The One-Eyed Man

SYNOPSIS: Another aim at the stimulus package

Somewhere I read that to really understand legislation you have to look for the clause giving special consideration to one-eyed bearded men with a limp that is, you have to look for the provision that turns a bill ostensibly serving a public purpose into a giveaway for some special interest.

Most of the commentary about the "stimulus" bill passed by the House last week focuses on the huge benefits it lavishes on giant corporations. But that doesn't tell us much about the specific interests being served. What's good for corporate America is good for General Motors; it would be hard to devise a bill that consists mainly of corporate giveaways without giving a lot of money to the biggest companies. To understand what the bill is really about, you have to look at the big payoffs to not-so-big companies.

One piece of the bill is custom- designed to benefit a small group of multinational financial firms. Another is clearly there for the sake of certain health insurors. But the most remarkable thing is how much of the benefit from repeal of the alternative minimum tax a measure that is also included in the Bush administration's supposed stimulus plan, and which seems to be one of the administration's key priorities goes to companies that are not all that big.

For example, it's not too surprising that calculations by Citizens for Tax Justice show General Motors, with its 380,000 workers, getting a check for $800 million. But it's quite amazing that TXU (formerly Dallas Power and Light), a company with only 16,000 employees, would get a check for $600 million. And there are a number of medium-sized companies that, like TXU, are in line for surprisingly big benefits. These companies include ChevronTexaco, Enron, Phillips Petroleum, IMC Global and CMS Energy. What do they have in common?

Well, they tend to be in the energy or mining businesses; and they tend to be based in or near Texas. In other words, the one-eyed bearded man with a limp looks a lot like Dick Cheney.

There is almost certainly a lot of overlap between the companies that would derive large benefits from alternative minimum tax repeal and those that would have received large subsidies under the energy plan devised by Mr. Cheney's task force. You may remember that the administration, in apparent defiance of the law, refused to make the records of that task force's meetings available to Congress; that's one of those issues that seems to have been dropped after Sept. 11.

And I guess it's superfluous to point out that the big winners in all this seem to be companies that gave large, one-sided donations to the Republican Party in the last election. (This is not to suggest that Democrats are any less susceptible to the influence of money.)

To me, the story of the Bush administration is starting to look like the plot of "Victor/Victoria." First we had a candidate who was supposed to be a moderate. Then we learned, or thought we learned, that this was a mask; he was really a hard-line conservative who pretended to be a moderate in order to gain office.

But the latest economic proposals from the administration, like the Cheney energy plan, don't look as if they came from serious free-marketeers. They don't make sense in terms of either demand-side or supply-side economics, but they do give a lot of money to certain companies. So maybe ideology was just another mask for someone who was really the candidate of corporations not corporations in general, but a small group of companies with a quite specific set of business interests and who is only pretending to be a hard- line conservative who pretended to be a moderate in order to gain office.

It's an interesting and all too plausible picture. But it's a picture that most people will never see on their TV, and that many people would refuse to accept no matter how strong the evidence. That, of course, is what makes the whole thing possible. In the land of the blind, the one- eyed bearded man with a limp is king.

In last Wednesday's column I said the "original" war bonds were issued during World War II. In fact, war bonds were also issued during the Civil War and World War I. I don't think this affects the argument.

Originally published in The New York Times, 10.31.01