Brace yourself for a long week of gale-force hot air about what is and isn't "fair" about legislation designed to cut taxes by some $250 billion over the next 10 years.
Both Republican and Democratic congressmen and White House leaders will wallow in make-believe righteousness as they try to determine who will benefit most -- presumably before an Aug. 1 deadline for the tax-cut bill. But behind the tornadoes of talk, these "principles" will remain undisturbed:
1) The richest 20 percent of the people will wind up getting perhaps 80 percent of all tax-cut benefits, no matter whether President Clinton or the Republicans prevail in decisions as to which levies get cut how much.
This will be explained away as "natural that those who pay the most taxes deserve the most cuts." But it is also "natural" because almost all 535 members of Congress and the president and his key advisers have incomes within the top 20 percent for Americans. So do the lobbyists and the big political contributors who always influence greatly the major parameters of all tax bills.
2) So this tax-cut bill is not going to be any great socialist exercise in the transfer of wealth. The wildest expectation is that the poorest 20 percent of Americans could get 4 percent of the benefits, but both the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Taxation and the Democrat-run Treasury Department estimate that the poorest 20 percent of U.S. families will get 1 percent of the benefits.
One of the most controversial tax-cut proposals is the Clinton administration's demand that working-poor families also receive the $500-per-child tax credit. Some powerful Republicans are arguing that it would be "just a welfare payment" to give $1,500 in tax credits to a family with three children that doesn't have enough income to owe Uncle Sam $1,500 in taxes.
Extending this tax credit to the working poor would represent a "transfer of wealth," but one so small that it would not take a crumb out of the mouths of more affluent citizens.
3) If you are middle class (what that means is an item of great disagreement at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but let's say your family earns $75,000 a year), don't expect this or any other tax-cut bill to give you the kind of windfall that will change your style or standard of living. That beach house you dream of will blow away with the rhetoric.
4) The overall reality is that "ordinary" Americans rarely have much to say about the ultimate content of tax bills. The 60 percent of Americans with the lowest incomes don't own enough stocks, bonds or real estate to be affected greatly by cuts in the capital gains taxes. Even the 80 percent of families with the lowest incomes are mostly uninvolved observers as Congress wrangles over estate, inheritance, excise and even corporate taxes. The legitimate concern of that now wide band of far-from-rich Americans who own securities is whether a capital gains cut would provoke such a sell-off of stocks that their investments would be imperiled.
So fashioning a tax-cut bill is mostly an exercise in which the privileged spout moralisms as they manipulate the laws to ensure that they continue to protect the privileged. The lawmakers always hide behind a wall of phony definitions, technicalities and general mumbo-jumbo that keeps the average taxpayer thoroughly confused.
That's why, perhaps five years from now, Mr. Normal American will suddenly say, "What happened?" By which time Congress will be in the process of revising the tax laws -- again.