The Common Good
January 2008

Subsidizing the Rich

by David Cay Johnston | January 2008

We now have almost three decades of experience with the idea that markets will solve our problems.

We now have almost three decades of experience with the idea that markets will solve our problems. The promised results are not there and there is no reason to believe that they are over the next horizon, just a few more subsidies away. Elec­tricity costs more and its delivery is less reliable. Many hundreds of billions of tax dollars have been diverted to the rich, leaving our schools, parks, and local government services starved for funds. Jobs and assets are going offshore, sometimes to the detriment of not just the economy, but national security.

We have layered subsidy upon giveaway upon legal absolution for reckless conduct in a chaotic attempt to protect jobs, and it has not worked. We pour billions into subsidies for sports teams and golf courses. Our health care system costs us far more than that of any other industrial country and yet we live shorter lives than the Canadians, Europeans, and the Japanese. We stand alone among modern societies in making tens of millions of our citizens go without health care, many of whom die or become disabled because of this nutty idea that medicine is a business, not a service. We have erected obstacles to the earnest but poor who seek to better themselves through library study and higher education.

And our politicians in both parties are hypocrites of the first water, nearly every one of them. They vote to make the poor sacrifice again and again so that the rich can have more, yet they run for office handing out photos showing that they regularly attend religious services. To those who do not get this last point, take a moment to ponder the inner thoughts of the Pharisees. Do you think they thought themselves evil? Of course not. In their own minds, they had justifications for what they did, assuring themselves that they were the most moral of men.

Except for our technology, our electricity and powerful motors, we are the same as the ancients. And like great societies that we can look back upon, which reached a high point and then headed down the road to oblivion, we too are taking from the many to give to the few. “He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want,” it says in Proverbs 22. Wise words to memorize.

We have become a society in which this injunction, and many others like it, is ignored. Even when we seek to help people, as with the drug benefit for older Americans, the mechanism often is designed first and foremost to take care of the corporate rich. The net effect of our policies, the evidence for which is overwhelming, is that we are redistributing income up. Through subsidies and tax cuts and rules that depress the incomes of most workers, the immediate future looks very bright for the already rich. Indeed, to borrow from the song, their future’s so bright they gotta wear shades.

Excerpted from Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill), by David Cay Johnston (January 2008), by permission of Portfolio.

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