When high school basketball phenom LeBron James was suspended earlier this year for accepting free basketball jerseys, commentators bemoaned the lack of guidance in the young man’s life. Who were his advisers? Who were the people around him that he could trust to give him advice without a hidden, self-serving agenda? James is not alone in receiving questionable advice from consultants that have their own agendas. Our president must be careful of the same thing.
From the beginning, President George W. Bush has attempted to reassure those who would question his relative lack of experience or his apparent lack of knowledge of situations around the world by saying he will establish first-class teams of advisers and rely heavily on them. This is sound policy for any world leader. The complexities of leadership require experts available on everything from tactical capabilities of foreign weapons systems to cultural traditions for effective diplomacy.
But it seems Bush is ignoring some rather important advisers when it comes to his most important decisions recently. Both Bush’s plan for war with Iraq and his new tax proposals have come under fire from experts that seem to be as close as we can come to unbiased opinions.
A few months ago, three out of four retired generals testifying before Congress about a potential war with Iraq cautioned against going forward without U.N. approval. These weren’t conscientious objectors or stereotypical peace protesters. These were generals who led our country to war and have seen both the political and the practical problems that arise. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who commanded allied forces in the 1999 Kosovo air war, warned that without anything proving the need for immediate action, ignoring the concerns of other U.N. Security Council members could make the United States’ task more difficult.
By making it extremely clear that he intends to proceed with or without U.N. approval, Bush has strengthened the hand of countries on the fence of support. Even if they agree with Bush about the need to disarm Iraq, they might fear political repercussions, like those being felt by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, if they support what is still a very unpopular war in citizen polls around the world. However, they can take a stand against Bush in the Security Council and feel fairly confident Bush will still go ahead and take on Iraq himself.
Even if Bush would just take the public stance that he would rely on the judgment of the Security Council, this would increase the political pressure on all the nations. Any blood spilled by Saddam Hussein would be on the hands of the nations who argued against action. By insisting on action on his timetable, Bush has assumed all the burden of proof before the United Nations and has also relieved any pressure other nations felt to proactively eliminate the threat posed by Hussein.
While Bush has worked hard to play up the need for immediate action in Iraq to the rest of the world, he downplayed the risk of war when revealing his new proposals for tax cuts. The proposals will result in an estimated budget deficit of trillions of dollars before the war is taken into account.
Once again Bush is ignoring the advice of several key experts in order to push his agenda. Last month a group of economists, including 10 Nobel Prize winners, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times opposing the Bush tax cuts. The cuts, they argue, do almost nothing to stimulate the economy and instead give a tax cut to the very wealthiest Americans that is unlikely to be cycled back into the economy.
One of the main focuses of the tax cut is the elimination of the tax on dividends paid by corporations. Bush has claimed he has been unable to sleep at night, thinking about the “double taxation” that results when you tax a corporation’s earnings and then tax the individuals who receive those earnings as dividends. Professor Franco Modigliani of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can’t understand the president’s frustration. Most money, he says, is taxed several times: When it’s earned, when it’s spent, when it’s used to buy property, when it’s saved. This has been the nature of taxation from the beginning.
One of the more striking arguments against the elimination of the tax on dividends is the explanation of who it will actually help. The top 226,000 taxpayers in the country, those making more than $1 million, will benefit as much as the bottom 120 million taxpayers, including all those making up to $100,000 per year. In other words, 50 percent of the
taxpayers will receive less than $100 dollars from the cut, while the very, very wealthy receive enormous benefits.
Another voice that has been critical of the president’s plan is Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan, who supports the elimination of the dividend tax in theory, feels that it has to be accomplished without creating a budget deficit. Greenspan was the one who inspired President Clinton to balance the budget and actually create a budget surplus in the early 1990s. He backed Bush’s tax cut in 2001 because he was wary of too big of a surplus, and he hoped the plan would stimulate the economy. Now the surplus is gone, the 2001 plan failed to stimulate the economy in any significant way and Bush has proposed a plan that will increase the deficit without focusing on creating increased spending or investing from the majority of Americans.
If Bush is still relying on his top-flight team of advisers, it might be time for him to re-evaluate the advice he is receiving. He should make sure those around him have what is best for the country in mind, and not what is best for them or their special interest groups. This is good advice for a high school athlete, but vital for the leader of our country.
Matt Telleen’s biweekly column
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