Who Pays?

In the new Bush economy, we're all riding the laugher curve

Who Pays?
Illustration By Doug Potter

Like you, in the wake of our president's bold and visionary call to return to space exploration, I've been daydreaming all week about joining a colony on Mars. Judging from the Bush administration's policies on preserving planet Earth, by the time we get this project up and running, there'll be little left in the way of either natural resources or breathable air on this planet, so we'd better get a move on. Bush called his proposal (cost undetermined, but a cool annual $12 billion for openers) "a journey, not a race." I recommend an approach more in keeping with Dick Cheney's energy task force. Like a drunk on the highway suddenly noticing the dashboard flashing "empty," our oil-besotted leaders should slam down the accelerator in hopes of arriving before they run out of gas.

The fun doesn't stop there. Simultaneously, the White House was floating its $1.5 billion "marriage promotion" scheme. By the time you read this, the "State of the Sacred Union" will have been revealed, whereby in the name of abstinence and fidelity, jackleg preachers and earnest relationship counselors will be paid handsomely to lecture teenagers and poor people on their sins. With a little imagination, the two programs can be combined: Selected pairs of astronauts -- all fire-tested heterosexuals of alternating genders -- can exchange vows right before launch, then depart on their three-year Mars-bound honeymoons. That would raise, alas, the delicate question of interstellar intercourse, not to mention childbirth -- and just how well do condoms work under zero gravity? But as the president says, "Exploring space ... lifts our national spirit."

It is definitely an election year.

Just Say No

The truth is, I've got no absolute objection to space missions any more than to particle physics, and despite its risks and expense, exploration remains a high human adventure. I also believe that family values -- especially if they are generous and sensible enough to include all families -- are just peachy. But isn't this an administration dedicated to "fiscal responsibility"? Didn't it arrive in Washington determined to cut expenses and eliminate waste? Hasn't it been bragging incessantly about its massive tax cuts? Didn't Dubya just walk away from Congress after extracting an $87 billion installment to secure and rebuild not the moon, but Iraq?

For God's sake, isn't there a war on?

What is particularly striking about the Bush administration, and the political culture that sustains it, is this mass hallucination that we can have our cake, eat it, and not have to pay for it. This is supposed to be the delusion of liberal policymakers, epitomized in the phrase "tax-and-spend." The Bush principle appears to be "don't tax, but spend anyway." The unspoken presumption is that somebody else will pick up the tab, although since the taxpayers are supposedly off the hook, it's not exactly clear who that somebody will be.

Recent below-the-fold headlines -- somewhere beneath Mars, moonshine, marriage, and the Super Bowl -- provide some pretty good ideas. While the stock market is inching up again, the job market remains flat -- and another 300,000 people have stopped looking altogether (their absence explains the "good" unemployment-rate news). Yet the administration has once again declined to extend federal unemployment insurance to workers who have exhausted their current state benefits, meaning an estimated 90,000 workers a week will begin losing support this month. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas estimate is that 25,000 workers will lose their benefits in January and 131,000 over the next six months -- in a state that has lost 86,000 jobs since the beginning of the 2001 recession.

Some 500,000 Texas workers have been supported by previously extended benefits, boosting the state economy to the tune of $1 billion. Wouldn't that money, provided to people by definition looking for work, do a good deal more for the state's family values than lectures on chastity?

Come Fly With Me

The administration's true position on the value of work was made abundantly clear by a recent publication of the Bush Labor Department. The White House wants to change the rules on overtime, reclassifying roughly 8 million workers as "managerial" or too highly paid to deserve time-and-a-half. The Senate is balking, but will probably roll over, and the administration is promoting the change by claiming that some 1.3 million lower-paid workers who hadn't previously qualified for overtime will now do so. However, the Labor Department (which probably should change its name to the Bosses' Resource Center) is simultaneously distributing instructions to employers on how to avoid paying overtime -- to the very same workers who are supposedly scheduled to benefit from the new rules.

The recommendations -- which the agency says could keep employers' cost increases under the rule change to "near zero" -- include raising the workers' pay (above the princely sum of $22,100 a year) or, much more deviously, cutting workers' hourly rate and then using the overtime to match the original salary (that's probably illegal, but guess who decides). Now there's a way to inspire employee loyalty and raise morale. More simply, says the department, employers could "adhere to the 40-hour week" -- but if that were a likely course of action, the new rules would be unnecessary in the first place. Said a Labor Department spokesman when the Associated Press broke the story, "We're not saying anybody should do this." No, they just distribute the tips to employers as a "public" service -- and if workers caught in the overtime whipsaw don't like it, they can quit. Saves on unemployment insurance.

There's much more, of course: unfunded school accountability mandates to go along with unfunded schools; children losing access to public health insurance while their parents' lose their jobs; and those of us with jobs and health care, now receiving our annual kick in the head from employers' insurance companies raising rates for less coverage.

We are watching, from the inside, a continuing and massive transfer of community-generated and earned wealth from the many to the few. And in return for our work, we're offered games and circuses.

Let's get married, and fly to the moon. end story

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economy, social policy, George W. Bush, NASA, unemployment insurance, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Labor Department, overtime rules

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