Trenches to troughs

IN THE HEROIC iconography of America’s good wars, our government asked its soldiers to fight in trenches, and they risked (and often lost) their lives defending freedom.

However, in America’s “new kind of war,” it seems far too many of our political leaders—starting with President Bush—seem most preoccupied with asking their corporate friends to belly up to the trough. For the war effort, of course.

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a proposed package of “economic stimulus” measures, strongly supported by Bush, that adds up to a stunning array of gifts to big corporations and the wealthy. It contains $70 billion worth of corporate tax cuts this year alone-geared to big, rather than small, companies-and yet another “rebate” payout gimmick to individuals, this one attached to cuts that, again, are overwhelmingly skewed to benefit middle- and upper-income taxpayers. (In case you didn’t notice, this year’s $300 “rebate” gimmick was actually an advance payment on your income-tax bill for next year. Seriously. Your overall tax bill did not change a bit—only the timeline by which you shelled out the money.) For the laid off and unemployed, nothing.

One of the most notable provisions of the newly passed House bill would repeal the corporate alternative minimum tax, a 1986 law intended to close loopholes that big corporations had been using to escape paying income taxes through the use of deductions. The House measure would not only end the law but would refund to corporations the taxes they have paid as a result of it. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the $25.4 billion the repeal and resulting refunds would cost this year, $3.3 billion would go to seven companies, including IBM ($1.4 billion), General Motors ($832 million), and General Electric ($671 million). Another provision would reduce the top rate on long-term capital gains taxes from 20 percent to 18 percent.

There’s plenty more, some of which is not likely to survive the Senate but still sets the tone and the agenda for how Congress is responding (after they come out from under their beds) to the first direct, truly devastating attack on the U.S. mainland in nearly 200 years.

On the same day that the House passed its pig-feeding law, Bush administration officials began testimony in House and Senate hearings in support of an effort to underwrite the insurance industry. That industry took a huge hit from the Sept. 11 attacks, but it also happens to be flush with money. Lawmakers agree that federal support is necessary to help bail out insurers in case of catastrophic losses from future terrorist attacks in this war. But Bush wants the federal government to cover 80 percent of all attack- related industry payouts from the very first dollar. His plan limits overall losses in 2002 to $12 billion; after that, the feds will cover everything. And if there are no attacks, of course, the profits will be enormous. It’s socialism for the rich: The public assumes the risk, the private sector gets any profit.

But that wasn’t all. Also last Wednesday, the Bush administration cut a deal with Bayer A.G., the German pharmaceutical giant that makes the anti- anthrax antibiotic Cipro (see “End the War on Bugs,” p. 25). Bayer had been charging $1.83 per tablet for government orders and agreed to cut the price nearly in half, to about 95 cents a tablet, for a guaranteed order of 100 million tablets this year—a $100 million sale.

That price concession will certainly help. But it’s still a lot more than Bayer actually spends to make and distribute the well-established drug. And, as worried Americans besieged doctors and pharmacists seeking preventive prescriptions, Bayer was still gouging pharmacies with a wholesale price of a staggering $4.67 a tablet, meaning the retail price still runs from $5-$7 per pill. In announcing the deal with Bayer, a previous threat to pull Bayer’s patent on Cipro early—so that a cheaper, generic version could be made available to the public—was quietly dropped. Instead, Bayer remains free to rip us off as part of the war effort.

Profiteering at the expense of human lives is standard fare for the drug industry, but it’s particularly repugnant when it comes amidst war. Mind you, the above examples of fighting a war in the troughs came on one day. And they didn’t even include the country’s pre-eminent budgetary bottom-feeders, our “defense” industry. If this was a day in the life of Capitol Hill, and we’ve been promised a long war, then the public had better get busy. The last time a foreign power launched a wholesale attack on our mainland, in 1812, Washington, D.C., was sacked. It’s happening again.

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