Refund Check


In this year's State of the Union address, according to The New York Times, President Clinton "proposed using some of the nation's wealth to provide modest tax relief for lower- and middle-class Americans." Apparently, "the nation's wealth" is a big pot of money that the president and Congress are free to divvy up as they choose.

This attitude is not limited to New York Times reporters. It underlies Clinton's thinking about fiscal matters, including his view of the $2 trillion federal surplus that is expected over the next decade.

First of all, Clinton thinks the surplus is something to brag about. At the beginning of his speech, he listed "the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years" as a positive development.

When a merchant accidentally overcharges me, it's cause for embarrassment, apologies, and immediate rectification. When the federal government does the same thing, somehow it's a source of pride.

Then, too, when I buy a pair of jeans at the Gap, it's a voluntary transaction, and I know what I'm getting for my money. The government, by contrast, takes my money by force, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine what it gives me in return that could be worth a third of my income.

There's national defense, of course. But given all the military projects we get involved in that have nothing to do with our national security–bombing civilians to retaliate for the crimes of dictators, defending countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves–I suspect we could manage some cutbacks in that area.

What else? I've been known to use the Interstate Highway System.

At this point, I've nearly exhausted my list of services offered by the federal government that I'd be willing to pay for without the threat of fines and imprisonment. I get nothing from big-ticket items such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And while I might someday, I'd much rather keep the money I'm contributing to these programs, buy my own health coverage, and invest for my own retirement.

Not that anyone is offering me the choice. Even when it comes to my share of the surplus–money that, by definition, the government is not using for anything–I don't get a choice.

As President Clinton put it during a visit to Buffalo shortly after his 1999 State of the Union address, "We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right." In case the utter folly of that course was not immediately clear, he hastened to explain that such extravagance would cause the Social Security system to go bankrupt by 2032, forcing Americans to prepare for retirement on their own.

Obviously, that's the last thing a president who preaches "responsibility from all" wants to see. Similarly, Clinton's "opportunity for all" does not include the opportunity to spend your own money.

Last year in Buffalo, Clinton derided the very idea. "It may sound good if somebody says this is your surplus and we ought to give it back to you," he said, rejecting the counsel of those who assume "you'll figure out what to do with it."

You won't hear such irresponsible talk from Clinton. He tells it to you like it is: You cannot be trusted with the fruits of your labor.

Although Clinton is now backing the aforementioned "modest tax relief," that does not mean he is any more sanguine about the ability of Americans to manage their lives. The proposed cuts are aimed at encouraging particular kinds of behavior, such as going to college or raising children. Clinton likes tax cuts only as a tool of social engineering, not as a way of restoring money to the people who earned it.

In any case, the proposed cuts, which the White House says would total $350 billion over 10 years, are less than a fifth of the projected surplus. Clinton has plans for the rest–plans that Al Gore, his designated successor, presumably would pursue.

Among other things, Clinton wants to "make America the safest big country on earth." He also wants to ensure that "no child will be raised in poverty," "every family will be able to succeed at home and at work," and "every child will begin school ready to learn and graduate ready to succeed." With goals like these, you can be confident that the government will never run out of things to do with your money.