We are, one gathers, faced with war on two fronts. There is, of course, the Iraqi front, where great armies are poised for battle. The second front is here at home, where "rich" and "poor" gird for the next class war. D-Day, the newspapers say, is Nov. 6, when good soldiers march off to the polls.
Before the blood runs too deep in the streets, I should like to know on which side to muster. Who are the "poor," and who are the "rich"? The politicians, with consistent help from the "media," have done a grand job of obfuscating the issue.
House Democrats, for example, passed a budget bill last week containing new taxes. "Tonight," said its principal sponsor, Dan Rostenkowski, "equity and fairness make a comeback." Who would not rally to such a banner? But wait: The president calls it a tax gouge of "working men and women." What?
I turned for guidance to that inimitable source, The Post, whose largess -- or lack of it -- defines my own social class. It informed me that the House bill "would significantly raise income taxes on the wealthy and provide tax breaks for the poor and middle class." That has a nice ring to it. But it had no specificity -- a common failing of this newspaper -- so I was forced to consult other sources to discover the fate of my "class."
The Statistical Abstract for 1990 informed me that I was not "poor," at least by the official definition of $12,000 a year for a family of four. This suggests that the "upper lower class" or the "lower middle class" begins at about $15,000 a year and that at roughly $33,000 a year we are into the "middle middle class." That is the median family income in the United States; half of our families earn less, half earn more. But where does "middle class" end and "rich" begin?
Considered purely on a geographic basis, the Rostenkowski bill should terrorize all those in reach of his voice: Washington, per capita, is the richest city in the land. Greater Washington, according to The Post's research department, is the richest metropolis in the land in terms of family income and after-tax buying power.
Could it be true that our legislators were prepared to punish themselves, the vast bureaucracy and the rest of the Beltway crowd, press included, in the interests of "equity and fairness"? Were we to become the "rich" targets in the class war?
The newspapers and the politicians were of little help in dealing with those questions. Still, The New York Times, unlike The Post, gave us an inkling into what the House had wrought. Everyone with taxable income of less than $20,000 a year (37 million taxpayers) would get a tax cut. Everyone with taxable income above $20,000 a year (51 million taxpayers) would pay more.
It is obvious, even to an economic illiterate such as myself, that the dividing line for the class war does not start at $20,000 a year, even though that is where the tax increase cuts in. It also is obvious that the 65,247 taxpayers who reported incomes of $1 million or more in 1988 qualify by any definition as "rich."
So you start out with a "poor" army of 37 million versus a "rich" army of 65,247 plus another 775,000 classified as "rich" under the Rostenkowski bill (they earned more than $200,000 in 1988).
This leaves 50 million taxpayers who are neither "poor" nor, by congressional definition, "rich." They include 1.8 million families and individuals with incomes of between $100,000 and $200,000, which is precisely the income group in which you will find leading members of Washington's ruling class: politicians, journalists, consultants and upper-level bureaucrats. The Rostenkowski bill virtually immunizes them from "burden sharing" and grants them capital gains relief as well. Their rate increase, The Times (and belatedly The Post) revealed, would be smaller -- less than 1 percent -- than for any other "middle class" income group, the $20,000-a-year earner included.
It's a great bill. It enables us to denounce the "rich," feel good and still maintain our handsome lifestyles. Even the new "luxury" taxes will, in most cases, be painless; they do not apply to boats or airplanes priced at less than $100,000 or to cars at less than $30,000.
There is an even more important class indicator in the Rostenkowski bill:
The tax on a six-pack of beer goes to 32 cents. The tax on a bottle of champagne or white wine goes to a quarter.
That's my kind of people. Where do I enlist?