Debate Over Shared Sacrifice Takes Shape
WASHINGTON — RESPONSIBILITY. Sacrifice. Contribution. President Clinton invokes all of these virtues in his ongoing campaign to rally support for his economic plan.
He implores individuals, interest groups, and corporations across the country to assess his tax and spending program in its totality, and not to simply consider "what's in it for me."
The president calls for investments in all of society's future, by targeting America's children and struggling families, its under-educated and its inadequately trained work force.
But Mr. Clinton's pitch has spurred many taxpayers to examine just how his proposals will affect their own economic lot. And it has provoked debates throughout the United States over what constitutes a community, and who is obligated to support it.
"There are two kinds of pluralism," writes social thinker Amitai Etzioni in his upcoming book "The Spirit of Community."
* One, he describes as "unbounded ... each group is out to gain all it can, with little concern for the shared needs of the community."
* Then there is "pluralism within unity," he says, in which "groups vie with one another yet voluntarily limit themselves when they impinge on common interests."
Public opinion surveys reflect that duality, with strong endorsements for the Clinton plan, and signs - from over-the-fence discussions to powerful lobbying groups nationwide - of many pockets of dissent.
A recent poll conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press surveyed personal views and the tenor of discussions about Clinton's plan among friends and neighbors.
It also sampled the public sentiment based on the gender, race, age, income, region, party affiliation, and 1992 presidential voting record of each respondent.
Clinton continues to enjoy a "substantial majority" of public support," the poll found, and "most Americans [are] seemingly willing to wait for a personal payoff from the Clinton plan."
But it detected that "an uneasy and critical tone dominates" the discussion of the plan "among a remarkably high proportion of the public," and that "these grass-roots deliberations can nonetheless erode the support for the Clinton program over time among key groups..."
Mr. Etzioni says Clinton's greatest challenge is to move American pluralism away from the "unbounded kind" that puts stress on government efforts to work in the common interest.
The president's success, he says, hinges on how effectively the White House can resist the tug of special interests in its effort to stimulate the economy and slash the federal deficit.
The political debate over how sacrifice is to be shared is already taking shape along financial, generational, regional, and political fault lines.
Income: Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a principal architect of the administration's economic plan, wrote in "The Work of Nations" that communities are "composed only of citizens with incomes close to their own."
One of Clinton's chief goals is to redress the growing disparities in income by directing more federal spending and tax relief to lower income groups, and adding burdens to taxpayers on the higher end.
Joel Kotkin, author of "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy," says Clinton's plan is based on false premises.
"A big problem is the definition of the middle class," he says. Many taxpayers who fall under Clinton's definition of rich - those earning incomes in the $100,000 range - actually have far lower incomes when their exorbitant housing costs, state and local taxes are taken into account, he says.
Other components of the administration's plan, including infrastructure projects that will award subsidies to large corporations and job training programs for those out of work, are also misplaced, Mr. Kotkin says.
Kotkin adds that individuals and businesses would reap far greater profits from a plan that helps create long-term jobs, not short-term projects and training for positions that out-of-work trained people are already competing for.
Gail Fosler, chief economist of the Conference Board, a big business organization that does national surveys of consumer confidence, says the plan is more divisive than unifying, given the focus on top income earners and corporations.
Aside from Clinton's suggested across the board fuel tax, "there's not a whole lot in his plan that hits the middle class," she says. "He's really taking from the rich and giving to the poor."
Clinton is trying to avoid raising income taxes on middle Americans, after abandoning his campaign pledge to give them a tax break.
Consumer groups caution if Clinton's plan for higher business taxes is carried out, then the middle class will endure a further erosion of its income as producers pass along their added costs to consumers.
"Middle-class taxpayers find generosity more affordable when their own incomes are growing strongly," according to "Growth with Equity: Economic Policymaking for the Next Century," a book recently published by the Brookings Institution.
Authors Neil Baily, Gary Burtless, and Robert Litan assert that "when the middle class is uncertain about its own economic prospects, it feels less obligation and willingness to help fellow citizens who are further down the economic ladder."
Generational: The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) - whose 34 million members form the bastion of support for the interests of older Americans - is now at loggerheads with irate 20- and 30-somethings who resent the amount of federal spending that goes toward social security, medicare and other senior citizen entitlements.
Contenders in the 1992 presidential campaign prodded America's youth to consider how deficit spending constricts their economic future. Government studies show that the US population is aging, and the burgeoning federal costs of programs for the elderly will be markedly higher by the turn of the century, when today's youth enter their prime as taxpayers.
Aware of this generational divide, Clinton is engaging in a high profile effort to step up spending for infants and children, a strategy hailed by many child, women's, and family advocates.
The president asserts that since 1985, Americans over 65 years old have had a lower poverty rate than people under 65" and "one in five American kids is living in poverty."
He calls on these facts to justify taxing Social Security benefits of wealthy retirees - a step AARP officials seem ready to accept as their organization's part of a shared program of national sacrifice.
But Steven Allen, an advocate for the United Seniors Association, Inc. contends that "seniors have a united message to send to the politicians in Washington: `Leave us alone. We have sacrificed and paid enough.' "
Raising the tax rate from 50 percent to 85 percent on the well-to-do elderly in order to pay for government programs will result in a political backlash for Clinton, he warns.
Business: There is much discord among entrepreneurs concerning the economic plan.
Groups such as the 500,000-member National Federation of Independent Businesses blast the Clinton plan for favoring big corporations over the small and medium-sized firms that make up most of the country's job base. Clinton does not go far enough in slashing the federal budget, according to many businesses, which are worried that high deficits will continue to limit the availability of capital and keep the cost of borrowing high.
But others see targeted government spending as a way to realize better prospects for the future. "We are big supporters of the plan," says Michael Levett, president of Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR), a group whose 750 members range from small and mid-sized firms to big corporations such as Reebock International, Ltd.
Clinton's focus on child welfare, education, and training combined with deficit reduction signals a determination to improve the country's long-term prospects, Mr. Levett says. "We like everyone else can find things we'd like more of, and others we'd like less of," he says, "but the point is to protect the essential elements of the plan, without picking the whole thing apart."
J. Bruce Llewellyn, chairman of the Wilmington, Del., and the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company as well as Garden State Cablevision endorses the president's plan because it "spreads the
burden fairly and requires wealthy Americans, and American business to pay their fair share."
Clinton's call for sacrifice is all for the greater good, which ensures his own prospects, he says. "No one likes to see increases in government spending, but if we want to prosper as a nation - and as business - we must invest in our people and in our future."
Geographic regions: Many farmers, who feel threatened by cutbacks in their federal programs and fuel taxes that increase their costs of production, distinguish themselves as a separate income group from urban dwellers or service industry workers.
The American Agriculture Movement (AAM), whose dual motto is "Strength from the Land" and "America Needs Parity!" represents American farmers, ranchers, and rural citizens in 35 states.
AAM Executive Vice President Harvey Joe Sanner, a rice and soybean farmer in Des Arc, Ark., says "taken as a whole, the [Clinton] package is a fair and responsible way to achieve economic growth, deficit reduction and tax fairness." But like others, Mr. Sanner cannot resist taking the plan apart; particularly disturbing, he says, is the growing federal reliance on excise taxes.
Rural Americans and poor, largely southern states are penalized by higher consumption taxes, say their advocates. Farmers "suffer when higher prices decrease the demand for their product and then they turn around to buy gasoline for their trucks and they get hit again," says Lisa Eddington, managing director of the Tobacco Growers Information Commmittee.
The AAM laments the already "unfair and disproportionate burden of [current] state and federal excise taxes compared to urban households."
But author Kotkin argues that it is the residents of states that have high tax rates, high costs of living, and sluggish economies - such as California, Connecticut, and New York, who are penalized. "A $100,000 income in California is not the same as a $100,000 income in Arkansas, he says.
One inner-city resident, Ted Watkins, president of the Watts Labor Action Community Action Committee in the ravaged South Central Los Angeles, is in his 28th year as a community organizer. Broadly defined, his goal is improve the quality of life for poor families.
Clinton's plans to overhaul the welfare system and pare down the entitlement rolls will be particularly painful to South Central Los Angeles, where Mr. Watkins estimates 60 percent of the population receives some form of government assistance. "This whole system of welfare has immobilized the society here," he says.
How likely is Clinton to broadly appeal to Americans when his economic plan is up for final consideration? "I think he's going to have trouble convincing those who have always had their hand in the pot to pull it out," says Watkins, referring to lobbyists representing the interests of the rich to the poorest recipients of federal aid.
"It would seem to me that any loyal American would want to sacrifice to decrease the debt, to create jobs," he says, "but maybe they don't see it that way."