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A Message to Middle Class: Stop Whining


I was 14 when New York City had its fiscal crisis and went to Washington, as supplicants do, expecting to be bailed out in 1975. And when Jerry Ford initially said no, the New York Daily News supplied a headline I'll never forget: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Seventeen years later, the country has sunk to a self-pity worthy of 1975 New York, and it's time for another president to give us a new headline, one you should see but won't. How about "Bush (or Clinton) to Middle Class: Drop Dead?"

Exit polls tell us this year's middle class voter is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. No one does anything for the middle class, Mr. Middle Class says. The government just bails out S&Ls; and gives tax breaks to fat cats. And the spending

giveaways to welfare queens! I'm gonna write my congresswoman!

But politicians aren't the problem. We are. Sure Washington has thrown money around all these years. We in the middle class should know this better than anyone: They've thrown the biggest chunk of it at us. And we've yelled for more.

It's really a joke, the thought of Mr. Middle Class crabbing that the government wants too much of his money. He would write his Senator in an educated tone, the result of four years of federal Pell Grants and Perkins Loans that helped send him to college, from a house whose mortgage interest and property taxes he writes off each year, in a suburb that wouldn't exist in its present form if Washington hadn't paid most of the bill for its highways and sewers. What a farce.

The punch line, of course, is that this vision is no fantasy. It happens every day. And a look -- an honest look -- at any of our lives, any of our communities, will prove it.

Consider Mr. Middle Class' life. The list of entitlements above costs big bucks -- $5.4 billion for the Pell Grants, another $5 billion for the student loans. Taxpayers wrote off $131.3 billion in state and local taxes and $193.2 billion in interest in 1989.

This list doesn't even get into Social Security, the child care tax credit, Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance, the non-taxation of company-paid benefits, and on and on.

The mortgage interest deduction is probably the biggest freebie of all. It arguably adds up to 28 percent to the value of every house in the country, a handout food stamp scammers never dreamed of.

Better yet, consider my middle-class life in a county where Spiro Agnew -- Mr. Silent Majority himself -- was once county executive. Then ask yourself how whether the government is putting it to the middle class.

When Robert Young ruled the roost on "Father Knows Best," making it into the middle class was the measure of success. Like nearly everyone I grew up with, I've done that.

So how did I make such a success of myself?

Four years of college -- and four years of Pell Grants, along with National Direct Student Loans at 3 to 5 percent -- didn't hurt. Neither did a year of graduate school -- aided by a Guaranteed Student Loan, plus I wrote off my tuition on my taxes. Now I go to law school at night; since I go to a state school, tuition is only about 67 percent of the school's budget. And the law school has it tough. Tuition pays only 21 percent of the University of Maryland system budget.

What my wife and I earn is between the IRS and us, but it's more than Maryland's median household income of $45,034, while nowhere near rich. How much of it do we give back? We paid about 12 percent as federal income tax last year.

We didn't cheat. We simply bought a house, then wrote off the points, the interest payments on our federally-insured mortgage, the property taxes, our state and local income tax and what we gave to the United Way. In other words, we acted as middle-class people act and were rewarded for it.

I pay about $1,200 a year in property tax. For this, I can send as many kids as I want to public school. If, like my parents, I had seven kids, would that be a bad deal? Baltimore County spent $6,007 a pupil in the 1990-91 school year; private schools near my house charge from $2,250 to $9,250 each. I also pay about $1,000 a year in local income tax. For that, I get police protection that arrives lickety-split when called, a park system that should be better and all the usual services. I pay nothing to Baltimore City, where I spend up to 13 hours a day. There are worse deals.

And don't forget: Maryland has the third highest state and local taxes in the nation, according to Money magazine. In Alaska, I'd pay a lot less.

I'm not saying pro-middle class policies are bad ideas. Promoting home ownership is both wise and humane, as is promoting higher education and quality child care. But as many problems as I have, this middle class guy has a hard time feeling picked on.

You might think that the rest of my middle-class community would be less aggrieved than it is, but consider some of my county's headlines in the last year. Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden got in hot water because he cut funding for school nurses. Horrors, until you consider that he cut nurses for private schools.

The parents marched, and TV reporters reported their weeping uncritically. But they deserved to be criticized. "Hey, people, it's a private school," the criticism should have been. "That means you pay for it, not me."

Then Mr. Hayden had a long night at a town meeting. The highlight on the newscast I watched was the angry wife of a cop facing unpaid furlough days telling Mr. Hayden that when money is tight in her family, they don't make excuses -- they cut expenses. The TV reporters missed the obvious again.

Here's what the reporters should have asked, if we were as skeptical as we say we are: Hey lady, what do you think he's doing? Your husband is the expense that he's cutting -- worth buying, but not affordable right now, like a lot of things during a recession.

But our sense of middle-class grievance is too inflamed to make such truth-telling feasible.

Enough of my life: what about yours? Have you griped about both government services and taxes lately; do you want more of the former, like the cop's wife, and less of the latter, like the tax protesters? Bet you have. But the local stuff is mostly penny-ante. Let's talk S&Ls.;

For people who moan that the S&L; bailout shows how government sticks it to the middle class, here's a question: What does the bailout pay for? If you thought it pays off stockholders of S&Ls;, guess again. Those billions will actually bail out depositors like you up to $100,000. Stockholders' lost money is their tough luck, as it should be.

The deposit insurance bailout is the best evidence going that when the fuss about politicians and fat cats dies down, the problem is that no politician asks us to look at ourselves. And we won't do it on our own.

When you were putting your money into Fairfax Savings in Baltimore in 1985, didn't it dawn on you to ask why Fairfax paid higher interest rates than other banks in town? Maybe you didn't know Fairfax lent Jim Bakker $12 million, but maybe you should have found out. Or you should have asked yourself what Mom said about things that seem too good to be true.

Want to know where all the money went? To your 11 percent CD, which Fairfax and others covered by charging Bakker and others 15.25 percent, a rate way above the market because people like Bakker were lousy credit risks.

Banks and thrifts made crazy loans to stupid projects to pay for those deposit rates -- which Mr. Middle Class accepted gladly, indeed demanded. He also accepted the construction jobs, the orders for building supplies, and the legal and accounting work that went into building projects that weren't worth what they cost. That's what the S&L; crisis is, aside from a handful of spectacular frauds. Who got the money? You and I did. Years of bad government have put the country in a state as dire as New York City's in 1975, except the federal government can print enough money to humor us indefinitely. Will they? George Bush wants to throw more money at home buyers. Bill Clinton wants a middle-class tax cut. Jerry Brown wants to make apartment rent tax-deductible. Pat Buchanan says the problem is that blacks and gays have too many rights. You figure it out.

But, remember this: They tell us this tripe because we make them.

Bailouts of New York City and of Chrysler Corp. in the 1970s had strings attached to talk sense into their recipients. When it comes time for us to be bailed out, who will explain the strings to us? When someone tries, will we act like Al Sharpton, quintessential New Yorker and lately quintessential American, all grievance and no sense?

No one is as mad as Al Sharpton, one-time New York child preacher cum civil rights wannabe whose conspiracies-are-everywhere rhetoric helps give New York politics its special tang. (Remember the Tawana Brawley case, where Rev. Sharpton and associates claimed the black teen-ager was raped by white policemen, possibly with some connection to Irish nationalists?)

Then again, maybe not. Maybe the sort of lunatic fringe oppressed-minority mind-set that supposedly alienated the middle class from the Democratic party has afflicted us all. Maybe this year's middle-class "anger" is just the Al Sharptonization of America.

Jimmy Carter called this malaise. Actually, it's a temper tantrum of the sort my parents easily recognized in their 14-year old in 1975. Their reaction to my adolescent fits would make a good tabloid headline for the next president. How's this? "Prez to America: Grow Up."

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