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Stab stab stab

Hendrik Hertzberg is as adept with a skewer as any political writer around, but he doesn't always seem to know what to point it at.

His latest New Yorker column suggests that George Bush is a hypocrite for feigning Christian piety while cutting taxes to the rich. Hertzberg even invents three Biblical passages, mockingly portraying money and riches being Good, to draw out Bush's apparent (to Hertzberg) false morality, and, in concluding, cites the actual Bible — Mark 12:41–44, in which Jesus praises a poor widow for sacrificing what pennies she had, saying it is more than all the wealth so easily spared by those wealthier than her — to supposedly prove it.

That is, Hertzberg mocks the idea that letting rich people keep their money is in any way good; apparently he thinks taxing the rich is what would be worthy of praise. Now, there are some real problems with Bush's tax cut, but this simply isn't one of them. The only reason anyone, rich or poor, should pay taxes is if the government needs the money. There are two basic reasons for taxing the rich more than the poor — they have more, and they can more easily spare it — and trying to cure the materially fortunate of their enviable treasure hoards is not one of them. (I also happen to believe it's in their own best interests, in the long run, for the wealthy to pay more in taxes, but that's a whole other topic I'll just skirt around for now.)

Now, it so happens we simply can't afford George's political greed (which is the prime motivation for the tax cut, natch) at this time; and of course his lying about the motivations behind that so-called "economic stimulus package," as well as its likely impact on our economy both now (when it probably won't help) and in the future (when government budget deficits could be crippling), is infuriating. But the cuts themselves are hardly morally offensive; tax cuts may be harmful in practice, but that doesn't mean they are wrong in principle.

What's more — and Hertzberg can't possibly not know this — the entire premise of the Republicans' position on taxes is that individuals should be free to do what they think is right with their own money. I myself am not particularly concerned with the moral standing of this nation's obscenely wealthy (and, since you ask, I don't have high hopes for it, either), but if Hertzberg truly is so concerned, as he suggests, then he should realize that taking their money from them will improve it not a whit: The only hope for them is if they give of their own money, freely and generously. Taxing them, which Hertzberg seems to think would be the genuinely Christian thing to do, would hardly save their souls, unless he somehow thinks that if they were made as poor as the biblical poor widow then they would somehow become as generous.

Does he believe that? Not for a second, and for that matter it's not likely he actually cares about saving their souls, either. He's pretending to adopt a system of beliefs just to make a point. You can't help but wish he'd at least done it satirically; it's precisely Bush's blatant two-facedness — his complete willingness and readiness to do or say whatever he wants for himself and then apply whichever standard is most convenient in order to justify it — that is so infuriating and sickening, and the fact the Hertzberg wants to play a similar game with his rhetoric rather pointedly suggests that, this time at least, he's taken up his skewer from the wrong end.

January 17, 2003 10:47 AM

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