Republicans were looking out for the little guy. But
family-owned enterprises represent the majority of the assets
in only 3 percent of estates that pay the tax, or six out of every
10,000 estates altogether.
The political priority of estate-tax repeal is itself testimony
to the lopsided class interests now shaping national policy. Heirs
and heiresses didn't used to be so popular.
Regressive fiscal measures are sometimes justifiable because
of their effects on productivity and long-term growth, but the
repeal of the estate tax isn't going to provide any general benefits
of that kind. Indeed, some evidence suggests, not surprisingly,
that large inheritances diminish the incentive to work-just the
sort of thing conservatives are supposed to worry about. Recent
decades have already seen a marked increase in wealth inequality,
but that increase has been largely a by-product of the stock market
(when it was rising). Repeal of the estate tax would be a breakthrough
of sorts in the deliberate use of public policy not to spread
wealth but to concentrate it.
The Republican regulatory agenda is equally one-sided. Congress
repealed the Clinton-approved standards to reduce repetitive-stress
work injuries so fast, and with so little discussion, that the
public had no idea what was happening. The bankruptcy legislation
sought by creditors is a done deal. On March 11, The Washington
Post reported that "even as they savored these triumphs,
business representatives looked ahead to passing a broader agenda
that would pare back environmental and land use regulations, limit
corporate liability for faulty products, rewrite rules protecting
the privacy of patients' medical records, cut red tape blocking
new oil refineries and pipelines, and open the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling." Perhaps Ralph
Nader should try explaining once again why Gore and Bush were
The Republican agenda makes a mockery of the idea that new
presidents need an electoral mandate to make major changes in
policy. A few months ago, many analysts thought that Bush's loss
of the popular vote would force him to moderate his proposals.
But with control of both the presidency and Congress, Republicans
have the first opportunity in a long time to do what they want
in national policy. The tax windfall for the rich and regulatory
breaks for business express the highest priorities and deepest
impulses of a party no longer checked or balanced. To be sure,
because of the close margin in the Senate, Bush may have to compromise
a bit, sharply cutting back the estate tax instead of totally
repealing it and reducing the top income-tax bracket from 39.6
percent to 35 percent instead of 33 percent. But even with such
adjustments, the wealthy will be the big winners.
None of this causes any noticeable regret in our amiable M.B.A.
president. Compassion does not distract him when his mind turns,
as it occasionally must, to the core business of government. He
works short hours, delegates authority over major decisions, and
seems untroubled by any hard choices. In style as well as substance,
he is a man of his class.
It would be nice to suppose that Bush's policies will meet
repudiation in a future election. But once taxes are cut, it is
nearly impossible to restore them during peacetime. Despite tremors
on the stock market and uneasiness about the economy, Americans
still are generally happy, prosperous, and politically inattentive.
The next presidential election is years away, and memories are
short. There may never be a better time to sack the Treasury.
You don't miss a chance like this when you have it.