The Bush Economy

Editorial

New York Times

June 8, 2005

With all of the debate about taxes, the economy and domestic spending, it is hard to imagine anyone supporting the notion of taking money from programs like Medicaid and college-tuition assistance, increasing the tax burden of the vast majority of working Americans, sending the country into crushing debt - and giving the proceeds to people who are so fantastically rich that they don't know what to do with the money they already have. Yet that is just what is happening under the Bush administration. Forget the middle class and the upper-middle class. Even the merely wealthy are being left behind in the dust by the small slice of super-rich Americans.

In last Sunday's Times, David Cay Johnston reported that from 1980 to 2002, the latest year of available data, the share of total income earned by the top 0.1 percent of earners more than doubled, while the share earned by everyone else in the top 10 percent rose far less. The share of the bottom 90 percent declined.

President Bush did not create the income gap. But the unheralded effect of his tax policy is its unequal impact on the modestly well to do. By 2015, those making between $80,000 and $400,000 will pay as much as 13.9 percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $400,000, assuming the tax cuts are made permanent. Below $80,000, most taxpayers will see their share of taxes rise slightly or stay the same.

Mr. Johnston's article quotes a prominent economist who argues that people care more about the chance to move from one income class to another (upward, of course) than about income distribution. But during the Bush years, the two main sources of class mobility - a good job and money for higher education - have increasingly failed to materialize for those who most need them. Last week's jobs report from the Labor Department confirmed that a strong labor market recovery has not taken hold. Wages for most working people failed even to outpace inflation in the past year.

That might be more bearable if things were rough all over. But the share of economic growth that is going toward corporate profits, which flow to stockholders and bondholders who are concentrated at the top of the income scale, is at historic highs.

Which brings us back to the super wealthy and the merely rich. The divide between rich and poor is unfortunately an old story, but income-class warfare among the top 20 percent of the scale is a newer phenomenon. One cause is that the further up the scale one goes, the more of one's income comes from investments, which under the Bush tax cuts enjoy about the lowest rates in the tax code. But many families making between $100,000 and $200,000 are not exactly on easy street. They don't face choices anywhere near as stark as those encountered further down the income ladder, but they face serious tradeoffs not experienced by the uppermost crust, particularly when hit with the triple whammy of college for the children, care for aging parents and preparing for their own retirement.

There is something deeply wrong about a system that calls into question a comfortable retirement or a top-notch education for people who have broken into the top 20 percent of income earners. It starts to seem politically explosive when you consider that in a decade, those making between $100,000 and $200,000 will pay about five to nine percentage points more of their income in federal taxes than those making more than $1 million, assuming the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.

This is not about giving wealthy people more money to invest back into the economy. At this level, it's really about giving more money to those who have nothing to do with it except amass enormous estates for their heirs. Fixing the problem will require members of Congress to summon the courage to say no to a president who wants more for the richest of the rich at the expense of everyone else. We're not holding our breath.