It was H.L. Mencken who said nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. He didn't think to add that no politician ever lost an election by underestimating the gullibility of the American public.
The latest illustration of that point was the last-minute deal our congressional leaders worked out to avoid pushing the country over -- forgive me, the cliche is unavoidable -- the Fiscal Cliff. Then the politicos stood back, admired their shoddy work, and hailed it as some kind of great victory for fairness, responsibility and The American Way. The country had been saved. And they had saved it!
Barack Obama led the chorus of self-praise by saying that, at last, a way had been found to make "millionaires and billionaires" begin to pay "their fair share."
Unless, that is, the millionaires and billionaires happen to be among those whose tax breaks were carefully protected in the small print of this midnight raid on the U.S. Treasury and the credulity of the American public. Millionaires and billionaires like those who own NASCAR racetracks, railroads, foreign subsidiaries of American corporations, or businesses located on Indian reservations or in a favored part of New York.
Or the billionaires and millionaires who are Hollywood moguls, or own plants in American Samoa (Starkist Tuna) or distilleries in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands (Bacardi). Or if those millionaires and billionaires have a stake in various "green" industries like plug-in motorcycles, wind power or celluloid biofuels, whatever those are. Or if said billionaires and millionaires have invested in enterprises like General Electric and Siemens, which also got their share of tax breaks in this something-for-everybody bill.
The handouts in this bill go on and on. The full list can be found in a report out of the Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation, but to read it may require a strong stomach. Not a single special interest seems to have been left out. There are so many that I lost count of all the snouts at this public trough.
Now that he's no longer running for president, John McCain can afford to be candid about what Congress -- and the president -- have wrought. Here's his comment on this mountain of pork disguised as a statesmanlike compromise: "It's hard to think of anything that could feed the cynicism of the American people more than larding up must-pass emergency legislation with giveaways to special interests and campaign contributors."
There is always a touch of irony to the names politicians assign their sneakiest proposals, but the official title of this deal rushed through Congress at the midnight hour is more ironic than most: The American Taxpayer Relief Act, which turns out to relieve some well-heeled taxpayers most of all.
So much for making all those billionaires and millionaires pay their fair share. The tax lawyers, CPAs and financial planners must be lining up tax shelters even now. And there'll be plenty of safe havens to choose from thanks to the American Taxpayer Relief Act (and Tax Dodge) of 2012. Specifically, of the very last minutes of 2012.
This is our president's idea of fair taxation, even though this last-minute deal raised payroll taxes on every working stiff in the country, as anybody who draws a paycheck has now discovered, or will soon enough. If they'll just check their pay stub. If there's anything less fair than this deal that favors one special interest after another, it's the Hon. Barack Obama's description of it as some kind of great triumph for equity.
So let's hold the applause, shall we? Especially with the national debt still looming over the economy like a growing threat, and still another debate coming up soon on raising the debt limit. Well, sure, why economize when you can borrow more? Or just print more, the way the Federal Reserve has been doing? Just be sure to call it Quantitative Easing.
Mr. Mencken may have thought of himself as a cynic about politics in his time, but he hadn't seen anything yet.
It's not exactly news that to the victors of an election belong the spoils, but when the spoilsmen in Washington claim to have saved the country by passing this encyclopedic compilation of tax breaks, subsidies and special favors, they've reached a new height in hypocrisy. Or low.
Between the self-celebration of the politicians who engineered this grab and called it statesmanship, and the gullibility of the pundits who repeated that line, the extent of this gigantic giveaway may go unnoticed. It shouldn't.