Sharon’s Plan

To the Editor:

It has long been my belief that Israel can choose to have either peace or the settlements but not both; Hillel Halkin suggests that Ariel Sharon, at long last, has reached the same conclusion [“Does Sharon Have a Plan?,” June].

What, then, should Israel do? It is certainly understandable if the unremitting Palestinian violence of the past four years has led Israelis to conclude that no peaceful resolution is available because many Palestinians and their intractable supporters in the Arab world will not accept Israel on any terms, and that the violence would continue even if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders and recognized an independent Palestinian state. As Mr. Halkin puts it, Israel “cannot swallow the Palestinians. It cannot drive them out. It cannot arrive at a peaceful settlement with them. All it can do is disengage itself from them” behind the security fence.

But there is one alternative: calling the Arabs’ bluff by accepting the peace plan advanced by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. If Israel is going to withdraw from Gaza and most of the West Bank anyway, as Mr. Halkin believes, why not try to do so as part of an agreement with the greater Arab states? The premise of Abdullah’s plan is to end external Arab support for Palestinian irredentism. The Arab League has endorsed it. Why not find out if they really mean it?

Thomas W. Lippman

Middle East Institute

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin writes: “After four years of being the target of unremitting Palestinian terror, Israel does not owe the Palestinians anything except the obligation to let them live their own lives, free of Israeli domination and control.”

In fact, Israeli “domination and control” of the Palestinian Arabs ended years ago, long before the second intifada was launched in the fall of 2000. Following the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, Israel withdrew from the city of Jericho and almost all of the Gaza Strip (1994), from all of the large Arab-populated cities in Judea and Samaria (1995), and then from 85 percent of Hebron (1997). More than 98 percent of Palestinian Arabs today live under the Palestinian Authority.

That the Palestinians continue to wage war against Israel, despite being given control over so much territory and receiving billions of dollars in international aid (over $1 billion from the U.S. alone), demonstrates that their goal is not to establish a state alongside Israel—something Ehud Barak offered them in 2000—but rather to destroy the Jewish state.

Morton A. Klein

Zionist Organization of America

Merion, Pennsylvania

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin provides a lengthy history of the Left-Right debate in Israel over how to deal with the land and the Arabs in it. The only problem is that the Arabs were never part of the discussion. Their refusal to accept Israel’s existence and to abide by the numerous carefully crafted agreements has made the internal Israeli debate beside the point.

The concept of “separation” is, of course, a total mirage, not the product of a right-wing epiphany. It is the creation of essentially one man—a misguided Ariel Sharon—and it has no possibility of long-term success, any more than all the other false treaties and land giveaways that have back-fired in Israel’s face. These self-induced illusions have succeeded only in placing Israel in today’s awful position.

Israel’s job, like that of any country in the world, is to defend its people and its land. No one else will assume that responsibility, or should.

Jerome S. Kaufman

New York City

 

To The Editor:

Hillel Halkin provides ideological support for Ariel Sharon’s plan, but his assumption that disengagement represents the most advantageous solution for Israel at this time fails to account for many facts on the ground that bode ill for it.

Israel will still have to deal with a Palestinian terrorist infrastructure that could grow stronger in Israel’s absence from the local scene. The separated Palestinian territories could find it easier to import advanced weaponry with the potential to inflict severe damage on the large population centers around Jerusalem and along the coast. While the security fence will certainly decrease the number of suicide bombings in Israel, as it already has done, no wall is impermeable.

A “disengaged” Israel will be hampered in its ability to conduct crucial security operations in the territories. And when Israel conducts these operations, as inevitably it will have to do, the international outcry over the “aggression” against Palestinian “sovereignty” will dwarf today’s fierce anti-Israel rhetoric, even if the Palestinians do not have a state.

Also to be considered is the Palestinians’ view of disengagement. Mr. Halkin has himself argued that Israel’s ill-conceived withdrawal from southern Lebanon in the face of Hizbullah guerrillas emboldened the Palestinians to launch the current intifada. They may well see disengagement as their own victory in this effort. Should Israel be willing to grant them such a victory?

In the end, disengagement does not address the fundamental problem—the Palestinian ambition to destroy the Jewish state. Following President Bush’s initiative, Israel must instead work to ensure that the institutions of Palestinian society develop upon civilized foundations. The real debate should be over how to accomplish this.

David A. Cohen

New York City

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s “Does Sharon Have a Plan?” presents a thoughtful analysis of past partition plans. But the latest such plan, Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” policy, is more problematic than he allows.

Under the Sharon plan, Israel will not fully “disengage.” Already, during Sharon’s term in office, the number of work permits issued to Palestinians from Gaza alone has doubled, from 40,000 to 80,000. More importantly, disengagement will do nothing to end Palestinian incitement to terrorism. This fundamental problem cannot be solved by piecemeal, local maneuvers, but it also cannot be ignored. A society that tolerates murder is a threat to our entire civilization.

Moshe Dann

Jerusalem, Israel

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin argues persuasively that the ultimate intention of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan is for Israel to withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria, thus finally bringing about the “partition” of Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories. But he fails to take into account the one factor that makes any such partition impossible.

Even a total withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza will leave Israel with a large and growing Arab population among its citizens that is increasingly hostile to the Jewish state. Israeli Arabs by and large do not accept their minority status in Israel but aim, whether through peaceful or other means, to see the country transformed, first into a “state of all its citizens” and then into “a state integrated into the area”—meaning an Arab-dominated state both culturally and politically.

In this light, partition becomes for the Jews a senseless sacrifice, not simply of parts of their historic homeland but of the efforts of over 200,000 Jews to build their homes in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.

No one, Arab or Jew, should be forced to leave his home. If there is to be a real political solution to the conflict, it must come, as Mr. Halkin suggests, through the recognition of one Arab state whose political center is Jordan. That state must include among its citizens the Arabs of Israel.

Shalom Freedman

Jerusalem, Israel

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin writes that the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war ended with “77 percent of Palestine in Jewish hands.” He then writes, apropos of today, that “since [unilateral Israeli withdrawal] would involve Israeli retention of parts of the West Bank, it would leave the Jewish state with upward of 80 percent of Palestine.” This is a strange error-by-omission for one so knowledgeable as Mr. Halkin.

The 1920 San Remo conference recognized Great Britain’s mandate in Palestine to encompass what are now Jordan, Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and the Gaza Strip. The conference also affirmed Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, favoring a “national home” in Palestine for the Jewish people.

A year after San Remo, Britain closed the area east of the Jordan River to Jewish settlement (but not the area west of it to accelerating Arab migration). In 1922, Britain—its mandate now confirmed by the League of Nations—unilaterally created Transjordan on 77.5 percent of the original mandate land. The following year, it transferred the Golan Heights to the French mandate for Syria.

This being the case, Israel in 1949 ended up with 17.5 percent of mandate Palestine. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are the remaining unallocated, disputed 5 percent.

Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of Ariel Sharon’s plan, and whether or not it is time (as Mr. Halkin sees it) “to reexamine the commonplace that the Palestinians need to have their own state, which has become such a shibboleth of contemporary . . . discourse,” it must be stressed that mandate Palestine has already been partitioned into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Whatever the apportionment of the final 5 percent, Israel does not and will not have a majority of the land.

Eric Rozenman

Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin attributes the Likud party’s rejection of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan in part to “a disciplined and well-financed settler movement,” which “campaigned massively on behalf of a ‘No’ vote.” But the opposition was by no means limited to settlers.

Indeed, the identification of the “No” campaign with the settlers burdened it with the powerful adverse image of settlers as the “others” of Israeli society, the tail that wags the dog. That burden was dramatically increased by Sharon’s assurance to President Bush that he would deliver an exit from Gaza. Supporters of the pull-out were thus able to blame the settlers, with their “No” vote, for allegedly endangering the paramount U.S.-Israel relationship.

As for Mr. Halkin’s broader question, whether Sharon “has a plan,” there was no previous indication that, for instance, the prime minister intended to give Egypt the role it now seems to have in insuring the peace. Evidently the “plan” was to improvise without consultation.

Joseph Lerner

Independent Media Review & Analysis (IMRA)

Jerusalem, Israel

 

To the Editor:

In an article in an international “peace journal” several years ago, I offered a set of radical proposals for settling the Palestinian/Israeli dispute. In doing so I drew upon a principle of symmetry and reciprocity strikingly similar to that outlined by Hillel Halkin in his thoughtful article. The plan I outlined, however, would go one huge step beyond Halkin to allow both Palestinians and Israelis to realize simultaneously much of their respective national dreams.

At the heart of the plan was the idea that Israel/ Palestine would consist of two ethnically defined political entities, each with its own territorial base, but these territorial entities would together constitute a single unified settlement community. Jews, even those in West Bank and Gaza settlements, would be citizens of Israel. Arabs, regardless of their residence, would be citizens of the West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state, with those who are currently citizens of Israel required to transfer their citizenship, national identity, and national voting rights, but not their residence.

Under this plan, Jews could not only keep their settlements in the territories of the Palestinian state but could expand their size and number. Palestinian Arabs would have the right (within certain stipulated numerical limits and ground rules) to settle in Israel.

Each side would thus get what it most wants: an ethnically secure Jewish state for Jews, an ethnically secure Palestinian state for Palestinian Arabs, a right of return to their ancestral homeland for Palestinians, and a right of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza for Jews. Once the political situation was secured, social and economic cooperation between the populations would follow.

This would be a much better deal for both peoples than any other proposal I have seen, and much more likely to lead to lasting peace. An arrangement at least something like that suggested by Mr. Halkin and myself needs to be discussed at length.

Russ Nieli

Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

 

To the Editor:

As Hillel Halkin pithily puts it, the best Israel can do vis-à-vis the Palestinians is to “disengage” from them. I want to offer two observations, the first regarding the spirit and therefore the form of the disengagement, and the second about the failure of the “land-for-peace” formula.

To many both in Israel and the Arab world, Shar-on’s plan to withdraw from a number of settlements amounts to a “signal” of Israeli defeat and a victory for Arab violence. They are right that signals are important. But being overly preoccupied with signals sends its own pernicious signal—namely, that one is more concerned with sending messages than in imposing one’s will on the conflict.

Ultimately, the nature of the message received by the Arabs will turn on the spirit behind the action being taken. In my own view, much if not everything depends on the degree to which Israelis become inwardly reconciled to the continuing existential struggle with the Palestinian Arabs and abandon any hope of a conclusion to it in the foreseeable future. Armed with that knowledge, they will be able to see their way past two post-1967 policies and forward to a successful disengagement.

For some Israelis, the original motive behind establishing the most isolated and vulnerable Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was the hope that one day communities of Jews could live safely in an Arab Palestine; for others, the settlements were useful tokens, to be surrendered as part of a final settlement that was itself not far in the offing. Neither prospect is any longer worth pursuing. At the same time, other, less isolated settlements should be more securely incorporated into Israel proper, specifically three in northern Gaza adjacent to the 1967 border.

Next, there is no sense in further attempts at generosity, cooperation, and normalcy, or in continuing the natural economic integration between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In particular, the existing arrangements for supplying electricity, water, and fuel, and for granting access to the Israeli labor market, should be terminated. These have probably been the most morally damaging of Israel’s policies, telling the Palestinians in effect that they are permitted to wage war against Israel while watching television reports of the conflict with electricity provided by Israeli power plants.

Near the end of his article, Mr. Halkin makes the normative point that Palestinians have a far weaker claim to a state than numerous other peoples to whose case the world turns a deaf ear. The point can be illustrated with positive evidence from the history of land-for-peace.

Some supporters of Israel have come to the sad conclusion that the land-for-peace formula failed because the Arabs do not want peace. That is true enough. But they misunderstand the formula, which made sense only if based on the proposition that what the Arabs really wanted was land; the idea, in fact, was that they would get land and the Israelis would get peace.

That being so, the rather shocking fact revealed by the failure of the land-forpeace formula is that the Palestinian Arabs do not want land, either. For if they did want land of sufficient size to establish a homeland that could rapidly evolve into a sovereign state, and if they wanted it with anything approaching the passion with which the Jews longed for a Jewish state, they would have shown themselves willing to make substantial sacrifices and compromises to achieve it.

One used to hear the argument that there was no Palestinian nationality per se—and that, to the extent that a pale imitation of one could be said to exist, it already had a state, namely, Jordan. This was not merely a self-serving Jewish invention. In 1948, Folke Bernadotte, the UN negotiator in the Arab-Israeli dispute, wrote in his diary that “The ‘Palestinian’ Arabs have at present no will of their own. Neither have they ever developed any specifically ‘Palestinian’ nationalism. The demand for a separate Arab state in Israel is consequently relatively weak. It would seem as though in existing circumstances most of the ‘Palestinian’ Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated into Transjordan.”

Understandably enough, latter-day Palestinian apologists have striven to present a decidedly different image, one of a unique and long-suffering nation entitled to a state of its own. Where, then, are we to go from here? In the fullness of time, no doubt, this dispute will resolve itself, either peaceably or not. But one lesson we should draw for the here and now is that it is naive to think that seeking peace aggressively will make peace more likely.

Lloyd Cohen

George Mason University School of Law

Arlington, Virginia

 

Hillel Halkin writes:

Several readers have stated why they believe that a unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank to a defensible security fence is not a good idea. I shall try to answer them briefly.

Thomas W. Lippman wants to know why, if Israel is going to withdraw from most of the occupied territories anyway, it does not first test whether the Arab League countries “really mean” their endorsement of the Saudi peace plan. I do not think Israel should do this for the simple reason that I do not think the Saudi plan is good for Israel. That plan calls for a more or less total withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, which I am against; for the dismantlement of all or nearly all of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which I am also against; and for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories that are withdrawn from—which, too, is something that, given the current nature of Palestinian society and politics, would not be in Israel’s interest.

I would be interested in hearing Mr. Lippman explain just why he believes that “the premise of [Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah’s plan is to end external Arab support for Palestinian irredentism.” Suppose that, as is probable, a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders raised irredentist claims. What makes Mr. Lippman so sure that the Arab League, or any of its members, would then support Israel against the Palestinians? Is it not far more likely that they would support the Palestinians against Israel, as they have always done in the past?

Morton A. Klein, Jerome S. Kaufman, David A. Cohen, and Moshe Dann all argue that unilateral disengagement will not work because the Palestinians will not accept it and will continue to attack Israel from their side of the unilaterally determined border. This may indeed turn out to be the case. But even if it does, Israel’s situation would be far better than it is now.

That is so, in the first place, because Israel can more easily defend itself against long-range Palestinian rocket or artillery attacks than against suicide bombs and terrorists in its midst; in the second place, because any separation is desirable that eliminates everyday friction between the Israeli army and West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, and that puts an end to a situation in which Israel is forced to impose innumerable decisions and restrictions on Palestinians who are not its citizens; in the third place, because if Israel fails to take such steps, its international position will continue to deteriorate; and finally and most importantly, because Israel’s ultimate survival is threatened as much by demographic dangers as it is by military ones, if not more so.

Already now, close to 50 percent of the combined population of pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is Palestinian, and the Palestinian birth rate, which is one of the highest in the world, will continue steadily to tip the scale in the Palestinians’ favor. If unilateral disengagement is out, and no bilateral agreement is possible with a Palestinian leadership that seeks Israel’s destruction, what exactly do Messrs. Klein, Kaufman, Cohen, and Dann propose doing to prevent Jews from becoming a rapidly shrinking minority west of the Jordan?

This bring us to Shalom Freedman’s proposition that disengagement will solve no demographic problems since, even after it, Israel will still have to deal with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. Although frequently voiced by territorial maximalists in Israel, this argument is just plain silly; it is a little like saying that since even a few poison mushrooms can kill you, you might as well gorge yourself on huge amounts of them. Mr. Freedman is correct in observing that a severe problem could one day be presented by the over one million Palestinian Arabs living within the territory of pre-1967 Israel plus the West Bank areas that will be annexed by the security fence. He is being absurd when he concludes that, this being so, Israel might as well cleave to borders that contain close to 5 million Palestinians.

I am getting a little tired of hearing the old charge of the Zionist Right, put forth again here by Eric Rozenman, that the state of Israel occupies only a small part of “Palestine,” most of which was torn away from the Jews in 1922 by the British creation of Transjordan. You cannot tear something away from someone who has never possessed it. In 1922, there was not a single Jew permanently domiciled in Transjordan; nor had there been a single Jewish community there since ancient times. Indeed, even in antiquity the Jewish presence east of the Jordan was sparse and of no particular historical or religious importance to the Jewish people. I can assure Mr. Rozenman that, even if Transjordan had remained part of the British Mandate and open to Zionist settlement, such settlement would have been so scanty that it would have been quickly overrun by the Arabs in the 1948-49 war, just as were parts of Palestine west of the Jordan in which no or few Jews lived.

Since I never said that opposition within the Likud to Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan was “limited to settlers,” I am not sure what Joseph Lerner’s point is; surely he does not dispute that the settler movement mobilized massively—as was its democratic right—to campaign for a “No” vote in the Likud referendum. Nor do I agree with Mr. Lerner about Sharon’s assessment of Egypt’s role in policing Gaza and its borders after an Israeli withdrawal. My own sense is that, from the very beginning, Sharon envisioned unilateral disengagement as pulling both Jordan and Egypt back into the occupied territories evacuated by Israel, thus putting an end to the specter of an irredentist Palestinian state.

Russ Nieli and I have exchanged views in Commentary in the past (see “Letters from Readers,” October 2002), and I will say again that his vision of an Israeli-Palestinian federation, in which citizens of each state would be free to live in the other and to move freely between the two, is one that I find congenial and have written in favor of. Alas, it is a vision that four years of concerted Palestinian terror have reduced to shreds, and that strikes me at the moment as purely utopian.

I thank Lloyd Cohen for his letter. There is nothing in it with which I disagree.

 

Tax Cuts

To the Editor:

Bruce Bartlett’s defense of the Bush tax cuts is considerably more subtle and compelling than the spin coming out of the Bush White House, which Mr. Bartlett, to his credit, concedes to be incoherent [“Explaining the Bush Tax Cuts,” June]. But this is like saying that Patrick Buchanan’s analysis of Middle Eastern politics is more subtle than that of Saddam Hussein’s former information minister. With so low a baseline for comparison, even a dramatic improvement leaves us far below the desired level.

Mr. Bartlett commits a number of medium-sized analytical errors and one giant conceptual error. The Bush tax-cut proposals coincided with the appearance in the late 1990’s of huge projected budget surpluses. “Conservatives were wary of these predictions,” Mr. Bartlett writes, “fearing that surpluses would lead to massive new government spending.” But it was Democrats and moderate liberals who suspected that the projected surpluses were too good to be true. Conservatives not only defended the projected surpluses as accurate, they insisted that the projections were too small. When questioned in 2001 about the possibility that surpluses might prove chimerical, White House budget director Mitch Daniels said, “Well, we really can’t miss here. . . . We’ve been underestimating revenue by as much as $80 billion a year. And we are likely to continue doing that.”

In his major economic speech of 2001, Bush himself cleverly spoke of his uses of the surplus in the past tense: “We have increased our budget at a responsible 4 percent, we have funded our priorities, we have paid down all the available debt, we have prepared for contingencies, and we still have money left over”—as if the money had already flowed into the Treasury. In the Democratic response, House minority leader Richard Gephardt warned that Bush was not realistically accounting for his own spending plans, and was leaving no room for the possibility of an economic downturn or military emergency. Those fears were vindicated in spades.

Mr. Bartlett likewise defends the distribution of the Bush tax cuts, citing the fact that the richest 20 percent of Americans now pay only a slightly smaller share of federal income and payroll taxes. This statistic, while less misleading than, say, Bush’s ludicrous insistence that “by far the vast majority of my tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum,” is still misleading. Not only does it omit Bush’s repeal of the estate tax, which is paid entirely by the very wealthy, but it obscures the fact that the greatest benefits of the tax cuts fall to the richest 1 percent, whose share of the federal tax burden will decrease by about a tenth by 2010.

Mr. Bartlett does not entirely deny the distributional effects of the Bush tax cuts. Rather, he argues, “With the tax burden skewed so heavily toward the rich, it is simply impossible to reduce that burden in a way that is not similarly skewed toward the rich.” Impossible? In 2001, left-wing Democrats proposed giving everybody who pays taxes a $350 refund. If that seems too Marxist, we could simply reduce the rate paid by the bottom tax bracket or reduce the rates for all the tax brackets. Mr. Bartlett’s claim that it is impossible to cut taxes without having distributional results similar to those brought about by Bush is simply false.

Mr. Bartlett’s biggest failure is his attempt to explain away deficits. Republicans generally make two main defenses against the charge of deficit-mongering. The first is that tax cuts, by reducing revenues, will “starve the beast,” forcing commensurate reductions in spending. As Mr. Bartlett concedes, this argument is nonsense. Spending slowed after George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised taxes in an attempt to restore fiscal discipline; only after George W. Bush convinced Congress to throw away its inhibitions did spending rise again.

The second GOP defense, which contradicts the first, is that tax cuts will permanently raise economic growth to so great an extent that revenues will actually rise. Somehow, there are supply-siders who still believe this, even after they predicted in unison that Clinton’s 1993 tax hike would cripple the economy and cause revenues to drop. But Mr. Bartlett does not argue for magical revenue growth, either.

Mr. Bartlett’s only defense on this point is to pooh-pooh the effect that deficits have in driving up interest rates. The relationship between deficits and interest rates is an economic truism, as even Greg Mankiw, the Harvard economist appointed by Bush to head the Council on Economic Advisors, has conceded. “Interest rates are determined by so many different factors,” Mr. Bartlett argues, “that it is absurd to think that the deficit is the overriding influence.” But nobody claims that deficits are the “overriding” factor, just that they are a factor.

Even if this were not true, Mr. Bartlett ignores altogether the even more important fiscal logic. Bush has reduced taxes far below what is sufficient to pay for what even a government under unified conservative Republican control wants to spend. In 2004, federal spending accounted for 20 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), which is not unusually high. Federal revenues, by contrast, accounted for 15.8 percent of GDP, which is the lowest percentage since 1950. Economic growth should bring that figure up, but without corrective action, it will not come anywhere close to matching outlays. Bush has left us with a tax system that, into perpetuity, will raise several hundred billion dollars less than the government will spend.

Spending must be paid for somehow. If we do not pay for it through taxes, our children will pay for it with interest. It is perfectly clear why the administration would desire such an outcome: why not foist the bill for their spending onto taxpayers who will be voting long after Bush has left office? What is not clear, and what Mr. Bartlett does not even attempt to explain, is why anybody who has the national interest in mind would agree.

Jonathan Chait

The New Republic

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Bruce Bartlett’s paean to the Bush tax cuts argues that they will have little effect on long-term deficits and will promote long-term growth; that their benefits have been distributed equitably; and that they represent tax reform. We disagree on all three counts.

If the tax cuts are made permanent (and not gradually erased by the effects of the Alternative Minimum Tax), they will add $3.7 trillion in deficits over the next ten years. More importantly, they will worsen the already grim long-term budget picture. The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center has found that over the next 75 years—the period customarily used to assess Social Security’s finances—the cost of the tax cuts will be three to five times the entire Social Security shortfall. The tax cuts just for the top 1 percent of households will be as large as the entire Social Security shortfall.

Mr. Bartlett’s assertion that the tax cuts will promote long-term growth does not stand up, either. Several of the tax cuts, such as the reductions in marginal rates, might modestly promote growth if they were paid for. But they are not, and consequently will swell the deficit. Studies conducted by the Brookings Institution, the Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget Office, and Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation have found that the growth-reducing effects of the enlarged deficits will cancel out most or all of the tax cuts’ growth-promoting effects.

Mr. Bartlett’s defense of the fairness of the tax cuts is also misleading. When describing the effect of the tax cuts on the share of taxes that high-income individuals pay, he leaves out the effects of repealing the estate tax, which benefits only the very affluent. In addition, he ignores the best measure of a tax cut’s effects on different income groups: its impact on after-tax income. The Bush cuts make the distribution of after-tax income more unequal by giving the vast bulk of their benefits to wealthy households.

Moreover, since the tax cuts cannot be deficit financed forever, they ultimately will have to be paid for through some combination of budget cuts and tax increases. Under almost any approach likely to be adopted, the bottom 80 percent of the population will end up as net losers. They will lose more from the measures adopted to pay for the tax cuts than they gain from the tax cuts themselves. Only the top 20 percent will come out ahead.

Finally, Mr. Bartlett’s claim that the tax cuts represent tax reform—helping to move the nation from an income tax to a consumption tax—rings hollow. The goal of a consumption tax is to raise national saving, which is the sum of private saving and public saving. Though the Bush tax cuts may modestly increase private saving, they will substantially reduce public saving by swelling the deficit, and the net effect on national saving will be negative.

What the tax cuts really represent is a shift from a tax on most forms of income, including the investment income of the affluent, toward a tax under which all wages are taxed but much investment income is sheltered. This is a shift we do not regard as “reform.”

Robert Greenstein

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Washington, D.C.

 

Peter R. Orszag

The Brookings Institution

Washington, D.C.

 

Bruce Bartlett writes:

Jonathan Chait says that “Democrats and moderate liberals . . . suspected that the projected surpluses were too good to be true,” while conservatives “insisted that the projections were too small.” When evaluating this claim, it is important to keep the timing straight. Before George W. Bush took office, the Clinton administration and most liberals were more than happy to project massive surpluses as far as the eye could see. It was only after Bush took office that liberals and Democrats suddenly decided that Clinton’s projections were suspect.

In the last Clinton budget, issued on January 16, 2001, there is no suggestion of an economic slowdown ahead. The White House predicted real annual growth of 3.2 percent in the gross domestic product over the next ten years, and projected massive and growing budget surpluses. The surplus was expected to rise from $236 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $256 billion in 2001, to $277 billion in 2002, and to continue rising every year of the forecast period, reaching $810 billion in 2011. The entire national debt was projected to be paid off by 2009.

It is also worth remembering that the Clinton administration had made substantial errors in budget estimates over the previous five years, projecting revenues well below what the Treasury actually received. Between 1996 and 2000, revenues came in $850 billion higher than estimated.

The point I made in my article is that by the time then-candidate Bush put forward his tax plan in December 1999, it was perfectly reasonable to think that large budget surpluses had become the norm. Even by the time he took office, it was still a realistic assumption. To its credit, the Bush administration quickly marked down projected real GDP growth for 2001 to 2.4 percent—exactly the same as the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate. The administration’s long-term forecast was slightly more pessimistic than the “blue chip” consensus of private forecasters.

As it turned out, everyone was wrong. Real GDP ended up dropping by 0.5 percent in 2001. The number of professional forecasters who even got close to predicting this economic reversal can be counted on the fingers of one hand with a couple left over.

It was the recession, more than the 2001 tax cut, that caused federal revenues to collapse and the surplus to evaporate. Jonathan Chait is trying to pretend, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, that his side had a better handle on what was to come than in fact was the case. Even if Al Gore had become President and Congress had gone Democratic, some sort of anti-recessionary fiscal program would have been enacted. Under Democrats, it probably would have taken the form of increased government spending, rather than tax cuts, but it likely would have been of the same order of magnitude.

In other words, the choice was never between a continuation of surpluses under Democratic stewardship and Republican deficits caused by tax cuts. It was really between Republican deficits and Democratic deficits, both caused principally by the recession, with the former abetted by tax cuts and the latter by jobs programs.

What really bothers Mr. Chait is not the deficits on Bush’s watch but rather the distributional consequences of his tax cuts. This is evident in his singling out for special scorn the phasing out of the estate tax. This tax is and always has been a trivial contributor to federal revenue—on the order of 1 percent. It exists not to fund government programs but solely to satisfy the envy of those who, rather than allowing someone to become rich, would prefer that no one become rich.

Mr. Chait’s obsession with the distributional consequences of tax policy, rather than with its impact on revenues, is confirmed by his disagreement with my contention that one cannot cut taxes without benefiting the rich. I was simply noting that whether one looks only at the income tax or also at the payroll tax, the vast bulk of all federal taxes are paid by those generally considered to be rich.

I overstated the point somewhat by saying it is “impossible” to cut taxes without benefiting the rich. Today, unfortunately, it is possible to have “negative” tax cuts, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, that send “refunds” to people who have no tax liability. But this is just government spending disguised as a tax cut. To the average person, benefiting from a “tax cut” implies that one actually pays taxes. And any kind of across-the-board tax cut will benefit people in proportion to the amount of taxes they pay. This will necessarily benefit the wealthy. That was my point.

Finally, Mr. Chait raises the bugaboo of deficits. Of course, deficits are a function of both lower revenue and/or higher spending. Since I dealt only with Bush’s tax policy, I did not address the spending side. Clearly, the recession and terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed this situation drastically and would have done so even if Al Gore had been President on that day. But Mr. Chait has a point when he says that Bush and the Republican Congress have raised spending well in excess of what could reasonably be justified. He is right that deficits no longer seem to restrain spending as they did in the 1980’s, though it was, until recently, a reasonable assumption to make.

Mr. Chait’s concern for the effect of deficits on interest rates is simply baseless. Nowhere do I say that deficits have no effect; only that their impact tends to be grossly overblown. The most recent research, published by Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and Eric Engen of the American Enterprise Institute in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s prestigious Macroeconomics Annual, estimates that an increase in the public debt of 1 percent of GDP ($110 billion) would raise the long-term interest rate by 3 basis points (0.03 percent). This sounds about right to me.

Mr. Chait is right that we now have a fundamental structural imbalance between revenues and outlays that must be addressed. But the problem is as much on the spending side as on the tax side. Spending is not his concern, however. Mr. Chait’s desire is to spend even more as long as it is paid for by higher taxes on the rich. That is really the substance of his letter.

Robert Greenstein and Peter R. Orszag share many of Mr. Chait’s concerns, but they carry them to an absurd extreme. They project Bush’s tax cuts out for 75 years as if they are set in concrete and no future Congress or President can alter them in any way. Then they compare the tax cuts to Social Security in a way that implies a linkage between the two where none exists. The only purpose of such an analysis is to score cheap political points by making seniors worry unnecessarily about their future benefits.

In the end, Messrs. Chait, Greenstein, and Orszag are not arguing with what I wrote but rather with what President Bush did. While I am generally sympathetic to his tax cuts, I am not by any means an enthusiastic supporter of every aspect of them. If it were up to me, I would have done things a lot differently—perhaps in ways more agreeable to my critics.

My main purpose in the article was to explain the logic of the Bush tax cuts in a way that Bush himself has never done. I think the President would have helped himself if he had laid out a vision for tax policy so that people could see how the pieces fit together. Absent such a vision, it is much easier for his opponents to assume the worst—that he is only interested in starving the government, slashing aid to the poor, rewarding the Republican party’s rich contributors, etc.

I cannot be sure that my analysis of the Bush tax cuts is correct, but I am certain that my critics are wrong in theirs.

 

 

The Fight in Iraq

To the Editor:

Victor Davis Hanson has overlooked the central element of America’s continuing troubles in Iraq: the fact that the Iraqis have not surrendered [“Do We Have Enough Troops in Iraq?,” June]. As Carl von Clausewitz wrote: surrender “is an essential part of the victory. It is this part alone which acts upon the public opinion outside the army, upon the people and the government in both belligerent states, and upon all others in any way concerned.”

The American military’s destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government made it impossible, certainly, to find an Iraqi authority that could surrender. But this also made it all the more incumbent upon Pentagon war-planners, bent on “regime change” from the outset, to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that the United States was firmly in control of their country. Such a demonstration could only be made by deploying sufficient troops to kill or capture fleeing Republican Guard units, deter looting, destroy or disable Saddam’s vast stockpiles of ordnance, and inhibit guerrilla insurrection.

Do we have enough troops in Iraq? The answer is a resounding no.

James G. Collins

New York City

 

To the Editor:

If military history demonstrates anything, it is that small, well-trained, and highly motivated forces can defeat much larger enemies. As Victor Davis Hanson notes, they can even develop reputations for ferocity that allow them successfully to occupy large territories and populations. Unfortunately, the American military is unlikely to develop such a reputation, despite its evident power and quality.

The West’s current obsession with minimizing casualties and battle damage on both sides undercuts any chance that our opponents will see U.S. troops as ferocious. Formidable, competent, technically sophisticated, yes. Ferocious, no. If anything, the Iraq campaign is moving the American military ethos even further from the direction that Mr. Hanson, rightly, would have it go.

In Falluja, the Marines may have wanted to fight initially, but reports indicate that commanders, proclaiming success, instead put the best face possible on their non-confrontational tactics. Indeed, the Marines in Falluja largely copied Israel’s cautious tactics in dealing with Palestinian combatants in Gaza, tactics that have steadily eroded Israel’s martial image.

Mr. Hanson knows as well as anybody the role that psychology played in the military operations of antiquity. Celts adorned their mounts with the severed heads of foes, and Huns deliberately mutilated their own faces to intimidate and frighten their enemies. We, by contrast, have Psy-Ops units and thousands of military lawyers.

Jonathan F. Keiler

Bowie, Maryland

 

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

I agree in part with these correspondents about our lapses in using our forces to the full extent. How could I not? In my writings I have warned ad nauseam about the fallacy of not dealing firmly with looters, insurgents, and terrorists in their chrysalis stages. In earlier essays in Commentary, I worried that the enemy did not yet feel defeated or humiliated, and that in his postbellum reckoning it appeared much safer to blow up at a distance an American peacekeeper than it had been to fight a soldier on the battlefield. In my most recent article, I argued explicitly that our problem was not how many troops we had but rather how we used—or rather did not use—them.

So, yes, James G. Collins is correct that we have not yet put the Baathists, Mahdists, or any other antagonists in the position of asking for our terms—although in both Falluja and Najaf it was in our power to do so. But this lapse is still different from the question of troop numbers. Najaf could be taken by 3,000 American soldiers or by 3,000,000—but only if they were allowed to do so.

Jonathan F. Keiler grasps the point that, in the amoral world of war, purported leniency and magnanimity, if premature (i.e., antedating the defeat of the enemy), only result in getting even more people killed on both sides. The Pentagon has not yet figured out how to reconcile the increasing lethality of its forces with the commensurately increasing pressures to restrict their use. However much we caricature the global media, domestic utopians, or self-appointed international watchdog groups, they really do seem to affect American public opinion, at least as filtered through our own mainstream media.

In short, I plead guilty in both the past and the present to voicing concern over just the paradoxes that Mr. Collins and Mr. Keiler point to, though perhaps without the authority of Clausewitz or the imagery of severed heads.

 

Hits & Flops

To the Editor:

“Clearly, this is not the track record of a flourishing theatrical medium,” writes Terry Teachout, noting that seven of the fourteen Broadway musicals he reviewed for the Wall Street Journal over the past year had either closed or announced their intention to do so [“Is the Musical Comedy Dead?,” June]. Mr. Teachout goes on to argue that this compares unfavorably with the “golden age” of the Broadway musical, roughly 1940-65, or from Pal Joey to Fiddler on the Roof.

Does it really? For all the treasures it left us—Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Gypsy, and others—Broadway’s “golden age” was also an era of flops, schlock, and failures. The same year (1944) that gave us On the Town, for instance, also gave us 20 performances of Allah Be Praised! Of the 274 Broadway musicals that opened between 1943 and 1964, only 27, or fewer than 10 percent, could be certified as “mega-hits” that ran for more than 750 performances. By contrast, nearly 30 percent—80 shows—lasted for fewer than 51 performances, and only 92 passed the threshold of 300 performances to qualify as even minor hits.

To be sure, the flops included shows, like Candide, later to be considered classics, while the hits included widely acknowledged failures like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. But this just confirms that historical staying power cannot necessarily be discerned in the present.

No doubt there are recent Broadway musicals that one day will be admired as classics and revived again and again, both professionally and by amateur companies of college and community theaters. In my judgment, such future classics include Ragtime, The Producers, and Hairspray, to name only three, while Rent, Aida, and The Boy from Oz will become historical curiosities. But, of course, I could be wrong.

Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Metro Herald

Alexandria, Virginia

 

To the Editor:

Terry Teachout characterizes Taboo as a “jukebox” musical. In fact it was a new musical, and as such it won a 2003-4 Tony Award for Best Score. Not that this would have changed the gloomy tone of Mr. Teachout’s article, which in the opinion of this audience member is somewhat overstated for dramatic effect and is brimming with an outdated longing for the past.

John Kevin Jones

New York City

 

To The Editor:

As a longtime fan of both the musical theater and Terry Teachout, I was excited to read “Is the Musical Theater Dead?” I certainly agree with Mr. Teachout that contemporary lyricists and composers are generally unable to match the quality achieved by the greats of the 1930’s-60’s. I also find some merit in his assessment of the inferior “ideology” of recent musicals as opposed to the classics.

But I would point to what I consider an even more crucial failing by the creators of contemporary musical theater: their inability to create great characters. It is the characters that draw audience members into a story and lead them to care about what happens in that story. This is true in film, in television, and it is certainly true in theater.

In addition to excellent scores and a positive outlook, the classic musicals cited by Mr. Teachout generally have great characters at their center: Nathan Detroit, Annie Oakley, Tevye, Henry Higgins, Harold Hill, and the like. Not so, most current musicals—although, going beyond the most recent season, I would cite both The Producers and Hairspray as exceptions: two huge hits, quite enjoyable to watch, neither one of which had an especially good score but both of which bucked the trend by presenting compelling characters.

Finally, I happen to think that Stephen Sondheim’s scores equal and sometimes even surpass those of the classic musicals. But they often fail to engage audiences emotionally, and the reason may again be the absence of compelling characters. Sweeney Todd, arguably his best work, is not coincidentally the exception. If one counts Gypsy, to which he contributed the lyrics, as a “Sondheim” show, the point is underlined further.

Michael Kaplan

Calabasas, California

 

Terry Teachout writes:

Like Richard E. Sincere, I, too, could be wrong, but I cannot imagine that Ragtime, The Producers, or Hairspray will ever be regarded as “classic” musicals, and not least because their scores are unmemorable. As for the comparatively high incidence of “flops, schlock, and failures” among musicals of what I call the “golden age,” what is so surprising about that? In the theater—or in any other artistic medium, for that matter—a long-term batting average of .100 is extraordinary.

Mr. Sincere also errs in supposing that a show that runs for more than 300 performances should be considered a “minor hit.” That may be true today, but in Broadway’s heyday, when production costs were lower (thus allowing backers to recoup their investments more quickly) and shows were opening like clockwork, a 300-performance run was thought to be highly successful.

In any case, the relevant comparison between then and now is with new musicals, not revivals. Judged by that standard, Broadway has just weathered a disastrous season.

Which brings me to John Kevin Jones. As he is surely aware, Taboo was a “new” musical only in the sense that it was not a revival. Its score consisted of preexisting pop songs by Boy George, which made it as much of a “jukebox” musical as, say, Movin’ Out or Mamma Mia! The standards by which shows become eligible for specific Tony categories, as is well known on and off Broadway, are highly flexible. As for my “outdated longing for the past,” it is not so chronic as to prevent me from praising such engaging new shows as Avenue Q, just as I would hope that Mr. Jones’s preference for the present is not so rigid as to lead him in turn to favor such tiresome drivel as Taboo.

Michael Kaplan makes an interesting point. My own feeling, however, is that a well-written book with compelling characters is merely an enabling condition for a good musical—that is, it is absolutely necessary but not sufficient in and of itself to ensure long-term artistic success. It is true that engaging, well-cast shows with second-rate scores can and do become hits. But once again I return to what I take to be the heart of the matter: has any musical comedy with an unmemorable score, no matter how interesting its story line may be, ever had an enduring life in revival? So far as I know, the answer is no.

Gay Marriage

To the Editor:

My thanks to Kay S. Hymowitz for her characteristically thoughtful review of my book, Gay Marriage: Why It’s Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America [Books in Review, June]. I fear, though, that she may leave Commentary readers with the misimpression that I deny or disparage the link between marriage and children.

To the contrary, I vigorously affirm that childrearing—along with providing stable homes and reliable caregivers for adults—is one of marriage’s essential and irreplaceable functions. I argue that same-sex marriage will benefit children: indirectly, by reinforcing society’s time-honored and amply justified preference for marriage over non-marriage; directly, by providing the hundreds of thousands of children of same-sex couples with the stability and security that only marriage brings.

Indeed, if we want further to disconnect marriage from children, I cannot think of a better way than to require gay couples (more than a quarter of whom are raising children, according to the 2000 census) to rear them outside of wedlock.

Jonathan Rauch

National Journal

Washington, D.C.

Kay S. Hymowitz writes:

I appreciate the cordial tone of Jonathan Rauch’s letter. My review does point out that Gay Marriage speaks of the institution as “uniquely good for children.” Although I still fail to see a “vigorous affirmation” that “child-rearing is one of marriage’s essential and irreplaceable functions” in the pages of Rauch’s book, I welcome his agreement with me on this point.

The problem lies with his definition of marriage: “two people’s lifelong commitment recognized by law and society to care for each other.” This definition is agnostic on the subject of children. What we have here is far more than an editorial dispute, in which one of us wants to put childrearing in capital letters and the other wants to leave it in a subordinate clause. As I see it, the main problem with gay marriage is that it is founded in an adult-centric vision of the institution; Rauch’s definition could be exhibit A.

Few human cultures—other than our own of the last twenty years—would recognize this definition. Marriage evolved as culture’s way of ensuring that a child’s biological parents would be bound both to the child and to each other. It is precisely because Americans have lost their grasp of this original purpose that we find ourselves with a third of all children born to single mothers and nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce. For if marriage is not primarily about tying a couple to their offspring, then what is wrong with a woman having a child on her own or a couple going their separate ways when things turn sour?

Rauch argues that gay marriage would improve this state of affairs. Given the adult-centrism of gay marriage, which reflects the same impulse that has already helped to weaken the institution, it would make much more sense to fear the opposite.

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