The Era of Exploitation

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

March 25, 2005

Congress is in recess and the press has gone berserk over the Terri Schiavo case. So very little attention is being paid to pending budget proposals that are scandalously unfair, but that pretty accurately reflect the kind of country the U.S. has become.

President Bush believes in an "ownership" society, which means that except for the wealthy, you're on your own. The president's budget would cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps, education, transportation, health care for veterans, law enforcement, medical research and safety inspections for food and drugs. And, of course, it contains big new tax cuts for the wealthy.

These are the new American priorities. Republicans will tell you they were ratified in the last presidential election. We may be locked in a long and costly war, and federal deficits may be spiraling toward the moon, but the era of shared sacrifices is over. This is the era of entrenched exploitation. All sacrifices will be made by working people and the poor, and the vast bulk of the benefits will accrue to the rich.

F.D.R. would have stared slack-jawed at this madness. Even his grand Social Security edifice is under assault by the vandals of the G.O.P.

While the press and the public are distracted by one sensational news story after another - Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, steroids in baseball, etc. - the president and his party have continued their extraordinary campaign to undermine the programs that were designed to fend off destitution and provide a reasonable foundation of economic security for those not blessed with great wealth.

President Bush has proposed more than $200 billion worth of cuts in domestic discretionary programs over the next five years, and cuts of $26 billion in entitlement programs. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzed the president's proposal, said:

"Figures in the budget show that child-care assistance would be ended for 300,000 low-income children by 2009. The food stamp cut would terminate food stamp aid for approximately 300,000 low-income people, most of whom are low-income working families with children. Reduced Medicaid funding most certainly would cause many states to cut their Medicaid programs, increasing the ranks of the uninsured."

Education funding would be cut beginning next year, and the cuts would grow larger in succeeding years. Food assistance for pregnant women, infants and children would be cut. Funding for H.I.V. and AIDS treatment would be cut by more than half a billion dollars over five years. Support for environmental protection programs would be sharply curtailed. And so on.

Conservatives insist the cuts are necessary to get the roaring federal budget deficit under control. But they have trouble keeping a straight face when they tell that story. Laden with tax cuts, the president's proposal will result in an increase, not a decrease, in the deficit. Shared sacrifice is anathema to the big-money crowd.

The House has passed a budget that is similar to the president's, except it contains even deeper cuts in programs that affect the poor. In the Senate, a handful of Republicans balked at the cuts proposed for Medicaid. Casting their votes with the Democrats, they were able to eliminate the cuts from the Senate budget proposal. The Senate also added $5.4 billion in education funding for 2006.

All the budgets contain more than $100 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, which makes a mockery of the G.O.P.'s budget-balancing rhetoric. When Congress returns from its Easter recess, the Republican leadership will try to reconcile the differences in the various proposals. Whatever happens will be bad news for ordinary Americans. Big cuts are coming.

The advances in areas like education, antipoverty programs, health services, environmental protection and food safety were achieved after struggles that, in some cases, took many decades. To slide backward now (hurting millions of people in the process) because of a desire to siphon funds from those programs and hand them over as tax cuts to the wealthiest members of our society, is obscene.

This is not a huge national story. It's just the way things are. It was Herbert Hoover who said: "You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They're too damn greedy."

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com
Paul Krugman is on vacation.