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The State of Whose Union?

by Nomi Prins

Earlier this week, speaking for Washingtonia and unburdened by high expectations, President Bush said "all of us were sent to Washington to carry out the people's business."

The question remains - exactly which people? And what business, Mr. Bush?

Because if it's the majority of the population, and it's life not war, we're not even close to having it carried out.

He acknowledged, "at kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future."

The question remains - our? Who do you mean by 'our', Mr. Bush?

Because for three-quarters of the population's kitchen table concerns are over gas costs, health insurance, debt payments, tuition, and home values. For nearly 24% of the population, depending on what race you are, the issue of paying for one's next meal and balancing child-care with multiple jobs is center stage.

It turns out that it doesn't matter. And that it's easy to engage in bi-partisan synchronized applause, commending the commander-in-chief for well enunciated, yet totally bankrupt, words of empathetic understanding about 'our' collective economic plight. Less than 24 hours later, it was equally easy, apparently, for the House of Representatives to overwhemingly approve (385-35) a stimulus package designed to invigorate corporate quarterly earnings (through corporate tax cuts or promotion of public consumption, whichever does the trick), and avoid what the president characterized as the 'temptation' to 'load up the bill' with sundry items like food-stamps or unemployment insurance expansion - in other words, items that might have a long-lasting helpful impact on people who need it most.

Flanked by Vice President Cheney, who is certain to nab a lush CEO spot by this time next year, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who regretfully capitulated on those sundry items, President Bush unleashed his true legacy wish: to render those oh-so-helpful-to-the-economy tax cuts about to expire, permanent. Otherwise, he warned his fellow politicos under the glare of those camera lights, you'll have some "explaining to do to the 116 million American taxpayers whose taxes would rise by an average of $1800."

It's chilling to witness such an underestimation of American taxpayers - as if their only expense in life is taxes. Here's an idea - to avoid all that uncomfortable explaining, how about raising taxes on the people and companies that can afford it, like, say Exxon, whose profit more than quadrupled in the past seven years, as the average price of a gallon of gas doubled? Mr. Bush, why not use some of that excess for those alternative energy programs?

To catch a free falling dollar, reduce a one-sided trade relationship with the outside world (with whom America's trade deficit has doubled during the Bush presidency), and curtail growth in deficit spending to $354 billion in 2007 (from a 236 billion surplus in 2000), Bush talked about cutting 151 government programs, for a grand savings of $18 billion. This, he said, would enable the government to balance its budget - the way he thinks Americans should as well. This president began his first term in office with a $5.2 trillion national public debt, and despite promises in his first State of the Union address to cut it in half, that debt, due to substantive war addendums and reckless tax cuts for the wealthy and private equity funds, now stands nearly doubled, at $9 trillion. So it's not clear how that $18 billion is going to effect a dramatic about-face in the national books.

On the actual homefront, where fear of the loss of one's home to a bank runs much higher than fear of its loss to terrorism, foreclosures are up 68% over last year. Yet the greater part of Bush's housing solution amounted to allowing the Federal Housing Administration to insure larger mortgages without requiring greater transparency or accountability for the nature of those mortgages. There was also the suggestion to increase bond (or debt) issuance in the industry, even though a large part of the current sub-prime mortgage crisis was predicated on Wall Street's ability to consolidate many individual mortages into packages (or collateralized debt) that they could then trade around like baseball cards. They haven't had to disclose publicly how those individual mortgages were behaving when they started losing money due to defaults. This plan just gives Wall Street another opportunity to repackage and hide impending losses, not solve the housing problem. Yet the President said this would help homeowners refinance their residences (rather than help the Wall Street firms, brokers, and lenders to clip prepayment, commitment, and other fees).

In the spirit of advocating a stimulus package that throws $50 billion of fresh tax breaks to corporations, rather than asking them to retain any form of public responsibility whatsoever, he took a calculated swipe at a deeply damaged health care system, by suggesting a change in the tax code. It had previously afforded a tax incentive for corporations to offer health care plans to employees. Removing it would cause an even greater increase in the number of uninsured Americans, who had been receiving insurance through their employers, albeit in dwindling numbers.

To fix education, Bush's big new plan was to sprinkle $300 million (which amounts to one trading day blip on Wall Street) of Pell Grants to kids from low income homes. Of course, not vetoing bills that advocate health insurance for those kids would be much more helpful. Education funding remains less than 1/8th of military funding, not including all those special addendum packages that Congress voted for so enthusiastically.

Campaign for America's Future compiled a depressingly accurate set of statistics about the state of our real union and this presidency. It included a 15 percent increase in the number of Americans living in poverty during the past 7 years (24.3% of African Americans, 20.6% of Hispanic American, 10.1% of Asian Americans and 8.2% of white Americans fall into the poverty category). They also noted that consumers, under constant financial industry promotional pressure, have accrued a 68 percent increase in consumer debt (including credit card and housing debt) just trying to make ends meet.

Decreases included median household income, with African American households declining the most, followed by Asian, Hispanic, then white American ones. More than 3 million manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2006, and despite Bush's claim that tax cuts would create new jobs (when bolstered by his stimulus package), the number of new private sector jobs created during the past seven years was a mere fifth of the number that had been created in the preceeding eight years.

So, the union has suffered in every meaningful way. As this disastrous president's reign comes to an end, we must elect a new one who will truly address the actual issues, not cut deals that have proven ineffective in replenishing the people's economy. In the meantime, the Senate still has a chance to enhance the current stimulus package by 'loading it' with the 'sundry items' that the House didn't pass, such as food stamp and unemployment insurance expansion, subsidies for home heating and energy costs for low-income families, aid for seniors and disabled veterans, and financing for infrastructure projects that could convert to more jobs. And if it dropped the "$500 rebate for all" idea, which is needlessly wasteful, it could disseminate more useful relief - for the poor, the unemployed, and the elderly living off social security.

It would be nice if they didn't screw up that opportunity.

Nomi Prins is a journalist and Senior Fellow at Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization. She is the author of Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking your Pocket (whether you voted for them or not). Other People's Money, a devastating exposé into corporate corruption, political collusion and Wall Street deception was chosen as a Best Book of 2004 by The Economist, Barron's and The Library Journal.

Copyright © 2008 The Women's International Perspective

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